Just like it had been three years prior, it was all looking so promising for Carlos Lomeli. The same dream that inspires every amateur baseball player was nearing. His St. Mary’s Gaels had won four straight. His season was off to a strong start as he began to try to wedge his way to a higher draft pick.
And just like it had three years prior, something went wrong. Far more wrong.
Three years prior, a poorly timed arm injury dragged him from a possible later-round flier to an undrafted starter who was off to college. This time, the coronavirus that has affected every walk of life infected first his college season and then the draft itself.
His prized junior year was wiped out after a March 11 game. And a draft that was 40 rounds deep last year will be trimmed to between five and 10 rounds this year — the heavy odds favoring the lesser number — slashing the chances for high-school seniors and eligible college players to hear their names be read. Last year there were 1,217 players selected; of that, 167 were picked before the sixth round.
There are scores of Bay Area athletes the condensed draft harms, none more so than the local juniors, like Lomeli, who would be able to turn pro and have the fallback option of returning to school, an escape hatch that typically drives up their prices. That option will still exist, as the NCAA ruled all spring-sporters have another year of eligibility, which aids seniors as well.
But for juniors who had banked on this summer being their summer — Cal’s team fielded 11 juniors, Stanford’s eight, San Francisco State’s 11 — the draft throws their futures up in the air.
“I was probably going to be [a] second-day [pick], 3-10, hopefully,” was what Lomeli had been told before this year’s draft changes. “But now with the five rounds, that kind of takes up five rounds I had to get drafted. I don’t know. It’s just tough right now. Not knowing anything really hurts, too.”
In extending eligibility, the oft-criticized NCAA stepped up when its athletes became unwitting victims of a strange pact. Major League Baseball and the Players Association, groups that always hold opposite sides of the tug-of-war rope, actually shook hands.
It didn’t take long for the two sides to agree, either. The league entered negotiations desperate to find savings in the event of a lost season. The union, which represents only major leaguers, sought to ensure that in that worst-case scenario, the big leaguers still would be paid and accrue service time as the pandemic threatened to lock gates all season.
A few weeks later, on March 27, the deal was struck, both leaving content, the big losers from the negotiations the ones who couldn’t negotiate.
The undrafted will not have the bargaining power that their predecessors have enjoyed. Bonuses will be capped at $20,000, giving so little leverage to a group that had little to begin with. So in a five-round draft, teams can only offer $20,000 for a player who last year would have been a sixth-round pick — 25 of 30 of whom fetched signing bonuses of at least $197,000. Undrafted players last year could make up to $125,000.
If those players reject the poor market, an offshoot of the NCAA’s waiver will be that juniors and seniors would be returning to much more crowded teams, especially with high-school seniors more likely to go the college route. Next year’s draft will be shortened, too, to as few as 20 rounds.
This summer was long-awaited for so many juniors, finally eligible again after building their value since graduating high school. For Lomeli, a La Habra, Calif., native, he first thought 2017 might be his year. A big arm out of St. John Bosco believed he could have a decision to make between St. Mary’s and a professional career, until he strained his UCL his senior season.
He was out for about a month and a half. A few scouts told him they were going to keep their eyes on him, but thought it best to check back in a few years.
“That kind of left me just hurt, knowing there was a chance, and then something bad happens,” Lomeli said on a Monday phone call. “I’ve been waiting. I’ve waited three years trying to make the best of it.”
And he has. The 6-foot-2 hirsute hurler was a star as a Gaels sophomore, going 10-2 with a 3.05 ERA with 58 strikeouts and 13 walks in 88 2/3 innings, before improving that ratio to 21:1 in this brief season. (He is quick to note that one walk was intentional.)
“And then of course with my luck, this happens,” Lomeli said.
He’s still hopeful he will hear his name called in mid-July, the current MLB target date for a draft that is still very much in doubt. Scouts haven’t even been able to contact prospects until recently, restricted by the pandemic that has slowed or stopped just about every facet of the world. And while scouts can now make contact, they can’t make home visits. Lomeli would love an invite to a workout, but it’s possible his four starts this season were unexpectedly his last chance to impress.
He’s running, working out with resistance bands and weights and “trying to not get into that quarantine dad bod,” at a time when so many gyms are empty.
His teammate, Ty Madrigal, has an easier avenue to staying ready and dad bod-free, able to work out with his brother, top White Sox prospect Nick Madrigal, nearby their Elk Grove home.
Ty, a lefty who shared a rotation with Lomeli, also is debating his draft prospects, though as a redshirt senior, he’s pondering a sixth year back at St. Mary’s or going pro, depending how the draft unfolds. This was expected to be his bounce-back season after suffering an elbow flexor tendon strain that limited him to 10 2/3 innings last year, and he could prove he was healthy and effective leading up the draft.
Instead, his year was halted after just 20 1/3 innings, and he hopes his years of experience all over, in so many roles — years of high school, years of college, Cape Cod ball, as a starter, as a reliever — will allow teams to remember his stuff and talent, preferably within the first five rounds.
If not, he will not be boxed in, grateful that he can return possibly for another senior season and a second year to get an MBA. He sounds content with his own prospects.
“Juniors hoping to be their draft year, those guys I feel bad about because that’s their big year,” said Madrigal, who does not need to look far for evidence.
“We’re going to see if I can get some luck somewhere down the road,” Lomeli said.