So… What’s Going on With the Draft?

Travis Sherer deep dives into what could be in store for the 2020 and 2021 MLB drafts. Warning: This will be messy... so glove up!

As I read about the response of all professional sports roughly three weeks ago, the one thought that I was clinging to was: “At least we’ll still have the MLB draft.”

And why wouldn’t we? The draft doesn’t have to be held in one physical space. It can be held in cyberspace, with teams calling in picks from the relative safety of their hopefully clean offices (I’m looking at you, Seattle and New York). Meanwhile, you really only need one camera and one host going facilitating the show business side with announcements and video interviews of execs and draftees. In fact, it seemed like if anything, baseball would want to have something going (other than re-runs) to provide fresh content (other than who is getting Tommy John), instead of just letting spring go by without any positive baseball news or events. In the end, my train of thought was stupid. As my wife constantly points out when I buy a new movie on iTunes: “You forgot about money.”

Oh right! Baseball is a business. I totally forgot. Not that it’s a bad thing. In fact, I’m just as entertained — yes, entertained is the right word — by the business side of baseball as I am the games. Ultimately, money is what this decision is about. The MLB will at least postpone — at worst cancel — the 2020 MLB draft if there is any extension to the cancellation of games, which there is most likely to be. It’s the cost of producing a draft, it’s the cost of paying a collective $400 million in bonuses they pay out to the mostly college degree-less nouveau riche.

On top of that, the MLB is also considering canceling the 2020 J2 international signing day. And before all of this virus business, there was talk that an international draft could happen as soon as this year. So what is going to happen?

We don’t know. We’re all awaiting a decision from the owners. That said, let’s brainstorm what could happen — then I’ll tell you what should happen.

 

2020 Draft Postponed

Long Postponement

 

Normally held in early June, the MLB draft is a three-day event with more than 1,200 selections that clubs use to stock the lower levels of their minor leagues. Scouts won’t get to evaluate a number of those players because of the cancellations of the high school and NCAA seasons. If the draft is postponed to say the end of the season, it would likely be scheduled for November, between the end of the World Series and before the winter meetings in December (assuming people can meet by then). Now, any decision to move or eliminate the draft could slightly change the Arizona Fall League, as many teams invite their top pick(s) to play fall ball.

What will really change is the Cape Cod League. Should the draft happen in November, the Cape Cod League is the only chance for collegiate players to better their position. Traditionally, this league begins after the NCAA season (mid-June through mid-August) and recruits quite a few top college players. If the draft were to happen in November, I think we’d see just about every first- and second-round caliber college player on a team — for both 2020 and 2021.

If the draft were postponed, MLB would also have to change the deadline to sign their picks to contracts. Here is a sticking point. In a normal season, players are picked in early June and teams have until about July 10 to sign them to a contract. So if the draft were moved to November, the signing period would drastically affect free agency. Now, a lot of these picks have numbers negotiated before they get picked, but we’re talking negotiating with 40+ amateurs in a span of 40 days — and also every free agent? Seems impossible. This would be the one reason why I bet the draft is canceled instead of postponed. Well, this and money. I always forget the money.

One last thing to consider is the prospects’ collective perspective. I think if the draft is moved to November you’d see more players not signing contracts. Basically college baseball would be starting in two months. Many of them might believe they can just play and improve their stock. You’d see a lot of high school seniors opting to play at junior college to exploit that loophole where they can play one season and still be drafted the following year (or they would at least use that leverage to negotiate a better-than-slot bonus). Who would really get shafted is college seniors. Generally, college seniors get shafted in the draft anyway, as teams know if they draft a college senior, they can low-ball him because he basically doesn’t have any other options. He can’t go back to college and there really isn’t another league where he can negotiate/play at that time of year. Basically, if he draft were postponed, it would be chaos. Lots of picks wouldn’t sign, which means we’d potentially have so many compensation picks for 2021 it would basically mean that we’d effectively canceled the 2020 draft by postponing it.

