Inside a Busy Summer for College Coaches in the Transfer Portal
The word of the summer, at least as far as college baseball coaches are concerned, was “busy.”
Some of that is a full-bore return to in-person recruiting, which had coaches once again traversing the country in search of college baseball’s next generation of stars.
But let’s be honest, the feeling of this summer being extra busy is mostly about the transfer portal.
With thousands of players in the portal, and scores of them coming in with each passing day in the weeks immediately after the end of the season, coaches spent countless hours hitting refresh on the portal itself to catch each new name and even more time looking at data and watching video of those players.
“We were checking every single day and making sure we checked out every single guy that went in there,” said Nebraska-Omaha coach Evan Porter. “If they fit our needs, we’d reach out.”
Sometimes, once a day wasn’t enough.
“It was constant checking,” said new Kansas coach Dan Fitzgerald. “It was a daily thing, and not just daily, but multiple times a day where you were just anticipating who was coming in, so it was wild times for sure.”
Multiple coaches told Baseball America that instead of heading to showcase events, they began their summer sitting in their office checking the portal and watching video of prospective players. As one coach explained, he could do a lot more to improve his 2023 team by watching video and talking to transfers than he could by recruiting players for 2024 and beyond.
The calculus is simple, though. Coaches invest that kind of time in the transfer portal because it works.
Texas A&M made it to the College World Series with a team recruited heavily out of the portal. At the mid-major level, Kennesaw State made it to a regional for the first time since 2015 with a roster full of portal additions.
Fully, seven players who were on one of Baseball America’s 2022 All-American teams were recruited out of the transfer portal, and two 2022 All-Americans in two-way player Paul Skenes and infielder Tommy White—both of whom committed to Louisiana State—were in the portal this offseason.
“The thing I always think about when I think about the transfer portal, to put it in the simplest of terms, I think of one word and that’s opportunity,” said Kentucky coach Nick Mingione, whose team has recruited aggressively out of the portal each of the last two offseasons. “The reason why I say opportunity is because sometimes a guy is the second shortstop and he just wants to go somewhere to play. He’s just stuck and for whatever reason he can’t get on the field. Maybe there’s an arm that’s the 12th-best arm, but he can go somewhere else and be a top-three arm.”
The value for upper echelon programs is clear. Players who were buried on the depth chart at power conference programs will often look first for opportunities that allow them to stay at the top level of college baseball.
The same is true of high-profile players simply looking for a more natural fit for them personally or looking to make a move due to coaching changes, like Jacob Berry following coach Jay Johnson from Arizona to LSU or Jack Moss moving from Arizona State to Texas A&M alongside hitting coach Michael Earley.
The power programs also get a crack at every productive mid-major player who enters the transfer portal. With the likes of DiChiara and Guilfoil, among others, not only earning All-American honors but also greatly improving their draft stock at SEC programs, that’s likely only to increase in frequency.
“I had one professional scout tell me that his scouting director told him to go fish in the SEC pond,” Mingione said. “There’s nothing wrong with going to that secret spot or somewhere like that. There’s been mid-majors that have just as good if not better draft picks than we have. So just because someone is at a mid-major doesn’t mean that they can’t be a top draft pick, or even at a junior college. I think we’ve seen that. The thing that the SEC provides for these guys is maybe some of the more national exposure.”
The theory is that as talent flows up from mid-major programs to power conference programs, there should be plenty of talent flowing the other way, most likely players who are looking for more playing time or players who are just a better talent fit for a lower level of play.
There are examples of that happening with great success. The aforementioned Kennesaw State, with a lineup led by Mississippi State transfer outfielder Josh Hatcher coming off of winning a national title, is one shining example.
But this part of the equation is not quite as straightforward.
One mid-major assistant coach lamented this offseason after much of the dust had settled that there seems to be plenty of talent working its way up but that commensurate talent wasn’t necessarily filtering back down to the lower levels.
Increased playing time and a more prominent role are the classic reasons why a player might drop down from a power conference, but perhaps lending credence to the viewpoint of that assistant coach, there are also a lot of reasons why a power conference player might be hesitant to move down.
Even in a smaller role, playing in a power conference will all but guarantee you get seen by evaluators, especially if you’re a pitcher with stuff. And beyond that, there are perks to being a baseball player at a power program in a world where those programs are reinvesting in baseball like never before, from better facilities to more support staff to, in some cases, being able to fly charter to some road games.
Other coaches provided more nuanced assessments of the state of play for programs below the power conference level.
One mid-major head coach says that there are talented players available to mid-majors that those programs typically can’t get through traditional recruiting, but getting them isn’t a simple task.
