At 11:01 p.m. ET on Friday, Aug. 15, John Savage didn’t feel safe.
“I’ll feel OK in about 59 min,” Savage texted. Eleven minutes later, another text: “48 min.”
Finally, at 12:17 a.m., a third text: “He is a Bruin.”
You can’t blame Savage for counting down the minutes. Though published reports quoted Gerrit Cole the previous day saying he had decided to attend UCLA rather than sign with the Yankees, it ain’t over until the clock strikes midnight and the Aug. 15 signing deadline is officially in the rear-view mirror. Only then could UCLA’s coach exhale and pronounce Cole a Bruin. The payoff was worth the anxiety, though: Cole, a 6-foot-3 righthander, is the highest-drafted high schooler who will set foot on campus this year, not to mention the only first-round pick to spurn professional ball in favor of the college ranks since 2002, when John Mayberry Jr. chose to attend Stanford. A fastball that reaches 97-98 mph and a sometimes-devastating power curveball also make Cole the highest-ranked recruit to reach campus this year—he was No. 17 in Baseball America’s pre-draft top 200 rankings of all draft prospects, college or prep.
|Cream of the Crop|
|The 10 highest-ranked high school players, according to BA’s pre-draft top 200, who did not sign by Aug. 15:|
|17.||Gerrit Cole, rhp||UCLA|
|25.||Alex Meyer, rhp||Kentucky|
|48.||Daniel Webb, rhp||Okaloosa-Walton (Fla.) JC|
|52.||Sonny Gray, rhp||Vanderbilt|
|70.||Nick Maronde, lhp||Florida|
|72.||Zack Cox, 3b||Arkansas|
|78.||Brett Mooneyham, lhp||Stanford|
|79.||Danny Hultzen, lhp||Virginia|
|80.||Zach Cone, of||Georgia|
|94.||Donnie Roach, rhp||Arizona|
Landing Cole also makes UCLA one of signing day’s biggest winners among college teams. While the Bruins lost Tyler Chatwood and Cutter Dykstra (second-round picks) and Clark Murphy (fifth-rounder), they landed a small class of impact players, including infielders Chris Amezquita and Tyler Rahmatulla, who will replace departed mainstays Jermaine Curtis and Brandon Crawford on the left side of the infield.
Let’s look at some other winners and losers from signing day among college teams.
Wild Day For Wildcats
Kentucky’s banner recruiting class was not without losses, but all in all the Wildcats weathered deadline day well.
“That was a miserable day,” Kentucky recruiting coordinator Brad Bohanon said. “It wasn’t even nerve-wracking; it was just miserable. It’s not like you’re on the phone with the kids all day, because you’ve told them over the past year everything you’ve had to tell them. We had a couple kids say they were going to turn their phones off. I didn’t talk to Alex Meyer until after midnight.”
There were some nervous moments with Meyer, a 6-foot-7 righthander with a plus fastball and plus curveball that earned him the No. 25 spot on BA’s predraft rankings. Bohanon said he gathers the atmosphere at the Meyer home was like a circus, with the Red Sox trying to sign him as a 20th-round pick while the family (with the help of its advisers from the Scott Boras Corp.) tried to balance the huge dollar figures being thrown at them against Meyer’s strong desire to go to school.
“With the Alex Meyer deal, the first positive thing we’d heard was that afternoon on the BA blog,” Bohanon said, referring to a report that Meyer had turned down a $2 million offer from Boston. Finally, at 12:05 a.m., Meyer called Bohanon with the good news.
The Wildcats weren’t so lucky with lefthander Robbie Ross, who signed with the Rangers as a second-round pick on Friday afternoon for a $1,575,000 bonus. They had already lost second-rounder Seth Lintz and fourth-rounder Corban Joseph, and they caught an even worse break when flame-throwing righty Daniel Webb failed to qualify academically. So while Webb did not sign with the Diamondbacks before the deadline, Kentucky won’t benefit—he’s going to Okaloosa-Walton (Fla.) Junior College.
Even so, Kentucky’s recruiting class might wind up as the best in the nation and the tops in school history. Meyer is joined by late-rising catcher Cory Farris, a premium athlete who had a big summer and nearly signed with the White Sox as a 43rd-round pick, and infielder Andy Burns, the top prep hitter in Colorado who held his own in the Northwoods League this summer.
Bohanon tried to keep expectations for the group of freshmen realistic.
“We’re excited, but the SEC’s a huge adjustment for anybody, no matter how talented you are,” he said. “I think Mark Prior had an ERA over 5.00 his freshman year at Vanderbilt (actually 4.59), and he was one of the best pitchers in the history of college baseball his junior year. So you can’t expect to come in and dominate right away . . .” He paused, then couldn’t help himself from adding, “But we’re pumped.”
Vanderbilt recruiting coordinator Erik Bakich believes this recruiting class could be the Commodores’ best ever. That’s saying something for a program that has landed elite talents like David Price and Pedro Alvarez in recent years. Leading the way is 5-foot-10 righthander Sonny Gray, who might have even better stuff than Cole when he’s healthy. Infielder Jason Esposito reportedly turned down a $1.4 million bonus offer as a seventh-round pick of the Royals. Matt Marquis and Joe Loftus bring big-time power potential to the outfield, while righties Navery Moore and Will Clinard and lefty Grayson Garvin give Vanderbilt a formidable pitching core for the future.
