Shortened MLB draft leaves vast pool of talented undrafted players in bind

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — When the coronavirus shut down baseball in March — prep, college and professional — the defending GLIAC Player of the Year and returning Division II All-American Jacob Buchberger was hitting .525 with a 1.605 OPS, six doubles, six home runs, 62 total bases in in 61 at-bats — and the weather hadn’t even broken yet.

That’s after he hit a Davenport (Grand Rapids) University-record .429 with a .659 slugging percentage in his junior season in 2019 and somehow slipped through the cracks in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.

Davenport's Jacob Buchberger was the reining GLIAC player of the year.

Still, he was attracting a growing number of major-league scouts this spring — especially after he competed in a couple of big-league pre-draft workouts and played in the Northwoods Summer League.

One American League scout said there hasn’t been a lot of activity on him, but he’s earned the right to be on the radar. He said Buchberger has done everything you can ask — he’s had success, he has the hit tool and he has outstanding makeup.

The scout said Buchberger fits into that profile of a guy who face the question: "What do they do?"

Exactly. What do players like Buchberger do? In normal times, he would have certainly been drafted in the later rounds, anywhere between the 20th and 40th rounds. But with the pandemic shuttering the entire industry of baseball going on three months with enormous revenue losses, the 2020 draft, which will take place June 10-11, will be just five rounds.

Only 150 players will be drafted. Buchberger will not be one of them. Which leaves him with two options — neither of them fully optimal. He can:

► Sign with a team as an undrafted free agent, with a maximum signing bonus of $20,000. Drawback: There isn’t expected to be any minor-league baseball this year, so where or when would he play?

► Return to Davenport for a second senior season and be eligible for the 2021 draft, which is expected to be 20 rounds with the likelihood of a much smaller signing bonus. Drawback: He will turn 23 on Oct. 1 — which is considered almost elderly by draft board standards — and already college athletics budgets are being slashed and future schedules reduced. Nobody knows what college baseball, especially Division II baseball, will look like next year.

“We’ve been talking about that a lot ourselves, trying to figure out what’s the best thing for him to do,” said Davenport head coach Kevin Tidey, whose program had its run of 30-plus win seasons snapped at eight by the virus. “I’ve asked a couple of scouts point-blank, I said, ‘I’m not trying to be a jerk, but if there’s no minor-league baseball this summer, why should they sign right now?’

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if someone offers him a free agent contract, but what would be the plus of that? And one guy said, ‘I don’t have an answer to that.’”

More: For Tigers, MLB draft has yielded its share of productive players, pitfalls

Buchberger is one of a vast pool of players in the same predicament — late-blooming players like Michigan State pitcher Mason Erla or his own Davenport teammate pitcher Cal Djuraskovic among them — whose choice is essentially to enter pro ball as an undrafted free agent with no sure prospect of playing competitive baseball until this fall or winter at the earliest, or return to school and still run the risk of not playing a full senior season, not getting drafted again and signing for far less than $20,000 — if at all.

“It is what it is,” said Buchberger, a powerfully-built corner infielder and outfielder who bats right-handed. “You can’t really control it, so I am not really too stressed out about it. I mean, it is frustrating, don’t get me wrong. But you just have to make the most out of it.”

It’s not the first time he’s faced this kind of setback. With no Division-I offers coming out of Montague High School near Muskegon, he came to Davenport to play football before committing fully to baseball after his freshman year. Three years later he was competing in a pre-draft work out for the Reds at Great American Ballpark.

“It kind of puts a chip on your shoulder,” he said. “You don’t get drafted, you sign for $20,000, then you have something to prove, and that’s when I feel like I do my best — when other people doubt me.”

Buchberger is spending his days playing catch with his brother, going to a nearby high school twice a week to hit off a tee and in a cage and spending between an hour and a half and two hours a day lifting weights and working out at his uncle’s house.

He’s listed at 6-2, 215 pounds, but he’s built himself up to 230 pounds.  

“I do think this is stressing him out a little bit,” Tidey said. “It’d be better for him if he was playing summer ball so he wouldn’t have to think about it all the time. I think the scouts missed on him last year. I couldn’t believe nobody took him, to be honest with you.

“He’s a great person, a great kid who works as hard as anyone we’ve ever had in our program. … And I think what makes it hard on him, too, is knowing what we have coming back. We have a legit chance to have a special season.”

The Panthers were 13-2 when the season ended and will have almost the entire roster coming back. Buchberger has been taking part in all the team’s Zoom meetings and has stayed involved in the leadership council. But the lure of pro ball is getting stronger.

As of Monday, he said he has heard from 16 big-league clubs (the Tigers are not one of them), either directly or through the MLB draft portal. His adviser, Kevin Visser, has told him to expect multiple free-agent offers.

“He said I will probably have a chance to sign for $20,000,” Buchberger said. “I know the Yankees and White Sox have told me if there is no minor-league season, they will bring some players down in the fall and have developmental leagues.”

The Tigers have tentative plans to do the same thing — set up a sort-of extended instructional league at TigerTown in Lakeland for drafted and undrafted players they bring into the organization.

“Still, what makes it stressful is I know we will be really, really good,” Buchberger said of the Panthers in 2021. “But my adviser tells me that we don’t know what’s going to happen with (college) baseball or any other sport. There’s a Division-II league in California that’s already shut down for 2021.

“Financially, we don’t really know how it’s going to be handled or anything like that. You just don’t know, and that’s also frustrating because everything is up in the air.”

Fortunately, he doesn’t have make any decision until after the draft, at which time he will know which teams, if any, want to sign him for $20,000. In the meantime?

“Just keep working out and wait,” he said. “I have a bible app (Holy Bible by Life Church) that I go to. It helps with anxiety and stress. It helps calm me down. Plus, I am able to lift every day at my uncle’s house. That helps a lot.

“It would be cool to tell people that I got drafted, you know. But who cares if you got drafted or not if you ended up being good enough to play professionally? Hopefully I will get that opportunity.”

Twitter: @cmccosky