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MLB Is Coming Back. Its Player Development Pipeline Is Not.

The league pushed through cost-cutting measures this spring that shortened the draft, slashed amateur signing bonuses, and reduced the number of teams in the minor leagues. Now baseball is set to return—but part of what makes the game special is already lost.

MLB/Ringer illustration

When baseball returns in late July, it will look and sound strange. No fans, no celebratory dogpiles, no postgame media scrums. All of these are necessary concessions if the league wants to make a credible attempt at a season while the COVID-19 pandemic rages throughout the United States.

But while an abbreviated and reshuffled schedule, dugout seating charts, and wet rags are getting much of the attention, the game is also changing beneath the surface. In addition to formulating public safety measures, the league has also cut costs by scything off bits of its developmental pipeline.

The much-discussed March agreement between the league and the MLBPA laid out the financial details of a shortened season while also authorizing the league to reduce the 2020 draft from 40 rounds to five, to defer large portions of draft bonuses, and to lower the cap on bonuses for undrafted free agents from $125,000 to $20,000. The 2021 draft will likewise be cut in half, to 20 rounds, and though very few players selected in the last 20 rounds of the draft typically end up making the majors, many of them fill out the rosters of the 160 affiliated minor league clubs. MLB could eliminate a quarter of those teams in 2021.

These measures were pitched as efforts designed to save teams money in desperate times. But by chopping 35 rounds off the draft this year and eliminating some 40 minor league teams, MLB would save just a few million dollars per franchise—hardly the difference between profit and insolvency. Indeed, initiatives to cap amateur bonuses and eliminate affiliated minor league teams have both been ongoing for years; the pandemic merely shifted the political and economic landscape of the sport enough to push those measures across the line.

Those moves may not affect the game as much in 2020 as the shifting schedule and on-field aesthetics, but fans will eventually return to the stands, and players will all go back to high-fiving and spitting in the dugout. Eliminating minor league teams, capping bonuses, and truncating the draft, though, will have a far greater long-term impact on the sport.

No matter what MLB did, the 2020 season was going to be a writeoff for most of the next generation of big leaguers. Minor league parks remain closed, as do many private training facilities. College baseball and high school showcases shut down in mid-March, and some high school prospects from cold-weather states never got to play a competitive inning this year.

But pinching off the developmental pipeline compounds those problems. With the draft shortened to five rounds, examples abounded of past players who, in the same circumstances, might have missed their shot at the big leagues. Not just extreme long shots like 32nd-rounder Kevin Pillar, but legitimate superstars who didn’t reveal themselves as such until years of professional training.

The most obvious example, one who kept popping up in the discourse around the five-round draft, is Jacob deGrom, a former anonymous college shortstop who the Mets took a flyer on in the ninth round of the 2010 draft. In a five-round draft, the two-time defending NL Cy Young winner would’ve been precisely the kind of long-shot developmental project who got left on the outside. So, too, would’ve Royals All-Star Whit Merrifield, who was drafted two picks ahead of deGrom. Merrifield was a solid college player without any standout tools; it was only after five and a half seasons of unremarkable minor league production that Merrifield suddenly turned into a big league standout. With 25 percent fewer minor league roster sports available, someone like Merrifield could have been drummed out of the affiliated minors before he made the leap.

It’s become fashionable in certain corners of the baseball analytics world to suggest that the minor leagues are, in fact, in dire need of pruning. Of the thousands of minor league ballplayers who suit up every year, only a small fraction spend a day in the big leagues. Fewer still stay for more than a cup of coffee, let alone become stars like deGrom. As scouting and player development evolve into a science, the thought is that teams could fish with a line, rather than a net, and eliminate excess.

But a line might not have caught a deGrom type even before this year’s draft was limited to just 160 picks, and undrafted free agents were limited to bonuses of just $20,000. Reducing bonuses is a big deal, as a draftee’s signing bonus must float the player through several years of making minimum wage (or less) in the minor leagues. More than that, all MLB draftees other than four-year college seniors have the option to return to school, which means a signing bonus is the primary financial incentive most players have to turn pro in the first place.

After taxes and agents’ fees, $125,000 doesn’t seem like such a big number, particularly when it’s spread over five or six years. But it’s still a lot of money, enough for a fringy amateur prospect to give pro baseball a shot. Limiting that bonus to $20,000 actually offers a powerful financial incentive for amateur players to go pro in something other than sports. This is particularly true of college players, who could wrap up their playing careers with a degree and—since full-ride scholarships are vanishingly rare in college baseball—student loan debt. The next deGrom, Merrifield, or Pillar could well end up going to dental school or managing a convenience store rather than pursuing that slim shot at a major league career.

