Kentucky-bound Pop honoured to be drafted
* With his commitment to the University of Kentucky, RHP Zach Pop fell to the 23rd round of the MLB draft on Saturday, where the Toronto Blue Jays selected the 17-year-old. His plans are to play college ball at Kentucky. (Photo: Alexis Brudnicki). ….
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By Alexis Brudnicki
Zach Pop could live the Canadian dream.
Well, as long as that dream involves growing up in Brampton and playing baseball, to one day be drafted and signed by your hometown Toronto Blue Jays in the hopes of someday pitching for them at Rogers Centre.
If that’s the idea, then Pop is one step closer. The high school right-hander was selected by the Blue Jays in the 23rd round on Day 3 of the 2014 MLB first-year player draft Saturday. He was the ninth Canadian taken out of a total of 16, and the fifth Canuck high schooler drafted, after Gareth Morgan, Ben Onyshko, Mitch Robinson and Robert Byckowski.
“It’s great,” Pop said. “You can’t really explain how you feel when you’re selected, and being one of the high prospects in Canada, you’ve got to use it as motivation to keep going forward and keep getting better.”
But in all likelihood, the young pitcher is already living his dream.
He’s become a mainstay on the Canadian Junior National Team after years of playing for the Toronto Mets and Ontario Blue Jays, he’s a Blue Jays draft pick, and he earned a scholarship to play his college baseball years at the University of Kentucky, where he will probably end up.
“To be honest, I am most likely going to the University of Kentucky,” Pop said. “It’s a great education, great athletics; it’s a fantastic school. You can’t really get much better than the Southeastern conference, so it’s hard to turn that down.”
While Pop was ranked much higher than he ultimately landed on many draft lists, his strong commitment and high asking price were factors in where he ended up in the selection process.
“Going in, I put a very hefty price tag on myself to deter me away from university,” Pop said. “I have a great university option at the University of Kentucky. The OBJs helped me with that one – they helped me get that with their connections, and helping me develop as a player, and I knew that was a great scholarship opportunity.
“Not too many people get that, so I thought, hey why not take advantage of it, because the draft is going to be there in three years.”
The young hurler was excited by the selection by his hometown team because not only are they the Blue Jays, but because he was Jamie Lehman’s pick, Toronto’s area scout north of the border. Lehman was also once a draft selection out of Notre Dame Catholic Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., taken by Alex Anthopoulos and the Montreal Expos in the 29th round in 2003.
“Jamie’s a great guy and he’s been watching me for a while now,” Pop said. “Just to have him even consider me as a prospect or to be drafted is an honour in itself. We’ll see where it goes and hopefully three years down the road I get selected by the Jays again.”
After weighing several collegiate options over the last several months, Pop made his commitment to Kentucky relatively recently. He was happy to find a successful program that has done well with other Canadian arms, a factor that played a part in the young righty’s decision.
“Absolutely it did,” Zach’s father, Sheldon Pop, said. “[James] Paxton and [Andrew] Albers and some others went there, and other Canadian position players have gone there in the past. Zach talked to [Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] Greg Hamilton at length about it and Greg [thought] it was the perfect fit…
“Zach’s dream is to play in the majors, but there are two avenues to get there. One, riding buses in the minors, or two, go to school and get an education and hope for the draft again in three or four years.”
It would take a significant signing bonus in order for the Blue Jays to lure Pop away from the Wildcats program, which was one reason some other major league organizations stayed away from the 6-foot-4, 230-pound 17-year-old early in the selection process.
“Major signability issues have come up since he committed to Kentucky,” one National League scout said. “I would be surprised if he got what he was asking for.”
Team Canada pitching coach Chris Reitsma has spent significant time working with Pop and his repertoire throughout the hurler’s tenure with the junior national team, and he’s been impressed with what he’s seen from the former third baseman who first stepped on the mound three years ago.
“Zach’s come a long way,” Reitsma said. “He’s done really well. He’s got a power arm – he’s 91 to 93 [miles per hour] down there consistently and he’s got a power sinker, pretty good slider, and the makings of a half-decent changeup. It will be interesting to see what happens…
“He’s definitely put the work in and I’m proud of him for that. He’s in a win-win situation – he can go to the University of Kentucky on pretty much a full ride or he can sign professionally. It’s a good opportunity no matter what. But he’s definitely put the work in and he’s done well.”
Should Pop stick to school, he will have the chance to continue with the junior national team when the squad heads to Cuba in July, after a brief stop for pre-tournament workouts at Rogers Centre surrounding Canada Day, and then onto the championship qualifiers in Mexico in September.
The junior team’s head coach is excited to see Pop in the position that he is, making the decision between playing in a good college conference in the SEC or perhaps turning to pro ball. Either way, the righty has a bright future ahead of him.
“Zach is a big, strong, physical kid with a strong arm,” Hamilton said. “He’s going to throw very hard someday. What Zach does, whether the professional baseball world is right out of high school or whether going to the University of Kentucky is right, he’ll be a in a very good position to decide because he’s got a scholarship to a tremendous school…
“Ultimately, at the end of the day, I don’t think Zach needs a lot of help at this point in time; he will just have to decide what he wants to do. He’s ready for professional baseball in my mind, and if you get a scholarship to the University of Kentucky at the level of scholarship that he got, they’re telling you that he’s ready for big-time college baseball too.
“He’s in an enviable position and deserves to be so. He’s a big, strong, physical kid with a real, real strong arm – he’s not a complete, finished product yet, in terms of controlling a baseball game, he still needs to tighten up a breaking ball, and be more consistent with secondary pitches, but there’s a reason why he’s getting professional interest at a fairly high level.”
Though Pop is in a good spot now, the draft loomed over him for several months, and he is happy that the process is now in the books.
“Honestly, at the start it was a little bit stressful,” Pop said. “[We were] hosting a lot of phone calls and offers and it was a lot to consider, especially when they’re throwing a lot of money at you. It’s tough to turn down, but in the end I feel like I made the right decision.
“After you make your decision and stick with it, it’s a great process. You enjoy it a lot more. It starts to become more fun and more of an honour, after you get past that initial stage of stress.”
For the rest of the summer on the road to Kentucky, Pop believes it will be easier to enjoy baseball now, soaking in his last Team Canada experiences as a member of the junior squad and not worrying about anything else.
“Oh, for sure,” he said. “You’re not playing for what the scouts care [about] or anything like that. You’re purely playing for your country now. Of course, before I was playing for that but you always had that thought in your mind – what if I throw an extra mile-an-hour harder here, or what happens if I just really snap this breaking ball? There’s always that extra thought.
“Now you’re just really thinking about doing the best you can and [giving] all your efforts to your country, which is a great thing.”
- Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis