Proposed draft changes present many questions
by Jim Callis
CHICAGO‹When it comes to changing the draft, baseball doesn't move nearly as swiftly as Ichiro does down the first-base line. Or Bengie Molina, for that matter.
Owners approved several new draft rules in 1992, including allowing teams to control the rights to draftees until one year after their college class graduates and limiting the draft to 50 rounds. Those alterations were thrown out, however, after the Players Association successfully challenged MLB's right to alter the draft without negotiating with them, based on the argument that draft changes affect free-agent compensation.
Since then, baseball has tried to institute a universal Aug. 15 signing deadline for all picks (1993); talked about seeking a bonus cap on each team's draft and international signings (1995); and formed a joint committee with the union to discuss a worldwide draft and the trading of draft choices (2002). None of those measures has come to pass.
The owners and players did concur that clubs failing to sign a first-round pick would get a corresponding selection in the next year's draft (rather than a later selection after the first round) as part of the 2002 Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, but that too fell apart. The two sides couldn't agree on what they had agreed upon when it came time to put the CBA in writing.
In the last 15 years, the only significant change to the draft was the reduction from unlimited picks to 50 rounds in 1998. So don't hold your breath that the sweeping draft and minor league proposals discussed in August all will come to fruition.
Other Expenses Will Rise
Among the issues currently being discussed are: moving the draft from the beginning to the end of June; establishing an August signing date; establishing a draft combine to evaluate the top prospects; eliminating the Rookie-level Arizona and Gulf Coast leagues; make the Appalachian League a co-op league and elevating the Pioneer League to short-season status; running short-season leagues from mid-May to mid-August; and making instructional league longer and mandatory.
Support for the changes is less than unanimous, after a vote among general managers to pursue them passed by a 23-7 margin. An even bigger hurdle is that the proposals leave many details unresolved, raising more questions than they answer. Here are just a few:
¥ Will they really save money? Proponents say the modifications will help streamline player-development costs. But if the draft is pushed back three weeks, clubs will deploy scouts on the road for a longer time. That not only will increase draft-related expenses, but also the cost of scouting pro teams because most teams now use the same scouts to do both. The clubs also will bear most of the combine-related expenses.
¥ How much harder will it be to sign high school players? Some scouting directors believe part of the impetus behind the changes is to push clubs to draft more collegians because it will be more difficult and expensive to sign high schoolers. Instead of playing 2 1/2 months of pro ball immediately after signing, high schoolers now would make their debut the following May. Most will have their indoctrination in pro ball will come when they're assigned to instructional league‹where they likely would not get paid. One scouting director says college coaches he has talked to are incredulous that baseball will try to sell this scenario to high school players.
Latin Players Lose Out
¥ What happens to Latin American players? They now make their U.S. debuts in the complex leagues as teenagers against players their own age. With the AZL and GCL eliminated, they'd break into U.S. pro ball against significantly better competition. That would mean they'd either be overmatched, or they'd spend more time in the Dominican and Venezuelan summer leagues‹neither of which would help their development.
¥ How will the combine work? It's uncertain whether it would simply be for psychological and medical testing, or also include skills testing or game action. Scouting directors believe many of the top prospects will decline to attend, as is the case with the NFL combine. Who determines which prospects get invited is also up in the air, as multiple directors said that a Major League Scouting Bureau list wouldn't work because it wouldn't satisfy all teams. If clubs decide whom to invite, they'll be reluctant to identify their sleepers for fear of losing out on them. There's also concern in the scouting community that some teams might rely heavily on the combine and eliminate scouting jobs.
¥ Will the union sign off? Draft rules simply call for the draft to be in June, so it's possible the date could be moved without union approval from its traditional spot as long as it remains in June. But the union would have to approve other draft changes, and has shown little inclination to do so. A signing date would benefit all parties, but the union has shot it down in the past. To get union approval, MLB likely will have to give up a different bargaining chip. And when push comes to shove in negotiations, owners haven't found the draft worth fighting for.
"I hate to be cynical," one scouting director says, "but I've been through this before and I'll believe it when I see it."
You can contact Jim Callis by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.