baseball Edit

Analysis: 5-round MLB Draft has massive ramifications for Arkansas

Will Casey Opitz get picked during MLB's five-round draft?
Will Casey Opitz get picked during MLB's five-round draft? (Arkansas Athletics)

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A major domino has fallen with regard to the immediate future of Arkansas baseball.

News broke Friday that Major League Baseball has decided to shorten this summer’s amateur draft to only five rounds despite the MLBPA pushing for a 10-round draft. It will reportedly be held June 10-11, with an Aug. 1 signing deadline.

As HawgBeat previously reported, this move - coupled with the NCAA’s decision to grant eligibility relief to all players in response to the coronavirus shutdown - has massive ramifications for the Razorbacks.

Heston Kjerstad is expected to go in the top half of the first round, while Casey Martin could also sneak into the back half. Whether or not they become the first pair of Arkansas teammates taken in the first round, both will almost assuredly begin their professional careers.

The shortened draft comes into play with everyone else.

Although head coach Dave Van Horn has repeatedly said he believes catcher Casey Opitz will be picked, even in a five-round draft, that isn’t necessarily guaranteed.

Opitz is not one of the 10 catchers - which includes four from the college ranks - listed on MLB Pipeline’s list of the top 150 draft prospects. He is, however, No. 102 on Baseball America’s list and was voted by scouts as having the best catcher arm in college baseball before the season.

With only 160 picks in the draft, it would not be particularly surprising if Opitz doesn’t hear his name called. His options would then be to sign as an undrafted free agent for a maximum bonus of $20,000 - well below the $324,100 slot value for pick No. 160 - or return to Arkansas and enter the 20-round 2021 draft with leverage as a "corona-junior."

If that scenario comes to fruition, Van Horn has said he “would love to have (Opitz) back.” That would create a ripple felt by other players on the roster.

Dominic Tamez and Cason Tollett would presumably compete for the backup role as corona-freshmen, but both are capable of playing another position if their bats warrant staying in the lineup. The Razorbacks didn’t sign any catchers in their 2020 class, but 2021 commit Dylan Leach has announced he is skipping his senior year of high school to join the team in the fall and enter the mix.

The five-round draft also means players like Matt Goodheart and Zebulon Vermillion will likely return to Fayetteville as corona-juniors. Had the draft been extended to 10 rounds, both could have possibly been picked.

Instead, Vermillion will have a chance to put more on film after looking dominant early in 2020 and Goodheart’s shoulder can completely heal, allowing him to play in the field rather than just be a designated hitter. That could improve the draft stock of both players.

Where the shortened draft's impact will be felt the most at Arkansas, though, is with its highly touted 2020 signing class. Ranked third nationally by Perfect Game and Baseball America, Van Horn has openly talked about his biggest concern being the fact it is loaded with players capable of skipping college and immediately going pro - something that has decimated his classes in the past.

As many as eight of the Razorbacks’ 18 high school signees were candidates to be selected in the first 10 rounds, with others being possible late-rounders.

In addition to the obvious effect of five rounds drastically cutting down the number of picks that could be used on those players, many experts predict teams will now place a heavy emphasis on college prospects in the 2020 MLB Draft.

That should help push more of those top players to Fayetteville than Van Horn and the Razorbacks could have hoped. Although the $20,000 signing bonus as an undrafted free agent would still be on the table, they could come to the school with the top player development facilities in the country - as voted by 90 Division I coaches - and likely receive more than that when the draft returns to normal in two or three years.

There is a very good chance the veteran coach will have more talent to choose from than ever before. While a good problem to have, that comes with its own set of challenges.

Including three junior college transfers - highlighted by Brady Slavens, the National JUCO Player of the Year for the abbreviated 2020 season - and graduate transfer Lael Lockhart Jr. from Houston, Arkansas is set to bring in 22 newcomers next season, if it loses none of them to the draft.

Even if Opitz joins Kjerstad and Martin to make it a trio of Razorbacks selected in the shortened MLB Draft, there were still 27 other players who appeared in a game during the 16-game season who could potentially return in 2021.

Throw in sit-out transfers Cullen Smith and Miller Pleimann, who will be eligible to play, and other redshirts like Trey Harris, Arkansas’ roster could easily have 50-plus players in the fall. That is well over the 35-man limit - of which only 27 can have part (at least one-fourth) of 11.7 total scholarships.

With a surge of talent expected across Division I, the NCAA has already passed legislation to alleviate that issue. Seniors who return to the same school for an extra year will not count toward the 35/27/11.7 limits.

The only player that rule would apply to at Arkansas is Cole Austin, but Van Horn said he doesn’t expect him to play next season, so that doesn’t really help the Razorbacks.

However, at the time of the announcement, the DI Council acknowledged the issue would need to be revisited because of college baseball’s unique roster structure. It is unknown when - and if - it will vote on any changes, but according to D1Baseball, the American Baseball Coaches Association has passed along some ideas to the Council.

Among the ABCA’s recommendations are a further loosening of the 35-man roster limit and expanding the number of players receiving a scholarship from 27 to 32.

That would not completely solve the Razorbacks’ problem, but it would give Van Horn some much needed breathing room when making tough roster decisions this summer and after fall ball.

Even then, several very talented players will likely be forced to find new homes. While pitchers Travis Hester and Collin Taylor are the only players who have entered the transfer portal so far, it is inevitable that more will join them.

At a program like Arkansas, that is the case every offseason. It will probably just be more pronounced and could feature a few more surprising names than usual because of the roster crunch created by the MLB’s shortened draft and NCAA’s eligibility relief.