Five-Round Draft In 2020 Has Lasting Impact On Rule 5 Draft

The expression “return to normal” became such a common part of our day-to-day lives in the months and years following the pandemic that I can’t fault anyone for tuning out the expression entirely. 

While many elements of life and sport have returned to normalcy, the impact of the pandemic is still present. As teams prepare for the upcoming Rule 5 draft on Dec. 7, it’s a good reminder that not everything has returned to normal. In fact, some impacts of the pandemic are still felt.

MLB and the Players’ Union agreed to shrink the 2020 draft from 40 rounds to five. That was two and a half years ago. But the true impact of the truncated draft may begin to manifest over the next few seasons. 

College players drafted in 2020 are entering their 40-man roster evaluation year in 2023. Players added to the roster next November will be exempt from the Rule 5 draft. The vast majority of 2020 draftees out of high school will have their 40-man evaluation year in 2024.

To further complicate matters, the 2020 international free agent class didn’t officially sign until January of 2021, pushing their 40-man evaluation season to 2025. 

What teams face in the 2023 Rule 5 Draft—the draft that will take place next December—is a severe lack of eligible players. And the 2024 Rule 5 Draft will not be much better in this regard.

So this begs the question: With so few eligible players in 2023, how will it affect 40-man roster decisions? 

Polling decision-makers in MLB front offices didn’t clarify the issue. There’s a level of uncertainty around the upcoming impact of the shortened draft and the canceled 2020 international period and how great those impacts will be in the coming years. 

What isn’t up for debate and interpretation is the sheer lack of players who will become eligible in the coming years. The 2018 and 2019 drafts saw 964 players and 960 players drafted and signed, respectively. 

The entirety of the 2020 draft class was just 160 players. Even when you factor in the 174 undrafted free agents who signed following the 2020 draft, the total number of signees only grows to 334 signed players from the 2020 class. That makes for at least 600 fewer players than were signed in the 2018 or 2019 draft cycles. 

With far fewer first-time Rule 5-eligible players in the 2023 Rule 5 Draft, decisions on whether to add college players to 40-man rosters will be less stressful. What’s more, fewer total college draftees translates to fewer breakout players that would have found opportunities in the later rounds of a typical 40- or 20-round draft.

The choice for many college juniors—and draft-eligible sophomores—entering the 2020 draft was between an extra year of school and a chance at selection in the 20-round draft in 2021 versus signing for $20,000 as an undrafted free agent. 

In large numbers, college juniors headed back to school. Some, like Phillies righthander Griff McGarry and Mariners righthander Bryce Miller, have developed into top prospects. 

So not only will the sheer number of available players be smaller in the 2023 Rule 5 Draft, but the quality of the players on the fringes of protection will be lesser than in years past. 

This action will be rinsed and repeated for the 2024 and 2025 Rule 5 drafts as well. That’s because fewer high school players turned pro in 2020 and the 2020 international signing class had its Rule 5 exemption period extended by a year based on the signing date moving from July 2020 to January 2021. 

In this way, the upcoming 2022 Rule 5 Draft stands in sharp contrast. Without a Rule 5 draft last offseason, several players are technically eligible to be selected for the first time after being left unprotected last year and again this year. 

Teams now have two years of information on the college classes of 2018 and 2019 to inform their decisions. With one of the most talented Rule 5 classes of the last decade in 2022, this year should be viewed as the feast before the famine.

How this forthcoming talent recession in the Rule 5 draft impacts teams’ aggressiveness in this year’s Rule 5 draft remains to be seen. However, there is a sense around the game that many are looking to get in on it while the getting is still good. 

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