On Friday, ESPN’s Jeff Passan broke the news that Major League Baseball would indeed be limiting it’s amateur draft to just five rounds. The change is a massive scale-back from the ordinary amount of rounds in the draft, and also comes with the stipulation that amateur players who don’t get drafted can only sign in free agency for a maximum amount of $20,000.
Details of the changes coming to the draft in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic had come out back in March, and included most of this information. The only uncertainty at the time was whether MLB would push for the minimum amount of rounds agreed to, or if they would allow for 10 or some other amount to run. It seems like that detail was the holdup in finalizing any decision, as Passan also mentioned that a majority of front offices across the league were lobbying for more than just five rounds.
Nevertheless, five is all we will have. Ownership has been adamant about the need to cutback since the abrupt end of spring training, whether it be on the issue of the draft or on player’s salaries once the season does resume in an abbreviated format. Many franchises are running on budgets that can’t be supported without the revenue that is now going to be lost due to the cut games and removal of fans from games once the season resumes. There’s even rumblings that teams are instructing front offices to cut back on payroll for 2021.
It was expected that there were going to be concessions and adaptations because of the pandemic, but the sheer amount of trimming that MLB is insisting on is alarming. Major-league contracts are one thing, it’s entirely understandable that teams were going to avoid committing to the massive $300 million-type contracts that some superstars were earning in recent offseasons — at least for the time being. Even short-term deals with extremely-high average annual value — the type of deals that some star players consider as alternatives, or aging stars hope to negotiate — are unlikely due to the financial mess.
Incoming amateur talent, however? Beyond the first couple of rounds, drafted players aren’t earning salaries to brag about, even considering their signing bonuses. The league has already agreed to an arrangement that allows them to delay paying out signing bonuses anyway, so that concern is negligible at best. What is the harm in allowing at least 10 rounds of the draft to run?
Financially there may not be any, but the ecosystem of incoming talent that the league has relied on may take a major blow. Even with the expectation that the majority of players that will succeed come from the upper echelons of the draft, farm systems are made or destroyed by the depth surrounding them. Elite organizations have been buoyed by the talent that they find later in the draft, whether they promote those players internally or wind up trading them for established players. Even if they don’t end up in the majors, having strong, high-floor players around is extremely beneficial for the club and the blue chip prospects playing alongside them.
The Yankees are no exception to this, as they’ve maintained a top-tier farm despite graduating several star players to the big-leagues. Their minor league rosters are deeper than most, in large part because they’ve held onto more teams than anyone. That advantage can’t remain if there isn’t a deep pool of players to replace the ones that ultimately don’t develop, and their financial might won’t matter with a restriction on how much they can pay amateur free agents.
There is no great option for the majority of players considering professional baseball right now. High school players who could reasonably expect to get drafted in a normal year likely won’t get the option now, and have little choice but to pursue colleges when that may not have been their preference. Even if it’s an opportunity to play, a college career is nothing like going pro, and may not offer the same chances to improve and become a notable prospect when coupled with other workloads.
Meanwhile, college players have their own concerns. Seniors can return if their conference allows them to, but they’ll be competing with rising juniors and seniors for playing time. They may also be blocking roster spots for incoming freshman as well. Juniors who could have used this year to gauge where they stand in the eyes of scouting departments will now have one shot to prove their value, and they’ll be a year removed from meaningful games when they do so.
There’s simply no telling how much talent is out there that won’t be realized because of the restrictions being put in place to cover owners instead. There’s obviously no way for anyone to have predicted the situation we’re all in now, but owners are supposed to have the money put away to weather a significant amount of risk. That’s the assumption made in entrusting an organization to them, and it seems like it’s a small ask to provide for the next generation of baseball to at least have an opportunity.