Why It’s Time to End the MLB Draft

Adley Ruschman was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft. (via Keith Allison)

Finding new players for your major league team used to be so simple, or at least so straightforward. Some talented kid would be playing for his school, or his hometown, or even his factory. In the stands would be a sharp-eyed scout, like Dick Kinsella or Paul Krichell, who had heard good things about him. Occasionally it would be the manager himself, John McGraw or Connie Mack following up a hot tip while his team had a day off. They would find the kid after the game, make their offer, get his John Hancock, and stash him on a friendly minor league team for seasoning, or even bring him straight to the big show.

Like so much in baseball, and almost everything else, it’s gotten a lot more complex since those hardscrabble days. Many of the changes have come about as teams have tried to restrain their own competition for these new players. The bidding wars that sometimes erupted, the profligate spending on players whose performance in the majors might never justify such figures, prompted a series of new rules and systems. (Certainly there were times when a player would pay back his inflated bonus tenfold in performance, but it is perhaps human nature to feel the pain of failure more keenly than the joy of success.)

The first big change was the “bonus baby” rule—or rules, as the definitions changed a few times. In its strongest form, it required a player signed for more than a specified bonus to stay on his team’s major league roster for two calendar years or be exposed to waivers. This rule not only used up valuable roster spots but left many bonus babies to rot on the bench, not receiving the playing time they needed to develop. (Steve Treder gives a fine look at the bonus baby system here.)

A less extreme form of this rule was still on the books when the amateur draft replaced it in 1965. Teams now selected the players with whom they would have exclusive negotiating rights. These rights weren’t permanent: A player could decline to make a deal and re-enter the draft, at the cost of six months or a year (or more, if he entered a four-year college) of his pro career.

This strategy reined in bonus spending for a long while, but eventually it started getting away from the owners again. The commissioner’s office applied some pressure by issuing bonus limits for each position in the draft, but they were advisory only, and teams shrugged off any lectures the commissioner might give them. When the June, 2011 draft led to bonuses of over $200 million being spent, the owners decided they needed help.

They got it in the 2012 Collective Bargaining Agreement. The players’ union, willing to bargain away the benefits of players who weren’t yet in the union, agreed to caps on bonuses spent both domestically (meaning the U.S. and Canada) and internationally. Increasing penalties applied to any team that overspent its cap.

Dollar figures were set for each slot in the amateur draft, including compensatory and competitive balance picks. The “slot money,” assigned for individuals, could be spent on anyone picked by that team. For example, in 2019 Baltimore received $8,415,300 of slot money for its first overall draft pick, out of a total of $13,821,300 in its draft pool. Arizona, having a later first-round pick but a number of compensatory picks, had a larger pool than Baltimore’s at $16,093,700.

There was a change in how the bonus pool system was introduced. When the draft began, it replaced the bonus baby rule. The pool, on the other hand, was added on top of the draft. This means that for amateur players in the U.S. and Canada, there are two co-existing and overlapping systems in place governing how they can enter the pro ranks.

I submit that the draft and the bonus pool cap are largely redundant, doing the same work in different ways. One of them should go, and it should be the draft.

The Upside

The theater of the draft is now incidental to the main aim of the two-way system: to limit the money spent on signing amateur players. The old “bonus baby” systems did it directly. The draft did it indirectly by taking away the kids’ negotiating leverage. The bonus pool goes back to doing it directly, by the numbers.

It might be satisfying to strip away the bonus restrictions, but there’s no chance Major League Baseball would approve. The pool cap was set too recently; it is too obviously a preferred policy of MLB. It’s not going anywhere, but the draft should, because the bonus pool can handle the main functions currently laid on the draft.

You say teams with bad records should have first crack at the best young talent? Give them a larger pool to sign those players, as the current two-way system does now in conjunction with draft position. You say teams in smaller markets, or with less revenue, should have better access to those players? Again, just give them the pool room they already receive as part and parcel of their competitive-balance picks. You say teams losing free agents should receive compensation, or teams violating other rules should suffer a penalty? You see now what my answer is.

Getting rid of redundancy is one advantage of my proposal. Another, more cosmetic, one is that it does away with the unseemly appearances produced by the slot values themselves. Teams today will dicker draftees into taking bonuses below, sometimes well below, announced slot value in order to free up money to spend on other draftees. (Such as those after the first 10 rounds, for whom zero pool room is allotted.)

