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Penn Murfee Q&A: From 33rd Round Mariners Draft Pick To Team USA

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Penn Murfee (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

SURPRISE, Ariz.—Penn Murfee had his offseason all figured out.

At the conclusion of the minor league season, the Mariners righthander was going to head to Bondurant, Wyoming (pop. 93, according to the 2010 Census) and work on a ranch until winter hit. Then, he was going to buy a school bus, convert it into an RV, and live in it on the beaches of southern California, staying at various campgrounds along Pacific Coast Highway between Encinitas and Huntington Beach.

Those plans were more than a bohemian fantasy. Murfee, 25, had formally accepted a job on the ranch, and the schematics and financials for converting the school bus into a livable space—complete with electrical wiring and plumbing— were drawn up, vetted and finalized.

Those plans got scuttled in recent months. Not because anything went wrong, but because Murfee pitched too well.

A 33rd-round pick out of Santa Clara in 2018, Murfee finished third in ERA (3.07) in the high Class A California League this season among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. He was selected to participate in the Arizona Fall League—effectively canceling his job on the ranch—and finished second in the AFL with 30 strikeouts and fifth with a 1.23 ERA.

On the strength of his AFL performance, USA Baseball selected Murfee for its Olympic qualifying roster as a replacement for pitcher Spencer Howard, who left the team four days before its opening scrimmage. Murfee joined midway through training camp and pitched 1.2 scoreless innings of relief in Team USA’s scrimmage at Arizona, striking out four of six batters and earning the win.

It has been an unexpected and unconventional rise for Murfee, whose nearly sidearm arm slot is also unconventional, but that’s right in line with his entire baseball career.

The Nashville native spent his first three seasons at Vanderbilt as a third baseman before becoming a pitcher as a redshirt junior. He was dismissed from the Commodores with two weeks left in the season after arguing with an assistant coach and thought he was done with baseball, but he eventually transferred Santa Clara for his final year of eligibility and pitched well enough to get drafted.

Murfee received a signing bonus of just $5,000, logged a 6.55 ERA at short-season Everett in his pro debut and began this year in extended spring training. Fast-forward seven months, and he’s an Arizona Fall League star about to represent Team USA in its bid to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.

Murfee spoke with Baseball America about his rise following Team USA’s final scrimmage—a 12-1 win over Gateway (Ariz.) JC—on Monday, and how nothing has gone according to plan in all the right ways.

Note: This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Kyle Glaser: You had your offseason all mapped out. What were your thoughts when you instead got the call to participate in the Arizona Fall League and then eventually for Team USA?

Penn Murfee: So, I had the offseason job lined up to work at a ranch in Bondurant, Wyoming, and after that was done I was going into look at buying a a van—it later turned into a bus, like a 40-foot school bus—and convert that into a little RV and make that happen. But you know, plans got twisted a little bit and new things have come about, and I’m definitely excited. It’s a win-win situation. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity.”

KG: What were you going to do at the ranch?

PM: Just general ranch work. I was going to be baling hay, working in the barn a lot, driving fence posts, that kind of stuff before there got to be a lot of snow on the ground. I don’t think I was going to be doing a whole lot of driving. I don’t have a ton of horseback experience and those guys up there know what they’re doing pretty well. I just said if there’s something you need done holler at me. Just general help.

KG: And you were going to go right when the minor league season ended the first week of September?

PM: As soon as I got done, I was going to pack up my car and head out of there.

KG: Getting an invitation to the Arizona Fall League followed by Team USA, it’s safe to say you’re OK those plans got blown up?

PM: Absolutely. First and foremost is baseball. To me it was just like a cool offseason job that I could make work with my workouts. Throw in a barn and all that. Obviously the AFL was a thrill. I had so much fun playing with guys from four other different organizations and learned so much from them and other staff members and had a blast.

KG: How did the call for Team USA come in?

PM: It was funny. The day after my last start I’m walking into the clubhouse bragging that I’m the first one to the offseason because I was the first one done. And then 20 minutes before the team meeting I get a phone call like “Hey, do you want to play for Team USA?” It was a kind of comical turn of events, but at the same time I was so thrilled, so excited. Just being able to put USA on your chest is something not a whole lot of people get to do, and I couldn’t be more thankful.

KG: It’s been kind of a crazy turn of events. You began the year in extended spring training and seven months later you’re pitching in the Arizona Fall League and for Team USA.

PM: For me to get to where I am, I put a lot of that on the Mariners. There’s so many staff members that we have that I worked with. Pitching coaches, mental skills coaches, strength and conditioning staff. I feel like the Mariners put a lot of faith in me and gave me a lot of opportunities when my stats and record really didn’t really warrant it from last year (6.55 ERA with short-season Everett). For them to kind of keep putting a little bit more food on my plate, seeing if I could shovel it down, I’m very thankful for that and fortunate to be with an org like them. They’ve put a lot of trust in me and kind of thrown a lot at me seeing how much I can take. That’s something every ballplayer wants. You just want the chance.

