Thousands now or millions later – the choice an MLB draft pick must make

In part one, I took a deep look into what happens when an amateur player declines to sign a contract after being drafted. Essentially breaking down what their chances are of being drafted again and how it will effect their draft stock on a generic level. What wasn’t discussed was money. Money is almost certainly the reasoning behind those results, particularly where players drafted after round twenty are much less likely to sign than those in the first twenty. This time around, we’ll look at the actual cost and what the player stands to gain, by holding out.

Range Average
Top 5 $6,295,100
5 – 10 $3,506,560
11 – 20 $2,644,910
21 – 42 $1,851,100
Rd 2 $1,064,539
Rd 3 $652,847
Rd 4 $469,550
Rd 5 $351,583
Rd 6 $263,250
Rd 7 $197,960
Rd 8 $171,363
Rd 9 $160,023
Rd 10 $150,860

Until recently, there was no real limit on how much draft picks would be paid, but with the new slot value system, we have an idea how much the class of 2015 is set to make. The list to the right shows the average signing bonus allotted for each grouping and it is easy to see the difference between being picked number five ($4.2M) and number 17 ($2.4M). It is understandable how a high school senior or a college junior could see that difference nearly two million dollars just 12 spots apart and get greedy.

In addition to this, high draft picks, particularly those who have at least some college experience, are often started off in a higher level of minor league ball and moved faster through the system. At the same time, lower picks can be used as roster filler on low level teams and often have to prove themselves much more than the high picks do. From the team’s point of view, if they were a top prospect, they would have went higher in the draft, so any success could be attributed to playing against weak competition or luck. With up to 40 new players coming in at a single time, joining for what for most teams is seven already full minor league rosters, priorities have to be made and late round draft picks are often forgotten. This can be especially true the second or third year after these picks where these players will be released to make new for the latest draft. Not only did they not break the bank with a big singing bonus, but now they could be out of a job as well.

Level Monthly Salary
SS $1,150
Low A $1,300
High A $1,500
AA $1,700
AAA $2,150
40 Man $40,750

Speaking of that job, it isn’t all that high paying of one. Most draft picks will be paid the league minimum for a rookie, short season or at best low A ball team (monthly salaries listed to right) and that number is nowhere near what we are used to on the Major League level. In fact, it isn’t until a player is put on the MLB 40 man roster that they will break $10,000 a month. Assuming a college player would be able to work a full time job at $10 an hour (about $1,600 a month), he would be better off financially doing so until he hits the AA level and the vast majority of draft picks never hit the AA level. While minor league ball should be a lot more fun than that $10 an hour job, it requires a lot more than 40 hours a week during the regular season and a ton of effort to move up at all.

For example, of the 1,209 players signed from the 2010 draft (chosen because five years is long enough to generally know which players are going to be great and which aren’t) 296 haven’t made it above rookie ball, the vast majority of which are no longer in professional baseball at all. Another 498 have topped out below AA. Since there is such a high failure rate, it makes perfect sense for a player to want to finish his education and hone his skills in college rather than be paid less than minimum wage in the low minors.

This is still only the case for low (beyond the 20th round) picks. These players have a greater than 98% chance of being redrafted (I really recommend reading part one) and possibly moving up to get some guaranteed bonus money. Now it may be time for a more individual example. Let’s take someone completely random. How about Craig Kimbrel?

Kimbrel was drafted in 2007 by the Atlanta Braves out of Wallace State Community College in the 33rd round. Had he accepted, he likely would have spent all of 2008 at or below the short season level earning that below minimum wage amount. As a 33rd round pick, he may have impressed the Braves as he did in 2009, but he was a year younger and a year less experienced at that point. After declining to sign, Kimbrel spent one more year at Wallace State, where he had a 2.89 ERA and 123 strike outs in 81 innings. The Braves were still interested, but now other teams were as well and he moved up to the third round in 2008 when the Braves took him with the 96th overall pick.

This season, the 96th pick is slotted for $592.7K, a big difference from the paltry amount he would have made had he accepted his round 33 selection. Possibly because of the extra year of experience, Kimbrel blew through the low minors, reaching high A in his first season and AAA in his second. Obviously, Kimbrel is a rare talent, but in the end, his story is the ultimate goal for all who decline to sign.

Of course, there are multiple ways a decision like this can go and it would be unrealistic to avoid mentioning the down side. For another example, take another one time Major League closer, John Axford.

Axford was drafted out of high school in the seventh round in 2001 by Seattle. He declined to sign with the Mariners, preferring to continue his education at Notre Dame, then Canisius College for his senior year. After decent freshman and sophomore campaigns for the Fighting Irish, Axford was hurt his junior year and was fairly terrible (5.01 ERA in 70 IP with 75 K’s) his senior season. While he was drafted again in 2005 by the Cincinnati Reds, he had fallen 1,040 places before someone finally took a flier on him.

He did move up the minor league system fairly quickly (he spent most of his time in A ball his first year, advanced A in his second and AAA in his third), had he signed when originally drafted, he could have been in the Majors between two and three years earlier. He also would have received a considerable bonus for signing at the cost of just two full seasons playing for Notre Dame.

This all does come down to personal values and, as Princess Leia would say, “if money is all you care about, money is all you will have.” Axford wound up having a nice Major League career anyway and maybe he still values his Notre Dame education more greatly than an extra $200K. His story also proves that you can succeed no matter what round you were drafted in, as long as you have the talent, work ethic and mustache to make it happen.

These first two glances into the opportunity cost of declining the American dream have focused on a general outlook encompassing the entire draft. In part three, the finale, we will look exclusively at first round picks who decide to wait another round, particularly 2015 first overall pick Brady Aiken.

About Joseph Coblitz

Joseph is the primary writer and editor of BurningRiverBaseball.com and has been since its inception in 2011. He also writes for The Outside Corner and the Comeback and hosts the Tribe Time Now podcast. He is a graduate of the University of Akron and currently resides in Goodyear, Arizona the Spring Training home of the Cleveland Indians. Follow on twitter @BurningRiverBB

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