Thursday, June 5, 2008

Cut the draft (and the minors)

Every MLB franchise has one, and exactly one goal: win the World Series. To do this, you need good players at the major-league level. Therefore, the goal of every draft and every farm season should be to find and develop players to play in the big leagues. Simple, right?

Then why are so many drafts, and, by extension, most low minor-league teams, near-complete failures at this seemingly obvious task? Even in a sport where failing seven times out of 10 is considered "good," most teams would be overjoyed to have such success with the draft and their minor-league system.

I looked back to drafts and minor-league squads from 1998, 10 years ago, figuring that, by now, anyone who was with an organization at that time should have already made an impact on the big-league club. And the results are staggeringly inefficient. Here, for instance, is the 1998 draft for the Twins, considered one of baseball's best franchises for manufacturing talent from within. An impressive bunch, no? Only seven of 49 selected players ever appeared in the big leagues, and only JJ Putz (who didn't sign with the Twins and was re-selected in 1999 by the Mariners) has made any significant impact.

It isn't just Minnesota, either. Take a look at some other teams' draft from that page (the "Picks by Franchise/Year pull-down menus at the top). I'm not going to go through each team, but I'll glance at a few:

Orioles: 5 picks in majors
Cardinals: 9
Brewers: 2

And, again, most of those players are fringe major leaguers. Take a look at a few more, and you'll see a lot more "inefficient" drafts. Sure, the Indians got CC Sabathia in the first round, but their only other major-leaguers were Zach Sorensen, Ryan Drese, and Matt White. The White Sox did pretty well, too, drafting Kip Wells, Aaron Rowand, and Josh Fogg in the first four rounds, along with Nate Robertson (later drafted by Florida) in the 16th and Mark Buehrle in the 38th round. Still, that's only five decent players, four of whom played for the Sox, out of 52 picks. They could have drafted me instead of 50th-round pick Justin Hairston and gotten the same results (and I would have played for cheap).

Overall, only 79 of the 223 (35.4%) players picked through the first seven rounds of the 1998 draft ever cracked a big-league roster. And several of those either weren't signed by the teams that drafted them (like Mark Prior by the Yankees) or had insignificant big-league careers.

The NFL Draft, of course, is also seven rounds. Admittedly, an NFL draftee has a much better chance of cracking a roster and at least appearing in a game, being generally older and not having to work through a minor-league system. Even so, of the 241 players drafted in 1998, 116 (48.1%) were considered a starter for at least one season of his career -- more than the percentage of 1998 MLB draftees that just appeared in a major-league game. It's not a perfect comparison, but remember that the NFL Draft ran 12 rounds until 1992 and was even longer before that. Has the league suffered since the draft was shortened? Not that I can see. Look at the 12th round of any MLB draft and you'll see even less impressive results. Did the 1998 draft have to go that far just so John Koronka could throw 151 innings with a 6.02 ERA? Yes, you'd miss out on the occasional Buehrle or Mike Piazza, but maybe you could actually make the whole thing -- beginning to end -- seem meaningful.

"But," you might say, "teams need the bigger draft to fill out their minor leagues so they can develop talent." A few months ago, aajoe7 posted about how the draft and MLB in general is "ruthlessly efficient at weeding out those players who can't cut it in the Big Leagues; more than any other sport, MLB players earn their right to play in the show."

But how well do the minors do at developing talent? There's little question that many of the players in the higher minors (AA and AAA) are quality prospects, but what about the low minors? Again, going back to 1998, here are the Twins' two rookie-level teams and their low A team. I see a few players who got a cup of coffee in the bigs, along with a couple part-time major-leaguers (Matt LeCroy and Grant Balfour) and two solid contributors (Juan Rincon and Michael Cuddyer). That's four players out of about 80 who made any impact on the big-league team, and only two who the team would have actually missed.

So, in effect, the Twins' three lowest minor-league teams existed solely to develop less than a handful of players. I realize minor leaguers don't make a lot of money or stay in fancy hotels, but they do require some salaries, stadium rent, travel costs, and management. How much money and effort would a team save by eliminating two or even three of its lowest minor-league teams? What would they really lose? Rincon's iffy, but Cuddyer was a #1 pick, so he still would have gotten a chance somewhere in the organization.

Take some time to scan through the 1998 draft and minor-league teams for your favorite organization, and you'll probably find similar lack-of-success stories. If I were in charge, I'd probably cut the MLB draft at least in half and reduce the minor-leagues to four teams, max, per big-league team: a low A/rookie team for your really young/raw talent, a high-A team for second- or third-year youngsters, and AA and AAA filling essentially the same roles they do today. The rest just don't seem to serve the implied purpose of every team: producing major-league talent. So why do they exist?

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