After watching three key members of his 2011 pitching staff get picked in last week’s Major League Baseball draft, Kansas University baseball coach Ritch Price needs Free State High standout Cody Kukuk.
But don’t think for a second that Price is going to let that cloud the way he does business.
Senior ace T.J. Walz; Saturday starter Tanner Poppe, a 21-year-old sophomore; and junior closer Colton Murray were picked on Days 2 and 3 of the draft. Poppe is expected to return next season, but the other two figure to be gone.
If that’s the case, it’s likely Kukuk could earn a spot in Price’s rotation as a freshman. But there’s a catch. Kukuk, the hard-throwing lefty who committed to KU months ago and signed with the Jayhawks last November, was drafted before all of them, in the seventh round by Boston.
So now the waiting game begins.
For Price, who has watched nearly 100 of his players get drafted during a 33-year coaching career, waiting used to be the hard part. College coaches in all sports are working constantly, always tinkering with lineups and projecting for the future. Having to wait a month — maybe longer — to know if a player is even going to be on the club next year can be agonizing.
“One of the things you learn with experience is how to handle these types of situations,” Price said. “Quite frankly, when I was younger, I didn’t know how to handle it.”
Now he does. And for Price, it starts long before draft day.
“One of the things I do in my home visits is, I sit down and I make my presentation about KU, and then I ask mom and dad, point-blank, what round and how much money is it gonna take for your son to give up the college experience,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of those parents are honest with me.”
That helps. But it’s not foolproof. After all, as Price says, “Every one of those kids’ situations was different and unique.”
That’s where patience and poise enter the picture. When it comes to handling the draft, Price only allows himself to get involved so far.
“I just try to share all that information, and then I step back from them,” he said. “When that decision is made, I want it to be made by mom and dad and that young man so that when he walks on our campus he never has second thoughts.”
Sometimes that approach leads recruits to KU. Other times, it doesn’t.
Throughout the 2011 season, Price talked about the previous year’s draft hurting his team. Heading into recruiting for 2011, he had holes at third base, center field and in the rotation.
He plugged them all.
Or so he thought.
Once the draft passed, three high school commitments signed with pro teams, and Price was left with an incomplete lineup card and the task of filling it in with the pieces he already had.
Another year, 2009, Price’s roster took a hit when first-round pick Matt Purke was unable to sign a multi-million dollar offer from the Texas Rangers because the Rangers were bankrupt and Major League Baseball would not sign off on the offer. Instead, Purke went to TCU, where he was named the national freshman pitcher of the year, and the Rangers signed their picks from the next 24 rounds. That included pitcher Shawn Blackwell out of Clear Creek High in Texas, who was drafted by the Rangers in the 24th round and signed for $300,000.
Blackwell remains in spring training in Surprise, Ariz., waiting for a spot on the short-season A ball team.
“If Matt Purke would’ve signed, they wouldn’t have had the money to do that, and Shawn Blackwell would be on our team right now,” Price said. “If he would’ve come to Kansas, he would be skipping those levels right now.”
Price believes strongly that college is the place for high school players to develop. But he doesn’t begrudge those who choose to fine-tune their games in the minor leagues because of the appeal of a dollar sign and a bunch of zeroes. He does, however, caution against making the choice for the wrong reasons.
“I’ve had three sons who have played in the minor leagues,” Price said. “Every parent who’s gonna have a son drafted should take his son and go spend a week in the minor leagues. Not at Triple A, not with the big-league club, go down to that rookie-level club, go to the low-A club and go watch. And go at 1 o’clock when the kids are on the field and they practice for three hours. Go back at 6 when they show up to play their game at 8 o’clock at night. And realize that’s a seven-, eight-hour day, and it’s all baseball. Your passion to play and your maturity level has to be off the charts or you’ll quit.”
Of course Price would like to win the Big 12 Conference every year and advance to a postseason regional without having to sweat. But not if doing that comes at the expense of his athletes or their college experience.
“For me, the whole next part in the process of building Kansas into a perennial contender is what’s happening now,” Price said. “We’re signing better players, and, as a result, now we’re susceptible to losing players in the draft. I think it speaks volumes for the progress we’ve made here. Now we have some credibility. But I’m trying to juggle, how do we take that next step and get a chance to play in regionals on a consistent basis and still not lose guys to the draft. Because once I lose ’em, I can’t fix it.”