Corollary Damage: Kumar Rocker, the MLB Draft, and a Better Way Forward

On Sunday, the Mets announced that they would not offer a contract to Vanderbilt ace Kumar Rocker. New York had selected the right-hander with the 10th overall pick in the draft just a few weeks earlier, but backed out of a deal upon seeing his medicals. Rocker’s camp was understandably upset. Scott Boras released a statement on his client’s behalf, declaring that Rocker is healthy, ready to pitch, and set to embark on his professional career. It’s a gut-wrenching situation, particularly since no other team is allowed to sign Rocker. He plans to enter the 2022 draft, but for now, he’s in purgatory.

However disappointed Rocker and Mets fans justifiably are, there’s a larger, structural issue at play here, one that overshadows Rocker’s medicals, or even the Mets’ approach to handling them. Steve Cohen violated Rule No. 1 (never Tweet, Steve) but New York isn’t dangling Rocker’s big league dreams for sport: They picked Rocker in good faith and must have really disliked what they saw in his file, particularly since they didn’t have the foresight to take an overslot guy late in the draft as backup. After signing all of their other selections, the Mets wound up leaving more than $1 million in bonus pool money on the table. Nobody wins here.

Like Barret Loux and Brady Aiken before him, Rocker deserves better than to get the rug yanked out from under him like this. I’m sure he has many gripes with how this all played out, but his biggest shouldn’t be with the Mets, but rather with the draft itself.

First implemented in 1965, the draft has been alive for longer than most of you reading this piece. Thanks in part to the spectacle that the NBA and (particularly) NFL events have become, a sports draft now feels like an American institution. As currently marketed, the draft is not just a day on the calendar but an event, a beacon of hope for the future. Feeling down on your luck, Pirates fans? At the draft, you too can catch a Trout!

Distilled to its core though, the draft is an immoral exercise where big league clubs distribute laborers with minimal consent, designed and structured in a manner to limit expenses. There’s no line of work outside of sports that allocates employees to specific businesses like this: The players who get drafted each year never agreed to this system and never would if they had a choice. The unfairness of it all becomes crystal clear under any kind of scrutiny. It would be ridiculous if Bob’s Plumbing in New York held the exclusive rights to my labor simply because they drafted me out of school and it’s no less absurd that the Mets have that kind of power over Rocker.

Rocker’s case is an instructive reminder that the draft has always been a money grab with an indiscriminate sprinkling of collateral damage. MLB originally implemented the exercise because owners were tired of paying large bonuses for amateur players (the $200,000 bonus given to Rick Reichardt was the final straw) and looking for ways to cut scouting and acquisition expenses. Finding ways to pay less for amateur talent has been a frequent hobbyhorse throughout baseball history, and the draft has given several generations of owners opportunities to rope off the free market.

Perhaps the best example is the now-defunct Scouting Bureau, a Nixon-era creation that furnished clubs with a centralized league-wide scouting operation. It offered scouting reports on players and recommendations for where teams should select them, and the enterprise helped the league’s stingiest teams save money by downsizing their own departments. More recently, the league has steadily used the draft to encroach on player rights, first suggestively with slot recommendations in the Selig era, and then more directly by instituting bonus pools and banning big league contracts for recent draftees.

Competitive balance is the lone good-faith argument for the draft’s existence, but even that is a modest and ancillary benefit of an otherwise exploitative system. The recent epidemic of teams tanking for draft position raises legitimate questions about the benefit of rewarding those who best execute their planned ineptitude. But even granting that the ends justify the means, it’s hard to look at this year’s first round — where the consensus top talent went to Boston and a clear top-10 player fell all the way to pick 16 just because — and think the draft is balancing anything.

Of course, the Players Association deserves some blame for the state of affairs. It takes two parties to agree on a CBA, and the big leaguers have shown time and again that they’ll sell out the amateurs in exchange for a few creature comforts. In addition to the damage done to their own financial interests, over the last two negotiations the players have allowed ownership to authorize bonus pools and spending restrictions for international signees. The return for those concessions — a few more off days, fractionally higher minimum salaries, better accommodations in visiting clubhouses, more room on team buses (seriously) — are almost cringingly light.

But I digress. If unfairness is the biggest single problem with the draft, a close second is that it’s not clear anyone outside of the owners benefits from it. The players hate it, for obvious reasons. Team personnel are more split, but there’s another way to distribute talent that makes better use of everyone’s time and labor. Most fans don’t give a hoot about the MLB Draft, and for the diehards who are paying attention, there’s a more entertaining way forward. For once it’s the NCAA that shows us a path in the right direction: National Signing Day.

