Canadian prospect Mike Soroka has come a long way in 3 years

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Joe Biagini talks about throwing his curve ball and how all his pitches are looking.

The last time Mike Soroka had faced the Toronto Blue Jays he was 17 years old and gave up seven runs in an inning.

Michael Saunders was just finishing his rehabilitation from a torn left meniscus suffered when he stepped on a sprinkler head, Edwin Encarnacion was out with back inflammation and Brett Cecil was nursing a rotator cuff injury. Josh Donaldson hadn’t played a regular-season game for the Blue Jays, who still hadn’t made the playoffs since winning back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and ’93. Jose Bautista hadn’t flipped off the Texas Rangers.

You could say a lot of stuff’s happened then – in Toronto, it seems as if a franchise-worth of stuff has happened. And the Soroka who stepped on the rubber Tuesday in a Grapefruit League game against the Blue Jays for the first time since that teenaged nightmare at Dunedin Stadium? The one wearing the Atlanta Braves uniform instead of that of the Canadian junior national team? He’s so painfully close to the majors, even though he’s still five months away from his 21st birthday, that he can taste it.

This was not just another spring training outing for the product of Calgary’s Bishop Carroll High. Not even close. The last time Soroka faced the Blue Jays was an exhibition game for the national junior team against a split-squad, an annual affair that is part of the juniors’ preparation and also a chance for scouts to see the best draft-eligible Canadian players using wood bats and pitching against major leaguers using wood bats. Russell Martin doubled off him; he gave up seven runs in the second inning – six of them unearned. The Jays beat the Jr. Nats 17-3.

“I mean, it was what it was,” Soroka said with a chuckle, just minutes after two innings in which he struck out Yangervis Solarte and Gift Ngoepe, and used a Kevin Pillar double-play to erase a lead-off single by Randal Grichuck. “You have to remember, we were still a high school team playing a bunch of pros. The errors were one thing, but I also got to show in the game that I can be mentally strong. Didn’t let anything get by me. Didn’t start pouting. Didn’t show bad body language.

“Time wise it was a long time ago … but it really feels like yesterday,” said Soroka, a right-handed pitcher who was the 28th choice overall in the 2015 draft and is ticketed for triple-A Gwinnett. “I mean, coming here, coming into the same clubhouse … the stadium, the field’s pretty much the same.”

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Soroka, who signed for $1,974,700 after accepting a scholarship to Cal-Berkeley, is blazing his way towards the majors with a team that is very much on the cusp. Taken as a compensatory pick for the loss of free-agent Ervin Santana, he was promoted to advanced A-ball after four pro starts and spent all of last season at double-A Mississippi, where he had a WHIP of 1.087. In 330 2/3 minor-league innings he has struck out 287 and walked 71, and has climbed from 48th to 27th on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect rankings. A non-roster invitee, Soroka, Kolby Allard and Tuesday’s Braves starter, Sean Newcomb, are jockeying for position to be the next starter called up.

Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos was of course with the Blue Jays on that day in 2015. The Canadian junior team travels down south to face professionals in the spring and also plays against teams in the Dominican Republic in the summer; he’d seen Soroka pitch even before that game, and while Soroka knows that sharing a passport with the GM doesn’t necessarily give him an in with the Braves organization, he does admit he smiled when he heard that Anthopoulos was joining Atlanta. “He is the first GM I met,” Soroka said.

Anthopoulos remembers the meeting.

“In fairness, his infield really hurt him that day,” Anthopoulos said via text. “He was a ground-ball guy and they didn’t make any plays behind him. I remember we were watching and felt terrible for [him]. It ended up being a long inning; I’m pretty sure it was over 40 pitches.

“Being around him in camp this year, he’s a real cerebral kid who asks great questions and has a plan and a routine. He’s considered one of the best ‘make-up players’ in the organization.”

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Soroka is much more of a man physically than the pitcher who faced down the Blue Jays in 2015, back when he remembers being able to see his velocity increase spring after spring. He has also developed a change-up and according to Anthopoulos, he has made remarkably fast adjustments against left-handed hitters. After his second full season in 2016, the organization sat Soroka down and told him: “Your two-seamer gets you a lot of ground-ball outs, but don’t settle for that. Your stuff is good enough that you should have more swing-and-miss in your arsenal.”

“It’s kind of a modified circle change-up,” Soroka explained. “I hold it deeper in my hand than most pitchers. When it’s good, it’s really good. It’s a pitch I will hopefully be able to rely upon for the rest of my career, but right now it’s one of those things where when it’s not on in a particular game, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist at all.”

As Soroka talked, his eyes flashed away to a television set in the visitor’s clubhouse where the Houston Astros’ Kyle Tucker had just crushed his fourth home run of the spring. Chosen in the fifth round of the same draft as Soroka, he is pushing for a spot on the defending World Series champions. Soroka had just been asked about what it was like to find himself in the centre of a minor-league system that’s still one of baseball’s best even with penalties assessed for violating international signing rules; an organization that could see an influx of prospects at the same time – an organization in the middle of something profoundly organic.

“Baseball in general is getting a young core,” he said. “Like Kyle Tucker, right there. I’ve faced him before.

“This is pretty surreal,” Soroka continued, staring at the aging, bare-bones insides of the visitor’s clubhouse. “This is pretty much where it all started from a draft perspective. It’s where I put my name on the map as a potential first-rounder and that kind of took off from there. I felt right at home today. It was almost a sense of being with the home crowd just because you hear the Canadian national anthem and you know a lot of Canadians in the stands. Pretty special.”

Pretty different than the last time, too.


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