NOTRE DAME, Ind. - If Major League Baseball wants Pat Connaughton bad enough, they’ll bend.
If they don’t, he’ll come back to Notre Dame to finish his degree, excel at the sport most told him he couldn’t play at this level, pitch for the Fighting Irish again, and then take his chances come next June.
Make no mistake, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound right-handed pitcher envisions a high (top five rounds) draft choice come Thursday, June 5, when MLB’s three-day amateur draft commences, thus ending his time playing baseball for Notre Dame.
But with Connaughton pretty well set on returning this fall to complete the 15 credit hours that will give him his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame in the Mendoza College of Business, it will take a certain type of organization to tab Connaughton and allow his scenario to play out.
“There are some teams that aren’t willing to negotiate something like that,” said Connaughton of his desire to play a couple months of professional baseball this summer, return to Notre Dame in time for its August basketball trip to Italy, and then participate in Notre Dame’s 2014-15 basketball campaign.
Connaughton said there are “10-to-15” MLB organizations that have indicated a willingness to work with him on his “have your cake and eat it to” scenario. Among those are the Toronto Blue Jays, the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the California Angles.
“At the end of the day, it’s just like picking a college,” said Connaughton, a 38th-round draft choice of the San Diego Padres coming out of St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., in 2011. If the schools that were saying, ‘Yeah, you can do this but it’s going to be tough,’ you’re already stacking the odds against me before I get on campus. So why not pick a school where they were saying, ‘You can do it and we’re going to help you succeed at that.’”
The position of strength from which Connaughton worked may be a bit shakier than it was following his sophomore season when he fashioned a 4-2 record with a 1.71 earned run average. The 2014 season was a bit more of a struggle, finishing with a 3-5 mark and a 3.92 earned run average.
Connaughton, who has been clocked regularly with a low-to-mid 90s fastball, walked 40 batters and struck out just 36 in 62 innings this spring. He has just 105 strikeouts in 154 2/3 inning pitched for the Irish.
Yet the former Notre Dame athlete Connaughton is trying to emulate to a large extent - former baseball/football standout Jeff Samardzija - struck out just 159 batters in 240 1/3 innings with the Irish. Today, he’s on the verge of being traded from the Chicago Cubs and signing a long-term contract in excess of $100 million.
“I’ve had an opportunity to talk to (Samardzija’s) brother a lot, Sam, and there have been a lot of similarities between Jeff and myself, and he’s made it work out well,” Connaughton said. “There were a lot of similarities between the way (Seattle Seahawks quarterback) Russell Wilson and Jeff Samardzija did it when (Wilson) was back in college.
“With the fabulous season Jeff is having this year, I think that only helps my cause. It helps shows teams that it can work that way and it doesn’t hurt too much.”
Connaughton just can’t let basketball go - although he admits he’d have to reevaluate if an organization made him, say, the No. 12 overall pick in the draft - due largely to the naysayers early in his prep basketball career.
“Basketball has been something ever since I was a freshman, sophomore and junior in high school, everyone told me I couldn’t play at this level,” said Connaughton, who captained Notre Dame’s 15-17 squad in 2013-14 while averaging 13.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
“It wasn’t until going into my senior year that anybody thought I could, and then all of a sudden it came in a rush. That part intrigued me.”
Connaughton believes he’s working from a position of strength.
“Hedging your bet, whether it’s a school degree from the University of Notre Dame, a professional basketball career or a professional baseball career, all three of those would set me up well moving forward,” Connaughton said.
If Connaughton slides in the MLB draft, he won’t hesitate to adjust to a different plan.
“At the end of the day, worst-case scenario - well, not even worst-case scenario - I could come back and play both sports at the University of Notre Dame,” Connaughton said. “It’s been a success and I love the team on both sides and the coaches on both sides. So if that happens, I’ll attack it head-on next year.”