This trend has already hit Puerto Rico, which became subject to the draft in 1990. Before that year, MLB scouted and developed Puerto Ricans as international free agents. From 1985 to 1989 alone, players such as Iván Rodríguez and Roberto Alomar (two Hall of Famers) signed off the island as teenagers, along with two-time MVP Juan González, Carlos Delgado, and Bernie Williams. Since 1990, though, scouting on the island has dried up. Of the players drafted in the last 30 years, only Carlos Beltrán and maybe Yadier Molina have a realistic shot at the Hall of Fame in the next decade. And after a bumper crop of shortstops in the early 2010s led to Carlos Correa, Javy Báez, and Francisco Lindor going off the board in the top 10, not a single player was drafted from Puerto Rico in 2020.

We’ll never know which artists or grocers or businessmen in Puerto Rico could have been the next Roberto Alomar. But back in the continental U.S., we can already identify specific athletes who should be in the MLB pipeline at this very moment but aren’t because of limits on draft length or amateur signing bonuses.

The most celebrated example is Kyler Murray, the Oklahoma center fielder and Oakland A’s draft pick who became the Arizona Cardinals’ quarterback in 2019. Baseball and football have been in a perpetual tug-of-war over the nation’s best athletes dating back to Jim Thorpe, and for every Joe Mauer who dons a cap and glove, there’s a John Elway who picks a helmet and pads. Murray was a better football prospect than baseball prospect, and went no. 1 in the 2019 NFL draft, but he without a doubt had big league potential.

Twelve years earlier, the Cubs tempted Jeff Samardzija away from the NFL with a major league contract that guaranteed him $10 million over five years. But thanks to bonus restrictions and changes in draft rules, the A’s were able to offer Murray a quarter of what the Cardinals did, and half what the Cubs offered Samardzija. Could Murray have become an impact center fielder if he’d been offered a high enough bonus? We never got the chance to find out.

Then there’s Carter Stewart, who went one pick ahead of Murray in the 2018 MLB draft. The Atlanta Braves, operating within the confines of the league’s de facto hard cap on amateur bonuses, offered the Florida high school right-hander a bonus of $2 million, about 40 percent of slot value, because of a skateboarding injury he’d suffered in grade school. Stewart spurned not only Atlanta but also the powerhouse baseball program at Mississippi State to spend a year in junior college before signing with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Japan’s NPB. Stewart’s unorthodox decision shows that American amateurs who want to play major league baseball don’t necessarily have to do it through Major League Baseball if they’re willing to move halfway across the world to find a better opportunity.

But most prospects who get squeezed out of the draft will take the path of least resistance and play college ball. With no real 2020 high school season to scout from, and with reduced bonus pools and draft length offering no wiggle room to take risks on prospects with questionable signability, MLB teams played it safe earlier this month and drafted the most college-heavy class in history. Most of the top high school prospects in the 2020 draft will be in college in 2021, not the minors.

Even though MLB teams went all in on college talent, many top college prospects were still overlooked. Among them was University of Florida right-hander Tommy Mace. Florida is one of the best college programs in the country—since 2016, nine Gators, six of them pitchers, have gone in the top 50 picks of the draft. In a normal year, Mace, a spindly 6-foot-6 right-hander who broke out this spring, could have been the next in that tradition. But after falling out of the first two rounds, no team was able to scrounge up enough money from a reduced bonus pool to tempt him out of returning to Gainesville.

We’re already feeling the deleterious effects of these trends on the quality of play in MLB, and now it’s only going to get worse. The problem, though, is that in order to really notice, you have to be able to hear the dog that doesn’t bark. We know about Murray, Stewart, Mace, and others who came close to playing pro baseball, but in the alternate timeline in which deGrom went undrafted or washed out, we would not notice his absence. Instead, we’d be talking about Cy Young winner Aaron Nola or Hyun-Jin Ryu, and MLB would still be the premier baseball league in North America.

Change the uniforms and stadium, and the quality of play in a Marlins-Orioles game is not significantly worse than it would be in a Yankees-Dodgers game. Most people wouldn’t notice over a single game, and maybe not even over a whole season. But there’s still a difference, and the game, its fans, and the players who never got a shot will all be worse off because of it. No matter how many deGroms get missed, no matter how many Murrays and Stewarts play elsewhere, we’ll keep watching the best baseball league in the world—even though it’s not as good as it ought to be.