A few weeks ago Jack Leftwich was back in Gainesville and found himself walking around the almost finished, brand new, Florida ballpark. It was before the 2020 MLB Draft and Leftwich was undecided on what his future would hold, but he couldn’t help himself from daydreaming a little bit walking around the new ballpark.
“I was thinking, dang, maybe I can come back and watch some of the games. That would be pretty cool. I was back in Gainesville a couple of weeks ago and at that point I was still 50-50 on what I was going to do,” Leftwich told Gator Country in an exclusive interview. “I walked through the new stadium and thought, man this would be pretty cool. I was talking with Sully and all that and he was saying the stadium is unreal, so much better than what he expected. I was fired up to get the chance to play there.”
Still, coming back in 2021 was never the plan for Leftwich, like many players that make it to a program as prestigious as Florida, they have greater aspirations of playing professional baseball. That plan usually calls for three years at a school before you’re able to entre the MLB Draft. When you’re drafted as a junior in college you have the advantage in negotiations because you can return to school. That helps the player get the most out of their first contract. When a college senior is drafted, there is no such bargaining chip and they’re left to take whatever they were offered. Take SEC Player of the Year Jake Mangum. The Mississippi State center fielder chose to go back to school for his senior year and when the Mets drafted him 118th overall his slot value there was $487,900 signing bonus. As a senior with no other options, Mangum was left to sign what the Mets offered, a $20,000 signing bonus. That should make it clear why most players, when possible, leave Division I baseball after their junior seasons.
Leftwich’s sophomore season left much to be desired. A blister greatly affected him throughout the first two months of the season, and a badly sprained ankle didn’t make things any better. He finished the season with a 5.31 ERA and a 6-5 record. He was better after sitting out a month to let his blister heal fully. Leftwich finished 2019 with a 1.77 ERA over his final three starts and was named to the NCAA Lubbock All-Regional Team after tossing seven innings against Army with just one hit allowed (a solo home run) and seven strikeouts.
With the goal of getting drafted after the 2020 season, Leftwich knew he would need a good junior campaign. He started off well, throwing six scoreless innings in his first start. He allowed just one run on four hits in a no-decision the following weekend at Miami and took a perfect game into the seventh inning against South Florida.
Then the season was cancelled. There would be no more games for Leftwich to prove himself but he still was holding out hope.
“I thought things would clear up and that scouts would be able to come and see me throw,” Leftwich told Gator Country. “So I was throwing, getting data, stuff like that, staying in shape in case we could have workouts or anything like that. Once it kept going on and nobody was able to come out I knew the draft was going to be based on last year and what we did this year.”
With that in mind he did the only thing he could do, he stayed in shape by throwing bullpens and working out. As the draft drew closer he started to think of what it would mean for him.
The NCAA ruled that spring sport athletes who had their seasons cancelled would be granted another year of eligibility. That meant if Leftwich chose to go back to Florida he would still be a junior in the eyes of the NCAA, meaning he would have that coveted bargaining chip when it came to the 2021 draft. Not only that, he would have the opportunity to earn a degree from the University of Florida, something a lot of baseball players in his position don’t do for years. Matt den Dekker just returned to school more than a decade after he left to play baseball professionally and finished his degree in the spring.
“When you go to a big baseball school like Florida you can stay for four years and graduate, make your money by getting drafted, this is like a once in a lifetime opportunity where I can get my degree and still get drafted in a good spot like I’m a junior,” he said “It’s pretty hard to pass that up.”
So the draft came and Leftwich came up with a number in his head that he would sign for, a number that would make passing up the previously listed advantage of returning. As the draft continued on and on he realized that wasn’t going to happen, but he was at peace with it all.
Make no mistake about it. Leftwich was contacted and there was interest in drafting him. The fact that he wasn’t drafted in the 2020 MLB Draft has nothing to do with skill or him as a player, just that the numbers weren’t going to work out and teams didn’t want to waste a pick on a player they wouldn’t be able to sign.
“I knew I could have gotten drafted but it was all based off of where I feel my value is. I take a lot of pride in coming back and doing my thing. I wasn’t just going to sign and settle for anything. I was super happy with coming back to Florida. At the beginning I really wanted to go pro but after I started thinking about everything it made sense to come back.”
When Tommy Mace also announced that he would return to Florida in 2021 it brought the two pitchers, who were once roommates, back together in Gainesville again. The Gators will be loaded in 2021. The consensus No. 1 overall team when the 2020 season was cancelled will return most of the roster, while bringing in one of the best recruiting classes in the country.
This year hasn’t been at all what Leftwich expected but this is one hell of a consolation prize.