Changing of the guard underway for Junior National Team

Photo Credit: Alexis Brudnicki

Photo Credit: Alexis Brudnicki

By Alexis Brudnicki

Canadian Baseball Network

ORLANDO, Fla. – It is the changing of the guard.

With a world championship not on the horizon for two years, the Canadian Junior National Team welcomed a sea of new faces when the squad arrived in Orlando on Thursday before kicking off its October schedule against Fall Instructional League competition, starting with a game against the Braves and former Team Canada hurler Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.) on Saturday morning.

Of the 30 players named to the squad for the beginning of the yearly cycle of trips – that sees the junior team playing annually in St. Petersburg, Fla., for spring training in March, Orlando again in April, Dominican Republic in May, and then usually with a qualifier or world competition in August and September but next year will head to Cuba in July – 19 of them are wearing the Canadian jersey for the first time.

Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams, is beginning his rebuild for the 2017 world junior championships, which will be hosted right at home in Thunder Bay, Ont., after a sixth-place finish at the U18 World Cup in Japan in September.

“When you play at home – as evidenced by the Pan Am Games and in previous years the world juniors – it’s special and very unique,” Hamilton said. “It’s great for the country, it’s great for the players, and the program.

“So we’re going to take the opportunity to look down the road two years and try to build at least a nucleus of that team over the next year-and-a-bit. But deserving players or prospect-type guys who legitimately have the ability to fit that profile, we’ll bring in. We can’t go completely young and try to play against instructional league teams and maintain that schedule.”

This year’s fall schedule includes multiple games against the Braves, Astros and Nationals, plus one trip to Deland, Fla., to take on Stetson University, where junior team graduate Ben Onyshko (Winnipeg, Man.) happens to be a member of the pitching staff heading into his sophomore season, and current national squad catcher Luke Van Rycheghem (Kent Bridge, Ont.) is committed.

Just more than one-third of the team has squared off against professional competition before, and those veteran players – still all just 17 years old or younger – know they need to step up and try to make examples of themselves so that their new teammates can follow and help ease their transition.  

The longest-tenured player on the team now is Andrew Yerzy (Toronto, Ont.), who joined the squad two years ago on the fall trip and has been a mainstay behind the plate ever since. The 17-year-old catcher has been afforded a lot of opportunities since his start with Team Canada – including taking part in the Junior Home Run Derby during MLB’s All-Star Weekend in Cincinnati this year and winning MVP at the Under Armour All-America Game at Wrigley Field, just to name a couple – and cherishes his time with the national team the most.

He’s excited to embrace the new faces, and to see others in the same position he was in when he started, and to be in a position to help them or offer words of wisdom.

“This is pretty cool, because I was the 15-year-old rookie out here two years ago,” Yerzy said. “So it’s cool seeing them and being able to pass on what we do here. We really just need to tell them to enjoy themselves because you’re not going to play competition like we play down here for a while if you don’t go pro or go to college, so just enjoy yourself and know that it’s okay to fail once in a while because it is hard to hit 100 [mile-an-hour fastballs].”

Hamilton is especially looking to veteran players like Yerzy to assist in the changing of the guard, sharing his experiences of playing against a higher calibre of competition in professional games, and competing for his country at a world championship.

“Andrew Yerzy is going to be an important guy as a 17-year-old who is a legitimate prospect who’s been around for quite some time,” Hamilton said. “There are two purposes this year. There’s trying to give the prospects the opportunity to be seen in the right environment and to give them the best opportunity to receive consideration in June, but they have to understand that there’s also a purpose that they need to provide to the program for some of the younger guys, because there’s a world championship the next year.

“You’re trying to serve two purposes – one, the development of the young players to get them where they need to be down the road and ultimately for the program and the world juniors, but also serve the purposes of the draft player to put him in the position to be seen the right way. In return, you ask him to be mature enough to give to the younger players and help them along in the process and give them the experience that they’ve had in playing in the world tournament.”

Seven of the players currently on the fall trip with Team Canada have world championship experience, Yerzy joined by Josh Burgmann (Nanaimo, BC), Cooper Davis (Mississauga, Ont.), Mathieu Deneault-Gauthier (Candiac, Que.), Isaac Deveaux (Montreal, Que.), Adam Hall (London, Ont.), and Van Rycheghem, who all played in Osaka last month.

Deneault-Gauthier remembers what it felt like for him to join the national team a year ago, and the 17-year-old right-hander would like to try to lead his new peers by example, using everything he’s learned along the way to find success and continuing to do more of the same.

“This is obviously different than last year, where I was fighting for a spot on the final roster and I was looking up to [Josh] Naylor and Demi [Orimoloye], who were the big-time players here,” Deneault-Gauthier said. “I’m not saying I’m them now, because they were pretty good, but now we are a pretty young group of players and I need to do my job as a pitcher and do my things and give an example of how it works around Team Canada.

“If they want to follow what I did, which obviously worked and I made the final roster [for the U18 World Cup in Japan], they can, but this is their job. I’m going to talk a little bit about the way of playing here and who we are playing against, we’re up against great competition.”

At just 16 years old, Hall still has a couple of years of eligibility remaining to play in the red and white, but with a half of a cycle under his belt with Team Canada – joining the squad for the first time last October, but being sidelined for the first three trips of this year after knee surgery – he knows he might have some knowledge to offer to the newcomers.

“I don’t really feel like a veteran because I missed a lot of the season, but you’ve got guys looking up to you now because you’ve been here before,” Hall said. “You’ve got to show them not exactly what to do but how to manage yourself when you’re around it. Obviously they’re really excited to be here, and you’ve got to make sure they know they’re representing their country and to just play hard.”

Games get underway Saturday, and there is no doubt the experience will be one of learning for everyone involved.

“The new players don’t really know what to expect out of the minor league teams,” Deneault-Gauthier said. “They’re really good. Obviously at the first camp I was here, and it’s a shock because you see all the big-time players who are playing against you. We’re playing against really good players, so the first few games are going to be really tough, especially since we’re so young. Last year we had some really good players who were there for a long time. But if we do our jobs, we have a good team here.”