Monday, June 02, 2008

Baseball: Langley prospects blaze trail to the majors

Photo: Brett Lawrie batting for the Canadian junior team in Mexico (Photo from the Langley Blaze website).

Many of the eyes of the baseball world are on my neighbourhood these days, mostly due to the exceptional baseball talent cropping up in its backyard. The key player is phenom Brett Lawrie of the Langley Blaze, who has been high on many people's lists for a long time. Bob Elliott, the great baseball columnist for Sun Media, has had him as the top-rated Canadian prospect since at least April, and wrote an excellent piece on the weekend about how fast Lawrie's stock has been rising. The scouts Elliott quotes offer some very significant praise:

"'He hits the ball with more authority than Justin Morneau in his draft year,' one scout said.
'He's the best high school hitter I've ever seen from Canada,' said another."

That's just the beginning. Consider this passage from later in the article:

"The highlight was a doubleheader sweep of the Seattle Mariners rookie-class Dominican summer league team in which Lawrie hit five homers.
The right-handed hitter had homered three times when a scout said jokingly: 'Well, he hit the ball out to left and centre, but if he was any good he'd be able to it out to right, too.' Two pitches later ... home run to right field.
Asked what he was going to put on his report, the scout answered: 'I'm going to compare him with Babe Ruth ... but I might be a tad light.'
There is not a Ruth in this year's draft. There is only one Lawrie.
'He's such a polished hitter,' said the scouting director of one club which has Lawrie in the mix. 'We go into Ohio or Pennsylvania and see a high school hitter have a great day but the pitcher is throwing 82 m.p.h. We saw Lawrie in Arizona, in Florida and now in the Dominican. He's hitting bombs off second-year pros.'"

There's a key point in there. One of the more interesting but sometimes overlooked points from Michael Lewis' famous book Moneyball (soon to be reviewed in this space) is how Billy Beane and the Oakland A's were big on drafting college players instead of high-school players because they were less of a gamble. Their plan was they could evaluate players more effectively after they had an extensive track record playing against the high-calibre opposition in college than they could from the limited stats and vastly differing quality of competition available in high-school leagues. As I see it, the advantage with this is more of the players you select will work out in the long run: the disadvantage is you're likely to miss out on the absolute cream of the crop, as it's unlikely they'll go unselected out of high school and take the college route. The advantage of Canadian high-schoolers from the Vancouver area is they offer the best of both worlds: they have the chance to compete in a high-quality league where stats actually mean something (the British Columbia Premier Baseball League, spotlighted in Matthew Sekeres' excellent Globe feature this past weekend), but they also haven't been passed over in a previous draft.

Consider this excerpt from Sekeres' piece.

"Major League Baseball's first-year player draft is less than two weeks away and most of the reports have already been filed. In a couple of weeks, the scouts will return to size up British Columbia's crop of 2009 draft-eligible players, who in some cases are just 16.
So goes the cycle of the best amateur baseball league in the country, and a loop that is changing the face of player development in Canada.
Almost a decade after B.C.'s amateur baseball revolution, the Premier League, for players 16 to 18, is a can't-miss stop for professional scouts and college coaches. Since a formal merger between barnstorming clubs on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland in 1999, the league has averaged about seven drafted players a year. Mixed among them are some world-class talents.
'It's certainly the standard in the country,' said Greg Hamilton, the director of national teams for Baseball Canada. 'It brings together the vast majority of talent in one league and matches them with the top coaches.'
From a developmental perspective, the 11-team league measures up to, and beyond, high-school baseball south of the border and it is designed to graduate players into U.S. collegiate ranks. The very best might immediately sign with major-league clubs.
'Normally, the top players play down to the lower players,' said Walt Burrows, the Canadian supervisor for MLB's scouting bureau. 'In their league, it's the opposite. So not only is it a pretty good brand of baseball, but the elite players are challenged. That's the difference between their league and any other league in the country.' ... Today, almost every BCPBL game is a showcase, featuring players worthy of being drafted or of receiving athletic scholarships. The quantity, and quality, of Canadians in the major leagues is on an upswing, and those who monitored the Premier League say it is one of the driving forces behind the trend."

