Huffman Says Goodbye To JMU
HARRISONBURG — Outside of a one-month stretch last summer when he played for the Wareham (Mass.) Gateman of the Cape Cod League, former James Madison pitcher Chris Huffman has lived in the Shenandoah Valley his entire life.
That’s no longer the case for the 21-year-old Fort Defiance High School graduate, who has relocated to the West Coast and dressed for his first professional baseball game Wednesday night as a member of the Eugene (Ore.) Emeralds – a short-season single-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres.
Huffman signed a seven-year minor-league contract with San Diego on Monday, just over one week after he was selected 417th overall pick in the 14th round of this month’s amateur draft.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound right-hander could have returned to pitch his senior season with Madison, but ultimately opted to forgo his remaining eligibility well ahead of the July 18 deadline.
“It was really tough, just because I’ve made a lot of very good friends at JMU over the past three years,” Huffman said via cellphone Wednesday. “I just sat down with my family and we kind of talked it over and just felt it was a good opportunity to help further pursue my dream of playing professional baseball.”
Longtime Dukes manager Spanky McFarland had expressed hope in a statement released following Huffman’s selection that his pitcher would return, but Huffman said McFarland was happy for him once a final decision was made. McFarland said Wednesday that Huffman’s departure brought forth “mixed emotions.”
“A lot of the other teams in the [Colonial Athletic Association] lost their No. 1s either because they’re seniors or they got drafted, and I’m thinking, ‘We got ours back. That’s going to give us the edge,’” McFarland said. “… But, at the same time, I’m very happy for him because I know that’s what he wanted to do and that’s a dream of his.”
Along with a signing bonus – Huffman declined to share its value, along with his final contract numbers – he said the Padres would pay for his remaining school fees at Madison.
Huffman, like most of JMU’s pitching staff, had a rough time during the 2014 season. The team’s No. 1 starter, Huffman went 5-7 and logged a 6.43 ERA over 91 innings. But professional scouts had monitored Huffman since the start of fall workouts and his four-seam fastball – which he said tops out at a 95 miles per hour – made him a viable option as a relief pitcher.
“I think it could have been better; we kind of had a tough schedule, also,” said Huffman, whose 17-36 Dukes – according to WarrenNolan.com – faced the 76th most difficult slate in the country. “We played some pretty good teams, but I just need to definitely throw better.”
In nine of his 15 starts this season, Huffman logged seven innings or more – including a pair of complete games.
“We had some injuries to some other kids and we were counting on [Huffman] and relying on him and because his velocity wasn’t going down, I left him in a lot,” McFarland said. “... But he never complained and always wanted the ball. … He’s a warrior. He went out there every time and you knew when he was pitching you had a chance to win every time.”
Huffman – who was a closer for JMU over his first two seasons — said he grew up cheering for the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox, mostly due to the support of those teams from his grandfather, Dean Mayhew, and his father, Randy.
In addition to his fastball, Chris Huffman said he also throws a slider which tops out around “87 or 88” and a split-changeup. He said he will likely ditch his split-changeup and attempt to fine-tune his primary two pitches.
Back in Huffman’s high school days, Fort Defiance coach Vic Spotts said his former standout’s fastball touched the mid-80s. Prior to that, Huffman still managed to make a quick impression on his future skipper before he’d even donned an Indians jersey.
“He was a guy who stood out the first day I saw him,” said Spotts, who has coached Fort for 28 seasons. “He was an eighth grader and we were practicing – I can tell you the scene. We were practicing in the front parking lot because we couldn’t get in the field. I remember exactly where he was standing. … I saw him throwing out there and I said to myself, ‘Who is that kid?’ This was in the first 15 minutes of practice.”
Spotts now remembers that face as one of the best players to ever come through his program. Former NBA sharpshooter Dell Curry is the only other player in Fort history, according to Spotts, to be selected in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft. Curry, who passed up the opportunity to play professional baseball to continue his collegiate basketball career at Virginia Tech, was drafted in the 14th round of the 1985 MLB draft by the Baltimore Orioles.
For his high school career, Huffman went 16-2 over three varsity seasons while maintaining a sub-2.00 ERA. As a senior, he struck out 76 batters in 54 innings of work while holding opponents to a .190 batting average.
Neither McFarland nor Spotts would say whether they think Huffman will one day reach the majors but each coach felt confident their former ace would put in the time and effort necessary to reach his maximum potential.
“He was one of those guys who could step on a field and dominate a game,” Spotts said. “As his velocity picked up, he just matured. His control got better, his variety of pitches increased. So we knew he was that guy that people had to fear.”