The Vancouver Canadians will have two members of its 2017 Northwest League championship team on its 2019 roster.
One of them is lefthander Grayson Huffman as he joins righthander Juan Nunez for a third tour of duty with the C’s when they open their season against the Spokane Indians at Nat Bailey Stadium Friday afternoon. The 24 year-old Huffman spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons in Vancouver where he experienced the low of a franchise-worst season three years ago before experiencing the high of a 2017 championship.
The 2018 season turned out to be another low as Huffman missed the entire season with an elbow injury.
“When 2018 spring training started, I got injured. I got Tommy John surgery and missed the whole season. It takes about a year and so here we are.”
Rehabilitation & Recovery
Tommy John surgery also claimed members of the 2013 and 2016 Vancouver Canadians rosters according to Huffman.
“We had two other guys get the same surgery on the same day. Matt Dermody (2013) and Mike Ellenbest (2016). We were there with each other through the process. I never would want to have other guys get it with you but it made it easier having two guys to go through it with and push each other so you’re not like the only one kind of feeling lonely or whatnot.”
Huffman – a native of Willow Park, Texas – says he’s not all the way back from the surgery but he’s getting close.
“It’s been up and down so far. I’m 13 months out. What I’ve heard from the doctors and the players that have been through it is that sometimes it takes about a year-and-a-half but I’m throwing near 100 percent.
I remember Travis Bergen was here in 2017 and he was coming off the same injury. Now he’s pitching in the majors so it looks like it worked pretty good for him and he’s feeling pretty good so that’s my plan is to do something kind of like that…It’s just exciting to be on a team again. I’ve been injured the last year so it’ll be fun.”
The last time the 6-foot-2 Huffman pitched was in Game 2 of the 2017 Northwest League final against the Eugene Emeralds when he threw two scoreless frames of relief. Two days later, he got to celebrate a league title.
“It was an awesome year. We obviously won the championship here. I remember Will Ouellette closing it out in front of all the fans here at home. It was a blast. Being back here, it’s not what you want as a player being back, repeating a level, but if we can do that again, it’ll probably make it worth it.”
The 2017 season saw Huffman make gains on the mound as he chopped his earned run average from 6.50 at the end of July to 3.93 at season’s end. That marked a big improvement from 2016 when he posted a 6.35 ERA. Huffman believes having more experience and a better plan on the mound led to his turnaround.
“It was my second year back here. The first year, it was a lot playing in front of the fans and getting a little worked up so I was a little more used to it. We had Jim Czajkowski here coaching and he helped me a lot getting a plan together, sticking to the plan, throwing those heaters and getting the slider in there to throw (the hitters) off. You just develop year and year so this year better be better than that one was, for sure, even with the new elbow.”
Conventional baseball wisdom suggests relievers need to have at least two pitches to succeed. Sometimes, pitchers will try to add something new over the offseason but that was not the case for Huffman.
“No, not really. Just refining the pitches that I do throw. Fastball, slider predominantly. Mix in the changeup every now and then. I’m working to keep the velocity up there and throw strikes with it, get some movement on both sides of the plate and make the slider look like the fastball as long as you can and see if you can get it to break and at the last second, miss some bats. That’s about it when it comes to pitches. Just got to be consistent.”
The Blue Jays are developing a state-of-the-art training complex in Dunedin with a number of technological advances that should be fully operational by 2020. However, Huffman believes in trying to keep things simple on the mound.
“The analytics are coming along big in the sport. This year, I saw with our organization, we brought it on a lot more this year as opposed to like last year for example, it was still kind of taboo or whatever. I’m learning a little bit here and there. The coaches will bring it up to me every now and then but for the most part, I’m just letting it come along nice and slow. I don’t want to dive in too deep and get confused or anything (laughs).”
Looking Ahead to 2019
Huffman believes having pitched here for two years will help him in 2019.
“It helps a lot having a little bit of experience because I get excited. I know all the other guys do, pitching in front of fans. You kind of reach a whole new level of excitement. This being my third year to play here, I expect to feel pretty comfortable and kind of use that adrenaline and excitement to have more efficient innings and get in and out of there quick and keep the runs off the board.”
As far as the roster goes, Huffman likes what he sees early on.
“We seem like a smart group. Everybody’s kind of listening to each other. We don’t have too many guys that are just talking to talk. I think we’ll be a good team when it comes to just playing smart and feeding off each other.
