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Nowadays, Top Draft Picks Almost Always Sign

There should be few nervous moments for teams, draftees or fans leading up to this year’s July 7 draft signing deadline.

Not long ago, it wasn’t unusual for a team to fail to sign a first-, second- or third-rounder. The Blue Jays, for example, did not sign first-rounders Tyler Beede in 2011 or Phil Bickford in 2013. Now, that almost never happens. Most of the top 10-round draft picks will announce deals in the next week or two, and even the few that wait until near July 7 will likely sign a contract as well. 

It makes sense. Teams lose their bonus allotment for any top 10-round pick they fail to sign. So before they pick a player, teams generally have a good idea of whether he’ll sign. The few exceptions usually revolve around a post-draft medical examination that finds something that leads the team to reduce its offer.

Percentage of unsigned players in the top 10 rounds
Year Pct
2010 8.0%
2011 8.5%
2012 2.4%
2013 2.5%
2014 1.9%
2015 1.9%
2016 0.6%

When we last looked a year ago at the rate of players who signed in the top 10 rounds, the trend line was clear. More than 97 percent of top 10-rounds picks had signed in 2012-2013. In the 2014-2015 drafts, more than 98 percent of top 10-round picks signed.

In 2016, the signings rate blew those numbers out of the water. With Nick Lodolo (Pirates, supplemental first round) and Tyler Buffett (Astros, seventh round) ending up as the only two top 10-round picks to go unsigned, the 2016 draft again set a draft record as 99.4 percent of the 316 top 10-round picks signed to play pro ball.

In comparison in the final year of the old draft system in 2011, 28 players in the top 10 rounds went back to school, a rate of “just” 91.5 percent of top 10-round picks signed.

One area that did see an increase in unsigned players in the 2016 draft was rounds 11 to 15.  Because of the draft rules that penalize teams bonus allotments if they fail to sign picks in the top 10 rounds, teams often take more talented-but-less-signable players in the 11th-to-15th rounds than they do in the later rounds of the second day of the draft.

Last year 15 players taken in the 11th-to-15th rounds went unsigned, up from 10 in 2015 and 11 in 2014. The Red Sox failed to sign three of those players. The Cubs and Padres each failed to sign two, meaning that nearly half of the unsigned 11th-to-15th round picks were concentrated on three clubs. On the other hand, the Rockies and Yankees have signed every player they have picked in those rounds from 2012-2016.

Of those 17 unsigned players in the top 15 rounds from last year, nine were high school players who were ineligible for this year’s draft. For the eight college players, one (Mississippi righthander Brady Bramlett) retired from baseball last summer to focus on academics. Alabama’s Nick Eicholtz did not get drafted this year as a senior. The other six (Buffett, Jason Delay, Trey Cobb, Jared Poche, Parker Dunshee and Hagen Owenby) all were drafted earlier in this year’s draft than they were in last year’s draft. That doesn’t mean they will land a larger signing bonus, as the negotiating leverage of college seniors is quite limited, but all six will be getting a chance to play pro ball.

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