Signing College Pitchers To MLB Deals Yields Mixed Results

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Ten years ago, the draft class of 2001 yielded stars who still burn brightly in the big leagues such as Joe Mauer, Mark Teixeira, David Wright, Dan Haren, Ryan Howard and Kevin Youkilis. Other players from the '01 draft, like Gavin Floyd, J.J. Hardy, Edwin Jackson and Dan Uggla, remain productive regulars. Even Bobby Crosby won the American League's rookie of the year award with the '04 Athletics.

Mark Prior, the '01 draft's second overall pick, turned in one of the best dozen or so pitching performances of the past decade when he went 18-6, 2.43 with 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings for the 2003 Cubs. (His ERA+ actually ranks 12th among qualified starters for the years 2001-10.) Of course, elbow and shoulder injuries derailed Prior's career, and he never was as singularly effective again. He closed out his Cubs career with a 4.27 ERA over his final 57 starts.

The '01 draft brought baseball a significant amount of talent, but it also signaled a sea change in the industry. Cowed by hard-line advisers, most notably Scott Boras, clubs had begun to shy away from elite amateur talent unless bonus parameters could be hammered out prior to the draft. According to the Baseball America Draft Almanac, "the top five prospects in the (2001) draft actually went in the first five picks" for the first time since 1995.

Of those top five—Mauer (Twins), Prior (Cubs), Dewon Brazelton (Devil Rays), Floyd (Phillies) and Teixeira (Rangers)—four of them forged significant careers in the big leagues. All but Mauer and Floyd, the two high school drafts, secured major league contracts with guaranteed values ranging from Brazelton's $4.8 million to Teixeira's $9.5 million to Prior's $10.5 million.

A player signing a major league contract straight out of the draft was not a new phenomenon—15 such pacts had been signed in the 15 drafts since Bo Jackson signed with the Royals in June 1986. But beginning in 2001, the top college arms in each draft, often represented by Boras, began to command major league contracts. Often they received them. The exceptions to the rule are the 2003 draft class—headed by Wake Forest's Kyle Sleeth, Richmond's Tim Stauffer and Mississippi State's Paul Maholm—and the 2010 draft class—headed by Mississippi's Drew Pomeranz, Florida Gulf Coast's Chris Sale and Georgia Tech's Deck McGuire. In the other eight drafts, the top one, two or three college arms in each class bagged big league deals.

In the past 10 drafts, dating back to 2001, a total of 31 players inked big league deals, 16 of them college pitchers. More specifically, 16 of them had completed at least three college seasons—Luke Hochevar in '06, Max Scherzer in '07 and Aaron Crow in '09 all signed after last pitching in the independent American Association. (Drafted as preps, three other pitchers also signed big league deals in the past decade—Adam Loewen as an '02 Orioles draft-and-follow and the Tigers duo of Rick Porcello in '07 and Jacob Turner in '09.)

Add it all up and nearly two-thirds of the decade's big league deal recipients have been pitchers. "History has shown that it's easier for pitchers to move faster than it is for hitters," said then-Tigers general manager Randy Smith said in 2000.

While young pitchers represent the riskiest subset of players, they offer significant benefits in cases in which a club identifies the right young pitcher. After all, a pitcher in his early 20s throws as hard as he ever will, and age-related attrition (or injury) appears more distant on the horizon. So given those two factors, clubs often don't want a potential top starter to expend his bullets retiring minor league batters when he could be doing the same in the big leagues.

From the pitcher's perspective, signing a major league contract benefits him in a number of ways. First, he's placed immediately on his club's 40-man roster, which accelerates his path to the big leagues because he consumes a minor league option upon his first trip to the minors. (Many college players earn an additional fourth option year, instead of the customary three, as we'll see.) Making the 40-man also affords the player other benefits such as an automatic invitation to major league spring training, a more lucrative minor league salary and enhanced health insurance benefits.

