To sign, or not to sign? That is the question

The decision to sign or continue with school is the most difficult choice a player with college eligibility will have to make in his career. Jeff Ellis takes a look at four players who had to make that decision and what the ramifications of that decision have been on their careers.

For this piece, I am looking at notable players who are eligible for this year’s draft who were previously selected in the draft but didn’t sign. I am looking at where their careers are now and where they potentially could have been had they turned pro earlier.

There are draft-eligible players of note who went later and didn’t sign, but once you exit the pool rounds, a lot of those players are not expected to sign. For instance, I am leaving off Brady Singer, Jonathan Hughes and Nicholas Shumpert, as all are attending the college they were committed to before the draft. Singer and Hughes are going to big-time programs at Florida and Georgia Tech, respectively. Shumpert was always going to a JUCO program, so it is hard to second-guess his choice. He is also going to one of the most well-known JUCO programs in the country.

Before I dive into the look at players who chose to forgo turning pro, I’d like to talk generally about the decision prospects face when deciding between a big bonus and going to college (or returning to college). When it comes to a player being selected in the MLB Draft and offered a sizeable bonus, I almost always advise them to listen to Steve Miller and “take the money and run”. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that getting six-to-seven figures is always fantastic. Secondly, virtually all contracts for college and high school players have clauses that will pay for education, room, and board of a player, typically up to $110-120,000. Consequently, these players can go back to college for basically free at a later point in their lives.

For a player who is a professional, there are no restrictions on access to coaching or how much time they can spend playing. It is now a career and they can focus on it full bore. Lastly, a professional team has a bigger interest in players they draft having long, successful careers. A kid can go to college and, especially with pitchers, get overused because it is what is best for the team that year. A professional team will look out for the player more than any college team because they have a bigger reason to care about that player’s long-term future. 

I will also admit that a good chunk of my best memories of my teens and 20s came from my college years. I can understand why players would want that experience, as well, even though being on a college baseball team doesn’t carry the same cachet as other big college sports. There is an appeal to college and I can’t fault the player who wants that experience.

This is not to say that going the college route never pays out for a player in the long run, but even when it does I don’t know how much it helps the player. For example, if we look at Gerrit Cole, he was offered more than a million by the New York Yankees out of high school. Three years later, he got $8 million as the top pick. Yet, if he had signed out of high school, it could have meant he would have been quicker to the majors and hitting free agency earlier. Even with the $7 million difference, Cole would make that up and more by hitting free agency earlier. So, the best route, at least monetarily, was signing out of high school. I can’t put a dollar value on the life experiences of college, so I do understand why some players have no interest in skipping the college experience.

Now, before I dive into the four players below I have to tell a quick cautionary tale. A few years ago, one of the high school players I was following was considered over the summer and into the start of the spring as a potential first rounder. He had a full scholarship to a major college program. He went undrafted and switched to a community college; never ideal, but it happens. Since then, the player has been passed over in multiple drafts and went from a player with first round buzz to one who might never get a chance. I have to wonder if, on his draft night, he had let it be known that he would sign for $100,000, he might be in the minors somewhere now. Or, if he had gone to that major college program, if he would not be generating some first-round buzz right now leading up to this year’s draft. Even if he had struggled at college, at least he would have a degree waiting at the end. This is my way of saying either take the money, or take the scholarship. Make sure you are getting compensated in some way, just in case things don’t work out.

Kyle Cody, RHP, Kentucky

Previous draft selection: second round, 2015 MLB Draft (returned to college for senior year)

Cody was one of the biggest names in the country leading up to the 2015 MLB draft. He was among the top-10 of players on MLB.com’s draft list when it first went up. He did not make my first top-30 because, at the time, he was more style than substance. It was easy to see why teams liked him as a big 6’5” right-hander with good velocity. He even started off well, then fell off a cliff. He ended up being moved from the Friday starter to the bullpen for two games, then back to the rotation. Despite those struggles, the Twins saw enough upside to take him with the 73rd pick in the 2015 draft. 

Photo by Danny Parker

The value of the slot for that pick was $839,700. Even if we imagine the Twins only offered half of that slot value – which is likely less than what was actually offered – the question becomes will Cody get as much as even half of that slot this year? Did the gamble pay off?

I think the answer is pretty clearly no, as of now. So far, in five starts, Cody is posting the worst numbers of his career. While his strikeout rate is up, so are his hit and walk rates. For a player who has question marks with his command, he needed to show improvement in walks and hits more than strikeouts. Even worse, I have heard literally nothing about him. No one has mentioned him once this year when I talk to people who follow the draft. Cody has a chance to still get six figures, but, as of now, he looks more like a senior sign whose future might be in the bullpen.

