New look draft forces teams to adjust strategy

Let’s focus on the strategy for the Nationals and other teams as they get ready for a rare five-round First-Year Player Draft, scheduled to take place a week from today.

With the draft only five rounds due to the coronavirus shutdown, should teams draft based on need or potential?

MLBPipeline.com senior writer Jim Callis believes teams will focus on taking the best player available and worry about filling out rosters in free agent signings post-draft.

“Are teams going to be more conservative and take more college guys? There are going to be a few more college guys drafted his year because I think it’s the strength of the draft,” Callis said. “It’s not just conservatism. If in a five-round draft let’s say you really need a catcher, you might say, ‘Hey, we need to get a catcher in the fourth or fifth round if we don’t have one already.’ I just don’t think at the top of the draft you can draft for need. If you are only getting five picks, like most teams are only getting five picks, it behooves you to take who you think the best guy is.”

Rizzo-Batting-Cage-Sidebar.jpgNationals general manager Mike Rizzo said that he was confident his scouting staff was ready for this draft, even with only a handful of college games available to scout before everything closed up mid-March. Callis agrees teams are OK for this year’s draft because the most important time to look at 2020 possibilities was actually back in last summer’s evaluations.

“The average fan thinks teams are flying blind on this a little bit because everything got shut down in mid-March,” Callis said. “That’s not really the case because we had all last summer, which is really the most important time to scout high school guys, when they are playing the best of the best in showcases. You got college summer leagues with wood bats. We got four weeks of the college season. You had not as many looks as you would normally get, and certainly you wanted more but you had a bunch of looks.”

But if times are tough for scouting departments this year, Callis imagines a scenario for next year’s draft in which teams did not even have video from any 2020 summer workouts. That makes player evaluation almost impossible.

“Next year’s draft, are we really going to have any summer league baseball? Are we going to have any high school showcases? I know some are still kind of tentatively scheduled,” Callis said. “What if college football can’t have fan in the stands? Are we going to have spring sports as we know it next year in colleges? I got to think probably not. What I’m leading up to is next year’s draft could be a real mess and if that’s the case, it almost makes your picks this year more important because you don’t want to do anything goofy and not get anything out of this year’s picks because you don’t know what next year is going to be like.

“The worst-case scenario, and I hope it’s not this, what if the coronavirus comes back or we can’t get a handle on it? We might have a draft next year where you haven’t really seen anybody play. There might be individual teams that decide, ‘We are going to draft for need,’ or ‘We are going to be conservative,’ but I do kind of feel like this year’s five-round draft will be similar to the first five rounds of last year’s draft. It will be like a normal draft. It will stop suddenly after five rounds instead of going to 40.”

Then free agency begins after the draft, late on June 11. With $20,000 checks in their pockets, general managers go out and try to sign free agents. But the thing is the player pool will include about 1,050 more players than usual. So does Callis think this going to be a free-for-all, wild west scenario as clubs try to sign players?

“I do. There are a variety of reasons guys are going to choose to sign with different teams,” Callis said. “Your favorite team, your local team, you have a good relationship with your area scout. Honestly, the factors that probably should matter the most are ‘How strong is the organization?’ ‘Where do I have a better chance to advance?’ ‘What organizations are better at developing players, specifically the position I play?’ Honestly, I would be looking to see how teams have treated players and front offices during this lockout.”

And this is why the recent news of how much minor league players are being paid the rest of this season matters for the upcoming draft. Because free agents are watching how major league teams handle their minor league players. The way current minor league players are treated will affect where potential free agents decide to sign post-draft.

“The A’s aren’t paying their minor leaguers anymore,” Callis said. “I wouldn’t sign with the A’s. Would you? Why would you sign with the A’s? You have already seen they aren’t treating their players as nicely as other organizations are. The Angels just laid off all their area scouts before the draft. That might make me think, eh, I don’t know if I want to go play for the Angels. That doesn’t seem like a great organization to play for. I think there will be some of that.”

Callis also points out that the money is off. He said draft picks from the sixth round on last season received way more than $20,000.

“It is a real shame they have a $20,000 limit on unsigned free agents,” Callis said. “In the past it was $125,000. Not that many unsigned free agents got that, but a lot of players in the sixth round the slots are still in the $300,000 range. I looked at last year and there is 395 players who got six-figure bonuses after the fifth round. Almost all those guys are college juniors. There is a handful of high school guys. Those guys actually need the money because they aren’t going out and buying cars and suits and gold chains. They are paying off college loans because most of them aren’t anywhere close to full scholarship. When you are making next to nothing in the minor leagues, you are using what’s left over of your bonus money after taxes to basically try to eat healthy and work out. That money is actually important to the development of your career.

“I actually find it very cynical what Major League Baseball and the union allowed to happen to those guys.

But in a desperate situation such as the one they’re facing now, potential free agents also must look down the road and realize they don’t want to be a part of a logjam in 2021. Even with the signing bonus money not being equivalent to last season’s, they probably should sign this year when given the chance. That is why Callis believes guys will jump at the chance to sign this season. With the season and workouts temporarily suspended, the future is murky.

“I do think on the flip side, while it stinks there’s going to be 400 guys that can’t get a six-figure bonus, I still think a number of those guys are going to sign,” Callis said. “When I say a number, I am being purposely vague. I don’t know if that’s going to be 100, 150 or 200 of those guys. But here is the reality, unfortunately, for those kids, is if you went to college and your career goal was to play pro ball, if you go back to school, what is it going to look like next year? We don’t know what college baseball is going to look like next year.

“You are going to be a year older, so you are going to be 22 years old. Teams look at age in the draft. If I’m a 22-year-old player, I am going to have to have a really good year or I probably don’t get drafted. If a lot of guys do go back, the draft has already been cut to 20 rounds next year. Let’s say the majority of the guys go back. Then you have all these guys who would have gone in rounds six through 20 this year and all the guys who are around six through 20 next year jammed into the same draft. The math tells you only half of those guys can get drafted if everybody went back.”

And who is to say the 2021 draft will be 20 rounds anyway? What will the minor leagues look like in 2021? There was already plenty of talk that affiliates including low Single-A Hagerstown and short-season Single-A Auburn might be eliminated before the start of play in 2021. That changes how many players a team can draft or sign going forward as well.

“I didn’t even touch on that we are cutting 40 minor league teams next year,” Callis said. “There’s going to be fewer teams and fewer spots. Owners could see revenue go way down, so they say it’s going to be 20 rounds. But there is no guarantee (on that either). They could easily negotiate that down to 10 rounds. It’s sad for those kids because they really need the money, but if you want to play pro ball and you get the opportunity to sign for $20,000 and you turn that down? You might not get a second chance next year.”

This year’s draft is going to look quite different than what we saw last June. Then the feeding frenzy of free agency begins. Potential draft picks will want to make careful decisions this summer as they embark on their dream to play in the major leagues, because this opportunity might not come back around next year. Unfortunately, these upcoming abbreviated drafts might become the new normal to which everyone will have to adjust.

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