Kyler Murray is already a first-round draft pick in baseball, and the Oakland A’s prospect (for now, at least) and Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback has now declared for the NFL draft, laying the groundwork for him to become a first-round pick in football as well.
By declaring for the draft, Murray isn’t committing to playing in the NFL—but this story has been trending in one direction since early this past college football season. When Murray signed the week after the draft, it was with the understanding that he was definitely going to play only one more season at Oklahoma, where he was set to replace the NFL-bound Baker Mayfield as the starting quarterback, then show up for spring training in 2019. As Murray flummoxed Big 12 defenses week after week, it started to seem ridiculous that someone who was this good at football would just give it up. By the end of 2018, Murray’s agent, Scott Boras, was swatting away rumors that the 21-year-old Texan would choose football after all. When he was still Texas Tech’s coach, Kliff Kingsbury, whose new team, the Arizona Cardinals, holds the no. 1 overall pick, said that he’d choose Murray first overall if he had the chance. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Thursday morning that the Cardinals might do just that, despite having drafted Josh Rosen 10th overall last year. Kingsbury, for what it’s worth, made his reputation at the collegiate level by mentoring dual-threat quarterbacks with baseball backgrounds: Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M and Patrick Mahomes II at Texas Tech.
By the eve of Monday’s draft declaration deadline, MLB took the threat of losing Murray to the NFL seriously enough to waive a rule, at Oakland’s request, prohibiting teams from offering draftees a major league contract. The Athletics were prepared to put Murray on their 40-man roster, essentially fast-tracking him to the big leagues in an effort to convince him to stick with baseball. But even after meeting with Oakland’s top brass and league marketing executives, Murray decided to enter the NFL draft anyway.
#RingerMLB host @MJ_Baumann explores Kyler Murray's decision to enter the draft and the impact of his decision on the Oakland A's and the MLB pic.twitter.com/9raL2mT8pM— The Ringer (@ringer) January 15, 2019
Much as it benefits Murray to straddle the line as long as he can, he’ll have to make a choice fairly soon. He can still withdraw from the draft in the next 72 hours, and he still has the option of deciding to tell NFL teams not to draft him (which he did in the MLB draft in 2015) or being drafted and not reporting (which is how it looks like his 2018 MLB draft experience will shake out).
The A’s would expect Murray to report to major league spring training, which starts February 15 for position players, 11 days before the NFL scouting combine begins. Murray could theoretically skip the combine and still be taken in the NFL draft at the end of April, but by that point he’d be well into the minor league season. If Murray is playing baseball full time, he won’t be able to work out for or interview with NFL teams, which would rob him of his last chance to boost his draft stock and consolidate his status as a first-round pick.
Given how much first-round football buzz there is around Murray, and given how difficult the road from first-round draft pick to nine-figure free-agent payday is in baseball, the best thing for Murray to do financially is to play football—to say nothing of the fact that by all accounts he prefers football to baseball anyway. If Murray does follow both his heart and his wallet, it’ll be a substantial on-field loss for the Athletics, and an embarrassment not just for the team, but MLB.
From a strict baseball perspective, Murray’s upside made it defensible, though risky, for Oakland to buck the consensus. Part of what makes Murray such a fascinating baseball prospect is that it’s so hard to find players to compare him to. Athletes as good as Murray, if they choose baseball at all, almost always go pro out of high school.
In 51 games as a redshirt sophomore at Oklahoma, Murray was a very productive outfielder, hitting .296/.398/.556 with 10 home runs and 10 stolen bases. Players with athletic upside and a track record of production at a big school usually go in the first half of the first round of the draft—Dansby Swanson, Alex Bregman, Trea Turner, and Milwaukee Brewers prospect Corey Ray are all recent examples—but even they are imperfect comparisons because they all had longer track records in college but aren’t quite on Murray’s level athletically. The upside, therefore, is immense.
The downside is that even athletic, high-performing college position players aren’t sure things. Bregman is a star, and Turner was a four-win player last year, but Ray—who, like Murray, came into pro ball with questions about his ability to make contact consistently—struck out 176 times in Double-A last year. Even setting aside the specific issues with Murray’s game, it’s just that hard to go from college baseball to MLB, and the attrition rate even for first-rounders is alarming.
Still, that’s how the draft works, even in the top 10. There’s always risk. Murray was expected to drop further, however, because of the influence of football—both the fact that he’d missed essentially two years’ worth of game reps between high school and his last year at Oklahoma, and the risk that he’d end up picking football over baseball.
It’s fairly common for baseball teams to throw top-10 bonuses at amateur quarterbacks and buy them out of their NFL dreams. Joe Mauer was a five-star quarterback recruit who’d committed to Florida State when the Twins took him first overall in 2001, and others followed his path: Donavan Tate (third overall to San Diego in 2009), Bubba Starling (fifth overall to Kansas City in 2011), and Kohl Stewart (fourth overall to Minnesota in 2013) are just a few recent examples. But all of those players were high-schoolers when they were drafted, unlike Murray, and also unlike Murray, they gave up football immediately upon signing. (Tate briefly returned to football in 2017, but only after several unsuccessful minor league baseball seasons.)
