Major League Baseball Amateur Draft
The Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, officially known as the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, Rule 4 Draft, or as the MLB Draft, is held every year in June by conference call among the 30 Major League clubs.
Of the four major sports drafts in North America, the MLB Draft is the least followed by fans. The principal reasons for this are the draft's relative unreliability and its sheer size. Players who are picked early in the first round are not guaranteed to become stars, whilst players who are picked in the very late rounds can. The most notable example of this phenomenon is Mike Piazza, who was drafted in the 62nd round (1390th pick) of the 1988 draft.
The amateur draft was instituted in 1965 in order to curb the growing bonuses paid to amateur players. Earlier attempts to limit the practice of "bonus babies" included the institution of a bonus rule that forced top signees to spend time in the major leagues immediately, or the "first-year player draft" through which teams could lose players they had signed after one year if they failed to promote them to the majors. However, these rules did not work and had unpleasant unintended consequences, so teams decided to implement a radical new system: they would now be allowed to select the top amateur players available, and have exclusive negotiating rights with them for the a set period. Undrafted players were still free to negotiate with all teams, as had been the case previously, but by definition, only marginal prospects would now fall in that category. Because players could only negotiate with one team, this drove down competition and the size of bonuses paid. In addition, the draft order was determined by the inverse order of finish the previous season, with the worst teams picking first. Again, this was done to prevent the richer teams from hoarding the best available talent.
The first draft was held on June 8, 1965. The first player to be drafted was OF Rick Monday, by the Kansas City Athletics out of Arizona State University. He signed with the Athletics within a couple of weeks and went on to have a long and successful playing career. That first draft was hit-and-miss, however, as teams did not all have the scouting resources to participate effectively. Thus the second player drafted, high school pitcher Les Rohr, by the New York Mets, only had a cup of coffee in the majors, and seven of the twenty players picked in the first round did not even reach the majors. The first drafted player to reach the majors was P Ken Holtzman, drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 4th round, who made his debut of September 5th of that year.
Starting in 1966, there were two drafts per year, one in January and one in June. The January draft was for players who had graduated from school after the June draft, which was timed to coincide with the most common graduation date for high schools and colleges, and there was also for each draft a "secondary phase" in which teams could draft players who had previously been drafted but had not signed, mainly because they had wanted to continue their studies. While top draftees from January or from the secondary phase did sometimes become impact players in the majors, it was clear that the June draft was where the real action was and where the best future prospects could be found. The January draft was discontinued in 1987, as was the secondary phase, and since then there has been a single draft.
Until 1990, the draft was only for United States citizens or players who had attended high school or college in the United States. This was extended to players from Canada and Puerto Rico, and it had a deleterious impact on Puerto Rican baseball for a couple of decades, as the system on the island was not based on schools, as it was in the U.S. In Canada, Baseball Canada was able to counteract that to some extent with a strong national baseball academy program that identified the best young players and showcased them in international tournaments, a model that Puerto Rico eventually adopted as well through the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy. Players from other countries remained international free agents, free to sign with any team as soon as they turned 16 or graduated from school. This soon became as much of a jungle as the pre-draft U.S. landscape had been, and MLB stepped in to impose some rules for international signings, instituting a signing period and a bonus pool that teams were not allowed to exceed. Still calls to make the draft worldwide in its application are still heard regularly, whenever the Collective Bargaining Agreement is up for renewal.
Draft picks at first could not be traded. This largely remains the case, with the exception being Competitive Balance Round picks that are awarded to teams from smaller markets, something that was only instituted in 2013. This was done, again, to reduce the leverage that players could exercise in order to extract larger bonuses. One player who found a way to circumvent this was Pete Incaviglia, one of the biggest college stars of the 1980s. Before the 1985 amateur draft, he made it known that he would only sign with a team willing to bring him straight to the majors, with no minor league time. The Montreal Expos still drafted him with the #8 pick, thinking he was bluffing, but it wasn't the case. As the two sides were at an impasse and the Expos were about to lose Incaviglia with nothing to show for it, they found a team willing to meet his conditions - the Texas Rangers. Thus they signed Incaviglia on the Rangers' terms and immediately traded him there in return for a couple of players. Other owners were furious and quickly closed the loophole and adopted a rule that no drafted player could be traded until a full year had passed since his signing. This lasted for three decades until it became obvious that it was creating problems: teams who wanted to trade top draft picks in order to strengthen their current team had to hold these players in limbo for months until the trade could become official. The rule was dropped in the 2010s.
