On June 9th, 2016, an event will occur. An event that happens every year around this time: The MLB Draft. One of the points of the draft is for losing teams to have the best chance of acquiring young talent. It’s, in theory, a mechanism to ensure parity around baseball. That’s why teams who finish with the worse record get the best picks. Obviously, this isn’t the only function of the draft. It’s also a system that aims to keep young players’ salaries down. But, that’s another topic for another day.
Baseball isn’t the only sport where there’s a draft. Basketball, Football, and Hockey have one as well, and they’re not all structured the same way. For example, in basketball even if you finish with the worst record, you’re not guaranteed to have the best pick. In fact, in the NBA, the team with the worst record only has a 25 percent chance of finishing with the top pick.
With the term tanking now in vogue in baseball, some people have suggested that baseball should adopt this system. Mainly, people are suggesting that tanking is a problem because teams are trying to lose as many games as they can to get the best players in the draft. They will then link to the Cubs and Astros 2015 success, suggesting that it was driven by their top picks, “The Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs both had great seasons in 2015, reaching the playoffs with young and exciting and talented teams built through a tear down to build up approach. After cutting spending and losing a lot of games in successive years and finishing at the bottom of the standings, the Astros and Cubs had picked at or near the top of the draft and had access to players such as Carlos Correa and Kris Bryant.” wrote Buster Olney. Then they will predictably lump the Brewers, Braves, Phillies, and Reds as deploying the same strategy.
The problem with this narrative, however, is that it makes the miscalculated assumption that the draft is the driving tool teams employ in their rebuilds. It assumes that the primary goal of the rebuild is to lose as many games as possible in order to get that all so lucrative number one overall pick. That teams actually think that getting a top pick will solve all of their problems.
First of all, the draft is not the only tool a team has when rebuilding. For example, just look at the Brewers. The Brewers have already rebuilt their farm system and have a number of prospects who were not acquired through the draft.
Orlando Arcia was signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old. Brett Phillips, Josh Hader, Jacob Nottingham, Zach Davies, Domingo Santana, and more were acquired through trades and all may soon have an impact on the big league club. Hell, some of them are already on the big league roster.
Most importantly, these players were acquired through savvy trades. When a team is rebuilding, it typically has a few tradable assets. For the Brewers these were, Khris Davis, Jean Segura, Adam Lind, Carlos Gomez, Gerardo Parra, Jason Rogers, Jonathan Broxton, and Francisco Rodriguez. In order for the rebuilding process to go well, the team at hand will need to get a good return on their assets. This sometimes isn’t very easy but is an integral part of the process. If the team is unable to get a good return, then the rebuilding process will be longer for everyone (just imagine what would’ve happened if the Phillies botched the Hamels deal).
Making these type of trades will also allow the team to build depth. As Jeff Luhnow has said, “[Our] plan involves us building from within, developing a system that can be productive and allow us to compete year in and year out.” Teams such as the Brewers aren’t simply looking to get one shot at the title. That’s not why one goes through a rebuilding process. The goal is to have sustained success, and in order to have that, teams need to make moves for a couple of years down the road and then moves for 5-10 years down the road. That’s why David Stearns traded Adam Lind for a trio of teenage pitchers. As J.P. Breen, former BP Milwaukee Editor in Chief wrote about the Lind trade, “It’s the sort of deal that elicits sighs and groans from the Milwaukee faithful, rather than fist pumps and celebrations.” But it’s still an important trade. One can make the argument that the Brewers could become a competitive team as early as 2018. By 2021, Jimmy Nelson might hit free agency, or might be in the decline phase of his career. By then, one of these three kids might be ready for the big leagues. The Brewers will then be looking at the next wave of talent soaring through the organization. Then we’ll be talking about what a genius Stearns is. Of course, these pitchers might not work out, but the point is that there seems to be a big plan in site, that isn’t only attempting to make the Brewers contenders for a few years.
Then, there’s the less obvious trades and signings; for example, picking up Colin Walsh as a rule five draft pick; signing Chris Carter; trading for Ramon Flores, and Jonathan Villar; or selecting the contract of Alex Presley. Most of these moves won’t pan out. Walsh and Flores aren’t performing well, to be kind. But, Villar has been swinging the bat well, and might make a good bench piece once Arcia comes up. Carter, on the other hand, seems to have been a well worth bargain this offseason (he signed for only 2.5 million and remains arbitration eligible). The Brewers will surely look to trade him come the deadline, and with the way he’s been playing, he could bring back good young talent. Adding further depth and young assets.
Signing rule five draft picks and flawed free agents isn’t exactly sexy, but it’s a way of taking low-risk chances with the potential for high reward. It’s like applying to Universities where you don’t quite match the grade qualifications. You’re probably not going to get in, but there’s a small chance that you do, and if you do, well you’ll be happy you took the time to apply.
Building a team isn’t just about building its stars. That’s not what makes a baseball team. Even the best player in the world can only take a team so far. Don’t believe me, just ask the Angels how there doing. That’s why it’s important to build depth. Not simply in the majors but also in the minor leagues. These smaller, less sexy moves are a part of that.
The reality of the draft is that it’s an inexact science. There are 40 rounds and the vast majority of the players drafted won’t play a game in the big leagues. With first round picks, most of them won’t be worth 10 WAR for their career. Even having a first overall pick isn’t guaranteeing success. Very few of them don’t sign, but a number of them become disappointments or fizzle out. Drafting the right player is difficult and tricky. That’s why putting all your eggs in one basket is a mistake. It’s also not what teams like the Brewers are doing. They have a more nuanced and sophisticated plan. Yes, they will use the draft to rebuild, but it’s only one of their tools in a large tool box.