The father of Moneyball placed a $4.76 million bet on Monday night that Oklahoma’s would-be starting quarterback will sign to play for him. The Oakland A’s, led by sabermetrics early adopter and executive vice president Billy Beane, crunched the numbers and chose Kyler Murray with the No. 9 overall pick in the draft—a sure sign they expect Murray to eventually choose the diamond over the gridiron. The question now is when Murray will make that choice.
According to Murray, it won’t be in 2018. “I will be playing football this season,” Murray said on a conference call late Monday night.
To the A’s, he’s outfielder Kyler Murray—and outfielder Kyler Murray has a skill set eerily reminiscent of former Athletic Rickey Henderson. He can be a leadoff man who steals bases and hits for power while patrolling a huge swath of the outfield and gunning down baserunners from the warning track. Even though he didn’t give baseball his full attention—he played football until January and shuttled between spring practice and Big 12 games—Murray still posted a slash line of .296/.398/.556 for Oklahoma while finishing second on the team with 10 homers and stealing 10 bases in 51 games.
To college football fans, he’s former five-star recruit Kyler Murray. That guy dominated at Allen (Texas) High, helping his team to three state titles before signing with Texas A&M in 2015. Murray started three games as a true freshman, but he and fellow quarterback Kyle Allen—who had also started games for the Aggies that season — decided to transfer within days of one another. When Murray chose Oklahoma, it was unclear whether the Big 12 would change a rule that would allow Baker Mayfield (who had transferred to Oklahoma from Texas Tech) to play in 2017. Murray seemed like the perfect insurance policy. We know how that worked out. The Big 12 changed the rule, Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy and became the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft. After spring practice, Murray was poised to be Mayfield’s heir apparent.
Then Murray started stroking the ball over the fence. Suddenly, his situation got much more interesting. Monday night, it got downright fascinating.
According to Baseball America, the A’s pick at No. 9 is valued at $4,761,500. The franchise’s total bonus pool for all its draft picks is $9,553,200. The team can pay more than this amount, but it must pay a tax or forfeit future picks depending on how far above the pool figure it goes. Since Major League Baseball introduced this system in 2012, no team has spent so much that it lost future draft picks.
The A’s can offer Murray more or less than the $4.76 million figure to sign, but if they fail to sign him, they lose that amount from their bonus pool and can’t use it to sign other players in this draft. (They would, however, be awarded the No. 10 pick in the 2019 draft.) If the A’s really didn’t want Murray to play football, they could offer above the slotted amount to ensure he chooses baseball. Given that Murray has been clear about his intention to play football at Oklahoma, this seems unlikely. It seems more likely that Oakland signs Murray and Murray plays football with the contractual blessing of the A’s*.
*The NCAA’s rules allow for a player to be a professional in one sport and remain eligible to play a different sport in college. That doesn’t help individual-sport athletes who primarily get paid through endorsements (sorry skier/Colorado football player Jeremy Bloom), but it does work for athletes in team sports.
Several excellent football players have signed baseball contracts and continued their college football careers. NC State quarterback Russell Wilson was a fourth-round pick of the Rockies in 2010 and signed for a $200,000 bonus. He played for the Wolfpack that fall. The attention Wilson paid to baseball was a factor in NC State coach Tom O’Brien’s decision to choose Mike Glennon over Wilson — which prompted Wilson to leave NC State as a graduate transfer to Wisconsin and also helped get O’Brien fired because he chose the player who wasn’t as good at football. Tailback Ricky Williams, the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner, split time between Texas and the Phillies organization.
The difference between Murray and Wilson is the amount of money involved. A team spending $200,000 on a player isn’t nearly as worried about that player getting chased by 300-pound defensive linemen. A team spending nearly $5 million on a player might feel differently, but the A’s don’t seem like the kind of team that makes this sort of pick without thoroughly assessing the player’s signability.
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley told reporters in Tulsa last week that he expects Murray to play for the Sooners. “I don’t really care a whole lot about what happens in the draft,” Riley told The Oklahoman. “I’ve had good conversations with Kyler, his family, and I fully expect him to be with us. I really don’t have any worries about it.” That was when Murray was getting projected as a high-round pick, not a high first-round pick. But Murray erased any doubt about his intentions Monday night.
The question that only Murray can answer is how long he should continue playing football. He’s 5-10 and weighs 190 pounds. That’s shorter and lighter than Wilson (5-11, 204 at the combine) and Mayfield (6-1, 215 at the combine). Wilson and Mayfield are physical outliers in the NFL’s quarterback population. Murray would have to be as good as Mayfield was last season—and that’s a big ask considering Mayfield was historically great in 2017—to command the kind of signing bonus for football that he’ll get for baseball. Plus, if Murray makes the majors, a second and any subsequent contracts would be fully guaranteed. If he plays 10 years or more, he could make a guaranteed eight-figure salary for much of that time. NFL contracts, meanwhile, are not fully guaranteed. And then there’s the matter of the 300-pounders who can end careers with one hit.
The A’s choice to select Murray doesn’t mean his football career is over. But for a player with a potentially bright future on the diamond and two seasons of eligibility left in college football, it is reasonable to wonder when football will give way to baseball on a full-time basis.