In the Time of COVID-19, Sweeping Changes Are Made to the Amateur Draft

Among the many significant repercussions of yesterday’s agreement between the MLBPA and MLB in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic were alterations to the amateur talent acquisition processes, changes that will have both immediate and long-term effects on all stakeholders (owners, players, people in scouting, agents, college coaches and staff, international trainers, etc.) in that arena. Last night, after the details of the agreement were reported by Jeff Passan of ESPN and Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic, I spoke with several of those stakeholders for their immediate thoughts and reactions.

The splashy news, and the detail of yesterday’s agreement that will impact team personnel and the player population soonest, is the soft rescheduling of the 2020 draft — the specific date will be determined by MLB, but it will occur by “late-July” — and the straight razor shave it was given by the owners and player’s union, cutting the 2020 draft to five rounds with the option to trim the 2021 draft to 20 rounds, down from the usual 40. MLB can choose to add rounds to the draft if they wish, and a few people in scouting told me they thought it was a real possibility that MLB will, though there’s no clear financial incentive for them to do so.

MLB can also delay the start of the 2020-2021 international signing period, which typically begins on July 2, to as late as January 2021, and can also push the following period by six months so that it spans the 2022 calendar.

While these developments raise some obvious other questions (such as if and where 35 rounds worth of players end up playing baseball again), the two most significant conclusions drawn by many of my sources in baseball were that the trimming of the draft is a convenient opportunity for MLB to shed rostered players in advance of minor league contraction, and that the new flexible start date for the IFA period is another precursor to an international draft.

The seemingly imminent affiliate contractions means teams will soon need fewer minor leaguers, and cost-conscious MLB, ever seeking to save money where it can, is taking what industry people consider a shrewd and opportunistic approach to the culling of minor league rosters at a time when there’s a convenient pseudo-reason to do it now that their 2020 revenues have been dashed by a pandemic. Why draft and sign 40 rounds worth of players who may not play this summer because of a global health crisis when many will be released next spring after a significant portion of the minor leagues is contracted?

It’s important to remember that amateur and minor league players don’t have a seat at the bargaining table for these negotiations. Their interests are represented, such as they are, by the player’s union, whose members have already gone through the draft process and climbed through farm systems. The union has no incentive to fight for the rights of amateur players nor minor leaguers and, as was the case during 2016 CBA negotiations, the union has repeatedly used those players’ rights as bargaining chips to trade for owner concessions that better align with the professional situation and concerns of career big leaguers.

In the case of this specific issue — a shrinking draft — the union’s incentives arguably align with those of the owners. Now several hundred young men who would otherwise have begun an attempt to take big league jobs over the next several years will no longer be there to do so. Several current big leaguers who, in some alternate timeline, would have been replaced by a 2020 draftee selected after round five will now have a job for an extra year or two. MLB leaking their purported consideration of draft cancellation meant the union could save face with amateurs by claiming to have done them a solid by saving the draft at all, when really the draft was probably never in danger; it may represent the only event MLB can utilize to stir public interest in the sport all summer, and is a pipeline for inexpensive, controllable talent. But owners would rather save money than not, and MLB players value their job security.

MLB’s newfound ability to slide the start of the IFA signing period around not only enables them to delay spending about $150 million on (mostly) July 2 bonuses until January, but it also enables the league to proactively shift international talent acquisition timelines in ways that it thinks will grease the logistical wheels for an eventual draft, which many people in baseball think will be in place by 2023.

There are prospects from the 2022 international class who already have verbal deals with teams. If MLB moves to put a strict moratorium on early verbal deals for the 2023 class, it will be a clear indication that they have a timeline for an international draft since they’d surely prefer teams not agree to deals that are undone by the institution of such a process. Teams felt comfortable agreeing to 2022 deals because they didn’t think MLB would have enough time to sew up the logistics of a ‘22 international draft (my sources are not in agreement as to whether we’ll eventually have a single world draft or two separate drafts — international in January and domestic in June) even if MLB and MLBPA agreed to a framework during the next CBA negotiations, set to occur after the 2021 season.

We don’t know if there will be any form of amateur baseball between now and whenever the draft is. Organized scholastic play seems highly unlikely to resume, and in most places has been cancelled for the remainder of the academic year. An executive I spoke to last night thought some kind of combine-style event — even if it’s typical showcase fodder like a 60-yard dash, infield/outfield, batting practice, perhaps some pitchers voluntarily throwing live BP to hitters — will be explored, especially if the draft gets pushed back. Every team has enough intel to draft right now; they’d just do so with less confidence and organizational conviction than is typical. The five-round number, in my opinion, has nothing to do with what scouting departments feel comfortable advising in the room at this moment — some of the players who’d be taken in the first round if the draft were tomorrow haven’t even played a game this year — and everything to do with the owners’ and union’s priorities.

