John Hudgins: At Home on the Rangers

Tonight might be the last Stanford appearance for Cardinal righthander John Hudgins, as he takes the mound to open the Super Regionals. The host Card have to take two of three to advance to the College World Series, or see their season end. Moreover Hudgins was drafted highly this week by the Texas Rangers and has given a lot of thought to taking his shot now. Read on for his careful analysis of his situation and prognosis with the pros.

There is precedent for Stanford baseball players to be drafted before their eligibility is spent, and be offered good money, yet return to The Farm for an additional season.  The two most notable and recent such examples would be Jeremy Guthrie and Tim Cunningham.  Both are pitchers who felt they could earn better draft positions and money by returning a year.  Guthrie was taken in the 3rd round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft in 2001 by the Pittsburgh Pirates, but was one of just seven players taken in the first 100 selections not to sign.  Cunningham was taken in the 23rd round of the 2002 draft by returned for this his senior season rather than signing.

It is in the context of these examples that we turn our attention to Stanford junior John Hudgins, who Tuesday was taken in the 3rd round (#76 overall) by the Texas Rangers.  A question immediately asked by Cardinalmaniacs is whether their ace pitcher might make a decision like Guthrie and Cunningham, to come back for another year and improve his draft position and possibly signing money.

Guthrie elevated his pick from the 3rd round to the 1st, and unquestionably bettered himself financially.  The average signing bonus for 3rd round picks in 2001 was $426K, but Guthrie earned a whopping $3M bonus when he was taken a year later.  Cunningham undoubtedly elevated his upcoming pay day with a dramatic jump from the 23rd round to the 9th round.

Or did he?  Hudgins has been exploring these questions for quite some time as he anticipated his call in the 2003 draft, given that the junior could be inspired with similar ambition for a run at a higher 2004 selection.  The Stanford economics major has in fact done an extensive regression analysis on draft data from the last five years as part of an open-ended project for one of his economics classes.  He was kind enough to share some data and conclusions that help provide context for his upcoming decision, and that of other Stanford junior draftees.

College seniors command much less bonus money than do college juniors.  This is due to the fact that a major league baseball team knows that the college senior has very few options for the upcoming year besides playing professional baseball.  A college junior, on the other hand, has the leverage available to him to demand a higher signing bonus, because he can always go back to school for another year.  However, this player will most likely face a significant drop off in bonus money if drafted in the same spot the next year.  Last year, college seniors were paid an average of 123% less money than what their order in the draft paid out to college juniors.   Thus, when deciding whether or not to sign, a college junior must take into account that if his draft status does not significantly improve, his signing bonus will be more than halved in the following draft.  For a player that has dedicated himself to playing in the major leagues one day, this lack of cash can be a serious hindrance to his prospects of making it through the minor leagues.  Players in the minor leagues that have to work several jobs in order to make ends meet cannot possibly focus the amount of attention on baseball that they need in order to be successful – especially during the off-season.

Hudgins has also found that Stanford juniors earn 21% more than their draft position would indicated. Recognizing precisely the leverage he enjoys this year, the Cardinal junior has properly prepared himself to strike while the iron is hot.  To do so, he has engaged in an aggressive academic plan while at Stanford that has him ready to graduate after just three years with his economics degree.  He also understands that his leverage as a Stanford junior will allow him to achieve a signing bonus that reaches beyond what his draft selection alone might indicate.  He could climb up the draft charts as a senior, but with far less leverage fail to see an increase for his payday.

That didn't change the fact that the Mission Viejo (CA) man had a colony of butterflies in his stomach on Tuesday, when he would discover his draft prognosis.  Would he go in the top few rounds, high enough to merit the jump after this junior year?  Or would various concerns, perhaps some unknown even to him, of MLB clubs push him down and leave him hungry for a revenge senior season?  "The morning during the selection process, I was really nervous," Hudgins admits.  "I had told myself that whatever happened, it was in God's hands and that He would see to it that the right thing happened.  Still, as soon as my name was called, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.  I guess you could say that I'm extremely happy with how it went."

