By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
NORTH VANCOUVER BC _ Walt Burrows has walked into a few ballparks one summer after summer.
He coached, he watched his brother Bobby Burrows, signed by the Kansas City Royals in 1969, and scouted for the Major League Scouting Bureau from 1991 to 2015. He roamed Canadian parks year after year looking for talent and has done so the last two seasons for the Minnesota Twins.
Never has Burrows seen anything like he walking into McLeod Athletic Park, home of the Langley Blaze.
“I first saw Brett Lawrie play for the Blaze in 2005,” Burrows said. “He went in the 2008 draft. The next year I went back and there was Tyler O’Neill, a similar body type. He played and graduated in 2013. Then, the next year I go back and see Rhys Cratty with kind of a familiar frame.
“I have never seen that happen before: where the one guy leaves and another similar guy takes over and then another takes over with zero overlap.”
From Lawrie to O’Neill to Cratty, the Blaze baton has been passed and passed.
The flattering comparison comes from Burrows as impartial as Switzerland evaluating players. He went from being the area scout with the largest area (Canada) working for the Bureau to being hired by the a club, the Twins with the largest area (Canada).
Cratty has heard the comparisons.
“We have similar frames, coaches from Central Arizona told me I had a body a lot like to Lawrie or O’Neill, so have a lot of other coaches,” said Cratty after he took his hacks in the cage before 24 evaluators and recruiters from 19 pro and college teams at the Inside Performance winter showcase.
Lawrie was a six-foot, 210-pound, right-handed hitter with the Blaze when he was chosen in the first round (16th over-all in North America) by the Milwaukee Brewers and given a $1.7 million US signing bonus in 2008.
O’Neill was a 5-foot-11, 210-pound, right-handed hitter with the Blaze when he was selected in the third round by the Seattle Mariners and he was given a $600,000 bonus in 2013.
And Cratty is a six-foot, 190 pound, right-hand hitter with the Blaze who is eligible for the June draft. Estimates are Cratty could go in the 10th-to-15th round. However, if he hits pro pitching with a wood bat -- as he did last March in Arizona, he could open some eyes and climb. And like the first two, Cratty sees plenty of pro pitching on tours with the Canadian Junior National Team as well as when he goes to Arizona with the DBacks Scout team.
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We asked three people who saw all three up close and personal for their opinions on the triumvirate.
Doug Mathieson started the Blaze program, Blaze coach Jamie Bodaly, who played for the Blaze and now coaches and George Halim, a former member of the North Star Twins, who played against the Blaze, now often accompanies the Diamondbacks Scout Team south along with Mathieson and Bodaly to Jupiter.
Mathieson’s son, RHP Scott Mathieson, was selected in 2002 (Canada’s best-ever draft) by the Philadelphia Phillies, yet Mathieson, like John Ircandia (Okotoks, Alta.) continues to try and make his program better and better on year round basis. He filled his hat last June draft selecting:
_ C Andrew Yerzy (Toronto, Ont.) from the Toronto Mets in the second round and gave him a $1,214,100 bonus.
_ RHP Curtis Taylor (Port Coquitlam, BC) chosen in the fourth round by the University of British Columbia, who received a $496,700 bonus.
_ RHP Jake Polancic (Langley, BC) of the Blaze was chosen in the 11th round and given $100,000.
_ And C Luke Van Rycheghem (Kent Bridge, Ont.) from the Ontario Blue Jays, who also received $100,000.
Lawrie was a shortstop, then a catcher and then a third baseman leading up to the draft.
The legend of Lawrie spread in the Dominican ... he hit two homers to left and two homers to right field in a doubleheader with the Canadian Junior National Team against a rookie-class Dominican Summer League Seattle Mariners team. Coming to plate in his final at-bat Canadian scout turned and asked a veteran from the Island “what do you think old timer?”
“Ah, two to left, two to right, let’s see him hit the ball out to centre.”
Lawrie did and the veteran scout was asked “well, what do you think now?”
“Well, I got him down as Babe Ruth, but I might be a tad light.”
Lawrie is not mistaken for The Babe as he fights for a job with the Chicago White Sox, but there should be lots of space if the house cleaning on the south side continues.
Bodaly remembers realizing early in Lawrie’s first year that the Blaze knew he was special watching him do some amazing things.
“Brett stepped in on a good team and was a stud for us,” Bodaly said. “He helped us win our first championship in the PBL by crushing pitching in the playoffs as a 16 year old. He had more buzz around him than anyone but did a good job of not letting it get to him. He was one of the hardest workers we have ever had.”
Lawrie’s final year was Bodaly’s first year managing the 18U Blaze. Bodaly had played his grade 10 and 11 years with Blaze but broke his collarbone and arm in a March car accident and was done for the year. So, he helped out his former coach’s junior Little League team with his arm in a sling and the next year went to the junior Little League World Series in Taylor, Mich. He brought those players over and started the junior Blaze program in 2003 and was the head coach he following year in 2004. He was an assistant coach with 18u team and from 2008 has been the head coach.
