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Dodging the Draft

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of The Grand Salami.

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June 2008 issue of the print mag

The best thing about baseball’s annual draft, which starts on June 5th this year, is that no one pays very much attention to it. By this, of course, I mean that there are no ping pong balls involved.

Granted, baseball recently began televising the draft, which admittedly is a disturbing trend. But it remains light years from the arduous ordeals the NFL and NBA make us endure. The NFL draft is so bloated and overblown it generates the largest single-day industry outside of San­ta Claus while the NBA forces fans to not only watch the draft but to watch the league determine the order of the draft as well. That’s like not only having to watch “Evan Almighty” but also “The Making of Evan Almighty.”

Baseball’s draft is of such relatively low interest that most fans learn the name of their team’s first-round draft pick, nod, and then promptly forget about him for the next couple of years. This is because baseball’s draft doesn’t mean much. The NFL and NBA drafts don’t mean much either, but the difference is baseball fans are shrewd enough to realize this fact. Most of the players picked will never reach the Majors and those who do probably won’t do so for several years, by which time your team will have probably traded them for high-priced veterans who can’t hit their weight. This is largely true of the first-round picks as well. Sure, there is the occasional Ken Griffey, Jr., or Alex Rodriguez out there, but there are many more guys like John Mayberry, Ryan Anderson, and Sam Hays.

This is not meant to single out the Mariners for their lesser draft picks. Accurately scouting a high schooler and projecting what type of ballplayer he might be when he matures and starts using the Clear instead of Clearasil is a tricky business, which is why the draft history of every organization is littered with terrible picks.

Rather than mimicking the draft hype of the other leagues or instituting a world-wide draft, baseball would be better off dropping the draft entirely. It has outlived its purpose.

The draft began in the mid-’60s as a method of reducing the cost of signing amateur talent. Signing bonuses had gotten so expensive that the owners realized that a draft would eliminate most of a player’s negotiating leverage and would cost them less. The draft worked well for a long time, allowing poorer teams to obtain talent on the cheap—Seattle signed Griffey for $160,000 after picking him with the No. 1 choice overall in 1987. But those days are long gone. In the past decade or so signing bonuses have risen to the point where teams are giving multi-million dollar signing bonuses to players who almost never amount to anything (yes, I mean you, Ryan Anderson).

Really, what is the point to the draft beyond making Scott Boras’ job easier? All it does now is ensure teams waste more money than necessary on guys they’ll later regret ever having pointed a speed gun at.

Would eliminating the draft allow the richest teams to stock up on all the best amateur talent? Not really. The Red Sox and Yankees may have more money to throw at players, but they can only sign so many because they have a finite number of slots available in their minor league system. They could add teams to the farm system, but that’s expensive and would discourage many players from signing in the first place. After all, why sign with a franchise in which you would have to compete against substantially more players to get to the Majors?

Dumping the draft also would be fairer to the players involved, allowing them to sign with whatever team wanted them, the same way people in the real world are able to pursue their careers. I mean, put yourself in their place. What if you dreamed your whole life of playing Major League Baseball, took batting practice until your hands bled and threw fastballs until your arm reached down to your ankles, only to be drafted by the Pirates?

Eliminating the draft wouldn’t put an end to signing players who flop, but it would save teams money and restore rights to amateur players without disrupting competitive balance. At the very least it would prevent annoying sports columnists from repeatedly bringing up prior draft picks to embarrass the team (did I mention Ryan Anderson?).

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.  His writing appears regularly on the site at Page 2 and the MLB page.

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