The 2018 Major League Baseball (MLB) First-Year Player Draft took place from June 4-6 and we’ve got a rundown on what it means to some of Alberta’s most-talented players.
Some of the athletes selected were born and raised in the province, others have become familiar faces through our baseball academies, and some are players we’ve come to know from their time in the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL).
We were so busy during the draft that we enlisted the help of a new reporter. Chris Ewanik, a first baseman with the Prairie Baseball Academy who wrote a blog for the team this season, agreed to lend a hand by interviewing St. Albert’s Erik Sabrowski for us. So, a big thanks to Chris and all the drafted players who made time for us!
Here’s a look at the selections we had our eye on:
ERIK SABROWSKI, San Diego Padres, 14th Round, 411th Overall
Erik Sabrowski’s journey to the MLB has been anything but routine, however – after hearing his name called by the Padres in the 14th round – his baseball dreams are one step closer to reality.
The former Norwest League Player of the Year was at a crossroads in his career during his freshman year in Cisco, Texas in 2016. Sitting on the bench for three-and-a-half months was decimating to his confidence, but it inspired a new outlook on baseball.
“The year at Cisco was humbling. It was something that I had never experienced in my baseball career up to that point,” said the 6-foot-4, 245-pound left-handed pitcher.
“One day, after a text exchange with a friend, (I was able) to better understand my situation and how I wasn’t getting any better doing nothing … I had to re-dedicate myself to the sport from that point on.”
The new-found dedication – which included doing more long-toss drills and strength training – paid off. The St. Albert product transferred to Cloud County Community College (the home of four other Prospects Academy alumni) and had himself a career year. He posted a 3.14 ERA over 66 innings pitched, while boasting a 15.95 K/9, the third highest strikeout rate of any National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division 1 pitcher this season. He also earned the distinction of being named the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference (KJCCC) West Pitcher of the Year in 2018.
Former coach Taylor Burns – the owner of Absolute Human Performance in Edmonton – said Sabrowski’s achievements exceed what he does on the field.
“Erik’s just somebody who is always positive and will have his teammates’ backs,” said Burns. “Back on those successful St. Albert midget teams – apart from his contributions on the field, which were definitely an integral part of our success – he was somebody whose energy was infectious and he always played the game how it’s supposed to be played.”
In addition to his success with St. Albert Midget AAA teams, Sabrowski was a key member of the Edmonton Prospects over the past two seasons. They are years that he won’t soon forget.
“It’s been a fun ride with the boys on the Prospects, from guys that I barely knew to brothers … I will be following them very closely,” said Sabrowski, who has generated plenty of media buzz since being drafted and has already thrown out a ceremonial first pitch at RE/MAX Field this season.
As far as next steps go, Sabrowski – who found out he was drafted by the Padres while having breakfast with his girlfriend – recently traveled to Phoenix, Arizona to take part in rookie orientation and started a brief rehab assignment for a case of tendonitis. After that, the WMBL all-star expects to be sent to short-season, single-A to play for the Tri-City Dust Devils of the Northwest League.
“I’m most excited to be a ballplayer 24/7,” said Sabrowski. “The chance to focus all of my time and energy on being a better player every day.”
LARON SMITH, Minnesota Twins, 25th Round, 754th Overall
Infielder LaRon Smith was not surprised to hear that it was the Twins that drafted him, but the 17-year-old Foothills Composite High School student was getting antsy prior to being selected.
“They were very vocal about drafting me before the third day started,” said the Spruce Grove product, who was sitting in the back of a bus on his way to Langley when he heard word of his selection.
“It was nerve-wracking. I was losing hope for a while, and then my teammates told me that I had been selected.”
After the good news arrived, Smith phoned his mother, Raylene Hyland, and his brother, Kobe Hyland, who just wrapped up his sophomore season of baseball with the Iowa Western Reivers.
“My mom was definitely the first person I contacted. She has been my main supporter,” said Smith, who has been at the Okotoks Dawgs Academy since 2016 and was a member of Canada’s Junior National Team (JNT) this year.
“My brother was excited for me and said he was proud.”
Dawgs Academy staff are also beaming about the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Smith, who plays all over the infield, pitches and was drafted as a catcher.
