Well folks, this is it! It’s opening week around the West Coast League. The start of the fifth HarbourCats season, or #SeasonV as we like to call it. It all kicks off tonight with an exhibition game at RAP before the team boards the bus and ferry for opening night over in Port Angeles against the newly formed Lefties! Then it’s off to Yakima for three before returning home to open the home season against Wenatchee.
On the field, it’s going to be an interesting one I think. With last year’s success still echoing off the cement of the grandstand, there’s an urge to compare this year’s team to the one we came to love last year. It’s as good a place as any to start, but I think the contrasts between the team will be pretty substantial. In fact I think what we will see on the field in 2017 will be unlike anything we have seen in the past…
Right off the bat I think we will notice the coaching change. With nothing to base my gut feeling on yet, I suspect a more structured approach. Not that previous coaches haven’t had that – because they have – I just feel like there will be a more a calmer presence at the end of the bench this year in Brian McRae than we saw last year with Graig Merritt. Merritt’s style seemed more “One of the guys”, and he was able to motivate the entire group of players by sheer will to succeed – a “do what we talk about, and we’ll win every game together” attitude. Without watching a single moment of McRae’s coaching style, I suspect him to be more of a “supportive parent” style, motivating each player individually in a way that allows that single player to be the best they can be, and together, they will all succeed. We will see if I’m close here or way off base. I think both styles work – we saw last year how Merritt was able to turn a team into an unstoppable force, and there’s no reason to suspect it won’t happen this year under Brian McRae, just… differently?
Another notable difference we will see is in team experience. Almost half the 2017 team are Seniors or Juniors, the other half mostly Sophomores with just a handful of Freshman. This could be the oldest squad in the HarbourCat’s five year history. With that comes experience that proves so vital in adjusting to a new team and a new playing environment. The current roster comes in with significantly more playing time that previous teams; In total, SeasonV HarbourCats have had just shy of 2,100 at-bats this college season, and as a “team” hit over .280. Likewise on the mound, the pitching staff comes in very warm having thrown over 330 innings in the spring. Many of the players coming this year are starters on college teams, with over 600 starts between them. Add to that mix a couple of red-shirted players who didn’t play this college season – like blog favourite returnee Greg Casper – who are eager to start fresh here in Victoria, and there’s a lot of quality ready to show what they can do.
With that kind of experience, there are more than a handful of players we should be excited to see based on what they have done already this year:
- HarbourCat returnee Kevin Collard was already a stud back in 2015, it will be interesting to see how he’s improved in the 2 years away – he hit .288 with a couple home runs in San Diego this spring.
- Cal Berkeley 1B Andrew Vaughn could light this league up – all he did this season was hit .349 with 12 home runs and 48 RBI while starting all 54 games for the Bears, while gaining various player honours through the year.
- Baylor’s Davis Wendzel posted a .302 average in just under 150AB this spring, hitting 8 long balls. Baylor is also sending us senior Tucker Johnson, who hit .360 as the team’s premier pinch-hitter this season.
- Will LaRue played 60 games for Xavier this spring, hit over .250, and stole 31 bases bringing some needed speed to the OF.
- Colorado Mesa junior Tanner Remple hit .377 this spring – with a ridiculous .700 slugging percentage.
- On the mound, excited to see returnees Blake Hannah and Colin Ashworth back in town. Hannah had a sub-3.00 ERA this spring, and both will be looking at building on last year’s workload success.
- Polk State’s Chavez Fernander could also dominate the league from the mound – the hurler boasted a 1.80 ERA this spring, striking out nearly 2 batters an inning. If that heat converts well with more innings, it will mean some long nights for WCL hitters.
As is the case in this league though, it’s about getting players here and keeping them to the end if you want to win. At this point it looks like around 15 regulars will be here for Thursday’s opener in Port Angeles, and more will arrive for the weekend’s Yakima series and finally the home opener next Monday night against the Apple Sox. There are a total of 5 players competing in the NCAA Div 1 playoffs which continue this weekend, so we will wait as usual for that tournament to end before the full complement of players arrives.
Last year’s team received some early contributions from the 10-day roster spots to keep the team in the hunt early. The hope of course is that we will see similar results this year. Like they say – you can’t win the division in the first couple weeks, but you can certainly lose it if you aren’t keeping pace.
Overall, it seems we’re in pretty good shape this year, with nothing but blue skies ahead – well, except for the very non-blue skies in the forecast for the next few days. If this rain keeps up, we may not need any players at all!
I had a brief back and forth with last year’s WCL Coach of the year Graig Merritt, getting an update on his summer baseball plans. The news is good – he’s signed on as an assistant coach with Chico State, who is just coming off a phenomenal championship Div II season. He’s currently keeping busy scouting for the Tampa Bay Rays until Chico returns in August. We wish Graig all the best in his new role with the WildCats!