Why the MLB draft matters more now than ever before
The baseball draft has new-found relevance. It wasn't television or radio coverage that put in on the mainstream sports map. It wasn't the commissioner standing at a podium. It wasn't because every sport needs a Mel Kiper Jr. Instead, it was a new paradigm in baseball in which young players are valued as highly as they ever have been in the free agent era. When the New York Yankees won't trade for a lockdown ace with two Cy Youngs on his résumé because they want to hold on to their young players, you know we've entered a new realm.
So on Thursday, a day that used to garner only passing glances, fans of all 30 teams will want to know if their ball club snared the next Ryan Braun or Joba Chamberlain -- that is, the next impact player who is going to get to the show in a hurry. Given the growing inefficiency of the free-agent market (Andruw Jones, who brought an overweight body and unproductive bat to the Dodgers for $36 million last winter, is the perfect example of the flawed, expensive player populating that market now), the demise of the late-30s ballplayer, and the trend to tie young players to long-term contracts, you'd better get the draft right if you want to build a sustainable winner. And you probably won't have to wait through the old-school five-year apprenticeships to find out.
Chamberlain (Yankees), Troy Tulowitzki (Colorado), Justin Upton (Arizona), and Clay Buchholz and Jacoby Ellsbury (Boston) all helped their teams get to the postseason within two years of being drafted. Max Scherzer (Arizona), Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers) and Evan Longoria and David Price (Tampa Bay) have the potential to have that kind of impact this year. Jay Bruce (Reds) is The Next Big Thing, just three years removed from his senior prom. The word on the 2008 draft is that such impact players are lacking in this group. But one thing is for sure: they will get their chance -- and quickly.
"The young player has become more valuable than ever," said Dodgers GM Ned Colletti. "When [free agency] gets to the point where you have to think about spending X millions of dollars for some pitcher with a 52-71 lifetime record, clubs started thinking, 'Hey, why not give one of our young kids a chance?'"
Colletti previously worked as an assistant general manager in San Francisco, where the Giants were the extremists when it came to devaluing the draft. From 1993 through 2000 the Giants took six pitchers with their No. 1 picks. Those pitchers threw a total of 22 games for San Francisco. The Giants regarded top picks as something of nuisance, using them as trading chips to acquire veteran players or even gladly forfeiting some picks themselves for the chance to sign some mid-level veteran free agent.
There is another obvious dynamic when it comes to this Era of Opportunity for young players. It also was made possible by a re-working of the baseball actuarial tables, a bit of editing no doubt with some connection to the crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs. Remember when guys in their middle 30s and older routinely were having career years, or at least still putting up huge numbers? Now only three of the top 50 players as ranked by OPS are 35 or over (Chipper Jones, Jason Giambi and Manny Ramirez). Only three of the top 50 ERAs belong to the 35-and-older crowd (Jose Contreras, Greg Maddux and Paul Byrd).
We have to change the way we look at players as they age -- again. The Dodgers, for instance, have just begun a statistical analysis of how hitters age through their mid- and late-30s -- but their research is concentrated on the pre-Steroid Era. The rules of the game have changed; there actually are rules now.
Do the changes mean players are getting to the big leagues faster than ever? That's hard to say with absolute certainty across the board. The stud player, be it Dwight Gooden or Alex Rodriguez or Miguel Cabrera, always will force his way into the bigs quickly. But it does appear that pitchers especially are requiring less of a minor league internship before getting promoted, a trend enhanced by the pitch count and innings limits clubs put on young arms.
Here is one unscientific, thumbnail look at how clubs have abbreviated minor league apprenticeships for pitchers. Below are the 10 winningest active pitchers in baseball and their minor league totals for innings and complete games:
And now, here are 10 of the top starting pitchers not yet 25:
The older generation of pitchers logged an average of 496 minor league innings and threw an average of 11 complete games in the minors. The newer generation control group logged about half as much prep work in the minors (259) and threw about one complete game there.
So pay close attention to the draft this week. It won't be long before many of them will get their shot at the bigs. Maybe the next Evan Longoria is sitting there. Longoria may be the prototypical fast-track player: Signed to a $3 million bonus in 2006, he was in Triple A the next year and the big leagues the next, where he plays a key role for the best team in the American League. Upon his sixth day in the big leagues, Longoria signed a contract that, including option years, covers nine years and could pay him $44 million. Baseball truly has become a kids' game.