The wait continues for hundreds of undrafted baseball players

NEW YORK (AP) — They sat anxiously by their phones, computers and televisions, hoping to hear their names called out by big league teams.

Instead, the wait continues for hundreds of young baseball players.

Major League Baseball’s amateur draft ended Thursday night, reduced to just five rounds over two days from the usual 40 rounds over three due to the coronavirus pandemic – a move that should save teams about 30 millions of dollars. So instead of over 1,200 players celebrating the start of their professional careers, only 160 can do so at the moment.

For the rest, they must carefully weigh their options. And the teams too.

“When it comes to post-draft signings, it will be different,” said David Stearns, Milwaukee Brewers general manager and president of baseball operations. “There will likely be all kinds of different mechanisms at play there and market forces at play that we haven’t seen in the past.”

Major league clubs are going through their drafting boards and scouting reports while trying to identify the best remaining talent across the country.

“The fact that we’ve only been able to spot four college weekends and the high schoolers, many of whom haven’t been seen in the spring, is tough,” Boston Red Sox director of amateur scouting Paul Toboni said. . “There is a lot more uncertainty than there would be in a normal spring.”

Instead of the typical free-for-all immediately after the draft when teams rush to add undrafted players to round out their minor league squads, the conclusion to this year’s event included some important caveats.

For one thing, teams have to wait until Sunday to start negotiating and signing undrafted players.

“I’m sure it’s going to be a little crazy on Sunday and we’ll see how quickly things develop from there,” Brewers director of scouting Tod Johnson said, “but I really think it’s probably going to be an exciting Sunday. .”

Under the March 26 agreement between MLB and the players’ association, teams are allowed to sign an unlimited number of undrafted players. But, clubs are limited to offering maximum signing bonuses of just $20,000.

“It’s not ideal, but every baseball team suffers from this on many levels,” Baltimore Orioles general manager Mike Elias said of the shortened draft. “It’s not fun that we can’t keep adding players to the system beyond the fifth round. It feels like we’re good at picking late. Last year we took some number of pitchers on day two of the draft and really toughened up our system, so we just don’t understand that.

“We will try to sign as many kids as possible after the draft.”

This, however, will not necessarily be the strategy of all clubs.

“We’ve focused on a group of players that we believe fit the profile that gives us the best opportunity to sign them,” Miami Marlins director of amateur scouting DJ Svihlik said. “We don’t want to sign a group of players for $20,000. We want to sign good players for $20,000.”

However, the best of these undrafted players could also choose not to start their professional careers.

“These players face a very, very difficult choice,” Svihlik said. “A lot of these guys are 21 and time is running out for their careers.”

While MLB commissioner Rob Manfred insisted ahead of the start of the draft Wednesday night that playing a major league season this year was “100%” going to happen, the status of the minor league season remains uncertain. Hundreds of minor leaguers have recently been released by major league organizations to cut costs. Thus, the prospect of no longer having anywhere to play in the pros could soon change the plans of some undrafted players.

High schoolers could choose to go to college, but players in four-year programs can’t be drafted again until after their junior or senior seasons, or if they turn 21 before the draft.

In what could become an increasingly popular scenario, players could choose to enroll in junior college – where there are no limits on draft eligibility.

“You’re starting to see some of the best players already committing to junior college just to have that as a backup,” Seattle Mariners director of amateur scouting Scott Hunter said.

But even that couldn’t be a sure thing since MLB teams have the option to cut the 2021 draft down to just 20 rounds.

Another thing to consider for current college seniors: The NCAA has granted players at all levels an additional year of playing eligibility due to their seasons being shortened or canceled by the coronavirus pandemic.

These returning players would not count against the current scholarship and roster limits in college baseball, and potentially have a chance next season to improve their draft position.

“I see college baseball going into a bit of a stalemate over the next 18 months,” Hunter said. “You’ve got all these kids coming back if they’re seniors who were supposed to move on, or juniors who were in the final rounds deciding to go back to school. You’re going to see a bit of a stalemate, which probably actually helps and hurts college baseball because they’re going to have to make some tough decisions, like any major league team in their minor league systems.

Either way, undrafted players and talent-hungry teams have a lot to consider over the next few days.

“We don’t really know what to expect,” Tampa Bay Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “But (we’re) doing our best to prepare and if we can provide an opportunity for more players, that’s something we’re going to rely on our scouts and staff to identify the right players to do that with. .”

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AP baseball writers Ron Blum, Mike Fitzpatrick and Noah Trister, and AP sportswriters Tim Booth, Jay Cohen, David Ginsburg, Jimmy Golen, Steve Megargee and Steven Wine contributed.

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