What if Kyler Murray Chose Baseball?

Two-sport phenom Kyler Murray chose football: But what if he didn't?

A Brief and Hypothetical Introduction

 

Meet Kyler Murray, football phenom. The Texas native’s gridiron legend starts in high school, where he went undefeated as a starting quarterback, led the Allen Eagles to three consecutive state championships, and was named the Gatorade Football Player of the Year in 2014. (MaxPreps scribe Mitch Stephens makes a compelling case for Murray as the best high school QB of all time.) The top-ranked QB recruit committed to Texas A&M, before leaving the Lone Star State and transferring to Oklahoma, where he won a Heisman Trophy in 2018. The Cardinals drafted Murray with the first overall pick in the 2019 draft, and it almost feels unfair to relegate his football accomplishments to a series of bullet points.

Meet Kyler Murray, baseball phenom. A middle infielder for Allen High School, Murray was well-regarded going into the 2015 MLB Draft (ESPN’s Keith Law ranked him as the No. 32 prospect in the class). According to MLB.com writer Jim Callis, one American League scouting director touted his talents with some high praise.

“He’s as much an impact guy as you can see running around out there on a baseball field. He can fly, he’s athletic, he’s in the middle of the field and he looks like he has feel to hit. If he decides to be a full-time baseball player, he’ll be exciting.”

But, oh, that was the big “if,” the quixotic dream for baseball enthusiasts that Murray would remain on the diamond. “See ya down the road!,” Murray tweeted in his opt-out of the MLB Draft, and he kept that promise: We saw him down the road after 78 collegiate baseball games played at Oklahoma, where he slashed .261/.381/.466 with 10 home runs and 22 stolen bases, this time as an outfielder. In the 2018 draft, the Oakland A’s selected the two-sport superstar ninth overall, an “unconventional” decision scouting director Eric Kubota said was made with a season of Oklahoma football factored into the process.

Said Kubota in an interview with Jane Lee of MLB.com: “He’s just a tremendous athlete, which can translate to the baseball field in a lot of ways. He has a chance to really be dominant on both the offensive end and from a defensive standpoint.”

After a $4.66 million signing bonus, after a Heisman Trophy campaign, after a Hail Mary meeting to convince him to stick to baseball, after a locker and No. 73 jersey waited for him in Arizona for spring training, Kyler Murray chose football.

But what if he didn’t? What if the collective hopes and dreams of MLB executives, the Oakland Athletics organization, and baseball fans convinced Murray to instead, perhaps, reunite with football down the road and pursue his MLB aspirations? Close your eyes (for a second, at least; there’s lots of reading left to do) and take a deep breath as we venture outside of the Prime Murrayverse and explore how things might look if Murray kept that No. 73 jersey and reported to Oakland’s farm system.

 

Kyler Murray’s Baseball Bona Fides

 

Now that we’ve safely sidestepped into a parallel dimension, the first question to answer is this: How good at professional baseball could Kyler Murray be? The answer might be a little unsatisfyingly nebulous, due to a small spectrum of stats to study. MLB Pipeline had Murray as the 36th-rated prospect in the 2018 draft class, with a scouting report extolling his “plus-plus speed to create havoc on the bases and the bat speed and strength to produce average power.”

Kyler Murray Scouting Grades (MLB Pipeline)

While understandably disparate skillsets, it is a little funny to see an NFL-caliber quarterback grade out with a below-average arm. MLB Pipeline’s report calls Murray a “work in progress defensively,” still learning reads and routes in the outfield. But you know what you can’t learn? Speed. Murray is rumored to have run a 4.3-second 40-yard dash, and a 70-grade run tool is no joke — he shares that score with current prospects like Corbin Carroll, Jasson Dominguez, and Vidal Brujan.

FanGraphs tagged Murray as the 20th-best prospect in the draft class, with a future value of 45 and a high potential for risk. According to the site’s scouting write-up, “his only clear weakness is swing-and-miss against good off-speed stuff, both somewhat allowed with his power-based approach.” A prescient note further in the report reads: “Given his size, baseball likely offers the most financial upside unless he’s a Heisman level performer this year.”

Yeah, about that.

The highlight of Murray’s profile is his electric athleticism: He made quite the first impression on Josh Herzenberg, a former scout for the Dodgers, while still at Allen High School. Herzenberg told SB Nation’s Richard Johnson that he saw “elite, top-of-the-scale athleticism. I’m not sure I’ve seen a better athlete on a baseball field, ever.”

From available reports, the overall consensus reads like Murray is an athletic dynamo in need of baseball conditioning, defensive work, and consistent reps — something his football schedule had poached. Which, as a full-time ballplayer, are three facets of his game he’d get to work on for Oakland’s minor-league affiliates.

