In a move that will save teams some money in the short term but very possibly water down the league’s talent pool for years to come, MLB has chosen to shorten the 2020 draft to five rounds. Undrafted players, who previously had been eligible to earn as much as $125,000 in signing bonuses, will be prohibited from receiving bonuses in excess of $20,000. ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Kiley McDaniel were the first to report the news Friday afternoon:
The 2020 Major League Baseball draft will be five rounds, sources tell @kileymcd and me. All players who go undrafted would be eligible to sign for a maximum of $20,000. While there was a proposal to the union for a 10-round draft, the sides didn’t come to an agreement.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) May 8, 2020
As Passan details, it was basically a lose-lose situation for the players, as the 10-round draft proposal the union rejected would have put a cap on the amount of undrafted players teams could sign and would have placed heavier restrictions on how teams used their bonus pool money.
The 10-round proposal the union rejected included an interesting twist: essentially it was two five-round drafts. Meaning teams would not have been allowed to use slot money from R6-10 to pay guys in R1-5. Proposal also limited the number of undrafted players teams could sign.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) May 8, 2020
This change has been a possibility since late March, when the players reached a deal with the league following the indefinite delay of the 2020 regular season due to the coronavirus pandemic. While the players secured guaranteed compensation and service time whether a 2020 season is ultimately played or not, draft prospects were essentially hung out to dry, as the league gained the right to shorten the 2020 draft to as few as five rounds, along with the ability to shorten the 2021 draft to as few as 20.
And while it could be argued that there is a bit of logical reasoning behind this change — nearly all high school seniors had their final prep seasons wiped out due to the COVID-19 outbreak, increasing teams’ uncertainty about their development and the players’ incentive to prove themselves on the college or junior college stage — it’s ultimately going to have extremely concerning consequences for both amateur and professional baseball.
College seniors, who always have less leverage in the MLB Draft due to the fact that they basically have nowhere else to turn, may be skipped over and forced to take cheap UDFA offers that are far from indicative of their talent level. Some of those players will be allowed to go back to their schools thanks to the NCAA ruling that provides senior athletes in spring sports an extra year of eligibility if their school and conference sign off on it. But plenty of schools have already chosen not to provide that extra year, and even for the ones that do, the returns of seniors who otherwise may have been drafted could block younger players — particularly incoming freshmen — from receiving the playing time they deserve. And when you also consider that so many juniors who otherwise would have been taken in the middle rounds this year will be coming back to school for the 2021 collegiate season, it’s just going to be a massive logjam, both at the college level and in next year’s draft.
And while it’s perhaps fair to argue that the draft should be shortened a bit this year due to the current circumstances, shortening it by 35 rounds is objectively an extreme measure. Just consider the list of current MLB stars who have been taken after the fifth round: Jacob deGrom, Josh Hader, Anthony Rizzo, J.D. Martinez, Michael Brantley, Paul Goldschmidt, and Jeff McNeil, among many others. Bumping players of that caliber from the draft is extremely risky for the league as it tries to maintain an elite talent pool, so at least for this year, the league will just have to hope that a bunch of undrafted players love baseball enough that they’re willing to take that $20,000 bonus and live below the poverty line for years in order to chase their dreams.