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College versus Pro: The decision is personal

Today is the first day of August. Fall approaches, but so does the signing deadline for teams to lock up players that were selected in the 2008 MLB Amateur Draft. We are only fourteen days away from knowing which unsigned players will be returning/first going to college and who will forgo the college experience in favor of accepting a bonus with his team and start playing Minor League Ball immediately. Please enjoy this guest contribution by Willie Nicklaus of The College Baseball Blog:

MLBI was recently asked for my take on whether a kid should sign a professional baseball contract out of high school or attend college first. Let me preface that there is no right or wrong answer to this question. Each player is unique and if they are fortunate enough to have this decision to make someday, they will be playing baseball regardless of choice, which is the root of the decision. Saying this though, with the option of Free online colleges and college courses, this decision may not have to be as stressful as you initially thought. If this is something that interests you, be sure to do your research before committing to anything.

Imagine you are one of the select few high school senior baseball players in the country, you are 18 years old, and you have the dream of playing major league baseball someday. Now imagine just being a typical teenager who always felt education continues past high school and into college. It has been said that 98% of learning on a college campus happens outside the classroom. Campus life, campus community, meeting new people, making lifelong friends, working towards a degree, maturing as a person and dealing in a new social atmosphere. Growing up within the overall college experience as a young man. Where you attend college depends on what course you want to study and what you want to take out of it to enable you to have a brighter future. So whether you want to attend colleges in BC or even in a different country, you get to do this only once at this stage of life. This has value.

Now you can add in the student-athlete label. You will be part of a team that plays for a common goal. You will continue to develop as a player, a teammate, a friend. You will represent your institution, your coaches, teammates, and student body. You will be a part of the fabric of your chosen institution. This has value.

You will transition into a more independent person while having multiple support systems including your coaches, academic advisors and fellow teammates. During these 3-4 years of personal growth and development, the goal of professional baseball will still be there in most cases. The idea of being away from home will become less an issue. Time management skills will be enhanced, even if the use of online writing services may have to come into play if students cannot meet their deadlines, routines will become, “routine”, and you will be at, or near a complete college education. And you play baseball too. This has value.

Keep in mind that there are always kids who have no desire to attend college. For this article, let’s exclude them simply because they just want to play baseball only, whether they were the high school class valedictorian or barely skated by.

I chose to interview some players and/or parents of minor league rookie ball and A ball levels. One common thing they all said was that baseball is a business, and you learn that fast. Several also mentioned difficulties in filling the idle time each day when baseball wasn’t to be played or practiced. Does a rookie find a job, take extra cuts at the field, sit around watching daytime TV, take online classes? Experts in baseball, which I am not, have stated that the 8 hours each day a professional baseball player is not sleeping or playing baseball can be the difference in progressing versus regressing. College students fill that time being college students. This has value.

So what are some of the factors a high school senior, committed to a college baseball program needs to evaluate if he gets drafted and has to make a choice?

The economic term “opportunity cost” is basically the benefit foregone by making one decision over another. I am one who believes that this is the core value in the entire equation. Others may believe the theory that “it just feels right” is another basis. Let’s talk about value, then investment.

  • What is the value assigned to spending 3-4 years in a college social atmosphere starting at age 18?
  • What is the value of being a contributor on a college baseball team?
  • What is the value of college baseball instruction?
  • What is the value of a college degree? After 3 years of college?

It is difficult to assign dollars to these equations simply because each case is very unique. Some student-athletes use college mostly for its intended purpose, to get more education and a degree. Others use the college venue for baseball only to attempt to get drafted, or enhance their draft value in future years. Most juggle both aspects tremendously. These are the players proponents of the pro game say are being surpassed by their peers by spending time in college versus getting minor league instruction right after high school. They may be right in some cases, and wrong in some cases, but nobody has the correct answer.

I spoke with a few advisor/agents. If a student who holds a degree can make a $50,000 starting salary after graduation, then start with 4 years of minor league time spent instead of getting that degree, or $200,000. From there you can add the CSP(College Scholarship Plan) of approximately $20,000 per year, or another $80,000. In hard dollars the initial bonus should at least be $280,000, which according to slot recommendations start in the 3rd/4th rounds of the draft. The hard part, especially in a quasi-negotiation is the value of the opportunity cost mentioned. This is the amount that affects signability or the fact a kid is even drafted at all. Some blue-chip and 2nd tier high school stars make it very clear what their respective price tags are, and these are the ones who fall down the draft boards, some even fall off of them. Were these kids wrong in drawing a line in the sand? Nobody has the correct answer.

Every year, kids opt for Rookie ball at a value to the club who selects them. They may sign for what they believe is a nice bonus, and the published amount is $25,000 as an example. This 18 year old may struggle the first summer, then be assigned another season of rookie ball, and after that 2nd season, still struggling along, turns 20 years old and trying very hard to get advanced to the A club. His counterpart in college has completed 2 seasons of baseball and will normally be entering his Junior year and will be draft eligible again. Neither kid made a right or wrong decision. They each made their own decision. What may come next is a moment in time where each individual gets a better feel about their decisions.

