Commentary

It's time to fix dysfunctional draft

Slotting, signing pool, world-wide draft are some of the options MLB will address

Originally Published: August 19, 2010
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Now that another action-packed episode of Last Minute Draft Pick Signing Theater is behind us, we can sum up our sentiments on the not-so-great American baseball draft in three words:

What a mess.

But that's not the only description of the baseball draft we've heard this week. Here are some others we'd also like to share:

"A disgusting process," said one long-time executive. … "An outdated system," said another exec. … "Horrible," said one AL scouting director.

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
AP Photo/Jae C. HongMeaningful negotiations over Bryce Harper's contract didn't even begin until 13 hours before the signing deadline.
And then you had the euphoric words of Nationals president Stan Kasten mere minutes after wrapping up one of the most important negotiating sagas of his career, to reel in No. 1 pick Bryce Harper:

"It is just silly," Kasten said, "to think the industry operates this way. There's no reason for it."

Oh, maybe there's some logic somewhere behind a system that forces the best amateur players in America to blow off an entire summer of playing baseball -- and then have about 498 of them sign in the last 33 seconds before the signing deadline. But clearly, it's time to challenge that logic.

And the good news is, that's about to happen.

When the next baseball labor talks begin in a few months, the draft just might be the No. 1 issue on the table. And that could mean some potentially revolutionary changes for this 45-year-old monstrosity. So what might that entail? Let's take a look:

Play the slots

Theoretically, baseball already has a system that "recommends" what every No. 1 pick should get paid. In practice, though, only your average telemarketer is more widely ignored than what passes for the current slotting system.

This year, for instance, exactly one of the top 12 picks (the Royals' Christian Colon) signed for the bonus recommended for his slot. The 29 first-round picks who signed totaled nearly $15 million more than their slots should have commanded. And even Pirates president Frank Coonelly, the one-time architect and enforcer of this system in his days working for MLB, has outspent his team's recommended slot allotment for the first 10 rounds by more than $9.8 million in the last three drafts.

So "this," grumbled one NL executive, "isn't accomplishing anything. It's like traffic lights in the Dominican. I don't know what they're even there for."

Well, get ready for the main event on the 2011 labor-talks fight card. Owners have made it clear they're ready to muck it up for a rigid, formal, unbreakable slotting system, along the lines of the NFL and NBA models. So if a kid gets picked No. 1, No. 9 or No. 28, he'll know exactly what he'll be stuck signing for. And if he doesn't like it, hey, have fun in the Northern League.

But not so fast, friends. There are big issues standing in the way of making that system happen. As always.

For one thing, baseball is a whole different deal than football or basketball. Those sports draft virtually all college players who have nowhere to go but the pros. Baseball, on the other hand, is also drafting hundreds of high school and junior-college kids. And let's just say they have other options.

"So the problem with a hard slotting system," said an official of one club, "is it's just going to drive most of these high school kids to college. If you're a fifth- or sixth-round pick, and all we're allowed to give you is 150 grand, it's not worth it. You're going to go get your education, play in college, come back in a few years and hope you're a higher pick."

If high school draftees take that stance en masse, and just a minuscule percentage of those picks are signing, that's a huge issue. It's also an issue for which baseball still doesn't have a solution.

So one idea being kicked around is a hard slot for just the first two rounds, then a designated pot that each team can spend however it wishes on total signings beyond the first two rounds.

That would allow clubs to exceed the slot for certain late-round picks -- but would reduce the dollars left to sign their other picks. That idea, however, has a convoluted potential side effect: It might actually give players incentive to manipulate the system so they can get picked later, not sooner. And how screwed up is that concept?

"Then you just have what you have now," said one signing director. "The agents would just manipulate that, no question. So we need a hard slot. I don't see any way around it. And if high school kids don't sign … then that's the residual effect, and we'd just have to live with it."

But even if baseball can figure out that mess, it still has to persuade the union to sign off on any kind of slotting system. And as union chief Michael Weiner reiterated last month when this topic came up at the All-Star Game, "this union has always been against caps of any sort."

In fact, the union took that very position when slotting was raised as an issue during the last labor talks. The owners decided then that the time wasn't right to fight that fight. But this time, we've been assured, will be different. And this time, many people in management are convinced they can make slotting happen.

"This," said the official quoted earlier, "is something I think the union would be willing to give on -- because major league players want a slotting system. It all comes down to the players. And if the players are saying to the union, 'These kids are taking money out of our pockets,' I think the union will go for this."

