The draft is a broken system, one in which Major League Baseball openly and unashamedly restricts the career options of hundreds of young men in order to save itself millions of dollars each year, and everyone nods and smiles. We accept the concept of a draft in sports because it has largely been sold as a mechanism for increasing competitive balance—the worst teams get the highest picks. In fact, drafting high and drafting well are completely different things, as any fan of the Pirates—or, at the other end of the spectrum, the Braves—could tell you. That the draft may help competitive balance in a league is a tertiary factor in its existence. What a draft actually does is keep teams from competing for the services of the best talent on the market, and keeps that talent from having any options when it comes to choosing their employer for their prime earning years. It’s a beautiful system…as long as you’re not a supremely talented baseball player trying to have a career.As I discussed a few weeks ago, teams pay for talent based on the value they provide to the organization. Sheehan discusses this with, typically, much greater insight and forethought:
What is it to "grossly overpay" the second-best amateur player in the nation? Kevin speculated last week that the end result here would be a $6-8 million major league contract, which would mean an immediate place on the club's 40-man roster. Is that overpaying? What if it were $9 million, or $10 million? What is the value of a 22-year-old third baseman who is expected to be one of the better power hitters in the game—if perhaps at a different position—in short order? What is the value of owning that player’s rights for the next seven, eight, or even 10 years, as he ascends through the minors? What is the value of being able to pay that player near the league minimum for three full seasons, and perhaps the better part of a fourth? What is the value of being able to keep that player off of the free market for talent by paying below-market salaries for three years beyond that? What is the value of never having to compete for the services of a player of that caliber?
It's always popular to bash the drafted player for "unreasonable" demands because they are so "unproven." But, as Joe describes much more eloquently and forcefully than I did, only in sports do we do this:
Engineering firms don’t draft the top engineers and pay them below-market rates... We also wouldn’t tell them they had to work for a lousy firm, or in a city they might hate, far from their families. As a nation, we wouldn’t stand for that kind of thing, but we do in sports. In sports, we’re handing over the prime of players’ careers without ever giving them a chance to find out what they were worth. For many players, the step from amateur to professional is, in fact, the only time in their lives that they will have any leverage at all in their salary, if not their employer or place of work or management team. It is embarrassing to take so much away from them, then complain that they’re not being reasonable when it comes to the one thing that they can negotiate.
So while fans bash Brian Matusz and the other unsigned draft picks for being "greedy" and "only caring about the money," I hope they step back and ask themselves what they would do if they were among the best in the world at their chosen professions and not allowed to sell their skills on the open market. Because I would be asking for every penny possible from the only employer with whom I am allowed to negotiate.