NCAA extends eligibility for student-athletes impacted by COVID-19

On Monday evening, the NCAA Division 1 Council announced that all Spring 2020 athletes are eligible to return and participate in 2021 without losing any eligibility. The NCAA essentially granted every spring athlete a “do over”. Days prior to the NCAA’s ruling, Major League Baseball offered a shred of clarification on how the MLB draft will look in 2020. It is not clear as to the exact direction MLB will go but provided clear options as to how the draft could shape up.

NCAA: Division I Council extends eligibility for student-athletes impacted by COVID-19
D1Baseball: NCAA Division I Council Gives Blanket Eligibility Waiver
Collegiate Baseball: NCAA Grants 1 More Season Of Eligibility
College Baseball Daily: NCAA grants D-1 Athletes another year of Eligibility

How will the NCAA hitting the reset button directly affect the Titan Baseball program moving into next year? We’ll do our best to predict what is likely to happen and how it will play out. But first, we need to explain what exactly the NCAA ruling entails and how the MLB Draft could shake out.

NCAA D1 Council Decision Highlights

  • Spring-sport student-athletes receive an additional season of competition and an extension of their period of eligibility.
  • Seniors who would have exhausted their eligibility in 2020 may return and will not be counted towards the 35 man roster limit.
  • Seniors who would have exhausted their eligibility in 2020 and were receiving an athletic scholarship are eligible to receive the same amount of their 2019-20 scholarship or less. These scholarships will not count towards the 11.7 limit for baseball.
  • Seniors who would have exhausted their eligibility in 2020 and were receiving an athletic scholarship may not receive more scholarship money in 2020-21 than they received in 2019-20.
  • Seniors who would have exhausted their eligibility in 2020 who choose to return and play in 2021 will not count towards the 35 man roster limit.

MLB Draft in 2020

Because we’re focused on college baseball and Titan Baseball specifically, the recent clarity coming from Major League Baseball regarding the annual amateur draft will have an impact on the shape and dynamic of the 2021 Titan Baseball team. Prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic shutting down all sports both college and pro, the MLB Draft was slated for June in Omaha during the College World Series. The College World Series was canceled and the MLB Draft will look quite different than in years past.

Last year’s draft was 40 rounds and many signs point to 2020 as a contracted draft. The old saying goes, “never let a crisis go to waste” and it appears MLB is adhering to that. Prior to this global pandemic, MLB was making noise that it wanted to contract the minor league system and to potentially eliminate roughly 40 lower level farm teams. This global pandemic and subsequent response to it may allow Major League Baseball to do just that without much of a fuss. The owners can easily claim the revenue lost from starting the 2020 season late or postponed completely justifies the need to contract the number of minor league teams.

Many feared that MLB would simply skip the draft in 2020 but news broke last week that is not the case. No concrete answers were provided regarding exactly how the draft will look in 2020 but MLB and the players union did agree there will be a draft this year. The exact dates and how many rounds in this year’s draft is still undetermined.

Dillon Brown
Dillon Brown could return in 2021 to complete his senior year of eligibility.

Regarding the date, we do know it will be sometime this summer and could be as late as July 20, 2020. Regarding draft rounds, the MLB could keep it at 40 rounds or trim it to as few as five. Most pundits are predicting the draft will fall somewhere between five and 10 rounds with most saying closer to five is the most likely.

The signing deadline can be no later than August 1. Signing bonuses from the draft would include up to $100K within 30 days of approval/signing, 50 percent by July 1, 2021 and 50 percent by July 1, 2022. The same bonus structure will apply to the 2021 draft as well. MLB also has the ability to host draft combines for college players in 2020 and 2021. This is likely in place just in case wood bat summer ball leagues chose to scrap their seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (The Valley League, a smaller, lesser known summer ball league in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, announced it’s canceling the 2020 season.)

Signing bonus slots for the first five rounds will remain stagnant from 2019. In the past, slot bonuses would increase by roughly four percent. (Last year’s No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman signed with the Baltimore Orioles for roughly $8.1 million. His bonus slot was $8,415,300.) If a player is not selected in the draft, he can sign with an MLB club as a free agent. Keep in mind, 2020 signing bonuses for undrafted free agents are capped at $20,000. This same cap is in play for the 2021 draft.

With an abbreviated draft compared to a regular 40 round draft, that means college baseball in 2021, as a whole, will be more competitive and have a higher level of talent. If the draft is five rounds, 161 players will come from the high school, junior college, Division 1, 2, 3 and NAIA. (That 161 number includes the Competitive Balance Round A & B and Free-Agent Compensation Picks.) A normal 40 round draft we would see over 1,200 players selected.

