The Decision: A Future Where Draft Prospects Take Their Talents to the SEC

Max Clark

Starting around five or six years old, adults begin to demand that children declare what they want to be when they grow up. Despite the imprecise language used to frame the question, it’s generally understood that the question does not refer to the human qualities they wish to develop, but rather how the child plans to sell their time so as to afford the ever-increasing costs of existing in the world. At that point in time, kids know about roughly half a dozen jobs: doctor, teacher, lawyer, firefighter, dentist, and whatever their parents do for work. These jobs have clear-cut career paths with specific college degrees, certifications, and post-grad programs. So once a child with an underdeveloped brain makes a declaration regarding the rest of their life, they know the exact steps to follow to achieve their dreams.

For kids who dream of becoming professional baseball players, the path to the majors is a well-traveled, multi-lane interstate. The big league superhighway has several lanes moving at different paces — some with deep ruts, others with potholes, and quite a few that become exit-only without providing enough advance notice to merge left. Despite the difficult travel conditions, the route itself is quite clear.

Or at least it has been under the present system. But small shifts within the sport at the amateur, collegiate, and professional levels may open up additional routes to those looking for an alternative to sitting in rush hour traffic. In the current era of baseball, prospects drafted by MLB organizations are near locks to sign, with the only exceptions tending to involve college commitments or medical uncertainties. Conventional logic dictates that the most efficient path to the majors is getting into a major league system as early as possible and start working your way up the ladder. Some parents might feel more comfortable with the backup plan built into the college route, and players do on occasion move into that lane, but players with the singular goal of playing in the big leagues want to don an affiliated uniform the first chance they get.

That’s the current calculus done by most draft prospects, and that is likely to remain the calculus moving forward. But shifts within the sport don’t happen with the swiftness of a Google Maps reroute to avoid a pile-up ahead. Typically, progress is incremental, with a few innovators on the fringes making moves that, if successful, eventually become mainstream. In recent years, a series of subtle changes suggest a widespread shift may be on the horizon, depending on how those directing traffic within the sport choose to respond. The contraction of the minor leagues, the reduction in rounds within the draft, college programs innovating within player development, and the broadening of financial opportunities for college athletes have the collective potential to change the decision-making process for draftees.

In 2012, the draft dropped from 50 rounds to 40. In 2020, it went just five rounds due to the pandemic, but it did not return to 40 rounds afterward, instead settling in at 20 rounds. From 2005 to ’15 (to look at a ten-year window where the outcomes of draft picks are largely settled), of the 600–900 players drafted in round 21 or later, an average of 65 per year debuted at the major league level. For teams, this represents roughly a 10% hit rate; for the individual players who make it, that’s a 100% success rate within the sample of the one precious life they lead. From a team perspective, this means throwing fewer resources at players unlikely to ever break through to the big leagues. From a player’s perspective, this means fewer opportunities to advance their career.

In confluence with the changes to the draft, MLB overhauled the minor league system by axing 40 affiliates and reducing the number of minor league teams allotted to each organization down to four. Roster sizes vary by level and season as they are collectively bargained, but a fair estimation is removing 40 affiliates took about 1,200 roster spots and player opportunities with them. No matter the number of teams or the size of their rosters, there are always a certain number of players that fill in roster gaps between the players deemed actual prospects. Nevertheless, filler players don’t think of themselves as filler; they keep moving forward in pursuit of their goals of learning and getting better and convincing their team to see them as future big leaguers rather than as baseball-playing props. But with fewer roster spots and new players drafted each year, the space and time to change a mind are harder and harder to come by.

For those drafted out of high school or with remaining college eligibility, the decision to sign may be colored by the expected quality of developmental opportunity offered in shrinking systems designed to serve top prospects over fringe performers. Add to that the reputation of certain teams for struggling to develop pitchers and/or hitters or with respect to innovating via technology, and you start to see how a draftee might hesitate before putting pen to paper on a contract. Meanwhile, many college programs now use more technology and progressive methods than some MLB organizations. Even a mid-major program like Coastal Carolina plans to build a pitching lab. Conversely, most minor league stadiums lack WiFi capable of uploading Edgertronic videos.

