Georgia pitcher Cole Wilcox throws a pitch during the second game of a three-game series against UMass Lowell at Foley Field on Feb. 24, 2019. The Bulldogs beat the River Hawks 13 to 5.

As the second round of the 2020 MLB draft waned, Georgia sophomore starting pitcher Cole Wilcox was still waiting to hear his name called. Outlasting his low first-round projection, Wilcox fell to the third, where he was taken at No. 80 by the San Diego Padres. 

Wilcox has just over seven weeks to decide whether he’ll sign his first professional contract or take the mound as Georgia’s premier starter in 2020-21.

The format of the MLB draft lends itself to this type of uncertainty. Unlike with the NFL or NBA, aspiring MLB players don’t have to commit to the draft ahead of time. Several Diamond Dogs, including Wilcox and his fellow pitcher and 2020 draftee Emerson Hancock, were drafted out of high school but declined to sign with a team. 

This year, draftees with leftover college eligibility have until Aug. 1 to make their decisions. 

But because the signing bonus value attached to each draft slot after No. 20 declined by an average of $40,000 per pick, Wilcox’s decision to leave the Bulldogs behind became more and more costly the further he fell in the draft. 

If Wilcox signs with the Padres, he’s set to receive at least $767,800, a dip from the $3.36 million he’d receive had he gone No. 19, his highest projection as of draft day.

In a June 2 press conference, Wilcox did not identify a dollar amount that would tip the scale in favor of turning pro. There were still details to work out then, and draft stock to protect. Now, it seems all the cards are on the table. But Wilcox may be able to make San Diego open its wallet a little wider. 

Last year, the Padres swayed their third-round draft pick Hudson Head to sign for $3 million out of high school. And with three years of eligibility left at Georgia, Wilcox has leverage heading into negotiations.

He improved significantly as a sophomore, posting the lowest ERA among Georgia’s starters and the second-most strikeouts. The four-start sampling was tiny, however, and likely contributed to his first-round snub in the 2020 draft. 

But had the shortened season played out and Wilcox maintained his averages across 15 starts — the same number Hancock pitched as a sophomore — he was set to allow 12 fewer earned runs in 26 2/3 more innings than in his 19 freshman appearances.

To keep Wilcox from rejoining an upperclassman-heavy Diamond Dog team that was 14-4 before the 2019-20 season was cancelled due to concerns about COVID-19, San Diego may need to up its ante as signing doesn’t guarantee a future in the big leagues. 

Of the nearly 12 dozen Georgia baseball players drafted in the last 50 years, 23 made it to the MLB.

For the vast majority of former Bulldogs who signed with MLB clubs, stints in the minor leagues and their one-time signing bonus payouts filled their professional careers and coffers. 

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Padres were one of two MLB organizations that committed to paying the athletes of its barely-solvent minor league affiliates $400 per week through August. 

Yet Baseball America reported that the 2021 minor league season remains up in the air as the MLB and MiLB seek to work out an agreement that could see up to 42 minor league affiliates cut ahead of next year.

Wilcox will have to make a gamble on whether to return to Athens and shoot for a 2021 draft spot guaranteed to pay out millions, or take what he can squeeze out of the Padres and hope for a big-league break.

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