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The Amateur Draft: Why Do We Care?

Note: I'll be handling the draft coverage here tomorrow, so I figured I'd start from the beginning. To many of you, this will be old news, so feel free to ignore.

Every year come June there's a pretty big hoopla over the Major League Baseball Rule 4 Amateur draft. Baseball America talks about it non-stop for months, it's televised at primetime, and everyone and their grandmother throws up mock drafts all over the place. I even took the day off tomorrow so I can focus solely on the draft without that whole being fired business. But why do we care? A significant number of the names said tomorrow won't make the Major Leagues despite signing bonuses in the hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. Not even those who make the bigs are guaranteed to have an impact. Look no further than our very own Jeff Clement, once billed as a power hitting lefthander who could be an elite bat at catcher and now mired in AAA pretending to be a first baseman. So why follow it at all?

Well, some people don't bother with it. These people comprise the vast majority of baseball fans, but I'll assume that you, dear reader, are more interested in the inner workings of baseball franchises than that. We care about the draft, and care deeply, because we care about prospects, because we care about the makeup of our team in five years, and because the players acquired each June make up the future of Major League Baseball.

Winning teams are almost never built on trades and free agents. Even last decade's Yankee dynasty wasn't fueled by its free agents but by the draft picks of the early-mid 90s. And if the most successful period of the richest franchise in the game didn't come on the back of massive spending (which actually marked the recent 'decline' of the Yankees instead), nobody else is really going to be able to spend their way up to the top either. The reason, of course, can be found in two words: Club Control.

No matter what anyone tells you, how much money a club commits to a player is important. Payrolls are not infinite, and stupid contracts can cripple a team's ability to be flexible with their rosters or make a big splash when required. Due to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, for the first six or seven years of a player's career in the majors, they are paid far less than what they would make in free agency, and for the first three they make more or less the league minimum. Think of it like this: You could get an entire 25 man roster of Adam Jones for the price of one Carlos Silva. It follows, therefore, that young, productive players are more valuable than old, productive players, because they are much much cheaper. Their very presence in a roster allows a team to supplement its young core with pricey free agents. A team of said free agents isn't magically available to pick up young talent from nowhere. Therefore, the goal of every major league team should be to put that core of talent into place and keep it stocked year after year, while adding pieces as required to go on championship runs.

Where does young talent come from? With the exception of the international free agency market, dominated by Caribbean players, it comes from this draft. The best young players in the United States and Canada are all* free for the taking, and if a team is in possession of one of the top draft picks it can come away with a truly special talent. Evan Longoria and Tim Lincecum, for example, were both taken inside the top 10 picks of the 2006 draft, while future stars David Price and Matt Wieters were taken at #1 and #5 in 2007 respectively. This year features the best amateur pitching talent the game has ever seen in Stephen Strasburg, with a reasonably strong supporting cast made up mostly of pitching, but also featuring hitting machine Dustin Ackley, generally considered to be the second best prospect in the country. This doesn't do the draft justice, though. There is talent to be found not only in the high rounds, but in the later days as well. Albert Pujols was drafted in the 13th round in 1999, and future hall of famer Mike Piazza was drafted in the 62nd (the draft only goes to 50 rounds these days).

In short, if you want young baseball players, June is where it's at. We have the #2 pick tomorrow, followed by #27, #33, and #51. Pay attention to the names you hear, because each of them has an excellent chance of turning into a household name. Pay especially close attention to the #2 pick. This team cannot afford to miss this time around. The first few rounds will be tomorrow starting at 3PST, and the draft will conclude sometime on Thursday. This should be a lot of fun.

*Assuming they are draft eligible, of course. The rules are as follows:

  • Be a resident of the United States, Canada, or a U.S. territory such as Puerto Rico. Players from other countries are not subject to the draft, and can be signed by any team.
  • Have never signed a major or minor league contract.
  • High school players are eligible only after graduation, and if they have not attended college.
  • Players at four-year colleges are eligible after completing their junior years, or after their twenty-first birthdays. The exception to this is Division III schools, where players can be drafted before their junior year.
  • Junior and community college players are eligible to be drafted at any time. [Wiki]