With the ratification of Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association’s deal today, the 2020 draft was saved.
Saved in the sense that it will still take place in some capacity, which is certainly better for baseball at all levels than no draft at all—which some owners might have preferred in order to save money in the wake of the novel coronavirus disrupting revenues from the 2020 season.
But many in the industry are already discussing the ramifications of a shortened draft with more limited signing bonus restrictions. First and foremost, incoming draftees are the most negatively affected.
“Once again here we go, the next generation of MLB stars who have had their entry path sacrificed without a seat at the table,” said one agent. “It falls in line with a decades-long tradition of owners putting a target on the unrepresented backs of amateurs and minor leaguers.
“It’s potentially a stain on future collaboration of both parties.”
While MLB still needs to determine the specifics of the draft, it will be shorter than we’ve ever seen. MLB gained the ability to shorten the draft to as few as five rounds in the agreement, and while scouting departments will push for at least 10 rounds, the ultimate decision on the number of rounds will be decided by team owners.
Fewer rounds means less money spent on incoming talent, obviously, but the bulk of signing bonus money is still spent at the top of the draft.
Not counting undrafted free agents, teams spent $316,560,984 in signing bonuses in the 2019 draft. Of that sum, $237,345,700 came from signing bonuses to players among the top five rounds—or just under 75 percent of the total.
“What are we really saving here?” the agent asked. “The biggest percentage of bonuses comes in the top five rounds.”
The players at the top of the class shouldn’t be impacted much. Elite talents at the top of Baseball America’s 2020 draft ranking like Vanderbilt center fielder Austin Martin, Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson and Texas A&M lefthander Asa Lacy will still get paid, and handsomely.
The players this will impact are the second- and third-tier prospects, like college juniors who were expected to command bonuses in the $150,000-$300,000 range and high school players outside of the small upper-echelon group that will command bonuses in the seven digits.
The current system will undoubtedly prevent talented players from entering professional baseball. Instead, they’ll head to college and try their luck in a few years when things are more settled. But how many of those players are multi-sport athletes who could now turn their eye towards football or basketball?
While the circumstances are unavoidable, it’s difficult to square the 2020 draft rules with MLB initiatives like Play Ball and the Breakthrough series, which seek to get as many athletes from diverse backgrounds into the baseball pipeline as possible. The high school players most impacted by a shorter draft aren’t the ones who were seen at high-profile summer showcases. It affects players who weren’t able to afford the participation fees or travel to those events.
“This caters to the showcase kids who have been seen and have been able to afford to be seen,” the agent said. “The teams are going to draft the kids they saw the most.”
Former major leaguer Micah Johnson—who signed for $127,600 in the ninth round in the 2012 draft—said if he had to decide whether or not to take a $20,000 bonus (the max bonus which can be offered to undrafted players under the new agreement) he would not be playing baseball.
“Dude I would have to quit baseball,” Johnson said on Twitter. “I had NO money. My parents would have to decide sometimes between taking me to practice or saving gas to go to work. All these sacrifices these kids/parents made for these (players) wasted because (of) billionaire’s decision-making.
Of lesser concern will be the strategies that teams and agents will now be able to employ in the draft. With fewer rounds and a more limited financial structure, sources believe less posturing and deal-cutting will take place. It could be more similar to the NFL draft, where teams line up the best talent available and draft them in that order, with no underslot or overslot deals to complicate matters.
A shorter draft with $20,000 limits on undrafted free agent signings will also prevent teams that had chosen to get aggressive in rounds 11-40 in previous years.
“The teams who put so much time into that second or third tier of players and feel like they can gain an advantage of where they scout those players … that just went away,” the agent said.
Another factor will be how teams handle signing seniors. Under the 40-round system, teams are able to take seniors in the 5-10 round range and offer them underslot deals, pushing the savings to higher-upside high school players in rounds 11 and onward.
With a 5- or 10-round draft, it could be a free-for-all for teams to sign their priority senior targets. The scenario creates a logistical nightmare for all parties, and potentially a breeding ground for underhanded strategies since every team would only be able to offer the same $20,000 max bonus.
“At the end of 10 rounds, it is a mad dash to call every single senior on your list to negotiate a contract?” asked one scout. “We have good senior signs in our area who would be taken in the 7-10 round but they won’t be now. So I have to get on the horn as soon as the last pick happens?
“Teams are going to (try and cut deals with seniors) weeks before the draft… (It) doesn’t make sense how they’re going to do the NDFA situation with the seniors. It’s going to get super, super shady.”
Those are details that could be ironed out once MLB has a better idea of how long the draft will actually be and can evaluate the environment baseball is operating in at the time.
But insiders also believe the decision to shorten the draft is a sign of things to come, specifically in regards to minor league contraction.
“This makes the 42-team minor league contraction more than likely now,” said a second agent after the agreement became public.
The 2020 draft will be shorter, and the agreement also included language that indicates the 2021 draft will be a minimum of 20 rounds. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see that 20-round number implemented, leaving professional baseball without the players necessary to fill out the minor leagues, as currently constructed.
MLB has been angling to contract the minor leagues long before COVID-19 threw a wrench into the 2020 season. The changes made to the 2020 and 2021 drafts could easily set the stage to allow commissioner Rob Manfred to contract the minor leagues and many sources believe that’s exactly what will come to pass.
“Everyone agrees it’s a tough climate,” said the first agent. “For us to get caught up in these things you have to have context on life and on sports and on baseball. As others have noted, player rights need to be preserved. Time always tells on all these things. And I know both sides want what’s best for the game and that’s most important but we have to make sure we keep the bigger scope in mind…
“What does this tell us about MLB’s willingness to attract the best athletes to our sport?” (We’re) trampling on diversity growth … Time will tell and everyone understands the need to come together, but like I said it’s just sad the amateurs on top of the minor leaguers have to wear this the hardest.”