PELLA — Former Van Buren High School standout athlete and Central College shortstop Garrett Saunders is making the leap to professional baseball.
Saunders signed a free-agent contract Saturday with the Atlanta Braves and has been assigned to Danville (Virginia), the club's rookie-level Class A affiliate in the Appalachian League. The short-season team opened its 2019 campaign at home last week.
Saunders debuted on Tuesday night for Danville, batting seventh while starting at shortstop. Saunders went 2-4 with an RBI in a 9-4 win over the Bluefield Blue Jays.
Saunders graduated from Central last month with a biology major and a lofty 3.89 grade point average. A two-time Google Cloud CoSIDA Academic All-District selection, he's hoping to attend medical school in a year but has put those plans on hold while he pursues his baseball dreams.
This spring Saunders started all 40 games for the Dutch, hitting a team-high .361 with 53 hits, including four triples and three home runs, as well as 34 runs and 25 RBIs. He's Central's all-time doubles leader with 48 and ranks second in career hits with 211. He helped the Dutch compile a 24-16 season record.
Saunders was a two-time ABCA/Rawlings All-Central Region honoree, named to the second team in 2018 and the third team this spring. He was a first-team D3baseball.com all-region pick last year and was a two-time second-team all-conference selection. A two-time league player of the week, Saunders was Central's 2018 team MVP and a team captain this spring, also receiving the team's Versteeg Award, based on scholarship, leadership and sportsmanship.
Saunders also caught some attention away from campus. He was among a handful of NCAA Division III players to compete the last two summers in the Northwoods League, a summer wood bat league for elite college players. Saunders had a strong showing for the league's Thunder Bay (Ontario) Border Cats.
He was then invited by the Braves to a pre-draft showcase in Cedar Rapids in May.
"He performed pretty well there," Central baseball coach Matt Schirm said of Saunders. "I thought he had a chance to get drafted."
Saunders wasn't chosen in the Major League Baseball draft June 3-5 or receive any free-agent offers immediately thereafter. He was pondering other options when he got the call from Atlanta last week. Saunders was on a plane to Virginia Friday morning at 2 a.m. to sign his professional contract and officially joined the club Saturday.
"I'm so thankful for this organization for the opportunity they are giving me, as well as the numerous ones that led to it," Saunders said. "I'm also very grateful for the crazy amount of support I received throughout my baseball career from the entire community. Many believed in me even before I believed in myself."
While Saunders was a standout at Central, Schirm noted that many Division III stars fail to receive a shot in the pros. But he said that pro scouts likely saw the same intangibles in Saunders that Schirm does.
"He's very talented, but there are a lot of players that have similar measurables," Schirm said. "To me, the way he competes and carries himself on the field is what stands out and probably why he did so well in the Northwoods League. A lot of guys have higher numbers than him, but he figures out a way to compete. That will give him a chance to be successful in professional baseball as well."
Saunders' signing is also a milestone for the steadily improving Dutch baseball team, Schirm said.
"It's always exciting to say that someone that came through here is playing professional baseball," he said. "It's good to be able to tell recruits that this is possible. You can pursue your dreams at Central."