Contributed by Richard Cuicchi
Major League Baseball’s decision to reduce the number of draft rounds the past two years has had a negative effect on the number of players selected who have relatives in professional baseball. Prior to 2020, MLB typically conducted a draft that consisted of 40 rounds. In 2019 77 drafted players had family ties in baseball, including players, managers, coaches, scouts and front office personnel. Since 2013, the average number of drafted players who had family ties is 63.
Only 20 players with family ties were selected in 2020 when MLB conducted only five rounds in the annual amateur draft. It’s understandable why the draft was limited since the minor-league season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year ‘s draft consisted of 20 rounds. With the number of minor-league teams cut by 25% this year, there was naturally less need for the number of new ballplayers to enter the pros with affiliated major-league teams. Even with this season’s larger draft than last year, only 16 players with family ties were taken in the 2021 draft. That’s a 75% reduction from the average during 2013 and 2019. Some of the players who might have been selected in a larger draft are now signing as non-drafted free agents (NDFA) with major-league teams this year. Others are joining independent league teams with the hopes of eventually catching on with an affiliated minor-league club. Other non-drafted players are returning to college for their senior season in the hopes they can improve their draft status for 2022.
The most well-known player with family ties drafted this year was Jack Leiter, who was the second overall pick by the Boston Red Sox. He had a stellar season with Vanderbilt and has been high on the draft radar since high school. His father is Al Leiter, a former major league pitcher for 19 seasons. Al was a member of three World Series team including world championships with Toronto (1993) and Florida (1997) and in a losing cause with the New York Mets (2000). Jack’s uncle Mark Leiter and his cousin Mark Leiter Jr. were also major league pitchers.
Other draftees with well-known relatives were Will Wagner, the son of Billy Wagner, and Michael Sirota, the great-nephew of Whitey Ford. Wagner was the 18th-round selection of the Astros, the team with which his father played nine seasons. Sirota was selected in the sixteenth round by the Dodgers, a frequent World Series foe of his great uncle in the 50’s and 60’s.
Will Bednar, the Mississippi State pitcher who was the MVP of the College World Series, was the draft’s overall 14th pick of the Giants. His brother Dave is currently pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Darren Baker, the son of Astros manager Dusty Baker, was the 10th round pick of the Nationals. The infielder had played collegiately at the University of California.
Each year there are typically players drafted whose family ties are in sports other than baseball. For example, Kumar Rocker (10th overall draft pick of the Mets) is the son of Tracy Rocker, a former NFL player and current NFL coach. Blake Holub (15th round pick of the Detroit Tigers) is a relative of E.J. Holub, a former two-way player in the NFL from 1961 to 1970.
Some of the non-drafted free agents who have already signed contracts include famous last names: JJ Niekro (son of Joe Niekro and nephew of Phil Niekro), Jared Pettitte (son of Andy Pettitte), and Peyton Glavine (son of Tom Glavine and nephew of Mike Glavine). In past years that the draft consisted of 40 rounds, these players would have likely been drafted in the higher rounds. NFDAs are signed by major-league clubs for a standard bonus amount of $20,000.
High-profile prospects who went undrafted this year include Dante Baldelli (brother of Twins manager Rocco Baldelli), Casey Dykstra (nephew of Lenny Dykstra), and Max McGwire (son of Mark McGwire). With a larger number of draft rounds, they may have been selected, even if only as a sentimental pick.
The average number of players with family ties who made their MLB debuts from 2015 to 2020 was 28. It remains to be seen what the long-term effect of the reduced number of drafted players with baseball bloodlines is on those who eventually reach the majors. But early indications are that the number of relatives reaching the majors will be less than recent history.