In college football (and basketball to a lesser extent) the day on which (many) recruits announce which school they’ll attend and sign their letters of intent is a damn circus. With top players, you have all of the suspense of a draft pick, but with far more possibilities on where they may land. The enthusiasm that Signing Day generates suggests that whatever interest people get out of pre-MLB draft rumor-mongering would only multiply ten-fold in an environment where every player was theoretically available to every team.

There are other benefits as well. One obvious one is that, with more freedom, teams would undoubtedly pursue a whole bunch of different strategies. Perhaps the Angels want to make a splash and sign three of the class’s 10 best players; maybe the Marlins decides to plant a flag in Florida and signs only local players. That would be fun to follow! Such a system would also be compatible with the current bonus limitations and appease anyone worried about competitive balance. You simply give certain teams more money to spend, just like the league does now.

To bring this back to Rocker, the best feature of all is that it would let club and player come together in a mutually favorable manner. The next Rocker wouldn’t be hamstrung if one club flinched at his medicals because there are 29 other teams that may think the MRIs look just fine, or at least, fine enough. It also would allow players to find player development environments more conducive to their routines and training practices, and would all but end the charade of players trying to stop certain teams from drafting them by tossing out absurd signing bonus demands. In short, you could have all of the financial savings and all of the competitive balance of a draft, while hopefully sprucing up interest and giving the Rockers of the world a chance to pick their employer. If I had my way, I’d do away with the draft and bonus pools entirely, and simply let players seek out the largest contract the market would bear. But just because that’s unlikely to happen doesn’t mean the exercise can’t be rendered more fair.





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CC AFC
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CC AFC

I’m super cool with this idea. Ive always found it awfully cruel that someone could be forced to go live anywhere for several years based on the draft. I know the rest of us like to be able to pick where we live and we balance all the relevant factors with compensation. I’ve got personal preferences, but you could probably pay me enough to go Des Moines (or at least to a smaller city that still has an mlb team, let’s say Milwaukee).

There are about to be a hundred people in here who will claim that the Yankees and dodgers will get all the good players because they’ll all just want to play in New York and LA. They say the same thing about international signings.

dl80
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dl80

It wouldn’t be just the Yankees and Dodgers, but who is going to sign up to play in Tampa? Detroit? Kansas City? Have those players ever gotten top-flight free agents? Cabrera was traded to Detroit, same for Cruz.

CC AFC
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Member
CC AFC

The people that they offer a lot of money to. Or maybe they have other stuff to offer. No income tax, nice weather in Tampa, maybe more opportunity at the major league club. Under the proposal here, as I understand it, there would be limited funds, like draft pools, so the amount of money at play wouldn’t be enough to price out those teams. They don’t get top flight free agents because they rarely offer the most money, but it happens with extensions, eg Cabrera and Stanton in Miami.

bglick4
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bglick4

Players have different incentives than us Joe 12-packs, but if you judge states on population growth, it would seem people would rather live in states other than New York and California. If the financial advantages of the teams in those states have were to be reduced, I think, after a few years, we’d begin to see a fairly even dispersal of talent,

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas

That’s not really a true multi-year trend. The rust belt and places like West Virginia are losing a higher % of people than CA and NY.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I think you’re right that absolutely nobody is signing in Tampa but Kansas City would actually be fine. KC engendered a ton of goodwill for their stance towards minor leaguers during COVID, and I think they treat their minor leaguers better than most other orgs (the only one I can think of that might be in the same class is Houston). Although I don’t think getting rid of the draft is feasible, it would be really good for minor leaguers.

This makes me like the idea a whole lot more.

eddiecalandro
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eddiecalandro

agree with what you say, to me they are either franchises or separate businesses.
The big markets want it both ways, they like this free market system so things go to highest bidder and the revenue isn’t shared, but if they want to be separate business, they strip territorial rights os if Oakland or Tampa wants to move to Brooklyn no territorial right payments to NY teams. either your franchises or separate businesses.

There used to be 3 teams in NY, 2 in Boston, 2 in Philadelphia, 2 in St. Louis, but the big market teams control the whole rules of the game, they complain about Tampa’s lack of spending but if they want to increase their revenue by moving to another area they have to pay territorial rights , McDonalds doesn’t pay Burger King if the put a restaurateur right next to them do they?