Kyle Funkhouser, RHP, Louisville

Previous draft selection: first round (35th overall), 2015 MLB Draft (returned to college for senior year)

Last year, I grouped Cody and Funkhouser together. Both were big right-handers with command issues that I seemed to be significantly lower on than the consensus. If this story seems similar, well, it happens every year. This year, Alec Hansen fits the bill.

Funkhouser had a great sophomore season and then had a pretty up-and-down junior year. At one point, I thought he had a legitimate chance to go number one, after a particularly memorable start against Duke where people were reporting plus command and two plus pitches. This was in April; then he fell apart in May. Funkhouser’s struggles in May made some think he might have an injury issue, but his advisor, Scott Boras, would not let any team see his medicals, which really torpedoed his value. I had him 42nd on my last board and he ended up going 35th to the Dodgers. The slot value for that pick was $1,756,100 and, according to reports, Funkhouser was offered between $1.2-1.5 million to sign. Either of those numbers would have made him one of the 25 highest-paid players in the draft. Funkhouser chose to bet on himself and returned to college for his senior season.

This year, Funkhouser is off to the worst start of his career. He has struggled against every top program he has faced. His walk rate has ballooned to nearly six a game and his homerun rate is up more than four times his career norm. At this rate, Funkhouser has a legitimate chance to have cost himself more than $1 million dollars by going back to school. The free fall is in full effect and I really hope he can rebound and not become another cautionary tale.

Gio Brusa, OF, Pacific

Previous draft selection: 37th round, 2012 MLB draft (went to college); 23rd round, 2015 MLB draft (returned to college for his senior season)

Brusa is a name I have known about dating back to 2012. He was considered a possible first rounder then and was widely considered one of the top 100 players in that draft. He didn’t get the bonus he wanted and ended up falling to the 37th round, where he was taken by the Atlanta Braves. Brusa was a huge signing for Pacific, a guy who was going to put them on the map. He was going to make the program.

http://www.scout.com/mlb/story/1644678-scout-s-2016-mlb-draft-central?s=...

Instead, Brusa struggled there and, after two inconsistent years, was able to put himself back on the map by performing during the Cape Cod League in 2014. He was once again getting first-round talk going into the 2015 draft, especially because of how weak the college outfield crop was. Unfortunately, Brusa struggled with injuries and had another inconsistent year in 2015. The Cardinals drafted him in the 23rd round and, in this case, thanks to the injuries, it made a little more sense for him to go back to college. The problem, though, has been the same one for all of these players. Instead of coming back strong, Brusa is in the midst of the worst year of his career. He has not even been a replacement-level bat on a lower college level.

The plus bat speed is still there, so I think he makes sense as a senior sign who gets in the $50-100,000 range to a team that thinks they can straighten out his natural tools and find a useful player. I am certain, though, that he could have gotten much more than that out of high school. One also has to wonder if, had he chosen a university that has produced a MLB player with a positive WAR since 1992, things might have gone better for Brusa’s development.  

Kep Brown, OF, Spartanburg Methodist

Previous draft selection: 10th round, 2015 MLB Draft (went to junior college)

Brown was a potential first rounder last year and one of the top-40 players on my board at the end of the year. He could have been even higher if he had not gotten hurt early in the season. I bought into the power and athleticism in his frame, even though I knew there were some problems in terms of pitch recognition. He ended up going in the 10th round to the Cardinals. I found this very curious at the time, as teams rarely punt picks in the pool rounds. The 10th round, in particular, is a haven of senior sign picks as teams look to save pool money for earlier picks. I had a hard time imaging that Brown was going to sign for the slot value of pick 310, which was $149,700.

Brown was committed to the University of Miami and went there for a week before transferring to a two-year school, Spartanburg Methodist, to make himself draft-eligible this year. Spartanburg has produced more than a few major leaguers, though the last one was Orlando Hudson in 1997. They have had a few guys jump from their program to bigger programs and be drafted, as well. At Miami, Brown would have been blocked at the corner outfield positions by Willie Abreu and Jacob Heyward. He could have seen some time at DH, however, and that Miami program has produced a lot of talent.

Fangraphs

Thus far this season Brown has lived up to his scouting report. He has 10 homeruns in 30 games and is striking out twice as much as he walks. My problem is I don’t know how to evaluate those numbers relative to the level. He has a teammate who is hitting better than .400 with 15 homeruns. When I Googled the teammate, there were almost no returns. It is not a program that generates a lot of talk. In general, it is hard for a JUCO player to go high, but with Brown, you are betting on the tools we all saw when he was in high school.

Brown wanted to go pro. This is clear and I hope he gets enough money to sign and begin his career. He will be one of the top-75 players in this class for me again, thanks to potential. Yet I can’t help but feel we would be hearing more about Brown had he gone to Miami.


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