October 2012

Toronto Blue Jays prospect Marcus Knecht brings Can Do Attitude from Canada to Canberra Cavalry

Detroit’s Octavio Dotel usually wrecks havoc on right-handed hitters like Canadian-born Marcus Knecht, but on April Fools in a 2012 Jays Spring Training game Toronto’s 2010 third-round draft pick had the last laugh by blasting his first Grapefruit League home run off the veteran Dominican bullpen specialist.

Ex-Jays skipper/new Boston Red Sox Manager John Farrell sits and watches Marcus Knecht
launch a home run off Octavio Dotel in a 2012 Blue Jays Spring Training game on April 1st.

Originally selected in the 23rd round of the 2008 Amateur First-Year Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers after making Langley, British Columbia’s Brett Lawrie their first-round pick, former Brewers scouting director and current Mariners General Manager Jack Zduriencik thought that a common denominator of Canadian blood would add up to two of the country’s finest prospects crossing the border together as one into Wisconsin. Mathematicians would agree that the strategy was logical since Knecht was Lawrie’s teammate on the Canadian Junior National Team, and the Brewers believed that Lawrie might be able to influence Knecht to sign with Milwaukee. Lawrie signed with the Brewers for a $1.7 million signing bonus before going to play for Team Canada in the 2008 Olympic Summer Games and eventually became a Blue Jay in a late 2010 trade for pitcher Shaun Marcum (who recently became a free agent and expressed interest in returning to the Blue Jays if the team is interested in having him back). Unlike Lawrie, Knecht instead passed on the offer to play professionally in the Brewers organization in favor of perfecting his game in U.S. collegiate ball while continuing to represent his country on Team Canada in international baseball competitions worldwide.

Brett Lawrie (center) practices with members of the Canadian Junior National Team before a
2012 Blue Jays Spring Training exhibition game. (Photo by the Canadian Baseball Network)

Jays’ Marcus Knecht

After playing on Team Canada in the 2008 World Junior Baseball Championships in Edmonton and being named to the Tournament All-Star Team, Knecht was a major contributing member of the bronze medal- winning 2010 Baseball World Cup team and the gold medal-winning 2011 Pan American Games squad. Transferring from Oklahoma State University, where he struggled to get at-bats as a freshman, to Connors State College was instrumental for Knecht to develop in an everyday role in 2010. The results were off-the-charts as Knecht hit .453 with 23 homers, 20 steals and a .540 on-base percentage. He was selected in the third-round of the 2010 Amateur First-Year Draft by the Toronto Blue Jays after being followed by ex-Jays’ scouting director and current assistant GM Andrew Tinnish.

Markus Knecht awaits the call-up to home at Rogers Centre. (Photo by Alexis Brudnicki)

Accepting a $250,000 signing bonus, Knecht signed on-the-spot with Toronto and went straight to work in launching his pro career with Short-Season Single-A affiliate Auburn Doubledays (now affiliated with the Washington Nationals). After being voted the Canadian Baseball Network Player of the Year in 2010, the six-foot-one North York, Toronto native outfielder was promoted in 2011 to Single-A Lansing, where he posted a .273 average with a team-leading 16 home runs and 86 RBI for the Lugnuts. Knecht’s offensive power was noticed early on, and he was named a 2011 Midwest League Eastern Division All-Star. After impressing Jays skipper John Farrell (now with the Boston Red Sox) with his powerful bat and quick feet on the field during 2012 Blue Jays Spring Training, Knecht was assigned to Single-A Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays. It was May Day everyday for opposing pitchers who could not stop the red-hot Knecht during the month of May, when he rattled off 28 hits (including 7 doubles, 1 triple, and 6 home runs) accounting for 22 RBI.
The 22-year-old is hoping to continue with his offensive prowess and defensive excellence as a member of the Australian Baseball League’s Canberra Cavalry. Second only to last season’s ABL Champion Perth Heat in team offense and pitching, the Canberra Cavalry narrowly missed the ABL playoffs. With the injection of Knecht’s “Can Do” attitude, Canberra will be charging right out of the gate for a 2013 playoff berth.

