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MLB’s proposed draft revisions hurt players, help owners

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Are you surprised?

MLB chooses Selig replacement
Rob Manfred, elected by the owners, and in service to them as well
Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The future of baseball is up in the air, including the future’s future: the 2020 MLB draft. Initial reports suggested canceling the draft entirely had been discussed, although several industry experts were quick to reassure fans that would be the nuclear option. What’s come out today isn’t exactly the nuclear option, but it still registers pretty heavily on the “loud noises” scale:

Let’s break this down piece-by-piece. A draft in July makes sense; since clubs are barred from even thinking about draft-eligible players right now. Assuming a return to organized play is possible, pushing back the draft date allows for more showcases, workouts, and scrimmages, even if the traditional season is moribund.

Now on to the thornier bits. It seemed like a fait accompli that the draft would be shortened—something Manfred has been pressing for as a complement to his plan to trim down minor league baseball by 40+ teams. Cutting the draft from 40 to 10 rounds equals cutting it down by 75%, akin to cutting down the US into just the Western states (the dream of #Cascadia lives on). Cutting it to five rounds means we would be left with just 12.5% of the original drafty goodness, or around the ABV of the bottle of wine I am tempted to consume in writing about this.

We’ll deal with the money angle in a bit, but for now, let’s just consider the implications of an extremely shortened draft. Each pick a team possesses would become exponentially more valuable, meaning the Astros losing the first two picks of the draft is a significantly deeper sting. Conversely, that also strongly advantages teams that possess a competitive balance pick; with a limited number of picks available, certain teams will get a significantly higher share of those picks, percentage-wise. Last year the Diamondbacks, between CB picks and free agency losses, had eight of the top 100 picks, including four in the first round, good enough to single-handedly vault their system into a consensus top 10 in baseball.

However, with fewer available slots, teams would be under newfound pressure to make each draft pick count. No team ever wants a highly-touted first-rounder to bust, but in a dramatically shortened draft, getting minimal or no contribution from those prime draft slots has a higher possibility of negatively impacting a team long-term. That might lead to an overall trend of clubs eschewing high-risk players like high schoolers or dual sport athletes for safer, high-floor college players. [Stares in Kyler Murray.] It also heightens the importance of development; teams that have traditionally been poor in developing will fall further behind the curve, while teams like the Yankees—and yes, Houston—will continue to thrive. Of note: if clubs go safer with their draft picks they might be tempted to splash bigger amounts in the high-risk, high-reward world of IFA, leading to increased competition to land the biggest international names. Careful oversight of an already problematic IFA system will become even more necessary.

From the angle of the players, a shortened draft creates even more pressure for them. Not only have they lost the opportunity for clubs to get an extended look at them over the season, but with the additional year of eligibility for NCAA athletes, college rosters will swell. Players who aren’t chosen in the draft and/or offered a paltry signing bonus will be disincentivized to enter professional baseball; high schoolers will follow through on their college commitments, and draft-eligible sophomores will return for their junior seasons (and likely juniors who go undrafted for their senior seasons, since 10K is about the money for a senior sign anyway). This is an impact that will ripple through college programs not just this year, but for the next several seasons.

Speaking of bonus money, that’s the real rub here. Clubs—which apparently rely on gate receipts and not billionaire owners to seed their bonus pools—are being offered their own form of a stimulus package, in being able to defer 90% of the agreed-upon bonus money to players for two years. Just to break that down, that means if this plan is approved any player drafted outside of the five or ten rounds, whatever MLB decides, will get a crisp thousand dollar bill to use to purchase equipment, secure housing, and put a down payment on his student loans. He’ll then get another $4500 dollars after having been in professional baseball for a year, and then will have to wait another full year before getting the rest of his $4500. Many players use their signing bonuses to pay off their parents’ mortgages or splurge on their dream car. Here’s hoping a lot of 2020 draftees have lifelong dreams of owning a 2010 Honda Fit.

Just for comparison, here are some late-round bonuses the Mariners handed out last year:

There will be those who defend this move by MLB, and they are the same folks who claim baseball is a privilege and not a job, that these players should just be happy someone is willing to pay them something—anything—to “play a kid’s game.” This rhetoric is as damaging as it is ill-founded. Baseball is a game for us, but for the players, it is a job that has the same requirements of any “real-world” job: show up on time, take instruction, learn to get better, do your best, and work hard every day, even when people aren’t watching.

And the more that viewpoint is espoused, the more it reaffirms what baseball desperately wants people to believe: that anyone involved in this sport is incredibly lucky to be doing what they’re doing, a talking point that’s used to justify everything from treatment of minor leaguers (remember how leather couches were going to go to their heads?) who are lucky to do what they love, to expecting college grads to work for pennies on the dollar in internships that they should feel lucky to have, to gleefully underpaying Ivy League-educated analysts who stick around for a couple years before bouncing to higher-paying analyst jobs who will later recount their time in baseball as something they were lucky to do. The only people who are lucky in this scenario are those fortunate enough to be in the positions of wealth and privilege associated with being an MLB owner, who, when faced with the same financial shortfall as the rest of us, were quick to be bailed out by Rob Manfred, the man lucky enough to have been voted into his position by [checks notes] the same billionaire owners. And the ones who bear the brunt of this are, unfortunately, the laboring class: players who have trained extensively, exclusively for this thing, who have now seen their job prospects dwindle exponentially and their rights negotiated away with no voice at the bargaining table. Personally, I don’t consider that very lucky at all.