‘Have to rethink the whole thing:’ MLB’s downsized draft changes the equation for college baseball

After two years of unprecedented disruption, something resembling a new normal will settle in for Major League Baseball’s draft – 20 rounds, down from 40, feeding far fewer amateurs into player development systems that saw a 26{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} trim in the number of affiliated teams after a massive reorganization of the minor leagues.

That teardown will have a significant impact on the amateur baseball ecosystem, too, which on one hand could be viewed positively: Fewer high school players signing professional contracts means a talent influx in college baseball, and perhaps a better eventual outcome for borderline talents.

“I think shortening the draft to 20 rounds is going to force more kids to go to college, get more of a degree, be more prepared to handle life after baseball had they played pro ball,” says West Virginia coach Randy Mazey. “I like that there’s only 20 rounds now.”

Yet as MLB aims for a more bloodlessly efficient player development system and colleges welcome more talent into their ranks, one number that isn’t budging will impact coaches and players alike:


That’s the number of baseball scholarships the NCAA allows coaches to allocate as full or partial awards, which has long created a crunch when recruiting and retaining players. Now, with fewer high school and junior-college players launching professional careers, the shares of scholarships may only get smaller for those who do play college ball.

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“That’s always been a sore spot for college coaches,” says Paul Mainieri, who is retiring after 15 years as LSU’s head baseball coach. “You’re giving a partial scholarship to a player and he’s weighing that against a signing bonus. Do I pay money to play college baseball, or get paid to play professional baseball?

“Most kids would think logic is to take the money and run. We’re trying to sell that you’re getting a lifetime of earning power (through education). If the NCAA would give a more reasonable number of scholarships to college baseball, it would be a much better situation.”

The NCAA is making concessions to accommodate untenable conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, though that does not include an increase in scholarships.

Jun 16, 2018; Omaha, NE, USA; General view before the start of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park. Mandatory Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Slicing the pie

With 2020 seniors granted an extra year of eligibility, subsequent classes in spring sports granted a redshirt year of sorts and the march of incoming freshman classes continuing unabated, a backlog of athletes has created a roster glut. This has become a challenge for coaches in all sports, but in baseball it was exacerbated by the 2020 MLB draft being limited to just five rounds, due to a mixture of reduced revenue and missed scouting opportunities amid the pandemic.

So, in what it called a reaction to “extenuating and extraordinary circumstances surrounding and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic” and “the significant reduction in the number of student-athletes and incoming signees selected in the Major League Baseball first-year player draft,” an NCAA committee of school and conference representatives granted college baseball a handful of roster exemptions for the 2020-21 and ’21-22 academic years.

Most notably, after no squad-size limitation for the 2020-21 season, rosters can reach 40 players in 2021-22. The number of “counters” – or, players receiving at least a share of a scholarship – was increased from 27 to 32 players.

And schools could award scholarship grants below the previous standard of 25{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} of the value of a full scholarship during the 2020-21 and/or ’21-22 school year, although with certain guarantees for a future year or years. That aids coaches in honoring commitments to incoming players – although it would still force that player to foot a significant portion of their tuition and expenses.

That’s particularly onerous for players coming from less-privileged backgrounds, at a time MLB aims to expand opportunities to players from disadvantaged communities.

Those NCAA concessions are set to expire after the 2021-22 school year, after which roughly 50{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} of athletes granted COVID-19 extensions will have exhausted their eligibility. One thing that will not change – unless upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations decree otherwise – is the length and timing of MLB’s draft, which for the first time will be held in July as part of All-Star Game festivities in Denver.

Overbooked flights

The July 11-13 draft, moved to maximize exposure during baseball’s jewel event and the slower news cycle of the All-Star break, should be a boon for interest in both player development and amateur baseball. But it also extends to Aug. 1 the deadline for drafted players – including high schoolers – to sign professionally, leaving college rosters and scholarship allotments in flux mere days before students are expected to arrive on campus.

It also comes after the NCAA’s July 1 date for coaches to inform athletes if their scholarship will be renewed or reduced for the coming academic year. Baseball coaches, then, must make renewal and allotment decisions nearly two weeks before learning the draft fate of potential incoming freshman – along with their own outgoing juniors.

That’s a significant shift from the draft’s traditional date on the first Monday in June.

“Before, you’d say, ‘OK, now I have time to make decisions and put together a team,’” says John McCormack, Florida Atlantic’s coach and chair of the American Baseball Coaches’ Assn. Division I committee. “Now, it makes it very tough. There’s a fair amount of kids waiting for the other shoe to drop. As in, ‘If so-and-so gets drafted, I’m in a good spot. If he doesn’t, I’m not.’

“I feel bad for everybody. There’s a lot of ‘You hear anything? What did you hear?’ with players talking to advisors.”

