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How Will Mid-Major College Baseball Programs Handle Eligibility Relief?

In these unprecedented times, the NCAA's Division I Council made an unprecedented decision March 30 to grant eligibility relief to all spring sports athletes.

In a situation with no perfect solutions, the consensus is that the council took the fairest approach to positively affect the greatest number of individuals.

It’s unquestionably great news for those baseball players who were set to run out of eligibility at the end of the 2020 campaign who also might have feared that their careers had ended with very little warning.

And at least on paper, it seems like it would be good news for mid- and low-major programs around the country. After all, these are typically the types of teams that are not the annual national title contenders, but are littered with productive seniors.

Being able to get the band back together, plus adding another full recruiting class and possibly some transfers from over-crowded power conference programs feels like a winning formula for putting the best team on the field, especially when you consider that the ruling also states that returning seniors won’t count toward a team’s 11.7 scholarship cap or the 35-man roster caps.

Mid-major teams that don’t have the talent of their power conference counterparts can typically compete on a national level best when they have old rosters, and that could be the case in a lot of places come 2021.

But for programs who are looking to be in this boat, it’s not quite that simple. The reward could be great, but whether that comes to pass, and to what degree, depends on a lot of factors, many of which are out of a coaching staff’s control.

Perhaps the biggest factor is budget. Some programs don’t work with the full allotment of 11.7 scholarships. Others have the 11.7 scholarships, but only because the budget has been stretched to the max.

So, while a returning senior might not count against the NCAA-mandated scholarship limit, how many programs outside of the power conferences are going to have the budget to bring those players back on scholarship?

In a normal year, adding to the budget might be a tough sell for a baseball program, but it will be even tougher this year, with the novel coronavirus pandemic squeezing athletic departments from all angles, including diminished NCAA payouts due to the cancellation of the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and the expectation that a struggling economy could mean decreased donations from boosters.

McNeese State coach Justin Hill counts himself as fortunate. His administration has gone out of its way to make sure the players who want to return are taken care of, but that doesn’t mean he’s not also working to alleviate financial burden in the ways that he can.

“How about our administration saying, ‘Hey we’re going to take care of these guys?’ That was huge,” Hill said. “(Now we’re) having the conversation ‘What’s this look like? What are we going to do? Where are we going to take reductions from a budget standpoint?’ Something as simple as I took up all the travel bags this year. We took one trip, I took up all the travel bags, I’m going to re-issue the travel bags. How much was that? Man, I don’t know, it may have been a thousand bucks, but it’s a thousand bucks that I can save for next year.”

The approach to this situation could be very different from program to program depending on the circumstances of the school and athletic department, and conversations with coaches across the country have already reflected that.

Although his school has not been public about it yet, one mid-major coach in the Midwest revealed that his administration committed very quickly to bringing back seniors at the same level of aid as before, effectively pushing that school’s scholarship totals above 11.7 for the time being. At the same time, a coach on the West Coast at a program of similar stature to the one in the Midwest says that it’s been made clear to him that his school wouldn’t be going above 11.7 scholarships in order to bring back seniors.

The Division I Council’s decision also says that a team can bring back a senior at any aid level between zero and whatever the player was receiving for the 2019-2020 year.

Theoretically, this means a program could bring their seniors back on little or no aid to alleviate the budgetary concerns, but how many players will be willing to take that deal? It’s already a tough situation for a senior to decide between one more year of baseball or moving on to an internship or job offer they may already have in hand, but now you would be asking them to pay something close to full retail for another year of school or find other sources of aid.

The Ivy League, meanwhile, took matters into their own hands and already announced that they are not going to allow seniors a fifth season, therefore flooding the grad transfer market with players. One look at a quickly-filling transfer portal suggests that there are other individual schools out there that have made that decision for themselves as well.

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As if there wasn't enough working against mid-major programs in this discussion, you also have to consider that the traditional incentives for a player to come back aren’t as strong at this level.

In the SEC or ACC, it might be relatively easy for a player to green light a fifth season on the promise that your team could make a run to Omaha. In a traditional one-bid league, where a vast majority of players also know that pro baseball isn’t in their future, that’s probably not as much of a draw.

In the same way that expectations about scholarship availability vary widely depending on who you ask, expectations about how many seniors will return are different as well. Two coaches whose schools are less than 200 miles apart and whose teams both have half a dozen or more seniors on the roster gave two different answers when the topic came up. One said he had already received confirmation from all of his seniors that they would be back. The other estimated that about half of them would return.

Getting drafted or signing as an undrafted free agent could still change things for some of these players, but with the 2020 draft being limited to no more than 10 rounds and signing bonuses for undrafted players being capped at $20,000, those opportunities will be limited.

Now, programs have shifted to giving seniors a proper sendoff or a warm welcome back to the program, depending on the situation.

In the former case, programs like Eastern Illinois have taken to posting farewell videos on Twitter from seniors who are departing, giving players a chance to say goodbye in their own words.

Meanwhile, Hill’s program is using social media to celebrate those returning seniors, giving each player their own signing day-style graphic with the phrase “Back in the Saddle” featured prominently.

“It’s kind of like signing day, what’s the slogan? I mentioned something like ‘I’m back,’ ” Hill said. “Of course, Megan Sload, who took this project on by herself working at home, she goes, ‘Back in the saddle.’ I go, ‘Man, back in the saddle. I’m an old guy, Aerosmith’s got a song that says back in the saddle again.’ It becomes this collaborative effort and you take ideas and you take somebody’s talent and you put those things together. The thought was, ‘how can you give (the seniors) something?’ ”

One thing the mid-major level is a bit insulated from is many of the adverse effects of the MLB decision to shorten the draft to as few as five rounds. There are far fewer potential top-10 round picks on mid-major rosters than on power conference rosters, and furthermore, these coaches have long been building out their roster with the idea that they’re going to get their entire recruiting classes to campus.

That’s different from many of the truly elite programs in college baseball, which expect some number of recruits to be lost to the draft every year. This year, there won’t be quite as many recruits heading into pro baseball. That’s good news for those programs in one sense, as they will theoretically bring in a deeper class than usual, but at the same time, that infusion of talent could push older players out of the program and into the transfer portal, where mid-majors might be able to supplement rosters with experienced pieces.

On some level, this could be a situation where the rich get richer at all levels. The very best college baseball programs in the country will be fine. They’ll get historically talented recruiting classes to campus to complement a roster that could very well bring back just about everyone, and in most cases, so long as football is played in the fall, the economic impact of doing so won’t cause any lasting damage.

But at the same time, the right mid-major programs could close the gap with their power conference brethren if the stars align. If you’re a mid-major program that was already in the middle of a promising 2020 campaign and your administration has committed to helping you bring back your players, it stands to reason that those seniors will be more amenable to returning to campus, and on top of that, you become a very attractive destination for transfers looking for a soft landing spot.

When you consider that mid-major teams compete best with the big boys of the sport when they field lineups that have experience and talent in equal measure, the 2021 season could be conducive for a June Cinderella to emerge, even in a season when the talent level across the sport could be at an all-time high.

“Do I think that’s a real opportunity? Yeah, I do” Hill said. “But I also know that everybody else has a similar opportunity.”

For those programs that don’t have the type of necessary momentum and support to capitalize on the opportunity, it could feel very much like a typical offseason, only with the added headaches of having to manage an overloaded roster and having more tough conversations with players who won’t be around for next season.

There is opportunity for mid-majors to take advantage and make the best of the situation, but only if certain conditions are met, and that’s what keeps the Division I Council’s decision from being a cheat code for programs at this level.

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