But here's our response, after way too many years of covering baseball labor craziness: Don't be so sure of that.

Oh, we can foresee the players and their union agreeing to some kind of system that keeps unlimited dollars from winding up in the checking accounts of high school kids. We just have a tough time foreseeing it would be this system.

For the union to accept formal slotting, it would be such a radical abandonment of its lifelong philosophical stand against any kind of cap that we'll believe it when we see it. But the other side is seriously dug in on the sentiment that it has to have it.

"I've looked at it a lot," said one scouting director. "And the only way we can make substantial changes is with some kind of hard slot, same as the other sports. … There's no other way."

In other words, this could be one nasty little tug-of-war.

Everyone into the (signing) pool

So what happens if hard slotting doesn't fly? Well, one alternative is a concept we discussed earlier. And that would be a different kind of cap -- one that wouldn't deal with specific signings. It would instead impose a limit on total spending on amateur players, whether we're talking Stephen Strasburg or a 17-year-old kid from Caracas.

Here's how that would work:

So you want to give Aroldis Chapman $30 million, huh? Cool. Go right ahead. But understand the consequence of doing that.

It might mean you'll be giving more money just to him than you'll then be allowed to give all your other amateur players combined.

That's the concept behind a cap on total signing dollars. You'd be allotted a signing pool for all amateur players combined. Then it's up to you how to divvy it up.

So how much would each team be allowed to spend? Still being debated. It isn't even clear whether all clubs would spend the same amount, or whether each team's figure would be based on its draft position and/or its rank on the revenue-sharing totem pole. We just know there are clubs on a rampage to make this happen.

"You can't have a system where the Yankees and Red Sox, and some of these other teams, are spending all the money they're spending now [on amateur players]," said one longtime executive. "Between the draft and Latin America, you've got to have some kind of cap on total spending."

Now here's the actual uplifting news: If management is looking for a concept it can sell to players, this might just be it -- as long as it isn't called a "cap."

Do big league players want more of the money in the game going to them? Well, duhhh. So even if they can't be sold on a slotting system, the other side could definitely get their attention by zeroing in on the total number of dollars being showered on non-big leaguers.

Now clearly, the union wouldn't be any more likely to shower love on a total-spending cap than it would on any other kind of cap. But remember, there is a similar concept the players have already agreed to: a luxury tax.

So if the idea was to set a threshold for amateur spending and then tax any team that went over it, why would that plan not fly? Correct answer: We bet it would. Thanks for asking.

It's a date

The draft was 73 days ago. So how absurd is it that 14 first-round picks didn't sign a contract until this week? Not because they didn't want to play, naturally. Just because they were stuck waiting around for an Aug. 16 signing deadline that obviously makes no sense.

So essentially, we've just wasted an entire season in the lives of those 14 players. And why? For what?

Even one prominent agent says: "Aug. 16 is a ridiculous date. Players play. Competitors compete. And that's what these kids should be doing all summer. Does anybody really think you negotiate until Aug. 16? No, you wait until Aug. 14, and it's ridiculous. We've got to move the signing date up a month."

In fact, you can expect a massive push to move up that deadline by at least a month, maybe more. Best proposal we've heard: Push the draft itself back until the end of June, after the College World Series. Then set the signing date two weeks later.

"I'd like to see it even sooner, to be honest," said one scouting director. "But July 15 is a good place to start. At least it's a hell of a lot better than what we're doing now."

We are the world

Finally, this just in: There is continuing evidence that our planet is larger than just North America. And in case you missed this, there is baseball being played on much of that planet -- not just in Coral Gables, Reno and Woodland Hills.

So we've been hearing for years now that it's about time baseball started drafting players from the rest of the planet, not merely our little chunk of it. And you'll be hearing about that "world draft" again by the time the labor talks get rolling, we're guessing.

Sounds like a logical idea, all right. Makes total sense.

Just not happening. Not anytime soon, anyway.

"Wishful thinking," said one club's international scouting director. "Maybe it'll come about one day. But I don't think we're there yet."

Baseball has come a long way in chipping away at some of the big obstacles. We'll say that. At least now, in places like the Dominican Republic, when clubs set out to sign a player, they're reasonably sure he is who he says he is, he's the age he says he is and he's as eligible to sign as he says he is.

But then you get into other issues -- by which we mean politics.

"Every country has different politics and different rules," said the scouting director quoted above. "And because of that, I think it's impossible to pull off."

