Before Josh Smith left the postgame news conference, coach Paul Mainieri whispered to his star shortstop. LSU had clinched the 2019 Baton Rouge regional, avoiding an elimination game the next day that would have coincided with the first two rounds of the Major League Baseball draft.
“Now you get to enjoy it,” Mainieri said, “and not worry about anything else."
The draft that year took place the week before the super regional. In the midst of preparing for postseason games, LSU navigated an event that changes lives and shapes the roster. Six LSU players were selected over three days, plus multiple recruits.
One, infielder Christian Cairo, was on campus when Cleveland selected him in the fourth round. He told Mainieri he would sign and left. The same day, center fielder Zach Watson went in the third round and future starter Cade Doughty announced his decision to attend LSU. The Tigers also practiced with four days until they hosted Florida State.
College baseball teams in the NCAA tournament dealt with this setup for decades. The draft always fell in the middle of the postseason until it moved to July for the first time in 2021. While the new schedule presents roster management challenges for coaches, players don’t have to divide their focus as they compete for a championship.
This is relevant for an LSU team loaded with draft prospects. The Tigers have the projected first and second overall picks in center fielder Dylan Crews and pitcher Paul Skenes. Junior pitcher Ty Floyd, sophomore pitcher Grant Taylor and junior first baseman/outfielder Tre’ Morgan are also top-200 prospects, according to MLB.com.
But this year, the draft doesn’t start until July 9, roughly two weeks after the College World Series.
“When you have players like we have here, and they're giving everything they have to this thing, it's nice for them to be able to do that without thinking about (the draft),” LSU coach Jay Johnson said. “Then it's also nice in July that when this is all wrapped up, they've earned that opportunity. They can really enjoy that.”
Crews and Skenes deflect draft questions. Skenes said last week “I just don't think about it.” But while they receive the most attention on the team, they also have some certainty. Barring injury, it is widely predicted they’ll go near the top of the draft. LSU’s other eligible players will have to wait much longer next month.
“Those guys — I've found in my experience — are a little bit more unsure,” said former LSU outfielder Mikie Mahtook, a first-round pick in 2011. “They throw a little more stock into it because they could fall anywhere from the second round to the sixth round. That's a big change in the decision for them.”
The timing of the draft used to cause players additional stress. In 1989, before the event was televised, LSU played Long Beach State at the College World Series the same day the draft began. Long Beach ace Kyle Abbott was picked ninth overall hours before his start. He gave up six earned runs in 2⅓ innings in a season-ending loss.
“Draft day affected me,” Abbott said then, according to the LA Times. “I felt loose but I couldn’t get the ball down. I was a little under-intense.”
The same day, LSU star pitcher Ben McDonald was selected first overall by the Baltimore Orioles. McDonald suspected going into the season he would be the first pick if he stayed healthy, but he still had trouble compartmentalizing the postseason and upcoming draft.
McDonald got a call in his hotel room around noon that he had been picked, then went to a news conference hours before first pitch. It was the only game in which he did not play during LSU's four at the 1989 CWS.
“I felt very awkward doing that and focusing on that when my teammates were working out and getting ready to do something,” McDonald said.
Years later, McDonald called a 2018 regional final between Ole Miss and Tennessee Tech. Ole Miss left-hander Ryan Rolison had to keep an eye on his phone with the season at stake. He was selected No. 22 overall, and the news was announced over the stadium loudspeakers. Rolison, who did not pitch in the 3-2 loss, stepped out of the dugout to recognize fans giving him a standing ovation.
The last time LSU won the national championship, the 2009 draft fell between the super regional and College World Series. The Tigers had to practice, so prospects put their phones along the dugout bench.
Mahtook, a freshman at the time, said LSU’s equipment manager monitored the incoming calls and then relayed them to Mainieri, who would tell the player to come off the field. LSU had six players drafted.
“Happened multiple times,” Mahtook said. “A few times, people had to talk to their agent or talk to a team that wanted to do something and then call their agent.”
Mahtook thought the draft calls added to the postseason experience for a close team instead of distracting players. When he was picked No. 31 overall two years later, LSU had missed the NCAA tournament. He wished LSU would have still been playing. Practice might have even provided some relief.
“I was so distracted during my draft,” Mahtook said. “I wish I had a baseball game I had to worry about and not the draft.”
The new format condenses the college baseball calendar. Coaches, especially those with teams that make deep runs, have less time to put together their next roster amid the transfer portal and draft. McDonald said Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco told him winning the College World Series last year put him behind in recruiting.
Johnson mentioned these concerns, saying last week “logistically, (it's) really tough to deal with where it's at right now.” The transfer portal has already opened, and baseball players can sign professionally out of high school next month. Once the draft ends, coaches have a couple weeks to reconstruct their rosters before the signing deadline.
But the more he considered the schedule, the more Johnson supported a later draft. He likes that it lets his players focus on the current task, then enjoy a life-changing moment with their families.
“I'm happy, now that I'm thinking about it,” Johnson said. “This would probably be the worst time if you're involved in it.”