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June 3, 2002
Top Secrets
ESPN The Magazine

The giant Chinese guy, the point guard from Duke, the kid who scored 100 points in a high school game -- even casual basketball fans know who's up for grabs in this year's NBA draft. And when David Carr went first overall in the NFL draft in April, if you wanted to escape the barrage of stories about the Fresno State QB's $60 million contract and his big-time arm, well, you basically had to leave the country.

Which leads us to a pop quiz: Who are Joe Mauer and Dewon Brazelton?

Mauer, a catcher from Cretin-Derham Hall High in St.Paul, Minn., and Brazelton, a righthanded pitcher out of Middle Tennessee State, are, believe it or not, baseball's version of Carr and Joey Harrington: the first and third picks in last year's MLB first-year-player draft. But if you've ever heard of them, either you're an extreme seamhead or your name is Mrs. Brazelton, because MLB doesn't use its draft to build interest in up-and-coming players.

No day-long, fan-filled media extravaganzas for the national pastime, thank you; Bud Selig & Co. hold their draft in the dark -- in the middle of the regular season, in the middle of the week (June 4-5 this year), in the middle of the day. Via conference call.

"Baseball has a bit of a Dark Ages mentality about its draft," says Allan Simpson, the draft guru who edits Baseball America. At least these days, MLB posts draft results on its Web site -- until 1999, it wouldn't even release the names of players chosen after the first round.

Mark Prior
No one can save the Cubs.
At a time when minor league attendance is up and major league attendance is down, you'd think MLB would try new ways to market its next generation of rising stars. Instead, Selig and his fellow owners are focused on something else that's rising -- the piles of cash they find themselves forking over to draftees. In 1990, Chipper Jones, picked first overall, got a $275,000 bonus from the Braves; in 1993, the Mariners paid A-Rod $1M; last year, Mauer got $5.15M from the Twins. And the Twins picked him partly because they didn't want to pay Mark Prior , who went second to the Cubs and got $10.5M for his potential.

Hell-bent on rolling back bonuses and contracts, the lords of baseball have no desire to bolster the market for young players, especially guys repped by the likes of Scott Boras or Jeff Moorad. So MLB dodges its own draft. That's too bad, because the draft is a critical part of every team's life cycle. "The baseball draft is as important as football's, but there's no marketing," says Mickey White, former scouting director for the Pirates and Indians. The draft lets teams rebuild and compete, especially teams that have hit rock bottom.

With the very first pick in MLB draft history, the Kansas City A's, one of the most hapless organizations ever, took Rick Monday in 1965. In later rounds, they grabbed Sal Bando and Gene Tenace, then added Reggie Jackson in '66 and Vida Blue in '67, setting the stage for the Oakland three-peat of 1972-74.

The Indians went 57–105 in 1991, the year White drafted a Bronx kid who reminded him of Roberto Clemente named Manny Ramirez. Within four seasons, with other picks such as Jim Thome and Charles Nagy on board, Cleveland was dominating the AL Central. In 1997, the A's were buried in last place; GM Billy Beane rebuilt the team by drafting a series of studs, including college pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito (who made a combined $1.9M in 2001, less than Pat Rapp, who made $2M).

On deck: the Cubs, whose system has been retooled by player personnel chief Jim Hendry and scouting director John Stockstill. Kerry Wood aside, for years Cubs drafts produced little more than pre-wrapped Wrigley specials -- big, slow guys with just enough power to get a cup of coffee in The Show. (Remember Brooks Kieschnick?) But in 1998, the team drafted Corey Patterson, a fleet outfielder from Kennesaw, Ga. In 2000, they nabbed Bobby Hill, a prototypical top-of-the-order hitter who led Miami to the '99 College World Series. And last year came maybe the biggest prize of all: Prior, the 6'5", 220-pound righty whom many scouts have called the best college pitcher of all time.

Now, Patterson is hitting .306 as the Cubs' everyday centerfielder and leadoff hitter, and Hill has claimed second base from Delino DeShields. Prior recently struck out 10 in his MLB debut, and already he's more valuable to his team than the players chosen at the top of last year's NFL and NBA drafts (Michael Vick and Kwame Brown respectively) are to theirs. And another half-dozen prospects are climbing their way to the Wrigley vines too. Their big league squad may look sorry at the moment, but, says Simpson, "it will happen for the Cubs, next year and the year after. We think they have the best farm system in baseball, largely because of good drafting."

But good drafting has its limits, which hasn't affected the Cubs because Hendry and his troops have not only been able to spot talent, they've also had the cash to corral it. The Cubs gave Patterson a $3.7M bonus and Prior his guaranteed jackpot. And they spent $1.4M to lure Hill from the independent Atlantic League, where he played with the likes of Ozzie Canseco after originally being drafted in '99 by the White Sox, who couldn't come to terms with Hill and agent Scott Boras. "We'll take the best player available and hammer it out," says the affable, aggressive Hendry.

But not every team can afford that attitude. The Twins passed up Prior, for example, to draft Mauer, a local kid who cost them half as much -- and whose bonus they can spread over five years. (MLB rules allow that for draftees who play another sport. Mauer was a Reebok/ESPN High School All-America QB and an all-state basketball player.)

"Clubs that finish last because they can't pay big league payrolls get stuck with the same problem when they go to draft a player," says Phillies scouting director Mike Arbuckle. "It happens every year." He should know: He was at the helm when the Phillies drafted J.D. Drew in 1997, only to watch him hold out for an entire season -- Boras again! -- and then haul in an $8.5M deal from the Cards in 1998.