Perth Heat add bite to lineup with Canadian import and Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Carter Bell

Like Sex and the City starlett Kim Cattrall, Carter Bell grew up in the small Vancouver Island, BC city of Courtenay. Opting out of the A-Rod spotlight method with the usual Hollywood fanfare and paparazzi, the 22-year-old Bell chose a lower profile means of pursuing his professional baseball career under the radar by playing for the Perth Heat in the Australian Baseball League.

Brewers’ Taylor Green made his MLB debut in 2012.

Following the same path as Milwaukee Brewers’ infielder Taylor Green, the six-foot-one Canadian third baseman played high school baseball for the Parksville Royals of the British Columbia Premier Baseball League. Upon graduation, Bell was a 22nd-round selection by the San Francisco Giants in the 2008 MLB First-Year Player Draft but did not sign in favor
of accepting a scholarship to play ball for the Oregon State Beavers.

Carter Bell (far right) and fellow 2010 OSU Beavers


MLB noticed Bell early on when he donned a Team Canada uniform for the first-time at age 17. Representing his country in far away competitions held in Mexico, Japan as well as on his home turf, the BC All-Star chose the 2006 and 2007 NCAA National Champ Oregon State University baseball program to further develop his craft. The decision was sound as he was selected in the 29th round of the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft and signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks following his junior year at OSU.

Former Yakima Bear Carter Bell stands at attention during the playing of the national anthem.

Hitting .270 in 41 games with eight doubles, two triples, one home run and 17 RBI, Bell’s pro debut with the 2011 Single-A Short Season Yakima Bears catapulted him to Single-A Advanced Visalia Rawhide in 2012. In Cal League play, he batted .259 in 81 games with 11 doubles, one triple, four home runs and 36 RBI. The road leading Down Under to the Perth Heat originated back in Oregon, where Bell played for former Perth Heat manager and long-standing Corvallis Knights skipper Brooke Knight after his first year at OSU. In his limited 10 games of 2009 West Coast League action, Bell hit .303 (10-33) with three RBI before suffering a season-ending concussion.

Former Perth Heat Manager Brooke Knight led his team to two ABL Championships.

MLB veteran and OSU All-Star Mike Thurman, a scout for the New York Yankees, was first to notice of Carter Bell’s athleticism.

Brooke Knight credits his best friend since his college days in playing ball together at Oregon State University, Mike Thurman, for pointing him in right direction just north of the border to find the Victoria-born Carter Bell, who rapidly rose to prominence in the Comox Valley Baseball Association and BC Premier Baseball League before playing as a teenager for Team Canada. Speaking on the eve before departing to Australia to assist new Perth Heat skipper Steve Fish in preparing the reigning Australian Champions for next month’s Asia Series against its foreign counterparts from Japan, Taiwan, China and South Korea, Knight explained how Canadian import Carter Bell landed Down Under: “To his credit, Carter took the initiative to call me and express his initial desire to play for the Perth Heat. He still considers it a privilege to take on this challenge. I told him it was the perfect winter league for him to get his body ready for spring because the ABL offers something that cannot be found anywhere else. The atmosphere and structure keeps players healthy because the league emphasizes safety first by limiting play to four games a week, which allows you to rest your body and properly heal.”

Knight also read Bell the disclaimer and warned him of the Aussie side effects: “I told him that Australia was culturally different as well and when it gets hot in December one can get homesick real fast and start crying out for girlfriends.” Knight feels blessed to have had the opportunity to coach such fine players as Carter Bell in Perth and Corvallis. “With guidance, I have luckily ended up with the right kids. Carter is a solid player. I’m just waiting for him to breakout. He’s got gap power and can hit the ball well the other way (to the opposite field). His power numbers will bump up as they did for import Adam Melker, a St. Louis Cardinals prospect.” Adam was Carter’s teammate on Brooke Knight’s 2009 Corvallis Knights. They will reunite under Knight’s leadership on the Perth Heat in the upcoming 2012 Asia Series on November 8-11 in Busan, South Korea. Melker hit 10 home runs for Double-A Springfield in 2012 as compared to none in 2011. Knight believes in Carter Bell. “He’s got a chance to make a difference. Carter has good range and can play the corners, not to mention he’s a Team Canada All-Star Shortstop.”

