Back in late March and early April, when his job, baseball and most of everyday life were shut down to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Scott Hunter’s thoughts on the 2020 Major League Baseball draft ranged from being happy to have one, to hopeful about having more than five rounds.
The draft is the culmination of more than a year of work for the Mariners’ director of amateur scouting in which he searches North America to find and evaluate the best talent in the college and high-school ranks.
And since taking the job in September 2016, Hunter will have his highest first-round pick — No. 6 overall — and the sixth selection in every round thereafter, thanks to Seattle’s 68-94 record in 2019.
But in what has been a protracted fight between MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association, no change was agreed upon after discussions about pushing the draft beyond the previously agreed-upon minimum of five rounds. That early deal was made as part of a spring collective-bargaining agreement to offset financial losses caused by the COVID-19 shutdown, but both sides at that time left open the possibility of having 10 rounds.
In the subsequent talks, owners wanted to cut the slot bonus money for the sixth through the 10th rounds by 50%, which would’ve saved teams just over $500,000. The players balked. And so five rounds it is.
While owners presented a united front on the decision, MLB sources indicated some teams, including the rebuilding Mariners, wanted to continue negotiating for more rounds.
Hunter had hoped for at least 10 rounds with a long-shot dream of 20. Picking early in each round was an advantage he hadn’t had in previous years. Seattle selected 20th in every round last year, 14th in 2018 and 17th in 2017. The losses of last season gave him an advantage that will go mostly unused. Instead, Hunter got five rounds and a Competitive Balance B pick after the second round — six total selections.
“Selfishly, of course, we wanted to take as many as we could,” he said. “As an organization, it’s the evolution of our growth right now. We’re in a time that the minor-league player and prospect is very important. Picking high in the draft, I would love to pick 15 or 20 rounds, but understanding how the logistics of things work, it’s probably beneficial for all that it’s five rounds. Yeah, we were disappointed, but it’s just a different change and a different mindset going in where now you know we probably don’t have to worry about as many names as we normally would in a given year. But yeah, it’s disappointing.”
So what is being lost?
Well, a quantity of players, some who develop into real prospects and big-league players, at a reduced cost. The amateur draft is the most economically efficient way to consistently accumulate talent.
Baseball always has had one of the most expansive drafts in terms of quantity of players selected. For most of the draft’s existence, there was no limit of rounds, and teams could pick as long as they wanted. The Yankees drafted 100 players in 1996. In 1998, MLB limited the draft to 50 rounds and lowered it to 40 in 2012. Last year, there were 1,217 players drafted. This season there will be 161.
As part of the spring agreement, the 2021 draft will be limited to 20 rounds. And there is belief in baseball that the collective-bargaining agreement following the 2021 season will keep the draft around 20 to 25 rounds, particularly with the expected contraction of 40 minor-league affiliates.
There is some logic to reducing the draft to 20 to 25 rounds. Recent draft strategy is to take high-school players in later rounds, though there is a slim chance of signing them. But the added rounds allow teams to get creative with bonuses and take chances on players.
“What really hurts is the ‘tweener’ high-school guy that makes that big jump, maybe a cold-weather kid or a guy that we had some interest in during the summer,” Hunter said. “A guy that, if he gains a few pounds, gets a little stronger, maybe a little tick up in velocity — there’s always a handful of players like that every year. But in this case it’s really hard to decide if the trend is going in the right direction without being able to see them play, especially the colder-weather kids that didn’t even get to start.”
An extensive study by the Society for American Baseball Research in 2017 examined drafts from 1996 to 2011. A total of 2,540 players drafted in the first five rounds signed contracts. Of that group, 1,200 went on to play at the MLB level — a percentage of 47.2.
In Rounds 6-10, where bonuses were significantly decreased, 20% of the players drafted and signed made the big leagues. In Rounds 11-15, 12.7% played in the big leagues, and 9.9% in Rounds 16-20 made it.
While the decreasing percentages were expected, there is still value in a player from the lower selections making it to the big leagues and contributing, even for just one season. The percentage of those players drafted and signed who played more than three seasons in MLB was 9% for Rounds 6-10, 5.2% for Rounds 11-15 and 4.4% for Rounds 16-20.
The stories of the late-round successes are well known: Hall of Famers Wade Boggs (seventh round, 1976), Andre Dawson (11th round, 1975), Trevor Hoffman (11th round, 1989), Nolan Ryan (12th round, 1965), Jim Thome (13th round, 1989), Ryne Sandberg (20th round, 1978), John Smoltz (20th round, 1985), Mike Piazza (62nd round, 1988). And of current players, future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols was a 13th-round selection by the Cardinals in 1999.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto and director of scouting Tom Allison were with the Diamondbacks when they selected Paul Goldschmidt in the eighth round out of Texas State University. Two-time reigning Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom was a ninth-round pick out of Stetson University in 2010. Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez was a 20th-round choice by the Astros in 2009. The 17th round of the draft produced All-Star center fielder Lorenzo Cain (2004) and catcher Russell Martin (2002).
The Mariners have had their share of late-round successes. Alvin Davis, the man dubbed Mr. Mariner, was a sixth-round pick out of Arizona State in 1982. Seattle also selected future All-Star pitcher Mike Hampton, who generated 28.2 career WAR, in the sixth round of the 1990 draft. But Hampton was traded to the Astros with Mike Felder for failed prized prospect Eric Anthony in 1993. Closer J.J. Putz, who had 101 saves for Seattle in six seasons, was a sixth-round choice out of Michigan in 1999.
In terms of career WAR, right-handed pitcher Derek Lowe was the highest accumulating player of the Mariners picks in Rounds 6-40 over the years. Lowe was taken in the eighth round of the 1991 draft out of Dearborn, Mich. Unfortunately for the Mariners, his success came as a member of the Red Sox after he was traded with catcher Jason Varitek in 1997 for reliever Heathcliff Slocumb.
Raul Ibanez was perhaps the Mariners’ best late-round success story. He was taken in the 36th round of the 1992 draft as a catcher. After struggling to make and stay in the big leagues with Seattle, he found success in Kansas City while playing on an everyday basis. He returned to Seattle in 2004 and played five more seasons. He finished with more than 2,000 hits and a 20.4 career WAR.
On the current 40-man Mariners roster, utility player Tim Lopes (sixth round, 2012) and reliever Art Warren (23rd round, 2015) were late picks. Relievers Joey Gerber (eighth round, 2018) and Sam Delaplane (23rd round, 2017) are expected to be put on the roster if the season ever starts.