The draft timing only adds a layer of uncertainty to the already tricky proposition of dividing scholarship money, particularly at schools where a significant amount of recruits are also top draft prospects out of high school. To protect their programs, coaches will often overbook commitments, knowing not every committed player will eventually get to campus.

West Virginia’s Mazey likens it to airlines overbooking flights by 10{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd}, wanting to avoid empty seats on a plane due to no-shows at the gate.

“The reason the airlines do this is they know in history of air travel, probably 10{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} of travelers aren’t going to make that flight. So if they overbook by 10{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} they know they have a great business plan,” he says. “Same thing here – if you overbook your scholarship by 10{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} and 10{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} sign (professionally), everybody is happy.

“They’ve signed their national letter of intent by the time the draft comes around. Where you run into a real problem is if the projection of kids you’re going to lose in your draft don’t come to fruition, and then crazy things happen.”

“Crazy things” in this case means a top-level player committed to an elite school suddenly becoming available when that school did not lose as many incoming freshmen or outgoing juniors to the draft as they projected. And rather than asking a passenger to volunteer for a future flight, in this case, it’s often a player bouncing down to another program.

“A really great program’s 12th-best recruit is another school’s best recruit, probably,” says Mazey, “so they end up somewhere but not where they anticipated.”

Compass points to campus

For a time, at the dawn of Moneyball some 20 years ago, it became quite vogue for “smart” teams to heavily draft from the college ranks, what with players more developed, a greater trove of statistical data to mine and less money expended on signing bonuses since college players have less leverage than high school draftees.

The pendulum swung back a few years later, as an increase in both showcase events and measurable data made evaluating high schoolers easier. Yet the past decade has brought several adjustments from MLB that makes attending college more sensible.

Teams are now allotted hard “bonus pools” to spread among draftees, rendering obsolete both the $10 million guarantee and the major league contract Bryce Harper received as a 17-year-old draftee in 2010. The bonus pools also eliminated the practice of spending a mid-round pick on a firm college commitment and hoping to sign them away from that with a significantly “over slot” offer.

Meanwhile, undrafted free agents passed over after 20 rounds are limited to a $20,000 signing bonus.

The pruning of the minor leagues may impact a different class of player, one whose pedigree is a tick shy of Vanderbilt and Baseball America Top 100 draft prospect status. With all 30 franchises deploying at least one fewer affiliated club in rookie or low-A ball, there are far less eventual landing spots once players make it out of complex ball in their first professional years. The on-ramp to overcome early-career struggles figures to be shorter.

While Mazey predicts the percentage of drafted high schoolers signing will be high – being one of 20 draftees is a better selling point than one of 50 – many more will indicate their intentions to head to campus before any pro flirtations commence.

“If kids would make logical decisions instead of emotional decisions, a lot more would end up in college,” he says. “Because a college degree, for 98{8a924211cc822977802140fcd9ee67aa8e3c0868cac8d22acbf0be98ed6534bd} of them, will serve them better over the course of their life than their curveball.”

The shortened draft – and fewer minor-league jobs – will also force a paradigm shift for players who assumed their college career would last just three years. After all, being a “senior sign” used to be a scarlet letter, indicating a player was not draft-worthy after their junior year.

Now, that may be the rule and not the exception.

“That guy who goes through the travel ball system, and you recruit him and in his mind it’s a three-year deal – that’s the guy everyone’s waiting on to see what happens,” says Florida Atlantic’s McCormack. “It’s really hard for them to reverse course and go, yeah, I’ll come back for my senior year. There’s a little ego involved, too. I can’t blame ‘em.

“Young people and parents and travel coaches are going to have to rethink the whole thing. You’re going to have to be really good to be a junior draft. I don’t think the senior draft, in the future, is going to be a big deal.”

Either way, the college game will figure far more heavily as a player development apparatus for major league clubs. The crossover has already begun: Major league pitching coaches such as the Minnesota Twins’ Wes Johnson (Arkansas) and Cincinnati’s Derek Johnson (Vanderbilt) were hired straight from the college ranks, while an increasing number of former big league players and managers, disillusioned by many modern trappings of the game, are finding their way to college programs.

“For years, college baseball has wanted to help Major League Baseball develop players,” says Mainieri. “It should be a collective entity. For too many years, it’s been an antagonistic entity. There’s a lot more interaction between college and pro baseball and that’s a step in the right direction.”

The retiring coach, though, will bemoan well into retirement the cap on scholarships that’s about to get even trickier for his colleagues.

“I don’t know if they ever will,” he says of a scholarship increase. “We’ve been fighting this on many fronts and it’s been wearing me down for years. It’s been a shame.”

Contributing: Steve Berkowitz

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB draft 2021: Downsized amateur draft has impact on college baseball

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