By the time he was in 8th grade, the Collegiate High School coaches knew Russell Wilson had a chance to be a special player – in baseball. That year, he won their team’s starting shortstop job and showed easily the most promise of anyone on the team. But while Wilson remained on the baseball team, it was in football that his star shined the most. He was an All-State player at quarterback for Collegiate as both a junior and senior and led his team to a state championship in his final high school game. As a junior, Wilson committed to NC State as a quarterback and it seemed clear that football was the path he had chosen. The Orioles took a flier on Wilson in the 41st round of the 2007 MLB Draft nevertheless, but Wilson of course did not sign and headed to Raleigh to join the Wolfpack football team.
After redshirting his freshman year, Wilson officially began his career as a student-athlete in 2008 on the baseball diamond and played pretty well while seeing time at second base, posting a .296/.351/.437 line in 77 plate appearances, slamming 2 homers and stealing 6 bases. But once he arrived on the gridiron, special things began to happen. Wilson began the season in competition with a pair of upperclassman and saw little time over the Wolfpack’s first 2 games, but by the third game he seized NC State’s starting quarterback job and finished the season with impressive numbers, throwing for an ACC-best 17 touchdowns while getting intercepted just once on his way to the ACC’s Rookie of the Year award. He went back to the baseball team again in the spring but didn’t get the same results with a lack of focus being a possible factor, managing just a .236/.333/.292 line in 85 plate appearances with no homers and just 2 stolen bases. But back on the football field in the fall of 2009, Wilson had another great year as a quarterback, passing for 3027 yards and 31 touchdowns, most in the ACC and 4th in the NCAA, while getting intercepted just 11 times. It seemed to be becoming increasingly clear that Wilson’s future was in football.
Russell Wilson was going to be a quarterback. Baseball was almost like a hobby to him. Football was his focus, football was where he was talented, and whether he succeeded or failed in his athletic career would be in football. It would have taken the perfect sequence of events for Wilson to end up in baseball, and 2010 was exactly that. Wilson once again played for the Wolfpack baseball team in 2010 and actually played very well, seizing semi-regular time between second base, the outfield, and even on the mound for NC State as he managed a nice .306/.439/.490 line with 5 doubles, 3 homers, 12 RBI, 9 of 10 stolen bases, and 25 strikeouts versus 18 walks in 123 plate appearances. His experience on the mound did not go so well as he had a 5.84 ERA in 10 games, although he did have a save, but his big step forward at the plate had to inspire confidence in his ability as a baseball player if that was the route he chose. In June, the Colorado Rockies shocked everyone in baseball by selecting Wilson in the 4th round of the 2010 MLB Draft and then subsequently signing him to a $250,000 two-sport bonus with a clause for the money being returned if Wilson chose football. Then Wilson actually played 32 games for the Rockies’ Short Season-A affiliate, Tri-City, posting a .230/.336/.377 line with 4 doubles, 4 triples, 2 homers, 11 RBI, 4 of 10 stolen bases, 36 strikeouts versus 16 walks in 143 plate appearances. He was clearly raw, swinging and missing too often, not hitting for much power, and failing to find success on the basepaths, but the talent was clearly there- if he chose to continue to pursue baseball. But suddenly that became a real possibility. Wilson had his worst college season as a junior at NC State, passing for 3563 yards but just 28 touchdowns versus 14 interceptions.
With a strong 2011 season, Russell Wilson was going to remain in baseball. In March, Wilson reported to minor league spring training for the Rockies and began the season on the roster of the Low-A Asheville Tourists. A couple weeks into the season, NC State coach Tom O’Brien granted Wilson his release from NC State and said that the program was going to move on without him. Wilson kept playing for the Tourists, but things were not going so well. Through June 25th, there were some clear positives for Wilson as he had stolen 15 of 17 bases in 61 games, managed a .366 OBP, and was playing fine defensively at second base. But he was hitting just .228 with a .342 slugging percentage as he had struck out in a scary 34.2% of his plate appearances. Even more concerning, he could not hit right-handed pitching, posting a great .311/.482/.422 line versus lefties but just a .203/.326/.318 mark versus righties. Wilson still had so little experience playing baseball since high school and the Rockies hoped that with time they could help him overcome the problems he was experiencing. But as he struggled mightily in baseball, Wilson’s thoughts went back to football. He decided to sign with the University of Wisconsin football program and was their starting quarterback for 2011, and he proceeded to have an unbelievable season, passing for 3175 yards and 33 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions and completing an outstanding 72.4% of his passes as he set the single-season NCAA record for passing efficiency. Wilson still had his problems as an NFL prospect, being just 5’11″, very undersized for a quarterback. But the Seattle Seahawks selected him in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL Draft and any hope of him returning to baseball ended when he won the Seahawks’ starting quarterback job in the preseason. He has led the Seahawks to a 4-2 record so far in 2012.
Russell Wilson’s upside in baseball was quite high. He showed plus raw power to along with great speed and had the tools to be a good defensive second baseman with more reps. However, while Wilson was patient at the plate, Wilson’s swing was too long, he wasn’t used to facing right-handed pitching after starting mostly against lefties in college, and he was very undeveloped in his approach against breaking pitches. Given his outstanding work ethic, the Rockies believed that Wilson could really figure everything out if he just committed himself fully to baseball and put all the work in. But there certainly was not any guarantees. Bill Schmidt, the Rockies’ vice president of scouting, told the Seattle Times that they wouldn’t know for sure how good of a baseball prospect Wilson was until three full years in the minor leagues. He had upside, but realistically they never knew how likely he was to reach it. In football, Wilson had the disadvantage of his height, but he was much more polished and had the ability to make an immediate impact as a quarterback.
The Rockies selected Wilson in the 4th round of the 2010 MLB Draft because they knew that he had outstanding athleticism and raw ability in baseball to go along with the work ethic to maximize his talent and make up for his lack of experience. He was a risky pick, but because of stipulations of a two-sport contract, the only thing the Rockies paid to Wilson in the end was the money to go to college for two years because signing with the Rockies revoked his athletic scholarship eligibility. They hoped that Wilson would choose baseball and for a while, it looked like they got their wish. But in the end, his present ability in football won out over his raw talent in baseball and rightfully so. In that 2010 MLB Draft, the Rockies took chances on two college quarterbacks, Wilson and Kyle Parker. Parker chose baseball and is one of the Rockies’ top prospects. Wilson chose football and the Rockies will move on without him. So much of drafting in baseball has to with upside with risk a constant factor. The Rockies considered Wilson’s upside worth the risk that he would choose football or fail in baseball, but it simply didn’t work out. But considering Wilson’s abilities and intangibles, if the Rockies were placed in the same position again, they might just make the same decision.