Let me make this very clear: I do not see the Major League Baseball draft as something that needs fixing.
However, baseball officials on both sides of the issue are intent on making changes to the system that could take effect as early as next year. Many are also worried (against all evidence) that the amount of money that is being spent on the draft will soon spiral out of control, and addressing the issue now can help prevent issues before they happen.
It is with this idea in mind that I propose these modest changes to the MLB draft:
1. The Slotting System
It is virtually certain that MLB plans on adding teeth to their slotting system in the near future, which would go a long way to keeping draft costs in check.
However, baseball needs to be careful about this system, as one of the MLB draft’s greatest strengths is the ability to offer talented, multi-sport high school athletes the ability to go directly into pro sports – and earn a nice living while they are at it.
If MLB makes the slotting system absolute, it could push away talented draftees like Bubba Starling (who is deciding between the Royals and Nebraska football) or Zach Lee, who chose MLB over football at LSU when the Dodgers offered him a big contract.
Solution: Each team gets the ability to go over slot once per draft; however, they can only go over slot in any given round (including sandwich picks) once every four years. All other above-slot contracts will be voided by the commissioner’s office.
By allowing for these exemptions, MLB will not be giving up their huge advantage when signing prospects. MLB is acknowledging and respecting the additional negotiating leverage that the Bubba Starling's and Zach Lee's of the world have, and giving teams the tools to put these players in pro baseball uniforms.
Another advantage of this rule is that it ensures that the top talent will not wind up on the same team year-after-year, as the second part of the rule is specifically designed to spread around the highest-priced first round talent. However, it is also important to remember that going over slot also happens in later rounds, increasing the need to apply these rules to the entire draft.
Believe it or not, this is to protect the big-market clubs as much as the small-market teams. After all, it is small-market clubs that are setting the bar on the price of draft talent. For example, the teams who spent the most money in the 2010 draft were the Nationals, Blue Jays, and Pirates, each of whom broke the record for money spent on a single draft that had been set by the Nationals the previous season.
2. Junior College Talent
Another thing that makes the MLB Draft system work is that, should a high school player not sign with the team that drafts them, they have to spend three years in a four year college program before they are eligible for the draft again. Players have the ability to get around this rule by taking the junior college route, which allows them to go back into the draft right away. This is the loophole that Bryce Harper exploited when he was the top pick in 2010, when he spent one year at the College of Southern Nevada after getting his GED from high school.
Solution: force junior college players to spend two years in college.
Creating this rule will both simplify the draft process while at the same time reduce the negotiating leverage of junior college players. It could also prove to be a boon for college baseball, as more players could move toward spending three years in college instead of one or two years. Note that this is not a huge problem now, but I can see it being a significant issue down the road.
3. The Signing Deadline
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the MLB draft is that the commissioner’s office has set an arbitrary August 15, 2011 signing deadline for amateur contracts, which has largely resulted in contract negotiations extending through most of the summer before a flurry of signings occur during the week of the deadline. Many scouts believe that this time away from the game can cause a hindrance in player development and ultimately result in a top prospect making it to the big leagues later than expected.
Solution: move the signing deadline to allow for one month of negotiations only.
Combined with the new slotting system, this should get more draftees into MLB organizations at an earlier date, hopefully allowing these players to get some time in the minors the same year as they are drafted. This deadline will also give draftees time to make a decision on going pro or heading/returning to school for another year, which can be a tougher decision that it sounds.
Another thing I would consider is moving the date of the MLB draft to after the College World Series has ended, which would ensure that MLB has the most up-to-date injury reports while also increasing the attention for the CWS itself. Ideally, I would like MLB to work with the college game to move the finals up a couple of weeks; failing that, I would move the MLB draft to July 1.
There are other issues regarding amateur talent that need to be resolved (specifically, the possibility of an international draft), but I see these proposals as ways to improve the current system without blowing it up completely.