For a recently drafted high school or college baseball player, time moves quickly. Within a week of signing with a club, the lucky athlete could be in the dugout with their new minor league team as they embark on a new journey that hopefully leads to the major leagues.
For Darren Baker, Cal baseball’s second baseman and one of the best athletes on the team, time certainly moved quickly after the draft. Apparently, it doesn’t take long for one’s life plans to unravel.
In early May, the MLB announced plans to reduce its 2020 draft from the typical 40 rounds to just five — the shortest in history — in an attempt to save the league money in the wake of pandemic-induced plunges in revenue. In a draft that typically sees more than 1,000 players off to the Show each year, only 160 players were selected by major league teams by the end of the draft.
Baker was not one of them. No Bears were drafted for just the second time since 1968, following a 2019 season that sent seven players off to the MLB, just two shy of the program’s record of nine.
“I heard rumors about it in March after the season was canceled, but nothing was really official. It was all surreal, really — in a matter of three months, I had everything planned out. Then, in the blink of an eye, I’ve got to find a new place to live,” Baker said. “I was kind of thrown a curveball.”
The league also canceled the Minor League Baseball season last week to cut costs. Although a recent NCAA ruling grants an extra year of eligibility to players in sports whose seasons were aborted, athletes who would have been off to the big leagues are left with few options. Fringe players who would have been selected in later rounds are now faced with a decision: Return to (and pay for) college for another year, find an alternative route to the MLB system or abandon their agendas altogether.
“I expected to either be playing this summer with a minor league team, or the following spring. Mentally, I had already thought I played my last game. It was a shock, really,” Baker said. “I felt like I was as close as possible to finally achieving my dream, and then it didn’t work out.”
College juniors and seniors make up the majority of draftees, but because the Bears are a young team, they are not in dire straits. The program would have been restructured much more drastically to make room for returning unsigned players had the pandemic struck in a year like 2019, when five of the seven Cal players drafted were selected after the fifth round.
The University of Georgia’s and Florida State University’s teams had two players apiece on the MLB’s Top 200 Draft Prospects list who were left undrafted this year. The orbits of these players and the programs’ many other hopeful signees are now uncertain, forcing these programs either to reshuffle their rosters or to part ways with their prospects.
Although Cal baseball will not be irreparably damaged by the draft’s shortening, players such as Baker who were set to be on the way to their field of dreams have had to drastically course-correct as they navigate their new realities.
“We want to try to find those guys a good opportunity to get a scholarship and go somewhere else, then move forward with our normal roster to give some of these younger guys an opportunity to play too, which is what they came for,” said Cal head coach Mike Neu. “Every school that’s in this situation would love to bring everybody back, but with the size of the roster, it’s difficult to do.”
Division I college baseball programs are each allotted only 11.7 scholarships, so grants are divvied up among players, and athletes are rarely given full rides. Paying for another full year of college will cost players a pretty penny, all while risking exposure to the disease, injury, the 2021 collegiate season being canceled and not being drafted in the end.
Baker, who led the team in runs (15), hits (18), assists (34) and double plays (5), slashed a .286/.366/.333 and was primed to have the season of his collegiate career. Baker is electing to return to Cal and lace it up for the blue and gold next season along with third baseman and slugger Quentin Selma, who was also projected to be drafted. The two will provide the Bears with a solid and talented core but won’t preempt playing time from their younger successors.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Baker said. “I feel like I’m in probably the best shape I’ve been in since I’ve been at school, and I’m in a good place mentally. It’s just appreciating every game because, as the last year has shown, you never know what can happen.”