Four 2020 MLB Draft alternatives the league should consider before skipping the event to save money
MLB is considering skipping the draft for financial reasons, but there are better ideas
Major League Baseball, like many sports leagues around the world, has been shut down indefinitely because of the growing threat that is the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Spring training has been suspended and Opening Day has been pushed back to at least mid-May, and that remains subject to change as the situation develops.
Whenever baseball does return, MLB and the MLBPA will have a ton of questions to answer and logistics to figure out. Among them: the draft. Baseball's annual amateur draft is scheduled to take place June 10-12, though pretty much every amateur sports league in the country has been canceled, so teams have nothing to scout. (Scouts have been pulled off the road anyway.)
There is already chatter MLB could skip the 2020 draft in a cost-saving move. MLB will take a big financial hit during the shutdown and teams spent roughly $400 million on draft bonuses last year. That works out to a little more than $13 million per team, not including scouting expenses. Doesn't sound like much to an MLB franchise, but it is a ton of money in the real world.
Skipping the amateur draft would be a terrible idea, however. For starters, teams need the annual talent infusion to keep their pipeline moving and their operation working. Skipping a year of talent acquisition hurts every team and thus MLB at large. Skipping the draft would equal trading long-term player development and product quality for short-term financial gain.
Secondly, skipping the draft is unfair. It's unfair to the players, whom MLB would be asking to assume another year of risk before being drafted. Baseball is going to lose money during the shutdown and that burden that should be shared between MLB and the MLBPA, not passed down to amateurs. MLB still has the means to draft and pay their future players.
Skipping the 2020 draft would also be unfair to the teams that would lose high draft picks this year. Here are the top five 2020 picks:
Does MLB just say, "Sorry, folks, but you don't get that massively valuable top-five pick this year," and wish them good luck in the 2021 draft? No. I abhor tanking, but the system is what it is, and skipping this year's draft would disproportionately hurt the bad teams slated to have high picks. The Tigers should have the No. 1 pick in 2020 and another pick in 2021, not just one 2021 pick.
And third, skipping the draft is a logistical nightmare. Players attending four-year colleges have to wait until their junior season to enter the draft. Would MLB (and the NCAA) make an exception next year and allow 2020 draft-eligible high schoolers to enter the 2021 draft as college freshmen? Do 2020 freshman get to take advantage and enter the draft as 2021 sophomores?
If even one 2020 draft-eligible high school player drops baseball because he knows he can't be drafted this summer, and instead shifts to another sport because that's his best chance at a college scholarship, it's too many. Baseball should be doing everything in its power to keep the best athletes in this sport. Skipping the draft potentially pushes players away.
Rather than skip the 2020 draft entirely, and risk potential long-term damage to the sport, here are four alternatives MLB and the MLBPA should consider during the shutdown.
1. Hold the draft in June anyway
Why not? The draft was scheduled to take place in Omaha this year, site of the College World Series, but the College World Series has been canceled, so that's not happening. Holding the draft at the MLB Network studios in Secaucus is possible, though it would be safer to do it with an old school conference call. Avoiding large gatherings is essential to containing COVID-19.
Holding the draft as scheduled in June would not allow teams to scout players this spring before making their selections. Teams do have books on these players going back years, however. College players are well-known and MLB clubs know the top high school players from summer showcase events. Draft boards have already been assembled. Teams know who's who.
Because there will be no amateur baseball this spring, teams would not have the best and most complete information leading up to the June draft, but that's life. They have enough information to hold a credible draft right now, and holding the draft in June gets players into pro ball as soon as possible and allows them to begin their development without delay.
2. Push the draft back
The middle ground between drafting as scheduled in June and skipping the draft entirely is moving the draft back a few weeks, or maybe even a few months. Pushing the draft back into the offseason would (hopefully) allow players to play in summer and fall leagues, and also in workout and combine events, and give teams a chance to scout them. That seems easy enough.
