Andrew Checketts has seen some high pop-ups during his nine years as UCSB’s baseball coach, but nothing has looked as up in the air as season No. 10.
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned planning for 2021 into a real guessing game for college baseball coaches.
“It’s really hard to forecast out right now,” Checketts said. “Roster management is a big issue, and particularly for programs that have draft-eligible players — and lots of them.”
Only three colleges had more players chosen in last year’s MLB Amateur Draft than UCSB. Ten Gauchos were selected in rounds five through 24 and all 10 moved on to professional baseball.
Checketts had seven draft-eligible juniors this year on a team that was 13-2 when the season was abruptly ended. A reduction of rounds, however — from 40 to possibly as few as five — may prompt all seven of those juniors to return.
Even UCSB’s two seniors, starting shortstop McClain O’Connor and pitching-saves leader Conner Dand, may take advantage of an NCAA waiver granting seniors an extra year of eligibility because of this year’s coronavirus-shortened season.
“McClain has the option of coming back with the same scholarship, and he does have some schooling left,” Checketts said. “He’s also very young for his grade.
“Dand is a year older and he’s going to graduate, so he’s in a different situation. But he is applying to a masters’ program on campus, and he’s a good student, so he’ll have to see what his options are when the draft comes calling.”
Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association reached a deal reducing the draft to no fewer than five rounds, although MLB could expand it to 10 rounds.
“We still don’t know for sure, it keeps changing,” Checketts said. “It all depends on which way the wind is blowing that day.
“The bureaucracy of baseball doesn’t tend to move very fast.”
Teams will also be limited to spending no more than $20,000 to sign undrafted players, which would discourage most of UCSB’s juniors and seniors from turning pro.
Checketts figures that he has two players — left-handed pitcher Zach Torra and infielder Marcos Castanon — who could go in the first 10 rounds.
Torra, a junior transfer from Cuesta College by way of Santa Ynez High, led UCSB in wins (3-0), earned run average (0.36) and strikeouts (39 in 25 1/3 innings) when the season was curtailed after 15 games by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I thought if Zach ended the season the way he was going, he would’ve worked his way into the first five rounds,” Checketts said. “I just don’t know if people saw him enough because he was a transfer, and he was a lot better in the spring than he was in the fall.
“If the right guys — the decision-makers — saw him in the spring, that could push him into the top five rounds.”
Castanon batted .288 in 15 games this spring while leading the Gauchos in both home runs (four) and RBIs (17). Checketts said he could go in the first 10 rounds.
But other key juniors such as outfielder Jason Willow, catcher Gianni Bloom, and pitchers Conner Roberts and Joshua Candau were projected to go in later rounds that now will not be held.
“It creates a real crunch,” Checketts said, noting that he’s given scholarships to several high school players with the expectation that those juniors would be gone. “We’re now trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.”
College rosters can’t have more than 35 players and only 27 of those are allowed to receive scholarship aid. The NCAA has agreed, however, to not count returning seniors such as O’Connor and Dand in those numbers.
Many high school stars who were expected to sign pro contracts may also be available to college recruiters. The Gauchos, however, are already set with their recruiting.
“We’re actually over-set,” Checketts said. “We really tried to do our homework about which high school players were going to sign and which ones weren’t and are pretty aggressive in the fall with our recruiting,
“We’re not even pursuing players in the transfer portal who are reaching out to us.
“But if you weren’t very aggressive in your recruiting and you’re sitting on a pile of cash right now, you’ll probably find some good players available this summer.”
The pandemic has also created some uncertainty with summer baseball. Two of UCSB’s star sophomores —Rodney Boone and Michael McGreevy — were set to pitch in the Cape Cod League.
“The Cape cancelled and we actually had three or four guys scheduled to go there,” Checketts said. “Right now we’re in a wait-and-see situation. If by the middle of May it looks like summer ball will happen somewhere, we’ll try to find a place for some of our guys.”
He is actually looking even farther ahead to the possibility that autumn workouts would be cancelled by the fall quarter being conducted online.
“We should be talking right now about the possibility of pushing the season back as far as we can,” Checketts said. “If we wait too long to discuss all the details and ramifications, it could be too late.
“We should be making those contingency plans right now.”