Isan Diaz listens to the story of a fellow top baseball prospect from Massachusetts, one who earned a first-round selection in the 2011 MLB First-Year Players Draft.
Diaz, a 6-foot, 180-pound shortstop from Springfield, Mass., is told this mystery player could be his future teammate at Vanderbilt. Finally, Diaz is told that this player, Auburn native Tyler Beede, declined — at the age of 18 — a contract offer of $2.5 million from the Toronto Blue Jays, choosing instead to continue his career at Vanderbilt.
“Wait, did you just say $2 million?” Diaz asks.
Actually, $2.5 million.
“And he walked away from that?” Diaz said. “Whoa, that’s crazy. I didn’t think anyone could do that.”
Diaz will know about all these things — signing bonuses, draft slot money and the value of a Vanderbilt education — in the coming months. He arguably is the top position player among high school prospects in New England heading into this month’s MLB draft. He has made overtures that he will honor his commitment to Vanderbilt if he is not selected in the top five rounds of the draft, although that was before he heard about the money he may be leaving on the table.
If Diaz is indeed selected in the fifth round, MLB’s assigned slot value for his first contract will fall somewhere between $272,800 and $360,800. If he’s selected one round earlier, that number could jump to $481,900. If Diaz is selected in the third round, that number could top out at $747,700.
Like most top prospects, Diaz and his family will have to weigh the value of his first contract offer against his commitment to a full athletic scholarship at Vanderbilt University. If he chooses to go to Vanderbilt, he will be ineligible for the MLB draft until 2017. According to Vanderbilt’s financial aid page on the school’s website, the estimated cost for the 2014-15 school year with room, board, meals, books and expenses included will be $62,320 per year, or a total of $249,280 over four years.
That number might explain the origin of Diaz’s previous declaration that he’ll need to be selected in the first five rounds to pass on a Vanderbilt education. And it also could be the reason for the widely held belief among scouts that if a team wants to sign a player committed to Vanderbilt out of high school, it better draft him early — or don’t bother drafting him at all.
Beede was instrumental in establishing that precedent when he walked away from first-round money in 2011 to attend Vanderbilt. The next year, Mansfield, Mass., native and Vanderbilt commit Rhett Wiseman was thought by many scouts to be worthy of selection in the top five rounds. He slipped all the way to the 25th round due to questions about his “signability.”
In the case of each of these New England natives, the decision of whether to sign with a professional team or attend college came down to more than just a math equation. This life-changing decision is influenced by each particular player’s background and the support system he has in place.
‘I ended up sacrificing my career’
Isan Diaz’s father walked away from a potential professional baseball career in 1996 in order to be with his new son full-time. Raul Diaz was a star shortstop for Wallace (Ala.) Community College, one of the top junior collegiate teams in the nation. He was being scouted by the Baltimore Orioles when he learned his wife was approaching her delivery date.
“Once I found out Isan was on the verge of being born, I told myself I would attend to my responsibilities,” Raul Ibanez said. “The whole baseball status went downhill. I did a local tri-town league, but that wasn’t the same level. I honestly believe if I continued my career and continued to be away from home, I could have made it. Even though this was better in the long run, I ended up sacrificing my career to go out and start the battle and raise a child.”
When Raul eventually retired from the game for good, he vowed to give his son every opportunity to become a professional baseball player. As soon as Isan could walk, his father worked with him to ensure he was right-handed so he could play shortstop. Between the ages of 7 and 11, Isan emerged as one of the best players in Springfield for his age. By the age of 13, Diaz had the opportunity to play in a tournament with some of the best players in the country in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“After that, I ended up getting him a 33-inch bat because that’s what he’ll need when he gets to the major leagues,” Raul Diaz said. “He hit five home runs in that tournament, and we knew he was something special. From then on, we had a 6 o’clock appointment every day. He would have a bucket of balls, and we’d find a field. He was having trouble getting over the fear of the baseball, so I’d cut a tennis court in half and hit spit-fire baseballs right at him. I told him one day he’ll be an elite player.”
While Raul was quick to offer his son encouragement, he never shared how his career ended — or how close it came to the professional level. He feared that might create extra pressure and negatively affect his son’s passion for the game.
