For those of us who have been here for the entire ten year relationship between the Vancouver Canadians and Toronto Blue Jays its hard to believe that a decade has passed since Paul Beeston and Alex Anthopoulos put pen to paper along side C’s owner Jake Kerr and president Andy Dunn. It’s been a match made in heaven with a Northwest League leading four (4) Championships in five trips to the final and more than 60 players going from Vancouver to the bright lights of the Major Leagues.
It’s been an easy sell when it comes to showing our fanbase just who has come out from the dugout tunnel since 2011 with everyone from Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Nate Pearson just to name a few – but as we look for the ten greatest pitchers in Vancouver Canadians Short-Season history dating back to the beginning of our partnership with the Blue Jays – a few other names steal the spotlight from those who today have a larger profile.
To truly find the ten best season-long performances by a Vancouver Canadians pitcher we had to make the cutoff a mere thirty innings pitched that season which removes not only Syndergaard, Stroman, Sanchez and Pearson – but TJ Zeuch, Alek Manoah, Ryan Borucki and Justin Maese who might have had the best numbers of all these pitching greats while in Vancouver.
Here is a list of the best arms we have seen help the Canadians over the past decade as I saw them from the broadcast booth.
#10) Orlando Pascual – 2017
Quiet but not lacking confidence, Orlando was pivotal to helping the Vancouver Canadians toward its fourth Northwest League title by becoming virtually invincible out from the bullpen. His basic numbers were impressive going 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA in 33.0 innings of work – but his secondary numbers were even better. His WHIP was 1.06 as the right-hander out of San Pedro de Macoris, DR held opposing hitters to a paltry .206 average in his 24 games.
Pascual was awesome in tight situations inducing ground ball after ground ball with a devastating sinker. If he wasn’t striking you out on that pitch, he was burying you into the ground with it making him wildly effective as the C’s marched toward the Northwest League Championship over Eugene.
#9) Chris Hall – 2017
The phrase “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” never once applied to Canadians right-hander Chris Hall who was incredibly consistent out of the bullpen going 1-0 with a 1.49 ERA in 36.1 innings with a 1.02 WHIP, holding hitters to a .200 average.
Hall, a 14th Rounder out of Elon University was not an overpowering arm out of manager Rich Miller’s bullpen but he was seasoned, polished and outsmarted hitters all summer long recording 42 strike outs walking just 11 before he was called up to Lansing of the Midwest League. His call up was a tough pill to swallow for the Canadians who were in the middle of a playoff push but Vancouver persevered while Hall struggled up a level going 1-2 with an 8.74 ERA. Many thought Hall should have remained in Vancouver to finish strong but a Lugnuts team back east was also in the post-season mix and even with Hall couldn’t get it done while the Canadians powered forward to the title.
#8) Tom Robson – 2013
There have been few “Cinderella” seasons like the one put forth by Langley, B.C. native Tom Robson who in front of his hometown went undefeated in the regular season (3-0) and was also on the mound in the Northwest League Championship finale helping Vancouver get past Boise for a second straight summer.
Robson in the regular season was overpowering with a 95-96mph fastball and a hard slider that puzzled NWL hitters. He would finish with a 0.94 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 38.1 innings of work handling the pressure of being ‘that kid’ out at Nat Bailey Stadium while delivering in each outing.
His crowning moment came in Game 3 of the Best-of-3 NWL Championship when the former North Delta Blue Jays pitcher went 6.1 innings of scoreless baseball while the Boise Hawks fumbled the ball defensively in front of 5,000+ fans. Combined it led the C’s to a third consecutive title – something that had never happened in more than 20 years in the Northwest League.
#7) Josh Winckowski – 2018
We sometimes can get lost in the wins and losses of a pitcher’s record but in the case of Canadians right-hander Josh Winckowski he was so much more than his 4-5 record for a slow starting 2018 ballclub.
Winckowski was dominant despite getting horrendous run support at times. Vancouver scored a combined 10 runs on his five losses (2.0rpg) as the kid from Estero, Florida worked through it finishing with a 2.78 ERA and 71 strikeouts against just 15 walks (4.73 SO/BB) in his 68.0 innings.
Josh registered 7+ strikeouts in five of his 13 outings and had a WHIP of 1.22 en route to being named the Northwest League Pitcher of the Year as selected by the eight managers within the league.
#6) Adam Kloffenstein – 2019
At just 19 years of age, Canadians right-hander Adam Kloffenstein gave fans of the Toronto Blue Jays hope that their 3rd rounder from the 2018 draft was going to be something special. ‘King Kloff” showed signs of dominance early registering 14 strikeouts over his first three outings (11.0IP) but had his breakout moment on July 8 at home against Everett when the righty from Magnolia, Texas went 4.2 innings of scoreless baseball and followed it up a week later with another five scoreless innings. Those outings likely tipped the scales as he was announced as a member of the Northwest League All-Star team shortly after and proceeded to pitch like an all-star the rest of the season.
Kloffenstein was named “co” Pitcher of the Year alongside Luis Quinones at season’s end. In his final three outings Adam struck out 25 in just 18.0 innings and walked four proving he had solved the Northwest League.
#5) Miguel Castro – 2014
Overpowering. I could stop right there and move on to #4 and it would be all you needed to know about the tall and lanky fire baller within the Blue Jays system that Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos didn’t even know he had (true story – I’ll get to that in a bit).
Castro has a 100mph fastball that electrified fans out at Nat Bailey Stadium, and it looked even harder coming out of the 6-6 righty’s hand that was attached to an arm that was as long as a base path. His first game at Nat Bailey had fans in a frenzy as he went six scoreless innings against Spokane and had as many broken bats as he did strike outs (3). Miguel would give up just two runs over four outings (20.0IP) between June 30 and July 16.
