On National Signing Day, Elite Athlete Duce Robinson Creates A Puzzle For MLB Teams
One prospect who may have gotten lost in the shuffle on Baseball America’s recently updated top 200 draft rankings is the 123rd-ranked player in the class, Arizona high school outfielder Duce Robinson.
For college football fans or NFL draftniks, however, he’s probably better known as five-star tight end Duce Robinson, who on national signing day is one of the highest-ranked and still uncommitted players in the country.
Both 247Sports and ESPN rank Robinson as the top tight end in the class, while 247Sports rates him as the No. 19 overall player and ESPN has him pegged at No. 40 overall.
Robinson is the only remaining Top 50 football recruits on 247’s composite rankings without a signed letter of intent.
Robinson may wait to make any decision about his football career because of the possibilities for his baseball career. As an outfielder, Robinson is both extremely intriguing but also a much-less known commodity than much of the rest of the high school draft class.
MLB scouting departments seem to be playing a bit of catch up on him at this point, though Robinson’s camp has recently gotten plenty of attention from teams. He is expected to show his skills in workouts and at the MLB combine during the upcoming months, though he is not going to play high school baseball this spring—which will only make him a more polarizing prospect in baseball circles.
In terms of on-field talent, however, Robinson’s ability is obvious. In our reporting, some evaluators have said that Robinson could be a Top 100 talent in the draft if he focused on baseball.
Despite coming to the 2022 Area Code Games in San Diego with few recent baseball reps compared to his peers, Robinson stole the show at the event by showcasing excellent raw power. He hammered baseballs to the gaps during games. In the four games he played, Robinson went 3-for-5 (.600) with a triple, a double, a single and four walks compared to just one strikeout.
He hit half a dozen home runs in batting practice and showcased some of the biggest, and easiest, raw power at the event, and was timed at 11.5 seconds from home to third on a triple, demonstrating his speed. He’s an extremely athletic outfielder with power and speed.
He also has very little baseball experience in top-caliber events compared to many of his peers in the draft class. And he’s a player whose hope is to play both sports going forward—that adds a significant complicating factor.
Part of that complicating factor is the fact that for all of Robinson’s exceptional talent, he is still a bit raw compared to his peers on the baseball side. In a sport that has become increasingly specialized, Robinson has been busy playing both football and baseball at a high level. There are critiques scouts have of his swing. The direction of his lower half is aggressively pull-happy and he showed a tendency to leak out early with his legs and give up much of the outer half of the plate.
There are moving parts to his swing, and despite great strength and bat speed, he doesn’t always properly get on plane to utilize that strength. While he did walk four times compared to one strikeout at the Area Code Games (where he played for the Southeast-based Nationals instead of the Four Corners Reds team) he also showed swing-and-miss tendencies and teams might question his overall contact ability.
While those are obvious risk factors, for many teams those could also be a sign of how much upside he could have if and when he focuses exclusively on baseball. Robinson did show an ability to drive a fastball up and away with authority to the opposite field, even though his lower half wasn’t in a position to do so. Many high school hitters don’t have the sort of natural strength to do that and it’s easy to get excited about his potential after just a few years of baseball-focused training.
Robinson could sign a pro baseball contract out of high school but continue to play college football. It’s something a number of players have done in the past. For football purposes, he would be a walk-on, and he would be the most talented walk-on in the 2023 class. That is one of the reasons he can play wait-and-see on his college commitment. As a five-star recruit, schools are willing to wait for Robinson (football recruiting services predict he’ll end up at either Georgia or Southern California).
But when it comes to his baseball potential, he will be entering a system that is less open to two-sport athletes than it was in the past.
Before the current draft system with strictly controlled bonus pools, teams were much more willing to take a late-round flyer on two-sport stars. The players would be signed to two-sport deals that spread their bonus over up to five years. If a player decided to not report for baseball, the remaining years of the bonus would not be paid.
