When Team Canada reports to Mesa, Ariz. to prepare for the first round of the World Baseball Classic in early March, the future of Canadian baseball will be on full display.
While Canada wasn’t able to get a full turnout, with some of its top players tied down by club commitments or injuries, the door was left open for the next wave of talent.
The foundation for the eventual 30-man roster representing the maple leaf in the fifth iteration of the tournament was laid at Baseball Canada’s National Teams Banquet, held in mid-January in Toronto.
It was there that Greg Hamilton, director of men’s national teams, looked over a group of Baseball Canada’s finest and encouraged the younger players in the room to lean on and learn from the accomplished veterans suiting up alongside them.
“When we’re able to connect generations of players … it’s really powerful,” Hamilton said at the banquet. “Players have to want to play for their country, but when they enjoy coming back to compete together and want to play for their country, it means something.
“For us to have a culture of connectivity is really important.”
Connecting generations may be a theme for this version of Team Canada. With ex-major leaguers like Andrew Albers, Adam Loewen and John Axford on the WBC roster and former all-stars Ernie Whitt, Larry Walker and Russell Martin on the coaching staff, there will be knowledge for the next generation to absorb.
The crew of current prospects and aspiring big leaguers that hope to further their development and put themselves on the map at this year’s tournament includes the likes of Twins infield prospect Edouard Julien, Cubs outfield prospect Owen Caissie, Athletics outfield prospect Denzel Clarke and Rangers pitching prospect Mitch Bratt.
“It’s kind of cool when you have a small group of people and you stay in contact,” Bratt said of the camaraderie within Canadian baseball. “Yes, we’re in different organizations, but when you do run across each other, you give each other a fist bump or a head nod and go your separate ways.”
The 19-year-old southpaw emerged as one of the top young Canadians in pro ball with a strong 2022 that earned him Canadian Baseball Network’s top minor league pitcher award. With the Rangers’ Class A Down East Wood Ducks, he struck out 99 hitters in 80.2 innings and finished with a 2.45 ERA.
While Bratt’s role will likely be in the bullpen, he said that just being named to the tournament roster would be “such an honour.” It’s a sentiment that was shared among many of the younger players contending for roster spots.
“Every time you get to wear the Canadian uniform, it’s going to be a cool experience,” Julien said. “I’m looking forward to seeing some ex-teammates and meeting new ones and being able to pick their brains.”
Julien is coming off a season in which he slashed .300/.441/.490 with the Wichita Wind Surge at double-A. Later, he put on one of the best performances at the 2022 Arizona Fall League (AFL), leading all players in OPS (1.248).
The Twins’ number four prospect was one of six Canadians showcasing their talents in Arizona along with Caissie, Clarke, Brewers infield prospect Tyler Black, Guardians pitching prospect Cade Smith and Blue Jays pitching prospect Adam Macko.
“I was thinking about (all the young Canadian talent) during the fall league because there were four of us on the field,” Julien said. “It’s exciting to see all this young talent and to talk and interact with them, and it’s going to be fun to have a bunch of younger guys growing up together.”
Another one of those players in Arizona was also honoured at the Baseball Canada event, as Clarke took home the Special Achievement Award following a strong season of his own in which he hit 15 home runs and posted an OPS of .834 across two levels.
The 6-foot-5, 22-year-old will have a chance to push for playing time in Phoenix when Canada opens its tournament against Great Britain on March 12.
“I’d be really excited to get that opportunity,” Clarke said before rosters were confirmed in January. “I think there’ll be a lot of success for Canada going forward. When you play for your country, you’re representing more than yourself, so everyone goes into it with a more team-oriented mentality.”
Bratt, Julien and Clarke are far from the only three prospects making their World Baseball Classic debuts in 2023, and that’s just part of what has Hamilton excited about the future.
“We have the opportunity with our younger program to expose them to a professional environment, against professional competition. Then we see them start to get a foothold and establish themselves either in pro ball or through collegiate baseball,” he said. “So it’s nice to see a critical mass of the next generation doing really well. It’s not just one or two, it’s a number of them, so it’s exciting.”