Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo talked at length in an MLB Network Radio interview last Sunday about his club’s preparation for the 2020 MLB Draft, and the topic came up again in a conference call with reporters this past Friday morning, on which he discussed the challenges of preparing for a draft without knowing when it will be held or how many rounds there will end up being.
According to reports on the agreement reached between MLB and the MLBPA on a number of shutdown related issues after Major League Baseball decided to postpone the start of the 2020 campaign due to concerns over the growing COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic in mid-March, the draft will be held as early as June 10th, or pushed back as late as July 20th, with August 1st the deadline for signing this year’s selections. There could be as few as five rounds (down from 40) and this year’s bonus pools will remain the same as last year’s, whereas there would usually be an increase. Players will receive $100,000 of their bonuses up front, with the remainder of the bonus paid out in equal installments on July 1 for the next two years, and any undrafted free agents who sign with a big league club will receive a signing bonus of no more than $20,000.
So what are the challenges GM’s around the league are focused on as they try to prepare to bolster their organizational depth with draft-eligible players?
“The challenges have been that we have stopped playing baseball six weeks into the Spring season. That’s been the biggest hurdle that we’ve had to face,” Rizzo explained.
“Fortunately, as you know, we dive into this draft thing, very, very seriously. We got a lot done early on, especially the higher-round type of premier prospects. We have a really good feel of what’s out there in the country.”
Having put in the work before most of the country shut down and group sporting activities came to a halt, the Nationals are now hard at work putting together a draft board, doing all they can remotely as they wait for official word on when the draft will take place and how it will play out.
“That’s taken up a big part of our calendar and our daily assignments are based on a lot of draft work,” Rizzo said.
“We’re in the process of scouts doing their due diligence, doing their make-up work, talking to players, talking to prospects, talking to their families via telephone, or via Zoom, or video conferencing.
“We have had several conference calls with our amateur draft leadership and begun kind of putting the board together in anticipation of the draft in July, although we don’t know exactly when it will take place. But we want to be prepared.
“We’re going over our usual protocol of meetings and interviews albeit via video call now instead of in person, putting the draft board together, seeing video and film on players that we have interest in, going over the medicals with our doctors, trainers, and that type of thing.
“We will be prepared whenever the bell rings and we proceed with this draft. We’ll be ready to roll.”
With their potential bonuses affected significantly if they don’t go in the first five (or 10 or however many) rounds of the draft, will college-age players with eligibility remaining, and high-school-age players in this year’s class opt to stay in school or go to college, respectively, rather than take less of a bonus than they would have received in previous seasons (with these same/similar rules expected to apply for the 2021 Draft as well)? Will the Nationals and other teams be wary of drafting high school-age prospects in this scenario?
“I never want to comment on what the industry says or thinks,” Rizzo said, “because I have the Washington Nationals to think about. We have seen many, many high school players that we liked, and they will be in consideration in this draft, and we will put them on the board as we see how they rank and we’ll do all of our due diligence on high school and college players.”
Eliminating an entire pool of players, he explained, doesn’t make a lot of sense in any scenario.
“We’re certainly not going to segregate a full slice of our participation pool, be it high school players just because we have been shut down through the season early on,” the GM added.
“These drafts are often when you’re talking about high school players, especially the bad weather high school areas, which I was very familiar with. I was an area scout in the upper Midwest for 13 years, so I get it.
“We often have limited looks at these players, but you better have history on them, and history means several years before, going up to it.
“You have to really weigh heavily on your area scouts who are the backbone of any scouting department because they know the players the best, and they’ve known them the longest, and we have to trust their evaluations, and we’ll put them on the board accordingly.”
As he explained in the SiriusXM MLB Network Radio interview last week, the clubs who are used to attacking the draft prep early, and making it a priority for their organizations, will have an advantage when it’s time to start making selections in what will one way or another be an abbreviated process.
“I think the organizations with the larger, more experienced scouting staffs who have been out earlier in the Spring seasons, that rely on really good, veteran area scouts to cultivate those particular areas, I think they’ll have the upper hand as far as who to approach first,” Rizzo said.
The veteran scouts that the Nationals employ, Rizzo told MLBNR hosts Jim Bowden and Jim Duquette, are, “the backbone of any draft.”
‘They’re the ones that are in the families’ living rooms and their kitchens talking to the parents and have a relationship with them, and I think the teams that have those types of scoutings staffs, both in experience and in depth, will have the upper hand because they have been in the kitchens, and they’ll have already a built-in trust factor with those particular players.”
The Nationals’ top pick in this year’s draft is the 22nd overall selection in the first round. Rizzo and Co. in the front office in D.C. used their top pick last season, (17th overall in the first round), to draft right-handed pitcher Jackson Rutledge out of San Jacinto Junior College in Texas.