Bill Madden: Future draft prospects get short end of stick in league’s new coronavirus agreement

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So much uncertainty.

Baseball’s owners and the players union have reached agreement on critical salary and service time as well as other issues, like the draft, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. The most important issue of all — when the season will start — is still very much up in the air, and so, too, is the dilemma for hundreds of high school and college players facing a rude financial squeeze if they are not selected in a draft shortened to five rounds.

On the surface, you’d have to say the players got a major concession from the owners on the service time issue: If they are active for the shortened season, they still get a full year of service time. So players like Mookie Betts, J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer and Marcus Stroman are still guaranteed their free agency come November no matter what happens with the season. For the Dodgers, who gave up outfielder Alex Verdugo, with great potential, and a top prospect in Jeter Downs for Betts, it may be just tough luck for them if they get only a limited season (or none) for him. They made the trade. They have to live with it. Besides, they were always the most likely team to sign Betts as a free agent anyway.

One of the big trade-offs for the owners, besides agreement from the union not to sue them for their full salaries if there’s no season, was the union agreeing to limit the draft, which is now slated to be moved from June to sometime in July and limited to five rounds. For those players who are drafted, nothing much changes other than their bonuses being deferred into July 2021 and 2022. But for the hundreds of players not drafted, they can be signed for $10,000 or less.

This will represent an enormous savings for the owners who, even before the coronavirus pandemic, were looking to limit the number of players in their organizations by eliminating 42 minor league teams and drastically shorten the amount of rounds in the draft. It does seem very un-American that hundreds of high school and college kids who were looking at decent six-figure bonuses if drafted in the first 10 rounds, could have their negotiation rights bargained away by a third party — the Players Association — which doesn’t even represent them.

Those kids are about to find themselves in baseball limbo. If they want to play pro baseball this year, they’ll have to settle for a token $10,000. As one player advisor/rep told me: “The amateur players are being railroaded. They get to be the only Americans who can be paid less than the minimum wage.”

The high school kids can merely opt to go to college, or if they want to get drafted next year, perhaps go to a junior college. But what about the college juniors who choose to stay in school and may lose part of their scholarships while also risking having a bad year or getting hurt and losing all their leverage because they’ll be a year older?

I’m told most of the clubs already have prepared 75% of their drafts through all of last year’s scouting of the high schools, colleges, Perfect Game tournaments, Cape Cod League etc. plus all the video at their disposal. Still, as one scout told me: “Even with all the info we have, we’ll be kinda drafting blind, having not seen these kids this year, which is why I’m sure is one of the reasons they wanted to limit it to five rounds.”

Last week, MLB sent out a memorandum to all the clubs informing them that their scouts were prohibited from having any contact whatsoever with amateur players under the penalty of the scouts being fired and the club losing a draft pick. It’s understandable that MLB is a little sensitive about cheating these days.

Perhaps one good thing that’s come out of all this uncertainty is the negotiations between MLB and MiLB over MLB’s proposal to eliminate 42 minor league teams now being on hold indefinitely. There are too many issues far more important, and quite possibly a few minor league clubs might not be able to survive losing half their season or more. But even after the coronavirus crisis has passed and MLB gets back to normal — and right now even normal looks like a season extending into November, quite possibly with playoff games in warm weather or domed stadium neutral sites — does MLB really want to push this minor league contraction scheme and throw hundreds more Americans out of work?

Aside to Mr. Manfred: That would not be a good look.


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