In normal times, Shay Whitcomb's move to the Astros wouldn't make many waves.
The UC San Diego infielder was selected with the 160th overall pick in the 2020 First-Year Player Draft. In 2019, there were 1,057 selections made after that one. In 2020, there were none. In a five-round Draft that took place in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic -- aka anything but "normal times" -- Whitcomb was the last player selected, making him what other sports might deem "Mr. Irrelevant."
But in baseball, the 21-year-old is anything but.
"It's difficult to think about that," Whitcomb said. "You could look at it as the last round of the Draft, or you could look at it as the fifth round. In a normal Draft, that's really impressive. So I don't play with that motivation of, 'Oh man, I got picked last. Nobody believed in me.' That doesn't resonate with me."
That mentality might not strike a chord with Whitcomb because he was indeed picked, and the difference between going at the bottom of the fifth round and sliding out of this year's Draft entirely is sizable. According to 2020 rules, non-drafted free agents have their potential signing bonuses capped at $20,000. The slot bonus for the 160th overall pick is $324,100, more than 16 times higher. Whitcomb ended up signing this week for a $56,000 bonus, as first reported by Baseball America and confirmed by MiLB.com on Friday. That's well below slot but still solidly above the max he could have received had Houston not called his name.
Whitcomb -- a career .315 hitter in college coming off an especially strong summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League -- wasn't ranked as one of MLB.com's Top 200 Draft prospects, but did place at No. 156 on Baseball America's list because of his offensive potential, even coming from a Division II program. In other words, he was right in the fifth-round range. If he fell beyond that, he was certain he would return to the Tritons for a senior year. If a team came calling, he'd go pro. As the last pick of the whole Draft, he ended up being its only Division II position player selected.
"It was definitely a stressful time," said Whitcomb. "But going into it, I was at peace with that day, thinking whatever was going to happen was meant to be. Shoutout to [my agent] Dennis Wyrick of Rosenhaus Sports. Going into it, he was pretty sure that I would get drafted. He just wasn’t sure where. So even going into the fifth round, I was comfortable with at least being sure I would be selected. I just didn’t know it would be the last pick."
Whitcomb put himself in that position with three strong years at UC San Diego, hitting at least .310 in each spring and finishing with 21 homers in 136 career games. He chose the program for its impressive academics and due to a lack of Division I scholarship offers beyond promises of "we'll make it work." But even with strong numbers, including a .314/.407/.576 line with 11 homers in his sophomore year in 2019, Whitcomb still needed more to show pro scouts he was worthy of a pick in any round, considering the lowered competition he faced in school.
That opportunity came in the form of the Orleans Firebirds in the Cape Cod League. Like in his pre-college days, even the Cape offer wasn't firm. Whitcomb initially only received an initial 10-day deal from Orleans, meaning he'd fill a hole on the roster for a week and a half before potentially shipping back out.
"I was not sure what to expect, to be honest," he said. "I packed up my bags to stay the whole summer, knowing full well that I could only be there for a few weeks or whatever. It ended up working out, which was good."
Working out is one way of putting it.
Some potential Orleans teammates headed off to join Team USA for the summer and others were bit by the inopportune injury bug, leaving enough holes on the roster to keep Whitcomb around for the entire summer. After exclusively playing as a shortstop out west, Whitcomb moved around the infield on the Cape, seeing more time at second base (15 games) and third (10) than he did at his natural position (eight).
One thing was for sure -- his bat could play, even when it was wood instead of metal and facing elite arms instead of those of Division II quality.
The right-handed slugger batted .303/.371/.606 over 34 games with the Firebirds. His eight homers in that span tied for third-most on the circuit, and only MVP/2020 seventh overall pick Nick Gonzales (1.081) had a higher OPS than Whitcomb's .977 among Cape League hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. Any questions about the Tritons star's ability to hang with the best collegiate talents in the sport were put to rest in one summer.
"The pitchers throwing harder didn’t hurt," Whitcomb said. "From that perspective, I’d been working a lot with my hitting coach back at UCSD. I’d been preparing myself to face that tougher competition. He and I both knew that what I’d been facing in Division II would not be what I should expect further in my career. So I’d been working throughout the season to see mid-90s, fastball in, those sorts of things. I got there, and I was able to put all of that to good use."
Back west for his junior year, Whitcomb carried the burden of additional eyes from the scouts in attendance trying to determine whether what they had seen or heard on the Cape was real, and he answered that burden in kind. The 6-foot-2 infielder hit .330/.440/.568 with five homers in 20 games for UC San Diego before spring sports were canceled. He was certainly on pace to break his previous high of 11 homers in a single season, and he believes he could have only helped his stock with additional time.
"I definitely think a full season would have only helped me, especially being a D-II guy and then getting attention coming off the summer," Whitcomb said. "Being able to prove myself a little bit more and show what I can do throughout the entire season. That’s a what-if. It’s in the past. I don’t fall on that. But yeah, it could have been a possibility."
Perhaps the biggest way Whitcomb would have helped his stock had nothing to do with his offensive game. Scouts reportedly had concerns that the California native couldn't stick to shortstop long term due to a subpar arm, even though he'd been a three-year starter at the position in school. An improved arm throughout the spring, along with the continued production at the plate, could have pushed Whitcomb higher than the fifth round. Instead, he may have to rely on his Cape Cod versatility as he enters the pros, especially those looks he received at second base, where his arm might be a better fit.
"I’d like to stay at short," Whitcomb said. "That’s going to be a goal of mine. It only helps being able to play many positions and hopefully play them well. But I’m going to work to stay at shortstop."
Wherever he ends up playing, Whitcomb enters a Houston system that couldn't afford to miss on its 2020 picks. The Astros lost their first- and second-round selections for this and next year as part of the penalties handed down by Major League Baseball for their recent sign-stealing scandals. That limited Houston to four picks this month and the smallest bonus pool at just $2,202,600. A missed selection could do even more damage for the club without its ability to make up for it with later picks, and that could speak to why it turned to Whitcomb -- a steady performer with above-average offensive potential that he'd shown in the country's premier wood-bat summer league.
"The Astros had been interested since the beginning, and of course, their player development is one of the best there is," Whitcomb said, alluding to Houston's list of homegrown talent in Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, George Springer and José Altuve among others. "My wanting to get with them was definitely high on the list. That was one of the teams we were targeting more, and I’m really happy it worked out. Going through that process was definitely enlightening. It wasn’t necessarily hitting the number involved. It was the craziness of the Draft being only five rounds and people trying to press to get into those five rounds. That presented some challenges that teams had never been presented before in prior Drafts."
In normal times, Whitcomb would be sent to an affiliate by the end of this month, likely Class A Short Season Tri-City, and would get another chance to prove himself against tougher competition. Instead, he traveled to Houston this week for a two-day stay to begin his professional career. There he met up with fourth-rounder and former Orleans teammate Zach Daniels, who accompanied Whitcomb on a masked tour of an empty Minute Maid Park.
"We were both sitting there looking at the park and thinking, dang, picture this full of fans, and we’ll be the ones playing out on the field," Whitcomb said. "It just made it one step closer to being realistic."
A fifth-rounder dreaming of his Major League debut with actual fans in the stands? Those will be normal times indeed.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.