The MLB draft covers only amateurs in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico, as well as foreign players attending American schools. So a gap has opened between free-spending and tightwad franchises in the development of international players. The Yankees can, and did, blow $4.5M on Andy Morales, a Cuban defector who washed out of their system; the Royals cannot gamble that kind of coin on anyone. "Teams with big money can outbid the others," says Simpson. "Last year, the Dodgers didn't have a first-round pick, so they opened their pocketbook and signed foreign players instead."

Forcing some teams to shun the best player they could take and excluding players from outside North America are serious problems that mean the draft doesn't level baseball's playing field as well as it used to. Agents routinely manipulate draft slots, steering players to the richest clubs. And international players have clustered in a few big-market franchises. From 1990 to 2001, the Dodgers, Mets and Yankees signed 51 foreign players who made it to the major leagues; the Brewers, Reds and Twins signed a total of six. "The draft was created to bring parity to baseball," says Arbuckle, "but it doesn't create parity anymore."

That's the bad news. The potentially good news is that the MLB draft won't look the same after 2002. All of its features are on the table in the current labor talks. And if it's properly rejiggered, the draft could be much more than a way to get fans interested in young players. By once again promoting competitive balance, the draft could be a big help in solving baseball's economic problems.

So how should the draft be mended? Here's how:

  • Make draft picks tradable. Right now, a cash-strapped team has no choice but to skip over a player it believes it can't sign. Give that team the option of dealing its draft choice (as other sports do) and it will have a better shot at getting fair value -- maybe a major league player in return, more later-round picks or future draft choices. Players would still get their money, but they'd be drafted in order of their talent, instead of bobbing down and up because of their "signability." Letting teams exchange picks is especially important with contraction looming over MLB -- what early-round pick is going to sign with Montreal this summer? As Moorad says, "It's silly to have a system that is far less flexible than what other sports have."

  • Go global. MLB could make foreign amateurs eligible for the June draft, or it could adopt a proposal by Boras. The überagent suggests holding six-week Combines at four sites around the world, to let teams evaluate players' skills, check their health and birth certificates and determine their eligibility. Then there would be an Oct. 1 international draft. Sounds good to us, because it would help equalize the talent available to teams. It would also lead foreign players to hire agents, which would help stop the rampant exploitation of underage prospects across Latin America.

  • Flaunt it, baby. MLB's Rule V draft, an obscure mechanism for distributing leftover players, gets as much media play as the first-year draft, simply because it's held during baseball's winter meetings, when writers are all in one place. Lesson: Give the media something to cover, and they will. It's long past the time for MLB to move its draft to the All-Star break, televise the first two rounds and welcome the analysts, cult followings and heated debates that it will spawn.

  • Establish a universal signing deadline. Drafted players currently have until the first day of college classes to decide whether to sign. That's confusing, since every player has his own deadline, and it triggers holdouts. When the Tigers drafted Rice's Matt Anderson in '97, for example, he simply didn't go to classes, and he didn't sign with Detroit until December. MLB wants a universal deadline of July 15, but kids should have the summer to ponder their futures. Sept. 1 is fine.

  • If it ain't broke, don't fix it. As things stand now, when teams lose free agents, they receive extra draft picks from signing teams, between-round supplemental picks or a combination of both. From 1997 to 1999, for instance, the White Sox had 12 first-round or supplemental draft choices to help make up for such free agency losses as Albert Belle and Kevin Tapani. "We were looking for more picks to stockpile pitching, since we don't go heavily into the free agent market and it's hard to trade for them," says owner Jerry Reinsdorf. The Sox traded one of the players they selected (Aaron Myette) for Royce Clayton, shipped off two more (Josh Fogg and Kip Wells) as partial payment for Todd Ritchie and are using others, including Rocky Biddle and Matt Ginter, to replenish their staff.

    Selig wants to wipe out compensation picks, ostensibly because contending teams sometimes trade for impending free agents, decline to re-sign them and then keep the draft choices for themselves. But here's his real reason: Because compensation picks affect the value of major league free agents, the MLBPA gets a say in how the owners run the draft. Wipe out the picks, owners think, and the union will lose the legal right to interfere with other changes MLB is planning for the draft.

    That's too tricky by half: The players association won't surrender any power easily. More important, compensation picks tilt the draft in the right direction, helping teams that happen to be losing talent but are also smart. Because Beane made a series of intelligent decisions about whom the A's would keep and let go, Oakland has seven of the first 39 selections in this year's draft, thanks to compensation picks. That's an important tool for any GM with a boss not named Steinbrenner or Hicks.

    The owners have bobbled past attempts to alter the draft. "In '92, they put in a rule that said if you drafted a high school player, you would keep his rights for five years," White recalls. "They told us to go in and draft high school players. So we did. Three months later, after the union filed a grievance, an arbitrator said the rule was baloney." In 1995, the owners clumsily tried to impose caps on signing bonuses, starting with $370,000 for the first overall pick. Since first-round bonuses had averaged $790,000 the year before, it didn't take long for the players to veto the caps. And in 1997, MLB enacted a rule giving teams 15 days after the draft to offer contracts to players -- and were then shocked when four first-round picks were declared free agents because their teams failed to meet the deadline. "You know that quote from Sun Tzu about never underestimating your enemy?" White asks. "Year after year, the owners didn't realize how thoughtful and resourceful the players union was."

    This time around, though, things could be different, because MLB players are growing tired of seeing teams spend a growing share of revenues on 18- and 19-year-olds who don't have a day of big league experience. And if it helps the owners concede on other points, the union may well be ready to set limits on bonuses or overall draft budgets.

    So baseball now has the opportunity to attract new fans, repair its economic foundation and rein in the power of agents. All it has to do is promote its great young players without needlessly antagonizing the players union. Easier said than done, we know. But the draft is the place to start.