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Why I’m already excited about baseball

By Chris Jones/Column

Spring training has finally started, and I’ve been thinking about baseball for months now.

Baseball is a part of my soul. It is ingrained in my DNA, so let’s be real for a second, I’ve been thinking about baseball since Sunday, Oct. 28 when the Boston Red Sox beat the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the World Series.

Now, I grew up in London, only two hours away from Toronto where the Blue Jays fly, with a father who was born in Toronto and a mother who grew up in a small American town, and baseball-loving household. So, yeah, you might say I grew up around baseball. I even played it until I was 20.

I’m always ready for baseball. It’s my sport.

So, to say that I’m ready for the season to start is an understatement.

I’m sure a lot of people are wondering how, as someone who is so clearly a Blue Jays fan, I can be excited after last season.

Well, first of all, yeah, the Jays are my favourite team. But first and foremost, I’m a baseball fan. I love every team. I even begrudgingly like the Yankees. But don’t tell anyone I said that.

So, while the Jays look like they’ll have another sub par season, there is reason to be excited, and it can be summed up in one word: youth.

The Jays have so many young, exciting players that are either close to being Major League ready, or are already there.

Let’s start with the obvious, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He started the 2018 season in single A, but then finished at AAA Buffalo. That in itself is pretty impressive.

However, he finished the season hitting .381, with 20 home runs, 29 doubles, 78 RBIs and is already the face of the franchise. He hasn’t even played in the majors yet.

He’s the most prolific prospect to come through the Jays system ever.

Then there’s the guys who are already there. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Ryan Borucki, Billy McKinney, and Danny Jansen, all contributed in some way towards the end of the season. Borucki was even the best pitcher in the rotation for a while.

Gurriel Jr. debuted in April for the Jays, and had a very strong rookie season, playing in 65 games.

Gurriel Jr. played in 65 games, where he hit .281, 11 home runs and had 35 RBIs, while also looking decent in the field at shortstop and second base. He does still need to work on his fundamentals, but those will come with time.

He also broke the Jays rookie record with an 11 game multi-hit streak, and was the first rookie to do so since “Shoeless” Joe Jackson did it in 1911. He’s also one of only two players in the last 50 years to get an 11 game multi-hit streak.

One of those young players who swings a lot, Gurriel Jr. needs to work on his discipline, but he has plenty of upside.

Jansen may not have had numbers that were worth writing home about, but I don’t look at a catcher’s offensive numbers, I look at their abilities behind the plate, and Jansen was a solid catcher, and will be fighting for that starting position this season against battery mate, Reese McGuire.

McKinney was fun to watch. He may have struck out almost once per game, but when that ball came off of his bat, it always had a shot to leave the yard, as he hit six home runs in 36 games with the Jays in 2018.

If he’d had a full season in the Majors, based on the pace he was going, he would have hit just under 30 home runs, which is more than most of the starters on the Jays did.

Thomas Pannone, the left-handed starting pitcher, had a, impressive 4-1 record and a WHIP of 1.21 in 43 innings of work.

Then there was the feel good story of the year for the Jays, Rowdy Tellez.

Tellez, at only 23, had all been written off as a prospect for the Jays. So when he made his major league debut at the end of the season, he wasn’t on anybody’s radar.

Tellez only played in 23 games for the Jays, but he left quite the impression on the fanbase after hitting .314, four home runs, 14 RBIs and nine doubles.

While his OBP was lacking (he only walked twice compared to 21 strikeouts), he more than made up for it with clutch hitting and a lot of power.
But Tellez’s stellar debut isn’t the reason that he was the feel good story of the year. It was because of his journey getting to the majors this past season.

Tellez’s debut came only two weeks after his mother lost her battle with brain cancer. And on top of that, his father was forced to miss his debut, something they had worked toward together since Tellez was a child, because his plane was delayed.

That didn’t stop him however, as he was able to hit a double in his first at bat while also knocking in a run, contributing to the Jays 10-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.

These are only a few of the young guys making waves in the majors for the Jays, but what about the minors?

Shortstop Bo Bichette had a strong year at AA New Hampshire, where he started off slow, but once he hit his stride, he didn’t stop.

Bichette hit .286 with 11 home runs and 74 RBIs to go along with his 32 stolen bases. He has a shot of making the majors late in the upcoming season if he can get it together when he’s in the field.

There’s also second baseman Cavan Biggio, son of hall of famer, Craig, who hit a mere .252 at AA, but also hit 26 home runs, 99 RBIs, and walked 100 times to make his OBP .388, so he obviously has a good eye at the plate and a fair bit of power.

Another prospect that has me excited, but nobody seems to be talking about, is shortstop Kevin Smith, who is living in the shadow of Bichette.

Playing at the high and low A levels in 2018, Smith hit .302 with 25 home runs and 93 RBIs. While it may be too early in his playing career to get too excited about Smith, those are still very good numbers, and he is playing pro ball, just not at the highest level yet.

However, it’s not just the Jays that I’m excited about, look at the San Diego Padres. They’re poised to have a breakout season anytime now with the best farm system in the majors.

They have the MLB’s number two prospect behind Guerrero Jr. in shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.

The 20 year old spent all season in AA San Antonio, where he hit .286, with 16 home runs and 43 RBIs to go along with 18 stolen bases. While he needs to become a little more disciplined at the plate, as he struck out 109 times, he may just be major league ready at the end of the 2019 season.

Also, after years of milling about the bottom of the American League Central, the White Sox are looking poised to breakout as well, and might just have someone to back up Jose Abreu at the plate in outfielder Eloy Jimenez this season.

Jimenez spent time at both AA and AAA for the White Sox, and is poised to break into the majors this season.

He hit .337, with 22 home runs and 75 RBIs between the leagues, and is looking ready to start in left field for Chicago.

There are also young guys already making their mark in the majors who I’m excited to see grow as players, such as rookies of the year, Ronald Acuna Jr. (outfield for the Atlanta Braves) and Shohei Ohtani (pitcher and designated hitter for the Los Angeles Angels).

There’s also second baseman Ozzie Albies for the Braves, who wasn’t a rookie in 2018, but is still young at 21 years old, and the Yankees rookie sensations, second baseman Gleyber Torres and third baseman Miguel Andujar, who were both top three in rookie of the year voting in 2018.

So while older stars, such as Russell Martin, Jose Bautista, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera all approach the end of their careers, seeing young stars rise up and show their potential makes me excited for things to come.

So to tide myself over, I’ll continue to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs finally enjoy some success, and I’ll continue to play MLB: The Show on PS4 and pretend the Blue Jays are as good as their video game counterparts.