“We are all super proud of him. It takes a lot of work to get to that level and he’s come a long way in two full years in our program,” said coach Tyler Hollick, himself a 2012 pick of the San Francisco Giants.
“We are all really excited for him. It just goes to show that hard work pays off.”
Smith – who hit .421 with 16 RBI in 57 at bats for Dawgs Academy this year – now has a choice ahead of him. After he graduates from high school he can go to the University of Alabama, where he has committed to play, or he can sign a pro contract with the Twins. Both are attractive options. “I’m excited to continue my baseball career, whether it’s playing pro or going to school,” said Smith.
DAMIANO PALMEGIANI, Toronto Blue Jays, 35th Round, 1,046th Overall
Chicken wasn’t necessarily the word that Damiano Palmegiani wanted to hear next to his name when he was drafted, but when it came down to it the 18-year-old was just thrilled to have his name called by Toronto Blue Jays organization.
Whoever was on the draft call for Toronto announced that the hard-hitting third baseman was better known by the nickname “Chicken Palmegiani,” which came as a shock to the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball product.
“I still have no idea what that was all about. It was definitely different,” said Palmegiani, who played on Canada’s JNT with Smith.
“I thought it was hilarious. Now I’ll definitely never forget the moment … I’ve never been called ‘Chicken Palmegiani’ before. That’s the first time I heard it.”
While the 6-foot-1, 180-pound infielder/outfielder admitted he would have preferred a more conventional draft call, he said he appreciated the humour in the situation.
“Mostly, I couldn’t care less because I just accomplished a dream of mine,” said Palmegiani, who was playing Fortnite in his dorm room with teammates at Vauxhall when a text came in from a Blue Jays scout during the 32nd round of the MLB draft indicating he would soon be selected.
After shutting the video game off, they all huddled around a phone and watched the draft stream “for what seemed like hours,” Palmegiani told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“I had an idea in mind of what teams I would go to, if I did get drafted … the Jays being one of them. As the day went on it became clearer and clearer that the Blue Jays were interested the most,” recalled the Venezuelan-born talent.
“The thought of suiting up for Canada’s team gives me goosebumps, honestly. I’ve watched so many Blue Jays games on television as a kid growing up and now. You have an entire country cheering you on.”
Palmegiani, who is currently playing for the Lethbridge Bulls of the WMBL, realizes the road to Rogers Centre is a long one with many hurdles ahead.
“The last thing I want to do is get ahead of myself. So, for now it’s one step at a time. It’s a great honour being drafted, but this means I just need to work harder because it will only get tougher from here,” said the right-handed batsman.
“The plan now is up in the air. I have to meet with a Jays representative so we can discuss where we are at in terms of a contract. From there, I’m faced with a decision of whether I’ll want to pursue this dream now or go to university and play there for a couple of years with the hope of being drafted again higher than I was out of high school.”
KODY FUNDERBURK, Minnesota Twins, 15th Round, 454th Overall
After clubbing a team record 15 home runs for the Okotoks Dawgs last summer, the MVP of the WMBL will not be back to defend his title. But you won’t hear Kody Funderburk complaining.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound first baseman and left-handed pitcher had no idea he’d be drafted by Minnesota but he was excited to hear his name called in the 15th round.
“I was not expecting the Twins. It was a surprise for me,” said Funderburk, who is coming off a season at Dallas Baptist University that saw him hit .304, while smacking 13 home runs and collecting 48 RBI over 63 games.
On the mound, Funderburk struck out 53 batters over 50 innings for the Patriots, while posting a 1-3 record and a 6.84 earned-run average (ERA).
The 21-year-old was selected as the 2018 Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Newcomer of the Year after appearing on the conference’s top 10 lists in seven offensive categories.
The two-way threat started his WMBL career in Edmonton in 2016. Over 51 regular season and playoff games for the Prospects he scored 30 runs, drove in 35 teammates and kissed eight long balls goodbye (including three in the post-season). Funderburk also pitched well for Edmonton, striking out 23 would-be hitters over 26.1 innings, and putting up an ERA of 3.08. In addition, he earned two saves and one win during the regular season.
