Image credit: Brian Van Belle (Photo by Carl Kline)
For scouts, scouting directors and front office officials, this year’s nondrafted free agent process was an entirely new experience.
By limiting the draft to five rounds, the fewest in draft history, Major League Baseball created the largest nondrafted free agent pool since the draft’s inception in 1965.
In a normal year, teams can sign nondrafted free agents as soon as the draft ends, with no hard cap on how much they can sign them for. Normally, teams can give nondrafted free agents up to $125,000 without it counting against their bonus pool allotment. They can go over that amount as long as they still have money left in the bonus pool. That’s how the Reds, for example, were able to sign Nevada outfielder T.J. Friedl for a $735,000 bonus as a nondrafted free agent in 2016.
With such a large pool of players this year, however, MLB created a mandatory two-day “quiet period” following the conclusion of the draft and capped signing bonuses at $20,000 for nondrafted free agents.
Once the signing period opened June 14 at 9 a.m. ET, the flurry of activity started.
Clubs combined to sign 68 players in the first 24 hours after they were allowed to begin contacting nondrafted free agents. That number continues to grow.
Those initial 68 provide a window into what type of players teams are pursuing as nondrafted free agents, and what type of players are willing to accept signing bonuses of $20,000 or less. While certainly an unusual year, the sheer number of players available—many of whom would have been selected in a normal, 40-round draft—has made it far and away the most interesting nondrafted free agent signing class in history.
As expected, the majority of nondrafted free agent signees are college seniors. In total, 40 of 68 initial signees were either seniors, redshirt seniors or graduate transfers. Nine other players were redshirt juniors who had already been in school for four years and, in some cases, had completed their degrees. With that, 72 percent (49 of 68) of initial nondrafted free agent signees were players who had been in school for at least four years.
Most of these players would have received $20,000 or less as senior signs if they had been drafted in a normal year. For younger players, the calculation was different.
With the draft guaranteed to be at least 20 rounds next year and another year of eligibility guaranteed to all spring sports athletes (a college junior this year will still be a college junior next year), nondrafted players have a chance to receive a significantly larger signing bonus if they return to school and re-enter the draft next year.
In 2019, for example, the signing bonus slots for rounds 6-10 ranged from $142,200 to $402,200. Players drafted after the 10th round could sign for up to $125,000 without their bonus counting against a team’s bonus pool. With the draft guaranteed to be longer next year and the chance to get at least five times more than the $20,000 maximum signing bonus available this year, most non-seniors will end up back at school, even with concerns about overstuffed college rosters and reduced scholarship allotments.
Grad Students: 1
Redshirt Seniors: 4
Redshirt Juniors: 9
Redshirt Sophomores: 1
Junior College: 1
High School: 5
Notably, three of the five high school players who signed were from Puerto Rico.
Most of the best nondrafted free agents, historically, are pitchers. That still holds true today: Eight of the 11 nondrafted free agents to play in the majors last year were pitchers.
That history, combined with the universal need for more pitching depth, has made pitchers the most pursued players amongst nondrafted free agents this year.
In all, 50 percent (34 of 68) of the initial signees were pitchers. Another, Duke’s Matt Mervis, is a two-way player listed as 1B/RHP.
Catcher, historically, is the most successful position among NDFA position players. This year, catchers were the second-most represented group among position player signees behind only outfielders.
Players are listed at the primary position they played in 2020.
Righthanded pitcher: 26
Lefthanded pitcher: 8
First base: 3
Second base: 5
Third base: 3
Designated hitter: 1