clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Arizona baseball roster in limbo pending MLB Draft, potential NCAA legislation

arizona-wildcats-baseball-roster-mlb-draft-jay-johnson-ncaa-legislation-season-change-coronavirus Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

It’s been almost three months since the Arizona Wildcats’ promising 2020 season came to an abrupt halt due to the coronavirus-fueled shutdown of college sports. That’s left coach Jay Johnson with plenty of time to figure out what his roster is going to look like for 2021, or at least what it could look like depending on how a few key things go in the near future.

“It’s an everyday fluid situation,” Johnson said. “We’re working our way to where we need to be. We feel good about where we’re at today. Once we get this last answer piece, if you will, with the draft, and some potential legislative relief from the NCAA we’ll end up being where we need to be.”

The annual MLB Draft is a seminal moment on the college baseball calendar, though this year it figures to have much less influence. Instead of the normal 40, the 2020 draft only has five rounds, and Major League teams can’t offer more than $20,000 signing bonuses for undrafted players.

That means Arizona is much less likely to be impacted by draft losses than ever before, with only catcher Austin Wells a surefire bet to get picked and signed. Utilityman Matthew Dyer could also get drafted, Johnson believes, as well as up to five of the 12 players the Wildcats signed in their 2020 recruiting class, which Baseball America ranks eighth-best in the country.

“We have some high-level players that have tools that Major League teams are going to be interested,” Johnson said of his recruiting class.

While Arizona stands to lose fewer players to the pros than normal, which is generally a good thing, it also means having to make even more tough decisions related to scholarship allotment than in a regular year. Baseball is designated an equivalency sport by the NCAA, with programs given only 11.7 scholarships to spread out among up to 27 players on a 35-man roster.

And with the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to all spring sports athletes, the combination of that and a smaller draft loss means Johnson has to divvy up his already small scholarship money even more thinly.

Two of Arizona’s four seniors—pitchers Preston Price and Vince Vanelle—plan to return in 2021, Johnson said, while pitchers Nate Brown and Davis Vainer (the latter a graduate transfer from Alabama who, because of an injury, didn’t make his UA debut until the final inning of the shortened season) will not. All draft-eligible players who don’t get selected later this week are expected to come back as well.

Johnson said a trio of proposed legislative changes must get acted on before he can begin to finalize his roster, two of which he expects will get passed. He expects the NCAA to grant one-year exemptions to allow for scholarship money to be allocated to 32 players, five more than in 2020, and to eliminate the cap on roster size for 2021.

A third proposal, to increase the scholarship total to 13.7 for one year, isn’t likely to pass, Johnson said.

“That will not pass given the current climate or state of affairs in college athletics due to the coronavirus,” he said.

More changes to college baseball?

Last month a group of power-conference coaches unveiled what they’re calling the “New Baseball Model,” a proposal that would drastically alter the sport’s schedule.

Starting in 2022 the season wouldn’t begin until mid-March, as opposed to its current start a month earlier. That would push the NCAA tournament and College World Series into July.

The changes would greatly benefit programs in the northern part of the country that must spend the first month or more playing away from home due to weather. That would cut down on travel, helping to reduce the overall costs for a non-revenue sport that struggles financially.

Johnson is completely against the idea for several reasons, including one he says is selfish because it would affect Arizona more than most schools.

“We get good fan support and we do have great weather during the college baseball season, and those are things I don’t take lightly,” he said. “Right now we already have a good experience for our fans.”

The proposal wouldn’t just impact the regular season but the offseason as well, which Johnson considers just as important. It would limit the amount of practice time in the fall, replacing it with more during the ramp up to the regular season, and ending play in late July all but eliminates summer leagues.

“You’ve taken two-thirds of the year and drastically reduced the amount of player development opportunities,” Johnson said.

Johnson also believes keeping most of the season within the confines of the academic school year is beneficial for players, while the proposed change would mean more than half would be outside that.

“We’d have to house our team for two months beyond the school year,” he said. “If money is short … I don’t think this situation helps that.”

There is one certain alteration, or rather addition, to Arizona’s schedule in 2021: a conference tournament, which is set to be held in Scottsdale next May during what would have been the final week of the regular season. The Pac-12 was one of the last leagues to hold out on adding a tourney, and Johnson is taking a wait-and-see approach before passing judgement.

“I’m a fan of getting as many Pac-12 teams into the (NCAA) tournament as possible,” he said. “If this tournament helps us do that I’ll be the biggest fan of it, if it doesn’t help us do that I’ll not be a fan of it.”