How Teams Are Recruiting Undrafted Players During Unprecedented Signing Period
Correction: This story originally incorrectly stated that signing a 2021 contract would delay Rule 5 eligibility. It does not.
Kale Emshoff woke up June 14 not knowing what to expect.
The Arkansas-Little Rock catcher was one of more than 1,000 players who would have been drafted in a normal year but were passed over in this year’s five-round draft. The March agreement between MLB and the player’s union that shortened the draft in response to the coronavirus pandemic also placed restrictions on nondrafted free agents. Undrafted players could not be contacted until June 14 at 9 a.m. ET, and their signing bonuses would be capped at $20,000.
Emshoff, a redshirt junior, was ready to turn professional even with those restrictions. He just hoped to get a phone call once teams were allowed to contact him.
As soon as the clock hit 9 a.m., his phone began ringing. And ringing. And ringing.
“As soon as 9 o’clock hit I had 15-20 phone calls,” Emshoff said. “Emails, text messages saying ‘Hey give me a call’, Zoom meetings with GMs and scouting directors. It was just crazy.”
MLB had its first official nondrafted free agent signing period since the draft’s inception this year. Normally, teams are permitted to contact undrafted players whenever they want after the draft and sign them for however much they want. Usually, the team who contacts the player first or offers the most money is who signs him.
This year, with all 30 teams limited to the same signing window and capped at the same bonus amount, clubs were forced to get creative.
“We got it all planned out,” Dodgers scouting director Billy Gasparino said the night the draft concluded. “I haven’t seen the final version of our kind of recruiting video. We’re going to pull out all the stops. Maybe Magic Johnson will call a few people. Dave Roberts. We’re going to try and do our best here. Whatever you can think of that’s legal in the recruiting world.”
Emshoff, who ultimately signed with the Royals, experienced that firsthand. The Rangers had former all-star Michael Young call him to pitch the organization. The Padres had longtime major league catcher A.J. Ellis give him a call.
The Yankees went above and beyond.
“I got a couple of hype videos. The Yankees hype video was one of the coolest ones I thought,” Emshoff said. “They took a video of me hitting a home run at school but then the ball flying into Yankee Stadium with the crowd. I thought that was pretty sweet.”
Customized videos. Calls from famous alumni. Hours-long discussions with team officials on why the organization is the best fit for the player.
It was a fast-paced, expansive process. More than one front office official likened it to recruiting.
“Really what you’re trying to do, rather than convince, is you’re just trying to provide a peak behind the curtain into what your particular organization is all about,” Red Sox vice president of scouting Mike Rikard said, “and where you believe that you have competitive advantages in developing people. You try to expose the potential players to what you are all about. So in that respect, there’s certainly some similarities.”
Baseball America confirmed 101 nondrafted free agent signings in the first 48 hours after the signing period opened June 14.
Following the draft’s conclusion, players who weren’t drafted informed MLB whether they were interested in signing as nondrafted free agents. MLB informed clubs of those who opted out, and the remaining players made up the eligible pool of players teams could contact.
Only a few players removed their names from consideration, according to scouting officials. Most were at least willing to listen to teams’ pitches, even if they ultimately chose to return to school.
Through the first 48 hours of the period, returning to school was the most popular option for non-college seniors. The draft is guaranteed to be at least 20 rounds in 2021, and players stand to receive significantly more than $20,000 if they return to school and get drafted in future years.
Bonus slots for players drafted in rounds 6-10 ranged from $142,200 to $402,000 in 2019. Players drafted after the 10th round can sign for up to $125,000 without their bonus counting against a team’s bonus pool. With the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to all spring sports athletes—a college junior this year will still be considered a college junior next year—most non-seniors could return to school without having to worry about losing leverage in future negotiations.
For college seniors, the dynamic was different. Most would have received bonuses of $20,000 or less if they were picked in a typical draft anyway. As such, they made up the vast majority of nondrafted free agent signees.
In the first 48 hours of the signing period, 54 of the 101 players who signed were college seniors, redshirt seniors or graduate students. Another 10 players were redshirt juniors who had completed four years of college and, in some cases, finished their degrees. In all, just over 63 percent of nondrafted free agents signed in the first two days had completed four years of college.
Comparatively, only seven high school players and three junior college players signed in the same time frame.
Among those who signed, a genuine opportunity to advance was the greatest determining factor in which team they chose. Stories of players turning down teams who made extravagant pitches to sign with others who made less gaudy presentations but had weaker farm systems—and thus fewer potential roadblocks to their ascent—were the talk of scouting departments in the opening days of the period.
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Through the first two days, the Red Sox (No. 20 farm system) had the most nondrafted free agent signees with 10. The Cubs (No. 22) and Reds (No. 28) were tied for second with nine.
The Royals (No. 18) signed five players who ranked among BA’s Top 500 draft prospects, more than any other team. The Phillies (No. 26) and Brewers (No. 30) signed the highest-ranked players aside from the Royals.
In Emshoff’s case, the fact the Royals had only one catcher ranked among their Top 30 Prospects was a key factor in his decision to pick Kansas City.
“At the end of the day my objective, and this should be for every player, is not to just sign,” he said. “The objective is to be a major league baseball player and get to the top. That was my look at it.”
Not every part of the process has been positive for players.
Representatives from three major agencies confirmed at least four teams were offering nondrafted players, as well as a few drafted players, contracts for 2021 rather than 2020. By doing so, teams delay when those players become eligible for minor league free agency by one year.
It is an unusual practice that is not industry standard and has aroused anger from agents around the game. Teams normally sign draft picks and nondrafted signees to contracts for the current season so they can immediately send them out to their minor league affiliates to play. But with the minor league season postponed indefinitely, some clubs are attempting to sign players to 2021 contracts so they don’t lose a year of team control in a potentially lost development year.
The signing period is far from over.
Nondrafted free agents are not subject to the same Aug. 1 signing deadline as drafted players. They are eligible to sign until they return to school or seven days before the start of the 2021 draft, whichever occurs first.
Whenever the dust settles and the class is complete, it will have been the wildest, most memorable nondrafted free agent signing experience since the draft’s inception.