The MLB Draft Will Never be as Big as the NFL or NBA - and That's a Good Thing

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The MLB Draft Will Never be as Big as the NFL or NBA - and That's a Good Thing

 

As the MLB Draft nears, many sportswriters are bemoaning the fact that baseball’s event is not nearly the extravaganza of the NFL and NBA Drafts.  Many are wondering if baseball needs to make big changes in order to keep up with the Joneses, proposing everything from moving the draft from June to eliminating sections of professional ball in order to get draftees to the pros at a faster rate.

But the simple truth about this issue is that there are too many structures in place to ever make the MLB Draft as popular as those for the NFL and NBA.

And that’s a good thing.

MLB has the best talent development system in all of sports.

One of the biggest reasons that the MLB Draft does not garner the same level of attention as the drafts in other sports is because, with few exceptions, MLB draftees do not make an immediate impact in the Big Leagues.  Draftees must first make it through the Minor Leagues, proving their worth in as many as five different levels of competition before they can ever set foot in an MLB stadium.

Why is this a bad thing?

Unlike other sports, MLB has never had a problem in which roster spots were taken up by less talented or unproven rookies who are only there based on potential.  The Minors ensure that only the cream of the crop ends up on Big League rosters while at the same time gives players who are not quite ready the ability to compete every day against players of similar skill levels. 

Minor League Baseball has also become a highly profitable enterprise, and the 240 teams spread out across five countries give MLB the kind of market penetration that the NFL (which has no real minor league) or the NBA (which has the less-established D-League) could only dream to achieve.

This does not factor in the growing popularity of the college game, and unlike football and basketball…

There are few ethical qualms about college baseball.

For many decades, the NFL and (to a lesser extent) NBA have relied almost exclusively on the NCAA for player development.  Currently, the NFL requires three years of college before players can be eligible for the draft, while the NBA has a minimum age requirement that essentially forces players to attend college for a single year.  The goal of both rules is the same:  keep less developed talent out of the professional ranks.

Both leagues have fought tooth-and-nail to keep the system in place, as would any institution that is receiving highly-developed talent at no cost to them.   The NCAA, which generates huge profits in both football and basketball on the strength of these athletes, is all too happy to accommodate the wishes of the pros. 

The players, who sacrifice years of earning potential and wear and tear on their bodies, receive only a college scholarship that may or may not cover the full cost of attending and are forbidden from profiting from their skills in any way while in school.   

It is pretty easy to see where the ethics of labor exploitation come into play, particularly since pro sports have never required college degrees in order to be on the team.

MLB, on the other hand, has long had the minor league system set in place and has never had to rely on the college ranks for talented players.  This has given the sport a very different philosophy when it comes to the draft, as MLB teams have never had an issue with players turning pro directly out of high school.  This means that talented players are not forced to attend school if they do not want to do so in order to work toward a degree that is not needed for their chosen profession.

College baseball also benefits as well.  While it is true that the sport risks losing some of the best high school prospects to the pros, the players who do choose to attend school are required to be in the program for at least three years before they can be drafted again.  This gives college teams far more security in knowing which players are going to be in the program for longer and helps to build continuity.  Players also have the option of taking the JC route, in which case they can be drafted after two years.    

But what about players who pass on a college scholarship and flame out in the minors?  Baseball has that one figured out as well, as MLB has had a college scholarship program in place since the 1960s.  This ensures that draftees who do pursue their dreams do not miss out on the opportunity to get a college education later in life.

So while the NFL and NBA rely heavily on a system designed to exploit athletes before they can be drafted, MLB gives their prospects a choice to utilize the college system or become a paid professional at an earlier age.

It’s also important to remember that only players from the United States and Canada (and their territories) are eligible for the draft, meaning…

Many pro baseball players aren’t subject to the draft.

According to the 2012 demographic breakdown, approximately 28.4% of all Major Leaguers are born outside of the United States.  In the minor leagues, the percentage of players born outside of the United States jumps to nearly 50%.

In other words, the workings of the MLB Draft do not apply to a significant percentage of professional baseball players in the first place.

It is fair to debate whether or not this should be the case; while it would help curb signing bonuses, some experts believe that making players subject to the draft would lead to a decline in baseball in those countries, as ESPN’s Keith Law believes happened in Puerto Rico.

Regardless, the MLB Draft will remain distinct from other pro sports drafts because not all of the talent in the sport is subject to be drafted.  This is not the case in the NFL (which has little in the ways of international following), NBA, or NHL.

Conclusion

It is understandable as to why people would want the MLB Draft to be more like its NFL and NBA counterparts, and there are some things that the sport could do without compromising the entire system (more prospects at the draft telecast, for one).  But interest in the Draft has been steadily increasing as it is, and there’s no reason for MLB to make wholesale changes to its system in hopes of making it an even that will never be as big as the Drafts in other sports.  MLB should embrace the unique strengths of its system, understanding that a one or two-night extravaganza is not as valuable as a season-long celebration of the sport.