As disappointing as it's been to have the college baseball season shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, Michigan coach Erik Bakich sees a silver lining.
“I do think the coming years will be the deepest college baseball has ever been,” he said.
Division I programs stand to benefit because of two factors. First, the NCAA is allowing all players to return in 2021 with the same eligibility standing they had in 2020. Second, and perhaps more important, Major League Baseball is shortening its draft, going from 40 to as few as five rounds, and capping signing bonuses for undrafted free agents at $20,000.
Last year, 87% (131 of 150) of players taken between the sixth and 10th rounds were from four-year colleges, with juniors receiving bonuses between $125,000 and $250,000. Seniors typically get less because they lack leverage.
Those college players who just miss getting drafted must decide between signing for $20,000, if offered, or returning to school. Elite high school seniors not drafted have the same decision: Take the money or stick with their college commitments.
TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said $20,000 shouldn't be enough to entice many players to sign, saying that up-front money doesn't go very far when it must be used to supplement a small minor league salary. He added that another year of seasoning in college can help a player make a faster rise through the minors.
MLB.com draft analyst Jim Callis predicted a significant number of undrafted players will swallow hard and sign.
“They’ll want to get their pro careers started,” Callis said.
For some players, returning to school would require them to pay $20,000 or more in tuition because they don’t have full scholarships. Division I teams offer partial scholarships, distributing a maximum of 11.7 among 27 players.
Callis noted that a junior who returns to school next year would be 22 when drafted in 2021. That player wouldn’t be in line for a bonus commensurate with his draft slot because MLB teams don’t place as much value on older draftees. Plus, Callis said, the draft will be deeper next year, meaning a player who would go in the eighth round this year might not go until the 12th next year.
How college rosters are structured is anything but certain for a lot of teams. The draft isn't until July, so it will be August before some coaches know who is returning. Some freshmen might elect to go to a junior college if they see a long line of returning players ahead of them competing for playing time. There also will be a wave of transfers, perhaps an unprecedented number if the Division I Council votes this summer to remove the requirement that transfers sit out one year before becoming eligible.
What's certain is there will be more older and experienced players in the college game for the foreseeable future, and Schlossnagle said top-to-bottom talent that's as good as ever now will only get better.
He said the slotted draft, which began in 2012, continues to be a boon to college baseball. That’s because signing bonuses after the 10th round, which can be lucrative, usually don’t amount to life-changing money. A lot of players who weren’t drafted as high as they thought they would be, especially pitchers, have gone the college route.
“You play a game on a Tuesday night and everybody throws 90 mph and everybody has a closer who throws 96. They're everywhere,” Schlossnagle said. “We already know next year’s draft is only going to be 20 rounds. The common thought is it may never be beyond that. That’s only going to aid college baseball.”
Michigan's Bakich said if MLB goes through its cost-cutting move to reduce the number of minor league teams, most of them at the lowest levels, college baseball will become even more attractive.
Fueled by handsome conference distributions from football and basketball revenue, schools are showing greater commitment to the sport.
Traditional powers such as Florida, Mississippi State and Oklahoma State are spending or have spent more than $60 million on stadium projects. The cold-weather Big Ten saw a building surge over the last decade. Even Kansas State, which has had little sustained baseball success, spent $15 million to upgrade its facility.
“My first year of Division I coaching was the spring of 1993, and there were probably 50 programs in the country that really cared about college baseball,” Schlossnagle said. “Today there’s probably 150.”
This story has been corrected to delete a reference to signing bonuses after the 10th round being no more than $125,000.