BY MICHAEL KELLY
When this past June’s Major League Baseball amateur draft rolled around, Justin Yurchak watched and waited, unsure if there was anything for him worth waiting around to watch.
“I really had no idea if or when I was going to get drafted,” Yurchak said this past week. “It’s an unpredictable thing.”
A few months later, Yurchak — a Clifton Park native and Shenendehowa High School graduate — has made the most of the opportunity the Chicago White Sox organization granted him. Yurchak, 20, ended up a 12th-round selection of the White Sox, and he’s established himself as a prospect to watch for the organization as his first pro season nears its conclusion.
Yurchak, a member of the Binghamton University baseball program for two years after starting his college career at Wake Forest, starred in the Pioneer League this summer for the Great Falls Voyagers, Chicago’s rookie-level affiliate. Yurchak was named the league’s player of the month in August, a month in which he hit a league-leading .449 and also led the league in on-base percentage at .546.
“It was an adjustment when I first got here,” Yurchak said of his first pro season. “The competition was the best I’d ever played against. The balls are coming at you faster in the field. The pitchers are throwing harder and have better stuff. So it took time to get adjusted to that coming out of college.”
But Yurchak — whose team is now in the league’s playoffs — adjusted quick. He finished the 2017 Pioneer League regular season hitting .345 with 22 extra-base hits in 60 games. Yurchak finished with a .448 on-base percentage and capped his regular season with a two-hit performance this past Saturday.
Yurchak finished fourth in the league in on-base percentage, a spot ahead of Torii Hunter Jr., son of the former MLB star outfielder. Yurchak’s batting average was good for sixth in the league.
Not bad for a player who simply felt lucky a few months ago when the White Sox called him to let him know they were considering using a double-digit round selection on him.
“Surreal,” said Yurchak, who watched the draft on TV with his parents. “That was a humbling moment.”
Shortly after the draft, Yurchak was out in Montana joining the Voyagers. He said it was a tough decision to leave school — he’s a couple semesters short of earning his degree in environmental economics — but one he’d make again.
“It was extremely, extremely difficult,” Yurchak said. “My best friends, guys I’ll always be friends with, are still at Binghamton. The coaches there, I can’t say enough good things about them. . . . But [becoming a professional] was something I felt was happening at the right time for me.”
Besides playing baseball at a higher level, Yurchak said the toughest change about the past couple months has been getting used to his new life off the field. Living with a host family has helped that transition. Yurchak’s had the chance to explore, too. He’s made trips to see Montana’s Glacier National Park and enjoyed the chance to see a different part of the country.
“It’s very different. It feels like you’re a grown-up here,” Yurchak said. “In college, you’re playing ball with your friends, going to school — and, here, you get the paycheck.”
Yurchak played shortstop in high school and became a corner infielder during his college career. With the Voyagers, he’s shifted to becoming more of a first baseman/designated hitter — and he’s shown the power needed to make that transition a successful one. After hitting eight home runs in 92 career college games, Yurchak hit eight home runs during his first 60 minor league games.
“I’ve tried to be a little more aggressive — do some damage when I’m in advantage counts,” Yurchak said. “In the past, [not doing that] has been my downfall.”
After his team’s postseason run, Yurchak said he’s hoping to get a chance to head home for at least a day or two before going to Arizona for fall instructional league. He’s expected to report to Arizona on Sept. 17 — the day he turns 21 — as he continues to chase his dream of playing in the major leagues, now as a full-time professional rather than as an amateur.
“But each night, it’s still the same game you’ve always played,” Yurchak said. “Once you step between the lines, it’s the same game.”