By IAN WILSON
As we bid adieu to 2018 and look forward to another year of baseball, we figured now is a good time to look ahead to some of the stories we’ll be keeping an eye on in 2019.
Once again, we’ll be spotlighting Alberta baseball at all levels. We’ll be looking back at the history of the game in this province, checking in on the players who are making an impact now, and looking ahead at some possible stars in the making.
With that in mind, here are five major questions that we have written into our lineup card entering the year:
1. Will Edgar Martinez be selected for the National Baseball Hall of Fame?
It’s been 30 years since Martinez – often referred to simply as “Edgar” – suited up for the Calgary Cannons, but if he is voted into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), he will become the first member of the Cannons to be enshrined at Cooperstown.
Edgar received 70% of the vote last year, falling short of the 75% required for induction, and he is now in his 10th and final year of eligibility. The big knock on the former Seattle Mariner is that he spent the majority of his career playing as a designated hitter (DH), a position baseball purists are loathe to reward because it is not considered as physically demanding as a regular spot on the field.
During 276 games with the Cannons between 1985 and 1989, Martinez hit 21 home runs, produced 167 RBI, scored 176 runs and posted a .344 batting average, earning him a spot in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League (PCL) Hall of Fame in 2013.
His 18 seasons with the Mariners – the only Major League Baseball (MLB) team Martinez played for – yielded 309 home runs, 514 doubles, 1,261 RBI, 1,219 runs, a .312 batting average and a .418 on-base percentage (OBP). He was a five-time Silver Slugger, a two-time batting champion and his career on-base plus slugging (OPS) of .933 prompted MLB to name the annual outstanding DH award after Martinez.
The Mariners inducted Edgar into their Hall of Fame in 2007. The early results (check Twitter’s @NotMrTibbs ballot tracking for the latest) look promising – will this be the year Martinez punches his ticket to Cooperstown? An announcement on the 2019 induction class will be made on Jan. 22nd by the BBWAA.
2. What does the future hold for baseball at RE/MAX Field in Edmonton?
At the last annual gala banquet for the Edmonton Prospects in February, team owner Pat Cassidy told those in attendance that 2018 was a “critical year” for RE/MAX Field, which is home to the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) team.
That’s because redevelopment concepts for the River Crossing area – where RE/MAX Field is situated – were unveiled last year and public input was gathered to determine a plan for the region. Some of those visions included a ballpark and some did not.
Hall-of-Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar, who attended the gala, went to bat for the Prospects by sending a letter to Edmonton city council encouraging the powers that be to include a home for baseball in any future River Crossing development.
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson responded by telling Global News there was “no axe hanging over baseball right now and we want to see the Prospects grow and succeed.” He added: “We haven’t made any determination one way or another what the long-term strategy will be for the ballpark.”
The Prospects have a lease with the City of Edmonton to use RE/MAX Field through 2019 (with an option for 2020, as well), so the team will have a home there for at least this summer. But what happens after that?
The aforementioned concept plans for River Crossing are expected to be discussed by city council early this year. And the Prospects have expressed an interest in exercising the lease option, but that has not yet been agreed upon. The coming months should provide more clarity about the future of RE/MAX Field and where baseball fits into the equation.
Cassidy told Alberta Dugout Stories that he wants to ensure the next long-term tenant at RE/MAX Field has “the best interest of baseball as their guiding principle,” adding “that’s not always been the case” with the ballpark.
“I’m hoping the city doesn’t lose sight of that,” said Cassidy. “We feel we’ve done a tremendous job with grassroots baseball development over the past few years. We certainly feel we have the right team in place and the right product in the Western Canadian Baseball League and the Prospects franchise to facilitate a long-term strategy and plan for the ballpark, but more importantly for baseball development in the Capital Region and right across the Western Canadian landscape.”
3. What can we expect from Mike Soroka in 2019?
The skyrocketing rise of Mike Soroka through the minor leagues reached its apex on May 1, 2018 when the Calgarian made his MLB debut for the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field in New York. The 6-foot-5 starting pitcher made an instant impact, earning a 3-2 win over Noah Syndergaard and the Mets.
Soroka went on to make a total of five starts for Atlanta, going 2-1 with a 3.51 earned-run average (ERA), and striking out 21 batters over 25.2 innings of work. He issued just seven walks and the only home run he surrendered was a solo blast off the bat of Yoenis Cespedes. Soroka also became the youngest Canadian and the first Alberta-born pitcher to start against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Unfortunately, shoulder inflammation and a trip to the disabled list followed that June 19th appearance at Rogers Centre and Soroka sat out the remainder of the season. All indications at the time pointed to Atlanta being ultra-cautious with their prized prospect and the 2015 first-round selection has since said he is at full health and ready to pick up where he left off.
So, what’s next for the former Pro Baseball Force (PBF) Redbird pupil?
