The release over the last few weeks of Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list and Preseason All-America teams present the opportunity to examine a favorite counterfactual: What if players were not eligible for the MLB draft until three years after they graduated from high school, as is the case in the NFL?
So, with a nod to Jim Callis, who annually turned this thought exercise into a column during his Baseball America tenure, we created a 2018 Preseason All-America team for the alternate universe where MLB copied the NFL's draft eligibility rules.
The resulting team is dramatically different than the one MLB scouting directors voted on, not just in the players appearing on it, but also in what schools those players represent. On the real Preseason All-America team, 12 schools from seven conferences are represented. The Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference lead the way, accounting for half the team, yes, but Wichita State had as many first-team players (two) as Florida, the defending national champions, and the Atlantic Sun Conference, which last season ranked 20th out of 31 in conference RPI, was represented, while the Big 12 Conference, last year's top RPI conference, was not.
But the alternate universe has almost no room for players from outside the Power Five conferences, let alone players from mid-major schools. Of the 14 players on this Preseason All-America team, only one would have gone to a school outside the Power Five. The ACC and SEC, meanwhile, place 11 players on the team. The Pac-12 Conference had two representatives, while the Big 12 was again shut out.
The ACC, Pac-12 and SEC don't need any help when it comes to recruiting. Over the last three years, the time period covered for the Preseason All-America team, 381 prep players ranked on the BA 500 did not sign. Roughly 250 of them ended up at ACC, Pac-12 or SEC schools, a haul that was reflected in Baseball America's recruiting rankings.
The power conference's recruiting dominance comes while regularly seeing the best players in their recruiting classes sign out of high school. But, as the Preseason All-American team shows, schools in smaller conferences are finding some hidden gems and helping players to develop. South Alabama center fielder Travis Swaggerty was not highly regarded out of high school but wound up starting for USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team and could be the first college position player drafted in June. Stetson righthander Logan Gilbert was primarily a third baseman in high school and has turned into one of the most intriguing pitchers in the country and was one of last season's biggest breakout stars.
Players such as Swaggerty and Gilbert would still emerge in the alternate universe, but their teams would likely find it harder to turn the development of those players into postseason success if power conference teams were able to load up with even more future big leaguers than they already are.
College baseball has enjoyed a period of great parity in recent years and the last five national champions have all won the first title in their program's history. Recent rule changes placing limits on roster sizes and the number of scholarship players every team is allowed are often attributed for the increased parity in the game, but as player evaluation becomes more centralized for college coaches with the rise of showcases and travel baseball, MLB's draft rules also likely play a role.
2018 Alternate Universe All-Americans
Joey Bart, C, Georgia Tech: The list of best catchers in the minor leagues is filled with former college catchers such as Miami's Zack Collins and Wright State's Sean Murphy. M.J. Melendez (Royals) and Tyler Stephenson (Reds) are the lone players to sign out of high school over the last three years to merit consideration. Melendez would this spring just be a freshman at Florida International, while Stephenson would be Bart's teammate at Georgia Tech. Bart and Stephenson played together in summer ball with the East Cobb Yankees and it's Bart that gets the nod over his former teammate.
Seth Beer, 1B, Clemson: College baseball's most recognizable player holds on to his spot on the Preseason All-America team. His wood-bat track record may be suspect, but no one doubts his ability to hit at Clemson.
Bo Bichette, 2B, Arizona State (Blue Jays): Bichette lasted until the second round of the 2016 draft. Had he gone undrafted for a little longer, he may well have wound up at Arizona State instead of winning the minor league batting title last spring.
Ryan Mountcastle, 3B, Central Florida (Orioles): The lone player from a school outside the power conferences to make the team, Mountcastle was committed to play for UCF in his hometown of Orlando before the Orioles made him a first-round pick in 2015. He's still searching for a defensive home in the minors, but he's hitting his way to the big leagues.
Brendan Rodgers, SS, Florida State (Rockies): The top-ranked player in the 2015 prep class was drafted third overall by the Rockies that June. He'd have anchored the Seminoles' lineup the last two years and this year would form with third baseman Drew Mendoza one of the most dynamic left sides of the infield in the country.
Griffin Conine, OF, Duke: Conine, the son of former big leaguer Jeff Conine, has made big strides at Duke, turning into one of the best power hitters in the country. The prep outfield crop hasn't set the minor leagues alight over the last couple years and Conine gets the edge over Angels farmhands Jo Adell (Louisville) and Jahmai Jones (North Carolina) and would-be UCLA outfielders Mickey Moniak (Phillies) and Blake Rutherford (White Sox).
Taylor Trammell, OF, Georgia Tech (Reds): The Atlanta area regularly produces toolsy prep outfielders and Trammell has proved to be the best of the bunch in the last three years. He would be a cornerstone for coach Danny Hall if he had stayed home for school.
Kyle Tucker, OF, Florida (Astros): Tucker was set to follow in his older brother Preston Tucker's footsteps to Florida until his stock soared and he turned into a top-five pick and the 2015 High School Player of the Year. Florida won the national title last year without having a position player honored on the all-SEC team. That wouldn't have been the case if Tucker had been patrolling center field and hitting in the middle of the order.
Ian Anderson, RHP, Vanderbilt (Braves): Vanderbilt has had a lot of success with pitchers from the Northeast and Anderson, a native of upstate New York, could have fit right in with the likes of Walker Buehler and Ben Bowden. Instead, the Braves made him a top-five pick in 2016.
Triston McKenzie, RHP, Vanderbilt (Indians): McKenzie has carved up pro hitters for the last two years and ranked second in the minors in strikeouts last season. He would have been a dominant Friday starter for the Commodores if the Indians hadn't bought him out of his commitment with the second-largest signing bonus for a player drafted after the first round in 2015.
Brady Singer, RHP, Florida: Singer was the only of a group of heralded Florida prep pitchers in the 2015 draft class to end up in college. While McKenzie, Juan Hillman (UCF) and Jake Woodford (Florida) all went on to pro ball, Singer ended up in school and enters the season as the top-ranked player in the 2018 draft class.
Mike Soroka, RHP, California (Braves): A Canadian native, Soroka came on strong leading up to the 2015 draft and became a first-round pick. With him at the front of their rotation this year combined with their exciting, young lineup, the Golden Bears might be going into the spring as one of the favorites in the Pac-12.
Forrest Whitley, RHP, Florida State (Astros): Whitley had an exceptional first season of pro ball, rocketing last year to Double-A as a 19-year old. Starting pitching is already a strength for Florida State, which enters the year ranked No. 3. But with Whitley joining lefthander Tyler Holton and righthander Cole Sands, the Seminoles' trio would stack up well with any team in the country.
Austin Riley, UTL, Mississippi State (Braves): Scouts were split leading up to the 2015 on whether Riley was better on the mound or at the plate. The Braves liked him better as a hitter and drafted him as a third baseman with the 41st overall pick. They have been rewarded for that decision, as Riley has hit 20 home runs in both of the last two seasons. But if Riley had gone on to Mississippi State, he would have continued to do both. The pairing of him and Brent Rooker in the heart of the Bulldogs' lineup last year would have been daunting and his powerful right arm would be a welcome addition to the pitching staff.