The shortest draft in Major League Baseball history and eligibility relief for spring-sport athletes has formed a complicated situation across college baseball, forcing coaches into difficult decisions as they manage roster limitations.
The amateur draft will last five rounds this summer, according to multiple reports, and begin June 10. Though professional teams can pursue an unlimited number of undrafted players after the fifth round, free agents can only sign for $20,000.
The situation will create a surplus of players in college baseball next year. Fewer professional opportunities exist — 160 players will get drafted this summer, compared to 1,217 last year — but the NCAA has not lifted roster or scholarship restrictions. There will be more players for the same number of spots.
“Turmoil is the only way I can describe it,” LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri said.
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The MLB draft, which previously lasted 40 rounds, always took a chunk of players from college rosters. It also poached incoming recruits. LSU entered the 2020 season expecting to lose eight or nine current players to the amateur draft. Instead, the Tigers might lose two or three.
Before the season, Mainieri suspected junior outfielder Daniel Cabrera, junior catcher Saul Garza, junior infielder Zack Mathis, redshirt sophomore pitcher AJ Labas, junior pitcher Ma’Khail Hilliard, junior pitcher Trent Vietmeier, redshirt sophomore pitcher Nick Storz, junior pitcher Devin Fontenot and draft-eligible sophomore pitcher Cole Henry to sign professional contracts this summer. Several projected as picks between the sixth and 10th rounds.
LSU played 17 games before the season was canceled, limiting players’ exposure to professional scouts. Hilliard pitched one inning. Mathis slumped. Labas made four starts. The truncated season reduced clarity around the shortened draft. College coaches have scrambled to find out who might get selected.
“We recruited with the idea we were going to lose all those guys,” Mainieri said. “And who knows? We may end up only losing a couple.”
Roster management already posed the most complicated part of a college baseball coach’s job. The NCAA imposes limitations, including a 35-man roster, 11.7 total scholarships and a maximum of 27 players on scholarship, that force annual cuts to accommodate incoming recruits.
LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri spent about an hour and a half volunteering Thursday morning inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The arena has transformed into a production area for personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic.
The NCAA allowed individual schools to give spring athletes another season of competition, but college baseball rosters next season must fit within previous restrictions. Returning seniors do not apply. LSU had two seniors, pitchers Matthew Beck and Aaron George. Both intend to play another year.
LSU can’t keep everyone from the 2020 team. The Tigers signed a recruiting class of 17 players, and though some will get drafted, the rest of the team must fit within 35-man restrictions.
“There's no use crying about it or whining about it,” Mainieri said. “We still have a responsibility to put the very best baseball team out there next spring that we can and be as honest and fair as we possibly can with our players. That's what we're trying to do.”
Since the season ended, Mainieri and his assistant coaches have worked on next year’s roster. They named the classes freshmen, freshmen II, sophomore II, junior II and senior II. They held individual meetings with every player, showing them where they projected on the depth chart.
LSU sophomore pitcher Rye Gunter entered the NCAA transfer portal Tuesday.
Five players have since entered the transfer portal: sophomore pitcher Rye Gunter, redshirt junior pitcher Eric Walker, sophomore outfielder Drew Bianco, sophomore pitcher Chase Costello and junior infielder Hal Hughes, who transferred to Rice.
“We've had to have some very difficult conversations with some kids, and they probably will not be a part of our team next year,” Mainieri said. “It breaks my heart, but there's only so much room on a team. You're forced into making some really difficult decisions.”
Until the draft begins, LSU will call scouts throughout the country, trying to find out who will get selected and who might get offered a contract as an undrafted free agent. The 2021 roster has started to take shape, but it won't be set until the major league signing deadline passes Aug. 1.
“We don't know for sure,” Mainieri said. “There's still a lot of uncertainty about what's going to happen.”