By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
MIAMI _ Big picture wise?
The Team Canada picture from the World Baseball Classic photo is a messy one.
Out of focus.
Someone has spilled coffee on one dog-eared corner.
The other corner caught the morning Florida sun and faded to a strange tint.
The first thing about the 2017 WBC Team Canada photo upon closer examination is the missing players.
Canada can’t win without all its horses. And this March they took what amounted to a $25,000 Mohawk claimer compared to the previous three events.
As the Canadian Baseball Network’s George Farelli documented before the start of the tournament this was the worst year yet for getting out the every day players or members of key pitching staffs
_ In 2006 Canada had 11: Jason Bay, Corey Koskie, Justin Morneau, Peter Orr, Matt Stairs, Erik Bedard, Rheal Cormier, Jesse Crain, Jeff Francis, Paul Quantrill and Chris Reitsma. There were 10 minor leaguers with zero major league time.
_ Three years later in 2009 Canada had Mark Teahen, Joey Votto, Russell Martin, Bay, Koskie, Morneau, Orr, Stairs and Crain. Plus 11 who had never seen a day of big league action.
_ In 2013 it was down to seven: Brett Lawrie, Michael Saunders, John Axford, Morneau, Orr, Votto and Crain. Plus 12 who had not made the majors.
_ And this year the count was down to three: Freddie Freeman, Jimmy Henderson and Morneau. And a dozen had not made the majors.
After thanking this year’s edition of Team Canada after it was eliminated with a 9-0 loss to Team Canada, manager Ernie Whitt was asked by Alexis Brudnicki about his retiring players Pete Orr, Chris Leroux, Jonathan Malo and Ryan Dempster who were all down the hall taking off a Canada uniform for a final time.
Whitt said he could not thank them enough “for giving up their time, coming and trying to help out and play for their country. There’s so much pride that you can’t say enough about it.”
And then Whitt went were we don’t ever believe he has ever gone since he first took over managing Team Cananda for the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg for the princely sum of an airline ticket and meal money, when others had turned down the job. His focus has always been on who was in the clubhouse, not who was missing. But on a Sunday night in Miami after a lopsided 8-0 loss to Team USA he went elsewhere.
“Unfortunately,” began Whitt, “we came up on the short end and it’s unfortunate but the guys are not going to change. They’re still great quality people that we have in this system. To be quite honest with you, for us to compete at this level at the WBC, we have to have all of our players, all of our pro players.
“We just can’t put our roster up against teams like the Dominican Republic and United States if we don’t have all of our big league players.
“And until they make a commitment that they’re going to do that, we’re going to struggle in the WBC. We can win a game every now and then, but it’s just not the same type of roster that you would have if you had all of your players.”
Well, there you have it.
No surprise. Just the facts.
Why does Ryan Dempster start two of three games? Even if he was well rested with 1,270 days -- three years, five months and 21 days -- between his final start with the Boston Red Sox Sept. 17, 2013 and the WBC opener ... and then the third game of the round robin?
Four Canadians combined to make 41 starts in the majors last season: James Paxton (Ladner, BC) had 20 for the Seattle Mariners, Jameson Taillon (The Woodland, Tex.), 18 for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.), two for the Minnesota Twins and Rob Zastryzny (Edmonton, Alta.) started once after the Chicago Cubs had clinched. Only Albers committed to pitch. Taillon was coming off an injury. Both of Taillon's parents are Canadian and he had a scoreless start against USA four years ago.
Dempster started because he was Canada’s best bet according to Whitt and director of national teams Greg Hamilton.
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It’s unfair to knock players who did not show.
Nor is it fair to knock those who played.
The real culprits for a depleted Canadian roster?
We say major league executives and farm directors who tell players not to go, threaten demotion or a lack of steady work when they return.
Paxton wanted to make the Mariners rotation. We have no idea how many times a manager or general manager said “are you really sure you want to play in the WBC?” to people like Paxton or his agent.
Same with Adam Loewen, a previous WBC hero. Loewen stayed in the Rangers camp attempting to make the team. The major-league minimum is $530,000 US and players on teams eliminated in the first round earn about $5,000.
Brett Lawrie stayed in camp with the Chicago White Sox because he was afraid of returning to discover he had lost steady employment. He stayed and was still cut. Now, he’s injured.
People knocked Joey Votto for “wanting to work on things?” What is there to work on when he hit over .400 the second half? Well, he hit .209 the first two months. Plus, if Votto had played there would not have been room for Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman. And some have suggested a Votto-Freeman combination would have been better than Freeman-Morneau pair. Yet, that is not the way Team Canada works. No one was going to say that Morneau could not play. He came without a job and set about to contribute and make Josh Naylor, 19, a better player.
Michael Saunders, Pool MVP four years ago in Phoenix, was going to play if he was a free agent. After he signed a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies he decided to put himself on the no-fly list.