Soroka left Calgary in early January for Florida, eager to get to work and enter Spring Training firing on all cylinders. The 21-year-old will have his eye on the starting rotation and will likely be battling for the fifth spot with Touki Toussaint, another former first-rounder and one of several promising youngsters in Atlanta’s system.
With all the internal competition facing Soroka, there are no guarantees that he will make the starting rotation, or even be a part of the Opening Day roster. But, assuming he remains healthy, we expect Soroka will be back in the bigs in 2019 and we’re excited to see what he can accomplish over the course of a full season.
4. What players from Alberta will be selected in the MLB draft this year?
Draft day is always a special time for players, scouts, coaches, agents and baseball families. Last year, a number of Alberta players heard their name called, including St. Albert’s Erik Sabrowski (14th round, Padres), and Spruce Grove’s LaRon Smith (25th round, Twins).
Vauxhall Academy graduates Damiano Palmegiani (35th round, Blue Jays) and Ben Onyshko (24th round, Mariners) were also selected, as were former Okotoks Dawgs players Kody Funderburk (15th round, Twins), Greg Cullen (15th round, Braves), and Michael Gretler (10th round, Pirates).
But as magical as that day was for many, for others it was a big letdown.
Matt Lloyd, of Okotoks, put together a fantastic season for Indiana University, belting nine home runs, scoring 36 runs and piling up 41 RBI over 59 games. As the closer for the Hoosiers, Lloyd picked up seven saves and four wins, while posting a 1.54 ERA. He also struck out 22 hitters over 23.1 innings. When the MLB draft was done and the Dawgs Academy alumnus was not selected, he conceded it was a punch to the gut. Entering his senior year with Indiana, Lloyd is once again ready to prove his draft worthiness.
Some sibling rivalry will also be a part of the 2019 MLB draft. After watching his kid brother LaRon Smith get chosen by the Twins last year, 21-year-old Kobe Hyland is hoping a strong junior season at the University of Houston will result in some recognition from MLB scouts.
Other names to keep an eye on this season include Dawgs Academy products Cesar Valero Sanchez and Micah McDowell, who have both signed on to play for Oregon State University. Vauxhall Academy pitcher Adam Macko – a Purdue commit – could also get the thumbs up from an interested MLB team. St. Albert’s Jackson Wark (St. Louis University) and Airdrie’s Ayden Makarus (LSU Eunice) are potential draft candidates, as well.
The 2019 MLB Draft will take place June 3-5.
5. How will the first season of the newly-minted Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) play out?
The final season of the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) – which began in 2000 and is being reincarnated as the WCBL in 2019 – went out with a bang.
The 2018 edition of the league included a new single-season home run record (Riley MacDonald of the Brooks Bombers hit 20 dingers); the circuit’s first perfect game from Edmonton Prospect Rich Walker; a memorable chair-chucking tantrum from Okotoks Dawgs head coach Mitch Schmidt; a fond farewall foray around the diamond from Eddie Sanchez; and a championship season from the Medicine Hat Mavericks.
It will be tough to top such a memorable campaign, but there should be plenty of intrigue around the league.
Scheduling adjustments will increase the total number of regular season games from 48 to 56 for all 12 teams (six in Alberta, six in Saskatchewan) in the WCBL. To offset the boost in the guaranteed number of home dates per team, the playoff format is being changed. Best-of-five series matchups are being replaced with best-of-three series. Will the increased regular-season runway help some teams chase down a playoff spot? Can teams with less depth prevail in a three-game playoff they may not have won under the previous setup?
Another addition to the schedule is the 2019 WCBL All-Star Game, which will take place on Monday, July 8th at RE/MAX Field in Edmonton. This should provide teams with an excellent opportunity to showcase the talent on display in the summer collegiate league.
In addition to the rebrand and the scheduling changes, there should be lots to look for on the field, as well. The Edmonton Prospects saw the departure of long-time skippers Ray Brown and Orv Franchuk this off-season. The coaching duo turned around a struggling franchise and contributed to some memorable playoff runs but ownership wants to see the squad’s regular-season performance climb above the .500 mark (23 wins and 23 losses in 2018). Is Jordan Blundell, the incoming head coach and director of baseball operations for the Prospects, up to the task? As for Brown, he ended up in Fort McMurray. Can he help turn the Giants into a playoff team?
Medicine Hat will see 10 players return from their 2018 championship team. Will that be enough for the Mavericks to repeat and become the WCBL’s first title-winning franchise?
This summer will mark the 10-year anniversary of the Okotoks Dawgs last championship. The Dawgs are perennial contenders and they frequently find themselves atop or near the top of the regular season standings heading into the playoffs. But a lack of postseason success in recent campaigns has prompted critics to debate whether the team should be called “Choke-otoks” or “Oko-chokes.” Winning is the best revenge – can the Dawgs win it all in 2019?
Finally, what team will emerge from the Eastern Division? The Weyburn Beavers finished first during the 2018 regular season and the Swift Current 57’s won back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017, but the Regina Red Sox represented Saskatchewan in the final against Medicine Hat last summer. Place your bets now.