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June 10, 2010

Contractual Matters

The Undrafted

by Jeff Euston

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The three-day event that is baseball’s First Year Player Draft wound to its conclusion Wednesday, and now the 1,525 young players chosen face choices. For high school seniors, should they play professionally or go to college? For most college players, stay in school or go pro?

But there is another group of amateurs with dreams of professional careers, players who were not drafted for reasons ranging from injury to position change to accident of geography. If history is any indication, some of them will endure a long trek through tryout camps and independent leagues, and will reach the major leagues.

Baseball instituted the amateur draft in 1965, with a June draft for high school graduates and college players, a January draft for winter graduates, and a late-summer draft for amateur summer league players. The late-summer process was eliminated after two seasons, and the June and January drafts both included secondary phases for players who had been selected previously but did not sign. MLB consolidated the process after the 1986 draft, with the elimination of the January draft and the secondary phases.

Players eligible include residents of the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and any other U.S. territories who have not previously signed minor- or major-league contracts. Non-residents attending high school or college in the United States may also be selected. Players who were selected previously, but instead enrolled in a four-year college, become eligible for selection again after completing their junior year or turning 21 years old.

Until 1998, clubs could continue selecting players for as many rounds as they wished. The high-water mark, in terms of rounds, was 1996, when 1,738 players were drafted over the course of 100 rounds. (Clubs not wishing to select a player would simply pass; the one team still making a selection in round 100 was the Yankees.) Though the late rounds were not a fertile source of major-league talent, occasionally a gem would emerge. The Dodgers famously selected catcher Mike Piazza in round 62 of the 1988 draft, for example, but MLB has limited the draft to 50 rounds since 1998.

A number of players were drafted once, chose not to sign, and were not selected again. Tampa Bay selected right-hander Heath Bell in the 69th round of the 1997 draft, but he chose to remain in school. A year later, he signed with the New York Mets as an amateur free agent before finding a home as a set-up man and closer in San Diego.

Several notable players had successful major-league careers after being passed over in the draft in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The list includes Larry Bowa (signed as an amateur free agent by the Phillies in 1965), Toby Harrah (Phillies, 1966), Don Money (Pirates, 1967), Larry Parrish (Expos, 1972), Claudell Washington (Athletics, 1972), Jeffrey Leonard (Dodgers, 1973), Dan Quisenberry (Royals, 1975), Kevin Mitchell (Mets, 1980), Bobby Bonilla (Pirates, 1981), Jim Leyritz (Yankees, 1985), and Mike Bordick (Athletics, 1986).

In the early ‘70s, the Royals established a short-lived “Baseball Academy,” with the goal of transforming talented young athletes with limited baseball experience into professional players. The experiment yielded major leaguers Frank White, Ron Washington, and U.L. Washington, all of whom were signed as amateur free agents.

But as scouting has improved with technology and increased financial resources, fewer players have slipped through the cracks, making it rarer to see a player reach the majors after never being drafted.

One place where a young player with major-league potential might avoid the draft—or at least go unnoticed—is hockey-mad Canada. Pitchers Paul Spoljaric and Scott Richmond attended high school in British Columbia and went undrafted before signing with Toronto as amateur free agents. And in 1984, the Montreal Expos signed another high-schooler from BC—Larry Walker, who went on to hit 383 career home runs.

Today, an undrafted player’s most common route to the majors is as a relief pitcher.

Dodgers lefty set-up man George Sherrill began his pro career with Seattle after playing with Evansville of the independent Frontier League and Winnipeg and Sioux Falls of the independent Northern League. He was not drafted after playing college baseball at Austin Peay, but he now has earned nearly $9 million in his major-league career.

In early June, Cleveland promoted right-handed reliever Frank Herrmann, an economics major from Harvard who put hopes for a career on Wall Street on hold for the chance to sign with the Indians as an undrafted free agent in 2005. After putting together a scoreless string of 27 2/3 consecutive innings at Triple-A Columbus early this season, Herrmann has struck out three and not allowed a run in three major-league appearances.

Other undrafted relievers now on big-league rosters include Brian Stokes of the Angels, Darren O’Day of the Rangers, and Joe Thatcher of the Padres.

One starting pitcher who reached the majors despite going undrafted is Pittsburgh right-hander Chris Jakubauskas, who signed as an amateur free agent with Seattle in 2007. Jakubauskas played first base at the University of Oklahoma, went undrafted, endured Tommy John surgery, and pitched parts of five seasons in three independent leagues before catching the eye of the Mariners. Claimed by Pittsburgh off waivers from Seattle in November, Jakubauskas is now on the disabled list with post-concussion syndrome after a line drive off the bat of Houston’s Lance Berkman struck him near his right ear.

Like Jakubauskas, catcher Chris Coste needed the change positions in order to reach the majors. A third baseman at Division III school Concordia College in Minnesota, Coste signed for the 1996 season with Fargo-Moorhead of the independent Northern League, where he became a catcher. Signed by Cleveland as a 27-year-old amateur free agent in 2000, he finally reached the majors with Philadelphia at 33. Coste, who has compiled a .272/.329/.416 slash line in 299 major-league games, is a free agent after being released by Washington this month.

At the other extreme is Greg Dobbs. Drafted by Seattle out of high school in 1996 and by Houston as a college junior in 1999, Dobbs chose not to sign each time. After earning a degree at the University of Oklahoma, he signed with Seattle as an amateur free agent in 2001, made the majors in 2004 and—along with his undrafted teammate Coste—won a World Series ring with the 2008 Phillies.

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

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