Pre-draft Medical Combine Discussed at Scouting Director Meetings

The 2008 Major League Baseball Scouting Director meetings were held Aug. 18-20 at the Scottsdale resort in Scottsdale. An annual event, its purpose is to review the previous draft and discuss new and old topics in the industry. Of the many discussions, a major emphasis was put on the need to improve access to medical information on draft eligible prospects each year. The idea of instituting a medical combine, similar to those held by the NFL or NBA before their respective drafts seemed to be the ideal option.

"It makes sense to have some central place to run these guys through some tests," an American League scouting director said. "We started it this year with the drug testing on the top 200 players. If we could do something similar with medicals, that would be a step in the right direction."

The idea discussed was the option of holding strictly a medical combine. It would not include tests of athletic ability. However, the obstacle for Major League Baseball in holding a pre-draft medical combine lies in the draft’s timing. Taking place in June, many college players and even high school athletes are still in season during the weeks leading up to the draft and would be unavailable for examination. Regardless of the difficulties, the need for gathering up-to-date medical information on prospects has become evident.

"Everyone is in favor of moving in that direction," the AL scouting director said. "With as much money as we invest, we don’t want to make a draft pick and then find out that the guy has a pre-existing medical condition."

Currently, teams acquire medical information from questionnaires, the Major League Scouting Bureau and research by area scouts.

"The more we can know about a player to get a feel for where our dollars are going, the better," a National League scouting director said. "We aren’t trying to find ways to pay players less. The idea is to know what we’re paying for."

However beneficial a combine may theoretically seem, the current logistics and timing of the draft make it impossible for MLB to require all top-tier prospects attend. From an agent/adviser’s point of view, it would not be beneficial to advise a client to attend such an event in most instances. The exception would be in the case of a player who had been hindered by injury during the evaluation process and wanted to prove his current health status.

"Unless everybody goes, why would anybody go?" an advisor with a major representation firm said. "I don’t see where it benefits the player. Every player competes with (medical issues) and every team assumes a certain degree of risk when drafting a player—even with guys who have no medical conditions."

The institution of a medical combine would help prevent teams from selecting players such as R.A. Dickey, Tim Stauffer, Billy Traber, and most recently Alan Dykstra and Scott Bittle, with high draft slots, only to discover existing medical concerns that cause negotiation difficulties.

Dickey was drafted 18th overall by the Rangers in 1996 and preliminary agreed to sign for $875,000. However, the Rangers discovered Dickey was missing an ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow and rescinded their offer the day before he was to sign. Dickey eventually agreee to a $75,000 bonus.

Traber has a similar story, as he was drafted 16th overall in 2000 by the Mets. Traber saw a $1.7 million offer drop to $400,000 after it was revealed that he had an arm injury that would need Tommy John surgery. Stauffer signed for $750,000 as the fourth overall pick in the 2003 draft due to a shoulder injury, after having agreed earlier to a deal for $2.6 million.

Dykstra and Bittle were drafted in 2008 in the first and second round respectively. Post-draft medical tests found Dykstra has vascular necrosis in his hip—a progressive condition in which bone tissue dies due to a lack of blood supply. (His injury had been reported in area newspapers when Dykstra, a San Diego area native, was in high school.) Before the draft, the Padres and Dykstra agreed to a $1.4 million deal. However, Dykstra ended up signing for $1.15 million.

Bittle was selected in the second round by the Yankees but was never given a reasonable offer after the Yankees’ medical evaluation. Bittle has several other medical opinions stating his case, but the only evaluation that mattered after the draft was the Yankees’, and they saw something they didn’t like.

"We couldn’t come to terms, and it didn’t have anything to do with financial demands," Yankees’ scouting director Damon Oppenheimer said in a story to run in BA’s next issue.

Regardless of whether teams can find common ground between advisors, the timing of the draft and collecting accurate and timely medical files, teams are making it clear that the more information available the better. However, as the advisor pointed out, even when knowing every player’s exact medical condition, the draft would still be an inexact science.

"The last I looked, Dickey and Traber are still pitching while the perfect mechanics guy with no pre-existing medical condition (Mark Prior) has been a disaster forever," the advisor said.