July 31, better known as the trade deadline, has been an important date in baseball for years. However, the date becomes more of a paper tiger every year thanks to improving revenue sharing and a massive influx of cash in the game. Simply put, less good players get traded by bad teams because they are more able to keep them these days. That's ultimately good news for the game, though it has taken much of the drama out of July 31.
A new date could take July 31's place soon though: August 15. If the dearth of star power in the trade and free agent markets continue (which seems likely), the amateur draft becomes more important. The draft has always been the best place for teams to find stars, but it's fast becoming essentially the only place to unearth them. This year, baseball made a major change to the draft process by moving up the deadline that draftees need to signed by to August 15, instead of a week before next year's draft. This gives teams a little over two months to negotiate with players instead of almost an entire year. In addition, if a team is unable to sign a draft pick in the first two rounds, they will receive a compensatory pick only one slot lower in next year's draft. According to the rules, a player that is not signed can re-enter the draft next year as long as they are eligible (which basically means as long as they aren't a high-schooler who decided to go to a four-year university), and also that a team cannot redraft a player unless the player consents to it (honestly, I don't know how that can be enforced). Major League Baseball is hoping to eliminate long holdouts and give teams more bargaining power in negotiations, which should in turn keep prospect signing bonuses from sky-rocketing to even more absurd levels and hopefully alleviate the signability concerns that often shape the draft more than the actual talent of the prospects.
The changes sound good in theory, but the first actual repercussions of them will be felt in a couple days. An alarming 8 of the top 12 picks are still unsigned, of which 6 are high-schoolers, meaning that they cannot re-enter the draft next year unless they go to junior college instead of a four-year university (and obviously all of them have plenty of offers to go to four-year universities). It's impossible to say how many of the high-schoolers will get signed, decide to go to college for at least three years, or go to junior college for a year and hope to get drafted really high again next year. Obviously, these players' decisions will have a large impact on next year's draft class, and the precedents these players set may also alter the draft strategies of teams and players in the future.
However, the most interesting scenario to me is the one that the Devil Rays have a good chance of facing. They had the number one overall pick this year and used it on Vanderbilt pitcher David Price, which came as no surprise. He remains unsigned, and given that he has enrolled for classes in the fall at Vanderbilt, it remains quite unclear if Tampa Bay will be able to sign him. Under the new rules if the Devil Rays are unable to sign him they will get the second overall pick in next year's draft. Interestingly, Tampa Bay is also on pace to have the worst record in baseball this year, and if they do finish with the worst record they will be given the top pick in next year's draft. It's not just plausible that Tampa Bay ends up with the top two picks in next year's draft, it might be probable.
For argument's sake, let's assume that Tampa Bay does get the top two picks, and that David Price's senior season is as good as his junior one. In all likelihood, he would once again be considered the top prospect in the draft, or at least among the elite prospects available. What exactly does that rule saying a player can't be redrafted by the same team without the player's consent say? Would it keep the Devil Rays from picking Price again? Furthermore, though Tampa Bay would have the unique opportunity to draft two phenomenal talents, they would both come with big signing bonuses. Generally, teams have a set amount they are willing to spend on an entire draft, and trying to sign the top two picks in a draft would surely blow that budget. In theory, for a team to get the top two picks, they did not spend a ton of money in the previous year's draft, so it should not be a big deal. However, in reality, will a team be willing to shell out the cash needed to sign the top two picks? Will any team with two high picks be willing to spend the money needed in one draft to sign both guys? I would hope so, but I am not sure.
The odds are many of the unsigned draftees will sign before the deadline. Deadlines have a way of making things happen. However, the players and teams who don't come to an agreement will be the first to really test the new system. The new rules will certainly impact future drafts, but whether that impact is positive or negative is yet to be seen.