 

Short Postponement

 

Another option is that the draft is postponed until, say, late July or early August. There are positives to this: it doesn’t really interfere with 2021 draft season, it will provide less overlap with free agency. Instead of summer and fall leagues, a short postponement would necessitate some kind of draft combine, where teams could have more contact with prospects before drafting them. This is a necessity in order to properly scout. There could be a number of skill drills and physical drills position players go through while pitching prospects could participate in bullpen sessions. Keep in mind this would probably be a one-time-only deal. Unlike football, where a draft combine is an annual event, some of baseball’s mechanics (especially with pitchers) are inherently unnatural and could lead to injuries at the combine. This would be a bad look for the league and I imagine the players association would not agree to making this an annual event — if they approve of it at all.

There isn’t much of a drawback to a short postponement other than you’re likely to not get as good of a look at players since they won’t be playing in organized baseball leading up to the draft. At least a long postponement would give players a chance to enter some league to show what they can do in a game environment with proper coaching and support. Also, getting the MLBPA to sign off on it might be a challenge.

 

2020 Draft is Canceled

Let’s face it, folks, the most likely scenario is that the draft is canceled, setting up a 2021 super draft. It’s less messy. And by less messy I mean this option means the MLB has to do the least to clean up. The responsibility will fall on individual players and college.

The main confusion with canceling a draft is with high school players. Traditionally, a draft-bound high school player has four choices:

  1. Be drafted, sign with the team and start playing.
  2. Be drafted, not sign and play college and forgo the next three years with his NCAA team (or turn 21).
  3. Head straight to college and forgo the next three years with his NCAA team (or turn 21).
  4. Play in junior college and be drafted the following year or transfer to an NCAA afterward and wait until you are a junior year to be drafted again.

What makes this confusing is by canceling the draft, the MLB essentially made the decision of college or pro for high school prospects in 2020. Now what happens in 2020? Do all 2020 high school seniors get special dispensation to play for NCAA teams as freshman and still be drafted in 2021 if they want? Or do they have to wait until 2023? If MLB does not implement special rules, the best high schoolers in the country will likely flood junior colleges to remain eligible in 2021. This is probably the most likely scenario, because if NCAA does implement special rules, sophomores who had really good years will want to capitalize on their good fortune and opt for the draft. Basically, this scenario would result in a free-for-all where every college player had a legitimate argument to be drafted in 2021, effectively throwing NCAA rosters into chaos.

Just like with the postponement of the draft, college seniors are the ones getting hosed here — even more so than usual. If the draft is canceled, it will be completely on college seniors to retain and improve their skills, without a real organization to aid them. Everybody else has options and support systems, even if they are messy.

Now that we’ve talked about the draft, let’s talk about international prospects.

 

2020 J2 is Canceled

 

If MLB is really committed to saving money they will also cancel the July 2 international signing period. All players not playing in the United States (Ages 16-24) are subject to international signing rules. Those players are eligible to sign contracts starting July 2. Usually 70-80% of international prospects sign that day, which means they have negotiated contracts with teams well before that (which is frowned upon). If that date is postponed, like the MLB draft prospects, there will be a supergroup of international signees in 2021. It will also affect the possibility of an international draft, something the MLB and Major League Baseball Players Association have been working on for years. There were rumblings that it could start in 2020, but with a postponement this year, I’m thinking we’re looking more at 2022. The league will have more important things to get through over the next year, like trying to normalize baseball again.

This cancellation makes less sense to me than the draft. There is no international slot compensation like the draft. Teams are just limited to the total amount they can spend and penalties if they go over. There is no way that MLB is going to just have double the international talent and the exact same amount of money to spend: remember, they want to save money. The cap on international spending will have to increase, however, even if it’s just for one year. Teams will spend the more money they get in the exact same way though. There is no limit as to how much one player can sign for, so my guess is that the top players are just going to ask for more money and there will be bidding wars. They’ll get what they ask for and there will be fewer overall international signees over the two years despite an adjustment in salary. Basically I predict that teams will spend the same amount of money over the two years and employ fewer players because the better players will make more.

