The Second Golden Age Of Juco Baseball Could Be Here
With the demise of the draft-and-follow rule, the golden age of junior college baseball ended in 2007.
Thanks to a combination of factors, the 2020s have a chance to be a second golden age for junior college baseball.
The draft-and-follow rule allowed drafted players to head to junior college and then sign up to a week before the next draft, with an option that allowed them to keep their draft status open and potentially raise their asking price. When MLB implemented a fast-and-fast signing date in 2007, it eliminated draft and follows, and a source of talent heading to junior colleges dried up.
A year after college baseball shut down in mid March because of the coronavirus pandemic, collegiate baseball returns to action this weekend with the beginning of the 2021 junior college baseball season.
The games will count. After the 2020 season ended prematurely without a championship, teams will once again be aiming to head to Grand Junction, Colo. (NJCAA Division I), Enid, Okla. (Division II) or Greeneville, Tenn. (Division III).
But for the players themselves, the 2021 season is a freebie. Because some schools will not be playing because of Covid-19, the NJCAA has determined that this season will not count for eligibility purposes. Last year also did not count as a year of eligibility because of the early ending.
So there will be a lot of 19- and 20-year-old “freshmen” stepping onto juco diamonds this year, many of whom have significant in-game experience already.
On top of that, MLB’s decision to cut the draft from 40 rounds to five in 2020 meant that very few junior college players were drafted. Only five juco players were drafted in 2020, down from 120 in 2019 and 103 in 2018.
Multiple juco coaches said that they aren’t really sure about how good other juco teams are—the effects of the coronavirus means teams have had much less cross-pollination to get to evaluate other teams over the past year. All they know is that their own rosters are the best they have seen.
“We’re old. We’re experienced,” College of Southern Nevada coach Nick Garritano said. “We’ve got a lot of high-end guys. Coronavirus cut the draft to five rounds. We had three guys, if the draft is normal, there is no way they are at Southern Nevada right now. That’s drastically improved our club.
“Junior college baseball might be the best it’s been because you have 20-/21-year-old men playing at this level now. Typically it’s an 18-/19 year-old league.”
This looks like a special team at Southern Nevada, which is deep on the mound and around the diamond. But the Coyotes are far from alone.
“I think personally with my team we are more talented than we have ever been on the mound and offensively,” College of Central Florida coach Marty Smith said. “Whether that’s from the extra year, I have no idea.
“It’s almost going back to draft-and-follow days,” Crowder (Kan.) coach Travis Lallemand said. “This is the best club we’ve had.”
It’s possible that these stacked rosters are a short-term, coronavirus-induced blip. Teams have kept more players for an extra year (or two) because of Covid-19. If not for the NCAA’s decision to waive roster limits for 2021, the juco rosters may have been even more stacked, but the expected wave of December and January bouncebacks from Division I schools proved to be less than expected.
But there are also trends that may give this juco boost some staying power. Even as the coronavirus effects wash away over the next few years (multiple coaches say they think it may affect rosters for the next three seasons), MLB’s rules changes will cause other significant effects.
While the draft won’t be five rounds in 2021, it’s now set to be 20 rounds this year. MLB’s logic is now that the number of affiliated teams has been cut to 120 full-season clubs (plus between 30 and 60 Rookie-level clubs at the team’s Arizona and Florida complexes), there is no reason to draft as many players.
That’s going to lead to significantly fewer juco draftees—roughly 60% of juco draftees in recent years have been picked after the 20th round. But it’s also going to dramatically cut the number of second-tier high school players drafted and signed in later rounds of the draft.
MLB’s efforts are going to push more players to head to college. Without short-season and non-complex rookie leagues, high school players who are not ready to move quickly to full-season ball will most likely need to head to college.
But if you are not relatively well off, MLB’s tweaks have closed a door to the option of getting paid to play rather than paying to play. In a normal draft, 30-plus high school draftees would sign for less than $200,000 as day three picks. Given a choice between signing for a modest signing bonus or going to school, they chose pro ball. That’s not just because they wanted to get their pro careers started. In many cases, it’s because financially, it made more sense for them.
MLB’s moves are going to push more players to head to college if they want to play pro ball, but so far nothing has been done to ensure players can afford to do so. And that’s why juco baseball may be entering a new golden age.
Full scholarships are rare in Division I baseball. As of yet, nothing has been done that changes the fact that Division I baseball teams have 11.7 scholarships to spread around for 35-player rosters (and not all schools offer the full 11.7 scholarships). Division II teams have nine scholarships and NAIA schools have 12. So heading to a four-year school means paying out of pocket (or taking out student loans) for most players, although admittedly need-based grants and scholarships can help.
In addition to having much less expensive tuitions, junior colleges are allowed up to 24 scholarships. So JUCO ball gives players a way to continue to play and develop while not having to pay out of pocket.
Without the draft-and-follow rules, some of the talent that had flowed to junior college baseball dried up. Now another draft rule change may inadvertently end up boosting junior college baseball again.