In some of the worst baseball-related news since the postponement of the 2020 season, news broke today that MLB’s 2020 Amateur Player Draft will be cut down from the usual 40 rounds to just five in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:
The draft is now just five rounds long, significantly shorter than usual, and any eligible players that go undrafted may sign with any team for a maximum signing bonus of $20,000. The draft date remains on June 10, and the signing deadline of August 1 is also unchanged. Teams have the same budget allotted to the draft as usual.
Since it became apparent that the spreading virus would impact professional sports leagues, it has been clear that the draft format would be altered, though the specific format was unknown until today. Owners and the players union were negotiating between a five and ten round draft, both shortened greatly from the usual 40-round format as owners sought to cut down the draft and save money. The players union refused a deal last week for a ten-round draft that would have separated the money available for rounds 1-5 and 6-10, and after that, a five-round draft felt inevitable; ultimately, the agreement was reached in favor of the owners and their desired five-round draft.
Reactions to this announcement from everyone except the owners, though, is that it is a terrible mistake.
General managers, scouts, coaches, agents, and players themselves had all hoped for more opportunities for players to get drafted and sign bonuses that they deserve, but ultimately the owners have the say and were unwilling to cough up barely $1 million each. It’s a difficult pill to swallow, and clearly demonstrative of MLB’s trend towards prioritizing short-term profits above all else.
A shortened amateur draft has implications on every level of baseball above high school, and none of them are good. Perhaps most chaotic will be college rosters next year, as players have already been granted an extra year of eligibility by NCAA and college programs will have to work with limited resources to accommodate not only new recruits and returning players as usual, but returning seniors who went undrafted and will take up roster spots and scholarship money that would otherwise be available. As a result, choosing to attend junior college may become a more popular option among high school recruits, shifting the entire dynamic of college baseball and very likely loading junior colleges with talent more than ever before.
In addition, this will have ramifications on the draft for years beyond this one. Sources are confident that the draft will still be at least 20 rounds in 2021, but it is unlikely that it will ever return to the 40 round structure from the past. This also impacts how players get paid, both this year and beyond, and next year’s draft will likely also have more talent due to a lack of players getting drafted this year.
It’s difficult to overlook how this may potentially impact MLB itself down the road as well. By opening up all players that are available after round five as free agents, teams with more resources and a greater ability to attract these free agents will be able to sign a disproportionate amount of the available talent. This will likely have an impact on the league’s power dynamic as some teams will inevitably be able to accrue more talent than others.
The new draft structure will have clear implications for many players, as well. Players who would have been drafted in many of the rounds after round five will receive significantly less money than before: in 2019, recommended slot values (the amount of money that a player would typically get paid as a signing bonus were he drafted in that spot) for picks in round six ranged from $301,700 to $237,000. Now, none of these players that go undrafted after round five will receive more than $20,000; less than a tenth of what the top remaining talent would typically be paid. With MLB already failing to pay the vast majority of its minor league players a living wage, now these players that would have been able to live on their signing bonuses won’t even have enough money to live without another job:
This doesn’t even mention the vast quantity of players that were expecting to get drafted this year and now don’t have that opportunity. With 35 fewer rounds, over 1,000 picks in the draft have been cut. It’s difficult to overstate that:
For players, college teams and professional teams alike, such a vast change in the structure of the draft has huge implications that will be felt in the sport for years. There is a general sense that owners and the league took advantage of an opportunity to make changes to the draft that they had already hoped for, and while this is not the permanent draft structure moving forward, it sets a precedent for the draft that has many negative implications on the lifeblood of baseball: its players. MLB has made it clear that the value of a slight gain in profits for each team is more important to the owners and the league than prioritizing the provision of opportunity to players, and this is not a healthy framework moving forward.
Baseball has, in the eyes of everyone but its owners, made a huge mistake. Now time will tell just how great the consequences are.
Special thanks to Tyler Jennings for his contributions to this article.