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High School Draftees Tend To See Bigger MLB Free Agency Paydays

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Manny Machado (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

If you’re a baseball player born in the U.S., your most likely path to the major leagues is through a four-year college.

The numbers make that clear. On 2019 Opening Day rosters, 45 percent of all players came from four-year colleges, dramatically more than any other source. Among draftees, six out of every 10 came from the four-year college route. Just 32 percent signed out of high school while the other 8 percent signed out of junior college.

Any player who makes it to the major leagues for a few years is going to comfortably reside in the top tax bracket. Whether a player signs out of high school or goes to college, anyone who is a regular for a couple of years is going to be a millionaire.

But the richest of the rich among Major League Baseball players are rarely ones who took the college route. Now, let’s begin by admitting that we’re talking about the differences between being rich, very rich and being able to buy your own island. But as the game gets younger, and front offices look more and more skeptically at players in their 30s, the path to true riches runs through high school, junior colleges and the international signing market.

In the lead-up to the 2019 season, Manny Machado, a high school draftee, signed a $300 million free agent contract. Bryce Harper, a junior college draftee who graduated high school two years early to speed his path to the draft, signed a $320 million deal. Mike Trout, a high school draftee and the best player in the game, signed a $360 million contract extension. Nolan Arenado, a high school draftee, signed a $234 million extension. Patrick Corbin, a junior college draftee, signed a $140 million deal as well.

That’s six players who signed new deals with $1.354 billion.

Among players who went to four-year colleges, Chris Sale’s $145 million extension, Jacob deGrom’s $137.5 million extension, Paul Goldschmidt’s $130 million extension and Alex Bregman’s $100 million deal led the way this offseason. That’s four players at $512 million.

Those are all excellent contracts and ones that will ensure that the grandchildren of Sale, deGrom and Bregman will be taken care of. But the break-the-bank deals this offseason were the exclusive preserve of the high school or junior college draftee.

Of the 10 largest active MLB contracts, the only one handed out to a four-year college draftee is David Price’s seven-year, $210 million deal, and he ranks 10th. The top five are four high school players (Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Machado and Arenado) and Harper, a junior college draftee.

The divide is especially glaring among position players. Buster Posey’s $159 million deal is the largest for a four-year college draftee. There are 13 active high school and junior college position players with larger contracts.

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It’s unlikely this trend will change anytime soon. Extensions have gutted the upcoming 2020 free agent class, leaving Anthony Rendon (a college draftee) and Gerrit Cole (college) as the best players available in a somewhat thin free agent class.

But the 2021 class currently includes Mookie Betts (high school) and J.T. Realmuto (high school). The 2022 class likely won’t all make it to free agency, but Francisco Lindor (high school), Carlos Correa (high school), Corey Seager (high school), Javier Baez (high school) and Trevor Story (high school) make for an incredible prospective free agent shortstop class. Similarly Noah Syndergaard (high school) will be likely be the top pitcher in the class. He will be entering his age-29 season. Kris Bryant (college) will likely land a large deal as well.

In upcoming years, the biggest free agent deals are largely going to go to high school draftees.

Bryant’s case is an illustrative one. He was the Baseball America College Player of the Year, then the BA Minor League Player of the Year in his lone full season in the minors. He quickly made it to the majors and has lived up to every expectation, winning Rookie of the Year in 2015 followed by the MVP in 2016 as the Cubs won the World Series. He’s the kind of cornerstone player who does well in free agency.

But because Bryant didn’t break into the majors until he was 23 and will have to wait seven seasons to reach free agency (thanks to the Cubs holding him back for the first few weeks of his rookie year), he will not play a game of a free agent contract before he turns 30.

And no matter how good you are, teams these days don’t like to give large deals to 30-year-old hitters.

Betts also has an MVP award on his résumé. He’s also a franchise player for the Red Sox. He is poised to land a significantly larger deal than Bryant simply because he debuted at age 21 and will hit free agency two years younger than Bryant will.

When Bryant was 21, he was leading Division I in home runs.

The most talented high school players can reach the majors at 20 or 21. It was true for Betts, Seager, Correa, Lindor and Baez. Machado and Harper made it to the major leagues as 19-year-olds. In an industry that values youth in its free agents, that’s a massive advantage when compared with college draftees, who generally get drafted at age 21 and reach the majors at age 22 or 23 if they fly through the minors.

There are more four-year college draftees in the majors than high school players. But the ones getting the largest contracts are those who sign with pro clubs out of high school, and that looks unlikely to change any time soon.

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