Top Ten Canadian Prospects 2014

The title says it all! I was curious the other night to see who the best Canadian baseball players yet to make a major league impact are, so I did some digging around and came up with a list of 10 Canadian professional baseball players worth our attention. Some of them you likely know (as they are in the Jays system), some of them may be new to you. I even left a couple of names at the end as honorable mentions in the event you are feeling as curious as I was.

*As usual, it’s important as the author to recognize his/her own biases. Let it be known to the prospecting community (of which I know of many in said league of ordinary gentlemen) that I am a victim to my own subjectivity when it comes to prospect ranking, and that these rankings ought not be taken too seriously. Whether a player is ranked 6th or 8th on this list is rather immaterial to me, as it should be to the reader as well. Let us rejoice in the progress of Baseball Canada, and cheer for the continued improvement of our young Igloo-residing ball players.

1. James Paxton (Seattle): The Richmond, British Columbia native has had quite a unique career path to date. After being drafted out of the University of Kentucky 37th overall in the 2009 draft by your very own Toronto Blue Jays, he and his sub-human agent Scott Boras were somewhat famously incapable of coming to terms with the Blue Jays. Because of this debacle, the NCAA forfeited his last year of college eligibility, and he was resigned to pitch in independent league baseball until the 2010 draft (where he was drafted in the 4th round by the Seattle Mariners).

Fast forward three years, and scouts have been continually vexed by Paxton. As you can see by the video below, James Paxton's 6'4 frame has many long, moving parts in his delivery.

James Paxton Prospect Video, LHP, Seattle Mariners (2013) (via MLBDirt)

The length within that delivery has created a myriad of problems. From massive velocity ranges (reported anywhere from 88-97mph), to some pretty debilitating control issues, Paxton's been as difficult a pitcher to project as there is in the industry. Despite the ups and downs, Paxton's still managed to have some promising results. What's remained constant throughout all of the tweaking the last three years was his propensity to gather strikeouts in bunches, and that skill stood up well in his brief 24 inning stint with the Seattle Mariners in 2013.

As I mentioned before, Paxton has easy plus velocity from the left side, sitting 92-95 miles per hour, but he can reach back for 96-97 on occasion. The fastball features arm-side run, and long arms allow for superb extension. His curveball has long been said to be a plus pitch, and PitchF/x agrees. It sits in the 77-81 mph range, and has significant depth. His change up is said to have improved as well, but it still lags behind the first two pitches. Command has always been an issue for Paxton, and it looks to remain a problem going forward. Luckily, Paxton has a dynamic enough skill set where he can get away with fringe command in the zone.

What we're left with is a very intriguing pitching prospect who's made some significant progress the past twelve months (wonderfully detailed here by Fangraphs' Eno Sarris). The projection is back, and the floor has risen. Once thought of to be a reliever long-term, the Mariners have given him the keys to a starting rotation spot heading into 2014 (with injuries to both Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker paving the way). As a 25-year old rookie, time's not exactly on his side. That said, given his impressive 2013 trial in the big leagues, he may not need any more time in the minors. James Paxton gets groundballs above the league average, and couples that with plenty of strikeouts. If he can cut down on the walks, there's enough ability to be a #2. As Jason Churchill of ProspectInsider said of Paxton:

Surprisingly, he's terrific at holding runners - despite the slower actions from set to release - and he flashed frontline abilities after a big-league call-up in September. He's a future No. 2 starter if he keeps it all together, carrying a No. 4 floor, and keeping a future in the bullpen at bey as long as he throws strikes.

2. Dalton Pompey (Toronto): Drafted in the 16th round in the 2010 draft, the supremely athletic Pompey performed well in his first full-season assignment to Lansing. Drafted as a 17-year old, Pompey has 4 years of professional experience under his belt, where he's continued to develop and refine his skills. Ranked 13th On Marc Hulet's top 10 Blue Jay prospects list, the Mississauga, Ontario native has had a methodical ascent through the minor leagues.

Ranked 21st on BlueBirdBanter's top 40 prospects list, the switch-hitting outfielder has many tools to tap in to. He plays outstanding defense up the middle of the field, above average speed, good patience at the plate, and the ever-enviable ability to switch hit. Heck, go read Tom's summary linked above if you haven''t yet!

