UNIVERSITY PLACE — The crack of the maple bat when it meets the baseball echoes throughout the empty campus at Curtis High School, which looks more like a sprawling junior college with its multiple buildings and upscale athletic facilities.
You can hear it from the far parking lot near the school entrance, well above the set of four batting cages where Kyle Russell, wearing a royal blue Curtis Vikings workout shirt, is taking swings, turning flipped baseballs from his father Syd into line-drive lasers that pelt the back of the cage or strike the protective screen in front of his dad. His mother Kim watches with a smile.
If not for the coronavirus pandemic that wiped out his senior season, Russell would’ve been in this cage with his teammates, preparing for a home game that night against Emerald Ridge — their eighth game of a season with championship expectations.
“Our team that we had, we’ve been brothers since we were little,” he said. “It wasn’t like all of a sudden everyone comes up and just meets at a school and plays. We’ve all grown up playing together. … That’s what kind of sucks for us, is we don’t get to have that special moment of see how far we can go.”
Instead, Russell prepares every day for his next game, despite not knowing for certain what uniform he will be wearing or when it will take place. Summer? Fall?
His story of having a senior season stolen isn’t uncommon during the pandemic. High-school athletes across the country had their seasons hijacked. But unlike so many, Russell knows he has more baseball ahead.
“They didn’t get that chance to play one last time,” he quietly said.
As one of the Northwest’s top high-school players, he’s accepted a scholarship to play for Washington State as the prized player in coach Brian Green’s first recruiting class.
Russell’s older brother, Cody, is also headed to WSU as a preferred walk-on. Getting to play with Cody seems like the best situation possible for Russell. He’s locked in on being a Coug.
“One hundred percent,” he said emphatically.
But under normal circumstances, Russell and his family would be weighing another option more closely — the 2020 Major League Baseball amateur draft.
The interest from area MLB scouts has steadily grown since his sophomore season. His size (6 feet 2, 185 pounds), athleticism (he’s the starting quarterback on Curtis’ football team) and potential have turned heads.
A broken hamate bone in his left hand suffered during the high-school season led to surgery, but that was just a slight speed bump.
Russell was selected for the Area Code Games in August and the prestigious New Balance Baseball Future Stars Series at Boston’s Fenway Park in September. He participated in the workouts but couldn’t yet swing a bat. Still, his ability to play shortstop left a mark on scouts.
All top infielders play shortstop in high school, but few project to it being their permanent position. Because of Russell’s quickness, soft hands, strong arm and advanced footwork, scouts believe he is good enough to be a full-time shortstop as a pro. Since surgery they’ve seen his short, fast swing with power potential.
Baseball America rates him as Washington’s top high-school player, at No. 182 in its top 500 draft prospects.
“He’s the best all-around baseball player I have ever coached in 12 years of coaching,” Curtis coach Bryan Robinson said.
Leading up to his senior season, Russell had in-home visits with 20 of the 30 MLB teams and had private workouts planned.
Had there been no coronavirus shutdown, he was a lock to be selected in the 2020 draft. And with the left hand fully healed, he was expected to provide a better glimpse of his offensive potential leading up to the draft.
But that opportunity is gone.
Not only is there no season for Russell to provide scouts a more thorough examination of his skills, but the draft is an uncertainty. There will be one, but it could be delayed, and the number of rounds will be shortened. Reports have said the draft will still be held June 10 with a minimum of five rounds, but possibly pushed to 10 rounds instead of the usual 40.
And though Russell loves the idea of playing at WSU, he also was planning to see where he was drafted with an outside possibility of signing if the bonus dollars reached a certain amount.
“When things come up, he has an adviser,” Syd Russell said. “And he talks to the family. … If there’s something that comes up, we have a family meeting about it. We’ll sit around the table, start talking about it, and everything’s open. Kyle, he’s laid-back with all of this.”
Cody Russell will get on the internet and research rounds, slot values and past bonuses for draft picks where his brother is projected.
“We have pretty good people that have been working with us — and not just in a professional sense, just good support,” Kim Russell said. “They’ve helped him come up with a number. It’s really just been guidance. A scholarship at WSU and an education is almost priceless in a sense.”
With baseball on hold and Russell not playing, the scouting calls aren’t as frequent. MLB sources say high-school players such as Russell, who could have used these months to enhance their draft status, have lost some bargaining power and lots of potential dollars.
In previous years teams would get creative with bonus-pool money to steal a rapid-rising high-school player from colleges.
The Mariners did it with pitcher Sam Carlson in 2017 and third baseman Joe Rizzo in 2016.
“There are so many guys that just pop as players as their senior year in high school starts, particularly in the cold-weather states,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “All of a sudden, Sam Carlson, who was kind of a quiet prospect going into a season, really starts to run up boards.”
With fewer rounds in which to pick, the creativity is hindered. Some believe that once top high-school players are drafted in the first 30-40 picks this year, few will be selected after that. College players, with more experience, are the safer choice.
“It’s going to be really tough for any team to just go in and take the high-school player that hasn’t played since last summer,” Mariners director of scouting Scott Hunter said. “You just don’t know where they are physically, if they’ve made a step forward, step back. That’s one area of the draft that’s probably going to get a little dinged.
“It’s not necessarily the top-of-the-food-chain high-school player, but it will definitely be that second-tier guy that might have made a big jump from the summer.”
Russell was ready for that big jump and a possible tough choice ahead.
Now his decision seems easier. Particularly with the uncertainty of minor-league baseball this season and its expected reduction of affiliates in the future.
“He’s got the final decision,” Kim Russell said. “We can give him the tools and guide him. Ultimately, he has the final decision.”
He could likely step in and be WSU’s starting shortstop as a freshman and progress higher in scouts’ evaluations over his time in Pullman. College players are eligible to be drafted three years after enrolling.
“Something would have to become pretty big for me not to go to WSU at this point,” he said. “I’ve got a good family behind me. They support me in anything, but they’ve also helped me make good decisions.”