Zach Lew
Zach Lew is draft eligible in 2020 based on his age despite only being a sophomore.

The draft eligible players granted an additional year of eligibility may choose the free agent route. Draft eligible Titans include all 2020 seniors, juniors and one sophomore, Zach Lew, because he is 21 years old. If any of these players go undrafted, they could take the limited bonus money as an undrafted free agent and start their professional career rather than incur more student loan debt to play in college an additional year. Every individual’s situation is unique and it is difficult to place all draft eligible players into a monolithic group.

Impact on Seniors

Prior to the season coming to an abrupt end, Titan Baseball had five seniors on the roster. They are (in alphabetical order):

Brady Barcellos – LHP
Dillon Brown – RHP
Isaiah Garcia – INF
Matthew Sanchez – RHP
Zach Weisz – OF

If all five choose to return to campus next season, the Titans could have a 40 man roster. Remember, seniors will not count towards roster limits. Only incoming freshmen, this season’s freshmen, sophomores and juniors will comprise the 35 man roster limit. The big questions remain, who will choose to come back, will they want to come back, which ones will chose to explore the possibility of playing professionally, can they afford to come back and where are they in relation to earning a degree?

Disclaimer: We are not privy to any Cal State Fullerton student-athlete’s level of financial aid or amount of scholarship money, if any, they may or may not receive. Any and all examples are pure speculation and are made to help our readers understand the potential ramifications on next year’s Titan Baseball program.

Isaiah Garcia homer
Isaiah Garcia could return to Fullerton for another season, which would be his 6th year in college.
(Photo Courtesy of Don Hudson)

Let’s assume that Isaiah Garcia and Dillon Brown are receiving some level of scholarship, say a 25% scholarship. If they chose to return for the 2021 season, they can receive up to their 2020 level of scholarship aid or less and it will not count towards the 11.7 total number of scholarships in 2021. Head coach Rick Vanderhook has a tough decision and a even tougher conversations with those seniors on scholarship. In a normal year, seniors and juniors with high draft potential on scholarship are expected to leave the program and that scholarship money goes towards scholarships for the incoming class. Even though the scholarships for seniors will not count towards the 11.7 limit, that money has to come from somewhere.

Keep in mind, the NCAA’s decision affected all spring sports and allowed scholarship exemptions for all spring 2020 student-athletes. That means for softball, men’s and women’s golf, women’s tennis and men’s and women’s track & field, their seniors are eligible to receive their same level of scholarship too. Cal State Fullerton has not had football since 1992 and is not like other schools with football programs. CSUF can not shift money to cover unexpected scholarship money for seniors granted an additional year of eligibility. Some sports programs are not fully funded and offer less than the maximum number of scholarships allowed by the NCAA. We won’t play amateur attorney here but if you offer increased scholarships to one program and not all, imagine the lawsuits that could arise. Let’s not even bring up Title IX if a male sport receives more scholarships and the female sports do not.

Matthew Sanchez
Mathew Sanchez is a senior facing the tough decision to return in 2021.

This issue could work itself out if the seniors on scholarship choose to graduate and move on and enter the workforce in their field of choice. That is if they were on track to graduate in the timeline their eligibility expires. (Keep in mind, Isaiah Garcia is a fifth year senior due to redshirting in junior college.) Assuming the university is able to find the money for these returning seniors, are seniors willing to take out additional student loans or ask their parents to make up the balance the scholarship does not cover? Would a senior who will graduate in 2020 be willing to enroll in graduate school and incur those costs just to play an additional year of college baseball? Please remember, in order to remain eligible, student-athletes still need to be students and enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate degree program.

Our guess is that all of the seniors listed above will be welcome to rejoin the team if they so choose, but will be back as non-scholarship, walk-on players. Unfortunately Cal State Fullerton does not have the athletic budget to absorb additional and unexpected scholarships for seniors who were expected to exhaust their eligibility in 2020. Those aforementioned seniors will not be in jeopardy of being cut from the team should they return and will provide much needed depth while paying their own way. But that depth will most likely come with limited playing time because there is only one baseball and they still only allow nine players on the field at one time.

Brett Borgogno
A draft eligible junior projected to go in the later rounds, Brett Borgogno could return in 2021 or sign a free agent contract.

