Simpson: Tough for this year or any other to beat 2002 Canuck class

The 2002 MLB Draft was the "gold standard" for Canadians, with left-handers Adam Loewen (Surrey, B.C.) and Jeff Francis (North Delta, B.C.) being selected in the first round and Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) taken in the second. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The 2002 MLB Draft was the "gold standard" for Canadians, with left-handers Adam Loewen (Surrey, B.C.) and Jeff Francis (North Delta, B.C.) being selected in the first round and Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) taken in the second. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

By Allan Simpson

Canadian Baseball Network

Canada’s contribution to Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft has been modest through the years, but the country’s gold standard is and may always be 2002.

That year, British Columbia left-handers Adam Loewen (Orioles, fourth overall) and Jeff Francis (Rockies, ninth) were among the first 10 players selected, future National League MVP Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) was taken in the second round and more Canadians were drafted overall (48) than in any year since 1991, when the process was expanded to incorporate players from north of the border for the first time.

Through the years, some 878 players with a Canadian upbringing have been drafted, including 10 in the first round. But no single year comes close to making a greater impact from a Canadian standpoint than 2002, or has ever featured a talent of Loewen’s magnitude.

“To this day, he’s still the best high school player I’ve ever seen, Canadian or otherwise,” says Greg Hamilton, who has coached and overseen Canada’s junior national team since 1998. “When you put everything together — the size, athleticism, the bat, the raw power, the low-90s fastball, the quality breaking ball — Adam had the whole package. He did everything so easily. He was drafted as a pitcher, but in my mind, he could have been a prolific power hitter as well as a Gold Glove candidate at first base or in right field if he had been developed as a hitter.”

Greg Hamilton (Ottawa, Ont.) who has run the Canadian Junior National Team program since 1998.

Greg Hamilton (Ottawa, Ont.) who has run the Canadian Junior National Team program since 1998.

Fifteen years later, there are no players from Canada of Loewen’s immense stature, nor any projected first-rounders of any kind. The country’s overall contribution to this year’s draft is expected to be relatively uneventful, falling somewhere in the range from 30 picks (27 Canadians were drafted in 2016) to 25 (the total from 2015).

Last year’s draft at least featured right-hander Cal Quantrill (Padres, eighth overall), a product of Port Hope, Ontario, by way of Stanford University, while 2015 boasted twin first-rounders in Josh Naylor (Marlins, 12th), a slugging first baseman from Mississauga, Ontario, and Calgary prep right-hander Mike Soroka (Braves, 28th). Quantrill and Naylor both rank among the five highest Canadians ever drafted.

Hamilton is quick to admit that Canada’s 2002 draft class, led by Loewen and Francis, was one of a kind, but says the junior teams that represented Canada in world competition from 2013-16 had the type of elite individual talent to measure up to any group of players that the country has ever fielded in international competition. It just wasn’t concentrated in a single draft year.

“Quantrill, Naylor and Soroka, as well as Gareth Morgan (Mariners, 2014, second round), Tyler O’Neill (Mariners, 2013/third round) and Demi Orimoloye (Brewers, 2015/fourth round) were all products of those teams,” Hamilton says, “but it was more of a 3-to-4-year cycle thing with them, rather than any one year. Yet on those occasions when we had them all together, playing on the same team in the World Juniors, we were the most athletic and physical team in the tournament.”

The first Canadian off the draft board this year is likely to be one of two high-school talents from Ontario—righthander Landon Leach from Pickering or shortstop Adam Hall from London. According to most pre-draft projections, both are candidates to go late in the second round or early in the third, though the prevailing sentiment is that Leach will be picked first.

Several other players with Canadian upbringings could fall in lock-step behind that pair, including the likes of outfielders Clayton Keyes (Calgary, Alta.) and Cooper Davis (Mississauga, Ont.), and infielder Jason Willow (Victoria, B.C.). University of Kentucky junior righthander Zachary Pop (Brampton, Ont.), product, also should factor into that mix. He’s the highest-ranking Canadian attending a U.S. college.

Not only is it highly unlikely that a Canadian will be picked in the first round, but it’s doubtful that the number of Canadians drafted in the first 10 rounds will reach double figures, or match the existing record of 10 — set in 2007 and matched in 2015. Last year’s draft featured nine Canadians in the first 10 rounds, as did the vaunted 2002 process.

“It’s a solid group overall this year, though it might be a challenge for the pro guys with the way the draft works today,” says Hamilton, who returned recently from the Dominican Republic after taking a squad comprised of Canada’s best prospects for this year’s draft on its annual barnstorming trip to that country just prior to the draft. “We may not have as many players who might go in the first 10 rounds as in past years, mainly because so many of our better players are eyeing going to prominent colleges in the U.S. The impact of this group on the draft may not be felt until farther down the road.”

