The Major League Baseball draft is hugely important to determining who has access to the cheap young talent that are absolutely crucial to filling out major league rosters that are perpetually challenged with respect to budget as high quality veterans and even necessary above average ones raise total payroll for a team all by themselves. Most every successful team outside of the Bronx needs to get $10-$15 million dollar production out of a handful of guys who make less than $1 million.
And the way to do that is to draft well, bring guys up through your own farm system and be able to pay them league minimums or close to it for three whole years and then through arbitration to pay them more of what they’re really worth without really hitting their open market value until six full years are up. The financial advantage that all this saved money means in terms of flexibility to add high quality veterans to supplement cheap youth is really the single best advantage to have in baseball.
The other reason to be concerned for the draft, particularly the first few rounds, is that that’s where the overwhelming majority of American superstars, all stars, and future hall of famers are to be found. Contrary to popular misconception, the baseball draft is not a “crapshoot.” The stars of the future extremely consistently do come out of the very first two rounds of the draft if they’re not coming from Latin America. While a particular team might not select the all stars and future hall of famers that are among the first 60 picks any given year, most of those players are on the table at that point.
The Mets have in the last 15 years have been terribly positioned to get these prime prospects because of their policy of not offering arbitration to their free agents. Disaffected by the contract that David Cone won from them in arbitration and seeing that contracts won in arbitration raise the standard for contracts to be that much more expensive, the Mets have stubbornly refused arbitration to any free agent who can accept it. This has been generally disasterous for the Mets and a significant contributing reason to their lack of homegrown stars until just recently when they were bad enough to get top 12 picks and when Mike Hampton was signed before the Mets had the chance to refuse to offer arbitration and we got a compensation pick—-with which we signed David Wright.
The reason it was disastrous was that in the past we had until only early December to sign a free agent before having to offer arbitration to keep the window to sign him open. Any players we lost to free agency were lost relatively early in the off season before they had time to realize they couldn’t earn more than we wanted to pay them and come back (see Mike Piazza who might have been able to come back to the Mets had he already had the chance to test the open market and have his drastic drop in value confirmed.) And most importantly, when losing high quality free agents, we’ve lost all shot at compensation picks when they signed after we refused to offer arbitration since picking up compensation picks was entirely contingent on our having offered arbitration if it was after the arbitration offering deadline in early December. It was our luck that Mike Hampton signed with Colorado before that deadline, or the Mets would have never offered arbitration and we would never have gotten our first homegrown future hall of fame type in decades (DWright) as compensation.
Also the ability of teams to sign their own free agents as late as they want and not have to do so by January really helps the Mets as well. Again, with an aging player like Piazza who is going to need confirmation of his deflated value before re-signing at a drastic mark down, it is really important and valuable to give him the entire off season to figure that out and not force the cutting of ties to do that. And in the case of a Piazza, the Mets did the right thing under the old rules, offering arbitration would have opened the door to Piazza taking it as a last resort at getting paid based on past great performance by an arbiter’s decision while every other team was shrewd enough to only pay for predictable future performance, which of course was expected to be considerably less.
Fine as Lo Duca worked out, I’d have taken Piazza’s numbers over his easily and would have preferred not losing the prospects Lo Duca cost us, etc. But under the old system this wasn’t even a realistic option for a second for the Mets.
The free agent era has become all the more solidified and strengthened in MLB. Whether that’s a good thing or not and whether there is something corruptive about free agency and impure of teams built that way is a discussion for another time. But one worth having as my views on free agency used to be very extreme against it but have now softened and adapted to the times.