When the Minnesota Golden Gophers get back on the diamond after having most of their 2020 season wiped out, coach John Anderson thinks his players will have a heightened level of appreciation to be back playing their sport. At the time their season was shut down in mid-March, the Gophers had played just 18 games.
But when college baseball does return — and even before that time — there’s a variety of logistical questions that must be worked through as a result of the scrapped season.
“I’m really happy the kids got their year of eligibility back but with that comes a lot of challenges with your roster management going forward,” Anderson said.
The NCAA has granted spring sport athletes an extra year of eligibility after the global pandemic wiped out their seasons. That, though, creates a backlog for baseball rosters, which are normally capped at 35 players with a limit of 27 players receiving financial aid.
“We know if everyone keeps coming back, we’re going to have a roster that exceeds that number,” he said.
Returning seniors will be exempt from the roster cap next season. But even if rosters expand for the near future, Anderson said he doesn’t believe the number of scholarships — 11.7 — will, which will create difficult decisions in how those are divvied up. Some schools, Anderson said, have over-recruited and have more than 20 players coming in in their next freshman class because they were anticipating recruits and other draft-eligible players being selected by Major League Baseball teams, as well as their seniors graduating.
But now, with fewer players leaving, rosters could be supersized, creating more hard decisions on how to divide playing time. Further complicating things is the fact that the MLB draft has been trimmed down this year. Normally 40 rounds, it is expected to be just five this year.
Anderson said the Gophers were projecting between four to six of their players being drafted. Now, the expectation is that the Gophers will lose just one player to the draft, pitcher Max Meyer, who is projected to be a first-round pick.
“Some of the kids that traditionally you anticipate losing as a 25th-round draft choice … those kids are going to be coming back to college, and now you have four years of classes here that have all got another year added to their careers,” Anderson said.
The Gophers had only one senior — Jordan Kozicky — on their roster and have a recruiting class of five players coming in, meaning they are less likely to feel the bloated roster as some teams are next year, even if Kozicky and players who they expected to be drafted come back. But with a large junior class this year, they are more likely to feel the impact down the road.
“It makes it much easier for us to manage the roster going into next year, but in future years, we could have more seniors and guys coming back for the fifth or sixth year that we didn’t anticipate coming back, and so that impacts the whole roster,” Anderson said. “And with the shortened draft, some of these kids are probably not going to quit playing until they lose all the opportunity to try to play professional.”
That’s where finances also figure into the equation. With only the equivalent of 11.7 full scholarships, the question then becomes if players can financially afford to come back for another year of school — potentially after they’ve completed their undergraduate degrees — to continue playing baseball, especially with no guarantees of scholarship money.
With some future recruits already in place, Anderson said next year and the two years after that look to be difficult in college baseball before things start to even out a bit more.
“It’s also going to depend on how many kids choose to come back for their fifth and six years,” Anderson said. “That’s the unknown. Like I told the kids, ‘If you want to come back your fifth year, I can’t tell you right now whether I can give you any aid because I don’t know what our roster’s going to look like and who’s going to sign or be back and all the other factors that come into play.’”
The result of all the logistical challenges should be an improved college game over the next few years as players who might have gone straight from high school to professional ball instead go to college, players who would have been drafted stay an extra year, plus others have an extra year of experience and development.
With all of that comes a battle for playing time.
“Lots of competition to play. We’re going to have a lot of choices, and so it’s going to be interesting trying to keep people connected to the team and supporting one another and team chemistry and all the other things that come with that,” Anderson said. “There are going to be some challenges here putting 10 guys in the lineup card.”