By Alexis Brudnicki
PEORIA, Az. – A lot has changed for Gareth Morgan since his days with the Toronto Mets and Ontario Blue Jays, and every year in professional baseball is a new and different learning experience.
After being chosen by the Seattle Mariners in the second round, 74th overall, as the highest Canadian selected in the 2014 draft, the now-20-year-old outfielder got his first taste of baseball as a professional that summer, playing 45 games in the rookie-class Arizona League.
When he returned last season, the Toronto native more than doubled the amount of time he spent on the field, earning a glimpse of his first full season of pro baseball, remaining in Peoria from the time he arrived at camp in February to his return home after working in the Fall Instructional League when the AZL season came to a close.
“Last year was a little different from the first year, because the first year was just three months of being in the Arizona League,” Morgan said. “Being here from mid-February to September kind of made me think, holy smokes, this is how long the season actually is. This is how long I have to prepare my body for. It makes you realize what you need to do and what you need to expect for the years to come.”
After the instructional league, the season didn’t end for Morgan. After four years and one of the longest stints on the Canadian Junior National Team in its history, the Mariners prospect got his first invitation from Baseball Canada’s Director of National Teams, Greg Hamilton, to join the senior squad, heading to Taichung, Taiwan for the inaugural Premier 12 tournament in November.
“It’s always great representing your country,” Morgan said. “I went to Taiwan with the senior team just after instructs, which was amazing. It was completely different than being on the junior team. It’s almost like the chemistry is already there, everyone has experience, and there are veterans who are leaders of the team and lead everyone. There’s just like a whole different vibe around the team.”
After a year between Team Canada stints, Morgan quickly went from being a core member of the junior squad to being the youngest player on a team among Canadians almost twice his age, with a wealth of professional and international experience.
“I learned just to enjoy the game,” the young outfielder said. “Seeing [36-year-old free agent] Pete Orr and [29-year-old Team Canada player-turned Brewers scout] Taylor Green still enjoying the game at the ages they’re at, and playing with their hearts out on the field is just pretty cool to see. And knowing that I’m still young and I can kind of still incorporate that into my game and have fun with it is exciting.”
The national team followed up its gold-medal win in July at the Pan Am Games in Ajax, Ont., with five straight victories to start Premier 12. Though Morgan didn’t make it into any of those games, he soaked in the entire experience along the way.
“It was like being on the Junior National Team for the first time all over again,” he said. “Meeting new people and seeing what people are like, and just the whole atmosphere around it was a little interesting, being around all the older guys…
“The crowds were great. When we played Chinese Taipei we probably had like 25,000 people there and it was loud from start to finish, people chanting names and all that stuff. I wasn’t playing but even on the bench I was fired up.”
In the squad’s sixth game, a loss to Mexico that eliminated the Canadians from the tournament, Morgan got his lone at-bat at the event, coming on to pinch-hit in the bottom of the ninth inning with Team Canada down by one run. Though the outcome wasn’t what he was looking for, the experience already has him looking ahead to his next potential chance as a senior.
“It did make me feel a little bit more a part of it,” Morgan said. “It was nice to get into the game eventually … I did start thinking about the [World Baseball Classic next March], and hopefully I’m there but you never know what’s going to happen…
“Greg brought me on the trip to Taiwan to kind of soak in the environment and get used to the norms of the senior team and kind of get my feet wet with that whole program. I feel like I blended into that.”
The trip across the world was a break from the everyday grind of professional baseball for Morgan after his first full year. The international and pro environments are similar in regard to the desire to win and the family atmosphere of the team, but they are incredibly different in sense of urgency, along with the time it takes to build relationships.
“In pro ball it’s all about the team, but at the end of the day what you do reflects on where you go,” Morgan said. “And with Team Canada, no one really cares what you do as long as the team wins. Even if you’re 0-for-5 with five punchies, guys will pick you up. It’s like everyone’s at-bats are the whole team’s at-bats. There are no individual at-bats …
“It is hard to maintain that level of competition in pro ball, because with Team Canada, every game matters, because you’re in those situations – in those tournaments, and in that short period of time, the wins and losses determine what happens and where you end up, or when you go home.”
Home for just a few short months over the winter before heading back to join the Mariners in Arizona once again, Morgan readied for his third pro season. Still in Peoria for now, he is looking to improve on his .194/.259/.329 slash line and his 162 strikeouts over 100 games in his first two years, and is excited for the future.
“I’m just trying to find a consistent swing, to cut down on the strikeouts,” Morgan said. “And I want to control the zone, just swing at good pitches and take bad pitches. It seems pretty simple but that’s what it is. It’s hard because it’s muscle memory. Sometimes I see a pitch that I’ve swung at before that I just instinctively just swing at, but I’m working on just getting my pitch and executing. It’s getting better.”