Bodaly recalls his pal, manager Andy Rempel of the Abbotsford Cardinals trying to issue an intentional walk to Lawrie before the draft. “Brett stepped across the plate and crushed it up the middle just missing the pitchers head,” said Bodoly.
“Lawrie on his worst day would go 3-for-4 or 3-for-5 with three singles against us,” said Halim, on the other end of the 3-for-4 or 3-for-5 as a member of the North Shore Twins.
“A guy needs to hit in high school for you to expect him to hit in pro. Brett’s swing was violent. Every time he went up there, I had the impression he was going to crunch it. I played second and when he came up, you had to back up a step, which wasn’t easy either since he ran a sub .7 and could beat out infield ground balls.
“I remember seeing him taking batting practice before the PBL championship and he was crushing balls. He didn’t look like a high schooler. He was the best hitter we ever played against.”
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Lawrie hit two home runs his last game in 2008.
O’Neill hit two home runs in his last game in 2013.
Cratty has not played his last PBL game yet this spring.
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O’Neill is not Babe Ruth, but he has shown better pop than Lawrie at similar stages of their careers. Lawrie had 13 at class-A Wisconsin in 2009 and eight the next year at double-A Huntsville. O’Neill hit 32 at class-A Bakersfield in 2015 and 24 last year at double-A Jackson. O’Neill was named Baseball America’s double-A player of the year.
On the Blaze’s March Arizona trip to Peoria, in 2013, a re-habbing San Diego Padres double-A pitcher started against the high schoolers at Peoria. He plunked Griffin Andreychuk (Nanaimo, BC) now playing shortstop for the Seattle Redbirds in the ribs.
Then he hit Mitch Robinson (Surrey, BC) now of the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in the noggin.
Up next was O’Neill. Now, you might think a high schooler might be a tad leary about digging in after watching a HBP, HBP to start to a game from a pro. O’Neill came out of his shoes swinging at the first pitch and lining a ball up the middle,
That was the same day in front of roughly 100 scouts O’Neill scattered people in The Salty Señorita, the bar beyond the outfield fence with a home run of salty margarita distance.
At the 2012 Canada Cup, Mathieson introduced O’Neill to me at Labbat Park in London. We talked for a few minutes, as O’Neill walked away Mathieson asked “Remind you of anyone?”
I said Lawrie.
Just then O’Neill, who had departed the scene, returned, stuck out his hand and said “Pleasure to meet you sir.”
Yep, they raise ‘em right in Langley.
“Tyler’s first year he was an unknown ... he didn’t have all the hype like Brett did,” said Bodaly. “He got off to a slow start after an injury to his testicles on our spring trip.”
O’Neill had been catching -- without a jock -- and had next thing he part of his privates “rose up into his stomach.” Bodaly said O’Neill was so tough he played another day in pain until his dad came to Bodaly’s room with news that surgery was needed to repair damage. Two months into the Premier League regular season, O’Neill was back to normal, after batting under .200.
“When he finally got his timing back, he was on fire the last three months hitting well over .600 and was most dominant bat in the league,” Bodaly said.
Bodaly remembers a day O’Neill went 8-for-10 against the Victoria Eagles with 16 RBIs in a double header with two grand slams.
Halim played against Lawrie with North Shore Twins and coached Cratty. The one he knows the least is O’Neill, who he often saw at class-A Clinton in 2014.
“I’d drive over to see a few home games when he was in the Midwest League,” said Halim. “When you first see him you think he’s stiff, but he has a degree of flexibility. Guys would say he’d lead in strikeouts down the road and will lead in doubles and homers, but he cut down on his strikeouts last year.
“I saw him hit a ball out off a tee out of his park this summer, have you ever seen that?”
Well, no, but Matt Stairs (Fredericton, NB) used to hit balls off a tee after batting practice into the 500 level at Rogers Centre. Eventually Lawrie did the same at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
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And now comes Cratty.
“(Cratty) is similar, not as much consistent power as O’Neill, but he has it,” Mathieson said. “They are similar when it comes to barrel chest and having bat speed plus. Their bat speed is probably the one quality, that all three all have.”
As O’Neill left stage left, Cratty entered stage right.
“Rhys came to us and there was talk about him being a good hitter,” Bodaly said.
Cratty hit more home runs his first year with the Blaze than anyone ever has. If you add up his home runs in league, tournaments and exhibition he had 11 with wood bat in 2016.