Taking The Plunge

Teams assume a great deal of risk in signing amateurs to major league contracts, but some of the financial risks are mitigated by the fact that bonuses in such cases often can be spread over the life of the deal. Let's examine the 16 specific cases from the past 10 drafts to determine the efficacy of such contracts. First, an overview, sorted by draft year. Bonus amounts are in millions, while Total represents the guaranteed dollar value of each pitcher's big league contract. His adviser at the time he signed his contract is listed last.

Pitcher, Org
Year (No.) School Bonus Total Adviser
Mark Prior, CHC 2001 (2) Southern Cal $4.00 $10.50 John Boggs
Dewon Brazelton, TB 2001 (3) Middle Tenn. St. 4.20 4.80 Bo McKinnis
Jeremy Guthrie, CLE 2002 (22) Stanford 3.00 4.00 Scott Boras
Justin Verlander, DET 2004 (2) Old Dominion 3.12 4.50 Mike Milchin
Phil Humber, NYM
2004 (3) Rice 3.00 4.20 Michael Moye
Jeff Niemann, TB 2004 (4) Rice 3.20 5.20 Casey Close
Mike Pelfrey, NYM 2005 (9) Wichita State 3.55 5.25 Scott Boras
Craig Hansen, BOS 2005 (26) St. John's 1.30 4.00 Scott Boras
Luke Hochevar+, KC 2006 (1) Tennessee 3.50 5.25 Scott Boras
Andrew Miller*, DET 2006 (6) North Carolina 3.55 5.45 F'line Ath. Mgmt.
Max Scherzer+, ARI 2006 (11) Missouri 3.00 4.30 Scott Boras
David Price*, TB 2007 (1) Vanderbilt 5.60 8.50 Bo McKinnis
Andrew Brackman, NYY 2007 (30) N.C. State 3.35 4.55 Scott Boras
Brian Matusz*, BAL 2008 (4) San Diego 3.20 3.47 Marc Agar
Stephen Strasburg, WAS 2009 (1) San Diego State 7.50 15.01 Scott Boras
Aaron Crow+, KC 2009 (12) Missouri 1.50 3.00 Hendricks Sports
+ Played for Fort Worth (American Assoc.) at time of signing. * Lefthander.

Note: The triumvirate of Darek Braunecker, Jim Lindell and Mark Rodgers comprise Frontline Athlete Management, the agency that represents Andrew Miller.

Note 2: The position players who received big league deals in the 2001-10 window were Teixeira (2001, fifth overall pick), Jeff Baker (2001, 111th), Delmon Young (2003, first), Rickie Weeks (2003, second), Stephen Drew (2004, 15th), Julio Borbon (2007, 35th), Pedro Alvarez (2008, second), Yonder Alonso (2008, seventh), Dustin Ackley (2009, second), Bryce Harper (2010, first), Yasmani Grandal (2010, 12th) and Zack Cox (2010, 25th).

In terms of career value, Verlander stands head and shoulders above this group. The Tigers ace won the BA Rookie of the Year award in 2006 and has an American League strikeout title (2009) and three all-star game nods to his credit. At the other end of the spectrum, neither Brazelton (6.38 ERA, 1.68 WHIP in 271 innings) nor Hansen (6.34 ERA, 1.72 WHIP in 94 innings) ever established himself in the big leagues.

Guthrie follows Verlander on the list of most productive careers to date. The only thing Guthrie has led the AL in is home runs allowed, with 35 in 2009, but he's anchored the Orioles' rotation in his five seasons in Baltimore, contributing a 4.12 ERA (107 ERA+), 1.27 WHIP and 2.2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 898 innings. On the whole, Prior contributed value similar to Guthrie (up to this point), but he condensed all his best work in one three-year window, 2003-05.