KG: Did you view your invitation to the AFL as a chance to raise your profile a little bit?

PM: In terms of getting my name out there, no. I talked with my pitching coach Rob Marcello a lot. For me it was a chance to really sharpen up some things that I was trying to hone in on toward the latter half of the season against really, really good competition. That was the main thing. Going into the Fall League, there’s going to be all this prospect stuff going on, like who’s going to come out and blow people out of the water. But all I really wanted to focus on was to keep true to my routine and then during the games really experiment and test that philosophy we had put in place and fine-tuning that. Everything was a bonus I guess. Pitching well, a couple people have caught wind I guess, but the big thing for me was just realizing that our plan did work. Moving forward, it’s just staying true to that, getting it better and just constantly improving.

KG: Coming into Team USA as a late addition, how was the transition joining the team midweek?

PM: All the guys in the locker room took me in right away. The manager, I walked in and they asked if they could help me out with anything else and I said “The scheduling.” I have no idea how long I’ve committed for, I have no idea how long I might not be able to come back home. I just said yes, like, immediately. Count me in. USA, I’m fully in. But it’s a seamless transition. I’m getting to know some of the other guys. It’s also cool playing with some ex-big leaguers and learning from them, picking their brain. We have an ex-big league catcher, several ex-big leaguer pitchers. Really watching them more than anything and listening has been a treat.

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Bobby Dalbec Brings The Power For Team USA

Dalbec doubled and hit a long three-run homer to lead Team USA to a 7-3 win over Arizona State on Friday night.

KG: So is the bus still in the plan for later this offseason after you finish with Team USA?

PM: Well, my car got broken into the first night I was back in Phoenix and all of my stuff got stolen. Literally all my stuff except, like, my backpack. Thank God my passport didn’t get taken. But that kind of left a little sour taste in my mouth. It won’t happen this offseason. I need a good like five months I think to make something like that happen. So for now I think I’m going to wait until that bad taste leaves my mouth of my car getting broken into and then maybe look into next offseason.

KG: You had an adventurous college career changing positions, changing schools. How did the transition from infielder to pitcher come about?

PM: Halfway through my junior season I was playing first base and then I started feeling like I was having a knife shoved in my side and lower groin area. Come to find out that I needed groin surgery. That ended my season. I came back in the fall of my senior year and just couldn’t move around like I used to be able to. I was trying to field ground balls with my feet like a foot apart. I just couldn’t move. Running hurt, I just wasn’t fully recovered. But throwing the ball didn’t hurt, and I’ve never quit something a day in my life. I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to finish out my senior year with all of my teammates and I asked if I could pitch. And I sucked in the fall. My first outing, I remember I was at Lipscomb, I think I threw like an inning and a third and hit four or five guys. I was trying to throw over the top and my buddy Matt Ruppenthal, who I give credit to me still playing to this day, was like “Murf, you’re not a pitcher. Don’t try to be. Just sling it like you’re turning a double play from third base.” And since then I dropped down and kind of fine-tuned that and here I am.

KG: How about the transition from Vanderbilt to Santa Clara?

PM: So I had groin surgery middle of my junior year. That would have been 2016. Following year was a pitcher, got removed from the team with like two weeks left in the regular season, ended up having a second groin surgery after that and thought I was done with baseball. I got convinced by a guy named Coby Ginsberg. We coached youth baseball together, and he was like “Penn, you’d be a fool not to use your fifth year of eligibility.” That’s when I started reaching out to coaches and Rusty Filter took a chance on me at Santa Clara. I have everything to thank for that. I’d run through a brick wall for that guy. He’s as standup as they come. There’s no frills about him. What you see is what you get. He’s straight to the point and he just wanted to bring some older guys in and try and start developing a culture of winning over there, and he’s done a very good job of doing that.

KG: From being potentially done playing to getting a taste of Triple-A and pitching for Team USA in your first full season, is surreal the right word?

PM: Truthfully I kind of get caught up in the moment a lot. Sometimes I’ll reflect on it and be like “Holy (expletive), this is kind of happening,” but for the most part I just take it a day at a time, take it with a grain of salt, not try and pump it up any more than it should be. I’m enjoying myself. The big thing for me is I love the people I’m around, I’m happy and I’ve been fortunate enough with the Mariners organization and all it’s staff and players. I love what I do and I love who I do it with. And all the other teams I’ve played for in—the AFL, Team USA—nothing has skipped a beat. I guess it’s surreal a little bit, but it’s all happened so fast and it’s only been one year that I’ve just tried to take notes on what I need to improve upon and get better in my profession, that’s really all it’s about.”

KG: One final question. Your had a man bun and a beard during the regular season. Now you’re clean shaven and your hair is cut. What gives?

PM: (Laughs). I made my dad a promise I’d look good for the Team USA photo. So I had to take it all off.

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