Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Drafting a plan

Taking a break from writing Bill Simmons’ eulogy (after his fatal heart attack that occurred when the Celtics plummeted in the NBA draft lottery), I’m turning my attention back to baseball and its upcoming draft. For the first time, there is going to be live ESPN2 television coverage of baseball’s spring draft; it’s come a long way from the conference call it used to be. Drafts in general are becoming bigger deals every year; the NFL is currently mulling over a plan to shift its first round to a primetime Friday night slot, and the NBA’s Greg Oden/Kevin Durant duo this year (congrats to the Blazers and Sonics; apparently the NBA lottery had a major west-coast bias this year) had everyone talking. So with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at some possible changes to baseball’s system, and figure out which changes would benefit the MLB.

Lottery to determine top picks
The NBA instituted their current lottery system in an attempt to attempt late-season tanking by teams looking to get into position with a high pick. This season was a spectacular failure for that idea, without a doubt. Numerous teams (like the Grizzlies, Bucks, and Celtics) blatantly threw in the towel, making the last third of the NBA’s regular season borderline unwatchable. Then, none of those teams landed in the top three (the Hawks, Sonics, and Blazers all moved up instead). So the NBA’s system managed to (a) not prevent tanking, and (b) not give the best talent to the worst teams. It’s hard to come up with a worse combination than that. Besides, there isn’t much of a tanking issue in the MLB anyway. Verdict: No.

Tradable picks
Baseball is the only major sport that does not allow teams to trade their picks. There’s a decent argument to be made for and against this; by not allowing picks to be traded, baseball makes sure that a team at the top must actually take something approximating top-tier talent since they can’t simply trade down to take cheaper players each year. On the flip side, teams have to deal with the “Boras Effect” caused by Scott Boras and other top agents commanding top dollar for their clients. This leads to the “signability issues” that caused players like Stephen Drew to drop to teams willing to pony up. If picks could be traded, teams at the top would be able to slide down a few slots and open up a bidding war between deep-pocketed teams for the occasional Boras client. I’m going to go with a Yes on this one, if a system was put into place to make sure that a team couldn’t do too much long-term damage to itself (perhaps by not allowing a team to trade its top pick two years in a row, or something like that.

Slotted contracts
This is another NBA idea; in that league, players drafted in the first round are automatically slotted into pre-determined contracts, eliminating hold-outs, signability questions (rendering a lot of the problems addressed in the trading section moot), and rough negotiations. The problem here, I think, comes from the many inherent differences between baseball and basketball; especially the recent trend of players holding out for a full year and re-entering the draft the next time around (Luke Hochevar, the Royals prospect, did this if I remember correctly). I would say Yes to this idea in theory, but I can’t imagine any situation in which baseball successfully negotiated this with the Players Association.

International players
Baseball’s influx of overseas talent from areas like Japan and Latin America has been the major force shaping the game over the last few years, even while there’s a haphazard system of actually getting these players into the MLB system. Again, the NBA has the most structured approach, where all players must enter through the draft, international or not, and whatever team that drafts them is responsible for negotiating whatever buyouts or other considerations will be necessary to bring a player over. This can backfire, as the Magic recently learned when they spent a first-round pick on a player who chose to remain in Spain (where the rain mainly falls, I forget). Baseball uses the free-for-all approach for players like Ichiro, Jose Contreras, and the like. Using a draft for true prospects wouldn’t be too much of an issue I assume, but those big-name veterans from overseas raise more problems. Ichiro, Matsuzaka, and others are not prospects in the traditional sense; their situation bears more resemblance to a major-league free agent than to a high-schooler. As such, I’m going to say No here; the responsibility for finding foreign players falls on the teams themselves establishing roots in other countries, such as the Twins have done in Venezuela. Teams that put in the effort to find these guys get the rewards, while big-ticket guys still get the freedom they expect.

Those are the four biggest issues that jump to mind; I’m split down the middle, 2-2. But I’m interested in what you guys think; what other aspects should we be considering here? And which of these did I totally miss the boat on?

John Sharkey would take Yi Jianlian number one at aodshark@gmail.com

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