This year’s annual draft of amateur players will take place this week on June 10th and 11th. Those aspiring to a career as a major league baseball player have long looked forward to this ritual, this baseball right of passage. Even if a player went undrafted, he could still look forward to the possibility of being signed in the days following the draft. But, this year MLB has found reason to shorten the draft and restrict the signing of non-drafted free agents.
MLB has used the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason to limit the opportunities of high school and college athletes. But, truthfully, the draft itself is just a means of convincing young prospects that they are lucky to be selected to endure the enforced indentured servitude that accompanies their remote hopes that they make it to the big leagues.
There was a time when MLB’s owners were concerned about the legality of a draft. During the 1950s various opinions were that a draft was an impingement of a person’s rights, that it was a restraint of trade, that it smacked of communism, that it was anti-competitive, or that it was the equivalent of a slave market.
MLB was most concerned with soaring signing bonuses and, after their various attempts to control signing bonuses with their bonus rules, the owners finally implemented a draft in 1965.
The draft serves just one purpose for MLB, it contains cost. The history of the draft supports this.
Prior to the Second World War, amateur baseball players could sign with any team that offered them a contract. For the sixteen professional baseball organizations, the cost of amateur talent was minimal. Organizations could stock pile dozens of players in their ever-increasing minor league affiliates.
After the war, the cost of the most talented players began to rise. Even untried players were receiving hefty bonuses, some higher than the average major league salary. The “richer” franchises were able to hoard talent. The “poorer” franchises couldn’t afford to compete for amateur talent (or, were maybe too cheap to pay for amateur talent?) and pushed for a resolution to this FINANCE problem. The seeds for the draft were planted, but it would be several years before the draft that we recognize was born.
Baseball’s first solution was to institute the “bonus rule”.
In 1947 through 1950, a team that paid an amateur a signing bonus over $4,000 had to place that player on its 25-man roster after just one year in the minors. The rule was repealed but a harsher rule replaced it from 1953 through 1957 that stipulated that a player receiving a bonus over $4,000 had to be placed on the 25-man roster for two years before he could be sent to the minors.
Teams tried to circumvent the rules by paying balances over a $4,000 signing bonus under the table. Players who were removed from the 25-man roster too early became free agents.
In 1959, the original First-Year Player Draft was implemented. This draft allowed teams to select players who had completed their first season of professional ball. Major league teams could draft from AAA and below, AAA could draft from AA and below, … Major League clubs had to pay $15,000 for a drafted player, Minor League teams paid a lower price depending on their level.
Teams could no longer beat the system by paying bonuses under the table since all first-year players not on the 40-man roster were eligible. In addition, they became hesitant to sign and develop players whom they could lose in the First-Year Player Draft. This had the double effect of keeping bonuses down and allowing cheaper teams to compete with the richer teams for amateur baseball players.
This legislation was further strengthened in 1962 when the draft price was lowered to $8,000. New restrictions allowed an exemption that one first-year player who had been added to the 40-man roster for draft protection could be optioned to the minors but still counted against the 25-man roster. Additional prospects could be protected if they cleared an $8,000 waiver by all teams. But, that would again lower the players available on the 25-man roster.
This last restriction may have had an impact on the 1964 National League pennant race. The Phillies protected two first-year players on their 25-man roster rather than allow them to play their second year in the minors – Johnny Briggs and Rick Wise.
Johnny Briggs was signed in September of 1962. He completed his first professional season in 1963 as a 19-year-old with Class A Bakersfield in the California League where he batted .297 with 21 HR in 120 games. He was protected on the ’64 Phillies active roster and saw limited action (.258/.347/.333). He appeared in 61 games, but made only 7 starts (6 of them against the Mets in June). He had 76 plate appearances, 33 as a pinch hitter. Twenty-eight of his 29 appearances at Connie Mack Stadium were as a pinch hitter where he hit .320.
Rick Wise was signed in June of 1963. He completed his first professional season that summer as a 17-year-old with Class A Bakersfield in the California League where he went 6-3 in 9 starts with a 2.63 ERA. He was protected on the ’64 Phillies active roster and saw some action. He made 25 appearances, 8 as a starter. He went 5-3 with a 4.04 ERA. Not too shabby, but maybe if manager Gene Mauch had a couple of older veterans on the bench, the season might have ended differently. Maybe not.
