By: Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
The shrine known as Howard Talbot park in Leaside has produced the likes of Canadian Baseball Hall of Famers reliever Ron Taylor, scout Ron Roncetti, builder Carmen Bush and hundreds of others.
Some grew up to be ball players (Alfie Payne, Robbie Stevens, Joe Irvine, Buck Reed, Bob ‘Flakey’ Johnstone), hockey players (Cal, Dave and Paul Gardner, Pete Mahovlich, Jack and Terry Caffery, Mike McEwen, Rick Foley), a boxing champ (Sean O’Sullivan), an actor (Sean McCann) and successful businessmen.
And now, from Talbot Park comes another great baseball mind: Jim Stevenson.
All Stevenson, 52, did was scout and sign Houston Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel, this year’s American League Cy Young award winner in the seventh round of the 2009 draft from the University of Arkansas.
And if that isn’t impressive enough, Stevenson drafted Jake Arrieta in the 26th round from Weatherford College in 2005. At the time he was scouting for the Milwaukee Brewers. Arrieta didn’t sign, transferred to Texas Christian and won the National League Cy Young with the Chicago Cubs.
Drafting one Cy Young winner is enough to earn Stevenson the Jim Ridley award from the Canadian Baseball Network as Canadian scout of the year. He beats out Bill Byckowski of the Cincinnati Reds who drafted four Canadians in June and Steve Payne of the Florida Marlins, who selected Mississauga’s Josh Naylor 12th overall in North America.
Stevenson was born into an athletic family. His father, Bill Stevenson quarterbacked the University of Toronto Blues and spent three seasons with the Calgary Stampeders. His sister Jennifer went to University of Texas El Paso and ran track.
A left-hander, Stevenson pitched at the Shrine known as Talbot Park and according to Leaside Legend Howie Birnie as a bantam went Hall of Famer Ted Williams’ camp in New England and returned “a much improved player.”
After high school Stevenson headed to Santa Monica College, transferred to Westark Community College in Fort Smith, Ark. and moved to Ole Miss University where he injured his arm.
Returning home he went to Montreal playing right wing for the Concordia University Stingers during the school year and coaching ball at Talbot in the summer -- at first helping Birnie. Stevenson coached juvenile and junior, including the likes of Brad Cormier, Ryan Davey, Colin Cummins and Greg Walters.
“I realized he had an eye for talent when he switched outfielders and infielders to different positions making the team better than when I coached,” said Birnie.
A perfect storm was developing as Stevenson was hired as an assistant with the Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Golden Norse. In 1991 the Team Canada won gold at the World Juniors in Brandon, Man. Players on that team needed a place to play.
Stevenson recruited gold medalists Jason Dickson, Todd Betts, Todd Schell and Daniel Brabant, along with Mike Steed.
The next year Stevenson began scouting for the Cleveland Indians on a part-time basis and soon became full-time and moving to Tulsa.
After switching to the Brewers (2001-07) he drafted lefty Dana Eveland in the 16th round in 2002. Eveland made nine starts for the 2010 Blue Jays. And in 2004, Stevenson signed second rounder Yovani Gallardo.
Joining the Astros in 2008, Stevenson had seen Keuchel in the spring of 2009 pitching for Bishop Kelley High School Comets when he “got a little bit of interest.”
“He was 84-86 mph, but you could project,” Stevenson said as Keuchel headed off to the Arkansas Razorbacks in Fayetteville, Ark.
“As a freshman he OK, as a sophomore he was OK, as a junior he flew under the radar,” Stevenson said. “He was a Friday night starter in the SEC. Friday night guys were all in their mid-90s. He was 86-90. Yet, when you look up and he had rolled 13-14 grounders and didn’t walk anyone.
“He reminded me of a guy like Tom Glavine with plus command and control as well as a disappearing fastball. He had three average pitches, with plus pitchabalility, plus command and plus control.”
