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The 2020 MLB Draft Changes Will Alter Baseball Forever

While changes to the 2020 MLB Draft were certainly anticipated and warranted given the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, that didn’t take away from the shock of the plan becoming official.  These changes, as reported by Jeff Passan and Kiley McDaniel of ESPN, will have wide-ranging implications on the future of the sport.

While there were numerous changes to the format, the main points to focus on were a) the reduction from 40 to 5 (!!!!!) rounds, that the draft will go on as scheduled on June 10th, and that undrafted players are eligible to sign for a maximum of $20,000, although teams can sign as many undrafted players as they’d like.

First and foremost, the change from 40 to 5 rounds is (obviously) the most significant part of this change.  Outside of just comparing rounds, in 2019 1,217 total players were selected in the MLB Draft.  If the format of the first five rounds from a typical draft, there should be about 160 total picks in the 2020 MLB Draft, including comp. picks.  That means, as has been widely reported, over 1,000 less players will be drafted in 2020 as compared to your typical draft year.

Of course, these players are all still eligible to sign for the undrafted max of $20,000.  So while anyone who may have been drafted in rounds 6-40 that wants to pursue a professional baseball career this year still can, this change has serious implications for the sport.

First, high school seniors that go undrafted will have to choose between going to play college ball for at least three years, or signing for $20,000.  While some guys may choose the pro route, I see a ton of talent opting for college.  In the 2019 MLB Draft, the last pick of the 10th round had a slot value of $142,200.  Simply put, it doesn’t make a ton of financial sense to go professional now, rather than waiting 3-4 years if you see yourself improving in a college program.  This would also apply to college juniors who are eligible, but with only one year of eligibility remaining the time to make a marked improvement in draft status is much lower.

Beyond players going undrafted, there is an effect on the team side as well.  I see teams being even more wary than usual about drafting high school players.  With there being only five total rounds, the value of each pick to an organization goes up immensely.  With this in mind, there is no way in hell a team is going to draft a player who may not sign.  While in years past they may have tried to over or under-slot a player to make the financials work, teams will not be taking any risks with their five picks.

Even with the ability to pool money as they see fit, for some players that may not be enough to give up a scholarship opportunity.  Draft capital, in general, is overvalued across sports, but in this year’s MLB Draft these picks may as well be platinum.

The effect of this exodus of high school talent from the minor league ranks will be two-fold.  One, assuming there is no change to eligibility rules, the talent pool in the 2023 and 2024 MLB Drafts will be absolutely incredible once these guys are eligible. It will be interesting to see how baseball handles that problem.  This, on the same hand, will lead to a roster-glut problem for college baseball, something that I will not really explore here.

Two, the amount of project-type players filling out the ranks of Minor League Baseball will be heavily decreased. This was something that was surely fought by front offices across the league, who look to the draft as a way to find extremely high value relative to the cost of the actual draft slot. Even outside of the occasional late round success stories (like Mark Buehrle, a 38th round pick in 1998 by the White Sox), the lack of organizational depth will hurt across the board.

For a team that drafts and develops well, like the Dodgers or Astros, this will be a huge blow to the seemingly endless pool of reinforcements they have coming.  This isn’t to say it won’t affect every team, because it will.  It will be interesting, though, to see how this effect distributes between the haves and the have-nots in the player development realm.  While this effect may not be felt for a few years, eventually the bill will come due at the Major League level.

While this is a huge blow for Minor League Baseball and MLB Front offices, this certainly stays on-brand with MLB’s fight to cut costs at the minor league level.  When the first news of cuts came out, MLB was fighting a PR battle against a staple of Americana.  Many small towns depend on minor league baseball, and the public generally sided with MiLB in this regard.  MLB was playing the role of the bully, as the Minor Leagues really have little bargaining power in this arena.

However, the effects of COVID-19 may present a silver bullet to MLB in this fight.  With the minor league playing pool being cut significantly in 2020, along with questions of whether or not there will even be a minor league season, the small bargaining power MiLB had reduces further.  Plus, this all comes as a result of a global pandemic, taking the bullying burden off of MLB’s shoulders.  It will be extremely interesting to see how this relationship progresses going into next year’s CBA, but one has to imagine MLB is going to get its way here.

Outside of the minor leagues, MLB has been very clearly trying to cut the draft down for years.  Most notably, this came in 2012 when the draft was cut from 50 to 40 rounds.  While the five round structure will certainly not continue, this year will again provide ammunition for MLB to reduce the rounds even further from 40.

While the 2020 MLB Draft will still be a pinnacle for about 160 young men on June 10th, it really is impossible to ignore the wide-ranging implications of these changes on the sport.  The effects to Minor League Baseball, and by extension Major League Baseball in a few years, will be severe.

While there isn’t a lot of flexibility for this year’s draft, and rightfully so with the coronavirus pandemic as the catalyst for this change, it’s hard to see how things go back to the way they were in future drafts.

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