I'm going to steal an idea from Keith Law for a moment. I don't know when he first came up with the idea or when he first publicly stated the idea, but the first time I saw it was last summer during the Stephen Strasburg debates (I found it funny that there were vehement arguments stating he should have gotten more money and others barking that he made too much considering he had never thrown a major-league pitch; both seem fairly legitimate to me, but I side with the former).
Initially, I thought it was a terrible idea, but it has grown on me the more I’ve thought about it. We've been taught that the draft was the solution to the Yankee domination from the 1920s to the 1960s (they won 20 World Series during that time; only one other team has even won 10 in all of baseball history!). The Yankees had essentially been buying up some talented prospects and using the Kansas City A's as a farm team, and with everyone tired of it, they instituted the draft (okay, that's not exactly why it happened, but it's what we've been led to believe; perception is reality). Instituting the draft in 1965 was supposed to redistribute talent throughout baseball, making the game fairer. And you know what, it did (or at least appeared to). It was the right solution. The Yankees have only won 7 World Series since, and the Cardinals have only won 3 (the Cardinals are the team with 10 World Series Championships).
But just because it worked then, does it mean it continues to work now? It's odd how we perceive things. In this instance, the draft initially worked to create (better) competitive balance, and now as we search for more competitive balance, we can't let go of the draft. Free-agency for amateurs is what caused the problem necessitating the draft, so how can it be the answer now? How can the draft have been a solution and now be part of the problem? The answer is that times change.
Today isn't the same as yesterday. The reasons that the draft was a good idea in the 1960s no longer exist (some variations exist -- people believing other teams to be farm systems of the Yankees -- but the situations are so drastically different that it's not worth mentioning, really – better scouting, scouting more players, institution of free-agency, Latin America). In fact, it might actually make quite a bit of sense to go back to a time without a draft. When one looks at politics, for example, one often sees a pendulum of sorts -- after a period of Democrat rule, Republicans take over -- because one side usually goes a bit too far, and a natural correction, of sorts, takes place. It’s a necessary maneuver to reduce abuses of power and maintain some focus on public interest. It's never a complete swing back (today's liberals are tomorrow's conservatives) as adjustments have been made to learn from mistakes. After a period of time where the draft has been implemented, used, and manipulated, it might be time to get rid of it with the addition of a few tweaks. If that doesn't blow your mind, then this might -- after a few decades, we might have to go back to a draft, and it won’t mean abolishing the draft was a mistake.
Anyway, does a draft-less MLB work? What are the perceptions and questions? What are the problems with the draft-less proposal that need some tinkering?
Won't the Yankees just buy everyone?
I'll make some Yankees fans happy, for once. No, they won't buy everyone. Look at the international market now. Aroldis Chapman, Michael Ynoa, Edward Salcedo, Elvis Andrus, etc. were not signed by the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, or Angels. What people tend to forget is that prospecting carries a lot of risk, even enough to make big-market teams wince. The large-market teams will scout players and decide whether they believe the player is worth the risk. And as much money as the Yankees have, they're still playing with opportunity risks. If they spend an abundance of money on amateur free-agents, they will eventually have to spend less on their major-league roster. With the payroll they have, it might actually make more sense to spend money on established free-agents than prospects (they have enough money that spending more for established production outweighs spending money for upside in risky prospects). Let's use Strasburg as an example. Some believed that he would have made $50 million if he had been on the free-agent market. While $1-2 million won't make much of a difference to the Yankees, $50 million would have quite an impact, even on them. And then, the Yankees have to consider the risk of signing him. We have high expectations for him, but a blown elbow could be around the corner. Additionally, they then have to weigh signing Strasburg and not signing other players ($50 million could buy a lot of prospects). The Yankees seem to have an unlimited payroll, but they don't. And the big-market teams’ money already helps them accrue better talent when a team in the front of the draft sticks to slot and avoids a big talent, who then falls to the big-market team later, so sticking with what we have isn’t solving that problem.
But don't they still have more money to spend than anyone else?
Yes, but it's not so simple. If the Yankees simply set aside $20 million for amateur free-agents, they could go after the top prospects only and end up with Dustin Ackely, Tyler Matzek, and Shelby Miller instead of worrying about 11th and 12th round picks. Again, there's a lot of risk there (a lot of money tied into fewer prospects), but they might do that for the potential upside. I have a few ideas on what to do, but I’m not sure if any of them are any good. One, place a ceiling on how much a team can spend depending on where they finish (bad teams get to spend more than winning teams), but that might prevent the Yankees (or someone else; I’m not trying to pick on the Yankees) from making a crippling mistake. Two, place a limit on the number of prospects they can sign, but if you do that, they'll just go hog-wild on the top guys. Three, create a points system based on talent level of the prospect and place a cap on how many "points" a team can sign, but there are so many logistical issues with that that it's almost not worth mentioning. Yes, the Yankees can spend more money, but they would also be taking on a disproportionate amount of risk while also dipping into the major-league budget.
