By Bob Elliott
CARY, N.C. _ You’ve seen Jeff Francis, Shawn Hill and Scott Richmond either at the Rogers Centre or on TV.
Same for Andrew Albers, Phillippe Aumont, Chris Leroux, Pete Orr and Chris Robinson, all members of Team Canada’s Pan Am entry which begins defence of its 2011 gold medal at the President’s Choice Park in Ajax Saturday night.
Of the young guns, who are you most likely to see on MLB Network down the road?
The highest-ranked prospect is No. 13 in your program is Tyler O’Neill of Maple Ridge, B.C., who is No. 10 on the Seattle Mariners prospect list, according to Jim Callis of MLB Pipeline.
Pan Am teams are composed of minor leaguers not on 40-man rosters.
Don’t be surprised when you see do see O’Neill either this week in live action or on TV ... you get the impression that you’ve seen him before.
Coach Stubby Clapp was asked during batting practice who O’Neill reminded him of and a few swings later returned with two words: “Brett Lawrie.”
The left fielder walks like Lawrie (butt out), has similar mannerisms in the batter’s box, is a grad of Doug Mathieson’s successful Langley Blaze progam and their fathers have similar non-baseball background (body building for O’Neill, rugby for Lawrie).
“A lot of those comparisons to Brett were made pre-draft,” O’Neill said before Canada thumped the Team USA collegians Tuesday afternoon in Americas Baseball Festival at the National Training Center’s Coleman Field.
“I’m my own player, but,” O’Neill says, “there are ways where I could see people still making the comparison. I run like him, I walk like him.”
O’Neill met Lawrie once -- at the Baseball Canada banquet in 2014 in Toronto.
Despite only turning 20 last month, O’Neill was third in the class-A California League home run race with 16 when he flew to North Carolina. He was five homers behind A.J. Reed, a New York Mets farmhand and one behind Kevin Cron an Arizona Diamondbacks prospect.
His 16 homers are the most in the organization. Gareth Morgan, top high schooler selected last year and No. 11 in the M’s system, is hitting .222 with six doubles, zero homers and six RBIs.
The distances at Sam Lynn Ballpark in Bakersfield are 330 down the left-field line and 360 to centre. It’s not a hitter’s park like Las Vegas or Colorado Springs, instead playing “true,” according to scouts.
“Some nights it feels like there is a force field knocking balls down,” said O’Neill, who guesses roughly half his homers have come at home.
O’Neill has 10 doubles, a triple, 45 RBIs, a .275 average and a .747 OPS this season.
Last year ago he had 13 homers in only 61 games as his season was interrupted when he lost a one-punch bout with a dugout wall after a strikeout, breaking his right hand. Concrete walls remain undefeated lifetime against a ball player’s bare knuckles.
“Everyone has been angry enough that they wanted to smash something once in their life,” O’Neill said. “It was a learning experience.”
Lawrie did hit 31 homers his first two seasons at class-A Wisconsin and double-A Huntsville.
This is only O’Neill’s second trip with Team Canada. After being drafted in 2013, he played for coach Greg Hamilton in Taiwan when Canada failed to advance to round-robin play, finishing seventh. He was scheduled to play in grade 11 but was injured (hernia).
“Playing for Team Canada is always fun, it’s like a brotherhood, guys are worried about things on an individual basis like they are in the minors,” said O’Neill, of Maple Ridge, B.C. which is also the home of Canada’s greatest hitter, Larry Walker, standing 50 feet away leaning against the batting cage.
“Everyone where I lived wanted to grow up to be like Larry Walker and now it’s nice to finally meet him,” said O’Neill, who played on Larry Walker Field in Maple Ridge.
In 1995, the year O’Neill was born, Walker had 31 doubles, 36 homers and 101 RBIs for the Colorado Rockies.
Against the college freshmen and sophomores, O’Neill was 0-for-3 with a walk, a stolen base and a run scored.
The under 25 crowd includes, Shane Dawson, 21, who has nine wins at class-A Lansing, Kellin Deglan, 23, class-A High Desert, Brock Dykxhoorn, 21, class-A Quad Cities, Jesse Hodges, 21, class-A South Bend, Jasvir Rakkar, 24, class-A Myrtle Beach and Evan Rutckyj, 23, a Florida State all-star at class-A Tampa.
O’Neill, or Mini Brett as someone called him in the dugout on the back field Tuesday, has the highest ceiling.