By Josh Boyd
February 3, 2004
It looked like Drew Henson’s football career was behind him when he signed a six-year, $17 million baseball-only deal with the Yankees in 2001. Nearly three years, 332 games and 358 strikeouts with Triple-A Columbus later, Henson and the Yankees have called it quits so he can pursue a career in the NFL.
The two sides agreed to drop the final three years of Henson’s contract, with Henson forgoing the final $12 million he was owed and the Yankees not asking for him to return any of the money that has already been paid. Henson was due $2.2 million in 2004, $3.8 million in 2005 and $6 million in 2006. The Yankees will put Henson on waivers to free up a 40-man roster spot.
“I have truly enjoyed playing professional baseball, but after a great deal of thought and discussions with the people closest to me, I have decided to make football my career,” Henson said in a statement.
The agreement allows Henson to pursue his considerable promise in football. He was once projected as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft after passing for 2,146 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior at Michigan. The Houston Texans took a flier on him in the sixth round of the NFL draft last year, and plan to hold a workout for Henson on Feb. 12, when they’ll allow other teams interested in dealing for him to attend. Texans officials have said they plan to trade Henson because they have a young quarterback, David Carr, already in place.
Not long ago, Henson appeared to be on the fast track to stardom for the Yankees. He was regarded as a first-round talent coming out of Brighton (Mich.) High in 1998, and set the national high school career home run record (since broken). He lasted until the third round because of his football potential and commitment to Michigan. The Yankees gave him a $2 million bonus and allowed him to play football.
Henson split time between the Yankees farm system and Michigan football from 1998-2000, when he hit .275-23-88 in 600 at-bats. He projected to hit for well-above-average power and played a good third base, drawing comparisons to the likes of Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen. The Yankees traded him to the Reds as part of a package for Denny Neagle in July 2000 when he wouldn’t commit to baseball full-time.
Henson favored baseball but wanted to be a Yankee, so the Reds dealt him back to New York for outfielder Wily Mo Pena and $1.9 million in March 2001. The Yankees brought him back with the provision that he abandon football, giving him a six-year, $17 million contract as incentive.
Based on his potential and what he had shown in limited baseball action, Henson was regarded as the Yankees’ top prospect after making strides in the 2001 Arizona Fall League. But the Yankees rushed him into the upper levels of their system after he gave up football, and Henson never seemed to make the necessary adjustments. He batted .240-18-65 with 151 strikeouts in 471 at-bats at Columbus in 2002, and then .234-14-78 with 122 K’s in 483 at-bats last year.
The struggles killed Henson’s confidence, and scouts noticed his tools regressing. He seemed to lack the bat speed to catch up to plus fastballs, and was fooled by offspeed and breaking stuff. He was still capable of putting on impressive power displays in batting practice.
“If you went to see him at 5 o’clock, he crushes the ball. He hits line drives that can hurt people in the outfield,” one Yankees official said. “I think he has a tough time relaxing. He has a very non-athletic hitting approach, and it seems hard for him to relax to hit. He does a lot of stepping in and out of the box. He’s become very analytical about things.”
International League managers noticed the same thing. “He’s got great hand-eye coordination and his instincts at third base are tremendous,” one manager said last summer. “The whole thing is confidence in knowing you can do certain things. Sometimes it takes guys longer. He needs confidence. He’s made some great plays, but he also throws away the routine ball.”
The upcoming NFL draft provided the impetus for Henson’s decision, but he has also seen a string of moves by the Yankees that made clear the organization did not have confidence in his future. The latest was when third baseman Aaron Boone–whose acquisition itself showed the lack of faith in Henson–injured his knee playing basketball on Jan. 17. Henson’s name never surfaced as a serious replacement.
That probably signaled the end to Henson, who has once been regarded as the successor Scott Brosius at the hot corner. The Yankees bought time when Brosius retired after the 2001 season by trading for Robin Ventura, but then acquired Boone at the trade deadline last season. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said then that Henson’s development was a factor in the deal.
Will Kimmey contributed to this story.