WBC Preview: Team Canada Pitchers

After dealing with the hitters late last week, and taking a look at the disappointing lack of roster direction earlier in the week, it’s now time to turn our attention to the pitching staff.

Unlike on the hitting I will not be providing PECOTA projections, because with the exception of big league relievers Henderson & Axford, none of the other pitchers are projected to fill a role that they will fill in this tournament or in the big leagues for that matter.

Starting Pitcher – RH – Ryan Dempster – 40 Years Old – Free Agent

The 2017 World Baseball Classic will feature the return of the greatest Canadian pitcher of my lifetime. After the 2013 season, when Dempster was coming off winning a World Series with the Boston Red Sox, he surprisingly announced that he was taking the year off to spend more time with his children. After 2014 this hiatus became a permanent retirement. What made this decision so surprising was that Dempster had been owed nearly $15 million and you almost never see players who are healthy enough to play walking away from an eight figure paycheque.

Immediately upon his retirement, Dempster shifted into a Special Assistant role with the Cubs, though he’s no longer listed on their website as a member so I’m unclear as to if he still has this role. It is basically impossible to know what to expect from Dempster in this tournament. He is the only starting pitcher (assuming that’s the role he’s used in) on the team who has ever been Major League calibre at any point in his career, but how much have his skills atrophied in his 1200+ days away from the sport?

Regardless of how things shake out, Dempster certainly makes this team more interesting and is a player that I’m very curious to watch.

Starting Pitcher – RH – Nick Pivetta – 24 Years Old – Philadelphia Phillies (AAA)

Aside from newly transitioned relief pitcher Rowan Wick, the only pitcher on the Canadian roster with actual upside is Phillies prospect Nick Pivetta. After a 2015 season that saw him struggle to make the jump to the Double A level and also be traded to the Phillies in the Jonathan Papelbon trade, there were major doubts about Pivetta’s long term promise. That changed in 2016, as Pivetta made major strides and earned a late season call up to Triple A. Despite pitching at the two highest levels of the minor leagues, Pivetta posted not only the lowest ERA of his career, but also the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate. Most of this improvement seemed to come on the backs of increased command on his plus fastball (which can touch 97), and continued development of his improving curveball.

One of the issues facing Pivetta going forward is that he may be blocked by the multitudes of starting pitchers that the Phillies already have occupying slots in their rotation. Even though I believe Pivetta will still be given the opportunity to start, it’s possible he could be forced to the bullpen due to team needs. If that does happen, his arsenal could be very well suited to that role.

Starting Pitcher – LH – Shane Dawson – 23 Years Old – Toronto Blue Jays (AA)

Dawson is the only Blue Jays prospect on the pitching side of this roster. After a really strong 2015 across both low and high-A ball that saw him strike out 120 batters while walking just 32 across 127 2/3 innings, Dawson was challenged with a promotion New Hampshire (AA) this past year. His control completely abandoned him (72 walks in 134 IP), and along with it went his success.

He has a reasonably low ceiling, as he barely cracks 90 and neither of his offspeed pitches grades out better than plus, but he does have some upside for success, and is the one I’d prefer to see get the third starting spot in the round robin.

Starting Pitcher – LH – Scott Diamond – 30 Years Old – SK Wyverns (KBO)
Starting Pitcher – LH – Andrew Albers – 31 Years Old – Atlanta Braves (AAA)
Starting Pitcher – RH – Chris Leroux – 33 Years Old – Free Agent

Once you get past the one starter who is probably too old to be on this team (Dempster) and the two prospect-eligible starters (Pivetta & Dawson), we come to a trio of pitchers who I’ll deal with together. Quite frankly I’m baffled three soft tossing starting pitchers have found their way onto the Canadian roster. It’s incredibly likely that Canada will only play the minimum three games in this year’s tournament, and with Ryan Dempster and Nick Pivetta hopefully starting at least two of those games, I just don’t see the need for three players who make one another largely redundant.

