TAMPA — Recent conversations with his seniors are some of the most difficult Joe Urso has had in two decades of coaching.
The coronavirus pandemic took away the University of Tampa’s opportunity to chase back-to-back Division II national championships in baseball. Though players who lost their senior season were given another year of eligibility by the NCAA, it’s not that simple.
A Major League Baseball draft modified because of virus fallout is creating a roster logjam in college programs across the country. Urso recruited 11 players to replace his 11 seniors next season. Typically, he has some seniors or juniors who are drafted, and some recruits opt to play professionally if they’re selected out of high school.
But now that the draft is being shortened from 40 rounds to possibly five to 10, many players who normally would have been drafted late — whether high school seniors or college juniors — will likely opt to stay in school.
Urso has freshmen coming in ready to vie for roster spots. He has underclassmen ready to step up. With just 15 hours a week to work with players in the fall, retaining more than 20 hitters is nearly impossible. He has 26 position players on his board now, so he is having to tell some seniors, many of whom will graduate this semester or in the fall, that it is time to move on.
“We’ll have to make some tough calls and some cuts, which has never happened here,” Urso said. “A lot of them, I’ve already started laying the groundwork, telling them, ‘Look, if you want to start looking for another place to play your last year, you can still do that.’ I feel like my obligation, No. 1, was to bring them in here to graduate from UT. I think we’ve done a good job of that, and obviously the baseball part of it they all love. And you hate to take that from them.
“There have been many sad days for me on the phone. It’s become probably the worst part of my 20 years in coaching having to have some of these conversations with really nice kids. It’s by far the worst. I’ve come home very moody after phone calls because there’s no good way to do this.”
With fewer than six weeks left until a proposed June 10 draft date, MLB and the players union are haggling over important details of a restructured draft. In the past week, the union reportedly rejected an MLB proposal for a 10-round draft that would cut existing slot bonuses in Rounds 6-10 by 50 percent.
If the draft is cut to 10 rounds, that would eliminate some 900 players from being selected. Previous discussions capped bonuses for non-drafted players this year at $20,000, and the league’s most recent proposal limited those to five players per team. Beyond that, non-drafted players wouldn’t receive bonuses of more than $5,000 each.
That money pales in comparison with the six-figure bonuses that some players might receive outside the first 10 rounds of a normal draft, especially high school seniors and college juniors with leverage because they could opt to continue with school.
For many undrafted players this year, the option of college will be much more attractive.
The way teams draft players also might change. With fewer rounds to secure the top talent, teams are expected to prioritize players who have been scouted well and have the best signability. With high school and college seasons cut short this year, if they started at all, pro scouts were just getting their first 2020 looks at players, so those who didn’t enter the season as known commodities are at a disadvantage.
“People weren’t putting eyes on players,” Berkeley Prep coach Richie Warren said. “You can watch video, you can look at metrics, you can do all that, but there’s a lot of old-school people in baseball who just want to watch a kid, watch how he moves, watch how he acts, watch how he deals with adversity. And having only played ‘X’ amount of games, whether it’s collegiate or high school, you just didn’t have that opportunity.”
Jesuit pitcher Camden Minacci committed to Wake Forest in the summer before his junior season. As a pro prospect, he blossomed late. But by last fall, his fastball was hitting 95 mph on the showcase circuit, and pro scouts began to flock.
The Tigers, who this year were ranked No. 1 in the nation by two publications, played nine games before the pandemic ended their season — and their drive for back-to-back state titles — and Minacci pitched just three games.
“My draft potential kind of depended on being able to do what I did in the fall this spring,” said Minacci, who still may be drafted but as of now plans to attend college in the fall. “I don’t know what would have happened. It feels like I was only getting started.
“The last game I pitched in was my best game by far. So that process has kind of come to a close, given that the draft is a lot shorter, and given the circumstances, it’s looking like something that only would have played out if I had had a whole season to kind of prove myself even more.”
Tommy Mace had the makings of a breakout season at Florida as a redshirt junior, going 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA and a 5.2 strikeouts-to-walks ratio before the season was cut short. He created a mound and put up a net in his backyard in Carrollwood so he could throw bullpen sessions while waiting for his next step.
“It’s kind of not in my hands,” said Mace, who graduated from Sunlake High. “I try not to worry about it or think about it, if (drafted) or not, where or when. Just kind of take it day by day and try to get better. I can’t stress over something that I have zero control over.”
University of Tampa junior right-hander Brandon Knarr’s first season with the Spartans was also cut short. He pitched six games before the season ended but had 64 strikeouts in 35⅓ innings after transferring from the College of Central Florida, a junior college in Ocala.
“I think it definitely affected my draft stock and my draft status,” Knarr said. “How much remains to be told. I think it had a pretty big impact because of the way I was able to improve at Tampa. That allowed me to command the zone better … and I think having a full season in front of scouts would have definitely helped.”
Drafted or not, Knarr was preparing to pitch in the heavily scouted Cape Cod League this summer, but the league has canceled its season.
More college players potentially staying in school has created fewer opportunities for unsigned high school seniors.
Berkeley Prep senior centerfielder Alex Haire suffered through injury-plagued sophomore and junior seasons, but was starting to draw college notice as a senior, and several college scouts planned to watch him play in a spring break tournament in Jacksonville.
But that tournament never happened. College scouts had fewer than two weeks to watch games before the season ended in Florida. Schools have asked Haire to wait until after the draft so they can see if they have spots available. For now, Haire plans to try to walk on at Florida State.
“I pretty much had to bet on myself to play in college,” Haire said. “I was talking to a bunch of coaches, but none of them has seen me play. It’s not over yet, but mostly (I’ve learned about) perseverance and not giving up on myself too early. Now at least I have the opportunity to earn a walk-on spot, so I’m still working hard for that.”
The same trickle-down effect is reaching junior colleges.
“We have some very good players who are still looking for four-year school homes who, normally this time of year, they’d be getting offers left and right. And nobody is willing to move on them because of the logjam,” said St. Petersburg College coach Ryan Beckman. “And in terms of taking players in, there are a lot of really good high school players who might not have homes because there’s not enough jerseys to go around.”
Twelve of Jesuit’s 14 seniors have signed with colleges, and coach Miguel Menendez is trying to get one more inked. But his players will now enter crowded programs.
“As someone who coaches high school athletes, I feel like the 2020 class got punished twice,” he said. “All those college guys get an extra year of eligibility, and now the high school guys have to now go in and … compete with those guys after they already lost their senior year. It almost feels like a double whammy for those guys.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.