 

A Center Field in Need of a Star

 

A glance at the Athletics’ situation in center field at the onset of the 2018 campaign helps explain the team’s dice-rolling gambit on Murray with the ninth overall pick when June 4 rolled around. Boog Powell, acquired from the playoff-chasing Mariners for All-Star first baseman Yonder Alonso the previous August, batted ninth as the Opening Day CF. He notched a double and a triple in five ABs during an extra-inning win over the Angels on March 29 before ending up mired in an 0-for-16 slump over his next five games. Inexorably, he lost his starting spot in the lineup after a 2-for-4 showing in an April 6 loss to the Halos. Manager Bob Melvin never showed much faith in Powell’s lengthy minor-league track record, only batting him higher than eighth in a pinch-hit appearance for similarly-soft-hitting Jake Smolinski on March 30.

From there, the A’s trotted out a series of also-rans and retreads in the outfield. Plucked off waivers on April 5, Trayce Thompson lived with older brother Klay during a Bay Area audition that lasted all of seven at-bats before being jettisoned to the White Sox on April 19 for a player to be named later or cash considerations. Smolinski got more run than his two predecessors combined, but scuffled to a 5-for-41 clip and posted a higher fWAR on the mound (-0.1 after pitching a two-run ninth in a 13-5 blowout loss to Houston on June 13) than he did in the outfield (-0.3).

29-year-old veteran Mark Canha played a serviceable center field, posting a .760 OPS at the position. But Canha only racked up 208 of his 411 plate appearances there, logging time at 1B and the corner outfield spots due to his positional versatility. If anyone was going to be Oakland’s best hope for long-term success at CF, it was probably going to be Dustin Fowler. A key cog in the 2017 trade deadline deal that shipped Sonny Gray to the Bronx, Fowler boasted prospect pedigree — 67th overall on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list in 2017, and 63rd on FanGraphs’ 2018 Top 100 prospects list — and upside as a potential 20/20 threat. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel posited a “chance to hit .280 or so, with 15-18 annual homers, and do lots of extra-base damage with his legs.”

Fowler debuted for the A’s on May 9 and was afforded a much longer leash than the plug-and-play center fielders before him. He was still a fixture in the starting lineup when Murray’s name was called on June 4, but found himself demoted back to Triple-A Nashville by Aug. 2. His fielding metrics were middling at best (-2 0uts above average and 44th percentile outfielder jump, via Statcast), and the aggressiveness at the plate that was a hallmark of his scouting reports caught up with him, as Fowler only found himself on base at a .255 clip while patrolling CF.

2018 Oakland Athletics Center Fielders (Before Aug. 3)

If you’re Kyler Murray, the revolving door of lackluster center fielders the Athletics saw fit to parade out there would make the Bay Area an opportunistic landing spot for a swift ascension through the system. Of Oakland’s top 10 2018 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline, five were outfield-eligible, but only Jorge Mateo (also acquired in the Sonny Gray deal) had an earlier ETA than Murray, and the speedster was still viewed primarily as a middle infielder. The OFs behind No. 4 Murray in Oakland’s system — No. 5 Austin Beck, No. 6 Lazaro Armenteros, and No. 8 Jameson Hannah — were all tagged as longer-term projects with 2021 ETAs. Barring a big trade or swing in free agency, the path to everyday playing time as a major league centerfielder would have been a cleared runway for Murray to prove himself. Prospect growth isn’t linear, but if the former collegiate quarterback made swift strides in the minors, Oakland might only need to plug in a stopgap rental in center field for a couple of seasons, or even extend their appraising look at Fowler until Murray appeared ready.

That might be the plan, if it wasn’t for an under-heralded offseason move that paid quick dividends for the A’s.

 

The Ramon Laureano Paradox

 

It’s Aug. 3, 2018, and batting ninth for your Oakland Athletics is Ramon Laureano.

Laureano was still a fresh face in the Oakland system: In a swap of minor-league depth ahead of the 2017 Rule 5 protection deadline, the A’s dealt righty Brandon Bailey for the outfield prospect coming off a troublesome Double-A campaign, where he slashed .227/.298/.369 over 513 plate appearances. Laureano slotted in as the Athletics’ No. 16 prospect on MLB Pipeline, and his scouting report praised his “good patience” and all-fields approach.

Nicknamed “The Machine” for his relentless work ethic, he’ll get the most out of his ability.

