Zduriencik, Friedman ready in case of draft changes

Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Miguel Cabrera were once signed as amateur free agents, but baseball is considering changes to the amateur draft that would affect international player acquisition.

In two-plus decades as a scouting director, front office advisor and general manager, Jack Zduriencik has adapted to many changes in the way that Major League Baseball runs its amateur draft. Zduriencik, now the general manager of the Seattle Mariners, has seen spending limits, compensation rules and signing deadlines change.

So if MLB eventually expands the draft to include international players, he’ll be ready for the challenge of selecting from an expanded pool of players.

“You just have to work within what you know works for you,” Zduriencik said earlier this month. “It’s about getting the best players when your name is called and it’s your turn to pick. You take the best player that you possibly can have under the circumstances. I don’t think that’ll change a lot.”

As the 2013 amateur draft approaches, the possibility of meaningful change in future years exists. For now, players living in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico are eligible for selection in baseball’s amateur draft, scheduled to begin June 6. International players are subject to a completely different set of rules and spending restrictions — at least for now.

It could all change by 2015, when baseball may expand the first year player draft to include international talent or implement a separate second draft for international players. MLB and the MLB Players Association discussed the possibility of expanding in time for 2014, but did not reach an agreement.

“An international draft will not be implemented in 2014,” MLB announced in a statement Friday. “The parties intend to continue to discuss international amateur talent issues.”

The MLBPA made a related announcement, confirming that talks will eventually resume.

“At this time, the players are not prepared to accept an international draft,” MLBPA Executive Director Michael Weiner said in a public statement.

Many logistical challenges exist, but some experienced baseball people are considering all options. Following baseball’s latest basic agreement the players and owners agreed to implement a committee featuring eight top executives to determine the best course of action for international player acquisition going forward.

STILL A LIFELINE: Andrew Friedman, the executive VP of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays, is also a member of the recently-implemented eight-person committee. Though Friedman declined to comment on the likelihood of an eventual worldwide draft, he acknowledged that expanding the event beyond the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico would create significant shifts in “the game theory of the draft.”

Even if the rules change, the draft will remain vitally important to the Rays, who work with a significantly smaller budget than most of their American League East rivals.

“The draft is everything for us,” Friedman said. “ It’s really our only way to have any chance of long-term success.”

Friedman says the foundation of the draft will be going to see players in person regardless of the scope of the event. While preparing for the draft remains more of an art than a science, Friedman described amateur player acquisition as a ‘lifeline’ for the Rays.

The Rays have needs at the MLB level — every team does — but they don’t view the draft as a means of addressing those needs.

“Surpluses can be fleeting and deficiencies can change overnight,” Friedman said.

Ultimately the Rays evaluate the draft class relative to itself instead of attempting to find short-term fixes. Even so, the Rays try not to let their draft strategy become overly rigid.

“We don’t really have hard and fast rules about anything,” Friedman said. “It’s a really dangerous mindset.”

TRADING PICKS: Teams can now trade competitive balance draft picks — there are 11 of them in this year’s draft — and the possibility exists that teams will be able to trade more picks in future years.

The Mariners don’t have one of the 11 competitive balance picks, so they can’t trade their picks this year. In future seasons, however, Zduriencik knows he may be contemplating deals involving draft choices.

“I’ve always been a traditionalist,” he said. “I guess there are people a lot smarter than me who have put their heads together to figure out what’s best for the game. I do think it would add excitement.”

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: At this stage in his career, Zduriencik is better-acquainted with the draft than just about anyone. He was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ scouting director from 1991-93 before becoming the Milwaukee Brewers’ scouting director 2000-07 and getting the Seattle GM job.

 Zduriencik drafted Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Jonathan Lucroy, Yovani Gallardo, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and Jason Kendall, among others. Those players have had productive careers, yet at the time of their selections they were virtual unknowns to the public, and even to most baseball fans.

No matter how many changes are introduced, baseball’s amateur draft will lack the star power of other sports’ drafts.

“It’s so different than the NFL or the NBA,” Zduriencik said. “The fact that our players are 17-year-old kids playing somewhere in the state of Texas that no one knows about. We don’t have quite the high profile of their drafts. It’s the nature of it taking four or five years for a kid to get to the major leagues.”

Regardless of potential changes to the structure of the draft, top picks will always require years to reach the MLB level and the attrition rate will remain high. As Friedman says, it’s not an exact science.

The draft, which is now televised each June, has gained exposure in recent years thanks to super-prospects such as Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. As it emerges from the background to the mainstream, there’s plenty of intrigue for both the executives responsible for navigating the system and the fans watching it all happen.

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