Baseball dreams on hold?

Delran’s R.J. Moten is one of NJ’s top prospects, but the pandemic has forced MLB to drastically shorten next week’s draft, decreasing his chances of selection.

Delran High School senior R.J. Moten could have a memorable June: he’s graduating this month and has a chance to be selected in the MLB Draft next week. But has this year’s suddenly scaled down draft hurt his chances to get selected? (RYAN LAWRENCE/The Sun)

A year ago, 1,217 amateur baseball players were selected by one of 30 teams in Major League Baseball’s annual draft. The three-day, 40-round draft brought joy to thousands of homes of top high school and college players across the country.

In a cost-cutting move as the sport deals with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 draft, scheduled for June 10 and 11, will be markedly shorter. It will be five rounds. A total of 160 players will be selected.

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Needless to say, there won’t be as many draft parties for hopeful prospects.

“The perfect word,” said Delran High School baseball coach Jim Goodwin, “is disappointment.”

It’s a word that perfectly summarizes a lot of things this spring, including the fact that it’s June and there hasn’t been any baseball anywhere in the United States. But Goodwin was referring to the prospect of one of his own players realizing a dream. R.J. Moten, a right-handed hitting outfielder and arguably the most gifted two-sport athlete in South Jersey, would have been a lock to get selected in a normal, 40-round draft.

But with 35-fewer rounds, and a commitment to play both baseball and football at the University of Michigan, Moten could very well get passed over as teams deliberate how to use the five or six picks at their disposal.

“I know as a coach my heart breaks for him,” Goodwin said. “It’s something special to have major league scouts come to Delran High School. It’s something that just doesn’t happen very often. And he had really earned it and had been getting some traction going with the draft.”

Goodwin estimated scouts from 10 to 12 teams have reached out to him about Moten since last season. Moten, who held private workouts for more than a handful of teams this winter, didn’t seem too concerned with the new, heavily-scaled back format.

“I still have high hopes, honestly,” Moten said. “But, I mean, with everything going on, if I don’t, I don’t. I’m still playing in college.”

Simple math would suggest that, with few players eligible to get drafted, Moten has a significantly smaller chance. 

“A lot of people have said I’m good enough to go in the top five (rounds), but I’m also going up against college athletes and the top prospects that are just strictly playing baseball, (players that) eat, sleep, and breathe it,” he said. “Yeah, I’m still hoping to get drafted, but if it doesn’t come out, it’s a big deal, but not that big of a deal if I don’t get drafted.”

Moten, the son of former Eagles linebacker Ron Moten, is on tap to work as a safety at Michigan this fall. Last spring, Moren was a center fielder and pitcher for Delran. Moving forward, he profiles as an offensive player with a unique power-speed combination. (RYAN LAWRENCE/The Sun)

With this year’s format, amateur players that go undrafted can sign with any team for $20,000 after the draft. But that won’t apply to Moten, since he has a full athletic scholarship to Michigan. If he’s not selected in the five-round draft, Moten will enroll at Michigan, continue to play both sports, and build his resume for each entering 2023, when he would be eligible for both the MLB and NFL drafts.

But had life gone as scheduled this spring, with a full season of high school baseball to play and games for scouts to watch, there’s a strong likelihood Moten would have had to make a tough decision this summer: begin playing professional baseball or honor his commitment to Michigan. If Moten was, for instance, selected in the seventh round this year he could have commanded a handsome signing bonus: the slot values for seventh round picks in last year’s draft were between $188,000 to $235,000.

One high-ranking baseball official, with knowledge of the draft and the scouting community, thought that Moten had a chance to go in the “single-digit” rounds (read: anywhere below the 10th round) due to his athletic profile. But there’s no question Moten has been hurt by the pandemic and the inability to show off his skills in game situations, which was even more crucial for him since he was preparing for or playing football while other draft prospects were playing baseball late last summer and in the fall.

“This spring was huge for him even more so because he wasn’t a mainstay on the travel ball or AAU circuit that goes year-round,” Goodwin said. “He wasn’t involved in that because he’s playing multiple sports. So this spring was his chance to really show. 

Scouts were going to be coming focused on him and seeing where he’s at because they didn’t have as much visual on him. The one scout told me that he had heard about the kid but (had) never really seen him play, so that’s why we had a private workout. But then he said after that he 100 percent was going to be back because he needed to see him play in an actual game.”

R.J. Moten, who is committed to play baseball at football at the University of Michigan, would have been a shoo-in to get drafted in next week’s MLB Draft if it hadn’t been scaled down to just five rounds as the league tries to cut its losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. (RYAN LAWRENCE/The Sun)

Moten, the son of former Eagles linebacker Ron Moten, is on tap to work as a safety at Michigan this fall. Last spring, Moren was a center fielder and pitcher for Delran. Moving forward, he profiles as an offensive player with a unique power-speed combination.

Goodwin said one scout likened Moten to Milwaukee Brewers All-Star outfielder Lorenzo Cain, since Cain had a similar build and skill-set, and wasn’t drafted until the 17th round of the 2004 draft because he was a multi-sport athlete who didn’t begin playing baseball until high school.

Cain was the 496th among the 1,498 players drafted in the then 50-round draft in ‘04. Among that draft class, only three players (Justin Verlander, Dustin Pedroia and Ben Zobrist) have a higher career WAR.

Although baseball scouts have their jobs for a reason, it’s still pretty difficult to project just how good the now 18-year-old Moten will be as a baseball player at age 24. So while getting drafted in any round would be a blessing, maybe this year’s abbreviated format is also a blessing in disguise, letting Moten to continue to develop in both sports before he has to make a decision on playing one or the other beyond college, if the opportunity is there.

“I want to do both, to be honest with you,” the confident Moten said without hesitation when asked which sport he’d be playing in five years.

Until the day arrives when he might have to decide, Moten will keep his options open.

“I think he’s spectacular in both and I think he could have a career in both,” Goodwin said. “I don’t know as much about the football development side, but, with baseball, his ceiling is very, very high. He has no idea how good of a baseball player he can be if he put full-time effort into it.”

One high ranking baseball official with knowledge of the draft and scouting community guessed that Moten would go in the first 10 rounds of a normal draft. This year’s draft is only five rounds as teams attempt to save money lost during the pandemic. (RYAN LAWRENCE/The Sun)
Ryan is a veteran journalist of 20 years. He’s worked at the Courier-Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Delaware County Daily Times, primarily as a sportswriter, and is currently a sports editor at Newspaper Media Group and an adjunct journalism instructor at Rowan University.
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