McNutt, who pitched for Haleyville High School in Winston County, Ala., before attending Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, spurned an offer to join the University of Alabama to pitch professionally for the Chicago Cubs.
The Crimson Tide had wanted a commitment from him out of high school, but by the time they discovered him in late 2008, McNutt says, they didn't have any more scholarships to offer. McNutt agreed to pitch for Shelton State and to join the Tide staff at a later date, but a funny thing happened along the way.
The Cubs called and offered McNutt a signing bonus in excess of $100,000 – the equivalent to fifth-round money – after drafting him in 2009. The rest is history.
"I was surprised that I didn't get chosen earlier," McNutt said. "I was already signing up for classes on the third day of the draft when (the Cubs) called me.
"I didn't think I was going to get fifth-round money."
But McNutt did, and it would take him a total of 22 starts in 2010 before he would suffer his first loss. He burst onto the scene first at Class-A Peoria, where he made 13 starts and was 6-0 with a 1.51 ERA while notching 70 strikeouts to 24 walks in 59 2/3 innings.
His success didn't stop there. McNutt was promoted twice – to Class High-A Daytona, where he was 4-0 with a 2.63 ERA in nine starts, then to Double-A Tennessee, where he closed the year and made five starts with a 4.46 ERA in 26 2/3 innings.
The Cubs couldn't be any happier with their investment, or with McNutt's progress.
"When guys go to the big leagues, no one asks to check their IDs and certainly no one asks what round of the draft they went in," Cubs Vice President of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita said. "He's just like everyone else and he got an opportunity last year to actually go from Peoria all the way to Double-A and finish in the playoffs.
"He made the most of his opportunity."
What McNutt was most pleased with was how he was able to make adjustments during the course of the season and especially during times of adversity.
"I had a rough start the first game after I moved up each time, but after that I was able to adapt and learn more quickly than I have in the past in junior college and high school ball," he said.
"For me, the higher up you go, the more the mental part of the game comes into play. You just have one chance to make a pitch and if you don't make it, then you're going to get hurt in all your counts. Of course, the play of game speeds up faster and faster the higher you go, and the margin of error is a lot more slim."
McNutt throws a four- and two-seam fastball, which regularly sits 93-95 mph but has gone as high as 97 mph. He mixes in a "slurve" (curveball-slider) and has put more work toward developing a changeup, something that started last year at Daytona.
He says the breaking ball is still his out-pitch, but the changeup is coming along.
"The changeup is about the biggest pitch I've been working on during the off-season, trying to polish it up and get it to where I need it to be," McNutt said.
At times last season, McNutt said his success didn't seem real. He kept pitching the way he says he knew how to pitch and good things continued happening for him.
Now he's spending the winter months doing leg-lifting and running exercises to get prepared for another – hopefully successful – season ahead.
"I'm not trying to run too much, but I'm running to keep my lungs in shape," McNutt said. "I found out last year that it's a long season. Now that I know what to expect, I'm pacing myself better for next season because it's going to be a long one."
Looking back, McNutt has no complaints about his draft position. He admits he was surprised he didn't go in a higher round, but that it's all water under the bridge now.
"Everything happens for a reason, my parents say," McNutt says. "I really think it probably helped me just because I knew I had something to prove."
As for turning pro instead of eventually going to college at Alabama, the irony is that McNutt happens to be a devoted Auburn Tigers fan.
The town of Haleyville is in north Alabama, about an hour and a half north of Tuscaloosa on the Winston and Marion County line. Auburn is almost three and a half hours to the southeast in Lee County, but football devotion in Alabama isn't always restricted to which of the state's two biggest rivals is closest in geography.
And in that sense, Monday is an exciting day for McNutt, who will watch Auburn play the University of Oregon for the BCS national championship in Glendale, Ariz.
"I'll say 41-35, Auburn," McNutt predicted. "There's going to be a bunch of points. Both offenses are tough to stop and I think we'll pull away with it. If we can just keep the ball in our possession, eat clock, and keep their offense off the field, I think our defense can do a good enough job to stop them. We've got a pretty good run defense."
Would Cam Newton make a good baseball player?
"I think he'd make a hell of an outfielder," McNutt answered. "He runs a 4:5 40, so I bet he could track down some flyballs."
"But you'd strike him out anyway, right?" I ask.
"Yeah, I'd strike him out anyway," McNutt says.
McNutt Cashes in on Opportunity
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