Nine Top Undrafted Free Agents From The 2020 MLB Draft
When Major League Baseball reduced the draft to five rounds in 2020, it stipulated that undrafted players that year could not sign for bonuses of more than $20,000.
With the rule, MLB created an enticing value proposition for clubs. Major league rosters are full of players who were drafted after the fifth round—including Albert Pujols, Jacob deGrom, Paul Goldschmidt, J.D. Martinez and Marcus Semien among other all-stars and award winners—and teams now had access to that pool of talent for a fraction of what it would normally cost to sign those players. While many players who would have been taken after the fifth round opted to return to school rather than sign for a maximum of $20,000, the unique circumstances of the 2020 season and the uncertainty regarding college scholarship availability pushed many players into pro ball who otherwise might not have taken that route.
Teams signed more than 200 nondrafted free agents after the 2020 draft under the arrangement, and already many of those players have established themselves as legitimate prospects. A handful already rank among their organization’s Top 30 Prospects, and many others have shown the potential to do so in due time.
Here is an early look at some of the top performers to date who signed as nondrafted free agents in 2020. Players are listed in alphabetical order.
A.J. Block, LHP, Royals
The Tigers drafted Block in the 17th round out of Washington State in 2019, but he opted to return to school for his senior year. He opened the year with a dominant showing over four starts before the season shut down and was one of the top seniors available when the Royals signed him after the draft. Block quickly emerged as a steal with an excellent showing across the Class A levels in his pro debut last year. An imposing 6-foot-5, 218-pound lefthander, Block flashes a sinker up to 95 mph, a dominant slider he can manipulate the shape and depth of, a potentially average changeup and plus command and control. He went 5-5, 3.30 and finished second in the organization with 130 strikeouts in 2021 and ranked as the Royals No. 37 prospect entering this season. Block has yet to pitch this year due to injury, but if he returns to his previous form, he has the arsenal and control to remain a starter and a fallback as a potentially lefthanded dominant reliever.
Elijah Dunham, OF, Yankees
The Pirates drafted Dunham in the 40th round out of Indiana in 2019 as a draft-eligible sophomore, but he returned to school for his junior year to enhance his draft position. He was on his way to doing just that with a .390/.493/.559 slash line when the season shut down. He ranked No. 186 on the BA Top 500—equivalent to a sixth-round pick—and signed with the Yankees after the draft. Dunham immediately established himself as a legitimate prospect in his pro debut. He posted an .825 OPS, 40 extra-base hits and 28 steals across the Class A levels and earned a selection to the Arizona Fall League. He hit .357/.465/.571 in the AFL and was chosen to participate in the Fall Stars Game while receiving glowing reviews from scouts as the league’s biggest breakout player. Dunham is off to a slow start at Double-A Somerset this season, but his enticing power-speed combination and knack for hard contact give him a chance to contribute in the majors in the coming years. He ranks as the Yankees No. 17 prospect.
Jimmy Endersby, RHP, Astros
Endersby began his college career as a reliever at Cal State Fullerton before he transferred to Division II Concordia-Irvine in 2020 for the opportunity to start. He posted a 1.88 ERA while winning all five of his starts for the Eagles and signed with the Astros for the $20,000 maximum. Endersby moved quickly to Double-A Corpus Christi in his pro debut last year and is back with the Hooks this year, where he owns a 2.41 ERA in eight appearances (five starts). His high-spin, 92-95 mph fastball features plenty of ride and his big-breaking curveball gives him the north-south profile teams covert. He battles his command and control at times, but they stand to improve as he gains more experience as a starter. He ranks as the Astros No. 24 prospect and currently has the organization’s lowest ERA among qualified pitchers.
Wilmer Flores, RHP, Tigers
Flores is the younger brother of Giants infielder and 10-year major league veteran Wilmer Flores. While the two share an identical name, the younger Flores is a 6-foot-4 righthander who otherwise has little in common with his older brother. Flores struggled to throw strikes in his lone season at Arizona Western JC but showed enough stuff for the Tigers to sign him after the draft. He impressed in his pro debut at Low-A Lakeland in 2021 before his control issues resurfaced during an ugly stint in the Arizona Fall League. So far, Flores has reined in his control and been one of the minors’ biggest breakout prospects in 2022. His fastball sits in the mid 90s and his 12-to-6 curveball is a dominant putaway pitch. After years of struggling to throw strikes consistently, he is now throwing with confidence and conviction and has emerged as one of the best strike-throwers in the minors. He is 2-0, 1.46 in seven appearances (six starts) this season with 42 strikeouts and three walks in 24.2 innings. He was promoted to Double-A last week and now ranks as the Tigers No. 9 prospect.
