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How will the five-round 2020 MLB Draft affect Ole Miss baseball?

Friday’s decision will change the scope of the program.

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Joshua McCoy - Ole Miss Athletics

Major League Baseball and the Players Association has decided to reduce the league’s draft from 40 rounds to only five rounds, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Kiley McDaniel.

In the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the 2020 NCAA baseball season lasted only four weeks, and Major League Baseball Opening Day, scheduled to take place March 26, was postponed until further notice. As a direct result of this abbreviated period, holding a professional draft at all came under question until an agreement between the league and the player’s association was made in late March.

The five-round draft is set to occur on June 10th and teams can then use their allotted money as they see fit during an undrafted player signing period that will begin on June 13 and end on August 1, with no restrictions on the number of signees.

By 87.5 percent of the rounds, the number of undrafted amateurs (high school, junior college and four-year university athletes alike) increases exponentially. In addition to the loss of draft selections, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich have reported previously that signing bonus values associated with each draft pick will remain at 2019 levels for the next two seasons, and that if a player does not get chosen in the draft, his signing bonus will be capped at $20K as an undrafted free agent. This was confirmed in Friday’s deal.

This proposed cap, and the draft limitations, will likely result in a large number of college juniors returning to school for their senior seasons, and more high school prospects choosing to attend Division I programs.

Right now, for college seniors, it is likely that much won’t change, as they are already forced into signing small contracts by a system that leaves them with no other options after their eligibility expires. As one example, Mississippi State outfielder Jake Mangum tore up NCAA pitching (and specifically Ole Miss) a year ago and signed for $20,000, the cap under the proposed guidelines for this year.

Meanwhile, high school prospects and college juniors that are selected after the 10th round typically fall sign in the $100,000 range, even with less impressive stat-lines than Mangum.

To further complicate matters, the NCAA has granted eligibility relied to spring athletes who had their season cancelled. The MLB and NCAA Council outcomes will create an immeasurably deep 2021 draft class, and flood college programs with talent as many seniors return for another year and a greater number of freshman arrive on campus after not being drafted. Understanding the ramifications, the NCAA waived roster limitations in baseball and increased the limit for student-athletes impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. When it comes to scholarship decisions for returning seniors, however, it is up to the universities discretions.

For athletic departments like Ole Miss, an expanded roster causes an additional financial expectation of up to 900,000 dollars in scholarships, in a time where football (the school’s biggest source of steady profit) may not be played as scheduled.

A lot is up in the air for Rebels, and the NCAA’s decision, coupled with the MLB’s draft limitations will impact several high-impact, fun-having individuals in particular. At the dish, Anthony Servideo, Tyler Keenan, and Cael Baker join senior arms like Austin Miller in having to make difficult decisions.

Anthony Servideo - INF

Servideo, who rose up draft boards early in the season with his hot start, hit .390 in 59 at-bats, reached base 57.5 percent of the time, hit five home runs, and stole nine bases. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Florida native took over at shortstop in his junior season and showed a highly-improved ability to swing a bat, and added some nifty plays in the field. He is likely the only Rebel with a chance selected in the 2020 MLB Draft, though his value may not fall in the first five rounds— especially when high school prospects will be at a premium.

Even still, as a junior, he would typically have held some financial leverage with his option to return to college. Now, with the draft being shortened, he will have his bonus capped at up to 90 percent less than his expected offers.

Tyler Keenan - 3B

Keenan, who finished the year with an 11-game hitting streak and a 17-game on-base streak, led Ole Miss with a .403 batting average, .791 slugging percentage, 27 hits, 33 runs batted in, seven home runs, and 53 total bases. He, despite being projected to be drafted behind Servideo if it was a full 40 rounds, faces the same predicament as his infield counterpart.

Keenan will not be drafted, and should he decide to sign as an undrafted free agent, the signing bonus will be significantly less than it would have been under normal procedure. The option to return to Oxford and improve his draft stock as a senior (or a junior if all student-athletes are granted eligibility relief) may hold more weight.

Cael Baker - 1B, DH

Baker, who put up video game numbers at Wabash Valley College and was named junior college player of the year, transferred to Ole Miss for 2020. The 6-foot-0, 260 pound first baseman was named SEC Player of the Week after the first week of the season, and instantly became a folk hero. His hot start dropped off as the next three weeks continue, but he finished the year with a respectable .349 on-base percentage, and four home runs.

Baker needed to prove to scouts that he could hit top NCAA pitching as a junior, and had a modern stat-line of home runs, walks and strikeouts at Ole Miss.

There is no telling if or when Baker would have been drafted under normal circumstances, but more than likely, he would have had his name called late in the weekend. Now, he will not. He may have chosen to return to Ole Miss for his senior season regardless, his signing bonus will remain the same if he goes pro this summer or next.

Austin Miller - P

Miller, a senior, is faced with a different predicament. The 2020 Stopper of the Year Award Watch List pitcher saw 13 innings of action before the season came to an abrupt stop. Although his draft prospects were not as promising as Servideo, Keenan, or Baker, Miller had allowed two runs in his seven appearances and recorded 19 strikeouts. That is good.

While his signing bonus would have settled in the same range as a late-round draft pick or now as an undrafted free agent, the 6-foot-7, 210-pound righty will have to decide whether to head to the big leagues or return to Oxford for a second senior season in efforts to improve his draft stock.

As of right now, there seem to be more answers than questions for programs and players alike and that’s okay. No matter how it shakes out for Ole Miss and all D1 programs, the scope of college baseball will be forced to change drastically as a result of COVID-19.