Albert Pujols, a three-time National League MVP for the St. Louis Cardinals before moving to the Los Angeles Angels, is a prime example of a player who has had an outstanding major league career despite not being a high draft pick. Pujols was chosen by the Cardinals in the 13th round in 1999. Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

The Atlanta Braves selected and signed 23 players from the 1981 MLB draft. None of them ever played in the major leagues. It was an extreme example of how hard it can be for teams to determine which young prospects one day will be good enough to play in the majors.

It will be even harder over the next two years. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, MLB has reduced the number of rounds in this year’s draft – to be held Wednesday and Thursday – from 40 to five. Undrafted players can receive a maximum $20,000 signing bonus. The 2021 draft is likely to be cut to 20 rounds, with the same bonus limit for players not selected.

The moves will save each MLB team only about $1 million this year, but that’s part of a bigger picture. MLB reportedly wants to eliminate 42 of 162 minor-league affiliates. Franchise owners are facing a class-action lawsuit for paying minor players below minimum wage. It’s inevitable MLB will have to increase those salaries, so reducing the number of minor-league players lessens the coming financial hit.

Baseball teams already are saving money by manipulating service time for prospects. Now they also want to squeeze more of them on the front end. Like many of baseball’s cost-saving moves, this latest scheme is short-sighted.

In each of the past 15 seasons, more than 40 million people attended minor league baseball games. An affordable night at the ballpark is a way for fans to connect to the game. They can watch young players who one day will become major leaguers. Baseball develops fans, along with players, in the minor leagues.

But the bigger impact from cutting signing bonus money will be on the quantity of talent on the farm.


In last year’s draft, nearly 400 players selected after the sixth round received signing bonuses of at least $100,000. The $20,000 maximum bonus for undrafted players this year and next is a number that more athletes will reject. They’ll decide it’s better to go to college or stay there, play another sport, or join the workforce outside sports rather than sign for $20,000 and make a paltry wage in the minors.

MLB teams are more confident than ever in the efficiency of their scouting and player development departments. FiveThirtyEight’s Travis Sawchik makes the case that technological changes have helped teams become better at identifying and developing lower-level prospects who are on the MLB track. Sawchick argues those players need to spend less time (or maybe no time) playing on minor league teams filled with prospects who won’t sniff the majors. So it’s better to focus more resources on the best prospects.

I’m skeptical of the wisdom of that approach. There are intangible benefits to prospects playing on teams in real competition. It also might be the case that MLB teams are overconfident in their ability to develop prospects.

In 2017, Baseball America studied drafts from 1981 through 2010. In that sample, about 70% of first-round picks and 55% of supplemental picks went on to play in the majors. The next three rounds got good returns: 50% of prospects selected in the second round made it, 40% in the third round, and roughly 30% in the fourth and fifth rounds.

It gets more difficult to find future major leaguers in the later rounds, but teams hit on a significant number of them. More than 20% of players in rounds 5-7 played in the big leagues. About 20% of prospects selected in rounds 8-10 did so.

The vast majority of players drafted outside the first five rounds, never make it to the majors or don’t stay there if they do. But more late-round picks stick in MLB than you may think.

In 2017, the Society for American Baseball Research studied how many players drafted and signed from 1996 to 2011 played in MLB for more than three years. About 10% of players drafted in rounds 6-8 did so. Roughly 8% of players selected in rounds 9-10 and 5% percent of players picked in rounds 11-20 played in the majors for three-plus years.

MLB teams eliminated those rounds in this year’s draft. Players who would have been drafted that late will be offered much smaller signing bonuses. Next year, players who aren’t selected in 20 rounds also will be offered bonuses of no more than $20,000.

Those signing restrictions for two waves of prospects likely will create a shallower talent pool. Expect that trend to continue, given MLB’s desire to have fewer minor league players on payrolls. Teams will save money, but hurt baseball’s growth.

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