Five Canadians to watch this Spring

Although the official start of spring is not until late March, for baseball fans it has already begun. There will be many interesting storylines this Spring, watching top prospects emerge, forgotten veterans reinventing themselves, and of course where and when the top remaining free agents will sign.

For Canadian baseball fans, there will be a number of prospects trying to earn a job this year in the Cactus and Grapefruit League. Some of them will be trying to emerge from a pack of prospects, on rebuilding club and others will be trying to beat out a veteran for the final spot on a playoff-bound roster. Here are five Canadians to keep an eye on this Spring.

1. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Montreal, QC): The entire baseball world with be watching this soon to be 20-year-old superstar. The son of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero will look to start making his own legacy with this season, with the Blue Jays. He currently stands as the first overall prospect in Major League Baseball and will be attending his first Big League Spring Training this year.

Despite hitting an unearthly .381/.437/.636 in 2018, Guerrero did not receive a September call up. Due to baseball’s service time rules, the Blue Jays will almost certainly not bring Guerrero north with them at the end of Spring Training.

Toronto’s General Manager Ross Atkins was already speaking about Guerro’s MLB debut before the first Spring Training games had even commenced.

“There’s no firm timeline on when he arrives and when he’s playing in Toronto for the first time,” Atkins told reporters in Dunedin. “We want to make sure he’s the best possible third baseman, the best possible hitter he can be and this is going to be a fun and exciting time for him and for the organization.”

Atkins did acknowledge the League’s service time rules and seemed to suggest that returning Guerrero Jr. to the minors may be helpful to him as a player.

“Everyone is aware of timelines and the rules of the game,” he said. “We’re just going to focus on putting the best team together and how we help Vladdy become a better player and that’s not different for any player.”

Regardless of what happens to him this Spring, Guerrero will surely be the most interesting plot line for Canadian baseball fans. He is arguably the greatest Blue Jays prospect of all time and definitely the best Canadian-born prospect of all time.

Canada, Blue Jays nation, and pretty much all of baseball will be watching the Montreal-born superstar this Spring.

2. Mike Soroka (Calgary, AB): The 21-year old righty rocketed his way through the minors, making his Braves debut in 2018.

After going 2-1, with a 1.76 ERA, and 34 strikeouts in 30.2 innings pitched, the 2016 first-round pick was promoted to Atlanta in May. Soroka was impressive in five starts going 2-1, with a 3.51 ERA, and 21 strikeouts in 25.2 IP, before being shut down for the season with right shoulder inflammation.

This Spring, if healthy, Soroka will be in competition for Atlanta’s final rotation slot. He will compete with other top prospects Touki Toussiant and Kyle Wright, along with Max Fried, for a big league starter job.

But recent news has emerged that the young Calgarian is again having shoulder pain and that he will be eased into Spring Training action. The belief is he should be ready for Opening Day, whether with the Braves or in the minors.

3. Tyler O’Neill (Maple Ridge, BC): In his rookie-campaign, O’Neill proved that he could hit home runs at the Big League level but struggled with consistency. Although he started strong he ended up batting .254, with a .303 OBP in 130 at-bats.

Much like Soroka, O’Neill may not have a Big League job to return to in 2019. When the Cardinals acquired Paul Goldschmidt, Jose Martinez was shifted to an already crowded outfield.

Barring injury, O’Neill seems unlikely to steal a spot from Martinez, Marcell Ozuna, Dexter Fowler, or Harrison Bader. But if he can continue to hit MLB pitching, while demonstrating better plate discipline, he could push his way back to St. Louis in 2019.

4. Brett Lawrie (Langley, BC): It should be noted that Lawrie did not receive an invite to MLB Spring Training with the Milwaukee Brewers. But the former first-round pick’s return to baseball is an exciting storyline for Canadian baseball fans.

Despite missing the last two seasons due to injury, Lawrie is still only 29-years old. The Brewers clearly see potential in the former Blue Jay as they have added a club option for 2020 (unusual for a minor league deal).

Whether he can return to the Majors is unclear, but Lawrie’s MLB comeback attempt is one of the more interesting Canadian baseball stories this spring.

5. Josh Naylor (Mississauga, ON): The big lefty holds the distinction as the highest-drafted Canadian position player (taken 12th overall in 2015). Naylor is currently ranked 99th overall by Baseball America and is one of the top position players in San Diego’s top-ranked farm system.

He will enter the 2019 season on the brink of an MLB debut after putting up stellar numbers in Double-A batting .297/.383/.447 with 17 home runs in 2018.

When the Padres signed first baseman Eric Hosmer last offseason it appeared that Naylor’s MLB path was blocked. But the Mississauga-native played 89 games in the outfield for the San Antonio Missions last year and could project as a left fielder with the Padres. With a strong spring, Naylor could work his way into San Diego’s crowded outfield.

There will be over a dozen Canadian non-roster invitees this Spring vying for Opening Day jobs. This group includes seasoned veterans (John Axford and Michael Saunders), top prospects (Guerrero, Naylor, and Cal Quantrill), and career minor leaguers (Kellin Deglan and Evan Grills). These players and other Canucks on MLB 40-man rosters will make up some of the most compelling stories this Spring.

Top Photo: (NATHAN DENETTE / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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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.

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