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Is the MLB Draft Beneficial or Does it Deserve to Go?

A Wall Street Journal writer makes the argument that the MLB draft has enough flaws to warrant scrapping the entire ordeal. Does he have a point? Should we take this into serious consideration?

Mike Stobe

As of today, the baseball world finds itself 11 days away from the start of the 2013 Major League Baseball rule-4 draft. Once Commissioner Selig officially calls for the start of the draft, teams will begin selecting the core of their respective futures. High school and college players will begin receiving phone calls from various front office staff members alerting them that they have been drafted. It's a tense time for teams, a celebratory one for the players, and complete chaos for all involved.

The MLB draft differs from the most popularized and second most popularized American professional sports drafts, the NFL and NBA drafts. All players drafted in the NFL draft come out of American colleges after spending a minimum of 2 years at said universities. In the NBA draft, the majority of players come from the collegiate ranks, but teams also draft players from overseas, and according to the rules, any player over the age of 19 as of the calendar year of the draft constitutes eligible.

In baseball players come to be in the service of an MLB franchise through two distinct avenues. One way is through the first year player draft; the other by way of an amateur signing. American, Canadian, Puerto Rican, and citizens of other U.S. territories must enter the draft. To do so these players must have completed high school but not attended a college, have completed 3 years of college (or be at least 21 years old), or have attended a junior or community college for any amount of time. Any player not from those specific countries or territories can sign with any team at any time at any age.

Now that we've refreshed our knowledge of the draft, let's take a look at an article published in the Wall Street Journal by writer Tim Marchman. In this piece, Marchman makes the case that there is little value or use for professional sports drafts, but especially the MLB draft. He begins the piece with a bold statement. It's a good hook, but also constitutes controversial.

"All sports drafts are scams, more or less. No computer engineer right out of Carnegie Mellon has to go straight to a job at Comcast for a predetermined salary. Electronic Arts representatives aren't lurking the halls of Northwestern with charts and craniometers. The concept is absurd on its face, and just as absurd when applied to young athletes."

The message Marchman seems to proclaim in this paragraph is that numerous differences exist between how professional athletes ascend from apprenticeship to everyday major leaguer than professionals in any other line of work. His statement is overarching and seems to lack full knowledge of the situation. Those drafted by teams are not forced to sign with that specific team. Mark Appel or J.D. Drew constitute examples of players unhappy with their draft position who refused to sign with the team that drafted them, and chose routs allowing them to reenter the following draft. In addition, annually a group of high school players unhappy with their selection or lack thereof choose to attend college and "reapply" for a different draft hoping for results more to their liking.

Next Marchman refers specifically to the MLB draft.

"What makes Major League Baseball's draft, which takes place in two weeks, especially ridiculous is that in addition to being clearly unjust, it's also inefficient. Drafting is no exact science in basketball or football, but at least in those sports the top amateur talents are both readily identified and actually available... The draft isn't a lottery, but it's closer than it should be given that its nominal purpose is to distribute the best talent to the worst teams."

Marchman refers to the fact that often 1st round draft-picks in baseball become busts, while 9th, 10th, or 15th round picks become stars. I would argue that this aspect of the draft makes for more fun, interest, and puts a premium on creativity and outside the box thinking on the part of MLB front offices. A front office that doesn't look intently at possible 11th round picks as much as say a 3rd rounder, could lose out on the next Mat Latos (selected with the 11th round of the 2006 draft by the San Diego Padres). The MLB draft has extreme depth, which makes the competition between teams to discover and draft the next star in the late rounds fiercer. Also, if a team does not put effort into the entire draft, all 40 rounds, but another team does, that first team may miss out, and it could be a mistake they could regret for years.

Following this common argument, Marchman moves on to the crux of his diatribe.

"You could thus say that baseball's draft combines the worst features of buying scratch-off lotto tickets and attending an accounting seminar while restricting the ability of young men to choose where they want to work into the bargain. It's a great deal if you own a ballclub; for everyone else, not so much."

Basically, he's saying that young players get paid very little money, so drafting them en mass isn't an issue for teams, but most of the players won't make the majors, don't have a choice in where they play, and get paid little to do so. He's making the case that draftees are exploited, but fails to recognize that most entry-level employees or interns follow a similar path. Young people fresh out of college, business school, or law school have some, but overall little choice in what and where they will work given that they have fully decided to become a lawyer or investment banker. They apply to numerous positions, possibly attaining one or two offers, and then at best have a choice between those two jobs. Once a prospective employee chooses a fixed professional path, they have already pigeonholed themselves professionally, similar to an MLB hopeful.

Then, in the end, Marchman offers his solution.

"Allow players to work where they'd like and some will go for the glamor teams, but some will go for the ones where they have the best chance to play, or to the towns with the best weather, or the ones closest to home. Open markets in talent work just fine in technology, law and soccer, and they'd work just as well for baseball if anyone would give them a chance."

Marchman chooses to solve the "problem" by eliminating the draft completely, essentially allowing any player to sign as an amateur free agent. While I personally feel that up to this point Marchman's arguments lacked substance, this so-called solution deserves some thought. What would happen if baseball dispatched with the draft. It would most likely favor big market teams with the money to pay the most talented players. Sure, the fame of being a star in a smaller city, or the ability to choose to play closer to home might entice some talented players, but as most baseball fans have accepted, money rules all. Albert Pujols had won over the hearts of Cardinals fans 10 times over, but still left St. Louis, after being offered a large sum of money to stay, to leave for more money in Orange County, California.

Overall, Marchman's idea of eliminating the draft has some merit. In international soccer, players are free to sign wherever they wish because no draft exists. Still, Barcelona and Real Madrid continue to win the Spanish La Liga most years, Manchester United has continuously won the English Premier League, and Bayern Munich makes the German Bundesliga seem like a walk in the park. These teams have the most money to spend, the best reputation, and for the most part reside in major population centers. The system MLB has instituted isn't perfect, as the league continues to tweak the draft over time, but it has history, and might have just as many flaws as the completely open market system proposed by Marchman. Still, I'm not convinced enough to want to see a shift in practice, are you?

Food for though:

1) What do you think of Marchman's proposal, is it warranted?

2) If you could make any changes to improve the current MLB draft, or system for acquiring amateur talent, what would you propose?