The first problem is, we know there would be zero participation from Japan, Korea and the Asian rim. So we're basically talking about only Latin America. But there's already a rebellion against this idea percolating in the Dominican, where a world draft would drive down signing bonuses precipitously.

"So why would they agree to that?" asked the same international scouting director. "Face it. The gross national product in the Dominican -- like 30 percent of it has got to be from baseball."

Then move along to a country like Venezuela, where president Hugo Chavez isn't a big fan of ours anyway. So why would he go along with this?

"All it would take to kill this is a guy like Chavez saying, 'That's bull,' and we're done," said one former scouting director.

And, of course, no one knows quite what to do about Cuba. But our good friend Fidel Castro sure isn't signing up for any world drafts. So as one country after another drops off the world-draft map and you consider the challenges, how can this thing possibly fly?

"I'm not skeptical of what they're trying to do," said the international scouting director. "I'm just skeptical of how hard it is to do. I just don't see how we can implement our rules in another country. And that's the big problem."

Oh, it's a problem, all right. And it's one of many problems this sport is about to slam into as it begins its holy mission to revolutionize the not-so-great American baseball draft.

There's a better solution out there somewhere. Unfortunately, it won't be anywhere near as easy to find it as many people in this sport seem to think.


Ready to rumble

• Chip shots: The Derrek Lee trade answered the question of how the Braves would replace Chipper Jones' offense THIS year. But here's the Chipper issue they face that's going to be much trickier than that:

Chipper Jones
Jones

How do they plan for next year when Chipper's future is so uncertain?

If he wants to try to come back after ACL surgery, they "really have no choice," said an official of one club. "He's got a contract, right?"

Yep. Sure does. For two more years, at $13 million a year -- plus a vesting option for 2013.

So if the Face of the Franchise wants to play, the Braves have to give him every chance to do that. This isn't Tom Glavine trying to make it back on a minor league deal. This is a guy they have to pay, no matter what.

But we're also talking about a fellow who faces a tough, six- to nine-month rehab on an injury he's had before. And that means he'll be chained to the rehab grind through this entire offseason -- and possibly for much, if not all, of spring training.

So the Braves can't go out this winter and reel in a new starting third baseman -- because if Chipper decides he can play, then he has to play. But there's a good chance they won't know definitively if he can play until well into spring training. Which means they have to cover themselves somehow.

But how exactly? Martin Prado can play third base. But Chipper isn't simply the third baseman. He's also the No. 3 hitter. And if he isn't healthy, it's not as if they can find another middle-of-the-order bat in February.

There's no good answer. But the only realistic option, said an executive of one NL team, is a multiposition or super-utility player.

Maybe that's someone like Ty Wigginton, a prospective free agent who can play third if Chipper isn't ready or first if he is -- at least until the Braves' top hitting prospect, Freddie Freeman, hits town. Or maybe, if they can make the money work, it's a trade for Chone Figgins, whom the Braves talked to Seattle about before the trading deadline.

No matter how this shakes out, though, "this one," said the same official, "is a really tough call."

• Let's not make a deal: If you could pick two big-bucks players their teams would love to move this winter, Carlos Zambrano and Carlos Beltran would be bobbing near the top of anyone's list. We surveyed two longtime baseball executives to determine just how movable they thought these two guys would be. The answer: Ehhh, not so much.

Carlos Zambrano
Zambrano

ZAMBRANO
EXEC NO. 1 -- "The only way is if they eat most of it, because he's just not the same guy they gave the big money to. I still think he's a starter, but he's just a back-of-the-rotation guy. He's no $18 million starter. He doesn't have any pitch now that's an above-average pitch. So I'd take maybe $3-4 million, but that's all."

EXEC NO. 2 -- "Nobody is going to take that. I don't care if they ate all but $1 million. Then you're still paying a million bucks for a middle man, because that's all this guy is now. What's most amazing to me is how he can start the game throwing 87-88 [mph]. And then, all of a sudden, he'll throw three pitches at 94, and then go right back to throwing 87-88. So either he's reaching back for 94 or he's not reaching forward enough the rest of the game."

BELTRAN
EXEC NO. 1 -- "I'd be damned if I'd ever give that guy a long-term deal. But I'd take him for one year, for that final run for a [new] contract. They may have to move him to an American League team -- let him play some and DH some. But a guy like that, in his final year, I think they can move. They pay $8 million and I go $10 million? I think they could move him if it was something like that."

