NEW YORK (AP) — They sat anxiously by their phones, computers and TVs, hoping to hear their names called by big league teams.
Instead, the waiting continues for hundreds of young baseball players.
Major League Baseball’s amateur draft wrapped up Thursday night, shaved to only five rounds over two days from the usual 40 rounds over three because of the coronavirus pandemic — a move that figures to save teams about $30 million. So, instead of more than 1,200 players celebrating the start of their professional careers, only 160 can do so right now.
For the rest, they must carefully weigh their options. And, so do teams.
“In terms of the post-draft signings, it’s going to be different,” said David Stearns, the Milwaukee Brewers‘ general manager and president of baseball operations. “There are probably going to be all sorts of different mechanics in play there and market forces in play that we haven’t seen in the past.”
Major league clubs are scouring their draft boards and scouting reports while trying to identify the best of the remaining talent around the country.
“The fact we were only able to scout four college weekends and the high school kids, many of whom we didn’t see in their spring seasons, it’s difficult,” said Paul Toboni, the Boston Red Sox director of amateur scouting. “There’s a lot more uncertainty than there would be in a normal spring.”
Instead of the typical free-for-all immediately after the draft when teams race to add undrafted players to fill out their minor league squads, the conclusion of this year’s event included a few important caveats.
For one, teams must wait until Sunday to start negotiating with and signing players not taken in the draft.
“I’m sure it will be crazy a little bit on Sunday and we’ll see how quickly things move from there,” Brewers scouting director Tod Johnson said, “but I definitely think it’ll be probably an exciting Sunday.”
As part of the March 26 agreement between MLB and the players’ association, teams are permitted to sign an unlimited number of undrafted players. But, clubs are limited to offering maximum signing bonuses of only $20,000.
“It’s not ideal, but every team across baseball is being hurt by this on a number of levels,” Baltimore Orioles general manager Mike Elias said of the shortened draft. “It’s not fun that we can’t continue to add players to the system beyond the fifth round. We feel like we’re good at picking late. Last year, we took a number of pitchers on the second day of the draft and really bolstered our system. So we’re just not getting that.
“We’re going to try to sign as many kids as we can after the draft.”
That, however, won’t necessarily be the strategy for all clubs.
“We have focused on a group of players that we feel fits the profile that gives us the best opportunity to sign them,” Miami Marlins director of amateur scouting DJ Svihlik said. “We don’t want to sign a bunch of $20,000 players. We want to sign good players for $20,000.”
The very best of those undrafted players, though, could also opt to hold off on starting their professional careers.
“These players are faced with a very, very tough choice,” Svihlik said. “A lot of these guys are 21, and the clock is ticking on their careers.”
While MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred insisted before the draft began Wednesday night that playing a big league season this year is “100%” going to happen, the status of the minor league season remains uncertain. Hundreds of minor leaguers were recently released by major league organizations to cut costs. So, the prospect of not having anywhere to play in the pros anytime soon could alter some undrafted players’ plans.
High school seniors could choose to go to college, but players at four-year programs are only eligible to be drafted again after their junior or senior seasons, or if they turn 21 before the draft.
In what could become an increasingly more popular scenario, players could opt to enroll in junior college — where there’s no limitations on draft eligibility.
“You start seeing some of the top players already commit to a junior college just to have that as a backup,” Seattle Mariners amateur scouting director Scott Hunter said.
But even that could be no sure thing since MLB teams have the option to cut the 2021 draft to as few as 20 rounds.
Another thing for current college seniors to consider: The NCAA granted players at every level an extra year of playing eligibility because of their seasons being shortened, or canceled in some cases, by the coronavirus pandemic.
Those returning players wouldn’t count against the current scholarship and roster limits in place in college baseball, and would potentially get a chance next season to improve their draft position.
“I do see college baseball getting into a little bit of a logjam over the next probably 18 months,” Hunter said. “You have all these kids returning if they are seniors that were supposed to move on, or juniors that were in the later rounds decide to go back to school. You’re going to see a little bit of a logjam, which actually probably helps and hurts college baseball because they’re going to have to make some tough, tough decisions as well, just like any major league team in their minor league systems.”
Either way, undrafted players and talent-hungry teams have plenty to consider over the next few days.
“We don’t know really what to expect,” Tampa Bay Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “But (we’re) doing our best to prepare and if we can provide opportunity to more players, that’s something that we’re going to lean on our scouts and our staff to identify the right players to do that with.”