Late to the Game: The Ones Who Got Away

Late to the Game: The Ones Who Got Away

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Kyle Muller, the towering pitcher committed to Texas’ but selected by the Atlanta Braves in the second round of the MLB Draft. The following day, in his final high school appearance, the 6-foot-7 southpaw hurled a three-hit shutout to send Dallas Jesuit to the state 6A finals, which they won the following day.

Last week, Muller made an important choice: He grabbed the signing bonus and will embark on a professional career instead of rolling the dice and playing three years at Texas, where he was committed for the 2016-17 academic year. Muller’s decision was by no means shocking or unique; for years, teams have offered signing bonuses above slot value to lure high school players away from college. And often, the high school players do a cost/benefit analysis and decide that, even if they never reach the major leagues, foregoing seven or even high-six-figure cash advances can come back to bite you.

Take Kyle Funkhouser. Last year, the No. 35 overall selection Funkhouser—no relation to Marty—chose to return to Louisville for his senior season rather than sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers for a sum reported to be north of $1.7 million. He was drafted again in 2016, this time sliding into the fourth round. And instead of College World Series glory, Louisville was gut-punched by a walk-off grand slam this weekend in the super regional round. Funkhouser is stuck.

This year, the No. 44 pick was slotted at $1,459,700, a very specific number. Last Tuesday, Muller signed for a reported $2.5 million. It was hard to envision a situation in which he turned down a million dollars, much less $2.5 million, especially considering that the 155th pick the Detroit Tigers used to take Funkhouser is slotted at $516,200. Funkhouser quite literally took a million dollar gamble and lost.

Who can blame him? Texas, coming off its most disappointing season since Willenium topped the charts, is without a head coach in the wake of Augie Garrido’s exit. Also, there’s the matter of all that money. It’s a lot. Like, enough to make an all-cash purchase of a house in West Austin.

This conundrum had me thinking: Which other Texas players in recent history have bolted for the majors instead of the Forty Acres? Who were the near misses, lured away from college careers, and where are they now?

So I wrote this exhaustive column of the last 1o years of Texas baseball players who didn’t actually come to Texas. But why? Other than my inherent masochism, it’s to frame Muller’s decision with some historical context, for the six Texas baseball fans who actually thought Muller had a shot of pitching in Austin next year.

Between 2006 and 2010, only eight Texas signees went pro instead of playing college ball, beginning with Marcus Lemon (4th round, Texas Rangers) and Jordan Walden (12th round, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim). Lemon, now 28, has been stuck between AA and AAA ball for the last few years, and is now in his fourth organization. After stints with the Braves and the Tigers, he’s a utility player with the AAA Charlotte Knights in the White Sox organization. Walden, a transfer from Grayson County Community College in Denison, Texas, has had a productive career as a relief pitcher, though in recent years he has been plagued by injury. An All-Star closer for the Angels in 2011, Walden is now a St. Louis Cardinals middle reliever currently on the disabled list with a Grade 2 right lat sprain.

Taylor Grote, a 2007 signee, couldn’t pass up the allure of playing for the New York Yankees after he was drafted in the 8th round that year out of the Woodlands. He signed for $250,000, but the outfielder never made it above AA ball, playing just one game for the AA Trenton Thunder in 2010 before the Yankees cut him in January 2012.

The following year again just one signee went pro, this time Cypress, Texas, outfielder Robbie Grossman, after he was drafted in the sixth round by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was given a $1 million signing bonus, above his slot, but closer to where he initially projected in the draft. After winning Minor League Player of the Year for the Pirates organization in 2011, he was part of the trade that brought Astros pitcher Wandy Rodriguez to Pittsburgh. After three replacement-level seasons in Houston, the last of which was in a limited role, the Astros released him. He signed to a minor league contract with the Cleveland Indians, and in May of this year opted out to sign with the Minnesota Twins and was immediately promoted to the big-league roster. He’s currently the everyday outfielder for the last-place Twins.

Two players spurned Texas for pro ball in 2009, Everett Williams (2nd round, San Diego Padres) and Colton Cain (8th round, Pirates). Interestingly (to me at least) is that Williams came from Austin’s McCallum High School, known more for producing pretty good bowlers and fine arts students than athletes. Williams topped out at AA ball in both the Padres and Phillies organizations before the latter released him in July 2014. Cain bounced around between the Pirates and Astros organizations, also never making it above AA level. He was released in March 2015.