Apart from a down 2017 with the Corpus Christi Hooks, Laureano had done just that a season prior, ascending to Double-A during an age-21 season that saw him hit .317/,426/.519 (10 homers, 33 SB) in 80 games of A+ ball and .323/.432/.548 (five homers, 10 SB) in 36 games at Double-A. The Oakland brass had seen enough of his power-speed potential to part with Bailey, and Laureano rewarded their confidence with a .297/.380/.524 line at Triple-A. When Fowler was sent back down to Nashville to get more consistent reps, Laureano was the next man up.

The slick-fielding outfielder made an immediate impact, notching 2.1 fWAR in 48 games, bolstered by a .288/.358/.474 triple-slash, along with five homers and seven stolen bases. Laureano’s torrid run to close out the 2018 season, albeit in an abbreviated sample size, had Bay Area fans rethinking Fowler as the answer to the A’s recent turnover in center field. And, while a team doesn’t draft a center field phenom ninth overall without big plans for his development, watching a 23-year-old talent run away with the starting job might have felt like an unforeseen roadblock for a draftee like Murray, easing into the rigors of minor league life while Laureano grabbed headlines.

Laureano spent the 2019 season proving 2018 was no fluke — in his 106 games patrolling center field, he slashed .287/.337/.518 with 21 homers and 12 SB. Spelling Laureano and embracing a late-career breakout was Canha, who batted .315/.418/.547 with 12 homers in 203 CF at-bats. Murray would likely have started the year at Single-A, so it’s not like he’d be barnstorming to supplant the productive center-field tandem, but a move off his natural position to one of the corners may have been a likely outcome as Laureano’s success looked less and less like a flash-in-the-pan.

 

Opportunities in Unlikely Circumstances

 

It’s probably a fair bet that Murray would have spent most of his 2019 campaign playing Single-A ball, maybe making a cameo for Double-A Midland if he flashed enough consistency in the lower minors. Similarly-drafted outfielder Jarred Kelenic, picked sixth by the Mets before being shipped off to Seattle in November 2018, got his feet wet with 21 Double-A games during 2019. Travis Swaggerty, selected by the Pirates right after Murray’s name was called, played 121 games at High-A. Considering the adjustments Murray would have to make as a full-time baseball player after doubling up as a star Division I quarterback in college, a Swaggerty-like approach to the season is more likely.

2020 is where Murray’s potential path through the Oakland system gets a whole lot less projectable. The MiLB season was officially shelved on June 30; players named to teams’ 60-player pools trained at satellite sites that functionally acted as stand-ins for the lost minor-league structure. While Murray almost certainly wouldn’t be seasoned enough after one full High-A campaign to land a spot on the Athletics’ taxi squad, he’d likely be sent to the alternate site to keep up with his progression. A shortened season and loosely structured competition against a varied range of minor-league talent might have been setbacks for a prospect in need of consistent reps, so it’s tough to speculate how Murray’s stock might have been trending after an unprecedented season. Laureano appeared in 53 games at CF for the big-league club, scuffling to a .217/.339/.372 triple-slash with only a pair of stolen bases and six homers. It’s not like Oakland would look to move on from Laureano after a down year playing through a global pandemic, especially after his previous successes, but if Murray was making noise at the satellite camp, Athletics’ brass might have been listening a little more pointedly.

The real sea change for Oakland’s outfield outlook comes during the summer of 2021, and it’s where this Sliding Doors project gets even more sliding-doorsy. On July 28, the A’s acquired veteran center fielder Starling Marte from the Marlins for once-vaunted pitching prospect Jesus Luzardo. Is that a move the team still makes if Murray turned heads at the alternate site and impressed with his electric speed on the basepaths (and hopefully refined power-based approach) at Double- or Triple-A? Probably: The A’s sought to parlay their divisional title in a truncated 2020 season to a playoff berth in 2021, and a rental CF of Marte’s caliber is a big boost for a squad with postseason aspirations. Laureano shifted to right field for six games following Marte’s arrival, until a shell-shocking announcement shook up the Bay Area outfield picture.

On Aug. 6, Laureano was tagged with an 80-game suspension after testing positive for a PED. The disciplinary action, paired with Marte’s expiring contract, might have cast the future of Oakland’s outfield into flux. A’s ownership has a notoriously tight grip on its pocketbook, so the price tag Marte might command after a 5.4 fWAR season is one Oakland would be hard-pressed to pay. Laureano has yet to return to the diamond after his suspension, so it remains to be seen how his layoff from the field might impact his play. With a lack of frugal center fielders available on the open market (Marte was the lone CF ranking in FanGraphs’ Top 50 free agents list), a willingness to move Laureano off the position for Marte, and Swiss-Army-Batter Canha testing the waters of free agency, Oakland could have conceivably taken a good, long look at Murray in spring training action in the hopes of giving him some run on the active roster in 2022.

