BY ERIC LONGENHAGEN Tonight is Major League Baseball’s Rule 4 Draft (there is also a Rule 5 Draft, but not a Rule 1, 2 or 3 Draft. Weird, right?) and it’s not usually on the mind of many formal sports fans, let alone casual ones. Of the three major American sports, baseball’s draft is the least bandied about, while the NFL and NBA drafts are highly publicized and score big TV ratings. I have some theories as to why it doesn’t register with the public:
1. We haven’t seen the players - College Football and Basketball are prominent entities in sports television. We know the coaches and, more importantly, we know the players. Tim Tebow is popular enough that he has an autobiography coming out this week; and he a) wasn’t even one of the top few picks in his draft, and b) he isn’t very good. No such recognition for baseball’s best amateurs. The lay person wouldn’t know Trevor Bauer from Jack Bauer, even though he’s having one of the best seasons a college pitcher has ever had. There’s very little college baseball on TV and the public has no way of connecting with any of these guys like they do for basketball and football players.
2. We won’t see the players, for a while, anyway - Unlike the NFL and NBA where fans can be wearing a new draft pick’s jersey within a month of their selection and see them on the field almost immediately, baseball players can take years to develop, if they do at all. Shane Victorino was drafted in 1999 and only saw regular playing time in the majors starting in 2006. Our attention spans don’t last 5 minutes, let alone… oh look a butterfly… Sorry, I’m back. It’s an out of sight out of mind problem. You can’t blame people for not getting into the draft when the results likely won’t impact their favorite team for 3 or 4 years.
3. MLB Marketing – MLB’s core fan base is aging. There’s a reason Cialiscommercials are seen with great regularity during MLB broadcasts. Whether it’s inherent in the game of baseball (which is relatively unappealing to the ever shortening attention span of World youth) or something MLB’s marketing department is bringing upon themselves (MLB refuses to allow clips of their games anywhere online, which doesn’t really make sense when you’re trying to appeal to the Youtube generation) it’s obvious they don’t do a good enough job alerting people of the draft.
The sad thing is that the draft is easily the most important function the MLB front office performs. Not only is it the lifeblood of on-field success, but financial success as well. Young players are under their team’s control for the first six years of their service in the majors. Their salaries start well below what they’d be worth on the open market. And they earn their franchise much more in revenue for the cost of employment. Take Washington Nationals phenomenon Stephen Strasburg, for example. Strasburg was drafted in 2009, signed a four-year, $15 miillion deal (one of the largest deals ever) and made his major league debut in 2010. He made only 12 starts before getting injured but was already worth at least $10 million in revenue during that time (I’d love to tell you how that number is calculated, but you’re not ready for that yet).
Young players are also far more predictable. Old veterans have injury problems and natural, age-induced regressions in performance. Yet fan bases and front offices crave big name free agent signings that, more often than not, are abject failures. Emphasis on the draft is a way for small market teams to compete and a way for big market teams to exact dominance. One of the poorest teams in all of baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays, have made it a point to allocate serious funds toward the draft and as a result are competing with the Red Sox and Yankees, the Goliaths of the sport. Tampa has worked to acquire 12 of the first 90 picks in this year’s draft, which is loaded with talent. Trust me: this is serious business.