It’s arguably bad optics for MLB to restrain bonuses in the first place. It’s worse to watch teams actively chiseling their first-round picks, or chiseling their later picks to pay more to the first-round guy. (One can only imagine how those chiseled players feel, playing in the minors alongside guys who got some of “their” money.) Taking away those somewhat notional stated values for each pick in favor of an overall pool removes a locus of resentment, for both fans and the incoming players.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The greatest advantage comes in restoring something the amateur players haven’t had for over half a century: choice. Today, a drafted high-school player can either sign with the one team that selected him or go to college and hope to boost his value. A drafted college junior can sign with the one team that selected him or hang on through his senior year. That drafted senior, though, would have no choice: Sign with the one team that selected him or give up the dream.

The immutable theme of that litany is “one team.” If a player wants to start his progress toward the majors, he has Hobson’s choice: that team, or nothing*. Maybe he can use college to defer the choice, get a second spin of the wheel. There’s no guarantee he’ll get a better result, no assurance he would draw the team he might want, no way to expand his market to the several teams that might want him.

* Technically he can wait out a year and re-enter the draft. This, however, is usually so damaging to his prospect standing that it is an impractical choice.

Removing the draft gives the players their autonomy back. They can deal with the teams they want, whether it be for money, a better chance at a championship, or to join the team they loved as kids. They get the chance to play teams off each other, get a bidding war going. (Even if money pools put both theoretical and practical limits on those bids.) Maybe they aren’t so desirable that that will happen, but they would have the chance to learn it for themselves. And if only one team wants them, they are no worse off than with the draft.

Bumps in the Road

Brooming the draft does not come without potential downsides. One such possible disadvantage comes from losing Draft Day. Instead of concentrating the recruitment of new talent into a short, publicity-friendly event held a stone’s throw from New York, baseball would be diffusing it all over the map and the calendar. Can baseball afford to sacrifice a self-promoting spectacle like the NFL or NBA drafts?

That’s the hitch: The MLB Amateur Draft doesn’t have nearly the cachet of those for football or basketball. Much of the reason is because baseball’s draftees take much longer to develop into viable players at the top level. A first-rounder in the NBA or NFL is expected to have an immediate impact and often does. It’s tougher to make must-see TV out of deferred gratification.

Also, the draft’s place in the middle of baseball season isn’t ideal for publicity either. The NFL and NBA drafts come during their respective offseasons, giving a boost to slumbering interest. The NBA draft lottery falls during the league’s playoffs, giving fans of tail-ender teams something to root for while the elites are duking it out. Lacking such a convenient set-up, MLB loses much less by dropping its Draft Day.

(The timing is the way it is because high school and college seasons for baseball don’t coincide with the professional season the way the college seasons do for basketball and football. I could launch from this into a disquisition on the immense power colleges have in those two sports, and the corruption and abuses of power that follow—but I’m a baseball writer, so I’ll leave it to others.)

Losing Draft Day isn’t much of a sacrifice, but another matter raises concerns more difficult to dismiss. If you restore to amateurs the chance to decide where they’ll sign, they may have the same teams in mind. High-profile clubs like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cubs could well be more tempting than the Rays, Pirates, and Royals. If amateurs are drawn more to those destinations, they could be willing to give those teams a discount on the bonuses needed to hire their services. That could distort the pool system by making high-profile teams’ money “worth” more than other clubs’.

There is already a countermeasure to this in place. Teams with small markets and low revenues are currently given compensatory draft picks and commensurate bonus pool room. That’s a privilege the high-profile teams, rich in revenue and market size, won’t get. Perhaps that’s enough to balance the scales, or perhaps not.

Here is another plausible tilt to the playing field. Teenaged ballplayers could be drawn to signing up with teams near where they live, teams they’ve been rooting for as far back as they can remember. This local connection could work both ways, with teams scouting and recruiting at nearby schools more vigorously than distant ones. This could be a marketing asset for the teams, a “local boy makes good” angle raising fan appreciation of the player. Think back to how Yankees fans loved fellow New Yorker Lou Gehrig, and how Reds fans embraced Cincinnati’s own Pete Rose.

Such a localizing trend would not produce an even distribution among the 30 teams. Warmer climes like Florida, Texas, and southern California would have an advantage (fortuitously helping the troubled Rays and Marlins, while maybe making the rich Dodgers richer). Places like Seattle and Milwaukee would find themselves with the shorter end of the stick. Toronto could find a balance, with Canada’s relatively few home-grown baseball players having an open chance to play for their home country.