Other comparisons for the lefty were Mark Buehrle and Kenny Rogers, according to the scout. Stevenson said he hopes Keuchel has a similar like career to Glavine or Buehrle.
While the scouting committee and as a result the prospect world has shifted toward velocity -- more, more, MORE mph! -- there is still something to be said for getting outs.
“Guys would sit behind the screen at Arkansas holding radar guns,” Stevenson said. “I’d put the gun down -- he’s a crafty lefty. Hitters told me if he could pitch.
“I sat behind the net at Arkansas and his ball would disappear. He wasn’t sexy, he wanted to get back in the dugout in 8-to-10 pitches.”
Keuchel impressed as a Razorback in 6-3, 5.88 in 2007 as a freshman, then 4-3, 4.58 and in his draft year 2009 he was 9-3, 3.92.
The lefty who “could put the ball in a cup” according to Stevenson walked 32 and struck out 69 in 108 innings at Arkansas his draft year.
A scout’s job is to write up a player, project his future (the scout wrote up Keuchel as a No. 3 starter), pester and pray the scouting director takes “his guy.”
Cross checker Ralph Bratton had seen the lefty pitch, but scouting director Bobby Heck had not.
“After the third round I’m on the phone to Houston saying ‘take this guy, take this guy, take this guy,’” Stevenson recalled.
Finally in the seventh round, Heck selected Keuchel. It was the best pick of the round. Only Khris Davis (Milwaukee Brewers), Miles Mikolas (San Diego Padres) and Ian Krol (Oakland A’s) made the majors. The Jays selected lefty Egan Smith, who peaked at class-A Dunedin.
Heck phoned Stevenson raving after seeing one of his first starts with Tri-City ValleyCats in the class-A New York-Pann League about the selection.
Stevenson credited the Astros pitching coaches Brent Strom and Doug Brocail, along with catcher Jason Castro for helping with Keuchel’s development.
“Dallas’s preparation is off the charts, he’s an athletic, strike thrower, a bright guy with good control,” said Stevenson, ranked 35th on last year’s top 101 most influential Canadians in baseball. “He’s the same now as his draft year, except now he has a tick more velocity (89-91 mph).”
Now, what if the Brewers had signed Arrieta too?
“That would have been crazy,” said Stevenson, who is about to get ready to scout for the 2016 draft.
He will cover Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri ... looking for another Cy Young award winner.
CANADIAN BASEBALL NETWORK
SCOUT OF THE YEAR
RE-NAMED JIM RIDLEY AWARD IN 2006
YEAR WINNER HOMETOWN TEAM
1994 Bill Scherrer, Buffalo, NY, Marlins
1995 Bill MacKenzie, Ottawa, Ont., Rockies
1996 Tim Harkness, Hampton, Ont., Padres
1997 Ed Heather, Cambridge, Ont., Blue Jays
1998 Wayne Norton, Port Moody, B.C., Orioles
1999 Walt Jefferies, Paris, Ont., Blue Jays
2000 Claude Pelletier, Ste-Lezare, Que., Mets
2001 Jim Kane Brampton, Ont., Braves
2002 Ken Lenihan Bedford, N.S. MLB Scouting Bureau
2003 Dick (The Legend) Groch, St. Clair, Mich. Brewers
2004 Jim Ridley Burlington, Burlington, Ont. Twins
2005 Walt Burrows Brentwood Bay, B.C. MLB Scouting Bureau
2006 Alex Agostino Montreal, Que., Phillies
2007 Howie Norsetter Sydney, Australia, Twins
2008 Greg Hamilton Ottawa, Ont., Baseball Canada
2009 Jim Ridley Burlington, Twins
2010 Jay Lapp London, Ont., Brewers
2011 Doug Mathieson, Langley, B.C. Twins
2012 Andrew Tinnish, Burlington, Ont. Blue Jays
2013 Murray Zuk, Souris, Man., Padres
2014 Wayne Norton, Port Moody, BC, Mariners
2015 Jim Stevenson, Tulsa, Oak. Astros