None of these pitchers have an arsenal that is well suited to transition to a bullpen role, so beyond one of the trio being used as Canada’s third starter (and as mentioned above, I’d prefer to see Shane Dawson used in that role), these three will likely be relegated to a mop up role. I’d quibble about the need for even a single pitcher to fill that role in a short tournament, but you most definitely do not need three of them.

Relief Pitcher – RH – John Axford – 34 Years Old – Oakland Athletics (MLB)

Finally, a full-time major leaguer!

No longer the ace reliever he was in the early part of his career, or the unplayable gascan from the middle, Axford has settled in as a solid, if unspectacular member of a major league bullpen. Over the last couple of years (including a season in Colorado), Axford seems to have fixed the home run problems that plagued him in his early 30s. He still has the big time fastball (averages 96.6 mph and touched 100) and the hammer curveball that made him successful, and has recently added a cutter that helps him post elite ground ball rates (56 percent). The issue, as always, will be his ability to throw strikes. If he’s hitting spots, he’s really tough. If he’s not, it can lead to some long innings.

Axford is almost certainly going to be serving as Team Canada’s closer, having also filled the role in the previous WBC in 2013.

Relief Pitcher – RH – Jim Henderson – 34 Years Old – New York Mets (MLB)

After bursting onto the scene in 2012-2013, and even taking the closer role away from Axfrod in Milwaukee, Henderson hit a wall in 2014. After a rough start to the year that saw him allow ten runs in 11 1/3 innings, Henderson went down for the season with a shoulder injury that would eventually require surgery.

After spending much of 2015 rehabbing in the minors, he found himself back in the big leagues in 2016 with the Mets. He wasn’t throwing quite as hard (averaging 94 mph down from 95-96 pre-injury), but he did manage to strike out 40 batters in 35 innings. His fastball/slider combination leads to a lot of swings and misses, and he throws enough strikes, but the issue is that the ball has a tendency to leave the yard. Even before his injury in 2014, Henderson was a bit homer prone. That went to the extreme last year, as he gave up seven big flies in those 35 innings.

Henderson is going to serve as Team Canada’s setup man, so hopefully he can keep the ball in the ballpark.

Relief Pitcher – RH – Scott Mathieson – 33 Years Old – Yomiuri Giants (NPB)

Most people probably remember Mathieson as the big armed reliever with the Phillies who just couldn’t quite get MLB hitters out (if they remember him at all). He never could quite figure things out over here, but it seems he was just pitching on the wrong continent.

Following the 2011 season Mathieson headed to Japan to join the Yomiuri Giants. All he has done since is become a lights out relief pitcher. In the last five seasons pitching in the NPB, Mathieson has put up a 2.32 ERA with 353 strikeouts and just 95 walks in 303 2/3 innings out of the pen.

Japanese ball is obviously quite different from the major leagues, but if he can bring some of that success to this WBC squad, he could big a big boost to this bullpen.

Relief Pitcher – LH – Adam Loewen – 33 Years Old – Arizona Diamondbacks (AAA)

Adam Loewen has had a very fascinating career. It began by being the highest ever Canadian draft pick (fourth overall in 2002) and rocketing through the minor leagues to debut for the Orioles in 2006. Unfortunately, he then suffered a string of arm injuries, and after nearly three lost seasons attempting to rehab, he decided to transition to the outfield. After just two seasons in the minor leagues, Loewen made a return to the major leagues with the Blue Jays in 2011, but only lasted just 14 games before returning back to the minors.

I don’t think that this achievement can be overstated. I believe Loewen is only the 6th player since integration who has made it to the majors both as a pitcher and position player. This needs to be celebrated; the achievement is absolutely astounding.

By 2014 he had abandoned his attempt to be a hitter and found himself back on the mound as a reliever. He has pitched in the major leagues in both 2015 and 2016, although he’s been quite poor.

The exciting aspect of Loewen’s presence on Team Canada is the possibility that he plays both ways. Given the weakness that the Canadian team has in the outfield (beyond Pompey & O’Neill), I think it would be a good idea for him to start in left field, and then be ready to come in and relieve. This would give a creative manager numerous tactical options including the famed Waxahachie Swap. Unfortunately Canada is still managed by Ernie Whitt, so the chances of creativity are quite low.

