One would think that with the WCL season freshly in the books after three solid months of on-field play and countless weeks before that spent doing pre-season setup, marketing, player management, and just about everything else, that the HarbourCats management team would be taking some much deserved time off to enjoy the rest of the summer.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. The building of a winning WCL franchise doesn’t start the day after the season ends – in fact if starts weeks before that.
Fresh off the 2015 season, and being able to evaluate last season’s activities, General Manager Jim Swanson says this year, it started much earlier than expected. ”Two things were different at the end of this year. First the coaching staff got involved and wanted to know who we would return, and secondly we had players coming to us daily the last three weeks of the season asking if they could come back”.
While only part of the overall picture, returning players are an interesting facet of summer ball. The name recognition and the known commodity of what a player brings to the team are huge positives for team management and fans alike – who doesn’t like cheering on an old favourite in the first game of the season, or knowing who you can put into the game to get a key hit or out. “Returning players back up everything we are trying to do here. It’s a word-of-mouth thing, where players are telling the new players that are coming in, that they asked to come back to this place. If they didn’t like our experience, they wouldn’t be asking to come back”. Returning to a summer team however does not always have the same impact for the players – or for their college coaches. Players are expected to move around if they play summer ball to vary their experiences, to play in different environments and learn from different coaches. Returning to the same team is often a tough sell. However even if they are not selected or able to return, a player asking to return in itself has a positive impact. “We actually have players advocating for us to bring in another guy from their school, or their home town, of a buddy. That word of mouth getting out there is great for our program”.
It’s no longer a huge sell for Victoria to be seen as a baseball destination. Where in the past some players couldn’t have picked Victoria off a map, the HarbourCats have put together a viable entity in an established league, and have built a winning tradition in a town that leads the league in attendance. Victoria has become a prime summer destination for west-coast colleges and beyond.
Building a complete roster from the ground up is not as easy as picking from a bunch of players off a roster. All players, returning or otherwise, are at the whims of their college coaches, and frequently a teams best-laid plans are forced to evolve to meet changes during the player’s year at school. Injuries, workload, school commitments, family issues – even being drafted – all play havoc with a lineup created before the school year even begins.
In the 2015 season, more than 20 players were signed who never made it to Victoria – several of them key pieces of the early puzzle. The problem isn’t unique to Victoria, it’s something that summer ball organizations just have to deal with. “Every one of [the players who ended up not showing] were a one-off. We lost one guy to Mormon missions. Another one decided to play football. There were a few that hit inning limits or pitch counts for the year. We just need to maintain our place as a premier place to play, and adjust knowing that you will lose a few before the season starts”.
The trick of course, is to balance the level of players you sign to combat the obvious last-minute cancellations. Guys expected to go in the draft, or stud starters for college teams are risky acquisitions. Pepperdine’s Ryan Wilson is a good example of an early signing last year who became the Waves number two starter during the year. As he racked up the wins – and innings – it became apparent that playing competitive summer ball was not going to be an option for him. Likewise, pitcher Zander Clouse from Belleview College who was planned as a starter in Victoria, threw a high-pitch no hitter in his last college game of the season, and his new Div 1 school (Liberty University) didn’t want him playing at a WCL level. While difficult to predict how players will slot into their college programs, starting with a mix of experienced seniors and freshman is necessary to ensure your lineup isn’t empty come opening day.
In 2015, the lineup came together quite well, with a few exceptions – like playing the entire season without a true 1B after some late-season cancellations, and ending up with too many outfielders, and not enough pitching. “This year it’s about having more arms than we had in 2015 – we were a bit shy of pitching last year”.
Changing rosters are not all bad news though, as it opens the door for players who come available late. “Late changes sometimes work in your favour too”, says Swanson. “We weren’t supposed to have Austin Guibor here, arguably one of our best hitters last year, so it goes both ways”.
The 2015 team was also put together amid significant distractions that served to take away from team building efforts. The team’s ownership issues were front and center taking Swanson out of the mix, and the limited availability of head coach Grain Merritt while he was staring in Big Brother Canada took some of his efforts away from recruiting. In 2016, with those issues well in the past, the process is off to a much smoother start. So far, 32 players have been committed – meaning the players are named, and the schools have confirmed they will be here. A dozen or more have been signed and sealed. Both are significant numbers considering school programs haven’t even started. “We are well ahead of last year, and we think we are in a pretty good spot with over 30 players before September 1. We need to add more pitching, and we have a couple of schools who have told us they will have two pitchers for us, but let them get into our fall season so we can take a look first”.
If it sounds like the HarbourCats are getting ahead of the game early, don’t be fooled. Every summer league team in North America is doing the same thing – and lots of players are already signing elsewhere, on other WCL teams, and on teams in other leagues. “We’ve been told on a couple players we wanted that they have already been committed to other teams”, say Swanson.
Swanson wants to have a complete team planned by the end of September. “We would like to only be touching one or two spots after that, and outside of that we would be in a good place”.
An improvement in the process should translate directly to an improvement in the on-field quality and performance. For a team that came oh-so-close this past season, that may be the final step needed toward making the WCL playoffs for the first time in 2016…
While it will likely morph and change in the spring (April and May are when players are taken back and replacements must be penned in), we will see a flurry set of press releases as players are signed and the lineup firms up over the next month or so. As it does, the blog will start pulling together a depth chart we can follow up to opening day.
Stay tuned, it’s going to be a busy off-season!