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Lobo baseball roster should be overflowing in ’21

The UNM baseball team, shown during its first workout of the season Feb. 6, likely won’t have a shortage of players when the season commences next year. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Things are going to be different for the University of New Mexico baseball program next season and perhaps for the forseeable future.

Reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic that abruptly shut down college baseball’s 2020 season in March, NCAA and Mountain West Conference officials have issued rulings that will impact rosters and schedules in the short term and could help usher in lasting changes to the sport.

Coaches and athletic departments already have begun adapting to an NCAA ruling that 2020 spring sports athletes will receive an extra year of eligibility. While it compensates players who otherwise would have lost a year of their college careers, the determination creates a logjam because programs have signed freshmen and junior college transfers to fill roster holes that now may not exist.

In the case of baseball, a drastically shortened 2020 professional draft (five rounds instead of the typical 40) will also keep a number of players on college rosters who otherwise would have been playing in the minor leagues.

Add it all up and college coaches like UNM’s Ray Birmingham will have tough calls to make when fall camps get underway. Birmingham expects to lose only a handful of players from last season’s roster and he has 15 new players signed to join the program.

“Fall camp is always competitive with guys fighting for roster spots,” Birmingham said, “but this year could be intense. College baseball teams are going to be loaded.”

UNM had just three seniors on its active roster in 2020 and only one, starting second baseman Justin Watari, has informed coaches he does not plan to return. The other two are pitcher Nathaniel Garley and outfielder Tanner Baker.

Pitchers Drew Gillespie and Cody Dye and infielder/outfielder Connor Mang, all of whom have taken redshirt seasons in the program, also intend to play next season despite having recently graduated. Mang is one of several Lobos who had hopes of being drafted this summer, along with Kyle Landers, Harry Fullerton and Justin Armbruester — juniors who played key roles in UNM’s 14-4 start.

“We had a pretty solid team in place,” Birmingham said. “We have an even better one next year.”

In the interests of full disclosure, Birmingham and his coaches have informed recruits and returning players of the impending roster logjam. A few have opted to try their luck elsewhere.

“We didn’t tell anyone not to come,” Birmingham said, “we just wanted kids to know our situation. Some guys might be better off playing junior-college ball for a year or two and then coming back, but it’s their choice to make.”

Those who do end up on UNM’s 2021 roster can expect a different type of season. The Mountain West announced Monday it was making significant changes to next season’s schedule. The league will not hold a postseason tournament, meaning the regular-season champ will receive an automatic bid to NCAA Regionals.

Birmingham doesn’t mind the adjustment.

“I’ve been on both sides,” he said. “We’ve won the regular-season title and been knocked out of the (MWC) tournament, and we’ve won the tournament as a lower seed. But the regular season is a bigger body of work than a few days at a tournament, so it probably should mean more.”

The Mountain West is eliminating postseason tournaments in several sports next season as a cost-cutting measure necessitated by coronavirus-related financial losses. MWC baseball series will also include doubleheaders aimed at trimming travel costs. Three-game weekend series will be played over two days next season, though it has not been determined whether Friday or Sunday games will be eliminated.

“I’d rather play Friday-Saturday,” Birmingham said. “Then I can go to church on Sundays instead of sitting in the dugout praying for my pitching staff.”

Additional cost-cutting moves are likely for 2021, including schedules that include fewer than 56 games and cut back on midweek contests and road trips requiring air travel.

Birmingham hopes the cutbacks will be limited to one season, but he favors comprehensive long-term changes to the sport that are being proposed by prominent Division I coaches.

Michigan coach Erik Bakich is spearheading a “New Baseball Model” that, among other things, would start college baseball season a month later (mid-March instead of February) and conclude with the College World Series in July rather than June. The plan could be implemented as soon as 2022.

Birmingham said he discussed the 35-page proposal with Bakich and favors its approval.

“Attendance will go way up if we play games in June instead of February,” Birmingham said. “(The proposal) also includes playing more regional games and gets rid of (Ratings Percentage Index) as an NCAA qualifier. It’s cost-effective and it makes sense. These are the kinds of things we need to be looking at right now.”

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