Game Changers: The First-Year Player Draft
International pool, bonus slotting among potential changes
Almost a half-century since its inception in 1965, baseball's First-Year Player Draft has undergone minor alterations but essentially conducts its business much the same way it always has: Each June, Major League teams take turns selecting amateur players out of high schools and colleges in the U.S., Canada and such U.S. territories as Puerto Rico.
Some might say there are about 15 million reasons why the Draft has changed over the years -- as in the difference between 1965 top pick Rick Monday's $100,000 bonus and the record $15.1 million bonus package that 2009 No. 1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg received from the Nationals.
And, indeed, the presentation of the Draft has changed significantly. There was no MLB.com Draft Tracker on the Internet in 1965, or even 1995 for that matter, and there was no televised first round, as there has been the past few years. Certainly, scouting has changed, and has become more of an enterprise unto itself for all clubs.
But the process of selecting players in the Draft? Old school.
The Nationals selected a college player in Strasburg last year, just as the Kansas City A's did in taking Monday out of Arizona State in 1965. Those teams had the opportunity to make the top pick after finishing with the worst record in baseball the year before. And each went on to select dozens more players in the Draft, since one star player does not a Minor League system make, putting vast scouting staffs to work for months in advance of the big day.
Soon, however, the old-school Draft could be in for some new lessons.
A whole world -- literally -- of possibilities exists for significantly altering the pipeline of talent into Major League Baseball organizations. There's the grand concept of a worldwide draft that would include players from Latin America and other international hotbeds of talent, as opposed to those players all being free agents. There is also the possibility of slotting how much is paid in bonuses, based on Draft order, among other items being discussed.
The Draft is up for discussion by the Special Committee for On-Field Matters, formed by Commissioner Bud Selig. Any major changes to the Draft would be subject to the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Major League Baseball Players' Association, which is due to expire in December 2011, and the Commissioner clearly has some discussion points he wants to address.
"There's no question in my mind, in 2011, certainly a [hard] slotting system and a worldwide Draft are things we will be very aggressive in talking about," Selig said soon after last year's Draft process concluded.
Though the Draft hasn't changed, much around it has. Obviously, the dollar figures are different, but so is the game -- it's far more international, and there are more teams with a wider variety of budgets trying to work within the same system.
The face of the game has also changed significantly. On Opening Day 2010, 231 players -- 27.7 percent of the 833 players on 25-man rosters and disabled lists -- were from outside the U.S. Take out the 34 Canadians and Puerto Ricans, and about 25 percent of those Major Leaguers came from outside the Draft system.
Changing the Draft has been discussed with more frequency in recent years, in large part because of MLB's constant quest for competitive balance. With the global market changing the landscape, the idea of bringing together the two pipelines -- the amateur Draft and amateur free agency -- has gained steam.
As detailed in a December 2009 special report on MLB.com, three main areas are being discussed when it comes to the Draft.
International draft: With huge bonuses going to teenage free agents, in Latin America in particular, and the buscones system of scouts and advisers in other countries creating problems, many -- including Selig -- think a worldwide draft is something to consider.
Instead of certain clubs having strong international scouting mechanisms and outspending others, international players could be put into a scouting system and participate in showcases. That, in concept at least, could level the playing field when it comes to international scouting.
"Certainly, putting everybody into the same pool, that would be the helpful part," said Tom Allison, the D-backs' scouting director. "As you look at it, so many of the international players are unknown to many different clubs. That's where the concerns are, that there is a competitive advantage from other clubs being able to have the resources to scout them and then bring them in."
But whether that's realistic remains to be seen. Obstacles range from complications involving the players' home countries to age verification. International players need only be 16 to turn pro, and issues have arisen with birth certificates. And that would have to work with the current Draft eligibles, who need to have graduated high school, and thus are 17 or older.
In short, an international draft would be a huge undertaking.
Bonus slotting: The so-called "hard" slotting of the dollar amount each pick would get as a signing bonus would be similar to what other leagues, the National Basketball Association in particular, have used effectively to bring some cost certainty to new players who might be promising but are unproven professionally.
Conceivably, hard-slotting -- some bonus slotting is currently recommended by MLB but not mandated -- would make the Draft go more according to who's best, not who's the most signable. Part of the discussion is whether that could be done for such a huge Draft of 50 rounds, or if the Draft itself might need to be pared down.
"The easy answer is, 'Yeah, hard-slotting is great,'" Eric Kubota, the A's scouting director, said. "It makes the Draft go the way it's supposed to go. You have the opportunity to take the best player on your Draft board as long as they agree to sign for that [slotted amount]. You know what the cost's going to be. But I think there's a lot of factors involved. They have to be researched and discussed."
Trading picks: This idea has been circulating for a few years, and essentially comes down to two things: raising interest and providing teams with options during the Draft. Granted, the level of fan interest might not rise to what the National Football League has built, simply because the vast majority of baseball players drafted will spend years in the Minors instead of going right to big league stardom.
But trading picks could be a way for teams to move up in the Draft by swapping multiple picks, etc. There'd be a strategic element to it, but it's hard to tell how much effect it could have in a 50-round Draft.
Change has come to the Draft before. A January phase was eliminated, and compensation rounds were added as free agency changed the game's economic DNA. In addition, a signing deadline of Aug. 15 (Aug. 16 this year) was imposed three years ago to keep negotiations from dragging out an entire year, as some did before.
Whether significant change comes again is a matter to be discussed in the next year or so as the many and varied issues relating to the Collective Bargaining Agreement are tackled by MLB and the union.
In the meantime, clubs are making their own adjustments and carving their way into the amateur pipeline as it stands now. That includes such smaller-market clubs as the Reds, who last offseason stunned the baseball world with their signing of Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman to a six-year, $30.25 million deal, and the A's, who spent $4 million on 6-foot-7 Michael Ynoa out of the Dominican Republic at age 17.
But what if Strasburg and Chapman and even Ynoa, still 17 last June, had been available in the 2009 Draft? Even if Strasburg had been the prize plum, the tree would have looked a lot different -- and perhaps $15.1 million would not have been the top bonus.
For now the Nationals once again are looking at a big price tag on a hugely talented player selected as the No. 1 pick overall. Catcher/outfielder Bryce Harper, 17, is actually only one older than international age, as he skipped his last two years of high school and went to junior college to be eligible for the Draft -- perhaps his own adjustment to the current setup.
Bottom line: The Nationals drafted a talented player, and they know they will be on the hook for a big bonus, hoping a big future is attached.
And in a sense, that's pretty much how it worked when the A's picked Monday in 1965.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.