Earlier, we learned that the Athletics were making a concerted effort to convince 2018 first round draft pick Kyler Murray to stick with baseball. The 2018 Heisman Trophy winner is thought to be leaning towards a football career and has until tomorrow to decide to enter the NFL draft.
Some interesting reports have come out later on Sunday night. WFAA’s Mike Leslie reported that Murray is seeking $15 million from the A’s to stick with baseball. The $15 million figure is inaccurate, according to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, but she notes that the two sides are trying “something creative” to entice Murray.
Murray is in a rather uncommon position. MLB draftees typically have little to no leverage with their controlling clubs, so they accept a signing bonus commensurate with their slot and plug away at minor league life like everyone else. Murray is a two-sport star, however, and could potentially be selected in the first round of the NFL draft as well. There are myriad reasons, some of which I discussed here, why Murray might pick a football career over a baseball career. That would be bad news for the A’s, as they would not receive draft pick compensation for losing Murray.
Due to changes implemented with the most recent collective bargaining agreement, teams can’t renegotiate their draft picks once they’re signed. This is meant to prevent teams from circumventing slot values with their draftees. So, the A’s can’t just say, “We’ll give you $15 million more.” ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports that MLB would make an exception to the rule for Murray. as long as the league believes the club didn’t promise him the money before he signed his original contract (per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times). Passan clarifies that this wouldn’t technically be waiving the rule; it would simply require the A’s to carry Murray on the 40-man roster, which is a big deal. As ESPN’s Keith Law notes, that would mean the A’s would run out of minor league options on Murray after the 2022 season. In other words, it speeds up the timeline for Murray to become a free agent, getting to his maximum earning potential in the majors much sooner.
This is great news for Murray, who might get a significant amount of money both now and later. This is great for the league, as a dynamic, captivating player might join the league who can be marketed to both current fans and potential new fans. Murray would appeal to a large swath of fans and would have superstar potential. MLB has had trouble developing and marketing stars of late.
This is bad news for the A’s, who are being strongarmed into paying their draft pick more money, devoting a 40-man roster spot to him, and accelerating his development timeline. They should be strongarmed, to be perfectly clear, but the A’s would have been content paying him his signing bonus and letting him prove himself in the minors. If Murray were instead a fifth-round NFL draft prospect, this wouldn’t be a discussion. He is anything but a sure thing as a baseball prospect, so the A’s would be taking a risk by paying him more money. The A’s, famously, don’t like taking financial risks.
Interestingly, this is also impactful in the current climate of labor relations. The Athletics’ willingness to pay Murray more money — perhaps not $15 million, but certainly more than his signing bonus — shows that teams across the board are underpaying their draft picks. Few draft picks have Murray’s leverage, but there are more than a few players from the 2018 draft with a better baseball-specific skillset and a better outlook who would get far more money, theoretically, on the open market than they got at their draft slot. The draft system is specifically designed to suppress the wages of draft picks.
Furthermore, prior to the change implemented with the CBA, players were able to leverage themselves into better or longer-term contracts. If minor leaguers were represented by the MLBPA, this is an issue that could legitimately be pursued, but as it is, Murray and other minor leaguers and minor leaguers-to-be aren’t part of the union. The union should care, but there has been no evidence that it will ever pay any attention to issues that don’t immediately and materially impact current major leaguers.
That the A’s might be willing to devote a spot on the 40-man roster to a player who has yet to play professional baseball also blows up the claim every team makes when it fiddles with prospects’ playing time each year. For instance, the Cubs held down third baseman Kris Bryant to start the 2015 season until he hit a certain threshold of the season that guaranteed the Cubs an extra year of contractual control. The club claimed Bryant needed work on his defense, which was laughable then and laughable now. Bryant won the NL Rookie of the Year Award on the back of a stellar offensive campaign. There have been prominent service time manipulation issues with Maikel Franco, George Springer, Eloy Jimenez, and Ronald Acuña Jr., among others as well.
Players who have joined and will join the league from overseas might have a beef with this news. Think of Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani, who took many millions of dollars less than he could have in order to come to the U.S. from Japan. On the open market, he could have negotiated, potentially, a $100-150 million contract. He got a $2.3 million signing bonus from the Angels and earned a $545,000 salary last season. MLB specifically intervened to prevent teams from paying Ohtani more money before he signed a minor league contract with the Angels, as Shaikin points out. This system, like the draft, was specifically designed to supress salaries. In this case, of foreign players coming to the U.S.
When the dust settles, Murray might still choose to pursue the NFL draft, but this entire situation will have far-reaching effects on the labor climate. The current CBA expires on December 1, 2021. All of the related issues here — the draft itself, slot values, rules pertaining to signing draftees and foreign players to contracts, etc. — could be up for discussion.