Amidst a season of pandemic-induced changes, one can be easily excused for missing the changes made to the 2020 major league draft. Coinciding with likely restructuring of minor league baseball to reduce costs and slash the number of affiliates overall, MLB shortened what has been a 40-round affair to a mere five rounds,
This agreement for the 2020 Draft also capped undrafted free agent signings at $20,000, meaning that while players who could’ve been taken in hypothetical rounds six through ten were losing out on financial bonuses, they also had increased say in their destiny as free agents. This gave Major League clubs access to an unusually talented free agent pool, and will likely mean fans see more undrafted players reach the majors.
With a wildly uncertain 2020 facing minor league players, and a reshaped farm system looming ahead in 2021 and beyond, the draft model for this season has effectively limited the number of incoming players and the financial investment in them. With the monetary risk lessened, it has allowed teams to get creative and invest in players with tools and upside.
The San Diego Padres have agreed to terms with six such players, all of whom come with college experience: pitchers Carter Loewen from Hawaii, Chase Walter from Western Carolina, and Danny Denz, the lone lefty from Memphis. Outfielder Michael Green comes from Clemson, catcher Adam Kerner hails from the University of San Diego, while infielder Zack Mathis joins the organization via the LSU Tigers. Kerner, Loewen and Walter were ranked among Baseball America’s Top 500 potential draftees.
Unlike the drafted players that have an August 1, 2020 deadline to sign, teams can sign undrafted free agents until they return to school or seven days before the start of the 2021 draft.
These players represent an initial investment of $120,000 by the club, whereas the Padres’ picks from rounds six through 11 last year secured combined bonuses more than four times that. The financial savings in a year of turmoil made the headlines, but lost in that shuffle are the intriguing prospects signed in these deals.
A Canadian Comeback Story
In Carter Loewen, the Padres signed a 6-foot-4, 230-pound pitcher from British Columbia who played three seasons at the University of Hawaii. The catch is that Loewen managed just 18 appearances, all in relief, as he returned from reconstructive shoulder surgery which caused him to redshirt his freshman year.
Despite the small body of work in college, Loewen managed to crack Baseball America‘s Top 500 Draft Prospects and was on the radar of no fewer than ten clubs headed into the draft. “Carter Loewen was one of Hawaii’s top recruits,” said Baseball America‘s Kyle Glaser, “when he got there though, he had a torn labrum, he had season-ending shoulder surgery and his stuff just didn’t come back for years.”
The struggles for Loewen were so profound that it seemed unlikely he would bounce back into a meaningful role in college, let alone take the next step to professional baseball. “He was down to the mid-80s, and there was a lot of concern that he wouldn’t find the form that had made him such a highly-recruited pitcher,” added Glaser on Loewen’s long road back.
But in a story which could have made larger waves in the college baseball landscape had the 2020 season not been scrapped in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Loewen regained his form. “Hawaii stuck with him, and this past offseason, he started doing new shoulder mobility exercises,” Glaser said. “That kind of unlocked what he was before, he was back up to 93-95, he started throwing a really nasty cutter, it’s just a great story just in the sense this guy had three years in which it was just not coming back for him, he kept working, he kept with it, he didn’t get discouraged, and he finally found something to unlock it. To his credit, he really turned himself into a good pitcher.”
To most observers, Loewen projects as a reliever, especially given his injury history. His size, rediscovered velocity, and new cut fastball gives him high upside as he begins his professional journey. Glaser, summing up Loewen’s addition to the Padres organization, added: “He’s a pure reliever. He might’ve gone in the 15th to 20th round in a normal draft, so at $20,000, it’s a real nice signing.”
Loewen has work to get there, but shows upside as a bullpen piece.
Subscribers can read more on Loewen here.
Have Bat, Will Travel
Stockton native Zack Mathis, chose not to sign when the Minnesota Twins drafted him in the 38th round last year after he hit .351 with 10 home runs and 66 RBI at San Joaquin Delta College. Instead, he headed to Louisiana State University. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the 5-foot-8 Mathis was the LSU Tigers’ regular third baseman, batting .262 with one home run in 17 games, good for an OPS of .729.
Mathis, known for his work ethic in the cages and attention to detail, brings a highly-touted hit tool to the next level. As for defense, the Padres fully intend to develop him as a catcher.
“It’s a new position for me and it’s definitely a hard position on your body,” Mathis said, “there’s a big emphasis in baseball with framing, which is somewhat like a swing in terms of the plane in which you’re moving your mitt, so that helps me connect the process easier in my head. I’m excited to get started.”
For more on Mathis, read our subscriber piece here.
Ryan Payne contributed to the reporting for this article.