How it all Starts: Alex Wood and Kevin Pillar, the Draft and the First Year

Kevin Pillar and Alex Wood had different draft experiences. Pillar, an outfielder for the Toronto Blue Jays, was a 32nd-round pick in 2011. His signing bonus was $1,000. Wood, a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, was a 2nd-round pick in 2012. His bonus was $700,000.

They also shared something in common. Both thought they would be taken much earlier than they were.

“I was expecting to go somewhere between the 12th and 20th round,” said Pillar, who was drafted out of Division-II California State University. “I put on pretty good showing at some pre-draft workouts and area scouts told me I could expect to be drafted in that range. I was with my parents and some friends listening to the draft, and it ended up being a long, somewhat miserable day.”

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think I should go in the first round,” said Wood, who was selected out of the University of Georgia. “I’m a pretty realistic person and felt I had a legitimate shot at going that high, but draft day came around and I didn’t get any calls until after the first round ended. I thought I was probably one of the three best lefties, but I guess my mechanics scared some teams off.”

Wood was more highly regarded than Pillar, and he had another advantage when it came to bonus negotiations.

Pillar was a senior, which meant he little or no leverage. If he didn’t take what the Blue Jays offered, his only option would have been independent ball. Wood, having missed a collegiate season due to Tommy John surgery, had bargaining power.

“I was a redshirt sophomore and had two more years of eligibility,” explained Wood. “That gave me some leverage. During the second round, I told three teams that if I didn’t get around what I ended up getting from the Braves, I was going to go back to school. I ended up getting [$116,700} over slot.

“I was at home with my family for the draft. We hooked up the computer to the TV and everyone was going pretty crazy with teams calling to see if I’d sign for a certain amount. Before your name is announced, you pretty much agree to the amount.”

For a lower-round pick like Pillar, bonus negotiations come later.

“I got a call from the areas scout immediately after my pick was announced and he told me how much money they were going to offer,” said Pillar. “He said $1,000, so I asked for $2,000. He said no. Then I asked when I was going to leave and he said tomorrow. I said I’d be there.”

Upon arriving in Florida for mini-camp, Pillar signed a contract and took a drug test. The higher-profile pick did both before leaving home.

“A few days later, the scout who drafted me came over to my house in Charlotte and I signed my contract there,” said Wood. “I’d already taken my drug test. Guys who are going to be drafted in the top rounds – I think it’s if you’re rated among the top 250 prospects – get drug tested before the draft. About a week later I took off for mini-camp at our spring training facility.”

Mini-camp is a draftee’s first exposure to professional baseball. It is short and sweet, and the prelude to a minor-league lifestyle that is anything but glamorous.

“You’re put into a locker room with all the guys that just got drafted,” explained Pillar. “No one really knows anyone else, or even what to expect. We all got a couple of Blue Jays items – you think that’s awesome – then we went out and did some fundamentals, kind of like in spring training. Toward the end of the week we started playing games, and after about a week and a half they posted where we were being assigned.

“I ended up being put on the Bluefield [West Virginia] team, in the [rookie level] Appalachian League. We stayed in dorm rooms at a small Christian college. I had a roommate and we were on twin beds. There were no blankets or pillows when we got there. It was definitely culture shock. The college I went to wasn’t great, but Bluefield was like going back in time. Not only the area, but the facilities were a little backwards.”

Wood was assigned to the Braves low-A affiliate in Rome, Georgia. His accommodations weren’t much better.

“The first seven days they put us in a hotel, but after that we had to find a place to live,” said Wood. “I ended up living in a one-bedroom apartment with one other guy. I was sleeping on a single bed in the living room. College was a lot better. Comparatively I had 5-star living at Georgia. If we were on a long bus trip, like to LSU, we would have sleeper buses. We didn’t have those in the minors.”

Long bus rides are part of the minor-league experience. So are small paychecks.

“Our salaries in rookie-ball were $1,100 a month,” said Pillar. “Meal money wasn’t much. It was basically $10 per meal, and that’s only on the road. The travel wasn’t too bad, though. The league is kind of condensed, so I think the longest bus rides were only about six or seven hours.”

Wood’s signing bonus was far larger than Pillar’s, but it was markedly less than what he was hoping for going into draft day. The smallest amount given to a first-round pick in his draft class was $1.2 million. But you won’t find him complaining. He knows the majority of draftees get closer to what Pillar received — and live on a shoestring budget.

“Unless you’re in the small percentage of guys who sign for a lot of money, you barely make it from paycheck to paycheck,” said Wood. “We’re all happy to be there, but the minors are a tougher life than a lot of people realize.”

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Powder Blues
Powder Blues

Great insight, David.

On the face of it, the economics of the lower rung minor leagues makes sense to me, but it’s always a bit startling to contrast a $1,100 monthly MiLB salary with an MLB stipend. Zach Greinke, for example, earns $30,000 per OUT recorded (assuming he pitches every single inning in each of his starts).