Among the comments Kiley McDaniel and I received from people in baseball regarding the updated draft board we published last week is that Oklahoma quarterback and center fielder Kyler Murray should have probably been on it. Evaluators see him as a crude but gifted speedster with good pop for his size who possesses more projection than most because of his athleticism. Murray is performing this year (.290/.390/.520 at publication) on the baseball field despite little prior in-game experience.
While I’ll consider his merits as an athlete more fully in a moment, it seems important to briefly recount Murray’s somewhat circuitous path to the present. A superstar high-school quarterback, Murray was expected to replace Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M as soon as he reached campus. At the same time, though, he was also a first-round shortstop prospect. He removed himself from MLB draft consideration by refusing to do some of the mandatory paperwork and testing for eligibility. He went to A&M, split QB reps there with Kyle Allen as a freshman, then transferred to Oklahoma, where sat out a year due to NCAA transfer rules. In 2017, he held a clipboard behind Heisman winner Baker Mayfield.
All the while, Murray barely played baseball (although he did spend last summer on the Cape). Now, he’s Oklahoma’s starting center fielder and also locked in another quarterback competition as a redshirt sophomore, juggling both sports at the same time.
Discussions about Murray invariably lead to which of those sport he should play professionally — and, as part of that, which path might be more lucrative for him. Because Murray is available for the MLB draft this June but not for the NFL’s own draft until next year, baseball has the opportunity to present its case first.
The size of his signing bonus obviously isn’t the only factor Murray is likely to consider. The prospect of a full year as a starter at a big football school — with the possibility of making a run at a Heisman — is probably appealing to him. The reality of football’s health risks — which, for a 5-foot-11 quarterback, might be even riskier — are also likely present.
That said, we can at least try to see if a clearly superior financial path lies ahead for Murray as he comes to a fork in the road this June. To do this, we have to know some things about each sport’s draft and then get some idea of where Murray might be drafted and how he would be compensated in each case.
And so, a crash course on the rookie compensation structure for each sport. I’m leaving out some details for the sake of brevity — for more exhaustive explanations of both (which I recommend), you should read this and this — but the following should be sufficient for our purposes, I think.
For the uninitiated (welcome to FanGraphs, Sooner football fans), each pick in baseball’s draft has an assigned bonus value and the combined bonus values of all a team’s picks comprise their allotted “bonus pool,” which they can fluidly allocate throughout their draft choices. So, an individual player’s bonus can deviate from the slot’s suggested amount, but a team’s draft class as a whole needs to fit within their allotted pool (there’s technically a small cushion for overage) or else they incur drastic penalties.
The NFL’s latest CBA implemented a hard-slotting system that essentially pre-determines the value of each player’s deal when he is drafted. Agents negotiate benefits on the margins in the form of offset language and other protections for their clients, but the most significant parts of the deal — the bonus amount and annual salary value of each rookie’s four-year contract (first-round picks also have a fifth-year team option) — are hard-slotted.
I’ve spoken with various amateur scouting personnel about where they think Murray falls in the talent continuum of this year’s MLB draft. Enthusiasts say anywhere in the late first round and comp round (which is probably influenced by knowledge that the comp round teams have those extra picks and a bonus pool that is more likely to provide room for Murray), while the low end is in the rounds three and four range. Teams fear it would take about $5 million to really convince Murray to just play baseball but would (on the high end) offer anywhere between $2-2.5 million to get him to do it.
It would also need to be a good fit. A team that selects Murray would have to like him as a prospect, have sufficient pool space to allocate a chunk of it to him, and perhaps allows Murray to play football in the fall. I think it’s reasonable that Murray could be drafted anywhere between the late first and early second rounds purely on talent — a range that realistically starts with Cleveland at No. 29 (Murray is young for a college prospect and Cleveland has several other picks) and ends somewhere around Pittsburgh’s second-rounder (they also have multiple picks) — and find an enthused suitor that also has money (let’s go with the suggested figure of $2.5 million) in that range.
Because football’s compensation structure lays out the value of the deal four years out, we should look at what baseball offers over that time span, too. Let’s say Murray reaches the big leagues in either his third or fourth full season. If he were to get there quicker than that, it likely means he’s very good and will have, by default, made the correct decision. So, hypothetically for Murray, that would mean $2.5 million to sign, $4,000 to play short-season ball the rest of the summer, around $8,400 and $9,600 the next two years in the minors while he has yet to be put on a 40-man roster, about $75,000 the following year when he’s put on the 40-man but still in the minors, and about $550,000 when he starts making the major-league minimum. That’s about $3.1-3.6 million over the next five years, give or take some nuance regarding how quickly he hits some of those more lucrative checkpoints.
Rookie NFL contracts signed by players drafted in the third and fourth rounds present a similar range of earnings over that time span. I’ve spoken with members of the media who cover the NFL draft and it’s less clear where Murray might go in the NFL draft because that draft is still a year away and because heuristics for long-term projections like this aren’t as prevalent in football as in baseball.
It seems reasonable to assume that Murray can’t possibly go higher than Louisville QB Lamar Jackson or fellow Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield go on Thursday. Players facing biases, like those two and Murray, need to perform, and even if Murray performs like Jackson and Mayfield — which is already asking a lot — he’s still smaller than both of them. Russell Wilson is the only quarterback as short as Murray (who isn’t as physically dense as Wilson) to be drafted at all since 2010. Most of the smallest QBs picked in a draft are 6-foot-2.
Wilson’s success and the success of Drew Brees (a second-rounder 17 years ago) and Case Keenum (undrafted) probably isn’t enough to break any barriers of perception for the entire population of quarterbacks. And if we assume progressive football front offices are the ones most likely to ignore these kinds of biases, then know that they’re also the ones looking at regression models that indicate size and career performance are among the most influential variables for quarterback success and note that Murray has neither. I think an optimistic projection for Murray’s NFL draft stock, barring a position change, is right around where Wilson went — so, somewhere in round three or four. That’s right at the break-even point of what it looks like he’ll make playing baseball. And keep in mind that’s if Murray beats out Austin Kendall and has a good fall.
Assuming the info I’ve collected is sound, there’s not really a clearly superior financial option for Murray. In fact, it’s excruciatingly close. If anything, it should cause us to ask what it means for baseball that it will only offer a top-30 to -50 talent in its amateur draft what the NFL is willing to offer a talent in its top-60 to -120 range.
I’ve inquired of teams and agents how the players’ side of the amateur market might react to a labor climate that looks like the one we saw this past offseason. I haven’t gotten consistent answers. It seems players have less incentive to go to college: college players debuting at age 23 or 24 won’t be eligible for free agency until 29 or 30 and, if this past offseason was an indicator, that’s too old to get paid. Alternatively, they might find other ways to make money up front — and perhaps athletes with alternatives will be less apt to choose baseball over other options than they have been in the past. If Kyler Murray doesn’t have a baseball career, perhaps he’ll still have a baseball legacy as someone who, at a time when baseball might be unknowingly at a crossroads, should have been given greater incentives to play the game.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.