If Josh Naylor played basketball or hockey there is a very good chance he’d be a household name for Canadian sports fans already.
Later this month Connor McDavid will be the first player taken in the NHL draft, a conclusion that’s been foregone so long the kid from Markham, Ont., is already one of the most famous hockey players in the world, earning endorsements and having documentary crews follow him — his every step counting down to his professional debut is fodder for a fascinated audience.
A year ago Andrew Wiggins received similar treatment as the favourite to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. The high flyer from Thornhill, Ont., was a growing celebrity at least two years before he burst into stardom, first at the University of Kansas and then during his rookie year in the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Naylor may not have their wattage, but he may be on their level when it comes to Canadian athletic prodigies.
The strapping Mississauga high school student took a big step on Monday night when the Miami Marlins made him the No. 12 overall selection of the MLB amateur draft. No Canadian position player has ever been taken higher. He surpassed the high-water mark set by former Toronto Blue Jay Brett Lawrie, who was chosen 16th overall in 2008.
On Monday the Marlins and their star, Giancarlo Stanton, were in Toronto playing the Blue Jays. If everything works out the way it’s supposed to it won’t be long until Naylor is beside him in the batting order.
“Being in a lineup with him would be an unbelievable honour,” said Naylor on a conference call. “To be with an all-star on and off the field and just learn what he does every day.”
Naylor wasn’t projected to go as high as he did. Being taken 12th overall could earn him a $3-million signing bonus.
“[I’m] really, really surprised,” he said. “It’s an honour and I’m very humbled.”
He’s a unique talent. He throws left and bats left, and at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds he projects as a first baseman with elite power. His favourite player is Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz but Baseball Canada general manager and director of national teams Greg Hamilton sees Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera when Naylor ropes the ball to the opposite field with power.
“There’s some Prince Fielder in this guy, there really is,” said Miami director of scouting Stan Meek on Periscope. “He’s got that kind of bat speed and that kind of raw power.”
Naylor, who doesn’t turn 18 until later this month, is at the forefront of an impressive wave of elite Canadian baseball talent.
The Atlanta Braves took Mike Soroka from Calgary, a 6-foot-4 right-hander who touches 94 mph on the radar gun but who gets equally high marks for his command on the mound, with the 28th overall pick.
Demi Orimoloye of Orleans, Ont., an outfielder who is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and considered one of the most athletic prospects in the draft, was also a first-round possibility.
To have three high school players with such high ceilings is virtually unprecedented. It’s been five years since a Canadian was taken in the first round. Hamilton considers this the most talented class since pitchers Adam Loewen and Jeff Francis were taken fourth and ninth overall in 2002.
“I don’t think the game has ever been healthier or more productive from an elite development perspective,” says Hamilton. “The Canadian player is no longer a mystery in terms of exposure. They’re well seen and correspondingly well compared. … They’ve competed against the best players eligible for the draft and the reference points are there.”
The nature of baseball and the MLB draft means that there is less hype around Naylor and his peers — outside of baseball circles at least.
In the NHL and NBA the high first-round picks predictably end up on the rosters of the teams that pick them the following season and can often emerge as stars immediately. Apprenticeships are brief.
Baseball, on the other hand, is a long-winding road, even for the best of the best.
It took Brett Lawrie three years to make the major leagues and Langley, B.C.’s Kellin Deglan has never advance beyond A-ball since the Texas Rangers took him 22nd overall in 2010. It’s a sport where Blue Jays like Mark Buehrle can become one of the best pitchers of his generation after being chosen in the 38th round and Justin Smoak can struggle to make his mark after being taken 11th overall.
Naylor could be the exception to the rule and if he is it will have a lot to do with what could almost be termed the “Canadian advantage.”
As a member of the national team program he’s played in two world championships and two world championship qualifying tournaments. He’s played in Taiwan, Mexico and Korea all before finishing high school. He’s been exposed to coaches with major league experience and played against the best players his age anywhere.
“He’s pretty seasoned, if you can say that about a high school kid,” says Hamilton. “I don’t think pro ball will be overwhelming to him.”
The junior national team makes four two-week tours a year to play entry-level pros, meaning that Naylor already has 120 or more professional games under his belt. His club team, the powerhouse Ontario Blue Jays, plays a U.S.-heavy summer schedule. When the junior national team played 11 games against Dominican summer league teams he hit five home runs on the trip – echoing Lawrie who hit eight against similar competition when he was coming up.
“He is young, but he really is past his years when it comes to experience,” Meek said. “He’s a guy that we would hope would move a little quicker than the average high school guy.
“His kind of power is really power that’s unaffected by the size of [Marlins Park]. That’s the kind of guy that you need”
Canadians normally are eager to celebrate their own. Naylor should be getting his due soon enough.
Wiggins and McDavid may get the spotlight sooner, but Naylor has the tools to get some of their shine in good time. Like them, Naylor has attributes that simply can’t be taught, and has worked to make himself world class.
“Naylor is the best high school hitter in the world, not just in Canada,” says Hamilton. “He’s got plus, plus power and an exceptional ability to get to that power. There is very little swing-and-miss. He can recognize the breaking ball. He can drive the ball the other way, he can drive the ball out of the park to left centre as a left-handed hitter and he can turn and hit it 500 feet to right. He’s not a one-dimensional hitter.
“You can’t predict the future, but he’s one of those rare kids that it shouldn’t take very long. He’s just a different bat.”