- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

It was December when Mike Radcliff finally felt the aftershock.

Recently promoted to vice president of player personnel after 14 seasons as the Minnesota Twins‘ scouting director, Radcliff had helped the team become one of baseball’s small-market success stories with a model that emphasized keen talent evaluation over a fat wallet, finding young players to develop for the longterm or replacing those who got too expensive.

One of those players, Johan Santana, was looking for a record-breaking contract extension this winter that the Twins wouldn’t be able to provide. So they shopped him to all the requisite big spenders: the Yankees, the Mets, the Red Sox. But instead of finding drooling general managers offering up their best prospects, they got resistance.

“It’s a whole different dynamic when it’s their own guy. We developed him. We brought him up,” Radcliff said. “I think [Red Sox general manager] Theo [Epstein] sees that as something he wants to cultivate. [Dustin] Pedroia is a legend already. [Jacoby] Ellsbury is almost untouchable.”

That’s when it became clear to Radcliff that the Twins and a host of other small-market teams were competing in a different environment, one in which even the richest clubs place a premium on their prospects.

There are a number of different reasons for the seismic shift, but its epicenter is clear: the MLB draft, which occurs Thursday and Friday in Orlando, Fla. And this year, the event has taken on perhaps its biggest following - and most importance.

It has become the catalyst for championship teams. Twelve of the 18 players who started for the Rockies and Diamondbacks in Game 1 of last year’s National League Championship Series were drafted by those teams. The world champion Red Sox had six draft picks among a passel of high-priced stars.

The draft is also getting more attention than ever. The first round will be televised live for the second time, and a proliferation of media coverage has triggered increased interest in prospects.

“I’ll get Starbucks in the morning, and people will come up and say, ‘Boy, you guys are doing a great job in the farm system. I’ve seen your [Class A Advanced] Potomac club. I’ve seen your [Class A] Hagerstown club. I’ve seen your [Class AA] Harrisburg club. This is who I like,’” “Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said. “They’ll talk to me about that as much as they do the big league club.”

The scrutiny over the draft has a long way to go before it approaches that of the NFL or NBA. But longtime scouts can see it heading in that direction.

“I will say this: I’ve been in it since 1982 [with] 22 years as a scout. I’ve never seen the onus and importance placed on an evaluator [like today],” said Nationals assistant GM Mike Rizzo, who drafted many of Arizona’s starters as the Diamondbacks’ scouting director. “The scout is never more important than it is today.”

Cheap way to build

Part of that is because teams are beginning to see the draft as the only cost-effective way to compete. Success in the late rounds is as likely for the Royals as it is for the Yankees, and teams are keeping top picks in the fold longer by signing them to long-term deals before they reach arbitration.

When a free agent does leave, the draft picks that come back as compensation can energize even the big-market teams quickly if they’re used well. The Red Sox - who have become baseball’s model franchise by mitigating their spending with astute player evaluation - got Ellsbury and starter Clay Buchholz with compensation picks for losing Orlando Cabrera and Pedro Martinez to the Angels and Mets, respectively.

“The draft should act as your principal method of bringing talent into your system,” Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said. “The other things, whether they be trades or free agents or waiver claims or whatever, those should be secondary. To me, that’s universal among all 30 clubs.”

Picks still pricey

The other constant that has risen along with the importance of the draft is money. Seven of the top 10 picks in last year’s draft got bigger signing bonuses than they were slotted to receive, and the big money trickled all the way down to the end of the first round, when the Tigers and Yankees gave Rick Porcello and Andrew Brackman a combined $6.8 million in bonus money.

Theories differ on why unproven prospects have been able to grab so much cash; some blame high-spending teams for shelling out to players they know the clubs in front of them can’t afford, while Radcliff called it an effect of the shrinking baseball universe.

Whatever the reason, it’s another sign the draft has changed. And those teams who master it are that much closer to success.

“We’re obsessed with it,” Bowden said. “We look at it as the most important decision we make all year.”

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