What happens after MLB's shortened draft? The ripple effects could create a 'wild, wild West'

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

Major League Baseball holds its five-round draft Wednesday, down from 40 rounds a year ago, before the coronavirus threatened the nation’s supply of hand sanitizer, toilet paper and solid young baseball prospects.

Or, perhaps, the nation’s supply of billionaires willing to spend on an amateur draft.

Either way, the virus advanced, the season was suspended until further notice and, in the cost-cutting containment/delirium that followed, the draft lost 35 rounds. A year after it launched 1,217 professional baseball careers, this draft will set up 160.

In order to populate the rosters of minor-league affiliates who don’t know if they will be playing games in 2020, teams will be free to sign as many undrafted players as they’d like, for a maximum of $20,000 each. For comparison purposes, the slot value for a sixth-round draft pick in 2019 was $301,600 at the top end and $237,000 at the bottom.

Further complicating the process by which organizations eventually fill out their multi-tiered feeder systems, the NCAA granted an extra year’s eligibility for athletes who play spring sports, which includes baseball players. Therefore, senior players could return to college for another season.

More relevant, college juniors could play another season while maintaining negotiating leverage that comes with being drafted and still having college eligibility. College rosters are no longer capped at 35 players. All scholarships, from incoming freshmen to previously outgoing seniors, may be honored.

High school players, who in past years might have been chosen in the sixth or 10th or 15th rounds (and happy for it), are more likely to opt for four- or two-year colleges. There would be little to gain — financially or developmentally — in a $20,000 bonus that comes with only vague plans for a truncated minor-league season, while expecting that baseball, its draft and its minor-league framework is a year or two from anything like normal.

While Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson, a contender for the No. 1 overall pick, will still join the ranks of professional baseball, hundreds of players who might have signed for up to $300,000 in past years will have harder choices to make after coronavirus-sparked cost-cutting measures shortened the draft. (Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For real prospects or those who expect to become real prospects and are not top five-round draftees, the preferred course would seem to be to avoid professional baseball for at least as long as it takes for it to get its act together.

Which is not to say there won’t be a lot of contracts signed that come with $20,000 bonuses or that the young players who accept them won’t be good players. There will be. There could be hundreds. But who are they?

We asked a half-dozen talent evaluators — pro scouts, amateur scouts, general managers — what they expect the prototypical $20,000 signee to look like. Also, in a climate that reminded many of the pre-draft era (before 1965) in which amateur free agents were lured, feted, concealed and fought over, how they expect to stand out in what is basically a recruiting effort on a level economic playing field.

“Like the old wild, wild West,” an American League scout said.

Some of the ground rules:

  • Players passed over in the draft can sign beginning Sunday at 9 a.m. ET. They will be eligible to sign until they return to school or until seven days prior to the next draft.

  • Eligible players include those who qualified for this draft (high school seniors, college juniors or seniors, junior-college players and college sophomores who are at least 21 years old.)

  • A player who is not drafted may notify clubs he is not interested in signing as a passed-over player. He would be placed on a no-contact list. Teams would not be allowed to call, email or otherwise recruit that player.

And, well, that’s about it.

Paraphrased from those sources, the ballplayers more likely to take one of the $20,000 deals will be:

  • A college senior no longer wanted by his program, in essence being pushed out in a roster jam caused by incoming freshmen who perhaps had expected to be drafted.

  • A college junior who counted on being drafted, stopped attending classes and is in academic peril. A college junior who had a poor season and can’t take the chance of another.

  • An injured college pitcher who is promised, on top of the $20,000, first-rate rehabilitation facilities and medical experts.

  • An older player — say, 23 or 24 — whose dream is to sign a professional contract and who has a keen sense of his approaching physical prime.

  • The high school player who passed on college offers because he expected to be drafted and has little interest in junior college. This will be rare, and most scouts expect junior-college rosters to fill quickly. Or, perhaps, the high school player who simply does not want to go to college.

  • A player at any level who did not expect to see a $20,000 bonus anyway.

  • In scout speak, “a baseball player.” A good enough but flawed player who outperforms his body type or mechanics or stuff, if not by a lot, and who believes in himself enough to take on a thinned system or a somewhat chaotic moment.

  • An undersized right-handed pitcher, any age, any level.

  • Any of the above players who also has his heart set on a particular organization. If you grew up in Kansas City and the Royals come calling, what is that worth to an 18- or 20-year-old? If you could sign your name and become a Yankee? A Dodger? They’d maybe have one shot at that, ever.

To that end, Sunday opens a recruiting period for which teams have developed professional and elaborate pitches. Many will provide videos that boast of high-end facilities, state-of-the-art technology and top-notch coaching. Former and current stars will encourage young players to come join the family. Some teams intend to personalize those videos for the best couple dozen players available.

What would Chicago Cubs star Anthony Rizzo, a sixth-round pick by the Red Sox in 2007, have done in this season's shortened draft? (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

“Like a college recruiter,” one scout said, “offering a partial scholarship. That’s the sales job.”

Those pitches could include promises to begin their careers in high-A ball or better, or special invites to spring training. Also, smaller market clubs, or those with weaker farm systems, could advertise a faster track to the big leagues. An organization with a reputation for developing pitchers — the Rays or the Cardinals, say — could push that advantage. The Tigers, Royals and Braves are loaded with young and/or major league-ready pitching. So, perhaps, that becomes a harder sell for an impatient college junior, and those clubs aim for the better available position players.

While it seems the minor leagues are about to get permanently smaller, there remain many general managers who believe more is better — more players, more affiliates, more chances to be right and look smart. In the weeks since hundreds of mostly fringy minor leaguers were released, there is — for the moment — an appetite to replace them. For a bonus that amounts to a decent used car, there is opportunity. For a chance to choose one’s own course, there is a way.

Now, again, the sport will have just held a draft during a time it could have been playing baseball but isn’t. And if the current labor battle is settled, which it might not be, there is another not far behind it. And the game decided that in the short term the best way to bring in the better athletes was to eliminate most of its bonus system.

So maybe it’s not about trying to convince a few hundred guys to take $20,000 to play baseball, but about those guys turning it down to go play soccer or study medicine.

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