The guys love the city so far for the day we’ve been here. They seem excited to play in front of some awesome fans, a big crowd. ”
The early buzz around the team according to Huffman has to do with the sell-out crowds at the Nat.
“Out here, guys on the bus will be like, ‘Oh, I heard it’s so loud’ or whatever for the next two weeks. I’m just, ‘Yep, it’ll be fun.’ There’s a little bit of a roar when you get a strikeout with a runner on third and two outs or a home run or something like that. It’s a bit of a roar. A lot of a roar, I guess.”
Huffman also thinks having Casey Candaele managing the club will be a good thing.
“He was the High-A manager last year in Dunedin. He seems like a great guy. I haven’t gotten to hang out with him too much yet but he seems (to be) chillin’. He’ll let us do our thing and be there behind us and he seems great.”
Candaele, Huffman and company get ready to take on the defending North Division champion Spokane Indians in a 1:05 pm first pitch at Nat Bailey Stadium Friday.
The C’s have announced their starting rotation for its opening three game series against Spokane. Adam Kloffenstein get the ball on Opening Day Friday before Grant Townsend and William Gaston get the call Saturday and Sunday respectively. Friday and Sunday’s games are at 1:05 pm. Saturday’s 7:05 pm contest is on Sportsnet. All three games are sold out.
Townsend was the 35th round pick of the Blue Jays in the 2018 draft out of Oral Roberts University, the same university Markham, Ontario native and newest Blue Jay Jordan Romano pitched for. The 21 year-old Townsend was 1-0 with a 5.47 earned run average over 21 appearances with Bluefield last season. The 6-foot-0 hurler struck out 31 batters and walked 15 over 26 innings.
The 6-foot-5 Gaston will make his professional debut after signing as a free agent with the Blue Jays December 20. The 23 year-old righthander hails from La Havana, Cuba.
Along with Huffman and Nunez, there are six returnees on the 2019 roster. Catchers Yorman Rodriguez and Brett Wright join outfielder McGregory Contreras and lefthander Randy Pondler.
Rodriguez tied for the team lead with 30 runs batted in last year while Wright placed third on the club with five homers.
Pondler led all C’s starters with five victories, splitting 10 decisions with a 2.90 ERA after beginning the year 0-4. Nunez is a combined 2-9 with the C’s over the last two years but struck out 41 over 45 innings in a relief role in 2018 after starting in 2017.
Contreras slugged .460 with a team-leading eight home runs for Vancouver in 2018 but hit just one for Lansing this year, batting only .211. The Jays brass are hoping a reunion with last year’s hitting coach Aaron Mathews can get the 20 year-old Venezuelan back on track.
2019 Blue Jays draftees on the roster include Crieghton first baseman Will Robertson (4th), Virginia shortstop Tanner Morris (5th), California shortstop/outfielder Cameron Eden (6th) and Wisconsin-Milwaukee shortstop Travis Schwecke (13th). It’s hoped first round righthander Alek Manoah out of West Viriginia will join the C’s at some point this year after recently agreeing to terms with Toronto.
Josh Almonte returns to the Blue Jays nest as he signed with the team as a free agent on June 1, this time as a pitcher. The 22nd round pick of the Jays in 2012 was an outfielder in the system, playing in the Gulf Coast League as well as Bluefield, Lansing and Dunedin where he hit a career .230 with nine home runs and 49 stolen bases over 343 games from 2012 to 2017. The Corona, New York native pitched in Bluefield in 2018 and elected free agency last November before returning. The 25 year-old made 21 relief appearances in the Appalachian League.
Congratulations to the Dunedin Blue Jays for clinching a playoff spot in the Florida State League. A total of 18 former Vancouver Canadians contributed to the cause.
Position Players (8): Chris Bec, Kacy Clemens, Jesus Navarro, Samad Taylor, Kevin Vicuna, Logan Warmoth, Norberto Obeso and Chavez Young.
Pitchers (9): Nick Allgeyer, Mike Ellenbest, Dany Jimenez, Connor Law, Joey Murray, Matt Shannon, Graham Spraker, Kyle Weatherly and T.J. Zeuch.
Coaches (1): Jim Czajkowski.
Here are some tweets that contain photos, videos, stories and observations about the Vancouver Canadians so far this month. Among the highlights include Griffin Conine continuing to terrorize the Midwest League and four former C’s going to the Midwest League All-Star Game.