Kyle Whitten watched the final day of the Major League Baseball Draft from the family room of his Manassas home with his mother, Kim, his sister, Taylor, his girlfriend, Lauren, and a high school friend, Jack Anderson.
Everyone was anticipating good news. Coming into the draft, Whitten received enough feedback to believe an MLB team would select him between the 11th and 20th rounds before everything ended the afternoon of July 13.
It never happened, leaving the Osbourn Park graduate disappointed and confused. There was no explanation why he went undrafted as he grappled for answers.
Only questions remained. For Whitten, one took precedence: Was his pro baseball dream over?
Then maybe 10 minutes later at the most, a number he didn’t recognize popped up on his cell phone. During the draft, teams typically contacted Whitten’s agent, Tim McLean, first. McLean then updated Whitten with any relevant information.
Knowing this call might be important, Whitten wisely answered his phone. Landon Lassiter, the Tampa Bay Rays’ area scout, was on the other line with an offer. Did Whitten want to sign as a free agent with the Rays?
In a moment of emotional whiplash, Whitten went from dejected to elated in seconds. But first things first. He asked Lassiter if he could have a few minutes to consult with his family and McLean and then call him back. Lassiter said OK and waited.
Everyone in Whitten’s immediate circle agreed the Rays were a good fit. Whitten called Lassiter and accepted the Rays’ offer. Whitten received a $20,000 signing bonus, the maximum allowed for undrafted rookie free agents, and the opportunity to play at the next level.
It means starting at the bottom, but Whitten has never shied from hard work. Suddenly a Tuesday filled with uncertainty turned clear. There was a path forward.
He wanted his shot. He got it regardless of how it came about. The rest was up to him.
“I thought I had a good chance to be picked, but it did not work out that way,” Whitten said. “God had a different way.”
Tampa’s interest in Whitten was not a surprise. The organization had followed him during his pitching career at the University of Virginia and liked his live arm and how far he progressed during his four years there.
Lassiter talked to Virginia pitching coach Drew Dickenson about Whitten before Lassiter offered Whitten a free-agent deal. Dickenson assured Lassiter that Whitten was worth signing.
Whitten was draft eligible a year ago, but was not a likely selection after the draft was reduced to five rounds due to the pandemic.
Whitten looked forward to coming back to Virginia as a senior. He could graduate (in May he received his degree in American Studies) and play with a talented team that included a number of other pitchers who went undrafted in 2020. His optimism proved well-founded.
Virginia reached the College World Series in dramatic fashion after going 6-0 in elimination games. The Cavaliers’ success led to six of the team’s players being selected in the three-day MLB Draft, including four pitchers.
“I called [head] coach [Brian] O’Connor and told him that I thought we could be a special team,” Whitten said. “With how things worked out, the team backed up my words.”
For the season, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Whitten went 0-1 with a 3.16 ERA in 27 games. For his career, Whitten went 5-4 with a 4.70 ERA. He pitched in 79 games, including three starts, all during his freshman season. In 2019, he recorded a team-high nine saves.
Whitten could have played for Virginia next season as a graduate student after the NCAA granted spring athletes an extra year of eligibility in March 2020 when the pandemic ended their seasons early. The Cavaliers coaching staff made it clear they wanted Whitten back for 2022. Whitten, though, was ready to move on.
PREPPING FOR THE PROS
Once Whitten finalized his decision to turn pro, he reached out to a number of people who helped him on this path. He started with his father, Ron. The elder Whitten, who retired June 30 from the Prince William County Public Schools system and has moved to southwest Florida, was an integral part of his son’s journey after Whitten started t-ball at age 5. Ron, who played catcher at UVA Wise, coached Whitten starting at age 8.
Knowing Kyle the way he does, Ron gave him some time to process after Kyle went undrafted. Then Ron texted him.
“I told him to hang in there,” Ron said. “You don’t throw a 95 mile per hour fastball and not get a chance.”
Soon after, Whitten called his dad and told him he had agreed to sign with the Rays. It was a short conversation, but a meaningful one.
“It was an emotional call,” Whitten said.
Whitten also contacted O’Connor and Dickenson, who supported his decision.
Tyler Zombro was the other person Whitten reached out to immediately.
Zombro has mentored Whitten since the two met at a training facility in Tysons during the winter of Whitten’s senior year of high school. At the time, Zombro pitched for George Mason University. They connected and continued to work with each other over the years during the offseason.
Always available to guide Whitten anytime he had questions. Zombro helped Whitten rework his mechanics by going back “to the drawing board,” Whitten said. Zombro also directed Whitten to McLean, who oversees the baseball division of Zuckerman Spaeder. McLean represents Zombro.
“They share a love of the game, a love of analytics and a willingness to work really hard,” Ron Whitten said about his son and Zombro.
Whitten and Zombro have followed a similar career path. Like Whitten, Zombro was a reliever in college who signed with the Rays as an undrafted rookie free agent in July 2017. Zombro was named the Rays’ minor-league relief pitcher of the year.
While pitching for Triple-A Durham in June against the visiting Norfolk Tides, Zombro experienced a scary moment when a line drive hit him in the head. Zombro had brain surgery and remained in the intensive care unit for five days. The hospital discharged him June 9, but he continues to rehab.
“When I told him we would be teammates, he was so excited,” Whitten said. “I owe a lot to him.”
Whitten reported Wednesday to the Rays’ spring training facility in Port Charlotte, Fla. He will stay there until the Rays decide whether to assign him to a full-season team or keep him in Port Charlotte.
In years past, MLB clubs placed their minor-league rookies with a short-season franchise. But those no longer exist after MLB assumed control of the minor leagues starting with the 2021 season and eliminated a number of teams.
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In addition, the draft didn’t occur until mid-July, leaving players less time to adjust to their new surroundings after a layoff from the end of their high school or college seasons. Whitten has not pitched in a game since June 24.
Still, there is some familiarity as Whitten transitions into a full-time professional baseball player. Ron lives in Port Charlotte. If the Rays have no objections, Whitten will stay with his father at a home away from home.
“Everything has come full circle,” Whitten said.