There definitely could be other influences working on the prospects that I haven’t covered, tugging them in unpredictable directions. It’s unlikely it would all cancel out and leave the playing field perfectly level. Could baseball tolerate such a system, granting all those kids that autonomy at the risk of…drop your voice to a whisper in saying it…unfairness?

Why not? It already does.

What I’m proposing is close to the system we have for international signings, especially as it pertains to Latin America. Young players can bargain with any teams that are willing to listen to them, while those teams have caps placed on the total bonuses they can pay out to those youths. Roughly one-third of major league players arrive through this system, enough to raise alarms about the distortion of talent accumulation if it was happening. Baseball has been raising a number of alarms lately, but this hasn’t been one of them.

The game is content to let this large group of players enter the pro ranks with this kind of freedom. It would work a little differently in practice with the American and Canadian kids: The economic and cultural gulfs between them and the Caribbean Basin makes that a certainty. That’s not enough reason to deny them the opportunity to choose their team that they haven’t had for two generations.

If there is a problem, if it does produce an anti-competitive tilt in where fresh talent ends up, I don’t say to ignore it. Examine it, confirm it, and make needed reforms, or in the most extreme case undo the change altogether. But I don’t think it will be necessary, and I don’t think fear of such a problem should prevent baseball from shrugging off the redundancy of the draft.

Baseball gives its prospects a hard road to the majors, in the many minor-league levels they have to ascend and the Poverty Row conditions they must endure much of the way. Giving these players more control over how they start on that long road would reconcile them better to their labors and maybe coax some more multi-sport talents into choosing to pursue baseball professionally. That means more talent in the pipeline, and that means baseball is stronger and better.

Do I expect this to happen? The odds are long, and if you want to ignite a debate on baseball moving in this direction, there are lots of bylines that would give it a better start. All I can do is say what I’ve said: Ending the draft is a good idea that would make baseball better, primarily for its young players. If it doesn’t happen, it’s not because nobody ever suggested it.

References and Resources

A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Famous Mortimer
3 years ago

An excellent article, and one I agree with completely.

3 years ago

To Adley Rutschman, good luck.

3 years ago

I would love this. The setting of draft budgets would be a source of great debate. Team A offered $10MM to player B, and he signed with the Yankees for $2MM. Can Team A get additional compensation in a later year? Losing free agents, small market boost, etc… tons of levers you can pull in the name of fairness. Team Z is terrible, but there is no consensus number 1 prospect? They can use their expanded budget differently.

3 years ago

This is obviously preferable to a draft, and not just in baseball. It’s why fantasy sports moved away from draft to auctions as well. However its unlikely to occur. The theater wins out. If anything, they’ll incorporate international amateurs into the draft.

3 years ago
Reply to  FightingAmish

It works in fantasy sports because everyone has the same amount of money to spend, and with the exception of keeper leagues, no one has anyone rostered already. But even in keeper leagues, there is a hard cap on spending. None of those circumstances are true of MLB.

mike sixelmember
3 years ago

I have been saying this for years….but then I’d like players to have choice. Another way to address this is to give the worst teams more money in their pool, so they can either bid more for the best player, or sign more of the next tier players. I have a complex proposal I might post on a blog someday all written up…..

3 years ago

This is a fantastic discussion…and maybe in giving the freedom to the players to choose, would lead to teams investing more in the quality of their minor league teams. To maybe get players to choose their organization over another.

Bobby Ayala
3 years ago

I won’t argue the draft isn’t perfect, but allowing a free-for-all anyone-can-sign-anywhere will destroy parity. In a cold climate? Team been struggling for a few years? High income tax? Stadium uncertainties? Had a PR problem? 80% of incoming players will want to play for one of a dozen teams, and everyone else will get the scraps.

mike sixelmember
3 years ago
Reply to  Bobby Ayala

I’m all for the players having a choice who their employer is before they are 27-31 years old…..

Players will sign for money and opportunity. It would be bad decision making to go to a team loaded with stars and prospects, reducing your likelihood of getting to the majors faster.

3 years ago

If you’re going to cap spending to the current draft pools, what’s the point in changing? It’s easy to tie general draft pick tiers to MLB success. All your suggestion would do is stratify the draft. You’d see more ++ million signs and more 20k signs. The middle would be destroyed. Is that good or bad? Who knows, but I suspect not since MiLB pays doo-doo all ready.

