By: Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
The 40th running of the Blue Jays Left Field Sweepstakes and Darby for Canadian-born studs only -- as they say around the backstretch -- begins next month.
Toronto’s Hyung Cho has known both Michael Saunders of Victoria B.C. and Mississauga’s Dalton Pompey for over a decade each.
Could you find a better prognosticator on who will win the job than Cho?
A former Seattle Mariners minor-league infielder, Cho was a teammate of Saunders at class-A Everett AquaSox in 2005.
And Cho taught Pompey in 2004-05 at The Baseball Zone and now still instructs the outfielder at Out of The Park facility in Scarborough.
“Personally Michael Saunders is the left fielder ...”
OK, so Cho, the former University of Houston Cougar, picks Saunders in left.
Not so fast.
The prognosticator is not finished with his analysis ... “and Dalton is the centre fielder. The amount of ground he can cover? Dalton can be a gold-glove centre fielder.”
Ah OK, but the Blue Jays did have this other guy -- Kevin Pillar -- who started 139 games in centre.
“Obviously Pillar is Pillar, he outdid himself last year,” Cho said. “Some of the balls Kevin dives for to make great catches, Dalton catches them standing. That said, Pillar proved himself.”
Cho was 22 and had just been demoted to Everett when he met the freshly-signed Saunders, who was 18, for the first time.
“He’d struck out something like 18 of his first 20 pro at-bats,” Cho said. “I get there with a chip on my shoulder from being sent down. Word got back to me he was moping.
“One of our coaches said to me ‘hey I thought Canadians were grinders what’s the deal with Saunders?’ So I reamed (Saunders) out.”
It’s a story Cho says Saunders tells each time they meet because it was the first time Saunders had been chewed out to that degree and it helped change the way the outfielder went about his business.
“Michael is always telling that story,” Cho said. “He told it this month at the Baseball Canada banquet.”
Cho said a healthy Saunders is a 25-homer a year player. Saunders’ best year was in 2012 when he batted .246 with 19 homers, knocked in 57 runs and a .738 OPS in 139 games while Safeco is “not so hitter friendly."
Saunders only made nine starts (six in right, three in left) after a knee injury last year.
Cho first saw Pompey at a Rick Johnston clinic at The Baseball Zone in Mississauga.
“Dalton was a switch hitter, I remember thinking this guy is a stud,” said Cho.
In “an ideal world,” Pompey is “our centre fielder,” said Cho, now a coach with the Toronto Mets.
“People look at Dalton and and say ‘oh he hit .238,’ people don’t understand that he hasn’t figured it out. I’ve been trained to look at a kid’s assets,
“Seeing him I didn’t realize how good he is. He’s so raw, his swing is not clean and he has still succeeded, making it to the big leagues. Wait until he figures it out. There is a lot there.”
Pompey played winter ball for a week with the Leones del Escogido in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He was supposed to stay longer but was hit on the foot with a pitch, suffered a bone bruise and headed home.
He has been living downtown, hitting inside the Rogers Centre and making the trip to Scarborough to work out with Cho.
Pompey was on the Jays caravan to Fredericton N.B. earlier this week with Brett Cecil and Chris Colabello.
There they signed over 500 autographs in 2 1/2 hours as fans drove in from Halifax and PEI. The trio sign a tiny key chain which barely had enough room for names and large cut outs. Now he has joined Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman on the Toronto leg of the tour.
So, according to Cho, the former Mariners’ minor leaguer, Saunders teammate and Pompey’s instructor then and now ... it is
Saunders in left.
Pompey in centre ...
And Pillar in centre too.
“Dalton has a little work to do in centre,” said Cho, “but once he becomes an expert and understands himself you will have a special player when he puts it all together.”