By Rob Rains
There are times, Jake Burger admits, when his mind will wander and he will let himself think about the baseball draft coming up on Monday night – usually because somebody else has brought it up.
“It’s something that’s always going to be in the back of your mind because it’s such a life-changing event,” Burger said. “But it’s not in the forefront.”
What occupies that space in Burger’s mind these days is the more immediate future of the Missouri State Bears, just two wins away from their quest of making it to Omaha for the College World Series.
A graduate of CBC High School and the starting third baseman for Missouri State, Burger has led the Bears into the Super Regional for the second time in the last three years. They take on TCU on Saturday in the opener of the best-of-three series as they try to make it to Omaha for just the second time in school history.
The fact that Burger has put the team’s performance ahead of his individual future has not surprised longtime coach Keith Guttin.
“One of the things I really respect about Jake is it’s always been about the team,” Guttin said, “putting the team first. It’s never about him or the draft. He’s been very unselfish and a great leader … When he walked in the door he played like a veteran.”
Burger, a junior, is projected to be one of the top college position players selected in the first round of Monday night’s draft. Baseball America ranks him as the 19th overall draft prospect, fourth among college position players.
That should result in Burger being selected somewhere in the middle of the first round. If that happens, it will make Burger only the third position player in the history of the draft to be selected in the regular phase of the first round who played high school baseball in St. Louis.
The other two were James West, a catcher from Vashon High School, selected by the Orioles in the 1970 draft, and Glenn Franklin, a shortstop who played at Northwest High School and was drafted by the Expos in 1978 out of Chipola (Fla.) Junior College.
There have been numerous pitchers from the St. Louis area drafted in the first round in recent years, including Max Scherzer, Jacob Turner and two pitchers who played at Missouri State, Ross Detwiler and Jon Harris.
A logical reason for that, Guttin believes, is the fact it is harder for scouts to see and evaluate position players than it is pitchers. Burger was not drafted as a high school senior.
“The short high school season in Missouri, weather issues and I think he had some minor injuries,” said Guttin as factors. “It’s hard in this part of the country for guys to get in and see position players two, three, four times in the spring. They are just spread too thin with their territory.
“If you’re a bat you better hit the day they are there. It’s easier to walk in and see a pitcher throw 93 and think he’s probably going to do it again the next time too.”
Scouts have seen plenty of Burger now, however, as he became a Missouri State starter as a freshman and emerged as one of the top sophomores last year, earning a coveted invitation to play for Team USA last summer, where he was one of just two players, along with Vanderbilt outfielder Jeren Kendall, to start every game.
Burger’s strength is his power. He has hit 22 homers this season in 61 games, also carrying a .333 average, and has walked more times (42) than he has struck out (36). In his three years with the Bears Burger has slugged 47 homers in 173 games.
“Power is the best part of my game, but I pride myself on being consistent,” Burger said. “I think we have the best development program in the country. It’s been a fun three years. The coaching staff has worked with me every day, but you also have to have that drive to work hard every day. I would say the combination is what has helped me take this jump.”
Guttin said he expected Burger to become a quality hitter for the Bears when he recruited him out of high school.
“You hope everyone you recruit is going to develop as this type of player but you really don’t know,” Guttin said. “The thing I did see in the times I saw him play before he got here was the power. I felt like he was going to be a very good hitter in college. I wasn’t really concerned about where he played defensively. I knew the bat would carry the day.
“He always had great power and bat speed. He’s a guy that prepares himself well mentally. He looks at video but doesn’t over analyze and lets it flow when the game starts. He uses the whole field and is pretty disciplined yet aggressive. He has a really good approach at the plate.”
Burger ended up at third base, and has played well defensively, earning the college Gold Glove at that position last year.
Still, there are questions among some scouts about whether Burger can stick at that position as a professional. Guttin, and Burger himself, believe he can.
“I’ve seen him, and been around him every day, for three years,” Guttin said. “I’ve seen some guys up close who have gone on and played and I personally believe he can stay at third. He’s certainly has the arm strength and hands to do it, and I think he will continue to improve there.”
Burger has no doubts about his defensive ability either.
“I take as much pride in my defense as I do in my offense,” he said. “My dad always said you can’t be bad at the plate and in the field on the same day. Personally I think I can stay there. I’ve got the hands and arm to do it.”
Burger said he really has not heard much from scouts about where he is likely to be drafted on Monday night. His favorite team growing up – despite living in St. Louis – was the White Sox because Paul Konerko was his favorite player, and someone he tried to model his swing after. Burger also played hockey until his junior year in high school, and said he was in Chicago for games almost every weekend.
The White Sox have the 11th pick in the draft Monday night, and that might be just a little too soon for Burger’s name to come off the board.
The Cardinals will have no shot at Burger, as they will sit and watch the first two rounds go by on Monday night without making a selection. They gave up their first-round pick to sign free agent Dexter Fowler, then had their next two picks stripped away and given to the Astros as part of the compensation for former scouting director Chris Correa’s illegal hacking into the Houston computer database.
The Cardinals won’t pick until the third round, the 94th overall choice, when the second day of the three-day draft begins on Tuesday.
Another local product also is expected to be a first-round pick. Missouri right-hander Tanner Houck, a native of Collinsville, Ill., is ranked as the 25th best prospect in the draft by Baseball America.
Advancing to the Super Regional has allowed Burger to focus his attention on the Bears’ games against TCU instead of on the draft. He also has been aided by watching teammates Harris, Tate Matheny and Matt Hall go through the draft process two years ago when Missouri State advanced to the Super Regional but lost to Arkansas.
“He watched them,” Guttin said. “It was a good learning experience for him. He’s handled it beautifully.”
Burger hopes he has two reasons to celebrate on Monday night – the Bears advancing to the College World Series for the first time since 2003 and being selected in the first round of the draft.
“If a team takes me it means they believe in me so I will be happy to go wherever,” he said. “Ever since I was 4 years old I have been dreaming of this. Most baseball kids do. I’m blessed to be in this position and have this opportunity.”
Follow Rob Rains for all the baseball draft news this week on Twitter @RobRains