EXEC NO. 2 -- "Trading Carlos Beltran is impossible. Impossible. Maybe if they eat $16½ million, but you'd have to really eat it down to have any shot, just because this guy hasn't played. And the other thing is, every time he comes back and does play, the team seems to go right down the tubes."

• Hello Houston: With teams like the Cardinals, Yankees and Braves still poking around for infield help, specifically guys who can play third base, clubs that have been monitoring the waiver wire say: Watch the Astros.

As our buddy Buster Olney reported this week, the Astros were able to get Geoff Blum through waivers. And here at Rumblings, we've now heard that their starting third baseman, Pedro Feliz, also cleared. One Astro who got blocked, however, was second baseman Jeff Keppinger.

• Angel eyes: AL teams looking for an extra bat also have their eyeballs on the Angels, who could theoretically decide to market Hideki Matsui in a week if they think they're out of the AL West race. But one source says that as of midweek, the Angels "haven't put anybody on [waivers] at all. They've been one of the least active teams out there with waivers. In fact, they might be the least active."

Washington Nationals • The Bryce is right: Here's the perfect way to sum up the madness brought to us by the absurd Aug. 16 draft-pick signing deadline: Sources indicate the Nationals and Scott Boras didn't have their "first meaningful conversation" on Bryce Harper until late Monday morning -- i.e., less than 13 hours away from the midnight deadline. It was another nine hours before they even put numbers on the table. And they didn't get down to serious business on piecing together a deal until less than 90 minutes from the deadline.

So no wonder the contract didn't get done until 26 seconds before midnight. And it's very possible it got done only then because Nationals GM Mike Rizzo is such an expert in the art of Scott Boras midnight draft deals. But what a waste of time the 10 weeks that led to all that insanity was for a guy who should have been out learning what being a professional baseball player is all about.

• And he was just 17: So what part of that Bryce Harper contract stunned other baseball people most? If you guessed it was the $9.9 million he got, sorry. Guess again -- because it wasn't the dollars.

Instead, it was these three words: "Major league deal." Yes, the Nationals really did give a five-year major league contract to a player who was 17 years old and should have been coming off his junior year in high school.

How unprecedented was that? Thanks to info provided by Baseball America draft guru Jim Callis, we determined that Harper was the youngest drafted player ever -- and only the second 17-year-old -- to come away with a big league contract that landed him on a 40-man roster and started his options clock ticking.

The first 17-year-old to get one of those big league deals? It was Delmon Young, from Tampa Bay in 2003. But by the time Young signed, he was only six days away from turning 18 -- making him about two months older than Harper was on signing day this year. (Next-youngest name on the big league draft-deal list: Alex Rodriguez, who was still 17 when he was drafted in 1993 but didn't sign until a month after his 18th birthday.)

But even though this wasn't a first, one NL executive muttered afterward: "I can't believe Bryce Harper got a major league deal. That's unbelievable."

One baseball man we talked to speculated that if the Nationals had been willing to give Harper a minor league contract -- which would have meant paying him all the money up front -- they might have been able to sign him as, uh, "cheaply" as $8 million.

But because the Nationals wanted to stretch out the payments, the rules required them to do that via a big league deal. And because of Harper's age, they felt they needed a five-year contract instead of something shorter.

The Nationals clearly have no worries that Harper won't be big league ready by Year 5 of this deal. But the feeling elsewhere is: You never know.

"So many things can happen," said the same NL exec. "He can miss time because of injury. He can run out of options. So I know one thing: I'd never do it -- give a major league deal to a high school-age kid."

"Great as he is," an AL club official chimed in, "I've seen so many can't-miss guys who missed, I'd never assume anything about anybody."

Chicago Cubs • No ordinary Joe: While Ryne Sandberg remains the unofficial favorite for the Cubs' managerial job, there are growing indications that the Cubs would prefer to hire a manager with a more extensive track record. And one name that won't go away is Joe Girardi. But one friend of Girardi was almost incredulous at the suggestion that Girardi would bail on the Yankees for a shot at making Cubs history.

"Why would he do that?" the friend asked. "He loves managing the Yankees. He's got a chance to win every year. He's got a great relationship with everybody in the organization. He doesn't even really live in Chicago anymore. I guess if they were to come in and offer him a ridiculous amount of money, he might do it. But that, to me, is about the only way."

