Draft profile: Burch makes big leap, from DII to Tigers

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Editor’s note: Latest in a series looking at the Tigers’ first 10 draft picks.

In high school at Berlin Hiland in Ohio, Luke Burch was quite the decorated student-athlete, winning two state championships in basketball, setting the school’s record in points (combining goals and assists) on the soccer field, and winning three conference championships in baseball.

Still, for a guy who’s known a little bit of success in the athletic arena, when he got word last week that he was about to be selected in the Major League Baseball Draft, it was quite the surreal feeling.

“It was just my family and I at home watching on the iPad,” Burch said over the phone recently. “It was an unexplainable feeling getting that call.

“It’s pretty crazy, honestly.”

Burch, 23, was the Tigers’ ninth-round pick, and as a college senior — or a “money-saver” pick, as they’re called in the business — he signed a below-slot contract for a draft position valued at $140,300.

He soon will start a professional career he openly admits he wouldn’t have seen coming four years ago, when he was a Division II athlete at Ashland of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. But he tore it up there, batting .380 in 25 games before deciding to transfer.

Burch always wanted to play Division I baseball, and figured that was the right time — and he always wanted to play at Kent State, near home. The school took a look and gave him a roster spot, but no promises beyond that.

The worst was sitting out that first year at Kent State, per NCAA rules. For a kid who’s played baseball since he was 5, that was rough.

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“I still played that summer, but sitting out the spring was pretty difficult,” Burch said. “It was a weird year. It was definitely different. But the coaches still worked with me a lot through that year, and it was just a good year to grow and keep working out.

“By the time I was eligible, I was ready to go.”

No kidding. He seized a roster spot, and only relinquished it because of a season-ending injury.

Still, in 26 games, he batted .360 with 17 stolen bases. In one span, he had 15 hits in eight games. And by the next year, he was a first-team All-Mid-American Conference selection, after batting .357 with 22 stolen bases while playing the outfield.

This past year, with former Michigan star and current Tigers Midwest-area scout Jeff Kunkel paying close attention, he won over the Tigers by hitting .350 with 13 stolen bases.

“That’s Kunkel’s guy,” said Scott Pleis, Tigers’ director of amateur scouting. “He plays a lot of positions and can run a little bit, he can throw, he’s got a good arm from the left side. (He also bats left.) He’s just kind of an all-around good player, good athlete.

“We’re hoping we can start him off in center field and see how that works.”

Burch was one of five Kent State players drafted, including two by the Tigers.

The other was Dylan Rosa (18th round), who’s got more power than Burch, with a team-high 14 home runs this past season.

“He doesn’t have the power (Reynaldo) Rivera (Tigers’ second-round pick) has,” Pleis said of Burch. “Nor is he an ‘8’ runner, but he can do a lot of things well.”

Burch played mostly right field this year, but said he prefers center field, the position at which the Tigers formally drafted him. That’s also the position of choice for 10th-round pick Garrett McCain out of Oklahoma State, so if they both end up at short-season A-ball in Connecticut, they’ll be rotating reps.

A kid who earned 11 varsity letters in high school and now is a passionate golfer, Burch always knew baseball was for him. Even if he didn’t always know it would take him this far.

He’s now with an organization he’s seen a lot over the years, with all the Cleveland Indians games he’s watched. No worries there, though. He said he’s not a huge Indians fan.

“I never really identified with a team; I like watching all kinds of baseball,” Burch said. “I’ve watched (the Tigers) a lot over the years. They’re a great organization. I’m really excited.”

Get to know ...

Luke Burch, OF

Age: 23 (April 18, 1994)

Height/weight: 6-2/185

Hometown: Millersburg, Ohio

College: Kent State

Draft: ninth round, 275th overall ($140,300 value; signed for below slot)

Fun fact: Burch is the first Mid-American Conference player drafted in the first 10 rounds by the Tigers since 2001, when they took another Kent State outfielder, Dave Mattle. He also was selected in the ninth round.