Mariners got their man in Gareth Morgan

* OF Gareth Morgan (right), shown here with former Mariners catcher (and former Blue Jay) John Buck, was thought of very highly by the Mariners, who managed to land the North York, Ont. native 74th overall in the June draft. (Photos: Ben VanHouten/Seattle Mariners). .... 2014 Canadians drafted … Canadians in the Minors … Canadians in College 2015 Canadian draft list Letters of Intent

By Bob Elliott

Is there a better trifecta at judging Canadian talent than this trio?

Maybe Bob Rogers, who signed Larry Walker of Maple Ridge, B.C., with the Montreal Expos; Howie Norsetter, who drafted Justin Morneau from New Westminster, B.C., and John Castlebury, who scouted and signed Etobicoke’s Joey Votto with the Cincinnati Reds -- if they all worked for the same organization.

Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was the scouting director of the Milwaukee Brewers six years ago when they chose Brett Lawrie 16th overall in North America.

The Mariners scouting director is Tom McNamara, who for six years was the area scout Zduriencik sent to the Dominican Republic, and McNamara was one of the handful of scouts who saw Lawrie hit five home runs against rookie-class Dominican summer league pitching: two to left, two to right and a final to centre -- all on 90 MPH plus fastballs.

And the M’s area scout who covers the Canadian Junior National Team like a tarp is Wayne Norton (Port Moody, BC). Norton chose Phillippe Aumont of Gatineau, Que. from the ABC 11th overall in 2007 with the Mariners. He picked the top high schooler, Tyler O’Neill (Maple Ridge, B.C.) from the Langley Blaze in the third round in 2013, and when he worked for the Baltimore Orioles in 1997 he chose Montreal’s Ntema Ndungidi 36th overall from the ABC.

So, it was the perfect storm that the constant star of Perfect Game events with the Ontario Blue Jays, outfielder Gareth Morgan (North York, Ont.) wound up as a member of the Mariners.

Although it was a bit of a surprise that the Mariners paid almost three times over slot to give him a $2 million signing bonus -- roughly equal to what a 20th or 21st overall pick would have received.

* * *

Morgan-Seattle2McNamara first saw Morgan three years ago.

“He was a good-looking raw guy with power, we watched him develop,” said McNamara of the first time Norton asked him to check in on Morgan. A decision was made to “stay on him.”

He watched the Canadian Junior National Team on trips to ESPN’s Wide World of Sports at Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where the team faced pro pitchers at extended spring in April, and also to instructional league in October, where the JNT faced first and second-year pros.

“Some guys he faced were rehabbing double-A or class-A and running it up there at 95-96 MPH,” said McNamara. “They’re throwing breaking balls. They’re challenging him. They don’t care about his draft status.

“You go into some states to see a top hitter face a top pitcher and the coach has his pitcher issue three intentional walks.”

Morgan always had the ability to put on a show during batting practice, but where the affection for Morgan turned to head-over-heels status came this spring.

They saw Morgan make adjustments to his swing and his approach.

They saw Morgan ignore breaking balls on the outside corner ... ignoring them ... the same pitches that a year or two before he would swing at and miss.

He made adjustments “from the neck up,” said McNamara.

* * *

Norton first saw Morgan four years ago watching Greg Hamilton’s Canadian Junior National Team, and his initial thought was that “he might have been a little young to be involved.”

Most join the JNT team for grade 11 and 12. Whitby lefty Evan Grills and Lawrie were there longer.

The risk players run joining so early is that while it can be thrilling and exciting in Year I or Year II, it can become old hat by Year IV, and scouts can develop an “ah, seen him, zero improvement” attitude.

“Sometimes you see kids too much you, but being there the four cycles didn’t hurt him because of his mental make up,” said Norton, who saw Morgan as a grade 9, 10, 11 and 12 student.

“There were times when he underachieved, but he showed me this spring he could play against pro athletes who are big -- sorry, not bigger, no one is bigger than him -- athletes who are older and have much more experience.”

Norton estimates he saw Morgan play probably 40-45 times between the Junior National Team and the Ontario Blue Jays.

“He was easy to scout because of his tools. He could field, he’s a plus fielder, he has a plus arm, he does not run that well to first base because he’s slow getting out of the box. Plus he has good instincts.”

* * *

McNamara didn’t have a moment with Morgan as he did with Lawrie, a day they still talk about on the island.

“I’ve never seen anything like the way Brett lit it up on the Dominican trip, he was hitting curves, sliders, fastballs,” said McNamara, “you see something like that, you don’t forget.”

McNamara asked the Mariners' Carolinas scout, Devitt Moore, to visit the Dominican. He wanted Moore to compare Morgan to the top hitters from his area, saying “scouts are open, they aren’t protective of their own territory.”

Zduriencik visited the Dominican for a look at Morgan within two weeks of the draft.

“Each time we saw Gareth play for Greg Hamilton he improved,” said McNamara, who said he saw Morgan take his batting performances into games. “We don’t make decisions the summer or fall before the draft -- some get better, some lose interest.”

Morgan played with a purpose, according to McNamara, who did his homework talking to Morgan’s teammates.

