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Collegiate Summer Leagues Face Daunting Challenges From Pandemic, Changing Landscape

It has been a trying year for everyone in college baseball, to say the least. For summer ball, the year’s challenges have been paired with several changes that have the potential to disrupt the entire ecosystem.

Most summer leagues this year canceled their seasons and the ones that did play did so in a much-modified format with some combination of fewer fans, games and travel. Now, with about six months to go until Opening Day 2021, leagues and teams across the country are preparing for what they hope can be as normal a season as possible.

League commissioners and head coaches said that their offseason has been progressing as normal. Players are signing contracts for next summer and teams are working on selling sponsorships and tickets and preparing for the season. On the baseball side, teams are having no problem filling their rosters. Most upper-level teams are either set or just waiting for the final few pieces to lock in their rosters.

In an abnormal year, it’s finally business as usual.

“We’re just looking forward to the Cape League and moving on to a new summer, just getting back to playing games on the field,” Cape Cod League commissioner Eric Zmuda said. “We’re sad we couldn’t play this year and are looking forward to playing in 2021.”

“All our teams are on board and planning and selling like we would normally this time of year,” Coastal Plain League commissioner Justin Sellers said. “We’ve put out our schedule already. All of our conversations have been optimistic.

“At the same time, we’re aware the Covid situation isn’t going away just yet.”

Despite the semblance of normalcy, the pandemic continues, and summer ball leaders are all too familiar with the many ways it can affect them. The news about a potential vaccine has been encouraging, with three companies announcing they have achieved efficacy of at least 90% in trials.

Needless to say, a vaccine would be outstanding news for the world, sports as a whole and summer ball. But there’s still a long way to go from successful trial to widespread deployment. In the meantime, summer ball leagues are trying to determine what protocols they will need to establish for 2021, likely combining testing and vaccination, though it is too soon to know what form those will ultimately take.

“We have to—as a lot of the leagues do—discuss the Covid possibilities,” Zmuda said. “Do we have to have testing in place? Some combination of testing and vaccination confirmation—I can’t think of the right term. It doesn’t exist yet.”

For many leagues, including the Cape, host families are critical to their operating model. Will testing and vaccination make potential host families comfortable with welcoming in a player for the summer? For a lot of leagues, being able to host as many fans as possible is a key component. How will local health authorities react to further developments in the fight against the virus?

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, this week told Yahoo Sports that he doesn’t think full sports stadiums will be advisable in July but would be by “the end of the summer.”

That timeline leaves summer ball right on the edge of a potentially more normal looking season. But even once fans are allowed to come to games in larger numbers, no one is sure how quickly they will choose to return.

These are some of the unanswerable questions leagues and teams are grappling with now and will be for the next several months.

“The most challenging part would be just working with an evolving culture in regards to the Covid-19 pandemic and trying to properly educate and create, like we did this past summer, a safe environment for fanbase and those that want to come out and enjoy baseball,” Sellers said. “There’s a spectrum of people right now, some fall on the more conservative side of not wanting to go anywhere, some fall on the more liberal side and want to move forward.

“We’re not picking any sides but are understanding there is that spectrum of fans, trying to create as best of an environment as we can so that our fans feel included and concerns are addressed and we feel like we’ve created an environment that we can have a safe season.”

As jarring as the pandemic has been to summer ball, it is not the only challenge to be grappled with this offseason. MLB has made two moves that have the potential to dramatically reshape the entire summer ball ecosystem: pushing the draft back a month to July 11-13, coinciding with all-star weekend, and the creation of two new leagues that have direct MLB backing.

MLB’s decision to move the draft from early June to mid July will expand the summer-ball player pool. Under the old draft timeline, most players who expected to be drafted and sign did not play summer ball. There was a lot to lose and little to be gained from playing, at most, a couple weeks in the summer before the draft. Occasionally, a player might go to the Cape and use a strong few weeks there to increase their signing bonus, but that practice—which was always rare—became increasingly so when MLB instituted harder caps on draft spending in 2013.

Now, however, players can get a substantial amount of summer ball games in before the draft. On the Cape, which typically has the latest Opening Day of any major league (June 12 in 2021), a player could play more than half the season before the draft. Players in leagues such as the Northwoods League, which opens May 31, will have even more pre-draft games (though many players are unable to start that early due to the NCAA Tournament).

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No one is quite sure yet exactly how many players will take advantage of that opportunity. Players who feel secure in their standing as early-round picks will likely largely shut it down after their college season ends. But players with something to prove or who missed time in the spring due to injury could be interested in playing.

If a lot of them chose that option, it would be a boon for summer leagues.

“Leading up to the draft, we’ll have possibly the best Cape we’ve seen in years,” one coach said. “Those eligible kids are going to want to play to up their draft status.”

