In 2004, the Vancouver Canadians rode good pitching and good hitting to the Northwest League Western Division pennant. In 2005, they rode outrageous pitching and so-so hitting to repeat the dose. For 2006, the recipe seems to be more of the same, as the new breed of Vancouver Canadians look for a three-peat, and perhaps even their first NWL Championship.
So who is leading the charge? Here’s the tale of the tape in terms of position players:
#1: Jake ‘The Rake’ Smith – The 2006 Johnny Bench Award winner for the nation’s top college catcher got off to a slow start in his pro career after being selected with the 21st round pick out of East Carolina, but C’s management have kept him in the clean-up spot and been rewarded for their faith with a slowly increasing BA (.194, up from the .140 range coming into the last home series), and a team-leading RBI total of 14 that is fourth in the league. Jacob Smith is also fourth in the league in doubles, with seven.
#2: Don Sutton III – Coming back off a season out with injury, Don Sutton has a renewed zest for the game. Once a bat-throwing, cursing suspension-waiting-to-happen, the 1B/C/DH is signing autographs, high-fiving teammates, and a week ago walked out to the pitcher’s mound in front of 6000 fans and asked his girlfriend to marry him. A leg injury pushed him out of the lineup for a few weeks, and he’ll be keen to get off that .172 average, but this may well be Don Sutton’s year.
#3: Gustavo ‘Rosie’ Rosendo – Every catcher’s battery needs someone who can warm up a bullpen. That’s pretty much Gustavo Rosendo’s role. No hits in nine at bats.
#1: Greg ‘D-Bomb’ Dowling – You’d never get rich betting on this 19th round pick to bring down a hard grounder cleanly, and his early season form has been somewhat dire, but Greg Dowling is starting to come around. He’s up over the Mendoza Line at last, he’s shown good strength (though Nat Bailey Stadium is notorious for nullifying power potential), he’s finding the gaps with well-hit line drives, and he may well show us what he’s capable of as the season rolls forward. Especially if 9th round draftee Danny Hamblin doesn’t sign his offer.
#1: Mike ‘The Keg’ Klug – This 2005 28th rounder surely didn’t expect to be getting as much starting time at second as he is right now, especially considering his early season form (or lack of it) with the bat, but Michael Klug has been an increasing offensive threat from the back of the line-up. He’s leading the team with home runs (admittedly, that means he’s hit two), he’s ratcheting his average up towards respectable territory (albeit slowly), and he’s turned some nice DPs. Given an extended run, he might hit his stride in the second half, but he may also find his playing time greatly reduced when Christian Vitters is fit to play at short and Mike Affronti has to be shifted elsewhere.
#2: Sam ‘Hercules’ Hernandez – He’s only played ten games, but Samuel Hernandez has proved himself to be valuable in the clutch (five RBIs on nine base hits), and his line is .290/.389/.355, which is pretty darn respectable for a #7 hitter. Defensively, Hernandez may be better than Klug, but he’s another shortstop who will end up finding playing time out of his position once Vitters is on deck.
#1: Wilber Perez – After a season in Vancouver last year in which he fell out of favor due to behavioral issues (more of the ‘not obeying signs’ variety than the ‘destroying the locker room’ type), Perez found himself in Arizona in 2006. Called up to cover the C’s at their weakest spot after Oakland drafted not a single third baseman before the 36th round, Perez has been strong defensively, but is yet to warm up with the bat. He may find his spot in jeopardy once the Vitters-inspired infield positional changes begin.
#2: Alex ‘Exxon’ Valdez – A shortstop for most of his career, Alexander Valdez was forced to cover third for most of the 2006 NWL season to date, but a lackadaisical approach in the field, a flurry of K’s, and a propensity to try to hit every ball over the fence has seen him fall out of favor for the corner spot. He’s hitting .180, though his two triples place him fourth in the league.
#1: Mike ‘Fearless’ Affronti – The 17th round draftee started the 2006 NWL season in style, looking every bit the polished middle infielder with inspired defensive plays that left crowds gasping. Whether he started believing his own press or whether the rigors of every-day play have started to wear him down, Affronti has begun making errors – some rudimentary, some a case of trying to do too much – and the pressure of the higher-drafted Chris Vitters imminent arrival is probably not helping.
With the bat, Mike Affronti has become Vancouver’s regular #2 hitter, running fourth in the league in runs scored, which should see him continue to start, even if he has to switch positions to do so. “I’m not worried about that,” Affronti told me recently, adding, “I’ve played 3rd, 2nd, outfield – wherever they want me, I can play the spot.”
