The Problem With the MLB Draft
Welcome back to Nine Innings, SI’s weekly look at what’s fun, cool and somewhat stupid around the league. Today’s topics include: what to do about the MLB draft; Max Scherzer doing his best Bartleby the Scrivener impression; Rougned Odor’s thighs; and much more.
This Week In … The MLB Draft!
As you’re reading this, the MLB draft is currently winding its way through its seemingly endless middle rounds, in the chunk that takes place entirely over conference call. (Finally, a sporting event that recreates the thrill of a meeting.) The draft is a hard sell for a variety of reasons: a largely unknown body of players, the great majority of whom will never reach the majors, slowly picked over several hours. (Monday’s TV presentation stretched on for what felt like days.) Most of the enjoyment past Day 1 is in name-watching, like keeping track of all the regional variations of “Kaden.” The assistant GMs and scouting directors mumbling names into a speakerphone matters little and less as the draft goes on.
There’s no real way to liven up the festivities, either. MLB has tried, doing everything from putting the draft in primetime to clearing the slate of games so that the baseball world is more or less forced to pay attention. But there are simply too many logistical and contextual hurdles for MLB’s draft to occupy the kind of prime real estate that the NFL and NBA ones do. Again: 95% of the names you see this week, you will never see again. Half the first rounders—literally the best amateur players in the country—will never make any impact on a major league game. And those who do will take years to get there. Like a settler party navigating the Oregon Trail, most of them will be lost along the way to the baseball equivalents of dysentery, broken axles, or snakebites.
There’s nothing MLB can do to change that. Baseball is an absurdly hard game that takes a long time to learn and far longer to master. It’s hard to convince people to get emotionally invested in a total stranger who more likely than not will hang up his spikes at the age of 26 after getting stuck in Double A. And with college baseball having a far smaller audience than college football or basketball, there are few if any Zion Williamson types who take a nation by storm, where everyone wants to know their fate.
This isn’t to suggest that the league is stupid for investing resources in the draft or pumping it up. But the draft does feel like a losing battle for all parties involved. Fans aren’t interested, and the way that journalists cover it isn’t fair to the staggering difficulty teams and players face. The draft is caught between its reality as a coin flip and the manufactured vision of it as a grand showcase and way for your sad-sack team to make it all better. Its non-viewer-friendly truth is somewhere in between.
Is there a solution? I advocate for getting rid of the draft entirely and letting players choose their teams, but that’s mostly because it’s far more fair and labor friendly. Regardless, MLB and the owners will never agree to that. The draft will always be second fiddle, no matter how much the orchestra around it is dressed up.
This Week In … Vladimir Guerrero Jr.!
The Vlad Jr. Train continues to chug along, hopefully picking up speed. Last week, he hit a modest .273/.333/.549 with a homer, three doubles and two walks. That may not look like much given the Gabbo-sized expectations surrounding Guerrero, but again, keep in mind that he’s been 20 years old for all of two months and is still hitting better than Manny Machado this season.
There’s probably something to be said for the hype machine that builds kids like Vlad Jr. up to such dizzying heights that nothing they do can come close to matching the dreams. On the one hand, if anyone looked poised to break the baseball wheel, it was Guerrero, the most advanced hitting prospect in decades. On the other, it’s a nice reminder that baseball is hard, and that patience is the greatest virtue to have when it comes to the sport.
So, should that be a lesson for me, the writer who devoted an entire section of a weekly column to the forthcoming brilliance of an untested minor leaguer as if it were a guarantee?
This Week In … Max Scherzer Says No!
Here’s a delightful short story, courtesy of the GIF-making genius Pitching Ninja.
There’s context to that clip: Martinez coming out to chat with Scherzer amid a Sunday start against the Reds, with his ace at 117 pitches with one out to go in the seventh, only to be met with Scherzer’s weapons-grade intensity. The righty pleads his case (using what Martinez charitably described later as “non-professional words”), gets to stay, and makes good on his manager’s trust by punching out Joey Votto on three pitches for his 15th strikeout of the day.
You love to get a happy ending, but I really wanted to see what would’ve happened if Martinez had taken Scherzer out in what was a one-run game. Would Scherzer have just sat on the mound and refused to go? Would he have stared at Martinez, unblinking, until the skipper left? (Like a bear, never look Scherzer directly in the eyes, as he’ll take it as a challenge to his dominance.)
Either way, Scherzer said no, and no it was. Hopefully the next time he wants to register that same displeasure, he takes it up to this level:
This Week In … Derek Dietrich Disappointing The Dead!
Reds infielder Derek Dietrich has spent the season heaping fire on his enemies, none more than the Pirates. Against Pittsburgh this year, Dietrich is hitting a saucy .423/.444/1.269, including seven of his 17 home runs, one of which sparked a benches-clearing brawl back in April. When he’s gone deep, Dietrich has made a habit of admiring his handiwork, and that combination of flex and targeted destruction so thoroughly enraged Pirates color commentator John Wehner that he brought up the dead on a local radio show last week to try to shame Cincinnati’s slugger.
