Nats confident in ability to sign quality undrafted free agents starting today

In my discussions the last two weeks with a pair of Southeastern Conference baseball coaches, they talked about how the draft landscape has changed with their players and their rosters moving forward.

Juniors and seniors are allowed to return for at least one more year of eligibility thanks to the NCAA granting that opportunity due to the coronavirus shutdown ending the college baseball season prematurely this season.

Georgia baseball coach Scott Stricklin believes the 2021 college baseball season will be the best as far as talent level because a lot of these players will return and not go for the $20,000 signing bonuses that will be offered up by Major League Baseball to undrafted free agents starting today.

From the Nationals standpoint, director of scouting operations Eddie Longosz has a different perspective. He sees the pool of talent for his club to choose from as still being very strong. He has this confidence because a lot of those players know they don't want to get caught up in a crowded field of free agency next year and instead want to take their shot now for a similar reason: The pool will be doubled in 2021 because so many players had that extra year of eligibility reinstated.

"We are going to do our due diligence right away," Longosz said during a Zoom video call with media Thursday night. "We don't know if there is even going to be a fall or spring season. That is to our advantage as well. A lot of the schools have a ton of incoming freshmen. Not sure if they are going to go the junior college route or stay with their schools. I think it's still going to be a real good playing field for us. It's going to be tricky and it's going to be very competitive (today)."

"We are prepared. All our area scouts have done a phenomenal job over the last couple of weeks getting to know these players. We've done Zoom meetings during these times, taking advantage of everything we have technology-wise. We have a confidence level even with kids at the bigger schools, too."

Nats-Helmet-in-Dugout-Sidebar.jpgLongosz said Thursday that the Nationals' list of players will now be recalibrated to list those players they like the most and the ones that the Nats feel will be interested in taking the next step to pro ball at the $20,000 price point. He said the Nats took this 48-hour non-contact period between the draft and free agency as a time to reassess the players still available.

"We are going to kick it off on Saturday and basically make a whole new board in ranking these $20,000 players available and hit the floor running (today) first thing," Longosz said.

Nationals assistant general manager and vice president of scouting operations Kris Kline is not seeing the landscape altered as much as some college coaches might predict. He is very optimistic the Nats will still be able to find an outstanding pool of players willing to sign on as undrafted free agents.

"I don't think there is going to be any changes for us once the season started," Kline said via Zoom video call with media. "There's still going to be just as many players. They just may be in different places. It'll be interesting to see how this unfolds in the next couple days."

But with this landscape changing and players offered $20,000 signing bonuses instead of what might have been six-figure deals in years past, will free agents now have several teams burning up their mobile phones starting today with offers to sign?

"I don't think there is any way to predict that," Kline said. "There may be 30 teams on one guy (or) one team on one guy. I guess it comes down to comfort level, how many looks you had, what the reports say in the system. It will be an interesting process either way."

Kline believes the key to getting coveted undrafted free agents to sign with the Nats today will boil down to personal relationships that they have already established, and not some "out of left field" call a player gets from a scouting department in the 11th hour.

"The teams where the area scout and maybe the crosschecker have a good relationship with the player would certainly bode well for the team that was going to select them and that gives the kid more comfort level to have that relationship and trust," he said. senior writer Jim Callis made the point to me earlier this month that free agents are watching how teams treat their minor leaguers. This will go a long way in where they choose to play next season.

The Oakland A's announcing they were not paying their minor leaguers and then finally relenting might have a ripple effect down the road when a free agent has to decide between the A's and some other team. The Nationals' decision to pay their minor leaguers the full stipend of $400 per week through the end of June (after first dropping it to $300/week) is a big deal. Plus the fact that the Nationals have a state-of-the-art player development and training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., and a positive track record of developing players at various positions all will go into account as to where a free agent to play.

But the biggest factor, as Kline believes, is what type of relationship an undrafted free agent already has with the Nats. That previously established relationship will go a long way in helping an undrafted free agent decide where he plays pro ball next season and beyond.

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