That sounds pretty good to me. It's not just all talk, either: the list of players that have come out of this league is very impressive, including Victoria Mariners' outfielder Rich Harden (now a star pitcher with the Oakland A's), first baseman Justin Morneau and pitcher Jeff Francis of the North Delta Blue Jays (now with the Minnesota Twins and Colorado Rockies respectively), and the highest-drafted Canadian ever, pitcher Adam Loewen of the Whalley Chiefs.

(Interesting sidebar: I actually briefly went to high school with Loewen, who was drafted fourth overall by Baltimore in 2002. He finished Grade 12 at Fraser Valley Christian High that year, the same year I completed Grade Eight.)

Another impressive thing about this league is the opportunities its players have to compete against high-calibre outside competition. Before three of the top Blaze prospects (Lawrie, pitcher Stosh Wawrzasek and outfielder Carter Morrison, who Elliott has ranked fourth and 16th respectively on his most recent list of Canadian prospects) joined the Canadian national junior team for a series against major league clubs' Dominican teams, their club went to Arizona for spring training to take on some pro minor league teams. Check out this piece from my Langley Times colleague Gary Ahuja for more on that trip and the season prospects for the Blaze.

The national junior team also offers some great opportunities for the top Canadian ballplayers, and they're certainly holding their own against tough competition. The team went 7-1 overall against the major-league clubs' Dominican affiliates. All the Langley prospects did well for themselves: Morrison went 3 for 5 with a home run, double and five RBIs in the latest game, Wawrzasek threw six innings over two games with seven strikeouts while allowing only two runs, and Lawrie hit an amazing .500 (17 for 34) during the series with eight home runs. Overall against pro teams this spring, he hit .700 with 14 extra-base hits. As Sekeres writes, his best performance was against the Mariners' affiliate, where he hit an unprecedented five home runs (to all fields) in one day during a doubleheader.

Lawrie probably helped his stock the most with those exhibition trips, but it's been rising faster than technology stocks during the late nineties. On Elliott's April 13 ratings, Lawrie was listed as the top Canadian prospect, but he was rated only 135th on the Perfect Game combined list (high school and college) and only 143rd on Baseball America's top-300 high school prospects list. By April 28, Elliott had him as a potential second-rounder, but others were slower to jump on board: Richard Griffin had him as a third-rounder at best as recently as May 21. The original Baseball America and Perfect Game ratings on him were still in force by May 8, but he'd jumped to 37th in Baseball American's rankings by May 24th. He then quickly rose to 16th, and he's now being trumpeted as at least a mid-first round pick by Sekeres, a possible top-15 selection by Baseball Digest Daily, and even possibly as high as 10th overall by Elliott. Jeff Blair discussed him on Prime Time Sports yesterday and said it would be interesting to see what happens if the Jays have the opportunity to take him with the 16th pick, but he doesn't expect that to occur. "The buzz you're hearing is he won't be available when the Jays pick," he said.

The last word on Lawrie should appropriately go to Elliott:

"Lawrie is a fast-moving stock on the Baseball America top 100 list, going from 56th to 37th to 16th in the past three weeks.
Then came the trip to the Dominican where Lawrie and his pals knocked down fences beating Yankees farmhands 11-3, sweeping the Mariners 8-5 and 14-5, losing 8-7 in the ninth to the Angels, beating the Rangers 8-7, knocking off the Twins 7-1 and humbling the Blue Jays 21-5.
'A bunch of high school kids from Canada laying beatings like that on pros. They almost won every game,' another scout said. 'I'm sure by now they are telling stories on the island, the kid is going to be a legend.'"

This guy could really be special, and his Langley teammates aren't too shoddy, either.

Key links
- Langley Times articles on Lawrie, Wawrzasek and Morrison by Gary Ahuja.
- Matthew Sekeres' Globe feature on the Premier League.
- Elliott's latest column on Lawrie.
- Neate had some thoughts on Lawrie in his latest baseball post.

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