Major League Baseball’s draft has lagged behind those of sports rivals such as the National Football League and National Basketball Association for years.
The NFL held its first draft in 1936, nearly 30 years before MLB’s first draft in 1965. ESPN began putting the NFL draft on TV in 1980, and now the NFL draft is a colossus, spanning three days and gobbling up programming time. The NFL’s scouting combine, feeding into the draft, gets covered breathlessly on the NFL Network and ESPN as players run drills and get poked and prodded like cattle.
The NBA has had drafts since before basketball was popular. The first NBA draft was held in 1947. And as Terry Pluto put it in his epic book “Loose Balls” about the late, lamented American Basketball Association, the ABA would have drafts at the drop of a hat—just for publicity.
In baseball, the draft and publicity didn’t go hand in hand until this century. Josh Vitters has yet to establish himself as a big leaguer, but the Cubs’ 2007 first-round pick was the first player in baseball history to attend a draft, hear the commissioner call his name (as the third overall pick) and then walk up on stage for a national television audience to shake his hand and put on a hat that needed to be broken in.
That 2007 draft was baseball’s first on TV. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the 2002 draft, which was the first one streamed on MLB.com, and to be part of MLB Network’s broadcast of this year’s first day of action, spanning the first two rounds. From personal experience, I can see how far the draft has come in those dozen years.
In 2002, we got a few seconds to sneak in that Melvin Upton was better known as B.J. In 2014, we had full scouting reports on every player picked in the first two rounds as well as video.
So baseball is doing a better job of promoting the draft. But the inertia of the way the draft started, and the nearly 50 years of traditions that have set in, keep the draft from growing the way it could—and hurt teams and player development.
That was seen most recently in the Astros’ failure to sign Brady Aiken, the San Diego prep lefthander whom they had drafted No. 1 overall in June. As BA reported recently, the Astros didn’t have a medical evaluation of Aiken before drafting him, getting him in to Houston for a physical in June after agreeing to terms with him (and his representative, agent Casey Close of Excel Sports Management) for a $6.5 million bonus. But after the physical, the Astros pulled their offer, and the two sides never re-established any trust in a negotiation that turned nasty.
Close blasted the Astros publicly; meanwhile Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow made the 40 percent minimum offer required by the Collective Bargaining Agreement to guarantee a compensatory selection in the 2015 draft if he failed to sign Aiken. At the deadline, Luhnow came up as high as $5 million, but by then it was too late, and now the issue is the subject of a grievance by the MLB Players Association.
The public perception, which has some truth, is that the Astros lost Aiken as well as fifth-rounder Jacob Nix over $1.5 million. The real issue is why the Astros, or any team, had to pick a player with a $7.9 million bonus allotment without the benefit of a pre-draft physical.
It’s past time for MLB to inaugurate, at the least, a medical combine. Take official measurements of players’ height and weight. Run them over 60 yards and get true times to first base for hitters. Pitchers could throw a bullpen, and players could even scrimmage—or not. Not every quarterback throws at the NFL combine, after all.
Most of all, every player takes a physical. (It also would be a good time for teams to give players psychological and vision tests, preferably standardized instead of 30 different ones.) They all have to pass a physical when they sign anyway, so why not just do it before the draft? Agents won’t like that idea, but it’s got legs. The current CBA already has language for a combine, but the follow-up has been painfully slow. The Aiken case should be the impetus for speeding up the process.
The logistical challenges are real, but so are the benefits. Baseball should see what a marketing bonanza the NFL combine has become and try to emulate it. A combine also could be used for teams to conduct interviews with players and gauge signability. I’d even be open to the idea of MLB clubs evaluating high school players to the point of letting them know which ones really are ready to sign and which ones aren’t. The NBA has an advisory aspect to its dealings with college players, letting them know which ones are likely to be drafted and often counseling them to return to school for additional seasoning.
Move the draft to July’s all-star week. Inaugurate a combine at the end of June. Have the high school kids in one part of the week, collegians the next. Teams can have their meetings and then draft the two days after the all-star game. From a marketing standpoint, a shorter draft—making every pick more important—makes more sense. Twenty rounds should be plenty.
Next year is the 50th anniversary of the June draft. It should be a time when baseball marks some successes of the era while beginning the transition to a more modern draft that starts to take its cues from its more popular cousins in the NBA and NFL.