With drastic measures taken to cut costs in this year’s MLB draft, teams may wind up losing numerous potential draftees.
Leading up to the 2018 MLB Draft, high school right-hander Carter Stewart was one of the class’s most prized prospects. Armed with a Bugs Bunny curveball, mid-to-high 90s mph fastball, as well as a recent growth spurt that allowed him to shoot up two inches in height and gain 30 pounds, Stewart was the prototypical 18-year-old prep arm destined to go early in the upcoming draft.
And sure enough, the Atlanta Braves — an organization well-known for its passion regarding young teenage pitchers — took Stewart eighth overall, once again wisely choosing to invest in a top-five draft prospect.
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Except… Stewart is not a current prospect in the Braves’ farm system, nor did he ever play for the organization. In fact, the Florida native and — according to MLB Pipeline then — best prep pitcher out of the 2018 class, never even signed with the Braves, deciding to reject the team’s below-slot signing bonus of roughly $2 million (The no. 8 pick that year had a slot value worth nearly $5 million, but the Braves were concerned with a recent wrist injury.)
Instead, Stewart revitalized his stock at a junior college (Eastern Florida State College) in 2019 and landed a six-year contract with Japan’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks — a team in the Nippon Professional Baseball league.
For Stewart, the attraction seemed obvious. Even though he quickly rebuilt his draft stock while pitching at the junior college level — earning a no. 38 overall ranking on Baseball America‘s prospect list in 2019 — the benefits of playing abroad were too great to overlook. Rather than spend possibly 3-4 years laboring in the minor leagues, another two years making the MLB minimum, plus three more seasons earning an arbitration salary, Stewart cashed in immediately and inked a $7 million deal with the Hawks. His signing in Japan proved that there are in fact other avenues for amateurs to choose from, and at the time Stewart’s decision was almost unheard of:
"“The more I talked about it, the more it came to me that it was a great idea and I loved it. I do hope that I create a new opportunity for young amateur players to have a different path. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I hope one day someone says this was a great idea.” — Carter Stewart (June 2019 — Atlanta Journal-Constitution)"
Which brings us to the present — just hours before the massively-shortened 2020 MLB Draft begins, featuring deferred signing bonuses and capped spending (among many other things). If there was ever a time for amateur players to look at different options, this appears to be it. Unlike MLB and its aggressive alterations to cut down on costs this season and the next, other leagues like the NPB and South Korea’s KBO could look a bit more enticing.
This year players signed from the MLB Draft will only receive $100,000 upfront, with the rest of their signing bonus spread out in two equal installments, paid on July 1 for the next two seasons. For instance, that $100K check upfront would’ve meant a 98.8% deferment over the next two seasons for 2019’s no. 1 pick, catcher Adley Rutschman. Can you imagine only receiving 1.2% of an $8.1 million bonus?
And then of course there’s the $20,000 cap on undrafted players, which compared to previous drafts — oftentimes featuring bonuses that reach $125,000 — results in up to an 84% slash in potential bonuses for players not selected in this year’s event. Now compare that to what Japan’s NPB is willing to offer up.
According to Eric Logenhagen at FanGraphs, NPB teams are telling sources that they’re interested in acquiring undrafted American college players for bonuses in the $200-300K range, possibly giving numerous under-the-radar collegiate prospects an opportunity to not only play pro ball but also earn a signing bonus up to 15 times more than what MLB is currently willing to offer.
There’s also the luxury of hitting the free-agent market sooner, as well as the inherited benefit of earning a better salary until then. A player like Stewart, or even a potential draftee from the 2020 class that decides to go to Japan this year, can play several seasons abroad and then return to the states to enter the open market.
As long as that player completes six seasons in Japan he’s exempt from MLB’s international signing rules. For an American college kid looking at only a $20K signing bonus this year, or just a fraction of a much larger one, taking a deal similar to Stewart’s could be a much better option. Plus, there’s the possibility to enter MLB’s free-agent market in his mid-20s instead of 29 or 30-years-old, all while most likely earning over $1 million per season as opposed to just $500-600K for the first couple of years (and the latter isn’t even guaranteed).
Granted, it’s fair to say the cream of the crop in this year’s draft class would perhaps be better served to pursue their dream of playing Major League Baseball, but players expected to be selected in the later rounds (especially rounds 4 and 5) may wish to take a detour. Stewart did it in 2019, and with what has happened since he signed that deal I’d imagine he has no regrets. Maybe it’s time for others to join him. It’s the least of what MLB deserves for how the league has handled its current circumstances.