As major sporting events across the country resume or implement concrete plans to resume in the coming weeks, Major League Baseball continues to lag behind.
At the moment, there is no set date for an official start to the 2020 MLB season, but the draft will continue as planned from June 10-11th. Unfortunately, this year’s draft will look drastically different than in years past.
Normally a 40-round amateur selection process, the 2020 MLB draft will consist of five rounds and feature deferred signing bonus payments to those selected as baseball’s financial status remains in flux.
Beginning after the draft, teams may sign as many players as they wish for a maximum signing bonus of $20,000.
A number of top high school talents have already removed their name from the draft process, seeing as MLB teams are likely to stick to the college ranks when making selections. Having more live looks and more data on these college players means safer picks for teams that have limited opportunities to add to their talent pipelines.
Even still, hundreds of projected college players will likely end up as undrafted free agants due to the changes this season.
Despite a five round draft, the MAC could still have as many as three players hear their name called, with many more names deserving of moving on to the next level. Last year, eight MAC players became MLB draft picks. Only one, Ball State pitcher Drey Jameson, was selected within the first five rounds (first round, competitive balance pick).
Here are the top five candidates the conference has to offer this year:
RHP Kyle Nicolas, Ball State
Listed at six-foot-four, 225 pounds, Ball State starter Kyle Nicolas has flown up pre-draft rankings after things started to click for him during a very brief 2020 campaign. Nicolas brought quality stuff with him to campus, but struggled with walks during his first two seasons as a Cardinal (95 walks in 112.1 innings).
He returned from the Cape Cod League, where he once again experienced command issues, and quickly cemented himself as one of the top draft prospects in the country (68th overall according to Baseball America).
Through four starts, Nicolas owned a 14.5 K/9 IP rate and a career-low 2.7 BB/9 IP rate, well below his 6.9 and 8.3 BB/9 IP marks in his first two seasons. His final outing in a Ball State uniform was a seven inning performance against Sacred Heart in which he struck out 17 hitters and allowed no runs on one hit, leaving a positive final impression as he heads into the draft process.
With a mid-90’s fastball that can reach up to 97+ mph in shorter stints and an impressive, swing and miss slider, Nicolas has real potential to work out of a major league bullpen, if he can control his high walk totals. The development of a reliable third pitch and his sturdy frame will certainly make him a candidate for a starting rotation role at the next level, but the idea of him being a shutdown, late-inning reliever is promising. Regardless, his high quality stuff will make him attractive to many clubs.
SS Zavier Warren, Central Michigan
Leading the way for a Central Michigan team that was poised to show that 2019 was no fluke, Zavier Warren is a name to watch closely in a shortened 2020 draft. One of the more versatile and reliable hitters in the MAC, Warren is a switch-hitter who began his career behind the plate but has since appeared all around the infield.
The arm strength is there to play on the left side of the infield and scouts believe he could even move back behind the plate. He is a true utility option for interested teams, but if they believe he’s a catcher in the long term, Warren’s stock will rise on draft day. Quality catchers are already hard enough to find. One with Warren’s hit tool and offensive skillset is even harder.
In 113 games at CMU, Warren slashed .328/.455/.458 with 29 doubles, nine home runs, and more walks (103) than strikeouts (93). He also hit .315 with 12 extra-base hits and a .396 OBP in the Cape Cod League last summer, cementing his stock as a legitimate early-round draft prospect. If his gap power can translate into over the fence power, Warren is an attractive third base prospect.
Warren may have the highest ceiling of any MAC prospect this year. Overall, he’s currently ranked as high as 107th overall, per MLB Pipeline.
OF Blake Dunn, Western Michigan
NCAA spring athletes were rightfully granted an extra year of eligibility after COVID-19 abruptly ended the spring season on the cusp of conference play. However, Blake Dunn isn’t preparing to return for another year in Kalamazoo.
Dunn finished his sophomore year with a .374 average, .467 OBP, and 30 stolen bases, all ranking among the top three in the MAC last season and ranking as one of the top offensive seasons in the last decade for a Bronco hitter.
His speed and big arm in center field are major league caliber tools, but can he hit enough to be a starter in the big leagues? He hit just .229 with a .069 ISO and near 25% strikeout rate in the Cape last summer, but he was successful in 14 of his 16 stolen base attempts and showcased his defensive abilities.
The tools are certainly there, including eye-opening raw power and overall elite athleticism. If an organization can tap into his hit tool, they have a potential fast-riser through a system who can quickly make an impact at the major league level with his defense and plus-plus base stealing ability.
MLB Pipeline ranks Dunn as the 174th overall prospect (Baseball America and Fangraphs have him in the 190’s), but that ranking could have been a lot higher if he would have had the opportunity to showcase an improved hit tool this year. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him go as high the third round, especially if more teams are shying away from high school talent.
RHP John Baker, Ball State
Baker has been a successful starter for Ball State over the past three seasons, posting a 17-8 record, 3.45 ERA, a .227 average against, and 263 strikeouts across 222 innings. There’s a bit of funk in his delivery and his fastball typically sits in the upper-80’s, but he knows how to control his four-pitch mix (just 90 career walks).
Baker returned to Ball State after not signing with the Miami Marlins (29th round pick, 2019) to improve his draft stock, unfortunately, a global pandemic cut his senior season short (was 1-2 with a 2.42 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 22 innings). Baker looks more like a relief prospect and will have to own his spots as he moves up affiliate ball without his high velocity numbers.
IF Ben Carew, Kent State
Ben Carew likely won’t hear his name called during the 2020 draft but the Kent State product is worthy of a look as a late-round or free agent option. His experience and success with a wooden bat during last summer’s stop in the Northwoods League may help get him there.
Carew piles up the base hits, something he will have to continue to do to find success at the next level due to a lack of a power tool. He hit an astronomical .406 in 54 games back in 2019, with 24 stolen bases and a .999 OPS. Carew followed that up with a .261/.344/.339 hitting line in the Northwoods League, swiping 17 bags in the process. He was hitting .377 through 14 games this year.
Carew’s ability to avoid strikeouts is another impressive trait and while he doesn’t rack up the home runs, he can turn singles into doubles and is a threat on the basepaths (88% success rate in college).
The Major League Baseball draft is typically a crapshoot, even more so this year. Trying to predict anything past the first few handful of picks may be futile, but there’s no doubt that the MAC offers a few intriguing options to major league teams looking to add to their pipeline of talent in the minor leagues.
Round one of this year’s draft will take place Wednesday, June 10th (7 pm, ESPN), with rounds two-five taking placing Thursday (5 pm, ESPN2)