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It's time to trade draft picks in MLB

In those other sports, it’s part of life, part of the intrigue, part of the drama of draft day. Who’s trading up? Who’s trading down? Who’s scheming? Who’s listening?

In those other sports, the trading of draft picks is a given. Taken for granted. Buzzed about for weeks. An indispensable part of the fun.

And in baseball? Still stuck in a 50-year-old time warp. Still banning something that would increase interest in the draft by about a billion times. Trade your first-round pick? Still as illegal as the spitball after all these years. Ridiculous.

“I wish we would change this,” says one former scouting director who has gone on to bigger things. “I think it’s long overdue. If we started trading picks, we could really have some fun. And we could create a lot more interest in our draft.”

Exactly. So what’s the downside?

We just spent three months talking 24/7 about the NFL draft. And we knew who the top two picks would be from the minute we started. So what were we talking about? About a trade that never happened. About what it would take to move up and grab Marcus Mariota, and what teams might be willing to do it.

You could turn on your TV or radio at 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning, and someone was yakking about it. And it never even happened. So why wouldn't baseball take the hint?

Well, here’s the good news: That time just might be drawing near. Finally. All of a sudden, trading picks isn’t the terrifying prospect it used to be for a lot of people in this sport.

“I don’t know anybody who’s not in favor of that at this point,” says one AL executive. “I really don’t. I think it’s going to happen.”

Sadly, it can't happen any time soon. Most likely, it can't happen before 2017, when the new labor deal would kick in. But this tide is finally starting to shift, even though it isn't quite as unanimous as that AL exec made it sound.

“It’s happening now internationally,” says one NL scouting director. “You can trade those international [signing] slots. And it’s happening now with competitive-balance picks [which follow the first two rounds]. You can now trade those picks. So can they now take that a little further [and trade all picks]? I guess they could. But I think everybody just wants to make sure there’s no Herschel Walker trade.”

The Herschel Walker trade, huh? OK, let’s review. Walker and four NFL draft picks went one way in that deal (from Dallas to Minnesota). Eight picks -- including three No. 1s and three No. 2s -- plus five players went the other way (from Minnesota to Dallas).

And 26 years later, we're still talking about it. So what's the problem here? But if that’s long been the fear, if that’s been one of the prime objections, let’s take a look at those long-standing obstacles -- and why there’s no longer any sane reason for them to stand in the way:

Fear of the small-market money dump

“The thing you’ve always heard from the small markets,” says an exec from a larger market, “is that somebody would trade their best guys to the Yankees and Red Sox.”

Really? What year is this -- 1998? Seriously, if that’s still the biggest worry, here’s the two-part reaction I’ve gotten:

  • A. There is now so much money in the sport and so much revenue being shared, the good old-fashioned money-dump trade is fast becoming an extinct species. Oh, they still happen occasionally, particularly in Tampa Bay, Oakland and Miami. But that just leads us to …

  • B. So what? Many of those deals by the Rays, A’s and Marlins actually turned out to be good baseball trades, trades that paved the way for sustaining success. So if those teams would rather deal for picks than prospects, what’s the difference?

“I don’t know why it’s still a fear. It could be an opportunity,” says one of the execs quoted earlier. “You could end up like the Cubs and have so many good young players for a long time, you’re all set. It could actually create more parity, not less.”

And that’s an important point. The biggest complaint from small-market teams about the draft nowadays is that the new hard slotting system has made it more difficult, not less, for smaller teams to stock up on young players, because they can no longer use their resources to overpay late-round picks.

But trading picks would open that option again, because every traded pick would include more than just a player. It would include the slot money that goes with that pick. So there would be more signing-pool money to play with -- and the flexibility that goes with that.

“And when we’re talking about leveling the playing field,” says another AL exec, “the more flexibility you have as a club, the better.”

Fear of agent shenanigans

All right, now here’s the other long-standing objection we’ve heard for years -- that players and agents would use their trade chips to manipulate the draft.

In other words, there was fear of reading a story like this: “WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals traded their No. 1 overall pick Monday after Bryce Harper and agent Scott Boras said that Harper would refuse to sign if he was drafted by the Nationals. …”

But if you’ve been paying attention, of course, you know that sort of manipulation has been going on for years anyway. So that’s a farcical reason. And, as one of the execs quoted above points out, the new slotting system makes it more difficult to manipulate the draft than it’s ever been -- because only a handful of teams with multiple picks have the flexibility to overpay players later in the draft.

“So to me,” says another of the execs quoted earlier, “I don’t know of any argument that’s come up over the years that really holds a lot of water anymore.”

“I have always been against trading draft picks, until now,” says another AL executive. “The industry is finally valuing the draft for the way it can be used to build an incredibly strong system. … So draft picks are now seen as having a value. [They] won't be shipped off for nothing.”

So if those execs are right, ask yourself this: Is there any objection to trading picks that still makes any sense in this day and age?

“It’s simple,” says the first exec quoted in this story. “It would create more interest. Period. If a team is kind of teetering around .500, it might see adding a piece to the major league team as being more important than putting a kid in the Sally League. And what’s wrong with that?

“It’s time. It’s time for baseball to let go. The draft is 50 years old. It’s been a great way to procure talent and build from within. But at the same time, clubs could use it to put their team on a faster track. We have to make those choices all the time. What’s the difference if you trade a kid you picked No. 1 last year or you trade your No. 1 pick this year to put you on that track? I don’t see the difference.”

Well, neither do a lot of people. Not anymore. So it’s time for baseball to move into the 21st century and make this happen. Time to let teams make their own choices. Time to let clubs build in whatever way they think works best for them.

And thankfully, there’s never been more optimism, from the baseball people who agree, that this sport is headed in that direction. Finally.