Unsigned First-Rounders Whitson, Covey Have Lots To Prove

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Nearly two years to the day after turning down first-round signing bonuses, righthanders Karsten Whitson from Florida and Dylan Covey from San Diego pitched back-to-back innings out of the bullpen for the Orleans Firebirds in the Cape Cod League.

The two became the first pair of first-round high school pitchers to pass up pro ball for college since 2001 (Jeremy Sowers and Alan Horne). Since then, there have been ups and downs for the once highly touted righthanders who have seen their stock slip over the past two years.

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since baseball limited the draft to one phase in 1986, 12 first-round high school pitchers have chosen the college route over pro ball. Nine of those 12 pitchers have been eligible for the draft again and just three of those nine were drafted again in the first round: Alex Fernandez, Sowers and Gerrit Cole.

While the upside is still there, neither Whitson nor Covey enters 2013 as a certain (or even likely) first-round pick, and they are—both in scouts’ eyes and for the Top 25 teams counting on them—two of the biggest wild cards for the 2013 season.

Health Is The Key

Whitson was one of the top high school pitchers heading into the 2010 draft. His final outing before the draft was at the Florida Athletic Coaches Association Baseball Classic, an annual Florida high school all-star game in Sebring, Fla. Whitson sat in the 93-94 mph range, topping out at 96, and mixed in a couple of changeups and a nasty slider. Nine days later, the Padres drafted Whitson with the ninth overall pick.

The Padres believed they had a deal in place for Whitson and that he and his family went back on their word. Karsten’s father, Kent, has claimed that wasn’t the case. Ultimately, the Padres upped their offer to $2.1 million before the signing deadline. Whitson, who declined an interview request, turned them down.

Instead, he headed to Florida and became the highest-drafted high school player to wind up at a four-year school since Georgia prep righthander Kenny Henderson turned down the Brewers as the fifth overall pick in 1991 to attend Miami.

“Obviously it means a lot for him to have the faith in us to come to school and continue his education and make himself as good as he can possibly be before he moves on to the next level,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It makes you appreciate his decision, because obviously it wasn’t an easy one.”

Whitson had a stellar freshman season, going 8-1, 2.40 with 92 strikeouts and 28 walks over 97 innings. He was a fixture in the Gators’ weekend rotation and was a BA Freshman All-American.

Last year, however, was a different story. He battled forearm tendinitis during the season and moved back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen. As a starter, he averaged just three innings per outing and went 4-0, 3.51 overall with 20 strikeouts and 18 walks over 33 innings.

“In the college season, if you get a little tendinitis or something, it can really trip the whole season, which is a lot shorter, obviously,” O’Sullivan said. “But it was nothing more than that. The bottom line is, we needed to take some time off and give his arm a rest and properly rehab that thing without trying to do both at the same time.”

Whitson headed to the Cape Cod League, but his arm never got right. With Orleans, he pitched three innings out of the bullpen before being shut down with shoulder stiffness.

“He called me about a month ago and we had a good conversation, and he seemed like he was in a really good place and excited for the spring,” Orleans pitching coach and UNC Wilmington assistant Rob Woodard said. “I think taking the rest of the summer off, from a health standpoint, really did him a lot of good. He wanted to compete. He didn’t leave the Cape because he didn’t want to compete, he just needed to take care of himself and we were supportive of that.”

When he has pitched in the summer and fall, Whitson has shown glimpses of what made him the second high school pitcher off the board in 2010. His fastball has been in the 93-95 mph range and he’s still showing his wipeout slider.

“He’s always had a great arm. He’s a power arm, that’s what they look like,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s always had a really great slider. But the command and changing speeds have obviously improved and I think the delivery has cleaned up a bunch.

“He’s more on-line and I think his arm is working better. I think his changeup has come a long ways and I think, physically, he’s in really good shape. He’s probably in as good of shape as he’s been in since he’s been at Florida.”

Making Adjustments

Like Whitson, Covey entered draft day expecting to sign a pro contract. The Brewers selected him 14th overall, but as was typical under the old draft rules, most picks—especially those expecting bonuses above Major League Baseball’s recommended slots—waited until the week before the signing deadline to begin negotiations in earnest.

Because Covey experienced shoulder tendinitis as a junior in high school, the Brewers wanted him to see their team doctor in Los Angeles three days before the Aug. 16 signing deadline for an examination of his arm and for the routine physical teams conduct on high picks.

The day after the physical—which happened to be Covey’s birthday—he was at Six Flags celebrating with some friends when his father called.

