The Jameis Juggle
By BJ Bennett
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From the gleam of a crystal trophy to the shine of the baseball diamond, Jameis Winston’s second-year two-sport transition has come with the national spotlight.
On his resume, Florida State's Jameis Winston has a BCS National Championship, a Heisman Trophy, the Manning Award, the Walter Camp Award, Associated Press Player of the Year and consensus All-American honors. He also has a 96 mph fastball. College football’s most outstanding player doubles as a dynamic baseball player and, most importantly, an even better baseball prospect. It’s a unique distinction for Winston, one that comes with options.
Going to back to last spring, it was no guarantee that Winston was going to be the one replacing first round NFL Draft pick E.J. Manuel at quarterback. Per head coach Jimbo Fisher, Winston narrowly won a close race for the starting job with Sean McGuire and, most notably, now-Alabama signal caller Jacob Coker. Winston ultimately burst onto the national scene with a season for the history books. He paced the nation with a passer rating of 184.85, one of the highest totals in recent memory, throwing for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns and leading the country with 10.6 yards per pass attempt.
Winston dazzled, even, in his college debut, compiling 356 yards and five touchdowns on 25-of-27 passing at Pittsburgh. In his first paring with a nationally-ranked foe, Winston threw for 393 yards and five more scores at home versus Maryland. Two weeks later, he compiled 444 passing yards and four touchdowns in a showdown at undefeated Clemson. Winston’s signature series came on college football’s biggest stage against a foe he hadn’t often faced – adversity. The game’s youngest Heisman Trophy winner ever went 6-of-7 passing at the end of the BCS National Championship Game, driving FSU the length of the field with just over a minute left before finding Kelvin Benjamin on an iconic 2-yard scoring strike.
From the gleam of a crystal trophy to the shine of the baseball diamond, Winston’s second-year two-sport transition has come with the national spotlight. He earned pre-season All-American attention from multiple outlets and brought considerably more fan and media attention to winter workouts. A recent Seminole scrimmage with the New York Yankees resulted in in-show updates and features; Winston’s 0-for-2 at the plate was a ticker fixture. His future has been another hot-button discussion.
"It's super cool to see what he's doing," New York Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia told USA Today Sports. "I'd love to get an autograph from him some day, maybe a football too."
On the surface, Winston’s path may seem clear. While he has vowed to stay two more years in Tallahassee, Winston will undoubtedly be a top NFL Draft pick whether he declares himself eligible in 2015 or 2016. He, however, has made it a continued point to express his love for the sport of baseball. Winston told Bob Nightengale of USA Today that meeting Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Jorge Posada was “probably better that winning the national championship.” It’s hard to imagine that passion fading away.
Out of high school, Winston was ranked as the 59th best prospect in the nation by Baseball America heading into the 2012 MLB Draft. He, instead, chose Florida State, in part, because he would be given the chance to participate in his two favorite sports. Winston currently plays outfield, in addition to serving as the closer for the Seminoles. Many feel he could be a first round pick in baseball at either position, though it is largely believed that Winston’s true upside is on the mound. At time of publication, Winston had not allowed a run, given up just one hit and struck out three in five innings; he was 2-for-2 in a pair of at-bats at the plate.
Despite what he means to the defending national champions on the football field, Winston’s contributions to the baseball team in Tallahassee are being met with open arms.
“I know Mike and Jimbo very well,” acknowledged former Miami Marlins outfielder and LSU and NFL quarterback Josh Booty on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. “Of course, I played for Jimbo at LSU. He loves baseball. This is probably fun for him. As long as he knows that his guy will be there for most of spring practice and a lot of the summer drills, then Jimbo is going to let him do that. Both of these guys are going to work hard-in-hand together.”
Athletically, Winston has the rare abilities needed to be successful playing football and baseball. He wouldn’t the first player at his own school to chase such a feat. Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders lettered in football, baseball and track at Florida State and went on to win two Super Bowls and play in a World Series. Chris Weinke, winner of the 1999 Heisman Trophy, joined the Seminole football team after navigating his way through the Toronto Blue Jays organization. After college, he played seven years in the NFL. Even 1993 Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward played football and basketball at FSU and, despite not playing collegiality, was drafted by the Yankees in 1994.