Regardless, a five-round draft is going to cause an awful lot of players who’d otherwise be in pro ball later this summer and next to seek baseball elsewhere. I’m going to dive into what I and many baseball folks think is going to happen as a result, but first you need to know a few more details from yesterday’s news, as they’ll become relevant to the discussion.

First, all player bonuses are being deferred. Players will receive $100,000 up front, with the rest of their bonus paid in two equal installments in ‘21 and ‘22. Any player drafted after the fifth round can sign for a maximum of $20,000, which is on the high end of what senior signs get. Ken Rosenthal reported late last night that, “The signing bonuses will remain at 2019 levels for next two years. The bonuses typically rise by about 3 percent, based upon increases in industry revenues.”

What I think he means is that the slot values at each pick will remain the same, which means we already have the pick values and can calculate pool amounts.

The $20,000 cap after the fifth round is going to incentivize players who aren’t seniors to return to school. I think most of the premium high school players are still going to be drafted high enough to sign; it’s the six-figure types who typically go on Day 3 of the draft who will now make their way to campus. I think MLB intentionally designed the bonus deferrals to hit two years out, a year before the high school class will be draft eligible again. This certainly incentivizes kids who’d be draft-eligible sophomore in two years, like Pennsylvania outfielder Austin Hendrick, to go to school and get their full bonus at the same time the rest of their high school peers are. The 2022 and 2023 college crops may be deeper than usual as a result. And more players may opt to go the Carter Stewart route, which may give them their best chance at hitting free agency at a young age.

What happens to current college prospects is still up in the air. Monday, the NCAA Division I council will meet to decide whether to grant student athletes whose spring seasons were derailed by COVID-19 an extra year of athletic eligibility (eligibility relief was announced in the wake of season cancellations, but requires formal approval, and fleshing out). The extra year would give draft-eligible players more decision-making power in this process, but if the NCAA doesn’t allow teams to distribute more scholarships for baseball (currently Division I baseball teams divvy up a hilariously low 11.7 scholarships among the entire roster of 35 players), many programs will end up with more players than they have space for. Coaches and recruiters map out incoming classes with their needs in mind; they’ve been recruiting their 2020 high school graduates for several years in anticipation of losing certain players to the draft and graduations. Depending on what the NCAA decides on Monday, that may change drastically.

Juniors, who in a normal year would be content to go in the middle of Day 2 of the draft and sign for about $250,000, would now have to weigh a return to school for a senior season (most of them would lose bonus negotiating leverage this way) versus a significantly deferred bonus, or having to settle for one capped at $20,000.

But it’s likely that we see at least a few more high school kids eschew Division I baseball and reroute to a junior college, where they can be draft-eligible a year from now. And some Division I stalwarts who end up pushed out by incoming freshman may transfer to a different Division I school without being penalized the typical year of eligibility, diffusing talent that way. Junior colleges don’t have restrictions on practice time like Division I schools do, and it may be more logistically feasible for those programs to carry huge rosters of players in the short-term because of little details like this.

An agent I spoke with yesterday thinks MLB will continue to operate in ways that funnel talent toward NCAA baseball. It’s a free source of player development and provides more reliable data to teams, which they can lean on as a means of evaluation, which, in turn, also allows them to shrink scouting departments to further cut costs.

This deal doesn’t impact them directly, but it is also terrible news for scouts, and this when there hasn’t been much good news for scouts’ collective job security for some time now. Fewer rounds in the draft means amateur departments need to know about fewer players, and fewer pro affiliates to scout means the same for that side of the department. An MLB-created wave of college prospects, who generate more data than any other player demographic, and new data-sharing legislation will enable teams to acquire info on players they once had to send scouts to see. These are all bad signs for a group of workers that the Jeff Lunhow executive tree, which seems to have the ear of MLB, has downsized in their own orgs.

We’re still waiting for clarification on a few important details. The current CBA states that players who turn 21 within 45 days of the draft are eligible for selection. This year’s draft was originally scheduled for June 10-12, which meant sophomores born before July 25, 1999 were eligible to be picked this year. If the draft date moves to late-July, as Ken Rosenthal suggested was a possibility, then barring some rule change, several sophomores who weren’t thought to be eligible until 2021 (including several I have first round grades on, like Tennessee infielder Max Ferguson, Florida St. outfielder Robby Martin, and UCLA shortstop Matt McLain) suddenly would be. It’s unlikely this happens and more likely MLB retains the cutoff date even if they move the draft, but it’s not yet official.

Yesterday’s deal was a good one for major league players faced with the real possibility of losing an entire season’s worth of salary and service time. But for many in those players’ orbit who didn’t have a seat at the table – scouts, minor leaguers, amateur players – the deal represents a further weakening of the already shaky ground they stand on.





Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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Sammy Sooser
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Sammy Sooser

Jucos are about to get a huge influx of talent.