TORONTO – A mostly quiet 2014 that included a bronze medal for the national junior team ushers in a much busier new year for Baseball Canada, highlighted by the world junior championship and a defence of the gold at the 2015 Pan American Games.
Combined with a strong Canadian draft class led by high-schoolers Josh Naylor, Demi Orimoloye and Mike Soroka, plus collegian Ryan Kellogg, the upcoming season has the potential to be a very memorable one for the sport in this country.
Front and centre will be the senior squad, surprise winners at Guadalajara in 2011, entering this summer’s Pan Ams in Toronto looking for a repeat.
“It’s not too often you get to stand on a podium above the U.S. and Cuba in baseball, so for that group of guys it was a pretty special moment and we’d like to see if we can do that again at home,” says Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams. “That’s going to be a challenge.”
The launching point for it all comes Jan. 10 at Baseball Canada’s annual awards banquet in Toronto, with alumni like defending National League batting champion Justin Morneau, Joey Votto, Russ Martin, Larry Walker, Michael Saunders, John Axford, Jeff Francis and Jim Henderson all slated to attend.
Martin, who signed an $82-million, five-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays in November, will be honoured as the seventh addition to Baseball Canada’s Wall of Excellence as part of the evening. Jason Bay was selected last year.
“Russ has been a huge contributor, starting with the national junior team program where he had a huge impact as a young high school player,” says Hamilton. “We feel he’s had a tremendous major league career, been an impact player, he’s played for our World Cup teams as a minor-leaguer, he’s played in the World Baseball Classic. He’s a very deserving inductee.”
After that it will be all business, with the heavy lifting related to the senior squad due to start during spring training. Though Major League Baseball has yet to provide the Pan Ams with official sanctioning, the expectation is affiliated players not on 40-man rosters will be allowed to participate.
Depending on their availability, the national team is sure to look to veteran pitchers from the 2011 club like Andrew Albers, Dustin Molleken, Shawn Hill and Scott Richmond, while others like Scott Diamond, Pete Orr, Jordan Lennerton and Taylor Green will be on the radar if eligible for the July 11-26 event.
“We’ve got to transition here pretty substantially,” says Hamilton. “This past year has been about following players, trying to get a gauge or sense on who some of the young players that are ready to potentially impact the roster may be, and following the status of veteran players.
“A lot of it will formalize as we move through spring training.”
Canada, the U.S. and Cuba have made tentative plans for a handful of exhibition games in Cary, N.C., ahead of the Pan Ams, but Major League Baseball’s approval is needed for that, as well.
The national women’s team, meanwhile, will make its debut in the Pan American Games after a fourth-place finish at the World Cup last September in Miyazaki, Japan. A 3-2 walk-off loss to Australia in the bronze-medal game marked a sour end to that experience, and the women will look to erase it at home.
Once the Pan Ams end, the junior squad steps into focus with a pre-championship exhibition series against Australia before the under-18 world championship in Osaka, Japan, played at the famed Koshien Stadium.
The national junior squad claimed bronze by beating the hosts in La Paz, Mexico in the under-18 Pan Ams to qualify for the worlds.
“We were real happy,” says Hamilton. “It’s not an easy task with young players to go down to Latin America and compete against the Latins. There are only four spots available in the Americas and two of those spots are most of the time spoken for with the U.S. and Cuba, so you have to pick your spots wisely in the tournament and that you have the right pitchers available at the right time.
“I thought our guys responded tremendously well to difficult circumstances. For the guys to end up with the bronze medal and qualify was a real testament to young leadership and a real good compete level.”
Naylor, from Mississauga, Ont., Orimoloye, from Orleans, Ont., and Soroka, from Calgary, are due to return to the junior team and the hope is that if they sign after being drafted, their teams will allow them to take part in the tournament.
“It’s the first time Japan is hosting the world junior championship, they’re doing it right off the Koshien high school tournament in the same stadium where the final is played,” says Hamilton. “It’s going to be special for the kids to go over and play in that environment.”
The junior team is also slated for its usual spring training and Dominican Summer League tours in March, April and May, which will give its draft eligible players plenty of time to showcase themselves.
Naylor, the hard-hitting first baseman and outfielder, picked up plenty of additional exposure last year with a strong performance for the junior squad and a second-place finish at the MLB Junior Select Home Run Derby during the all-star game.
“Outstanding,” is how Hamilton described his season. “He’s just a tremendous hitter, he’s one of those rare young players who is just a pure hitter. He relishes the moment offensively and he provided a lot of leadership this year, he’s got a real presence at the plate and is a special talent with the bat.”
The Canadians will be counting on him and the others again.
“We go to the world junior championship with the goal of medalling,” says Hamilton. “We feel we’re a top five nation at that level and it’s a tall order and a challenge to try and knock off the Cubans or the Americans and to a certain degree the Japanese, but we certainly feel we can compete with them.”
Tickets to Baseball Canada’s awards banquet and fundraiser are available here. An auction list, including sport packages provided by the recently retired pitcher Ryan Dempster and Seattle Seahawks tight end Luke Willson, can be found here.