On the strength of strong 2010 campaigns, two pitchers have a legitimate shot to surpass Guthrie and approach Verlander in terms of career value: Price and Strasburg (assuming he returns from Tommy John surgery at full strength). Price finished runner-up in AL Cy Young award balloting last year and started the All-Star Game. Strasburg electrified the baseball world when he made his debut last June 8 by striking out 14 Pirates over seven innings. He didn't stop there. Strasburg struck out one-third of the batters to oppose him in his debut.

Matusz and Scherzer have showed promise early in their big league careers, but have a long, long way to go. Other more-tenured pitchers, such as Pelfrey (4.39 ERA, 93 ERA+ in 751 innings), Niemann (4.32 ERA, 95 ERA+ in 402 innings) and Hochevar (5.49 ERA, 78 ERA+ in 764 innings), have had their moments in the big leagues, but they've been No. 3 or 4 types on their best days.

The book is still being written on the Yankees' Brackman, who has reverted to his wild ways at Triple-A (with 42 walks in 53 innings), and the Royals' Crow, who made the big league bullpen out of spring training and has pitched well in that role.

Perhaps the two most interesting stories belong to our final two pitchers, who would have been easy to write off just six months ago.

Miller (5.84 ERA, 75 ERA+, 1.74 WHIP in 294 innings) has contributed as much negative value as any pitcher in the group, but he's had his moments with Boston's Triple-A Pawtucket club this season. In his last three starts he's totaled 16 strikeouts, two walks and 12 hits allowed in 20 innings. On the year Miller has limited lefties to seven hits in 63 at-bats (.111). He can opt out of his minor league deal on June 15 if he's not in the bigs, and given the injuries sustained by the Red Sox this season (and Miller's lefthanded-ness) that outcome is entirely possible.

White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper has worked his magic with Humber this season as the 28-year-old suits up for his fourth organization. After entering the year with just 51 major league innings in six pro seasons, Humber has been one of Chicago's most effective starters in going 6-3, 2.95 through 12 starts (plus two relief outings). His stock had slipped so much that the Twins let him leave as a minor league free agent following the 2009 season—despite being one-quarter of the package received from the Mets for Johan Santana. Similarly, Miller helped the Tigers fetch Miguel Cabrera when the lefty still had his maximum trade value.

What Have We Learned?

In our sample of 16 college pitchers, no positive correlation can be drawn between guaranteed payout and big league success. The top three packages went to Strasburg ($15.1 million), Prior ($10.5 million) and Price ($8.5 million) because, well, they ranked among the top amateur pitching talents of the decade. Each stood as the top prospect in his draft class. Their success or failure tells us little about the process of signing college pitchers to big league deals because they're outliers in this examination.

Show Time Or Slow Time?
Pitchers signed to major league contracts out of the draft face accelerated timetables. For some, like Justin Verlander and David Price, this poses no problem. But pitchers like Jeremy Guthrie or Phil Humber were not necessarily served by living life in the fast lane. They served lengthy minor league apprenticeships (of 569 and 664 innings, respectively) and exhausted four option years before they lost their prospect eligibility.

Presented here are the minor league innings totals, in ascending order, for the 16 college pitchers in our study. The innings count stops when a pitcher accrues 50 big league innings. His effectiveness in the big leagues is captured by Baseball-Reference's wins above replacement (WAR) metric, with all stats running through June 4.

Mark Prior 51 13.1
Stephen Strasburg 55 1.5
Andrew Miller 77 -3.8
Mike Pelfrey 102 4.3
Brian Matusz 113 4.0
Justin Verlander 119 21.2
Craig Hansen 127 -2.2
Max Scherzer 143 6.5
David Price 144 7.8
Aaron Crow 163 1.3
Dewon Brazelton 177 -4.1
Luke Hochevar 185 -0.7
*Andrew Brackman 294
Jeff Niemann 372 2.7
Jeremy Guthrie 569 16.1
Phil Humber 664 1.7

