LOS ANGELES -- Their sport won't return to action until next February, but repercussions from the coronavirus crisis already have college baseball coaches bracing for a potentially seismic effect.
Usually, college baseball serves as a river connecting the amateur and professional ranks, ferrying players to MLB clubs in a strong and steady stream. But when the league, in an unprecedented cost-saving move, downsized the 2020 MLB draft from 40 rounds to five, it was as if a hastily built dam had suddenly clogged the whole system.
By the time the two-day event ends June 11, only a fraction of draft-eligible college and high school prospects will be offered professional contracts. The rest will be backlogged in a reservoir of talent, threatening to flood college baseball with more players than it is designed to handle.
"In the big picture, it's something that we've never calculated or prepared for," UCLA coach John Savage said: "It's so fluid, we're changing our roster and the looks of it literally day to day. It could lead to mass confusion here in a month or so."
The problem is unique to baseball, the only NCAA sport whose major pro league drastically altered its amateur draft this summer. Even under normal circumstances, managing college rosters is "a shell game," USC coach Jason Gill said, forcing coaches to sign recruiting classes months before knowing how many of their draft-eligible players (juniors and 21-year-old sophomores) might be drafted and signed.
Add in a 2020 draft one-eighth its normal length and a meager $20,000 signing bonus cap for undrafted players, and "all those predictions are getting fouled up across the country," Gill said. "There's a lot of layers." The logjam will swell even larger because the NCAA will allow 2020 seniors in spring sports to return in 2021.
Ballooning college rosters could stretch programs' resources thin. The limit of 11.7 scholarships per team is not expected to change even though scholarship money earmarked for incoming freshmen may instead go to returning players. An overcrowded transfer market could exceed demand, potentially leaving some players with nowhere to go.
And if the NCAA doesn't adjust its strict roster rules, which currently cap baseball teams at 35 players and allow only 27 to receive scholarship money, many coaches could be forced to cut players just to remain roster-compliant.
"There's no way a majority of us can get under 35," Gill said. "There's going to be some phone calls that have to be made to families that are going to be unfortunate."
Gill and Savage believe their programs will exceed the 35-man roster max by only a handful of players, depending on how the draft shakes out. But they know other schools could face rosters as large as 45 or 50 next year.