How the draft is changing the way teams think -- and act
It lets teams to spend less money on young talent they can control longer
Small-market teams can compete more evenly in the draft with big-market teams
The Pirates have spent more money on the draft than any team recently
On the surface it looks a lot like another over-hyped, over-produced event. The Bryce Harper Show, otherwise known as the 2010 Rule 4 Draft, will take place Monday, and given how much time the MLB Network is devoting to this year's affair you half-expect Cat Deeley to preside over the ceremonies. There will be a one-hour pre-show. There will be a (first-ever) televising of the supplemental draft that comes after the first round. There will be a procession of interviews with old greats like Tommy Lasorda, Frank Robinson, and Billy Williams, who will be shuffling around Studio 42 in Secaucus, N.J., site of the festivities.
But here's why the baseball draft might actually be worth tuning into: At a time when younger players are valued more than ever and the free agent market is proving to be increasingly inefficient, the draft is determining the fortunes of franchises like never before. Front offices that recognize this and are investing effort and money into the draft can "gain a huge competitive advantage," as an NL general manager says. "With steroids and all that, there's less of a demand for that late 30s ballplayer -- young players you can control for several years are the most valuable commodity now. Look at what Mike Leake is doing [for the Reds]. I'm sure they're thrilled they didn't go out and sign some veteran with a .500 record for $10 million and instead gave one of their young kids with a $2 million bonus a chance. I think you'll see more teams doing that going forward."
Says another executive, "People talk about exploiting inefficiencies in the market -- going after guys with high OBP, going after defense. The draft is really another opportunity to get an edge." Even as signing bonuses are rising as fast as the national debt the draft "is the relatively cheap, cost-efficient way to build a winning team." As this study in Fangraphs concluded, "Even with the relatively high failure rate, first round draft picks are incredibly valuable and actually have proven to be quite a bargain."
High rollers like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Tigers have opened their wallets to sign marquee draft picks, but now some smaller market teams that once pinched pennies in the draft have come to realize that today's game belongs to the kids, and, as an executive says, "there's no better way to collect young talent than the draft."
In fact no team has recently been more aggressive than the Pittsburgh Pirates. Yes, the low-budget Pirates, the team with smallest payroll in baseball ($34.9 million), have pumped more money into the draft the last two years ($18.7 million) than any other team -- more than the Yankees and Red Sox. "We're choosing to put our dollars into the draft and international scouting" -- the Pirates invested $5 million in an academy in the Dominican Republic -- "because we believe that there's the best value in doing that," Pirates GM Neal Huntington said one afternoon during spring training. "You may not hit on every one of your picks. But you hit on one or two, and that can take you a long way."
Pittsburgh learned their lesson the hard way. In 2007 (the year before Huntington's arrival) the Pirates passed on catcher Matt Wieters, who signed for $6 million with Baltimore, because of signability concerns; instead they opted for a left-handed pitcher out of Clemson, Daniel Moskos, now 24 with a 4.61 career ERA in the minors. Pittsburgh saved a whopping $3.5 million.
After years of going on the cheap the Pirates changed course in 2008 when they drafted signed stud third baseman Pedro Alvarez with the second overall pick and signed him to a franchise-record $6.355 million contract. They became aggressive with their later round picks, luring away talented high schoolers (like pitchers Zack Von Rosenberg and Colton Cain) from their college commitments with generous contracts, above MLB's slot recommendations. Last summer the Pirates were criticized for bypassing higher-rated prospects to take Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez, whom they later signed for $2.5 million, with the fourth overall pick. But the Pirates weren't being stingy: they believed that Sanchez was as good as any player available -- thus far the catcher has exceeded expectations in the minors -- and the club ended up spending more money in the draft last year than all but five teams. Picking second this year, behind the Nationals, the Pirates will take the player they believe is the Best Player Not Named Bryce Harper, whether that is five-tool shortstop (and Scott Boras client) Manny Machado or baby-faced Texas high school right-hander Jameson Taillon.
The woebegone Pirates, of course, haven't done much right in the last decade. A franchise that has endured 17 straight losing seasons is not a model franchise. But the Pirates' recent aggressiveness in the draft is something other struggling, rebuilding organizations should follow -- organizations like the Astros, who over the winter committed $24.6 million to declining free agents Brandon Lyon, Pedro Feliz and Brett Myers. Houston, which owns three of the first 33 picks this year, has spent just $15.4 million on the four drafts since 2006. As an NL executive says, "Trying to set aside dollars in the draft so you have money to spend on free agents these days could set your organization back years."
In other words: the draft may not exactly be Must See TV, but it matters more than ever.