Nationals Arm Race

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How often to top 10 round drafted players fail to sign, and is it ever a good idea?

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Brandon Sproat rolled the dice more than once by spurning top 10 round dollars and came out ahead. He’s a rare case.

The 2023 draft class signing bonus came and went with very little fan fare in terms of players not signing or threatening not to sign. Top 5 pick Walter Jenkins didn’t sign until the deadline day, but otherwise most significant names officially signed within a few days of being drafted. This is in pretty stark contrast to the “old days,” when players and teams would negotiate up until the midnight deadline year after year, and teams/fans were left wondering what was going on.

Why the change now? In the old days, teams/agents didn’t want deals announced until the very last second so as to prevent OTHER teams/players from using that information as leverage during negotiations on bonus figures that were, basically, unregulated. So, now its a huge shock when players don’t sign, especially high profile players.

A comment/question came up in the pre-draft comments, wondering about how frequently players don’t sign now if drafted in the top 10, so I dug up an old post, updated it for the last few years, and here it is. So, how infrequently does it happen now?

Lets take a look. Here’s a summary of the 11 years of players who were drafted but did not sign from the top 10 rounds.  This analysis goes back to 2012, since that’s the beginning of the new draft rules.

  • 2023: 1
  • 2022: 3
  • 2021: 3
  • 2020: 0 (covid 5-round draft)
  • 2019: 2
  • 2018: 4 (all 1st or supp-1st rounders)
  • 2017: 3
  • 2016: 2
  • 2015: 6
  • 2014: 6 (two of which were Nats picks: Andrew Suarez and Austin Byler in that ill-fated draft class, and one more who didn’t sign thanks to Houston’s screwing up the Brady Aiken deal and who was eventually granted free agency).
  • 2013: 8
  • 2012: 8

Just 46 total players picked in the top 10 rounds in the last 11 drafts failed to sign. That’s out of nearly 4,000 players picked in that time, a pretty small percentage.

Here’s the better question: did these players make major mistakes by NOT signing and taking the money?

Its a common refrain among pundits in the amateur baseball world (Keith Law in particular) that HS players should “take the money” if they’re drafted high enough.   Certainly any first rounder would be a fool to turn away that kind of money, and mostly any prep player offered something in the upper 6 figure range should give serious consideration.  MLB contracts generally include college tuition … so even if you sign out of HS you still have 4 years fully paid for in case you wash out.  So instead of gambling on your health, or the fickleness of the baseball draft (where one bad start can cost you 30 spots in the draft and millions of dollars), take the cash when its offered.

But, don’t take our word for it.  Lets look at the empirical evidence of every player over past drafts who has forgone the cash to see if there’s any trends.

So, why do pundits say that you should always take the money?  Well, lets ask ourselves: out of these players who didn’t sign.. who actually IMPROVED their draft status by not signing?  Lets go year by year and look at the players who failed to sign.

(a caveat here: I did not look at the dollar amounts in every case; this is basically draft round analysis.  Its possible that a 5th rounder in one year went in the 8th the next and got offered more money … but its quite rare with the new draft rules and bonus pools.  Everything changed with the new CBA that went into effect in 2012).

2023: 1: just one player out of the 314 players selected in the top 10 rounds failed to sign.

  • Caden Kendle, a Jr OF from UC-Irvine taken in the 10th round by St. Louis. He apparently agreed to a $175k bonus (around 10k over slot), but then had a change of heart and decided to go back to school for his senior season.

Verdict: While its clearly too early to tell if Kendle made a “mistake” here, the fact that he was offered $175k and he can sign for $150k in any round north of 10 and not have it count basically means he has almost no “risk” by going back to school. At worst he’ll fail to be drafted and can take a NDFA $20k deal next year after graduating. Most of this analysis is judging the opportunity cost of passing on signing bonuses in the 7-figure range.

2022: Just three players failed to sign in the 2022 draft’s top 10 rounds.

  • Nolan McLean, a draft-eligible sophomore two-way player from Oklahoma State (RHP and 3B) who was picked by the Orioles at the top of the 3rd round. Baltimore found an issue in his medicals, so McLean went back to school. Slot bonus figure: $794k. Its unclear what bonus figure they agreed upon. McLean went back to school, and was picked again in the 3rd round in 2023, dropping 10 slots and signing for $747K with the Mets.
  • Brandon Sproat, a RHP sophomore from Florida, failed to sign with the Mets as a 3rd rounder (slot value $691k) for reasons unknown. He went back to school, then (amazingly) agreed to a re-draft by the Mets in 2023, who picked him in the 2nd round and signed him for $1.47M. Sproat also appears later on in this post because he refused to sign out of HS as well.
  • Brock Rodden, a 2B junior from Wichita State, failed to sign as a 10th rounder with Oakland (slot value: $151.3k). He went back to school, got drafted as a 5th rounder in 2023 and signed for $200k.

