The necessary scam of the amateur draft

Mike Stobe

If there weren't a Rule 4 Draft, what would be different?

Tim Marchman of the Wall Street Journal should win an award for this opening sentence:

All sports drafts are scams, more or less.

Yep. The biggest reason for sports drafts is to keep costs down. Yoenis Cespedes got $36 million on the open market; Bryce Harper got $9.9 million. The Rangers spent $108 million on Yu Darvish; the Nationals got Stephen Strasburg for $15.1 million. Those players might not be perfectly analogous, but the contracts certainly aren't. In order to get two players who would have been the #1 pick in about 85 to 90 percent of the drafts in MLB history, the Nationals paid the same as the going rate for two years of Rafael Soriano.

This is because the draft is a scam, more or less.

No one really cares, though, because a side effect of this scam is that the worst teams get a chance at the elite talent. The Nationals got Harper and Strasburg because the team was a joke, losing over 100 games in consecutive seasons. And now because the Nationals had the first pick in two consecutive drafts (among other reasons), they have a chance to be perennial contenders. That's how everyone would like to believe the draft always works, and sometimes it actually does.

Marchman focuses on the first-round talents who aren't quite as elite, though, suggesting that because the draft is more of a crapshoot after the first five or 10 picks, that there's no point to having it at all. Let the players loose on the open market every year, and let the smarter teams come away with the best talent.

It sounds very free market. Very laissez-faire. Very invisible hand. Very American. And if there's something Americans hate with their sports, it's free markets.

If the best-run organizations got the elite talent every year, they would likely have continued success. Forget the players at the back of the first round. We're talking about the elite players. As in, the Strasburgs, Harpers, Uptons, Griffeys, and Delmons. Which … okay, forget about that last one. But those players were pretty close to sure things. As close as most premium free agents, at least. The success cycle would become a success causeway. The good teams would stay good.

People hate that.

When the Yankees of the late '90s and '00s were using their financial resources to rearm and reload, fans didn't care that the money was coming in because the organization was a powerhouse brand pulling in money for legitimate business reasons. No, the Yankees were a big ol' bully, buying championships and smoking cigars like a caricature from a turn-of-the-century political cartoon.

Books were written, debates were had, and salary caps were demanded. The Yankees winning every year was a travesty to a large swath of baseball fans.

Imagine if in addition to the free-agent frenzies they used to go on, then, the Yankees also had the opportunity to spend big on all of the amateur players. Imagine if in 2005, they decided, say, let's load up on elite college hitters. This Gordon kid's a can't miss. Zimmerman's bat is as advanced as his glove. Braun probably isn't going need much time in the minors, and neither is the Tulowitzki fellow. Let's outbid the world for them because we can.

If your counterargument is the Yankees could have done the same thing in 2004 with pitchers from Rice (Philip Humber, Jeff Neimann, and Wade Townsend) and failed, imagine how little the Yankees would have cared when the 2005 class started to bear fruit. A team focusing on top-10 amateur talent every year -- and using the scam of pre-arbitration salaries to help pay for it -- would be a juggernaut that could live with some missteps.

People hate juggernauts. They want a rotation of teams to succeed, fresh faces, and bad teams becoming newly relevant. They don't want the Yankees and Dodgers in the World Series every year. Well, Dodgers and Yankees fans would be okay with that, but I don't think it's a coincidence that this financial Golden Age for baseball is happening in a competitive era. Half the teams in baseball have won a pennant since 2000, and that's probably a good thing for the overall financial health of baseball. The elite talents -- the consensus top picks, of which there are a handful every year -- going to the top bidder would make a difference to that delicate balance.

As for the non-elite talent, Marchman's right. It's a crapshoot. There's no real sense in the 11th-overall pick having such a weird, ineffective history. The best player ever selected 77th overall is Rich Folkers, while the 106th pick provided generational talents for two Canadian teams (Tim Raines and Dave Stieb). After the first 10 or so picks, the draft gets weird. And more so than other sports, baseball could get away with abolishing the draft and maintaining a veneer of competitive balance. Too many second-, ninth-, and 45th-round picks succeed for one team to monopolize all of the talent effectively.

Creating a Darvish-like feeding frenzy for every Strasburg and Harper situation, though, is a great way to make sure the worst teams don't get a chance at the Strasburgs and Harpers. Forget about the Yankees of the '90s and '00s; look at the Yankees before the draft existed.

Luckily, a lot of fans also don't want players to thrive in something approximating a free market, so the current setup is safe. You can bet there are a lot of Pirates fans who were secretly hoping for Mark Appel to fall into the Matt Harrington sand trap. When free agents leave to go to a different team for more money, they're excoriated. How dare they pursue personal gain when they can instead give that up for the collective good?

(If baseball is the American pastime, I'm not sure where that last sentence fits in with the American Dream. We're a very confused people! That's even before we bring up the popularity of laissez-faire, rich-get-richer soccer leagues in the European countries that at least tolerate a few socialist concepts. People are so weird.)

The draft is a scam that helps teams underpay for a scarce and vital resource, but it's a scam that also helps the downtrodden teams at least get a chance at the elite talent. In a sport where players stay where they're told for the first six years of their career, that's a big deal. You can argue about the details, but if baseball wants to be concerned with competitive balance, there has to be some way to rig the system for the worst teams, even if just a little bit.

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