Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why the draft is only slightly worse than the Bataan Death March

The draft isn't broken. Proof? Here's how the the key part of the top three teams' draft board looked when the festivities kicked off a couple of months ago:

1) Stephen Strasburg

1) Stephen Strasburg
2) Dustin Ackley

1) Stephen Strasburg
2) Dustin Ackley
3) Donovan Tate

While you may quibble with whether Tate should have been the target at No. 3 for the Pads, you cannot argue that he was picked there because they thought he was the third-best player on the board, as evidenced by the fact that they set a bonus record for a prep draftee.

That trend continued down the board. While the Pirates took some heat for taking a "signability" guy in Tony Sanchez at No. 4, they did so in part because they were planning to make a splash later on in the draft and international market, both of which they did. Otherwise, what we saw this year was the best talent flowing to teams in inverse order to their finish in the '08 season.

But that's not what the draft is about, despite what some credulous and cretinous writers and fans will bleat. See, the worst teams not only want the best talent, they also want it for free. They're not happy paying Strasburg 1/5th of what he'd get on the open market (conservatively); they don't think he should cost anything at all. Because, clearly, the Nationals deserve a subsidy — paid for entirely in lost opportunity cost by the unlucky, talented amateur — for running a franchise into the ground, despite already receiving a healthy subsidy from the taxpayers of the greater DC area, not to mention the MLB's general fund.

The Nationals have spent or committed $138.85 million in the last five years in completely voluntary contracts (no service time or arbitration constraints), covering 26 total player seasons, for players on the 40-man roster. That works out to $5.34 million per player season. While not all of those seasons have been cashed in, most of them have been, and you can see the results. If the Nationals are cash-poor, it's only because they decided to re-up Dmitri Young for another 2 years at $5 million per when he would have been lucky to get a minor-league deal elsewhere (and Jim Bowden agreed to keep him on the 25-man roster, regardless of performance, to boot!). Outside of that, virtually every player on the 40-man is making the major-league minimum, give or take a few thousand.

The Nationals had the first pick in the draft because they've been a horrendously run organization, mostly in the sense that they spend what money they have terribly. And who, besides the poor bastards still paying for tickets, gets to foot the bill for the team's ineptitude? Stephen Strasburg, who by deign of the draft and the fact he wasn't born in a foreign country, will receive millions less than he would have in an open market for the first four years of his career (plus two more arb years, which will assuredly pay him closer to what he could earn in a free agent deal, but still not as much).

Yes, the young man will still make $15 million over the first four years of his career, which is not a slave wage, nor should it be compared to one. But no one questions what Strasburg would fetch on the open market — a much less proven/polished pitcher in Aroldis Chapman, a better comp for Stras than Daisuke Matsuzaka, is predicted by some to fetch upwards of $30 million — and that's lost money, period. An athlete's career is a fleeting asset in the best of situations, and the attrition rate is higher for pitchers yet. Everyone talks about what Stras will make down the road, and many of the idiots — Jayson Stark, Ryan Zimmerman, Thomas Boswell — are content to say he should wait for his payday happily. But that payday may never come. It's easy to say, when you've got tenure and are getting paid as much as the market will allow, that the kids should wait for the money.

I've read in some comment boards that the reason MLB must restrict draft bonuses is because the attrition rate for prospects is so great, the teams couldn't possibly afford to pay free-market values. But that argument sounds hollow when you consider that Strasburg, the most expensive drafted player in the history of the sport, will make just a little more than half of what the Nationals paid out to Dmitri Young and Austin Kearns for a combined six years. Both of those players turned in below-replacement performances during their time with the Nats; Strasburg is more valuable to the franchise never throwing a pitch, because at least he won't cost the major league team wins.

But I needn't cherry-pick horrible contracts to make an essential point: The draft is wrong, but not because the draftees are modern-day Tom Joads (as one commenter on ShysterBall mockingly said), or because competitive balance is bad. The draft is wrong because it's punishing the best amateur players by making them the only people who lose money for an organization's ineptitude. You can rationalize all you want, but we only have a draft because we're comfortable with the idea that young people deserve to make less only because they're young.



Blogger Big C said...

I know squat about baseball, but it seems to me that if bonus caps weren't enforced, there would be conflicting ideals concerning the MLB draft that would render it essentially pointless.

On one hand, draft order is determined by past season performance for the expressed purpose of giving the lousier teams a leg up on the forthcoming season. I suppose the intent behind this is to maintain some sort of competitive balance, which (on the surface anyway) seems noble and fan-friendly.

On the other hand if, as you propose, there would be no caps on what a drafted player could be paid, it sort of defeats the purpose of the draft as a means of equalization in the first place. If the some other team is willing to pay more than the Nats are for Strasburg, why wouldn't (or shouldn't) he be able to go to that team? Not that it would be a bad thing if he did, mind you, just that it would eradicate the intent of what the draft order is designed to achieve.

Basically, I'm not disagreeing with you. It sucks that Strasburg is being forced to pay for the fact that the Nationals are shitty at what they do. I wholeheartedly agree that an athlete (especially a pitcher) should get what he can while he can. But I don't think you can have a draft system that is constructed to appease both competitive balance and the open market. I think that baseball should choose: either have no draft at all and let teams compete for prospects on the open market, or leave the draft as-is in an attempt to appease fans who would like to see the sport aspire to the ideal of balance and parity.

Frankly, I would be fine with either situation, as they both have drawbacks. If the open-market approach is taken, get ready for the Nationals to suck forever (which they probably will, anyway). If the current draft structure is kept, however, we'll have to live with the fact that outliers like Strasburg will get screwed for the possibility that the Nationals might improve, despite their incompetence elsewhere, with him on the roster for a few seasons.

I'm not fond of the NFL draft, either. Although (I don't think) there are caps on drafted player's salaries, the fact that one team basically owns the rights to a selected player creates too many Michael Crabtree situations. I'd be willing to bet that some team would be willing to overpay for him, and it's a shame that his career will be stunted by the combination of stupid management and NFL policy.

August 20, 2009 at 12:56 PM  

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