Friday, August 21, 2009

SPORTS: The Baseball Talent Entry System

The baseball draft has been broken for years. It rewards the Scott Boras's of the world and anybody who can manage to defect to a Caribbean nation and youngish old guys from Japan.

Bud Selig, clueless as he often seems to be, is probably going to make changing the draft his last stand before vacating the office of Commissioner of Major League Baseball. It's also going to lead to a strike. He wants massive changes and will get maybe half of the changes he wants, even after going through a strike. But at least there will be something new to complain about.

Since he won't get what he wants, let me tell you what SHOULD happen.

First of all, the draft changes names. The amateur draft hasn't been about real amateurs for years. Those full-ride college scholarships the baseball teams are competing against are worth thousands of dollars. Baseball players are semi-pro, when we are talking about high schoolers graduating to college. Soooo, we change the name of the draft to the Baseball Talent Entry System. That's step one.

Next, baseball talent can NOT sign a professional baseball contract with the major leagues and their minor affiliates UNLESS they have been through the Baseball Talent Entry System. If they go undrafted in their one and only one time in the draft, they are free agents to do as they will.

Thirdly (I think we are up to three 'rules'), the second requirement pertains to every player in the world. No exceptions for Japanese players. No exceptions for players escaping the brutal dictatorships around the world. No exceptions.

Japanese players, for example, can STILL participate with posting fees. It's just that the posting fee is stated up front and is open to all teams to accept as the price for drafting a player. If Daisuke Matsuzaka is going to cost some team $51M, then that's the price. But it's open to the San Diego Padres AND the Boston Red Sox. Posting fees from Korea and Taiwan follow the same process.

The draft is reduced to about 40 rounds, enough to refill a major league roster every year.

Based on the NBA renumeration system, there is a pre-determined payment system based on a three-year MINOR LEAGUE contract that is the only payment method available. Strictly cash, no other bonuses. Players won't need agents or 'advisors.' The money will be non-negotiable. The price for the top pick will be healthy, and will be adjusted as a portion of major league revenues on a yearly basis. Each succeeding pick through the first two rounds will get payments on a sliding scale. For rounds 3-10, there will be a flat fee that is respectable, say $250,000. Rounds 11-20 get $200,000, 21-30 $150,000 and rounds 31-40 $100,000. Draftees in the latter half of the draft (21-40) only get two-year contracts.

Will this system result in more kids staying in school? Yep. And I find nothing wrong with that. And no, declining an offer after being drafted as a high school senior, doesn't leave you with a free agent bonanza two years later. A draftee's rights stay with the drafting team for a period of four years. Each year, the signing cost escalates by a percentage for those drafted in the first three rounds, otherwise, by $50,000 a year (a stay-in-school bonus, so to speak). At the end of the four-year 'rights' window, the drafting team has another year, less a day, to sign the player before he becomes a free agent.

The same four years (plus 364 days) window applies to foreign players freshly added to the now-drafted group. That means 32 year old Japanese stars looking to try their hand in America and 16-year old Dominicans.

If you do NOT get drafted in the 40 rounds of your 'draft' year, you are a free agent to do as you will.

Eligibility to participate in the Talent Entry System follows, more or less, current baseball rules. You have to have graduated high school or be at least 18 years of age. This obviously affects the Latin players, where we are seeing signings of players as young as 16 (and scouting/touting of even younger kids). This is going to require baseball to spend some money along the lines of the old Kansas City Royals' Youth Academy. MLB will set up Youth Academies in each of the various countries that produce baseball talent. Besides ensuring good instruction, nutrition and the chance to play before assembled scouts, the schools will also teach English and general life skills for these kids. Anything we can do to stop the bonus-stealing and, let's be honest, flesh-peddling that goes on, has to be a step up. The laissez-faire attitude that some Caribbean nations have for performance enhancing drugs will be battled. And the academies will do a lot of the pre-screening for legitimate birth certificates that seems to be a game with some of the kids down there. By the time these kids make their trip north to The Show, they will be older, stronger and better prepared for cultural shock. And closer to being actually ready to help a major league team.

A LOT of the money MLB will be saving under my draft plan will have to go to these youth academies. But the return on investment will be immense. Like the high schoolers in the States and Canada, this system helps stem the tide of poorly-prepared teenagers from bypassing schooling opportunities to chase the dream. Won't stop it completely, but it will be a good start.

Baseball benefits greatly in that they won't be paying for the 'learning' years nearly as much as it currently does. No big fat bonuses for the kids who don't pan out. (well, not as big). The players they DO sign, will be either the super-talented, super-driven kids or the more mature men who come later on. By that time, they will have a better idea of whether signing the player at the assigned price is a good deal or not.

So, what do we do about draft pick compensation for signing free agents away from other teams. (There's no worry about sandwich picks for not signing this year's draftees, of course). Well, this is simple. Each team's 40-man roster (including new free agents signings) is ranked in value on opening day. Injured players are included. The value is assumed to be the cash payements with ALL bonuses assumed to be awarded. If your new free agent is the first player in value, you owe your first-round draft pick to the former team. If he's the 20th-ranked player, then the old team gets the 20th-round pick you own.

This system is straightforward. It doesn't prevent the situation like that, that happened to the Toronto Blue Jays this year. AJ Burnett signed a huge deal that would have given the Jays a first rounder and a first round sandwich pick ... if he signed with anybody but New York, basically. But because he was the third-ranked free agent on the Yanks this year, the Jays got a THIRD-rounder from New York and the sandwich pick, which hardly seems fair to some people. And my system is even worse. I think Burnett's seventh on the Yankee payroll this year. Soooo, under my rules, the compensation for Burnett comes down to a seventh-round pick. A flaw? Yes. But just about any compensation system is flawed when factoring in the Yankees and Red Sox. Would I like to see a payroll cap? Sure. Won't happen. But I'd like to see one. If not a cap, I'd like to see a punishing luxury tax that starts lower and doubles every 40 million or so. If the Yankees were really only spending in the $150M area and the Red Sox and other big spenders came down to the $120M, teams could definitely compete with them for nine figures total.

At any rate, that's a separate rant somewhere in the future.

A lot has been made of the Yankee's home-grown talent. That IT's the secret behind their success, as much as the high-priced free agents. But a LOT of that talent was acquired, in effect, as undrafted amateur free agents. Mariano Rivera? Undrafted. Bernie Williams? Undrafted (although he would be today). Alfonso Soriano? Undrafted. There are more, but those are first three that come to mind. Credit the Yankees for finding that talent, but they signed LOTS of Latin talent. Those are amongst the ones that panned out. Spreading lots of money around meant lots of opportunities to get lucky. And they did.

I say, take back the Yankee advantage to get lucky in Latin America and I believe the field gets leveled. And afterall, isn't that actually the reason behind a talent draft in any pro sport?

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