Red Sox Rumors: MLB remains undecided on 2021 draft order

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 30: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred visits "Mornings With Maria" hosted by Maria Bartiromo at Fox Business Network Studios on September 30, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 30: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred visits "Mornings With Maria" hosted by Maria Bartiromo at Fox Business Network Studios on September 30, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Steven Ferdman/Getty Images) /

MLB’s uncertain 2021 draft process should concern the Red Sox.

It’s clear that the Boston Red Sox have prioritized the future at the expense of the present but tanking their way through the shortened 2020 season might not have the desired effect if MLB decides to get creative with next year’s draft order.

Boston enters the day with an 18-32 record and a .360 winning percentage that ranks as the second-worst in the majors. Only the 14-34 Pittsburgh Pirates (.292) have been worse. The Rangers, Nationals and Diamondbacks are bunched close enough in the standings that even a short winning streak could move the Red Sox up a few spots but they appear to be in a strong position to secure at top-five pick in next year’s draft.

Pittsburgh might be running away in the race for consensus top choice Kumar Rocker but his Vanderbilt teammate Jack Leiter would be an appealing consolation prize. The Red Sox desperately need pitching but whoever they draft isn’t jumping into the rotation anytime soon.

Don’t rule out the Red Sox targeting one of the top position players if that’s who they deem to be the best available. Florida outfielder Jud Fabian and UCLA shortstop Matt McLain could be appealing even if they don’t fit a position of need at the moment. Much can change in the time it would take them to reach the majors. Boston could also use that player as a trade chip to acquire pitching down the line.

The Red Sox would need a high draft pick to have a shot at any of these players and that’s not a foregone conclusion regardless of where they finish in the standings. Commissioner Rob Manfred has the ability to modify the 2021 draft order based on a March agreement with the player’s union that dictated what could occur in the event that the season was fewer than 81 games.

According to the Boston Herald’s Jason Mastrodonato, the process for selecting the draft order is still up for debate.

"“The latest on the 2021 MLB draft, from an MLB source, is that the commissioner will discuss with the owners if the order will stay in reverse order of standings, as it is every year, or use some other system, perhaps including 2019 results, to determine the order.”"

Combining the 2019 results with this year’s standings would be a disappointing outcome for the Red Sox. They picked in the middle of the first round this year with the No. 17 overall pick so even if they finished with the worst record in the majors, this method might leave them with the eighth or ninth pick in the next draft instead of the No. 1 pick.

We can’t overlook the possibility of Manfred turning to “some other system,” an ominous portion of this report that should worry us considering the commissioner’s shaky track record. Especially if his decision will be influenced by the owners.

What if a vocal group of small-market owners wants to prohibit the high-spending Red Sox from getting a top draft pick? They could argue that Boston has the financial resources to rebuild without relying on the draft. This could conceivably lead to a draft order based on payroll or market size. Imagine the outcry in Boston if the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Rays received a top draft pick while the Red Sox end up near the back of the order.

The Mets are in the process of transitioning to a new owner who Manfred might want to appease. Could we see another New York team benefit from the old “frozen envelope” trick? Fine, that’s probably not a realistic concern but watch out if Patrick Ewing shows up as a guest of honor in the Mets draft room.

Who knows what to expect with Manfred. Would it shock anyone if he made up the draft order by picking names out of a hat or throwing darts? Anything is on the table with Manfred wielding the power to do whatever he wants and any outcome that isn’t based on this year’s standings would be detrimental to the Red Sox.

It’s also possible that Manfred has already decided to use the traditional process of drafting in reverse order of the standings but wants to hold off on announcing it in order to reduce the incentive for teams to tank. Behind the scenes, Manfred might be sending a message that teams can put an inferior product on the field if they wish but it guarantees them nothing in the draft.

One common trend across professional sports is that when teams know they are going to have bad season, it pays to be really bad. The worst teams are “rewarded” with high draft picks that can jump start a floundering franchise if they manage to hit on the right prospect.

Baseball is a bit different in that drafted players won’t make an immediate impact. It can take years for first-round picks to develop in the minors. The gap between being drafted and earning a promotion to the big leagues creates more uncertainty in projecting their future and greater risk of failure compared to other sports.

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That doesn’t mean that tanking doesn’t exist in MLB. Nobody wants to be stuck on the wheel of mediocrity, outside of the mix of contenders but not quite bad enough to receive a high draft pick. If piling up losses improves the odds at landing a future superstar in the draft, the short-term pain could be outweighed by the potential for a promising future.

The players obviously aren’t out there with the intention of losing but there are various ways for teams to manipulate their way into a better draft position. This includes holding back prospects to preserve service time. Why start the clock on their countdown to free agency when promoting them could improve the club enough to cost them a few spots in the draft? We’re seeing this happen with the Red Sox showing hesitance to promote their best young assets, preferring to trot out replacement-level players instead.

The Red Sox are attempting to pull off a masterpiece in the art of tanking. They have enough exciting young star players to draw an audience but they have surrounded them with fringe players and an abysmal pitching staff to ensure that they would sink to the bottom of the standings.

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In a normal year, this plan would be playing out perfectly with the “Get Rocked for Rocker” campaign in full force. 2020 is anything but normal so we can’t necessarily count on the misery of this putrid season providing hope for the future in the form of a top draft pick.