Whitt looking for a few good men

* Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt (Windsor suburb of Clinton, Mich.), left, along with coaches Greg Hamilton (Ottawa, Ont.) and Stubby Clapp (Windsor, Ont.) are looking for a few good men as Canada defends its Pan-Am title against Cuba, Team USA, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Nicaragua. …. 2015 Canadian draft list …. Canadians in College …. Canadians in Minors 2016 Canadian draft list Letters of Intent


By Alexis Brudnicki Canadian Baseball Network Team Canada is the defending champion.

For the first time in program history, the ever-consistent underdog will come into a tournament as the reigning gold-medal winner. After capturing the top spot in the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mex., the senior national squad earned its chance to continue its reign and keep the hardware right at home, with the 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games taking place in Ajax, Ont., in July.

“How many times can Canada say that?” said Shawn Bowman, former Team Canada mainstay and gold-medal winning third baseman.

Precisely one.

That team was special, anyone who was a part of it will admit that. With strong veteran leadership – some of whom have moved on from their playing days over the last four years – and a good understanding of the roles of each contributor, everything came together at the right time.

“So many years before that we had always fallen a little short,” team manager Ernie Whitt said during spring training. “We just had a good feel on that team. All the teams we’ve had, the chemistry has been really good. We’ve had a real good mix of veteran guys and younger guys and they all come together.

“When they put that country on their chests, there’s no stopping them. They’re going to give it their best the whole time. That’s what we expect as a coaching staff and our veteran players bring that sense of urgency to the younger players. We’ve never had to bury our heads in shame because we battle to the end. Whether we’re winning or losing, we’re going to battle.”

The challenge to defend their title will be difficult for the team from north of the border, and the win under their belts doesn’t make it any easier, nor does it matter as soon as the upcoming event gets underway.

Canada opens the tournament against the Dominican Republic, also taking on Colombia and Nicaragua before matching up against Cuba – the team that had won the previous 10 Pan Am tournaments and held the title for four decades. After another round-robin game against Puerto Rico, the Canadian squad’s last matchup before semi-final play begins will be against Team USA.

“We are an underdog of sorts, when you stack us up against USA and Cuba,” Bowman said. “They’re always historical powerhouses. But you can’t doubt the fact that we have a gold medal in the previous tournament and everyone knows that.

“People are really going after us now. Year by year, over the last decade we’re just starting to really be a contributor and be effective at the international level. I don’t think we’re taken lightly.”

Added Whitt, during a conference call: “A lot of people overlook us because they think that Canada is a country of hockey players, but we’ve got an awful lot of good baseball players in this country too. We may not have the [same] pool to draw from as the United States or the Dominican, but the players that we do have, they come together, they gel, when they put that Canadian uniform on, it’s no stopping them.”

With the loss of several players who took on large supporting roles with that team four years ago, this year’s squad will welcome some new faces. Rebuilding the roster won’t be easy, but it will be exciting to see what a new-look lineup might be capable of.

“Our greater challenge this year is going to be transitioning our roster more than anything,” said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams. “We’ve got a lot of work to do with that. The challenge is not to be too old or too young, and you can’t afford to be too young. It’s going to be probably by and large a Triple-A, veteran-type tournament … we’ve been fortunate over the years to be fairly successful in transitioning those rosters, and hopefully we can do it again.”

Added Whitt: “We need a veteran presence, but we also know that we’ve got to start breaking in some younger guys too. It makes it a lot easier when you do have the veteran presence that’s been through it before. It helps the younger guys approach every game as if it’s the last game of the World Series. When you’re in a tournament like that, that’s basically what it is.”

There’s little doubt that the team fighting for gold in Ajax will carry a large number of veterans, with at least half of the members of the previous Pan Am roster still playing professionally. While affiliated players who are not on their major-league team’s 40-man roster are technically available to leave and represent their country, some will have tough decisions based on their standing within the organization and how close they feel they might be to making the big-league roster.

“There are a number of players who are out there who are on our depth chart that we are hoping to secure and to play,” Whitt said. “Naturally we would love for those guys to be playing in the big leagues, which would make it tougher on us, but ultimately that’s the goal of all the players in the minor leagues is to play in the big leagues.”

Three gold-medal winners are currently playing at the Triple-A level for their respective clubs, with North Battleford, Sask.’s Andrew Albers in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, Regina, Sask. native Dustin Molleken with the Cleveland Indians, and London, Ont.’s Jamie Romak with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Also in Triple-A, and members of Canada’s most recent World Baseball Classic team are Richmond Hill, Ont., native Pete Orr and Mississauga, Ont.’s Chris Leroux. Both are currently playing for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. Also with Milwaukee, Taylor Green (Comox, BC) manned third base at the last Classic, and is currently in Double-A.

