A CHANGING GAME

James Neiss/staff photographerIn this May 5, 2016 file photo, Niagara County Community College pitcher Christian Young fires a pitch during a game against SUNY Broome Community College in Sanborn.

Wynton Bernard grew up in San Diego, and it took him two years of junior college before Niagara University, all the way across the country, became the lone Division I program to offer him a baseball scholarship.

Two years at Monteagle Ridge landed him in the pros, after the San Diego Padres took a flyer on him in the 35th round of the 2012 MLB Draft. Though he never cracked the bigs, he's still playing today, a seven-year pro awaiting the start of a new season in the Mexican Pacific League.

Stories like his may be a thing of the past.

On May 8, Major League Baseball decided to cut the 2020 draft drastically, from 40 rounds to just five. And while change was largely a cost-cutting move in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the league also has the option to limit the 2021 draft to 20 rounds.

Pair that with the April decision to cut Minor League Baseball from 160 affiliates to 120, and it's pretty clear MLB is looking to save money at the developmental level.

That could be good or bad news, depending on your perspective. With less players drafted into the pros, more talent will find its way into the college game. Players who might have gone pro out of high school will instead play for top colleges, taking the spots of other talented players who will trickle down the NCAA pipeline.

"I think what's going to happen is they're going to keep the rounds small like football and basketball," said NU coach Rob McCoy, who has seen six of his Purple Eagles drafted since taking over as head coach in 2009. "What that's going to do is put a premium on guys you cannot miss on. That's gonna leave projectable, talented high school kids going to college more than ever, and it's going to keep really talented kids in college that maybe would have gone in the late rounds of a 40-round draft.

"I think it's going to make college baseball a lot better, but it's unfortunately going to cost kids the opportunity to play college ball. It's a train we're not going to be able to stop coming down the tracks."

More talent could be great for the NCAA, which will almost certainly take the place of the low-level MiLB teams that had been used as baseball's development system. But it will also take away opportunities from the Wynton Bernards of the world.

"They're cutting 40 minor league teams. That's where the Greg Cullens go, where the Tanner Kirwers go," said McCoy, referring to two of his draftees. "It's gonna put a premium on the level that you have to be at to get drafted.

"They're going to be more likely to take a guy who's proved himself in the SEC rather than a flyer from the MAAC."

If less players are going pro and talent is trickling down from the top, that means there will be players who may have once found themselves on the back ends of D-1 rosters forced to lower levels.

That could be felt most in our backyard. The northeast is the forgotten area of the baseball world, with long winters limiting time for playing and scouting. Mike Trout, on pace to be the greatest baseball player ever, pretty famously fell to the 25th pick in the 2009 draft because of a lack of scouting in his native New Jersey.

Underappreciated local players may have to be even less choosy about where they play moving forward.

 "The high school kids we recruit in Western New York, most of those kids aren’t going to get drafted," said Matt Clingersmith, who has turned Niagara County Community College into a national NJCAA D-3 power. "Many Western New York kids who would get drafted go D-1, and that could trickle down. Some D-1 guys could probably choose this avenue.

"Like I’ve told our guys, at this time, don’t burn any bridges, accept any offers you can. It only takes one chance to win the lotto."

Though things are murky now, Clingersmith sees the MLB changes as the dawning of a golden age of college baseball. He's seen it coming for some time in the "cathedral" stadiums of the SEC and nationally-televised games played Easter Sunday.

He's hopeful that growth will hit home in WNY, too.

"Every year you're seeing college baseball growing, especially in the northeast," he said. "... It's a great sport for universities to have. There's 40 kids, sometimes not even on scholarships, and they really have that school pride. They choose the school not because it was the best offer, but because they like the coach and the university, and then they represent the college so well."

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