Draft comes up short as an equalizer

May 21, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

The Orioles need not apologize for holding four of the top 23 picks and seven of the top 50 in the June 2 amateur draft. But perhaps Major League Baseball should.

The draft is supposed to be an equalizer, with the weakest clubs securing the best amateur talent. It has evolved into anything but, with low-revenue teams unable to pay large signing bonuses to top players, and high-revenue teams adding compensatory selections as they exchange free agents.

The Orioles' windfall has demonstrated the holes in the system like never before, raising the possibility of changes to create a more level playing field.

"The reason the draft was put into place was to create parity," Cincinnati general manager Jim Bowden said. "And that's not the way the system is playing out."

The Orioles had the game's highest payroll last season. They added free agents Albert Belle, Will Clark, Delino DeShields and Mike Timlin. But now they've got a chance to revive their farm system in one fell swoop if they make the right choices in a draft deep in high school and college pitching.

How is this possible?

Follow along closely -- the draft bounty is perhaps the most positive development of the Orioles' lost season, a welcome bonus resulting from a winter of debatable moves.

The Orioles kept the 13th overall selection because teams in the top half of the draft rotation do not forfeit their first-round pick if they sign a free agent.

And the Orioles added the 18th, 21st and 23rd picks because they lost free agents to three teams that will select in the bottom half -- St. Louis (Eric Davis), Texas (Rafael Palmeiro) and Cleveland (Roberto Alomar).

Those three players were classified as Type A free agents. And teams that lose Type A free agents not only acquire one of the signing club's picks, but also gain a supplemental pick between the first and second rounds.

Remember after the 1996 season, when the Orioles signed Jimmy Key away from the Yankees and the Yankees signed David Wells away from the Orioles? The exchange netted each team an extra supplemental pick.

This time, the Orioles also gained the 34th, 44th and 50th selections as further compensation. Thus, they will make seven selections before they even start losing their own picks.

The Orioles lost their second-rounder for Belle, their third for Timlin, their fourth for DeShields and their fifth for Clark. They also gained Los Angeles' third-round pick for the loss of Alan Mills, a Type B free agent.

Now, consider this from the perspective of the low-revenue clubs.

They've got no chance to compete for high-priced free agents. And they're increasingly at a disadvantage in the one method of player acquisition that should routinely work to their benefit, the draft.

Orioles general manager Frank Wren was director of Latin American scouting and operations for the Montreal Expos when that team had 10 of the first 56 picks in 1990, and landed future major-leaguers Rondell White, Chris Haney, Gabe White and Shane Andrews.

But now, low-revenue teams like the Expos often trade their best players before they're eligible for free agency. And they don't always offer arbitration to ensure draft-pick compensation for marginal free agents, fearing the players will accept.

Still, it isn't just the compensation system that is flawed. The draft is restricted to players from the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. The Yankees, in particular, have been aggressive in lavishing millions on players from other countries, most notably Cuban pitcher Orlando Hernandez.

Meanwhile, as signing bonuses for top draft picks continue to escalate, low-revenue clubs can't always afford to sign the most highly rated players.

"That's where it's starting to break down," Wren said. "All of a sudden, the clubs drafting early aren't necessarily taking the best player. They're cutting pre-draft deals with lesser players, things like that."

And yet, baseball's rule against trading draft choices prevents low-revenue clubs from dealing picks for prospects who are closer to the majors -- even though they can forfeit draft-pick compensation by dumping potential free agents for prospects at midseason.

Too many questions. Too few answers.

"You look at [eliminating] compensation picks. You look at a worldwide draft," Detroit GM Randy Smith said. "Look at the Yankees. They spent $12 million on players outside the draft [last year]. That's obviously something most clubs can't do. If you have a worldwide draft, you can distribute the talent more evenly."

And that should be MLB's goal -- on every front.

"There are a number of things we've proposed, and hope to implement in the next couple of years," said former Oakland GM Sandy Alderson, who is now MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations.

"One is a [worldwide] draft. Another possibility is the elimination of at least some of the draft compensation, specifically some of the supplemental picks.

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