Players who did not like the team that had drafted them or wanted more money had little choice but to hold out, refuse to sign, and hope for better terms the next time, as failure to sign did not make them a free agent, but forced them to re-enter the draft. This could work in case a player had other options - usually, pursuing a college career - but in other cases it was a very risky move. The case of Matt Harrington, who was drafted five separate times and saw his career fritter away in the independent leagues in the meantime, became a cautionary tale. So player agents tried to game the system: there was the famous ploy in the 1996 amateur draft when four players drafted in the first round were successful in having themselves declared free agents because the teams who had drafted them had failed to make them a formal written offer. That loophole was also closed immediately. Others decided to play in the independent leagues for a year, most famously J.D. Drew and Luke Hochevar, but that ploy had its limits, and MLB put an end to it by starting to enforce strict bonus limits based on the slot in which a player was picked, with penalties steep enough to tie teams' hands. There are still rumblings from some quarters (paging Scott Boras) that the draft is inherently unfair, un-American, or socialistic, but with the moves adopted in the 2010s, a lot of the bitter antagonism has abated, as bonuses for top picks are quite generous, even if they are kept within limits.
In addition to the Competitive Balance Round picks mentioned above, the draft has also been used as a form of compensation to mitigate the loss of players through free agency. This began in 1978 when four teams received first-round draft picks as compensation for losing a player through free agency. Ironically, the New York Yankees, the most avid signers of free agents, received two of these picks, for losing DH/1B Ron Blomberg and P Mike Torrez via free agency. This form of compensation was adjusted over the years, but remains in effect to this day: while since 2018, teams are no longer in danger of losing their own first round pick for signing a free agent subject to compensation, compensation picks can still be awarded to a team that loses a top free agent, either after the first or second round depending on the quality of the departing player. Teams can also be awarded a bonus pick if they fail to sign a player drafted in the top two rounds the previous season; in this case, the bonus pick is provided one rank after that of the unsigned player. For example, if a team fails to sign the #4 pick of the draft, the following year it will be awarded pick #5 as compensation.
The draft was traditionally conducted by conference call from Major League Baseball headquarters in New York, NY. In 2007 and 2008, it was moved to Lake Buena Vista, FL. In 2009, it was moved to the MLB Network studios in Secaucus, NJ. There was a proposal to move the draft to Omaha, NE starting in 2020, to take advantage of the College World Series that were set to begin in the same city a few days later, but the College World Series were cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and the draft - shortened to five rounds - was held by video conference call instead. In 2021, MLB decided to have the draft held as part of the All-Star Game festivities, in the host city, which was Denver, CO. This also meant that the draft would now be held in mid-July and not in early June.
The Official Baseball Rules govern which players are eligible for selection in the draft. These rules are detailed, but the basic eligibility criteria can be described as follows: Generally, a player is eligible for selection if the player is a resident of the United States or Canada and the player has never before signed a major league or minor league contract. Residents of Puerto Rico and other territories of the United States are eligible for the draft. Also considered residents are players who enroll in a high school or college in the United States, regardless of where they are from originally.
Certain groups of players are ineligible for selection, generally because they are still in school. The basic categories of players eligible to be drafted are:
- High school players, if they have graduated from high school and have not yet attended college or junior college;
- College players, from four-year colleges who have either completed their junior or senior years or are at least 21 years old; junior college players, regardless of how many years of school they have completed; and
- 21-year-old players.
A club used to retain the rights to sign a selected player until one week prior to the next draft, or until the player entered, or returned to, a four-year college on a full-time basis. A selected player who entered a junior college could not be signed until the conclusion of the school's baseball season. In 2007, the rules were changed to give teams until August 15 to sign drafted players; any player unsigned by that date becomes eligible for the next year's draft. In the case of a first-rounder not signed, the drafting team receives compensation in the form of a pick in the next year's draft one slot below the unsigned draftee (e.g. if a team fails to sign a player selected with the 6th overall pick, it will receive the seventh overall pick as a bonus the following year).
A player who is drafted and does not sign with the club that selected him may be drafted again at a future year's draft, so long as the player is eligible for that year's draft. A club may not select a player again in a subsequent year, unless the player has consented to the re-selection.
A player who is eligible to be selected and is passed over by every club becomes a free agent and may sign with any club during the signing period, or until the player enters, or returns to, a four-year college full-time or enters, or returns to, a junior college.
The clubs take turns selecting players in reverse order of their won-loss records at the close of the previous regular season for 50 rounds, or until all the teams pass on a player in one round. In 2005 and for the first time, the order of selection was without regard to League. The number of rounds became strictly limited to 50, and to 40 rounds in 2012. Exceptionally, the 2020 amateur draft only had five rounds, and future editions are likely to be limited to 20 rounds.
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- Jesse Yomtov: "MLB draft: The best player ever picked at every spot from 1-30", USA Today, May 25, 2019.