SECAUCUS, N.J. -- The most iconic moments of every draft are the simple ones, as the world gets to watch as talented amateurs become professionals by donning the cap and jersey of their new teams and shaking the commissioner’s hand on stage.
Unfortunately for baseball fans, there were only two of these moments last Thursday during the first round of the MLB Draft in Secaucus, N.J. Despite the 77 selections announced during the 5-hour program at the MLB Network studios, only two young prospects (Ian Anderson, the Braves’ third overall pick, and Will Benson, the Indians’ 14th overall pick) were on hand for their moments in the spotlight.
Major League Baseball’s draft will never reach the stage of its football and basketball counterparts, simply because of the attention those sports garner at the college level. But in order to even the playing field and increase the popularity of its own draft, baseball must take steps to persuade more top prospects into attending the event.
The main reason for this lack of attendance is straightforward-- postseason college baseball and many state high school tournaments are still in progress at the time of the mid-June draft. Many of the best players in the country are participating in these tournaments, causing their focus to be elsewhere when their name gets called.
There has been talk in recent years about reform on the subject, with Baseball America’s John Manuel reporting last June that there were rumors of the event being moved to Omaha, the site of the College World Series, or to the All-Star host city during the break in July. The latter of those ideas would greatly increase attendance for prospects, giving the draft a chance to shine in the midst of a baseball-centric week in the sports world.
Much of that decision likely falls on the NCAA, which may take exception to the MLB taking attention away from college baseball’s jewel event. Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters Thursday night that discussions between the two institutions are ongoing.
“We have had some good conversations with the NCAA,” Manfred said. “They've had some personnel changes over there. We’re working with the new folks and we’re hopeful that we will do a better job in terms of harmonizing the calendar. I don't have anything specific that we can announce now.”
Manfred added that he was hopeful that reform would come before the 2018 draft, and that he was unsure if changes would come before next year. Asked if a location change could come in the near future, Manfred repeated that the sides were “still having conversations.”
Manfred, who had the daunting task of announcing the first 34 selections of the night, agreed that having players in attendance was an important part of the event.
“I think it’s a fun night,” Manfred said. “I’m really glad the two young men, Will and Ian, that are here with us, went really early. It's nice for them. They’re very excited. A great thing for the sport.”
Many former major-leaguers who were in attendance for the event as club representatives interacted with Anderson and Benson before the draft and marveled at how the draft had changed in recent years. 15-year veteran Ted Lilly, who was taken by the Dodgers in the 23rd round of the 1996 draft, believes that young players in today’s game are well-prepared for expanded draft coverage.
“It’s bringing a lot more notoriety to the game, which I think is a great thing,” Lilly said. “It’s tougher on some of these guys, going out under a lot more scrutiny than when I was drafted 20 years ago. You run into players who are 18 years old and accept it. They understand that it’s a different world, and a media world. They're living in it. I run into a lot of younger kids and they know it goes along with the territory.”
3-time All-Star outfielder Jason Bay, who was drafted in 22nd round of the 2000 draft by the Expos, said he enjoyed seeing how the draft had grown in the 16 years since his selection.
“I wouldn’t have been invited here,” Bay said. “I wouldn’t have been sitting here being a potential first-round draft pick, that’s for sure. I think given the other big sports and how much of a deal the draft is made for them, it’s a natural fit that this is a part of the deal. MLB does a good job here with the studio and what they've got. I think it’s getting better every year.”
The draft has made strides since the league moved it to Secaucus in 2009, with stars like Mike Trout (2009) and Carlos Correa (2012) appearing live in studio and getting immediately introduced to the pro audience. In order to create moments like those for future stars, the league must create meaningful reform and create an event that many more than two prospects accept invitations to attend.