The Current Canadian Baseball Renaissance

Atlanta Braves starter Mike Soroka turned heads on Wednesday, after taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning. It was the Calgary native’s fourth career start and his first since returning from the 10-day DL with a right shoulder strain.

The 20-year old entered the season as the 26th ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline and is one of four Canadian-born players on the top-100 list.

Soroka is the latest in a line of Canadian players that are emerging at the MLB level. And with a great deal of talent in the minors, Canada could be in the midst of a baseball renaissance?

THE LAST CANADIAN SURGE

Between 2005 and 2010 Canada regularly produced all-stars, along with Cy Young and MVP candidates.

On the offensive side, Justin Morneau, Jason Bay, Russell Martin, Joey Votto, and Matt Stairs all had success during this span. Morneau (2007) and Votto (2010) each were MVP Award winners. During this era, these five players combined for 10 all-star appearances, four Silver Sluggers, and one Gold Glove. And all of them played for Canada at the World Baseball Classic in 2009.

One of Team Canada’s biggest problems at past World Baseball Classics has been recruiting top-tier MLB pitchers. Ryan Dempster, Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis, and Rich Harden all missed one or both WBCs during this era. And it was 2010 John Axford emerged as an elite closer for the Brewers.

Since 2010, the pool of Canadian talent has steadily declined, with Martin and Votto being the only consistent regulars during that span. But as the sun begins to set on these once-elite Canadians, there now appears to be a new crop of talent emerging.

YOUNG CANADIAN TALENT

There are currently eight Canadians in the MLB, including two American-born, dual citizens. Five of the eight are under 30 and are leading the revival of Canadian baseball.

Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves – The Braves first baseman is having a career year at 28 and currently leads the National League in all-star votes. Although Freeman was born and raised in the US, he played for Canada at last year’s WBC, as a tribute to his late Canadian mother.

“I’ve heard it all, this and that. That I’m a fake Canadian. I get that, believe me. But I am not fake when it comes to this,” Freeman said prior to the 2017 tournament. “Anything you can do when it comes to honouring family, in my opinion, is the greatest thing you can do. This is all about honouring my mother…”

Freeman is currently batting .342, with a .433 OBP, 14 home runs, and 48 RBI in 2018. The big lefty will be 31 when the next World Baseball Classic rolls around. If Canada can qualify, he would likely be at the core of the team’s offense.

James Paxton, Seattle Mariners – The oft-injured former Blue Jays first-round pick has emerged as the Mariners ace in 2018, leading the rotation with a 6-1, 3.02 ERA, and 111 strikeouts in 89.1 innings this season.

The man affectionately known as ‘Big Maple’ by Mariners fans has not pitched for Canada at the WBC. But Paxton did make headlines earlier this year after throwing a no-hitter against the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. He will be 32 when the next tournament rolls around and would seem to be the team’s ace.

Jameson Taillon, Pittsburgh Pirates – The other American on this list, the Floridian pitched for Canada in 2013 and has emerged as regular in Pittsburgh’s rotation.

“My parents made sure we knew when we were young that we’re dual citizens,” he said prior to the 2013 tournament. “They always said it will pay off in the future and they made sure we got cultured both ways, so I think this is a pretty cool opportunity for me.”   

Taillon did not pitch in last year’s WBC but could join a stellar rotation for Canada in 2021. The 26-year old is 4-5 with a 3.94 ERA in 14 games in 2018.

Nick Pivetta, Philadelphia Phillies – In his rookie campaign in 2017, Pivetta showed flashes of brilliance, including 140 strikeouts in 133 innings. The 25-year old started one game for Canada at the WBC, a 4-1 loss to Colombia.

Mike Soroka, Atlanta Braves – The Braves 2015 first-round pick may be the most inexperienced on this list, but he may have the highest ceiling. Atlanta has not shied away from calling up top prospects at an early age, and at 20, Soroka is no exception.

Paxton, Taillon, Pivetta, and Soroka could give Canada a dynamic rotation in 2021. 

THE FUTURE SURGE

Canada had an unprecedented four players at the 2017 All-Star Futures Game (Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cal Quantrill, Josh Naylor, and Soroka). These prospects, along with a top-100 prospect in Tyler O’Neill will have a huge impact on the future of Canadian baseball.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays – Canada’s top-prospect may need an asterisk beside his name, as some may consider him to be a “fake Canadian.” But the 19-year old slugger was born in Montreal and has Canadian citizenship, despite spending most of his life in the Dominican Republic.

Whether he would be willing to play for the red and white, has yet to be determined, but Canadians will certainly embrace him as one of their own if he continues to hit.

In his first season in Double-A, Guerrero Jr. has demolished opposing pitching. Before hitting the DL on June seventh with a strained patellar tendon in his left knee, he has hit .407, with a .457 OBP, 11 home runs, and 55 RBI for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

Cal Quantrill, San Diego Padres – The son of longtime Blue Jay Paul Quantrill, was one of the highest drafted Canadians, taken eighth overall by the Padres in 2016. The former Stanford starter is ranked 34th on MLB Pipeline and is 6-3 with a 3.94 ERA in his first full season with Double-A San Antonio.

Josh Naylor, San Diego Padres – The Mississauga native became the highest drafted position player in 2015, taken by the Miami Marlins 12th overall. The 20-year old is slugging his way into the Padres MLB picture but is blocked by Eric Hosmer at first. The San Antonio Missions have begun experimenting with Naylor in the outfield.

Head Coach and Director of Baseball Canada Greg Hamilton, praised the former Team Canada star.

“When Sidney Crosby comes along in hockey you figure it out pretty quick and when Andrew Wiggins comes along in basketball you figure it out pretty quick,” Hamilton said. “I’m not going to say (Naylor is) Sidney Crosby or Andrew Wiggins, but in a relative sense as a baseball player, his talent equates to that separation amongst his peers.”

Looking to 2021, if Canada could use Naylor in the outfield, they could use 31-year old Freeman and 37-year Votto as a first base/DH combo.

Tyler O’Neill, St. Louis Cardinals – After coming over from the Mariners last summer, O’Neill has excelled at Triple-A Memphis, even earning two call-ups to St. Louis.

The Maple Ridge native had a huge Victoria Day long weekend for the Cardinals, going seven for 12, with three home runs, and six RBI, before being returned to Memphis.

The 22-year old has represented Canada on numerous occasions, including the 2015 Pan Am Games and the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

LOOK OUT 

Since 2010, Canada has seen star players like Morneau, Bay, Stairs, and Dempster retire, while once elite players like Martin and Axford have declined with age. Votto has remained the only real consistent in Canadian baseball. But with the emergence of younger MLB players like Paxton, Freeman, and Soroka, Canada seems to be reestablishing itself as a baseball nation. And with a string of top-notch prospects coming behind them, a Canadian baseball renaissance seems to be underway.

(Top Photo: The Canadian Press via AP)

Advertisements

A graduate of Centennial's Sport Journalism program. Grew up a Montreal Expos fan but now focus on my hometown Blue Jays. Have been blogging about the Jays and Canadian Baseball since 2015.