Toronto’s own Connor Panas, who had a breakout season in the Florida State League this season, will join fellow Blue Jays farmhands LHPs Tayler Saucedo and Dan Lietz shortly on the long flight to Australia, where the trio will suit up for the Canberra Cavalry of the Australian Baseball League.
The Blue Jays have had a partnership with the ABL dating back to the second season of its revived existence in 2011-12. Current Major Leaguers Didi Gregorius and Kevin Kiermaier have spent time with the Cavalry. Panas, who attended Etobicoke High School and played his travel ball with the Toronto Mets before attending Canisius, was taken in the 9th round of the 2015 draft, will become the 4th Canadian to play for Canberra.
The ABL had a rocky 2016-17 season. At the outset of the league’s re-birth in 2011-12, MLB had a 75% ownership stake in the league. Their 5 year agreement with the ABL ran out prior to last season, and the league faced an uncertain future when their CEO was fired on the eve of the season opener. With a reduced schedule and new leadership, the ABL appears to be on better footing this year, although baseball ranks behind a number of sports in the minds in the nation’s sporting public. The ABL is a cornerstone of development in Australian baseball.
The Blue Jays have typically sent prospects who have missed development time, or need a challenge to help boost their development. Anthony Alford was sent to Canberra after giving up his football dreams in the fall of 2014, while Jason Leblebijian went from non-prospect to fringe MLB super-utillity guy at least in part on the strength of this ABL MVP season in 2015-16. Former Jays farmhand C Jack Murphy is a legend in Canberra, leading the team to a league title in his 2014-15 MVP season.
Panas was a post-season Florida State League All Star, leading the league in Home Runs and Flyball Rate, and was second in Slugging. He credits a change in mechanics, which allowed him to track pitches better, to his success this year:
When I have the least amount of head movement that’s when I’m at my best because I recognize pitches early and I’m able to square them up more often. Limiting my movement and simplifying everything has been what stands out the most.
With veteran slugging 1B Boss Moanaroa set to return to Canberra, Panas will likely split his time between the corner OF spots and First, with some DH duty in between. ABL Pitchers tend to be veterans for the most part, so Panas should see a pretty steady diet of off speed stuff (“It’s like they pitch you backwards,” Alford said after his time in the league). Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim is optimistic Panas’ strong second half will carry over into his time in Australia:
Connor had a positive season, and we’re hoping that he continues right where he left off. He was able to repeat his swing and get to his power, and hopefully he continues to get at-bats and valuable game experience in Australia.
Panas, for his part, is looking forward to the experience. While waiting to switch flights at the Los Angeles, he told Future Blue Jays:
Hoping to just develop all around as a player ! Always room for improvement so strong extra reps in the offseason is perfect to help my development.
Drafted in the 5th round by the Blue Jays in 2013, Lietz has pitched almost exclusively in relief. He has the build, repertoire, and mentality of a potential back of the bullpen arm; Lietz has shown flashes of dominance, but has not quite lived up to his Baseball America draft report:
In a down draft year in Illinois, Lietz is the best bet for the Prairie State to produce a pick in the first 10 rounds, a reflection of both his talent and his signability. Undrafted last year out of an Illinois high school, he barely attracted any scouting attention in the fall, when he worked at 85-88 mph. But the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder’s velocity took a huge jump this spring, with his fastball ranging from 88-93 mph with run and sink. Said one scout of Lietz’s stuff: “Everything is crooked.” He gets hard bite on a slider he can throw to the back foot of righthanders, and his changeup has similar action to his other pitches. He also employs a curveball, though it lags behind his other pitches. Even with the life on his pitches, Lietz has no trouble filling the strike zone. He issued just six walks in his first 61 innings.
Canberra recently re-signed veteran closer Steven Kent, so Lietz will likely pitch primarily in long relief or a set-up role.
Saucedo, a 21st round 2015 pick, has the long, lean (6″5″/185) build that the Blue Jays covet in a starting Pitcher. Not possessed of a blazing fastball, Saucedo has filled a swingman role over his past two minor league seasons, and will likely do so with Canberra.
The ABL season begins in mid-November. Play takes place from Thursdays to Sundays, and the regular season winds up at the end of January. The league has cut back on its streaming of games from a couple of seasons ago, but the Cavalry will be featured in at least a dozen ABLTV.com games.
It’s a long way to go, and import players face the prospect of an American Thanksgiving and Christmas away from family and friends, but the ABL experience has proven benficial to many players.