The 2021 college baseball season will be unique for two reasons.
The first is teams could have limited staff and players during certain weeks because of COVID-19 protocol. If players or coaches test positive or are primary contacts, they will miss multiple games and significant practice time.
The second reason this season will be unique is because there will be more players available. The 2020 MLB Draft was cut from 40 rounds to five, which meant many players could not leave to play professionally. This led the NCAA to grant every college baseball player an extra year of eligibility.
Typically, a college baseball program is allowed 35 players on the roster including 27 receiving financial aid. With the added year of eligibility, there is no roster limit for the 2021 season, and the usual 11.7 scholarships can be extended to accommodate seniors that want to return.
For Oklahoma State, seniors Max Hewitt, Carson McCusker, CJ Varela, Cade Cabbiness and Alix Garcia decided to return.
Garcia said they have a deep team because of COVID-19.
“We have about four guys at each position,” Garcia said. “I think this will probably be the best year because of how many veterans are on the team.”
The Cowboys return nearly their entire roster, but that is normal for this season. Except for players who were drafted, most teams will return its best players, which makes college baseball talented throughout.
OSU coach Josh Holliday said the talent across college baseball will be a great thing.
“I think anybody could win it,” Holliday said. “When you have a lot of depth, experience and talent, I think it levels the playing field.
The Cowboys are picked fifth in the preseason Big 12 poll, according to Baseball America. If the Cowboys are the fifth best team, the Big 12 alone should be a great conference. Six teams from the conference are ranked in various national polls.
A loaded field of teams will make it tougher for perennial baseball powers such as OSU to win a conference championship and reach the College World Series. Former OSU coach Tom Holliday said college baseball could be more talented than ever.
“Some of the schools have really loaded up,” Tom Holliday said. “ But I think Oklahoma State’s team is loaded.”
The depth this team has will keep it going when players get quarantined for multiple games, but protocols have caused daily operations to not run as smoothly.
Assistant coach Rob Walton said it has become harder to communicate with players because of limited meetings and meeting time.
“Being around them, you’re just trying to be as safe as possible without breaking COVID protocol,” Walton said. “There’s a lot of things we’ve got to navigate and do under the circumstances.”
Depth will be a strength for teams, but it will leave many players sitting on the bench. Crowding in college baseball from this season will likely carry over into future seasons. The classes of 2019 and 2020 will form a super class that could lead to record numbers in transfers, redshirts, decommits and roster cuts.
OSU will have a roster of 46 for the 2021 season, and 20 are freshmen. Highly recruited Nolan McClean is one of those freshmen. Perfect Game ranked McClean as the 65th player in the 2020 class and the highest ranked recruit in OSU’s class.
McClean said Josh Holliday has a tough job ahead making decisions about the roster.
“I’m not sure how all that will go down with the NCAA,” McClean said. “I just try to do what I can to help.”
McClean was a player that would have likely been drafted in a regular year. Instead, he decided to come to OSU to not only play baseball but also quarterback.
After going through his first semester with the football team, McClean has been through constant testing and protocols. He said keeping each other safe will be the most important thing for the baseball team.
“At football, we did a great job not having to cancel because of our side of things, and hopefully baseball is able to do the same thing,” McClean said.
Brett Standlee, another one of the key pieces returning on the pitching staff, has pitched the second most innings behind Parker Scott. Standlee said experience is something that can be seen all across the country this season.
“I think every team is kind of like us,” Standlee said. “We’ve only lost two guys. The senior group stuck together to come back for one more year.”
Even with all the protocols in place, the burden falls on the players to take precautions when they are with friends or even families. They can’t socialize like regular students if they want to stay healthy and on the field.
Standlee said it takes a tremendous amount of responsibility to not put themselves in a position to contract the virus.
“It’s gonna take everybody kind of buckling down and doing what they’re supposed to so we can continue to play,” Standlee said.
The Cowboys have opened O’Brate Stadium this season. The $60 million facility includes a new indoor facility and a weight room behind left field. Capacity is at 3500 with expansion up to 8000, but players will not get to see the stadium at capacity this season because of protocols limiting fans.
McClean said it’s going to be bittersweet playing in O’Brate Stadium this year.
“Obviously it’s gonna be awesome starting off the year in a brand new stadium that’s probably top five in the country, if not the best,” McClean said. “But not letting all the fans be able to enjoy it as much as we have so far is tough.”
With the challenges the 2021 season will present such as keeping players safe from the virus and winning games against what could be the most talent ever, Josh Holliday remains optimistic.
“I think it’s going to create an incredibly competitive season,” Holliday said. “There’s going to be a lot of parity that we haven’t seen typically. I think we’re going to see great baseball from start to finish.”