Is it really all about the money, stupid?
This will really get you going. It's not, though money obviously has a significant effect. But let's take a look at the decision-making process. An amateur has two missions -- to make a mountain of money and to make it to the major leagues. Money only solves one of those desires. The road to the majors also has an effect. If I really want to make the team, would I choose a big-market team that constantly overlooks its prospects, often trading them, for established major-league players? And what happens if the Yankees do actually initially load up on prospects? Do you really want to fight through all of those other highly-touted prospects when you could get through another system much faster? I realize that there are such things as "wanting to play for your childhood team", but self-promotion is often a powerful force. I'd rather be a major-league star for the Giants than a 26-year old AAA guy for the Red Sox. It even might make financial sense (give up money now for the chance at more later when you reach free-agency quicker). And sometimes the “childhood team” is the Orioles.
But won't signing bonuses for prospects skyrocket, thus limiting small-market teams’ budgets?
Probably not. It's supply and demand. The really good prospects (like the top 15) will probably see a jump in what they can demand from teams because a lot of teams will want them and their talent separates them into the truly elite, cant-miss guys. The next 50 players or so become more interchangeable, and while they are talented and desired by many teams, they won't separate themselves as much from each other. They'll likely end up garnering as much as they get now and maybe a little more. As for the rest, they might actually see their bonuses tank or, more probably, stay the same. If most of the top 100 can't separate themselves, then once you get past them, there's really little separation in talent. If you have a lot of similar quality guys, players lose leverage. They'll take less just to make a team. As for the small-market teams, they probably won’t have to pay much more than they do now.
But what about the difference between Americans and non-Americans?
This is where something really needs to be done. Right now, it's nowhere near fair that a Latin American can choose where to go and for how much money when an American has no such luck. This isn't a xenophobic remark of "Those foreigners shouldn't be treated better than good ole' American boys." It's that each player should be treated the same. There should be equality. No player should receive advantages over other players simply based on their country of origin. Does the amateur free-agency solve this? Almost but not completely. The ability to choose has been granted. We still have, however, the issue of age (foreigners can sign at 16, but Americans have to be out of high school, usually at 18) and college (Division I players have to wait three years out of high school to re-enter the draft whereas it doesn't matter for foreigners). How do we change this? One, eliminate the college rule. If they want to be one-and-done, let it happen (If you say something about killing the college game, I’ll slap you and refer to the fact that the only college games on TV involve the CWS and no one really watches those anyway; plus, metal bats are stupid at that age). Unfortunately, the age issue is a bit testier, but I think it's easier than one might imagine. I would either make a universal age-16 or age-18 rule. The Age-16 Rule (making everyone eligible at 16 no matter their country of origin) will anger those in favor of education. However, if a player can get serious money at age 16 to go play baseball, they can come back to get their GED, but I can see a worse stigma than someone now has with going back to college. I would, therefore, advocate the Age-18 Rule (the same as Age-16 but now at age 18). It nullifies the advantage of foreigners who can get into the systems two years earlier (a major advantage and reason that the Caribbean is scoured so heavily), but again, we're going for some semblance of fairness. Maybe the MLB can create some leagues in foreign countries that promote better competition for 16-18 year olds. Or maybe we can compromise. Players can sign as early as 16, but they can't officially enter the farm system (rookie leagues or above) until 18. For the age 16-18 seasons, the MLB can create developmental leagues for the summer (much like AAU). I'm open to suggestions, but they have to make it fair for Americans and non-Americans.
But won’t their be abuses here as well?
Sure. There usually are. This is why we need tweaks to the original system, or we need to understand how the other changes in the game since the draft was instituted will eliminate the original abuses of a draft-less MLB. But remember, if there are problems, you can make tweaks after a few years. Just do it for a good reason. It’s hard to predict the effects of a social theory. Soft slotting may have seemed like a good idea in theory, but we’ve seen how that worked.
Not having a draft isn't as ridiculous as some believe. We don't need a draft to aid competitive balance, even though it helped 45 years ago. Times have changed, and the draft actually creates problems now (not being able to trade draft picks, free-agent compensation, soft slotting system, difference between Americans and non-Americans). Free-agency for amateurs will open things up. If teams want to pour money into prospects, they can buy as many as they want. If prospects don’t make as much sense for a team, then it doesn’t have to waste its time. Signing prospects doesn’t make the same sense to everyone. There might be an initial bout with fairness (maybe a rush to be with the Yankees or Red Sox), but it will undergo a self-correction (there are only so many spots on a 25-man roster – 25, in fact). Then, we'll let it go for another 30-40 years, and after technology and scouting change yet again, we might have to go back to a draft. Sometimes creating stability means creating flexibility, and it means realizing that going back to a previous arrangement doesn’t mean that the current one was a mistake originally. Let's not be too hard-headed and cling to what we know just because we know it.