Kapler: Heisman winner’s option of MLB vs. NFL … or maybe both
The trickiest part of the conversation when trying to decide Jameis Winston’s best path between baseball and football is projection.
This element is what makes scouting so difficult and, frankly, so inexact. In football, is he JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young, Tim Couch or Andrew Luck? In America’s Pastime is he Matt Kemp or a first-round bust who never participates in an inning of Major League Baseball.
A prominent National League scout told me, “Winston is not just an athlete or football player trying to play baseball. He’s a baseball player; he’s instinctive and has good understanding of the game. He just needs at-bats.”
What about as a pitcher?
“He’s 93-95 on the gun with a good, short slider and a solid feel for both,” the scout said. “With some instruction you could get really excited about Winston.”
The scout suggested that if the Florida State star played only baseball, he could be a top-15 pick. He stopped short of suggesting Winston could go first overall but said had the QB been focused solely on baseball the last few years, he “couldn’t rule it out.”
Josh Booty played third base for the Florida Marlins, grabbing a World Series ring in 1997 as a September call-up, and was taken in the sixth round of the 2001 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks as a quarterback out of LSU.
I caught up with Josh with the understanding that he fully comprehends what it takes to play each sport at the highest level. He also made tough decisions along the way, some of which he regrets. He was adamant that struggle is unavoidable, whether it’s with the pigskin or with the bat.
“If you were to struggle at one or the other, because every athlete does,” Josh said he would advise Winston, “which sport would you enjoy going through those struggles in more?
“Could you handle having a 4-12 season in the NFL and people talking about you and booing you off the field? Or would you rather struggle learning how to hit in professional baseball hitting .230 or .240 when that inevitably happens.”
Clearly for Josh, this was a matter of the heart.
FOX Sports’ Clay Travis cautioned about the possibility that quarterbacks change from year to year and that nobody is a slam-dunk.
"The wild-card here though is will Winston show cracks in his game now that people have had a year to watch film on him. “ Travis said. “Remember that there are an awful lot of presumptive No. 1 overall picks that fade. Think about Jake Locker or Matt Leinart, if you give NFL scouts another year of film. Winston already won the Heisman, but he’ll need to be even better in 2014 to guarantee he goes No. 1 overall."
On the topic of struggles, factors outside of Winston’s control are more likely to hurt his chances for success in football.
If he lands in a system that doesn’t suit him well, or behind an atrocious offensive line, he’ll have an uphill battle. In baseball, if he can hit, he’ll hit, no matter the lineup.
Winston’s preacher-like personality seems better suited for the gridiron than the diamond, but what about his talent? Where is his best path to lifelong success?
He’s undoubtedly a national superstar in football already.
“Winston’s got the ideal size and arm strength for a No. 1 draft pick. Plus, he’s won huge games,” Travis said. “There’s no doubt he’ll enter 2014 as the No. 1 prospect for the 2015 draft."
OK, let’s call Winston an undeniable, top-five NFL prospect. But if he chooses football, it will sting us on the MLB side.
“As a baseball community, we hate to lose great athletes to football. It happens too much,” said Tim Wilken, special assistant to Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer with the Chicago Cubs.
Florida State baseball coach Mike Martin has been on the record comparing Winston to Buster Posey and Deion Sanders, players Martin is intimately familiar with having coached them both in college.
Scouts have suggested that if Winston focuses on baseball, he could well be a first-round draft pick as a pitcher or an outfielder.
At 6-foot-4, 228 pounds, Winston’s body would profile as a top-of-the-rotation starter … if he turned out to be a pitcher. Roger Clemens was 6-4, 225, give or take a few pounds. Scouts look for large, strong legs, broad shoulders — generally a thick, durable frame. Winston certainly checks that box.
As I watched video of Winston throwing out base runners on YouTube, I couldn’t help but think of a young, substantially more athletic Jermaine Dye. Dye, by the way, was 6-5, 245; it’s easy to imagine Winston more filled out with a similar build.
Perhaps the better comparison is Matt Kemp, who is 6-4 and near 220. He shares more athletic similarities with Winston. The speed tool is more similar here than with Dye, who wasn’t much of a threat to steal a base during his career.
In order to have an intellectual and fun discussion about this topic, we need to plug Winston into the position of a current player in each sport and run the numbers.
First, let’s take signing bonuses into account, as they will be easier to conjure up.
Offensive tackle Eric Fisher received a guaranteed bonus in the vicinity of $14.5M as the No. 1 overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2013 NFL Draft. If Winston goes first overall, he’ll likely exceed that figure.
The Arizona Diamondbacks selected right-handed pitcher Braden Shipley and gave him $2.25 million as a bonus for being the 15th overall selection in the 2013 first-year player draft. Although Winston’s football skills would likely give him much more leverage than Shipley had, we should stay conservative and throw this slot number on him.
Assuming the MLB scouts are right, that if Winston focused on baseball, he’d fall somewhere between picks 10-20. That’s a fair prediction on what his guaranteed money would look like.
Winston’s raw physical attributes have been adequately publicized. He runs a 4.5 40, is big, strong, agile and has a cannon for an arm. In baseball, I’ve seen his arm graded out as a 70 on the scouting scale for an outfielder, which is elite.
Plus, he has the capability to respond well to pressure as he showed on Jan. 6 in Florida State’s BCS title game win over Auburn.
No disputing he’s an absolute freak athlete.
Let’s project Winston to be Cam Newton in football and for the purposes of this discussion, Kemp in baseball. (Kemp was actually drafted in the sixth round of the MLB Draft, but he’s as fair a comp as any.)
The 24-year-old Newton has one more year left on his four-year, $22M deal with the Carolina Panthers. When that deal is up, let’s estimate high and suggest he signs an Aaron Rodgers-like deal at five years and $110 million with $66 million guaranteed. That’s $132 million overall through age 31.
Now, let’s assume Newton inks one more deal like the extension Jay Cutler just signed, which guarantees the Chicago Bears’ quarterback $54 million. This time, to account for the uncertainty of the NFL contract, we can bank only the guaranteed money.
There may be some inherent marketing value for a top-five overall NFL quarterback, but because Akili Smith — the third overall pick in the 1999 draft — existed, we can’t fairly build it in.
Total earnings: $186M.
Between Kemp’s first few years and his current deal, the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder will earn in excess of $170M. He’ll be 34 when this deal is up and assuming he gets and stays healthy, he will conservatively average $12M a year through age 38, adding another $60M. Let’s project his career earnings: $230M.
The deciding factor could be concussion risk.
“The very nature of football requires a certain amount of violence, which makes players more prone to head injuries," Jake Mann wrote in a recent article for dailyfinance.com. "This, in turn, increases the likelihood that retirees develop conditions like dementia, depression, Alzheimer’s, and CTE later in life.”
Baseball players risk injury as well, of course. But the likelihood of head injuries in our sport is inherently, substantially less.
All things remaining the same, and after watching Winston on film, his best path is probably football. If his bat-to-ball skills and plate discipline markedly improve over the next 12 months and he becomes a legitimate top-five draft pick prospect, I’ll be singing a different tune.
Let’s hope for the sake of all of us watching, he finds a way to bring his talent to both the NFL and MLB.