Major League Baseball teams selected 1,217 players in the amateur draft last June. Only 160 will be selected this year, the owners deciding to limit the draft to five rounds as a cost-cutting move prompted by the coronavirus.
So what happens to the approximately 1,057 players who otherwise would have been drafted?
That’s a question Boston College’s Mike Gambino and other college coaches are trying to answer.
“This isn’t like anything any of us have ever dealt with before,” he said. “This is going to affect the college game for years to come. Years.”
The same will be true, to a lesser degree but still significantly, for major league teams as they evaluate players caught up in the whirlwind.
Division 1 teams such as BC are allowed to award a maximum of 11.7 scholarships divided among as many as 27 players. Teams can have a maximum of 35 players on the roster.
The NCAA made this season a redshirt year for athletes in spring sports. Seniors will be allowed to play next season and can be awarded the same amount of scholarship money without it counting against the 11.7 limit.
Nothing has been announced yet, but the NCAA is expected to increase the roster limit to account for seniors returning for a fifth year and increase the number of players who can receive scholarship money. That ruling is expected before the draft starts June 10.
Some of those seniors could be drafted or signed as free agents. But owners imposed a $20,000 limit on signing bonuses for free agents and some, it is believed, will limit how many of those players their teams are allowed to sign.
The bonus limit makes a pro career far less attractive than it once was, particularly given the likelihood of the minor league season being canceled. A player could sign in June and wait 10 months before playing again.
“Those decisions will be made quickly,” said Gambino, who expects at least four of his seniors to return. “I think a lot of players will prefer to come back and play in college. There’s not going to be a lot of negotiation.”
Every major college team plans ahead for the idea that some of their freshman recruits will be drafted and decide to skip college. Many of the powerhouse programs overload their recruiting classes knowing that will be the case.
But with only 160 players being drafted, hundreds of high school players will now honor their college commitments rather than take a $20,000 bonus.
“There’s going to be a huge roster crunch,” Gambino said. “It’s going to get crazy. You’ll have a lot of players who thought a few months ago they would sign and now want to play in college.”
Mid-major Division 1 teams, Division 2 and 3 teams, and junior college programs will end up with players they previously had no chance at landing. The NCAA also could ease its transfer policy and allow players immediate eligibility if they change schools.
“The trickle down of players will affect everybody,” Gambino said. “I talked to a Division 3 coach a few days ago who is going to have essentially 24 players in his freshman class. He won’t be alone.”
Gambino also worries about his players getting a chance to impress pro scouts this summer. Four BC sophomores — outfielder Sal Frelick, third baseman Cody Morissette, righthander Mason Pelio, and righthander Emmet Sheehan — profile as players who could be drafted in the first three or four rounds next year.
But the Cape Cod League and New England Collegiate Baseball League have already canceled their seasons. The New England-based Futures League has postponed the start of its season but still hopes to play. The Alaska Baseball League, for now, will start June 29.
There’s also talk of a two-week showcase league in Texas. But there won’t be enough spots nationally for every player.
“It’s a scramble,” Gambino said. “Our guys haven’t played since March and you hope they can have some kind of summer ball. Right now, they’re just trying to stay in shape as best they can.”
The other concern is financial. Athletic departments across the country could be crippled by the pandemic if the football season is canceled or games are played without fans.
“You talk to coaches and a lot of us are wondering what the future will look like for college athletics,” said Gambino, who has been at BC for 10 years.
The Eagles were in Raleigh, N.C., on March 12 preparing to play North Carolina State the next day when Gambino got word that the season had been suspended. Then it was canceled. Then the campus was closed.
The developments came in rapid succession.
“Minute by minute,” Gambino said. “The N.C. State people were great, they were in the same position we were. We were there for a day, then we came back and everybody went home.”
Gambino has been to his office only a few times since to pick up a few things. He is now working from the dining room table at his home in Needham and taking occasional breaks to read to his kids.
“I’m doing Zoom meetings like everybody else,” Gambino said. “We have team meetings and I’m recruiting. But we really don’t know what the future holds.”
Could roster rules benefit Sox?
We don’t know for sure what the rules will be when MLB and the Players Association are done crafting an agreement, but indications are that both sides agree on the idea of a 30-man active roster and a 20-man practice squad.
Before the pandemic struck, one of the new rules for this season was that pitchers optioned to the minors would have to remain there for 15 days, not 10. The option period for position players was still 10 days.
Whether that is adjusted or not, the Red Sox should be positioned well to exploit their pitching depth.
Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said several times during the offseason that he felt the Sox accumulated a good number of pitchers who could contribute as relievers, starters, or openers. If that proves true, the depth could be more important than ever over an 82-game season with few breaks.
When spring training was suspended, the Red Sox had 27 pitchers in the organization with major league experience, along with roughly seven prospects they felt were reasonably close to helping out at the major league level.
Chris Sale is out until next season. Nate Eovaldi, Martin Perez, and Eduardo Rodriguez are starters. That still leaves a pool of 30 pitchers the Sox could use in different roles, 11 of them lefthanders.
It’s fair to suggest that Matt Barnes, Josh Taylor, and Brandon Workman would be saved to protect leads late in games. Beyond that, anything goes.
“I think pitchers who can get 6-9 outs maybe twice a week will be huge,” a scout said. “Starters will need time to build up and bullpens will be more important than ever.”
That could mean big roles for Darwinzon Hernandez, Marcus Walden, Brian Johnson, and Mike Shawaryn. Add Collin McHugh to that list if he’s able to overcome his flexor issue.
The Red Sox left camp impressed with Austin Brice, a righthander acquired from the Marlins in January. They also felt like Ryan Weber had taken a step forward by adding a cut fastball to his mix and could be in the rotation.
