Most years, as the Major League Baseball Draft approaches, college coaches are forced to undergo hours of guesswork. In a 40-round draft, opportunities abound for players. So those college skippers are always asking themselves – who will go? Who will stay? Who’s the surprise guy that’ll get taken higher than we think?
Now those questions have been eliminated – or at least drastically reduced.
Major League Baseball announced its decision Friday to hold its 2020 draft on June 10-11 and limit it to only five rounds. Suddenly, the pool of players coming back to college grew far deeper.
We’re talking submarine-level deep.
“In a lot of those evaluations, we look into a crystal ball as best we can and try to anticipate guys that we might lose in the draft and then adjust our roster accordingly,” Baylor coach Steve Rodriguez said. “Well, Major League Baseball has now pretty much done that for us.”
With the shorter draft coupled with the NCAA’s decision to allow spring sports seniors eligibility relief and return in 2021, college baseball rosters will be undeniably bigger than normal. That said, Baylor’s Rodriguez doesn’t view the potential glut as an overwhelming problem.
He said that it may limit teams from over-signing in their recruiting classes – essentially, signing more players than necessary to make up for those that may get drafted and go to the pros out of high school. “I’ve never been a big over-recruiting person anyway,” Rodriguez said. But the Baylor coach believes he’ll be able to effectively juggle next year’s numbers.
“It doesn’t really affect our roster so much,” Rodriguez said. “We could have 35 guys if none of the seniors return, or we could have 43 guys if quite a few of them return.”
So far, four of Baylor’s 2020 seniors have said they’re coming back for another go-round. That group includes pitchers Hayden Kettler, Logan Freeman and Ryan Leckich and catcher Andy Thomas. The others, led by pitchers Paul Dickens and Luke Boyd and infielder/outfielder Mack Mueller, are question marks, as potential draftees or free-agent signees.
“There’s a lot of different pieces that go into that,” Rodriguez said. “But we’ve had good discussion with a lot of them, we know where a lot of them stand.”
Barring a surprise, the only Baylor draft-eligible player who seems like a no-doubt selection is Nick Loftin. Baseball America recently ranked the junior shortstop 29th overall among draft prospects. Given his athleticism, versatility, range and ability to make contact at the plate, Loftin should be an attractive option for some MLB club.
“Defensively, when you look at a lot of the shifts that Major League teams play now, they ask, ‘Is he able to play shortstop in the big leagues?’ And I say, ‘Who plays shortstop in the big leagues anymore?’” Rodriguez said. “You’ve got your third baseman in right field, you’ve got your shortstop on the other side of second base. I say, ‘What you need is an athlete who can judge trajectory, velocity off the bat, and where the ball is going to be.’ That’s where they all kind of laugh and say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’
“So the traditional question of, can he play short at the next level is kind of irrelevant. But I tell them, absolutely, he can. He’s played at the highest level in college, why wouldn’t he be able to play in minor league baseball as well?”
So, Loftin is a safe bet to sign and move on to the minor leagues. Beyond him, Baylor does not have a sure-fire draft pick on its roster. Rodriguez said that there will be ripple effects of the bigger college rosters, including high school underclassmen who have already de-committed from certain schools. But the Baylor coach isn’t a fan of expanded rosters in the long term.
“Because at some point, if you have a roster of 50 players, there’s going to be a lot of players that are not playing and that’s not fair to them,” Rodriguez said. “They’re spending their time and their money at the school. If they’re not going to have the opportunity to play, my thing is give kids an opportunity to go play if they want to. Don’t say, hey, we’re going to have you here, and then they don’t get an opportunity to play. Let them go play.
“So, there’s going to have to be some tough discussions had, there’s going to have to be some tough decisions in regards to the roster.”
Rodriguez, however, was pleased when the NCAA allowed 2020 seniors the chance to get this year back.
Guys like Kettler (3-1 with a 3.38 ERA in four starts in 2020) and Thomas (2 HRs, 7 RBIs in 14 games) are talented players who could be in line for big seasons in 2021. They’ll also provide valuable direction to a freshman group that will feature 26 players, when both 2020 and ’21 newcomers are included.
“It’s unbelievably valuable to our guys, with the seniors we have coming back,” Rodriguez said. “How they go about their business and the success they’ve had in a lot of their games ... having those guys come back and teach. A lot of the new guys coming in are predominantly pitchers, it’s going to be so valuable to them, just to be around, to be able to talk to them, help them understand what’s expected and what to anticipate as the fall goes on.”