By IAN WILSON
It’s hard to tell if the Edmonton Prospects have been regular-season underachievers or playoff overachievers the last few years.
The Prospects were a .500 team in the regular season from 2016 to 2018, and they appeared in the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) finals in back-to-back years in that time. Last summer they upset the Okotoks Dawgs before the Medicine Hat Mavericks ended their playoff run.
They seem to get hot at a good time of year, but their inconsistent campaigns leave fans wanting more.
Which version of the Prospects will show up in 2019? Can a new coaching staff bring regular-season success to the club? These are just a couple of questions facing the team heading into the season.
A number of the baseball heroes of previous summers in Edmonton have moved on, including relief pitcher and infielder Michael Gahan – who is now the pitching coach in Fort McMurray – and perfect-game thrower Rich Walker, who was originally set to join Gahan and the Giants but instead opted to take the summer off. Hard-hitting infielder Nick Spillman, meanwhile, was a senior last season and is therefore no longer eligible to play in the WCBL.
That’s not to say fans won’t recognize any players who take the field.
Southpaw Taran Oulton will be back on the bump, following a terrific season for William Woods University that saw him strike out 77 batters over 88.1 innings while registering a 3.87 earned run average (ERA). Oulton’s arm has seen a lot of action since last summer in Edmonton, when he pitched 50.1 innings for the Prospects and struck out 38 would-be hitters.
Sherwood Park’s Scott Gillespie will also return to the mound at RE/MAX Field. During his 2017 and 2018 seasons for the Prospects, the Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) graduate pitched 100.2 innings, going 3-4 with 74 Ks. More recently, the right-handed hurler was at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, where his work as a reliever saw him collect 12 strikeouts in 14 innings and post a 2-1 record with a pair of saves.
There will also be a holdover behind the mask to help with all the new pitchers on the team. Catcher Jake MacDonald is returning from play at Texas A&M at Texarkana, where he hit .258 with 28 runs batted in (RBI) in 44 games.
Outfielder Eric Crain will be tracking down fly balls yet again. Last summer, he played 28 regular season contests and eight playoff games for the Prospects, registering a .298 batting average, 21 RBI and 21 runs for the team.
Other than that, watch for newcomers all over the diamond.
With the likes of Spillman, Tony Olson and shortstop Zane Takhar no longer holding down the infield, the team has handed the keys over to some new recruits.
Davis Pratt is a local area product who is looking to make an impression on the home crowd. The left-handed hitter trained at Prospects Baseball Academy and played for the St. Albert Cardinals in 2018. As a freshman with the Cloud County T-Birds of the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference (KJCCC), Pratt batted .303 with 41 runs, 28 RBI, three home runs and six stolen bases in 54 games this year.
Middle infielder Lawson Burnett joins the Prospects from St. Clair Community College, where he hit .350 with 28 RBI and 24 runs over 34 games.
Bringing hitting acumen and speed to the lineup is shortstop Javier Ramirez. The Puerto Rican is coming off a strong sophomore campaign with Taft College, where he posted a .343 batting average, four long balls, eight stolen bases, 41 runs and 34 RBI in 41 games.
Expect to see Nolan Walker slotted into the heart of the batting order for the Prospects. In 57 games for the College of Southern Idaho, the sophomore slugger smashed 10 homers and 46 RBI while putting up a .470 on-base percentage.
The outfield will see plenty of changes, as well.
Clay Loranger and Kyler Charchun are joining the team – as are a number of Prospects players – out of Cloud County Community College. Charchun, of Camrose, hit .263 in his freshman season with the T-Birds, while Loranger was a terror on the basepaths, swiping 20 bags and scoring 48 runs in 57 games for Cloud County.
Tanner Roundy was a double-threat for the University of Jamestown this year. As a pitcher, the junior collected 63 strikeouts, a 3-1 record and a 3.50 ERA over 61.2 innings. At the plate, the outfielder was also a handful. He scored 45 runs, smacked 40 RBI, stole 34 bases (a single-season record at Jamestown) and hit .333 in 53 games.
When it comes to new arms, watch for Austin Cannedy to build on his strong campaign at Benedictine University at Mesa. The righthander struck out 57 batters over 44.2 innings and posted a 4.23 ERA for the Redhawks. He also had a 2-3 record and one save.
Another Austin to watch is 6-foot-2 Austin Herrington. The senior out of Mayville State University turned in 67 innings for the Comets this season, punching out 66 batters while producing a 3.22 ERA.
Brayden Cust, a Sherwood Park native who trained at Prospects Academy, is one of a few local pitchers to keep an eye on. Cust, who also plays in the outfield, threw a no-hitter for Alberta at the Tournament 12 showcase in September.
Meanwhile, Joe Karall’s resume includes time in Cloud County and with the St. Albert Cardinals. Karall pitched 38.1 innings for the T-Birds and struck out 35 batters. He posted a 2-2 record with one save.
Even with all the player turnover heading into the 2019 season, the greatest change for the Prospects was in the coaching ranks.
Gone are Ray Brown and Orv Franchuk, who were brought in to turn around and stabilize a struggling franchise, and replacing them as head coach and director of baseball operations is Jordan Blundell.
Brown took over as the skipper of the Fort McMurray Giants, where he becomes an instant rival of Blundell, who was the assistant general manager of the Prospects before he accepted his new positions with the team.
Blundell already had a hand in the recruitment side of things and he also has extensive coaching experience. He was named the WCBL coach of the year in 2008 when he was with the Sherwood Park Dukes.
“This represents part of a dream in my career to get the opportunity to coach at home, in a ballpark I spent time in as a teenager, dreaming about playing professional baseball,” Blundell told Spencer Love of Win Column Sports after he was announced as head coach in the fall.
Brown and Franchuk helped make the Prospects competitive and respectable. It remains to be seen if Blundell can take them to the next level.
Helping him out will be pitching coach Austin Guzzo, an alumni of the University of Iowa, and bench boss Rob Boik, a former head coach of the Parkland Twins AAA squad.
CROWDING THE GATE
Between the regular season and postseason, the Prospects welcomed over 50,000 fans to RE/MAX Field last summer. Edmonton attracted crowds of 45,172 over 22 home dates in the regular season and another 5,150 during four playoff games in the provincial capital. On average, about 2,000 fans came out to watch the Prospects each game.
In 2017, the Prospects drew 38,399 regular-season baseball watchers to 23 home dates, and another 11,198 fans to six playoff games. That worked out to an average crowd of 1,710 per contest.
The Prospects only trail the Okotoks Dawgs when it comes to attendance figures in the WCBL, but their popularity is growing in Edmonton. The team ranked 14th overall in Ballpark Digest’s 2018 summer collegiate attendance rankings, which measure the average attendance of summer baseball teams across North America.
The Edmonton Prospects home and season opener takes place on Saturday, May 25th at RE/MAX Field, when they take on the Lethbridge Bulls. The game also serves as the WCBL season opener.
The Prospects will square off against the Bulls again on Sunday, May 26th for a matinee game, before hosting the Okotoks Dawgs on Thursday, May 30th.
RE/MAX Field will welcome the WCBL All-Star Game on July 7th.
The rest of Edmonton’s 56-game schedule can be viewed here.
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BROADCAST INFO: Watch games online here