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Special Mail Bag: Why a “Projected 1st Rounder” Might Opt to Play College Ball Instead

In typing up my response in the comments, it quickly became over 1,000 words, so I figured I might as well turn it into a de facto 1 question mail bag.

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Question from 92Drummer:

So I’m not a baseball guy. Help me understand why a projected first round draft pick chooses college instead. Is the idea that a year in college will increase the future money well beyond the compensation that is turned down by going straight to the pros ? Seems a big risk - injury, lack-luster performance, etc.

Oh yea - hurray for us! 2 of these in a short timespan? Corbs seems to be sticking it to the transfer portal approach.

My frame of reference is the NBA. If you are a projected first round pick you make it happen, get a big check and then get the minutes you earn. I take it that your MLB draft position does not guarantee a big check or a likely spot in the starting rotation.

Well, 1) College is awesome, 2) Low level minor leagues suck ass, and 3) consult #1. Beyond that, Vanderbilt’s pitching development system (and overall facilities) is stronger than most minor league systems by leaps and bounds. In fact, it has been widely speculated that part of the reason MLB shortened their total draft rounds and put caps on spending (besides saving money, duh) was that, by and large, MLB teams know players who go to college will be better developed and more likely to reach the majors than those who play in the minors right out of HS. There have been studies to back that up, but I’ll let you google that for yourself. Finally, top level athletes can always take out massive insurance policies that pay out if they’re eventually drafted lower than they otherwise would have been in case of injury.

Especially for a kid like The Duke, he’ll be sophomore draft eligible, so if things go well, he’s on the Jack Leiter plan. Dutch/The Duke (haven’t decided yet on the nickname) is currently ranked somewhere around #30 and #35, so that’s 1st or 2nd round. Clearly, by pulling a Leiter/Rocker and withdrawing his name from the draft, this isn’t about money. He quite clearly prefers to go to college and pitch for Vanderbilt over going straight to the minors, and I would say it’s a good decision (yes, even monetarily... but keep reading to see my argument for that). If things go well, he’s a 1st rounder in 2 years and can jump straight to AA like Leiter did.

Oh, and I cannot overstate just how much playing in the low minors sucks ass. You’re riding buses from, like, Salisbury, MD to Zebulon, NC for years.

With respect to your last paragraph:

My frame of reference is the NBA. If you are a projected first round pick you make it happen, get a big check and then get the minutes you earn. I take it that your MLB draft position does not guarantee a big check or a likely spot in the starting rotation.

Well, it guarantees the money in terms of one signing bonus. 1st round signing bonuses last year ranged from Jack Leiter at #2 ($7.922 mil) to Noah Miller at the competitive balance pick #36 ($1.7 mil). Yes, you may be thinking I’m leaving out the #1 pick, but the Pirates went for a relative bargain instead of taking the best player available at pick #1 and signed former Louisville catcher Henry Davis for $6.5 million. There are reasons teams do such a ridiculous strategy—teams get an overall “bonus pool” they can use based on the overall slot values of their picks, so teams may opt for a discount at the top to have more to sign falling blue chippers later in the draft. The reason the Pirates did so, instead of just signing Leiter is 1) They are one of the worst run organizations in professional sports, and make dumb decisions constantly, and 2) Leiter might have preferred to play in a non-horrendously run organization, and Tejas floated his agent a number that was higher than Pittsburgh was willing to pay (all speculation, but this is how the sausage is made in the MLB draft).

Well, technically, it went from $7.922 mil to $0, as MLB teams don’t even have to sign you, or make a reasonable offer, as the Mets decided to screw over Kumar Rocker last year.

Where The Duke is projected to have been drafted, he’s looking at around $1.5 mil. Then, unlike the NBA, where 1st rounders are given 4 year guaranteed contracts, you’re just assigned to a farm club, and are paid pretty much the same weekly wage as everyone else on that farm club (and that weekly wage is only for during the season; you’re not paid during the offseason).

For reference:

Prior to the 2021 season, MLB cut 43 minor-league affiliates and promised better conditions for players as a result. The league raised the minimum weekly salary at rookie and short-season levels from $290 to $400; at Class A, from $290 to $500; at Double A, from $350 to $600; and at Triple A, from $502 to $700.

Then, you battle it out in the minors for however many years it takes to finally be called up to the pros, where you then make the rookie minimum, and have that raised each year due to service time. Then... eventually (usually after 3 full years of playing pro ball) you hit arbitration, and you get that sliding scale largely dependent on your WAR value for a team and past precedent contract arbitration. Then... finally after 6 years of MLB service time (when most players are at or approaching their 30s), you can be a free agent. Some smart teams will sign their players long term before that (especially if they’re obvious stars), but even then, you’re still pretty much negotiating against yourself.

In short, the MLB Draft Bonus is, for the most part, all you’re going to get that’s beyond grad student pay until you reach the big leagues, so it must be substantial enough to, even in purely economic terms, be worth more than the value of your college degree. It should be noted that most economic projections value a college degree at somewhere around $2 million over one’s entire career (of course, that’s reductive, but it is what the economists say). Pretty interesting that this number is pretty close to what the average back 13 of the 1st round MLB signing bonuses are (where The Duke would start popping into the conversation in draft War Rooms).

