Changes To Draft, CWS Will Shape New Decade

Conan O'Brien—remember him?—used to do a bit called, "In the Year 2000," where he talked about what sounded like the far-distant future.

Back In The Year 2000, college baseball had just embarked on one of its best decades ever. Sure, the talent in the 1980s was epic—the decade included Arizona State's Barry Bonds, Texas' Roger Clemens and Oklahoma State's Robin Ventura. College baseball in the '80s laid the foundation for growth. Then came the 1990s, when offense got out of control and nearly ruined the sport.

A decade ago, it was hard to see which direction the sport would take. The 1999 season was the first with the current bat regulations and the expanded 64-team tournament field, and the first season had been a tremendous success. Could the sport continue the momentum?

The answer was a resounding yes, on the strength of excellent talent—such as Southern California's Mark Prior, Georgia Tech's Mark Teixeira, North Carolina's Dustin Ackley and Vanderbilt's David Price, among others—and as we stand on the edge of the next decade, the '10s, college baseball has never been more popular. Can the sport continue the momentum?

It's plain to see the game has a lot going for it. College baseball teams can build on the brand names built by the football and basketball teams that are constantly on TV and in the public consciousness. Programs like the Texas Longhorns, North Carolina Tar Heels and Louisiana State Tigers are brand names as good as there are in sports—not college sports, but sports. They have large, passionate, often national fan bases, and when the baseball teams do well on the field, those fans often tune in. They root for the laundry, and college baseball has capitalized. How else does one explain a College World Series in 2009 setting TV ratings highs when the average game time was 3 hours, 40 minutes?

The CWS illustrates the successes as well as anything. This will be the last year of Rosenblatt Stadium because the sport apparently has outgrown its home for the last 60 years. It's hard to believe that college baseball will get a nearly $150 million ballpark virtually for itself, for two weeks of the year. The new park will have four clubhouses, a corporate sponsor's name attached (TD Ameritrade) and a new downtown Omaha location.

Teams won't go up to the Ballpark on the Hill, but while something will be lost, something will be gained (besides just money—we hope). It will be up to the players of the next decade—the next Ackley, the next Huston Street—to make new memories for the new ballpark to make it as special as Rosenblatt.

MLB Holds The Keys

Those are the changes the sport has had control over. Outside forces such as the NCAA and Major League Baseball will shape the next decade in college baseball much more than the players and the coaches will.

It's hard to call the NCAA an "outside force," but the governing body used to leave college baseball virtually alone. As long as it didn't cause problems and didn't lose too much money, the NCAA didn't meddle. Now, as detailed last issue, it is meddling, particularly by enforcing the "no agent" rule much more stringently than it ever has before. The NCAA also continues to look for ways to cut costs, which could lead to a reduction of the 56-game limit in the near future.

MLB will be an even larger factor. The next Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after the 2011 season, and because MLB and the players union have found some labor peace, they finally have pushed the draft and player procurement toward the top of the CBA agenda. Draft changes should have a profound effect on college baseball, and the range of changes could have unforeseen consequences.

Of course, this column wouldn't be much fun if I didn't try to foresee the consequences. Every time MLB tries to rein in signing bonuses, it seems to drive players to college—it happened with the likes of Bonds in the '80s, it happened with Prior and Teixeira in the '98 draft and it happened with top 2010 players out of high school, such as LSU's Anthony Ranaudo. More high-end talent is definitely great for college baseball.

MLB could make the draft shorter and incorporate international players into the draft. Both changes could lead to more players staying in college ball, rather than signing as de facto lower-minors roster filler.

Or MLB could adopt the National Hockey League's rule that allows teams to draft high school players and control their rights while they play in college. Think that would be good for the college game? I do, and I definitely could see players choosing the Southeastern Conference over, say, the South Atlantic or Gulf Coast leagues.

Or, MLB could sign more and more of the top prep players. The Tigers have seen early, obvious benefits from signing righty Rick Porcello away from his North Carolina scholarship, even if it cost them $7 million. He's a bargain at that price, and more teams have come to see high draft bonuses as an investment, rather than a sunk cost. The next decade could see talent dip in the college game as more teams get on the player-development train.

College baseball could go in several different directions. But the changes that make the greatest impact could be the ones we can't even imagine—like a $150 million ballpark just for the College World Series.