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The MLB Draft needs to be changed

Cleveland Indians v Minnesota Twins - Game Two Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The MLB Draft is one of baseball’s most exciting events. It’s a glance into the future of Major League Baseball in a span of three days where over 1,000 baseball players’ dreams become reality. Most fans only get to see the player get his name called, but few fans see the months of scouting and negotiating that goes in to preparing for the draft. While the draft is great for both fans and players alike, procedural issues mar the process somewhat, issues long overdue in being addressed.

Slot value and “signability”

In no other sport does an amateur athlete have more power than in the MLB. To an extent, high school and college baseball players eligible for draft are similar to a restricted free-agent in the NBA, they have the ability to negotiate with any team that reaches out to them and use their desired signing bonus amount to leverage themselves into being picked by the team they may would like to play for. The issue of signing bonuses has led to many teams ignoring the “best available” approach and focusing more on the “cost effective” approach, though they would never admit it.

Within the scouting realm, you will often hear the term “signability” thrown around, a term that is only relevant in baseball. “Signability” basically means how likely a scout or team thinks a player is to sign their contract offer rather than go to college or remain in college for another season.

In other drafts, like the NFL and NBA, the issue as to whether a player will sign for the amount the team interested is willing to pay him does not come up until after the player is selected, if at all. Sure, in football you have players hold out of practice until a contract agreement is reached, but dollars never affect the spot in which a player is drafted.

The MLB has since implemented a slot bonus system that slates a value of each pick in each of the first ten rounds, adds the total amount into a pool and penalizes any team that accumulates a total over the combined amount slated by the MLB with a percent tax depending on how far above the limit the given team is. The slot system has helped some facets of the issue but has far from fixed it.

In 2015, the Marlins held the 12th pick in the draft and used it on Josh Naylor, a high school first baseman out of Ontario, Canada. At first, many questioned the pick as Naylor was a projected late first round to early second round pick, but as the signing bonuses were revealed, the Marlins motive became evident. The Marlins signed Naylor for $2.2 million, a nice sum, but well below the slot value, about $800,000 to be exact.

The Marlins knew that Naylor would accept well below the slot value due to his draft projections, so by reaching for him the Marlins were able to save nearly $1 million. While a franchise is responsible for the players it picks and the amount of money it spends on players, in most sports the draft acts as a way to place small and large market teams on an even playing field, where money is not a factor and teams can go about the draft with a best player available approach. In baseball, money is a factor in every facet of the game, including the draft, which distorts the selection process.

Draft length

The MLB Draft is the longest draft in all of sports, 40 rounds to be precise, plus compensatory picks. While it may be hard to believe, the MLB actually trimmed the draft to 40 rounds from 50 several years back, but the draft could use more than just a 10 round shortening.

A common argument to refute the “MLB Draft is too long” narrative is that a longer draft provides opportunity to as many amateur baseball players as possible and that there are various levels of minor league baseball with teams that need to be filled. But the fact of the matter is, MLB franchises refute that very narrative through their late-round drafting. MLB teams seemingly outdo each other annually with wasted publicity picks.

In 2014, the San Diego Padres selected then Cleveland Browns quarterback, Johnny Manziel. Manziel only played football during his tenure at Texas A&M. In 2016, Mariners selected Trey Griffey, son of the Hall of Fame outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. in the 24th round; Trey Griffey hadn't hit a baseball since he was 7 years-old. The Mariners pick of Trey Griffey particularly shows how disposable draft picks are for MLB franchises because rather than picking Trey Griffey in the last round and using their earlier picks on players who will actually play in the Mariners organization, Seattle picked Griffey in the 24th round as a tribute to his father who wore the number 24 during his tenure with the team.

WBC: USA v South Africa
Trey Griffey: Legacy pick
Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

MLB teams don't only waste draft picks on people who haven’t played baseball, they also waste selections on high school players who they know have no chance of signing. In 2016, 21 of the 30 selections made in the 40th round were high schoolers. Of those 21 high school baseball players none signed, meaning all of which went on to college. All 21 of those teams knew very well that there was almost no chance any high school athlete would bypass college for a 40th round selection which would provide a signing bonus of roughly $10,000, so why even make the pick? Surely, there are tons of 4-year college baseball players chomping at the bit for an opportunity to play professional baseball. But teams would rather draft a 17 or 18 year old kid who it knows it cannot sign, solely as a contingency plan should one of the team’s first 10 picks not sign.

Most teams will not draft a player in the first 10 rounds unless the team is near positive the player will sign, making this circumstance extremely unlikely, but should the player not sign, the teams bonus slot money saved from not signing him can be allocated towards any player drafted. 2016’s draft is an excellent example of how rare this instance is as MLB franchises lack of care for their late round picks make the draft a much more monotonous process than it needs to be. If teams don't care about their late picks, why should we?

Now, there are exceptions to every rule, Jeff Conine and Mike Piazza were drafted in rounds that don't even exist anymore, the 58th and 62nd, respectively; however, baseball scouting in the late 80s and early 90s isn't remotely similar to scouting today. Exponentially larger scouting departments, mass broadcasting of games at all levels and social media have all made it much more difficult for talent to slip through the cracks in baseball today.

College athletes and leverage

The MLB Draft eligibility rules are unique to say the least. Any player is eligible to sign once they graduate high school, but should that player decide to attend college, he is not eligible to be drafted until his junior year, with the exception of less than a handful of draft eligible sophomores based on age. The ability to go straight to the pros is a privilege for high school baseball players as the NBA and NFL require high school athletes to attend college. Should the high school baseball player decide to go to college is where things become more complicated. College football players are forced to wait three years to go pro just like those who play college baseball, however the similarities in process end right there. For football players, there is no disadvantage to returning for ones’ senior season other than running the risk of injury and in most cases players who do so improve their draft stock. The MLB draft is all about leverage, high school athletes and college juniors tend to sign for higher signing bonuses due to the fact that the MLB team has to either pry the player away from attending college or returning for his senior year of college.

For that reason you will almost never see a player who is drafted as a relatively high pick return for his senior year, because once a player returns for his senior season of college he loses all of his leverage. MLB teams tend to sit back and draft college seniors later solely because they know there’s nowhere else for the player to go and he will take whatever he can get. Essentially, there is no reason for a college baseball player to return for his senior season unless he goes un-drafted or is picked really late, making his junior season almost do-or-die, a lot of pressure for a 20-21 year old athlete.

The MLB recently reached a new CBA so it will be some time until we see any changes to the draft process; however, commissioner Rob Manfred has shown a willingness to go against the grain in his league decisions. While the MLB draft will never have the platform or general interest the NFL and NBA drafts do, addressing some of the aforementioned issues could generate more interest in professional sports’ most complex draft.