By Russell Vannozzi for The Robertson County Connection
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted baseball as much as any sport, and the fallout is just beginning.
High school and college seasons were canceled shortly after they started. MLB Spring Training was stopped and has yet to resume as owners and players squabble over money.
Now, college baseball programs are facing a roster crunch of epic proportions thanks to a shortened MLB Draft and the logjam created by players being granted an extra year of eligibility.
One group has been especially affected: unsigned 2020 high school seniors.
Many were planning to use the spring baseball season as a final audition and have been left in the cold. Recent White House Heritage graduate Logan Gann is one of them.https://caf33354c1edea54ed4b7e8d9aaf8351.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
“I talked to a couple (college) coaches who said they would come to some games, but that didn’t happen,” said Gann, who hit .462 in 2019 and hopes to walk on at Tennessee Tech. “We didn’t have any games.”
The anatomy of the problem
Put simply: there is an oversupply of baseball players with college eligibility.
In a normal year the MLB Draft would have lasted 40 rounds (approx. 1,200 selections) and graduating college seniors would have exhausted their eligibility.
This year the draft was shortened to just five rounds (160 selections) as MLB owners try to cut expenses in the wake of canceled games and lost revenue. That means hundreds of high school and college players who could have gone pro are now stuck in the college ranks.
Plus, the NCAA, NAIA and NJCAA each granted all spring sports athletes an extra year of eligibility because college seasons were cut short.
In turn, a roster frenzy was created. Nearly 1,000 players have entered the NCAA transfer portal, according to D1Baseball.com.
“It’s a snowball effect,” said Colton Provey, director of scouting for Prep Baseball Report Tennessee. “There’s not a whole lot of winners.”
The NCAA has since eliminated its 35-man roster limit for the 2020-21 school year, and the NAIA and NJCAA don’t have as strict of roster limits (some also have junior varsity teams).
“Some colleges aren’t sure where their own players are going,” White House Heritage coach Chris Logsdon said. “I think everybody is kind of looking at each other and asking, ‘What are we going to do?’”
With more seniors returning to school and plenty of proven transfers for college coaches to choose from, the market for unsigned high school seniors has dried up.https://caf33354c1edea54ed4b7e8d9aaf8351.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
“It’s sad for a lot of reasons,” Old Hickory Baseball Club coach Robbie Sinks said. “I feel the worst for high school and college seniors. But college seniors got a little reprieve – they can come back. High school seniors didn’t get a reprieve.”
Even those who have signed are entering different circumstances than they were expecting. Incoming players will compete with more returnees for limited spots in the lineup – the trickle-down effect of an added year of eligibility.
“If a kid has signed, they are going into a deep, deep pond,” Sinks said. “Normally it would just be a pond. It’s a different ballgame now.”
Added Provey: “It makes it tough on those high school senior guys. Unintentionally, they’re competing with guys that may be three or four years older, which is tough sledding.”
College options limited
Former Hendersonville pitcher Caid Sanders is in a similar position as Gann. Though he was hoping to earn a baseball scholarship at a smaller school, Sanders has an academic scholarship at Alabama and will attempt to join the Crimson Tide as a walk-on while studying marine biology.
“If I don’t make the team, I will still probably end up going to school there and just play club baseball,” he said. “But right now, goal No. 1 is making their team.”
Not everyone is fortunate to have a backup plan at a university.
Old Hickory Baseball Club has two unsigned grads – Charlie Albamont (Father Ryan) and Joey Soporowski (White House) – who have yet to hear from any colleges. With no scholarship opportunities, both are considering trying out for junior college programs.
“The amount of scholarships they can give out, especially this late, is really small,” Soporowski said. “That’s one of the hardest things.”
Throwbacks Baseball Club has five unsigned seniors including Hayes Biemesderfer (Northwest), Jerrett Edmondson (Sycamore), Case Fedun (Overton), Sam Galbraith (homeschool) and Grant Pinson (MBA). Three of them have college offers or interest.
Throwbacks coach Michael Brown feels the pain of late signees and is doing everything he can to get his players noticed. Brown inked with Trevecca in May 2014 after completing his high school career at Sycamore.
“I understand the pressure and the stress,” he said. “My job is to alleviate as much of that stress as possible.”
Dreams still alive
Sanders and his former Hendersonville teammates have a sour taste in their mouths. They wanted to finish their playing careers on their own terms.
At least one classmate who wasn’t planning to play college baseball – Hendersonville infielder Andruw Stratton – is now trying to walk on at Chattanooga State Community College.
“It’s really hard to end your baseball career like we did,” Sanders said. “If you can (play), everybody wants to keep playing.”
Others have found motivation in the lack of college interest. Soporowski, a left-handed pitcher, has increased his velocity from 75 to 84 mph over the last year and continues to add strength in the weight room.
“It just makes me want to work harder,” he said.
The summer baseball season has also taken on an increased importance. It’s one final chance for 2020 grads to prove themselves to college coaches.
“Usually summer baseball is pretty laid back,” Brown said. “But since these kids didn’t have a senior season of school ball, it’s more important. It’s crunch time now for some of these kids.”
The college dream won’t necessarily be over for players who don’t earn offers by the end of the summer.
BC Athletics, based in Knoxville and owned by former MLB player Brett Carroll, recently launched a post-grad baseball program that allows unsigned 2020 players to improve their skills, play against college teams and maintain their eligibility.
“It’s not the end of the road if they don’t get an offer,” Brown said. “They can go to a post-grad program and get bigger, stronger and faster and still have a chance.”
However, each unsigned player will eventually have to face reality. Every baseball career ends one day.
Thanks to the pandemic, that day could come sooner than expected for some.
“I’m still hoping to play,” said Albamont, the utility player from Father Ryan. “If it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t happen. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.
“But I’m still trying.”