Draft Rule Changes Were Two Decades In The Making

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As we have chronicled since it happened, the draft is going through significant changes this year in the wake of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement approved in December. We continue to do so with Jerry Crasnick's story on the renewed importance of signability.

But if you haven't been following the draft for 20 years, you may not realize just how significant these changes are. And it's not just how the rules have changed; it's that they have changed at all.

Baseball officials have sought changes to the draft almost since the first draft in 1965, which made baseball the last major sport to establish a draft. The model has always been tweaked. The early years of the draft were actually a head-spinning collection of several drafts: one in January, one in June, with each one having a primary and secondary phase—and who can forget the short-lived Legion phase? Baseball did this to give players multiple chances to get drafted and signed, fearing litigation from players who would argue the draft restricted their access to the game.

That litigation never came, and the draft became part of the baseball landscape. Phases and rounds have gradually fallen away, so since 1998 we have had the draft we are familiar with today: one draft in June, with no more than 50 rounds. (Hard to believe, but at one time teams were allowed to draft until they couldn't draft no more, with some teams routinely drafting 80 players or more.)

The draft also accomplished its most important goal of controlling bonus payments for many years, at least until the late 1980s. That's when players like Ben McDonald and Brien Taylor shattered the glass ceiling and bonus inflation spiked. That's also when owners first tried to modify the draft to rein in spending.

Try, Try Again

In March 1992, owners passed a series of new rules to try to limit players' leverage, including a rule that gave teams exclusive negotiating rights with a drafted player until a year after his college class graduated. Players could have dropped out of school more easily to turn pro, and the draft would have been restricted to 50 rounds.

Up to this time, changes to the draft had been made unilaterally, in part because the changes were minor, in part because the money involved was not significant, and in part because agents had not yet become major factors. This time, though, the Players Association filed a grievance, which was heard just a week before the draft. (We talk about not having seen a final copy of the new CBA; can you imagine not knowing for sure what the rules would be a week before the draft?)

An arbitrator ruled in favor of the union, saying that material changes to the draft had to be negotiated as part of the labor agreement. Even though drafted players aren't members of the union, the arbitrator said, the union has a stake in the draft because draft picks are awarded as part of the free agent process, which affects the value of major league players. This became a key principle over the next 20 years, as ownership realized it could make only minor changes to the draft without union approval.

It took awhile for the lesson to sink in, however. In 1993, for example, baseball unilaterally set a signing deadline for Aug. 15 and tried to cut the draft to 45 rounds, only to have the union object and win its grievance. Union general counsel Gene Orza said after the ruling, "They just didn't have their thinking caps on."

From that point forward, efforts to change the draft usually fizzled for different reasons. Ownership and labor would go into a negotiation with the intent of making draft changes, but the larger economic issues became so all-consuming that the draft never made it to the negotiating table.

After the 1994 draft, for example, owners had a plan to establish an overall cap on bonus payments for each team for the first five rounds of the draft—do all of these ideas sound familiar?—and for international signings. You may remember that the 1994-95 labor negotiations didn't go all that smoothly, however, and the draft was pushed aside. The same thing happened in several other labor negotiations as well, making baseball veterans skeptical whenever talk of significant changes to the draft came up.

From that apocalyptic point, however, baseball has now pushed through numerous labor negotiations peacefully, and has enjoyed a sustained period of economic growth. Baseball tried to make piecemeal changes, or unenforceable suggestions like draft slots, that ultimately proved ineffective.

So commissioner Bud Selig made the draft a focal point for ownership's negotiating position heading into the renewal of the labor deal after last season. Union officials didn't necessarily welcome the changes, but they saw how important it was to ownership and got enough concessions to make the changes palatable. And here we are, 20 years after these significant changes were first discussed, about to go through our first "new" draft.

Everyone has their own idea about how the new rules will play out, and what the unintended consequences might be, but ultimately no one knows. And for those of us who cover the draft, that's pretty exciting.