This is the latest edition of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.
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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 10, No. 142
January 14, 2019
Six months ago, Kyler Murray was a baseball prospect locked in a battle for the Oklahoma quarterback job with Austin Kendall. He won that job, and went on to win the Heisman Trophy, leading OU into the Big XII title and a national semifinal. Murray’s incredible season, topped by that hardware, has opened the door to a pro football career that seemed unlikely just half a year ago.
With the deadline to declare for the NFL draft at 4 p.m. Monday, Murray is reported to have reached out to the A’s to negotiate a deal that would keep Murray playing baseball, and out of the NFL. Murray, the ninth pick in the 2018 MLB draft, signed for a $4.66 million bonus on the condition that he be allowed to play football for the Sooners last year. Reports on what Murray is looking for are all over the place, from $15 million to no financial demands at all. What we know is that Murray has the kind of leverage a baseball prospect hasn’t had in a long time.
What is Kyler Murray? As a baseball prospect, he’s a lottery ticket, a toolbox who can run and hit for power who is years behind his peer group in just about every way. Murray is 21 now, will be 22 in August, and he hasn’t played a pro baseball game yet. He played 78 baseball games at Oklahoma, vaulting into the first round by hitting .296/.398/.556 in 51 games last year, albeit with a 25% strikeout rate. He was worked in the Cape Cod League two seasons ago, with just shy of a 40% strikeout rate. There’s a range here from “All-Star outfielder” down to “never reaches Triple-A,” but in either case we’re five years and 2000 PA from knowing what end he’s heading for.
On the gridiron, Murray is a very, very short quarterback, listed at 5’11” and probably at least an inch shorter than that. Advocates for Murray will point to Russell Wilson, also listed at 5’11”, as a comp, which is like a baseball fan saying all 5’6” infielders can be Jose Altuve. The NFL is so desperate for quarterbacks -- 320 million people in this country, football its most popular sport, and we can’t produce 32 good quarterbacks -- that there will be a demand for Murray even if he needs to carry a ladder out to the pocket. Tempted to bring up Lamar Jackson, another recent two-way threat who won the Heisman? Jackson is listed at 6’3”, and is far bulkier than Murray is.
Murray isn’t a sure thing in either sport, which is why this could be the most important moment of his financial life. There’s a reasonable chance, I would say better than 50%, that Murray will never be in a better position to turn his considerable athletic talent into money.
As a baseball player, Murray has banked about 40% of his signing bonus, and he’d have to return that money if he walked away from the A’s. The thing is, that’s the last baseball money he’s going to see for a long, long time. Murray hasn’t played a pro game yet, and like all minor leaguers, he’s going to be paid a vanishingly small salary until he reaches the majors. Then he’ll make the minimum or a tick above it until he becomes eligible for arbitration, if he ever does.
Consider the fate of Francisco Lindor, a baseball prospect of stronger pedigree who was the eighth pick of the 2011 draft. Lindor took almost four years to reach the majors, then made a total of $2 million across his first 3 1/2 seasons. Now, nearly eight years after being drafted, he’ll play for $10.6 million in 2019. Mind you, that’s the case of one of the best players of his era. If Murray follows Lindor’s path to a T, he’ll be arbitration-eligible after the 2025 season, when he’s 28 years old, and a free agent at 31.
The rewards for just being drafted as a football player are greater. The NFL has draft slotting, but the numbers are far higher than they are in baseball’s pseudo-slotting system. The last pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft was, coincidentally, Lamar Jackson. Jackson is guaranteed just over $8 million for the four years of his deal. That about matches the assigned slot value of the first overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft, $8.1 million. I don’t know where Murray will be drafted, but a scan around the Web shows him as a first-round pick in most places, from 13th down to 27th. Even if his floor is a low-end first-round draft pick, Murray can make more money just by being drafted by an NFL team than he can by playing baseball for the next seven or eight years.
Kyler Murray is using his football skills to get baseball money, but so what? In a fair system, Murray would be able to offer his services to 62 companies across two industries, play them against one another, build demand and accept the best offer. Because we’ve decided that sports are the one area in which wildly successful billionaires shouldn’t have to compete for talent, though, Murray has had his options proscribed. He was allowed to negotiate with just one baseball team. He will be allowed to negotiate with just one football team.
Murray has leverage hundreds of young men should have, and if he can use it to squeeze more money out of the Oakland A’s, all the better. The A’s are part of a system that caps what talented young men can earn for the benefit of the operators of a $10 billion industry. If they want to employ this particular young man, they can make the best offer, which is the way we expect corporations to make hires in every area outside of professional sports.
Get yours, Kyler Murray. Get yours for all the young men who can’t.