At some point, things will return to normal for Major League Baseball. It is going to be quite a while before we reach that desired destination, but one day the crowds will again roam Ashburn Alley while chomping on cheesesteaks from Tony Luke’s and breaking apart smoked ribs from Bull’s BBQ at Citizens Bank Park.
Some things about baseball, however, may never be the same even when we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic that has paralyzed this country for so long and in so many ways.
The baseball draft could be one of those things.
In 2012, the draft was reduced from 50 to 40 rounds. But now, after a late March cost-cutting agreement between the owners and players union, it will be five rounds this year and will be held on its originally scheduled date of June 10.
“It concerns me for the future because if they do that this year then they’ll want to keep doing it," an American League scout said recently. "We know they already want to eliminate minor-league clubs.”
Eliminate rounds of the draft and minor-league clubs and you are also discarding a significant number of jobs in baseball for players and support personnel.
The reduction of as many as 42 minor-league teams, including the Phillies’ New York-Penn League affiliate in Williamsport, remains under discussion. A cutback of some sort is certain and that will serve as motivation to reduce the number of rounds in future drafts.
The ramifications are many.
“You’re going to eliminate college guys that were drafted in later rounds and became pretty good big-league players,” the scout said.
The Phillies’ history, just like that of every other team in baseball, is filled with quality players drafted in later rounds. Ryan Madson, for example, was a ninth-rounder whom the Phillies overpaid in order to get him to sign out of a Southern California high school. Is there a 2008 World Series title without Madson?
Ryne Sandberg was a 20th-round high school pick out of Spokane, Wash. in 1978. No Sandberg, no infamous trade to the Cubs.
Darren Daulton was taken out of a Kansas high school in the 25th round of the 1980 draft. No Daulton, no magical run to the 1993 World Series.
They were all high school picks, so it’s possible they would have gone on to college and been selected after their junior seasons. College players like Charles Hudson (12th round 1981), Mike Williams (14th round 1990), David Doster (27th round 1993), Kevin Sefcik (33rd round 1993), Johnny Estrada (17th round 1997), and Jake Diekman (30th round 2007) might never have received an opportunity to play professional baseball.
Under the agreement currently in place, undrafted players can receive no more than a $20,000 signing bonus, which, in most cases, is probably not going to be enough to keep high school players from accepting a college scholarship or to persuade a college junior to give up his senior season.
“You may end up getting a hell of a player for $20,000, but you’re also going to end up with a lot more players wanting to play in college,” former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. “It will be interesting to see what kind of impact all this has three years or four years down the road.”
“At $20,000, you’re probably going to be limited to mostly college seniors who have no other option,” the scout said.
There probably will be some great stories about undrafted players becoming stars, but there also will be undoubtedly fewer opportunities for late bloomers to even get a look in the world of professional baseball.
You will also have a lot of teams going after the same group of undrafted players in much the same manner that takes place after the NFL draft. But with the money all the same, the places those players decide to sign will be interesting.
Do the Marlins have a chance if they’re going up against the Yankees or Red Sox?
“The role of the area scouts will be very important,” the American League scout said. “Players could end up signing with the scout who did the best job getting to know the family. I think what you’re also going to find is that players are going to want to sign with their hometown teams, which would be an obvious advantage for teams in California, Texas, and the Southeast because that’s where the majority of drafted kids come from. It could benefit a team like Atlanta.”
The future of the draft is unknown, but this year’s draft is going to be the most unusual in baseball history for sure. Most high school players around the country had no season at all, which means scouts have not seen kids in that age group play since the summer. Colleges were about a month into their season when the NCAA shut down all spring sports March 12.
“Without a doubt it’s going to be the most interesting draft I have ever seen,” the A.L. scout said. “You really don’t know how the high school kids are going to factor into this draft and that’s especially true about the northern area kids.”
Amaro speculated that Mike Trout might not have been a first-round pick if he had not played his senior season at Millville High School in 2009. As it was, he slipped to the 25th overall pick before becoming the most productive player of the last decade for the Los Angeles Angels.
“He probably wouldn’t have been picked in the first round,” the scout agreed. “A lot of teams won’t want to roll the dice on the northern high school kids. Kids at that age can change a lot. I don’t know how many times I saw a kid who was 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds in the summer come back the next spring at 6-1 and 185 pounds. They’re an entirely different animal. You could see some really good high school players slip to the third or fourth rounds.”
Teams have been able to conduct virtual interviews with draft prospects since the country shut down, but it’s not the same as seeing them play the game.
“You just try to get a read on their signability,” the AL scout said. "How much do they really want to play in the big leagues right now or are they more comfortable going to college? You try to get a read on how receptive mom and dad are to them signing. If the mom is not asking questions about where the kid is going to live or how he’s going to eat, then that kid is going to college. You can get a better read when you’re doing it in person.