3 years ago
Reply to  Wegandi727

Especially as we’ve seen how well the “everything for the people at the top, nothing for the people at the bottom, and no middle class” model has worked out for broader American society. Sometimes a little regulation, even if it isn’t TEH BEST for every single individual person, is best for the league at large.

Here’s how you fix the system: real revenue sharing, and fix the arb system so players are actually compensated on par with their performance in their first six years. Ta da!

3 years ago
Reply to  Bobby Ayala

+1. It always kind of amazes me that people look at the European soccer model, in which only a handful of teams win every league every year, and say “Sign us up for that!!!!”.

Green Mountain Boy
3 years ago

The argument in favor of ending the draft, as well as the comments so far, assume that all teams are in the baseball business to win. This simply isn’t true now and has never been true throughout history. Unfortunately, many teams (half?), most of them small-market, are more focused on profitability than winning, and I can’t say that I blame them. Why spend gobs of cash developing players when you know they’re leaving via free agency the first chance they get? The bigger market teams don’t care – they’re they ones replenishing players lost to free agency by signing new free agents every year. When was the last time you heard of a top free agent signing with Tampa Bay, for example? Never! Even if, say, Anthony Rendon really wanted to sign there, they couldn’t afford to pay him what he’s getting from the Angels. Taking everything else out of it, the cable deals of the bigger market teams alone give them a huge advantage.

Think back to the landscape before there was a draft. In other words, why was the draft instituted? The Yankees, Dodgers, and maybe a couple others signed everyone they could. They had 2-3 times the number of farm clubs as other teams, if for no other reason than they could afford it. This was a huge advantage, and one they exploited to the fullest. Also remember, the draft was implemented before free agency, and it did distribute the talent far more evenly to where the difference between who won and who lost was more a function of how good (or bad) a team’s front office, instructional staff, and scouts were. I would argue that free agency, while a good thing, did more to disrupt what instituting a draft had accomplished than any other factor.

I’m not saying there isn’t a problem today. Obviously there is. I just don’t think getting rid of the draft will solve it. Why? Let’s say each team has $20 million in their new player pool. Let’s say, as the article proposes, that eligible players can sign with anyone for any reason. It makes sense that most of the best ones want to sign with a winning organization. Now assume you’re a team owner with a big, lucrative cable deal. What would you rather have, three of the five best players coming out, projected to be superstars, costing $18 million, leaving $2 million for the rest? Or would you rather sign 15 new players, projected to be average at best, at $1 million each? I think you can see where this goes. It makes the rich richer, just like pre-1965.

So what’s the solution? Much as I dislike the management practices of the NFL, their rotating cache of good teams from all types of markets is mainly due to revenue sharing, allowing all teams to be on roughly equal ground financially, where again, the difference in good vs bad teams becomes front office, coaching, and scouting. And that’s what I’d suggest is best for this era of professional baseball. Would the owners agree to it? Let’s just say it would probably have the same degree of difficulty as herding cats.

mike sixelmember
3 years ago

Then give the worst teams more money they can spend in the “draft”. Or, limit what the best teams can spend on any one player. There are ways to get over hurdles. Also, if a team can sign 4-7 pitchers that would have gone in round 3-5, they are pretty likely to end up with one good pitcher. Numbers matter, not just elite players.

3 years ago
Reply to  mike sixel

The current draft system all ready does this. What problem are you proposing to solve with these suggestions?

mike sixelmember
3 years ago
Reply to  Wegandi727

Freedom for the players to go where they want, for one thing.

3 years ago

Hit the nail on the head here. The real solution to all of this is real revenue sharing, which of course nobody wants to implement.

3 years ago

We already see owners that are content with not spending and just collecting the profits that even a bad MLB team can provide. Revenue sharing will only increase the profitability of bad teams and give these bad teams even less of an incentive to spend.

3 years ago

I never understood and I still do not understand why one of the freest countries in the world allows professional sports teams to act like a communist country or a mafia organization. MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL – they are all big cartells.

The most talented computer scientist can sign for whatever amount a tech company wants to pay them, but the most talented kids in sports have to play for years (in many cases their best years) for minimum wage. This minimum wage is considerably higher than normal people´s minimum wage, but it is also considerably lower than the wages of many aging free agents past their prime.

While there is for everyone in the US freedom of choice where to work and where they can apply, the draft system prevents freedom of choicewhere to work for professional sports players.

Let the market decice how much sports teams are willing to pay for young players, not an insane collusion of team cartells and a so called player organisation which does NOT represent the majority of players.