Time to End the Draft System?
This is mostly about the MLB draft, but applies to the NPB draft to some extent as well.
Consider the following events:
- In 2001, the Minnesota Twins draft the relatively unknown Joe Mauer over Mark Prior, 2001’s Stephen Strasburg, for a combination of baseball and signability reasons. This turned out to the be right choice.
- 2005, Luke Hochevar refuses to sign with the LA Dodgers after a series of blunders. The following year, Hochevar is drafted first overall by the Royals. This too is seen as a signability move.
- In 2006, the Chicago Cubs sign Jeff Samardzjia for first-round money despite having drafted him in the fifth round.
- In July 2008, the Oakland A’s signed Michel Ynoa to a $4m+ deal, which would have put him in the top ten largest bonuses had he been drafted. The A’s gave their first round draft pick, Jemile Weeks, a $1.9m bonus.
- In November 2008, Junichi Tazawa avoids his country’s draft and signs with the Boston Red Sox for $3m. The most he could have gotten from the NPB draft would have been a $1m bonus and $150k salary. In retaliation, NPB brass installs an exile rule. In theory American-born players could take the opposite route.
- in July 2009, the Twins shell out $800k to sign 16 year-old German prospect Max Kepler.
- Aside from those specific examples, there are obviously hundreds of international prospects who have signed with the MLB team of their choice, and a rather smaller number of international free agents who have signed with teams in Japan. Meanwhile, amateur players who are educated in the US or Japan are bound to the draft entry rules of their respective domestic leagues.
The MLB draft was established in the sixties with the intent of more evenly distributing the available amateur talent among the MLB teams. I think it basically works, though it’s been proven that teams, players, and agents can game it a bit when they want to. It’s also important to remember that the draft was established in a time when there was far less international talent in major league baseball than there is today. Nearly 30% of the players at the MLB level were born outside the US, and nearly half of minor leaguers were as well. This year we’ve seen a lot more hype around the international signing period as well. It doesn’t quite match the draft but it’s gaining ground, and the signings of Tazawa and Kepler indicate a diversification of the talent pool.
So we have a system that’s moderately regulated for domestic players, and completely unregulated for international players. Should national players not have the same rights to choose their employers as international players?
What I’d propose is a regulated amateur free agent system, in which the draft is discarded entirely. Every amateur player who meets the entry criteria (age, education, whatever) would be allowed to negotiate and sign with any team, regardless of national origin. The single regulation I’d put in place would be a spending cap and a spending floor, based on league revenues. This would be to keep the Yankees from outspending everyone, and the Marlins from going cheap. There could also be a maximum and minimum number of players signed, to keep teams from giving their entire budget to one player. Beyond that, teams would be free to compete with each other on the basis being well-run operations. Essentially, the system would give the players the freedom to choose where they work and the teams the freedom to allocate their budgets as they see fit, while taking money out of the equation to a certain extent.