On Sunday in Seattle, for the fourth year in a row – enough for a full class of college prospects – Major League Baseball will hold a simplified version of its amateur draft. From an event with unlimited innings to one with 50 innings, then 40, and now only 20, the draft is exclusive and efficient, in harmony with baseball’s redesigned minor league system.
But efficiency comes at a cost: the countless long careers that may never come to fruition. Dozens of current major leaguers have turned pro after being drafted in rounds that no longer exist. They are grateful for their time.
“Twenty rounds doesn’t seem like enough,” said Toronto Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who was drafted in the 31st round by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010. “I mean, if it was like that now, then I would never have had a chance.”
Kiermaier, 33, may be the best modern example of the talent that once bubbled well below the surface of the draft. Selected 941st overall out of a community college in Illinois, he won three Gold Gloves, played in the World Series and earned more than $60 million in an 11-year career.
Four players who made the All-Star team last summer — David Bednar, Nestor Cortes, Ty France and Joe Mantiply — were also selected after the 20th round. So were two members of the Houston Astros’ World Series clinching last fall (Chas McCormick and Martín Maldonado) and several other longtime major leaguers, such as Jesse Chavez, Seth Lugo, Kevin Pillar and Rowdy Tellez.
Two Hall of Famers (Mike Piazza and John Smoltz) were drafted in extinct rounds, as were several others with a case for Cooperstown, like Mark Buehrle, Keith Hernandez, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. Many low-drafted players could have remained amateurs and tried to improve their draft position the next year – but their careers, of course, would then have developed differently.
“By reducing the numbers, you’re going to have to create other opportunities for those types of players who would be drafted to get into the game,” said Omar Minaya, a former general manager and longtime scout who now advises the Yankees. “Players develop late sometimes, so it’s good that MLB is doing things to put that infrastructure in place.”
Starting with the 2021 season, teams have been limited to 180 players under club control – previously there was no limit – and four home farm teams, plus one or two “complex teams” that operate from the spring training base. Short-season Class A teams were eliminated, in part because of the calendar; in 2021, the league changed the date of the draft from June to July, to coincide with the All-Star Game and raise its profile.
Some teams that were cut are now part of MLB’s pre-draft league, created for scouts to get one last look at prospects before making their picks. Other teams joined so-called affiliate leagues—the American Association, the Atlantic League, the Frontier League and the Pioneer League—partly funded by MLB but independent of any specific franchise.
Undrafted players, in theory, can join one of those teams in hopes of attracting MLB interest, but removing them from the draft acknowledges the odds against them.
“When a player signs a professional contract, you want that player to have some chance of one day becoming a major leaguer,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations. “That’s why players become minor leaguers, because they want to become major leaguers one day. And we had a lot of players in the system who had — what’s the right way to say it? – almost no chance of ever reaching the major leagues.”
Then again, to paraphrase Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber,” there’s a huge difference between next to no chance and no chance at all. A draft pick — whatever the round — proves that a major league franchise sees something in a player, and often that’s all the player wants.
“It was definitely nice to know that they picked me for a reason, and I could go show it and play my game,” said Zach McKinstry, the regular first baseman for the Detroit Tigers, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers. in the 33rd round in 2016. “I got an opportunity right when I signed. I spent three days in Arizona and then they sent me to low A and I played on a championship team that year.”
McKinstry, who played at Central Michigan University, was a backup before a teammate’s injury gave him a chance to elbow his way to the Dodgers. He was acutely aware that most minor league players—especially when the draft lasted 40 rounds or more—were needed just so the better prospects had somewhere to play.
“There’s a lot of injustice in the game, real or imagined, so there would be a lot of negative thoughts in those melees in the outfield while at bat,” said San Diego Padres broadcaster Bob Scanlan, who pitched nine seasons in the majors. after being signed as a 25th-round pick in 1984. “There was a lot of talk like, ‘You know you don’t mean anything to this organization. You’re just here as filler. Why are you even working your tail off?'”
Scanlan was 17 when he signed with Philadelphia, turning down UCLA for the allure of the quality training he would receive in professional ball. In recent decades, however, college programs have become more sophisticated, with advanced facilities and instruction that offered an attractive alternative to the dusty outposts that once made up the low minors.
“The development time is less and less with the limits on the total number of players, so the guys you would pick late are probably going to go to college,” said Matt Arnold, general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. “Signing and then going to Helena, or wherever, is going to be less attractive than a really nice ACC or SEC school — and even those second-tier programs have a lot of things they can sell.”
Sword said the costs of improvements across the minor leagues — in ballparks, travel, food and salaries — far outweigh the savings from eliminating so many draft picks; “It’s probably nine figures a year in the whole league,” he said. Sword added that in 2021, more than 200 players jumped from affiliate leagues to the affiliated minors.
“The paths for those types of guys to the big leagues exist just like they always have,” he said. “It’s just that the road is different than it used to be.”
Even so, it stands to reason that with half as many draft picks as just four years ago, hundreds more players from every class are now giving up their baseball dreams for more realistic careers. Arnold, who grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., rooting for a since-departed Class A team, wonders about the impact of losing so many acolytes to the sport.
“A lot of those guys, even if you were a 35th rounder out of the middle of nowhere, you go home and you start an academy, and now you’re a hero,” Arnold said. “You’re a guy who played pro ball, and you bring it home. And maybe he wasn’t great, but he brings the game with him as a manager in a way that I think we’re going to miss.”
The guys who do it might have to preach a little louder. Kiermaier, for one, embraces the role.
“I look back at how everything has evolved for me, and I’m so grateful for my journey,” he said. “I will never forget that I was in the 31st round. I’m proud of that. That number means a lot to me.”