The corporate identity of baseball has something in common with the Micheal Corleone character in the classic movie, “The Godfather.” “It’s not personal, just business.”
Here is what bothers me about what I feel baseball did in this draft and what kids in HS and college can expect in the future as MLB will feature a 20 round draft next year. The draft was cut to 50 rounds in 1998, then dropped to 40 rounds in 2012. The elimination of as many as 46 minor league teams will result in a few leagues folding up and we can almost certainly expect to see other minor league and independent leagues lose franchises in the wake of this pandemic. There will be less players playing professional baseball soon and not just because of the Coronavirus. Less players means less money spent and that is the end game for the MLB owners. It just sometimes seems that the fat cats who sit on top of the biggest money maker in the history of professional sports, are interested more in profits than winning.
The fact that anyone not drafted can now sign for a max of $20,000 is like working at McDonald’s for $.75 an hour. That is 1975 money. Of the 960 players who signed last year, 680 signed for more than $20,000. This year’s five-round draft saw 160 players get drafted. That means that there are a lot of players in the top 200 of projected prospects that will be free agents and will only be able to sign for that amount, or less. Basically getting a cup of change if they sign. Almost every HS player in that group will go to college. Those who don’t will hope to be seen and signed during the summer amateur season if there even is one. Others will try to hook up with independent leagues if they have a season of some kind this year. The college players that were not drafted will have to go back to school. Any senior in college will have to take the $20,000 or in most cases less. Like $10,000, down to $1,500.
One of the reasons that players ranked from say #34 to #69 were not picked, was that teams had to be sure there would be enough money in their allotted pool money to sign the top 5 or so guys that they did pick. You saw that with Baltimore, who passed on the #2 guy on every teams board, Vanderbilt’s SS Austin Martin, and took Arkansas OF Heston Kjerstad. A power hitter who will fit well in Camden Yards at #2, Kjerstad was someone who was projected on everyone’s list to go #14. Every real baseball man will tell you to pick the best available player, not for need at a position. Their pick was not necessarily for either reason. It was more about getting him for millions less of the slot money for that pick.
This is what the Braves did when in 2016 they picked Ian Anderson with the #3 over all pick and signed him for $4 million, which was $2.5 million under slot money. He was projected at #10 to #15 on most cards. It allowed them to pick and sign 3 more top HS pitchers with picks down to #109 where they signed Bryce Wilson for $1.2 million. More than the $546,800 slot money for the 109th pick. He would not have signed for the latter.
Three of those Braves picks in 2016 have become the core of their future pitching rotation soon. A fourth, Joey Wentz, was traded to the Tigers for Shane Greene which gave them much needed bullpen help during their run for the pennant last year. The other pitching prospect is LHP Kyle Muller. All were at triple-A last year with Wilson seeing time with the big club.
One thing to always remember, they are still just prospects. Former GM John Hart told me that more than once. Hart said if they drafted and signed 40 prospects and five became big league players, with one of them becoming an All Star, that would be a very good draft year.
Baseball is first and foremost a business. To the owners and the players, it is always about the money. Today owners are saying that it is not a profitable business. We have to also remember that there are some who get into the ownership of teams that do not have a passion for the game. How many of us can name all the owners? They come and they go more frequently and turn enormous profits on the sale of their teams now. There was a time when families were the norm in ownership. Today we see more corporate ownership which brings in corporate thinking from ticket and concession pricing to more use of analytical and corporate ideas in evaluating players.
So congratulations owners, you saved a few thousand dollars in this year’s draft and have probably pushed more good athletes into other sports for the future. We will never know if there will be another Mickey Mantle or Mike Trout out there who will take their talents somewhere else like football or basketball or will never get the chance to prove what they can do. Mike Piazza was taken in the 62nd round (pick #1390) in 1988. But hey, if it means you, as owners, can now buy another 15-bedroom home in the Hamptons next year, kudos to you. Enjoy the sunsets.