Local baseball community worried about trickle-down effects of shortened MLB Draft

Posted 6/12/20

Brett Walden, Chatham Central’s baseball coach, sees positives and negatives when it comes to this week’s significantly shortened MLB Draft.

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Local baseball community worried about trickle-down effects of shortened MLB Draft

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BEAR CREEK — Brett Walden, Chatham Central’s baseball coach, sees positives and negatives when it comes to this week’s significantly shortened MLB Draft.

And he’s more worried about the latter than he is excited about the former.

In early May, MLB shortened its draft from 40 rounds down to five. The dramatic reduction — from around 1,200 total draft picks to 160 — came as a cost-saving measure amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Teams can sign an unlimited number of undrafted free agents after the draft, but individual signing bonuses are capped at $20,000 (a significant decrease).

The result?

Walden put it simply: “A logjam.”

“I think the product between major league and high school could be better because of higher concentration,” he said. “At the same time, it does reduce the number of opportunities out there.”

Take a standard Division I baseball program. In a normal year, that team would graduate its senior class and also lose a handful of draft-eligible juniors and sophomores to the pros. Some players drafted in later rounds might return to school for another year to improve their stock, where they’d join a new group of freshmen also looking for playing time.

This year’s draft will throw that rhythm off. Significantly.

Seniors, whose final seasons were cut short by the coronavirus, were granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and may return to school. Some undrafted juniors or sophomores may go for a free-agent deal — especially if they’re a fringe prospect right outside of the top five rounds or have a strong relationship with a certain club — but a majority will return to school to improve their stock and potential earnings later on.

Add in the rest of the returners and newcomers, and that’s a larger than usual roster — one that’ll undoubtedly put a strain on the 11.7 scholarships Division 1 programs are allotted by the NCAA to split among their players.

“With only 11.7 scholarships, what’s going to happen?” Walden said. “Coaches have to decide: ‘Do I want this senior back? Do I want this talented freshman?’”

The trickle-down effect may help smaller programs, such as Division II and Division III teams in the NCAA and two-year junior colleges. If an ACC team can’t make room on its roster for a player, he may transfer to a mid-major Division I school instead.

That may push a player there to transfer to a Division II school, and a player there to transfer to a junior college, and so on.

That “higher concentration of talent” is a good thing on any team, Walden said. But he also realizes for every five players who drop down a level and excel, there are five fringe players (or more) who lose out on playing time and potentially even roster spots.

Tyler Johnson, a Northwood pitcher, has already seen this happen on a smaller scale.

He committed last month to Methodist University, a private Division III school in Fayetteville that doesn’t offer athletic scholarships. The Monarchs had 10 seniors on their 2020 roster, and Johnson said only one or two are planning to return for a fifth year.

Methodist is productive for its size; in its history, 12 players have been drafted and 27 have signed professional contracts. But that success has come in the later rounds — the 13th, the 37th, the 43rd — rather than higher up.

“It’s definitely going to hurt,” said Johnson, who finished his Northwood career with a 14-4 record and a 1.89 ERA. “I don’t know of any smaller schools that get high draft prospects every year; it’s mostly the lower rounds. That’s why all the seniors at Methodist are pretty much moving on from baseball.”

MLB’s draft pool is admittedly massive, but there are diamonds in the rough. (Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza was famously drafted in the 62nd round in 1988.)

Here in Chatham County, later rounds have also provided starting points for the careers of locals such as Woods Fines (Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 14th round, 2004), Benji Johnson (Atlanta Braves, 17th round, 2007) and Austin Brice (Florida Marlins, ninth round, 2010) of Northwood, and Casey Golden (Colorado Rockies, 20th round, 2017) of Jordan-Matthews.

Those opportunities will be fewer and far between in 2020 — and potentially in 2021, too. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that MLB, as a result of the initial deal with its player association, also maintains the right to shorten next year’s draft to 20 rounds.

It all factors into a money-saving strategy, brought on by the coronavirus, which also includes potentially cutting minor-league teams. Walden, who played baseball at Methodist in the mid-2000s, said that can affect the draft, too.

Teams, he said, will be more hesitant to “take on projects,” such as a pitcher who can throw in the 90 mph range but struggles with his command. With fewer minor league teams and rosters, they’ll again be inclined to draft (and sign) the more talented, polished players.

So Walden will still keep up with the MLB Draft this week, and he’ll still root for whatever North Carolina players are selected or sign as free agents afterward.

But he won’t do so as guilt free as usual — as a longtime purveyor of the sport, he knows ripple effects are coming in the following months.

“If I’m a Division I coach,” Walden said, “I’ve got some decisions to make.”

Reporter Chapel Fowler can be reached at cfowler@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.

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