Marc Hulet had this to say about Pompey:

...A personal favorite of mine since his first pro season...Pompey projects to develop into an outstanding defensive outfielder, he has the speed to steal 20-30 bases and he shows flashes of developing into an average or better hitter with gap power. He'll move up to High-A ball in 2014 and could see Double-A before the year is out.

3. Tom Robson (Toronto): The young man from Ladner, British Columbia (a little league powerhouse city incidentally) took a pretty big step forward in 2013. Ranked 14th by Marc Hulet in his Blue Jays prospect rankings, the 6'3 RHP has reportedly seen a velocity spike, leaving his fastball "comfortably in the low 90's". This is welcome news for Jays fans. Hulet goes on to praise his potentially "plus change up", while tempering expectations by saying the curve needed further development.

Blue Jays RHP Tom Robson vs. Pirates OF Josh Bell - minor league spring training 2012 (via MLBProspectPortal)

Robson has very clean mechanics (seen above ^^), good command, control, and feel for his fastball and change up, and the makeup grades are all exceedingly positive. Tom has shown an ability to get groundballs in an almost overwhelming fashion, while limiting walks and base-runners. These advanced skills are what's landed Robson 19th on BlueBirdBanter's top 40 prospects list, a jump in the rankings a full 14 spots. If Robson can maintain an ability to suppress hard contact, as well as develop his secondary offerings, there's enough ability to project a future 3/4 ceiling comfortably. To the extent that his repertoire develops, that's the only question mark moving forward for Robson.

4. Kellin Deglan (Texas): After being a surprise 1st round pick (22nd overall) in the 2010 amateur draft, Deglan's pro ball career got off to a rather inauspicious start. He was the first 1st round pick to sign a contract in the 2010 amateur draft, signing at an even 1,000,000$ dollars. After Deglan did not pay his advisor, he was promptly sued for 50,000$ dollars by Double Diamond Sports Management (or 5% of his signing bonus). I'm assuming the suit was settled, but I thought it was a rather interesting piece of information (Ok shut up and get on with the prospecting).

Anyway, Kellin's one of my personal favorites. I played with and against him for two years in high school, and he was the best catcher I've ever seen. His receiving skills are off the charts. The way he caught the ball as a 17-year old was just marvelous. There are really no superlatives too kind to describe the way he caught behind the plate. I rarely give compliments that carry with it such hyperbolic overtones, but I acknowledge special talent when I see it. A tall, strong, athletic catcher at 6'2 and 200 pounds, he looked the part of Joe Mauer behind the plate as an amateur. Below is a little video of him showing off the strong arm, quick footwork, and all the other essentials to be a big league backstop.

Kellin Deglan picks off Brock Stassi (via Josh Norris)

Beside the plate however (hitting), his left-handed swing has never quite garnered the same attention as mr.Mauer's. He's been holding his own the last two years, but he has yet to impress with the bat (and it's improbable that he ever will). Deglan's swing has length, and he is prone to over-swinging, leading to undesirable strikeout totals. That said, he has continued to improve as he's moved up through the minors, and he does have natural power and loft to his swing (as demonstrated by this mammoth shot to RF below).

Kellin Deglan HR March 27, 2013 (via Tepid Participation)

Deglan is going to be a big leaguer on the back of some impressive catch/throw/receiving/makeup skills, and his bat is going to dictate how long he stays there. If he continues to tap into his power, he projects as a second-division regular, or the strong side of a platoon. If his bat takes a step back, he's likely nothing more than a backup/AAAA insurance similar to Chris Stewart/Jeff Mathis. 2014 will be a real challenge for Deglan, as he should see time in AA. I'm excited to see if he tools will stick in the upper levels of the minors.

5. Tyler O'Neill (Seattle): Drafted 85th overall (3rd round) in the 2013 amateur draft, the Maple Ridge, BC native power hitter has plenty of projection in his bat. Though committed to Oregon State University (where fellow Canadian pro ball player Carter Bell played his college ball), O'Neill took 650,000$ (19,000$ over-slot) and began his professional career at the rookie level Arizona league. During his brief time there in 2013 he hit to the tune of a .310/.405/.450 in an even 100 at-bats.