In short, 2017 is not considered a banner year by Canada’s draft standards—and it’s certainly not on a par with 2002, when Loewen and Francis, the twin 6-foot-5 southpaws, set the draft world abuzz.

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Together, Loewen and Francis marked the two highest Canadians ever drafted at the time, and oddly the pair grew up just five miles from one another in the suburbs of Vancouver. Neither of Canada’s major-league teams, the Blue Jays or Expos, had a shot at landing Loewen, but the Expos chose to pass on Francis with the fifth pick overall.

Unlike Francis, a University of British Columbia product who agreed to terms in short order with the Rockies on a $1.85 million bonus, Loewen’s signing was one of the longest, and most-drawn out ever for a first-rounder.

Baltimore initially offered Loewen a $2 million bonus, but Loewen and his adviser countered with a bonus demand of $4.8 million — a 14% increase from the $4.2 million bonus that Gavin Floyd received from the Philadelphia Phillies as the No. 4 overall pick in 2001. The Orioles eventually moved off their initial offer to $2.5 million, matching the bonuses received by high-school righthanders Chris Gruler (Reds) and Clint Everts (Expos), the two players drafted on each side of Loewen, while the Loewen camp came down to $3.9 million.

With the sides more than $1 million apart and negotiations at a stalemate, and Loewen’s deadline to enroll in college at hand, he opted for school.

Adam Loewen slugging at a Chipola alumni home run derby

Adam Loewen slugging at a Chipola alumni home run derby

Loewen, whose Langley, B.C., high school didn’t field a baseball team, was initially scheduled to attend college at Arizona State, but because of his overriding desire to sign a pro contract sooner than later he switched course at the last minute and enrolled instead at Chipola (Fla.) Junior College. Under draft rules in place at the time, that enabled the Orioles to retain Loewen’s rights and be in position to sign him the following spring in the window between the end of Chipola’s season and a week before the 2003 draft. Had Loewen opted for ASU, he wouldn’t have been eligible to sign again until 2005.

By attending a junior college, Loewen also became the first first-rounder ever to opt for a junior college since the draft-and-follow era began in 1986. That provision has since been phased out.

The 6-foot-5, 210-pound Loewen was different from most prospects in draft history in that he had near-equal ability as both a pitcher and hitter, and legitimately could have been drafted in the first round at either position. The Orioles saw slightly more upside in Loewen on the mound and drafted him with the intent of developing him as a pitcher. He starred for Canada at the 2002 World Junior Championship as an outfielder, hitting a tournament-best .733, but at the request of the Orioles he agreed not to pitch in the tournament, though had dominated on the mound at the same tournament a year earlier.

As expected, Loewen was used in both roles as a freshman at Chipola, but thrived more as a pitcher while going 6-1 with a 2.47 ERA with a fastball that consistently registered between 90-94 mph and a curve that already was rated major-league caliber. He also added a slider to his repertoire that spring.

Loewen had until midnight on May 26, 2003, to strike a deal with the Orioles, or else be required to re-enter the 2003 draft pool, where he might have been the first player taken, and Michael Moye, Loewen’s agent, needed every last minute to get a deal in place. At that, it only happened when the Orioles capitulated and finally offered a major-league contract in the final hour to sweeten the deal. Loewen received a total package of $4.02 million—$3.2 million in the form of a signing bonus spread over four years, and at least $820,000 in salary over five years. It was basically the same package he sought the previous summer.

Loewen reached the majors as a starting pitcher in 2006, pretty much on schedule, but ended up partaking in one of the most unique careers of any high-profile draft pick in baseball history over the next decade. It mainly amounted to an exercise in perseverance as Loewen sustained two separate stress fractures in his elbow during his three seasons as a starter for the O’s, which all but ended his career on the mound and he was released after the 2008 season. Undeterred, Loewen headed back to the minor leagues in an attempt to resurrect his career as an outfielder and actually returned to the majors briefly in that capacity with the Blue Jays in 2011.

He spent two more seasons in the minors attempting to make it as a position player, but when he eventually determined that the pain in his elbow had disappeared, Loewen again decided to try his hand at pitching. He showed enough promise to be offered a minor-league deal by the Phillies in April 2014, and in 19 starts that season, mostly at double-A Reading, he went 5-5 with a 3.26 ERA.

