If one thing is for certain, 2023 will not be short on things for baseball fans in Alberta to talk about.
The year 2022 certainly set the bar high with fantastic individual and team performances, great community-building opportunities and a return to “normal” of sorts after what was an unprecedented couple of years around the world.
We actually had a hard time whittling it down to just five stories this year. We know many eyes will be on the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s annual inductee announcements. Calgary Cannons alumni Omar Vizquel and Alex Rodriguez are hoping they will get the call to Cooperstown. We also know the college baseball season is always fun to see which Albertans will make a splash, and we are always excited for the Major League Baseball Draft, as there will be a few potential Albertans looking to do what Gavin Logan and Matt Coutney did last summer.
However, this year we’ll be keeping a keen eye on a handful of stories that will undoubtedly capture the attention of fans in our province.
So let’s get to it…
NO. 1 … OFF THE IR
It’s been far too long since we’ve seen Mike Soroka in an Atlanta Braves uniform.
The 25-year-old phenom bust out of the gates with an All-Star calibre season in 2019, going 13-4 with a 2.68 earned run average.
Unfortunately, an injury in early-2020 derailed his season, then a re-injury plagued his 2021. He tried to get back to it in 2022, pitching in a total of six games before he had to shut it down again.
While it sounds like a frightful forecast, Soroka was very optimistic about his chances of returning as he headed into the winter months.
“This is finally a normal off-season,” he told Barn Burner: Boomer & Pinder with Rhett Warrener.
“The last two years have been long – they haven’t really been off-seasons.”
Soroka says instead of rehabbing during the colder months, he will be able to train like a baseball player again, and thinks he will be ready to go when pitchers and catchers report in February.
A couple of other young Alberta baseball products with plenty of promise are hoping 2023 will be the year they are finally healthy and taking the next steps in their respective baseball journeys.
Calgary’s Matt Lloyd was able to get into 20 games with the Chattanooga Lookouts last summer, before an awful ankle injury forced him to shut down for the rest of the year.
The Dawgs Academy and Okotoks Dawgs alum has been working hard to rehab his ankle and build his confidence so he can hit the ground running in Spring Training.
He expects to join the Reds early to get some baseball-related activities going before the main camp begins, and has been told that he will be eased back into game action, which Lloyd believes will benefit him greatly as he wants to build up his consistency at the plate.
Edmonton’s Erik Sabrowski has been champing at the bit to get back on the field after his second Tommy John surgery in four years.
Originally drafted by the San Diego Padres in 2018, he almost immediately went under the knife to repair his elbow.
He pitched in eight games for the Fort Wayne TinCaps in 2021, only to be told he would need a second surgery.
Just a month later, the Absolute Human Performance athlete was selected by the Cleveland Guardians in the Rule 5 Draft.
While the location might be different, Sabrowski is hoping 2023 is finally his year to show the baseball world what Alberta and Cloud County baseball fans have known for a while.
NO. 2 … BLUE CHIP BLUE JAY PROSPECTS
It was a trade that sent shockwaves through the fan base of the Toronto Blue Jays.
In mid-November, All-Star slugger Teoscar Hernandez was dealt to the Seattle Mariners for pitcher Erik Swanson and a prospect.
That prospect is Stony Plain’s Adam Macko, who was considered the No. 8 prospect in the Mariners’ system.
He currently sits in the same spot within the Blue Jays’ depth chart, viewed by many as having plenty of potential after posting an 0-2 record with a 3.99 earned-run average in eight starts with the High-A Everett AquaSox.
The eye-popping statistic for Macko was his 60 strikeouts in more than 38 innings of work, but he also walked 20 batters, which is a number scouts would like to see drop.
With the Blue Jays, the 22-year-old joins a fellow Vauxhall Academy of Baseball grad in Damiano Palmegiani, who is coming off a fantastic year with his hometown Vancouver Canadians.
After being limited to 17 games in his rookie season, the third baseman hit .239 with 24 home runs and 83 RBI in 118 minor league games.
For his efforts, Palmegiani was named a 2022 Blue Jays Organization All-Star.
It will be interesting to see where both players land heading into the spring, as they are undoubtedly on the verge of taking major step in their respective professional baseball journeys.
NO. 3 … WESTERN CANADIAN BASEBALL LEAGUE
What do you do for an encore if you’re the Western Canadian Baseball League?
After a shortened 2021 season that only saw five teams because of the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was business-as-usual in 2022 and fans lapped it up.
Several markets saw record turnouts at the turnstiles while the quality of baseball was on full display with the league’s All-Star Game festivities, followed by an entertaining league final that saw the Okotoks Dawgs knock off the Moose Jaw Miller Express for league supremacy.
With all of that in mind, the league is hoping to capitalize on those big wins in 2023. While they will be down to a league of ten with the Edmonton Prospects taking the year off to get their affairs sorted for a move to a new ballpark in Spruce Grove for 2024, the league generated enough buzz to capture the attention of onlookers.
A few fresh coaching faces will head to Fort McMurray, Brooks and Medicine Hat, along with some new recruits that are already being announced in several markets. It appears things are on-track for another solid season.
NO. 4 … WEST COAST LEAGUE
The Edmonton Riverhawks were the talk of the town in 2022 as they were finally able to make their REMAX Field debut.
Originally slated to join the West Coast League in 2021 before the Canadian teams were forced to step aside with the pandemic, the Riverhawks were in the thick of the playoff race until the bitter end, finishing with a 25-28 record, just short of the dance.
With new manager Jake Lanferman at the helm and veteran Ray Brown joining the staff, the team is looking to keep the positive momentum heading into 2023.
In the bigger picture, some baseball onlookers in this province are wondering what the future has in store for the West Coast League in Alberta.
The Riverhawks are footing the travel bill right now, but do they have another market in mind for expansion? Where could it be? And who will be behind any of those efforts?
That’s just a sampling of the questions left in the air as time goes on.
NO. 5 … THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE
If the stars align, Mike Soroka would love to get the call to play for Canada at the World Baseball Classic.
He’s spoken about the opportunity on a number of occasions, but admits a lot has to happen with his injury recovery as well as getting the go ahead from Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos for him to wear the maple leaf.
This year’s contingent of Canadians promises to have more youth injected into the lineup with several veterans like Scott Richmond and Andrew Albers having retired or moved on.
Some have wondered whether a youngster like Adam Macko would benefit from an experience like the WBC, so we will be fascinated to watch how the lineup shakes out.
On the Women’s National Team front, coach Ashley Stephenson says they are a young team going through a bit of a rebuild.
However, they showed a lot of promise in the 2022 Friendship Series against their US rivals, winning two of the five contests.
The coming year will be a big one for the team as it sets its sights on the 2024 Women’s Baseball World Cup, with the first stage of the tournament involving 12 teams in two groups.
One of those groups will be hosted by Thunder Bay from August 8-13, with the top two finishers of each group making it to the final stage along with two wild card teams.
Ranked No. 3 in the world, Canada will be looking to take the next step at the World Cup, having collected four bronze and two silver medals since 2004, when the event was first held in Edmonton.
It’s likely that at least two Albertans will be on the roster, as both Madison Willan and Ellie Jespersen have become veteran presences over the last few years.
Hayley Lalor and Helaina Appleyard were also invited to the 2021 Women’s National Team Showcase, and might be among those who get a look ahead of the event.
The team decisions will likely come after the Women’s Open Invitational tournament, which is slated for July 27-30 in an not-yet-announced location. So stay tuned…
There you have it. Our list of the top five storylines we’ll be watching in 2023. As always, we want to hear from you: who will you be watching closely and cheering for this year?