MLB coronavirus agreement hangs amateur players out to dry

Kumar Rocker
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As we wrote yesterday, MLB and the MLBPA reached an agreement on how to handle the delay to the season caused by the coronavirus pandemic. That’s good news for the big league players who now have a firm understanding of how their salaries and service time will be handled this year, and for the owners who can now start budgeting for that. The league has a better understanding of the different circumstances that could arise depending when baseball makes its return in 2020, or if we have to wait until 2021.

That’s all well and good, but the agreement also spells trouble for amateur players hoping to go pro. Although MLB did not end up cancelling this year’s draft as had been rumored, the event was shortened from 40 rounds to five. Jeff Passan also reported that the owners have the right to shorten the 2021 draft to 20 rounds. All signing bonuses in 2020 and 2021 are being mostly deferred for two years, with players receiving just $100,000 up front. Signing bonuses for undrafted players are being capped at $20,000, down from the prior $125,000.

Here are the bonus allotments by round and individual pick for the top ten rounds of last year’s draft. Players taken after the 10th round have a maximum of the same $125,000 that was set for undrafted players. Bonuses above that mark would count against the team’s total draft pool. The point is that there was potentially life-changing money for players taken in the middle rounds, to say nothing of the sixth through tenth. Take it from former MLB player Micah Johnson:

Families are going to be hit hard by this. Moreover, players are going to be sent to the minor leagues with substantially less money in their pockets to make less than the minimum wage. The owners are simply looking to spend less money, and in doing so they’re making life substantially worse for the players who will one day play in the majors and be the source of the game’s revenue.

The MLBPA and the players are also to blame here. Just as they did with the 2016 CBA, the big leaguers sold out potential future MLBPA members to protect their own interests. The rights of minor leaguers and amateurs were some of the few bargaining chips the players had to work with, but the point stands that those vulnerable groups got screwed.

Instituting the same bonus rules for 2021 also means that potential draftees can’t simply go back to school and expect to get full monetary value next year. Players who project to go in the later rounds may opt to do so out of hope that next year’s draft will be longer. But colleges are already bracing for an unusually large group of players seeking spots on next year’s rosters because of the NCAA’s decision to grant an extra year of eligibility for the players who had their seasons cut short by COVID-19. Playing time will be at a premium. All of these factors make decisions even harder for high school seniors too. Do they take their chances with an extremely short 2020 draft, or fight for valuable roster spots at a college program?

Potential draftees aren’t the only players in trouble either. The start of the international signing period was pushed back from July 2nd to January, and FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen thinks that this is the prelude to MLB instituting a long-rumored international draft. An international draft would be disastrous for the earning potential of Latin American players, many of whom come from very poor families. Their signing bonuses can mean the difference between poverty and comfortable lives. Capping the earning potential of these players means that chance goes out the window.

To be clear, the current system is also terrible. It encourages the exploitation of minors and human trafficking, and baseball gladly looks the other way when teams make illegal handshake agreements with players as young as 13. The international free agent market is in desperate need of oversight and an overhaul. An international draft would only serve to take away the little leverage the players and their families have.

So what is baseball’s endgame with these decisions? Is it simply saving money during a time when the economy is in turmoil and the sport is taking in almost no revenue? Not quite, no.

A smaller draft would mean fewer minor league players. That gives MLB all the excuse it needs to enact Jeff Luhnow’s plan to eliminate minor league teams. Why have so many teams if there are going to be fewer players, especially if next year’s draft can be downsized too?

Fewer minor league teams means fewer jobs for players, which reduces the size of the potential talent pool for MLB. Fewer minor league teams means taking away many fans’ only real chance to see professional baseball in person. It sucks.

The MLBPA did what it deemed necessary to get the assurances it wanted about pay and service time. But it’s hard to imagine the owners ceding this ground now that they’ve gained it. There will be a new round of CBA negotiations after the 2021 season, and you can bet that the owners will push hard for a 20-round, if not even smaller draft. They’ll push for an international draft. They’ll push for more ways to keep money in their pockets and not put it in the hands of the players.

Oh, and the players who are already signed pros in the minors? They got no assistance in this deal. The MLBPA doesn’t represent them and has no incentive to help them.

The big leaguers got what they wanted. Everyone else got a punch in the gut.

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