Under the old system, teams could spend as much as they wanted on the draft. In 2011, the Reds picked lefthander Amir Garrett in the 22nd round, and signed him to a two-sport deal with a $1 million bonus, even though Garrett had barely played baseball in high school. Garrett went to college to play basketball, but reported to the Reds to pitch in between his college seasons. Eventually, Garrett decided to focus on baseball full-time in 2014. He made his MLB debut in 2017 and has worked as an MLB reliever ever since.
That couldn’t happen now for a pair of reasons. For one, the 22nd round no longer exists. With fewer rounds, there aren’t as many picks to spread around and take a flyer on a high-risk, high-reward prospect.
More importantly, teams must stay within a bonus pool limit, which would prevent a team from signing a late-round pick to a large bonus without finding equivalent savings somewhere else in the top 10 rounds to create the pool room.
That was a regular approach to two-sport players under the old system. Ricky Williams may have been more well known as a running back for the Texas Longhorns, but he was also playing in the outfield in the Phillies minor league system.
Nowadays, it’s harder to entice teams to allow a player to do both. Under the old system, it was a low-risk gamble that cost only a late-round pick and a bonus check. Nowadays, a team picking a two-sport player does so knowing that the bonus amount will come out of a strictly controlled total pool allotment, so money spent on a player who could eventually spurn baseball for another sport is money that can’t be spent elsewhere.
The two-sport provision does still exist, so a team signing Robinson to a contract could spread the bonus payments over multiple years to add some protection in case he decided to focus entirely on football at a later date. But nowadays, it’s the draft capital and bonus allotment that carries more risk than the actual financial commitment.
Anthony Alford, the Blue Jays’ third-round pick in 2012, is the last prominent player to sign a pro baseball contract out of high school while also playing college football. That also happened to be the first year of the bonus pool system that continues to operate.
Alford was viewed as a potential first-round pick if he focused entirely on baseball, but he fell to the third round because of his desire to also play football. He signed a contract that allowed him to do both, and was a standout for Southern Mississippi as a freshman quarterback. He then transferred to Mississippi, and eventually decided to focus solely on baseball. But from 2012 to 2014, Alford barely played baseball as he didn’t report to the Blue Jays until after spring semester had ended and had to leave the team in early August to report to fall training camp for football.
From 2012 to 2014, Alford played only 25 pro games, which meant when he focused full-time on baseball in 2015, he spent the year in Class A, several years and many at-bats behind his contemporaries. Alford did reach the majors in 2017, and has had short stints in the majors every year since, but he’s spent most of the past five years in Triple-A.
That same year, the Red Sox signed Shaq Thompson for $100,000 as an 18th-round pick. Thompson also was signed with the understanding that he’d also play football. He struck out in 37 of 39 pro at-bats in the Gulf Coast League, quickly focused on football and has had a long, successful career as an NFL linebacker.
More recently, Kyler Murray became the most prominent player to successfully play both football and baseball in college. Murray’s college football success came quicker than his success on the diamond, but after hitting .122/.317/.122 in 27 games in 2017, Murray hit .296/.398/.556 for Oklahoma in 2018. That was enough to entice the A’s to draft him ninth overall. They signed Murray to a $4.6 million deal with the provision that he could return to play quarterback at Oklahoma for another season.
Murray won the Heisman Trophy in that final season with the Sooners and was picked first overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. He never played a game with the A’s, and his decision to forgo baseball meant the A’s got nothing out of the ninth pick in the 2018 draft. The Orioles selected righthander Grayson Rodriguez, now a Top 10 Prospect in baseball, two picks after the A’s selection.
In recent years, there have been more examples of football-baseball players who tried to play both in college. Will Taylor is playing football and baseball at Clemson right now. Jerrion Ealy was a 31st-round pick of the D-backs in 2019, but went to Mississippi to play both sports. He went undrafted in baseball in 2021 and 2022. John Rhys Plumlee played both sports at Mississippi. Brandon McIlwain played both sports at multiple colleges before signing with the Mets as a 26th-round pick in 2019.
And probably in the most prominent recent example, Adley Rutschman played a season of football at Oregon State while playing baseball before focusing on baseball full-time.