MLB Draft changes are yet another outrage
The structure of the 2020 MLB draft has been overhauled as the MLB continues to act in shortsighted protection of their pocketbooks.
After much speculation regarding how the shutdown of both amateur and professional baseball would impact the MLB draft, we finally have our answer. The structure of the event has been completely overhauled, and the most jarring change is dropping the length of the draft from 40 rounds to five. This extreme reduction in the number of draft picks cuts 1,035 picks out of the draft. Financial concerns were also addressed – slot values will remain static, signing bonus pay will be deferred, and undrafted free agents cannot be signed for more than $20,000 dollars.
The threat posed to baseball by the shutdowns ensuing from COVID-19 precautions have the potential to be existential, and the way the MLB handles the sport’s recovery from it will be crucial in whether it will survive. Yet, instead of treating the situation as if it’s the biggest threat the game has seen in 75 years, the league is using the disease to leverage their way into achieving their aim of fewer minor league teams and minimal pay for minor league players.
True, the fact that the draft has been reduced to only five rounds doesn’t mean that teams will be adding only five players to their farm system in 2020. The competitive balance and free agent compensation rounds allow a handful of teams an extra pick or two. For example, the Tigers were awarded a pick in the Competitive Balance Round B, which means they’ll be on the clock with the 63rd overall pick. There will also undoubtedly be an extraordinarily high number of UDFAs signed by each team.
Still, the players eligible to be drafted this season are hit hard, and the players hit hardest are collegiate athletes with the talent to be drafted in the sixth through tenth rounds. High school players in that range will almost assuredly be going to college to try for a better draft position in a few years, a route most in that group would likely be taking anyway. The collegians, however, are far more likely to turn pro, which is often the wise course of action. As an example, think of Kyle Funkhouser, who dropped from the first round to the fourth when he opted not to sign with the Dodgers in 2015 and struggled in the following season.
That leaves collegiate athletes between a rock and a hard place. Their options are to gamble on themselves and hope to be in a similarly favorable position in 2021, when the draft will be expanded to 20 rounds again, or to accept a signing bonus of $20,000 or less to turn pro, which is far less than they could have rightly expected in the event they had been drafted in the top ten rounds.
For a bit of perspective, MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis reported that 395 players received six-figure bonuses after the fifth round of the 2019 Draft, 295 of which were taken after the 10th round. For example, Cooper Johnson was the Tigers selected in the sixth round of the 2019 draft. The Ole Miss catcher came to the with the team with a $291,400 price tag – full slot value for his draft slot. That figure is 14.57 times as high as what would have been available to him under these rules.
Not only are the number of players who will receive standard signing bonuses plummet, the players who are signed to six-figure or better contracts this summer will have to wait for a large portion of their money. One provision in the agreement limits the payout to any draftee to $100,000. Any bonus in excess of that figure will be deferred, with half the remaining amount to be paid in 2021 and the other half to be paid in 2022.
This means the most the Tigers could possibly spend on draft picks this summer is $600,000; the rest of the money due will be on the books for another two years.
The cherry on top of this miserable sundae is the lack of scheduled inflation of draft slot values. A yearly increase was written into the 2016 collective bargaining agreement, increasing the amount each draft slot was worth by roughly 3.5 percent. This may have been an understandable tweak had the draft been longer or the deferrals were not in place, but shaving a few extra percent off the top of an already buyer-friendly market will save billionaire owners the kind of money that makes very little difference in their financial portfolio but could change the lives of the average people to whom it will no longer be available.
The simplest explanation for the various facets of the ruling is a cynical pursuit on the part of the owners to add a little more padding to their profit margins, and unfortunately, the simplest explanation is often the right one.
A few months ago, the most hotly contested issue in baseball was the proposed contraction of 42 minor league baseball teams, which was largely panned by fans and pundits. Although the pandemic that created the circumstances to institute the 2020 draft system was entirely out of the league’s control or area of influence, it worked nicely in favor of the league’s effort to reduce the minor leagues. What easier way to set up an atmosphere conducive to contraction than starving teams of prospects? Of course, we’re now getting into speculative territory, but it doesn’t take much squinting to see how the dots connect.
In any case, this much is clear: the normal MLB draft system would have taken a small bite out of the profitability of MLB franchises. The owners again prioritized their profits over the well-being of young ballplayers. The effects of this choice will probably be far more wide-reaching than we’ll ever know.