The 2020 MLB Draft will begin on Wednesday, in its usual early June place on the calendar. The date will be about the only usual part of the proceedings.
This year’s draft, which is usually in the middle of the season and something of an afterthought, will be the main event on television Wednesday night.
It will also be the shortest MLB Draft, with the proceedings capped at five rounds, well short of the 40 of previous seasons. The change is a result of a number of factors currently complicating the world of professional baseball.
Entering the 2020 season, Major League Baseball had already been angling toward reducing the overall number of minor-league teams. Many teams, such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, fielding as many as nine minor-league squads, but there has been a recent push to provide minor-league players with more-livable wages, better equipment and facilities. In order to make the conditions of the minors better for most, MLB was content to do away with some, in order to lessen the burden of expense placed on the Major League squads.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit, halting all sports for a good time. Baseball has yet to resume at any level in this country, with only the majors having a real shot at playing without fans at some point this summer.
That means that there will be no minor leagues for drafted players to play in at all, in addition to the limited number of slots for them to go into moving forward, so there isn’t much of a rush for MLB teams to be signing up lots and lots of players.
In order to move on the with business, the league and MLBPA agreed to a five-round 2020 draft and a 20-round 2021 draft, with the practices to be re-examined in negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement between the sides. Any player that is not drafted has the option to sign as a free agent at a maximum of $20,000, or return to college or high school if they have eligibility remaining.
While that satisfied the decision-makers at the highest levels that there will be enough prospects entering the pool to meet the needs of the teams, it has left college baseball in something of lurch.
Those teams were expecting 40 rounds’ worth of players — give or take, as high school seniors are also eligible — to depart. Instead, less than one-fourth will. Further complicating matters is the NCAA’s resolution to the abortive 2020 college baseball season, which was canceled before teams entered conference play.
The NCAA has ruled that all 2020 seniors can be granted an additional season of eligibility, meaning that all undrafted and unsigned players that want to continue their collegiate careers will be eligible to do so.
That means that many teams way be able to return their entire 2020 rosters for 2021, and only the teams with the very best draft-eligible players will lose anyone. Of course, all teams had already signed prospects for 2021 with the thought that they’d be losing players to both graduation and the draft. Instead, many will have neither, creating a historic roster crunch.
“They are full, they are overflowing,” Pitt head coach Mike Bell said to Pittsburgh Sports Now on Wednesday. “There is a huge situation occurring in college baseball right now.”
With so many players returning to teams, many others have seen their opportunity for playing time go out the window, which means that they’ve turned to the transfer portal, which has over 1,000 players in it, according to Bell.
“Kids are looking for opportunities to play,” Bell said. “Some of them see seniors that are coming back. Some of them see scholarships and national letters of intent coming in. I don’t want to say it’s a mess, but in some scenarios, there’s a lot of issues right now.”
Bell said he expects the NCAA to take some action to relieve the 35-man roster limit. It’s unclear if the scholarship limits or rules regarding the smallest fractions allowed to be given out will be altered.
“Baseball coaches continue to adjust and adapt,” Bell said. “I think coaches are really great at handling year-by-year situations. … You’re gonna have a lot of schools that have big rosters in the fall and then are going to work their way down in the spring.”
For Pitt, one 2020 senior has already committed to returning in 2021: right-handed pitcher Chris Gomez. Two more: shortstop David Yanni and outfielder Nico Popa (Seton LaSalle) will wait and see if their names are called during the draft before making their decisions. Lefty pitcher David Moore graduated and will not be returning.
Elsewhere, outfielder and designated hitter Ron Washington, Jr., was likely considered Pitt’s top 2020 draft prospect as a true junior, and did little in 16 games this spring to dissuade that theory. He hit .231/.333/.492 with four home runs and 20 RBIs — surpassing his full-season totals from 2019 in both categories in half the games.
According to PerfectGame.com, Pitt has seven incoming commits for 2020, including local outfielders Domenic Popa — Nico’s younger brother — from Seton LaSalle and C.J. Funk from Bellefonte. So Bell’s squad could be looking at as many as a half-dozen surplus bodies come this fall.
“There is such a huge roster crunch with the 2020 grads and seniors coming back,” Bell said.
But at the end of the day, it could be a positive for the sport. Fewer players being drafted early into the minors will make for a more-talented field for college baseball. Roster shortages will allow that talent to trickle down from the top squads to make for an overall more competitive landscape. It just might take some growing pains to get there.
ANOTHER NO. 1?
West Allegheny senior outfielder Austin Hendricks is expected to be a first-round pick on Wednesday night. If that happens, he’ll become the third first-rounder from the area in the last five years, joining Plum outfielder Alex Kirilloff (2016, Minnesota Twins) and Blackhawk pitcher and first baseman Brendan McKay (2017, Tampa Bay Rays).
Hendricks is currently committed to Mississippi State, should he choose not to sign with the club that drafts him. McKay went to Louisville. Kirilloff broke his commitment with Liberty to sign with Minnesota.
Pitt has had its own success in the draft. The Panthers have had multiple players drafted for seven straight seasons, with 25 players being selected in that span. Pitcher T.J. Zeuch was a first-round selection in 2016, while infielder Charles Leblanc and pitchers RJ Freure and Matt Pidich all went in the first 10 rounds.
The first round will take place on Wednesday at 7 p.m., with the second through fifth rounds taking place on Thursday at 5 p.m. The draft will be televised by ESPN Wednesday, ESPN2 Thursday and MLB Network both days.