A conversation about MLB, on the field, off the field.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

From the basement September 09

Baseball exists only in the basement again, Triple A ended here forever September 03. Great news for me though, Indy Ball could be on it's way! The Can Am League appears genuinely interested in fielding a team here. The chatter is that baseball legend & Can Am League Commissioner / franchise owner Miles Wolff will be in town next week. Wolff's most notable accomplishments are starting Independent pro baseball in 1993 with the formation of the Northern League. 8 million + attended Independent League games this season. As well, Wolff was owner & publisher of Baseball America for 18 years. Good luck to Mr. Wolff in bringing the Can Am League to my commmunity.

The Rule IV Draft

I blogged this winter about the changes to the Rule IV draft that went into effect this past June. The prevailing wisdom amongst the chattering classes was that the newly imposed signing deadline of August 15, combined with compensation for teams failing to sign their picks would better position the owners in negotiations with the players. As well, MLB - namely Selig's office - ratcheded up already existing pressures on the teams to adhere to recommended " draft slot" bonuses that were 10% lower than previous.

Post signing deadline, there has been unanimity in the baseball media that MLB failed in it's attempt to reduce the amount of money doled out to the draftees. From Baseball America: "There were 184 picks in the first five rounds in 2007, and 171 of them signed, receiving an average bonus of $685,328. Last year, 179 of the first 184 picks agreed to terms, getting an average bonus of $662,531. So despite the 10 percent reduction in slots, the bonuses rose 3 percent." From Sports Business Journal V. 10 No. 17, "Overall average signing bonuses for 2007 first-round draft picks hit their highest mark in five years, at nearly $2.1 million...". I engaged in some Web chatter on Shysterball adding my voice to the others who perceived MLB's manouevering on this issue as ineffective and irrelevant. At the recently concluded owner's meetings it was widely reported that Selig admonished the owners for not adhering to his office's recommended slots. To boot, the league's efforts to control signing bonuses also lead to speculation about collusion ( a dreadful word amongst baseball fans ). In fact the PA is busy gathering evidence from agents re. collusion.

In light of all this I was planning on writing a little rant about the owners reverting to their former incompetent ways of the 80's, opening themselves to accusations of collusion while not even managing to lower their costs. Well, not so soon, there is a dissenting voice about what transpired this past Rule IV draft - the universally reviled Scott Boras. Boras disagrees with the baseball media that the changes to the draft were ineffective in reducing bonuses. " The deadline worked dramatically to keep values down...The kids taken in the third or fourth round, they can't afford to go to college on a partial scholarship. So the teams just said, 'I am going to give you this.'"

In a larger context, Boras also has some interesting - I think excellent - ideas for the Rule IV draft.

The biggest problem with the draft as it currently exists, is that it is an auction, not a draft. I.E. The 27th pick in this years "draft", Ricky Porcello, received arguably the best deal of any player drafted ( $7.3 million , net present value - whatever that means - $6.49 million ). The purpose of amateur drafts is to assist in creating competitive balance, the worst teams have first crack at the best amateurs. But because the Rule IV draft is an auction, that isn't the case in MLB. MLB has also failed to do what the other "ball & stick" leagues have done with their drafts, namely using them as a platform to promote their product / game. The NFL and the NBA have both done masterful jobs of transforming their drafts into major media events. This past draft MLB and ESPN endeavored for the first time to do the same, producing a "draft day" show, I don't think anybody noticed or cared. There will always be scant interest in the draft - no matter how slick the ESPN / MLB production - because of some fundamentals, The principal problem and not one that MLB can fix, is that these amateurs have no profile, they are anonymous to all fans save the super hardcore who follow the draft arcania in Baseball America. Amateur ballplayers, unlike "amateur" football & basketball players, don't have their games broadcast to enormous TV audiences. The other principal problem in generating interest in the draft is that small / mid market teams traditionally don't draft the best talent available to them ( although that is changing ), due to "signability" concerns. I.E. Matt Bush. Baseball fans know this and resultingly it limits their interest in who their team picks. Their team is often not picking the best player, but the best player they can afford. Boras ( he is not alone ) thinks that allowing the trading of draft picks ( presently not allowed ) would generate more interest in the draft. "The sad news about the draft is...the teams who covet the best talent will not get it. For example, Porcello, Brackman, Wieters - largely teams are not getting access to them. The value of those players exceed what the teams want to spend in the draft." Boras is right that allowing the trading of picks would solve this problem. "The clubs would know they may not be able to afford the player, but they could sign him and trade him for value." Fans in small / mid markets would have more interest in the draft if that was the case. Draft day would be entertaining, fans would enjoy the speculation concerning who they could acquire for "unsignable Mr. X". This would also be helpful in achieving more competitive balance ( although I don't know how much more of that I can stand in the NL, but I digress ),

Jim Callis reports that some small / mid market teams are changing course and trying to compete with the big boys in the Rule IV draft. "The Yankees aggressively signed players in last year's draft, and did so again, spending $7,432,500 in the first 10 rounds. But the Orioles ($7,672,500) and Nationals ($7,619,300) outspent them there, and the Tigers ($7,305,000), Devil Rays ($7,172,000) and Giants ($7,027,000) came close." Time will tell how effective this strategy is...on the one hand nobody but the Yanks ( and soon the Mets ) can carry a $200 million dollar payroll so why not try and compete with them on acquiring amateur talent? On the other hand, even after everybody drank the Moneyball Kool Aid, drafting ballplayers remains a crapshoot - even for the Yankees. Does anybody remember Drew Henson, Brien Taylor?

Having said all that the Rule IV draft is increasingly less meaningful. More and more of the "muscle" ( as William Rhoden would refer to it ) is being recruited from outside the US, where it is not subject to the draft ( the owners like that, the draft is inflationary, see my Jackie Robinson Day schpiel ).

Will the PA bring charges of collusion? I say yes. Will MLB allow trading of draft picks? Yes again but not unitl the expiration of the CBA in 2011. ( Will we say 11 by then? )