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MLB Draft’s Two-Sport Stars Carry Big Risks, Big Rewards

Before the 2011 draft is very old, a team will draft Kansas high school standout Bubba Starling. It will likely take place in the first 10 picks. 

That team will do so knowing that he has the opportunity to play quarterback at Nebraska in front of 80,000 fans a game. He can continue his baseball career there in the spring. Scouts know that he has the speed, athleticism and arm strength to play in the NFL. And they know it will likely cost $5 million or more to persuade him to put away the shoulder pads.

And it’s almost assured that some team will be willing to take that risk with its first-round pick. Because when you get a chance to land an athlete like Starling, you don’t pass it up.

It’s the same decision teams have faced with players like John Elway, Bo Jackson, Delino DeShields, Matt Holliday, Josh Booty, Andrew Brackman and Joe Borchard in the past.

And when teams believe a player is committed to trying to succeed in baseball, they can be very persuasive. Not every two-sport star who chooses baseball makes it, but the opportunity to get paid as an 18-year-old makes a pretty convincing case for many elite athletes.

A Rebellious Streak

These days you can’t be a two-sport star without being at least a little bit of a rebel.

In the age of specialization, athletes are told to pick a sport and master it from a young age. If you have a great fastball as a 13-year-old, it’s time to give up your dreams of being a quarterback. Have a great jump shot? Well, let’s work on your dribble instead of dabbling at playing third base come spring.

So any player willing to try to mix baseball with football or basketball in high school is bucking plenty of friendly advice. Those crazy enough to try to mix football and baseball in college, or try to play one in college and the other as a pro, are just plain stubborn.

And that’s why scouts and coaches love to have them.

“You have to realize, everyone is telling that athlete not to do it,” said Stanford coach Mark Marquess, a two-sport star in college who has coached numerous players who also played football. “Whether it’s pro baseball scouts telling them, ‘You’re crazy to play football. You’re going to get hurt.’ The football scouts are saying, ‘You’re crazy to play baseball, you need to put on more weight, dedicate yourself 12 months a year to football.’

“He’s going against the advice of professional baseball scouts and NFL scouts and most college football coaches. He’s going against the grain of what everyone is telling them.”

The upside for coaches is that stubborness usually equals self-confidence. “What that means is he has supreme confidence in his athletic ability, and he loves to compete,” Marquess said.

Marquess saw that when John Elway decided to play baseball at Stanford. He was expected to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL whenever he became eligible for the draft, but for the idea of playing in baseball games that counted sounded more appealing than spending his spring on the practice field for football.

That kind of confidence, call it cockiness if you want, is a useful personality trait when you’re pitching or coming to the plate with the bases loaded in the late innings of a tie game.


“If I saw two kids with similar skill sets and one is a football guy too, I want the football guy,” said Al Goetz, a former Braves scout who scouted and signed two-sport star Jeff Francouer, among others, before becoming an agent. “Football is such a tough sport. Baseball is such a tough route to go—you will get kids who will lay down or feel sorry for themselves. With football in most cases, they get through it pretty quick. They are able to fight through it.”

Many scouts feel that a baseball player who has endured two-a-day football practices during the heat of August and helmet-rattling hits is the kind of player who won’t be bothered by the grind of a 14-game road trip or a hitting slump.

“I’ve been a big believer and a big advocate of two-sport guys,” Phillies scouting director Marti Wolever said. “The pluses for me are the athleticism and the competitive nature. Being involved in different sports is a very attractive feature to me because of the intensity, the desire to succeed and the passion to compete that go along with doing that. The negatives are that you get kids who aren’t full-time baseball players. So, consequently, they’re pulled in different directions athletically.

“They’re usually goal-driven guys who want to succeed and do well, so they pull themselves away from baseball, which I think hurts their development to some extent. But once you get them into baseball and you can make them full-time players, they seem to handle the highs and lows a little bit better because they’ve been through more of those in different places and at different times in their lives.”

The Second Sport

For two-sport stars who want to play baseball in college, they do so knowing that baseball will have to be secondary.

The way NCAA scholarships are structured, baseball is never going to be a player’s main sport. Football and basketball scholarships are full rides, while most baseball scholarships are only fractional. But even if a player is good enough to get a full baseball scholarship, the rules say that as soon as they step onto a football field or basketball court in a game, they count against the scholarship limit for that sport.