“He was a good teammate, the kids have a good perspective, I said ‘I’m in,’” said McNamara, who caught up with Morgan and Danny Bleiwas’ Ontario Blue Jays on fall stopovers at Virginia and Florida State. He was at the Under Armour showcase at Wrigley Field and the Area Code games in Long Beach.

* * *

morganThe good news for the Mariners scouting department when the draft order was finalized was:

They would retain their first pick: sixth over-all.

The bad news was that they lost their second round pick for signing free-agent Robinson Cano, so they did not select again until 74th over-all, the final pick of day one.

So, No. 6 and No. 74.

The Mariners were allowed to spend $6,767,900 to sign their picks in the first 10 rounds.

And the Mariners' primary need was outfielders.

They drafted outfielder Alex Jackson, a high schooler from Escondido, Calif. The assigned slot bonus for Jackson was $3,575,900 million.

It was “nerve-wracking” waiting 67 picks before Seattle could play again to take Morgan -- if he was available.

With the 73rd pick, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected right-hander Trey Supak, a high schooler from La Grange, Tex.

McNamara knew he had Morgan -- long before Supak’s name was announced.

“I could see the I.D. number ... I knew we’d get him,” said McNamara as the Seattle war room erupted.

They knew what was next as former Mariner Scott Bradley stepped to the mike and said:

“The Seattle Mariners select, from North Toronto Collegiate ... Outfielder Gareth Morgan.”

Then, the Mariners went to signing the rest of their draft picks -- third rounder: Kentucky outfielder Austin Cousino for $400,000; fourth: Old Dominion lefty Ryan Yarbrough, $40,000; fifth: right-hander Dan Altavilla, a high schooler from Mercyhurst (Pa.) $250,000; sixth: lefty Lane Ratliff, Jones County JC, $150,000; seventh: Nicholls State lefty Taylor Byrd, $5,000; eighth: Sacred Heart right-hander Kody Kerski, $30,000; ninth: Florida State right-hander Peter Miller, $5,000; and 10th: Western Carolina catcher Adam Martin, $5,000.

That allowed them to go almost three times over slot for Morgan ($760,300) and give him $2 million. Jackson then received an above-slot bonus of $4.2 million.

“They were both old school when they came to Safeco Field after they signed -- their first round of batting practice they hit line drives to right field,” said McNamara. “You could tell how well Gareth was coached. And I know he’d win a Home Run Derby.”

Besides Norton, Mariners scouts Brian Nichols and Mark Williams evaluated Morgan when he was with the Langley Blaze in Arizona this March.

McNamara said he saw Morgan track 30 balls over his head and into the gap during batting practice. Before then, he thought Morgan was a corner outfielder. And now he’s not so sure. He could be a centre fielder.

“Look at how Toronto became so successful all those years with those great draft choices,” said McNamara.

* * *

So how good is he?

“For raw power, he’s probably the best ever to come out come of Canada,” said Norton. “Joey Votto would be the closest in raw power, Justin Morneau didn’t have the same raw power, but he might have had a more consistent stroke.”

And like all the good ones, Morgan peaked at the right time.

“We saw him in Florida, Arizona and then Toronto in March, that was his best week,” said Norton, who saw Morgan play for Langley against the Cubs' minor leaguers at Mesa, Az.

Morgan hit a home run, a double, and a single, and made a good play before “a ton of scouts.”

Could the Mariners some day have an all-Norton outfield of Michael Saunders of Victoria, B.C., O’Neill and Morgan?

“It’s possible. Now that would be fun,” said Norton, who wondered if he had three before in: Italy’s Alex Liddi, Greg Halman from The Netherlands and Saunders.

Liddi and Saunders shared the outfield for seven games in 2012, while Saunders and Halman shared the outfield with Saunders five times in 2010. The three never played in the same game together.

“He improved his pitch recognition and plate discipline, thanks to great support from his parents and from Greg Hamilton,” said Norton. “He’ll blossom in pro ball.”

Said McNamara: “We think the player is happy.”

The Mariners certainly are.


Top signing bonus to Canadians

Year, Round, Team, Name, Hometown, Amount 2010, 1st, Pirates, RHP Jameson Taillon, The Woodlands, Tex. HS, $6.5 M 2002, 1st, Orioles, LHP Adam Loewen, Surrey, BC, Walleye Chiefs, $3.2 M 2014, 2nd, Mariners, OF Gareth Morgan, North York, Ont., Ontario Blue Jays, $2 M 2007, 1st, Mariners, RHP Phillippe Aumont, Gatineau, Que. ABC, $1.9 M 2002, 1st, Rockies, LHP Jeff Francis, North Delta, BC, UBC, $1.85 M 2008, 1st, Brewers, C Brett Lawrie, Langley, B.C., Langley Blaze, $1.7 M 2000, 1st, Braves, INF Scott Thorman, Cambridge, Ont. Team Ontario, $1.125 M 2013, 2nd, Cubs, LHP Rob Zastryzny, Edmonton, Alta. Missouri, $1.1 M 2010, 1st, Rangers, C Kellin Deglan, Langley, BC, Langley Blaze, $1 M 2010, 4th, Mariners, LHP James Paxton, Ladner, BC, Grand Prairie AA-Ind, $942,500