Baseball juniors stand to benefit greatly from NCAA vote

Arkansas pitcher Zebulon Vermillion throws during a game against South Alabama on Sunday, March 8, 2020, in Fayetteville.

— When the college baseball season was canceled earlier this month, it left plenty of questions about what might have been.

Among the most intriguing at Arkansas was the play of Zebulon Vermillion, a junior relief pitcher who looked dominant in his last outing against South Alabama on March 8, when he struck out six of the 10 batters he faced over the final three innings of a tight game.

That outing brought Vermillion’s season totals to 7 1/3 scoreless innings and 12 strikeouts with no walks.

Vermillion missed all of preseason practice with a hamstring injury, but was in position to be a closer as the SEC schedule neared. His 6-5 frame and 95 mph fastball from the right side had been complemented by an improved changeup and a cutter.

Arkansas pitching coach Matt Hobbs said Vermillion still had plenty of room to grow this year. His first outing against Gonzaga on Feb. 20 marked the first time he faced a live hitter since an Oct. 12 scrimmage at Oklahoma State.

“He had literally thrown three bullpens,” Hobbs said after the South Alabama series. “If you look at where he was (in his last outing), it was where everyone else was when they showed back up in January.”

Vermillion appeared to be on a similar trajectory as Jacob Kostyshock and Cody Scroggins a year earlier, when the junior right handers went from relative unknowns to trusted bullpen arms and drafted in the first nine rounds of the MLB Draft.

In a normal year, Vermillion’s improvement would likely have been rewarded well in the draft, too. But 2020 has been abnormal, and several juniors might have to put their pro plans on hold for another year.

MLB’s owners and players reportedly agreed to guidelines last week that include the option for ownership to shorten the draft from 40 rounds to as few as five rounds this year.

Among other changes to the draft, MLB teams have the option to cap bonuses for drafted players at $100,000 this year, with the additional bonus to be paid over the following two years. Undrafted free agents would have their bonuses capped at $20,000.

Typically so vast that more than 1,200 college and high school players are selected each year, this year’s draft could include fewer than 200 picks.

“I think if Major League Baseball doesn’t play all summer they’ll have a five-round draft and they’ll have free agency after that where they’ll limit how much money they can give free agents,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “If they play 100 games it will probably be closer to 20 rounds, is what I’ve been told. If they play less it could be 10 or somewhere in there. It’s all hearsay, but there’s been some people in the know I’ve talked to about it.”

A shortened draft would leave many juniors looking to go back to college, which made the NCAA Division I Council’s decision Monday to grant blanket eligibility to spring athletes all the more important to baseball players. Without the added year of eligibility, this year’s juniors would have lost bargaining power if they had to wait until next year to be drafted.

“Everybody wanted the extra year because you come to college hoping that you get that four years of eligibility,” said Heston Kjerstad, a junior outfielder who is likely to be drafted in the first round. “I think it is beneficial to everyone so that everyone gets four seasons or however long they want to leave their mark on a university.

“I think it will be good for some guys to come back and have their junior year again.”

The leverage created from having college eligibility remaining can be worth tens - and sometimes hundreds - of thousands of dollars to players, especially the ones taken in the first 10 rounds. For instance, Mississippi State’s Jake Mangum was drafted as a senior in the fourth round last year and received a $20,000 signing bonus, while the draft picks on either side of him were paid a minimum of $422,000.

“I think it will give them a good option to go back to school if they feel like they are not going to get the type of bonus they need to skip a year of school,” Van Horn said. “So I think it’s definitely an advantage for them and at least frees them up to make a decision instead of feeling like they don’t have any bargaining power and pretty much take what they can get. So I’m really happy for them.”

Arkansas has several players eligible for this year’s draft, including position players Kjerstad, Casey Martin, Casey Opitz, Matt Goodheart, Braydon Webb and Jacob Nesbit, and pitchers Vermillion, Connor Noland, Kole Ramage, Kevin Kopps, Caleb Bolden and Marshall Denton.

Nesbit and Bolden were redshirt sophomores this year and eligible because they are in their third year of college. With the added year of eligibility, Nesbit and Bolden could play up to two more seasons for the Razorbacks while retaining draft leverage.

The same is true for Noland, a true sophomore who is eligible because his birthday (July 21) falls within 45 days of the draft this year. The draft is scheduled for June 10-12, but could be pushed back as late as July 20 under the new guidelines.

According to Baseball America projections, Kjerstad, Martin, Opitz and Goodheart stand the best chance to be drafted in a five-round draft, with all four players among the publication’s top 250 prospects.

All four were likely to sign and go pro this year before the changes to the draft, as were several of the other draft-eligible players. Because the Division I Council also eliminated roster limits for the 2021 season, the Razorbacks won’t be hurt if some of the older players return next season.

“The good thing is if somebody decided they wanted to come back, obviously we’d welcome them with open arms with a scholarship,” Van Horn said.