Local MLB hopefuls await draft altered by pandemic

Major League Baseball cut its draft from 40 rounds to just five in a cost-cutting move

Duke pitcher Bryce Jarvis is 12-4 with a 2.81 ERA during his three years with the Blue Devils, striking out 201 batters in 150 1/3 innings. (Wade Payne / AP Photo)

The day most college baseball players dream about is almost here. It just doesn’t look or, in many cases, feel the way they dreamed it would.

Instead of the usual 40 rounds with a large pool of bonus money available to sign the newest crop of major league hopefuls, this year’s draft has been shortened to just five rounds because of the coronavirus pandemic that has delayed the start of the 2020 season.

In a further cost-cutting move, a $20,000 cap has been placed on undrafted free agent signings, forcing many players that had planned to begin their professional careers this summer into an unexpected decision.

“No one knows what’s going to happen,” NC coach Elliott Avent said of the abbreviated draft scheduled to take place next Wednesday and Thursday.

“We know the draft is going to take place on the 10th and 11th. We know there’s going to be five rounds and there will be money after the draft on a limited basis that they may offer to people, whether they be seniors or underclassmen. But I try not to ask our players too many questions that I know they don’t have answers to.”

Players from every school in the state will be affected by the unusual circumstances.

Some will opt to sign anyway, taking less money than they might otherwise have gotten to start the journey they hope will take them to the major leagues. The alternative is using the leverage of the extra year of eligibility spring sports players were granted by the NCAA, returning to school and taking their chances in next year’s draft.

Only adding to the stress — especially for those players on the borderline of sneaking into the fifth round — is the uncertainty of how teams will approach the draft and the limited picks they have at their disposal.

“It’s kind of up to the teams whether they want to take a gamble on some high schoolers they haven’t really got to see play their senior year or maybe take a chance on a college guy they were thinking about taking after the five rounds,” said East Carolina’s two-way star Alec Burleson, who is rated as the No. 137 prospect by MLB.com — a status that would land him late in the fourth round or early in the fifth.

Burleson is being scouted mostly as a hitter playing in the outfield than as a pitcher. But he said that at least a few teams have shown an interest in him as a pitcher or as a player capable of doing both at the next level — similar to former Louisville and Durham Bulls star Brendan McKay. It’s a versatility he hopes will increase his value.

“I’d like to think that I’m in the top five rounds, but you never know,” he said. “I’m not banking on anything. I’m just kind of waiting for that day and seeing what happens.”

At least one player that isn’t sweating things out is Wolfpack junior Patrick Bailey.

Rated as the top catcher in the draft, the talented switch hitter is expected to come off the board within the first 15 picks. It’s an event he said won’t lose any of its luster despite all the chaos going on in the world outside of sports.

“I don’t think it will be any less magical,” Bailey said. “It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid playing T-ball. It’s kind of the starting flag to my dream of playing in the major leagues. I think it will be a pretty special moment still.”

In addition to Bailey, Duke’s Bryce Jarvis, State’s Nick Swiney and North Carolina’s Aaron Sabato are considered potential first-round picks.

Jarvis and Swiney, in particular, saw their draft stock soar despite having their college seasons cut short after just a month of games.

A hard-throwing right-hander for the Blue Devils, Jarvis burst into the national consciousness — and the scouts’ radar — by throwing a perfect game against Cornell on Feb. 21. Not only did he retire all 27 batters he faced, but he also struck out 15 in his historic outing.

Rated as the 25th-best available prospect, Jarvis allowed only two earned runs while striking out 40 in 27 innings before being shut down.

Swiney had an even more meteoric rise up the draft rankings.

Unheralded after spending his first two seasons in the bullpen, the junior left-hander made the most of his limited opportunity in the starting rotation this year with a breakout performance that included a 1-hit shutout against Purdue in which he struck out 15 and retired the final 22 men he faced.

“Professional teams wanted to see me as a starter and just how I could excel there,” said Swiney, who went 4-0 with 1.29 ERA and 42 strikeouts in his four starts. “That was something that was not on my resume yet.

“Everybody had seen me out of the bullpen. I hadn’t had a true seven-, eight-inning start. So for me going into this year … I knew I needed to be out there and compete for my team for seven or eight innings on a weekly basis.”

Wake Forest left-hander Jared Shuster and ECU right-hander Gavin Williams are also rated among the top 100 prospects by MLB.com and are likely to be drafted. The highest-rated high school players from North Carolina are Garner’s Nolan McLean, a third baseman/pitcher rated No. 66, while Liam Norris of Cary’s Green Hope High School checks in at No. 123.