To me either their franchises like the NFL, with a draft and sharing the revenue or get rid of the draft anything goes, but let teams move where they want.

evo34
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evo34

This is the very core of the issue. Rich teams stay rich because they happen to have gotten the most lucrative real estate early in the game.

Congrats, guys. You win. Now let’s restart the game with a level playing field and enjoy baseball as a sport — not merely a means to capitalize on premium locations.

Doug
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Doug

But, but, but… capitalizing on premium locations is what it’s all about!

Stock
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Stock

This is the one good thing that would come with this type of draft. Teams would have more incentive to treat minor league players well.

bglick4
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bglick4

I don’t know. Tampa has had such a great player development system. I’d think this would be a major incentive.

Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

If you need a draft to force players into your franchise, your franchise should not exist or should be completely reformulated. Taking out MLB’s anti-trust exemption should also be part of this conversation.

drewsylvania
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drewsylvania

Yes–however, changing this would require incredible changes to the league. MLB would have to have the balls to mandate those changes.

Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

I agree–and the MLBPA should do a better job of advocating for its non-set-for-life members, absolutely. Not sure why I got downvoted; are people really excited about 18 yr olds being forced into the Ricketts’ machine?

Devern Hansack
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Devern Hansack

Less desirable teams could become more competitive for players by raising the floor of what they offer minor leaguers, e.g. better salaries, facilities, nutrition, and help to rectify the things wrong with the sport in that regard.

formerly matt w
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formerly matt w

FWIW Detroit has gotten plenty of free agents who were seen as top-flight at the time–Prince Fielder and Jordan ZImmermann and Justin Upton, off the top of my head. Two of those were disasters, but it’s not like in-demand guys didn’t sign with Detroit when Mike Illitch was throwing money around. And the reason KC and Tampa (and Pittsburgh) don’t sign big-name guys isn’t that nobody wants to play there, it’s that they don’t make big-name offers.

retrokryptonite
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retrokryptonite

And Pudge, the most influential free agent Detroit has signed this century.

Prince wasn’t a disaster for Detroit, he could be described as such for the Rangers after he netted the Tigers Kinsler, who had a good stretch in Detroit.

Bruce Schwindt
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Bruce Schwindt

That is why there remains a limit on what each team can spend.

cs3
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cs3

Then they can either pay more, or treat their players better.

bglick4
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bglick4

The league might have to put some kind of cap for competitive reasons, but this still might encourage teams to make their systems more inviting. I mean colleges spend all kinds of taxpayer dollars to build nice facilities to attract talent. Teams would try to improve their image. Not to be argumentative, but with Tampa’s excellent player development system, I think they would be one of the top destinations, but if they lost players they wanted for whatever reason, they’re a smart team; you know they would make changes.

Syndergaardengnomes
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Syndergaardengnomes

As Cole Hamels signs with LA, it does lend a little more credence to the idea that the Dodgers and Yankees would just end up with everyone. What’s the Dodgers payroll these days, 400 million?

CC AFC
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CC AFC

37 year old Cole Hamels is a totally different scenario than an amateur who is going to be sent to the minors. And again, the proposal is not for a totally free market, but one with a bonus pool.

drewsylvania
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drewsylvania

When only a couple teams behave as though there *isn’t* a hard cap, those teams become superteams.

Dmjn53
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Dmjn53

What does Cole Hamels, at best a fringe major leaguer at this point, have to do with this conversation?

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles

Well, we already had a FA system before the draft and NYY did pretty well in talent acquisition and it showed in the dynasty results.

Also, the rich teams already get all the elite talent 5 or so years into their careers, so you now want to give them those first 5 years too?!

channelclemente
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Changing MLB-TV blackout rules would mitigate that.

isavage
Member
isavage

There are 100 people who would say that because that is definitely what would happen. Look at the NCAA that was referenced, there are a handful of schools in every sport that the top high schoolers commit to and those teams dominate the sport. There is a larger pool of college level talent so this can still make the national sport interesting, but that would not work when you only have 30 teams, about 5 of which everyone would want to sign with and more important would have the $$ to snag all of the top players. If you limited everyone’s $ they have to spend then it would be a little more doable, although it’s still likely you’d have the same couple teams signing the top couple players almost every year and that’s hugely important in MLB when really only the top couple guys are anything close to a sure thing.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas

I agree 100%. Why not make it a 2 tier approach?

You have the draft. But then anyone unsigned is an amateur free agent. Absolutely insane that Rocker can’t negotiate with other teams.