There are a lot of things wrong with the current structure of Major League Baseball. Every year, about this time, we read about teams in smaller markets having to trade off their best players to contenders (typically, large market teams like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox), and setting themselves up for another rebuilding cycle, only to repeat the process again in a few years.
There is some competitive balance to the game. Since the end of the Yankee dynasty in 2001, no team has repeated as World Series champion. In fact, it seems like a new team wins every year. But we've also seen the break-up of some potentially great teams, like the World Champion Florida Marlins of 2001, or the strong Cleveland Indians teams of 2005-06, because of salary issues.
Lately, we've even been seeing teams trade young stars in their arbitration years, when they're still under club control for a couple more seasons. There's no incentive to keep them until free agency and take two draft picks as compensation. Sometimes you can't sign the draft picks, either.
This isn't a plea for a salary cap in Major League Baseball. In fact, I don't believe there should be one. If the Yankees want to pay $300 million to their lineup, instead of those mere $200 million payrolls they've been carrying, bully for them. There should be a stiffer luxury tax for doing so--but the teams that get the money should be forced to spend it on player salaries themselves.
But I digress. What I want to know is this—why is MLB the only major professional sports league that doesn't allow for the trading of draft picks?
I think allowing these kinds of trades would help promote competitive balance, not hurt it. Does it mean the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers would be able to make deals and land the top amateur talent? Sure. But they'd have to give up something in return, too. Something that might be much more of a sure thing than the high draft picks.
What is Stephen Strasburg worth?
Let's use Stephen Strasburg as an example.
Strasburg is, by consensus, the best pitching prospect to enter the draft in some time; some have gone so far as to say he is the best amateur pitcher ever. The Washington Nationals took Strasburg as their No. 1 draft pick in June. To date, they have not been able to sign him, and they will lose their rights to him if they fail to sign him by Aug. 15.
Strasburg, through his agent Scott Boras, has made extremely high salary demands, even asking for a $50 million signing bonus. Boras based this request on the posting fee paid by the Boston Red Sox in 2006 for the rights to negotiate with Japanese star pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. He claims that Strasburg is comparable to Matsuzaka. I think that's an absurd statement on several counts, but that's not the point of this analysis.
The point is that Boras is demanding a price for Strasburg, based on his perceived super-prospect status, that the Nationals cannot meet without damage to their major-league salary structure. They are, in effect, being asked to pay a near-free agent salary to a pitcher who has never thrown a pitch in professional baseball. A pitcher who, in fact, wasn't particularly impressive in either the 2008 Olympics or the 2009 NCAA Regionals--his two highest levels of competition to date.
But we'll set that aside. Strasburg has a lot of talent and could end up being many things as a top collegian coming to the pros. He could be Ben McDonald, the Strasburg of 1989, who had a decent career but never could stay healthy. He could be Alex Fernandez, Jim Abbott or Andy Benes, high draft picks who had good, but not great, careers. He could be a disappointment, like Calvin Schiraldi, or he could tear up his arm before he ever gets a chance, like Lance Dickson did. Or he could become everything people say he can—we'll say the next Roger Clemens.
Clemens is the best-case scenario. Based on past draft history, that's unlikely, but let's say Strasburg's talent wins out and he develops like the young Rocket did. In any case, there's almost no doubt that Strasburg will appear in the major leagues sometime in 2010 if he signs; he might even make his debut in September of this year.
One player doesn't matter much
So, what does that mean? Strasburg might win 20 games for the Nationals in 2010, but does that make them contenders? No, of course not. They're on pace for 54 wins this season; Strasburg pitching at that level might boost them to about 61. Even if you even out their bad luck this year—they're underperforming their Pythag (projected won-lost record based on runs scored and allowed) by eight games--that's a 69-93 team. Maybe Elijah Dukes breaks out and one other prospect develops. That still only makes 75 wins--and everything that could go right, has gone right.
And then, in the 2010-11 off-season, the Nationals lose Adam Dunn to free agency. They couldn't pay him because they're paying their new superstar pitcher so much, and Dukes has killed the team in arbitration. Soon they'll have to consider trading him. That leaves them...I'll let you fill in the blanks.
A better solution
Forgive my rambling analysis. My original argument was that teams should be allowed to trade their draft picks. Again, we'll use Mr. Strasburg as an example. Let's say the Nationals decide they can't afford his demands, or maybe they're just fed up with Scott Boras. So calls go out to the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. They can all pay Boras' demands and they're willing to trade prospects to gamble on Strasburg being the next Roger Clemens.
We'll say he goes to the Red Sox; I'll use them because I know the most about their organization. Theo Epstein acquires the rights to Strasburg in exchange for Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard and Lars Andersen. The Red Sox meet Boras' demands and sign Strasburg.
Meanwhile, in 2010, Buchholz wins 13 games for the Nationals, getting better as the season goes on as he gets low-pressure MLB innings under his belt. Bard becomes the team's closer and notches 34 saves in 37 tries. With a stabilized bullpen, the Nats go from minus-8 in the Pythag to plus-3. Dukes and another young player break out. The Nationals win 71 games.
Dunn then leaves to go replace David Ortiz in Boston, finally fulfilling his destiny as the next great long-term DH. But the Nats replace him with Andersen, who's now ready for the majors. He won't hit 40 home runs, but he won't give 20-30 runs away on defense, either. The Nats use some of Dunn's $12 million salary that's off the books to pay Dukes' raise, and to strengthen the team in other areas.
The Nationals win 84 games in 2011, and things are still looking up. Meanwhile, Strasburg goes 19-8 and helps the Red Sox win the World Series, but the Nats have no reason to regret the deal at all. They now have a solid core of talent under club control until the mid-2010s, and have three or four seasons to try to climb to the top.
Giving the little guy more options
I've read before that prospects are the new "currency" of baseball. There's a lot of truth in that statement. Productive young players who aren't yet eligible for free agency are extremely valuable. Even teams like the Dodgers and Red Sox jealously covet their sure-fire prospects and won't deal them except for a huge payoff. The Dodgers kept Russell Martin, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier rather than deal them for veterans, and that's a big reason they have the best record in baseball now--and all three of them are still pretty cheap.
But the draft system now works against the small-market clubs. The top prospects in the draft demand multi-million dollar bonuses. In effect, teams are paying free-agent type cash up front for players who may not amount to anything.
Stephen Strasburg is billed as a 'can't miss' prospect, but so was Todd Van Poppel. Van Poppel may have played 11 years in the major leagues, but about nine of those were only because baseball people refused to believe that scouts could be THAT wrong. If the Nationals pay Stephen Strasburg $30 million and he turns out to be the next Todd Van Poppel, that's $30 million they can't afford to lose, and they'll be hamstrung for years.
On top of all that, small-market teams often pass up the best draft prospects, because they know they can't afford them. The big boys snap up the big names later on in the draft, and pay whatever it takes. Why not make them give up something for the privilege of doing so?
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