Riley’s Choice

A little more than a week ago, Riley Cooper had plans to travel to Arlington, Texas to pick up a $125,000 check. It was half of the signing bonus that Cooper had agreed to with the Texas Rangers, a significantly over-slot signing for the 754th overall selection. Cooper, who only started 41 games for the Florida Gators baseball team in three seasons, was deemed a coup for the Rangers scouting department, as no other organization thought it possible he would give up football for baseball. Ultimately, the other 29 were correct, as it was revealed Tuesday that Cooper canceled his physical (and check signing) with the Rangers to pursue a career in the National Football League.

Cooper has not been the only established college player to make this decision recently, as he is joined by all-SEC safety Chad Jones (LSU) and Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart (Stanford), both of whom some expected to re-join their college teams this spring.

The best prospect in both sports, by a country mile, is Jones. In fact, Jones is the most polished two-way player we have seen since Jeff Samardzija. Where he lacks Samardzija’s proven baseball record, Jones matched the former Golden Domer in arm strength. Paul Mainieri’s crew began to give him time out of the LSU bullpen late last season, and he emerged as an important member of their pitching staff in Omaha. While he would have had to show polish with his secondary stuff this spring, his potential as a mid-90s lefty, with good spin on his curveball, was getting first-round grades from some scouts. But those scouts also knew he loved football.

“I really thought we’d lose him,” said Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri, who also coached Samardzija at Notre Dame. “I thought he wanted to go into pro football. Mentally, I was already preparing that he would go unless word came back that he wouldn’t get drafted high.”

Jones could not have had the leverage that Samardzija did, and would not have sniffed the $10 million that he received from the Cubs. Still, the nature of the provisions that two-sport athletes receive in the MLB Draft, which allows MLB teams to spread the bonus over five years, would have led to an above-slot contract. I believe something in the neighborhood of what Shelby Miller received from the Cards last year — qualifying for two-sport status as an all-state prep punter — as a first round pick, $2.875 million, would have been available to Jones. On the contrary, in the NFL Drat last year, the two defensive backs drafted closest to 44th overall (where Scouts Inc. ranks Jones) received $2.15 and $2 million guaranteed, with four-year contracts in the $4-5 million range. Jones, as you can see, is giving up guaranteed money in the short-term to follow his NFL passion.

When Gerhart went undrafted last June, it became clear that he had voiced to scouts his intentions to pursue a football career. When he emerged as the nation’s most productive runner this season, this was etched in stone, as Gerhart is now a higher ranked football player (85th overall by Scouts Inc.) than he would have been as a baseball player. I saw Gerhart at the 2008 College World Series, and he was very impressive — but more so physically and in batting practice than in game play. While he went 12-for-12 stealing bases in college, he didn’t show the home-to-first speed you’d like in a college running back, and all his power would have been projected down the road.

Finally, we have Cooper, and we don’t have to guess what he’s passing on: the agreed-upon $250,000 contract he signed last year. The contract was contingent upon Cooper giving up football after one more autumn with Mr. Tebow, but the Gators’ success was enough for him to stay with the pigskin. He’s much more polished there, and though he ranks only as the No. 17 wideout through Scouts Inc., just the presence on a 53-man roster will give him more money than the Rangers promised. While Cooper was a star defensive outfielder with great speed, he was raw, showing scouts only 147 at-bats in two seasons. Financially, it’s clear: if he makes a roster in football, he made the right choice (financially). If he doesn’t, then we’ll have to wonder what if.

Failure in football could see all these players retreat to baseball, but the bonuses will be long gone. Hopefully they never reach the point of wondering what if, and each succeeds in their chosen sport.

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