TORONTO – Impressive Calgary right-hander Mike Soroka nearly got to the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2015 draft, and former general manager Alex Anthopoulos won’t say whether or not they would have taken him at No. 29 over Jon Harris had he been available.
What he will reveal is that the Atlanta Braves, owners of the 28th pick, “were concerned with the Jays selecting him because we were right behind and the Canadian component there,” said Anthopoulos. “The good news when you’re here is he goes ahead of you, so you don’t feel as bad (about missing out), but I looked at a lot of old scouting reports, the Braves did an outstanding job.”
The precocious 20-year-old is certainly making the Braves look good for picking him, surging through their farm system to debut May 1 against the New York Mets at Citi Field, where he allowed a run on six hits over six innings in a 3-2 win. Soroka made two more starts before a shoulder strain sent him to the disabled list, and he returned last week with 6.1 innings of one-hit ball versus the Mets, again performing well beyond his years.
His first outing as a pro at Rogers Centre – he pitched at the dome in the T12 showcase tournament and with the national junior team – didn’t go nearly as smoothly. Soroka was forced to navigate through traffic in each of the first four innings before getting into a jam he couldn’t escape in the fifth, leaving with two-on and two-out.
In all he allowed four runs on eight hits and two walks with two strikeouts over 4.2 innings. But with the Braves knocking around Jaime Garcia for five runs in three-plus innings of work before tacking on three more against reliever Danny Barnes, his team still cruised to an 11-4 victory over the Blue Jays.
With lots of family and friends – including 2018 first-rounder Noah Naylor – at the dome, it was still a special night for Soroka.
“Coming here, you’re crossing the border, you’re seeing Tim Hortons again, you’re seeing all types of friends you grew up with,” he said, adding later: “It was everything I’d imagined, for sure, coming out there and seeing a lot of Canadians, a lot of Canadian flags, hearing the anthem was pretty special, too. Definitely felt the energy early, felt that coming into the stadium, a lot of people I recognized, it feels more like home, so that’s pretty cool.”
Johan Camargo’s grand slam in the second inning opened the scoring while Charlie Culberson, who made a brilliant leaping catch into the scoreboard to rob Kevin Pillar in the first, went deep in the fourth off Garcia, who didn’t survive four innings for the fourth time this year.
An Ender Inciarte two-run double and run-scoring single from Camargo in the fifth off Barnes opened up an 8-2 edge and essentially ensured an end to the Blue Jays’ three-game win streak.
“I thought it was a home run off the bat, actually,” Soroka said of the ball Pillar hit that Culberson caught. “I took it and knew it was going to be close and then I saw Charlie just given’ ‘er and he came down with it on the track, went into the wall. I mean, that’s one of the first, ‘Holy Cow’ plays I saw. I couldn’t believe that. Definitely owe him dinner.”
Soroka is one of seven players selected in the first round of the 2015 draft to reach MLB and none of the 14 players chosen after him, Harris included, have reached the majors yet.
Harris, a right-hander selected out of Missouri State, has a 5.09 ERA and 1.377 WHIP in 13 starts with the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats this season.
In the leadup to the draft, Soroka said “a lot of those spots (around where the Braves and Blue Jays picked) were in contention. I don’t know what happened in the draft room. I haven’t even asked (Anthopoulos) about it. Talking to him about that draft year and how things have progressed, that’s pretty cool, too. I’m very thankful that the Braves chose me because they’ve been a really good home.”
Soroka was actually the second Canadian selected in the first round that year – the Miami Marlins chose Mississauga slugger Josh Naylor at No. 12 – but the ingredients were there for a quick rise.
Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director national teams and head of the junior team program Soroka was a part of, said of the right-hander at the time: “If you did a list of all the high-school pitchers to come out of Canada, you can put him there, he’s up there with anybody. He’s got three-pitch command, really knows how to pitch, got real good sink on his fastball, great composure, tremendous command. And to me, the intangibles are outstanding, composure, the ability to make pitches and win without his best stuff, he doesn’t panic – the sorts of things you try to teach young players he has a very good grasp of.”
Entering pro ball as a 17-year-old, Soroka performed well at every level, although his trajectory really picked up steam with double-A Mississippi last year, where he had a 2.75 ERA in 153.2 innings over 26 starts with a WHIP of 1.087 and 7.3 strikeouts per nine. He also pitched in the Futures Game showcase during all-star festivities in Miami, where his progress really sank in.
“That was kind of the start of realizing that this is reality and after that it was alright, you’ve been in a stadium with 30,000 people, you can do it, you’ve just proved to yourself that you can run with that,” he said. “Coming out this spring and realizing this was a possibility was pretty huge and obviously being with a bunch of guys who are in the same boat as me was really beneficial as well.”
All those elements played into the Braves’ decision to promote him for that memorable May 1 debut.
“We needed a starter against the Mets, they were in first place at the time, it was on the road, he didn’t have much time at that level, he looked good in spring training,” Anthopoulos said of the considerations at the time. “We didn’t care about his age, we didn’t care about the number of starts, he was clearly our best chance to win the game, forget about the service time, or Super Two, free agency or any of those types of things. We were a competitive team, a good team and you have to weigh the short term and the long term. He had a chance to help us.
“Could he have been by having another 10 starts at (triple-A) Gwinnett? Sure. But we didn’t think he was going to be harmed to be up here.”
So far, so good for the young Canadian, who maybe would have been chosen by the Blue Jays if the Braves had given them the chance.