Verdict: McLean was not penalized for not signing, but it wasn’t really his choice since the team reneged. Sproat more than doubled his bonus offer from last year, and Rodden improved his by likely 25%. So, all three guys “worked out” in the end.

2021: 3 players did not sign from the top 10 rounds:

  • Kumar Rocker, RHP Vanderbilt, in a well publicized blow-up, the Mets drafted Rocker 10th overall and made a huge splash announcing a $6M over-slot bonus .. then ran into issues with his medicals, resulting in the two sides failing to agree on anything and the Mets passing on the Vanderbilt star altogether.  Rocker’s agent (ahem, “advisor”) Scott Boras of course refused to make his medicals available ahead of time, and of course claimed that there was no injury, but the subsequent findings vindicated the Met’s decision. Rocker had shoulder surgery in the fall of 2021, then pitched in Indy ball in 2022 before shockingly getting drafted by the Rangers with the 3rd overall pick in 2022. He signed for $5.2M, well below the slot value, and well below the $6M he agreed to in 2021, but he was still an upper 1st rounder. He pitched in the fall league, then made a handful of starts in 2023 before …. tearing his UCL and having Tommy John. So, Perhaps the Mets were right all along.
  • Jud Fabian, OF Florida; saw his draft stock fall from a possible top-5 pick all the way out of the first round.  But, he apparently had a $3M deal with Baltimore in the second, but those plans were foiled when Boston selected him at the beginning of the 2nd round.  Fabian stuck to his bonus demands, and the two sides could not reach an agreement.  Fabian went back to school and was a Comp-B pick in 2022, signing for $1.03M.
  • Alex Ulloa, prep SS from Texas failed to come to terms with Houston as a 4th round pick.  Ulloa bailed out of an Oklahoma State commitment, went to Yavapai College Juco … and went undrafted in 2022 altogether. Again in 2023, but he did get a commit to U of Miami for 2024, his junior season.

Verdict: Rocker couldn’t beat $6M but still got $5.2M as damaged goods, so its hard to say he made a bad decision (not that it was entirely his to make with the Mets pulling the offer).  Fabian lost out on $2M of bonus money, but we don’t know what money he turned down from Boston (odds are he lost out on the deal). Ulloa’s slot value was $492k in 2021; we don’t know what he was offered in 2021, but we went completely undrafted in 2022, so it seems safe to say he has lost out on money. He still has time to recoup it with a solid junior season at Miami. But right now it looks like a bad move.

2020: in a shortened 5-round Covid-related draft, not one player picked in the 5 rounds failed to sign.

2019: 2 players did not sign from the top 10 rounds

  • Brandon Sproat, RHP Fla HS 7th/205 overall by Texas.  $222,100 slot value, which wasn’t enough to buy Sproat out of his commitment to Florida. As we’ve already seen, Sproat and signability was also an issue in 2022, but he did eventually sign in 2023 for a ton of money.
  • Wyatt Hendrie, C from Calif Juco 10th/312 overall by Chicago Cubs.  $142,200 slot value.  Cubs seemingly ran into slot issues with both 10th and 11th rounder, and Hendrie wouldn’t take under slot. Hendrie went undrafted in 2020’s shortened draft, but then was picked in the 7th in 2021 and signed for $177,500 out of San Diego State.

Verdict: both players ended up making money by not signing; Sproat a ton, Hendrie a little bit.

2018: 4 players did not sign

  • Carter Stewart, RHP Fla HS. 1st/8th overall. Atlanta didn’t like Physical, offered 40% of slot value ($1.9M); initially slated to Mississippi State.  Update: However, he did an about face, went to a Juco instead with the plan on re-entering the 2019 draft.  When he struggled in Juco and fell to a mid 2nd round projection … he attempted an end-around of the MLB draft rules and signed to play in japan, a situation I detailed in this space.  By 2021 he had graduated the Japan minor leagues into their majors, and his stats as of 2023 seem pretty solid (as a 23yr old he has a sub 2.00 ERA for his team Softbank).
  • Matt McLain: 2B Calif HS. 1st/25: Asked $3M, Arizona offered $2.6M didn’t budge, going to UCLA.  Update: picked 17th overall in the 2021 draft and signed for $4.63M.
  • JT Ginn: RHP Miss HS. 1st/30th: LA dodgers offered $2.4M, asking $2.9M, going to Mississippi State.  Update: drafted 2nd round/52nd overall in 2020 draft, signed for $2.9M with the Mets in a well over-slot deal.  So two years later he got his asking number.
  • Gunnar Hoglund: LHP Fla HS. 1supp/36: Pittsburgh didn’t like physical, low-balled and he declined. going to Ole Miss.  2021; was projected as a top 10 pick, hurt his arm, had TJ but still got drafted 19th overall by Toronto and signed for $3.25M.

