MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A year ago around this time there was a baseball buzz around the West Virginia University campus as the annual Major League Baseball Draft was held. It didn’t disappoint, as Mountaineer right-hander Alek Manoah went to Toronto with the 11th selection of the draft, the first of eight WVU players selected.
Manoah lived up to Toronto’s expectations, pitching six games after being drafted and, despite an 0-1 record, he recorded a solid 2.65 ERA and registered 27 strikeouts while walking just five in 17 innings of work.
How things can change in a year, especially when you have the coronavirus pandemic sneak up on you and throw organized sports from Little League to the big leagues into limbo.
WVU coach Randy Mazey, who is always itchy as the draft comes around, knowing he may lose some experienced players or some top recruits, isn’t quite as on edge this season, though, as the very foundation upon which baseball is built has been shaken.
On the college level, the final two-thirds of the season and the College World Series was canceled this year and baseball players who had used their eligibility up were given another year to play.
At the same time, MLB announced it was cutting back severely on the number of minor league teams there would be, eliminating a great many jobs across the nation, including players, executives, groundskeepers, concessionaires.
And, with the players and owners at war over what the 2020 season will look like when — and more importantly, if — it is resumed, including the number of games, the playoff structure, where the games will played, whether there will be fans and … the real sticking point, the compensation the millionaire players will be granted by the billionaire owners, the draft was pared down from 40 rounds during which 1,217 players were selected last year to five rounds with 160 picks this year.
In the first round of the draft on Wednesday night, no Mountaineers were selected, and it would be a bit of a longshot to expect any to be tabbed in the four remaining rounds on Thursday evening.
The effect of that on the college game is obvious. There’s a lot of players, more than 1,000, who turned professional last year who will have nowhere to go except … to college.
Mazey believes that’s a good thing.
“Usually you don’t feel major rule changes like that for a couple of years down the road, but the immediate effect is there are going to be a lot more players going to college than there will be signing pro contracts,” Mazey said. “I’m a big fan of that because kids who sign a contract out of high school, it’s a losing proposition in a high percentage of the cases. I always thought it was a shame when a kid who signed out of high school didn’t go back and get his college degree.
“To me, the fact that they are cutting the draft down is not only giving more kids a chance to play college baseball but to become college graduates and get that degree that will work for them the rest of their life.”
The problem is that picking players in the baseball draft isn’t nearly as scientific as it is in football, where the college game really serves as a minor league for the NFL.
In baseball, having a 40 or more round draft has produced all kinds of stars selected in later rounds. This is just a sampling:
Round 7: Wade Boggs
Round 9: Fred McGriff
Round 11: Andre Dawson
Round 12: Nolan Ryan
Round 13: Albert Pujols
Round 14: Dave Parker
Round 15: Jose Canseco
Round 16: Buddy Bell
Round 17: Kenny Lofton
Round 19: Bret Saberhagen
Round 20: Ryne Sandberg
Round 22: John Smoltz
Round 29: Ken Griffey Sr.
Round 37: Bake McBride
Round 42: Keith Hernandez
Round 62: Mike Piazza
So, this could change the look of baseball for a while. A year from now they hope to go back to a more traditional draft, but a slimmed down one.
“I kind of hear the rumors along with everyone else that next year there will be around 20 rounds. I’m a big fan of that because it will make college baseball a better game and make more players become college graduates,” Mazey said.
With so many more players available, college coaches are going to have roster problems, no doubt, but Mazey isn’t worried about it at WVU.
“It’s going to affect a lot of people but it won’t affect us much because we only had three seniors and three or four juniors,” he said. “Older teams, with like 10 seniors or 10 juniors, you had to sign a big class to replace the guys they thought they were losing and they’ll have 50-some kids on their roster, which will be somewhat of problem.
“But college coaches are good at as a group is managing rosters because we’ve been doing it for so long. So we’ll get through it.”
And so will the baseball industry, no matter what happens on the big league level. They always do.
“I’m not going to jump to any conclusions yet because they’re going back and forth, like they always do, trying to get it changed,” Mazey said. “It’s a billion dollar industry, but I think baseball will give itself a black eye if they don’t start when they are able to start.
“They showed over in Korea it’s possible to play and as starved as the fans are here for baseball, if major league baseball doesn’t play the first opportunity they are capable of playing it will turn a lot of people off toward baseball.”