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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top-shelf Canadian in elite club

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Fans tuning into the 11th annual Perfect Game All-American Classic on the MLB Network in August had the opportunity to be formerly introduced to power-hitting outfielder Gareth Morgan, the first native Canadian selected to play in the elite high school all-star event.

After waiting 11 years to see their first Canadian Perfect Game All-American, it is likely baseball enthusiasts won’t have nearly as long of a wait to see their second. It is pure speculation at this point, but that wait may last exactly 12 months.

Power-hitting first baseman and outfielder Josh Naylor is from Mississauga, Ontario, a city of more than 700,000 folks that sits on the shores of Lake Ontario and is considered part of the greater Toronto Metropolitan Area. Toronto is the city Morgan calls home.

That the next top Canadian high school prospect will come from that region of the vast country should come as no surprise, if for no other reason that it is the most heavily populated. But the influence of the Ontario Blue Jays travel team organization can’t be overlooked, and Naylor joins Morgan as one of the latest in a long line of high-level prospects the program has produced.

Josh Naylor is an athletic, 6-foot, 225-pound junior at St. Joan of Arc Secondary School in Mississauga who is not only a member of the Ontario Blue Jays top travel team but who also plays for the Canadian Junior National Team – another distinction he shares with Morgan.

“Josh is a very advanced high school hitter, performance-wise,” Baseball Canada national team director Greg Hamilton told in an article published in September. “He’s going to barrel the ball a lot; his physical ability to hit is going to show a lot. He has big power and the ability to hurt you all over the ballpark, because there is dimension to his bat.”

These are attributes Perfect Game scouts first noted when Naylor suited up for the Blue Jays at the 2012 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. They continued to get an eyeful this weekend when Naylor accepted an invitation to the 2013 Perfect Game National Underclass Showcase-Main Event.

He is here ranked No. 17 nationally (United States, Canada and Puerto Rico) in the PG class of 2014 prospect rankings, and is ranked the No. 43 overall (college, junior college and high school) prospect in the 2015 MLB First-Year Player Draft.

“I want to get ranked higher than I am right now,” Naylor told PG when asked why he had decided to spend the holidays  in South Florida with his parents, Chris and Jenice, and a couple of his siblings.

 “I want to achieve my goals and do everything better than I did in Minnesota last June … and show them that I’m a better player,” he said. “It’s not really a vacation to come down here and play ball. I really wanted to come down and show everyone that I’m a different player now.”

Josh Naylor and his family are actually using the trip to kill two baseball birds with one fastball. After Josh wraps up his participation at the Main Event, he will take part in the 8th annual Power Showcase Jan. 2-5 at Marlins Park across the Florida peninsula in Miami.

This will be the second straight year he has participated in the Power Showcase. He was an Underclass World Champion at last year’s event after hitting 15 total home runs, including one with a wood bat that traveled 409-feet.

“It’s a bit of a vacation,” Chris Naylor said, “but it’s a business vacation.”

When Josh Naylor spoke of “Minnesota last June” he was referring to the two days he spent inside the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis at the Perfect Game Junior National Showcase. Naylor was nothing short of spectacular at the event and joined such luminaries as 2015 No. 2-ranked Brendan Rodgers, 2015 No. 3 Jahmai Jones and 2016 No. 3 Seth Beer at the top of the Top Prospect List.

It’s worth noting that he threw event highs of 95 mph from the outfield and 92 mph across the infield from first base, although his strong arm was over-shadowed  his “outstanding left-handed power and his advanced feel for hitting,” according PG vice president of player personnel David Rawnsley.

“That was my first Perfect Game individual event and it was fantastic,” Naylor said of the Junior National experience. “I was a little bit nervous but I was really excited to perform in front of all the scouts. I did really well – I was proud of myself, my family was proud of me, my coaches – and I thought I did really well down there.”

Only a Canadian can say “down there” when referring to Minneapolis.

Naylor finished his 2013 season by playing with the Blue Jays at the PG WWBA 16u National Championship in Marietta, Ga. – he was named to the all-tournament team – before a return trip with the Blue Jays to Jupiter and the PG WWBA World Championship.

But based on the Junior National experience, the Naylors thought it would be a good idea to get Josh back into a showcase setting.

“It’s important that we try to get to as many of the Perfect Game events as we can. He’s only been to the one in Minneapolis,” Chris said. “He needs to see how he compares with some of these other players and gauge his progress.”

Naylor couldn’t match his velocity readings from the Junior National during Saturday morning’s workout session at the Underclass-Main Event, but he was still able to hang around the top of the leader boards. In fact, his 88 mph throw from first base was the event’s best and his 86 mph throw from the outfield ranked in the top 14.

And, of course, his batting practice session was nearly unequaled. PG’s post BP report read:

“Josh Naylor showed his incredibly fast bat this afternoon and after hitting a couple of balls to the warning track, (he) was able to knock his last swing out of the park down the right field line.”

A game-action blog noted that Naylor “continues to be one of the top bats in the 2015 class.”

“I’m very comfortable with my swing,” he said before his BP session. “There is always, of course, room for improvement but I feel very good about it. Once I get in my groove, everything is just so simple. I slow the game down and have fun – you’ve got to play with intensity but you’ve got have fun, too.”

Naylor’s now blossoming young career certainly received a boost when got hooked up with Ontario Blue Jays director of baseball operations and 18u head coach Dan Bleiwas four years ago. The Blue Jays organization is well known for its attention to detail both in terms of training young prospects and offering them opportunities for weeks-long bus trips into the States in the spring and the fall.

“I’ve been playing (with the Blue Jays) since I was 12,” Naylor said. “It’s very repetitive – you train and you do everything the same, and it’s very good because you just learn and they teach you the basics of the game. The organization is fantastic and the coaching is amazing. They have a nice facility where we can train in the year around and I take advantage of that, and so do most of the other players. It’s a great experience playing with them.”

Naylor’s Ontario Blue Jays experience led directly to the Team Canada experience. Both outlets gave him the opportunity to rub shoulders with his country’s top players, which forced him in turn to improve the level of his play in leaps and bounds.

“Being around players with the Ontario Blue Jays and the Team Canada organization – they’ve been drafted or gone on to top D-I schools,” Naylor said. “It’s great because they can talk about the experiences that they’ve gone through, and it’s always great playing with players that are older than you and more developed than you and who have more experience than you.”

“The Blue Jays do a lot to expose the (players) … and the events they participate in really helps them become better. They face good competition everywhere they go,” Chris Naylor added. “Playing with the Blues Jays definitely helps, and then playing with Team Canada when they’re going not only in the U.S. buy they’re going abroad. You have to grow up. You’ve got no choice. If you don’t, you’ll get swallowed, right?”

Naylor has not committed to a college and lists (in no particular order) North Carolina State, Miami, Mississippi, Missouri and Vanderbilt as “colleges interest in” on his Perfect Game profile. His father said the family is “just here for the ride” and tries not to over-think everything. “You just try to lay in the weeds and watch it and keep everything in perspective,” Chris said.

That’s the same approach Josh Naylor is taking.

 “I’ve been very happy with how everything is going so far,” he said. “There is always room for improvement and I’m very excited to see what the future holds.”

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