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Oakland A’s and a 5-round MLB draft

Thoughts on the truncated 2020 MLB draft

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MLB: SEP 16 Royals at Athletics
Pictured: A 7th-rounder and a 6th-rounder
Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

News came out Sunday that the 2020 MLB draft will be limited to just five rounds due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, reported by Jeff Passan and Kiley McDaniel of ESPN. That’s much shorter than the usual 40 rounds that are held in a normal year, as well as the potential 10 rounds that had previously been discussed by the league and players union.

But that doesn’t mean that only 150 amateur players will get to join the pro ranks this year. After the five rounds are over, teams can sign unlimited undrafted players for a maximum of $20,000 each. Of course, last year the 6th-round slot bonuses ranged from $237k to $250k, with 10th-rounders just under $150k, and post-10th-rounders able to go up to $125k without counting against the team’s bonus pool, so the question is whether the undrafted players will want to settle for so much less this summer or hold out and try again next year when the draft will go back to at least 20 rounds.

It’s easy to scoff at the later rounds of the draft, since the odds are so low for each individual player to pan out. As a group, though, they absolutely have an impact. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic notes (via Sportradar) that, of the thousand or so players who entered the pros via the draft and played at least one MLB game in 2019, nearly half of them were taken in the 6th round or later.

And those mid/late-rounds aren’t just token names and role players. Here’s a list of some current A’s who were selected after the 5th round:

  • Marcus Semien (6th)
  • Khris Davis (7th)
  • Mark Canha (7th)
  • Lou Trivino (11th) (by the A’s)
  • Ramon Laureano (16th)
  • Chris Bassitt (16th)
  • Seth Brown (19th) (by the A’s)
  • Mike Fiers (22nd)
  • Jake Diekman (30th)

That’s a substantial chunk of Oakland’s core. Semien was their MVP last year, Fiers was their best starting pitcher, Davis is the top slugger when he’s right and is also the highest-paid player in franchise history, Laureano is a budding star, Canha just put up a 4-WAR season, and Diekman just received a multi-year deal in free agency. Sure, there are top picks on the roster too, like 1st-rounders Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Sean Manaea, and A.J. Puk; 2nd-rounder Chad Pinder; and 3rd-rounders Jesus Luzardo and Sean Murphy, but the point is the later rounds are no joke.

(Looking through the last decade of A’s drafts, a few other post-5th-rounders include All-Stars in Max Muncy and Blake Treinen, plus Dan Straily, A.J. Griffin, and Ryan Dull.)

Here’s another way to look at it. In the 2013 draft, among all teams, the following players were chosen in the 6th-10th rounds: Matthew Boyd, Adam Frazier, Kendall Graveman, Brad Keller, Trey Mancini, Mitch Garver (2019 Silver Slugger), Zack Godley, Mike Tauchman, and Emilio Pagan. plus 2019 All-Star super-sub Jeff McNeil (12th round). Those are just the highlights, with dozens more who have at least appeared in the majors.

Again, this truncated draft doesn’t necessarily mean that none of these mid/late-round players can ever make it. They can go pro this year by signing for virtually nothing and gambling on themselves, essentially doubling-down on what was already an extremely risky career path by also forgoing any meaningful bonus money. Or, at least some of them can stay in school and wait until next year, at the risk of an injury or a slump that tanks their stock — though even then, college rosters have their own realistic limits so presumably not everyone can stay/play there, and even if that logistical problem was solved then the 2021 draft would become overloaded (with nearly two classes worth of amateurs packed into potentially one-half of the normal number of rounds).

To be honest, it’s impossible to say what affect this will have on anything. Maybe it’ll just be a one-year blip that will correct itself over time, and the worthy players who go undrafted will still be uncovered one way or other. Or maybe some of them will choose other sports, or get on with their lives in other professions entirely knowing that they have something like a 5% chance of ever making it in MLB even if things go completely back to normal. For what it’s worth, Rosenthal’s report mentions that “the league does not expect to permanently lose talented young players who would have turned professional this year.”

The point is, these are not insignificant rounds being cut. If we were just talking about dropping the back half and keeping things to 20 rounds, then that might be less important, especially with short-season Low-A leagues expected to be eliminated anyway (and thus fewer spots to fill in each organization). But five rounds means that some legit prospects will be left out, for now at least. Personally, I think 10 rounds would have made more sense, and Passan says many teams felt that way too. This feels to me like a cost-cutting measure that is penny-wise but pound-foolish, on top of generally being a big ol’ buzzkill to add to this year’s growing pile of sadness.

As for the A’s, they’re famously a creative team, so hopefully they will be able to adapt to the new situation and make the best of it somehow. There will be fewer chances to get fancy with the bonus pool in an effort to go overslot in later rounds to steal extra talent (as they love to do), but perhaps more opportunities to poach a bunch of intriguing college seniors off the undrafted open market. Maybe they’ll go even harder than usual after one big upside prize within their five rounds, or maybe they’ll go extra safe and polished on all their picks to increase the odds of at least getting something out of their 2020 class.

Whatever happens, it will all be theoretical for a while anyway, since it seems less and less likely there will be any minor league season this year. The draft is tentatively scheduled for June 10, so see what happens more then.

Oh, and if you were upset about the Astros’ relatively light punishment for cheating, remember that without a 1st- or 2nd-round pick they’ve now lost 40% of their entire 2020 class. At least that’s one happy result from an otherwise bummer piece of news.