On a normal gameday at a Top 25 college baseball stadium, the seats directly behind home plate are dotted with men raising radar guns in synchrony, charting what could be the next big prospect for the professional baseball team they work for.
It’s a sight that was dominant across the college baseball world prior to 2020. And on the nights when a potential No. 1 pick was pitching, it was not uncommon to see 20-30 scouts in attendance. Then, just a few weeks into the 2020 season, everything was shut down in the sports world thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the college baseball season was canceled. Suddenly, those scouts whose job it is to chart the progress of hundreds of players across the country had to figure out how to do so in ways they were not used to yet still provide as thorough a report as possible.
Not only that, but there was very little summer baseball to evaluate talent, and even when the season resumed in 2021, travel and COVID restrictions limited how much evaluation the scouts could do.
All this makes for an interesting process as the 2021 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft begins Sunday, July 11, and current draft-eligible players begin to ponder their future in the game.
But evaluation is just one of the many factors that will play into how the 2022 college baseball landscape will look. Fewer minor league teams means fewer roster spots, a 20-round draft (after only five rounds in 2020) and more draft-eligible players means pro teams will be very choosy in who they select.
“A shortened draft will push a lot of lower-level bonuses into amateur free agent signings,” said Michael Fiore, vice president of the Boras Corporation and a 2014 inductee into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame. “It also will likely lead to fewer draft picks being used late on unsignable amateur players, in particular high school prospects planning on attending college. Teams will be using all 20 rounds to draft players they expect to sign.”
Fiore knows well what it’s like to be a college player hoping to be drafted. He was a standout outfielder at the University of Miami from 1985 to 1988 and won the Dick Howser Trophy as the nation’s best player in 1987. He left Miami holding 12 school offensive records, earning consensus All-American honors in 1988 and a spot on the gold-medal winning 1988 USA Olympic team.
He has served in various roles in his almost 24 years with the Boras Corporation, representing professional athletes in all sports around the world. Fiore’s experience has him particularly plugged in to how COVID has affected and will continue to affect amateur baseball and its relationship with Major League Baseball.
With the draft only a few days away and the chances to evaluate talent dwindling, the time for teams to solidify their draft boards and decide what direction they will go with their picks is at hand.
20 rounds in 2021
The 2020 draft had just five rounds, which left many draft-eligible players with a tough decision to either sign a free agent deal or hold out for potentially more money in 2021 while not knowing how many rounds the draft would be.
Normally, the MLB draft is 40 rounds, but with professional baseball taking big financial hits due to the COVID shutdown, MLB reduced the number of minor league teams throughout the game, which means teams have fewer roster spots needed to fill from the draft.
Therefore, the 2021 draft will be only half of its normal number – 20 rounds. While that’s significantly more than the five rounds of 2020, it still will play a large role in whether many college players sign or go back to school. Not only that, Fiore said, the fewer rounds and lower number of minor league roster spots will alter how teams approach who they draft.
“In 2019, teams typically signed 26-28 players from the amateur draft,” Fiore said. “With one less minor league affiliate per organization, teams don’t necessarily need to sign that many players out of the draft anymore. Between the 20 rounds in the draft and additional amateur free agent signings, teams will be able to fill all their roster needs in the minors. There could be an additional 100-150 players total returning or going to college instead of signing with less rounds and less minor league teams.”
Fiore said the announced slot pool for the top 10 rounds of the draft in 2021 will be almost identical to what it was in 2019 before COVID — around $226 million.
The NCAA announced shortly after the 2020 season that all players who came back to school in 2021 would not lose a year of eligibility. While that certainly benefitted college rosters, it also created a glut of draft-eligible players for 2021.
Not only are those players who were draft eligible in 2020 back in the mix, so is a large group of players who are technically draft-eligible sophomores, not to mention redshirt freshmen who have met the draft age requirement of being at least three years removed from high school.
Fiore said while that creates a larger pool than normal of players to choose from, it also has been detrimental to players who are on teams that returned a wealth of experience this season.
“Teams may be looking to add more new players into their organization after having a limited number of amateur players join last year,” Fiore said. “There also will be a large group of fourth-year juniors eligible this season who were not drafted last year with a five-round draft. Teams have additional leverage over fourth- or fifth-year college players due to age and already completing their academic career.
“Having fewer college upperclassman drafted and signed last season has led to more depth on college teams this season. There is more experience among college players in 2021. While this is a positive for the 2021 season, it also means fewer underclassmen are earning prominent roles on college teams since there are an abnormally high amount of returning upperclassmen.”
That means pro scouts had to ramp up their diligence in evaluating players. Fiore said the problem isn’t more players, but fewer chances for scouts to get out and evaluate. It’s not the process, it’s the access.
Then there’s the high-school factor, which adds even more talent to the pool and will make this draft one of the most intriguing in its history.
“There should be a normal amount of high school players signing out of the draft this season,” Fiore said. “High school signings predominantly occur within the first 20 rounds of the draft. A shortened number of rounds should have very little impact on the total number of high school players electing to sign.”