Follow The Money
Draft-and-follow process generated as many busts as big leaguers
See also: Draft-and-follow bonus records filled with busts
See also: Picking an all-star team of draft-and-follow picks
Travis Hafner learned the intricacies of the draft-and-follow process on a bus ride from Grand Junction, Colo., to Arkansas City, Kan.
Hafner had been picked by the Rangers in the 31st round of the 1996 draft out of Cowley County Community College in Kansas, and area scout Mike Grouse told him the team wanted to see him play in junior college for another season. That worked out because Hafner wanted to spend another year in school.
“When I decided to go to junior college, my coaches explained to me it was possible to get drafted after your freshman year and then sign after your sophomore year. So I knew what was going on,” Hafner says.
Cowley made it to the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction in 1997, and after the Tigers won the national title and Hafner was named the tournament MVP, the Rangers made their push to sign him before he went back into the draft pool.
“The scout rode the team bus with us back to Kansas,” Hafner says. “It was probably eight to 10 hours, and we made two or three stops. He would sit up front with the coaches, and I was with the players in the back. Every time we’d pull over to eat, I’d talk to him and then talk to my parents (on the telephone in North Dakota).
“We were only getting a meal allowance of six or seven dollars, so we’d stop at places like Wendy’s. We were negotiating at these fast-food places, and I knew nothing about it. I never had an agent. I talked to my parents and I talked to my coaches. I wanted to play pro ball. The draft was the next day, so something needed to get decided pretty quick. I thought they made a good offer. I think I signed for $75,000.”
Hafner is one of the great success stories from one of baseball’s interesting side streets. The draft-and-follow process was born in 1987, when baseball eliminated the January draft. Put simply, it allowed players to attend junior college while remaining eligible to sign with the team that drafted them, until one week before the next year’s draft. (Hafner was allowed to sign one day before the draft because his juco season stretched into the closed period.)
Teams immediately lost the rights to drafted players who went to four-year colleges. So they would spend their later selections on players with potential who might not be quite ready for pro ball, then follow them in junior college for 11 months and decide whether to sign them the next spring. Hence the name. The process was also called DNF, or DFE by some scouts, for draft, follow and evaluate.
By whatever name, it’s going away with this year’s draft. The establishment of a universal signing date of Aug. 15 means players can no longer be followed through the next spring. It’s a change that administrators hope will save money, while scouts feel like it will get even harder to find prospects that no one else knows about.
“This has been going all the way since the mid-80s when they took away the January and secondary phases, and I claimed that even back then that was a creation for laziness,” says Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken, the consummate scout’s scout. “With every little avenue that’s being closed ever since, I just think that it creates more and more laziness and it creates more mediocrity in scouts.”Leaders In Following
Many teams virtually ignored the draft-and-follow process anyway, while others made it a huge part of their draft each year, hoarding players with late-round picks and seeing who panned out. The Astros were one of the first organizations to exploit the rule, getting Darryl Kile out of the 1987 draft and following with such players as Roy Oswalt and Julio Lugo.
“I didn’t know anything about the draft,” says Oswalt, who was picked in the 23rd round of the 1996 draft out of Holmes (Miss.) Junior College. “It was a good deal, I thought. You can kind of watch players develop, and if the player wanted to sign later in the season they could go ahead and sign later in the season.”
Oswalt said the year of knowing a pro team was watching him was beneficial. “It probably helped me more than anything,” he says. “It gives you more confidence going into the next year that you can play somewhere else later on in your career, whereas the next year if you get hurt you may not get drafted. You didn’t have to prove anything anymore because you were already drafted.
“I grew a little bit that summer after I got drafted, and my velocity on my fastball increased some. It was a plus for me.”
Oswalt is a perfect illustration of why the draft-and-follow process was a favorite of area scouts, because even in a year when a scout wouldn’t get a premium pick from his area, he could find a few diamonds in the rough to watch for a year. Oswalt blossomed from scrawny, undersized righthander to one of the best pitchers in baseball.
“One of the good aspects of the DFE process was that it gave you a sense of having something constructive to do every day,” says a scout with a National League club who signed several draft-and-follows over the years.
The Yankees were also frequent followers, claiming both Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada out of the 1990 draft and signing them the next May.
“I remember at first thinking, what did I do?” Pettitte says. “That was because you can’t talk to anybody (with other teams). I didn’t know who was interested in me or who wasn’t interested in me. At a young age you get an appreciation how ruthless this business can be.”
