Stevenson to pitch against Blue Jays today at spring training

The Canadian Press
Published on March 11, 2014

Playing any major league squad is memorable for the Canadian junior baseball team but today's date with the Toronto Blue Jays is extra special.

Major league teams provide a variety of opposition against the Canadian juniors, with many fielding prospects. The Jays take it a lot more seriously than most.

Among the players in the junior program is Islander J.P. Stevenson of New Glasgow.

"Looking forward to facing a few big leaguers tomorrow! Hoping I get to pitch to (Brett Lawrie)," Stevenson said Monday on Twitter.

Winnipeg's Ben Onyshko is slated to start against the Jays today, followed by Zach Pop of Brampton, Ont., Stevenson, Isaac Anesty of Guelph, Ont., and Keenan Williams of Vancouver.

Jays expected to figure in the game include Canadian Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind and Munenori Kawasaki and pitchers Brandon Morrow and Steve Delabar, among others.

"That's truly a split squad. They're all big league camp guys," said Greg Hamilton, head coach of the juniors and Baseball Canada's director of national teams. "The other clubs that we're playing, they wouldn't be all big league camp guys."

Today's game is a partnership with the Jays, who will also bring in a lot of the Canadians in their organization.

"It's a real nice Canadian day at the park," said Hamilton.

The game is set for Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg. Built in 1947, the Florida park has served as a spring home to the Yankees, Cardinals, Mets, Orioles and Rays among others.

The Canadian schedule is built around a qualifying tournament in Mexico in September for the 2015 world junior championships in Japan. Canada is bidding to become one of four teams to emerge from the Americas.

For Hamilton, Baseball's Canada's overwhelming mandate is to develop talent. He sees it as 90 per cent of the job, with the remaining 10 per cent focused on actually winning internationally.

The current squad is made up of 15- to 18-year-olds, with the majority 16 or 17.

Lawrie, now 24 and entering his third full season in the majors, came into the program when he was 14. So did Gareth Morgan, a highly touted outfielder from Toronto who at 18 is in his last year with Hamilton's squad.

Like Morgan, infielder Robert Byckowski of Toronto and first baseman/outfielder Mitch Bigras of Sarnia, Ont., are drawing plenty of attention.

Other graduates of the program include Justin Morneau, Russell Martin, Jeff Francis and Jason Bay.

The Canadian juniors play in the fall instructional league against young major league talent before their spring series in Florida in March and April.

This year, the Florida opposition includes teams from the Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals as well as the Jays.

In May, the Canadians take part in the Dominican Summer League. The idea is to expose the young players to a professional environment and competition.

"You learn, you develop, you grow," said Hamilton. "And it pays huge dividends as they move forward in the game."

Hamilton estimates a lot of his players will have played more than 100 pro games by the time they are high school seniors.

The Canadians lost 10-6 to a team of Phillies prospects in their opening game Sunday.

Monday featured a date with a squad of Washington Nationals prospects.

Canadian coaches Ernie Whitt and Rob Ducey were part of the Phillies' travelling party. Whitt, the current Canadian national team manager, is a roving catching instructor in the Philadelphia organization while Ducey will spend the 2014 season coaching at double-A Reading.

The Canadian coaching staff this spring includes former star Jays infielder Roberto Alomar.

Scouts will be watching the Canada series closely, to see who rates further examination.