James Baker: The ultimate back-alley dice game

Otherwise known as the Major League Baseball draft.

The Orioles just completed what many are calling a very successful draft. It seems to me that the draft has only been getting serious mainstream attention over the last three, maybe four years, I don’t remember the draft being televised or dissected as much when I was younger. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing and a byproduct of the wondrous age of information in which we all live. Not to mention that baseball is trying to get in on the hoopla, and money, that the NFL draft has become over the last decade.

Comparing the NFL draft and the MLB draft should stop right there because no matter how many people want to try to find similarities they are two entirely different creatures. The MLB draft is easily one of the biggest gambles in sports.

The crap-shooty (yes, it’s a word, so move on) nature of the beast is largely a function of several things

* The minor league system - Draft picks, no matter how highly touted, are usually at least two or three years waway from making the big leagues. That is a lot of time for flawed mechanics to be exposed, holes in games to suddenly appear and, of course, good old-fashioned crippling injuries.

* The lack of an international influence - If international players had to enter the draft - like, say, in the NBA - how would that affect the earlier rounds of the draft?

* The weird nature of compensation picks.

The Orioles played the game well this year signing all of their top 10 picks and netting their big three of high school pitcher Dylan Bundy, Vanderbilt third baseman Jason Esposito and high-schooler Nicky Delmonico. Most thought that the Orioles would get at least two of them, Delmonico being the harder sign. Credit should be given to Joe Jordan and his staff for bringing in three highly touted guys.

But even here, the Orioles seem to be lagging behind the rest. Some of that is their fault some of it is the nature of the draft. Take the Rays, for example. It is no secret that the Tampa Bay Rays are considered to be one of the best drafting teams in baseball. Because of the rules surrounding compensation picks (for losing a Type A player to free agency) the Rays drafted 10 players before the second round began. Let me say that again, the Orioles drafted one player, then the Rays picked 10 times, then the Orioles picked again.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the point of the compensation system. Without it, a team like the Rays would be kind of stuck as a quasi-minor league team for the bigger spenders in the game. They develop the Carl Crawfords of the world, and hold on to them for six years only to see them leave. But one has to be at least a little envious of their current situation. More importantly, the Rays signed 20 of the first 21 picks (all of those coming before the 12th round). By comparison the Orioles signed 21 picks total.

Which brings me to slotting. Major League Baseball has tried to curb the bonus money given to players over the last couple of years by instituting a slotting system: A player drafted in this position should receive x-amount of money. This has largely been ignored. According to Baseball America teams spent a total of 72 percent more than the suggested slot totals. The biggest spender in the draft this year was the Pittsburgh Pirates, spending an astonishing 268 percent of the slot money. Obviously, the slotting system is not doing anything to keep bonuses down, so why even bother? Another thing that is not helping the bonus numbers is the insane amount of time these players are allowed to wait before signing. The fact that the draft takes place in early June and the players have until mid-August to sign is a bit odd to me. Yes, NFL players can hold out, but the club doesn’t risk losing control of them in most situations. Moving the signing deadline up a month would probably do more to hold down bonus money than this failed attempt at slotting.

While on that subject, let’s talk about international players. It boggles my mind that baseball creates things like compensation picks and slotting systems to try and create parity but does not let international players enter the draft. Because players from other countries are not permitted to enter the draft, there is a sort of Wild West or Gold Rush mentality to the international game. Yu Darvish is the next big arm that will be coming out of Japan; why should a team have to post upwards of 50 million dollars just to negotiate with him? Before the game even begins, at least half of baseball is out of the running.

The Orioles are woefully inadequate in this department and will most likely be one of the teams on the sidelines of any Darvish talk, but I am arguing that it shouldn’t matter. If international players were forced to enter the draft, it would be a much more equitable process for everyone involved. I also believe it would cut down on some of the more shadier practices of buscones and the like that have cropped up over the years.

The 2011 draft is long past us and the Orioles did well. Of course, we have said that about past drafts. Remember Billy Rowell? He was considered to be the best hitting prospect in the game when he was drafted, and he is back in rookie-league ball now. Adam Loewen? Injuries. Which brings me to the next philosophical question about the draft: Take Rowell and Loewen - both were highly touted, both failed as major leaguers, but is there a difference between busting because of injuries and just being a bust? Does those players busting make them bad picks? Or rather were they good picks that just never worked out for whatever the reason?

The long road to the majors is littered with the corpses of can’t-miss prospects that miss time and time again for whatever the reason. Welcome to the org Dylan, Jason and Nicky; stay healthy and rise to the challenges before you because, frankly, that is what we desperately need from you.

James Baker blogs about the Orioles at Oriole Post. His observations about the O’s appear as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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