Saturday, January 23, 2016

Blue Jays Prospects Prosper In Australia Amid Questions About the ABL's Future

David Harris\
Canberra Times photo

  As play heads into its final weekend before the post-season, questions abound amongst Australian baseball fans about the future of the Australian Baseball League.

  The Blue Jays have had a very successful partnership with the Canberra Cavalry, one of the few profitable teams in the loop.  Former Jays farmhand C Jack Murphy was the ABL MVP and led the Cavalry to the ABL title, as well as an Asia Series Championship in 2013-14.  The lessons the backwards-pitching veteran ABL pitchers taught Anthony Alford about pitch recognition last year helped to contribute to his breakout stateside season in 2015.  This year, 2B David Harris, and SS Jason Leblebijian, who both split time with Lansing and Dunedin, have been the offensive leaders as the Cavs sit 2nd to Brisbane, and have a post-season series with Adelaide starting next weekend.  Harris leads the league in hitting, while Leblebijian is tied for the lead in RBI.

  The original ABL ran from 1989-1999, but folded as many of the outfit's teams were awash in a sea of red ink, and there were problems distributing talent evenly.  The loop was briefly re-established shortly after the turn of the century, and was resuscitated once again in 2009, with MLB taking on a 75% ownership stake, with Baseball Australia taking on the other quarter.  Some of the teams have been successful in gaining local sponsorships, but questions about the league's future began about a year ago, when MLB's original five-year commitment was about the expire.

   The start of the ABL season in late October was marked with controversy when CEO Peter Wermuth was abruptly fired on the eve of the season opener.  A permanent replacement still has yet to be named, with Baseball Australia head Brett Pickett acting as spokesperson.  Few tears were shed at Wermuth's dismissal, however, as Aussie fans had grown impatient with his failure to grow the league over his five-year tenure.
   The ABL is crucial to the development of the sport down under, but it ranks far down the list of the average Aussie's favourite sport.  A quick scan of the Canberra Times is a challenge if you're looking for baseball stories.  Cricket, Australian Rules Football, Soccer, and Women's Basketball appear to far outpace baseball in terms of popularity.  Attendance figures are not published with league box scores, and while Canberra and Perth seem to be well-supported, there are scores of empty seats at the home parks of the other four teams.
   Clouding the ABL's future is Pickett's admission that MLB is looking to reduce its majority stake in the league, but he insists that there will be a 2016-17 ABL season.  The league is looking for corporate partners in North America, Asia, and Australia to give the league a fresh injection of capital.  According to Pickett, there is no timetable for the MLB to reduce their stake in the league. In the short term, there will be an ABL, but the long-term outlook is less than clear.  MLB, in their original agreement with Baseball Australia, signed on for a five-year term.  With that coming to a close, MLB is clearly not optimistic about the league's future, and was growing tired of subsidizing a money-losing operation.

   With relations between the USA and Cuba continuing to thaw, there has been considerable speculation that MLB may shift their focus in that direction.  Cuba would certainly be closer for organizations to keep an eye on their prospects, although there is nothing imminent between the island nation and MLB.  For Australian baseball fans, it's been a fun time, but it appears that there aren't enough of them to make this league viable.
  From a Blue Jays perspective, it's hard to say how the club feels about these developments.  On the one hand, no Blue Jay prospect who was sent to Australia has played in the majors (former Cavs Didi Gregorius and Kevin Kiermaier have), but aside from Alford, the club has sent no top-level prospects to the ABL.  But the league does fill a developmental niche for the club:  Alford did not play against top-level high school competition in his native Mississippi, and because of his college football commitment, had amassed just over 100 PAs in his first three minor league seasons.  The ABL was like summer school for the toolsy outfielder, and it's doubtful he's a top 100 prospect now without that catch-up experience.  The ABL also can give players like Colton Turner and Phil Kish a chance to make up for innings lost because of injury, and if nothing else for org guys like Harris and Leblebijian, it can accelerate their development to the point where they could become very serviceable depth pieces in the upper minors.  A personal note about Harris - I saw the 2013 36th rounder (out of Southern Arkansas) in his rookie season with Vancouver, where he made a pair of athletic plays in a July game.  Playing 2nd Base, Harris had to sidestep a runner advancing from first while he charged a 1st inning slow roller, which he fielded cleanly and threw across his body to nip the batter at 1st.  Several innings later, he ranged far down the right field line to grab an opposite-field flare that threatened to drop in.   A fixture at the top of the Cavalry batting order, Harris has played CF for Canberra this year, demonstrating his multi-position versatility.  I've watched his career very closely since that night at The Nat, the home of the Vancouver Canadians.
   All things being equal, it's likely that while the Jays are supportive of the ABL, if there was an opportunity one day to have their farmhands play winter ball closer to home, where the cost of transporting and housing them would be cheaper, they would welcome it.  While the players they've sent have for the most part not Top 10 guys, they have sent many players who have made a significant impact for the Cavalry.

   It just seems appropriate to include a Murphy Walk Off HR to conclude this piece:

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