“The price tag for those guys is sky-high,” he said. “Some of the guys that are in the portal, let’s call it a seventh-inning guy. Traditionally, if you’re a seventh-inning arm, maybe you want to pay 40% (of a scholarship) or whatever that number is at your school for that type of arm. Those seventh-inning guys (in the portal) are coming with price tags of 80% or more and at a certain point, you’ve got to leave innings for your incoming guys to develop and it’s not worth spending 75 or 80% for a guy that has a 6.00 ERA somewhere else.”
Every team in college baseball has the same number of scholarships to give, so on paper, portal players being expensive in that specific way isn’t a differentiator. But being able to sweeten the pot certainly is.
“Some (transferring) players, I know the coaches where those players are going (and) I said, ‘How much did you pay for that guy?’ And he goes, ‘100%, plus he’s getting NIL money,” the mid-major coach added.
Porter, whose Omaha program has recruited portal players from all levels of college baseball, sees plenty of talent making its way down to the mid-major level, but admits that it’s a bit one-sided when it comes to who’s available to programs like his.
“Position player-wise, it feels like it evens out a bit more than the pitching side of things,” he said. “Everyone’s always looking for pitching and they can never have enough and if you’re successful at a mid-major, all-conference or pitcher of the year-type guy, I think that’s pretty attractive for a power five school to have a guy that’s already proven himself at the college level, at the Division I level even.”
Activity in the transfer portal this summer was particularly concentrated around coaching changes. As changes were made, a raft of players from that team entering the transfer portal would often soon follow.
In a few cases, like Notre Dame and Tulane, some (but not all) of the losses were mitigated by the ensuing hire, but in other cases, the new coaches never really had a chance to keep the roster together.
Kansas made an inspired hire in Fitzgerald, formerly an assistant at Dallas Baptist and LSU, but by the time he was brought on board, the Jayhawks had already lost cornerstone players like Maui Ahuna (Tennessee), Tavian Josenberger (Arkansas), Cooper McMurray (Auburn) and Jack Hammond (Long Beach State), among others.
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It even happened as late as mid July, when Virginia Commonwealth coach Shawn Stiffler departed for Notre Dame. VCU players promptly hit the portal fairly late in the game, and in the cases of Connor Hujsak (Mississippi State), Tyler Davis (Mississippi State), Benjamin Nippolt (LSU) and Chase Hungate (Virginia), ended up at prominent destinations before new VCU coach Bradley LeCroy was hired.
“I think you can’t blame players,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s their career and they were recruited by a different staff and committed to a different staff. I think (for) a lot of the players, it seemed like the trend was to protect themselves by going in and at least opening that option, which makes a lot of sense.”
The transfer portal is not going to change traditional recruiting when it comes to trying to land a generational player for a program. Coaches are always going to want to land the player who will be a star for three seasons.
But it does undoubtedly alter a coaching staff’s recruiting mix. Transfer portal players simply offer less risk than a high school prospect who hasn’t yet adjusted to college baseball, and coaches universally seem to agree that portal recruiting is likely to continue to squeeze out junior college recruiting for some programs.
No matter the size or recruiting strategy of the program, the key above all else is going into the portal knowing what you need and what you have to offer.
“I think you’ve got to find your niche,” said the mid-major head coach. “Where are you going to get the bang for your buck? Are you going to get the guys that are coming down from the premier SEC programs? Is that the guy you want to get? Or are you trying to get the guy from a little bit lesser known D1 (program) that hits the portal and wants to move up?”
No one, even speaking off the record, had any issue with the transfer portal existing or with transfers being an option for players generally, but opinions on how the system is flawed are plentiful.
Many seized on the late draft, now taking place in mid July, as a complicating factor from a number of angles. It can lead to traditional recruiting classes falling apart at a time when most of the premier transfers, potential replacements for those lost recruits, have already committed elsewhere. Teams that recruited the portal aggressively early in the cycle can also see those transfer classes fall apart as draft-eligible incoming transfers get drafted.
Relatedly, with so much time between the end of the season and the draft, players have taken to entering the transfer portal as a bargaining chip in negotiations with MLB clubs for when they get drafted, leaving college coaches to suss out how serious the player is about actually playing another year of college baseball.
Almost certainly on the horizon is the passing of legislation that would create a 60-day transfer window that would open the day after NCAA Tournament selections are made. While that might mitigate the rush we saw this summer as players tried to get into the portal before the July 1 deadline, it does potentially create another set of headaches, with roster uncertainty creeping even further into the summer.
Like it or not, transfer portal activity is likely to stay at the current rate or increase from this point forward, especially as a future where players are able to transfer freely as many times as they like seems inevitable.
Every coach has to weigh how the transfer portal works for his specific program, but it stands to reason that the way forward, by and large, is to find a way to make it work rather than bucking against it.
“Regardless of what any of our opinions are on the portal, the reality is that it’s living and breathing and active and it’s here to stay,” Fitzgerald said.