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Selig and the Draft

When did you first recognize this guy?
When did you first recognize this guy?

The substantial changes to the MLB draft are still not totally clarified, and it appears that opinions may be changing in the next few days. Regardless, it's been widely reported that modifying the draft was important to Selig, and that what really grated on the commissioner was players going 'out of order.' Jeff Passan, who has done a great job covering the CBA:

Much of it goes back to commissioner Bud Selig, whose continued infatuation with the amateur market flummoxes onlookers and colleagues alike...For one, the draft’s perceived flaw – superior players getting passed over because of high bonus demands – bothered him. Selig envisions a draft in which the best players are taken in order.

From what I can tell, this problem hasn't necessarily been fixed. Regardless, I haven't yet seen anyone take head-on the question of why this matters so much to Selig. Perhaps this has been covered somewhere and I've missed it—in our world of sports coverage, where opinions and analysis seem to bleed outwards endlessly, like real ink spilled on a real piece of paper, who knows. I have seen an assertion that it's simply about saving owners money, but that seems wrongheaded to me—draft budgets didn't appear to be escalating beyond team's means, and there was still little stigma attached to just punting on the draft and pocketing the cash. It wasn't like, for instance, NBA free agency which saw teams playing chicken with large checks standing in for collision-coursed cars.

I think Selig's vision for draft reform is likely a bit wackier than simply saving a few dollars for his owners. MLB has increasingly started to treat the draft like a marketable commodity, with the league's flagship website offering wall to wall coverage of major prospects and the league's flagship network offering live coverage of the event. This has coincided with the rising profiles of the most elite talents—Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were both well known to many casual baseball fans by the time they debuted in the minors.

That sea of electronic ink I referenced earlier isn't just a passive fluid body, it's also an organism that demands information to analyze. Being a baseball fan has changed rapidly in the last fifteen years, and an understanding of a team's top prospects and developmental philosophy is rapidly becoming commonplace among passionate and intelligent fans. Fans who are less intelligent (but no less passionate) now take to newspaper message boards to bemoan draft picks as soon as they're made. In short, the draft is still a sports oddity, both because of it's incredible length and the (lack of) future for most of the players involved. However, it's not as odd as it used to be and, if I had to guess, it's going to become a significant part of mainstream media sports discourse sooner rather than later. Not long ago, that would've been a totally absurd thing to say, but I'd call it inevitable at this point. We, as fans, want something to read and write about every single day—this is the future that most of the blogosphere is banking on, and the reason why it's important to post multiple times a day, even if you don't say much. (Oops).

If this is Selig's view as well, his attempts to get his draft to a minimum standard of legibility make a great deal of sense. In its current form, the draft is totally obscure to an outsider. Its form suggests a ranking of players, from best to worst, but its reality is much stranger than that, with players who are understood to not be the best selected for reasons of affordability. As the draft has become a more valued source of talent in the last few years, this problem has started to solve itself to some degree but I suspect Selig is trying to act to totally eliminate it. When ESPN is ready to take the draft into primetime, which I really believe will happen, the draft needs to be easily understandable. Stuart Scott (or his future equivalent) will simply shout names while a decrepit Bobby Valentine mumbles "Good hit, good hit. Like his hat." They won't be covering the intricacies of bonus demands except in extreme cases.

That doesn't mean Selig intends to make the draft an authoritative ordering of talent, but it does mean that he wants it to make general sense to long-time viewers of the NBA and NFL drafts. The madness that will happen when teams mess up, or evaluators disagree, or players refuse to report, will be fun diversions. Players falling due to demands would not fit into such a category. The end game here is making sure that future Stu Scott and near-catatonic Bobby Valentine aren't left trying to explain why Matt Bush went over Justin Verlander.