After two seasons with the Minnesota Twins, the latter of which included an All-Star Game appearance and a second-place Cy Young finish, Sonny Gray signed a $75 million, three-year contract with the St. Louis Cardinals earlier this week. In doing so, the 34-year-old free agent made the kind of decision players aspire to have the opportunity to make.
“It came down to a contract and things he needed and so forth and so on — money and everything else,” said Wes Johnson, Gray’s former pitching coach in Minnesota. “So it's not that Sonny doesn't like Minnesota, just that it was a better move for him and his family. And I think that, at the end of the day, that's what those guys understand.”
Johnson and Gray overlapped for just half a season with the Twins, but they bonded quickly. And so when Johnson got the opportunity in June 2022 to make a similarly contract-centric decision to leave Minnesota, Gray was the first player he called with the news.
Telling the team that made him the first coach in 40 years to jump from the NCAA to the majors that he was going back to college was difficult for Johnson. “But here's what I can really appreciate from all those guys,” he said, “is they all know it's a business, too.”
'I think it's going to be more and more'
The Twins hired Johnson away from the University of Arkansas before the 2019 season. Three and a half seasons later, Johnson made the shocking decision to leave a then-first-place major-league team to take a job as the pitching coach for Louisiana State University. Earlier this summer, he left LSU to become the head baseball coach at the University of Georgia.
Contemporaneous reports when news broke that Johnson was leaving the Twins cited “a massive raise.” Reportedly, he was leaving an MLB job that paid “a bit north of $350,000” for “a three-year, $1.14 million deal with LSU, but that's before considering any incentive clauses, which can be sizable at the college level.”
Johnson’s decision highlighted a salary discrepancy that was again made relevant early this offseason, when Craig Counsell set a record for MLB manager contracts, signing a five-year, $40 million deal to jump from the Milwaukee Brewers to the Chicago Cubs. A widely renowned manager with a hotly anticipated free agency, Counsell was poised to set a new standard for baseball coach compensation. And when he did, the news cycle highlighted how it stood in contrast to the creeping trend of some colleges paying better than MLB teams.
Craig Counsell's $8 million-a-year deal with the Chicago Cubs is an industry-shaking deal. In recent years, multiple coaches have pointed out that it's more lucrative financially to take a job with a college program than an MLB team. Counsell's deal could help change that in MLB.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 6, 2023
A USA Today article that predated Counsell’s contract by about a month bemoaned how MLB managers have become “grossly underpaid.”
“No wonder guys are leaving our game and going to the college ranks,” the story quoted an anonymous manager as saying.
For his part, Johnson declined to give specifics but confirmed that college coaching pays better than his big-league salary did and that it offers him greater stability.
“Yes, there was a little more money involved. But also the length of my contract that was guaranteed was longer,” he said. “You get a lot of one- and two-year deals with a club option for Year 3 at the big-league level. And not only did I get a little more money, I got more security because I got a longer guaranteed deal.”
Johnson’s midseason departure from the Twins was certainly the most high-profile example. But even as some coaches still graduate into pro ball, others are making the jump back to college. Elsewhere in the SEC this year, Max Weiner left a job as the Seattle Mariners’ pitching coordinator to become the pitching coach at Texas A&M University, and Everett Teaford left his role as pitching coordinator for the Chicago White Sox to be the pitching coach for Auburn University.
“I think it's going to be more and more,” Teaford said of this trend.
As a fourth assistant coach at Auburn, he isn’t making more now than he was with the White Sox. But he is confident that “compensation is probably going to be way better in the long run in college,” and even now, the work-life balance is far better. As a pitching coordinator, he oversaw all levels of the White Sox’s minor leagues, which meant he basically lived out of hotels.
Now, the father of three said, “I take my kids to school every morning. I do carpool. I read bedtime stories every night. When you're in the Marriott in Winston-Salem, you're not doing that.”
'Everybody likes to go watch a winner'
It’s tricky to distinguish cause from effect when it comes to the phenomenon of college coaching becoming more competitive and lucrative and appealing. With Johnson’s LSU team ultimately winning it all in June — and his star pitcher, Paul Skenes, becoming the first overall draft pick just a few weeks later — the Men’s College World Series set record viewership numbers.
“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another sport that’s really kind of on the rise,” Teaford said of college baseball’s increasing popularity. And popularity drives revenue, which in turn inspires investment.
“I think what you’ve found in the SEC is, if you do things right and you win, baseball becomes a revenue sport for that university. It can be,” Johnson said. He estimates that five of the 14 SEC schools turned a profit on baseball last year — an anomaly for any NCAA sport that isn’t football or basketball. He said some schools are leaning into that opportunity by building up the baseball game-day experience, taking inspiration from the minor leagues.
And, ultimately, “people are understanding that, at the right places, development can lead your program to wins. And then everybody likes to go watch a winner.”
What that looks like in practice is SEC schools outfitting their baseball programs with the cutting-edge technology necessary to best develop modern players and pairing that technology with elite, modern coaches who know how to utilize it. Or, it looks like attracting elite coaches and then giving them the resources to build a competitive development program.
“There are a handful of schools that I'll put up against anybody in the country as far as developing a player,” Johnson said. “And that includes, you know, Major League Baseball teams.”
“I think we're one of three universities that have it right now. And not even all minor-league stadiums have it,” Teaford said of Auburn’s KinaTrax Motion Capture technology, which creates three-dimensional images of a pitcher’s delivery without affixing anything to their body. He said that when Auburn’s head coach, Butch Thomson, hired him, “He was like, ‘I want somebody that I can put in this position and let run with it.’ So he's given me a ton of autonomy, which was really exciting.”
“When they hired me as the head coach here,” Johnson said of Georgia, “it was like, ‘Hey, we're going to give you the resources from the technology standpoint to do whatever you need to do to develop.’ And so I won't say it was a blank check, but I'll say it was close.”
Both also cited the ability to be heavily involved in identifying and acquiring players as part of the appeal.
All of this is taking place inside a larger evolving sports ecosystem — both in baseball and in the NCAA. The new frontier of name, image and likeness rights makes college a more lucrative proposition for players, and the shrinking minor leagues encourage more development to take place outside the bounds of pro ball. Meanwhile, the ballooning ranks of pro coaches mean more people in position to potentially see college coaching as an upgrade.
Even if Counsell’s contract sets a new standard for highly coveted managers, that might not trickle down the coaching ranks, and plenty of lower-level coaches are likely to find their salaries stifled by MLB’s conventions around teams’ having to grant permission for employees to interview with the competition.
“It wouldn't shock me if you start to see more people come and do what I've done,” Johnson said. “I don't know how many true big-league pitching coaches will jump back to college or hitting coaches. But I think you'll start to see maybe some of the assistants at that level doing some different things.”
Still in his first year, Teaford is relishing the stability of life in Auburn — from a family perspective and as far as getting to see his guys develop without having to leave for a new affiliate level every few days. Since he left the White Sox, his longtime friend Chris Getz was promoted to general manager, and Teaford acknowledges that he would’ve liked to be there with him for that.
But in terms of the day-to-day job of working for a major-league team compared to coaching in college?
“I don't know if I necessarily miss anything,” he said.