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GM meetings not just about free agents anymore

by Alan Schwarz
November 18, 2004

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla.—Guests at the Ritz-Carlton here on the beach can find all sorts of diversions in its marble-and-mahogany confines. There's the renowned spa way down the hall. For the less relaxed among us, there are backgammon boards and card tables in the reading room. And if you head out into the main lobby, where 100 baseball executives milled about during this year's general manager meetings, you could find a rousing game of dominoes.

Not literally, perhaps, but the second day of morning gatherings found talk swirling about a half-dozen new ideas that could, if one domino falls after the other, reshape low-level player development as we know it. It's early, yes, but after four GM meetings this is the first time I've ever heard "high school combine" and "Canadian Summer League" before the evening bar sessions, not during.

Major League Baseball's draft-change brainstormings rarely go anywhere, but in this case, another domino might push it from behind: the NCAA. At the demand of cold-weather programs sick of being left out in the you-know-what, college baseball is discussing a uniform season start date of March 1, ending with the College World Series in late June or even early July. In fact, smart money has this taking place in about three years.

What this means for MLB is a rethinking of much of its June operations—the date of the draft, short-season ball, and a half-dozen other matters that are influenced as a result. With the NCAA starting it all off.

And Away We Go

Baseball has never liked holding its draft before some college and high school seasons end. (The Cubs almost spontaneously combusted after Kerry Wood threw 12,000 pitches days after they took him in 1995.) The CWS recently moved to mid-June and could shift another two weeks, giving some executives the chills: "It was bad enough to watch the College World Series on TV," one said. "I'm not sure I want my No. 6 pick pitching in conference tournaments and regionals."

If the NCAA shifts its season, MLB could delay its draft date to as late as June 30 without union approval. This is where things get interesting.

What would high school players—and college ones not in postseason play—do during their month off from competition? How about an MLB-run combine?

"We do that more with showcases now, but not right before the draft," Brewers GM Doug Melvin said. The only snag is that agents aren't super-keen on letting top players possibly hurt their standing at the combine (the NFL sees this with its annual Indianapolis gathering) but lesser-known players would almost certainly attend. "We could gather more information and make better decisions," Cubs GM Jim Hendry said. (MLB is not considering separate high school and college drafts at this time.)

OK, say there's a weeklong combine before a June 30 draft. What does this do to Rookie-level and short-season leagues, which have begun in mid-June with recently drafted players? MLB could pare down those leagues significantly and perhaps sign many players directly into an instructional program. Heck, that might give them an extra year of Rule 5 protection. ("Gene Orza, line 2.")

Then what about scouting staffs, which typically focus on pro coverage throughout June in anticipation of the July 31 trade deadline? Will more need to be hired for that now-dense month? And speaking of trades . . .

But Wait, There's More

Momentum is gathering for teams' ability to trade draft picks, though many executives say that a prescribed bonus structure must be negotiated with the union before they'll sign off on it. (If a rich team knows a poor team can't take the best player available with a No. 3 overall pick, it has unfair bargaining leverage.)

Drafting worldwide players has cooled off for the moment, but international issues are fluttering around all this. Visa problems caused by tightening U.S. immigration policies could even further limit the flow of foreign minor leaguers to the States as early as this spring. How do you solve that? How about a Canadian Summer League—mimicking the purpose of the Dominican and Venezuelan summer leagues—with teams in Niagara Falls and maybe even Montreal, outside U.S. borders but nonetheless close by? "That may be a short-term answer," MLB executive vice president Sandy Alderson said, "or it may be a longer-term answer."

Of course, these are just ideas for now, thoughts that often need union approval and—which can be harder—MLB committee and ownership consensus. (Only two years ago, major draft changes were all but approved before they unraveled into oblivion yet again.) With the NCAA probably kicking this all off in a few years, expect most of these matters, particularly those involving the draft, to start truly percolating during the next Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations in 2006.

Still, this November's GM gathering had a bit of a different feel than others thanks to these swirling thoughts. As Pirates GM Dave Littlefield put it, "These meetings aren't just about free agents and trades. It's, 'Hey, is there a better mousetrap out there?' "

Mousetrap, huh? After this year's dominoes, could be a good game for next year's lobby.


You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to alanschwarz@baseballamerica.com.

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