Gutman: A draft pick and a prayer

WASHINGTON

Two weeks ago I went to a job interview.

I sat down with the person who would be signing my paychecks and explained my credentials, the lessons I’ve learned in college, the challenges I’ve overcome in my life and how I think I can help an organization. My potential employer, in turn, tried to understand my strengths and weaknesses and evaluate how my previous experiences might help me when I arrived at his building to begin work.

Last week I went to a job interview.

This interview wasn’t for myself: I observed another rising senior speaking to those who would sign his paycheck. This kid was four months younger than I was but had already signed his job offer and received his signing bonus.

He seemed pretty similar to many of my friends and myself. He was a little nervous at this interview. He knew he was qualified for the job and projected confidence. He was relieved to know that he had been offered the job he was seeking so desperately.

But this kid was vastly different from any Yale junior I’ve met. And this job interview was slightly different from those I’ve attended.

His job interview was outside. Mine have all been inside.

His job interview took place on a stage. Mine have all been in an office.

His job interview was with hundreds of fans and tens of local and national media members who represent the fans who will ultimately be signing his paychecks. Mine have all been with one individual.

And his signing bonus had four zeroes on it that mine won’t.

Stephen Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in the Major League Baseball Entry Draft by the Washington Nationals, projects to be one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. He has a 100+ mile per hour fastball and above average secondary pitches. He’s struggled through adversity. He has learned under the best, playing in college under former Major League superstar Tony Gwynn Jr. And he has now landed a $15-plus million contract.

When MLB All-Star Ryan Zimmerman greeted Strasburg and welcomed him to Washington, it was clear that Strasburg is a transcendent talent on whose narrow shoulders and bulging wallet the future of Washington baseball may rest.

Strasburg is a fantastic talent. He may be a great pitcher and has all of the tools to deserve every penny of that contract.

But at the end of the day, Strasburg seemed much more like any one of my rising senior friends than a Major League Baseball All-Star.

He was nervous at his job interview. He has never proven himself at the level at which he will be asked to perform. He seemed a bit dazzled by the big stage in which he was being interviewed. For all of his big-game experience and coaching, Strasburg still came off as a kid.

No matter how intelligent some Yale students may be, they’re still not guaranteed to succeed in their chosen career paths. No matter how talented one particular San Diego State pitcher may be, he’s no guarantee either. The savior of the lowly Washington Nationals is not a big-time free agent who has chewed up big league hitting, it’s a kid.

Maybe that’s why the Kansas City Royals haven’t won their division since 1985. It could explain the Pirates’ miserable last 17 years. And don’t get me started on the Nationals.

When teams spend exorbitant sums on unproven commodities then count on these “future superstars” to avoid injury, develop correctly and become superstars, they put the next five years of their franchise on the line. When mistakes happen, the franchise suffers.

Even when these players pan out, as many of Oakland’s young pitchers from earlier this decade did, they leave or must be traded after their rookie contracts because mid-market teams can’t pay Barry Zito nine figures as the cross-town San Francisco Giants did. Teams get trapped in a cycle in which they depend on young talent to develop, then bank on being able to trade the successes for more young talent. Some mid-market teams may experience some success, as the Marlins won two World Series and the Athletics made the playoffs several years in a row, but misery is more certain than success.

The Marlins, Pirates, Royals and Athletics, by trapping themselves in this payroll-constrained risk-centered cycle, ensure that they will be terrible and in “rebuilding mode” at some point. But as the Royals and Pirates have found, going through a rebuilding cycle doesn’t guarantee better times. Without the salary to be an impact player in the free agent market, mid-market teams’ best case scenario is to develop players, enjoy a few years of contention, then resign themselves to a rebuilding cycle. The worst-case scenario is to go nearly 25 years without a division title.

The remedy for this problem, however, isn’t to impose a salary cap on baseball. The beauty of baseball is that any team can increase its payroll drastically, due to new management or projections about higher levels of ticket sales if a team wins more, and almost instantly put itself into contention. A team can’t buy championships, but it can pretty effectively buy respectability.

The proper solution to the conundrum of the team that consistently earns the No. 1 pick every year but never contends is to allow it to engage in less-risky behavior. If the team is on a budget, it could trade a single top prospect for multiple lesser prospects who are more cost-effective. If budgetary concerns are secondary, as they are for a potential big market team like the Nationals, the team could trade top prospects or draft picks for established players who can make an immediate impact.

Under current MLB rules, teams cannot trade draft picks and can’t trade their draftees immediately. Teams have to subject themselves to paying a first round pick with money that could be allocated elsewhere and expose themselves to the risk of relying on young “future stars.”

These rules need to change. Let the Red Sox and Yankees take on the high risk, high reward No. 1 overall picks. Let them take some of the risk out of the process for teams like the Nationals by trading proven players. It will benefit all teams involved and their fan bases.

Under the current system teams like the Royals and the Nationals have to pray that their draft picks, who are kids straight out of high school or college, become saviors of the franchise. They have to hope their interviews and diligence turn up enough information to render an accurate judgment on the talents and makeup of a baseball player.

But franchises can’t bank of these draft picks. Stephen Strasburg may look like a dominant pitcher. But he’s really just another college kid hoping to succeed at the job he’s been offered.

Collin Gutman is a senior

in Pierson College.

Comments

  • Baseball Insider

    While the idea of being able to trade draft picks is becoming a more popular one, without other changes it would make the draft even worse. Unless baseball established a hard slotting system the ability to trade draft picks will only drive up the price on prospects and cause the best players to end up on teams that can afford them, as opposed to allowing them to go to the teams with the worst record.

    In this case Strasburg would ask for 50 million, and when the nationals said no, they would have demanded a trade to the yankees or red sox who could potentially say yes. The inability to trade draft picks keeps the bonus prices down.

    And another misnomer is that bonus prices are not that high to begin with. For example, mark prior used to hold the record for highest bonus for a college pitcher signed for about 10 million. While he had a very short lived major league career, he still managed to be far more valuable then the 10 mil he signed for. In 2003 alone he was worth over 21 mil based on how he pitched (check fangraphs.com)

    The draft really isnt broken, move the signing date up a month so that players sign on July 15 and everything should be fine.