College baseball players at the crux of pursuing a professional career amid the coronavirus pandemic have difficult decisions ahead.
Those uncertain paths haven’t been exempt from Missouri, where five seniors would have completed their NCAA eligibility this spring along with a talented junior class with no shortage of Major League Baseball ambitions.
The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to spring sport student-athletes in late March, giving that group of Tigers more options for their future. But those choices appeared to become limited once again when reports surfaced Friday that MLB’s 2020 draft would be shortened from 40 rounds to five.
The move is projected to save MLB nearly $30 million but could also leave farm systems depleted. Any undrafted player can sign for $20,000 each, which for many is less than they would stand to receive under normal circumstances.
“That's going to be a very difficult year for free-agent signings, and the fact that the draft is now limited to five rounds, that really eliminates a lot of not only our seniors’ opportunities, but well over a handful of our juniors’ opportunities of getting drafted now with rounds six through 40 gone,” Missouri head coach Steve Bieser said. “So it's definitely a challenging time for them ... Everybody that I've talked to really wants to come back and play another year, whether that's to start grad school or a couple of them are still finishing up their undergrad, so that works well for them.”
The only Missouri player widely projected to be selected in one of the five rounds of the draft this year is junior pitcher Ian Bedell.
Bedell is ranked by MLB.com as the No. 89 prospect in the draft and is the lone Tiger Bieser believes is probable to test the draft and not return to Columbia despite his desire to have a more memorable finish with the Tigers.
Other Tigers whom Bieser believes could have been selected within the first 10 rounds of the 2020 draft were junior pitchers Trey Dillard and Konnor Ash as well as junior catcher Chad McDaniel.
“The right thing and the smart thing probably is to return. ... If there's 10 rounds, those guys are really getting ready and they would be starting their professional career because the money's right, the round is right and ... if you want to be a professional baseball player, you kind of have to move on at that point,” Bieser said. “But those guys are going to be shut out probably looking at it realistically and they will be back on campus. So it gives us some really good quality.”
With the five MU seniors and potential draft-bound juniors likely returning, there is a bit of a roster traffic jam. On one hand, it’s a good problem for Bieser to have, as he won’t have to look far to find players he can put in the lineup every day. However, playing time for some players could be hampered.
Missouri is bringing in what Bieser called “one of the strongest recruiting classes we’ve had” to put the Tigers near the NCAA’s current active roster limit of 35 players.
Bieser said Tuesday a few Tigers are interested in entering the transfer portal to find better opportunities. Additionally, outfielder Thomas Broyles is opting to attend graduate school in Florida, and infielder Austin James will now attend a Division II school in Florida.
“The fact that our seniors can return, it changes the status of a lot of the players on our team,” Bieser said. “So guys that thought they had a good chance to move into a starting role will kind of be overshadowed by the upperclassmen, the non-drafted guys and the seniors returning. ... It makes for a really great competition as they get in here.
“So the competition should bring out the best in each player and should really provide some stability and some depth on our roster.”
Border War coming to the diamond
Missouri and Kansas are already set to renew their rivalry in football and men’s basketball.
Baseball won’t be far behind.
Bieser said an on-campus series between the Tigers and Jayhawks is currently scheduled to start in 2022. A neutral site game between the rivals in Kansas City is still on the table as well.
“It could very well end up being a Kauffman Stadium deal,” Bieser said of the Kansas City Royals’ home ballpark. “We've done that in the past. But we're still working on the details there. ... We might end up playing sooner rather than later with everybody trying to regionally schedule for next year to make travel much cheaper and all that.”
No updates on NCAA sanctions, stadium upgrades
As of Tuesday, MU baseball has yet to hear back from the NCAA on whether the program will be eligible for the 2021 postseason.
Had the events taken place this year, the Tigers would not have been eligible for the Southeastern Conference or NCAA tournaments because of past academic fraud involving a former part-time tutor.
Bieser said he understands the NCAA has its hands full dealing with the fallout of COVID-19, but he is eager to hear his team’s playoff fate.
“I know that we feel like we've kind of served our punishment and I feel like that we should be able to move on and be eligible next year,” Bieser said. “I think we're all waiting for the final answer, but we feel very confident that we have satisfied the sanction part of it.”
Missouri baseball’s long-term priorities, such as getting new turf installed at Taylor Stadium or upgrading premium seating, aren’t at the forefront of Bieser’s mind at the moment but are still part of future plans.