Today, the shortest and strangest draft we’re likely to see will kick off. Ordinarily, the draft consists of 40 rounds, but under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic, MLB owners have shortened it to just five rounds. Any player not taken in those first five rounds will be eligible to sign with any team they choose for a maximum of a $20,000 bonus. The shortening of the draft is an obvious ploy to prevent talent from entering the system which would justify the culling of more than 40 minor league affiliates, but it’s also the first baseball event to happen since spring training, so we can hold our nose and enjoy it.
That’s more than what one owner will do is rumored to do. Early Tuesday, R.J. Anderson reported that a team with a top-10 pick will punt their selection. This team would draft a player they have no intention of signing and offering this person the minimum required to gain compensatory pick in next year’s draft.
Some have pegged the Angels as the team. Owner Arte Moreno advocated for skipping the draft entirely this year and furloughed his scouting department. The Angels also traded their first rounder from 2019, Will Wilson, for salary relief.
As J.J. Cooper of Baseball America pointed out, it doesn’t make any sense for a team to do this. The most obvious reason would be to cut costs, but players who sign in the 2020 will only initially receive $100,000 of their signing bonus. The remainder will be paid across 2021 and 2022.
Strategically, punting the draft in favor of next year isn’t a clear win. This isn’t a talentless draft class, and getting a top-10 pick now is always better than getting one in the future. Perhaps this team thinks they can recoup the lost future WAR from their first-round pick with a bevvy of 5th to 10th rounders who cost $20,000 at maximum, and if they can save the first-round slot money there’s no reason not to. There’s a real likelihood a first-rounder doesn’t pan out, and maybe they get lucky with undrafted “free agents.” Even so, that strategy is like betting on several Santa’s Little Helpers instead of one Whirlwind.
The pool of “free agents” raises interesting questions. If the maximum bonus they could receive wasn’t so pitifully small, and if MLB weren’t intent on cutting the minors by 25 percent, it might have functioned well as a test of draft-less baseball. Over the coming weeks, it will be fascinating to see which teams add the most talent and which teams try and fail to do so.
Many analysts have pointed out that any amateur who can choose where to go might not want to go to Oakland. A’s owner John Fisher has since reversed his decision to cease payments to minor leaguers, but that doesn’t instill much confidence in the team’s ability to take care of its players. Fisher didn’t change course because he looked deep inside himself and decided that paying his employees enough to get by was the right thing to do. He changed his mind because no other team followed suit and people were singling out the A’s as being especially terrible.
Agents have also indicated that they will try to match players with robust player development programs. Teams with lesser reputations won’t be able to outbid their competitors. They’ll have to prove they’re the best fit for that player. It can be difficult to evaluate a team’s player development system from the outside. A few decisions from a handful of players won’t be proof of anything, but they might offer some insight.
The Astros and Red Sox, for instance, might be able to lessen the impact of losing draft picks for their respective sign-stealing scandals by coaxing players with their robust player development and successful track record. The Astros forfeited their first and second-round draft picks for 2020 and 2021 while the Red Sox have lost their second-round pick for this year. The Astros’ toxic reputation might work against them when trying to sign undrafted players, but it’s likely less of an obstacle than deciding not to pay minor leaguers.
The Astros and Red Sox have just four picks each—the Astros still receive a compensatory pick for losing Gerrit Cole. On the other end of the spectrum, the Cardinals and Giants have the most picks at seven a piece. The Orioles, Tigers, and Royals each have the most bonus pool money, and should have stellar drafts. The Tigers and Orioles are expected to take Spencer Torkelson and Austin Martin first and second overall, so they’re assured of having a good draft.
Another thing to keep an eye on is how many high school players are taken. With fewer picks, teams might be dissuaded from taking a player out of high school since younger players are generally tougher to sign and because high schools from cold weather areas haven’t played in eight months.
Though this will be a unique draft, it remains true that we won’t know the full impact of the upcoming picks and signings for at least a few years. The early indications don’t bode well for labor or the proliferation and health of the game.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.