In Halim’s day he either faced or played behind the likes of Premier arms such as Ethan Stewart, Stosh Wawrzasek, Colin Kleven, Mike Monster, Mike Ellis, Mitch Hodge, Kyle Lotzkar, Travis Nevakshanoff, David Otterman, Rory Young, Brandon Kaye, Tom Robson, Evan Hildenbrandt, Paul Barton, Jordan Wong, Cody Chartrand, Ali Simpson, Matt Thornton, Zak Miller and Danny Britton-Foster. Most were drafted, while the minority went on to school and performed well.
“Cratty looked comfortable last spring facing pro guys throwing 94 mph, they were throwing 94 and didn’t know where it is going,” said Halim. “He doesn’t seem afraid.
Rick Johnston (Peterborough, Ont.) is a coach with the Junior National Team and says that Cratty wears him out.
“He is always wanting extra swings, always wanting to work on a specific things,” Johnston said. “Whether it was BP or flips, it was a constant barrage of needing/wanting more swings. He could have been wanting to work on ball tracking, to opposite field to working on the ball in, it is non-stop extra work.
“He’s a great kid, unbelievable hard worker. He is always asking questions, wanting to know more.”
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Cratty was with Team Canada Junior team at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. when Hurricane Matthew hit last fall causing three straight days of rainouts.
“We stayed indoors and ate a lot of Kraft Dinner and pizza,” he said. “The winds were crazy. Adam Hall (London, Ont.) and Clayton Keyes (Okotoks, Alta.) put tape on their windows -- to prevent the glass from shattering.
The trip was far from a waste as Cratty collected his first extra-base hit off a curve ball from a Tampa Bay prospect and he turned around a 95 MPH fastball from an Atlanta Braves prospect.
Best player Cratty has seen? “Adam Hall,” he says quickly, “he’s a five-tool player with tremendous bat speed.”
Twice Cratty went to the bantam nationals with BC in Vaughan. He played for coach legendary Eddie Dagg at the 2013 15U nationals in Vaughan with Cloverdale teammates Wesley Moore, Noah Or and Carter Loewen. Ontario, coached by Jose Da Costa and starring C Andew Yerzy, won 8-1 over BC in the final, Ontario taking gold and BC silver. Cratty was 2-for-7 (.286) with two triples and two RBIs.
And the next year, playing for coach Garnett Pawliw in the 2014 15U Ray Carter Cup in Vaughan, Dwain Ervin’s Ontario beat New Brunswick 8-5 for gold, while BC knocked off Vaughan 7-3 for bronze. Cratty was 1-for-14 with eight walks.
“I remember Cooper Davis bunting on me for a base hit,” said the third baseman, who remembered Noah Naylor and Lucas Parente too. All are teammates with the Canadian Junior National Team which heads to the World Juniors at Thunder Bay starting Sept. 1.
Cratty was one of the top prospects on hand, behind INF Jason Willow (Victoria, BC) of the Victoria Mariners.
“I tried to compare myself a lot to Jason as he and myself were the top players in BC since we were 12 years of age,” Cratty said.
Willow is so much a laid-back, easy rider, his birth certificate could read California. Cratty is trying to go easier -- on his own self.
“I used to be hard on myself,” Cratty said. “This is a game of frustration, but it’s just a game. More than anything I try to stay calm. I really learned to understand that the game is a game of failure, I also realized what’s the point in playing if its not enjoyable. So I tried my hardest trying to figure out how to have fun within the game, but at the same time playing to the best of my ability and staying focused.
“It was mainly to stop over thinking everything. Take a step back. Stay loose. Trust yourself.”
Trust and confidence in yourself, Cratty believes is the No. 1 key to success and in either baseball or life. He has committed to Polk State College for next fall if he does not sign.
“These last two years I started to really focus on becoming more of a student to the game of while learning the mental side,” he says. “For example, having a plan up to bat, hunt one and only one pitch in a certain area of the strike zone and when you get that pitch, do some damage of it. The ability to stay positive if maybe in a slump and not let it get to your head. The ability to over come any kind of adversity that the game provides on a daily.”
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Halim says while the players deserve the credit for this conga line of right-handed power hitters, some too should go to the Blaze coaches.
“If it goes from Lawrie to O’Neill to Cratty,” Halim says, “I truly believe it stems from Doug Mathieson and Jamie Bodaly. They have a way of developing their hitters. The reps, the exercises and the strength makes them elite players.”
Attending Kwantlen University, Bodaly played three years yet still would do Blaze practices in the evening.
“The Blaze has been my entire life’s work,” Bodaly said. “All three guys are physical kids having strong forearms and hands. One thing we preach is forearm exercises for hitting. All three have huge forearms. All three players have similarities in their swings with little bat tips or their hand position in their stance and other things. I look forward to seeing what happens to Rhys and if he can follow in their steps.”
Lawrie to O’Neill and now to Cratty.
“It’s too bad Daniel Martin is a left-handed hitter,” said one scout.
Why’s that? INF Martin is with the Blaze and graduates in 2019.
“Because he’ll probably continue the Langley run of hitters to watch.”