*Two Canucks are part of the impressive outfield at class-A Lansing (Blue Jays), from left to right): Markus Brisker (Winter Haven, Fla.), Jake Marisnick (Riverside, Calif.), Michael Crouse (Port Moody, BC) and Marcus Knecht (North York, Ont.)./Amy Armstrong photo.
By Bob Elliott
LANSING, MICH. - They are a foursome.
Three are 6-foot-4, the smallest is 6-foot-1.
Three are 20 years of age, the oldest is 21.
Two are in their first full season of pro ball, the other two their third.
Two are from high school hotbeds in California and Florida, two are Canadian.
Two were drafted in the third round, one in the sixth, one in the 16th.
All received six-figure signing bonuses to sign out of high school.
All four have a future. How much of one is the question?
“All run well, have good size, strong arms, all four can hit and they all have major-league bodies,” said one veteran evaluator, who saw the Lansing Lugnuts play five games last month. “Will they all play in the major leagues? I’m not 100% sure.
“I’ll tell you this. All have a real good chance. It may be one of the best groups of minor-league outfielders assembled on the same team since the Blue Jays had those four homegrown outfielders who all made it.”
Derek Bell, 19, Glenallen Hill, 23, Mark Whiten, 21 and Junior Felix, 23, spent part of the summer of 1988 playing for the Blue Jays affiliate, the double-A Knoxville Smokies and manager Barry Foote.
That original foursome combined to play 39 seasons and 3,897 games in the majors.
Now, rookie manager Mike Redmond, like Foote, an ex-major-league catcher, has Jake Marisnick from Riverside, Calif., North York’s Marcus Knecht, Michael Crouse of Port Moody, B.C., and Markus Brisker of Winter Haven, Fla., in his outfield. He has so many outfielders one usually occupies the DH spot.
And all four are pals.
“They’re always together,” said hitting coach John Tamargo Jr. “Never in my 15 years in the minors have I seen four guys on the same club as close when they’re in competition for the same jobs. All four are trying to get to Toronto, there are only three outfield spots.”
It’s real early. No one has established himself as being strike-out prone, prone to mental lapses, or prone on the outfield grass with a serious injury.
If it was football they’re on their own 30-yard line, driving for the game-winning touchdown, the wind is at their backs, the sun is shining and plenty of time remains on the clock.
A third-round pick in 2008, Brisker was signed by scout Joel Grampietro, who gave him a $125,000 bonus.
While he plays pro now he still works out with his Winter Haven high school team during the winter.
The most famous Jay from Brisker’s neck of the woods? Pat Borders.
All Borders ever did was drink Mountain Dew, chew Levi Garrett tobacco, block balls in the dirt and win the MVP in the 1992 World Series.
“He still drinks Mountain Dew,” laughed Brisker. Levi and Luke Borders play on the Winter Haven team.
Lansing coaches have clocked Brisker at 3.7 seconds, usually 3.8-3.9 seconds to first ... from the right side. Brisker did not play Wednesday, day four of a seven-day stint on the disabled list due to a hamstring injury.
He’s 61-for-79 stealing bases since turning pro.
An only child, Brisker says he comes from a large family “lots of aunts, lots of great aunts.”
Earlier this season they had a family reunion at a game with his mom Torshanda Howard, grandma Linda Howard and great grand parents Frank and Estella Johnson.
How dedicated is Knecht? He bought a home in Palm Harbour, Fla., near Dunedin, yet rented a place on Front Street for 21/2 months to go to the Rogers Centre and hit off a tee each day.
Knecht was a third-round choice in 2010 and given a $250,000 bonus by Don Cowan and Jamie Lehman after knocking down fences for the Connor State College Cowboys.
“The pitchers here throw more pitches for strikes (than at Auburn in 2010),” Knecht said. “I stay with my same approach and leg kick (about half of Jose Bautista’s).”
He has hit 39 doubles, five triples and 14 homers in 560 pro at-bats.
“He’s a hard-nose kid, a grinder,” said a scout this week. “He might be the best hitter.”
