Sports

Another Conks slugger swings for the MLB

Kentwood High School is making a habit of producing pros.

Following the lead of a handful of Conks graduates, former Kentwood baseball star Alexander Lee has signed a contract to play in the majors, after being drafted by the Baltimore Orioles. Lee, 23, was drafted in the 36th round — 1,081st overall — of the 2014 MLB draft and signed with the team June 18. The 6-foot-3, 205 pound first baseman played for Radford University after transferring from Skagit Valley College.

Lee was a second-team All-Big South selection in his senior season in 2014. He led the Highlanders with a .357 batting average and topped the Big South with a .465 on-base percentage and 38 walks.

Jon Arastad, Kentwood’s coach from 2003-2011 and current head coach of Auburn Riverside, said Lee’s progression to the pros has been extra special to watch.

“When he was a freshman, he was very scrawny,” Arastad said. “He didn’t have the build and physique… He worked really hard at improving his body in the weight room.”

Lee graduated from Kentwood in 2009 as a burgeoning star at the plate and on the pitcher’s mound. No scouts approached the right-hander after he posted mediocre numbers in his first three years of college. He entered his senior campaign with little expectation of moving on to pro ball.

Lee caught the Orioles’ attention in late April when he batted .800 over a five-game stretch, earning the Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week honors. He also batted over .400 for much of the season. An Orioles scout reached out to Lee, saying that he may be on the team’s draft board later in the draft. With no real leverage or bargaining power, Lee understood from the scout that, if he were to get picked, it wouldn’t be until between the 35th and 40th rounds.

Draft day was relatively nerve-free despite waiting 30-plus rounds without any end in sight, Lee said.

“I saw my name and like 5 seconds later I got the phone call,” Lee said.

Lee is currently playing with the Gulf Coast League Orioles, a Rookie ball league that plays at the Orioles’ spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla.

“It’s as low as you can go, basically,” Lee said. “I’ve just got to keep working and try to move up.”

Lee, who is starting at first base, said he received a signing bonus, but that it was “nothing to brag about.” After starting the season strong, he said he struggled the last few games, though he is beginning to get comfortable with his teammates, many of whom do not speak English. Unlike high school and college, the minor league systems are less focused on winning as they are on individual performance — showcasing a players’ skills to move up the ranks towards the MLB.

“It has kind of had it’s ups and downs,” he said.

Lee, who doesn’t have an agent, agreed to the minimum minor league contract, which pays about $1,100 per month during the season, he said.

Lee expects to return to Kent over the offseason and live with his parents, but isn’t sure what he will do — other than, of course, try to get bigger, stronger and faster.

Arastad said Lee is dedicated to the game and “extremely coachable,” which is why he was not surprised to see the former Conk get drafted.

“By the time he was a senior, I knew he was going to end up at a good school and have a chance at being where he is now,” Arastad said. “You just never know how far they are going to go. I knew he had a chance.”

Lee joins Reese McGuire and Austin Voth as recent Conquerors to catch on with a major league organization, though McGuire was drafted straight out of high school, rather than playing in college. McGuire, 19, drafted No. 14 in the first round in 2013 by the Pittsburgh Pirates, is batting .268 with one home run and 21 RBI’s for the Class A West Virginia Power. Voth, 23, was a fifth round pick for the Washington Nationals in the same draft. The right-hander has been impressive, posting a combined 2.18 ERA, with 87 strikeouts in 82.2 innings for the Class A Hagerston Suns and Class A+ Potomac Nationals.

Mark Zender, who coached McGuire and Voth but not Lee, said the success is a credit to a tremendous amount of talent and support of baseball in the area.

“I think it says that there is a lot of good ballplayers in the area,” Zender said. “I’d love to say it’s the program, but I think Kentwood sits in the heart of Kent Little League … We are very fortunate — ourselves, Tahoma, Kentlake and Kentridge. All four of those schools get a lot of talent.”

Beyond the most recent draftees, Kentwood alumni Matt Hague is a 28-year-old rookie for the Pittsburgh Pirates who was drafted in the ninth round in 2008. Luke Hetherington spent six years in the Toronto Blue Jays organization after being drafted in 2001 and pitcher Jeff Petersen was drafted out of both high school and college, spending six season in the San Francisco Giants organizations.

Arastad hopes the proud Conk tradition will help push Lee to the majors.

“I can’t explain the amount of pride when you have a kid that goes that far,” he said. “Especially a kid like Alexander who has to work at it. The road that he took to get there is pretty cool. It’s a good feeling. I’m proud of him and proud of what he represents.”

 

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