Jameson Taillon of the Pittsburgh Pirates had minor arm issues last year, so likely would not have been cleared to pitch.
Russell Martin wanted to play but was not given approval due to insurance problems since he had post-season knee surgery.
John Axford said he was withdrawing for both professional and personal reasons which caused him to be a late scratch, just days after telling Oakland A’s writers about the Mexico-Canada bench clearing-brawl four years ago.
Prospect Mike Sorotka was not given approval by the Atlanta Braves.
LHP Scott Diamond (Guelph, Ont.) signed with the SK Wyverns in Korea and had to withdraw, while LHP Evan Grills (Whitby, Ont.), new to the Colorado Rockies organization, wasn’t given approval.
Sean Jamieson (Simcoe, Ont.), of the Arizona Diamondbacks who played shortstop on the Pan Am team, had surgery, while C Kellin Deglin (Surrey, BC), new to the New York Yankees organization injured his hand.
Individually each were reasonable reasons for missing play, but put them all together and there were more than last time or any time.
Executives hate the WBC while owners and players from most countries love it. Pity the poor Kansas City Royals who saw Venezuela catcher Salvadore Perez injure his knee. Meanwhile, Colorado's free-agent sign Ian Desmond needs surgery on his broken left hand.
The difference is Perez was playing in the WBC, while Desmond was hit with a pitch from Cincinnati Reds' Rookie Davis. GMs and farm directors have to learn that baseball is baseball, whether it is the WBC or a spring game in Arizona or Florida. The WBC is not running on a beach full of hidden mines, while spring training is laying in a hammock.
Rather than discouraging more than encouraging, management should make attendance mandatory as long as a player is not coming off an injury.
Think about it as a farm director or GM ... does your player become a better player in a spring game in Clearwater, Fla. or Peoria, Az. compared to playing in front of a sold-out noisy Marlins Park as Team USA played the Dominican Republic?
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The lack of Canadian talent wasn’t just obvious to those in Miami:
An umpire came off the field at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium after the Toronto Blue Jays-Team Canada game and asked me “Where are all the players? Don’t you think was a mistake for Canada to have a split squad.” Of course there wasn’t any split squad.
A veteran scout before the Canada-Colombia game said “This team will go 0-3. Is all the other talent from your country in the Mexico pool?” An example of scout humour.
And a GM emailed Monday “Ernie had the ass (upset). I don’t blame him.”
“Internationally, I see Canada on the same level as Puerto Rico,” said an international evaluator, “Puerto Rico would be in the same mess if you took that many people away.”
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How much of a mess is Canadian baseball in?
Well, the 2015 Canada entry into the Pan Ams in Ajax won gold, defending their 2011 title won in Mexico. They finished third in the World Cup that year as well. Five years ago they lost to Team USA in the final of the world juniors and host the Worlds this September.
* * *
What do players say? Is there a solution? Why did the fourth WBC have so many no-gos, no-shows and cancellations? And how does Canada better its recruiting progress?
Second baseman Peter Orr, who came out of retirement to play: “I agree 100% with Ernie. Nothing against everyone that came out here and did it, but yeah, you look at the other countries ... it’s hard for me to say. I don’t want to call people out, they are my friends but Ernie’s right. For us to take the next step, that is what has to happen. The guys in there, that’s not for us to think about, we play and did what we could do, try to be as professional as we could doing it. We stuck together all the way through. It was just a bad week. Sorry, I can’t say any more.”
Right-hander Ryan Dempster, who didn’t play as an active player once because he had signed a new deal with the Chicago Cubs: “You do need those players. It seems like spring training, the guys are more and more ready than they used to be and maybe that’s an opportunity the next time the WBC’s around for all those guys to play, because it does make a difference when you have those all-star calibre players. But at the same time, to each their own and everybody’s got their own reasons. I’ve been there before.”
Manager Whitt: “Well, I think that players have to buy into it. I don’t know what else you can say or do to them. If they watch the games and they see the excitement and the fans getting into it, and the way that all the players are playing for other countries, I’m dumbfounded in a sense that I don’t understand. But you also have to get the GMs and the ownership to buy into it and encourage their players to go. I understand their point, they have got a vested interest in some of these players with a lot of money. But if they’re going to get this to go, I think they’re going to have to go all out to encourage their players to go and play for their countries.”
Scott Richmond (North Vancouver, BC): “I respect this group. These guys were staples and a new chapter is starting. We don’t have the depth the other countries have. Hey, you have to ask them. I got on a plane in Taiwan and flew over.”
All we know is that this was the worst of the four years for bringing in established talent. This is not 1987 when Canada’s contribution to the majors consisted of two players: OF Terry Puhl (Melville, Sask.) and OF Doug Frobel (Ottawa, Ont.).