Two members of the 2011 Pan Am squad are also in Double-A right now, with Delta, BC right-hander Kyle Lotzkar playing with the Texas Rangers, and native of Bow Island, Alta., Skyler Stromsmoe manning second base in the San Francisco Giants organization.

At least six of the players who on the team inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame after their performance in Guadalajara are starting this season in independent leagues, including 33-year-old former big-league hurler Shawn Hill (Mississauga, Ont.), who will open with the Atlantic League’s York Revolution on Friday.

Other members of the Pan Am squad – and WBC roster – who are continuing to play for independent teams include Mark Hardy (Campbell River, BC), Jay Johnson (Sussex Corner, NB), Jonathan Malo (Joliette, Que.) and Tim Smith (Toronto, Ont.). Rene Tosoni (Port Coquitlam, BC) was not on the gold-medal-winning team, but was at the Classic, and is playing after winning an off-season championship with Smith for the Perth Heat in the Australian Baseball League.

“We’ll have some veterans who will be there who have been through the trenches with us before, that will help guide us through it,” Team Canada’s skipper said. “And again, we have a lot of confidence in the players that we’re going to choose, that they’ll go out and they’re going to play and they’ll represent their country.”

Also on the radar and not on that team in Mexico are pitchers like Phillippe Aumont (Gatineau, Que.), and 2002 first-round southpaws Adam Loewen (Vancouver, BC) and Jeff Francis (North Delta, BC). All three have big-league time, and while Francis’ recent call up to the Toronto Blue Jays roster makes his presence less likely, the possibility still exists. Aumont and Loewen are currently on the Lehigh Valley IronPigs roster, the Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. Luke Carlin (Aylmer, Que.) is currently in Triple-A with the Nashville Sounds in the Oakland Athletics organization. Scott Diamond (Guelph, Ont.) is with the Durham Bulls, the International League affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. George Kottaras (Scarborough, Ont.) is with the Charlotte Knights, a Chicago White Sox affiliate also in the IL. Jordan Lennerton is playing first base for the Toledo Mud Hens, Detroit's Triple-A squad.

Though currently on the seven-day disabled list with the Mobile Baybears, Arizona Diamondbacks farmhand Sean Jamieson could certainly compete for a spot at shortstop. Vancouver’s Tyson Gillies has been a force in Team Canada lineups of the past, the outfielder with the San Diego Padres’ Double-A affiliate in San Antonio, Tex.

Young up-and-coming players like Nick Pivetta (Victoria, BC) and Kellin Deglan (Langley, BC) could certainly have a shot at the roster as well, 22-year-old Pivetta impressing on the mound through just two seasons of professional baseball so far, and Deglan, also 22, earning his first spot on the senior team at the World Baseball Classic qualifier in Regensburg, Germany, in 2012.

“We definitely try to get the best players who are available to us but we definitely want some who have had international experience before, knowing that these tournaments here, they’re totally different from playing in a regular season,” Whitt said. “It’s almost a playoff atmosphere where every game is important.

“Again, you’re trying to position yourself to make it into the final four so that you can get into the medal rounds. Every game is very important. It’s not like, well we lost today so we’ll go back and get them tomorrow. It’s, we’ve got to win the game that we play.”

Whitt and Hamilton will start to firm up their selections by mid-May, and players will have to decide whether or not they will be able to play by around the first week of June, before final rosters are submitted. At the beginning of July, Team Canada will head to Cary, NC, for a series of exhibition games against Cuba and Team USA at the USA Baseball National Training Complex, before the Games begin.

Alongside Whitt and Hamilton, Denis Boucher, Stubby Clapp, Larry Walker and Paul Quantrill continue from the staff at the 2013 World Baseball Classic to join them in Ajax.

The only member of that coaching staff not returning will be Tim Leiper, who will be fulfilling his first-base-coaching duties for the Blue Jays. He is hoping to get some time to see the squad he helped coach to gold four years ago, and is excited for the opportunity on home soil.

“Our semi-final game was against Mexico, so there was a good crowd there,” Leiper said of the last Pan Am tournament. “And then in the gold-medal game there was a good crowd. Playing in those games, there’s so much more at stake.

“It was like playing in the Olympics, when sometimes the crowd is maybe not as good but the games are really important and there’s more of an intensity to them. It was a good crowd, but it would be better if it was in Ajax.”