Before I get into my rant, I should probably start off with the news that came out Friday evening, which is that the 2020 MLB Draft is officially going to be only five rounds. This is not a huge surprise as the league had a choice between five and ten rounds, and after the players rejected a proposal to make it ten rounds, the writing was basically on the wall. Along with reducing the draft to only five rounds — it’s normally 40, for frame of reference — the date has been locked in at June 10, which was the original date as well. The league has also locked in a rule saying players who are not drafted cannot sign for a bonus larger than $20,000.
This is a disaster, but as we’ve talked about before I’m not so convinced this is actually bad for the Red Sox, who of course have been docked their second round pick. This will ultimately come down to which players decide they would rather wait to enter the draft and which come out. If the second-tier talent is weak but there is a lot of solid talent in the undrafted pool, the Red Sox could feasibly have an upper hand in that market and make up for the loss of a second rounder by outperforming all but a handful of teams there. Boston will have $5,129,900 to spend on their four picks, the fifth lowest pool in the game.
There’s an argument that this might be good for the Red Sox — it might also not be! — but we’ve had that conversation and really what I’m looking to talk about is just generally how the most important figures in the league seem to be totally ambivalent about the importance of the future. It’s hard to really string together coherent thoughts here, because when I saw this news it became just a mixture of anger, both at the major actors here as well as anger at how little surprise any of this was. All of this is just clearly a way to save some more money, and really not all that much of it in the grand scheme of things. At least, it’s not all that much in the short-term.
The financial side of all this is obviously where we should start with all of this, because it is the driving force behind every decision Major League Baseball makes, along with every big business in America. There’s no arguing that the league is going to be losing some money this year. They are going to play fewer games than usual, and if they do play any at all there will almost certainly be a majority played without fans, if there are any fans at all. Acting as if there is not financial damage here isn’t doing anyone any favors. MLB, like every other industry in the world right now, is going to take it on the chin a bit this year.
The issue is that they really aren’t losing as much as many fans may think, particularly not enough to justify cutting rounds six through ten in the draft, which would cost teams less than one league-minimum salary. We tend to think about attendance and everything that comes with it as a major money-driver for the league, but they have been moving away from that model for years, as the New York Times detailed late last year. It makes sense when you think about it, especially in the context of the ever-present “baseball is dying” narrative and the fight around that idea. The people that do believe baseball is dying often point to the reducing attendance, which the data does point to as a reality.
However, despite that league revenues continue to grow, further pointing to the lessened importance of actually getting butts in the seat. The growing importance of things like TV deals and MLB Advance Media, among other revenue sources, are also why we seem teams more and more willing to close competitive windows for longer periods of time, another issue for the future of the sport. But if I go all the way down that road, we’ll be here all day.
But to bring it back to the draft, it all seems like a really, really puzzling move to box out more prospects and young players for the marginal $500,000 saved that was alluded to above, particularly because the lack of attendance will hurt but not destroy baseball. In the process of this, too, the decision makers seem to be pissing off, well, everybody. Looking at all of this, it’s just hard to see the motivation here besides some short-term profits.
This is about more than just the next year or so for baseball, though. This is about the league taking an opportunity to cut costs they’ve been looking to cut for a little bit now. Over the last few months, it’s become extremely clear that MLB wants to significantly cut their minor-league system. That news brought outrage from fans and players and politicians, but it seems this pandemic has opened the window back up. The five-round draft won’t be permanent, but it would be far from a surprise if they go to 20 rounds in 2021 — that’s the minimum they can put in — and then make that permanent. At the very least, I would bet my very modest life savings that we won’t see a 40-round draft anymore, and that non-complex short-season minor leagues will be a thing of the past within the next five years.
It’s all part of a larger trend of the league, and really anyone involved in these decisions, not thinking beyond the next few years and taking every opportunity to hurt the sport at the lower levels. And, to be entirely clear, the players have a role here as well. With amateurs and minor leaguers not part of the union, they are the first to have their rights bargained away at the negotiating table. Everyone has a hand in this, and they are making the road to professional baseball more arduous than ever. As many others have pointed out, there is less reason with each decision made for a young athlete to go the baseball route, and that reality has grown tenfold with this.
And it’s not just future big leaguers who are getting squeezed out here, either. This is going to be a decision that has ripple effects throughout all levels of baseball. More high schoolers will be going to college and college players will decide to go back to school. This will crowd those rosters, and the fringe players will suddenly see their careers end a year or two or three or four before they would have otherwise. That may not seem like a huge deal, but A) it’s a massive bummer for a kid who grew up wanting to play baseball for as long as possible, and basic human empathy makes that an issue, and B) more cynically it sends a bad message to people who could be future coaches, scouts or at least fans.
Further, assuming this actually does result in the cutting of minor-league teams, those markets are either going to lose baseball entirely or at least go to independent ball. Even if it is the latter — and sustaining that market is going to be easier said than done for most of those cities — then other independent league markets will be going away. One of the unique joys of baseball is being able to see professional, and often affiliated, baseball in small cities all around the country. As soon as you take that away, you are forfeiting generations of baseball fans.
But it’s incredibly clear these things don’t matter to the people who make decisions at MLB, be it Rob Manfred or team owners or the leaders of the Players Union. Everything is about short-term gains rather than long-term health. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to arcane blackout rules or ridiculous rules about posting videos on the internet or cutting incentives for young players to choose baseball or taking professional ball out of smaller markets. All of these moves make things more profitable for the next five to ten years, and that is what is being prioritized right now. That’s great for those who pocket those profits. For the rest of us? We have to keep screaming into the abyss about the future of the game, waiting for a hero to come in and fix everything. Based on this latest decision, it doesn’t seem like that hero is coming.