Imagine for a moment that you are an exceptional athlete in your favorite sport. It's almost a sure thing that you'll be a first-round draft selection and then the time comes. You still have a year of college eligibility remaining and closing in on your degree when a storied franchise selects you in the first round. What do you do?
For most, the answer is simple. So long school. Admit it, nearly all of us would quickly sign any deal that would provide a few million dollars to play our favorite sport. Done deal, right?
Ok, so if your favorite sport wasn't baseball, let's pretend it was. Unlike the NFL and for the most part, the NBA, Major League Baseball has an extensive farm system, which means, no matter what number you were in the draft, odds are good that you'll spend some time in the minor leagues before making your debut with the parent club. How much time depends on how quickly the player proves they are worthy of the call. Often, players will spend months, usually years, further tuning their craft before that day comes.
Kyle Funkhouser, who entered his junior season projected as high as a top ten choice, was the 35th overall pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in June's draft. Last month he surprised most when he announced that he was making the rare move to turn down first round compensation to return for a senior season at the University of Louisville.
“At this point last year, I wouldn't have thought that I wouldn't have been coming back but it kind of worked out,” Funkhouser said on Wednesday. “I'm grateful to be back at this great University and I'm looking forward to getting the fall going.”
Toss into Funkhouser's equation, the opportunity to attain a college degree. It's something that eluded his father and is viewed as a way to gain some career security following baseball. He, along with his family, considered the many pros and cons of signing with the Dodgers or returning to college where he can further improve his talent while also accomplishing his goal of earning a college diploma.
“It was tough,” he explained. “Obviously a lot of thought with my parents, family, my brothers and my grandma, who kind of played a big role in that. To the average person, it might seem like a lot, but to me and my family there was other things that weighed heavy other than the money and playing professional baseball right now.”
Cardinals skipper Dan McDonnell was in constant contact with Funkhouser and his family throughout the process and knew that, “shortly after the draft, this is not a done deal” with the Dodgers.
McDonnell's advice during the weeks that Funkhouser and his family were negotiating contract terms with Los Angeles was to rest. It had been a long time since the 6-foot-3, righthander from Oak Forest, Ill., had been able to give his arm much of downtime. Following a sophomore season that saw him earn All-American honors after setting a school record for single season wins finishing 13-3 overall in 120 innings of work, Funkhouser immediately joined USA Baseball for the 2014 summer before returning to U of L for the start of fall ball and his junior season.
“He had a two year stretch with a lot of innings, a lot of mound time,” said McDonnell. “Whether he was signing or not, he needed to shut down physically and give his arm some time off.”
Funkhouser admits that the chance to further improve his stock in the 2016 MLB Draft “played a little bit” in his decision to return, with his goals now being to “finish out my degree and move up a little bit.”
As he discussed the possibility of returning for another year with his head coach, Funkhouser found himself being challenged. While he has served as the Cardinals ace the past two seasons and was a first round draft pick, McDonnell informed him that “nothing is a given.”
“My challenge to him was, if you come back, you come back to get better and these are the areas you can improve in and we listed two or three areas that you have to believe in your heart that you can come back and get better,” said McDonnell, adding that throwing strikes on a more consistent basis, improving the effectiveness of his breaking ball and “mentally, having more of a poker face” as the challenges facing Funkhouser during the upcoming fall ball period.
Considering all the varying factors. Choosing to gain your degree while improving your game in college instead of the Rookie League is a decision based upon sound advice, but it also comes with a risk. For many of us, we'd jump from our chairs to sign a first round contract, but for some, when faced with that reality, the millions can wait.
“There's risk with everything honestly,” Funkhouser said. “I guess in a way, but if I would have signed, I could have gotten hurt there or here, so I'm glad I'll have my degree to fall back on.”
The Cardinals will begin participating in individual instruction on August 24 before beginning team practices just after Labor Day. The team will conduct fall ball for a couple weeks prior to a trip of baseball and service in the Dominican Republic.