Image credit: Daniel Espino at the 2019 MLB Draft. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
With baseball getting canceled left and right in the wake of the novel coronavirus, one of the natural questions we’ve found ourselves asking at Baseball America is, what about the draft?
With amateur baseball getting canceled around the country just before many big leagues began conference play and MLB issuing an order for all teams to halt scouting operations it’s a natural question to ask.
One of the most basic assumptions that has been going around online is that the draft will simply be delayed. The major league season is already officially delayed, so why not delay the draft as well?
While there could be benefits of postponing to some date beyond June 10-12, the primary motivation would be to allow for draft-eligible amateurs to take the field again and for teams to scout them. With no way to know when sports will go back to normal, that could be wishful thinking.
But what about the benefits of keeping the draft date as is? While it might seem counter-intuitive, those benefits do exist, and there are scouting directors in baseball who believe that might be the easiest path forward.
“I would strongly be in favor of keeping the draft date,” said one American League scouting director. “Both for this year and future years, just logistically … similar to articles you’ve published in the past about moving the draft date back, you’re going to have to worry about scouting the PDP League and the 2021 (class).
“Those are hugely important events while you’re also simultaneously preparing for the draft. Your scouts are going to be pulled in different directions.”
The current draft schedule doesn’t leave much wiggle room at all between the 2020 draft and the beginning of the 2021 draft cycle.
Just five days after the 2020 draft concludes, Perfect Game’s National showcase is scheduled to take place at Tropicana Field, from June 17-21. That’s the first of many different high school showcases and tournaments, including USA Baseball’s PDP League, in addition to USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team and the Cape Cod League.
Delaying the draft until July or August would either mean one of two things: Either scouts would simultaneously need to focus on making 2020 draft selections while writing important follow-up reports on high-priority 2021 draft prospects; Or the summer scouting season would get delayed or transform into a pre-draft combine/mini showcase season for 2020 prospects who missed spring seasons.
“I have heard of an NFL-type draft combine for the top 300 or however many players in June,” said one prominent agent, who was throwing out ideas that have been discussed inside baseball. “Just to get some type of look on guys… Do they push the draft back to August and turn the Cape into basically a month long or a six-week long kind of pre-draft tryout similar to the PDP League (for high schoolers)? Who knows? Everything is on the table.
“If I had to bet, I think the draft gets moved back a little bit, or moved back as appropriate and they do try and get the college kids back to their campuses in May or June. Kind of ramp back up under those facilities. You do some regional type workouts at the big universities, all the area guys come in.”
But with any of those hypothetical scenarios come question marks. Some logistical, some financial, some centered on the intricate details of how a pitcher would even prepare for something like that—but all of the questions are complicated.
“Who pays for it? When is it? What does the NCAA allow? You have all these things kind of stacking up,” the agent said.
Both paths bring along plenty of obstacles to stumble over.
Which brings us back to our initial proposal: keeping the draft date as is. While it’s not a perfect scenario (and with COVID-19, there is no perfect scenario) it might be the most clear and straightforward.
Every major league team would be ready to draft at the current date if necessary. Each pick would obviously come with much larger error bars and levels of uncertainty, but no team would be dealing with an information disadvantage thanks to MLB’s current ban on scouting.
Teams would have to place a bigger emphasis on history with all players and put a bigger weight on summer results and reports on both high school and college players alike. Models that favor track record and performance at the collegiate level and benefit performers who don’t possess the loudest tools would either be tweaked or relied upon less heavily.
Some players would be negatively affected. Certainly teams would wonder about players who started the first four weeks of the season strong and showed better stuff than they had previously. Was that a legitimate transformation of the player, or simply a loud start that would not have continued?
Teams would assess those risks and questions differently. But they would each have the same amount of information to work with, and they wouldn’t have to split their focus on two draft classes simultaneously.
But there are other benefits of drafting at the normal time, and those benefits could be increased with an earlier draft. If baseball resumes in June, a normal draft would potentially have player development advantages.
In such a situation, teams could get pitchers throwing in their system sooner than they ever could previously. Normally, the top college pitchers in a draft class have thrown so much during the college season that they are kept on very tight innings and pitch limits in their pro debut. With such a shortened college season, the Emerson Hancocks and Asa Lacys of the 2020 class would be able to throw more innings in their first stint in pro ball than Casey Mize (13.2 innings) or Nick Lodolo (18.1) ever could.
“You get this elite arm. Take your pick of all these elite ones, and you now get him for the entire summer, or the entire back half of the summer,” the agent said. “It’s fresh, it’s ready to go. The college arms you’ve got a history of them anyway. They pitched in the fall and last summer, Team USA… But you get him for 70-80 innings under your nose. You’ve never had that before.
“These kids sign and then they report when everybody else basically comes back, to a degree. Then right away into short seasons. You bring everybody back including 2020s at the same time under the same umbrella.”
Is that a significant benefit? That likely depends on who you ask, but in an industry where your age in pro ball means so much, it certainly moves the needle.
The advantages aren’t just for professional baseball, but the college game as well. While the NCAA announced that players wouldn’t lose a year of eligibility because of the shortened 2020 season, coaches will still be left to figure out difficult roster decisions with more returning players than anticipated. Additionally, some programs might not be able to fund increased scholarships even though they will be allowed.
“I hate the NCAA more than the next guy, but did it make sense to give an extra year of eligibility?” the agent asked. “I get the fairness thing, but I’m hearing from college coaches, none of these rules are going to be determined anytime soon, right? 11.7 up to where? Most teams can’t fund that many scholarships. If all of the sudden teams have 15 how do you do that? And your junior has an extra year of eligibility and he was off to a bad start so now a guy’s now coming back where you thought you would lose him for sure to the draft.”
Postponing the draft would only make those decisions more difficult for college programs and also for incoming freshmen, who could have significantly more competition for playing time than previously expected.
But the most obvious benefit goes back to minimizing the impact on the draft as much as possible. By keeping the draft date as is, only one class is affected. Delaying the draft means the 2021 class is negatively impacted as well. If at all possible, baseball should prevent that from happening. Drafting as scheduled—or sooner—might be the only way to make it happen.
“I think the simplest form would be to keep the draft as is or move it up,” the agent said. “And it just is what it is. You draft based on your comfort…Just a lot of questions abound and if the draft and major league baseball can just find a consistency here I think that would help. Yes, there’s going to be some people who have to wear it… But that’s not a bad dice to roll and just keep it the same.”