On one way to challenge the legitimacy of the MLB Draft

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On Wednesday, Baseball Prospectus published my latest feature, “The MLB Draft is an Unnecessary Relic of the Past.” The events surrounding Mets’ first-round pick Kumar Rocker made it topical, sure, but did not force the arguments made within to exist: those arguments are longstanding, recent (and recent-ish) goings on more like further ammunition for said arguments than anything. As was written in this space a couple of years ago now, drafts are indefensible, unless you’re a team owner.

A subscription is required to read the whole Prospectus feature, so just in case you need the background on where I’m about to go with this, it’s about how if the draft once had a legitimizing purpose that helped the game, and not just line owner’s pockets, it no longer does: thanks to revenue-sharing, lucrative television contracts even for teams you wouldn’t want if you didn’t have to, and a streamlined and shrunken minor-league system, there is no real reason why, say, the Pirates can’t go toe-to-toe with a financial juggernaut like the Yankees when it comes to acquiring amateur talent on an open market.

Now, just because that’s true doesn’t mean it’s bound to change anything. Lots of things are true about MLB’s terrible behaviors and habits, but many of those will continue to persist regardless, as inertia combined with tradition is a powerful force, especially when keeping the status quo — or in the case of the draft, reinforcing it further — is so profitable. I made a point in the BP piece of saying that I didn’t think the draft would be abolished even if there is no justification for it.

There is one way that the draft could see major revisions, at least. It would take some outside forces to work, however: namely, the amateurs themselves. One Kumar Rocker not signing or one Carter Stewart eschewing MLB in favor of Japan and Nippon Professional Baseball is just an individual action, but a significant portion of a given draft class’ top talent deciding to head elsewhere, or, at least, not to MLB? That would be a movement worth panicking over, if you’re in MLB’s position.

We know a single individual actor can’t get MLB to change its mind: we’ve got plenty of evidence of that over the years. Super agent — erm, sorry, super amateur advisor — Scott Boras has been looking for loopholes for decades to increase his not-a-client-yet’s leverage in negotiations with MLB clubs, and while he’s had some successes that either drew the league or individual team’s ire, there has been no larger collective project in play. Yes, Todd Van Poppel threatening to go to a college he committed to ended up earning him a much larger signing bonus 30 years ago, and caused MLB to try to unilaterally change how many years a club would control a players’ rights after drafting them from one year to five, and yes, J.D. Drew ended up getting the entire city of Philadelphia to despise him for life because he spurned their inadequate signing bonus and ended up going to the Cardinals a year later, but nothing structural changed because of these efforts.

Now, if, I don’t know, half of the expected first-round draft class all decided to skip signing with the teams that picked them in 2022, citing restrictions on signing bonuses, that they have no freedom to choose where it is they’re going to play even though, in any other career, they’d get to select where they were interviewing and applying and make decisions from there, including about whether it was worth relocating for, then MLB might have to take note. Probably not right away, honestly, not when top picks are basically insured against so that teams that fail to sign their first pick can get a second chance at a comparable draft slot the next summer, but if this kind of thing continued on into the following year, creating serious gaps in the farm systems in need of replenishing, well… then MLB might have to work on changing the draft rules.

Do I think this is something that would happen? If you’re trying to be optimistic, you probably don’t want to ask me that question. MLB’s future players have some barriers in place that even NCAA basketball and football players don’t have to deal with, like the fact that not every player eligible for the draft is even playing in the NCAA. Let’s say, hypothetically, that all of the top college prospects banded together and agreed to refuse to sign with whichever MLB team drafted them, with the plan being that they’d all sign with NPB once they were able to instead. Word travels: MLB would either test the players’ resolve knowing that the teams in question would get a second chance with a comparable pick the next year, or they’d just move all of the high schoolers on the draft board up ahead of the suddenly united in purpose college prospects.

Still, if someone were to take it upon themselves — former players, advocacy groups, current players, whomever — to educate amateur prospects of what’s in store for them and what rights they don’t have but should, maybe, with time, enough minds could be changed to challenge the concept of the MLB draft itself. I don’t necessarily think that’s likely, but if you’re looking for how something is going to change regarding the draft, convincing the kids that the system is a joke in need of changing might be a more effective route than putting yet another thing on the MLBPA’s already overloaded plate. Especially since the PA has had a hard enough time, historically, convincing its older members that what happens to its younger members matter, even after the former have already secured their bag. Expanding out into the realm of hypothetical players is probably a step too far, considering that and the union’s still-recent history of sacrificing the rights and futures of amateurs in exchange for present-day rewards.

Everyone has got some work to do on this front, basically, but MLB isn’t about to change a thing themselves. Not when the system is working exactly as designed: that system is designed to allow for the existence of Rockers and Stewarts and even Drews, and everyone will forget about all of them in time as the next waves roll in.

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