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2020 Draft Preview No. 4: Some Basic Considerations of This Year’s Reality

The June draft is going to be very strange this year, even if it is still held in June.

Ballparks Remain Empty On What Would Have Been Baseball’s Opening Day Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

The June draft will still occur this year, but it’s going to be...different. Just like pretty much everything else in the world these days, the reality of the 2020 amateur draft has been altered.

For one thing, the June draft was not, in fact, going to be the June draft. It was going to be the July draft, with no official date attached. The latest news now appears to be that MLB is moving the draft back to its original date (June 10th), and will simply do so virtually, without an audience or real-life gathering, in much the same way the NFL just did for their draft. So the latest is the draft will now happen back on its original date, only without a live in-person gathering of executives, team representatives, and a few prospects.

The much more important change is to the format of the draft itself. Rather than the 40 rounds we have gotten the last several years (since the draft was dropped from 50 rounds a little less than a decade ago), this year’s iteration will be no more than ten rounds long. I say ‘no more than ten’ because, as of right now, there has not been a final decision made on just exactly how many rounds the draft will actually end up being. The players’ union and MLB signed off on an agreement earlier this spring to shorten the draft to somewhere between five and ten rounds, but as of yet there has been no final decision on the exact number.

So here’s the thing: we are currently just about a month out from the draft. Most years, there would be mock drafts flying hot and heavy right now, and at least the top of the board would really be solidifying itself. Spring performances would be winding down, with the big moves already having been made; the ace pitcher who cut his walk rate by a third and solidified himself as the number one guy, or the shortstop who came out of the gate showing more pop than in the past and pushed himself forward above a cluster of similar players would already have happened. This year, we don’t even know how many players are going to be selected. As is the case with almost everything currently, the waters we sail are uncharted.

There are, however, some basic realities about which we can somewhat confidently speak. Part of it has to do with the small number of rounds the draft will include this year, but even more has to do with the bonus structure set up in the agreement between the union and MLB. Ordinarily, bonuses paid to players drafted and signed in the June draft are just paid. You agree to a bonus of 750K, the team cuts you a check for $750,000. This year, as a cost-cutting measure (which is, of course, the only reason baseball teams ever make any change, ever), only $100,000 of any agreed-upon bonus will be paid immediately, with that 100K total being paid within 30 days of the signing of the contract. Whatever remaining money there may be on the contract will be paid out in two equal installments; 50% will be paid on the first of July 2021, and the remaining half will be paid a year later at the beginning of July in 2022.

Now, obviously no one is going to starve to death being paid $100,000 in a year, so it’s not as if the players drafted and signed are in danger of the bread line immediately. However, when we account for the pathetic salaries and per diem paid to minor leaguers in general, 100K isn’t exactly anything to write home about, either, once taxes are taken out.

What this really means is that clubs will have less leverage than they normally would to try and lure players away from college. Teams have insulated themselves from a perceived financial pain (perceived, keep in mind), but at the expense of holding as strong a leverage as they usually would, I think. Combined with the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to players, I think there’s a reasonable chance we see a lot of college juniors return for senior seasons in 2021, probably an unprecedented number.

I tend to think it also means we’ll see a much larger number of high school players head for college than is usual, even among the higher-round guys. Obviously there won’t be a ton of fourteenth-round draftees lured to pro ball with a 100K bonus this year, opting to forego college, since there will not be a fourteenth round (and MLB has put in place rules to prevent clubs from just signing a bunch of kids as UDFAs, of course), but even up toward the top of the draft in the rounds which will take place I think we see fewer high school kids sign. For the most part, the kids who go high in the MLB draft do not come from economically disadvantaged homes. Baseball is not a cheap sport to play at the high amateur level, and one of the earliest separators is whether or not a kid’s family is able and willing to put him on a travel team, and go to showcases, and just generally do all the things which put a teenager in front of the most eyeballs, against the best competition.

For the most part, the kids getting drafted at the top of the draft out of high school are not in a position to really need the money to help out their families. Not a lot of 80s sports movie protagonists in the MLB draft these days. Given that most high school draftees are fairly secure economically, if forced to choose between getting a bonus stretched over multiple years or heading off to college to wait for a potentially more advantageous situation a couple years down the road, I think a large number of even the most talented high school kids will opt for college.

What we’re going to get this year is a drastically shortened draft, with probably a much smaller pool of talent than we’re used to. I would bet there is going to be at least one player taken in the first round who decides he can do better later and heads to college, either for a senior season or a freshman year, simply because next year the bonuses may not be amortised. This smaller pool of talent and fewer players to draft will, of course, allow MLB to do what they want to do anyway and reduce the number of minor leagues clubs, because MLB teams just can’t stop shooting themselves in the long-term foot in pursuit of short-term profits. I wonder about the knock-on effects of a shallow talent pool this year, whether it leads to a bumper crop in the next couple years, specifically amongst the college ranks, or if it ends up costing the league down the road.

I am curious, I will admit, to see if MLB does a good job with the draft on television this year or not. I’m not optimistic, personally, because if you give MLB a chance to put on a rinky-dink show which damages the brand in the long term, they will generally do so. However, we just saw the NFL go pretty much all-out (as much as they could, anyway), to try and make their own amateur draft a big deal on television, trying to advance their brand with basically no other sports on TV with which to compete. Will MLB do the same? As I said, I’m not confident. The draft will most likely have a night entirely to itself, devoid of the usual NHL and NBA playoff talk, and all the networks are starving right now for sports-related content. This would seem to be an ideal opportunity for MLB to put its best foot forward and try to sell the next generation of stars to the public right out of the gate. I suppose we’ll have to see whether that happens. Or how any of this goes, really.