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The Major League Baseball draft is unlike other major professional sports leagues in the way it assigns amateur players to teams. Let’s examine the following: How does the MLB draft work? And, why is it so different from football, basketball, hockey, and soccer?
The MLB draft is actually 3 drafts, with different rules and reasons for them. Additionally, the teams selecting the young baseball players are planning ahead years down the road, not just for the next season, as baseball players rarely go from school straight to the big leagues.
That’s not true of the other major sports drafts, where the top players can expect to contribute immediately. Baseball players take a year or more of experience in the minor leagues. The typical minor-league progression takes 4 years, maybe shorter for college players.
The failure rate for baseball draftees ~ those drafted who never get far enough along to play for the big club ~ is higher than in the other sports. Because of this, baseball teams tend to draft more players each year, up to 20 rounds in the main June amateur draft.
MLB First-Year Player Draft: Now 20 Rounds
The “draft” as most fans refer to it is actually called the First-Year Player Draft. Started in 1965, this young-player selection process was 40 rounds up until the pandemic of 2020, when it was reduced to 5, then changed to 20 rounds for 2021 and beyond.
With the league-players Collective Bargaining Agreement of 2022, starting that year the MLB draft will remain at 20 rounds each year.
It’s still a lot of players to draft. With each of 30 teams taking a player a round, it’s 600 players chosen every year. A big league team’s roster is only 26 players deep, so as you can see, clubs collect a lot more players each year in the draft than they need to fill a big league roster.
The huge number of rounds is a main difference between the drafts of the MLB, and other major professional sports. A comparison:
- Major League Baseball = 20 rounds (600 selections)
- National Football League = 7 rounds (256 selections)
- National Basketball Association = 2 rounds (60 selections)
- National Hockey League = 7 rounds (217 selections)
- Major League Soccer = 3 rounds (75 selections)
The order in which teams pick players is based on the end result of the standings the previous year, in reverse order. That is, the team that ended up with the worst record in baseball gets the No. 1 pick in the following draft. The team with the best record picks at No. 30; and so on.
For the 2023 draft, the MLB will institute a lottery between all the teams that failed to make the previous season’s playoffs, to pick the order of the first 6 picks. Where a team placed will determine how many “opportunities” that team will have to be selected for a pick among the top 6.
As an example let’s say the 18-team lottery system assigned 18 balls in the lottery pool for the last place team, 17 for the next-worst record, and so on, until the last team to not make the playoffs, which would have the best record of all such teams, would get only 1 opportunity. Something like that. (There will be 16 such teams starting in 2023).
This was instituted in an attempt to prevent teams from losing on purpose the previous season in order to improve their place in the selection order.
During the draft, each team is called upon and a clock is started to a set amount of time allowed to make selections. Many times, teams are pre-negotiating with players right up to the last second. Reason: Sometimes MLB teams will not draft players based on their belief that they cannot sign him.
Other Ways MLB Teams Get Rights to New Players
The MLB differs from other sports in that it has more than a single draft to assign teams rights to sign players. The main one we call the First-Year Player draft is officially the Rule 4 draft. Baseball teams have other ways of getting young players.
Rule 5 Draft in the MLB
The MLB’s drafts are named for the section of the rulebook that allows them. Beyond the main, Rule 4 draft, there is a Rule 5 draft.
The Rule 5 draft involves drafting players already playing in the minor leagues. The goal of this rule is to prevent teams from hoarding talent on their minor league rosters. The rule also is for the benefit of talented players, so they will not be buried in the high-minor leagues, and improve their chances of reaching the Show.
This draft occurs at the end of each calendar year. At that time, players not on each team’s 40-man roster are eligible to be drafted away by another team (with some exceptions).
The most notable Rule 5 draft pick was Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente. The Brooklyn Dodgers had signed the teen-ager, and then tried to hide him on a minor league team. This involved, allegedly, the minor league manager limiting Clemente’s playing time.
It did not work. The Pittsburgh Pirates noticed the young outfielder and snatched him and drafted Clemente.
A drawback to the Rule 5 draft is, players selected in it must remain on the active roster of the major league club for the entirety of the following season. In Pittsburgh’s case, they had to keep a roster spot for Clemente for an entire season while he was still very green.
Major League teams are also given additional picks, usually at the end of the First Round, to compensate teams that lost free agents who were signed by another team.
To this day, teams that lose players to other teams in free agency get valuable extra draft picks. It’s a reason some teams shy away from signing free agents, to protect their draft picks and future team planning. Some teams, notably the Oakland Athletics, strategize with the extra draft picks to grab (cheaper) young talent.
Teams may also be awarded compensatory picks if they drafted a player the previous draft but were unable to sign them, which means that player goes back into the draft the following year to become available once again to any team.
For the Rule 4 draft in mid-July 2022, for instance, the New York Mets will get the 11th overall pick, for failing to sign Kumar Rocker from the 2021 draft. The Boston Red Sox will get the 41st overall pick as compensation for not signing Jud Fabian.
These compensatory picks can be peppered throughout a Rule 4 draft, and can make it confusing if fans watch the draft on live television, as the added picks seem to come out of nowhere.
When are the MLB Drafts?
The Rule 4, First-Year Player Draft, is over the All-Star Game weekend, or July 17 to 19, 2022, in Los Angeles.
The main MLB draft is in the middle of the season (June or July) to allow players to complete their school seasons, whether high school or college, and allow MLB clubs the most time possible to watch and evaluate talent.
The Rule 5 draft of current minor league players occurs in December each year.
Final Words on How the Major League Baseball Draft Works
Thousands of young baseball players wait anxiously for calls each July to learn whether or not they will play professional baseball. The MLB First-Year Player Draft lets teams choose unsigned players in an order based on how teams performed the previous season.
The MLB draft differs from the drafts of other major sports, in that it goes for many more rounds than the others, and in that there are other ways to pick players such as the Rule 5 draft, or compensatory picks in the main (First-Year Player) draft.
Question: How many rounds were in the 2020 MLB Draft?
Answer: Due to safety concerns with the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 draft was cut to just 5 rounds. Then for 2021 it was cut to 20 rounds (from the usual 40), and then in 2022 the owners and players agreed to make 20 rounds permanent.
Q.: Can a player still get to the minor leagues if he was not drafted by an MLB team?
A.: Yes. Those players are unrestricted free agents, free to sign with any team. This happens pretty consistently, as young players “walk on” to pre-season practices, and play well enough to get a contract.
Q.: Is the MLB draft for all young amateur players around the world?
A.: No, currently it’s just for players from the United States and Canada, under a list of rules. However, owners and players discussed the possibility of an international draft during the CBA negotiations of 2022. Since the late 1940s, MLB teams have had to send scouts to international locations to find talent from outside of America.
Q.: What exactly does it mean to be drafted?
A.: Using a draft pick on an amateur player just gives MLB clubs exclusive rights to have that player, e.g. first opportunity to sign him to a contract. These rights are good for a year. If a player has not been signed by then he becomes eligible to be re-drafted the following year. This occurs consistently, but not in great numbers.
Q.: Where do MLB clubs find most amateurs?
A.: A mix between high schools and colleges. The draft has historically favored high school players, as scouts believed they were younger and could be molded more easily into successful MLB players. That changed starting in the 1980s with sabermetrics and new ways to evaluate baseball players based on college statistics. It’s about even now in terms of high school vs. college players in the MLB draft.
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