After impressing many in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization while playing for Single-A Advanced Visalia Rawhide in 2012, prospect Carter Bell will parlay his aggressive play for
the Australian Baseball League’s Perth Heat. (Photo by Ken Weisenberger/Strike3Photos.com)

MLB veteran and Padres Double-A pitching coach Tim Worrell likes Hayden Beard’s competitiveness

With 14 years of Major League Baseball pitching experience under his belt, it was a no brainer for San Diego’s AA affiliate in San Antonio to call on Tim Worrell to fill the shoes of former Missions’ pitching coach Jimmy Jones, who was summoned to become the new Padres bullpen. Hired by the parent-club San Diego Padres in 2010, Worrell had been working in Peoria, Arizona with the organization’s players in extended spring training and on rehab assignment prior to reporting to the Texas League team. Having to leave his wife and six boys back home in Phoenix to take on pitching coach duties in San Antonio, it wouldn’t be long before Worrell would be adopted by his new baseball family of international pitchers led by Aussie Hayden Beard.

San Diego prospect Hayden Beard

Hayden “Big Dog” Beard came off a strong 2011 campaign after pitching for Team Australia during
the Baseball World Cup in Panama as well as for
the Australian Baseball League’s Canberra Cavalry. During the 2011-12 Cavalry season, he earned himself ABL Player of the Week honours and a team-leading five wins with a 2.82 ERA. Heading into 2012 Padres Spring Training Camp, Beard looked radiant and as confident as ever. After leading High-A Lake Elsinore Storm to a 2011 Cal League Championship, it was natural for the right-handed hurler to saddle up for a promotion to Double-A San Antonio Missions. Although there were a few bumps in the road during the seemingly rough ride, the Aussie pitcher finished strong with a 6-5 record in just over 119 innings of work. Starting in 19 games, Beard gave his team a chance to win every outing. However, he relished after the All-Star break in his 12 bullpen appearances during which his strikeout totals accelerated to 69.

We caught up with family man Tim Worrell in the San Antonio Missions’ dugout recently and discussed how Padres pitching prospect Hayden Beard’s best years may have yet to come.

Roberto: 27-year-old Aussie pitcher Hayden Beard is a late bloomer because he had to sit out for three years due to nerve damage in his arm. The Padres obviously have faith in him by sending him your way in Double-A San Antonio. Having said that you reached the prime of your career at age 31, do you see some parallels between the two of you in showing him that there is light at the end of the tunnel?

Tim Worrell: Yeah, sure. Again, I never try to tell these guys where their careers could finish at. I’d be a dummy to tell them that. First off, he’s got a great live arm and great movement on his pitches. Sometimes he struggles a little bit with control and that obviously puts us in trouble. When we’re behind in the count regularly, it puts the hitters in hitter’s counts. But he’s definitely starting to get some of these approaches knowing that is an area he needs to work on. And that in itself ends up helping to control some of the results that end up happening to us. (You) can’t always control them all, but it does put us in a better position. And he is still working on fine-tuning his game. It wasn’t long ago that we sped him up a little quicker to the plate without giving up quality of stuff so that he could hold runners on first better. So there are definitely physical things we need to do and he needs to do to make his game better. But a lot of it is just believing and trusting his stuff.

Roberto: Watching his roommate Miles Mikolas get the call-up to the Padres, rubbing shoulders with last year’s surprise in the San Diego bullpen, Erik Hamren, and this year’s sensation, Nick Vincent, must have been inspirational for Hayden with the realization that he could be next. Having watched him pitch in Australia and in Lake Elsinore, the fact remains is that Hayden Beard is a great competitor. Now that he is paired up with you in San Antonio, I think it’s an awesome combination. I’m really happy that you guys are really able to work together in developing his craft.