The biggest challenge in Winston’s pursuit of professional duality is the position he plays on the gridiron. Quarterback, unlike other spots on the depth chart, requires an extra attention to detail that spans the width and length of the field. Fair or unfair, the time commitment is more significant under center. Given the demand on the player and the investment from the franchise, transitioning from football’s most important position to anywhere on the baseball field would prove especially daunting.
“It is super-duper hard to be an NFL quarterback with the responsibility you have. For Jameis to think he can do both is awesome. I thought I could do both. I wanted to be the first guy ever to be a quarterback in the NFL and a MLB player at the same time. You have guys like Sanders, Brian Jordan, Bo Jackson, but they weren’t quarterbacks,” Booty stated. “The position is the toughest in sports because you have to know so much and be the leader of the team. There aren’t a lot of NFL teams that will want to lose their guy to baseball and think that he is going to be the Super Bowl quarterback they think he could be if he was just playing football.”
There are a variety of intricacies at play in terms of what Winston might do. Baseball, for example, might be the better big-picture business plan. The potential for a longer career exists on the diamond, as does the reality of less physical demands on the body and the likelihood of more money -- with guaranteed contracts. Pitchers will always be in extremely high demand and the market is growing. Cliff Lee, for example, made $25 million in salary in 2013; Tom Brady made $14.12 million.
“Baseball is better from a longevity standpoint and probably when it comes to making ‘Star Wars’ money if you are one of the greatest pitchers or position players in the game. You can compare him, I guess, to a big-time right-handed starting pitcher or a center-fielder like Matt Kemp, one of the athletes at that position. That is ‘Star Wars’ money compared to even a pretty good NFL quarterback or an all-pro," Booty continued.
For the outgoing individual, like Winston, football might be a better individual fit. The cap on endorsement money is nearly-unlimited and the attention and fanfare that comes with playing quarterback is unrivaled. There is no bigger domestic brand than that of a quarterback in the NFL. It is a platform that is made for spring-boarding into other walks of public life, the media included.
"There is just so much more money in baseball, but if you are that Super Bowl quarterback and that is what you want for your life, that might supersede a long baseball career that isn’t quite as alluring from a celebrity status as being an all-pro quarterback." Booty added. "Winston has a real passion for football as we can all tell and is such a vibrant personality.”
Complicating matters for Winston is the fact that his baseball role for the Seminoles isn't as clear cut as it is in football. His practice time and performances are split between pitching and playing the outfield as Winston wants to do both. Though he may actually have a higher talent-ceiling on the diamond, it will take time to polish that potential. Everyday repetitions are something Winston isn't likely to get while at Florida State. That development, training that many baseball players have committed to exclusively for years, will have to happen somewhere.
“Jameis isn’t going to have unbelievable numbers in college baseball because they are going to have to watch out for his own good, his arm and they are going to play him at a couple of different positions," Booty acknowledged. "He is not going to be able to pitch so much that he gets drafted real, real high and then can go be a starting pitcher in the bigs right off the bat. Those guys are super prepared, the Mark Prior's of the world. He is going to have to play in the minors, figure out what position he wants to play."
With his ideal arm strength, it is likely Winston's most realistic projections are at pitcher. Even then, the process that awaits him is a time-consuming one. Winston's will have to be conditioned for professional play, the physical and psychological tasks that come with. Even elite, groomed-for-the-moment pitching prospects like David Price and Stephen Strasburg, former number one overall picks, had to wait at least a full year before making their MLB debuts.
For point of reference, only three of the 14 pitchers selected in the true first round of the 2010 MLB Draft have even thrown a pitch at the game's highest level. Five of the first six quarterbacks taken in the NFL Draft that year, dipping well into the fifth round, have started at least ten career games. Only one them, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, was considered a franchise pick.
"If he is a pitcher, it is a little easier to project how fast he can get to big leagues, but if you don’t pitch a lot at the college level then you aren’t going to go straight to the big leagues. You have to pitch at ‘A’ ball, you have to get innings, your arm has to get ready for a big league season. Now if he goes into the NFL, he is going straight to the top," Booty concluded. “Football, he is so ready for the NFL game. He seems like he can make that transition a lot easier than he could into MLB. He probably doesn’t know what he is capable of from a baseball perspective.”
After leading Florida State to a football national championship in just his redshirt freshman season, Winston is looking for more of the same, this time with the Seminole baseball team, this spring. The biggest star in college sports is currently auditioning for both similar and separate roles. Helmet or hat, his goals remain the same.