At 6'0 and 200 pounds, his finely tuned frame has earned him the nickname "Tank". Interestingly, he is the spawn of Terry O'Neill, a Mr.Canada winner as a bodybuilder. His physicality, along with his in-game intensity, lack of a true position, plus raw power and affiliation with the Langley Blaze high school club has lead some to compare him to Jays 3rd basemen Brett Lawrie. Even more interestingly, Seattle Mariners director of scouting Tom McNamara was with the Brewers when they drafted Lawrie, and was chiefly responsible for drafting both Lawrie and O'Neill.

As I alluded to earlier, O'Neill's calling card is his bat, and that's what will carry him to the big leagues should he get there. Moved to the outfield upon his arrival to the pro ranks, he wasted no time demonstrating his ability to hit. I anticipate he will be assigned to Seattle's NWL affiliate Everett AquaSox, where I will be able to watch him more when they come to Vancouver. O'Neill has above-average arm strength and can run enough to play a corner outfield spot, but there is going to be pressure on the bat to continue to develop because he's already being moved off the middle of the diamond (had played SS and C as an amateur).

6. Maxx Tissenbaum (Tampa Bay): An alum of SUNY-Stony Brook, the 22-year old infielder has some promising skills. A switch-hitter playing (but not limited to) 2nd base upon being drafted in the 11th round of the 2012 draft (selected in the 43rd round of the 2009 draft by the Blue Jays but did not sign...), Tissenbaum has demonstrated some impressive plate discipline skills since being drafted.

Sharing the same religious affiliation as Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar (and many other pro ball players, outlined by this fun site I recently discovered), Tissenbaum shares a batting eye more akin to Edwin Encarnacion than Pillar. In both professional years of baseball, Tissenbaum has walked more often than he's struck out (70:50 K/BB in just under 600 pro ball at-bats), an impressive feat worthy of mention. In 2013, playing for the Fort Wayne TinCaps of the Class-A Midwest League, Tissenbaum hit 28 doubles and slashed .277/.365/.369 in 111 games.

Royals' Richmond vs. Padres' Tissenbaum - The Baseball Zone (via thebaseballzone)

*As you can with the video above, Tissenbaum displays a quiet hitting stance, and a conventional (if not impressive) looking bat path. There isn't much video of Tissenbaum, but of what I have found I've continued to be impressed by his instincts as a hitter, physically and mentally.

During the 2013 off-season, he was traded to arch-rivals Tampa Bay in the Logan Forsythe/Alex Torres deal with San Diego. Before being traded however, he was sent to the Padres’ instructional complex in the Dominican Republic during the offseason for a crash course in playing catcher. This clouds what position he will play moving forward, but beyond that Tissenbaum is an interesting prospect. Tampa Bay has obviously been impressed with his awareness of the strike zone, and in 2014 we should get a better idea of how that skill translates as he potentially changes positions. Tissenbaum should get plenty of opportunity as a member of the Rays to continue to improve defensively, and let his on-base skills shine. Learning as many positions as possible will most certainly help give him the best chance at finding a job as a big leaguer. I wish him the best of luck, even as a member of those maddening Rays.

7. Nick Pivetta (Washington): A 4th round pick by the Washington Nationals in last years amateur draft, the New Mexico JC hurler wasted no time getting to pro baseball. Pitching across two levels in 2013, the 6'5 hurler finished in short-season Class A- with the Auburn Doubledays. Pivetta ended 2013 by throwing 34 innings, striking out 25 hitters to a 2.91 ERA.

Pivetta has a strong fastball in the 90-94 mph range, though he has peaked as high as 97 miles per hour. Upon being drafted, Evan Callis tweeted that he was "90-93 to 97, flashes plus slider & changeup", lending some credibility to some otherwise questionable sources on the young right-hander. After turning 21 in February of this year, there is plenty of upside with Pivetta. In fact, scouting director Kris Kline of the Nationals was reported saying that Pivetta "This kid to me is a [no.3] starter with the potential to be higher just because he has so much upside. He's got a very good feel for his changeup."