Mike Foltynewicz was likely never coming to Texas. A highly rated pitching prospect from Sterling, Illinois (home of REO Speedwagon’s fourth lead singer, Michael Bryan Murphy!), he was taken in the first round by the Astros for a $1.3 million signing bonus. First rounders almost always sign—well, except the Astros’ first overall pick in 2014, but still—and the man whose given name later befuddled minor league beat writers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Corpus Christi, Texas, followed suit. Foltynewicz made 16 relief appearances for Houston in 2014 and was then traded after that season to the Atlanta Braves. He was a below-average starter in 2015 before being diagnosed with something called costochondritis, then pneumonia, then blood clots in his pitching arm. He’s part of the struggling Braves rotation this season.

2011 and 2012 were unfortunate years for Texas recruiting, even with the additions of Nathan Thornhill, Mark Payton, Travis Duke, Ty Culbreth, C.J. Hinojosa, and Ben Johnson over that period. In fact, the Longhorns’ run to the 2014 College Baseball World Series might have ended with Augie Garrido’s sixth title (and third at Texas) had 10 (yes, 10) of his signees fallen farther in the draft.

In 2011, the quartet of Dylan Bundy (1st round, Baltimore Orioles), Blake Swihart (1st round, Boston Red Sox), Josh Bell (2nd round, Pittsburgh Pirates), and Matt Dean (13th round, Toronto Blue Jays) all went pro instead of coming to Texas. Bundy and Swihart are already major-league players, the former a member of the first-place AL East Orioles’ bullpen, and the latter splitting time between catcher and left field for the Red Sox. Bundy, according to the Baltimore Sun, will go into next season competing for a spot in the starting rotation. Bell, who received a record-setting $5 million signing bonus in the second round, is raking at AAA Indianapolis, and will likely join the Pirates sooner than later. It’s also not insignificant that Bell also attended Dallas Jesuit and was drafted in the second round, the same as Muller. Dean is struggling at AA New Hampshire, still in the Blue Jays’ organization, and hitting below the Mendoza Line as of June 14.

2012 was the big year, with six players going in the first, second, and fourth rounds and all heading to professional baseball instead of Texas. Courtney Hawkins (1st round, Chicago White Sox) is toiling away at AA Birmingham. Steve Bean and Tyler Gonzales went 59 and 60 in the supplemental 1st round, to the Cardinals and Blue Jays, respectively. Bean has struggled at the plate in rookie and A ball, and seems stuck there for the moment, though he’s playing in Palm Beach right now, so he has that going for him. Gonzales is already out of baseball, after two seasons pitching in rookie ball. Spencer Edwards (2nd round, Tampa Bay Rays) is also already out of baseball. In February 2015, he was suspended 80 games after testing positive for dehydrochloromethyltestosterone (anything with the words “meth” and “testosterone” in the name can’t be good), methasterone, and tamoxifen. He was released in July of last year, and hasn’t played since, though he’s still only 23, so there’s time for a comeback. Wyatt Mathisen (2nd round, Pittsburgh Pirates) has hit reasonably well in A ball, though a shoulder injury has kept him from making his 2016 debut. Also, can the Pirates stop snagging Texas prospects early? Thanks. Corner outfielder Austin Dean (4th round, Miami Marlins) is on a steady course through the minors, and is currently slashing .265/.345/.430 in 62 games at Jacksonville. It’s interesting to think what these players could have done to contribute as sophomores at Texas, but as Bob Dylan adapted from all-time great pitcher Satchel Paige, don’t look back.

From 2013-15, according to Texas Athletics, only 2013 1st round pick Trey Ball chose to go pro instead of enrolling at Texas. He’s a legitimate pitching prospect with Boston’s advanced-A squad, in the very spooky town of Salem.

This is all to say that sometimes players make the jump before they’re ready, and cautionary tales are common. But then there’s Funkhouser, left holding an empty bag where $1 million used to be. As a peer in a similar situation, it’s likely that Muller knew Funkhouser’s story. And the extra cool $1 million probably didn’t hurt.


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