Middle Age May Be Best Age For Baseball Draft





The baseball draft is squarely in middle age at 45 years old, and yet in many ways it feels like it's just starting to come into its own. The past decade has seen a number of huge developments in draft history, aside from the talent that teams found each June. Here are the 10 we found the most significant:

1. Growth of the draft as an event: Thanks to the Internet, draft coverage became both more immediate and more widespread, from Baseball America as well as media outlets that never previously showed any interest in the draft. ESPN took things to another level by televising the draft for the first time in 2007. MLB Network took the event over after its debut last year and promises to make it even bigger.

2. Best college pitcher ever gets drafted—twice: Both Mark Prior in 2001 and Stephen Strasburg in 2009 drew huge accolades and huge attention, months before they were ever drafted. Prior's rapid ascent to the big leagues with the Cubs and the way he backed up his hype—before he got hurt—showed casual fans the importance of the draft. So when Strasburg came along the hype was even bigger, and he also looks like he'll live up to his billing.

3. MLB introduces slotting system to drive bonuses down: Major League Baseball held its first negotiating seminar for teams before the 2000 draft, encouraging them to hold the line on signing bonuses and making recommendations for bonus amounts for each pick in the first five rounds. Inflation slowed, and by the 2002 draft, bonuses decreased for the first time in a decade. They fell again in 2003, with first-round picks signing for the lowest average bonus since 1998.

4. Bonuses head back up, as further changes do not have intended effect: Bonuses started creeping back up in 2004, so the commissioner's office tried harder to make teams adhere to its bonus slots, and in 2007 it introduced an Aug. 15 signing deadline and improved the compensation for unsigned picks in an effort to give teams more leverage. The signing deadline in particular, however, seemed to make teams more anxious to pay a premium to sign players, and bonuses jumped significantly. Teams also realized that with no real enforcement mechanism for MLB's bonus slots, it gave them a competitive advantage to pay for the best talent. Only one player had received a bonus of at least $6 million before the 2007 draft, but the last three drafts have seen eight bonuses of $6 million or more.

5. Matt Harrington becomes draft's most noted holdout ever: In a first round littered with disappointments, the No. 7 pick in the 2000 draft, California high school righthander Matt Harrington, writes his own sad footnote to draft history. Harrington and the Rockies engaged in some of the most acrimonious negotiations in draft history, and Harrington turned down at least $4 million to go back into the draft. He went on to get drafted three more times, turning down successively smaller amounts of money, but never signed to play Organized Baseball. He did play six seasons in independent leagues.

6. Pedro Alvarez signs, then signs again: Baseball ran afoul of its own rules—a common theme throughout draft history—when it unilaterally extended the signing deadline by several minutes to allow the Pirates to sign No. 2 overall pick Pedro Alvarez in 2008. The union filed a grievance on Alvarez's behalf to make him a free agent, but the Pirates renegotiated to boost Alvarez's bonus from $6 million to $6.355 million, and the grievance was dropped.

7. Holdouts find haven in independent ball: J.D. Drew started the trend in 1997, but in the Aughts it became routine for holdouts to play in an independent league. Before the signing deadline, it was an opportunity to keep playing without losing the chance to sign with the team that drafted them, such as 2004 first-round pick Stephen Drew, who played in the Atlantic League before signing with the Diamondbacks in May 2005. But the leagues also provided showcases for holdouts for the next year's draft. Indy ball also helped righthander Luke Hochevar overcome his strange holdout to become the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft. Hochevar was the 40th overall pick in 2005 out of Tennessee and apparently reached a signing deal with the Dodgers after switching agents that fall. But then he switched back to his original agent, Scott Boras, and declined to sign, playing in the American Association the next spring to boost his stock when he couldn't go back to school.

8. Matt Bush stakes claim to worst No. 1 pick ever: The Padres had the right players in their sights in 2004, including Drew, but panicked when budget issues became a concern and took local product Matt Bush. Bush signed for $3.15 million but got involved in off-field altercations even before he took the field, then ran into injuries and poor production. He moved from shortstop to the mound with no success, and was last seen in the Rays organization.

9. Upton Brothers Make Draft History: B.J. Upton came out of the Tidewater region of Virginia to become the No. 2 overall pick in 2002 to the Devil Rays (after the Pirates took righthander Bryan Bullington No. 1). Younger brother Justin did him one better in 2005, going first overall to the Diamondbacks and making the Uptons the highest-drafted pair of brothers in draft history. 

10. Landon Powell's GED gambit: Agent Scott Boras has a history of finding loopholes in draft rules, and in 2000 he had standout high school junior Landon Powell obtain his GED diploma and apply for the draft. No team realized he was available and Powell went undrafted, making him a free agent. He was believed to be seeking a bonus of $3 million-$6 million, but baseball imposed a de facto signing freeze and Powell ended up attending South Carolina. He ended up as a first-round pick in 2004.