To understand how important the draft is, look no further than the teams that made the World Series in 2007. The Rockies core — first-baseman Todd Helton (1st round, 1995), shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (1st round, 2005), third-baseman Garrett Atkins (5th round, 2000), outfielder Matt Holliday (7th round, 1998) and pitcher Jeff Francis (1st round 2002) — were all acquired through the draft. In fact, every starting infielder and outfielder except Kaz Matsui was a Rockies draft pick. Even the free-spending Red Sox owe their World Series championship to the play of Jacoby Ellsbury (1st round, 2005), Kevin Youkilis (8th round, 2001), Dustin Pedroia (2nd round, 2004) and closer Jonathan Papelbon (4th round, 2003). Successful teams build through draft for a few reasons:
- Free agents are expensive. If you want to sign a quality free agent, you better be prepared to open the checkbook. In 2007, three players (Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter) earned over $20 million — each. Even mediocre free agents have earned big contracts. Gary Matthews, Jr., an outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels, signed a 5-year, $50M in November 2006 even though he had been traded or released eight times and had hit above .275 only once. Comparable players can be drafted at 1/5 of the cost.
- Most players’ most productive years come during their first contract. Once a team signs an amateur player, the team can control him through the player’s sixth full major league season. Many players become free agents for the first time at age 32 or 33, at which point their most productive years are already behind them. By drafting the right players, a team can enjoy the most productive years of their players’ careers (usually between age 25-29).
- Former draft picks are moving to the major leagues faster than ever. Already, 30 players drafted since 2005 have made the big leagues. The first five picks in the 2005 draft (Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Jeff Clement, Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Braun) have all showed that they will be All-Stars in the next several years. Only the team that drafted them will be able to enjoy the next four to six years. The Yankees, a team that preferred to spend money on free agents and ignored the draft, has recently emphasized the draft and rebuilt their farm system with pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Phillip Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Alan Horne, all drafted since 2004.
- Draft prospects have the same ability as major leaguers. Watch a Division I college baseball game or a high school showcase tournament and you’ll see amateur players doing things that would make Top Plays on SportsCenter. Amateurs can hit home runs 450 feet, throw 95 mph or better and run as fast as major league baseball’s top base stealers. None of the amateurs can do these things as consistently as the major leaguers, but it’s easy to see how professional coaches and minor league experience could mold these players into superstars.
- Successful teams rebuild through the draft. In 2004, the Arizona Diamondbacks had a record of 51-111, the worst in baseball, and fired manager Bob Brenly. During this disappointing season, they drafted shortstop Stephen Drew (1st round) and third-baseman Mark Reynolds (16th round). In 2005, they picked up outfielder Justin Upton (1st round) and pitcher Micah Owings (3rd round). Paired with Brandon Webb (8th round, 2000) and a few wise international signings, the Diamondbacks advanced to the National League Championship Series only three years removed from 2004 disaster.
- It doesn’t take many success stories to build a winner. When plunging into the free agent market, it’s important to get value from every signing because the contracts are so expensive. However, teams can have outstanding drafts by drafting several future major leaguers out of 50 or more draft picks. Baseball America hailed the Diamondbacks drafts from 2003-2005 because they produced two or three successes per year. In what other situation can an organization that is successful 10% of the time be held aloft as the gold standard?
As free agents have become more expensive, teams have become more aggressive in trading for players with fewer than six years of experience. On December 14, the Arizona Diamondbacks acquired pitcher Dan Haren (2nd round, 2001) for six minor league prospects. Haren is owed $16.5 million over the next three years; he’d be worth three times that value on the free agent market. One of the most coveted players on the trade market is pitcher Erik Bedard (6th round, 1999), who is under contract by the Baltimore Orioles for two more years at a below-market rate.