When Sean Fisher took the mound for the first time in a Frederick Keys uniform, he knew he was auditioning for his baseball future. And he knew he wasn’t alone.
The left-handed sidearm pitcher from Parsonsburg, Md., had just finished his senior season at the University of Maryland before joining the Keys as part of the newly-formed MLB Draft League. Fisher is just one of hundreds of players trying to stand out in this league and thousands vying to make an impression on pro scouts before the MLB Draft, which runs from July 11-13.
The MLB Draft, the most expansive in major American sports, had lasted 40 rounds since 2012 and 50 rounds before that. But it was shortened to just five rounds in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s only 20 rounds this year. Fisher entered last spring with legitimate draft hopes — he had pitched well in the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2019 and started the 2020 season strong at Maryland. A year later, though, he knows he faces an uphill battle.
Maryland, which went 30-18 in 2021 and fell just short of a Super Regionals appearance, has its fair share of draft prospects. Power right-hander Sean Burke could come off the board in the first couple rounds and earned an invite to the MLB Draft Combine in June. First baseman/outfielder Maxwell Costes, shortstop Benjamin Cowles and outfielder Randy Bednar are among other Terrapin hopefuls training in their own ways. Bednar was initially slated to play for the Keys as well, but only Fisher ultimately donned the uniform.
The Draft League, at least in this larval form, isn’t exactly a showcase for top prospects. It runs from late May through mid-August, which means the first half of the season conflicts with the college baseball postseason and most of the second half falls after the draft itself. Players come in as their college seasons end and often leave when they feel they’ve proved what they can — Fisher, for instance, won’t return to the Keys after the draft. But for him and so many others, this league represents a chance to keep chasing a dream.
“I wanted to give myself a shot,” Fisher said. “I’ve put all these hours in over the years. I would hate myself if I didn’t give myself every chance that I could.”
The Draft League was formed in late 2020 after Major League Baseball contracted the minor leagues, eliminating more than 40 affiliated clubs. The Keys, who had been part of the Baltimore Orioles organization since 1989, lost their affiliation in the process, but were one of six franchises to remain intact as part of the Draft League. The 68-game season started on May 24 and will conclude Aug. 13, with a six-day break from July 9-14 coinciding with the draft.
Eddie McCabe knew he wanted to be part of this league as soon as he heard about it. The versatile infielder from Georgetown would be two years removed from his stellar 2019 season, in which he hit .345 in 56 games for the Hoyas, by the time the 2021 draft came around. He signed a contract in the fall even though he wouldn’t know his team assignment until the spring.
“Anything affiliated with MLB, you’re always trying to get your foot in the door, and knowing that there would be scouts here and knowing that you’d be playing against some of the best kids in the country, it was something that I felt would be beneficial,” McCabe said. “And I think that most of the guys in this league would say the same thing, especially for guys kind of like me who have had some success in the past. … We kind of saw this as another opportunity to kind of showcase ourselves and show that we may have been skipped over last year, but that we’re still here and we still want a chance.”
While it hasn’t been a hub for top prospects, the Draft League has brought in players at all different stages of their baseball careers. There are plenty of seniors for whom this is a last chance, but there’s also a host of junior college prospects who could play collegiately next season, or even high schoolers trying to boost their stock. Priority is given to “full-contract” players, so Fisher got to choose when he joined the club, while some are rostered on a more temporary basis.
The 68-game season, while far shorter than a normal minor-league schedule, is much more condensed than a college slate and longer than a summer on Cape Cod. It’s a grind, with long bus rides and lengthy road trips, and the players aren’t paid. It functions as a middle ground between collegiate summer ball and the affiliated minor leagues, with the urgency of the draft layered on top.
It’s also a different ballgame for the managers, most of whom are former major-league players. Keys manager Derrick May, who spent 10 seasons in MLB with six teams and had coached in the Cardinals and Rockies organizations since 2005, points out that player development and exposure take priority over the standings, even if everyone is still trying to win.
“It’s a development league, so the difference is we’re trying to get guys to get their innings in [and] get their at-bats,” May said. “I’m not a guy here that’s going to pinch-hit for anybody or is going to not play somebody for whatever reason. It doesn’t matter whether we win or lose in that regard, because that’s not what we’re here for.”
Fisher only threw 9.1 innings in six appearances for the Keys, posting a 4.82 ERA with 10 strikeouts against six walks. As of July 8, McCabe is hitting just .167 but getting on base at a sturdy .354 clip. Frederick’s brightest stars have been Ohio State shortstop Zach Dezenzo, who hit .339/.393/.732 with six home runs and 17 RBIs in 14 games, and JuCo left-handed pitcher Ronan Kopp, who’s posted a 1.46 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 24.2 innings.
It’s unclear how many of these players actually get selected in the 20-round draft, or how many will be able to sign as undrafted free agents with fewer minor-league spots available. There’s uncertainty about which types of players will be prioritized in this draft and which players will be squeezed out of a pro career. And the players know the answers are out of their control.
“Baseball’s always been a game of, ‘What can you do for me now,'” Fisher said. “I think kids with average years could get left out [of the draft] even though they’re talented and have done well in the past. … It’s just different. I don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
No matter what happens to the sidearm lefty or the super-utility man in the coming days, the Draft League has given most of its participants what they’d hoped for. They’ve played in front of minor-league atmospheres with scouts paying attention and teammates who have their back. There’s an “unspoken support” among the players, McCabe said, because everyone is vying for the same goal. And with the draft closing in, everyone shares the same nervous excitement.
“I’ve kind of been saying to a bunch of people that it’s almost like that feeling of when you’re a young kid and you’re going Disney World or a vacation the next day, and you know you can’t do anything because you’re so excited, you can’t sleep because you’re so excited and you know that this thing that you’ve been dreaming about for your entire life is so close,” McCabe said. “And that’s kind of the way that the vibe in the clubhouse has been for the past week or so — everyone can kind of smell it, they can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Photo Credit: Liam Kissinger/Frederick Keys CS Manager