In 2009, MLB moved its draft into a primetime television slot, and aired the first round live from the MLB Network studio in Secaucus, New Jersey. San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg was the big name going into the draft. He and other first-round hopefuls were invited to attend the event in person. The thought was to mimic the more visible drafts in the NFL, NBA and NHL with the time-honored optics of the commissioner handing a young man a uniform. One problem: only one player bothered to attend. He was chosen 25th overall by the Angels, and this isn’t the first thing our grandchildren will hear when we tell them about Mike Trout.
Wednesday, the draft moved back to ESPN for the first time since 2008. MLB Network also aired the event in a separate telecast with its own studio hosts. (Rounds 2-5, held Thursday, will air on MLB Network and ESPN2.) That’s given the 2020 draft a larger media platform than any of its predecessors – a necessary step toward approaching the spectacle of the NFL, NBA and NHL events.
Of course, everything is weird right now, in sports and in society. When the NFL held its draft in April, commissioner Roger Goodell couldn’t hand over a single jersey because he was sitting in the basement of his home. The stripped-down event unsurprisingly shattered its previous record for television ratings. It was the closest thing to a live North American sporting event anyone had seen since the Covid-19 shutdown began.
Little has changed in the last six weeks. In that regard, baseball couldn’t have picked a better time to hold a draft. The last two months have given us Zoom calls in which fans join players face to face. We’ve seen players square off against each other in their own “MLB The Show” league. We haven’t seen actual baseball games since spring training was postponed, but we’ve seen what the sport can produce with ample time to experiment.
The draft is no exception. If you tuned in for the first time, you learned it’s shorter than any previous draft – a mere five rounds compared to the usual 40. (There’s nothing sacred about 40. The first draft, in 1965, lasted 26 rounds. In 1969, the draft lasted 90 rounds.) Ostensibly that’s because drafted players have no place to play; ordinarily they would report to a minor-league affiliate after signing a contract. There’s still some question among teams about where to send their new draftees. This is a more manageable problem when drafting five players instead of 40.
The first five rounds naturally produce the best, and the most, future major leaguers. But if the absence of other sporting events made this year’s draft more compelling, other forces are acting in the opposite direction.
For one, there hasn’t been a single NCAA baseball game since March 12. The road to the College World Series is littered with future stars, many of whom enjoy weeks on national television in May and June to preview their talents. Among the 21 four-year college players chosen in the first round in 2019, seven played in the College World Series.
MLB wisely sought to capitalize on this by moving the 2020 draft from Secaucus to Omaha, the site of the College World Series. The draft was supposed to last 40 rounds, ending Friday. The College World Series was supposed to begin Saturday.
Then the coronavirus happened.
Therein lies a dark cloud hovering over the most visible draft in baseball history. About an hour before the Detroit Tigers were officially on the clock with the first pick, Rob Manfred sat down for questions. The commissioner was asked to address the immediate future of his league, which is embroiled in a public labor dispute between owners and players, over how and when to resume play amidst a global pandemic.
“We’re going to play baseball in 2020,” Manfred said. “One hundred percent.”
It was a rare moment of clarity. Everything else about the draft feels shrouded in mystery.
MLB had previously proposed reducing the number of affiliated minor league teams under its umbrella. Now, some minor league teams are among the many American small businesses merely hoping to stay financially afloat while they’re forced to cancel games. Under the reported terms of MLB’s plan to eliminate 42 minor league teams, the 2021 draft would have been reduced to 20-25 rounds.
The net effect is a paradox. After a dramatically shortened 2020 draft, it’s expected that more college baseball players than usual will return in 2021 to play as seniors. (Undrafted players are limited to a $20,000 signing bonus; this will likely lead more high school players to honor college commitments than usual, too.) That means the class of 2021 will be loaded with unprecedented talent. But if that draft lasts 20-25 rounds instead of 40, there will be fewer professional contracts and less money to go around.
It all adds up to a missed opportunity for the league. The primetime slot on ESPN was only made possible by the absence of other sports, made possible by a virus that spread rapidly across the globe. No baseball executive could control those circumstances.
The future of minor league baseball has never looked dimmer, and that is within MLB’s control. The draft class of 2020 faces an unprecedented economic landscape if there are fewer affiliated minor league teams a year fro now. If you could ignore that reality for a few hours Wednesday afternoon, the draft made for a pretty good respite.