Let's spend a week talking about revamping the draft

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The biggest item on the table when the Collective Bargaining Agreement is renegotiated at the end of 2011 will be the amateur draft.  And it’s not just one item, really, it’s a handful of them, including (a) internationalizing the draft; (b) instituting “hard slotting” for bonuses; and (c) allowing the trading of draft picks, among other things. Today MLB.com begins a week-long series on the draft, beginning with taking it international.

The league typically cites a litany of problems when arguing in favor of the international draft, including concerns of age fraud, exploitation of the players by buscones, rampant corruption and overall cost. I’ve written at length on these issues before, and the chief thing to take away from it is that when it comes to talking about an international draft, the league tries to conflate all of these issues into one giant problem that is inherent in international free agency when, in fact, they are many separate issues, most of which could be solved without the institution of an international draft.

The worst of the corruption has come from team employees, not anyone in foreign countries, and if teams would police their own better, we wouldn’t have the bonus skimming scandals we’ve seen.

Fighting fraud isn’t made any easier with a draft. As it stands now, teams have to figure out how old a given player is. Under a draft the league would have to do it.  It’s not like the problem goes away.

As for the money, imposing cost controls are totally within the team’s power now. They are free to negotiate with the players as they see fit. No one is forcing them to give millions to a sixteen year-old, they just don’t have the discipline to do due diligence and hold the line on these things. And really, these allegedly huge bonuses are not as big a problem as the league makes them out to be.  The entire league pays around $50 million a year in international signing bonuses. That’s $1.66 million per team.  That’s way less than teams pay out to American draftees, and in a world where teams think that guys like Jason Kendall and Pudge Rodriguez are worth way more than that for a single year, it’s rounding error.

So if the costs aren’t that great, and the problems with international free agency fixable, why the push for an international draft?  I think it’s ideological more than anything else. The league has an overriding aversion to free agency of any kind, and if they can partially stamp it out, they will. With a little work, they can stamp it out in Latin America and other places, so why not give it a whirl?

Not that it will be easy. For it to work, the countries involved have to sign off.  You think the Domincan Republic is going to agree to a system that (a) limits its citizens options in the marketplace; (b) lowers the incentives for teams to invest in training academies and scouting trips within the country; and (c) puts a bunch of its own people out of work (buscones are part of the economy, you know)?  And even if the Dominican Republic does, what makes you think Hugo Chavez will sign off on the plans of the American Imperialists?

The international draft is an interesting topic. But it’s not as necessary, and certainly not as easy, as its proponents usually care to admit.

Evan Longoria: “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.