May 19, 2003
To the average fan, baseball's draft-and-follow rule--also known as DFE for draft, follow and evaluate--is one of the game's least known and understood rules. It has been treated with indifference, if not hostility, by a number of major league clubs.
Still, the rule's impact on baseball's first-year player draft is significant, as it affects more than a quarter of the nearly 1,500 or so players drafted each year.
The rule was conceived between the 1986 and 1987 drafts after the elimination of the January draft and secondary phase of the June draft, which were dominated by junior college players. Clubs decided to simplify the draft process because of confusion about the different eligibility rules and the cost of having first-round picks in four different drafts.
Draft-and-follow was one of the changes to evolve out of that. It allows clubs to maintain exclusive signing rights to a drafted player until a week before the following draft, if that player attends junior
college. Under other circumstances--high school players who go to four-year colleges or college players who return to school--clubs lose their rights as soon as the player attends his first class.
Former Astros scout Reggie Walker is generally credited with coining the DFE term, which is appropriate because the Astros were pioneers in making use of the process. The term makes perfect sense because draft-and-follow gives a team 51 weeks to chart a player's progress before making a commitment to signing him.
In the first draft under the new rules, the Astros used their 30th-round pick on the late Darryl Kile, an anonymous righthander/first baseman from Chaffey (Calif.) Junior College. They also took fliers on players such as Scott Erickson and future first-rounders Lance Dickson and Anthony Manahan.
Rather than sign with the Astros, Kile returned to school for his sophomore year and blossomed into a sure first-round pick. The Astros, though, kept him out of the 1988 draft and signed him to a $100,000 bonus, an unprecedented amount for a late-round pick. Ken Griffey, the No. 1 pick in the 1987 draft, had signed for $160,000.
"At the time I think very few clubs recognized how the whole DFE process would develop," says Dan O'Brien Jr., the Astros' scouting director from 1986-1996 and now an assistant general manager for the Rangers. "Darryl Kile kind of opened everyone's eyes to the potential the rule changes carried."
Since 1988, the draft-and-follow process has dominated on the second day of the draft when selections get past the 20th round. It has also been a hot topic of discussion at meetings of scouting directors each winter, when many teams and the commissioner's office seek to have the rules changed to limit it.
Draft-and-follow mania reached its peak in 1996, when the Yankees picked a draft-record 100 players, breaking the Astros' record of 99 players in 1994. Of course, neither team intended to sign most of those players. They just wanted to tie up their rights.
Changes adopted before the 1998 draft limited the draft to 50 rounds. That has quelled the rumblings for the time being.
"I think the DFE process has generated far more attention over the years that it's worthy of," O'Brien says. "Realistically a team can only hope to get one or two players a year as a goal. The nature of the process keeps many of the players from signing."
On average, about 50 players are signed each year as draft-and-follows, and few have become legitimate big leaguers. Fifty-four players signed in 2002.
Critics clam the draft-and-follow process also artificially raises bonus payments. A player can demand a larger bonus because he has the leverage of a deadline with one club and the option of going back into the draft and be selected by another.
Righthander/shortstop Frank Rodriguez, who went on to play seven seasons in a largely unfulfilled big league career, signed with the Red Sox in 1991 for $400,000--then the second-largest bonus ever. He was a second-round pick in 1990, and when his stock soared the following spring at Howard (Texas) Junior College he asked for the moon from the Red Sox. He almost certainly would have been a first-round pick had he re-entered the draft.
A similar situation developed six years later when Jorge Carrion, another two-way talent from New York who went to junior college in Texas, signed with the Rangers for $700,000. It's fair to say that neither player lived up to his promise.
In fact, though, being a draft-and-follow doesn't give a player much more bargaining power than any other draft pick would have. Overall, bonuses for the top draft-and-follows parallel the bonus average for the bottom of the first round, starting with Kile's $100,000 in 1988 through Yankees lefthander Sean Henn's draft-and-follow record of $1.7 million last spring. In other words, a player gets about what he would expect to receive if he went back into the draft. The advantage lies in eliminating the chance that his bonus would drop because he slipped in the draft.
Last year, four draft-and-follows signed for bonuses of more than $1 million. This year could top all previous records.
Lefthanders Adam Loewen (Chipola, Fla., JC) and Nick Markakis (Young Harris, Ga., JC) are two of the most heavily-scrutinized draft-and-follows ever. Both players are projected to go in the top half of the first round if they are signed beforehand. Loewen was Baltimore's first-round pick last year; Markakis went in the 23rd round to Cincinnati. Both are in position to command upwards of $2 million.
Area Scouts Shine
Ex-Cubs scouting director Jim Hendry, now the team's general manager, has used the draft-and-follow process better than anyone in the past few years, signing players such as injured righthander Kyle Farnsworth, one of the game's best set-up men.
"The draft-and-follow has become a true area scout's draft," Hendry says. "Scouting has become so crosscheck-oriented that a DFE is the area guy's only real chance to project players and use his skills at cultivating relationships with the players. I'm a big believer in the process for that reason alone, though I know many scouts aren't."
The focus of an area scout's work is finding a player who doesn't have the skills or physical tools to play professionally now, but who projects to develop those skills with maturity and playing time. Pitchers, who can go from throwing 85 mph to 93 mph in a matter of months, tend to dominate draft-and-follow lists.
Hendry points out that the scout's relationship with a player and his family is also important to discourage tampering, which frequently occurs in this process. Draft rules prohibit scouts from having any contact with a player who is under another organization's control, but the reality is that tampering occurs as a matter of routine.
Tampering can take many forms, from two scouts positioning themselves behind a player's parents and speaking in glowing terms about the player's draft status (to raise the price for the controlling club) to attending practices and talking with the player.
In the last couple of years, roughly half of the 30 teams dropped out of the draft before all 50 rounds were complete, a sure sign that not everyone buys into the value of the draft-and-follow process.
Expect more of the same in the future: lots of talk and lots of optimism about individual players, but just a small (yet steady) trickle of future big leaguers.
Baseball America first printed this story, written by David Rawnsley, in June 13, 1999, edition.