Breaking Down The Harshest MLB Draft Penalties

Image credit: Rob Manfred (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox via Getty Images)

When Major League Baseball handed down its sanctions punishing the Houston Astros for using technology to steal signs in 2017 and 2018, it included the harshest draft penalties in MLB history.

The Astros will lose their first- and second-round picks in both 2020 and 2021. If the Astros sign a free agent with compensation attached during those years, the punishment will be carried over to later years.

The penalty was worded that way because, in 2017, the Cardinals signed free agent Dexter Fowler almost immediately after they were stripped of their first and second round picks. The move allowed the Cardinals to lose a supplemental (compensatory) first-round pick rather than a first-round pick.

The Astros will have no such loophole. If they sign a free agent and lose their first-round pick in 2020 or 2021, they would simply be pushing part of their penalty to a later year.

Because the Astros received a pick for the loss of free agent Gerrit Cole (who signed with the Yankees), the club will have the No. 72 pick in the 2020 draft, as well as their picks in rounds 3-40.

The slot values for 2020 have not been released yet by MLB, but in 2019, those picks would have led to a total bonus pool of $3.083 million. (The number will be slightly higher this season.) Teams can spend up to 4.9 percent over their allotted pool without incurring draft penalties. 

There have only been seven drafts since the current draft system was implemented in 2012 in which a team had less than $3.5 million to spend. To get a sense of the Astros’ future, we looked at how those seven drafts worked out.

There were drafts before the 2012 Collective Bargaining Agreement when teams lacked first- and second-round picks, but under the previous system, teams could spent unlimited amounts on signing bonuses, so a club without first- or second-round picks could get around the problem by signing high-priced players who fell to later rounds due to bonus demands. Under the current system, such circumvention is not allowed because teams are strictly limited in how much they can spend.


2017 Cardinals

Spent: $2,248,100
Percentage of Total Draft Pool: 0.9 percent

Why They’re Here: Lost a supplemental first-round pick for signing free agent Dexter Fowler. Lost a first-round pick and second-round pick as the penalty for scouting director Chris Correa’s hacking of the Astros’ internal database.

What They Got: Righthander Kodi Whitley, the team’s 27th-round pick, is the only player from the class that ranks in the 2020 Baseball America Prospect Handbook.

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