Speaking of depth, many believe that college baseball as a whole will benefit from the expanded rosters due to seniors not counting towards roster limits. In addition, juniors expecting to get drafted in the later rounds this year could choose to go back to school, get closer to earning their degree and try their luck with the draft next year. With two years of eligibility left, they may opt to return to school and hope to get drafted in 2021 when the draft could get expanded to 20+ rounds. They will still have an additional year of eligibility as bargaining leverage.

If the MLB draft is shortened to five rounds, Tanner Bibee projects as the only Titan to go in this year’s draft. D1 Baseball ranked him the seventh best junior pitcher and projects he could get selected in the fifth round. If Bibee is not selected in the MLB draft this year, the likelihood of him returning to school is quite high. It’s doubtful he will sign as a free agent and accept $20K when he has two years of eligibility left and additional bonus leverage.

Tanner Bibee is expected to get drafted in the first five rounds of the 2020 MLB Draft.[/caption]
Let’s assume Bibee does get drafted and ends up leaving to start his pro career. The remaining juniors on the roster will probably not be selected in this year’s draft. Guys like Landon Anderson, Brett Borgogno, Demitri Colacchio, Timmy Josten, Austin Schell and Josh Urps could have been selected in the later rounds but now will probably need to wait until 2021. They could sign a free agent contract and start their professional career but like Bibee, could return to school with additional leverage.

Zach Lew is a wild card in all of this because although he is a sophomore, he is 21 and his age makes him eligible for the MLB draft. Although Lew was off to a red hot start to the 2020 season, it’s doubtful MLB teams will burn a limited number of draft spots on a sophomore that has three years of leverage upcoming.

Tanner Bibee is expected to get drafted in the first five rounds of the 2020 MLB Draft.

Assuming Bibee is the only player to leave via the draft, that leaves 34 potential returners. Keep in mind, of the 2020 35 man roster, 22 were sophomores and freshmen. That’s about 63% of the roster guaranteed to return next year if the 2020 season was not cut short and everyone’s eligibility counter moved up a year. (Assuming no transfers or players academically ineligible.) Now that the juniors can return, next year’s 35 man roster will be extremely difficult to crack. Don’t forget that eight high school seniors have signed National Letters of Intent and have committed to coming to Cal State Fullerton.

Again, pure speculation on our part but the number of players committed to coming to Fullerton should be much higher with fewer lost to the draft. In the past two season, the Titans have lost one commitment per recruiting class due to those committed players signing MLB contracts directly out of high school.

In 2018, Fullerton lost Osiris Johnson to the Miami Marlins after he was selected in the second round and signed for roughly $1.3 million. In 2019, Joe Naranjo was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the third round and signed for $770,000; $193,000 above slot value. The prevailing opinion remains that if the MLB draft reduces down to five rounds, teams will select college pitchers heavily and will not take risks on high potential projects out of high school.

Kumar Rocker

The past few years, MLB clubs could take a high school kid in the first round and hope that offering a huge signing bonus will convince the player to sign and not come to school. Teams have been burned in the past and the high school player still chooses to attend college. The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted JT Ginn with the 30th pick in the 2018 draft but Ginn chose to play for Mississippi State. Same story with Matt McClain out of nearby Beckman High School in Irvine. McClain currently attends UCLA after spurning the Arizona Diamondbacks who selected him in the first round of the 2018 draft with the 25th pick. That 2018 draft consisted of 40 rounds and both the D-Backs and Dodgers had 39 selections to make up for players choosing to go to college.

That’s not the case this year. With only five rounds projected in 2020, all MLB clubs better sign all of their draft picks because failure to do so, the negative impact is magnified tenfold. MLB teams can avoid this during pre-draft conversations with players to discover where the signing bonus number for each potential player currently resides. If a player is wishy-washy on playing pro ball and has leanings towards returning to school, most MLB teams will pass and move onto someone who will sign for what they are offering. They can’t afford to take risks and end up not signing a draft pick.

There’s good news and bad news regarding the eight incoming Fullerton freshmen commitments. The good news is that by our projections, four of the eight have the potential to be selected in the first five rounds of the MLB draft. That’s good news because the level of talent Sergio Brown is attracting to Fullerton is on the rise and MLB teams are also interested. Think of the previously mentioned JT Ginn, Matt McClain and Kumar Rocker, the RHP for Vanderbilt who vehemently told MLB teams drafting him was a waste of a pick. He was committed to Vandy and was going to honor that commitment no matter how much money they offered. That’s the good news that the level of talent Fullerton is attracting to sign commitment letters is the same level of talent MLB clubs are considering to draft in the early rounds.

