Top Cdn prospect Morgan draws heady praise

Gareth Morgan (CP)

TORONTO – To put the type of potential Gareth Morgan possesses into some context, the last Canadian draft prospect with the type of raw power he possesses was Justin Morneau, while the last Canuck with a similar level of athleticism was Michael Saunders.

And the last up-and-comer from north of the border to feature those skill-sets in the same package?

Well, there really hasn’t been one.

“You can see him being like Matt Kemp or Jason Heyward, a really good defender, with a right-field type arm, raw batting practice power,” says one scout familiar with Morgan. “He can take batting practice with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion and maybe hit it further than them.”

Heady praise for the 18-year-old from Toronto, who is expected to be the first Canadian selected in next week’s baseball draft, likely within the first 100 picks, and perhaps, some speculate, as early as the first round.

How that plays out is uncertain – Morgan has a baseball scholarship to North Carolina State in his back pocket that might impact things – but at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, he’s the kind of physical specimen scouts love to dream on.

As a member of the junior national team since the age of 14, he’s received plenty of exposure, both to players more mature and experienced than he is, and to big-league talent evaluators who will help settle his fate next week.

“I used to be kind of nervous when I’d see people watching, but Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] told me to just play baseball, and the rest will take care of itself,” Morgan tells Sportsnet. “So you try not to think about who’s watching you, just play the game you love to play.

“It gives me confidence that I’m good enough to be watched. At the same time it’s a little nerve-wracking that there’s a bunch of important guys who can possibly change my life [looking on].”

Despite that, this has been a good spring for Morgan, with solid showings during the national junior team’s spring tour of Florida – which included a line drive up the middle off a Brandon Morrow fastball during an exhibition game against the Toronto Blue Jays – a tour of Arizona with the Langley Blaze, and the junior nats’ current tour of the Dominican Republic.

While some observers have wondered why Morgan doesn’t dominate in games more often the way his tools suggest he can, the scout familiar with him points out that since he was 14 he’s taken a significant portion of his at-bats against professional pitchers with wood bats.

Comparing him to an American high school hitter using aluminum bats against pitchers his own age, “isn’t a fair fight,” says the scout.

“Look at the competition he’s facing,” he adds. “That’s why.”

One of the things Morgan has learned to do over the past few years is to regard the rookie-ball pros he’s faced as opponents like any others, and not to build them up at his own expense.

“I just try to feel like they could be teammates or something like that in the near future, so I don’t really think they’re guys who can really play,” he explains. “They’re another baseball player and I have to be better than them to win the game.

“It’s motivation to be better than them, you know you have to bring your best to the field every day because they’re bringing their best to the field. It’s their job.”

That it may soon be his job, too, is “pretty exciting, but at the same time I’m kind of anxious,” he says. “I just want the draft to be over. It’s going to start a new chapter in my life and I can move on.”

To further help prepare him for what’s to come, Baseball Canada set up a five-day stay for Morgan at Larry Walker’s Florida home back in the spring. They went golfing, kayaking, biking and visited with the St. Louis Cardinals, one of Walker’s big-league teams, as part of an experience he described as “awesome.”

“I bonded with him, picked his brain a little bit about how he went through the minors, what it was like,” says Morgan. “He told me to relax, that the mental side was one of the biggest parts of the game, and to stay positive with everything no matter the outcome.”

Hamilton’s coaching has also been important for Morgan in that regard, and he’s been reading various books about the mental side of hitting, too. The practical applications of that on the field have led him to try and demonstrate a consistent swing and an ability to use all parts of the field.

He wants to be more than just a power guy.

“People have seen me hit home runs, I’m not really worried about hitting too many home runs, but getting base hits, playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” he explains. “I’ve grown to be very confident in my abilities. Over the years I’ve built up my reps, doing a lot of reps helps out with that, kind of playing with a presence and knowing you can compete with the guys that are on the field.

“Not being cocky but confident, knowing that you belong on the field and can be better than them.”

The tools are there and opportunity awaits, the with whom and where to be determined soon.

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