Friday evening was a good time to be a senior college baseball player, as seniors went flying off the board in the back half of the top 10 rounds at an unprecedented rate.
College seniors have always been viewed as money-saving picks throughout modern draft history, because they have little leverage in negotiations with teams when it comes to signing. While high school players have the threat of going to college if they don’t sign, and junior-college players or college sophomores or juniors can return to school, college seniors have no such alternative so they often sign for bargain rates.
But under previous draft rules, when teams had recommended bonuses for each pick in the first 10 rounds but no penalty for exceeding those amounts, they had much less incentive to draft budget savers early in the draft. From 2008-2011, an average of 30 seniors were drafted in the top 10 rounds, with a high of 33 (2009) and a low of 29 (2010 and 2008).
The current Collective Bargaining Agreement, however, formalized the draft slots and established significant penalties (including the potential loss of future draft picks) for teams that exceed their overall draft budgets, which is the sum of all of their bonus slots in the first 10 rounds. What’s more, teams discovered there was significant risk in not signing players selected in the first 10 rounds, because the slot money for those selections was removed from their overall signing budget.
So it became imperative for teams to sign their picks in the first 10 rounds and to stay within budget. Enter the college senior.
The 2012 draft, the first under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, drove a dramatic increase in the amount of college seniors drafted in the top 10 rounds, and that year set the precedent for what followed in 2014. From 2011 to 2012 the number of seniors nearly doubled to 57 as teams turned to senior signs in the back half of the first 10 rounds. The 2013 draft largely followed suit, with 58 seniors.
Teams found they could allocate those savings not only toward bonuses at the top of the draft but also toward players selected after the first 10 rounds. Those players can be signed for up to $100,000, and not signing them carries less risk because failing to sign players from rounds 11-40 does not affect a team’s signing budget.
So after four teams took at least five seniors in the 2012 draft, this year nearly every team took at least one senior, taking a total of 71 seniors in the top 10 rounds, carried by the most senior-heavy two rounds in recent draft history. The 10th round was a defining round for budget-saver seniors, as 20 of them went off the board. And only one high school player (infielder Jake Jarvis, who went to the White Sox) was drafted in the 10th round.
Teams were much more aggressive in grabbing their last chance to save money in the top 10 rounds this year, as 2013 saw 16 seniors drafted in the 10th round after 13 seniors in the year prior. The last four drafts under the previous CBA averaged fewer than four (3.75).
The ninth round this year had 16 seniors drafted, tying the highest single-round total of the last two drafts (the 10th round in 2013), meaning that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the players drafted in the final two rounds of the second day of the draft were seniors. From 2008-2011, the most seniors drafted in a single round was eight in the 2010 ninth round.
Team strategies for saving money with seniors have converged the last two years, after much more pronounced and divergent strategies in the 2012 draft. For example, four teams selected at least five seniors in the 2012 draft. The Blue Jays employed the most extreme example, with seven selections in the first three rounds followed by seven seniors from rounds 4-10. But the individual peaks for teams have come down a bit, as only the Mariners drafted five seniors in 2014. This effect is likely due to the reduced number of compensation round picks, which gave teams more picks at the top of the draft and therefore the need to get creative with their bonus pools.