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The 2020 MLB draft is being reduced to five rounds

No one seems happy about this, except team owners.

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Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images

Once Major League Baseball introduced a draft in 1965, teams would draft players nearly to their heart’s content.

The Cubs briefly had a player on their big-league roster in 2000, Danny Young, who had been drafted in the 83rd round by the Astros in 1990. (Houston selected players until the 99th round that year; after round 74 they were the only team making picks.)

Even in fairly recent times, teams picked for quite a long time. Carl Edwards Jr., who had some success with the Cubs, was the 48th-round pick of the Rangers in 2011. The draft was shortened to 40 rounds from 50 beginning the following year, and the Cubs got a solid MLB player in David Bote in the 18th round in 2012.

That’s all going to be a thing of the past beginning this year, as ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Kiley McDaniel report:

Major League Baseball will cut its 2020 draft to five rounds, as owners looking to save costs in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic pushed for fewer rounds over the objection of front-office officials, sources told ESPN.

The plan, which has been relayed to scouting directors, will allow teams to sign an unlimited number of undrafted players for $20,000. The draft is expected to begin June 10.

While there is no doubt that baseball teams, like most other businesses, have lost a lot of money since the pandemic began, this will be a significant blow to player development. Of course, MLB teams have also recently proposed a reduction in the number of minor-league teams by as much as 25 percent. Negotiations between MLB and Minor League Baseball are ongoing. But in the end, this is going to be the result of the reduced draft:

That screams out “cheap” to me, even in the current economic situation. Billionaire owners should have been able to have five more rounds. This means that only 160 players will be drafted next month (that includes five rounds at 30 per team, plus some supplemental picks due to free-agent signings this past winter). It’s remarkably shortsighted, as Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich write at The Athletic:

The draft represents different issues converging. While drafted players represent the future of the sport, they do not immediately help teams. With the sport generating minimal revenue, some clubs signaled they preferred to use the bonus money to continue paying employees.

Still, a number of club officials would have preferred a longer draft because drafted players represent low-cost investments that can pay off handsomely.

One likely result of fewer high-school players being drafted will be an influx of talent to junior colleges:

Before the pandemic, MLB teams had proposed a 20-round draft and that could still happen once the sport returns to “normal” — but no one knows when that’s going to occur or what baseball will look like when the pandemic is over.

In the end, MLB teams are going to have much smaller bases of talent to draw from for their major-league squads a few years from now with a draft class of only five players. While teams can sign an unlimited number of undrafted players for $20,000, for the reasons noted above it doesn’t seem as if there will be too many signings along those lines.

The draft was instituted because teams were spending buckets of money on “bonus baby” players in the 1950s. Here’s a good history of that era and why it ended — owners wanted to rein in their own spending. The draft worked, and reasonably well, but if owners are going to limit the number of players coming into professional baseball, in the end there could be unintended consequences. MLB has proposed, in connection with reducing the number of affiliated minor-league teams, a “Dream League” where undrafted players could play, “dreaming” of a career in MLB, one presumes. What if some players in that league turn out to be guys with real MLB talent, perhaps even superstar talent? MLB scouts don’t always find all of those players. Such players could be subject to bidding wars, the way things were back in the 1930s and 1940s.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is a famous quote from philosopher and essayist George Santayana. MLB owners appear to not have learned this lesson.