Jim Penders: UConn Is Worth The Time For Connecticut Talent, School Is Worth It For All Talent

It is a PowerPoint presentation by a college baseball coach to entice top players to choose college baseball. From that perspective, it can be viewed as biased and self-serving.

Yet the presentation that coach Jim Penders sends to drafted players recruited to play at UConn is also full of data. And from that information is some of life's realities.

"The last position player from the state of Connecticut to bypass college successfully to play in the big leagues was Brook Fordyce," Penders said. "He's a guy I played against."

The Mets selected Fordyce out of St. Bernard in the third round of the 1989 amateur draft.

"A long time ago," said Penders, who graduated from East Catholic in 1990.

It has been less than two weeks, however, since Tampa Bay made Thomas Milone, a center fielder from Masuk, the first state player drafted at 97th overall in the third round. Milone committed to UConn, yet is weighing that against his assigned signing bonus value of $530,000. The Rays, with $6.7 million allotted for bonuses for all their picks, do have some wiggle room to entice Milone before a July 12 deadline.

Yet before Milone, Taylor Olmstead of Greenwich (drafted by the Rangers in the 13th round) or any other draft picks make a decision about this summer, Penders wants them to think about George Springer.

"I think we make a powerful case for going to school when you see a guy like George Springer gets drafted in the 40s in 2008, comes to us and gets drafted in the first round in 2011," Penders said. "Guys like Matt Barnes and Mike Olt, who weren't drafted out of high school, get drafted in the first round."

Anthony Hewitt signed with the Phillies after being taken in the first round, 24th overall, out of Salisbury School in 2008. Springer was drafted in the 48th round out of Avon Old Farms by the Twins. Hewitt headed to the rookie Gulf Coast League. Springer headed to UConn.

"George has passed him after a three-year college career," Penders said. "He got to play in the Cape Cod League. He got to play in Japan and Taiwan [with Team USA]. He has some unbelievable experiences. And, oh by the way, George ended up signing for a $1 million more [$2.23 million with the Astros compared to Hewitt's $1.38 million]."

Penders' PowerPoint presentation is, well, pointed. It documents Hewitt's hitting problems year by year and his abysmal strikeout to walk ratio. How it took him until this season to reach Double A, and that his career minor league batting average through June 1 was .227. How he no longer was ranked a top prospect by Baseball America and he made 20 errors in the outfield in 2011.

Listed next to this is Springer's glowing record right down to being named 2012 Cal League Midseason All-Star before being promoted to Double A Corpus Christi in August. Hewitt is hitting .263 this season with a .312 on-base percentage and four homers and 17 RBI at Reading, while Springer, a hot commodity, has 18 homers, 50 RBI and is hitting .299 with a .401 OBP.

"I don't think it's necessarily biased if you're using data," Penders said. "Oftentimes we're getting data from sports agencies that say these kids are better off going to school.

"Our proof is in our pudding. We're going to do a better job preparing you for minor league baseball and — what's the endgame — a major league career."

The presentation documents 1983 to 2001 how 89 of 139 high school position players taken in the first round made it to MLB (64 percent), although only 51 spent at least six years in big leagues. During the same time, 116 first-round picks were developed in college, 101 (87 percent) made it to the big leagues, and 60 stuck for at least six years.

The No. 1 player overall is slotted at $7.79 million, of course, and you'd be nuts to turn down that kind of money. Mark Appel of Stanford was the only first-rounder who didn't go pro in 2012.

Decisions get more complicated as the rounds advance. One rule of thumb promotes has been the signing bonus should at least equal the cost of four years of college plus a year of major league minimum salary. Depending on in-state tuition, etc., that falls in the $600,000-$650,000 range.

In his presentation, Penders documented on 2012 Opening Day MLB rosters there were more guys from college baseball on all but two teams: 51 percent of the 855 total players were college signees, 24 percent high school and 24 percent international free agents. In 2007, in fact, the Yankees had only six of 81 total players Double A to MLB signed out of high school.

Penders asserted that it's nearly impossible to make investments with less than $1 million signing bonus because liquidity is needed to live. He broke down a $500,000 bonus. After taxes at 32.7 percent, that's $333,500. A new car [$40,000] and agent fees [$20,000], that's $276,500. He presented a detailed expenses pie chart [rent, utilities, food, etc.] vs. salary in Low-A at $1,100- $1200 per month for five months. A college graduate [regardless of athletics] earns an average of $3.3 million over a lifetime, while a high school graduate averages $1.7 million.

The Springer-Hewitt comparison wasn't the only one used: In the same 2007 draft where Matt Harvey turned down seven figures out of Fitch-Groton to play at North Carolina, Rob Bono of Waterford turned down a scholarship at UConn and signed with the Astros for just over $100,000. Bono is out of organized baseball and taking courses at Central Connecticut as a 24 year-old freshman, according to the presentation.

"As a coach you want to encourage confidence," Penders said. "You want a player to believe, hey, you're the one, you're the next Mike Trout. But you also have to rely on parents to maybe scale it back a little bit. To say let's look at the facts."

One mitigating financial argument is there are only 11.7 total baseball scholarships available at Division I schools. Football has 85.

"It's the worst ratio of scholarship to roster size of any NCAA-sponsored sport despite generating like the third-most revenue," Penders said.

Seniors LJ Mazzilli and Billy Ferriter, Penders said, were the only two UConn players on full scholarship in 2013. A big scholarship for an in-state kid, Penders said, is 40-50 percent of the total costs of about $26,000. Springer committed initially at 34 percent and worked his way up.

"It's different year to year, but when we went to the Super Regional two years ago, the 10 players starting that game, including the DH, totaled as freshmen 1.09 scholarships.

"Nick Ahmed, a second-round pick [by the Braves in 2011], came for zero scholarship. Six in that Clemson game did. They didn't end up that way."

Players are eligible for need-based money, and some is exempt from being counted against scholarships. Academic aid is fair game as long as it is available to all students. Penders said requirements at UConn to meet those thresholds are "very tough."

As a matter of comparison, the Yankees took Sacred Heart shortstop John Murphy in the sixth round. His assigned slot is $208,300. The Pirates took pitcher Neil Kozikowski from Avon Old Farms in the eighth round [$155,400]. At UConn, junior pitcher Carson Cross went in the 24th round to the Pirates, while in-coming pitcher Anthony Kay [Stony Brook, N.Y.] went in the 29th round to the Mets. The Olmstead family met with the UConn staff Friday in Greenwich and is believed to be close to a decision. After the 10th round, every slot is assigned a $100,000 signing bonus value.

Mazzilli, drafted by the Twins in the ninth round in 2012, returned to UConn for his senior season and hit .364 while improving defensively at second base. By rising in the draft, his assigned value more than tripled to $442,000. What would Mazzilli tell Milone?

"I think he'd say, 'The best decision I ever made was going to UConn and getting better there,'" Penders said "I wouldn't have said this two years ago, but I think he has a real chance to stay at second base in the majors. If he doesn't, he'll make a heck of an outfielder. He was probably the best outfielder in college baseball playing the infield.

"There's also are a lot of lasting bonds. I've been invited to weddings over the years, and there hasn't been one pro teammate in any of the wedding parties. They're all college and high school teammates. Rick Sutcliffe said on ESPN that one of his biggest regrets was not going to college. He was a first-round pick. That's powerful stuff."





Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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