Tim Worrell: Yep. And you brought up probably his number one attribute and that’s his competitiveness, which is probably the most important thing. Because a true competitor never gives in. We have to remind ourselves at times maybe that we are that. But they don’t give in, and they are always looking to get better and always looking to get the job done.

Hayden Beard pitches during the MLB offseason for his hometown Canberra Cavalry.

A’s Grant Balfour rages against opposing teams

As it was previously in 2010 and 2011, pitching is once again all the rage now in Major League Baseball. Despite seven no-hitters tossed in 2012 by starting pitchers Homer Bailey, Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain, Kevin Millwood (with the help of five relievers), Johan Santana, Jered Weaver and Phil Humber, it’s the men in the pen that garner most of the over-the-top baseball fanaticism. Leading the late-inning charge of borderline insanity is Aussie closer Grant Balfour of the Oakland Athletics. Often seen dumping water over his head before leaving the bullpen and talking to himself in-between pitches, Balfour’s on-field antics are undoubtedly the most anticipated sight to see in the 2012 MLB playoffs.

The Oakland Athletics fans’ traditional ritual of raging before closer Grant Balfour enters the
game has resurrected sleepy baseball crowd participation to electric rock concert proportions.


Aussie Grant Balfour is not afraid to express himself.

The raging thunder from ‘Down Under’ was called upon by A’s manager Bob Melvin in five tightly-contested games on five consecutive days to lead Oakland to the American League West Division title. Balfour’s stellar late season hitless pitching insured the A’s sweep of the Mariners and Rangers. The six-foot-two, 34-year-old Sydney native threw an inning per day and retired all 15 batters faced–which extended his streak of putting consecutive batters away to 26. He is just one of two Australian professional players to compete in a World Series as a member of the 2008 American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays and is in a perfect position to get another crack at taking home a World Series ring in 2012 with the A’s.

Grant Balfour sprays Oakland A’s fans after winning the 2012 American League West Division.

A’s Derek Norris and Grant Balfour

Since August 11th, Grant Balfour has converted all 17 of his save opportunities while posting a 2.18 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 26/6 K/BB ratio over 20 2/3 innings. After a three-year stint in Tampa Bay, Balfour signed a two-year contract worth 8.1 million dollars with the Oakland Athletics in January 2011. In his 62 innings of relief for the A’s during 2011, the hard-throwing right-handed hurler struck out 59 hitters and racked up five wins for the third-place Athletics. Acquired by the Rays in July 2007 from the Milwaukee Brewers in a trade sending pitcher Seth McClung to Miller Field, Grant Balfour did not make Tampa Bay’s 2008 Opening Day roster. However, after turning heads at Triple-A Durham and closer Troy Percival being placed on the disabled list early into the season, the Rays sent Ben Zobrist to Durham in exchange for Balfour. Assuming the role of Rays closer for the ailing Troy Percival until mid-July, Balfour ended his regular season campaign with an impressive 6-2 record and a 1.54 ERA.

Fellow Aussie Travis Blackley joins Grant Balfour and the A’s post-game celebration.

A’s closer Grant Balfour is in the prime of his career.

Grant Balfour made his MLB debut back in 2001 for the Minnesota Twins. Having now passed former MLB star Graeme Lloyd on the career strikeout list for Australian-born pitchers, he is the quintessential Aussie baseball patriarch. A’s pitchers Grant Balfour and Travis Blackley have already made baseball history by becoming the first pair of Australian Major League players to compete in the MLB post-season on the same team.

Grant Balfour had 24 regular season saves in a career-high 75 games during the 2012 season.

The pitching duo of Balfour and Blackley have another opportunity to imprint their names in Aussie baseball history by becoming only the second and third Australians to win a World Series ring. A fairytale ending for Oakland’s Australian connection would be most appropriate as they both have played a major role in the A’s miraculous run to the American League West title and the post-season. Like a fine wine getting better with age, Sydney’s Grant Balfour and Melbourne’s Travis Blackley are at the pinnacle of their careers and are in line to catapult the underdog to a world championship.

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