Iowa baseball: Breaking down Hawkeyes' roster uncertainty ahead of eligibility vote
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Amid the coronavirus chaos, Rick Heller and all of college baseball faces a two-fold conundrum ahead of Monday’s eligibility vote.
The most prevalent concerns focus on the financial side, which is bound to get messy if seniors do get their year back canceled over COVID-19 concerns. Even if the Division 1 Council opts to not count senior money toward baseball’s already-tight 11.7 scholarship limit, there are still countless webs to untangle.
The other issue lies on the field.
For some programs, the framework of their entire 2021 roster hangs in the balance depending on how deep and pivotal their senior class is. That’s close to where Heller and Iowa baseball sit right now. With a 10-man senior class that includes at least seven cemented pieces, the Hawkeyes’ head man faces even more roster ambiguity than he would in a normal offseason.
And even if the vote passes, there’s no guarantee which or how many seniors will return in 2021. Some who are shouldering extra financial burdens to even be on the team may easily choose to move on with life.
"People sometimes forget that baseball isn’t a full scholarship sport,” Heller said on Thursday’s teleconference. “Our players are paying more to be here than we are paying them in the form of a partial scholarship to be here.”
A bit of clarity arrived with the agreement between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association. The deal, first reported Thursday night and finalized Friday, outlines stipulations for the 2020 MLB Draft, which will likely be held in July and shortened from 40 rounds to five. With signing bonuses for undrafted free agents capped at $20,000, you’ll see many more fringe draft prospects return to school.
The Hawkeyes could have several players in that boat. Ahead of Monday’s vote, let’s look at the primary positions affected by Iowa’s roster uncertainty and the options for 2021.
Seniors in limbo: Grant Judkins, Grant Leonard, Trace Hoffman and Adam Ketelsen
Skinny: Unsurprisingly, the mound is where Iowa will feel the vote’s impact the most. In limbo are the Hawkeyes’ Saturday starter (Judkins), closer (Leonard) and one of their most-used relievers (Hoffman).
Judkins picked up where he left off as a junior with a nice 2020 start, yielding only seven runs in 21⅔ innings across four starts. Hoffman was tied for second in relief appearances, often entering in high-leverage situations. Leonard’s importance is clear-cut despite a rocky start (5.68 ERA with four saves in seven appearances). All Ketelsen did was punch out eight in 7⅔ scoreless frames.
A sizable hole opens on the weekend if Judkins departs. Ditto in the bullpen if Leonard and Hoffman don’t return. Pitching tends to be the easiest to replenish in terms of viable options. But those in waiting still must perform when called upon.
Financial headaches aside, Iowa would be better in 2021 with these guys back.
Senior in limbo: Austin Martin
Skinny: Iowa’s senior catcher was off to a decent 2020 start, slashing .277/.358/.362 while starting 13 of 15 games. Martin had recently been named to the Buster Posey watch list, an award that honors baseball’s top collegiate catcher. The Southeast Polk product was probably Iowa’s most established draft prospect.
From a pure baseball standpoint, Heller would love to have Martin back as a stabilizing force behind the plate. The MLB Draft update should increase the chance of that if the vote passes, given that Martin was still likely to be a third-day selection. He wasn’t going to get a hefty signing bonus as a senior, but a significantly truncated draft creates more unknowns for those that would be undrafted free agents like Martin.
If the vote doesn’t pass, Iowa will see what’s likely a decently-sized scholarship come off the books — but then there are questions to answer on the field. The Hawkeyes’ initial 2020 signees didn’t include a catcher, meaning Iowa will rely on what’s in-house unless another prospect — possibly a JUCO recruit — is added down the road. That’s certainly possible given the success Heller’s had with JUCO catchers Tyler Cropley and Martin.
If not, Brett McCleary could see a sizable jump. The Iowa City High product is the most experienced catcher on the current roster and generated some nice preseason buzz. His junior year wasn’t off to the greatest start — a .158 average over 19 at-bats — but the Hawkeyes may be limited with contingency plans depending on how and when recruiting resumes.
Seniors in limbo: Matthew Sosa and Lorenzo Elion
Skinny: Despite preseason questions at third base, Sosa answered them quickly with a promising early-season surge. Sosa started 11 of 15 games at the hot corner en route to a .316/.422/.368 slash line. He had double-digit hits (12) and runs scored (10) despite just 38 at-bats. Most of Sosa’s damage came hitting eighth or ninth.
There’s enough production there that Sosa would likely begin 2021 as Iowa’s starting third baseman. Heller should be able to adjust if the vote doesn’t pass — sophomore Brendan Sher and junior Dylan Nedved are more than capable of sliding in — but Sosa is still another nice asset worthy of factoring in to this unfortunate situation.
Elion, meanwhile, has trended the wrong way since starting 37 games in 2018. He finished 2020 hitting .167 in six games (one start), reduced to a reserve infielder and midweek designated hitter.
Seniors in limbo: Ben Norman, Justin Jenkins and Zeb Adreon
Skinny: This trio represented Iowa’s starting outfield for six of its first seven games. Adreon manned left field; Jenkins held down center field and Norman roamed in right — until Jenkins’ offensive struggles forced some maneuvering. Norman moved to center and Adreon slid to right for six of Iowa’s last eight contests.
With 37 starts between the three in 2020, it’s clear these are valuable assets even with minimal draft chatter among them. Norman, who had settled in as the Hawkeyes’ new leadoff man, is one of the few pivotal pieces left from Iowa’s 2017 Big Ten Tournament title and NCAA Regional run. Jenkins’ superb defense keeps him in the mix. Adreon finished 2020 as the Hawkeyes’ second-leading hitter (.333 average in 15 games).
Essentially replacing an entire outfield isn’t always as daunting as other positions — and Iowa has options if these seniors are forced to move on. Redshirt freshman Brayden Frazier and junior Trenton Wallace combined to start every game of the Hawkeyes’ last weekend series, splitting duties in left. Other outfielders on the roster include Connor McCaffery and freshmen Andrew Nord and Paul Vossen.
Coming in will be Des Moines Roosevelt product Alec Nigut, the highest-rated prospect and only outfielder among Iowa’s November signees. He could be in the mix, along with some possible late additions, if the Hawkeyes have to start fresh in the outfield.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.