By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
TAMPA, Fla. – Due diligence isn’t enough.
The phrase doesn’t come close to describing the amount of time and effort taken by Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams, to get down to the final 28-man roster constructed for the World Baseball Classic.
Hamilton’s process started years ago, and in all likelihood really with his first stint as manager of the Canadian Junior National Team in 1999, but his focus for this particular roster realistically began many months ago. Beyond the Canucks at the major-league level, it included minor-league coverage, extensive gathering of background information, and reaching back into the memory bank for some players he hadn’t seen in a while.
“I usually try to project a year or two forward,” Hamilton said. “I’ll go out and scout, for example if I have players in the Florida State League or the Cal League, or if it’s a Double-A guy were interested in we’ll go look at their games. I try to do a lot of minor-league coverage on an annual basis, to see where guys are in terms of performance.
“Then hopefully you’ve had a history. You don’t have to have played on the junior team to play on the senior team, so you’ve got to do a little bit more background maybe if it’s a player who you don’t have as much familiarity with. But most of the kids I saw in high school as well, and I had a pretty good idea of where they were there, and then you equate that to where they are advancement-wise in terms of the minor-league side of things.
“I’m always trying to look a year or two ahead in terms of the scouting piece, and projecting players and projecting the roster forward. Even now, I’m trying to project our Olympic qualifying roster. We’ll be done some work this year to figure out where some of the older guys are, if they’re going to be able to continue on, and if they have enough baseball left for the next couple of years, and where the younger guys are and which guys will project to that roster.”
Within the last year, Hamilton has made an effort to follow up on each of the players originally identified for the Classic, and continued assessments on who would best fit the stage of the tournament at hand.
“You want to see players a year out, and then you’ve got to follow it up obviously in that year you’re competing because sometimes things change from a year out,” he said. “But it’s about having familiarity with our players. And most of our players having a familiarity with international baseball, because there’s no time to come in and try to figure it out.
“You have to really understand this [stage] or you’re going to struggle to a certain degree. We’re fortunate that we have a system where we identify players very young, and they get international experience very young. Even those who may not directly be involved as young players, we know who they are and we follow and monitor those players.”
Canada’s Classic roster includes nine players – Justin Morneau, Pete Orr, Andrew Albers, Jim Henderson, Chris Leroux, Scott Mathieson, Dustin Molleken, Scott Richmond and Rene Tosoni – who have played in in at least one previous WBC tournament and also have time in the major leagues, while Jonathan Malo boasts Classic time without having made it to the majors.
There are four players – Jamie Romak, Michael Crouse, Tyler O’Neill and Shane Dawson – who have previously played for the country’s senior national team in tournaments other than the WBC, the quartet all with gold medals from one of the two Pan Am Games events in which the Canucks finished on top.
There are nine players with the Canadian squad who have played for the Canadian Junior National Team and are making their debut on the senior squad, including former Cy Young award winner Eric Gagne, and 16-year major league veteran Ryan Dempster, both out of retirement to play for their home country. Nick Pivetta, Dalton Pompey, Rowan Wick, Jesen Therrien, Ryan Kellogg, Daniel Pinero and Josh Naylor round out that group.
“It’s a pretty extensive depth chart,” Hamilton said. “Obviously you start at the top, and in terms of this tournament, with the major-league guys, which are pretty obvious if you have enough depth to look that way, which we do, and then it becomes the right fit. A lot of that is where a player is, in terms of the level but also their mental ability to deal with this. Can they handle this type of stage? This type of environment? That’s important that you know the player.
“So many of the players have come through the younger program. So many of them we’re familiar with as people firsthand, and how they handle situations. Many of the younger guys have had some international experience, even with the senior team at World Cups and things of that nature. So you have a pretty good idea of where that makeup is, in terms of where they are from an advanced perspective, mentally, to deal with the major-league stage, major-league hitters. You can’t afford to go with youth who might panic or not handle the stage because you end up giving games away.”
Five members of Team Canada on the current trip are wearing the red-and-white jersey for the first time. Minor leaguers Eric Wood and Mike Reeves are each getting their first opportunity after significant development in college and pro ball, and the timing finally worked out for George Kottaras to suit up for his home country.
Two players, Freddie Freeman and Kevin Chapman, were born and raised in the United States, but significant family ties Canada, and wanted the opportunity to play on the international stage and represent a piece of them passed down by their parents.
“A lot of that is trying to get to know the player and trying to get to know the player’s motivations,’ Hamilton said. “You’re bringing in – and I want to talk about this word because I’ve got to make sure it’s the right word – a creative Canadian, in the sense that he wasn’t born here, and the flexibility of the WBC allows you to do that.
“So when you’re doing that you want to make sure that the player fits too, and the player’s motivations are – we all have self-motivation – but that the player understands that you’re coming into an environment where playing for your country has to matter. It can’t be superseded by playing for yourself. You have to truly want to do this.
