Saturday, December 21, 2013

'Cats sign their first three ballplayers for 2014

Ty Russell (L) presents Rutckyj with his jersey
The HarbourCats introduced the first three players inked to 2014 contracts on Friday and all three hail from British Columbia. Kelly Norris-Jones, a Victoria native, has the potential to be an impact player for the HarbourCats, while Nick Rutckyj (Surrey, B.C.) and Griffin Andreychuk (Nanaimo, B.C.) also have the skills to make a meaningful contribution this summer.

Hardcore HarbourCats fans will recognize the name Nick Rutckyj, because he’s the answer to three of the franchise's trivia questions: “Who had the first plate appearance in HarbourCats history?”, “Who had the first hit in HarbourCats history?” and "Who scored the first run in HarbourCats history?". Yes, the answer to all three is Nick Rutckyj. In the team’s inaugural game (June 5th at RAP versus Kelowna), Rutckyj led off the bottom of the first by striking out, but he more than redeemed himself by hitting a leadoff double in the fourth inning to notch the team’s first-ever base hit. He would then come around to score on a Chris Lewis double. Although Rutckyj went two-for-four with three runs scored in the game, he was only a one-day call up and was released the next day. The outfielder was re-signed on July 24th and he finished the summer with a .171 average in 41 at-bats. Rutckyj is currently a freshman on the Cuesta College Cougars, the team piloted by HarbourCats Co-Head Coach Bob Miller. In 2013 he played for the Langley Blaze, hitting .312 with an impressive 5 homers and 40 RBI in 138 at-bats. Don’t be surprised to see him post some solid power numbers for the Cats in the upcoming season.

Norris-Jones, a 2010 Toronto Blue Jays draft pick, is a junior at the University of Illinois. The 5-11, 185 lb. catcher was limited to only 48 at-bats last season with the Fighting Illini due to injuries, so we shouldn’t put too much stock into his .167 batting average. In his freshman season, Norris-Jones posted a .266 batting average and a .349 OBP in 128 at-bats. The 22-year-old has won a Big-10 title, so he’ll be expected to provide veteran leadership on the team. He’s a singles hitter with gap power, but he has shown a knack for doing anything to get on base – including taking one for the team. In the 176 at-bats in his collegiate career, Norris-Jones has been plunked a total of 13 times – that’s one HBP every 13.5 at-bats. By comparison, one of the top players in MLB history for getting hit by a pitch, Ron Hunt, was only struck once every 21.5 at-bats. As Norris-Jones himself said yesterday, “If they are going to give me a free base, why not take it?” With a hockey grinder’s mentality that’s more common to third-line centres, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him become a fan-favourite at Royal Athletic Park.
(L-R) Rutckyj, Andreychuk and Norris-Jones

Griffin Andreychuk is a middle infielder who is entering his freshman season at the University of Seattle, a Division I school that plays in the Western Athletic Conference. He's also the younger brother of Cody Andreychuk, who hit .298 for the Kelowna Falcons last summer. Griffin was a teammate of Nick Rutckyj’s last season in Langley, and he finished fifth in the batting race with an impressive .355 average. The 5-10, 175 lb. spark-plug is a singles hitter who controls the strike zone and has excelled at getting on base and scoring runs. He’s also strong defensively, as shown by his 2010 award for being the top defensive player in the PBL.

Last year’s Canadian contingent on the team -- Austin, Ty and Connor Russell -- were on hand to present the new HarbourCats with their jerseys. The “passing of the torch” was a nice touch during yesterday’s press conference and proved once again the great character of these former HarbourCats.

General Manager Jim Swanson, who has served as an assistant coach with the Langley Sr. Blaze, was fairly tight-lipped on the remainder of the HarbourCats roster. Hopefully we’ll find out about more player signings early in the new year, but Swanson did let us know that we’ll be getting four players from the nationally-ranked University of New Mexico Lobos team. Not surprisingly, Alex Real isn’t one of those players, as he is MLB draft-eligible and could turn pro in early June. The fact that UNM head coach Ray Birmingham would trust the HarbourCats with four of his players speaks volumes about the feedback Real must have given Birmingham about his experience playing summer ball in Victoria. The future for WCL baseball in Victoria looks bright, indeed.

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