Picture this: it’s mid-March, and some college campuses are vacant for spring break. However, a group of students still occupies the residence halls. It may be spring break for most students, but for many NCAA student-athletes, it’s the beginning of the time they’ve trained all year for – spring sports season. The ring of aluminum bats and the pops of gloves permeate the crisp air.
For some of these athletes, it’s their first go-round, and they’re looking to acclimate themselves to their teams. For others, it’s their last, which means it’s their final chance to catch the eyes of scouts and attempt to continue with baseball as a career.
But now it’s all gone. The COVID-19 coronavirus has affected almost every aspect of people’s normal, everyday lives, and that unfortunately includes schools and sports. Every major sports league has postponed or canceled its season, and many colleges have sent their students home for the year. These measures are done to promote “social distancing” and halt the spread of the coronavirus.
This affects schools and this affects sports, which means this affects school sports. In kind, the NCAA announced last week that its winter and spring sports championships have been canceled, bringing an abrupt end to the seasons of thousands of student-athletes.
Some people see the news and think, “that means no more March Madness or Frozen Four.” While those are the immediate impacts of the cancelation, this also means that all spring sports are canceled before their seasons even got a chance to start. These student-athletes trained for months for this season, and now it has been taken away from them. It’s nobody’s fault and it was a necessary measure, but there could be long-standing impacts on the relationship between the NCAA and MLB as a result of the cancelation of the college baseball season.
Over two-thirds of drafted players in the 2018 MLB draft attended four-year college, per Baseball America. If you are a prospect and want to be drafted, chances are you have to go to college, unless your talent is so great that you can be one of the lucky ones drafted in high school.
To be drafted, a student-athlete has to have completed at least his junior year of college or be 21 years old. Historically, NCAA baseball players receive the most attention from scouts during these years when they play the largest roles and are the closest to draft eligibility. Senior year is a make-it-or-break-it year for several prospects on the draft bubble, and now, these student-athletes cannot compete.
This could shift MLB draft tendencies. In the same Baseball America article referenced earlier, it notes that the percentage of draftees from college in 2018 reached a six-year high, while the number of high school draftees hit a low under the current format. Clearly, MLB teams prefer to draft older college-aged players rather than high schoolers. However, it’s hard to draft someone in June 2020 who hasn’t played competitively since May of 2019. Sure, the student-athletes have still been training or maybe played a few early-season, non-conference games, but drafting off game performance from over a year ago is definitely a shot in the dark.
The Yankees have taken high school players with their first picks in three of the last four years of the draft (Anthony Volpe, Anthony Seigler and Blake Rutherford, with Clarke Schmidt the lone NCAA player), so they are already very comfortable scouting and selecting high schoolers. Of course, if high school seasons get canceled, this makes drafting any player far more difficult.
There is an interesting potential fallout from the cancelation of the NCAA season that could change MLB draft rules and strategy. NCAA student-athletes are eligible to play four years. They often “redshirt” one of those years (take classes but do not play sports, saving a season of athletic eligibility for a fifth year) due to the transfer portal or playing time concerns. Previously, this was the only way an athlete could play in his fifth year of school.
In light of this season’s cancelation, the NCAA has proposed providing another year of eligibility to any spring athlete who had his or her season cut short this year. This is fair to the students affected, particularly the seniors who would have had to leave behind college athletics without getting the chance for one more year of play to boost their draft stock and make memories doing what they love.
Again, this could change draft strategy. While these seniors are eligible to be drafted now, maybe clubs will wait until they complete their fifth years to minimize risk. This also presents a dilemma for the seniors, who have to weigh potential professional opportunities vs. another year of school and collegiate play.
Right now, it’s hard to predict exactly how this will all play out. However, it seems certain that the MLB draft will be different from most others this year. For the Yankees, their strategy is obviously still to pick the best player possible, but figuring out where these players come from and where they will play next year is a new challenge that won’t go away anytime soon.