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Florida is losing a lot of talent to the 2019 MLB Draft — and may still consider it a win

Could the Gators be better in 2020 even after losing their best two hitters and top two signees?

Baseball: 2018 Perfect Game All-American Classic Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the 2019 MLB Draft, it seemed almost assured that the Florida Gators would sustain major losses, both from their 2019 roster and a 2019 recruiting class that ranked among the nation’s best — if not the nation’s best.

But the draft’s first two days and first 10 rounds have come and gone, and it seems at the moment like the Gators will emerge from the draft with more of that signing class intact than anticipated, and with hope of an outright win.

To put the most important news first: Florida is not going to see signee Riley Greene, the No. 5 pick of the Detroit Tigers, suiting up in (Florida) orange and blue, nor will it get Brady McConnell, a second-rounder headed to the Kansas City Royals, to return for a junior year.

Greene, who hails from Oviedo’s Hagerty High — which you may recall as Jeff Driskel’s alma mater — and was seen by many as the best prep bat in the draft, was assured of a contract worth around or in excess of his slot value of just over $6 million, and would most likely not have been drafted in the top five if the Tigers had any doubts about signing him to such a deal. So his inking of such a deal before the draft’s formal conclusion is no shocker.

For players like Greene, committing to a college is basically telling MLB teams of your backup plan should you not sign a professional contract; for Florida, getting a commitment from Greene is useful as a reflection of the program’s stature. But no one seriously expected Greene to play collegiate baseball, much like a few other first-rounders who were also Florida signees of recent vintage, and so his signing is hardly a loss for Florida.

McConnell going pro is a significant loss for the Gators, as he was unquestionably Florida’s best and most consistent contributor in 2019, but it’s also hardly a surprise. McConnell was seen as a potential first-rounder in 2017, but when the Merritt Island prospect slid to the 33rd round of that draft, he instead headed to Gainesville, knowing that he would be eligible for the draft again in just two years rather than the customary three based on already being 19.

As one of the youngest 21-year-olds in this year’s draft and a player who recovered from an injury-plagued freshman year to rap out a .332 average and hit 15 homers as a sophomore, McConnell was again a hot prospect with first-round aspirations this year, and got nabbed by a Royals organization that is seemingly very Gator-friendly, as Kansas City drafted Florida rotation mates Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar in 2018. It is highly unlikely that McConnell will return to Florida for his junior year, with his signing of a pro contract considered a formality.

But for Florida signee and Seminole High pitcher Matthew Allan, one of the best prep arms in this draft, there’s still some reason to doubt that he’ll head immediately to the pros. Allan, projected as a mid- to late-first-rounder by most mock drafts, instead slipped entirely out of the first round on Monday, with concerns about his asking price leading at least the Chicago Cubs to pass on him, per a report.

Allan then slid beyond the second round as well, and entered Tuesday and the third round knowing that his asking price would dwarf the slot values of under $1 million available in the third round and beyond. That made Allan getting drafted until the very late rounds — when teams are largely taking flyers instead of trying to add players eager to sign and managing their bonus pools — somewhat unlikely.

But the Mets took a chance on Allan late in the third round, and now will try to leverage their confidence in signing Allan into a creative plan for underpaying his fellow draftees before the August 15 deadline when they lose the right to negotiate with him. Allan has been variously reported to be seeking $3 or $4 million to sign a professional contract, and that number could eat up much of the Mets’ $8.2 million bonus pool or prove too difficult to provide, especially given that the Mets’ top two picks are due about $5.8 million in combined slot value.

The Mets loaded up on college seniors — players with very little leverage to negotiate, as they are in their final year of draft eligibility — after Allan, though, and could lowball those players and the picks that came before Allan in an effort to scrounge up the money to get Allan in the fold, because baseball’s cutthroat capitalism is fun. And while the Mets’ plan could work, and some baseball analysts seem to think it will, it’s also possible that it will backfire spectacularly, and end up sending Allan to play for a better team in orange and blue than the one that picked him on Tuesday.

That possibility of Allan making it to campus alone, though, is better than what Florida expected from this draft — and then there’s the other projected first-rounder who didn’t go when anticipated, and has already announced his plan to be a Gator.

Bolles School ace Hunter Barco, who had fringe first-round potential, has yet to be drafted as of Wednesday afternoon, and is now well beyond where any team would draft and attempt to sign him. So Barco tweeted on Tuesday that he is Gainesville-bound, giving Florida assurance from one of its top three signees that he will follow through on becoming a Gator.

Barco is a 6’4” lefty with good movement and a reputation as a good athlete — he also played first base for Bolles and could see time in the lineup as a Gator — and projects as a possible ace for Florida going forward. On talent alone, he could also force his way into the Gators’ 2020 rotation, as Friday and Saturday starters Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich spent much of this season not impressing, and the Sunday starter spot is wide open after the drafting of Tyler Dyson by the Washington Nationals in the fifth round.

Dyson will very likely go pro from that slot, and that decision may be best for both him and Florida: His sophomore and junior years never quite lived up to the promise of his freshman season’s final few outings, including allowing one run in six innings and getting the win in the Gators’ national championship clincher against LSU, and he could use a fresh start in pro ball after nearly two years of uneven work. Dyson started 2018 strongly, but finished it with a 4.47 ERA, and then allowed multiple runs in all but four of his 11 appearances in a 2019 campaign which was abbreviated by injury. When Dyson struck out two in Florida’s season-ending loss to Dallas Baptist, he was making his first appearance in nearly two months.

Still, Dyson being slotted to receive more than a quarter of a million dollars on the basis of potential and/or about a month of stellar play two years ago is testament to Kevin O’Sullivan’s eye for and grooming of young pitchers. And Wil Dalton parlaying his two seasons and 27 homers in Gainesville into an eighth-round pick by the Boston Red Sox is a sign that junior college players who come to Florida can carve out substantial roles for themselves despite the Gators’ formidable recruiting of the prep ranks.

And the rest of this MLB Draft is unlikely to meaningfully shorten Florida’s roster or recruiting class. The Gators’ only other significant draft-eligible players are Austin Langworthy and Kirby McMullen, are each likely to pass up meager bonuses to play as seniors, and it would be foolish for any other prep players to go pro for the peanuts that will be on offer for late-round signees, even if it sounds like the Texas Rangers may make a run at ponying up to sign Brandon Sproat, a righty from Pensacola’s Monsignor Pace.

For Florida to be a College World Series favorite in 2020, O’Sullivan may need to pick up a JUCO stud or two, get substantial improvement from his returning pitchers, or hope that the Mets bungle Allan’s signing. But Florida — despite assuredly losing its top signee, its two best bats, and a weekend starter to the pros, along with the likelihood of losing its top pitching signee — is already in better shape entering 2020 than it was on Monday, thanks to Barco’s slide and pledge.

And the last time Florida ended a year outside of Omaha, as it did this spring, the Gators ended the next season just three wins away from a national title.