On Sunday in Seattle, for the fourth year in a row — enough for an entire class of college prospects — Major League Baseball will hold a streamlined version of its rookie draft. From an event with unlimited rounds to one with 50 rounds, then 40, and now just 20, the draft is exclusive and efficient, in keeping with baseball’s restructured minor league system.
But efficiency comes at a cost: countless long-shot races that may never materialize. Dozens of current major leaguers have turned pro after being drafted in rounds that no longer exist. They are grateful for their timing.
“Twenty rounds doesn’t seem like enough,” said Kevin Kiermaier, the Toronto Blue Jays’ center fielder who was taken in the 31st round by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010. “I mean, if it’s like that now, then I don’t have a chance. ”
Kiermaier, 33, is perhaps the best modern example of talent that once bubbled up at the bottom of the draft. Selected 941st overall out of a community college in Illinois, he won three Gold Gloves, played in the World Series and earned more than $60 million over an 11-year career.
Four players who made the All-Star team last summer — David Bednar, Nestor Cortes, Ty France and Joe Mantiply — were also selected after the 20th round. So are two members of the Houston Astros’ World Series-clinching lineup last fall (Chas McCormick and Martín Maldonado) and several other longtime major leaguers, such as Jesse Chavez, Seth Lugo, Kevin Pillar and Rowdy Tellez.
Two Hall of Famers (Mike Piazza and John Smoltz) were drafted in the extinct rounds, as were several others with a case for Cooperstown, such as Mark Buehrle, Keith Hernandez, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. Many low-drafted players could have remained rookies and tried to improve their draft position the following year — but their careers, of course, would have been different.
“Cutting down the numbers, you’re going to have to create other opportunities for the types of players who are conditioned to come into the game,” said Omar Minaya, a former general manager and longtime scout who now advises the Yankees. “Players get caught sometimes, so it’s good that MLB is doing things to put that infrastructure in place.”
Starting in the 2021 season, teams will be limited to 180 players under club control — there was no limit before — and four domestic farm teams, plus one or two “complex teams” operating from a spring training base. Short-season Class A teams were eliminated, partly due to the calendar; in 2021, the league moved the draft date from June to July, to coincide with the All-Star Game and raise its profile.
Some teams that were cut are now part of MLB’s predraft league, created for scouts to get a final look at prospects before making their selections. Other teams join so-called affiliate leagues — the American Association, the Atlantic League, the Frontier League and the Pioneer League — which are partially funded by MLB but independent of any particular franchise.
Undrafted players, in theory, could join one of those teams in hopes of attracting interest from MLB. But leaving them out of the draft acknowledges the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against them.
“When a player signs a professional contract, you want that player to have some opportunity to one day become a major league player,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations. . “That’s why players become minor league players, because they want to become major league players one day. And we had a lot of players in the system that had — what’s the right way to say this? — almost no chance of reaching the major leagues.”
And again, to paraphrase Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber,” there’s a big difference between almost no chance and no chance. A draft pick — regardless of the round — proves that a major league franchise sees something in a player, and that’s usually all the player wants.
“It’s really nice to know that they picked me for a reason, and I can show it and play my game,” said Zach McKinstry, the Detroit Tigers’ regular leadoff hitter, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 33rd round. in 2016. “I got an opportunity right when I signed. I spent three days in Arizona and then they sent me down to low A and I played on a championship team that year.
McKinstry, who played at Central Michigan University, was a backup before a teammate’s injury gave him the opportunity to elbow his way to the Dodgers. He knows that most of the minor leagues – especially when the draft lasts 40 rounds or more – are just needed so that better prospects have a place to play.
“There’s a lot of injustice in the game, real or imagined, so there’s a lot of negative thinking in scrums in the outfield during batting practice,” said Bob Scanlan, a San Diego Padres broadcaster who pitched nine seasons in the majors. after signing as a 25th-round pick in 1984. “There was a lot of talk like: ‘You know you don’t mean anything to this organization. You’re just here as a filler piece. Why are you sticking your tail out?’”
Scanlan was 17 when he signed with Philadelphia, turning down UCLA for the lure of the quality coaching he would get in pro ball. In recent decades, however, college programs have become more sophisticated, with advanced facilities and teaching that offer an attractive alternative to the dusty outposts that used to make up the inferior minor.
“The development time is less and less in the caps on the total number of players, so the guys you pick last will probably go to college,” said Matt Arnold, the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. “Signing and then going to Helena, or wherever, is going to be less attractive than a really good ACC or SEC school — and even second-tier programs have a lot to do with they sell.”
Sword said the costs of improvements to the minor leagues — in ballparks, travel, nutrition and salaries — outweigh the savings from getting rid of so many draft picks; “It’s probably nine figures per year across the league,” he said. Sword added that in 2021, more than 200 players made the jump from affiliate leagues to minor league affiliates.
“The paths for those types of guys to the big leagues exist as they always have,” he said. “It’s just a different path than before.”
However, it stands to reason that with half the number of draft picks as just four years ago, hundreds more players from each class are now giving up their baseball dreams for more realistic careers. Arnold, who grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., has rooted for a Class A team since leaving, wonders about the impact of losing so many acolytes to the sport.
“A lot of those guys, even if you’re a 35th rounder from the middle of nowhere, you come home and you start an academy, and now you’re a hero,” Arnold said. “You’re a guy who played pro ball, and you’re bringing it back home. And maybe he’s not great, but he brings the game with him as a manager in a way that I think we’re going to miss.”
The people who did this, perhaps, need to preach more loudly. Kiermaier, for one, embraced the role.
“I look back at how everything changed for me, and I’m very grateful for my journey,” he said. “I will never forget that I am a 31st rounder. I’m proud of that. That number means a lot to me.”