Always A Gamble

CHEYENNE, Wyo.—It’s a gamble when a first-round draft choice turns his back on pro ball. And rarely does the player hit the jackpot, at least in baseball.

When the deadline passed for players to sign out of this year’s draft, there were only three first-round picks left unsigned—including Aaron Crow.

Crow, who turned down the Nationals’ offer after being a first-round pick a year ago, has not reached terms with the Royals, which selected him 12th overall this year. Crow, however, does not have a deadline because he passed on returning to Missouri, opting instead for independent ball.

That leaves lefthander Matt Purke, selected 14th overall by the Rangers, and second baseman LeVon Washington, the 30th overall pick by the Rays, as the two first-rounders who decided to turn down offers in hope the next few years will provide them an education and even more bargaining leverage.

It’s the second year in a row that two first-round picks failed to sign. A year ago it was Crow, who went ninth overall, and righthander Gerrit Cole, the 28th pick who turned down the Yankees to pitch for UCLA. Teams signed all first-round picks from 2005-07.

In the 20 years prior to 2009, there were just 16 first-round draft picks who did not sign. Rarely has the player benefited from his delay. Just nine of those 16 were selected in the first round a second time. Just three of them have appeared in more than 300 big league games—catchers Charles Johnson and Jason Varitek, and outfielder J.D. Drew—although it is too early to draw any conclusions on Jeremy Sowers.

Sowers, whom the Reds drafted with no intention of signing in 2001, attended Vanderbilt and wound up signing with the Indians as the sixth pick in 2004. Sowers has been dominant in the minor leagues but has not yet established himself in the big leagues.

Drew opened the way for players to turn to independent leagues when he did not sign with the Phillies as the No. 2 overall pick in 1997, and opted to play for the St. Paul Saints instead of returning to Florida State. A year later he signed with the Cardinals, which selected him No. 5 overall in 1998.

Cautionary Tales

Nobody was hit harder than Matt Harrington, selected seventh overall by the Rockies in 2000. Harrington turned down an offer that would have paid him $4 million within 12 months of his signing, was drafted a total of five times and never signed.  In 2005, he did go to spring training with the Cubs, but he didn’t make a minor league team.

Righthander Kenny Henderson, who opted to attend Miami instead of signing with the Brewers as the fifth pick overall in 1991, battled injuries and never got a second chance. The Orioles never made a serious effort to sign Wade Townsend after ownership overruled the scouting department and selected the Rice righthander with the eighth pick in 2004. He did go to the Rays as the eighth selection the following year only to have his career top out at Dobule-A.

Righthander John Burke also declined to sign in 1991, when he was selected sixth overall by the Astros, and after returning to Florida for his senior season signed with the Rockies as the 27th pick in 2002. He pitched in 28 big league games, nine starts, before leaving the game.

Three players did not sign out of the 1989 draft: Charles Johnson (who went No. 10 to the Expos), outfielder Calvin Murray (No. 11, Indians), and pitcher Scott Burrell (No. 26,  Mariners).

Three years later, after playing for Miami, Johnson was selected by the Marlins, whose scouting director, Gary Hughes, had been the scouting director in Montreal in 1989. Johnson wound up with a 12-year big league career that included two all-star selections and four Gold Gloves.

Murray went seventh overall to the Giants in 1992, but wound up hitting just .231 in 288 big league games. Burrell opted to play basketball at Connecticut, but did sign with the Blue Jays after being drafted in the fifth round in 1990. He played two summers in the Jays system, but was later a first-round NBA draft pick and made a living on the hardwood.

Varitek turned down an offer from the Twins as the 21st player drafted in 1993 to return to Georgia Tech. He signed with the Mariners as the 14th selection the following year and has played 13 big league seasons.

Chad Hutchinson turned the Braves down after being drafted 26th overall when he came out of high school in 1995, opting to attend Stanford. While he was a second-round draft choice of the Cardinals in 1998, he pitched in just three big league games, and then gave the NFL a whirl as a quarterback.

Tyrell Godwin, who passed on the Yankees as the 24th pick in 1997 out of high school, signed with the Blue Jays as a third-round pick in 2001, and wound up appearing in three big league games before his career ended.

Alan Horne, the Indians’ No. 1 pick in 2001 who signed with the Yankees as an 11th-round pick in 2005, has seemingly topped out at Double-A. John Mayberry, a first-round pick of Seattle in 2002 who opted for Stanford and signed with the Rangers as the 19th selection in the 2005 draft, made his big league debut this year in Philadelphia.