Laureano is still in restricted-list limbo for 27 more games, and Roster Resource currently slots Luis Barrera (projected by Eric Longenhagen as a toolsy bench outfielder) as Oakland’s Opening Day CF. Skye Bolt (80-grade name, but a .088/.103/.158 slash line in 60 major-league plate appearances in 2021) and switch-hitting Buddy Reed (Longenhagen: “The hit tool is not playable in the big leagues”) round out the A’s current bench options. If Murray couldn’t force the ballclub’s hand over a trio of players who have yet to collectively scratch replacement level, something would’ve had to have happened to sap his dynamic athleticism, whether that’s an injury, a prolonged adjustment period, or flagging mechanics. You can’t predict baseball, and even fictional prognostication feels a little like spitting in the face of the Elder Gods of Nine Innings, but the stars feel aligned for Murray to make an impact on the Athletics’ roster early in the 2022 campaign, lacing up his cleats to roam center field at Oakland Coliseum at just 24 years old.

 

An Outro and a Plea for Patience

 

Of course, back in the Prime Murrayverse (where the A’s retain his rights, should he return to baseball), the quarterback’s gridiron accolades started piling up in his first season for the Cardinals. First overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors in just the sixth game of his rookie campaign. Racking up 3,722 passing yards and 24 total touchdowns en route to an Offensive Rookie of the Year trophy. For his next trick, Murray followed up his freshman success with a Pro Bowl nod as a sophomore, vaulting himself into the conversation about the league’s best signal-callers.

There’s an expectation of immediacy attached to highly-regarded NFL draft picks: If you’re a first-round selection, there’s an unspoken confidence that you’ll contribute to your new team right away. Of the top 10 picks in Murray’s draft class, four (Murray, Nick Bosa, Josh Allen, and T.J. Hockenson) have already made Pro Bowl appearances. Another — linebacker Devin White of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers — earned second-team All-Pro recognition in only his second season.

On the flip side, the valedictorian of the 2018 MLB Draft class, No. 1 pick Casey Mize, debuted in 2020 and holds a 4.23 ERA and 1.2 fWAR over 178.2 major-league innings. Of the top 10 picks, Murray and pitcher Carter Stewart aren’t currently in the MLB pipeline. (Stewart, a 22-year-old righty, currently pitches for the NPB’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks after rejecting a signing bonus from the Braves.) No. 10 pick Travis Swaggerty started 2021 at the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate before shoulder surgery derailed his season. The five remaining batters drafted in the top 10 have found varying degrees of success during their first forays into major league action:

2018 MLB Draft, Top 10 Batters Selected

India — newly minted as the NL Rookie of the Year — was a revelatory addition to the Reds’ infield, and Madrigal’s elite bat-to-ball profile translated to the major-league level before a hamstring injury hampered his 2021 season. But Bohm has labored through a Jekyll-and-Hyde introduction to his Phillies’ career, and Kelenic — ranked fifth overall in Eric Longenhagen’s Top 100 prospects list, published in February of 2021 — shed his prospect status with a .270 wOBA and .615 OPS in a battle to parlay his minor-league successes to consistency at the plate.

That’s not to say Murray couldn’t find success right out of the gate once the A’s promoted their touted center fielder, but the odds of catching the same fire of his barnstorming NFL rookie season on the baseball diamond are lower, just by virtue of how baseball functions. Murray lined up behind center in Week 1 of his first campaign with the Cardinals; in 2020, fireballer Garrett Crochet bucked history by being the first player in over a decade to skip the minors and go straight to the majors in the same year he was drafted.

Even if mapping out Murray’s path to the Oakland Athletics is an exercise in speculative fiction, it’s also a reminder of what it takes to reach the major leagues. The physical tools and mental acuity. The constant shuffling of players in the positional pecking order. The slumps and peaks of a long season, the mechanical adjustments and dogged determination and lucky breaks.

And, maybe most importantly, the understanding to recognize that prospect growth isn’t linear, and patience for development — from the player, from the coaching staff, from the organization, from us.

Who knows? Maybe Murray’s passion for baseball will one day outweigh his desire to stay on the football field — he’d only be joining a vaunted club that includes Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, and Brian Jordan.

 

Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)

Erik van Rheenen

Erik van Rheenen is a Syracuse University alumnus, aspiring novelist, Yankees fan, live music enthusiast, and a believer in long-winded lists and the Oxford comma. You can find him on Twitter @therealvandyman.

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