The Major League Baseball First-Year Players Draft has become quite the spectacle, growing from a conference call in the 1990s to a televised event covered throughout the calendar year. The interest in the event has developed rapidly, and there are plenty of reasons why.
Even though the 2012 draft is more than six months away, it's on the minds of fans, as certain top prospects have just signed letters of intent to play in college. My own personal intrigue in the draft has grown exponentially over the past decade. Here are the three reasons:
1. The prospects
Covering the MLB Draft is a joy. The prep and college players play the game with such passion and ferocity, and typically display a level of energy and respect for the game that isn't always apparent in the big leagues.
The college atmosphere is unsurpassed in the sport and the manner in which the players at the prep and college levels approach each and every game is unique. Since most of the players aren't going to be drafted, the pride in the way they play is as genuine as anything in organized athletics.
Generally speaking, the amateur player is a breath of fresh air. There are no big contracts, very little machismo and a field full of pride and hope. It sounds like a poem, but baseball is nothing if not poetic.
2. The draft is all inclusive
No, not like a lavish hotel in the Caribbean. The draft involves players who excel in all aspects of the game, several levels of talent and a pitting of two levels -- college versus the pro game. There is also the side that includes the player agent, or advisers as they are referred to until the player in question signs a professional contract.
The decision of the player to head to college or sign (not to mention the early signs of which way he may be leaning) can impact where he's selected and the size of the bonus offer. There's so much to consider.
With all that is involved, putting the draft under a microscope broadens your general baseball knowledge ten-fold and because it's the first step toward the big leagues, that knowledge will be relevant for several years.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of each spring is the different opinions on players from different analysts and scouts around the baseball world. That isn't something you get much from the other major sports' drafts.
The draft never gets old, and when you finally feel like you have a grasp on a class, the draft is over and the next class is playing in the summer showcases.
3. The draft is where it's at
The draft is the future of your favorite Major League Baseball club, and sometimes, the draft is the very-near future of your team. In the current economic climate of the game, organizations that draft wisely and choose to invest financial resources in draft selections position themselves to stay atop their division and challenge for the postseason season after season -- perfect example being the Tampa Bay Rays -- or perhaps climb from the bottom, just the way the Arizona Diamondbacks did in 2011.
The D-backs relied on many young players, and a number of them were drafted and developed within their own farm system, including star right fielder Justin Upton, starting shortstop Stephen Drew, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and right-hander Josh Collmenter.
The Rays' incredible stock of young talent needs no introduction, but take note how many among their 40-man roster came from their drafts over the past several years. The answer is 17, more than any other club in either league. Without the draft -- and the high rate of success, the Rays don't have left-hander David Price, third baseman Evan Longoria, right-hander James Shields or 2011 American League Rookie of the Year, right-hander Jeremy Hellickson. The Rays are what they are, a perennial contender in the toughest division in all of sports, because of their draft selections.
The draft is likely to remain a critical manner in which clubs build, rebuild and sustain their success, and it may become even more crucial to the process, the more the big markets commit to taking the draft seriously.
Jason A. Churchill covers scouting, player development and the MLB Draft for ESPN Insider, as well as Prospect Insider where he's the founder and executive editor. He's served in similar roles for numerous publications since 2003, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. You can find Jason's ESPN archives here and follow him on Twitter here. He can also be reached via email here.