Last year the Mariners waited all the way until the sixth round in the MLB draft to take their first high school prospect: New York righty Michael Limoncelli, a well-regarded pitcher who slipped in the draft when he tore his UCL in his senior year and needed TJ. Limoncelli, assuming he wouldn’t be drafted in the top four rounds and receive the signing bonus of $500,000 he had decided would be the number to sign him away from his commitment to Coastal Carolina, started mentally preparing himself for a college career. But the Mariners liked Limoncelli, a bulldog on the mound who throws strikes and garners praise for his high baseball IQ, and his torn UCL didn’t change that. Seattle called in the sixth round and told Limoncelli that not only were they selecting him, they were honoring his number, going $240,000—almost double—over the assigned slot value of the 186th pick in the draft.
If the Mariners want another Michael Limoncelli this year, they’ll have to be quicker to the draw this time around, because there won’t be a sixth round of the draft in 2020. Word leaked today that the 2020 MLB Draft will indeed be held, on June 10-11, but it will be shortened to five rounds. That’s an even worse-case scenario than the ten rounds many in the baseball community were bracing for, and a devastating blow to players all across the country, many of whom just saw their opportunity to play pro baseball likely disappear alongside their canceled seasons. It’s no surprise that this move is highly unpopular with everyone who is actually charged with the business of scouting, selecting, and training players, including the players themselves:
There is a lot of disappointment from amateur players, front offices, scouting circles -- really everywhere -- in the decision to limit the 2020 draft to five rounds, and it comes down to this: The slot values for Rounds 6-10 total $29,578,100. That's less than $1 million a team.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) May 8, 2020
What Passan’s tweet doesn’t say is the disappointment doesn’t extend to ownership, who were reportedly the ones to push back against a ten-round draft in the face of falling revenues. However, as Evan Drellich reports in The Athletic, gate revenue is only one stream of income for teams—and for those with lucrative TV deals, including Seattle, not even the most significant. But rather than go against the wishes of the people who sign his paycheck, Rob Manfred has mortgaged the future of the sport, a short-sighted decision that won’t just have deleterious effects this year, but for years to come as talented players are squeezed out of the sport when there aren’t enough roster spots to go around, both in MiLB organizations (many of which are themselves in danger of being contracted) and on college teams.
As for bonus pools, the Mariners will maintain their spending power, eighth-best in the draft, at $10.265M. The difference is that money will now be spread out among their six picks. Teams will be able to defer the bonus money, to an almost comical extent; of the combined bonus total of $235.9M handed out in this year’s draft, clubs will be able to defer at least $219.9M, and half of that total is able to be deferred until 2022. Translation: the top drafted players will still get real paid, but real slowly.
For players who aren’t drafted in the extremely abbreviated five rounds, they will be subject to free agency. Teams aren’t capped in the number of free agents they sign, but they are capped in how much they can offer to each free agent: $20K. (MLB proposed capping that number at five (!) but in this small thing, at least, victory for those who believe a sport is made better when talent is actually allowed to play the sport.) $20K is a relative pittance—8th-rounder Ty Adcock received $150,000 last year of a $167,000 slot—so it will remain to be seen how many players choose to roll the dice and return to school, where they will compete for a limited number of roster spots, or secure the 100-calorie snack pack-sized bag now and bet on themselves down the line.
What’s more, the spending limit for this draft will likely increase the income gap between players fortunate enough to come from financially comfortable backgrounds and those for whom paying for baseball (travel teams, showcases, equipment, etc.) has always been a struggle, further disadvantaging players who come from lower-income backgrounds:
In talking to scouts in preparation for a five round draft I heard some concerns. Notably unless they come from money a player signing for $20K or less will likely need to work full-time in offseason. Won't be able to train in offseason same as a player receiving even $100k.— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) May 8, 2020
One interesting aspect to this: apparently agents were also key in pushing for the draft to be five rounds, probably because they don’t want their entire client lists signing for the minimum.
There’s another interesting potential ramification from a drastically shortened draft: a large number of free agent players who would have been drafted and compelled to sign with certain teams instead choosing with whom they want to sign, which could mean things like franchise reputation, proximity to home, or other concerns might play a role in decision-making:
Wild, but true: Multiple scouts, execs and agents believe we'll see many players signing a) with their hometown/favorite teams and b) in package deals with their friends.— Chris Cotillo (@ChrisCotillo) May 8, 2020
One scouting director: "If we draft a kid in the 4th round, do we have a better shot at signing his buddy?" https://t.co/VFh2pBmTzu
Unfortunately for Seattle, this could be disadvantageous: the PNW is not exactly a baseball hotbed (and two of their division rivals are located in California, which decidedly is), and the franchise doesn’t have the storied legacy of the Yankees or Red Sox, nor the recent success of...well, any other teams, really. In fact, it would be fair to say the Mariners rank fairly low in perceived organizational power rankings. A player who felt strongly about choosing Seattle would likely be someone who already knows a player or coach in the organization and about the exciting things happening in player development here, who would likely be a college kid rather than a high schooler who lists his favorite team as the Yankees and his favorite players as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Or maybe it’s someone who’s just really into the 90s and salt air. Quick, everyone in the Seattle area, start tweeting out pictures of this absolutely gorgeous day we’re having and tag all your favorite prospects.