In 2019, 1,217 selections were made in the Major League Baseball first-year player draft. The Twins had 41 picks and signed 32 of them.
In 2020, only 160 players will be drafted. The Twins will have four picks Wednesday and Thursday, and they are expected to sign several more players as free agents — but they won’t sign nearly as many as they did last year.
The coronavirus pandemic has put the regular season in jeopardy and is doing a number on the draft. Based on an agreement with the players’ union, the league had the authority to shrink the draft to as few as five rounds, which is the number it settled on. Any undrafted player then can sign with a team for $20,000, a way the league can reduce costs.
While the top prospects will be picked, what happens after that could be even more interesting as teams will float in a much larger pool of young free-agent talent.
“After the draft it will be a little more about the recruiting shtick,” said Sean Johnson, Twins director of scouting. “We have probably Zoomed with 50 of the top 60 guys on our board, and a good section of those guys, we don’t think they are going to be in our mix — we don’t think they are going to be there at all.”
The Twins could have had as many as six picks, but they forfeited their third-rounder when they signed free agent Josh Donaldson and dealt their competitive balance round B pick to the Dodgers as part of the trade for Kenta Maeda. After the draft wraps up on Thursday, clubs will turn their full attention to that large free-agent pool. And some feel it will be like colleges trying to recruit blue chip prospects.
“That’s the unknown,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said. “That second part.”
Teams will contact free agents by phone or through video conferencing to make their pitches. Several members of the Twins’ player development staff will try to convince them that their best path to the majors is through the Twins, who are developing a good reputation in that area.
“We’ve had different guys in different calls trying to get different opinions of the players,” Johnson said. “Post-fifth round, I’m unsure how that is going to shake out. We are going to show them what our player development has to offer, how we develop. If you are on the edge of the fifth round and you ended up not getting selected, you’re still a talented player.
“Our player development has a buffet of technology and tools that, if a player wants to get involved with, he can do it. We are heavily staffed. We have amazing coaches at every level. We can offer how great our program is, and we have told our players that when we have met with them.”
It will be an interesting time, as prospects field offers from several clubs with their own set of priorities. Will the organizations with the best farm systems win out? Will clubs currently with competitive teams have an edge? Will proximity matter? Will players from California, Texas and Florida prefer teams in those states? Will the Yankees sign some players just because they are the Yankees?
“We will put our best foot forward and hopefully we will win out on a lot of players,” Johnson said. “But who knows how it is going to shake out.”
Some college players have already balked at the altered system, pulling out of the draft to return to school in hopes of having a bigger year before the 2021 draft. Johnson expects junior college programs to strengthen over the next couple of years because they will become landing spots for many 2020 high school seniors who didn’t have a chance to prove themselves this season, won’t get drafted and will be unable to find a Division I team with room on its roster.
ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel said clubs might not be willing to pay high school players as much as they would under normal circumstances because they were unable to scout them and still have unanswered questions.
“It will be even more college heavy than it is normally,” McDaniel said of the draft during a teleconference on Thursday.
The last time anyone was scouted in person was early March before the pandemic hit. Teams will have to go on reports going back to 2019 in some cases.
“We had plenty of time the last three months to connect with players via Zoom and talk to the coaches, the college coach who recruited him, the summer coach, Team USA people,” Johnson said. “People have been sitting around dying to talk about baseball. We know them pretty much inside and out — as much as you can know about 17-18-year-olds.”
Johnson said the Twins will prepare as well as they can, anticipate different scenarios and be ready to change course during the draft and then during the undrafted free-agency period.
“We are working with what we can control,” Johnson said. “We are going to try to be active in that signing process. We have talked a lot about keeping our eyes on our four picks because we just don’t know who is going to be available. We’re not sure how many players are going to take the $20,000 offer and leave school early.”