A complicating factor is the amateur baseball calendar. Scouts and scouting directors don't go on vacation for a few months after the draft each June. They jump right into coverage for next year's draft. Push the draft back far enough and you're asking teams to scout players for this year's draft and next year's draft simultaneously. That would stretch clubs very thin.
The compromise might be drafting in August and holding a combine event (possibly even a mini-tournament) leading into the draft. MLB could invite the top, say, 200 draft prospects according to the MLB Scouting Bureau to a combine. Pitchers could throw in the bullpen and in live batting practice, hitters could hit and go through defensive drills. It's better than nothing.
There is a balance to be struck between pushing the draft back so far that it interferes with 2021 draft coverage and not pushing it back far enough that teams don't get a good look at players. Maybe it's July, maybe it's August. I don't know. Ultimately, this is a decision that can not be made until the COVID-19 outbreak has been contained at the appropriate level, whatever that is.
3. Shorten the draft
Once upon a time the draft continued until every team dropped out. The Astros made 99 selections in 1990 even though no other team drafted beyond the 74th round. Rounds 75-99 were just the Astros making picks one after the other. Eventually MLB shortened the draft to 50 rounds and again to 40 rounds, which is the current format. Teams typically sign 30-35 players each year.
In the bonus pool era (essentially a hard cap on draft bonuses), 40 rounds is probably 20 too many. The best players are picked in the early rounds with deep sleepers and lottery tickets soon thereafter. Beyond the 20th round, teams are drafting players to fill out their minor-league short-season team rosters, and that could instead be done with undrafted free agents. But I digress.
Shortening the draft to, say, 10 rounds this summer would save teams some money — the Orioles, who picked first in every round, spent $1.689 million on bonuses in rounds 11-40 last year — while also bringing talent into the pipeline. The best players still get drafted and paid and the lesser prospects get clarity about their future long before draft day. That's a good thing.
Cutting the draft to 10 rounds would leave a lot of players on the outside looking in and that's unfortunate. Nothing about the current situation is fortunate though. There is no good solution to anything in the COVID-19 era and a shortened draft could be the best possible balance between saving money and getting talented young players into pro ball.
4. Turn the draft into an auction
A radical idea, sure, but one I supported even prior to this year. When most folks graduate high school and college, they don't get drafted into the workforce. They're allowed to explore various options and make the best decision for them. Sports don't operate that way and I have no reason to think they ever will, but a free market would be best for the players.
Each year teams are given a bonus pool to spend on the draft. Teams with high picks get the most money and each selection in the top 10 rounds is tied to a specific pool amount, though you can take money from one slot and spent it on another (if a player doesn't sign, the team loses that pick's slot money). Bonuses $125,000 or less after the 10th round do not count against the bonus pool.
In an auction format, MLB could still assign each team a bonus pool, and let them spend money on prospects as they see fit. Some team could try offer the top draft prospect their entire bonus pool, but that would leave them unable to bid on other players, and other teams may still be able to outbid them anyway. MLB could limit the auction to the top 100 prospects, then allow teams to sign other players as undrafted free agents with bonuses capped at $125,000.
An auction draft comes with three benefits. One, MLB could shrink this year's bonus pools to save money, but also give teams the freedom to spend that money how they want. There would be some give and take. Two, it would give the players greater freedom. They'd get to pick their employer. Many would take the highest offer. Others might prefer an organization close to home, etc.
And three — and this is kind of a big one — an auction would generate interest in the sport. Baseball and sports in general will have to lure fans back and cultivate new fans following the shutdown, and an auction draft could help do that. Fans would have a reason to stay engaged throughout rather than tune out between their team's picks. That's an obvious plus.
My hunch is MLB will not skip the 2020 draft. Teams love nothing more than controllable young talent at below-market prices and the draft is still the best way to acquire those players. The draft figures to be modified in some way (my guess is it'll be pushed back slightly and shortened), but skipped entirely? I can't see that. There is too much long-term downside for the game.