Brutal as the coronavirus pandemic has been for baseball in 2020, it may have an upside for the University of New Mexico in 2021.
Last week’s abbreviated major league draft, expanded college rosters for next season, and endless hours spent working the phones are adding up nicely for the Lobos. Coach Ray Birmingham and his recruiting coordinator, Jon Coyne, now figure to have more firepower than even they expected.
Three newcomers will bring impressive pedigrees to Santa Ana Star Field.
⋄ Shortstop Mack Chambers III was an 11th-round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs
in 2019 who did not sign. He almost certainly would have gone higher had this summer’s draft gone beyond five rounds.
⋄ Outfielder Jared Martin was a freshman All-American at Stephen F. Austin in 2018 before missing a season because of injury. He was hitting .347 when 2020 was shut down and will transfer as a graduate student with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
⋄ Infielder Alec Carr originally signed with Texas in 2018 but ended up excelling at Wharton County Junior College. Connections – former Lobo
Trey Porras is WCJC’s head coach – helped steer Carr to UNM.
In a normal year, all three players might now be preparing to start professional careers in the minor leagues. But with no minor league season expected, 2020 is anything but normal.
“In a way, COVID’s actually been good to us,” Birmingham said. “You wouldn’t have seen any of these guys on campus with a full draft. A lot of schools thought they’d be drafted and backed off recruiting them, which worked out great for us.”
So did last week’s NCAA ruling that next season’s 35-player roster cap will be lifted. To help accommodate 2020 seniors, who were granted another
year of eligibility after NCAA spring sports were canceled, Division I baseball programs will have unlimited rosters for 2021.
Birmingham expects to have roughly 45 players on his roster and admits fielding such an oversized squad will be tricky.
First, there is spreading around the scholarship money. Division I baseball is an equivalency sport with 11.7 scholarships allowed per school. Coaches typically divide the funds among players and use academic, lottery and other scholarship/aid programs to help defray players’ costs. Athletic scholarship equivalency minimums are normally 25% but that figure has been waived for next season, allowing coaches more flexibility in allocating their limited funds.
“It’s like working on a puzzle when the pieces keep changing and it’s never complete,” Coyne said. “It’s worked out well for us so far, but it’s exhausting trying to organize everything.”
With UNM’s athletic facilities closed by pandemic restrictions, Birmingham and Coyne have spent long hours on the phone explaining next season’s outlook to players and their families. Money and playing time will be at a premium.
“It’s not ideal because baseball’s still a nine-player sport,” Birmingham said. “Depth is nice up to a point, but you can’t play 45 guys. Next year’s going to be challenging and we’re trying to make sure everybody gets that.”
This month’s shortened draft left many quality players with no choice but to play college ball in 2021. As a result, many programs could field loaded teams. Birmingham and Coyne think UNM will be among them.
“We’ve got a chance to have a scary lineup,” Coyne said.
The Lobos were 14-4 when 2020 was canceled, and only one senior (second baseman Justin Watari) has announced he will not return. The additions of Chambers, Martin and Carr to an already touted recruiting class gives UNM’s coaches reasons for optimism.
Chambers’ father (also named Mack) was his head coach at Oklahoma’s Seminole State College. He played professionally in the Cleveland Indians’ organization. The younger Chambers was hitting .472 with 36 runs scored and 19 RBIs in 23 games in 2020.
“We were sweating out the draft with him,” Coyne said. “Even with five rounds, I thought he could easily go.”
Martin flew a bit more under the radar because an injury sidelined him for most of 2019. But he was back and hitting a team-best .347 when Stephen F. Austin’s season ended. He will graduate early with a degree in kinesiology and hopes to earn a master’s while playing at UNM.
“I’ve never been to Albuquerque, sadly,” Martin said in a phone interview, “but I know a lot about the baseball program. I’m really looking forward to playing there.”
Martin said he already had decided to leave SFA as a grad transfer before getting a call from friend and current Lobo Lance Russell. Things fell into place from there.
“Lance got me thinking about New Mexico,” Martin said, “and once I started looking into things, it was a no-brainer.”
Carr also had some helpful hints about UNM thrown his way. Porras, an ex-player and assistant coach with the Lobos, helped Carr’s former Wharton teammate Shane Podsednik become a Lobo last season. Podsednik, a catcher, was hitting .325 when the season ended.
“It’s fun because a lot of players want to come here now,” Coyne said. “We’ve had to make some tough decisions about who to bring in, but I’m excited about where things are going.”
“Our program hit a lull for a couple years. but we’re back to normal,” he said. “We have financial support, the administration’s support and it’s starting to show. We’ve got a lot of good athletes coming in and I’m excited about it. The sky’s the limit.”