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Everybody Wins By Pushing Draft Back

Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB could improve the quality of the draft by pushing it back a month. (Photo by Tomasso de Rosa)

Major League Baseball, as recently as 1997, kept draft information secret. In fact, when MLB decided in 1998 to make the 50 rounds of the draft public for the first time (after Baseball America planned to make the list available for a fee), we celebrated with a headline announcing the decision:

Baseball America Liberates Draft Information.

That same year, 1998, was my first trip to Omaha for the College World Series. That was the last year of the “gorilla ball” era, when bats could be lighter and springier than they are now, and offense was out of control. Nothing illustrated that more than the 21-14 championship-game victory by Southern California over Arizona State that year. It also was the last year of the 48-team NCAA Tournament. The next year, the 64-team field began, introducing super regionals and giving teams around the country more hope that they could make a national splash in a major sport.

Since then, both the draft and college baseball have experienced significant growth. The sad part is that they have developed on separate paths. If MLB and the NCAA realized that the growth of one event helps the other, we could have both a better draft and a better College World Series.

A few quick fixes could make both events work better, and a Sports Business Journal report reveals MLB is moving to improve the draft’s visibility. The report indicated the potential to move the draft back to July during the all-star break. Also, the draft would move out of MLB Network studios in Secaucus, N.J., likely rotating to the site of the All-Star Game.

Hosting the draft while the NCAA Tournament is going on (even during super regionals this year) doesn’t make sense. It’s an anachronism. Baseball has kept its draft in the first (or second) week of June while the college season now lasts three or even four weeks longer than it used to. And it is simply unfair to college baseball to have many of its top players having their attention split between helping their teams get to Omaha while having to deal with the pressure of draft day.

Moving the draft to the Monday of the all-star break—one day after the Futures Game, two days before the All-Star Game—would (a) put the draft in the “offseason,” at least for amateur players; (b) give major league teams time to watch all players before meeting to line up their draft boards, and (c) allow MLB to initiate, at the least, a medical combine if not a scouting combine.

Take official measurements of players’ heights and weights. Run them over 60 yards and get times to first base for hitters. Pitchers could throw a bullpen, or not—after all, not every quarterback throws at the NFL combine.

Most importantly, every player takes a physical. They all have to pass one when they sign anyway, so why not just do it before the draft? Baseball should take note of what a marketing bonanza the NFL combine has become.

A combine also could be used for teams to conduct interviews with players and gauge signability. I’d even be open to the idea of MLB clubs evaluating high school players to the point of letting them know which ones really are ready to sign and which ones aren’t. The NBA has an advisory aspect to its dealings with college players, letting them know which ones are likely to be drafted and often counseling them to return to school for more seasoning. This makes sense for baseball as well.

Cutting the draft from 40 rounds, perhaps to 25, might help as well. This is especially handy if the combine comes to fruition; teams would have a much better handle on signability of players and should need fewer draft rounds. Teams could draft only the high school players who truly want to sign, then give college players the spots to fill out minor league rosters.

These changes would require some shift to how short-season and Rookie-level clubs are currently run, but those should not be obstacles to the growth of the draft, which has more upside than the early season of, say, the New York-Penn League.

If MLB and the NCAA worked together to promote baseball at both levels, instead of just worrying about their individual brands, they would both make more money.

They also would improve the quality of the draft and the College World Series, which are both wonderful events.

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