STARKVILLE — Mississippi State baseball coach Chris Lemonis is getting antsy.
Now four weeks since the college baseball season was shut down due to the outbreak of COVID-19, Lemonis quipped his family is as ready for him to leave the house as he is.
That said, the down time has given him and his staff ample opportunity to keep tabs on the Bulldogs as they grapple with the longer term effects the coronavirus has had on the team.
“The message has been to stay positive, stay on top of their academics — I know that’s probably not what they want to hear — and then we’re just trying to keep them educated,” Lemonis said of his squad. “I think the biggest mental stress is the fear of the unknown for these guys — draft, team, season. They’re used to being around a very strong group of guys so that’s a piece that they’ve been struggling with a little bit.”
While Lemonis has stayed busy playing golf with hitting coach Jake Gautreau until minor injuries hindered both coaches, the past weeks have given the MSU staff a clearer look at what they can expect from the 2021 roster. Following lengthy discussions, the NCAA has issued an extra year of eligibility for players that saw their seasons canceled this year due to the growing pandemic. And while overloaded rosters will remain an issue for as many as the next five years, Lemonis believes the extra year of eligibility is a step in the right direction.
“The ruling was great for almost every sport, but it didn’t totally fix baseball,” he said. “We’re hoping there’s something down the road (in terms of) roster limits and scholarship relief. It puts us in a tough situation especially with a draft that doesn’t look like it’s going to be as big as it normally is. We have to be able to look at some things differently so hopefully we can help out our students.”
“My whole clubhouse wants to play professional baseball,” Lemonis continued. “So when you lose a year that’s really tough on an athlete, their development, bargaining power and everything. I thought it was a good move, we just hope in the college baseball world that they’ll do more. We need more in our world because of juniors and incoming guys and the MLB Draft and we’re just going to end up with some crazy rosters or you’re going to be the bad guy in this. So hopefully we get some more relief down the road.”
Beyond extra eligibility, Lemonis also provided some insight into the draft process in Starkville. At present, MSU’s junior and senior classes are in a holding pattern. ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Kiley McDaniel reported March 20 that the MLB can shorten its annual First Year Player Draft to as few as five rounds this year. And while players like junior middle infielders Justin Foscue and Jordan Westburg figure to be selected regardless of how many rounds take place, it leaves the rest of MSU’s draft-eligible players in a waiting game.
Recent changes also create unique situations in the cases of pitchers David Dunlavey and Carlisle Koestler. Graduate transfers that joined the fold in Starkville this season, Dunlavey and Koestler would be sixth and seventh-year seniors, respectively, should they return to MSU in the fall following productive, but shortened seasons this spring.
“They all want to play pro ball so if they get an opportunity in pro ball i think that’s something they’ll look at pretty heavily,” Lemonis said of his team. “But it’s got to be the right time and the right opportunity. I think this is a new era for all of us and they’re just waiting for information, waiting to hear how long the draft’s going to be, when the draft’s going to be, what are the stipulations around the draft. We’re just trying to keep them educated right now and see where they’re at from there.
Though Lemonis is hoping to have the majority of his players back should professional aspirations go by the wayside, the upcoming season has its list of challenges.
The NCAA’s recent ruling will allow schools to continue providing scholarships to players that were affected by the cancelation of the season, but the second year head coach also sees the current climate as a chance to discuss college baseball’s already-hindering 11.7 scholarship-limit.
“I mean I feel like it’s a good time but (the NCAA) has a lot of issues on their plate,” Lemonis said. “Probably won’t be able to get that at this point. I wish we would, but I just hope they’re going to help out the kids in this era right now. And this isn’t a one year thing — the trickle down lasts for a couple years. College baseball just got to be really packed with kids and you want to do what’s right for your guys.”
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.
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