The Queen Creek, Arizona native returned to the WMBL with the Okotoks Dawgs in 2017 and had a monster summer. He led the league in regular season home runs (15), RBI (55) and finished sixth in batting average, producing hits at a .339 clip. As a pitcher, he K’ed 11 batters over nine innings for Okotoks and didn’t allow an earned run. He also picked up a save.
“He was a stud both with a bat in his hands and with a baseball,” noted Dawgs Managing Director John Ircandia.
“Dawgs fans will fondly remember those towering home runs over the scoreboard, as well as that 90-plus miles per hour fastball he delivered … the Minnesota Twins selected an outstanding individual in Kody and we are proud to have had him in a Dawgs uniform.”
GREG CULLEN, Atlanta Braves, 15th Round, 422nd Overall
Funderburk’s teammate, Greg Cullen, emerged from the draft with one of the more heart-warming stories of the three-day event.
Parents of the former Dawgs shortstop found a school form from when Cullen was just six years old that indicated he wanted to be a professional baseball player for the Atlanta Braves (or the Blue Jays).
Fast-forward 15 years and Cullen’s dream has become a reality.
Greg Cullen wanted to play for the @Braves when he was 6 years old.
Today his dream came true.
(📸: @_sarr29 & @NiagraUniv) pic.twitter.com/V4P7vAYBiW
— Cut4 (@Cut4) June 6, 2018
The 21-year-old was a second-team WMBL all star selection in 2017 after scoring 33 runs, producing 31 RBI and hitting .325 during 37 games with the Dawgs. He credits the summer performance with setting the table for an even more impressive season with the Niagara University.
The 5-foot-10 product of Penfield, New York led all Division 1 college hitters with a .458 batting average and an on-base percentage (OBP) of .556 in 2018. He also scored 51 runs in 49 games and stole 13 bases in 15 attempts. His standout campaign earned him the honour of being named the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Player of the Year.
“Greg was an outstanding Dawgs player in 2017 and this past college season,” said Ircandia in a press release.
“A quality individual, both on and off the field, and we have no doubt that Greg will have an outstanding professional career.”
MICHAEL GRETLER, Pittsburgh Pirates, 10th Round, 294th Overall
Here’s hoping three is the magic number for Michael Gretler.
Gretler is a third baseman and his selection in this year’s draft marked the third time he’s been drafted.
The 6-foot-2 corner infielder was a 39th-round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2014 before he joined the Okotoks Dawgs in 2016. During his 34 games with Okotoks, the native of Bonney Lake, Washington performed well at the plate, hitting 11 doubles, four home runs and 36 RBI while putting together a .331 batting average.
For the second consecutive year, Michael Gretler has been selected in the #MLB Draft by the @Pirates!
He went from the 39th round in 2017 to 10th this year!#GoBeavs pic.twitter.com/sO5FT9Src3
— Oregon State Baseball (@BeaverBaseball) June 5, 2018
After he left the Dawgs, Gretler joined the Oregon State University (OSU) Beavers. He was a 39th-round draft pick of the Pirates last year, before Pittsburgh took him again this year.
In his senior year at OSU, he swatted seven home runs, plated 44 RBI and had a batting average of .316 during 231 at bats.
DANIEL AMARAL, Pittsburgh Pirates, 14th Round, 414th Overall
The last name of Amaral is a familiar one for fans of the Calgary Cannons.
Rich Amaral – a veteran of 10 MLB seasons, eight of them with the Seattle Mariners – played 205 games for the Cannons between 1991 and 1994. The middle infielder stole 85 bases for the Pacific Coast League’s Calgary squad and scored 171 runs.
Before he came to Cowtown, Amaral played baseball for the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the 1980s.
Daniel followed his father’s footsteps by attending UCLA and in being taken in the MLB draft. During 55 games as a Bruins outfielder, the younger Amaral batted .289 and swiped 18 bags. He also scored 51 runs.
BEAU BRUNDAGE, Tampa Bay Rays, 33rd Round, 990th Overall
Cannons boosters of the same vintage will also recognize the name of Dave Brundage, who played 351 games for Calgary between 1989 and 1994.
His son, Beau, was drafted in the 38th round by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2015. At the University of Portland this season, the shortstop batted .378, with a .452 OBP and 40 runs scored in 53 games played. His strong play in 2018 once again made him worthy of a draft selection, this time by the Tampa Bay Rays.
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