Corollary Damage: Kumar Rocker, the MLB Draft, and a Better Way Forward by Brendan Gawlowski August 4, 2021 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.