MLB and the MLBPA reportedly finalized an agreement Thursday night to resolve a number of issues brought on by the indefinite delay of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as ESPN’s Jeff Passan first reported. While the most notable issues from the current players’ perspective were service time — players will be credited with the same amount of service time they were in 2019 if the season is eventually canceled — and compensation — they agreed to accept a $170 million lump sum during the months of April and May and will earn pro-rated salaries if the season is shortened — the portion of the agreement that figures to have the most significant impact relates to the MLB Draft. According to Passan, the league gained the right to shorten the 2020 draft to as few as five rounds and the 2021 draft to 20 rounds:
MLB also can shorten the 2021 draft to 20 rounds, and push back the 2021-22 international signing period to January 2022 through December 2022, per sources.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 27, 2020
In case you’re wondering, even that ‘21 draft would be just half the length of the 40-round drafts that have taken place in recent years. On the surface, this move is somewhat understandable, because high school seniors across the country had most or all of their senior seasons wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, making it much harder for teams to effectively scout them and increasing the incentive for those players to go to college. The same goes for high school juniors and seniors, who are expected to be granted an additional season of eligibility by the NCAA since they had their seasons cut short.
The more you look into it, though, this decision looks like a way for MLB to cut costs — even if it means further watering down a product that has been repeatedly criticized for getting beat by sports like football and basketball in the battle for the best athletes in the world. According to a report from ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel, players would be forced to defer 90 percent of their signing bonuses — which frankly will not be financially feasible for many players since they earn salaries below or just above minimum wage in the minor leagues — and there could be a limit on bonuses for undrafted players, perhaps as low as $10,000.
a maximum bonus for undrafted players has been discussed. Most discussed number for that is $10,000. Could push lots of high school talent to college, middle-tier college talent to return to school.— Kiley McDaniel (@kileymcd) March 26, 2020
There are always going to be baseball players who are strong-willed enough to play until someone tells them they can’t play anymore, even if that means constantly moving around the country (or world) for years on end, struggling for their next meals and dealing with highly undesirable living arrangements. But with that bonus limit being so low, the deferral policy in place, and the stigma that teams apply to undrafted players in every sport, it sure seems like it’d be a much more sound decision for a player to quit baseball and enter the workforce than to chase his dreams as an undrafted player under this policy.
In addition to the financial ramifications for drafted players, these policy changes could have consequences for players who are good enough to be legitimate prospects at some point but just aren’t quite there yet from a developmental standpoint. More high school players are going to get lost in the shuffle with the draft being reduced, and clubs might brush that off with the idea that they’ll be able to select them in a few years when they’re more polished college players. Full baseball scholarships are few and far between at the NCAA level, though, and even for players who have the financial means to play at a four-year school, they’ll face a bigger struggle for playing time — at least in the short term — with many more juniors returning for their final year due to the shortened draft and plenty of 2020 seniors presumably returning to use their newly-granted eligibility in 2021. If there’s a multi-sport athlete that might prefer to play baseball but also has the ability to play a full-ride sport like football or basketball, these are the types of things that will sway their decisions.
Jacob deGrom, Josh Hader, Anthony Rizzo, J.D. Martinez, Michael Brantley, and Jeff McNeil are just several of the high-profile big-leaguers who were selected after the fifth round, and it’s difficult to imagine a baseball world where those types of players never get a chance to play the sport professionally. Even if MLB isn’t interested in moving toward a draft with single-digit rounds for the long term, they’re pretty clearly interested in shortening the annual selection event. And while it’s hard to argue against the draft being shortened a little bit — we’ve seen enough staff members’ relatives and big-name college football players who are never going to play baseball drafted to know that not every one of those 40 rounds is necessary — this seems like an extreme reduction, and even if it’s just for a couple years, it has the ability to significantly water down the sport’s talent pool.
We have to be careful to avoid putting the cart before the horse on this issue, because MLB hasn’t explicitly said that these measures are reflective of what we’ll see in drafts beyond 2021. But because the league has already lobbied to eliminate 42 minor-league teams and reduce the amount of rounds in the draft — and because MLB is a multi-billion-dollar operation that shouldn’t have to take aggressive cost-cutting measures to survive, even during a global pandemic — it seems pretty clear that this draft format is a sign of things to come. And that could be a really bad development for fans and players alike.