Draft dodgers and hidden gems

Japanese pro baseball will conduct its first active player draft in early December, and as unpromising as it sounds at this moment, some real good might come out of it, and not because of owners’ altruism.

It will be a kind of Japanese version of MLB’s Rule 5. Each team, it seems, will be required to list at least two players they are willing to part with and who agree to submit to a physical, and select one player from the draft pool.

Teams could choose their listed players by evaluating who is most likely to benefit from such a move. You know, saying, “This guy has been loyal and has talent but we don’t have a place to play him and we would love to see him get a shot to play every day with another team.”

Right, I don’t expect that to happen either. Instead it will be, “How can we make sure we don’t give anyone with any value whatsoever?”

There already exists a similar draft in NPB’s charter, but that draft only takes place when the commissioner announces one, and has only been held from 1970 to 1972 and again in 1990.

Tadahito Mori, the player’s union secretary general said the union was aiming for a draft that would make playing time available for those blocked by a star on their club’s major league roster, but who might play every day with a different team. The draft ostensibly will take place after teams announce their list of players who’ve been non-tendered on Dec. 2.

“Because the teams will be choosing the players they put into the draft pool, it will be interesting to see who is made available,” said Mori, who told me his fear was that teams would only use the draft to dispose of unwanted players.

There are many formulas one could use to choose a quality group of players. For example, teams could create pools of players who are over 25 or who have been pros for six years, without having two years in which they acquired 145 days of major league service time—guys who have been around but aren’t getting used.

Making all guys entering the third and final year of their non-roster developmental contracts available might be good, too. That would in essence by similar to Rule 5.

The SoftBank Hawks currently have 35 players on their developmental roster. By July 31 of their final contract year, their teams have to either use a roster spot for them and offer them a standard contract, or let them go.

The benefit of cynicism

If this becomes anything other than an exercise in cynicism, I’ll be surprised. But by forcing teams to submit at least two players to the draft, some clubs might actually learn from their efforts to identify the players with the least potential on their farm team.

That’s because teams are deathly afraid of giving away players who might do well with other teams. Through my work with teams evaluating trades, I can tell you it’s generally an effort to send guys to other teams that you think will have zero chance of succeeding and making you look bad.

Without any need to actually evaluate the potential of your indentured farm workers who can’t just get up and leave, teams have often done a haphazard job of understanding what their minor leaguers are actually accomplishing and might do if given a shot.

That’s how Japanese baseball gets 27-year-olds who become productive regulars the first time they get real playing time, like Takeshi Yamasaki, who won a home run title in his first full season, and Shigenobu Shima, who won a batting title, or guys like Ichiro Suzuki wasting two years on the farm when he could have been an everyday regular before he was 19.

There’s quite a long list of guys whose careers were wasted in the minors because their teams were not required to make choices about their futures.

We can’t expect teams to use this as a reward for talented but under-used players, but we can expect them to work overtime to avoid being embarrassed, and that process alone might show some manager that the minor leaguer with the .450 farm team OBP that the front office doesn’t like might be his best option in the majors.

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