With Major League Baseball shortening its annual June draft from 40 to five rounds due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pool of talent realizing their pro dreams this summer has shrunk dramatically.
Baseball players with Hawaii ties will be affected, as a blend of high school and college players were expected to get picked anywhere from rounds 6-40.
One name that is still highly likely to get selected despite the shortened draft? That would be Waiakea senior Kala’i Rosario, who was recently named the Gatorade state Player of the Year despite a pandemic-shortened season.
The strapping 6-foot-1, 205-pound outfielder put himself on that map with a big summer in 2019, where he won the Area Code Games home run derby with 21 long balls, outslugging viral sensation and premier 2020 high school prospect Blaze Jordan.
“I’m just thankful for my parents because it was a big summer for me and they really got me out there,” Rosario told KHON2 sports director Rob DeMello. “And then when we went to the Area Codes, that was amazing, that was pretty much the best of the best in the country and I was right up there with them. Winning that home run derby was amazing, just kind of seeing the other good players and just being on the top of all them.”
Baseball America called the 2020 crop of Hawaii high school prospects “the best high school draft class to come out of Hawaii in recent memory,” with Rosario as the headliner.
Other prospects who made noise at Area Codes were Hilo shortstop Maui Ahuna (Kansas signee), Kamehameha pitcher Kelena Sauer (San Diego State), Saint Louis pitcher/shortstop JT Navyac (Cal State Fullerton), Punahou shortstop Kalae Harrison (Texas A&M) and Waiakea first baseman Safea Mauai (Hawaii). With a shortened draft and all the above names signed to Division I schools, it’s possible that Rosario is the only one of the bunch selected. If Rosario signs with an MLB team upon getting drafted, he would have to bypass his college commitment to California Baptist.
“You would never think I could be there one day but then once you see these guys and you just follow and follow, anything can happen,” Rosario said of the possibility of getting selected. “You just gotta work hard. I’m still working hard. Once that day comes, we’ll see. If my name is called, that’s gonna be a dream come true. And that’s just the beginning and I’ll work my way up to get to the big leagues.”
Rosario earned POY honors in Hawaii after hitting .343 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in 2020. He credits his performance at the plate to his hitting coach, Kaha Wong, the father of current major leaguers Kolten and Kean Wong. The elder Wong’s tutelage has contributed to the Big Island increasingly becoming a baseball hotbed for pro and college scouts alike.
“It’s amazing. I mean, coach Kaha helped me so much and following Kean and Kolten and all those great names out there, it’s good company to be in,” Rosario said. “Baseball, I’ve always been in love with it.”
The 2020 MLB Draft takes place from June 10-11 and will be televised live on ESPN. The first round will be held on June 10, while rounds 2-5 will be held on the 11th, the day Rosario is likely to have his name called. Regardless of what happens, Rosario has plenty of baseball ahead of him and says he’ll continue to play for the love of the game — despite the pretty penny that would come with his signing bonus.
“It just means a lot with all those amazing athletes that we have on Hawaii,” he said. “It just means a lot for me to represent my home and just show everybody with hard work, it can pay off.
“For me, my mentality doesn’t change when I go out there. I know I can play at the highest levels. I just do the same thing when I was a kid — just go out there and have fun.”