That presents something of a dilemma for Cape coaches as they build their 2021 rosters. Adding more draft-eligible players makes for an exciting new possibility in roster construction, but few would be expected to stay on the Cape past the start of the draft. Even signing them as temporary players could be tricky if it caused a team to miss out on a temp who could play his way into full-time status. As a result, some teams are staying away from draft-eligible players for this summer, while others are embracing the possibility.

At the same time, leagues and teams are also keeping an eye on MLB’s own entry into summer ball. It will do so in 2021 with the new-look Appalachian League and the MLB Draft League.

The Appalachian League will be jointly operated by MLB and USA Baseball and is for premier rising freshmen and sophomores. The 10-team league will play a 54-game season, beginning June 3 and ending with a championship game Aug. 9.

There have been scant further details announced beyond the schedule, however. More is expected in the new year, including coaching staffs and plans for how to tie the league into USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team and the Prospect Development Pipeline, another joint venture between USA Baseball and MLB that feeds into the 18U National Team.

The MLB Draft League is backed by MLB and will be operated by Prep Baseball Report, which tabbed Kerrick Jackson as the league’s president. The league will be six teams, operating in the footprint of the former New York-Penn League, which has been eliminated in the reorganization of the minor leagues. Mahoning Valley, State College, West Virginia and Williamsport all will transition from the NYPL to the MLB Draft League, while Trenton moves from the Eastern League. A sixth team is expected to soon be announced.

The league is open to all draft-eligible players but will primarily be focused on rising seniors and graduated seniors. The league is expected to mostly draw on players who were under-scouted in the spring, due to injury, role, geographic location or level.

“We want to provide that opportunity for all draft-eligible players to be seen and be seen in a more concentrated environment, knowing that scouts and crosscheckers and the like will all be there,” Jackson said.

MLB has made it clear that its two new leagues are not in competition with the Cape, with which it has long had a loose relationship. It has instead created a pair of leagues slotted on either side of the Cape, with players intended to go to the Appy League at the outset of their college careers, then play in the Cape and finish in the MLB Draft League in their draft-eligible summer.

Whether the ladder ever functions that way for premier players remains to be seen, however. Both leagues were put in a difficult spot for the upcoming summer because they were not established until late in the fall after the time most players make their summer commitments. The premier freshmen are largely already committed for summer 2021 and many around the game are skeptical of prominent draft-eligible players going to the MLB Draft League and risking injury after a long college season. In time, however, as both leagues establish themselves and everyone grows more comfortable with the arrangement, the progression may become more natural.

Where this leaves leagues beyond the Cape also is uncertain. While MLB has been careful to keep the Cape in a place of prominence, it has not been as concerned with other leagues. The kind of younger players the Appy League is now meant to attract have previously been scattered throughout the country. The best rising sophomores typically play on the Cape or in the Northwoods, with others in the Alaska League, California Collegiate League, Coastal Plain League, South Florida League and beyond. Many rising freshmen don’t play summer ball, instead heading to campus early to get settled in and take classes. Those that do play in a wide variety of leagues, including the Futures League and West Coast League.

How quickly the Appy League is able to establish itself as the destination for its targeted demographic remains to be seen. It will have some strong selling points thanks to its relationship with USA Baseball, but it will have to prove itself like any startup.

Sellers said MLB has not reached out to the Coastal Plain despite the Appy League inhabiting a similar footprint. He remains confident in what the Coastal Plain has built as it enters its 25th season.

“We’re kind of looking at it as an opportunity for summer ball to get better and continue to grow,” he said. “In my 20 years, I’ve seen summer ball make leaps and bounds. The bottom line is we believe a rising tide will lift all ships. We’re intrigued by the potential for transforming the college baseball summer league spectrum and are confident in our place.”

For all the changes and new challenges 2020 has presented, however, summer ball’s biggest question may be one it has been struggling with for years: the dearth of pitching. It has become increasingly common for pitchers to be completely shutdown in the summer or have their innings severely limited, making finding enough quality pitching a challenge for every summer league in the country.

That problem will likely be felt more acutely by the new leagues, which have a limited focus for players. The Appy League must find enough pitchers to fill 10 teams over the course of a 56-game season—a season that’s longer than the Cape’s with the same number of teams and a tighter focus of eligible players. The MLB Draft League has fewer teams but more games and will have to work around significant player turnover halfway through the season.

The overall uncertainty isn’t ideal, but little has been in 2020. Through it all, summer ball endured. Whatever 2021 throws at it, the leagues will be more prepared and ready to play.

“What we were able to accomplish this summer, what MLB was able to accomplish, what college football and the NFL and hockey and basketball—sports in general has proven now that we can play and we can do something,” Sellers said. “It may not be reminiscent of what we were doing in 2019 per se but I would think in 2021 unless something drastic happens to shift us backwards I feel pretty good about our opportunity to operate in a better environment than what we were having to deal with a few months ago.”

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