STATE COLLEGE – As the fate of several New York-Penn League clubs dangled in the balance, the newly discovered coronavirus pandemic last spring appeared to send some of them to their end as teams across the country shuttered their seasons.
In November, Major League Baseball announced the creation of an MLB Draft League in a move that kept alive minor league clubs in State College, Williamsport and Mahoning Valley in Ohio – albeit in a different format.
Six teams – including clubs in New Jersey and West Virginia – will take to the diamond on May 24 for Opening Day of the inaugural season of the league.
“I think it’s going to be a very exciting league,” said Kerrick Jackson, president of the MLB Draft League. “There was some disappointment with not having a season last year, and not having an affiliated franchise.
“I think this is going to be an opportunity where we get that same short season-type player back in these stadiums and get those fans out there to see them.”
The MLB Draft League will feature draft-eligible prospects from a pool of collegiate and high school teams. MLB has partnered with Prep Baseball Report for the venture, so managers and assistants have leaned on the recommendation of scouts, coaches and the eye test when stocking their teams with talent.
The MLB Draft League will take a one-week break in early July that will coincide with MLB’s All-Star break.
All-Star Week’s festivities include the MLB draft – held July 11-13 – and players in the newly formed MLB Draft League will be eligible to be selected.
Last month, MLB announced this year’s draft will span 20 rounds. The 2020 MLB Draft included five rounds because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In previous years, the draft lasted 40 rounds.
“These are like All-Star teams, where before, you’d have a few prospects on every team, and then a group of pretty good players for this level, and then you’d have some suspects,” said Gabe Sinicropi, Williamsport Crosscutters vice president of marketing and public relations.
“That’s not the case in the draft league. The baseball has an opportunity to be even better on the field.”
Further adding to the new talent dynamic of the league are the six former MLB players who are now managers: Billy Horton (Williamsport), ex-Pirate Delwyn Young (State College), Coco Crisp (Mahoning Valley Scrappers), Jedd Gyorko (West Virginia Black Bears), ex-Pirates hitting coach Jeff Manto (Trenton Thunder) and Derrick May (Frederick Keys).
Players who aren’t drafted in July will return to their respective clubs for the second half of the season.
“I think the environment we’re going to have set up in our league with former big leaguers as managers and coaches will give these kids some insight as to what they’re looking forward to, but more importantly, it will give the pro clubs some insight as to what these kids are about,” Jackson said. “They’ll be talking to guys who will be able to give them opinions based on their experience.”
State College and Williamsport plan to host a limited number of fans during the first week of the season, in accordance with current state guidelines, but the recently lifted crowd restrictions that will take effect on May 31 will allow for increased capacity.
“We’ve been making plans to provide as safe an environment as possible for our fans, and to hear the news, that essentially allows for many of these (crowd) restrictions to be lifted is certainly very welcome by us,” said Joe Putman, State College Spikes director of communications. “We’ve always have wanted as many people to join us as possible for Spikes games this summer, and as safely as possible. We’re hoping that everything keeps trending in a positive direction, and we can’t wait to welcome as many folks as possible as soon as possible.
“We’re very much planning for Opening Day to be a tremendous event on May 24.”
While the format of the MLB Draft League has changed, its communities will still benefit from having its clubs intact. After a one-year hiatus, old rivalries on the diamond will be renewed, and fans who grew to love the respective clubs in their communities can once again enjoy watching them play this summer.
“We’re still the Crosscutters. We still play virtually the same number of games, the same ownership, the same front office, the same everything,” Sinicropi said. “There’s only one difference with this league, and that’s where we get our players from. Other than that, everything remains status quo.”
Elton Hayes is a veteran sports writer who covers Penn State for CNHI LLC publications. Contact him at ehayes @cnhi.com or follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.