On July 26th, his final home game in Vancouver Miguel would strike out a season-high eight over six innings of work as he dominated Hillsboro in a no-decision. Among those in the sold-out stadium was Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos who post-game went down into the Canadians manager’s office and asked, ‘who was that?’ After learning of his flame-throwing righty, Castro was shipped up to Lansing a few days later leaving behind a trail of fire. Eight months later, Miguel was on the Toronto Blue Jays Opening Day roster and shortly after that shipped to Colorado in a deal that brought Troy Tulowitzki to the Blue Jays.
#4) Jairo Labourt – 2014
After struggling to start the season with Lansing 0-0, 6.43 ERA in six appearances, Jairo (HI-row) was transferred to Vancouver to work alongside a pitching staff that included Ryan Borucki, Matt Dermody and 1st Rounder Matt Smoral. With the pressure now off his shoulders, Labourt thrived working alongside pitching guru Jim Czajkowski and manager John Schneider.
In just his fourth appearance with the C’s, Labourt went six no-hit innings at home vs. Tri-City sending a message to the rest of the NWL that Vancouver had pocket aces working alongside Borucki.
In eight difference appearances Labourt would strike out six or more hitters and held NWL hitters to a .188 average over the entire season. He would finish with 81 strikeouts and a 1.18 WHIP helping the Canadians the Northwest League Final vs. Hillsboro. Labourt and Borucki were slated to pitch Game 3 of the best-of-3 Championship vs. Hillsboro but the C’s would never get there leaving the NWL 1-2 pitching leaders to wonder what could have been.
#3) Taylor Cole – 2012
Not many front-line pitchers take a second ‘tour of duty’ in Vancouver but for Taylor Cole his encore was one for the ages. Cole scuffled in 2011 going 1-3 with a 5.88 ERA and combined with the stockpile of arms ahead of him in the Blue Jays system that allowed for a second stint and a chance to refine some of his challenges working alongside pitching coach Jim Czajkowski for back-to-back seasons. Czajkowski (sigh-cow-ski) heaped praise on Cole coming out of Spring Training and the words rang true as Cole was dominant the entire season allowing just one earned run over his first seven outings (35.0IP) and capped off the regular season with a sparkling 7.2 innings of no-hit baseball at Yakima solidifying his sub-one ERA (0.81). He would finish 6-0 with a 0.81 ERA, 57 strikeouts and a WHIP of 0.80 marking one of the greatest single season pitching performances in Canadians history.
Cole was key in helping the Canadians capture a second consecutive NWL title which included a roster with Willson Contreras, Dan Vogelbach, Albert Almora and eight other future Major Leaguers.
#2) Justin Nicolino – 2011
One commonality among all these great Vancouver Canadians pitchers is what they did on the field. Justin Nicolino perhaps more than any pitcher in franchise history had that ‘it’ factor – a leadership trait that led you to believe that one day he was for certain going to punch his ticket to the Major Leagues which on June 20th, 2015 he did as a member of the Miami Marlins.
Four years earlier Nicolino was in Vancouver finding way after way to top hitters from across the Northwest League. His numbers, exquisite, going 5-1 with a 1.03 ERA and 64 strikeouts to go along with just 11 walks. It was how Justin beat you that made him so impressive pitching in 12 games for the Canadians, logging 52.1 innings and two or fewer hits in seven of those dozen outings. He just suffocated hitters and found countless ways to beat you including five innings of no-hit baseball at Eugene in a game that the C’s absolutely had to have as they chased the Emeralds right to the final game of the first-half, losing out on a tie-break scenario that meant Vancouver would have to start all over and try to get into the post-season with a pennant from the second half.
Nicolino wouldn’t be there at the finish line as along with Noah Syndergaard, the pair got called up to Lansing at the same time leaving Vancouver with a gapping hole in their rotation. Nicolino’s final gift to the C’s before heading east was five innings of scoreless baseball vs. Everett helping propel Vancouver toward the second half title. Weeks later, the Canadians would top Eugene two-games-to-one in the West Division Final before beating Tri-City to claim its first ever NWL title. The Canadians do not get to the post-season without Justin Nicolino and the work ethic and expectation he left behind for all the other arms he led in 2011.
#1) Javier Avendano – 2012
Without question there are a few arms on this list that could be inserted at the top of this story, but Javier Avendano (ah-ven-dan-yo) was deserving of this title when the dust finally settled. No pitcher was more consistent, more dependable and more dominant that Avendano was leading Vancouver to a second straight Championship.
Starting the season with Lansing of the Midwest League, Avendano arrived ready to go with 30.1 innings of work already under his belt when he pulled up to Nat Bailey Stadium. Javier didn’t allow a run in his first four outings (15.0IP) and struck out 17 over that span and only got roughed up once in his 16 appearances using that outing at Boise to fuel his desire to be the team’s ace allowing just one run over his final 20.0 innings of the regular season. Avendano would get his revenge against Boise throwing five scoreless innings against the offensively gifted Hawks scattering four hits and faced them again in Game 1 of the NWL Championship in a series the Canadians would win.
The final numbers on Avendano’s season? A franchise best eight wins (8-1) with a 1.27 ERA and 91 strikeouts (franchise best at time) and a WHIP of 1.00 – while opposing hitter managed to muster up a skinny .193 average. It was consistent, dependable and dominant all summer long – when Javier Avendano pitched the Canadians won making him my #1.
Rob Fai is broadcaster for the Vancouver Canadians Baseball Club and can be heard each season on Sportsnet 650 AM across British Columbia and seen on Sportsnet Pacific.