By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
DUNEDIN, Florida – Connor Panas learned a lot in his first full season of professional baseball.
Last year, the left-handed-hitting utility player spent his season with the Class-A Lansing Lugnuts after being selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the ninth round of the 2015 draft out of Canisius College. Though it took a while for him to get regular playing time, he found success in multiple areas, and figured out what he could do to have even more this year.
“There were some things I had to fix,” Panas said. “Fundamentally, I had to make some changes in my swing, so I really focused on that during the winter. The big thing with me is that I’m a big, strong guy, so I didn’t necessarily need to gain any more muscle or power in the weight room, I just had to maintain it.”
Returning home to Etobicoke, Ont., for the off-season, the first thing the 24-year-old did with his time away from the field was attend every Blue Jays playoff game at Rogers Centre, after missing just one post-season matchup for his hometown team the previous year.
When he got back into baseball activities, he spent time between the Ontario Blue Jays facility in Mississauga, Ont., and with the Toronto Mets, the program he played with during his high school years, hitting and working out with other local pros Malik Collymore, Pete Orr, Marcus Knecht and Mike Reeves.
Panas also went back to his alma mater to work out with the Golden Griffins on two occasions, where he hopes to inspire players in the same way he was motivated in college.
“The guys at Canisius look up to me because I was a guy from a small, mid-major school who stood out, and look where I am right now,” he said. “I guess it’s like me going into the program and seeing [Arizona Diamondbacks farmhand and Kitchener, Ont., native] Sean Jamieson. I thought, ‘Wow, if he can do that, I can do that,’ and I feel like it’s the same sort of thing…
“Growing up, in high school, I never got a shot at the youth team, didn’t play for Team Canada. I always got overlooked, and I didn’t let it get me down. I went to college, and I got better. I did really well and it gave me a sense of pride in knowing that I didn’t give up. Look where I am now, even though I didn’t get that shot earlier, so it’s nice.”
Through the winter, Panas was working on creating a better bat path, using drills that his hitting coach from Lansing, Donnie Murphy, had offered. He also watched a lot of videos of major leaguers like Jason Kipnis and fellow Etobicoke native Joey Votto to help him see the changes he wanted to implement.
“I basically just changed my bat angle for where my swing is,” the 6-foot, 220-pound slugger said. “It’s where my load ends up, because sometimes I would lose my barrel and then I would end up fouling off a pitch that I should have hit in the gap.
“So I was trying to be more consistent barreling up baseballs. I felt great during spring training and the first few games I’ve played here in Dunedin [with the Class-A Advanced Blue Jays], so I think it’s worked. But right now you can’t think about fundamentals, you’ve just got to go out there and play.”
Panas began the year with Dunedin getting into games infrequently, with a stint on the phantom disabled list that sidelined him for most of April. After a similar experience last year, the hitter has learned to take advantage of every opportunity to stay ready, and he continues to impress John Schneider, the manager he’s had in each year of his minor-league career.
“He was great last year,” Schneider said. “He got off to a slow start but he ended up with 16 homers and 50 RBI in only 321 at-bats, not even playing every day. Obviously he brings a lot of power potential, and the defensive versatility between the outfield and first base is big for him, and no one works harder than him.
“So where he’s at right now is not going to be permanent. It happens to a lot of guys in the minor leagues, based on needs at other positions, so we’re going to look for him to pick up right where he left off. He’s been so much better this year with his approach at the plate, his swing mechanics have improved, his two-strike approach has improved, and he’s a guy I love having on the team.”
In the 162 career games he’s logged, Panas has hit .239/.341/.428 with 24 home runs, 21 doubles, five triples, 81 runs scored and 85 driven in. In his limited sample size this season, the Canuck is hitting .208/.288/.396 in 14 games with three home runs, one double and seven RBI, including a walk-off solo homer in the 10th inning of Thursday’s game against the Tampa Yankees.
“I just look at it like last year,” he said. “Last year, I went to Lansing and literally for the first month-and-a-half of the season I was getting five to eight at-bats a week. So it was frustrating, but I didn’t let it get me down. I did the things I could control, like being a good teammate and how I work and stuff like that, and I finally got my chance in June.
“I did really well and I proved to them that I want to be a guy who plays every day. So I had a really good year last year, I hit a lot of home runs and my power showed, and I’m in the exact same situation as last year. I have to wait my turn and once I get it, my work that I’ve done in the off-season and what I’m doing every day now, it’s going to pay off and I’ll prove myself again.”