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The folly of shortening the MLB Draft

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Plenty of good players have been picked after the 5th round

2019 Major League Baseball Draft Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images

Reducing the 2020 MLB Draft from 40 to five rounds is a shortsighted move that has drawn ire from those surrounding baseball and from within the game itself.

“It was disappointing to us and I think most of the scouting community,” Dodgers vice president of amateur scouting Billy Gasparino said last month. “There’s a lot of good players that get taken in those top 10 rounds, and we feel limited not having all 10.”

The move was a cost-cutting one for MLB owners, both in the short term in the form of reduced signing bonuses with a shorter draft (even though that only comes out to about $1 million per team), and in the long term by setting the stage for a culling of roughly a quarter of minor league affiliates as soon as 2021.

Baseball owners salivate over young, cheap players who are productive, and there’s no more efficient way to add those players than through the draft. Shortening the draft reduces the talent coming into baseball, which could cause long-term damage.

“What I worry about is all of baseball,” Orel Hershiser said in an interview last week. “All of a sudden, you’re giving more opportunity to other major sports.”

Five rounds is comically short for a draft. Scads of productive major league players have been picked later, and in some cases much later.

In the last five seasons, two of the Dodgers’ top four position players by WAR were drafted after the fifth round. Justin Turner (23.3 rWAR since 2015, tops on the team) was picked by the Reds out of Cal State Fullerton in the seventh round in 2006. His annual rank on the Dodgers in WAR (including pitchers) in the last five years: fourth, third, first, first, and fourth.

Joc Pederson (10.9 rWAR, fourth) was drafted out of high school in the 11th round in 2010, and the Dodgers convinced him to bypass USC with a $600,000 bonus. That couldn’t happen this year, with signing bonuses for undrafted free agents capped at $20,000.

Gasparino said the Dodgers won’t be able to add the volume of players they normally do this year, but there is no limit on the number of undrafted free agents any team can sign. In the five years Gasparino has ran the draft for the Dodgers, they’ve signed an average of 32 draftees per year.

“If they want to play baseball, they’ll sign,” Hershiser said.

Only one player drafted and signed by the Dodgers made the Hall of Fame, and he was picked in the 62nd round as a favor to family friend Tommy Lasorda. But it’s not just Mike Piazza who stand out among late draftees in Dodgers history.

The Dodgers have drafted and signed 12 players in the standard June draft — not counting the June secondary draft or January secondary draft, which are no longer around — who totaled at least 30 Wins Above Replacement. Seven were picked after the fifth round, and three of the top five by WAR were drafted in the 17th round or later.

Best Dodgers draft picks by career WAR

Player Year Round Career WAR Dodgers WAR
Player Year Round Career WAR Dodgers WAR
Clayton Kershaw 2006 1 67.9 67.9
Mike Piazza 1988 62 59.6 32.0
Orel Hershiser 1979 17 56.0 44.4
Bob Welch 1977 1 43.7 32.9
Russell Martin 2002 17 38.8 16.5
Charlie Hough 1966 8 38.4 3.3
Rick Rhoden 1971 1 35.4 6.9
Doyle Alexander 1968 9 35.1 0.0
Rick Sutcliffe 1974 1 33.9 1.9
Sid Fernandez 1981 3 32.8 0.1
Shane Victorino 1999 6 31.5 1.1
Bill Russell 1966 9 31.3 31.3
Standard June draft only (no June secondary or January secondary drafts included)

Hershiser was a junior at Bowling Green in 1979 when the Dodgers drafted him in the 17th round. He had the leverage of returning for his senior season, but signed for $10,000 — which in 2020 dollars is just over $35,000 — and a new glove.

“My signing was not about money,” Hershiser recalled last week. “Ten thousand dollars doesn’t go a long way. So really it was more about an opportunity.”

It remains to be seen just how many undrafted players will sign for $20,000, far below what many would have received in a normal year, even in the later rounds.

“The initial feedback we’ve gotten is on the disappointing side,” Gasparino said. “Most players for that amount of money would rather go back to school, either to continue their education or take their chances in maybe a better atmosphere next year.

“We still don’t know. Most players still believe they’re going to get taken in the top five rounds, so if that reality doesn’t happen, when that sets in it might change their mindset.”