The instructional gap between college and the minors is not as vast as you might assume either. When minor league farm directors conduct their offseason hiring, they frequently poach from the college ranks. Georgia head coach Wes Johnson made the jump from Arkansas directly to being the pitching coach for the Twins in 2019, only to decide the college grass was greener and take the pitching coach job at LSU in June of 2022. His decision seems confounding at first, but a college coaching gig requires less travel over a shorter season, and for schools looking to invest in their programs, generous coaching salaries sit atop the budget. Granted, not every college job is going to pay better than a minor league coaching position or require fewer bus rides, but as farm directors try to compete with top colleges for the best coaches available, their best selling point is that they might one day make the big leagues just like the prospects they shepherd.

One particular prospect, right-handed pitcher Brandon Sproat, was drafted 90th overall in the third round of the 2022 draft by the Mets. But rather than signing, he returned to the University of Florida and pitched for the Gators during their run to the College World Series. The Mets snagged him again this year, this time at pick 56. I have no insight on Sproat’s thought process in deciding to return to school. But I don’t need to cast around too much to figure out why a player drafted outside the first two rounds would stay put at an established program like Florida rather than rushing into the minor leagues, where you don’t get to pick your coaches, the facilities are likely a downgrade, and you won’t be pitching in front of SEC crowds.

For the prospects who haven’t committed to a top-tier college program, the decision to sign is clearer but still more complex than it was even a few years ago. The 2021 changes to the transfer portal provide players more freedom to move between schools without sacrificing playing time; a high school draftee committed to a middling program is not necessarily choosing three years of stifled progress.

The three-year rule requires players at universities to complete three years of school before regaining draft-eligibility, which throws up a fairly large roadblock for draftees considering college. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t like how the draft went for me this year. I’ll try again next year,” versus, “My draft position isn’t what I was hoping for, but too much can happen in three years for me to risk waiting for my next shot.” The rule doesn’t have to exist; every league determines draft eligibility differently and has changed the rules whenever it feels it might benefit from doing so. From what I can tell, MLB wants to give teams negotiating power over teenagers who fear uncertainty. So is there any reason for MLB to change the rule? On the one hand, more high schoolers might opt to go to college, and more college players might opt to stay there or use the threat of school as a negotiating lever. On the other hand, the pool of draft-eligible college players would expand and include younger players. Overall, negotiations would be harder, and teams would have to do more due diligence on their early-round picks. But would it be worth it to have the ability to pop players from college sooner? That probably depends which front office you’re talking to. Some likely want to continue to be able to exert pressure on high school draftees; others might be content to let colleges shoulder a larger share of the developmental load.

The question players really need to assess is whether or not they’re wasting years of their prime by choosing to go to college and delaying the start of their trek through the minors. Without filtering for any specific subset of colleges, I compared the likelihood of making it to the majors for high school and college draftees and the time elapsed between draft date and big league debut. High schoolers who sign reach the majors about 26% of the time; signed college draftees get there about 18% of the time. That said, of the players who do make it, college players arrive roughly one and a half seasons sooner than their high school counterparts. Is that enough to compensate for three or four years of school? Probably not, but again, this is all schools, not just top programs.

Moreover, schools pouring time and money into building better players is a trend that remains on the rise. But despite those increased investments, college programs develop players to win now, not become future big leaguers. The two goals overlap considerably, but they’re not one and the same. This isn’t the place to have the college pitcher usage debate, but it’s an example of the disconnect between the short-term goals of college coaches and the long-term goals of college players. Nonetheless, as college programs focus more on development, they become a more viable option for draftees looking for freedom and leverage in crafting a path forward.

With the developmental gap narrower than ever between college and the minors and roster spots on affiliated teams in more limited supply than ever, financial considerations become a prominent tiebreaker as players chart their futures. Under the new minor league CBA, salaries start around $20,000 in the Complex League and top out near $36,000 in Triple-A. Meanwhile, reports estimate several players from schools like Vanderbilt, LSU, and South Carolina pull in roughly the same amount via NIL deals. Granted, those numbers represent the top earners from top-level programs; most NCAA players make relatively little off of NIL, especially when compared to their peers in football and basketball. Nevertheless, agent Michael Raymond says a key predictor of payout on an NIL deal isn’t the sport or school, but rather the size of the client’s social media following. Per Raymond: “For athletes with 50,000 or more followers on Instagram, the average price of an Instagram feed or Story post was $5,000–10,000. For athletes with [more than] 10,000, it was $2,000–3,000 per post.”