Relief Pitcher – RH – Dustin Molleken – 32 Years Old – Detroit Tigers (AAA)

Molleken is your basic mediocre, journeyman reliever with a mid 90s fastball. He has had just enough minor league success to get a cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2016, but at 31 years old, there wasn’t much left in the way of projection. He doesn’t have the big time swing and miss stuff to succeed with his dip in command the last few years (walk rate of 4.5/9), so he’s probably stuck on the fringes of the MLB.

Molleken’s value to Team Canada is that he can go multiple innings at a time if needed, having served in a swing role through much of his minor league career.

Relief Pitcher – RH – Kevin Chapman – 29 Years Old – Houston Astros (AAA)

If I’m being honest, I’m baffled by Kevin Chapman’s presence on this roster. Unlike many of the players whose performance & promise have been the reasons for my confusion, in Chapman’s case it’s his eligibility that’s confusing. Chapman was born in Florida, attended high school in Florida, and then attended college at the University of Florida. I’m assuming that Chapman’s eligibility, like Freddie Freeman, is tied to his parents, but unlike Freeman I can’t find a single media story clarifying his situation.

In terms of on-field performance, I have to largely feign ignorance. I’m generally not one to pay attention to fringe Astros bullpen prospects, and without knowing the Canadian connection I’ve had no need to pay any closer attention. Sorry, I wish I could be more helpful.

I’ve put some feelers out to Astros beat reporters hoping to clarify the situation, and will hopefully be able to update this space once I hear back.

Relief Pitcher – RH – Rowan Wick – 24 Years Old – St Louis Cardinals (AAA)

Much like Loewen, Rowan Wick is a former outfielder transitioning to the mound. He had shown enough promise as a batter to be a ninth round pick back in 2012, and early on in his minor league career Wick rewarded the Cardinals faith in him as he hit 31 HRs in his first 600 minor league at bats. However, his arrival in the Midwest League was a rude awakening for the young Canadian. His strikeout rate went through the roof, and even when he made contact his extra base power seemingly evaporated.

Seeing the writing on the wall in the middle of the 2015 season, Wick decided to transition to the mound. In the year and a half since, he has rocketed through the minor leagues, reaching Double A after just 26 innings while striking out more than a quarter of the batters he’s faced.

On a Canadian team overflowing with known (and largely boring) commodities, a wildcard like Wick is someone worth paying attention to.

Relief Pitcher – RH – Eric Gagne – 41 Years Old – Free Agent

We start and end this list with names nobody would have expected to see on a World Baseball Classic roster.

It might surprise you to learn that Eric Gagne is only 41 years old, as he hasn’t pitched in the major leagues since 2008. It’s not like he’s been tearing up the indy ball scene since then either, having thrown just 9 1/3 innings, all in the last two years.

Once upon a time, Gagne looked like he was going to be the next big thing in baseball. From 2002-2004, he posted a 1.79 ERA, converted a major league record shattering 84 consecutive save opportunities, won a Cy Young Award, and put up a K/9 of 13.3. He was simply dominant.

Unfortunately, his shoulder blew up in 2005, and he was out of baseball completely after the 2008 season at age 32.

Given all of that, most people probably view Gagne’s inclusion on the roster as something of a novelty, but Greg Hamilton (director of Team Canada) has said that Gagne, like Dempster, has been training for a very long time to be ready to contribute in this tournament. Heck, he’s even considering making a big league comeback.

On a roster devoid of talent worth watching, seeing what the former relief ace has left is worth tuning in for.
That brings us to the end of Team Canada’s World Baseball classic preview. It’s going to be a serious uphill battle for the team, as even Colombia could provide a major test if they decide to throw one of Jose Quintana or Julio Teheran. Everything will need to break right for this club to advance beyond the round robin, and I wouldn’t bet on that happening.

Lead Photo: © John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

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