In one week, MLB will hold the shortest amateur draft in its history. The draft’s contraction is an obvious ploy to deplete the talent pool and legitimize the culling of over 40 minor league affiliates. The money it would save the owners is a pittance—Jeff Passan estimated that it would save each team less than $1 million—so the owner’s eyes are definitely on the future. They are trying to use the COVID-19 pandemic to push through things they have long wanted to implement: shortened draft, minor league contraction, revenue sharing, etc.
Revenue sharing was quickly shot down, but minor league contraction seems inevitable at this point and so, too, is the shortening of the draft. Both the draft and the size of the minor leagues certainly have their problems. In the draft, players have little autonomy in who they play for which affects where they’ll live and how much they’ll make. The only decision they have is to sign with the team that drafted them or not play at all.
There’s an argument to eliminate the draft entirely. Last December at The Hardball Times, Shane Tourtellotte argued for exactly that, and tomorrow at this site, Bill Thompson will argue the same.
The minor leagues are also inherently exploitative. Last year, Walker Buehler said “At any affiliate, there are three players who have a chance to play in the majors. The rest of the players are there so they can play. I don’t think that’s fair. You are preying on their dreams.”
Except for players taken in the high rounds or players in Triple-A, most minor leaguers are paid poverty wages. Right now, many minor leaguers are receiving a stipend of $400 a week, which is more than what the low-level players were making but still less than what I made when I was a line cook and getting paid minimum wage even after taxes were taken out.
That Carter Stewart chose not to sign with the Braves and later signed with the Fukuoka SoftBanks Hawks of NPB is, at the very least, an indication that the process for entering MLB could be improved. If NPB or the KBO didn’t limit the number of foreign players on a roster, maybe MLB would be worried that those low slot value players would choose another league instead of toiling in the minor leagues for less than what they’re worth.
The minor league experience is a problem, and problems need solutions. Eliminating the draft entirely would solve player autonomy though there’s the concern of minor league contraction beyond what’s already proposed. Miserly owners won’t want to sign fringe amateurs for competitive wages. They tolerate having to pay the players pegged not to get out of High-A because the draft allows them to deliver those players an ultimatum: sign for almost nothing or don’t play. Fewer players mean fewer teams, and fewer teams means fewer communities with access to live baseball.
Keeping the draft as is—40 rounds in a normal year—doesn’t solve the autonomy issue and it continues the predation of having players with “no shot” making peanuts just so the high-round players have someone to play against. The solution isn’t to cut them entirely. They could just be paid a living wage. That way teams aren’t preying on their dreams, they’re giving them a shot. If a player washes out in a season or two, at least they were fairly compensated for their time.
Fixing labor in the minor leagues won’t be easy, but if next week’s draft is any indication of what the owners want to enact in the future. This five-round draft is the worst of both worlds. Spencer Torkelson and the other players that will be taken will receive fair compensation but won’t have any choice of where to ply their trade for the better part of the decade. Everyone else will get to choose where to go, and that privilege isn’t worthless. The A’s, for instance, have shown their true colors by not paying their minor leaguers. There’s no reason a player should sign with Oakland if they have an offer from another team.
This autonomy comes at a price. Any player not taken in the five-round draft can sign with any team they choose for a maximum of a $20,000 bonus. If they’re lucky, they’ll get to add that $400 weekly stipend through August. Somewhere around $25,000 gross pay is pitiful compensation for anyone but especially for college juniors who spent the last three years working for NCAA for free.
That $1 million that teams are saving is coming straight out of the players’ pockets. For owners like John Fisher and Charles Johnson, an extra $1 million is a drop in the bucket that is their obscene wealth. For a would-be sixth-round pick, their share of that $1 million is the difference between living comfortably and eating cereal and water for dinner.
In addition to the financial considerations, there’s no doubt that this will make for a worse on-field product in the future. Cutting out a huge portion of the talent pool obviously means less talent injected into the system. Jacob deGrom has been given as a common example of how a player’s trajectory can change after the draft. Taken as a recently-converted pitcher in the ninth-round, deGrom was more organizational depth than blue chip prospect before becoming one of the best pitchers on the planet.
Lorenzo Cain was taken in the 17th round and has compiled 36.1 bWAR through age 34, not to mention two All-Star appearances and a World Series ring. Sergio Romo was taken in the 28th round after not getting a baseball scholarship and playing at a junior college. Without him, the Giants don’t win three World Series. Kevin Pillar was taken in the 32nd round and has been roughly a league-average starter in every full season since he got called up. He even got an MVP vote last year.
A player doesn’t even have to turn into a star to provide value to his club. Russell Carleton and Royals GM Dayton Moore pointed out that many of these nonprospects turn into coaches. Even if they’re just bench players for a couple seasons, there’s value in that, too.
By pushing forth a five-round draft, MLB owners have started a chain reaction that will weaken baseball. A smaller number of minor leaguers entering the system this year will give them all the reason to cut 40+ minor league affiliates. A minor league system that’s 75 percent as large won’t necessitate a 40-round draft, and cutting it permanently seems inevitable. MLB will be damaged by the owner’s myopic greed, but the owners don’t care what the game looks like so long as they grow their wealth. Too big to fail, they can jump ship long before it backfires. The players whose careers will be cut down before they started won’t be so lucky.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.