• That other Joe: So if one Joe won't take that Cubs job, how 'bout that Joe Torre guy? Torre remains tight-lipped about his future. But it's tough to find anyone who thinks he'll be back in the Dodgers' dugout next season.

One friend of Torre predicts he'll retire and go on living in Southern California because his family loves the L.A. lifestyle. But two other baseball men we surveyed weren't so sure of that. They both expect him to manage again -- but not the Cubs. And they think it will be in New York -- but not the Yankees.

"Personally," said one baseball man who has known Torre for decades, "I think he'll be the Mets' manager. New York is the place if he's going to work anywhere after this year. And he'd be perfect for the Mets because he'd be their way to sweep everything under the rug."

Starlin Castro
Castro

• A Starlin is born: Because Starlin Castro didn't arrive in the big leagues until May 7, we're all missing one of the biggest stories of the year:

He has a chance to become the third rookie in modern history to win a batting title (joining only Ichiro Suzuki and Tony Oliva in the 54 seasons since baseball defined what constitutes a "rookie").

And that's not all. Castro, 20, could also become the youngest batting champ since 1900. (According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he'd be three months younger at season's end than record-holder Al Kaline and 99 days younger than the only other 20-year-old champ, Ty Cobb.)

So how could something like that escape our attention? Simple. Castro still isn't listed among the league leaders because he needs 11 more plate appearances to qualify for the leaderboard. But if he qualified, he'd be fifth in the NL at .316, only eight points behind league leader Joey Votto. Pretty darned amazing for a guy who didn't even make his debut on Earth until 1990.

"This kid," said one scout, "is probably the top shortstop to come in since Hanley Ramirez. He still makes a lot of young mistakes. He'll throw some balls away and try to make plays he can make. But it just takes time. He's really a good-looking kid."

• Net Werth: We keep being asked about a rumor that if the Yankees had been able to trade for Cliff Lee last month, they would have turned around and traded Javier Vazquez to the Phillies for Jayson Werth. So we checked that one out and here's what we found:

Truth: The Yankees would have traded Vazquez if they'd added Lee. Another truth: The Phillies were definitely interested. Yet another truth: The Yankees had interest in Werth.

But here's where this one falls apart: When the Yankees asked for Werth, the Phillies turned that one down flat and countered with a prospect package similar to early offers they made for Roy Oswalt. But when the Lee trade discombobulated, the whole conversation became moot anyway.

• Another world: While we were doing our draft research this week and listening to all the reasons a "world draft" of amateurs wasn't practical, we heard a fascinating proposal for a whole different kind of world draft:

How about a draft of the Ichiros of the baseball universe?

The idea was this: If baseball wants to hold down costs and appease players by redirecting more money into the hands of big league players, why is it allowing those annual auctions of high-profile veteran players from Japan and elsewhere in the Asian rim?

Instead, this proposal would take all those players, drop them into a draft all their own and give clubs other than the deep-pocketed usual suspects a shot at them. And here's another great wrinkle to this brainstorm: Clubs would also have the right to trade those picks if they didn't want to spend the yen.

"So you could see the Pirates draft Ichiro and then trade him to Seattle," said one baseball man who loves this idea. "How much fun would that be?"

Oh, it would be fun, all right. So clearly, this could never happen.

Quotes of the week

• From Reds manager Dusty Baker, after watching injured shortstop Orlando Cabrera spend the day as a bat boy Sunday:

"The only thing was that a couple of kids were saying 'sir' to him. He said, 'Do I look old?' Most bat boys don't have a beard."


• From Red Sox manager Terry Francona, after Tim Wakefield marched out of the bullpen Friday in Texas and allowed an 11th-inning walk-off homer to Nelson Cruz on the first pitch he threw:

"Wake was going to pitch until we won or lost. The good news is, he won't be tired."


• From Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, on hearing himself get booed after he pulled Kevin Slowey in mid-no-hitter Sunday for pitch-count reasons:

"I'd be booing, too."

Tweet of the week

We've been stashing away this gem from a man we should just rent space to in this column, Late Show tweeting genius Eric Stangel (@EricStangel):

"'Mad Men' Spoiler: Tonight the gang from Sterling Cooper watches rookie pitcher named Jamie Moyer throw his 1st game"

Headliner of the week

Finally, this just in from the hilarious lunatics at the legendary parody site, The Onion (theonion.com):

   FLORIDA MARLINS DELAY GAME
   UNTIL THEIR FAN SHOWS UP

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com