 

What I Think Should Happen

 

What should happen is the draft goes as planned, but that’s not going to happen. To help ease the financial burden, the 2020 draft could be shortened by 10-15 rounds. Yes, each team spends roughly $13 million on their picks, but that’s really chump change in the grand scheme of things — and potentially worth the investment of getting an extra year of instruction from their draft 2020 draft picks. Let’s not forget that draft picks are controllable young talent that is actually undervalued, even as minor leaguers.  That is precisely why there is a draft: to control the price of incoming labor. Sure, there is also a draft to try to even out the league talent, but it’s really about saving money. Just about every draftee would make more if there weren’t a draft. Also, if you truly thought of drafting prospects as an investment, wouldn’t you want to max out their potential? That one extra year of professional instruction could be what makes a prospect click or makes them click faster.

Now, what should really happen? The MLB should cancel the draft and have a super draft in 2021. The league shouldn’t give high school prospects special dispensation to be drafted after their freshman season in college in order to preserve college baseball rosters. Finally, the J2 deadline shouldn’t be postponed. You could probably tell that by how I wrote about earlier. I do not think there is a way to double the player pool and spread the wealth for more players unless you have some kind of international salary slot, which can only happen if there is a draft (I can’t think of another way to provide salary slots in an open market. Since teams value different traits more or less, there has to be some universal way to determine an evaluation system before you can instruct teams to pay accordingly), which won’t really be ready by 2021.

 

What I Wish Would Happen

 

I wish the league would use this as an opportunity to remake the draft into a week-long event where both the national and international drafts are held just days apart and with more or less the same rules. Keep the MLB draft the same and institute an international draft with payment slotting. By doing this, it would mitigate the 2020 J2 cancelation by having set prices for international talent instead of a highest-bidder situation. In order to give teams more insurance for their money, you can also set the minimum age for J2 draftees at 17 instead of signing at 16. A lot of development can be gleaned from that extra year. To stabilize competition in international hot spots, pro baseball could pool together resources to create non-affiliated leagues where players can boost their draft stock. This is my dream. With two drafts, baseball could own a whole week or two of content in June. I’d be fine with canceling the 2020 draft in favor of this plan for 2021. It would also increase the marketability of the Cape Cod League, which could only be a good thing. If all the top college players played in that league, ESPN would probably start televising it. To be fair, it is televised, but you didn’t know that did you? That’s the point. (You can find it on Fox College Sports, but you don’t know how to get that, do you?).

 

Update

 

Kiley McDaniel of ESPN tweeted yesterday that right now the thinking between MLB and MLBPA is a delay and a shortening.

What would this potential decision mean? I’m assuming McDaniel means the draft is shortened to 5-10 rounds, not shortened by 5-10 rounds, meaning there are only 150-300 players drafted out of a pool of more than 1,200. That’s a lot of players who will be left twisting in the wind. If this is the ultimate decision, it would mean that the MLB is discouraging players to enter. If you combine drastically shortening the draft and deferring bonus money two years down the road, you are telling prospects to wait until next year when there likely won’t be money deferred. Imagine you are a college junior. Why would you get drafted this year only to get 55% of your bonus by 2021 when you could be drafted in 2021 and get it all?

Similarly, this would likely push a lot of elite high school players to junior college and a lot of not-quite-elite players to college. Oddly enough, this is the one structure I’ve seen that could actually benefit college seniors. While everyone else waits for next year, it could mean more college seniors get drafted if nothing more than to fill minor league rosters. Conversely, it could also mean that a team that doesn’t want to really spend any money this year could just pick a bunch of overslot guys and lowball (even though they have to offer a certain amount based on the pick) and watch them all not sign. With a five-round or 10-round draft, it is possible that one team (Oakland?) doesn’t sign a single pick.

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Travis Sherer

All Seattle Mariners fans have learned the future is all we have because the present is always too painful. I am Western Washington University alum, a local sportswriter, an official NCAA basketball statistician, a freelance radio and television production statistician, and a minor league standup comedian. Follow me @ShererTravis on Twitter.

  • I read a lot about the new agreement on BA. Yes, the draft would only be 5-10 rounds (though they are reporting 5 with MLB option to extend). One of the big hits is to non-drafted players who would be maxed out to sign at only $20k. From what I’ve read, the new deals seem to be good for MLBPA, great for MLB, and pretty bad for everyone not on a MLB roster yet. This includes potential International signees as well. MLB had all of the leverage and they used it, with the MLBPA getting what they could, while throwing the minors and non-professionals under the bus. None of that should come as a surprise.

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