MLB’s annual draft has been slashed this year from 40 rounds to five. Only 160 players will be selected, down from 1,217 in 2019, in a June 8, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Shortened MLB draft could have big impact on Canadian baseball talent

David Calabrese and Cooper Davis are heading into this year’s MLB draft without expectations.

The two Canadian players are still hoping to hear their names selected by professional teams, of course. They just know the chances of that happening are a lot slimmer than in years past.

MLB’s annual draft has been slashed this year from 40 rounds to five. Only 160 players will be selected, down from 1,217 in 2019.

The condensed selection process — an economic measure meant to save the league nearly US$30 million in signing bonuses — could be drastically felt north of the border.

“You see a lot of hidden gems from Canada in the draft every year,” said Calabrese, a high school senior and outfielder from Maple, Ont. ”A lot of them (are picked) in the later rounds and they end up panning out really well in the minor leagues or in the major leagues.

“So it’s really unfortunate for Canadians that had an opportunity to be selected this year, they’re losing that opportunity.”

An average of 21 Canadians have been drafted each year since 2012 when the draft moved from 50 rounds to 40.

And plenty of talent has be harnessed by late picks well before that.

Former Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin of Montreal, a four-time all-star, was drafted in the 17th round in 2002. And 2004 National League Rookie of the Year Jason Bay of Trail, B.C., was selected in the 22nd round in 2000.

“Canadians are interesting because we’re usually hockey players first, and I guess you could say, we’re not as polished as the American players,” said Davis, a junior at Vanderbilt who’s entering his second draft.

“You see a lot of really good players and guys who go in later rounds that become big time big leaguers, so you never know who you’re kind of missing out on.”

Davis, an outfielder from Mississauga, Ont., was selected by Toronto in the 25th round of the 2017 draft, but chose to go to school instead of signing a pro contract.

He called his first draft experience a “dream come true” and said he feels for kids who won’t get that opportunity this year.

Davis was off to a hot start with the Commodores before COVID-19 suspended the NCAA Division 1 season in March, but he says he’s not too worried about potentially missing out on his second draft opportunity.

The NCAA is effectively granting its spring sports athletes an extra year of college eligibility, meaning Davis will still be considered a junior in terms of athletics in 2021, even though he’ll be a senior academically.

“I think it’s interesting. It’s actually opened up a lot of opportunities,” the sociology major said. “So I think it’s better to look at it that way than thinking about what it did to hurt you.

“It’s like, ‘OK, I’ve got an extra year now.’ What opportunities can I use that for?”

Calabrese, who’s committed to the University of Arkansas, is also trying to take a positive approach.

But unlike Davis, he won’t be eligible for the MLB draft again until his junior year of college.

“If I don’t get that opportunity this year, I can always work harder for the next opportunity,” he said. ”I’m just trying to stay focused on my goals and my dreams. And you never know.”

Calabrese was in Florida for the junior national team’s annual travel tournament when the pandemic rocked the sports world.

The team of teenagers was in the middle of a spring training game against the Blue Jays at TD Ballpark in Dunedin on March 15 when Calabrese started hearing rumblings that MLB had postponed the start of its season.

“It was a little bit of a shock at first but it was the right thing to do, obviously,” he said. ”It sucks being away from the game though.

“You’re thinking to yourself ‘man I could I can be on the field right now. … I could be playing the game I love,’ but we all had to stop and do our part.”

Calabrese and Davis have been doing their best to keep in baseball shape while gyms and training facilities remain shuttered due to the pandemic. Calabrese has a batting tee and net set up in his basement where he’s been working on his swing, and Davis has been incorporating more running and sprints as part of a revised workout plan.

The two players met last year when Calabrese’s Ontario Blue Jays team toured the Vanderbilt facility. Davis, an Ontario Blue Jays alumnus, even made plans to train with Calabrese in the off-season, but the pandemic halted that too.

Neither Calabrese nor Davis has any indication of what school might look like in Tennessee or Arkansas come September, and whether they’ll be prepping for online or in-person classes.

But while the academics remain in flux, Davis is certain the 2021 college baseball season will be loaded with talent that wasn’t selected in this year’s shortened draft.

And if Calabrese ends up playing with the Razorbacks instead of signing with a pro team, Davis expects him to do well in college ball.

“Arkansas is going to be getting a really good baseball player, and if he’s picked by a pro team, that team is going to get a really good player,” Davis said. “So he’ll be good either way.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2020.

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