Minor league unionization and the subsequent CBA accorded NIL rights to players working their way through the system, albeit under somewhat different circumstances. Many NIL deals for college players involve local businesses. For minor leaguers, signing an NIL deal with the Cedar Rapids Corn Conglomerate or the Rocket City Recycling Center gets complicated if the player is shuttled off to a different affiliate two months later. But there’s nothing stopping a player leveraging a social media following, inking deals with national brands, hosting youth camps in the offseason, or starting a Patreon book club.

Speaking of social media followings: Max Clark, a high school outfielder from Indiana who was taken third overall by Detroit on Sunday night, boasts 43,500 followers on Twitter, 334,000 followers on Instagram, and 277,000 followers on TikTok, where several of his videos have over 1,000,000 views. Had he gone to Vanderbilt, it’s not hard to imagine him breaking every college baseball NIL record in existence. I’m sure he’ll have no trouble securing sponcon deals while living the dream with the Down East Wood Ducks, but for a lower draft pick with Clark’s following? The decision to sign isn’t quite so automatic.

Last season, the highest NIL earner in college baseball was Vanderbilt outfielder Enrique Bradfield Jr., who was drafted by the Orioles with the 17th pick. Estimates suggest he pulled in $59,000 per year from NIL deals, which is nothing compared to a seven-figure signing bonus but tops the highest salary in the minors. He represents the current ceiling on NIL deals, but with NIL still in its nascent phase and big brands like Gatorade, Bose, and Dick’s Sporting Goods in the mix, potential for growth still abounds. And it’s not all individuals singing for their own supper; the shoemaker HeyDude recently signed nine South Carolina Gamecocks to a deal facilitated by Postgame, an NIL agency.

The larger discussion around NIL centers the existence of two largely distinct markets that determine player earnings via very different mechanisms. In one market, the elite performers within their sports receive deals commensurate with their skills; the other rewards social media and pop culture influence. Whether or not you think either approach is how NIL should work, the existence of both markets allows multiple routes for players to earn money in their pursuit of a professional career; the potential NIL earnings are greater in college and may one day start to eclipse signing bonuses in earlier and earlier rounds of the draft.

The growth of the NIL market rewarding the most skilled players depends heavily on the popularity of the sport. As it stands, baseball players earn less than their peers in football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball. But viewership numbers from the recent College World Series suggest the sport’s popularity is on the rise. Game 1 drew an average of 2.7 million viewers (up 68% from 2022); Game 2, a blowout, brought in 2.2 million viewers (up 38% from 2022); and Game 3 averaged 3.5 million viewers with a peak of 4.2 million, a new record for men’s College World Series games airing on ESPN platforms. More eyes on the sport means more sponcon to go around.

There’s no singular road to the Show that makes sense for everyone. Navigating the world is so much easier with Siri guiding you to your desired destination, telling you exactly when and where to turn and how to avoid construction and traffic jams. But life rarely works that way. We can choose a career path with an obvious set of steps to follow, only to discover that our specific set of circumstances will require us to modify or improvise or hop off the path without knowing for sure whether we’ll find our way back, or if we’ll even want to. As a gaggle of fresh-faced youths are selected by major league teams, they’ll come to learn that “adulting,” as they call it (I actually don’t know if they still call it that), doesn’t come with a road map. Worse still, you’ll spend much of your time driving through a thick fog, only able to see a few feet into the distance, gripping the steering wheel as though it’s coated in Spider Tack, and hoping you don’t hit a moose or get drafted by the Rockies.

Kiri lives in the PNW while contributing part-time to FanGraphs and working full-time as a data scientist. She spent 5 years working as an analyst for multiple MLB organizations. You can find her on Twitter @technical_K0.

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Seth Siegelmember
9 months ago

Excellent piece.

9 months ago
Reply to  Seth Siegel

Technically really excellent. Well-researched, reasoned and written