John Savage didn’t think he was going to lose this one.
Almost every year, the UCLA baseball coach loses one or two of his recruits to the Major League Baseball draft. Players drafted in the first few rounds command signing bonuses that make a college scholarship look like pennies.
“We really anticipate a lot of things in the draft, and we’re normally right,” Savage said.
Savage thought he’d convinced pitcher Kevin Gowdy to take the scholarship. The 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher from Santa Barbara High School had already spent a day shadowing sophomore pitcher Kyle Molnar, and enrolled in summer session C at UCLA when he was drafted in June.
Unlike the other two UCLA recruits who were drafted early – outfielders Mickey Moniak and Blake Rutherford – Gowdy had kept in constant contact with UCLA in the months leading up to the draft. It gave Savage hope that the Bruins would retain Gowdy, even if he did get drafted in the first two rounds.
“Moniak and Rutherford kind of went into a different area, and that happened basically around January,” Savage said. “Gowdy … he really really wanted to come to school.”
So when Gowdy got picked in the second round – 42nd overall – by the Philadelphia Phillies, it wasn’t an end-all for Savage. He assumed that Gowdy would be drafted, but choose not to sign in order to honor his commitment to UCLA.
UCLA has had that happen plenty of times before, most notably with recent high-profile pitching recruits like Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and James Kaprielian who passed up contracts to play in Westwood.
“Gowdy, we really felt he could have been another Gerrit Cole or Trevor Bauer,” Savage said. “His dad came in before the draft. It was all set up to where he was coming to school.”
The only thing that was going to keep Gowdy from coming to school was a number. If the Phillies paid that number, Gowdy would sign with them. If they didn’t, Gowdy would come to UCLA.
“His number was $3.5 million,” Savage said.
That amount is $2 million more than the slot value of the 42nd pick, which MLB.com lists as $1,536,200. The Phillies were able to offer Gowdy a more lucrative sum, however, because of how much they saved on their No. 1 overall pick, Moniak. The slot value for the top pick in the draft is $9,015,000, but the Phillies snagged the center fielder for $6.1 million.
By June 22, Gowdy’s decision was made. The Phillies matched his request, by offering $3.5 million. Gowdy accepted, and UCLA was stripped of yet another top recruit.
“There’s a ton of money in the game right now. It’s tough,” Savage said. “I mean, we’re in a major fight right now.”
By the time the post-draft signing period ended on July 15, all but one high school prospect who was drafted in the top 10 rounds decided not to sign with an MLB team.
“Everybody that’s going high is signing,” Savage said, “because either people are meeting their numbers or they’re having a pre-draft communication.”
This year, three of the 12 players in UCLA’s recruiting class decided to make the leap to the pros and sign with a Major League club. All three of them – Moniak, Rutherford and Gowdy – were drafted in the first two rounds and offered $12,882,000 million collectively.
“But, you know, the money that Moniak, Rutherford and Gowdy signed (for), is life-changing, altering money,” Savage said. “So that’s a little different than most, but when we’re talking about 200, 300, 400, 500 thousand dollars, it certainly doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Three other UCLA recruits who were drafted all fit the latter category. They were selected in the 35th round or later and didn’t sign.
One of those recruits is Michael Toglia, an outfielder from Gig Harbor, Washington. Toglia will be the only out-of-state player on the Bruins’ roster next year, meaning his tuition costs will be close to double that of his in-state teammates.
Savage said Toglia benefited from the signings of Moniak, Rutherford and Gowdy, as UCLA was able to re-allocate some of its allotted 11.7 scholarships per year.
Because UCLA was surprised by Gowdy’s signing, the team has also continued to pursue recruits this summer.
Savage said that in the current day and age – when essentially every player in the top 10 rounds signs – the ideal recruits are usually the 11th to 40th-round players.
“That’s the guy that we’re trying to find,” Savage said. “We’re trying to hold onto guys that are prospects that are willing to make that choice to go to school.”
However, that doesn’t mean that UCLA is going to stop going after the elite-level recruits like Moniak, Gowdy and Rutherford. If you recruit enough of them, at least a few are bound to come to college, Savage said.
“We’re not going to keep from recruiting those types of players,” Savage said. “Because you look at our program – from Gerrit Cole to Trevor Bauer to Adam Plutko to James Kaprielian to Kevin Kramer – a lot of those guys were prospects that decided to come to school.”