OTTAWA – For many Canadian kids playing baseball with aspirations to one day suit up for a Major League team, right at the top of that list would be Canada’s team the Toronto Blue Jays.
In last week’s MLB First Year Player Draft, the Blue Jays made those aspirations a reality for eight players, matching a franchise high set in 2001 for the most Canadians selected in the draft by the club.
Two of those pick were very early for the Jays. James Paxton (Ladner, BC) was selected 37th overall, the highest Canadian selection ever by the franchise, and Jake Eliopoulos (Newmarket, ON) was a second round selection (68th overall).
For Eliopoulos, the ties to the Blue Jays are even more prevalent. Being a native of the Toronto area, the 18-year-old left-handed pitcher grew up idolizing the Blue Jays.
“You grow up going to the games and wanting to be in a position to hopefully put on a Blue Jays jersey someday and to actually get that opportunity to one day do that is the best feeling ever,” acknowledges Eliopoulos.
Eliopoulos has been a member of the Junior National Team since 2007 has reaped the benefits of some exceptional coaching on the pitching side. Ex-Major Leaguers Jason Dickson, Jeff Zimmerman and Paul Quantrill have all shared their experiences and knowledge of the game to the young lefty.
And receiving pitching tips from former Major League All-Stars has not been lost on the lanky, 6’3” hurler.
“They’ve been awesome. You get to ask them a lot of questions about how they went about their business when they played,” says Eliopoulos.
“The best part is they’re all really good guys. You can build a great relationship with them and even build long term relationships and keep coming back to them for advice if you need too.”
But not only does the coaching make an impact on players with the Junior National Team, their schedule each year play’s a significant part in their development. With a fall and spring camp in Orlando and a summer camp in the Dominican Republic every year where the Canadians face professional players affiliated with Major League teams is an experience that helps them moving forward.
Scouts around the Majors have certainly noticed the improvements in the Canadian elite programs over the years. Director of Canadian Scouting for the Toronto Blue Jays Kevin Briand has seen a lot of Eliopoulos over the years and says his improvements in just a year’s time is what really put him in the Jays radar.
“Last year you saw the signs of great things to come. He had the projection and he had the body and this spring he put it all together. He’s worked hard and he’s a good kid, so it’s good to see.”
One thing Briand points out for the improvement of Canadian players in the last decade has been the level of competition for the elite programs in Canada, which includes the Junior National Team.
“How many amateur teams in the United States can say that the majority of their competition is against professionals? The Canadian programs play against players at least three years older and use wood bats. U.S. players only use wood bats in showcase events against each other and then their back playing high school teams and use aluminum bats.”
“You feel a lot more at ease when you make a selection (of a Canadians player) based on the fact that you’ve seen them play against some pretty stiff competition in the same conditions that they will have down the road.”
As for Eliopoulos, he’s just soaking in the experience of hearing his name announced on the first day of the draft with his family by his side. The emotions of that day have not completely gone away yet.
“When I first heard my name I just got chills all down my body and then I didn’t know what to do. And after the first few days it still felt surreal, like it didn’t even happen so it was kind of cool.”
“It was pretty crazy going back to school and having everyone congratulating me and the phone hasn’t really stopped ringing since then so it’s still pretty surreal, but also a lot of fun.”