“He said that there was something awry with the physical and the blood test or whatever, so I had to go to the emergency room—not because I was in any danger, but because it was an urgent situation with the deadline coming up,” Covey said. “So I got picked up from Six Flags, drove with my dad to the emergency room, got another blood sample taken and they came back and said it was 99 percent sure I had type one diabetes.”

The diagnosis was confirmed. As it turns out, Covey had been living with the disease for about a year. Just like that, it turned the foregone conclusion of realizing a childhood dream into a tough decision: Learn how to deal with the disease on his own riding a bus around the minor leagues or stay closer to home in a more controlled environment.

Further complicating the situation was Covey’s father’s decision 42 years prior. Darrell Covey was selected by the Mets as a third baseman in the 29th round of the 1968 draft out of Pasadena (Calif.) JC.

“He regretted not signing—not because his life is bad or anything like that, just because that was his dream growing up as a kid,” Covey said.

But Dylan chose the college route and has spent the past two years at San Diego learning how to manage his new life.

“Me not signing wasn’t as much about the money as it was about the doctor telling me that I’ve got to get used to it and stuff,” Covey said. “And now I can say I had no idea what to expect. I thought I could cruise through it and be fine. And now, looking back, there’s no way I could do that. I was so mentally and physically exhausted with that entire process.”

Doctors explained to Covey that it typically takes newly diagnosed diabetics 18-24 months to learn how to adjust to the insulin and to control their blood sugar levels by gaining an understanding of how different foods break down in their body.

“I was feeling so bad for so long that I had just gotten used to it and really didn’t know what good felt like,” Covey said.

Covey lost 30 pounds during his senior year of high school. He gained a lot of it back during his freshman season, but it wasn’t good weight and he struggled on the mound for the Toreros, going 1-3, 7.60 with 29 strikeouts and 28 walks over nine starts and 34 innings.

“We never wanted to make his condition an excuse,” San Diego coach Rich Hill said. “That was the first meeting that we had with him. We said, ‘We’re going to get after this thing. We’re going to deal with it, but I know triathletes that have type one diabetes. I know paddleboarders that cross the Moloka’i Channel, a 26-mile deal, solo that have type one diabetes. So, we’re not going to use this as an excuse, so let’s start there.”

Covey said he used to entertain thoughts of “what if” but is now solely focused on the future.

“I mean, who wouldn’t want to be the first-round sign of the Milwaukee Brewers, or who wouldn’t want to have that kind of money with them, or whatever?” Covey said. “Those thoughts bounced around in my head for a little while, but honestly I just overcame it and stuck my nose to the grindstone and said, ‘It happened. Whatever happened happened; it’s done.’ So now I just have to re-prove myself.

“I feel like I could be that high again, but I know that in my current situation at the current time, I’m not. So I know this year is mine to take the reins and whatever happens happens. I’ve talked to several scouts saying that they understand what I’ve gone through in the last couple years, so they’re kind of writing off what happened the last two years and now the ball’s in my court for my junior season and kind of giving me the benefit of the doubt, which is really nice to know.”

Covey’s sophomore season was a big improvement over his freshman campaign. He went 6-3, 3.32 with 50 strikeouts and 43 walks over 81 innings.

In the Cape Cod League, Covey worked to quiet down his mechanics. While he’s mostly thrown his two-seam fastball at San Diego, he said he’s working to pitch off his four-seamer more this year, as the spin on the pitch works better with his power curveball. With Orleans, Covey went 3-1, 3.85 with 16 strikeouts and 11 walks over 26 innings.

“I’m better than I thought I was with all the setbacks and stuff, that’s the one thing that I took away from it,” Covey said. “Going into that summer, my freshman year was really bad and then last year there was a lot of ups and downs. I wasn’t completely 100 percent consistent the entire summer, but definitely more so than the last two seasons.”

The confidence has been evident this fall, as well. Hill said he looks like a new pitcher.

“He gets better every time out,” Hill said. “He’s kind of broke through that shell and he’s ready to go, ready for the fast track.”

At his best, Covey sits in the 93-95 mph range and has the best curveball in the class with a developing changeup and slider.

“Not too many folks can really imagine what it’s like to walk in their shoes, being first-round picks and going to college and that sort of thing,” said Woodard, who has perspective on the situation after pitching at North Carolina with Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard for three years. “But I think you have to give them a lot of credit, just from what I saw in that short window this summer, how they went about their business with interacting with their teammates and really being team-first guys who were low-ego and just a joy to be around . . . They’re two guys I’m confident I’m going to see on TV one day.”