The COVID-19 pandemic has already altered the country's sports landscape at all levels.
Entire programs are being discontinued, billions of dollars in potential revenue have been lost and athletes either already have or could lose an entire season of competition.
For Tucker Bradley, Cole Wilcox and their University of Georgia baseball teammates, this season ended after 18 games, putting them among thousands of college athletes who compete in spring sports and had their schedule curtailed by concerns about the coronavirus. Though each has the opportunity to add an extra year of NCAA eligibility to make up for the lost season, the two former high school standouts from northwest Georgia can't easily replace what the Bulldogs' 2020 season might have meant for them.
Major League Baseball's annual amateur draft is set for June 10-11, though it will look drastically different this year. Instead of the usual 40 rounds, only five will be held. Had this season gone uninterrupted, Bradley, an outfielder from Gordon Lee, and Wilcox, a pitcher from Heritage, were on pace to improve their draft statuses and potentially earn life-changing money.
"He was really upset about the season ending," said Lee Wilcox, Cole's father. "He had been working hard on some things folks had questions about and was eager to prove he could answer those questions. He felt good about the three pitches he had going and his command."
The former Team USA member was rated a first-round draft prospect as a high school senior, but he chose to fulfill a dream by attending Georgia. His freshman season had ups and downs with a 3-2 record and 4.07 ERA to go with 38 strikeouts and 20 walks in 46 innings.
However, after an offseason of training and working on his mechanics, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound right-hander opened the 2020 season in peak form, posting a 3-0 record with a 1.57 ERA. In 23 innings, he allowed just 18 hits, struck out 32 batters and, maybe most important, walked only two. While the fastball still reaches the upper 90s, his location and secondary pitches were noticeably better.
"I was feeling good," Wilcox said. "It was good to be back on a starter's schedule and know I was going to start every seventh day. I had all my pitches going, and I could locate my fastball on both sides of the plate, something I had always wanted to improve on.
"I feel it was going to be a magical season for the team and for myself."
Still, Wilcox's improvement and potential have the former Generals star in first-round consideration again.
Jim Callis' mock draft for MLB.com has Wilcox going to the Milwaukee Brewers with the 20th overall pick of the draft, while ESPN's Kiley McDaniel has him picked two spots later by the Washington Nationals, the reigning World Series champions. McDaniel also wrote, "It's believed he'd only sign for bonus consistent with the top half of the first round."
Wilcox said he will weigh several factors when the time comes.
"There is no specific amount in mind," he said regarding a dollar figure. "Teams know I love Georgia and I feel comfortable returning. It should play out like it should. You just never know what strategy teams will take. Will they save money? Won't know until then."
Therein lies an issue some draftees will likely have to deal with. With MLB teams guaranteed to lose money this year even if there is a partial season, organizations could elect to draft the best players on their boards and offer them below-slot money in hopes they get a bargain.
Teams that don't sign drafted players are awarded compensatory draft picks next year and would save the $100,000 that is guaranteed to drafted players within 30 days of signing. The rest of a drafted player's salary — based on draft slot bonus, which remains the same as last year — will be split up over the next two years, another factor that could lead some high-profile prospects to wait a year and enter the draft pool again.
Another key component of the draft is that clubs can sign an unlimited number of undrafted free agents for $20,000. Last year's first pick of the sixth round came with a $301,600 slot value.
All things considered, draft analyzers believe prospects with any kind of leverage will go the college route and hope for a better landscape next year if they don't get picked or if they get low-balled. For elite prospects such as Wilcox, having all the leverage means everything.
"As far as the draft and how it's changed, if it does affect Cole in a negative way he will be back in red and black and will enjoy playing there," Lee Wilcox said. "With the decision to get the year back, he would go back as a sophomore and maintain his (draft) leverage."
Harder to predict
Bradley, the former Trojans standout, has talked to several MLB clubs in recent weeks, though he has received no assurances he will be drafted.
That most likely would have changed had the remainder of season not been canceled. After missing all but three games a year ago after shoulder surgery, he was having a breakout 2020 season with a .397 average, .513 on-base percentage, 23 RBIs, 17 runs and six home runs in just 18 games. A starter his freshman and sophomore seasons, Bradley had hit just three homers coming into this year.
The surge in power, combined with his already above-average arm (he has also pitched for the Bulldogs), defensive ability and speed (8-of-9 in stolen base attempts this year) had Bradley rising on draft boards.
"It was awfully tough because I had worked so hard to get back to normal," said the 6-foot, 210-pounder, who earned national attention after a monster game his senior season at Gordon Lee. "It was an awesome start, but to have it end not on our terms was difficult to handle. I think I could have continued what I had started and that would certainly have improved my draft prospects. But we'll just have to see if I've done enough.
"I've been in contact with a bunch of teams. Nobody really knows what to expect. It could happen, or it could not. With a normal draft, with this my last year, I would have gotten drafted."
Bradley is graduating with a degree in sports management, which could play into his decision, and so could the fact he just turned 22. Still, he insists returning to college is an option he's comfortable with.
"I have both options if it comes to that," he said. "It's great to be able to come back and play for the University of Georgia and go try to win a national championship. Or, if I'm fortunate enough to get drafted, I can start my professional career. I'm in a good situation, so we'll just have to wait and see."