#2: Christian Vitters – This 10th round draft pick has had to sit on the sidelines healing a broken thumb (delivered, incidentally, by now-teammate Branden Dewing), but the importance of (and money invested in) high round draft picks dictates that he’ll take Affronti’s spot soon, no matter what Fearless does in the meantime.
Right Field: Matt ‘Authentic’ Sulentic – Sure, the kid has only walked twice in 63 at-bats. And yeah, he got off to a slow start while getting used to wood bats. And, okay, he made some horrific base-running decisions. And yeah, he’s been picked off a couple of times. And okay, defensively, he needs work. But here’s the thing: he can flat out hit. A .302/.318/.413 line tells only part of the story – Sulentic has been flat out challenged by some of the best pitching the NWL has to offer, with some opposing pitchers boasting up to six years more pro experience than he does, and he’s not only stood firm, he’s driven in some very important runs. Matt Sulentic has 11 RBIs in 16 games.
Center Field: Jermaine ‘J-Train’ Mitchell – Ignore the lack of power numbers – Vancouver is a notorious powerlord graveyard – Mitchell is feared in the NWL right now, and for good reason. He walks (13 BBs, fourth in the league), he hits for contact (.324 average, good for seventh in the league), he drives in runs (10 RBIs – third most on the team), he steals bases (nine SBs leads the team and is second in the league), and he’s intentionally walked at least once per game over the last couple of series.
Defensively, he has only one error on the year, and that can be put down to unfortunate positioning of the sun. How long he stays at this level is in question, because in all honesty, he’s too good to stay in the NWL the whole season.
Left Field: Larry ‘Corny’ Cobb – This 27th rounder wasn’t expected to start regularly when he arrived at Vancouver, let alone be the lead-off man, and an early candidate for team MVP. But once Toddric Johnson had been sent up to Kane County, Larry Cobb’s ferocious approach to defense (he’s fast, takes good routes, and can fly full-stretch forward to snare a ball when necessary), his patient approach at the plate (he’s not a walk machine, but is happy to wait for the right pitch to pounce on, and can foul off a bunch of the pitcher’s best stuff), and his ability with the lumber (eight doubles puts him second in the league, and he hits for a .303 average), make Cobb an early season success story and a great grab for Oakland in such a late round. Much like 2005 Vancouver stand-out Mike Massaro, Cobb is relying on desire more than reputation at this stage, but if he continues in this vein, he’ll be pushing for promotion sooner rather than later.
#2 outfielder: Andre Piper-Jordan – Tough to gauge the progress of Piper-Jordan, as he’s generally been limited to rest starts and late inning pinch-hitting. We know that he has a rep for speed, and his .250 average is passable, if not notable, but nine Ks in 24 at bats puts him way down the line in terms of preference for a starting position. If DJPJ wants a spot in this outfield, he’ll have to make good use out of limited opportunities – and show the C’s coaching staff that he’s hungry for it.
#1: ‘The Mighty’ Casey Myers – Rehabbing after a nasty injury, Myers has taken his time getting back into the swing of things. He’s hitting .200, he’s unable to play defense at the moment, and on the base-paths he looks positively Benji Molina-ish, but over the last few games Myers has been noticeably more confident. That is, until he hurt his leg busting out a double and had to go back to the bench.
THE DEARLY DEPARTED:
Chad ‘Tum-Tum’ Boyd: If ever there was a player who epitomized the ‘heart and soul’ intangible, that player is Tum-Tum. Coming back after a shoulder injury, and barely a game into the season, the 5’10” Boyd was laying shoulder-charges on catchers to ensure runs were scored, hyping up the crowd and bringing his players into the game with inspiring clutch play. After five games that brought about a .389 average and a .455 OBP, the recently resumed Chad Boyd Fan Club was once again put in cotton wool as Boyd was quickly booted back upstairs to the level he belongs.
Toddric ‘Hot Toddy’ Johnson: To quote C’s batting coach, Benny ‘The Jet’ Winslow, “There’s no player I’ve ever seen or played with in this system who can match this guy for speed. If he gets on base, forget about it. He’s gone. Dude’s got all the tools. We were lucky to have him here as long as we did.” Toddric Johnson had a .333 average in 10 games, .429 OBP, .479 SLG, team-leading .901 OPS. He’ll go far.
Next week: Pitching – Can the 2006 C’s match the dominant 2005 pitching staff?
Chris Parry is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He runs the popular blog Notes from the Nat which covers the Vancouver Canadians and the Oakland A's minor league system.