Father Mike and mother Gail, who used to read her son the bedtime story If I were a Toronto Blue Jay, have been to Dayton to see Lansing play and will visit on the next trip.
Dayton was the site of a Knecht bomb, his drive clearing the left field fence, 10 rows of seats, a walkway and hitting half-way up a scoreboard. He hit it off Kyle Lotzkar, of Tsawwassen. B.C.
Crouse, the son of former B. C. Lion and Green Bay Packer Ray Crouse, excelled at each sport he tried growing up in Port Moody, B.C.
A shooting guard in hoops; running the 100m, the 200m and the 400m and competing in the long jump and high jump in track and field; along with volleyball and baseball.
“One by one I eliminated sports until there was only baseball,” Crouse said.
He played in the B.C. Premier League for legendary coach John Haar, a Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, with the North Shore Twins. Jays scouts Don Cowan and Kevin Briand gave the 16th round pick a $150,000 US signing bonus in 2008.
“I played with Marcus (Knecht) with Team Canada, for Greg Hamilton, who taught us both a lot,” Crouse said. “Those hot days in the Dominican Republic, we learned we had to work hard every day.
“I met Markus (Brisker) when I was drafted and Jake last year.”
Crouse said the foursome goes to movies together, the last one being Transformers 3.
“He’s a long strider,” said one scout, “not quick out of the box, but once he gets rolling, he’s fast.”
Said another: “He may have the highest ceiling, he can hit some no doubters.”
The Best All-Round
Marisnick signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Oregon Ducks before Rick Ingalls and Tony LaCava of the Jays gave him a $1 million signing bonus in 2009. This was the draft they failed to sign both James Paxton and Jake Eliopoulos, so the budget had extra dough.
The Riverside Bears outfielder had one of his better games with LaCava in the seats when he went 3-for-4 with a triple, homer and a stolen base against Corunna’s Santiago Sharks.
He had leverage: A 3.8 grade point average and ability on the football field as a free safety and wide receiver. Stanford offered an academic scholarship for football. “They didn’t want me to play baseball,” he said.
His mom Jennifer and father Ray knew all about fair market value. Jennifer works in marketing for agent Larry Reynolds.
“The thing about him is, he’s smooth,” said one scout. “At the plate, on the bases or in the field.”
Marisnick recalls on draft day 2009, when things calmed down going to a map and looking to see where Toronto was.
And last September he stood along the third base line as the R. Howard Webster award winner from the rookie-class Gulf Coast League Jays where he hit .287 with 12 doubles, three homers and 14 RBIs. As a point of reference Chipper Jones hit .229 in the same league in 1990.
“I loved the city,” he said in an I-can’t-wait-to-get-there tone.
He had hit eight homers going including a drive which sailed way over the 380-foot sign in the gap at Cedar Rapids.
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Scouts are all about comparisons.
Marisnick has been compared to Houston Astros outfielder Hunter Pence, Crouse to Jermaine Dye or Jesse Barfield, minus the arm strength and Marcus Knecht to former New York Mets outfielders Jason Bay or Kevin McReynolds.
The scouts in central Michigan this week don’t have a comparison for Brisker, not because he’s so fast that they can’t see him, but that he’s injured.
But the players know best.
Who is the fastest of the four, and voters could not vote for their own self?
Three Lansing outfielders picked Brisker, who chose Crouse.
The man they want at the plate with two out, down a run?
Brisker and Marisnick picked Knecht, Knecht selected Brisker and Crouse chose Marisnick.
And the best arm?
Brisker chose Marisnick, Knecht picked Crouse; Marisnick chose Brisker and Crouse picked Knecht.
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A scout is told of the comparison to the likes of Bell, Hill, Whiten and Felix and shakes his head, saying “no chance.”
Eight innings later, after Knecht homered off the berm in deep centre, after Crouse homered off a green wall in front of Cedar Street (he’s landed balls onto the street before), after Crouse doubled to right and raced around the bases like a wild stallion and after Marisnick doubled and singled, he leaned forward and whispered:
“You might be on to something.”