Reaction: MLB Shortens the 2020 MLB Draft
One of the areas of the game that has been affected the most by the pandemic is the MLB Draft, one of the most significant pipelines feeding affiliated minor league systems. Already, MLB made the decision to push the draft later in the year to give teams more time to prepare given the disruptions players and evaluators have experienced this year. It has long been assumed that MLB would look to shorten the draft from its standard 40 rounds. Yesterday, it became official: the 2020 MLB Draft will be just 5 rounds long. Below are my thoughts:
Many people, myself included, have thought that the MLB Draft was too long to begin with. Many late round picks are high school kids who have been deemed “unsignable” due to commitments to an NCAA program or players with NCAA eligibility remaining who feel better served by returning to school to improve their draft stock. Even in a normal year, the draft could have been trimmed by 5-10 rounds without significantly effecting the minor league talent pool in a meaningful way.
However, jumping from 40 rounds to just 5 rounds is an enormous leap. From a pure baseball perspective, you better believe that this will have a significant impact on baseball’s talent pool in the minor leagues. More importantly, the Yankees have consistently found value in the middle rounds of the draft. For instance, the Yankees drafted Spencer Henson in the 9th round of the 2019 MLB Draft following his junior year at Oral Roberts. He tore apart rookie ball pitchers at Pulaski and showed patience and pop after a call-up to Staten Island. Henson is a big-bodied first baseman who can slug, with real prospect value, but is not the type of guy that gets drafted in the top 5 rounds. The Spencer Hensons of 2020 will likely go undrafted.
Any player who is draft-eligible, but goes unselected in the 5 round draft, is eligible to be signed for the $20,000 MLB minimum bonus. At first blush, this might seem like an opportunity for teams to pay players who were 6-10 round talents well above their slot values in the old system, but I highly doubt any team will do that. Players in this situation have no leverage, much like college seniors who have little choice but to take whatever teams offer. Without leverage, teams will offer players take-it-or-leave-it deals, and most players will likely return to college, although some may just decide to take the money now, given the uncertainty surrounding the return of college athletics. No matter how you slice it, the players lose, again.
Cutting 35 rounds out of the draft is about one thing: cutting costs. MLB owners have already been whispering about trying to extract more money from the players due to lost revenue despite the fact that players already agreed to prorated salaries based on number of games played in the 2020 season, with relatively minimal salary disbursements up front. Cutting much of the draft saves each team 7-8 figures on their balance sheets.
Cutting 35 rounds from the draft also serves to undercut the depth of players in the minor leagues, making it easier for MLB to cut most of the affiliated minor leagues below low-A ball. MLB has been crusading to make this happen even before the pandemic, so it’s using a human tragedy to squeeze dozens of minor league teams out of affiliated existence. Classy, as always.
The impact of a shorter draft is significant for all teams. It places that much more importance on getting first round picks right, a task at which the Yankees have had decidedly mixed results. For every Aaron Judge, there’s been a Cito Culver. Part of the value of an excellent amateur scouting department is the ability to discover value in the middle and late rounds of the draft to find both legitimate prospects and guys who are solid career minor league players who fill out your system. The Yankees have excelled at that, and a shorter MLB draft cuts the impact of their scouting advantage.
At the end of the day, MLB’s decision to cut the draft this significantly raises many red flags to me. Again, MLB is a business and cares most about its bottom line. Their decisions remind fans of that fact all the time, and this decision is no different. I am disgusted that MLB is using the pandemic to advance their long-standing goal of “cutting fat” out of the affiliated minor leagues. Teams will also save significant money from their allocated bonus pools, but realistically, $5-10 million is a pin-prick on most MLB balance sheets. I am sad for all of the players who won’t play professional ball because of MLB’s short-sighted decision. At a time where MLB should be growing the game, their efforts to save a couple of dollars only contracts its talent pool further.
One of our reader’s has correctly pointed out that players who are eligible for selection in the 2020 MLB Draft, but go undrafted, will be only be able to receive a maximum of $20,000 in bonus money. I incorrectly stated above that they would be paid a minimum of $20,000. In either case, undrafted amateur players get the shaft in this plan.