McLean drastically improved his stock, Ginn got what he wanted, and Hoglund (despite his injury) got paid.  I already detailed why I think Stewart’s deal is smart.

Verdict: All four made the right decision.

2017: 3 players did not sign

  • Drew Rasmussen, RHP, Oregon State, 1s/31st overall. Failed to sign with Tampa, who (I guess) didn’t like his medicals.  He was coming back from TJ and only had a few weeks of action before the draft. Update: Went 6th round in 2018 to Milwaukee.
  • Jack Conlon, RHP, Clements HS (Sugar Land, Texas). 4th round/128 overall. Failed to sign with Baltimore, went to Texas A&M.  Update: left TAMU, went to San Jacinto, then enrolled in Rice and sat out 2020.  However, he wasn’t on the 2021 roster, and its unclear where he’s playing at this point. He seems to be out of baseball at this point.
  • Jo Jo Booker, RHP, Miller HS (Brewton, Ala.). 5th round/145 overall. failed to sign with LA Angels, went to South Alabama.  Ended up playing 5 full seasons for South Alabama, was never drafted, posted an ERA north of 6.00 his 5th year, and is likely out of baseball.

Two players who ended up playing themselves out of any bonus dollars.  Rasmussen didn’t turn down the Rays as much as they refused to tender him a contract … they must have tendered him something because they got a comp pick in 2018 draft.  So he turned down 40% of first round money in 2017 to sign an under-slot deal in the 6th round of 2018 ($135k, just $10k more than the non-top 10 rounds minimum).  I’d say this was a bad move by the player unless Tampa flat out refused to pay a dollar.

Verdict: 1 worsened his draft position, 2 missed out on any draft money.

2016: 2 players did not sign

  • Nick Lodolo: 1S/41st overall; LHP from Damien HS in California. failed to sign with Pittsburgh, went to TCU instead, draft eligible in 2019.  In 2021, drafted 7th overall, signed for $5.43M.
  • Tyler Buffett: 7th/217 overall; RHP, failed to sign with Houston. returned to Oklahoma State, drafted in 6th round in 2017 and signed with Cincinnati

Lodolo went to school (an arm-shredder program in TCU even) and went from 41st overall to 7th overall, with probably 3x the bonus.  Furthermore, by 2021 he was one of the best pitching prospects in the game.  Meanwhile Buffett improved his draft position one round by going back to school.

Verdict: 1 drastically improved his draft pick and money, 1 improved his draft position one round.

2015: 6 guys did not sign.

  • Kyle Funkhouser: 1st/35th overall: RHP from Louisville, failed to sign with LA Dodgers, turning down an above-slot $2M. 4th rounder in 2016, signed with Detroit.
  • Brady Singer, 2nd/56th overall: RHP Florida HS. failed to sign with Toronto, went to Florida and was 1st rounder in 2018, signed with Kansas City
  • Jonathan Hughes, 2nd/68th overall: RHP Georgia HS. failed to sign with Baltimore, went to Georgia Tech and not even drafted in 2018…
  • Kyle Cody, 2nd/73rd overall: RHP U Kentucky. failed to sign with Minnesota, drafted in 6th round in 2016 and signed with Texas
  • Nicholas Shumpert, 7th/220th overall. SS Colorado HS. failed to sign with Detroit. Went to San Jacinto CC, drafted in 28th round 2016 by Atlanta and signed.
  • Kep Brown, 10th/311 overall. RF South Carolina HS, failed to sign with LA Dodgers. went to Juco, then to UNC-Wilmington, not drafted in 2018.

Funkhouser was the biggest “whoops” here; a poor spring took him from his pre-season top 10 draft position all the way out of the first round, but he still demanded upper 1st round money.  He didn’t get it … and then fell to the 4th round the next year.  That was a big fail.  Singer clearly improved on his 2nd round status by going to college.    Cody slipped from being a 2nd rounder to a 6th rounder.  The other three guys drastically fell on draft boards; one of them going from a 10th rounder to not even being drafted.