Brendan Bobo
(Image courtesy of Dan Coyro – Santa Cruz Sentinel)

The bad news? These recruits could never get to campus because they are drafted high enough and the money is too good to turn down. Not everyone is a McClain, Rocker or Ginn. Not everyone has the financial wherewithal to turn down millions for a partial scholarship where student loans or mom and dad have to shoulder the remaining balance.

No disrespect to the entire recruiting class but based on pundits and projections, four Titan Baseball commitments have the potential of being selected in this year’s MLB Draft: Brendan Bobo, Nathan Nankil, JT Navyac and Christian Rodriguez.

Rodriguez has the greatest potential of getting selected within the first five rounds of the draft. He is ranked the fifth best pitcher in California and 26th ranked player overall in California per Perfect Game. He is another big, right-handed pitcher from Orange Lutheran. Hopefully the draw of playing for the Titans with three former OLu teammates in Zach Lew, Evan Adolphus and Caden Connor will be enough for him tell MLB teams to avoid wasting a pick on him because he wants to come to Fullerton.

Hawaii native JT Navyac signed a letter of intent to attend Cal State Fullerton.

JT Navyac out of Hawaii is an all-around utility player who can play the infield, outfield and pitch. He fastball tops out in the low 90’s and is a natural fit at shortstop. A versatile and athletic player could have MLB clubs vying for his talents but coming from Hawaii, the scouting could be limited on him and clubs could choose to pass and let him come to college. Bobo is a big bodied, power hitting kid that could slide into the first base spot if Isaiah Garcia does not return. Nathan Nankil is a top rated outfielder who has gap power and is a plus defender. All three could go in the draft this year depending on how much they are willing to accept.

Not to sound too pollyannaish, but we predict that all eight CSUF commitments will come to campus in the fall and compete for a coveted spot on the 35 man roster. The projected draft rounds are just too limited for teams to take risks on high school players this year.

Even if the Titans lose one recruit to the MLB draft, that leaves seven freshmen that have signed letters of intent. There could be more that just haven’t signed letters of intent in addition to any JC players coming to campus. Demitri Colacchio, Nicco Cole, Andrew Scheinert, Austin Schell and Josh Urps were all JC transfers in 2020 and made the 35 man roster. If five to six JC players come to Fullerton next year, there could be 55-60 players in the fall all fighting for a spot on the team.

The potential crowded fall could prompt the coaching staff to encourage some players not expected to make the team to transfer out to a JC or another NCAA or NAIA school in order to gain playing time. It’s not uncommon for players to transfer out if they can see the writing on the wall they may be cut or their playing time will be severely limited.

Jimmy Endersby
Jimmy Endersby transferred to Concordia last fall.

Gavin Velasquez transferred to Cal Poly Pomona and was off to a good start going 1-0 and had a 2.59 ERA before the remainder of games were canceled. Jimmy Endersby transferred to Concordia and registered a 5-0 record and a paltry 1.88 ERA. Of course, both Cal Poly Pomona and Concordia are Division 2 schools and transferring players that drop down a level are not subject to any transfer penalties.

Although 2020 offered a limited sample size, do not be surprised if those players that saw minimal playing time in the 13 games played in 2020 end up transferring out. With so many players potentially returning due to eligibility relief, it stands to reason to transfer to a spot where a player can show off his skills on a regular basis.

Max Miller, Michael Weisberg, Evan Adolphus, Timothy Josten and Landon Anderson (L to R) are all eligible to return in 2021 with their same eligibility as they entered 2020.

Overall, the NCAA did the right thing in granting eligibility relief to every spring sport student-athlete. The scholarship and roster limit exemption rules for seniors will shape Titan Baseball and college baseball dramatically in 2021. But it will not be a one year anomaly. The ripple effect will be felt for at least four to five years because of this bottleneck of incoming freshman compressed by seniors and draft eligible juniors not leaving the program. Rick Vanderhook and staff have an unenviable task to navigate which players they believe should transfer, which incoming players will have an immediate impact before they arrive on campus and which seniors and draft eligible players will return.

The player pool to develop the 2021 Titans will be deeper and more talented than ever. On the flip side, so will everyone else in the Big West Conference and in college baseball. With Long Beach State improved along with Cal State Northridge and traditionally competitive programs like UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine and Cal Poly all gaining the same benefit of talented rosters, the pressure is on the Titans to return to their traditional winning ways.

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