Don't televise draft

Think MLB needs more exposure for its draft? Not when you consider how little impact top picks really have.

Originally Published: June 2, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Yes, it's that time of year again, when well-meaning baseball writers excoriate Major League Baseball for failing to turn the June draft into a media circus. Yes, it would be a lot of fun to see who your favorite team considers a big part of their future. And of course the NFL and the NBA both garner a great deal of valuable publicity with their televised drafts.

There are, on the other hand, two very good reasons why MLB should not promote the draft NFL/NBA-style.

Reason No. 1: It would cost the owners a lot of money. Whatever sums MLB might gain from selling the broadcast rights to their draft would be far, far exceeded by the extra money that would be spent on draft picks. Television coverage would become another hammer in the agents' arsenal, as they try to wheedle every last possible dollar from management. I'm not saying this is a problem for the fans. I'm just saying it's probably one reason the owners aren't all that interested in promoting the draft.

Reason No. 2 (and this is a much better reason, from our perspective): Aside from you and me and Jayson Stark and a few other nut-jobs, nobody really cares about baseball's draft, nor should they. Why not? Because compared to those other drafts, MLB's has very little immediate impact on what happens on the field, and relatively little long-term impact as well.

Here's how many players in the first round of each league's draft have actually played for their team in the first year after the most recent drafts. I'll use the raw figures here, because all three leagues consist of roughly 30 teams (29 in the NBA, 30 in MLB, 32 in the NFL):

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    NFL  30
    NBA  27
    MLB   4
    

In the NFL, only two first-round draft picks didn't play in 2003 at all. One of them was Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who watched John Kitna take every snap last year but has already been handed the starting job in 2004. The other was running back Willis McGahee, who sat out 2003 with a knee injury.

Among the NFL's 30 first-rounders who actually played, nine started all 16 games, and 23 played in at least 10 games. It's true that not many NFL rookies are impact players from the get-go, but it's also true that many of them are at least decent the moment they arrive in the league.

Similar situation in the NBA, where only two first-rounders didn't play at all this season. Seven first-rounders played 55 or more games, with teenagers LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony both making big splashes (so big that even I noticed, and I haven't paid attention to the NBA since the Kings deserted Kansas City).

And then there's baseball, where after a year only four first-round picks from 2003 have even reached the majors, and none have done anything noteworthy. That will change, of course, but in baseball you just don't get the immediate payoff that we often see in the other sports.

What about the long-term payoff? It's long term and it's far from a sure thing. Yes, I know it takes a while for young baseball players to figure things out. So let's go back all the way to 1995, and note the number of first-rounders from each draft since then who have played at least one game in the majors.

    1995  17/28
    1996  18/30
    1997  18/30
    1998  20/30
    1999  12/30
    2000   8/30
    2001   7/30
    2002   2/30
    2003   4/30
    

I probably missed a few guys who debuted in the majors this spring, but you get the idea. And even these numbers, unimpressive as they are (compared to those for first-rounders in the NFL and NBA), overstate the case by a fair piece, because many of these players first reached the majors with a different team than the one that drafted them, and/or they spent very little time in the majors anyway. A perfect example is Mark Johnson, a pitcher drafted by the Astros in 1996. Johnson did reach the majors in 2000, but 1) it was with the Tigers, and 2) Johnson's major league career consists of 24 innings, in which he posted a 7.50 ERA.

Look at those last four drafts. Of the 120 players taken in the first four rounds, approximately 17 percent of them have actually played in the major leagues. Seventeen percent. Should we really expect the sporting public to get excited about a draft that's going to give us a 17-percent success rate, and take four years to get there?

Sorry, but I just don't see it. And for those of us who really do care about the draft, that's why they invented the Internet.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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