The romantic notion about the draft is that it is all about dreams.
When Spencer Torkelson’s phone rang just before commissioner Rob Manfred announced the Arizona State slugger as the first pick in the 2020 draft, he became the 56th player ever to fulfill a dream that fuels thousands of young kids playing on Little League fields.
It’s also about fans’ dreams. No matter how dire the state of one’s favorite big league team, the draft provides hope for brighter days ahead, whether one cheers for the Tigers, Orioles, Marlins or Royals.
All of that was still true in the 2020 draft. Dreams turned into reality. Players became pros. Fan bases were given hope.
But in what has been a brutal year for the world and for baseball, the dreams that surround the draft ran into reality. In a year that will best be forgotten, at least from a baseball perspective, the abbreviated draft did not salve the wounds.
This draft was different from all others, slashed by nearly 1,000 picks so teams could save on bonus spending. With a mere 160 picks, everyone knew that there would be many draftable players and players with major league potential who would be left unpicked.
But when UC San Diego shortstop Shay Whitcomb was picked with the 160th and final selection of the 2020 draft, the scope of the difference became clear.
More than one agent called it a three-and-a-half-round draft, because many teams shifted into finding bonus savings in the third through fifth rounds to pay for their first- and second-round picks. More than one player was asked if they would sign for $20,000 (the maximum bonus for undrafted players) to be a third-round pick.
It was a fine year to be a top high school or college player. But for that next tier of prospects, especially college players with third- to seventh-round potential, it was brutal.
“You had so many guys for those spots. They probably had 10-20 guys for their third-, fourth- or fifth-round pick,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. McDonnell’s Cardinals had two pitchers (Reid Detmers and Bobby Miller) picked in the first round, but his team also had four players in the BA500 who went undrafted and are likely headed back to school.
As teams assessed signability for players in the fourth and fifth rounds, there were more draftable players with the willingness to sign than spots to take them, which meant that players who would receive $300,000 to $400,000 in a normal draft were having to decide if they were willing to sign for $100,000 or $150,000.
There are always a number of high school prospects who go unsigned or even undrafted and get to school. But this year 12 college players who ranked among the top 150—including four who spent last summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team—went unpicked. Last year, just two collegians in the top 150 went unpicked. One was an injured pitcher, the other a junior college lefty.
Players’ signability aside, the shortened 2020 season also created more variance in who went where. While Torkelson was the expected No. 1 pick, the Orioles went in an unexpected direction with Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad at pick No. 2, and the Marlins pick of Minnesota righthander Max Meyer at pick No. 3 was also a surprise.
“When you are picking that high, you don’t want to feel like you’re not taking the guy who you want who is the right guy for you and your draft,” Orioles general manager Mike Elias said. “We could have gone in a few directions. We liked several players. You are comparing good options. We had a top-of-the-first-round pick that didn’t go by the script. That’s why we do our jobs. You couldn’t have gone wrong with a couple of directions up there.”
Further into the first round, the Red Sox picked high school second baseman Nick Yorke, a player rated 96th on Baseball America’s draft ranking. Boston did not have a second-round pick and was not sure Yorke would last until their third-round pick. So they picked Yorke in the first round and were expected to sign him to a below-slot deal. That allowed them to pick high school third baseman Blaze Jordan in the third round, even though his asking price may exceed his third-round slot.
“From (pick) 17 to 89 is a long way. It felt like an eternity,” Red Sox scouting director Paul Toboni said. “I think that our perception of the industry’s interests didn’t match the public perception.”
It was a wild draft, and one that left a number of scouts and front office officials apologizing to draftable players who weren’t picked.
“That was so bad for baseball on so many levels,” Arkansas-Little Rock coach Chris Curry said. “Nobody won on that draft. Not the kids, not the teams, not the coaches.”
Curry himself was drafted four times as a catcher, eventually signing with the Cubs as a ninth-round pick in 1999 for $60,000. Curry’s catcher at Arkansas-Little Rock, Kale Emshoff, is a significantly better player than Curry was by Curry’s own estimation. Emshoff didn’t get drafted, but then had 25 teams call him interested in signing him after the draft. Emshoff ultimately signed with the Royals and received the maximum $20,000 bonus for an undrafted player.
Emshoff’s story was not unique. Many in baseball expressed hope that the 2021 draft, which will likely be 20 rounds thanks to the March agreement between Major League Baseball and the players’ union, will be a return to normalcy.
The 2020 draft is in the books. May there never be another draft like it.