Baseball's draft still very rough when compared with NBA's, NFL's

Slow to polish selection process, MLB loses out on marketability

June 08, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Among basketball fans, the suits worn to the NBA draft by Charles Barkley (a maroon number that made the "Round Mound of Rebound" look even rounder) and Jalen Rose (bright red with pinstripes) are legend.

NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. is so ubiquitous that jokes about his helmet of hair require little setup or context.

But try to think of an image readily associated with Major League Baseball's annual selection process, which started yesterday and will conclude today. Still trying?

Baseball is regarded as one of the nation's three major sports, but its draft might as well be conducted on Pluto for all of the mainstream attention it receives. The selection occurs via conference call with not a camera or commentator on hand. Until recent years, the league didn't reveal the names of picks until the end of the draft's first day.

"We would get phone calls from players asking if they had been picked," said Patrick Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball.

The league fell behind the curve set by the NFL and NBA in recognizing its draft as a marketing opportunity, said Rany Jazayerli, who writes about the draft and prospects for the Web site Baseballprospectus.com.

"I think baseball has historically underestimated the obsessiveness of its hardcore fans," he said.

But times are changing, albeit slowly. Fans can now follow the draft as it happens on MLB.com or ESPN.com, and both Web sites have been running regular draft features and chats with prospect experts. With a 24-hour baseball channel expected to be launched next year, a televised first round may not be far off.

"It seems like an ideal opportunity," Courtney said. "I don't think there's any question the interest is there in a way it did not use to be."

Prospect hounds listed several reasons for the draft's historic anonymity.

"I think the biggest reason is just that guys are not as ready to step into the highest levels of the majors," said Jim Callis, who covers the draft year-round for the prospect bible, Baseball America.

Two years ago, Cleveland Cavaliers fans could anticipate the arrival of LeBron James and think they'd soon be rooting for a contender. In Baltimore, first-round picks Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap and Chris McAlister became instant contributors on contending Ravens teams.

"In basketball or football, a first-round pick is very likely to make a rapid impact, certainly within two years," said John Sickels, who writes an annual guide on baseball prospects. "But in baseball, many first-round picks fail to develop at all, and those who do still take two, three or even four, five years in the case of high school guys. This makes it harder for the more casual fan to keep track of who these guys are."

Even baseball prodigies such as Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez were two and three years out of school before emerging as stars.

Amateur baseball players also aren't as famous as their football and basketball counterparts.

Yesterday's top two picks -- Virginia high school shortstop Justin Upton and Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon -- are familiar to only the most devout seamheads.

"Looking back on it, because a lot of the players drafted were high school players, there has never been a lot of name recognition," Courtney said.

The baseball draft is not without its drama, however.

The selection process provided settings for some of the most memorable scenes in Michael Lewis' best-selling Moneyball. Lewis writes that in 2001, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane heaved a chair through a boardroom wall after his scouting director selected a high school -- instead of a college -- pitcher.

And the stakes are undeniably high. The first pick can yield a superstar -- Ken Griffey Jr. in 1987, Rodriguez in 1993 -- or an embarrassing flame-out -- Brien Taylor in 1991, Josh Hamilton in 1999. The Orioles' inability to produce an elite prospect for the better part of two decades can be traced fairly directly to a series of barren drafts.

The names Chris Myers and Mark Smith ring a bell? They were the seventh pick in the 1987 draft and the ninth pick in the 1991 draft, respectively. Between 1985 and 1996, the team had no first-round pick four times.

"I don't think there are too many teams that are consistently successful without drafting well," Callis said.

Small-market teams, especially, have few other means to acquire superstars.

"You look at a team like the [Kansas City] Royals, and they're never going to sign a big free agent or a big name on the international market," Callis said. "For them, the draft is the only avenue."

Richer teams need top prospects to replace fading veterans or as trade fodder. The New York Yankees, for example, face a cupboard bare of prospects partly because of their negligence toward the draft, analysts said.

"I think the Yankees this year are an excellent example of how no team can afford to just blow off the draft," Jazayerli said. "It's really coming back to haunt them."

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