MLB Roundtable: Draft-and-follow

MLB teams used to be able to cheat. They could take a high-caliber high school player in the MLB Draft that had a strong commitment to a university with the hopes that the player takes the junior college route, giving the team a year to evaluate and perhaps sign the player without slot money restrictions.

The rules have since changed. The term draft-and-follow has gone extinct starting in 2007. Drafted players, other than college seniors, must be signed by August 15.

The draft-and-follow enabled clubs to maintain exclusive rights to a drafted player up until one week prior to the next year's draft, if that player attended junior college. The club, however, lost any rights when a drafted high schooler decided to attend a four-year college or a drafted college player returned to school and attended his first class.

Draft-and-follow was often employed to enable an emerging player to gain another year of experience but still allow the drafting team the option to attempt to sign him before he would be eligible to re-enter the draft the following June.

Teams no longer have that luxury.

How does the elimination of the draft-and-follow affect your team and the league as a whole?

David Jay,
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Having made good - and frequent - use of the draft-and-follow process, the Angels will have to adjust their draft strategy. In just the last two years, draft-and-follow has yielded pitchers Sean O'Sullivan, Jeremy Haynes and Steve Marek and sluggers Mark Trumbo and Seth Loman, and hard-throwing Texan Jordan Walden is among the top draft-and-follow prospects in the country this year.

In the big picture, the change is likely a step toward eliminating the rookie-level complex leagues. While that's a great thing for players who will not be subjected to two months of 10:00 a.m. games in the Arizona desert, it's not great for fans of short-season and Low-A clubs who will see more players' professional debuts.

It should be interesting to see how many showcase leagues for high school and junior college (JUCO) draftees pop up. Such a development would have the upside of players get more experience against higher-level competition before signing, but also exposes them to additional injury risks and could open the door to more talent poaching by two-year school coaches.

Brian Walton,
St. Louis Cardinals

The elimination of the draft-and-follow process makes a lot of sense from a sheer simplicity perspective. For the club, if they cannot sign a player over the summer, then why can't that player re-enter the draft, go to school or do whatever he pleases? As such, this sensible change removes an artificial motivator for young men to adapt their career plans just to conform to a weird rule.

Closer to home, the St. Louis Cardinals did use the old draft-and-follow process to their distinct advantage and will likely miss it. In recent years, three solid pitchers who were nabbed in this manner quickly come to mind – and there are others.

Left-handed specialist Tyler Johnson, who was a key member of the World Champions' bullpen in 2006, was originally a 34th-round pick (1013rd overall) in 2000. He signed with the organization in May, 2001 at the age of 19. By 2002, he was the Cards' Minor League Player of the Year. Coming out of high school in Washington, right-hander Blake Hawksworth had early-round talent. The Cardinals struck quickly, taking the then-18-year-old in the 28th-round (854th overall) in the 2001 draft. After attending community college, Hawksworth signed the next May. After a series of injuries, Hawksworth has battled back to be the number two prospect in the entire Cardinals' system.

The club struck again in 2005, selecting hard-throwing Oklahoman Blake King in the 44th round (1334th overall). After signing for 2006, Mickey Mantle's great-grandnephew's domination of the Appalachian League placed the now-19-year-old as the organization's 22nd-ranked prospect.

Jason Avery,
Detroit Tigers

I know I'm probably in the minority when I say this, but I think getting rid of the draft-and-follow rule is a bad idea. The process was a great way for teams to take a chance on potential diamonds in the rough and see what they could do against advanced competition. Instead of giving scouts a free year to evaluate them, I think you'll see clubs take more risks and try to get a few of those players that they would normally be content to let go to JUCO. The funny thing is that management thought draft-and-follows were getting more and more expensive, but now that the rule is gone, JUCO players are on equal footing with college and high school players, and instead of having one team watch them, they will have 30 teams watching, not to mention teams will have the ability to talk to them about signability (presently teams aren't allowed to talk to players under control).

It would've been interesting to see how high Pedro Beato would've gone had everyone had a chance to evaluate him (most teams thought Beato would sign with the Mets, and didn't want to waste their time on a player they likely wouldn't get a shot at). Perhaps instead of going 32nd overall, he may have gone in the top 15, and commanded an even bigger bonus than he would've gotten either from the Mets or Orioles.

As far as the team I follow (Detroit) goes, I don't think it will really affect them. They've signed only a handful of players using the process, but it will hit the Atlanta Braves hard. The Braves normally sign the top 15-20 players they want initially, and the sheer volume of DFE's they select net them five or six nice prospects that they ink the following spring. It will be interesting to see how one of the best scouting teams does now that one of their staples is gone.

Denis Savage,
San Diego Padres

A talent pool available to MLB teams has been nullified with the elimination of the draft-and-follow. Well scouted players who leaned towards the JUCO ranks instead of opting for a four-year college were often taken, the drafting team believing they had could gain a year to monitor their progress and swoop in with above slot money to sign the player – in essence a free draft pick for the following year.

In San Diego, the Padres used the draft-and-follow effectively, netting high-ceiling prospects Kyle Blanks, Aaron Breit, Drew Miller, and Rey Garramone over the last few seasons. Three of the four are already highly rated prospects. Matt Latos, he of the mid to upper-90's fastball, is still under the Padres' control.

The scenery changes in the coming draft and the Cape Cod League will be the only chance to see progress – over a summer. The draft has just become a riskier proposition than it already is. You have to want the drafted player and will have to prove it with dollars. Picking high school talent in the 40th round with the hopes they go through the JUCO ranks has become obsolete. The impact will be felt immediately but will also allow for players to be picked where they should be in years to come, forcing teams to take the player they want when they want them.

Kevin Cunningham,
San Francisco Giants

The Giants will definitely have to change some of their draft strategy without draft-and-follows, but it's not necessarily good or bad.

The Giants have made some pretty strong draft-and-follow signings in the past, including shortstop Marcus Sanders and 2006 signing of California's top JUCO outfielder Thomas Neal. And while the Giants haven't promoted them through to the majors (yet), it's clearly been an intentional strategy they have followed.

But without this option, the team's strategy isn't necessarily hurt. In the past, they have had to weigh whether to wait on the talented high schoolers or to take underrated college seniors. If they did take the high schoolers with a strong commitment to college, it was still a risk. Now, there is a lot less risk involved. The team's strength in drafting in recent years has been finding those underrated college seniors like Kevin Frandsen (12th Round), Jonathan Sanchez (27th Round), and more recently, Adam Cowart (35th Round). So even if there's one less option in how to get players, the simplicity created will benefit San Francisco.

George Von Benko,
Pittsburgh Pirates

It hurts more than it helps. Specifically the Pittsburgh Pirates, but not limited to the Pirates.

It gave a club a good six to eight months to track the progress of a high school senior that they drafted who hasn't performed up to capabilities because of injury or in most instances a player that is interesting but is currently sitting in the low-80's with a fastball or has a good looking stroke, but is an immature 160-pounds.

Those numbers would often spike over the next year under the old rule, buying a club time to see a high school senior develop over the course of a summer and once they go into a junior college situation - the chance to see them in a more competitive environment the following February, March, April and May. The new rule hurts more than it helps.

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