This past Friday, with spring training in its closing days, March Madness in full swing, and the NBA trade deadline just passed, an event more than a month away gripped the entire sports world. Yes, the NFL Draft, which takes place from April 29 through May 1, controlled the news cycle. In under half an hour, two major trades completely turned the football world upside down, rendering months of mock drafts obsolete.
Sports fans and analysts alike discussed the implications of the Miami Dolphins pair of trades, which featured a significant shuffling of draft picks. Could four straight quarterbacks be taken to start the draft? Will the Dolphins be able to take the same player that they would have drafted, even after having traded down from number three to number six? Do the Philadelphia Eagles have a plan at quarterback? These questions, and more, were on everybody’s lips. Nobody, however, has an answer for them, and nobody will for another month.
Few things in the sports world, other than, you know, the actual games, cause more excitement than the NFL Draft. The MLB Draft, on the other hand, generates about as much buzz as sorting a bucket of screws by size, at least for most fans. Part of this is due to the fact that, unlike basketball and football, NCAA baseball does not have a national television audience. Additionally, many of the players eligible for the draft never play college ball at all, but are instead drafted out of high school. Maybe most important is the length of time between a player being drafted and making his major league debut. Only three players have skipped the minor leagues since 2000, and only a handful spend less than two or three years in the minors. As such, for the average fan, the draft barely registers as an event on the baseball calendar.
There may be, however, an easy solution to this problem for baseball: simply allow draft pick trading. Last week, following Kumar Rocker’s 14-K outing on March 19, the Pinstripe Alley Slack group began chatting about how much would you be willing to give up to move up and draft either Rocker or Jack Leiter (coincidentally, this conversation happened before Leiter’s no-hit streak). In our conversation, we hit upon a pretty significant reason that players tend to take a long time in the minor leagues. Players not only need dominant skills to fly through the minors, they need a high pedigree that encourages teams to challenge them, and this combination can only be found at the top of the draft. Very rarely does a good team pick near the top of the draft, and since many teams do not like to start the service time clock until necessary, it does not incentivize teams to aggressively promote players through the minors.
Our resident prospect expert Dan Kelly likened the package needed to pry the first or second overall pick this year to the price you would pay for bullpen help, pointing out how, in the last ten years, the Chicago White Sox have promoted two highly-selected starting pitchers, Chris Sale in 2010 and Garrett Crochet in 2020, the same year that they were drafted to serve as bullpen help during a pennant chase.
While Rocker and Leiter may be the types of can’t-miss prospects that the Pittsburgh Pirates and Texas Rangers, the two teams at the top of the draft, would not budge for — and, of course, there won’t be draft pick trading this year, rendering the exercise purely a hypothetical one — the thought experiment did show to me that its implementation would throw an extra factor into the draft that would change it forever. Although the main purpose of the draft for most teams would continue to simply be the acquisition of talent for future seasons, it would suddenly become feasible for teams to look to upgrade this year’s team through the draft. Suddenly, fans of good teams might tune in to watch the draft, eager to see if their team makes a move that could impact this year’s pennant race.
In addition to generating more interest in the draft, draft pick trading would have other, far-reaching consequences. In order to know the players being drafted, fans would be inclined to pay more attention to collegiate baseball, and while they could just stick to mock drafts (as many NFL fans who are not interested in college football do), the games themselves could generate more interest — especially when players like Rocker or Leiter are involved. Plus, the ability for a team to target players who could have an immediate impact more easily could create additional pathways to the big leagues.
Although it will never become the spectacle that the NFL and NBA Drafts are every year, simply adding the ability for teams to trade draft picks has the potential to add plenty of intrigue to the MLB Draft. Whether or not the league will take that step any time soon remains to be seen.