Nobody can predict what effects the long layoff will have, but the Sox will have a large group of pitchers to pick from at a time when getting off to a fast start will be more important than ever,
From his time with Tampa Bay, Bloom is familiar with how to get the most out of a pitching staff by abandoning traditional usage patterns. To what degree manager Ron Roenicke embraces that remains to be seen.
A few other observations on the Red Sox:
▪ Baseball America’s latest mock draft has the Red Sox taking Arizona catcher Austin Wells in the first round. Wells is a draft-eligible sophomore, meaning he’d have more leverage than most college players to negotiate an above-slot deal.
My guess is with the Sox losing their second-round pick as a penalty for using video to steal signs in 2018, they’ll want to spread their bonus pool of $5,129,900 around to add the most talent they can over four picks, then hope the lure of playing for a cornerstone franchise will entice some of the better non-drafted free agents.
▪ The Red Sox did a Zoom gathering with Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and Rodriguez for season ticket-holders Thursday.
Devers has been working out at the team academy in the Dominican Republic, which should be an advantage for him. Rodriguez is at his home in Miami and Bogaerts is riding out the pandemic in Aruba.
“It’s bittersweet for me,” Devers said. “I just had a baby girl [in February] so it’s good to spend time with her and my family. But at the same time I miss playing baseball. Around this time I should be well into the season.”
▪ The proposed schedule would have the Sox playing only AL East and NL East teams, which could mean a matchup with new Mets pitcher Rick Porcello. He last faced the Sox in 2014, allowing one run over eight innings at Fenway Park on May 17 to beat John Lackey as a member of the Tigers.
Players aren’t the villains
Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, like any politician, knows an easy target when he sees one. That explains his comments this past week when he accused major league players of “holding out for these very, very high salaries and payments during a time when I think everybody is sacrificing.”
Never mind the players weren’t holding out or hadn’t even been presented with any kind of economic proposal from MLB at that point. Those are just details when you want to find somebody else your constituents can direct their anger at.
A day later, as if taking a cue, Tampa Bay lefthander Blake Snell fell right into the trap.
“I gotta get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine, OK? And that’s just the way it is for me," Snell said on a live microphone while playing a video game with thousands of people watching.
“Like, I’m sorry you guys think differently, but the risk is way the hell higher and the amount of money I’m making is way lower. Why would I think about doing that?”
Snell, who stands to make roughly $3.5 of his $7 million salary this season, rambled on for several minutes and even said that playing would be risking his life, a comment that surely caused plenty of doctors, nurses, EMTs, and other first-responders to wince.
A video clip of his comments drew more than a million views on Twitter. In the court of public opinion, it was an easy victory for the owners. Snell came off like a spoiled, greedy brat.
As a labor spokesman, Snell lacks the eloquence of a David Cone or Tom Glavine. But he actually has a valid point. The players will be the ones taking the greatest risk with three months of travel and games in different states, some taking the pandemic more seriously than others.
Even if the usual number of coaches and staff members is cut down to the minimum needed, there would be at least 50 people in the group and an illness such as COVID-19 could spread quickly. The owners will not be subject to anything remotely like that. If they do go to the park, they’ll watch games from a thoroughly sanitized private box with a security guard at the door.
Don’t be surprised if some players elect to sit out the season rather than expose themselves — and their families — to the virus. Bryce Harper has expressed that sentiment, too. It’s not only Snell.
At a time of growing discord in the country, the Players Association would be wise to make its best deal as quickly as possible. Snell has $40.8 million guaranteed from 2021-23, but, for every player in his comfortable position, there are dozens more who need to earn a living this season.
The owners have plenty of motivation, too. A lost season would cost them $4 billion, commissioner Rob Manfred told CNN on Thursday. Failure to make an agreement also would invite scrutiny into how they’ve manipulated the system to hold down salaries for their own benefit.
Manfred said he has “great confidence” a deal could be struck with the players, including on economic issues, and that there will be a season come July.
Everybody loses if there is no season. Everybody wins, at least to some degree, if there is one. Both sides would be smart to restrain from a public debate and get a deal done.
Billionaires fighting with millionaires over money is the last thing any of us need right now.
The Marlins, Rays, and Reds have plans in place to furlough full-time employees and give other pay cuts. It is expected that more teams will follow, particularly after the draft when amateur scouts will be seen as superfluous by some organizations … The Yankees are expecting Aaron Judge back at 100 percent once games start. He has recovered from a fractured right rib and was allowed to rehab at the team facility in Florida. “When it happened, I always felt that we wouldn’t see Judge likely until the summertime,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “But Aaron Judge — like most superstar athletes, they’re invincible and they feel like they’ll be back sooner than later. He never complains. He always pushes through.” … Mookie Betts visited a Kroger’s supermarket in the struggling Bordeaux neighborhood of Nashville on Wednesday and paid for the groceries for a group of shoppers. He also treated the store employees to pizza. The market was close to an area that was hit by tornadoes in March … Former Astros, Athletics, and Mets manager Art Howe, 73, has been hospitalized with COVID-19. Howe is one of the most pleasant people you can run across in baseball, a real gentleman, and hopefully he recovers soon … Best wishes to one of the Fenway Park official scorers, Mike Shalin, as he recovers from brain surgery and is now at a rehabilitation facility … Happy 42nd birthday to Carlos Pena, whose journey took him from the Dominican Republic to Haverhill High and then Northeastern before a 14-year career in the majors with eight teams. That included 18 games with the Red Sox in 2006. Pena had a career OPS of .808, won a Gold Glove in 2008, and was an All-Star in 2009. He now works for MLB Network and NESN.