Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Here's hoping the draft isn't catching

Ryan Leaf, too, wonders why Major League Baseball would want to mimic the worst thing that ever happened to him. Photo from this site.

Major League Baseball’s draft day is here (and seriously, I’ll refer to it by their designated term—“First-Year Player Draft”—the same day pigs fly out of my backside). And the fact it’s actually going to take three days to complete what used to be done in less than two is the latest indicator that MLB is trying to turn the draft into something that it’s not—an event on par with the NFL draft.

After televising the first round live on ESPN during the afternoon the previous two years, the draft will take place and be televised in prime time tonight, when it airs on the MLB Network beginning at 6 p.m.

I can’t imagine the GMs who used to like banging out 20 rounds on day one and the remaining 30 on day two are thrilled with sitting around until dinnertime and getting all of three rounds in before calling it a night. But placing the draft on MLB Network makes sense: It’s a brand-new station with a desperate need for original programming. And if the house organ for baseball wants to bludgeon us with coverage of the draft, hey, that’s why it’s there.

That said, wanting to bring an NFL-level of hype and instant analysis to the draft is a terrible idea.

Time has proven that the hype and instant analysis that accompanies the NFL Draft is foolish. There was a legitimate debate in 1998 over who got the better quarterback: The Colts with top pick Peyton Manning or the Chargers at no. 2 with Ryan Leaf. Manning is headed for the Hall of Fame and Leaf might be going to jail.

In 1999, the Browns and Bengals figured they’d finally found a franchise quarterback with Tim Couch, the first pick, and Akili Smith, the third pick. Donovan McNabb went second to the Eagles, whose fans immediately booed him as fiercely as they would Santa Claus. Five quarterbacks were taken in a first round that was compared to the 1983 draft, but McNabb and Daunte Culpepper aren’t exactly Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly, nor did Couch, Smith and Cade McNown do much to honor the legacies of Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason and Ken O’Brien.

And in 2000, six quarterbacks went before the Patriots plucked Tom Brady in the sixth round. Among those immortals: Tee Martin and Giovanni Carmazzi, who combined for zero NFL starts, and Chris Redman and Spurgeon Wynn, who combined for 13 starts.

So why would MLB want to mimic the NFL, especially when the objective of its draft is far different and its player pool far larger and more unfamiliar to the average fan?

The Red Sox might need a shortstop in the worst way, but nobody they draft this week will replace Nick Green next month. Nor will the long-term replacement for Jason Varitek be backing him up by September. Teams certainly enter the draft with wish lists, but they are more concerned with the long-term and building and fortifying the system than making an instant impact.

One glance at SoxProspects.com indicates most Sox fans get this, but I’m convinced they are in the minority. Most of the players selected in the next three days are years away from contributing at the big league level, which makes projecting them today a particularly risky endeavor.

The average NFL career is four years. 2005 draftee Michael Bowden has appeared in two big league games and is still among the Sox’ top prospects.

In addition, you can watch a guy play football on Saturdays on ESPN and have a pretty good idea he’s headed for stardom when he plays Sundays on CBS or Fox. It’s a lot tougher to get a glimpse of most of the top draft prospects in baseball, likely no. 1 choice Stephen Strasberg excepted, and there’s no way to recognize if someone is going to succeed until he starts playing with the other BMOCs in pro ball.

The proving ground of pro ball also proves the process by which teams select players is just as imperfect as in the NFL. The Sox picked Dustin Pedroia in the second round of the 2004 draft. He’s worked out pretty well. The next two players the Sox selected in ’04, pitchers Andrew Dobies and Tommy Hottovy, have yet to throw a pitch above Double-A.

The Sox had an amazing haul in 2005, when they selected five future big leaguers among their first seven picks. Yet they missed, and badly, on those two other players—catcher Jonathan Egan and pitcher Scott Blue, each of whom were out of baseball by Opening Day 2008.

Many pixels were spilled on the off-the-charts makeup possessed by the Sox’ first two picks in ’05, Jacoby Ellsbury and Craig Hansen. Oh well, we were half right.

In addition, the unpredictability of the MLB draft makes mock drafting especially fruitless, especially with teams not bound by Bud Selig’s “slotting” suggestions. Cheaper teams draft players for signability reasons and top talents scare off said teams with their bonus demands. So the Pirates select Daniel Moskos instead of Matt Wieters in 2007 and Lars Anderson falls to the Sox in the 18th round in 2005 and signed for more than $1 million.

Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus went 2-for-30 last season. This guy went 1-9 picking the top 10. Even those who are obsessed with the draft mock their mocks.

The decision-makers at MLB aren’t the only ones who want the draft to become bigger than it is. New York columnists Bill Madden and Joel Sherman have both recently called for MLB to liven up the festivities by allowing teams to trade draft picks. Both writers make compelling cases, but the draft as it is means the teams that are otherwise content to mail it in at the major league level and wail about competitive imbalance while getting fat off revenue sharing have to, at some level, try. We’re looking at you, Pittsburgh and Kansas City and Florida.

If teams were allowed to trade picks, the Pirates almost certainly would have pled poverty and would not have been shamed into drafting and eventually signing Pedro Alvarez last year. The Royals have also gone from ignoring the draft to investing in it over the last few years. The draft was the one thing the Devil Rays did right before they dropped the Devil and surged into the World Series last year.

Sherman lauds the NFL for turning its draft into such an event “…that reporters—who don’t know if the left guard on the team they just watched play 16 games had a good season—will do a mock draft to tell you the strengths and weaknesses of a left guard from Texas Tech they never have seen.”

But anyone who talks about the MLB draft knows what he’s talking about. Let’s keep it that way.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

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