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Fixing what ain't (necessarily) broke

8/28/2009

In The New York Times last weekend, Dan Rosenheck wrote about proposals to change the draft. Money quote:

    The real reason the anti-Boras rants pick up around draft time is that he is the only one in baseball campaigning to change the system. As a vehicle to promote competitive balance, the draft is severely flawed; small-market clubs routinely pass over top players because of their bonus demands. Its true purpose is to keep a lid on amateur salaries - in other words, to allow tight-fisted corporate multimillionaires to steal money from teenagers.
    The alternative to the draft would be to grant all players from the United States the right to choose their employer from Day 1, a freedom enjoyed by their Latin American counterparts. This would not necessarily raise salaries over all but would distribute them more evenly, benefiting both the players (who would no longer have to fear career-ending injuries before free agency) and the game as a whole.

    First, baseball would see some sanity restored to its trade market - there would be far fewer untouchable prospects and immovable veterans. Second, the sport would have to replace the draft with a serious initiative to promote competitive balance.

    The best approach is probably an expansion and reform of the revenue sharing system, in which payments would correspond to factors like the population and median income of a team's market. This would remove the perverse incentive to lose created by the draft, and enable poorer clubs to compete with their richer counterparts for top amateur talent.

Is Boras really campaigning to change the system? The whole system? Because he's got a number of clients who are hugely benefitting from the system exactly as it is.
It's true that Boras and his youngest, most talented clients would benefit hugely if the draft was abolished. But that's just a small part of the system, most of which determines how much the veterans will earn. My guess is that whatever Boras gained in bigger contracts for the young men, he would lose in smaller contracts for the old men. Which isn't an argument against changing the system. It's just an argument against believing that Boras wants to change it, significantly.

I have to quibble with something else here: Is it really true that "small-market clubs routinely pass over top players"? Yes, teams do have "signability concerns." While even the Royals typically draft for talent instead of signability, every year we do see top talents slip to the second round or lower, only to be drafted and successfully wooed by the rich clubs. But not only the rich clubs; the Royals do it, too. As more and more teams are figuring out, the draft is a relatively cost-effective way to acquire talent, and that's true regardless of your market size.

Also, I don't follow the logic here, exactly. The draft's true purpose is not to promote competitive balance, but rather to "steal money from teenagers." But if the draft is abolished, it would have to be replaced by a serious initiative to promote competitive balance? And do we know that abolishing the draft wouldn't go a long way toward destroying the competitive balance that we've got?

I don't believe the draft, right or wrong, is going anywhere. So the question becomes, what do you do with it. There's been a great deal of Stephen Strasburg-inspired talk of adopting a fairly rigid slotting sytem like that of the NBA (which would have to be approved by the union, but the current players supposedly are amenable). The talk tends to lack a bit of context. For example, Strasburg's deal is actually less substantial than Mark Prior's, as measured against MLB revenues. I don't have a problem with slotting, though. Everyone will get along just fine if the Next Big Thing is forced to sign for $10 million rather than $14 million.

On the other hand, who does that really help? Those tight-fisted corporate multimillionaires? Not really. They'll just spend the money somewhere else. The union? Not really? All the money spent on the draft is practically a rounding error next to the total MLB payroll. What, the amateurs should lose their bargaining power so the average MLB salary can go from $3.26 million to $3.56 million?

The Ugly Truth? Most people who rail against the cost of the draft do it because their tender sensibilities have been offended. I don't want to marginalize anyone's feelings. But if you're going to change a system just to make people feel better, you'd better try, at least a little bit, to come up with something that's better.