Big Changes On Tap For Scouting, Player Development

By Will Lingo
With reporting by Jim Callis, Chris Kline, John Manuel, Alan Schwarz and Allan Simpson
August 12, 2005

Major League Baseball is contemplating significant changes to both the draft and the structure of the lower levels of the minor leagues in an effort to save money on scouting and player development.

The most likely changes for 2006 would be moving the draft back from the beginning of June to the end, and eliminating the Arizona and Gulf Coast leagues.

Most major and minor league officials either declined comment or spoke on condition of anonymity, but several sources said changes are definitely coming—though the details remain to be worked out.

“Nothing has been approved; we’re operating the way we always have, one National League farm director said. “In the fall we’ll have a clearer picture of what’s going on.

“Ownership has very strong feelings about figuring out a way to develop players in a more efficient way.”

Changes such as these have been contemplated for the last decade, with the last serious push coming at the Winter Meetings in 1996. Now the effort seems to have reached critical mass. Some of the changes have been talked about for years, and they were discussed as a package by major league general managers during an Aug. 3 conference call.

Farm and scouting directors are scheduled to discuss the ideas further at meetings in Orlando that begin Monday, with formal proposals likely in the weeks that follow.

Developing More Efficiently

Major league Rule 4, the rule that establishes the parameters for the June draft, says only that “one selection meeting shall be conducted each year in June,” so that would seem to be the easiest change to implement. But more significant draft changes are in the works, including a signing date about four to six weeks after the draft and the creation of an MLB-sponsored combine.

The draft, a staple on the calendar for the first Tuesday of June since the event’s inception in 1965, could move to June 29-30 in 2006.

“Everything is very preliminary, but we’re looking at a more efficiency-based approach to scouting and player development,” an American League scouting director said. “We’re looking for better, more economical ways to push players through the system by streamlining the signing and development process.”

From Major League Baseball’s perspective, none of the changes for 2006 as they impact the draft would require approval from the Players Association. Additional and more far-reaching changes to the draft probably will, and likely wouldn’t occur until negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2007.

Sources said the union has not been approached yet with any formal proposal.

“The commissioner’s office is aware that they can make no changes in these rules without bargaining them with the union,” union general counsel Michael Weiner said. “We are certain that they’ll give us notice if they intend to propose any changes.”

A plan to institute a universal signing deadline for draft picks, possibly Aug. 1 or Aug. 15, is in the works, as is a change in the length of time that a team controls the rights to players who attend junior college or elect not to attend a four-year school (also known as the closed period). Customarily, that period extends to one week before the next year’s draft.

Fewer Short-Season Teams

In the minor leagues, the draft changes would feed into streamlining short-season ball. “There’s been momentum building in the commissioner’s office with the feeling that there are too many minor league teams,” another NL farm director said. “I think all of this is a function of controlling costs. To our knowledge, everyone would lose an affiliate.”

The Arizona and Gulf Coast leagues are relatively easy to eliminate because they are run by major league teams and games are glorified exhibitions. The Pioneer League could be elevated to the short-season level, providing 30 short-season affiliations, with the Appalachian League going to co-op affiliations.

Presidents of short-season leagues all said they had not heard any official word about changes, but they had heard rumors and expected to find out more after the minor league season ends.

“I’ve been told that the Appy League will be here,” Appalachian League president Lee Landers said. “I’ve heard it will be discussed at the farm directors’ meeting and the owners’ meeting.”

To provide development time for low-level prospects who might otherwise play in the complex leagues, extended spring and instructional league programs would become more formal and longer.

The short-season calendar would also change, with the season starting and ending earlier. Short-season leagues opened this year in the third week of June (about two weeks after the draft) and will close at the end of August or the first week in September.

The change would mean few draft picks would go straight to traditional minor league ball, and most would start their professional careers in instructional league. High school and foreign players would likely begin the next season in short-season ball, while college players could go to Class A.

Few people contacted by BA could say definitively what any of the changes would be, but everyone said changes were coming and would be significant.

“The ramifications of these changes could reach very far,” an agent said. “It should help indy leagues. It should really help college baseball. If I’m a high school guy, and I’m not going to get much out of my first year, and then my second year I’m still in short season, maybe I’m more inclined to go to college now.”