Major League Baseball owners and the MLBPA can’t agree on anything lately. One of the latest issues was the annual amateur draft for players from the United States and Canada. Unable to reach an agreement, the owners decided the 2020 installment consist only of five rounds instead of 40. With change comes an opportunity to improve the system, and Rob Manfred should immediately allow teams to trade their draft picks moving forward.
For years MLB has looked at the NFL and NBA drafts with envy, as they produce made-for-TV events that dominate the headlines and pull serious ratings. Baseball has even taken steps over the years to improve their draft product. This year they were planning on taking their draft to Omaha, NE so that they could pair it with the College Baseball World Series and have more of the top selectees present.
Allowing the trade of all picks is another way to build up the draft as a product. Major market teams like the Yankees and Dodgers have not drafted near the top in years. This year the Yankees only have three picks after signing Gerrit Cole, who received a qualifying offer from Houston. There is more interest when major-market teams draft near the top, and trades can help it happen.
Trading draft picks is a common occurrence for the other major North American sports. The Herschel Walker trade from the late 1980s is considered one of the most lopsided trades in NFL history, and it involved numerous draft picks. In basketball, the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce deal from the Celtics to the Nets has defined those two franchises for the last seven years, as the Celtics used the picks acquired from the Nets. Trades involving draft picks carry the potential for repeated analysis at the time of the trade, during the draft, and into the future.
Baseball already allows compensation picks to be traded. Just last year the Yankees cashed in the 38th overall pick that they received as part of the Sonny Gray deal in order to select TJ Sikkema. Deals already happen with picks as high as the low 30s giving teams an estimate of their value.
It is clear that major-league owners are not in the mood to spend excessive amounts of money right now. Some teams are refusing to pay their minor leaguers starting June 1st, even though the burden of continuing to pay them the $400 a week they currently are through August adds up to about $1 million depending on the size of the farm system. Additionally, scouts, player development staff, and other team employees are being furloughed and let go in many markets.
Draft picks are going to be expecting bonuses in line with their slots, which start at $8.4 million for the first overall pick and don’t dip below seven figures until the 67th selection. Front offices could find ways to make trades, save money, and potentially get a player or players that are closer to the major leagues.
Two scenarios could quickly play out in this draft if teams do not want to pay out the bonuses that their draft picks are expecting. The first is that players who are not first-round talents will be taken with the understanding that they will sign for much smaller bonuses. The teams are not going to get the players that they want with that pick, so why not let them trade it?
Teams can also draft the players and then offer them just 40% of bonus slot money. By meeting that minimum threshold, teams will get a compensation pick in next year’s draft if the player does not sign. This happened to Carter Stewart who was taken eighth overall by Atlanta in 2018, when the Braves were concerned about a potential long-term wrist issue. Stewart turned down the offer, played one year of junior college ball and then signed a six-year, $7 million deal to play in Japan.
Stewart has opened a potential pipeline for young players to get paid, develop their games, and then return to the United States as free agents. With MLB and the MLBPA at odds over everything, and uncertainty surrounding CBA negotiations for 2022, it is possible that more young players will follow Stewart’s path. Low-ball offers in the draft could push others to consider it.
Another reason the MLB Draft has lagged behind the other sports is because the players routinely disappear into the minor leagues for years on end. In the NFL and NBA, top draft picks play immediately. Teams drafting near the top of the MLB Draft usually have little incentive to push their prospects to the major leagues.
What if some of the better teams in the league tried to trade up to fill a gap on their roster. In 2010, Chris Sale was drafted 13th overall, then made his major-league debut after just 11 games in the minors. Used in a bullpen role, he was outstanding for the White Sox who were trying to keep pace with the Twins.
Justin Verlander, David Price, and Tim Lincecum are three other pitchers who made their major-league debuts with 20 or fewer minor-league games. A normal concern is the workload young pitchers are dealing with coming off a full college season, but that is not a factor in 2020. Expanded rosters would also open more slots for young arms like University of Minnesota right-hander Max Meyer, who some feel could contribute in a major-league bullpen immediately with his fastball-slider mix.
Baseball should immediately allow all draft picks to be traded. In a shortened season, where expanded rosters and universal designated hitters could become the norm, why not make one more significant change. It could dramatically help make the MLB Draft an event to follow, analyze, and maybe even matter to viewers.