“My dad never explained why he passed the game on to me,” Isan Diaz said. “But when I was 11 or 12, he told me, ‘I see you playing in the pros one day.’ As soon as he told me that, I realized I had something. As a young guy, I wasn’t aware that I could wear a professional uniform one day.”
‘I’m doing this to make him proud’
Isan Diaz is one example of why a top prospect’s college/pro decision can’t be decided with a calculator. Each of New England Baseball Journal’s top 20 prospects this month has a different story that will factor into his respective decision.
For instance, top-prospect Tyler Beede’s father, Walter, became a professional baseball player out of high school, never reached the majors and always regretted passing on the college experience.
According to Tyler’s older brother, Kyle, “My dad was drafted out of high school, and he never went to college. He always stressed to us that it’s the best part of your life.”
While Walter Beede left the decision up to his son in 2011, Tyler knew which way his father was leaning.
NEBJ’s No. 3 prospect, Austin DeCarr (Foxboro, Mass.), widely was recognized as the top pitcher in his high school class three years ago, but then suffered an injury to his pitching arm that washed out much of his junior and senior seasons at Xaverian Brothers. While he had a full scholarship at Clemson waiting for him last fall, he postponed that commitment for a year to play at Salisbury School. His shoulder now seems to be 100 percent as he’s been throwing 96 mph all spring. One would think if he’s selected in the top five rounds, he’d opt to forego his plans to attend Clemson because he declined the opportunity to enroll last fall. Perhaps his injury history has pushed him to strike while the iron’s hot.
NEBJ’s No. 5 prospect, Justin Bellinger (Weston, Mass.), has invested his entire life to baseball. His father, David, bought a house in Florida when his son turned 13 so Justin could play in the most competitive leagues in the country. David also has paid a St. Louis Cardinals minor-league manager, Oliver Marmol, to live in Boston each of the past two winters to give personal instruction to his son. Justin is committed to Duke University, and with the resources David has invested into his son’s career, the decision as to whether Justin will become a professional baseball player figures to be a matter of plugging numbers into a calculator.
For the Diaz family, the dream always has been for Isan to play professional baseball. That’s the finish line his father talks about, and it’s the No. 1 objective for Isan as well.
“As a father and person, I had a dream,” Raul Diaz said. “I loved the game. I didn’t want to go to school and study. I wanted to play the game. I didn’t come from a wealthy family. This is amazing for our family that Isan is considered a top prospect. We’ve had to grab here and take there in order to get him to these places, put him in the right places.”
Isan Diaz is completely aware that nothing is promised in the world or professional sports. Last spring, as a junior, he was suspended for the first five games of the season because he was academically ineligible. For a span of two weeks, he was no longer a baseball player. This year, a bevy of scouts attended a Springfield Central game against Agawam to get a closer look at Diaz, and although he was fighting a stomach virus, he decided to play to make their travel worthwhile. Diaz pulled a hamstring in the first inning and missed the remainder of the game due to the injury. That experience again showed Diaz how fleeting the excitement surrounding his draft status can be.
“Living in Central, I know anything can happen at any moment,” Diaz said. “I’m trying to stay focused on baseball and school. I want to earn my diploma on June 3. After that day, I can’t say right now. I feel like if I get the opportunity to be selected in June, coming from New England, a minor-league system might benefit me more so I can stay on the baseball field in the winter and take hacks and groundballs. Physically, those hours would benefit me more.”
‘It will come down to me and my father’
Like most of this year’s top prospects in New England, Diaz says he will make the college/pro decision with his father. After all, Raul Diaz has been pushing for this decision since Isan’s birth.
However, just because all New England prospects are seeking out the advice of their respective fathers, it doesn’t mean they’re all getting the same advice. For players such as Beede (Lawrence Academy) and Wiseman (Buckingham Browne & Nobles), who played at prep schools before opting to go to college, spending three or four years at Vanderbilt — supposedly the Harvard of the South — sounded like the perfect springboard to a professional career.
For Isan Diaz, who has made no secret of the fact that college would serve solely as his avenue to professional baseball, beginning the journey to the big leagues with a minor-league affiliate might seem more appealing than spending three to four years in a collegiate culture with which he is unaccustomed.
“I think it will all come down to me and my father,” Isan Diaz said. “He’s always been in my corner my entire life. If it wasn’t for his knowledge and heart, there would be no one else in my corner. He will be the only one in my corner on that day because I’m doing this to make him proud.”