Unorthodox journey for Royals prospect Way
Thirty-eighth-round selection has not played organized baseball since high school
As Cole Way's name scrolled across the MLB.com Draft tracker, two things stood out.
First, the jaw-dropping measurements listed next to the Royals' 38th-round selection: 6-foot-11, 235 pounds.
Second, Way's school being listed as the University of Tulsa, a school that lacks a varsity baseball team.
Kansas City's selection of Way, a three-year punter/kickoff specialist for Tulsa, embodied the spirit of the final day of the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft. Day three is primarily composed of players who fit one of four archetypes. The first, a player who saw their value sink due to injury or signability concerns. Next are the underappreciated prospects from mid-majors, JUCOs and community colleges. Then there's the youngster who shares the bloodline of a former Major Leaguer or a member of a team's front office. Lastly, the prospect who's skills haven't correlated to success yet, but offer tantalizing potential.
Way fits into the potential category, but his story differs from the typical college or high school arm who flashes the requisite big league tools, but lacks the refinement of an upper-echelon pick.
The last time Way played organized baseball was in high school. Until late March, he had not even picked up a baseball in three years. Way also wasn't a blue-chip prospect when he graduated from Union High School (Okla.). A few Division I schools showed interest, but Way's fastball sat at just 81-to-83 mph during his senior year, when he posted a 1.52 ERA in 23 innings, and said interest revolved solely around the potential a then 6-foot-8 left-handed pitcher offered.
But when Way developed the spontaneous urge to rediscover his passion for baseball this March, he resembled a completely different pitcher.
Way threw at former Major Leaguer Brian Turang's training facility in Corona, Calif., during his spring break this year. Despite three years of neglecting the sport, he added 8-10 mph on his fastball, grew three inches and gained 40 pounds.
Way's high school coach Shawn Newkirk was floored when he heard about the uptick in speed of his former pitcher's fastball.
"When I heard that, I was like, 'Where in the world was that back in high school?'" Newkirk said.
Turang was impressed enough with Way's bullpen session to pass along his recommendations to Royals scout Rich Amaral, who brought in Way and his new 89-to-91 mph heat for a workout at Huntington Beach High School in California.
Amaral was equally impressed, as an invitation to the Royals' June 1 pre-draft workout in Kansas City followed.
"Rich worked him out when he was in California and called us and said, 'Hey this guy looks, OK,'" Royals' director of scouting Lonnie Goldberg said. "He threw pretty good for not having pitched in three or four years."
After another good showing, Amaral informed the lanky southpaw that the Royals might select him late in the Draft.
But there was no guarantee. Between the unavoidable three-year absence from the game, and his adequate but uninspiring stuff, Way was simply seen as a project.
Way and his family gathered at their Tulsa, Okla., home, nervously glued to MLB.com's radio feed and live tracker on the third and final day of the draft. His brother Tress, a punter for the Chicago Bears, even flew back home -- he wasn't missing out on the possibility of his little brother being drafted.
Thirty-six rounds were in the books, and still no good news for Way. The 37th round passed and Way's name was not called.
With just three rounds remaining, doubts crept into Way's mind.
"I honestly was getting a little nervous," Way said. "Baseball has always been my dream, I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't have been really upset."
In the weeks prior to the draft, the Royals and Phillies had shown interest, but neither team offered a commitment.
"I figured I would hear from Rich [Amaral] first thing like, 'Hey, we're going to draft you in this round,' but I hadn't heard yet," Way said.
Philadelphia snatched up Kollin Schrenk, a high school pitcher with its 38th round pick. Ten picks later, the Yankees grabbed a college arm, putting Kansas City on the clock.
This was Way's chance.
The focus intensified in the Way household, as they turned to MLB.com's live feed, which was a few seconds ahead of the radio broadcast.
And then the moment they had been waiting for.
Way's profile popped up on the screen as the Royals' 38th round pick, and 1143rd overall selection: Way, Cole; University of Tulsa; LHP; 6'11; 235 lbs.
"Everybody just started screaming and crying," Way said. "It was definitely a surreal experience."
Now decision time came for Way.
He could take the $50,000 signing bonus the Royals offered him and pursue his dream of reaching the big leagues, or return to Tulsa for his senior year, then give pro football a shot.
The appeal of that big-league dream was too enticing to pass up.
Way took the signing bonus, and he believes his first baseball action in more than three years will come with the Burlington Royals, Kansas City's rookie level affiliate in Burlington, N.C.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, obviously," Way said. "I'm already 22 years old so if I really do want to pursue my dream to play baseball, then now is the best time for me to do it, and I need to get into an organization and get my arm into shape as soon as possible. But the good thing is, my arm is four years fresh."
Jackson Alexander is an associate reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.