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You want people to pay attention to the MLB draft? Let teams trade picks

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It’s all about the drama

Kansas City Royals introduce their top pick of the 2018 draft, right-handed pitcher Brady Singer, during a news conference before a game on Tuesday, July 3, 2018, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals introduce their top pick of the 2018 draft, right-handed pitcher Brady Singer, during a news conference before a game on Tuesday, July 3, 2018, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

What makes a good show? One could easily get into the weeds, and every genre has its own weed forest about what makes a show good or not. Generally, however, there are a few common threads. A good show has drama. A good show has some element of unpredictability. A good show fosters an emotional connection to people and groups. A good show can juggle fascinating storylines and story arcs.

The NFL Draft has become as popular as it is because, ultimately, it’s a good show. Viewers have emotional connections to their favorite NFL team and favorite NCAA team as well as individual players. There’s the inherent drama of “who’s gonna draft who,” and the implications that arise for both team and player. Storylines abound from multiple angles.

There are some sizable hurdles preventing the MLB Draft from becoming as popular as the NFL draft. The biggest one is that almost no one has watched—let alone developed an affinity for—the high school and collegiate baseball players in the draft. The second biggest one is that the initial payoff for these picks comes three to five years after the draft, if they happen at all. Contrast with the NFL draft: NCAA football is a widely popular sport in its own right, and nearly all first round picks contribute to their teams immediately.

But there’s something that happens in the NFL Draft that is actually quite brilliant, and it’s one of the core reasons why it’s such a good show: teams can trade picks during the draft. This means that no team is ever truly out of the running, and it provides grand opportunity for teams to surprise everyone, which simply makes for good television.

Consider: the best player in the National Football League, Patrick Mahomes, was drafted 10th overall by a team that did not originally have that pick. The Kansas City Chiefs moved up not one spot, like the Chicago Bears did earlier in the same draft, but 17 spots in order to get their guy. It stunned everyone. Most recently, the Green Bay Packers also stunned everyone by trading up to the 26th slot in the draft to get their quarterback of the future, Jordan Love.

This kind of drama simply isn’t possible for the MLB Draft. Standard picks can’t be traded at all, and those that can—competitive balance selections, which make up a very slim portion of the total—aren’t traded during the draft itself. So when a team is locked into, say, the sixth pick when there are only five top-flight talents, there is no way for that team to either trade up to get one of those players or trade down to get more draft capital.

Allowing teams to trade draft picks during the draft would not just allow teams more agency over their draft process, but it would entice viewers to tune in from the very beginning. As currently constructed, you can safely ignore much of the draft because you know where your team is drafting. In other words, there is very little drama within the MLB Draft, and it is the drama that ultimately makes for good television.

And even though we may not see drafted players in the big leagues for years, the additional context—a team moving up 17 spots to acquire their guy at 10th overall, say—would make for richer stories for years.

The MLB Draft is fun for diehard fans, but it’s not quite the event it could be. Letting teams trade picks during the draft itself would be the single best thing the league could do to make the event a better viewing experience.