Nolan Jones, Brady Aiken, and the College Decision

(Photo via screengrab of Brady Aiken in 2014 Perfect Game broadcast, seen here).

The MLB Draft is a stressful time for both clubs and players. However, the draft also makes some teenagers millionaires overnight. One big question surrounds many draftees: is the lure of the major leagues worth pursuing over the opportunity to play in college and hone your skills? There is much to consider, all of which can be daunting to a kid who may have recently walked down the aisle to receive a diploma. While it does work out for a select few, lessons can be learned from those who are unable to stand out in the lower minors.

In 2016, a player named Nolan Jones, a shortstop-third base prospect from my alma mater, Holy Ghost Prep (PA), was drafted in the second round by the Cleveland Indians to the tune of a $2.25 million signing bonus. He also had a full scholarship to play baseball at the University of Virginia. It’s tough to turn down a signing bonus of that magnitude, but few wonder if going to Virginia would have been more beneficial.

So far, throughout his time in short-season and rookie leagues, his power numbers have dropped significantly and his defense has suffered. The only positive note from his two years in the minors is his ability to draw walks and get on base, but he still strikes out frequently. At Virginia, Jones would have had the chance to hone his skill set while playing against some of the better competition in the country under a bigger spotlight than he ever had in high school, since Virginia is always in the running to make the College World Series just about every year.

One could say that the minors give players time to develop without being under the spotlight, but with the advent of the Internet and social media, that isn’t so much the case anymore. I can vouch that when Yankees top prospect Gleyber Torres was playing in Trenton at the beginning of 2017, games were regularly sold out. As a result, his weaknesses also became much more evident, especially his base running. Two sides exist in reference to this argument.

One example where not signing turned out to be detrimental was Brady Aiken, the first overall pick in 2014. He was offered a $6.5 million dollar signing bonus by the Houston Astros, which was later reduced to $5 million after they learned of his arm problems. Aiken was stubborn and planned on asking for a trade if he was signed, which lead the Astros to pursue other options. Instead of going to UCLA, Aiken enrolled in a post-grad baseball academy and was drafted by Cleveland the very next year, to a much lower signing bonus of just over $2 million. So far, his numbers have been horrendous in the minors.

Going to college turned out to be beneficial for Kris Bryant. Bryant was drafted by Toronto in the 18th round in 2010. Knowing that his chances of getting a decent signing bonus were slim, Bryant decided to play college ball at the University of San Diego. At San Diego, Bryant proved himself to be an all-around talent and was drafted second overall in 2013.

Making the decision of going from high school to college isn’t as black and white as people think. There are guys who signed out of high school who now could be in their late 20’s trying to go back to school with very little money saved up from their playing days, as well as the guys who are once-in-a-generation talents, like Mike Trout, who made it big.

One conclusion, which seemed apparent, is that players drafted out of high school in double-digit rounds tend to go to college more often, probably because they weren’t offered a signing bonus at all. College has many benefits, the most important being the opportunity to get a degree without having to pay any tuition. In today’s world, a college degree has become invaluable and difficult to obtain financially. Baseball presents an opportunity to earn a degree at a substantially reduced cost. In college, players also get the chance to play under a bigger spotlight and learn from some of the best coaches in the country. While the lure of the dollar will always be a factor, as times change, it might not be crazy for high school players drafted in the first couple rounds to think seriously about delaying their pro careers to play in college with all of its advantages; not just in baseball, but in life.

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