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Mitch Rupert on baseball: Plenty of Optimism, skepticism with MLB Draft League

As Gabe Sinicropi and Peter Freund shared the news of the Williamsport Crosscutters’ new home in baseball, there was genuine excitement in their voices. And for good reason. Let’s be honest, the alternative for the Cutters wasn’t good for either the ownership group or the city.

High-level baseball in the city is here to stay. And there is reason for both members of the Crosscutters’ front office and for fans to be excited. But there’s also plenty of reason to be skeptical.

Considering just over a year ago it looked as if the Williamsport Crosscutters were going to be eliminated entirely, the newly-formed MLB Draft League is a great home for the Cutters. But as is always the case, the unknown is what is most concerning.

The success of this new venture for Major League Baseball and the Crosscutters hinges on what kind of prospects the league is able to draw. For the general baseball fan, it might not matter much whether players in a Cutters uniform are potential first-round picks or 20th-round picks. For those who dig beyond the surface of wins and losses, those things matter.

It will matter to the Crosscutters for the sake of marketing the product on the field. It will matter in terms of being able to attract fans from outside the area. In recent years, having first-round draft picks Adam Haseley, Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott play a large chunk of their first professional seasons with the Crosscutters means everything to a small market which is trying to attract family entertainment dollars from movie theaters, amusement parks and zoos.

MLB Draft League president Kerrick Jackson was honest in his assessment of the league’s ability to draw the top prospects the league wants to be a destination for. It’s not going to happen immediately. In fact, he admitted during the State College Spikes’ press conference Monday it likely won’t happen this year. Players have already signed contracts to participate in various summer college wood bat leagues for next summer already.

But Jackson is counting on the money and weight Major League Baseball is willing to throw into this new venture. Commissioner Rob Manfred has made no bones about it that he wants Major League Baseball and its teams to have complete control over prospect development. He wants teams competing on even playing fields in terms of the number of minor league affiliates and the number of minor leaguers employed.

Don’t be fooled, it’s not for the betterment of the game, it’s about saving owners money. But even though he’s taking minor league baseball away from sleepy little towns like Williamsport, Manfred has offered another option to some of them to remain relevant in the Major League Baseball landscape.

The Crosscutters’ “It All Begins in Billtown” moniker is still true. Instead of getting to meet players just after their selection in the MLB Draft, fans in and around Williamsport will get to meet them just before they’re professionals. Fans are still going to see the same kind of player at Bowman Field this summer it has as a member of the NYPL. In fact, there’s a solid chance fans will see a better brand of baseball.

With only minimal exceptions for elite high school talent, this league won’t feature 18- and 19-year-old prospects anymore. Instead, you’ll have seasoned college players who better understand themselves and better understand the game. And while even middle to late-round draft prospects play a better brand of baseball than younger prospects, fans love to see the top-tier guys with unworldly power or fastballs which break radar guns.

And that’s where the skepticism comes in about this league. Will Major League Baseball be able to entice those types of players to play five or six weeks of baseball prior to the draft? In the past, Jackson said, it’s been hard to place draft-eligible players into college summer leagues because teams are always concerned about filling out rosters after players are drafted.

Jackson laid out a plan Monday to address those very real concerns for the Draft League. But largely, those plans at this very moment are based on hope.

He hopes players’ experiences in the MLB Draft League next summer leads to them telling their friends this is where they want to play summer ball.

He hopes there will be an allure among players to participate in a summer college league endorsed and run by Major League Baseball.

He hopes the best draft-eligible players are going to want to play baseball in the weeks between the end of the college season and the draft.

He hopes teams will allow players to finish the summer with their MLB Draft League team after they’re selected in the July draft.

But Jackson comes from a unique background where he has experience as a college coach at Southern University, a recruiting coordinator for both Missouri and Nicholls State, an area scout for the Washington Nationals, an agent with the Boras Corporation headed by superagent Scott Boras, and a summer coach in the Cape Cod League among others.

Jackson will likely have the ear of college coaches he competed against. He will have the understanding of the types of players the league wants. And he’s going to have the negotiating skills to talk schools into funneling their players to the Draft League.

But it will be imperative for the league to attract the country’s top players if it wants to be taken seriously. It’s got a big hill to climb to overtake the allure and prestige of the Cape Cod League. Major League Baseball and Manfred are egotistical enough to think it can completely overtake what the Cape Cod League has been for decades. But it’s also smart enough at this point to understand the MLB Draft League is merely a tooth in the cog of pre-draft development.

If the MLB Draft League lives up to everything Jackson and Major League Baseball thinks it can be, this change is going to be fantastic for the Crosscutters and the city of Williamsport. It’s fair to be optimistic the league can be what it wants to be. But it’s also fair to be skeptical until it happens.

Mitch Rupert covers the Williamsport Crosscutters for the Sun-Gazette. You can reach him at 570-326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at mrupert@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Mitch_Rupert.

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