Earlier this month, Stephen Lumpkins became the first American University basketball player since 1990 to be drafted into the professional ranks. He just had to trade his basketball shoes for a baseball mitt in order to get there.
The Kansas City Royals drafted Lumpkins in the 13th round of the MLB draft, giving the 6-foot-8 forward an opportunity to become a 6-foot-8 starting pitcher. Despite being American's top returning scorer, he passed up his senior season and joined the Royals' rookie team in Arizona last month.
"The sports are completely different when you're out there," he said after settling into his new life as a professional baseball player. "There's a lot more down time in baseball leading up to when you pitch — I had been here two weeks and hadn't pitched a game. With basketball, you're out there playing every day."
In his first minor league start last Monday, Lumpkins allowed two runs and four hits in one inning. The big lefty was rattled in every facet of the game, walking one batter, allowing another to score on a wild pitch and even balking on a pickoff move.
Despite the rough outing, he understands that the transition to baseball will be a process. He already made improvements in his second start Saturday, allowing one earned run on two hits in 2 2/3 innings.
"There's a lot of little things that I'm learning out here and need to work on, but talent-wise I think I'm just fine," he said.
The native Californian went from novelty to legitimate prospect after being chosen by Pittsburgh in the 42nd round last summer. The pick didn't keep him from returning to American for his junior year, but it did get Lumpkins thinking about his future on the diamond. He joined a competitive local team last summer and made a more concerted effort to catch scouts' attention. The result was a dramatic rise on draft day, from pick No. 1,257 in 2010 to 396 this year.
"I was kind of surprised, but at the same time I was excited," Lumpkins said of his jump. "I knew if I was going to do baseball, this was the year."
Kansas City was equally excited to nab Lumpkins after finding out about him in mid-April. Director of Scouting Lonnie Goldberg sent scouts to California for an initial visit and then invited the southpaw to a pre-draft workout at Kauffman Stadium. He said that Lumpkins won them over at the workout because "he threw strikes" and was making noticeable progressions in his delivery. Lumpkins also impressed the Royals' brass in the interview with his professionalism.
Goldberg admitted that Lumpkins was a bit of a reach in the 13th round but stressed the rarity of 6-foot-8 left-handed pitchers. Lumpkins tops out between 85 and 90 mph and showed potential for a prospect who hasn't played competitively since high school. American hasn't fielded a baseball team since 1986.
That lack of experience didn't deter Kansas City from picking him.
"In our mind, we're almost looking at him like a high school kid with a fresh arm," Goldberg explained. "Honestly, we think we took him a little higher than we had to, but we just didn't want to lose him."
One of Goldberg's biggest concerns was that Lumpkins wasn't ready to give up basketball as his contract offer stipulated. He was a second-team All-Patriot League selection last year, averaging 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds. With Vlad Moldoveanu headed to Europe, Lumpkins was considered the team's best returning player, and his decision to leave has had a ripple effect throughout the AU community. "The Lump" was a fan favorite and even had a smattering of supporters called "the Lumpkin patch."
"He was a good player, but a player that hadn't really achieved what he was capable of doing" American coach Jeff Jones said. "I thought that his senior year certainly had a lot of promise."
Jones said that Lumpkins' decision was shocking and disappointing. Lumpkins and his father had assured the coaching staff that their starting center would return for his senior season. Now, Jones has no choice but to move on.
"I can't spend a whole lot of time worrying about Lump. He made his decision to leave, and we wish him well, but he's no longer part of the program," Jones said. "I'm focused on the guys who are here, the guys that are going to be sweating and busting their butts representing American University."
Lumpkins said he was happy with his decision and is enjoying his new life in Arizona. The Royals will pay for him to finish his business degree over the next couple of years, something that was important to Lumpkins and his parents. His contract also included a six-figure signing bonus.
As with most prospects, Lumpkins' potential remains to be seen. He has gone from established post player to little-known minor league pitcher, and time will tell if he made the right decision.
"You get a kid with some athleticism, a good makeup and you see what you've got out there," Goldberg said. "To be 100 percent honest, I don't know what his ceiling is."
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