“I can’t stand Dietrich. … I don’t understand why you have to do that. It’s different if you’re a Hall of Fame player, you’re a 60-homer guy, you’re an established guy. Nobody ever heard of him before this year. I heard of him because of his grandfather [Steve Demeter], who used to be a minor league coach for the Pirates. He was the nicest, sweetest guy in the world. He’s rolling in his grave every time the guy hits a home run. He’s embarrassed of his grandson.”
It’s unknown if, in fact, Demeter is currently doing 180 rpm underground because his grandson—whom he likely loved very much—happens to pause a few seconds after swatting a dinger to be proud of his accomplishment. Barring Wehner also being a medium, he’s not really in any position to make any claim of the sort. But Wehner’s whining is good to get eyes rolling, if not corpses.
Let Dietrich have fun, and leave his grandfather out of it. I’m sure the old man is having a grand time in the land of wind and ghosts watching young Derek be a star.
This Week In ... High Fashion!
Behold Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor, strutting his stuff in what I hope becomes the latest MLB fashion trend: pants turned into short shorts.
Yes, like that pair of jeans you ill-advisedly tried to turn into jorts, Odor decided to push the boundaries of his pants by bunching them up well above the knee. He’s rapidly approaching 1976 White Sox territory, and while it may look decidedly goofy, I’m all for it. More weird sartorial choices in baseball, please. Who will be the first man to rock culottes?
This Week In … Playing the Hits!
Franmil Reyes is a very big man who hits very long home runs. But did you know that the Padres’ young outfielder has also got the pipes to match that power? Observe:
Reyes’ impromptu rendition of that all-time Whitney Houston power ballad “I Will Always Love You” is the result of a joke he and righty Chris Paddack have been playing throughout the season, belting out the chorus of the song when a Padres player returns to the dugout after a home run. Here they are doing it pregame at Yankee Stadium last week, turning it into a remix with some sweet bat-based percussion.
The only reasonable place this goes now should be obvious: Reyes, throwing out the first pitch of a game to a masked catcher … only for the catcher to reveal himself as Kevin Costner, who scoops Reyes into his arms and carries him off as the song blasts over the Petco Park PA.
This Week In … Manny Ramirez!
Remember Manny Ramirez? I hope you do, because he was the best. Anyway, turns out that, even at age 47, he can still swing the stick. Show ‘em, Manny.
In other Manny-related news, here he is checking out an Angels-Mariners game on his birthday last Thursday in Seattle. I can think of far worse ways to spend a birthday than watching Mike Trout do his thing.
This Week In … Who Needs Craig Kimbrel?
Every week until he’s signed, I’ll take a look at which teams need free agent Craig Kimbrel, one of the best relievers in baseball, the most, and declare one the winner.
This is likely the last week for this section, as Kimbrel’s draft pick compensation is gone, taking away that final self-erected barrier that stood between teams and the elite closer they all needed. Finally, no more excuses; there are no more strings attached to Kimbrel—or at least, none beyond those that the teams themselves are trying to tie on.
You have to admire the gall of complaining about a player being rusty when that rust is the result of having to miss the entire season to date because no team was willing to pay him.
Regardless, some team will soon sign Kimbrel. On Monday, I listed the top five spots where he would have the most potential impact, leading with Milwaukee, which could use a regular closer to free up Josh Hader to pitch like Josh Hader in other innings. A dozen other teams could use him too. Either way, one will get him, and the result will be the fun contradiction of a player that the whole league more or less ignored since November suddenly appearing on a roster as if nothing were amiss.
Fabulous economic system the game has got going right now.
Also receiving votes: Aren’t you excited to do this all over again next winter?
This Week In … Old Baseball Cards!
Each week, I’ll pluck a random baseball card out of a pile of old 1980s, 90s and 2000s cards I have at my work desk, then write a quick little take on the player in question. This week’s entry: Shane Reynolds, pitcher, Houston Astros (1999 Upper Deck).
On May 6, 1998, Shane Reynolds took the mound at Wrigley Field and threw arguably one of the best games of his entire life. Over eight innings—a complete game—Reynolds allowed two runs and struck out 10, throwing 72 of his 116 pitches for strikes. That blustery day on the North Side of Chicago, Reynolds briefly looked like he could make history, punching out eight batters in his first four innings of work. But it didn’t last, and though only two Cubs crossed the plate, that was enough to hand the 30-year-old righty the loss.
To be fair to Reynolds, though, he stood no chance of a win that day, given his opponent. Facing Reynolds that day was a peach-fuzzed rookie righty by the name of Kerry Wood. Twenty strikeouts and one borderline hit later, Wood was the author of the single best game that’s ever been pitched in MLB history, and Reynolds was the owner of one of its least deserving losses.
“That poor bastard just ran into the wrong guy that day,” Cubs first baseman Mark Grace said of Reynolds in a Chicago Tribune oral history of Wood’s game. And while Reynolds easily gets lost in revisiting that game, his overshadowed excellence still pokes through. “Every once in a while,” he told the Tribune, “there’s that glimpse of what I had that day.”