Yet Vandy coach Tim Corbin can’t help but feel disappointed the Commodores couldn’t land outfielders Ryan Westmoreland, Anthony Hewitt and Adam Milligan. Hewitt, the 24th overall pick in the draft, signed with the Phillies earlier this summer, while Milligan signed with the Braves for $350,000 in the sixth round, and Westmoreland signed with the Red Sox on deadline day for $2 million as a fifth-rounder.
“I feel pretty good. When you recruit those kids, though, you want to get them all,” Corbin said. “That’s why you recruit them. I don’t think you recruit anyone thinking they’re not going to be at school—maybe I’m being delusional. When they don’t show up, it kind of hurts a little bit. You have no idea what you’re going to do scholarship-wise, but we don’t over-recruit, we’re usually right to the dollar when we recruit these kids.
“It’s a tough, tough system. I was irritated when Westmoreland signed, but I was more irritated with the situation than anyone else. It’s a situation where that type of money given to a kid like him can only be given when it’s too late for us. And that stinks. You’ve got no way of making that up, no way at all. In his case, it came down to the very end.”
Tarred And Feathered
Yet Vanderbilt must be considered one of signing day’s big winners. Imagine what it must be like for North Carolina, whose highly touted class was ravaged this summer. The Tar Heels lost shortstop Derrik Gibson, outfielder L.J. Hoes and righthander Jason Knapp early in the summer, but none was a terrible shock. They held out hope that prized righty Tim Melville might show up on campus once he slipped to the fourth round, but by midsummer it became apparent that Melville would sign, so no one was surprised when the Royals inked him for a $1.25 million bonus on deadline day.
But UNC was counting on righthander Quinton Miller and shortstop Garrison Lassiter arriving in Chapel Hill to solidify its foundation for the future. Instead, on Aug. 15, Miller signed with the Pirates for $900,000 as a 20th-round pick, and Lassiter signed with the Yankees for $625,000 as a 27th-rounder.
The other big loser from deadline day was Tulane. One common thread that ties UNC and Tulane together is that both lost their recruiting coordinators between the draft and signing day, as UNC’s Chad Holbrook left for South Carolina and Tulane’s Mark Kingston went to Illinois State. It’s hard to say how much of a factor that was, but pro teams’ willingness to open their wallets was most certainly a major factor.
“When the recruiting coordinator is doing most of the visiting with the parents, I don’t know that you can discount it, but i don’t think that’s the ultimate factor,” Tulane coach Rick Jones said. “I think the ultimate factor is the amount of money and scholarships offered by the professional clubs.”
When the dust settled, Tulane lost half of its eight-man signing class. Earlier in the summer, the Green Wave had already lost righthander Ross Seaton, who netted $700,000 as a supplemental third-rounder from the Astros. But the worst was yet to come.
On Thursday night, Tulane watched helplessly as the Indians shelled out $750,000 to sign lefthander T.J. House. Then, around 8 p.m. on deadline day, the Red Sox forked over $200,000 to 35th-round pick Carson Blair. And minutes before the midnight deadline, the Nationals still had no deal in place with first-round pick Aaron Crow, but their consolation prize was outfielder J.P. Ramirez, another Tulane recruit. Washington gave him a $1 million bonus as a 15th-rounder.
House, Blair and Ramirez were a huge part of Tulane’s long-term plans, and all three seemed likely to wind up at school after slipping into the middle of the draft’s second day. But pro clubs went well above slot to sign all four Tulane recruits, who Jones said also received nearly $1 million combined for school, on top of their bonuses.
“It’s hard to fathom,” Jones said. “Those are the kind of guys that go to school. We lost seven guys in 15 years prior to this—that’s a pretty good track record. Then all of a sudden to lose four, and hatchet your recruiting class . . .
“I guess it says how healthy major league baseball is and how many resources they have. But it sure does change the way your approach it. We felt solid, to get academic guys who are outstanding college players and wouldn’t be in the top two or three rounds of the draft, who had a chance to come in and be major impact guys as freshmen and be first- or second- or third-round picks in three years. It leaves you in a place where you can have no strategy. At this late a date, it doesn’t matter how hard you worked, how much money you spent, how much time you spent in the recruiting process, it leaves you with nothing.”
In the short term, Tulane will scramble to try to augment its class with last-minute junior college transfers. In the long term, the Green Wave knows it will need to recruit a class and a half next year, because it has an older team that will lose eight seniors after this year. But now that more and more clubs are willing to shell out huge bonuses—and tuition money—to middle- and late-round picks, Jones said he and recruiting coordinator Chad Sutter need to take a hard look at their recruiting strategy. It has become apparent that just signing academic-minded players is no longer a near-assurance that they’ll wind up at school. And if they sign at the last minute, there’s no time to augment your class at the last minute. That’s why Jones wants to see the signing deadline moved up at least a month, to July 15.
“At the very least, if the front offices in Major League Baseball and college baseball both want this date to be pushed up a month to July 15 at least, then the commissioner’s office has to work this thing out with the player’s association,” Jones said. “We’re a big part of Major League Baseball, so there should be some consideration there. I don’t blame anybody in pro baseball for signing players—that’s their job. It’s just the timing. Major League Baseball is so healthy, there are so many resources available to them, and if they can provide those kind of bonus and education packages, they’re going to win a lot.”