Now, some high schoolers smartly include clauses in their signing bonus/minor league contracts that if they wash out due to injury or not being good enough (and a surprising number of 1st and 2nd round draft picks never make the majors), the team has to pay for their college education afterwards (normally just a tuition check in the amount of their state university’s in state tuition, but some Vandy HS commits have been able to negotiate closer to the cost of a Vanderbilt degree). In doing so, of course, you can never play college baseball. It’s why you have guys like Brandon Weeden wash out as a baseball player and then go play QB for the Okie Pokes when he was nearly “Mike Gundy shouting about his age and being a man” age, but not be allowed to play for their baseball team.

In comparison, NBA 1st rounders get guaranteed 4 year contracts, and are on the big club immediately (or are sometimes optioned down to the G-League, but that has no impact on their guaranteed money). Here were last year’s guaranteed NBA 1st round pick contracts:

Player 2021/22 2022/23 2023/24 2024/25 Total

Cade Cunningham $10,050,120 $10,552,800 $11,055,360 $13,940,809 $45,599,089

Jalen Green $8,992,080 $9,441,840 $9,891,480 $12,483,048 $40,808,448

Evan Mobley $8,075,160 $8,478,720 $8,882,640 $11,227,657 $36,664,177

Scottie Barnes $7,280,400 $7,644,600 $8,008,680 $10,130,980 $33,064,660

Jalen Suggs $6,592,920 $6,922,320 $7,252,080 $9,188,385 $29,955,705

Josh Giddey $5,988,000 $6,287,400 $6,587,040 $8,352,367 $27,214,807

Jonathan Kuminga $5,466,360 $5,739,840 $6,012,840 $7,636,307 $24,855,347

Franz Wagner $5,007,840 $5,258,280 $5,508,720 $7,007,092 $22,781,932

Davion Mitchell $4,603,200 $4,833,600 $5,063,640 $6,451,077 $20,951,517

Ziaire Williams $4,373,040 $4,591,680 $4,810,200 $6,133,005 $19,907,925

James Bouknight $4,154,400 $4,362,240 $4,570,080 $6,064,496 $19,151,216

Joshua Primo $3,946,800 $4,144,320 $4,341,600 $5,982,725 $18,415,445

Chris Duarte $3,749,400 $3,936,960 $4,124,400 $5,893,768 $17,704,528

Moses Moody $3,562,200 $3,740,160 $3,918,480 $5,803,269 $17,024,109

Corey Kispert $3,383,640 $3,552,840 $3,722,040 $5,705,887 $16,364,407

Alperen Sengun $3,214,680 $3,375,360 $3,536,280 $5,424,654 $15,550,974

Trey Murphy $3,053,760 $3,206,520 $3,359,280 $5,159,854 $14,779,414

Tre Mann $2,901,240 $3,046,200 $3,191,400 $4,908,373 $14,047,213

Kai Jones $2,770,560 $2,909,040 $3,047,880 $4,693,735 $13,421,215

Jalen Johnson $2,659,680 $2,792,640 $2,925,360 $4,510,905 $12,888,585

Keon Johnson $2,553,240 $2,681,040 $2,808,720 $4,474,291 $12,517,291

Isaiah Jackson $2,451,240 $2,573,760 $2,696,280 $4,435,381 $12,156,661

Usman Garuba $2,353,320 $2,471,160 $2,588,400 $4,392,515 $11,805,395

Josh Christopher $2,259,240 $2,372,160 $2,485,200 $4,346,615 $11,463,215

Quentin Grimes $2,168,640 $2,277,000 $2,385,720 $4,296,682 $11,128,042

Bones Hyland $2,096,880 $2,201,520 $2,306,400 $4,158,439 $10,763,239

Cameron Thomas $2,036,280 $2,138,160 $2,240,160 $4,041,249 $10,455,849

Jaden Springer $2,023,680 $2,125,200 $2,226,240 $4,018,363 $10,393,483

Day’Ron Sharpe $2,009,160 $2,109,480 $2,210,040 $3,989,122 $10,317,802

Santi Aldama $1,994,520 $2,094,120 $2,194,200 $3,960,531 $10,243,371

Pretty striking difference, no? It’s less apples to apples and more Faberge Eggs to apples, no? Hopefully that puts the false analogy (I’m not accusing you of making it intentionally, of course) of NBA 1st round contracts and MLB 1st round signing bonuses to bed.

I hope this helps.

Oh, and good luck putting a value on the camaraderie and overall joy of playing championship level college baseball for Corbs. Though, in purely economical terms, that’s likely the difference in what you would be paying to attend Vandy over a state school. Of course, that 11.7, Opportunity Vanderbilt, and NIL era conversation is enough for eleventy billion articles on their own, so I’ll stop here.

*Of course, kids like The Duke could start negotiating NIL deals right now and possibly end relatively close to being just as well-off, bottom-line wise, as if they signed the MLB deal.