(PK Park - Eugene, OR) - They say "keep running and never look back" when you are in the throws of a race. Tonight a new starter's gun will sound and eight Northwest League teams will once again try and outlast the others over the course of a blistering 76-game season.
For the Canadians, the adage about never looking back is probably sound advice as last summer the Canadians checked out of the hotel with a few night's remaining on the bill and this summer have a lot to prove to regain the moniker of "team to beat."
Don't get it mixed up, the Canadians fan-friendly experience was better than it head ever been with more than 222-thousand fans cramming into Scotiabank Field to watch fireworks extravaganzas and the whole array of things that make our place 'the place to be' in the summer. The only hold up came on the field with a timid group that despite seeing some solid individual performances - never gelled the way you would hope to see a team do -- especially one with the history that the Canadians had built up over the previous five seasons.
From 2010 through 2014, no one in the Northwest League could come close. Five consecutive appearances, four trips to the final and three straight NWL titles. Life on the ol' ship Nat Bailey was as good as it could be.
But now, Canadians manager Rich Miller has a added layer on his "to-do" list as not only does he have to develop the future of the Toronto Blue Jays, but he has to do it well in front of 6,500 fans each night when the Vancouver fan base looks to get back to cheering on winning baseball.
Here's a look at five players that could have an immediate impact on the season:
1) Reggie Pruitt - The easy-going outfielder has speed to spare and although he could use a few extra points on the batting average based on his past two seasons, Pruitt should he get on base, can flat out change the complexion of an inning. Miller has to get Pruitt in the box and find creative ways to get him on base. If he does, the Canadians should be able to manufacture a few extra runs which was something they struggled with a season ago.
2) Lance Jones - The soft-spoken outfielder has all the tools to be a factor come game time, and now needs to find a way to get out of his own head. His passion for the game can be mistaken as frustration when things are going badly and the Louisiana native needs to simply take a deep breath. If he does this - the tools are all there and between him and Pruitt, this could be A LOT of fun to watch this summer. He is a career .290 hitter with six triples and nine doubles in 89 games. He could be the MVP of this team if he can lock in for 76 games.
3) Matt Morgan / Owen Spiwak & Yorman Rodriguez - It will be very interesting to see the pecking order for these three catchers as the first few weeks of the season get underway. Rodriguez, 20, is the youngest of the three backstops but played at the lowest of the three levels seen by this trio a season ago. This comes down to two "X" factors with the first being who can hit. The other is who can communicate best with this Latin heavy pitching staff as they get their feet wet in the Northwest League. Some would suggest that gives Rodriguez a distinct advantage but again it comes back to how well you can play the game both at the plate and while crunched back behind the plate with 58-foot curveballs coming at you from time-to-time.
4) Brayden Bouchey - The kid from White Rock, B.C. will surely spend time this summer in the Canadians box office seeking ticket after ticket for friends and family as that comes with the terrioty when you play in you home town. But Bouchey can pitch too, and much like watching Rich Harden, Tom Robson and a few others we will have to see how he handles those first few outings at home where the heart rate will be up and the expectations will soar.
5) Mr. Draft - Although this player has yet to be given an identity here in Vancouver, it's no secret that the Toronto Blue Jays went college heavy in this year's MLB First-Year Player Draft. What does that mean for Vancouver? Hopefully something good. The past several blue chippers have all stopped through Vancouver including T.J. Zeuch, Jon Harris, Max Pentecost and Marcus Stroman not to mention Sanchez, Syndergaard and Nicolino. The environment is in Vancouver without question, the only obstacle comes in the fact that the draft was much later this year and it could take a few weeks, not days for the Canadians to see their true identity.
So it's batten down the hatches and hang on for Rich Miller and the Canadians as the speculation is over and the first pitch of the season is tonight!
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.