Compared to the attention the NFL and NBA college draft receives, baseball's annual amateur draft is hardly a blip on the screen of even the most avid collector or fan of the national pastime. Heck, even hockey enthusiasts get more worked up about the NHL amateur draft than those who faithfully follow baseball.
So, when baseball conducts its annual selections of the top nonprofessionals next week, few outside the families of those drafted will pay much attention. Major League baseball, which is always trying to think of ways to market itself and its players better, doesn't cooperate much. They won't even release the names of those drafted after the early rounds until days after the draft, not that most people would care much anyway.
But the draft is important if not essential for rebuilding clubs and the two expansion teams, Arizona and Tampa Bay, for several reasons. Without a draft, baseball would have to go back to the days of when the rich teams from the big markets would dominate signings of top young talent. For years, the Yankees could persuade quality players to sign with the team just for the possibility of wearing the pinstripes. Branch Rickey, running the St. Louis Cardinals, couldn't stomach that and by the late 1930s developed what was called a "farm" system. The Cardinals would hire scouts to scour the country, looking for top teen-age baseball prospects, and stockpile their signings on minor league clubs in which the Redbirds had working agreements. The results paid off: the Cardinals won four pennants in five years through 1946. That streak ended when Rickey picked up and left to go to Brooklyn, where he worked similar magic for the Dodgers that led to that team's domination of the National League for another 15 years. By the end of the Dodgers' run in the late 1950s, other teams had copied Rickey's blueprint of hiring scouts to sign ballplayers and let them develop in the minor league system.
But the system was top heavy. The rich teams had the most scouts and the most money to monopolize top talent. Recruiting top talent was ruthless and would make today's college recruiting violations seem mild by comparison. Baseball instituted a draft, similar to the other professional sports, to try to return competitive balance to the signing of top players. The teams that finished at the bottom of the league the previous year would have the top picks in the draft, similar to the NHL, NFL and NBA.
It worked to a point. Scouting baseball players is the most inexact science of all the sports, due in part to the ability to sign a player right out of high school before he has been tested in serious competition. All football, most basketball and a majority of hockey players drafted have faced tough competition, similar to what baseball players face in the minor leagues. A diamond in the rough who has struck out 20 batters against another high school team or who has batted .550 against rubber-armed prep pitchers doesn't guarantee a trip to Cooperstown.
Pitcher Brian Taylor is a classic example. Considered a sure bet to dominate in the majors, the Yankees signed the righthander to a lucrative contract after being selected in the first round of the draft. Sidelined by injuries, Taylor never made it in the majors and falls into the category of wasted draft choice.
On the other hand, some top players can often slip through the cracks into the later rounds while other first round picks can turn out to be busts. Mike Piazza, the most talked-about athlete in the country the past two weeks because of the blockbuster Florida- LA trade, wasn't selected until the 62nd round of the amateur draft in 1988. Another player involved in that trade, Bobby Bonilla, wasn't even drafted and was signed as a free agent by the Pirates in 1981.
There are numerous other examples. Want future hall-of-famers? Paul Molitor wasn't picked until the 28th round -- by the St. Louis Cardinals. Roger Clemens, arguably the most dominating pitcher in the American League over the past decade, wasn't picked until the 12th round. Recently-retired second baseman Ryne Sandberg wasn't taken until the 20th round by the Philadelphia Phillies. Bret Saberhagen lasted until the 19th round, Jeff Brantley was passed over until the 13th round, Kenny Lofton wasn't picked until the 12th. Even Tony Gwynn, may be the best pure hitter of this generation, was looked over by all major league teams until the third round of the amateur draft.
In one sense, scouting players has become a little easier over the past 10 to 15 years with the expansion of college baseball. Some players who might have opted to toil in the lower classifications of the minors have opted to take a baseball scholarship and compete in college (Division I baseball is similar to Class AA ball according to many scouts). They face better competition and can hold out for more money -- and less time in the minors -- when their collegiate careers are over.
However, in another very real sense, scouting is more difficult. The influx of Latin America stars, particularly from the Dominican Republic and now even with Cuban refugees, has forced teams to increase their scout's travel expenses and again gamble that these potentially undrafted players will become stars. Juan Gonzalez of the Rangers, Ray Ordonez of the Mets, and the Alomars, (Sandy of the Tribe, Roberto of the Blue Jays) are just some of the examples of Latin American players who were signed by individual teams and weren't subject to the draft. Add to this to the increasing potential of Japanese players like Hideo Nomo and you can see the dilemma teams face if they think the amateur draft can be their salvation.