Happy on several fronts with the Texas Rangers, who he says were among his select list of top five clubs to which he wanted to go.  "I feel that they are really going to value me as a player," the Stanford junior begins.  "I also feel like there is a lot of opportunity for me within the organization, especially when you consider the fact that they are one of the best hitting teams in the Major Leagues, while at the same time have one of the weakest pitching staffs.  All they really need is a couple of quality arms to make them a World Series contender.  I think that their draft this year really reflected that.  They are looking for pitching help, and soon.  They took a talented lefthanded pitcher in the first round, Cal State Fullerton ace Wes Littleton in the fourth round, a good college pitcher in the fifth round, a good friend of mine named Matt Farnum (pitcher for Texas A&M) in the seventh round, and Tim Cunningham in the ninth round.  I'm really looking forward to the prospect of possibly spending the summer in an apartment with Tim, Matt, and Wes, just playing ball every day in Spokane, Washington (which, incidentally, is where we'll probably all end up this summer if we all sign).  I hear that the Rangers' Washington facility is very nice, and that it draws 5,000 fans a night."

On top of that, Hudgins' mother's family is entirely located in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, which could make for a very attractive environment if and when he makes it all the way to the Ballpark in Arlington.  The Rangers' representative who has been talking with Hudgins and will be responsible for signing the Stanford ace, Tim Fortugno, played in the Majors and that empathetic context helps put Hudgins at ease.  "He's really been a great guy to talk to, especially since he has been in my shoes before and understands what I'm going through," the Texas target opines.  "Everything just seems to be lining up.  So, basically, when you combine all of this with the fact that I've finished all of the units that I need to graduate, I believe that I'm going to have to tell everyone at Stanford goodbye next year.  It has been a wonderful experience, but I believe that it's time for me to move on."

The Rangers have just a few months to sign the 6'2" Stanford righthander, though.  If they cannot come to terms before he starts classes in September, he would reenter the draft and be fair game to all clubs in the 2004 June draft.  However, it seems unlikely it will come to that, given Hudgins' willingness to sign and the Rangers' early enthusiasm toward handing him a fair and attractive contract.

Hudgins has gone 20-4 as a starter the last two seasons and has already earned All-American honors this season, as well as Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year.  His 3.33 ERA leads the Stanford team, and he leads the entire conference in strikeouts (122), innings pitched (132.1), and complete games (6).  He'll take the mound tonight in the all-important first game of the three-game NCAA Super Regional series against Long Beach State.  First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm, and you can follow all the action on KZSU 90.1 FM locally.  If you are outside the broadcast area, just turn your browser to http://kzsulive.stanford.edu/

In other draft scuttlebutt:

  • Junior Brian Hall has to be the crushing disappointment of the draft, having done the work like Hudgins to be finished with school in three years so that he could be prepared to make the leap.  But signability concerns are huge for Stanford juniors, and in his case he just continued to drop until a point was reached where Major League clubs figured he would be too difficult to nab.  Look for the snubbed Hall to come back in 2004 with a vengeance much like Ryan Garko did this year.  Garko went undrafted as a junior against all expectations, but has come back for an incredible All-American senior season as arguably the best catcher in all of college baseball.  Garko was taken in the 3rd round by the Cleveland Indians.
  • Junior Sam Fuld also slipped mightily, though the Chicago Cubs did take a stab at him in the 24th round Wednesday.  The Cubs are thought to make a strong run at him and offer 5th or 6th round money, which in 2002 averaged between $100K to $200K.  But Fuld arguably enjoyed his most disappointing season at Stanford this year, after being named an All-American in both his first two seasons.  He could come back next year and break all kinds of Stanford and Pac-10 career records and be a dominating force for the Cardinal at the plate and in center field.  Furthermore Fuld is not in a position to graduate right now like Hudgins or Hall.  We'll have to see just how deep into their pockets the Cubs will reach, but there are a lot of reasons for Fuld to come back for a senior 2004.
  • The only Stanford senior to not be drafted was Tobin Swope, which was a great disappointment to the entire team.  He has been a model of team ethic and hard work to lead to his inspiring senior season.  Undoubtedly his problems at the plate, hitting .282 with one HR and 29 RBI in 59 games, were a concern and kept him out of the 50 rounds of this week's draft.  But it is believed that he will get a chance as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox, where former Stanford pitcher J.D. Wilcox is today.  Wilcox has indicated the Sox will probably give Swope a shot.  

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