Ben Leeper, RHP, Cubs
Leeper almost quit baseball following an injury-plagued career that included two Tommy John surgeries, an ulnar nerve transposition surgery, an appendectomy and a sports hernia. He instead stuck with it and emerged as a standout closer at Oklahoma State before signing with the Cubs for $20,000 after the draft. Leeper immediately showed some of the best stuff in the Cubs system after he signed with a 95-98 mph fastball and a powerful 88-89 mph slider with late tilt and drop. He jumped straight to Double-A to begin his pro career, earned a quick promotion and continued to dominate at Triple-A Iowa before he suffered season-ending elbow inflammation in early August. He is back at Triple-A this year and has a 2.76 ERA in 13 appearances with 23 strikeouts and five walks in 16.1 innings. He ranks as the Cubs No. 30 prospect.
TJ Shook, RHP, Brewers
Shook bounced between the rotation and the bullpen at South Carolina and signed with the Brewers after the 2020 draft. After moving up three levels in his pro debut last year, Shook came out on a tear this season and won the Brewers minor league pitcher of the month award for April. His fastball ranges from 89-94 mph, his hard cutter stays off of barrels and his changeup is a putaway pitch with sink and fade that misses bats and draws weak contact. Shook earned a promotion to Double-A last week and overall is 2-1, 2.21 with 46 strikeouts and 14 walks in 36.2 innings. He ranks as the Brewers No. 28 prospect.
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Noah Skirrow, RHP, Phillies
Skirrow spent three seasons as Liberty’s top starter and was a Cape Cod League all-star for Orleans in 2019. He ranked No. 249 on the BA Top 500—equivalent to an eighth-round pick—and signed with the Phillies after the draft. Skirrow immediately proved a good value when he raced three levels up to Double-A Reading last season in his pro debut. He returned to Reading this year and has a 3.54 ERA in six starts with 36 strikeouts against only six walks in 28 innings. Skirrow’s stuff doesn’t light up radar guns, with a fastball that sits 90-93 mph, but he locates his heater effectively and has a good feel for spinning and landing two distinct breaking balls, giving him a chance to continue starting moving forward.
Carson Spiers, RHP, Reds
Spiers, a nephew of former Brewers and Astros infielder Bill Spiers, recorded 19 saves in three seasons as Clemson’s closer and signed with the Reds as one of the draft’s most accomplished relievers. The Reds made him a starter and he immediately took to the transition, going 8-4, 3.55 across the Class A levels last year and finishing second in the organization with 130 strikeouts. He has continued to thrive as a starter this year at Double-A Chattanooga with a 3.94 ERA in six starts and 30 strikeouts against just 11 walks in 29.2 innings. Spiers has seen his fastball tick up to 92-96 mph with plenty of carry as a starter, and he rounds out his arsenal with a plus changeup, average curveball, average cutter and plus control. He ranks as the Reds No. 16 prospect.
Antonio Velez, LHP, Orioles
Velez got off to a dominant start in Florida State’s bullpen as a senior and impressed in a midweek start against Florida where he threw six scoreless innings with one hit allowed and seven strikeouts. The Marlins signed him as a nondrafted free agent and he cruised through High-A to reach Double-A in his pro debut last year, going 7-2, 2.55 in 23 appearances (14 starts) overall. The Orioles acquired Velez before this season as part of the trade for relievers Tanner Scott and Cole Sulser. Velez had the best changeup and best control in the Marlins system prior to the trade and has maintained both in the O’s system. Though he’s off to a slow start at Double-A Bowie, he’s missed plenty of bats with his low-90s fastball and plus changeup that he locates exceptionally well. He also has a sweepy curveball and a slurvy slider that keeps hitters off-balance. Velez’s changeup is an out pitch that can carry him to the majors, although he’ll need to be less hittable to remain a starter.
J.J. Cooper, Ben Badler, Josh Norris and Geoff Pontes contributed reporting.