Taking a closer look at the MLB Draft League

When the Frederick Keys field a team this summer, for the first time they will not be sending Orioles prospects to the field. As part of the restructuring of minor league baseball, the Keys have joined the inaugural MLB Draft League. Six teams will begin play in a 68-game season beginning in late May and running through mid-August.

It is a wood-bat league made up of amateur players from the college ranks that are draft-eligible.

Baseballs glove.jpgThe All-Star break will be centered around the First-Year Player Draft, which has been moved to July. Frederick will be joined in the league by four teams from the now-defunct New York-Penn League. They are the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, the Williamsport Crosscutters, the West Virginia Black Bears and the State College Spikes. The Trenton Thunder, previously in the Double-A Eastern League, will join the other five clubs.

For this interview in December, after the Keys found out they will not be an O's affiliate in 2021, Frederick general manager Dave Ziedelis expressed optimism about this new venture and his team's future.

"Honestly, we are very excited to be a part of the MLB Draft League," Ziedelis said during a phone interview. "We think it's an excellent league and opportunity. Interesting that the six of us all have ownership groups that own multiple teams and they're all very strong, sophisticated ownership groups.

"We are just happy to be part of that and offer the same great prospects we always have. Our players will just be a little younger. They're still going to be future major leaguers, they'll just be younger than they were. And there is the opportunity that we will have players from multiple future MLB organizations. We are also thankful of the Orioles' continued support. After 14 months, when the whole contraction proposal was first introduced, we're very excited to have closure and know what we're doing. And that we're continuing the Frederick Keys."

On Nov. 30, Kerrick Jackson was named president of the MLB Draft League. He spent the past three years as head coach at Southern University. He has also worked as an agent for the Boras Corp. and as recruiting coordinator for the University of Missouri from 2010-2015. From 2007-2010 he was a Midwest area scouting supervisor for the Washington Nationals.

I recently interviewed Jackson about the start-up of the league. Here are a few bullet points we covered.

The league will set the rosters and the goal is to have 30 players per team.

"One of my jobs is to source the players for the league," said Jackson. "So we're in the process of doing that now. This announcement was made in December, so being able to source 180, but when you talk about backfill, probably 220 players, to get them going is a task. We will put the players on teams and probably be able to let people know what those rosters look like, crossing our fingers, by the middle of February, I'd probably say. We're shooting for 30-man rosters. It could be a little bit less than that, but that is where we will top out at, 30-man rosters."

The league will also hire and assign all the managers and coaches.

"Yes we will," he said. "The most important part is making sure we get the players. Then we'll start working on the staffs. We have a number of guys that have reached out to us. We've had some former pro coaches reach out and some former big leaguers that are interested. I think we will have some really good options to provide a really good experience for these kids. There may not be a lot of coaching with the physical aspect of it. You don't want them to try and make changes when the scouting director for the Orioles or Red Sox is going to show up. We'll probably announce staffs, I'd say, beginning of March."

The league realizes that getting projected first- and second-round picks to participate will be tough.

"I'd probably say the first- and second-rounders is going to be a little bit of a stretch, in the beginning," Jackson said. "The biggest thing now is people see this solely as an opportunity to be evaluated. That might be a short-sighted view with everything that is involved.

"Our league appeals to a number of different players. It appeals to the player from a small school, and with COVID, maybe they didn't get seen as much since the scouts were concentrating on the bigger schools. It appeals to the guy that is going into the draft and maybe is a sixth- through 10th-round guy and wants to improve his stock. So, he comes and plays. I think it also appeals to the guy that had a great spring and knows where he fits in the draft and he's comfortable with that second-through-fifth-round area, but there is a two-month window in there and what is he going to do?

"If they're a pitcher, it depends on how many innings he threw. Maybe taking some time off is necessary. But a position player, you can only go and stay relevant with the rhythm of the game so long by taking ground balls or hitting in the cage. You need to play. Even the guy that solidified himself, just being able to play will be beneficial to them because now with the structure that has changed in minor league ball, there is no more short season. You want to keep your game sharp."

The league believes some players could continue playing for teams even after they are drafted, but before they sign.

"That part of it is something we are still working out," Jackson said. "Ultimately for me, I would like us to create a development-type atmosphere where clubs feel comfortable to say, 'Hey, stay there and finish.' Because we don't have anything for you to do right now. Finish, and maybe when mid-August comes, take your break and then come report to instructs in late September, October.

"Most of the minor league organizations when they get first-year players in, the first 30 or 40 days they don't touch them (and make many adjustments) anyway. They just evaluate. So, let us keep them and evaluate them here. Send your player development staff out to evaluate and once they get there later, they get hands on."

Is there a chance MLB teams will indeed allow players to stay after the draft but before they sign?

"It's conceptual right now in my mind, to be honest with you. What we like to do is to have involvement from pro clubs to see if this is viable. For me, the main focus of this whole league is player-centered. This is something we're doing that benefits the player. If we carry that throughout then we'll be able to work with all 30 clubs. We want to create a holistic environment that really benefits the player and club."

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