Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fix Baseball Now! (part 1)

Sitting in my mom's basement. Watching ESPN2's coverage of the Future's Game happening right now in Anaheim. The way it's formatted, you have a bunch of young, minor league pups from all over baseball, split into two teams based on their national heritage. If they're USofA born, they get to play on the home team; if they're 'spics, 'nips, or - worst of all - imposters, then they get to play on the away team. So basically it's Vandy vs. the 2015 MLB All-Stars.

It's currently 2-1 USA, top of the third. I haven't run the numbers, but I'm guessing that both teams have about an equal amount of future talent on them. Here's the problem: franchises don't have equal access to all of these players. I'm referring to the MLB Amateur Entry Draft, which only covers USA-born prospects. This hurts bad, small-market teams whose only hope is to rebuild through strong drafts.

Remember that time when the Penguins sucked? They did a good thing by sucking as hard as they did, because it netted them some very high draft picks, five years in a row. With those picks they drafted a decent blue liner, a franchise goalie and three of the best centres in the history of ice. Now imagine if the NHL's entry process was designed like baseball's (I can't believe I'm suggesting that the NHL is a better run institution than something else): the best players the Penguins could have drafted in those years would have been Jim Slater, Ryan Suter, Drew Stafford, Jack Johnson, and Phil Kessel. Not terrible, but not quite Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fleury, etc. If the NHL treated foreign born prospects the same way MLB does, those guys would have entered the league as free agents, and the highest bidders would have won their services, regardless of team need. This wouldn't have completely deprived the then, talent-starved Pens of quality prospects, but it would have seriously watered-down the rebuilding effort.

This is how it goes in Bud Selig's America.

In order for a team to reverse its fortunes, it has to be drafting in the top slots for many years in a row (see: Tampa Bay). After the top-3, there's a dramatic drop-off in talent. This means that consistent losers like the Royals, Orioles, Nationals and Pirates are actually vying with each other for the worst record, so as to avoid the unfortunate position of sucking a lot, but not enough to be compensated.

Of course, not all small-market teams are in the same boat. The Florida Marlins and San Diego Padres have a distinct advantage, being able to snooze through the draft and recruit top foreign talent based on their geographic location. West Coast teams have a similar edge when it comes to signing Japanese players.

Then there are your big-market clubs. They're able to beat the draft in two distinct ways. The most obvious method is by snaking high end foreign talent with fat signing bonuses. But, beyond that, they sneak their way into the draft by jettisoning major leaguers. Let's look at the case of Jason Bay.

First thing to consider is that while there's a huge drop-off in talent between the top-3 draft picks and the rest of the first round, there's still some quality to be found in the bottom of the 1st, top of the 2nd. Not A+ talent, but quality. Now about Jason Bay...

He was very good for the Pirates for a number of years, but he was clearly approaching his peak, with his next contract due to be signed on the eve of his decline. Huntington had three choices: 1) trade him for prospects; 2) let him play out the remaining 1.5 years of his contract and try to sign an aging outfielder with bad knees for way more than he was worth; 3) let him play out the remainder of his contract, then let him leave and get a compensatory draft pick at the bottom of the first round. Obviously, the best move was to trade him for prospects, which is what Neal did. The Red Sox got him, and as a team in contention, got 1.5 fantastic seasons out of Bay, then let him walk. And because they didn't sign him, MLB awarded them an additional first-round draft pick. So the Pirates got "a,b,c" in prospects, while the Red Sox got a year and a half of "A+" major league talent, and a compensatory "a" prospect. Does the small market team get cheated in this system? No. But. The "buyer" team's losses are subsidized handsomely by the league.

Let me give you an even crazier example of a team buying their way back into the draft. Those same Red Sox that let Bay walk in exchange for a draft pick, also let Billy Wagner go free this past offseason. Billy Wagner was obtained from the Mets for a pile of junk and money. Billy Wagner was completely injured in 2009. He pitched a total of 13.2 innings for the Sox. They paid him a portion of a $10 million contract, just so that they could let him go. And because they took his salary off the Mets' books, and then "weren't able" to retain his services, MLB awarded Boston yet another first round pick.

So, because of this crazy system, the hard luck Bucs weren't able to draft twice, before Boston had 3 picks; the Angels had 5 picks; the Cardinals had 3 picks; the Tigers had 3 picks; the Blue Jays had 4 picks; the Astros had 3 picks; the Rangers had 3 picks; the Rays had 3 picks; and the Rockies had 2 picks.

Imagine if this happened in the NFL. Imagine if the Lions, Browns, and Rams got their elite picks, and then had to sit back and watch all the playoff teams scoop up multiple players before they were allowed to draft again. Yes, there are compensatory picks in the NFL, but not to that ridiculous of a degree; certainly not in the first round. Bill Belichick has become a master of trading great players on the decline for high picks; I hate him for this, but generally love watching the draft unfold around a guy like him. It's cool when a lone, mad genius comes along with a stockpile of options. It's not interesting when this scenario is played out by a third of the league. It's not cool when teams are gifted picks, as opposed to having to trade for them.

Okay, so let's sum up the problems with the MLB amateur entry draft.
1. It's not international. This deprives bad, small-market teams of access to half of the talent pool; devalues the importance of international scouting; overvalues the price of mediocre, white kids who throw 88 mph fastballs with their left arms; and robs the draft of being potentially interesting for fans.
2. The draft is rife with a ridiculous number of compensatory picks.

Here's how we fix things:
1. Make the draft international. Why not? What's a single good reason for why it can't be?
2. Stop giving out free, high round, compensatory picks. That is, if a team signs a free agent who is 28-years-old or younger, they should have to give a pick to the player's former team. If the guy is an All-Star, that should be a first round or second round pick. If the guy is a bum, it should be a 50th round pick. If the guy is 35-years or older, then the pick should suck. That simple.

Fix baseball now!

**Oh god, Gorkys Hernandez playing in CF. Smashes into the wall making a catch. Sustains a hairline fracture in his shoulder, which we won't hear about for another two weeks.**

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