The lockers were right next to each other in Glendale, Ariz., and, for the past month or so, Jason Coats and Matt Purke were teammates again, just as they were at TCU.
The pair are in the Chicago White Sox organization — only the sure thing has become the long shot while the long shot is closer to the sure thing.
Purke, the former first-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2009 who initially passed on pro ball and led TCU to its first appearance in the College World Series in 2010, has struggled to live up to the expectations his talented left arm bestowed on him.
Coats, the outfielder and former walk-on at TCU who was a teammate of Purke’s on that CWS team, was drafted in the 29th round by the White Sox in the 2012 draft.
Of the two players, Purke was considered the dunk, but baseball got in the way. He still has a chance, but he’s no longer the prospect he was when he came to TCU. Coats, however, should soon be with the big league club this spring.
Exactly no one saw this coming.
However the rest of their respective careers play out, their lives are better served having attended school and played college baseball. Their college coach, TCU’s Jim Schlossnagle, routinely beats the drum that college ball is the better route, and these two guys are all the evidence he needs.
“I would 100 percent do it the same way I did it,” Purke told me two weeks ago during spring training. “My time at TCU was more valuable to me than anything else throughout my life until that point. What I gained at TCU was stuff I was never going to be able to gain in pro ball. I met my wife there and I learned how to be a person. In pro ball, you are on your own and no one is there to hold your hand.”
Since leaving TCU after his sophomore season in 2011, Purke has had surgery on his shoulder and underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in May 2014. The team that drafted him in the third round in 2011 — the Washington Nationals — released him in November 2014.
The good news is that he did get his money — he signed a four-year, $4.15 million deal with the Nationals after they drafted him in the third round in 2011. The bad news is that, in pro ball, he has been nowhere nearly as dominant as he was in college. As a professional pitcher, he is 10-18 with a 4.80 ERA.
Double A is the highest level Purke has reached.
The White Sox signed him, and he is trying to climb his way to Chicago. He is expected to be with the organization’s Double A team this season, and he is on the White Sox’s 40-man roster.
In college, he was an intimidating, 6-foot-4 power pitcher with electric stuff that dived down at hitters. Minor league coaches have tried to adjust the trademark slingshot delivery that helped make Purke dominant but which put tremendous pressure on his arm. He was all arms and no legs.
The power looks like it’s still there, but the production is not, hence the reason he has not been promoted to Triple A.
Purke is only 25, and he is left-handed, so he is not out of time. He’s just no longer a sure thing.
Coats, meanwhile, has enjoyed a Matt Carpenter-like ride through the minors. The undrafted guy out of high school who stayed in college to earn his degree in accounting may soon be on the big league roster.
“I’m close,” Coats said. “I always had the big league dream.”
Coats batted .270 with 17 home runs and 81 RBIs last season in Triple A and, although he is not on the Opening Day roster, he is much closer to Chicago than Purke. Considering who these two players were when they arrived at TCU, that last part is unbelievable.
What they both share is a loyalty and fondness for each other, for their former college teammates, for TCU and for Fort Worth. They routinely work out at TCU in the off-season and remain staunch supporters of the program.
Purke and his wife plan to move to Aledo soon. Coats and his wife make Fort Worth their off-season home.
“I am so glad I have that experience and that [degree] in my back pocket,” Coats said. “Baseball doesn’t last forever. And you know that the TCU alumni base is strong and loyal, so I think I’ve made some good connections when I was there. Whenever it ends, I have that, but I am hoping I can stick around and play for a while.”
Both men are polite, bright and well spoken. They are both wonderful stewards for baseball and their alma mater. Both men are better off having attended college.
It just looks like Coats is the better bet to make it to the bigs, whereas Purke is not.
Exactly no one saw that coming.
Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday on Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.