If we follow this example further, assume for illustration that the college player who decided to forgo being selected or wasn’t drafted at all has had a solid 2 seasons in college baseball, performed well in summer ball, and has a super solid junior baseball season. He gets drafted and the bonus is within the value the family believes is a fair investment in the player. That player has 3 years of college under his belt, 3 years of college and summer baseball under his belt, and a very good chance he will bypass Rookie league immediately and be assigned to an A ball club. The kid who took the $25,000 may start his 3rd pro season at the same level, has minimal money left, and no progress towards a college education.

I read a recent article about the makeup of the minor leagues. The writer stated that about 50% of the estimated 6000 players in MILB are foreign born. I bring this up to make a point: The competition is fierce, and global. The game has evolved into an international one where MLB will throw anything and everything against a wall to see what sticks. They invest in player development internationally. Their INVESTMENT in you, the player, has much to do in the college versus pro decision. The higher the initial bonus, the more chances they will give you to fail.

This leads back to value each player assigns to their respective case. Getting life changing money as a 1st or 2nd rounder makes the decision pretty easy for those fortunate enough to have had their talents displayed and exposed early on to the decision makers in professional baseball. It’s the next tier of high school draft eligible players who may have the tougher decision. There will always be high school players drafted who choose college regardless of the bonus amount, and there will always be players who choose pro over college regardless of the bonus amount. Nobody is right or wrong.

So why is the MLB 1st year player draft nearly 50 rounds long for most teams? Do you think teams adding 50 new players from the United States means they have released 50 players from their respective systems? Who were these talented players, and what was their signing bonus? Did they ever attend college first? Are they ready for “the real world of work”? It is said 5% of drafted players play at least one MLB game.

So is there a right answer to college versus pro? Yes, for each individual, and no, when applying the question to each draft eligible high school player as a group. It has nothing to do with whether each player wants to play pro baseball but more to do with when they want to take a shot at it.

Getting drafted out of high school is no guarantee you will be re-drafted out of college, just as much as not getting drafted out of high school means you never will be drafted out of college. The college baseball experience will be the main playing field which includes the summer wood bat leagues. They are a main feeder system to the pros. One thing is for sure: Players having this decision are very talented and will have a place to show their stuff, be it on a campus or a minor league town.

High School draft prospects need to sit down with their parents and determine what their value is. When they fill out MLB questionnaires, they will be asked about what round they feel they belong in, and how much bonus they would sign for in some cases. These are tough questions and I have heard different views from “experts”, parents, coaches, scouts, agents/advisors, and everyone in between. Just the fact that the views differ corroborates that there is no right or wrong answer.

Some say if you choose a round to be selected in, you are drawing a line and feel you may be risking being selected at all. If you choose a dollar figure, same thing. But if it is an honest answer and you believe it 100%, then you are risking nothing. If they really want you at that amount of investment, then you can conclude the feeling is mutual and the draft result will prove or disprove it.

Some advise to say nothing, or use the term “market value”. So who is the expert in assigning this market value? The player needs to determine his own market value, then choose to disclose it or keep it under family wraps. Players may be told that “if we selected you in the xth round, would you sign?” In my opinion, that is a tough question to ask a teenager and his family, unless x equals 1st or 2nd. My best advice which comes from research, being a fan of baseball, and a parent with a player in the process is to learn from history.

Pedro AlvarezThe internet allows us all the ability to simply read about players and their travels, look at draft history and results, as well as read about the process of getting to pro baseball. Just perform a few “where are they now” searches and you can educate yourself pretty well in a general fashion. A good start is to research Pedro Alvarez (pictured left). He is a 1st class talent and according to many, a 1st class kid. Alvarez turned down a nice bonus out of high school, and pretty soon his decision made at that time will turn out to be a great one. Another place to get some recent history is to review some of the players who were named to several of the 2008 Division 1 freshman All-American teams. Several of those players drafted opted for college over starting pro ball, and several went undrafted because of signability. They keep playing the game, and play it at a high level, in college.

Evaluate your situation. Determine your worth. Determine your goals. Only a few high school players each year become instant millionaires. One of the greatest websites is the HSBBW. They recently had their annual thread on this topic. Follow the link and read about true experiences. Experience is the best teacher. What you will conclude is this: It is a very individual decision. There is no cookbook answer. Each of the two choices has its positives and negatives aspects. One hedges the bet with education while the other hedges it with money.

By Darren Heitner

Darren Heitner created Sports Agent Blog as a New Year's Resolution on December 31, 2005. Originally titled, "I Want To Be A Sports Agent," the website was founded with the intention of causing Heitner to learn more about the profession that he wanted to join, meet reputable individuals in the space and force himself to stay on top of the latest news and trends.

Heitner now runs Heitner Legal, P.L.L.C., which is a law firm with many practice areas, including sports law and contract law. Heitner has represented numerous athletes and sports agents as legal counsel. He has also served as an Adjunct Professor at Indiana University Bloomington from 2011-2014, where he created and taught a course titled, Sport Agency Management, which included subjects ranging from NCAA regulations to athlete agent certification and the rules governing the profession. Heitner serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where he teaches a Sports Law class that includes case law surrounding athlete agents and the NCAA rules.

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