Finally, the MLB draft has reached the mainstream—that is if 2pm on a Thursday can constitute “mainstream”. I don’t think it’s possible for me to get enough draft in my life. I have no problem watching seven rounds of the NFL draft from start to finish. I was actually surprised at how many people I know who refuse to watch anything beyond the Lions’ picks on NFL Draft Day (you know who you are). I can’t get enough of the suspense. I get as excited about a trade involving four draft picks for Eric Weddle as I do a trade that involves the number one pick in the draft. The draft is the time of the year where you get to see whether the people running your favorite team have any idea what they’re doing—and even if they don’t, it hardly matters. I have as much interest in Lions drafts now, as I did in the 90s when they weren’t the worst professional football organization of all-time. The draft is optimistic in its nature. That is the one day where everything is possible.
There have been numerous obstacles preventing MLB from having the same sort of medium as the NFL to deliver its draft. The most damaging of these obstacles has been the overwhelming odds against even a first-round draft pick from panning out. For much of its existence, the MLB Draft has produced many, many more Brien Taylor’s and Todd Van Popple’s in the first round as it has Alex Rodriguez’s. Another factor preventing the baseball draft from reaching mainstream is how little the impact of one player has on a baseball organization. In the NFL, one player can take a team from “has been” to 15-1 in just two seasons (see; Randy Moss). It takes two or three years for even the best baseball prospects to reach the major leagues once they are drafted. Another less than desirable feature of past baseball drafts is teams not drafting players because of “signability” issues. Any draft that doesn’t see the best players go in order of need loses a lot of its credibility. If the Yankees and Red Sox are drafting the best players because they are the only teams that can sign them, the whole point of having a draft goes out the window. The last major issue is the fact that nobody knows who any of the players are. College baseball isn’t even as popular as the WNBA. Most college football fans have seen the best college football players for three or four years. Even the players that people previously have never heard of get talked about so much leading up to the NFL Draft that it feels like they’ve seen them play for three or four years. Baseball doesn’t have that luxury.
While college baseball still isn’t very popular, and it still takes two or three years for even the best prospects to make it to MLB if at all, one thing has changed significantly which will help sell the MLB Draft: General Managers have become increasingly better at identifying the best talent. The 2000s drafts have been much more successful than the 1990s drafts. For the most part, GMs have stopped the insane philosophy of drafting high school pitchers with .21 ERAs and ten no-hitters against recreational baseball players. The MLB Draft is still the least exact of all the professional sports drafts but it is reaching the point of respectability. In the last three years, the Tigers have drafted Justin Verlander, Cameron Maybin, and Andrew Miller. Compare that to the awesome string of Tigers first-round draft picks from the 90’s—Ricky Greene, Matt Brunson, Cade Gaspar, Mike Drumright, Seth Greisinger, Matt Anderson, and Eric Munson—and you get the idea how much things have improved. Investing time in the MLB Draft never used to pay off. Now there’s a reason to watch and a reason to have expectations. The Tigers may be the best example of improved draft picks but they are hardly the only organization that has seen an increase in draft success. The Royals, Diamondbacks, and Devil Rays have all stocked their farm systems with talented players over the past few years.
Even though the MLB Draft has an uphill battle in terms of attracting a large audience, it does have some things going for it—namely the pace at which picks are selected. Instead of going through seven rounds in two days like the NFL, the MLB Draft goes through 50 rounds in two days. First round picks have a five-minute time allotment. The draft should also be attractive to small market or previously neglected teams. For teams like the Royals and Devil Rays, the way to respectability is through the draft. The Tigers went from one of the biggest messes in sports history to the class of MLB all because its GM knew what he was doing on Draft Day. The Yankees might have $200 million to spend on their roster, but the Royals will have the first shot at the next Alex Rodriguez every year. Since most teams have more in common with the Royals than the Yankees, I would expect this to be attractive to the vast majority of die-hard baseball fans.
All the MLB Draft needs is for ESPN to bring in a baseball version of Mel Kiper Jr. and have its Baseball Tonight crew cover the event. Viewers need to have an idea what is going on. The more the viewers know, the more they’ll watch. Nobody is going to watch a baseball draft if it doesn’t even look like ESPN cares about it. In fact, I think it’s a mistake that ESPN has decided to show the draft on ESPN2. What else does ESPN have going on at 2pm on a Thursday? Nonetheless, I am elated that the MLB Draft has come to television. No matter how exciting the Andrew Miller pick was last season, seeing it live on MLB.com’s Draft Tracker can’t hold a candle to seeing it live on TV. Here is an interesting article discussing the MLB Draft. This guy did some research and it shows. Hopefully this draft thing catches on and eventually gets a promotion to ESPN.