Finally, at the 1964 Winter Meetings, MLB voted to institute an amateur draft. The first draft was held on June 8-9, 1965. Rounds continued as long as teams wanted to make selections. Houston and Baltimore were the only teams still selecting after round 60 and with Houston making the sole picks in the 71st and 72 rounds until 824 players were selected.
Teams selected in reverse order according to record. But, the order was further determined by league. The first pick rotated each year from one league to the other. Picks also alternated through the draft – in 1965 – AL (Oakland – Rick Monday), NL, AL, NL, …
Not only did MLB hold a draft in June, but it also arranged drafts at other times during the year.
In 1965 and 1966, MLB held a draft in August that included players who had played Legion ball or participated in any of the amateur summer leagues.
From 1966 thru 1986, MLB held a January draft that included any high school or college players who graduated during the winter semester.
Also from 1966 thru 1986, MLB held secondary drafts in June and January that included any players who had not been signed during the previous year’s June or January draft.
The only other amateur draft occurred in 1971 when the MLB held a delayed June secondary draft (a second, secondary draft).
With the advent of free agency, draft picks became a commodity and were used to compensate teams that lost free agents to another team and penalize teams that signed free agents.
In 1976, if a team signed a free agent and was drafting in the first half of the first round (picks 1-12), it would lose its second round pick to the team that lost the free agent. If the signing team drafted in the second half of the first round (picks 13-24), it would lose its first round pick to the team that lost the free agent.
In 1981, free agent compensation was redefined. Players were defined in three tiers – Type A was the top 20% at their position, Type B was those from 20%-30%, and the rest were not ranked. If a team signed a Type A free agent it would still lose a draft pick as described in the previous CBA plus a selection from a compensation poll of players (teams could protect up to 26 players). A team that lost a Type B free agent would receive the a draft pick from the signing team as described in the previous CBA plus a “Special Draft Choice” between the first and second rounds.
In 1985, free agent compensation was modified again. The compensation pool was discontinued. The tiers were redefined – Type A included the top 30% at their position, Type B included 30%-50%, and Type C included 50%to 60%. A team losing a Type A free agent would receive a draft pick from the signing team as defined in the earlier CBA plus a “Special Draft Choice” between the first and second rounds , Type B would receive a draft pick, Type C would receive a “Special Draft Choice” between the first and second rounds.
In 1990, a new CBA determined that a team losing a free agent would only get draft pick compensation if it had offered arbitration.
In 2006, a new CBA defined Type A players as those who ranked in top 20% at their position. Type B included players who were in the 20%-40% range at their position. Type C was eliminated. Compensation was revised. A team losing a Type A free agent received a pick from the signing team as defined in previous CBAs plus a special pick between the first and second rounds. A team losing a Type B free agent would receive a special pick between the first and second rounds.
In 2011, the CBA created signing bonus pools for draft picks in the first ten rounds and placed limits on bonuses for picks 11 thru 40. Exceeding the aggregate bonus pool allocation incurred penalties. The CBA also established Competitive Balance draft picks for smaller market teams. And, free agent compensation was redefined. The player rankings (Type A and Type B) were eliminated. If a team signed free agent from among the 125 highest paid players, who was offered and had turned down a qualifying offer, it would lose its highest draft pick (excepting the first ten picks). The team losing the free agent received a a special draft pick between the first and second rounds. Note that the lost draft pick by the signing team no longer went to the team losing the free agent.
In the most recent CBA (2017), compensation for lost QO free agents was redefined again. Currently, the special draft pick comes after the Competitive Balance Round B. The team signing the QO free agent loses draft pick(s) depending on the number of free agents signed and whether the team is a payor or payee into the Revenue Sharing Fund. Loss of a portion of International Pool money was also attached as a penalty to teams signing a QO free agent.
That would have brought us to the draft we know today, until MLB and MLBPA agreed to changes in March. This week there will be just five rounds, non-drafted free agents can’t be signed until three days after the completion of the draft, and non-drafted free agents are limited to a $20,000 signing bonus.