Baseball’s Draft Needs To Change

August 15, 2011 – 4:16 pm by Ryan Phillips

It’s signing day in Major League Baseball. Tonight at midnight eastern time, teams have to come to terms with the players they selected in the 2011 MLB Draft or lose their rights. Entering today just 10 of the top 33 picks in the draft had signed. And eight of the top 10 players selected had not agreed to terms. This is insane.

The way things have gone over the past few years, most players end up signing just before the midnight deadline but the delay typically ends up costing them what would have been a first season of professional baseball. The way the system is set up, the players essentially have all the leverage, as teams only receive compensation (in the form of picks in the next year’s draft) for failing to sign first or second round picks. Unless of course the pick they used on the player holding out was compensation for another failed signing, in which case, the team ends up with nothing.

The players – and more importantly, their agents – can wait until the last minute and hold teams hostage. High school players with college commitments typically take this tact, as they command exorbitant bonus demands by claiming they really want to go to school instead.

Now, I rarely take the side of ownership in the never-ending owners vs. players debates that permeate all sports, but the current MLB draft system is ridiculous. There are absolutely no guidelines covering what players should be paid, there are only “recommended” slot payments suggested by the commissioner’s office, which are just as convoluted as the demands of the draftees. Baseball needs to adopt a similar system to those of the NBA and NFL and go with a hard slotting system. The NFL recently adopted the system in it’s new collective bargaining agreement and the result was virtually no rookies missing any time in training camp.

Players and agents of course hate this idea because it would cost them money, but a hard slotting system would basically give players two choices: sign for what you’re offered, or go to school (or the independent leagues if your college eligibility is exhausted). It would also rid us of scenarios where top-end talents like Rick Porcello – the consensus top prep pitcher in the 2007 draft – would drop to the 27th pick where the Detroit Tigers took him because they had the money to overpay him. Porcello signed a contract worth up to $7.28 million contract with a $3 million signing bonus.

Hard slotting would level the playing field for teams that don’t have as much money, and are at the bottom of the barrel in baseball. After all, the point of the draft is to give the worst teams the chance to get better by having a shot at the best players.

Here is a perfect example of where the draft fails. In 2004 the San Diego Padres had the No. 1 pick thanks to a horrendous 64-98 record in 2003. The Padres had narrowed things down to four players as they approached draft day: Jered Weaver, Stephen Drew, Jeff Niemann and Justin Verlander. As that day got closer, the Padres realized they could not afford to sign any of those guys once they were drafted, so at the last minute they were forced to select local high schooler Matt Bush based largely on the fact that he agreed to sign a contract (for far less money) immediately. Weaver and Verlander have become All-Stars, Drew is a solid shortstop who has struggled with injuries and Niemann is a decent starter, while Bush has become a punchline and one of the biggest draft busts in sports history.

That scenario has happened over and over again to teams who can’t afford to pay ridiculous draft bonuses.

To use a Padres example again, last year with the No. 9 pick San Diego selected high school righty Karsten Whitson. While Whitson had a commitment to play baseball at the University of Florida, virtually every draft expert agreed that he would be an easy, quick sign for the Padres. Then the agents got a hold of him, and he waited until just before the deadline to seriously negotiate.

The Padres offered him virtually the same contract the player selected at No. 8 (Delino Deshields Jr.) got. Whitson’s team demanded nearly double that. Whitson’s representatives told him the Padres couldn’t afford another draft failure and they would cave. They didn’t, and Whitson was forced to go to Florida. In return the Padres were awarded the No. 10 pick in this year’s draft.

Now this could all end well for everyone involved. The Padres took Cory Spangenberg with the No. 10 pick this year and he signed quickly and has done well in the minors thus far. Whitson meanwhile had a great freshman year at Florida and will likely be a high pick eventually. But by all accounts he wanted to start his pro career out of high school and still has to wait two years to re-enter the draft. What happens if he gets injured in that time? Or if his production tails off? Then you’ve got a kid who gave up a guarantee of more than $2 million because he got bad advice.

Most of the first rounders from this year’s class will probably sign tonight. And yes, a lot of money will be thrown around. That doesn’t mean that the system isn’t broken and in need of a major overhaul.

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