“If you’re bringing in players to this environment who are not fully invested, kind of divided in the thought process about wanting to do it, and it doesn’t fit the makeup on the team, it becomes challenging. A big part of that process is getting to understand why the player wants to do this and why he’s interested in playing for Canada. Freddie had some very strong emotions about doing that, very genuine emotions.”
The Atlanta Braves first baseman has been hoping to represent the country where his father and late mother were born for several years, but with Canadian MVPs Joey Votto and Morneau previously with the squad, he had to wait for the opportunity that finally came this year.
“In Freddie’s case it was obviously having a familiarity with him directly in terms of the interest level, and then for us – as crazy as it sounds – on the front end, unfortunately it didn’t fit because we had our first baseman and DH locked in,” Hamilton said. “The nice part is, you go through the process and realize how well he’ll fit just because of the fact that he understood that and was respectful of that.
“Freddie Freeman is obviously good enough to play for Canada in the World Baseball Classic, it was just the positional challenge. For him to be understanding of the process, be patient with the process, in my mind really reflects well of bringing somebody in here of who’s going to fit; really fit in our clubhouse.
“You don’t win in your clubhouse, but you can kind of lose if your clubhouse is all over the place. We pride ourselves over the years on having a group of people who fit and work together, and they compete together and they care.”
Chapman reached out to Canadian utility player Romak in the fall after having played with him five years earlier in the Royals organization, hoping that Canada might have room for him in the bullpen, and he was a player the team couldn’t pass up.
“It actually started with Jamie and the familiarity with him, and then you crosscheck it and get to know the player, what our options are, whether the player fits or doesn’t fit, in terms of what we have,” Hamilton said. “Kevin’s dad was born in Toronto, and he was very interested in doing it.
“And as you talked to him, you got to know that it wasn’t just that he thought, ‘Maybe I can’t play for somebody else so I’ll go try to play for you guys, and I don’t really care about you guys but I’ll play for you,’ because that becomes important.”
Once Chapman checked out through the extensive background back Hamilton utilized his network to complete, it made perfect sense to find some room for the hard-throwing lefty on the roster.
“In his case, it’s a left-handed bullpen arm that has current major-league experience,” Baseball Canada’s director of national teams said. “We’re not deep enough to overlook that, obviously, if he’s pitching at the big-league level, coming out of the bullpen at the major-league level. You make some phone calls, you talk to people who are very familiar with him, which I did, and in the Astros organization with people who have had real good looks in the present, but to add that level of arm with that level of experience, we’re going to do that.”
With a wide range of ages and experience on this national team, the youngest player being San Diego Padres prospect Naylor at 19, who finished his stint with the junior team just 18 months ago, to 41-year-old Gagne, Hamilton’s evaluations became very much about the pieces fitting the puzzle and who could best perform on the highest international stage.
“We’ve always had to be a little creative, especially at this level, because we’re never going to be able to field ‘the perfect major-league roster,’” Hamilton said. “The creativity has to blend youth and experience, and you can’t be too old and you can’t be too young. You have to make sure we’re able to blend the right mix because when you get too young, I don’t care how talented we are and how projectable we are.
“Take Naylor for example, Naylor can handle this stage. He’s young but he can handle this stage. He’s shown us since he was 14 that he could play up and playing up didn’t intimidate him at all. You need to know that, because as talented as he is, if he’s tentative and overwhelmed by the environment, talent’s not going to matter.
“So it’s knowing the player, knowing the makeup, and blending the right mix with a lot of the guys at the age that we have, who are at the back end of their careers, they’ve had extensive time here and they’re fully invested and they really care. They tend to play up in these types of tournaments, because they really, really care.”
Before, during, and after the tournament, the generations of baseball working side-by-side has been obvious, with Morneau paving the way for Naylor, Gagne working with young Phillies hurler Therrien through the past three off-seasons, veteran Orr working out with first-timer Reeves back at home, Romak sharing his knowledge at third base with Wood at third base, and on and on.
The passion for the Canadian product is evident each and every moment the players are together, on and off the field, which is what makes the program everything that it is and has become.
“It means everything,” Hamilton said. “That’s why it works, and why we’re able to connect generations. That’s why we’re able to have the commitment to the program. Let’s face it, none of these guys have to do this. They’re certainly not doing it for financial remuneration when they’re play in the national program. We have to build a culture that people want to be a part of, and we try very hard to treat them the right way. And this is pure baseball.
“They come back and play for their country and they play for one another and enjoy. There’s a competitive piece to this that they really, really embrace, but there’s a family piece to this that they deeply care about and they enjoy. They enjoy the experience of being part of it, and by having Josh connected with Justin, not only does it pass the torch but it continues to keep Justin connected to the program, which to me is very important.”