As we approach the final five weeks before the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, the top of the board remains uncertain. The Pirates have the first pick, as they did in 2004 when they took Bryan Bullington. This year is different, without financial restrictions, but they don't believe that there is a Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg or Evan Longoria in this talented and deep crop, so they will spend May sifting through the players at the top of their board -- Virginia LHP Danny Hultzen, UCLA RHPs Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole, Rice 3B Anthony Rendon, Georgia Tech LHP Jed Bradley -- before making their decisions.
There are the usual complications; the smaller markets fear that teams like the Red Sox, Yankees and Tigers will spend first-round money on talents who drop because of signability issues.
There is a new complication, as well; with the Collective Bargaining Agreement up at the end of this season, teams have to try to guess what changes will be made to the Draft by next year, and if the widespread belief is that there will be some slotting system -- which could arguably limit baseball's ability to compete with football and basketball for the best athletes -- then the big-market teams with strong developmental beliefs may set aside extra revenues to invest in later-round, higher-ceiling talent.
All that, of course, is for Rob Manfred and Michael Weiner to determine behind closed doors. I haven't checked with the Lingerie Football League lately, but baseball probably is the only major sport that does not allow the swapping of Draft choices. "There are pros and cons," says one general manager, "but there is concern that teams like the Yankees and Red Sox would take advantage and manipulate the system."
Maybe, maybe not. But when the Pirates and Rays were playing a Spring Training game this March, Neal Huntington and Andrew Friedman discussed what it would be like if teams could swap picks. The Pirates have the first pick. The Rays have 10 picks in the first and compensation rounds, which covers the first 60 picks.
The Rays know that when they make their first selection at No. 24, the sure things will be long gone. So Friedman and Huntington discussed the fun what if game of trading the top pick. The Rays are loaded with promising pitching prospects on the top two Minor League levels in Chris Archer, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Alex Torres, and would love an impact bat that could be ready in a year or two. So they could take the 24th pick, add in the 37th and 41st and offer them to Pittsburgh to get Rendon.
If that amounted to a first-round college outfielder with tools (say, Brian Goodwin of Miami-Dade), another college bat (maybe 3B Cory Spangenburg?) and a big high school arm (like Tyler Beede of Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass.), the Pirates just might do it to deepen and fill out a system that may be a year from starting to produce. They could make it even more fun by including Major League relievers. If Pittsburgh would throw in Evan Meek, would the Rays adjust their Draft-choice package?
Hey, it's something to discuss.
Some owners like to make it sound like a Draft slotting system will take care of some of the economic inequity in the sport, and it may. Some want an international draft. Some like a cap on total amateur spending, so that teams could spend whatever they want as long as the total between the Draft and international signings comes out to no more than, say, $12 million. Again, a strict Draft slotting program could eliminate baseball's ability to compete with football for players like Nebraska high school outfielder/quarterback Bubba Starling. It might have cost the sport Joe Mauer, Austin Jackson, Jeff Samardzija, Ryan Kalish and many others.
Commissioner Bud Selig got revenue-sharing enacted, and it has been a success, although limited. The Commissioner and others appreciate that teams like the Yankees and Red Sox resent the amount of money they pay into the pockets of small-market teams, but there has to be some way to feed the hope of the small markets. The draft, theoretically, is supposed to level the field -- and good drafting got Tampa Bay out of its abyss, is about to bring the Royals back into prominence and, after years of poor, discounted Draft thinking, the current Pittsburgh ownership and management has spent heavily and wisely to try to recapture what once was a great franchise.
Here's another idea, which one general manager called "Baseball Obamacare." It is also market measured, rather than revenue measured, because if a team is run so poorly that it doesn't have a regional sports network and revenues aren't in the top five, tough. This insures some incentive to grow, not siphon, the business.
Take the dozen smallest markets in the game. Then take the 15 largest markets, which leaves a three-team demilitarized zone in the gray big/mid/small-market area. Sometime between Nov. 15 and Dec. 1, each of the 15 large-market teams would submit a protected list of 30 players out of the entire organization, excluding players signed out of that year's Draft and players signed internationally after June 1.
Players with no-trade contract provisions would be automatically put on the protected lists. Now, if a player like Alex Rodriguez or CC Sabathia had so much money coming and was nearing the age spot without a no-trade clause, the Yankees could decide whether a small-market could take on that contract, or move it.
The 12 small markets could pick a prospect, or take a useful veteran who could either be a Hot Stove selling point or traded for another useful veteran or prospects. If the Winter Meetings were moved up to the first week of December, the revenue-sharing dispersal draft could be held there, where it would get the most attention. Big-market owners might not like losing a good prospect, but the alternative is a heavier tax, and we know where owners stand on taxation.
Remember, the original idea for rotisserie leagues came from a group of very smart New Yorkers who loved and missed the expansion draft. Do it right, and it could help spread the wealth -- yes, minimally -- and create a buzz around the Winter Meetings for something other than $100 million free-agent signings.
Smart teams can win in these situations. In 1960, the Los Angeles Angels dipped all the way down through the Red Sox system to take a teenage shortstop who batted .269 in Alpine, Texas. Name? Jim Fregosi. First an Angels franchise star, he was traded to the Mets more than a decade later for Nolan Ryan.
In 1997, the Phillies cleverly convinced Tampa Bay to take Bobby Abreu in the expansion draft from Houston, then traded veteran shortstop Kevin Stocker to Tampa Bay for Abreu. Houston, of course, also failed to protect Johan Santana and lost him in the Rule 5 Draft.
Let's say the Indians know they're eventually going to lose Shin-Soo Choo to free agency. Let's say the Yankees pick up Nick Swisher's $10.2 million option for 2012, but feel because of the warehouse of young talent in their farm system, they can risk him.
The Indians take Swisher from the Yankees, then turn around and trade Choo to the Braves for Mike Minor and two top Single-A tools prospects. The Braves get an All-Star player, the Indians have Swisher in right field for a year and by June they have Alex White, Minor and Drew Pomeranz in a rotation they can hold together for at least five years as Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, et. al., play the Tribe back into contention.
Granted, it has the feel of Baseball Obamacare, but the good of the whole is very important to the sport. It matters that the Indians have a chance, no matter how many houses have been abandoned or that the population has lost 375,000 people; Cleveland is a great city with a great tradition. It matters that the Athletics not only get to move to San Jose, but have a chance to build in the meantime. Or that enlightened managements in places like Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Kansas City have a little better chance to succeed.
The networks need Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Kansas City, San Diego, Tampa Bay and every market to have enough interest in baseball to at least watch some of the October games. Big-market teams benefit when the Rays come to town and are competitive, and will if every team has a chance.
The Yankees can live without Nick Swisher. The Braves have a chance to win it all with Choo, because their system is so deep in pitching. The Indians in 2012 are right in the AL Central mix with Swisher, Minor, White, Pomeranz and Chisenhall.
It's a lot more important that the small-market teams believe baseball is relevant than implementing instant replay.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.