Pro Way Baseball presents - Nick Pivetta (via Marty Hall)

While Pivetta does have some unconventional nuances within his delivery, overall the picture looks strong. He has a clean arm path, and some intriguing arm speed. There is ease throughout the delivery, and all together he is a reasonably exciting pitching prospect. There are concerns that he may be headed to the bullpen if his secondaries can't be developed, though Washington is going to let him start for as long as they can.

8. Justin Marra (CHC): The left-handed hitting catcher and Toronto-area native has done nothing but hit and play solid defense ever since being drafted in the 15th round by the Chicago Cubs. He crushed his rookie league pitching counterparts in 2012 with a .941 OPS in just under 100 at-bats, and even got into a couple games for the Boise Hawks of the Northwest League as a 19-year old. Fast forward to 2013, Marra continued to hit for power (with 10 of his 19 hits going for extra bases), but at the expense of increasing his strikeout totals. All things considered, he still managed a very healthy .382 wOBA and 131 wRC+ in 2013 (granted in just under 100 PA's).

After playing with his older brother Daniel Marra for 3 years in college, I freely admit I may be a little bit partial to his younger brother. That said, there are still some impressive tools. Justin has a strong arm and has athletic actions behind the plate, and I feel confident that he'll be able to stick there long term. He's demonstrated an ability to hit for at least average power, and he has at least two playable skills from behind the plate. I think he'll go back to short season class-A in Boise, with a full season assignment not out of the question.

9. Rob Zastryzny (CHC): This 6'3 left-handed pitcher out of the University of Missouri was selected in the 2nd round of the 2013 draft. Zastryzny (from Edmonton, Alberta) is a polished college lefty with a 3-pitch mix, though there are questions marks. His fastball had some troubling velocity ranges (from 86mph-95mph), his breaking ball is fringe-average at best, and it's unclear whether he'll be a starter long term. Incidentally, the ranges in fastball velocity is said to be intentional, though I'm of the opinion that he could throw 92-95 on command, he would do it more often. Rob pitched in two levels in 2013, finishing in class-A Kane County. Once there, he pitched decently. All told he threw 24 innings, giving up 24 hits, striking out 22, and a 2.25 ERA (along with a 52% GB%) in 2013.

Rob Zastryzny Athlete Spotlight (via Mizzou Network)

Zastrzyny's best secondary pitch is his change up, and it's a pitch he's going to have to rely on strongly unless his breaking ball makes significant strides. As Baseball America notes, "His most reliable secondary pitch is his changeup, which shows flashes of being a plus offering. His breaking ball is less consistent, as he will switch between a slider and curveball. Zastryzny throws strikes but will need to refine his command in pro ball". After signing for 1.1$ million dollars, there will be plenty of pressure on pitching instructors in the Cubs system to get Zastryzny's breaking ball up to par.

10. Rowan Wick (St.Louis): Rounding out my top-10 list is another left-handed hitting catcher with some impressive physical tools (there may or may not be a pattern forming..). A North Vancouver boy, Wick has been twice drafted: firstly by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 19th round (2010), and again by the St.Louis Cardinals in the 9th round of the 2012 draft. After honoring his commitment to Cypress Community College (CA), Wick signed for 75,000$ dollars (50,000$ under-slot) and struggled in his 2012 season. Fast forward to 2013, and Wick showed off his impressive raw power; he hit 10 HR's, added 11 doubles, and sprinkled in 1 triple in 2013, all the while slashing .256/.354/.464 in 241 PA's.

At 6'3 and 220 pounds, Wick is an imposing figure behind home plate. I can't say for a damn whether or not he'll be able to stick behind the plate defensively, but if he can hack it back there it would put a lot less pressure on his bat. After playing against him and watching him play my last year in high school, it was apparent the young man could really wallop baseballs. The power is real, the rest of his skill set is still understandably raw. I'll be intent on keeping my eye on him in 2014, seeing as his ceiling is rather high.

Honorable Mentions: Steven Inch, RHP (Phi), Shane Dawson, LHP (Tor), Mike Crouse, OF (Tor), Sean Jamieson, INF (Ari), Kyle Lotzkar, RHP (Cin), Evan Grills, LHP (Hou)

If you stuck around, thanks for reading! Go Jays Go!

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