Both the Astros and Yankees realized that draft rules allowed them to keep scores of players under control, and in 1996 the Yankees drafted for 100 rounds, breaking the Astros’ record of 98 rounds that was set two years earlier.
Of course, neither team intended to sign most of those players, but why not take the chance? For all the players who were never signed out of the ’96 draft, the Yankees did find future big leaguers in Marcus Thames and Scott Seabol, who has had a couple of cups of coffee and set a record for the latest draft pick ever to reach the majors—the 88th round.Ushering It Out
Changes adopted before the 1998 draft capped the proceedings to 50 rounds, the first real limitation to the draft-and-follow process. The next came when the commissioner’s office started making bonus recommendations, so teams had to notify Major League Baseball when they intended to hand out a large bonus.
MLB couldn’t stop them, but could try to talk them out of it, as happened with Pedro Beato last year. Beato was a draft-and-follow of the Mets, who took him in the 17th round in 2005, but they decided not to exceed MLB’s recommendation of an $800,000 bonus last May. The Orioles took him with the 32nd overall pick and signed him for $1 million.
Critics always said the draft-and-follow process drove up bonuses because players used the leverage of the signing deadline and going back into the draft. But Pettitte says he felt the team had the upper hand.
“It was just me and my dad, and the Yankees were trying to get me as cheap as they can,” Pettitte says. “It’s really your first taste of negotiating. I didn’t have an agent or advice. The only advice I had was my college coach (at San Jacinto) Wayne Graham, who is at Rice now. He said, ‘Andy, all I can tell you right now is that there is a kid named Justin Thompson who is a year younger than you out of Spring (Texas) High School. They are saying he will probably get $150,000. And you are throwing as hard as he is.’ ”
Pettitte eventually signed for $80,000, after days of back and forth negotiations with Yankees scout Joe Robison.
The big change since then has been the rise of agents in the draft, so players who strike deals with only the help of their coaches and parents are now the exception.
And that led to the draft-and-follow death blow in the offseason, during the negotiation of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Ownership wanted a universal signing date for the draft as well as improved compensation for unsigned picks, and it made concessions to the union in free-agent compensation—with signing clubs no longer losing a draft pick for signing Type B free agents—in order to get it.
The main impetus for the changes from MLB’s point of view was to give teams more leverage in negotiations with all draft picks. That it eliminated the draft-and-follow process was just a bonus. “It’s a natural consequence of the Aug. 15 deadline, but it is something we wanted to do,” said one MLB official with knowledge of the CBA negotiations.
The commissioner’s office saw the big bonuses given to draft-and-follows as inflationary, when players who were late-round picks one year become “first-round talents” the next.
“The draft-and-follow process means by definition we are paying more than 30 guys first-round money, and more than 30 guys second-round money,” the MLB official said. “I don’t begrudge anyone their money, but that was not the intention of the rule, and I think (the success stories) are more romance than reality.”
And therein lies the dirty little secret of the draft-and-follow process. For every Roy Oswalt, there’s a Frank Rodriguez, and 10 other players like him. Rodriguez was the first big-money draft-and-follow, signing for $425,000 in 1991 after the Red Sox had made him a second-round pick in 1990. That was one of the biggest bonuses handed out in 1991—one of the bellwether years for draft inflation—and Rodriguez went out and had a completely forgettable big league career, with a career 29-39, 5.53 record.
But at least Rodriguez reached the big leagues. When you check the accompanying chart, with the 27 players who received at least $500,000 as draft-and-follows, you’ll see a few marginal big leaguers, some prospects who still have promise, and a bunch of guys currently residing in the “where are they now?” file. And those were the players considered the cream of the crop. Of all the draft-and-follow signings each year, most are never seen or heard from again.
Scouts and administrators would debate the success/failure rate and the costs against the benefits until the cows come home. The bottom line now, however, is that the process is going away.
Junior-college coaches have said they don’t expect the change to have a huge effect on them. Players will still consider the juco route an attractive option because it allows them to be eligible for the draft the next year. And in fact it may increase scouting of two-year schools because no longer will many of the best players already be under control to teams that drafted them the year before.
Scouts, of course, lament losing the opportunity to find players that no one else knows about.
And Hafner, who could end up being the poster boy for this particular 20-year chapter of draft history, also will be sad to see it go.
“Personally, I really like the idea (of draft and follow),” he says. “They can say, ‘Here’s a guy with potential. If we really like him, we can sign him before he goes into the draft again.’ Who knows how things might have been different if I had waited a day? But I liked the whole process.Additional reporting by: Andy Call, George King, Alan Matthews and Brian McTaggart.