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Changes should spur creative ideas

by Will Lingo
August 31, 2005

The player-development changes being pushed through by Major League Baseball have stimulated hours of discussion and debate in the halls of Baseball America. We've had plenty of people reacting with the natural skepticism required of journalists, but we also love new baseball ideas.

And there hasn't been a radical change to the minor league or draft landscape in years. The only ones in my memory came when the American Association was eliminated and Triple-A baseball realigned into two leagues in 1999, and when the draft was capped at 50 rounds starting in 1998.

The Triple-A realignment came about to pave the way for a Triple-A World Series, which didn't pan out as expected in its first go-round. It could return next year as a one-game playoff (BA, Aug. 15-28). The draft limit has kept teams from picking players into the 90th round and beyond, but it has not had a profound effect on the draft overall.

We certainly haven't seen anything as dramatic as leagues and their constituent teams completely disappearing. And moving the draft to a later date would be the first time it has occupied a different place on the calendar since it debuted in 1965.

And beyond that, imagine the possibilities. A scouting combine? A revamped short-season schedule? Instructional league for every team? It will change the way we cover the game, and the way you follow it.

The inevitable questions we come to, though, are: Are these changes going to do what they're designed to do? Are there more ideas or different ideas that could do more? And in the end, are teams going to go for it?

Room For Changes

In the past, just for the sake of argument, I've advocated major league teams completely dropping their formal connection to the minor leagues, prompting at least one angry letter from a Minor League Baseball official. The current player-development system was born of a time when the minors could not support themselves, something that's certainly not the case now.

As a practical matter, of course, Major League Baseball can't do this, at least not completely. For one thing, the legal and public-relations complications would make it almost impossible. For another, major league teams are always going to want to have affiliates where they control the on-field staff and the players.

But what number should that be? That's where much of the debate over the proposed changes is taking place. Teams can understand in the abstract that having fewer players under contract is cheaper, but when it comes down to actually doing it they have a harder time cutting guys loose.

The thoughts of one scouting director on the scouting combine illustrate the difficulty of balancing the interests of the industry with trying to dominate that industry.

"The combine is a reward for teams for not working," he said. "I don't really care about the 29 other teams. I hope they're successful, but if I start voting on stuff to help other teams, I'm not very smart. This is a slap in the face to us guys who really get after it. Now teams can show up in June and say, bring the players to us."

Whether you think that is a legitimate point, it's a feeling that's out there and the reason changes like this are so hard to implement.

One In A Million Shot

It reminds me of a fantasy league I was in with BA executive editor Jim Callis a few years back. We were in the midst of a supplemental draft, taking the absolute dregs of the major leagues, and complaining to each other about it. But when we talked about dropping out of the draft early, our thoughts were the same: absolutely not. We'll keep taking players as long as they'll let us.

Because you never know.

Those three words, in essence, are what make player development so expensive. A good draft produces two or three productive big leaguers out of the 50 you draft. A good minor league team produces two or three productive big leaguers out of the 25 on the team.

So why have all those other guys? Sure, because the prospects have to have someone to play against. But also because you never know. Sure, Mike Piazza is a one in a million shot. But as long as players like that occasionally break through, teams will fall over one another to try to find them.

One of the interesting ideas that has come out in the halls of BA has been cutting farm systems off at the top rather than the bottom. If each organization is going to have one fewer affiliate, why not drop the expensive, older players in Triple-A rather than the cheap, young players in Rookie ball?

Because no one wants to get caught without spare parts in case the big league team has injury problems. Because your Triple-A affiliate will get upset if you don't give them a competitive team. Because you never know when one of those veterans might put it all together and become the next . . .

In short, this is a lot more complicated than it looks.