So only the best of the best get to play both sports in college. Coaches won’t put up with a backup linebacker moonlighting, but if your star running back wants to give it a try? Well, coaches are a little more accommodating.

“You have to be real confident in your ability to miss spring football,” Marquess said. “There are exceptions, but I would say in most cases those two-sport athletes are draftable in both sports.”

The junior year is decision time for most two-sport athletes, as the baseball draft usually provides the impetus for making a long-term decision. Players like Rockies prospects Kyle Parker and Russell Wilson delayed that decision by playing pro baseball before turning back into college quarterbacks come fall. Pro teams don’t like seeing players to whom they’ve invested large sums of money get blindsided by linebackers, but acquiring elite, two-sport athletes requires tradeoffs. Here are a few lessons teams have learned about scouting two-sport stars:

You’re Getting An Elite Athlete: If a player is deciding between football and baseball, you already know he’s one of the top athletes in the country. The same is true for a basketball/baseball player. It’s simply not possible to be in demand in both sports without having well above-average athleticism.

Athleticism doesn’t guarantee baseball success, but some of the tools of a great athlete (supreme body control, speed, strength and agility) transfer well to baseball. That’s a clear advantage, especially at positions like shortstop or center field. Although as anyone who saw Cecil Fielder or David Wells play, you don’t have to be a great athlete to play baseball.

“If you’re a two-sport (athlete), you’re a very good athlete. But there are a lot of good baseball players you would not want to watch play football,” Goetz said.

Athleticism can often make up for a lot of other deficiencies. Marquess has Tyler Gaffney in his lineup at Stanford now. During the fall, Gaffney is a running back for the football team.

“Tyler Gaffney’s a sophomore here. He hasn’t played a lot of baseball. His swing is not your ideal swing,” Marquess said. “He didn’t know how to get a lead off first base, but he does things by accident that I could never teach.”

Athleticism doesn’t just lead to speed on the basepaths and in the field. It also results in the kind of body awareness that allows a player to take instruction and quickly put it to use. A superior athlete can usually maintain his swing more easily than a lesser one.

On the mound, it can be the difference between being able to repeat a delivery, or it may allow a pitcher to more quickly realize when he’s got a flaw in his delivery without having to wait for the pitching coach to explain it to him.

But athleticism doesn’t give a player the ability to recognize a curveball more quickly. Because baseball is a skill-based sport, athleticism is an advantage, but success is based on developing the skills to go with the tools.

You’re Going To Pay More To Sign Them: Because of the leverage that comes with options, two-sport stars are going to cost more than the average draftee. 

Righthander Zach Lee was considered one of the top high school pitchers in the 2010 draft, and he went 28th overall to the Dodgers. But because of Lee’s leverage as a premium quarterback recruit for Louisiana State—where he would have played both sports—he signed for $5.25 million, the third-highest bonus in the 2010 draft class.

Outfielder Joe Borchard set a draft record (since broken) when the White Sox paid him a $5.3 million signing bonus in August 2000 to give up football. The Cubs gave righthander Jeff Samardzija, a fifth-round pick in 2006, a $10 million major league contract to persuade him to give up his chance to be an NFL wide receiver. Back in 1998, Drew Henson signed for $2 million as the Yankees’ third-round pick, even though his contract allowed him to also play football at Michigan. In 2001, the Yankees gave Henson a $17 million major league contract to get him to focus on baseball.

While two-sport stars generally do sign for bigger contracts, their payments are spread out more than those of other players. Back in 1995, Major League Baseball established a rule allowing teams to spread out bonuses for two-sport stars over five years, so that players didn’t take a team’s money and run back to college to play their other sport. So while Lee signed for the third-largest bonus of the 2010 draft, he received less upfront money than most first-rounders.

You Have To Know Their Heart: Even if a team convinces a two-sport athlete to sign a contract giving up his other sport, the team always has to worry about second thoughts. A top football recruit can go from high school to college stardom as a freshman or sophomore, playing on national television and in front of 80,000 fans.

That same recruit has years of minor league ball ahead of him, playing in front of crowds of a few thousand if he’s lucky, in games that go largely unnoticed outside of the local market.

“You have the initial publicity of signing for $2 million, but for the next four years no one knows where you are unless you read Baseball America. In football you’re a star right away,” Marquess said.

Add in that even the most successful baseball players deal with plenty of failure (a .300 average still includes lots of 0-for-4 nights), and you have the recipe for doubts.

