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June 27, 2013

Skewed Left

Searching for Baseball's Brandon Jennings

by Zachary Levine

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College baseball’s month in the consciousness of the professionally tilted baseball fan began with UCLA’s win in the College World Series Tuesday and will end with your favorite team’s draft picks using the system as leverage to get what they want from your favorite team. It will also end, like every month in the NCAA, without any real resolution on paying players despite the discussion being loud as ever this year.

“Why shouldn’t players be paid?” is the question often asked. Athletic departments make millions of dollars from those players’ activities, and on the free market, the services of the best athletes in the highest-revenue sports would go for hundreds of thousands, if not more in exceptional cases.

The overlooked question, and the one that is subtly carrying the actual state of affairs, is just the opposite. Why should they be? A façade of virtue in amateurism is really just simple economics. Each marginal dollar spent on paying athletes would, in the high-revenue sports, improve the product almost negligibly.

NFL-bound football players still go to college and still stay three years whether or not they are paid a cent in liquid assets. NBA-bound basketball players, thanks to the NBA’s age limit, still go to college for a year because nobody has found an attractive alternative to working essentially for free for a year.

Or at least they did until the end of last decade, when one prominent basketball player decided to break the NCAA’s hold on a player’s limbo year.

Before going into what would create baseball’s first Brandon Jennings, let’s first acknowledge that there will be no true baseball Brandon Jennings. Different sport, different deal with high school players being allowed to sign in baseball, but with the NBA draft today, we can apply some lessons to the debate as baseball’s signing deadline moves closer.

Brandon Jennings was a very good basketball prospect in the high school Class of 2008, but thanks to the NBA’s relatively new age limit of 19, he could not enter the draft when he abandoned his quest to become academically eligible for the University of Arizona.

While it wasn’t the NBA, he still found a good alternative to college for somebody who has no real interest in the college part of college. Jennings signed with Virtus Roma of the Italian League, earning a portion of his three-year, $1.65 million deal, living basketball and also having no restrictions on his endorsement potential. (He signed with Under Armour while in Italy.)

He didn’t play particularly well. Yet scouts still found him, trusted that the skill set was still there, and four years ago this week, the Milwaukee Bucks made him the no. 10 overall pick in the 2009 draft, giving him a rookie salary of $2.2 million.

For elite baseball players, college is often used purely as leverage. Sometimes it’s not great leverage. It’s a mere piece of little-known trivia that 2012 no. 1 pick Carlos Correa’s commitment was to the University of Miami. He was never going there. But sometimes it’s a real option, and as the rounds get later, the threat of taking your ball and going home to a dorm room gets higher.

Think about what that threat sounds like, though, especially coming from a pitcher. Paraphrasing slightly here if you couldn’t tell:

If you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to abandon my right to turn professional for three years, go to a place where I won’t get paid, can’t earn money on the side, will have to go to classes I don’t want to take and will gladly take my talents to a coach who cares more about winning than my future. So you’d better pay up.

Of course, that’s not the only option for leverage. There is also junior college, where a player can come out after one year rather than three—think Teddy Stankiewicz and Levon Washington in recent drafts. Most of the foregone commitments for guys who do sign are to four-year schools, and of the five high school first-rounders who didn’t sign in the drafts since Jennings’, only Washington was a JuCo player. Matt Purke went to TCU, Karsten Whitson to Florida, Dylan Covey to San Diego and Tyler Beede to Vanderbilt.

While one source speculated that junior college will be a more popular choice in the coming years given the shorter wait for re-entry, junior college is still college and amateurism. Is there a possibility of a baseball version of Brandon Jennings, a high school player who uses a professional alternative to signing a contract with a major league organization at 18?

Dan Evans, the Baseball Prospectus alumnus who as Northern League commissioner is charged with its reboot from dormancy, hopes so.

“One of the things I’m trying to create in the Northern League is that we’re an option for kids like that,” said Evans, whose league will begin play in 2014. However, he acknowledges that not every kid would be able to make the transition directly to professional ball, where development isn’t the primary focus.

“It’s not just the level of skill; it’s the maturity. Some need their hand held, some aren’t mature enough. I think it really comes down to the young man.”

Evans also emphasized that the Northern League will look to include some educational components for its players who have not attended or finished college to make it a more attractive and comprehensive route.

Yet there is skepticism within the game about a high schooler going directly to indy ball that explains a lot of why the NCAA and college baseball in general have the lockdown on alternatives to signing with a major league club, even though they typically act outside of players’ best interests.

In speaking with multiple front office sources and scouts who were granted the usual anonymity, there isn’t an easy end to that. The level of competition in the current domestic independent leagues is too high—one scout put it at approximately a Double-A level, while another felt it was more like high-A and a club executive dropped a Triple-A comp—and foreign leagues too different in style to risk turning down even a lowball professional contract for that shot to raise value.

“I could potentially see an advisor using that as leverage when a signing deadline looms, but realistically, for high school guys, I just don’t see it being a very good avenue for those guys,” one club official said. “An advisor before the draft isn’t going to put a guy who’s going to go high up against Double-A or Triple-A guys to make him look bad. If they were to send them out to an independent league, they’re just going to expose more of their flaws.”

In a way, that’s what happened to Jennings when he averaged 5.5 points per game in the Italian League and was eclipsed at his position by a fringy pro from a mid-major U.S. program. Regardless, he remained a lottery pick and averaged 15.5 as an NBA rookie the following year.

And scouts seeking draft prospects have to be able to evaluate the player even when the competition doesn’t fit—think the more common high school in the Northeast rather than the opposite with a player facing far superior competition.

Still, the consensus seemed to be that it was too risky to be exposed to tougher competition in a league where winning was valued over development. Better to still be beating up on the competition at a place like junior college, even at no salary.

“If he goes to the independent league, hits .120, .130 and struggles, there’s two sides of that,” one scout said. “It would weed out the mentally tough kids because you’d want to see him in that type of setting because you’d want to see how they’d respond to it. But on the flip side, the attraction to high school players is since they’re not facing top competition all the time, we as scouts tend to dream on those players a lot more, but once you go to college and have that three-year track record of what their skill set is, there’s not really too much left to dream on.”

The lack of an appropriate level without the regulation and quirks of the NCAA isn’t necessarily a permanent issue. In talking with Tal Smith, the long-time Astros executive and advisor to the Sugar Land Skeeters and parent company Opening Day Partners, he made it evident that there has been talk within the Atlantic League of spinning off a more developmental independent league. The focus would be more on those who go through the draft without getting selected, and it is unclear to what extent the league would actively cater to those looking for leverage in major league negotiations.

There will always be stories of players using alternative means to get where they’re going. Bryce Harper got a GED and played a year of junior college so he could be drafted at 17. Established college players like Luke Hochevar and James Paxton used the unaffiliated professional world to snub sub-optimal offers and re-enter the draft.

Yet as a whole, the player side of these negotiations has been unable to wean itself off of a model that does little to help them, and the circumstances in independent ball will continue to make it extremely difficult to do so.

That lack of a viable alternative reveals why the NCAA lives on like it does, granting few rights for players. In baseball, like in the NCAA’s cash cows that would ultimately drive any reform, it’s because it can.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Draft,  College,  NCAA,  Brandon Jennings

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