Verdict: 1 improved, 5 hurt draft stock

2014: 6 failed to sign

  • Brady Aiken: 1/1 overall, RHP from San Diego HS. failed to sign with Houston, went to IMG Academy in FL, drafted 1/17 by Cleveland
  • Andrew Suarez: 2nd/57 overall LHP from U-Miami, failed to sign with Washington. Drafted 2nd round/61st overall in 2015 by San Francisco
  • Trevor Megill; 3rd/104th overall RHP from Loyola Marymount. failed to sign with Boston, drafted 7th/207 in 2015 draft and signed with San Diego
  • Jacob Nix: 5th/136 RHP from Los Alomitos HS; couldn’t sign when Tampa lost bonus money, sued, FA, signed with San Diego
  • Zack Zehner: 7th/204 OF from Cal Poly, failed to sign with Toronto. Drafted 18th round 2015 and signed with NYY
  • Austin Byler, 9th/274 1B from nevada-Reno. failed to sign with Washington, drafted 11th round in 2015 and signed with Arizona

Aiken became quite the rarity; the first #1 overall baseball pick to fail to sign in 30  years.    But his lack of signing cascaded and cost the Astros both their 5th rounder Nix and another player later on thanks to the new draft rules on bonus pools; Nix ended up being declared a FA in a face-saving move by MLB so as not to admit that their new bonus cap circumvention rules were BS.  Aiken had no where to go but down from 1-1 so he obviously cost himself money.  The others all fell, if only slightly in Suarez’s case.

Verdict: 1 didn’t count, 5 lowered draft stock

2013: 8 failed to sign

  • Phil Bickford: 1/10 RHP California HS. Toronto failed to sign. went to Southern Nevada juco, drafted 1/18 by SF and signed.
  • Matt Krook 1s/35 LHP calif HS. Miami failed to sign, went to Oregon State, drafted 4th round by SF in 2016
  • Ben DeLuzio 3rd/80 SS from Fla HS. Miami failed to sign. Went to Florida State, played 4 years … undrafted out of college, NDFA with Arizona
  • Ben Holmes, 5th /151 LHP Oregon State. Philly failed to sign. went 9th round in 2014
  • Jason Monda 6th/181 OF Washington State. Philly failed to sign … then accused him of NCAA violations. he wasn’t drafted again and quit to go to Med school
  • Stephen Woods 6th/188 RHP NY HS: Tampa failed to sign, went to Suny-Albany, drafted 8th round 2016 by SF and signed
  • Dustin DeMuth 8th/230 3B from Indiana, Minnesota failed to sign, became 5th rounder in 2014 and signed with Milwaukee
  • Ross Kivett 10th/291 2B from kansas State. Cleveland failed to sign, became 6th rounder in 2014 and signed with Detroit

Bickford fell 8 slots year over  year but still fell.   DeMuth and Kivett both improved their stock.  The rest fell, drastically in some cases.

Verdict: 2 improved, 6 fell

2012: 8 failed to sign

  • Mark Appel 1/8 RHP Stanford by Pittsburgh. failed to sign, was 1/1 in 2013 with Houston
  • Teddy Stankiewicz 2/75 RHP from Texas Hs. failed to sign with Mets, went Juco, 2/45 in 2013 by Boston
  • Alec Rash, 2/95 by Philadelphia from IA HS. went to Missouri, 2015 drafted in 23rd round by Washington but still didn’t sign; quit baseball and started playing NCAA basketball
  • Kyle Twomey, 3/106 LHP Calif HS Oakland. Drafted 13th round 3 yrs later out of USC by Chicago Cubs.
  • Brandon Thomas 4/136 OF from Ga Tech; didn’t sign with Pittsburgh, drafted 8th round one year later and signed with NYY
  • Colin Poche 5/162 LHP texas h s. failed to sign with Baltimore, went to Dallas Baptist, undrafted Jr year, drafted 14th round 2016 by Arizona
  • Nick Halamandaris 8/251 1B Calif HS. failed to sign with Seattle, played 4 years at cal, undrafted jr and Sr year, NDFA with Seattle, played one season
  • L.J. Mazzilli 9/280 2B from UConn. 4th rounder in 2013 signed with NY Mets

Appel managed to improve from 8th overall to 1st overall.  Stankiewicz also improved his stock about a round’s worth.  Mazzilli improved from a 9th rounder to a 4th rounder.  The others all fell.

Verdict: 3 up, 5 down.

Summary: of the 46 players who failed to sign, passing judgement even on the players where its far too early to really tell:

  • 30 hurt their draft stock by failing to sign (15 HS, 15 coll)
  • 1 didn’t really count b/c of the Houston 2014 draft bonus shenanigans (Jacob Nix, HS)
  • 15 improved their draft stock/money

So, 2 out of every 3 times a kid turns down the money they’re costing themselves in the long run. But, its also worth noting that a huge percentage of these players who declined to sign were at the very beginning of the new rules … in the last few years, the success rate of players has gone way up. I attribute it to players now understanding better the rules of the system.

Food for thought.

Written by Todd Boss

July 30th, 2023 at 3:49 pm

Posted in Draft

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