NCAA Baseball

Extra year of eligibility for college baseball players means sport will be “mess” with overflowing rosters in 2021

After the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 college baseball season, players at every level were granted an extra year of eligibility.

But now, that gesture from the sport’s governing bodies will create overflowing rosters in 2021 and beyond. Such is the case at Northern Colorado, where coach Carl Iwasaki expects to have an entire lineup’s worth of surplus players in addition to his usual roster.

“There’s going to be a pretty good log-jam. I’m going to be up to about 44 players next year, and I don’t even have enough jerseys, but I’ll figure it out,” Iwasaki said. “And that’s not just on my roster, but on the other 300 Division I schools in the nation, the other 290-something Division II’s, the 300-something Division III’s, and all the Jucos and on and so forth.

“It’s a mess, and it will work its way out, but it’s going to take a few years to do so.”

With senior classes hanging around for a fifth-year “coronavirus redshirt” — those players won’t count against D-I 35-man roster limits — many programs also have substantial incoming classes they signed for 2021. At Northern Colorado, that includes 12 incoming freshmen or transfer signees, hence the other reason for Iwasaki’s packed roster projections.

At Division II Colorado Mesa, coach Chris Hanks signed six players during the early signing period and said he already has five too many for 2021. That’s put the brakes on recruiting for the RMAC powerhouse.

“It’s certainly slowed down our recruiting quite a bit,” Hanks said. “We’re getting a lot of inquires from transfers, Juco transfers, high school kids — but our program is in a holding pattern.”

That “holding pattern” on recruiting nationwide has especially hurt lower levels of college baseball, and fringe Colorado high school prospects who need their likely-to-be canceled season (as of now the CHSAA spring year is postponed until April 30) to bolster their cases for playing at the next level.

“Just like some high school seniors right now, we have sophomores who needed this year to get an offer and to get looked at by the next level,” Otero Junior College coach Drew Wold said. “That’s the hard part for them because there is no year to put up those numbers or get that final exposure to move to a four-year university.

“I don’t want to say kids are hitting the panic button right now, but there’s definitely a lot of uncertainty for everyone.”

That uncertainly is also being felt regarding an all-important commodity for college baseball players: playing time. Simple math dictates that packed rosters with five full classes means more competition to not just get out on the field, but to stay on the roster.

“I have a good coaching friend down in Texas who had 15 seniors this year, and signed 18, so he’s going to have to cut people, or re-direct recruits to junior colleges if they are high school signees,” Hanks said. “Beyond that, obviously the opportunity to play at a lot of places has changed dramatically.”

Iwasaki said his players understand the duality of the gift of another year of eligibility, along with the “writing on the wall” for how it will affect positional and pitching battles.

“We have a senior second baseman in Billy Moreland who was supposed to graduate,” Iwasaki said. “Well, the former Heritage star is coming back, and he’s going to be a fifth-year senior while I’ve got two freshman infielders from this year who are getting that freshman year back, plus incoming freshman from all over the country.”

Complicating the eligibility extension are the financial and academic pieces.

Just as fifth-year seniors won’t count against Division I roster limits in 2021, they won’t count against scholarship limits at any level either. But the scholarship status for those fifth-year seniors in 2021 is at the discretion of the schools. The institutions can keep the same aid, lower it, or provide nothing at all. Additionally, players must continue to be full-time students at their respective schools to continue to play. For seniors at four-year universities who are graduating this spring, and for junior college players who have fulfilled their two-year academic requirements, it’s a tough ask. That’s the case for Michigan’s Matt Schmidt, a Regis Jesuit graduate who broke into the Wolverines’ starting lineup this spring as a fifth-year senior.

“I graduate from Michigan in a couple weeks, so I’d have to enter graduate school in order to keep playing,” Schmidt said. “Everything is still up in the air, and I still haven’t heard yet from Michigan (on renewing his scholarship). It’s good to at least have an option to come back, but it’s something I have to talk about with my family.”

The only thing that is for sure amid college baseball’s roster influx, Iwasaki said, is that “the best players are going to make it” in 2021. That’s even more true as the MLB draft could be cut to as few as five rounds this year, blocking many college prospects from entering pro baseball for the time being.

All of the aforementioned factors are setting the stage for a transfer frenzy this summer. As of last week, 199 Division I players had entered the transfer portal, according to the D1 Baseball Transfer Tracker. And a report from that site’s co-editor, Kendall Rogers, indicates that number is likely to skyrocket. Per Rogers, the NCAA Division I Council will discuss the implementation of a one-time transfer waiver on April 24, and that measure is expected to pass.

But the silver lining amid all these complications, Oral Roberts pitcher and Broomfield graduate James Notary said, is that next season college baseball is going to be loaded like never before.

“The big schools, like the SEC schools with a lot of money, are going to be able to hand over scholarships for their seniors because they have so much athletic money with all the boosters,” Notary said. “They are going to get most everyone back (on scholarship), and it all just might make next year the best college baseball year ever as far as talent. There will be lots of great of competition at all other levels, too.”

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