That’s where scouting comes in. If a team signs an athlete who is giving up his dream of playing in the NFL because of a big check, it lives in fear he’ll give up the game the first time he starts to struggle. The spread-out bonus payments help reduce the fear by giving players a financial incentive to stick with baseball, but beyond that the player has to be carried by a love of the game.

“I’ve never gone out of a house after a meeting with a two-sport guy and not known what’s his passion,” Goetz said. “I’ve had guys who love both, but baseball is just a little bit more important. (Other players) may have just made a decision based on money alone.”

Goetz said he couldn’t recall any of the financially motivated signings working out. “I can recall a bunch that didn’t work out,” he said.

You’ll Find Them Tougher To Scout, But Easier To Know: When analyzing a two-sport star, baseball scouts don’t usually get as many chances to see the player face elite competition. If the player skips the summer showcase circuit to work on football or basketball, scouts may never see a high school hitter face a 90 mph fastball. Or they’ll only get a few chances to see a pitcher work out of a jam.

But during the fall or winter, they can get a sense of the player by watching him play his other sport.

“You look to see how a kid competes. There’s an ability to see him take or give a hit in football. In basketballl, you can see his face, his reactions, you can see his speed and agility, how he moves and what he can do with his body,” an American League scouting director said. “But at the end of the day, you have to see him have some sort of success in baseball. You have to see something to make you feel better about how he hits the baseball.”

You Know They’ll Have Some Catching Up To Do: In this age of specialization, there are a lot of polished baseball players who sign their first pro contracts. Many prospects play baseball year-round throughout their teenage years, while getting individual, specialized coaching on the side. If you put a pitcher who throws year-round as a teenager against a newly signed outfielder who played baseball only in the spring, there’s a clear advantage to the more veteran player on the mound.

When George Lombard, now a manager in the Red Sox system, signed with the Braves in 1994, his $450,000 bonus was the largest in the second round that year. He had been ticketed to play running back at Georgia and had only spent a couple of months playing baseball each spring sandwiched around football and track. The first minor league game he ever saw was the first one he played in. 

As a center fielder he hit .140 his first year, but that wasn’t even his biggest problem. Stiff from his football weightlifting, Lombard’s arm was so bad that to call it a 20 on the 20-80 scouting scale was being kind.

“I remember guys making fun of me because my arm was so bad,” Lombard said.

Struggling against more experienced players in his second year, Lombard almost called it quits to go play college football, but a talk with Braves coach Leon Roberts convinced him that he should stick it out. By 1998, he was one of the best players in the Double-A Southern League and earned his first big league callup. He never became a big league regular, but Lombard eventually caught up to his peers. He spent 16 seasons in the minors with parts of six seasons in the majors.

And by the time Lombard’s career ended, thanks to long-tossing he had an average outfield arm.

“I can’t think many people improved as much as I did from where I was starting out,” Lombard said. “I think a good athlete can get away with mechanical mistakes. I don’t think my swing was ever 100 percent sound. I think that hurt me when I faced better pitching. But being a good athlete helps you get away with those type of things.”

They Won’t Get Burned Out: Two-sport stars may start their pro careers behind some of their more baseball-centric teammates, but that may bring advantages as well. If you hop from sport to sport as the seasons change, baseball has been a change of pace, not a way of life. The players who have spent all of their adolescence focused on baseball sometimes find little appeal to spending year after year playing 140 games.

“A lot of guys like kids from California and Florida, they have a tendency to be burned out. When you’re starting to play every day, it kept things fresh for me because I had played very little,” said Delino DeShields, who was planning to play basketball at Villanova before the Expos drafted him in the first round in 1987. 

“Baseball was furthest thing from my mind. I wasn’t beating myself up with the ups and downs of baseball everyday. It kept it kind of fresh for me.”

You’re Taking A Big Risk With Potentially Big Rewards: The list of biggest draft busts includes plenty of two-sport stars. Josh Booty, Borchard, Henson, Chad Hutchinson and Roscoe Crosby are just a few of the two-sport athletes who signed big money deals and failed to live up to expectations.

But the same year Crosby got $1.75 million from the Royals, the Twins gave Joe Mauer $5.15 million to shelve his dreams of being Florida State’s quarterback. In 2000, Borchard’s record deal didn’t work out for the White Sox, but Grady Sizemore rewarded the Expos handsomely for their decision to sign him for $2 million to pass on football at Washington.

