MLB Draft, NCAA Tournament Overlap Benefits No One
GAINESVILLE, Fla.—In Secaucus, N.J., commissioner Rob Manfred stepped to the podium at about 7:30 p.m. Monday to announce who the Reds selected with the fifth overall pick of the draft. At the same time, 1,000 miles to the south in Gainesville, Fla., Florida third baseman Jonathan India was taking the field to start the fifth inning of a regional final against Florida Atlantic.
“With the fifth selection of the 2018 MLB Draft, the Cincinnati Reds select Jonathan India,” Manfred announced. “Jonathan is the third baseman from the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla.”
India didn’t hear anything the commissioner said. He was busy taking ground balls at third base. What India did eventually hear was a fan yelling out from the stands that the Reds had drafted him.
“I wasn’t trying to pay attention to that,” India said. “It’s an honor. I thank the Reds for that.”
An hour and a half later, Florida righthander Brady Singer went through a similar experience. Singer, the College Player of the Year, pitched Saturday, meaning he was out of action Monday night. That allowed him during the game to move between the dugout and the Gators’ clubhouse, where his parents were watching the draft, to monitor the situation. So, when the Royals decided to draft him 18th overall, he knew. But he returned to the dugout before he could see his name announced on the broadcast. He said he’d go back to watch the video later.
“I was popping in and out, trying not to leave the team but seeing who was getting picked where,” Singer said. “We finally got it done and I came out here and tried to support the team the best I can.”
India and Singer had abnormal draft day experiences and they weren’t the only ones. Their teammate Jackson Kowar was also drafted during Florida’s late-night regional final doubleheader against FAU, as was Owls’ shortstop Tyler Frank. Mississippi lefthander Ryan Rolison was drafted during the Oxford Regional final.
Monday night’s scenes have become familiar June scenes when the NCAA Tournament and the draft overlap. Their confluence annually leads to star players being drafted while their teams are battling for a national championship.
The scenario is not ideal for anyone—not for the players and their families who miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not for the college teams that have to deal with a significant potential distraction. Not for the college coaches that are trying to monitor their recruits. Not for major league teams that draft players, only to have to wait for them to finish their seasons before they can sign them. Not for either the NCAA or MLB, which are trying to make their events the best spectacles possible.
Manfred said on the draft broadcast on MLB Network that it is one of the challenges baseball is trying to address.
“One of them is getting to a better calendar arrangement with collegiate baseball,” he said. “We’re working on that. We’ve had a number of conversations with the NCAA, but we’ve also tried to expand those conversations to key college coaches to try to get just a little better coordination, give us more of the people being drafted being present at the event would grow it into a better event for us.”
MLB in the past has expressed interest in moving the draft to Omaha on the eve of the College World Series. It is an idea baseball is keen to explore and was ready to proceed with in the past, but it was unable to come to an arrangement with the NCAA. It is sure to be revisited in the future, though taking the draft out of MLB Network’s studios is hardly guaranteed to make it a smashing success and start it on a trajectory to one day become as popular an event as the NBA or NFL drafts.
Moving it to Omaha would enable more college players to be in attendance when they are drafted. Last year, seven players from the CWS field were drafted in the top two rounds. A total of six players, high school and college, attended this year’s draft.
Before either event approached the popularity they have today, the draft used to be held during the College World Series. Pat Burrell was selected first overall in 1998 while he was in the on-deck circle in Rosenblatt Stadium.
Those days are in the past, but the events have conflicted too often in recent years. Dansby Swanson was nearly picked first overall in 2015 during a super regional game. But Vanderbilt wrapped up a 4-2 victory at Illinois to send the Commodores to Omaha in just enough time to allow Swanson to watch the draft broadcast on a phone on the field.
It was a scene that won’t soon be forgotten. But Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin recently told reporters that it easily could have been much more awkward.
“What would that have looked like had we lost and you’re standing on the third-base line looking into a phone and watching Dansby getting drafted?” he said. “The moment turned out well, but it stinks. It’s not really the way it should be. That’s too much on a kid’s plate.”
There is no ideal time for the baseball draft. Holding it during MLB’s offseason would be even more disruptive to college teams when players decided to sign and leave school before the season began. Drafting high school players would be far more complicated. Holding the draft much later in the summer would be detrimental to short-season minor leagues and would end up costing many players a summer of developmental time.
But surely there is a way to hold a draft without it overlapping with NCAA Tournament games.
“I would love Brady and Jackson and Jonathan to have the opportunity to be with their families,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It’s a lifetime achievement and they weren’t given that opportunity. From a parent standpoint, that’s what I take away. If my son is ever talented enough to be in that situation, I would love the opportunity to experience that with him.”
But until MLB and the NCAA are able to come together for some sort of agreement on a better calendar, Monday’s scenes of players dashing back to the clubhouse or getting the news relayed to them by over-eager fans will continue—to the benefit of no one.