The A’s not only took Murray and let him play at Oklahoma, knowing the risks, but they signed him to essentially an at-slot bonus, $4.66 million. It would’ve been one thing if they’d reached for Murray in the draft with only a handshake agreement that he’d show up for work while saving money to sign other high-upside players who fell later in the draft. (The archetypal example of this strategy is the 2012 Astros, who took Carlos Correa first overall after he requested a lower bonus than Mark Appel and Byron Buxton, then used the savings to throw an over-slot bonus at Lance McCullers Jr. and buy him out of his commitment to the University of Florida.)
But that’s not what happened—the A’s took college players (Dallas Baptist outfielder Jameson Hannah and Missouri State shortstop Jeremy Eierman) with their next two picks, and Hannah and Eierman were the only two players who received a bonus more than $10,000 over slot.
Any one of those decisions—drafting Murray, giving him close to a full-slot bonus, or letting him play football—is defensible. In fact, given Murray’s unique profile and exceptional upside, the A’s would’ve been savvy even if they’d done any two of those things in combination. But by committing so totally to Murray without demanding similarly total commitment in return, they left themselves exposed to exactly the scenario that’s played out.
Losing a first-round pick isn’t the end of the world. The attrition rate for minor leaguers is such that most first-round draft picks end up making a negligible impact on the team’s big league roster, and on average, one first-rounder every year fails to sign at all. But when a team doesn’t sign its first-rounder, it gets a compensation pick one slot later in the next year’s draft, which is an inconvenience, but sometimes ends up benefiting the club in the long run. In 2014, the Astros didn’t sign no. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken, then used their compensation pick on Bregman in 2015; in 2012, the Pirates didn’t sign Appel at no. 8 overall, then used their 2013 compensation pick on Austin Meadows, whom they traded for Chris Archer this past summer.
But the A’s won’t get a compensation pick in 2019, because Murray signed. They’ll get most of the bonus back, but that $4.66 million represented almost half of the $9.55 million bonus pool they had to spend on their entire class. That money’s gone, from a baseball operations perspective, though their billionaire owner John Fisher might enjoy having the extra cash back so he can get the rumpus room on his yacht refloored.
The A’s are living out the worst-case scenario of a draft strategy that looked risky at the time. For their trouble, they’ll lose a substantial prospect—Murray is slated to be the 101st prospect on the Baseball Prospectus leaguewide list when it comes out later this month. It’s not an insurmountable loss by any means, but a team that tries to compete while running a rock-bottom payroll can ill afford to get literally nothing from a top-10 pick.
More than that, though, it’s embarrassing. If the A’s had spent the no. 9 pick on South Alabama outfielder Travis Swaggerty, who went one pick later, and Swaggerty had never reached the majors, the on-field impact would’ve been similar to Murray going to the NFL. But it wouldn’t have been headline news. And no matter how tenuous Murray’s flirtations with baseball had been dating back to high school, the most famous player in his draft class has gone out of his way to reject the A’s.
In fact, he’s gone out of his way to reject baseball altogether, which is its own problem. Maybe it’s just that Murray has always loved football more, or that he feels he has a better chance to succeed in the NFL than in MLB—both of which look like reasonable assumptions at this point, and neither of which the A’s or the league could have done anything about.
But Murray was facing a long road through the minors on minimum wage at best, apart from his signing bonus, which would be the most money he’d make until he was at least three or four years into his big league career, by which point he’d be into his arbitration years. And he’d be traveling that road in working and living conditions that would’ve been a substantial step down from what he enjoyed as a football player at Oklahoma, and certainly from what he’ll enjoy in the NFL. And as for the nine-figure free-agent deals that underpin much of baseball’s institutional smugness toward the short careers and nonguaranteed contracts of the NFL, well, those are drying up too. Even if Murray developed quickly and ultimately turned into a star, he’d be around 30 before he hit free agency, and free agents in their 30s don’t get paid anymore. It’s hardly an attractive proposition for an athlete with options; Murray has to see what Mahomes and Mayfield are doing early in their pro careers and think, “Why can’t that be me?”
The best argument for Murray to play baseball over football is that baseball is safer, but the pay and working conditions for young baseball players are bad enough that Murray is willing to play the more dangerous sport. This is a problem of MLB’s own making. Maybe Murray’s desire to play football is so great that no amount of money could have swayed him, but because MLB has so forcefully depressed signing bonuses for amateur players, the Athletics never had the chance to make Murray an irresistible financial offer.
So baseball seems likely to miss out on a potential star, a special athlete who’s proved on the gridiron that he has a flair for the spotlight. Even if Murray were to have washed out in baseball, he would’ve been a compelling story—after all, the most famous current minor league baseball player is the sport’s only other Heisman winner, Tim Tebow, and it isn’t close. Murray hasn’t played a competitive inning of professional baseball yet, and already he’s one of the sport’s biggest stories and most fascinating figures, and his journey through the minors would’ve been just as compelling, whether he succeeded or failed.
For a sport that’s increasingly being strip-mined by private capital and struggling with growing labor unrest and waning fan interest, losing a marketable and talented young player to a more popular competitor only drives home football’s cultural supremacy. Just like Oakland, baseball in general doesn’t need Kyler Murray. But it sure could have used him.