The Major League Baseball Draft

May 6, 2010

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As many of you know, Major League Baseball’s draft is coming up next month.  I’m sure that many of you will set your DVRs to record the event.  I certainly will.  (Yes, I’m serious).

The baseball draft doesn’t receive the same attention given to the NFL’s draft (which seems to nearly overshadow the Super Bowl) or even the NBA’s. 

There are several reasons for the lack of popularity for the event.  Historically, about half the players drafted have been high schoolers, although the balance has shifted in favor of college players in recent years.  Even the very best high school players will take 3-4 years to develop into major league players, and 6+ years is a more common timeline.  Even the college players typically spend a few years in the minor leagues.  Thus, baseball players don’t jump straight from the draft to the television set like athletes in others sports.

Baseball’s 50 round draft is much longer than the NBA’s (2 rounds) or NFL’s (7 rounds).  Considering that the active roster for a baseball team is just 25 players, this necessitates using the minor leagues to develop players.  Without the minor leagues, the players simply wouldn’t get ample opportunities against live competition.  The minors also serve to bring baseball to small cities across America, allowing nearly anyone to hop in a car, drive an hour or two, and catch a game at any point during the summer.

The eligibility rules for baseball’s draft can make your head spin.  First of all, only residents of the United States, Canada, and U.S. territories – and well as students at institutions within those counties – are subject to the draft.  Players in other countries can sign with a team at age 16.  Thus players from Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory) are subject to the draft, but players from the Dominican Republic are not.  It is desirable to not be subject to the draft, as it allows you to negotiate with multiple teams, instead of just with the team that has exclusive rights to you.

As mentioned earlier, high school players are eligible.  Quite a few of the drafted high school players do not sign and opt to attend college on scholarship.  Sometimes teams will take a shot on “unsignable” players later in the draft, and try to convince them to sign with the team.  This is a low-risk/high-reward strategy.  An example of this is Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler.  Fowler was a multi-sport star in high school and was committed to attending college at the University of Miami.  The Rockies took a flier on him in the 14th round.  After freeing up some cash by trading Larry Walker, they were able to sign him for $925,000 – an amount that is more in line with a high second round pick than a 14th rounder.

If a player decides to attend a four year college, they have to wait until their junior year.  An exception to this is that sophomores who turn 21 before the draft are also eligible.  The juniors and draft-eligible sophomores typically sign for more money than college seniors because they have more leverage.  If they don’t sign, they can always return to college and re-enter the draft.

If a player decides to attend junior college, they are eligible to be drafted after their first year.  This is why you will sometimes see very good players in the JUCO ranks instead of at an NCAA school.  In fact, Alex Fernandez transferred from the University of Miami after his freshman season in order to attend Miami-Dade Community College.  As a junior college player, he was eligible for the 1990 draft.  Had he stayed at Miami, he would not have been eligible until 1991.  Fernandez was the #4 overall pick in the 1990 draft.

Who will be the top pick in this year’s draft?  Most are saying that the Nationals will go after teen phenom Bryce Harper.  Harper passed his GED in order to skip his final two years of high school (yes, you read that correctly) and is currently attending junior college in order to gain eligibility for this year’s draft.  Although most scouts are rubbed the wrong way Harper’s arrogance and sense of entitlement, most admit that he is a tremendously skilled player.  While in high school, Harper racked up the miles criss-crossing the country and playing in a variety of elite tournaments.  He got off to a slow start this season, but has heated up in a hurry and it putting up video game type numbers.  Even better, Harper is a catcher – a position where there is traditionally a scarcity of great offensive players.

Should the Nationals and other teams take Harpers demeanor into account before decided to throw millions of dollars at him?  Certainly.  However, the landscape of professional sports is hardly barren of athletes with big egos.  As for Harper’s young age, it’s worth noting that he’ll turn 18 on October 16 – just a month later than some of the other 2010 draftees.

My advice to the Nationals?  Pick Harper – he’s the best available talent.  Then find him a Crash Davis type of player to make sure his head stays on straight.  The Nationals front office has been making some decent moves lately, and the team is actually doing fairly well so far this year.  Add Stephen Strasburg to the mix in a few weeks and Harper a few years down the road, and I think they’ll have a solid core to build upon.

For information about other players in this year’s draft, I recommend the blog MLB Bonus Baby.

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