Henson’s 1998 draft class also included Adam Dunn and Matt Holliday. The former didn’t give up on his football career at Texas until the team signed Chris Simms and moved him to tight end, while Holliday, who was one of the top players in Oklahoma State’s football recruiting class until the Rockies enticed him to play baseball full time.

To succeed at baseball depends on much as mastering skills as utilizing athletic tools, but when you can combine the two, something special can happen. 

Drafting two-sport stars is often the equivalent of putting a large chunk of your bank account down on Red 14 at the roulette wheel. It may not always be the safest bet, but if you hit your number, the payoff can be massive.

“There is a big risk. The kid knows if he doesn’t go out and hit, he can always run back to football or basketball,” said one veteran scouting director. “So there is a lot of risk there, but the reward is you’re talking about a special athlete and a special talent.”

If the scout manages to find the player who can develop the skills to match his athleticism, well then you have something. And if they don’t ever put it together . . . ?

Well, for the player, at least their two-sport status probably made them rich. And because this is an inexact science, it’s hard to say that not focusing on baseball earlier would have made a difference.

“My personal opinion is it doesn’t make a difference,” Marquess said. “Initially, maybe the first year or two, he might be behind the curve. But that didn’t keep Joe Borchard from being a 15-year major league player. 

“What it did do is it allowed him to sign the highest bonus ever signed by a college guy. He probably tripled the amount he would have gotten if he was just a baseball player. It didn’t keep him from being a 15-year major league star. It didn’t happen, but it didn’t keep him from getting there.”

Looking Back
Two-sport stars and their risks and rewards have been a constant feature of the draft going back to the 1960s. To give you an idea of the decisions that have to be made, here are BA’s scouting reports on three two-sport athletes from the 1998 draft. Two worked out well, while one became famous for not making it.
Drew Henson, SS/RHP
Drew Henson

Scouting Report: Henson is a one-of-a-kind athlete who might be one of the first players picked if he weren’t an equally outstanding football player. He’s a top quarterback recruit for Michigan. His athletic feats have made him a hero in the state. As a baseball player, he has power both as a hitter and a pitcher and has been described as a cross between Mark McGwire and Mark Wohlers. He has tremendous bat speed and is closing in on numerous national prep home run records. Scouts say he’ll have to move to third base or right field because he doesn’t run well. He’s put up eye-popping numbers as a pitcher, but has made it clear he prefers to play every day.

What Happened: Henson’s tools never consistently translated in either sport. The Yankees drafted him in the third round and signed him to a deal that allowed him to play quarterback at Michigan (where he shared time with Tom Brady). They traded him to the Reds in 2000, then got him back in March 2001 and signed him to a $17 million major league deal so that he would give up football. He did show power, but he struck out enough that he struggled to hit better than .240 in three tries at Triple-A. As a 23-year-old, Henson gave up baseball to try to make it as an NFL quarterback, signing with the Dallas Cowboys. He made one start and played in eight total games in four seasons, the last with the Detroit Lions in 2008.
Adam Dunn, 1B/RHP
Scouting Report: Dunn has bounced in and out of the first round all spring, as scouts attempt to determine whether he’s serious about pursuing baseball or more intent on becoming a quarterback at Texas. At 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, Dunn is a powerful specimen who runs well, can drive balls a long way or throw 90-91 mph with nasty movement.
What Happened: The Reds picked Dunn in the second round, then signed him to a $772,000 contract that allowed him to play football at Texas. He gave up on football after he was moved to tight end during spring practice before his sophomore year. Two years later, Dunn was in the big leagues, quickly establishing himself as one of the game’s best power hitters. He has finished in the top 10 in his league in home runs each of the past seven seasons—he’s at 358 and counting for his career—and is now with the White Sox.
Matt Holliday, 3B/RHP
Scouting Report: The wild card in Oklahoma is 3B/RHP Holliday, son of Oklahoma State coach Tom Holliday and one of the nation’s top quarterback recruits. He might be an impossible sign unless he gets first-round money, but the loss of Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator to the NFL has made Holliday look more closely at baseball. He is a five-tool player with excellent power and arm strength.
What Happened: Because of Holliday’s commitment to Oklahoma State, he fell to the seventh round. The Rockies persuaded him to give up football for late-first round money ($885,000). It took Holliday a while to catch up to his minor league peers—he spent two years in high Class A and two more in Double-A—but once he caught up, he turned into one of the better outfielders in the National League, where he’s a career .322/.392/.553 in more than 4,000 plate appearances for Colorado and St. Louis.

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