It was not a particularly smooth transition as Loewen was plagued by control issues, but the Phillies shifted him to the bullpen for the 2015 season and re-assigned him to Reading, where his mechanics were altered by Rafael Chavez, the organization's pitching coordinator. The changes Chavez made added new life to Loewen’s fastball, which was soon back up to 95 mph, and the corresponding results did nothing but open eyes in Philadelphia. Between Reading and a promotion to triple-A Lehigh Valley, Loewen posted a 2.02 ERA in 40 appearances, while striking out 73 in 58 innings. Suddenly, he was on his way back to the majors as a pitcher—seven years after he last took the mound in a big-league game. He made 20 appearances in relief for the Phillies to close out the 2015 season, and worked eight more games as a reliever with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016.

Loewen's return to the majors completed a most improbable—and unprecedented—journey. No player in big-league history had ever gone from highly-regarded pitching prospect to borderline outfielder scraping to make a living and back to a converted reliever. Now 33 years old, Loewen has spent a lot more of an unfulfilled 15-year career in the minors than majors, but he still hasn’t given up the dream as he continues to pitch as a reliever in the Texas Rangers system. He began the year in double-A trying to adapt to a new sidearm delivery but recently was promoted to Triple-A and harbors hope that another big-league promotion is in the offing.

Delta, B.C., native Jeff Francis, who was taken ninth overall in the 2002 MLB Draft, pitched parts of 11 seasons in the big leagues. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Delta, B.C., native Jeff Francis, who was taken ninth overall in the 2002 MLB Draft, pitched parts of 11 seasons in the big leagues. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Francis had a more-conventional career as a big-league pitcher, going 72-82, with a 4.98 ERA in 252 appearances over 11 seasons. He made 14 relief appearances for the Blue Jays in 2015, and retired following that season.

1B Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) was the class of the 2002 draft. 

1B Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) was the class of the 2002 draft. 

For all the hype that Loewen and Francis generated in the 2002 draft because of their Canadian roots, no Canadian made more of an impact in the majors among the record number of Canadians drafted that year than Votto, a second-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds as a catcher out of a Toronto high school. Now in his 11th season with that team as a first baseman, Votto is a career .310 hitter with 236 homers and an overall .424 on-base average. On four occasions, he has led National League hitters in walks. He was selected the N.L. MVP in 2010.

The impact Canadians had on the 2002 draft only continued with the selection of Toronto-born right-hander Jesse Crain, a second-round pick of the Minnesota Twins who went 45-30 with a 3.05 ERA in 532 relief appearances over 11 seasons, and third baseman Russell Martin, a 17th-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers and a teammate of Loewen’s at Chipola JC. Martin was almost immediately converted to catcher by the Dodgers, and impressively led four different teams, including the Blue Jays, to nine post-season appearances in 11 years as a stalwart at the position. Along the way, he has hit .254 with 167 homers.

Not to be overlooked, 2002 also saw the signing of another Canadian of note, right-hander Blake Hawksworth, a 28th-round draft-and-follow from the previous year’s draft. A native of North Vancouver, B.C., Hawksworth was drafted by the Cardinals out of Bellevue (Wash.) Community College. He signed on the eve of the 2002 draft for $1.475 million — then the third-largest bonus ever for a draft-and-follow.

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With the phasing out of the draft-and-follow rule in 2007, along with a reduction in the number of rounds in the draft from 50 to 40 five years ago, the effect of those rules revisions has significantly impacted the number of Canadians drafted in recent years. From 2002’s high of 48, to 46 in both 1999 and 2003, that number bottomed out at 16 in 2014. The last five years that the draft was 50 rounds the average number of Canucks selected from rounds 41 to 50 was eight a season.

That’s not necessarily an indictment on the quality or volume of baseball talent flowing from Canada, though this year hardly qualifies as a banner crop by any standard.

While it was a toss-up earlier this spring whether Leach or Hall—or maybe even the hard-throwing Pop--would be the first Canadian player picked, Leach appears to have emerged as the leading candidate among scouts who have closely tracked Canada’s best prospects.

Right-hander Landon Leach (Pickering, Ont.) is forecast to be the first Canadian chosen in the 2017 MLB Draft. Photo Credit: Baseball Canada

Right-hander Landon Leach (Pickering, Ont.) is forecast to be the first Canadian chosen in the 2017 MLB Draft. Photo Credit: Baseball Canada

After becoming a full-time pitcher only a year ago with the Toronto Mets travel program while being utilized as a closer in stints with Canada’s junior team, Leach opened eyes this spring pitching in a starting role for Team Canada on its customary barnstorming trips to Florida and the Dominican. A University of Texas recruit, Leach’s fastball has peaked at 96 mph, but his remaining pitches, while promising, are more of a work in progress.

“Landon is more of a late bloomer because he’s relatively new to pitching and has not been to a lot of the big showcases. The love for him has come a little later,” says Hamilton. “But he has a 92-95 mph arm, does it easily and has shown that he can maintain that velocity to at least the fifth inning.”

