Thursday, June 4, 2015

2015 Season Preview

Summer's back, baby!
In a few short hours at Royal Athletic Park, a West Coast League umpire will scream out one of my favourite phrases in the English language -- “Play Ball!” -- and that in itself will be cause for celebration.

It may seem like ages ago, but back in December certain members of the mainstream media broke the story of ex-owner John McLean losing control of the Victoria HarbourCats in a BC Supreme Court civil suit. Somehow, this personal financial issue was twisted into a story about baseball allegedly failing once again in the Garden City (huh?!?). As we fully expected, there wasn’t exactly a shortage of interested buyers for the club and a local ownership group gained control of the team early in 2015. Victoria sports fans can rest assured that elite-level baseball is here to stay for many years to come.

With Opening Day upon us, we can now turn our attention to what happens on the baseball diamond, and this summer looks to be an entertaining one for HarbourCats fans. If you like offense then you’re in for a treat this season, because the ‘Cats will certainly have no trouble scoring runs.

Nanaimo’s Griffin Andreychuk will be back to set the table once again near the top of the order, although the roster is loaded with a slew of on-base types who can also play that role. First baseman Gabe Clark has committed to return to the team, and the fan favourite from Riverside, California is poised to take over the “Mr. HarbourCat” moniker in his second season with the club. Clark was an offensive force in the heart of the HarbourCats lineup last season and he should take another run at the league home run title this summer.

Josh Mitchell is another breakout
candidate on Adame's staff
After struggling to find a regular third baseman in their first two seasons, the HarbourCats now have plenty of talent at the hot corner. Michael Gretler and Chase Lambert both have what it takes to be an everyday third sacker at this level, and the University of New Mexico’s Carl Stajduhar looks like a bona fide West Coast League All Star, although his status for the season is still unclear. The versatile Lambert may end up seeing action at a variety of positions, as he can play anywhere other than catcher (or does he catch too?).

The team also has plenty of skill behind the plate. Although the HarbourCats have four quality backstops signed to full-season contracts, we expect Jackson Thoreson to emerge as the number one catcher due to his strong defensive skills and potent bat. The outfield is solid with Kevin Collard, Austin Guibor, Reno Rankin and Chris Fougner at the ready. Collard could potentially be an early-round selection in Monday’s MLB draft, so there is a chance that his stay in Victoria could be a short one. But no matter what happens on Monday, Collard has a bright future in the baseball world. Fougner, a Victoria native, was dazzling in the HarbourCats' three-game exhibition season and he should have an outstanding season.

As with all baseball teams, the HarbourCats will only go as far as their pitching will carry them. Alex “A-Rog” Rogers and Mikey Wright return to anchor the starting rotation, while the team has added potential closer Henry OmaƱa to the bullpen. Pitt Panthers lefty Josh Mitchell could emerge to be an elite late-innings reliever as well, but the HarbourCats need a couple of unheralded hurlers to have a breakout season if they are going to compete for a playoff spot. At this point it appears that pitching is the team’s Achilles’ heel, but pitching coach Alec Adame is the type of guy who can get the most out of his players, so I wouldn’t be shocked to seem them over-achieve on the mound.

While the 2015 roster is full of highly-skilled players, it is still light on experience as compared to the elite West Coast League teams. Although the HarbourCats made a valiant attempt to recruit an older squad, 17 previously-signed (full-season) players have withdrawn for a variety of reasons, and that group skewed heavily towards the older age range. Back in March, 47% of players signed to full-season contracts were upperclassmen (sophomores and juniors in the context of the WCL), but that figure has dropped to only 39% after the rash of recent cancellations and it could drop further. By comparison, the two teams in last year’s WCL Championship, Corvallis and Bellingham, featured 65% and 59% upperclassmen on their rosters, respectively.
A few days into the 2014 season I put the over/under for ‘Cats wins at 27 and I took some flak for being too pessimistic, even though they went on to finish with a disappointing 25-29 record. This year’s team reminds me a lot of the 2014 HarbourCats at the outset of the season -- lots of offense, a little light on pitching and a roster that is realistically too young to compete for a WCL championship.

So what's the over/under for HarbourCats wins in 2015? While making sports predictions is risky at the best of times, I’m not prepared to stick out my neck just yet. I'll need to see how many of our 33 full-season players actually report (only 11 were in town as of last night), who gets signed to replace the last-minute cancellations and what happens in the MLB draft that takes place next Monday to Wednesday.

But enough about predictions. It's almost time to head out to the ballpark, grab a hot dog and a cold beverage and enjoy the fine summer weather that Victoria offers. Ahhh, baseball. The only reality show out there that's worth watching. Season premiere is Friday night at 6:35...

  • Nanaimo's Alex Rogers has earned the Opening Day start against the Kelowna Falcons. He'll face Jayse Bannister of Holy Names University (NCAA Division II).
  • Mikey Wright goes for the HarbourCats on Saturday night against Tyler Gillies from the University of British Columbia. 
  • Shawn Kennedy takes to the hill for the 'Cats in the Sunday matinee against Ohlone College's Elias Bedolla.

Click 'Play' for the blog's official Opening Day theme song by The Baseball Project.

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