03/10/2014 10:25 EDT | Updated 05/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Canadian junior baseball team looks forward to spring date with Toronto Blue Jays

Playing any major league squad is memorable for the Canadian junior baseball team but Tuesday's date with the Toronto Blue Jays is extra special.

Major league teams provide a variety of opposition against the Canadian juniors, with many fielding prospects. The Jays take it a lot more seriously than most.

Jays expected to figure in the game include Canadian Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind and Munenori Kawasaki and pitchers Brandon Morrow and Steve Delabar, among others.

"That's truly a split squad. They're all big league camp guys," said Greg Hamilton, head coach of the juniors and Baseball Canada's director of national teams. "The other clubs that we're playing, they wouldn't be all big league camp guys."

Tuesday's game is a partnership with the Jays, who will also bring in a lot of the Canadians in their organization.

"It's a real nice Canadian day at the park," said Hamilton.

The game is set for Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg. Built in 1947, the Florida park has served as a spring home to the Yankees, Cardinals, Mets, Orioles and Rays among others.

The Canadian schedule is built around a qualifying tournament in Mexico in September for the 2015 world junior championships in Japan. Canada is bidding to become one of four teams to emerge from the Americas.

For Hamilton, Baseball's Canada's overwhelming mandate is to develop talent. He sees it as 90 per cent of the job, with the remaining 10 per cent focused on actually winning internationally.

The current squad is made up of 15- to 18-year-olds, with the majority 16 or 17.

Lawrie, now 24 and entering his third full season in the majors, came into the program when he was 14. So did Gareth Morgan, a highly touted outfielder from Toronto who at 18 is in his last year with Hamilton's squad.

Like Morgan, infielder Robert Byckowski of Toronto and first baseman/outfielder Mitch Bigras of Sarnia, Ont., are drawing plenty of attention.

Other graduates of the program include Justin Morneau, Russell Martin, Jeff Francis and Jason Bay.

The Canadian juniors play in the fall instructional league against young major league talent before their spring series in Florida in March and April.

This year, the Florida opposition includes teams from the Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals as well as the Jays.

In May, the Canadians take part in the Dominican Summer League. The idea is to expose the young players to a professional environment and competition.

"You learn, you develop, you grow," said Hamilton. "And it pays huge dividends as they move forward in the game."

Hamilton estimates a lot of his players will have played more than 100 pro games by the time they are high school seniors.

The Canadians lost 10-6 to a team of Phillies prospects in their opening game Sunday. Monday featured a date with a squad of Washington Nationals prospects.

Canadian coaches Ernie Whitt and Rob Ducey were part of the Phillies' travelling party. Whitt, the current Canadian national team manager, is a roving catching instructor in the Philadelphia organization while Ducey will spend the 2014 season coaching at double-A Reading.

The Canadian coaching staff this spring includes former star Jays infielder Roberto Alomar.

Scouts will be watching the Canada series closely, to see who rates further examination.

Hamilton says most if his charges will go the collegiate baseball route but

"a reasonable number" will sign out of high school with major-league teams.

Winnipeg's Ben Onyshko is slated to start against the Jays on Tuesday, followed by Zach Pop of Brampton, Ont., J.P. Stevenson of Hunter River, P.E.I., Isaac Anesty of Guelph, Ont., and Keenan Williams of Vancouver.

Onyshko, in his second year with the program, is a left-hander who throws in the mid- to high '80s with a good breaking ball and lively fast ball. He already has a scholarship to Stetson University but has drawn attention from scouts.

One thing that stands out about the Canadian roster is the players' size. Twenty-five players are six foot two or taller with Ottawa pitcher Matthew Ianni standing 6-8 and weighing 230.

"It's our job to find the most talented kids physically in the country and try to develop those kids," said Hamilton. "I've always believed if you do a good job in development then the byproduct is that you have a good chance to be successful when you need to win."

Canada won a silver medal two years ago, losing to the U.S. in the final of 18U Baseball World Cup in South Korea. Hamilton says the Canadians are normally a top-five nation.

Another Jays team will play the Detroit Tigers on Lakeland on Tuesday.


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