With his mid-90s fastball and room to add strength to his long, lanky frame, combined with coming from a colder climate than other top pitching prospects, Leach is seen as extremely projectable. He has already been favorably compared to Soroka, now a promising prospect in the Atlanta Braves organization, though scouts acknowledge that Leach is more of a diamond in the rough and not as established as Soroka was coming out of high school two years ago. The lack of polish will preclude Leach from being tapped in the first round.

The 6-foot, 170-pound Hall, meanwhile, is the more accomplished prospect of the two because of the standout summer he enjoyed on the showcase circuit a year ago. A Texas A&M recruit, he has a lot of dimensions to his game with his advanced approach, as well as his ability to run 60 yards in 6.3 seconds and drive balls with authority to the gaps. He also is extremely versatile with the ability to play almost any position on the field.

Hall’s stock for the draft may have slipped marginally this spring, though, amidst concerns that his bat speed has regressed slightly and he has been less aggressive in his approach at the plate. He is also viewed by most scouts as a shortstop first, and his lineage as a middle infielder from Canada may work against him in the scouting industry, as it has with other shortstop prospects in the past.

Keyes was actually a product of the 2016 draft out of Calgary’s Bishop Carroll High and the Okotoks Dawgs as he was selected in the 16th round by the Blue Jays. Rather than sign with the Jays or attend college like most unsigned picks, Keyes has spent the last several months at the Okotoks Dawgs Baseball Academy in Okotoks, Alberta, with the express purpose of sharpening his variety of skills. He has also played intermittently with Canada’s junior national team on its various travels to the U.S. and beyond.

If seen on the right day, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Keyes could conceivably slot into the top three rounds on the basis of his superior athleticism, especially his combination of speed and power. But Keyes’ overall performance at the plate has been inconsistent, and he missed most of Team Canada’s recent trip to the Dominican Republic with a disabling back injury. With a commitment to Central Arizona College, he may also be the most signable among the crop of Canadian elite high-school picks.

Pop was also an unsigned pick of the Blue Jays — in the 23rd round in 2014, out of an Ontario high school — and has spent the last three seasons at Kentucky, which has had a unique pipeline to Canadian talent through the years, including the likes of Seattle Mariners ace left-hander James Paxton. A year from now, outfielder Tristan Pompey, currently a sophomore for the Wildcats and ineligible for the 2017 draft, is expected to make his mark on the draft.

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Pop has some of the best arm strength in the 2017 U.S. college class with a fastball that routinely sits at 94-98 mph and occasionally touches triple digits—and is often difficult to hit because of the deception and movement he generates from his low three-quarters arm slot. His slider also ranks as an above-average offering, but Pop, a Brampton, Ontario product, has struggled to throw strikes consistently in three years at Kentucky, and an assortment of nagging arm injuries have also precluded him from nailing down a job as Kentucky’s closer.

On raw ability, Davis and Willow have warranted plenty of scrutiny from scouts as other candidates in the first 4-6 rounds, but both are strongly committed to playing in college, and that could significantly jeopardize their draft standing.

The left-handed-hitting Davis has signed on to play for college power Vanderbilt, and big-league teams may be reluctant to buy him away from that commitment unless they believe his power potential is a legitimate tool and warrants the amount of bonus money it will take to pry him away from college. A center fielder now with above-average speed and hitting ability, Davis profiles more as a left fielder in pro ball.

Willow is a shortstop by trade, but profiles more as an third baseman/outfielder in the long run because scouts say he lacks the speed to remain at shortstop. His power needs to evolve to stay third base. But Willow can hit and has been widely praised for his makeup and baseball intelligence. He has a college commitment to UC Santa Barbara.

(Allan Simpson, of Kelowna, BC, the founder of Baseball America was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys in 2011).

 

Allan Simpson

Allan Simpson was one of three 2011 inductees into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. He'll be formally enshrined June 18 in St. Marys, Ont., and joined by former Blue Jays all-star closer Tom Henke and the late George "Dandy"Wood, a Prince Edward Island native who played in almost 1,300 major-league games in the 19th century. Allan, a native of Kelowna, B.C., is the founder of Baseball America, the most influential baseball publication in the business. He began the magazine in the garage of his home in White Rock, B.C., in 1980, before moving with it to its current home in Durham, N.C., in 1983. He remained with the magazine as editor-in-chief until 2006, before joining Perfect Game USA, the world's largest baseball event company and independent scouting service. Allan will write a weekly column for the Canadian Baseball Network to coincide with the website's re-launch. He will address a variety of baseball-related topics, especially as they relate to Canada and Canadians.