Hello everyone, and welcome to another season of the Victoria HarbourCats Baseball Blog! The blog has been hibernating all throughout this long, cold, snowy Victoria winter, but it’s time to shake the red dust off the cleats, dry off the bats, and start taking some easy pre-season swings.
Good thing the HarbourCats organization doesn’t take as much time off as the blog does – in fact despite the very non-baseball weather we have been having, nothing but baseball has been going on over at the offices on Vancouver St. It seems there’s been hardly a week without some announcement around new players, coaching additions, changes to the fan experience, or general West Coast League news coming down the pipe. Add to that the college ball season coming to its finale, and the things to write about are really piling up.
As usual, we’ll keep you posted on HarbourCat lineup developments right up to opening day, and then switch into full gear reporting on all the action from Victoria’s fifth WCL season. Wait – did I just say five seasons of top-level baseball here in Victoria? That seems crazy doesn’t it? After waiting for so long to find a team and a league that could grow with us, and after sitting on pins and needles over some early ownership issues, now it just seems like a given: Victoria has baseball, Victorian’s love baseball, and Victoria is a baseball city! It’s nice to be a small part in something that has now grown beyond our wildest expectations isn’t it?
Well, not everyone’s wildest expectations. General Manager Brad Norris Jones is adamant the team is nowhere near done. “We haven’t won a championship yet. We made it to the playoffs, but didn’t win a game. We got beat by a better team, our goal this year is to win, and do that every year from this point forward”. Owner and Managing Partner Jim Swanson agrees, and honestly believes he’s just getting started. “We’re excited to make it to year five, but this isn’t the finish line. There is no end game here. Don’t get me wrong, last year was a fabulous year, but there’s no satisfaction with just making the playoffs. We need to improve both on the field, as well as off the field with the fan experience”.
Despite finishing on top of the league in 2016, the very nature of summer ball presents new and difficult challenges each and every year. With 90% of the league turning over every year, you build every year’s team from scratch. “We start over every September” says Norris Jones. “This year, we feel confident with the schools we have dealt with and the players we have. We have a really good team coming here this year, some truly elite players”.
As it stands now, Victoria has 49 signed players, including 7 returning from last year. Despite all the hard work though, with two weeks to go before opening night anything can happen. Injuries, college season workload, or school commitments could change the lineup drastically before opening night, and as has happened in the last three years, the MLB draft in early June could take players away.
As far as recruiting for 2017, two things have happened this off-season that have had a significant impact on the team’s ability to sign top-notch talent: The HarbourCats incredible run in 2016, where they set records for winning streaks, games won, and attendance; and the additional exposure of hiring ex-major leaguer Brian McRae as a head coach. Says Swanson “People have heard of Victoria now, and are familiar with how well this team has done, and they want to come here”. Norris Jones adds “Brian [McRae] has helped us out considerably with a lot of mid-west guys, so this year we will have a different flavour for sure”.
And that is certainly one difference that is immediately noticeable when reviewing the recent player signings – which not only includes NCAA Div 1 players from schools like Baylor, Perdue, and Mississippi State, but also includes a player from Taiwan, and one from the Bahamas. Add to that mix a solid group of West Coast talent and the HarbourCats have perhaps the most diverse and distributed roster in the league. And that’s before we talk about Claire Eccles. In the most recent announcement made by the team, the HarbourCats have signed the first woman to play baseball anywhere at this level, and has made local and national news doing it. “It’s not a gimmick”, points out Norris Jones. “Claire will be treated like every other pitcher out there. If she’s good, she plays. Brian has full control over who pitches every inning, and Claire is no different than anyone else”. Except that she is, but reasons beyond baseball. More on Claire to come as she joins the team in the second week of June (once she completes her Baseball Canada commitments).
Even with new and talented players in the pipe, the organization knows that one way to keep fan interest high is to bring back returning favourites. Victoria is fortunate enough to have some key players returning from last year, including pitchers Josh Mitchell, Blake Hannah, Colin Ashworth, Casey Costello, and Greg Casper. Of that group, likely only Mitchell is iffy, as word on the street says he may be drafted. Great for him, not so much for Victoria where the lefty dominated most of his starts in 2016. Catcher Riley Guntrip is currently the only rostered fielder on the list of returnees, but watch for maybe a couple more in the coming weeks…
With only three weeks to opening day, there are plenty of unknowns, and critical work to be done. “The park needs some work to be ready for June 6, but being 5 years in, we know what to do, how to do it, it’s just work” says Norris Jones. “It will all get done, and we will all be ready to go to Port Angeles for game 1, and June 5th we will be back here and ready to kick this thing off at home”.
Between now and then, we’ll see the roster firm up, players start to arrive, and the park will come alive with he signs and sounds of baseball returning to the Capital Region. We can’t wait for that first yell of “Play Ball”!
Watch for more action here on the blog as we go through the roster and track late movements up to opening day. Baseball’s back baby, glad to have you along for the ride!