* Brackman pitches for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and has not yet appeared in the big leagues
Miller ($5.45 million), Hochevar ($5.25 million), Pelfrey ($5.25 million) and Niemann ($5.2 million) pulled down guarantees in excess of $5 million based solely on their work as amateurs. Miller stood at the head of the 2006 draft class, while Pelfrey ranked No. 1 and Niemann No. 2 among pitchers in their respective draft classes in 2005 and 2004. Hochevar went to the Royals with the 2006 draft's first overall pick, providing context for his bonus. This despite Hochevar ranking behind Miller, Tim Lincecum, Brad Lincoln, Greg Reynolds and Joba Chamberlain among his draft peers.

As detailed above, Pelfrey and Niemann have found the most success in the big leagues thus far, but that's not a strong endorsement for dishing out big bucks and big league deals to those orbiting below the Strasburg-Prior-Price stratosphere.

At the $4 million threshold we find an equal number of hits and misses. Verlander ($4.5 million) and Guthrie ($4 million) exemplify the hits—and Brazelton ($4.8 million) and Hansen ($4 million) the misses. Somewhere in middle lie Brackman ($4.5 million), Scherzer ($4.3 million) and Humber ($4.2 million). On an interesting tangent, Guthrie's drafting team, Cleveland, reaped no value from its investment. The Indians lost Guthrie on a waiver claim to Baltimore in January 2007. Every other pitcher here either contributed to his drafting team or brought back at least something in trade—though the jury's still out on Brackman.

At this payout level, we must recognize Angels righthander Jered Weaver, whose $4 million bonus in did not come as part of a big league pact. (The Long Beach State product received the highest bonus of any college pitcher signed to a minor league contract this decade.) No matter. Weaver forced the issue by breezing through the minors in 153 innings and debuting with the Angels on May 27, 2006. Now Weaver ranks in a virtual dead heat with Verlander in terms of career value with a strikeout title and an all-star appearance to his credit.

At the time of the 2004 draft, we rated Verlander behind Weaver, Niemann and Humber in a draft loaded with college pitching. Rice righties Humber (No. 3) Niemann (No. 4) and Wade Townsend (No. 8) became the highest drafted trio of college teammates ever. With the exception of Brazelton, who ranked as the fifth overall prospect in his 2001 draft class and behind only Prior among college pitchers, the other pitchers rated more modestly in their draft class. Guthrie rated as the 11th overall prospect, third among college pitchers in 2002, behind Ball State's Bryan Bullington and Rutgers' Bobby Brownlie.  Hansen was 10th overall, behind Pelfrey and Hochevar in 2005. Scherzer ranked ninth overall in 2006 but behind the six other college pitchers detailed in the Hochevar example above. Brackman ranked seventh overall in 2007, behind Price and Missouri State's Ross Detwiler.

Some of the best values in this sample occur at the lowest price point. In Matusz ($3.47 million), the Orioles have a pitcher poised to take over as team ace when Guthrie moves on. Matusz ranked No. 2 overall among draft prospects in 2008. The Royals briefly installed Crow ($3 million) as closer, supplanting Joakim Soria, after the rookie held the opposition scoreless in 20 of his first 22 big league outings. Crow ranked No. 7 in 2009, behind Strasburg, Missouri's Kyle Gibson and North Carolina's Alex White among college pitchers.

One interesting aspect of this sample of top college arms is that, despite turning pro on major league contracts, not all of them were immediately ready for prime time. In fact, seven of the 16 pitchers used four minor league options—the absolute maximum number allowed—before sticking in the big leagues. The honor roll includes Brazelton, Guthrie, Hansen, Hochevar, Humber, Miller and Niemann. (Humber required Tommy John surgery and Niemann contended with myriad injuries, setting back their timetables.) For his part, Brackman appears destined to repeat Triple-A next year, burning his fourth option year.

On the flip side, Crow, Matusz, Prior, Strasburg and Verlander required only one optional assignment (so far) before being deemed big league ready.