Heading into the MLB first-year player draft, Jesuit pitcher Lance McCullers was ranked as a top 10-15 talent.
Monday, he was paid like one.
McCullers, who was drafted in the supplemental first round, and No. 41 overall, by the Houston Astros, signed for $2.5 million, the largest bonus awarded to a Hillsborough County high school player. Additionally, McCullers’ bonus is almost double the slotted amount ($1.26 million) and in line with the recommended bonus for the 12th overall pick.
He spent Monday with the big league club, throwing a bullpen session and hanging out in the clubhouse before he was introduced on the field prior to the Astros' game against the Royals. McCullers will start his professional career in Kissimmee with the Gulf Coast League Astros, whose season started June 18 and runs through Aug. 25. After traveling back to Florida on Tuesday, he'll report Wednesday.
"It's a dream come true, honestly, every single kid who ever plays baseball wants to be at this point right now," McCullers said in his Houston press conference after donning his Astros No. 41 jersey and cap. "This is just the first of hopefully many steps, and I couldn't be more excited."
Because the Astros were able to sign top pick Carlos Correra for $4.8 million, well under the slotted $7.4 million, they had the flexibility to sign McCullers for more money. Currently, no draft pick has signed for more than his slotted value except McCullers, and of the 28 players drafted ahead of him who have already signed, only four received bonuses above slot.
“I said all along I hope he gets fair market value, and when you look at how he produced this year, he’s getting what he deserves,” Jesuit coach Richie Warren said. “Going into the draft, the Astros knew they would get two top prospects at No. 1 and No. 41, and the got the best shortstop and best right-handed pitcher. Astros fans should be excited.”
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow echoed Warren’s belief.
“We’re tremendously excited to have him join our organization,” Luhnow said. “He represents exactly what you’re looking for, which is a young man with a bright future, tremendous arm, a great pitcher who absolutely dominated at the high school level and is clearly ready to move on to a higher level.
“We feel that Lance McCullers was a first-rounder, and we were delighted to select him with our 41st selection this year.”
No other high school player can claim the stat line or the honors McCullers has received. Because of his overpowering performance on the mound — he surrendered just two earned runs in 77.1 innings (0.18 ERA) and recorded 140 strikeouts, 45 percent of hitters he faced — Gatorade named him the National Baseball Player of the Year.
Despite his on-field performance, there were questions about whether McCullers could be a starter at the next level and if teams would be able to sign him away from the University of Florida, where both of his grandfathers played sports. McCullers also selected Scott Boras as his adviser and has said he will use Boras as his agent.
None of those concerns matter now.
"They made me an offer I couldn't refuse," McCullers said later in a phone interview. “I couldn't have asked for a better situation. There's new management, rebuilding, want to win and are going to treat me right."
Last year’s 14th overall pick, former Alonso pitcher Jose Fernandez, signed for $2 million, which was then a county record. After his time in Kissimmee and then in Greeneville, Tenn., with Houston’s other Rookie League team, McCullers will spend this offseason working out with Fernandez, a close friend, current Phillies pitcher Jose Contreras and Orlando Chinea, the former pitching coach for the Cuban national team. As for any big purchases with his bonus money, those, too, will wait until after the season.
Warren, who coached McCullers for four years, expects him to rise through the ranks quickly.
“If all goes well, I bet we’ll see him in the next three years in Houston on the big stage,” Warren said. “You don’t draft a guy that early and give that him that kind of money if you don’t have a plan and don’t think he can make a relatively quick impact.”
Highest MLB draft signing bonuses in Hillsborough County
2012 P Lance McCullers, Jesuit (Astros) $2.5 million
2011 P Jose Fernandez, Alonso (Marlins) $2 million
2002 OF Denard Span, Tampa Catholic (Twins) $1.7 million
1997 P Geoff Goetz, Jesuit (Mets) $1.7 million
2007 OF Michael Burgess, Hillsborough (Nationals) $1.1 million
2012 1B Keon Barnum, King (White Sox) $950,000
1996 P Sam Marsonek, Jesuit (Rangers) $834,000
2002 SS Josh Murray, Jesuit (Brewers) $825,000
2008 SS/P Mychal Givens, Plant (Orioles) $800,000
2006 P Steve Evarts, Robinson (Braves) $800,000
1997 3B Jason Romano, Hillsborough (Rangers) $600,000
2008 OF Kenny Wilson, Sickles (Blue Jays) $644,000
2003 OF Elijah Dukes, Hillsborough (Devil Rays) $500,000
1997 OF Kenny Kelly, Tampa Catholic (Devil Rays) $450,000
Photo credit: Associated Press