MLB opportunity finally knocks for Notre Dame 1B Niko Kavadas
All the picks and the rounds and the hours and, eventually, the days kept rolling right along without so much as a word.
Notre Dame first baseman Niko Kavadas could only sit and wait and wait through the first two days of the Major League Baseball amateur draft. Sunday's first round came and went. The next nine rounds on Monday as well. There were 312 selections made over the first 10 rounds those first two days, and none were Kavadas.
Until Tuesday. Really early Tuesday.
That's when the Irish first baseman and former Penn High School standout was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the 11th round of the MLB draft. Last week, Kavadas told the Tribune that the next logical step of his baseball journey would be to become a professional, but only if presented with a “great opportunity” in this week’s draft.
Kavadas said he’d know of said great opportunity when he saw it. Is being the No. 316 player selected in the 20-round draft a great opportunity? We’ll see.
The 11th round was up and running for all of about five minutes before Kavadas was selected with the fourth pick on the third day.
Get selected in the first 10 rounds, and prospects are slotted into a specific signing bonus spot. Players selected after the 10th round receive bonuses only if teams have monies remaining. As an 11th-round pick, Kavadas is not automatically eligible for a signing bonus, which likely will factor in his decision to eventually sign or return to Notre Dame.
That Kavadas lasted as long as he did was surprising, but not that far out in left field. Heading into Tuesday's final 10 rounds, 19 players projected among the top 100 prospects remained unchosen. Many were high school players – particularly multi-sport athletes. Five, like Kavadas, were four-year college veterans.
Only Kavadas, considered the No. 135 prospect nationally, was a first baseman. Kavadas told the Tribune last week that playing only one position might be a disadvantage when the game today values versatility. Teams want prospects who can play first and third and maybe an outfield spot or two.
Kavadas can play first and be a designated hitter.
A first team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection, Kavadas was the 39th ACC player selected in the draft. Eight first team all-ACC players were selected before Kavadas. He was the sixth true first basemen to go. Kavadas was the highest-ranked remaining first baseman available Tuesday.
In a typical (non-pandemic related season), MLB draft picks have until July 15 to sign with their respective teams. This summer, for this draft, prospects selected this week have until Aug. 1 to sign. Players who are selected but choose not to sign with their respective teams will go back into the draft-eligible pool the following year.
Thanks to the global pandemic, Kavadas owns the option of returning to Notre Dame for a fifth year — his super senior season.
In 161 career games at Notre Dame, Kavadas hit 46 home runs with 146 RBIs and a .286 batting average. Kavadas was the second Irish selected in the draft. On Monday, right-handed pitcher Tanner Kohlhepp was taken by the Detroit Tigers with the third pick in the fifth round. Kohlhepp (7-2; 3.08 ERA) was overall pick No. 135. Ranked prospect No. 211, Kohlhepp's approximate pick value according to mlb.com is $414,000.
No Irish has been selected in the draft, then returned to play at Notre Dame the following year since pitcher Brian Dupra was an 11th-round choice of the Tigers in 2010. Former Irish pitcher Pat Connaughton was a fourth-round selection of Baltimore in 2014. He signed with the Orioles but returned to school to play his final year of college basketball in 2014-15.
Connaughton was a second round pick by Brooklyn in the 2015 NBA draft. He's spent the last six seasons in the NBA. The Orioles retained Connaughton's rights for six years after he was drafted. Terms of that deal expired in 2020, making Connaughton, currently in the NBA finals as a reserve guard with the Milwaukee Bucks, a baseball free agent.
Kavadas is the first former Penn High player taken in the draft since pitcher (and former Kingsmen teammate) Skylar Szynski was a fourth-round selection by Oakland in 2016. Having battled back from right elbow issues, Szynski is a member of the A’s rookie league team in Arizona.
Kavadas was draft eligible last season following his junior season at Notre Dame but was not selected. The draft was limited to five rounds because of the global pandemic.
It should be easy for the 22-year-old Kavadas to walk away from Notre Dame, which won the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference championship and finished 34-13, 25-10 in league play. He already has his business degree, and plans to return one day to pursue his MBA. He hit a school record 22 home runs with 64 RBIs and a .302 batting average this spring, when the Irish went from nowhere to as high as No. 2 in the country before losing to eventual national champion Mississippi State in a three-game Super Regional in Starkville, Miss., in June.
In many ways, Kavadas maxed out what might be his final year in college. But did he?
“When the season ends in Starkville and doesn’t end in Omaha (at the College World Series) with a win, you really don’t feel like you maxed it out,” Kavadas told the Tribune. “You had a productive season, but we didn’t meet our goals. As satisfying as the season was, we certainly didn’t max everything out.
“It was frustrating, but it’s motivation to keep you going.”
Following a late-season slump, when he admitted that he didn’t know which end of the bat to hold and was dropped to sixth in the batting order, Kavadas bounced back with a postseason that saw him hit six home runs with 15 RBIs to earn most outstanding player honors in the South Bend Regional and take the Irish to the brink of Omaha.
Kavadas has dreamed of playing professional baseball, but he’s also dreamed of playing in the College World Series for his hometown school. Come back for one final year, and the Irish have a chance to get to Omaha for the first time since 2002. But nothing about the game — as first-year pro or fifth-year collegiate — is guaranteed.
Kavadas will play baseball somewhere next spring. The question that remains is, whether he'll do it as a collegiate veteran or a pro rookie.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI