“If you would have asked me you were told me this time last year that I’d be here having this conversation with you about having played the season in Hillsboro I don’t think anybody would have believed it.”
For Vancouver Canadians’ broadcasting and media relations manager Tyler Zickel, 2021 was a season like no other. Zickel had a new job in a new location, smack dab in the middle of a pandemic.
Luckily, for Zickel, there was at least some familiarity with the C’s. Zickel had worked in the Toronto organization for the AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats previously, so he wasn’t necessarily starting from scratch. But, because of border restrictions, the C’s had to play their home games in Hillsboro, OR, a suburb of Portland, which meant, in effect, that the team had a 140-game road trip ahead of them when the season began in early May.
Despite not playing in front of the usual full houses in Vancouver, Zickel felt that it was beneficial that he has yet to experience the raucous Nat Bailey Stadium atmosphere. He had, in effect, a year to familiarize himself with many aspects of life in the former Northwest League, and now hopefully will go into 2022 with considerable experience under his belt. The responsibilities he’ll face when the team returns to Vancouver will be considerably greate
Blue Jays fans familiar with Zickel’s work know well the passion and enthusiasm he has for his job, and baseball in general. While with the Fisher Cats, Zick was responsible for on-field/between innings entertainment, and MiLB.tv viewers often were able to catch the tail end of his act before play began. He also called the road games for the club. That enthusiasm was obvious in a discussion about the season that just passed, and he provided insights into a number of C’s-related topics.
Before the C’s season started, a perusal of their roster suggested that their pitching would be decent,with Adam Kloffenstein and C.J. Van Eyk fronting the rotation, and the possibility of a healthy Eric Pardinho joining them, but scoring runs might be an issue. This turned out to be almost the other way around, agreed Zickel. “It just seemed like if our starting pitching was going well, the bullpen wasn’t, and when the bullpen got straightened out, the starters struggled.” Not helping matters was the fact that Kloff had his ups and downs, Van Eyk struggled with the adjustment to full season ball, and Pardinho didn’t make it out of Florida.
But there were many positive things to discuss about the C’s, despite their 55-64, 5th place (out of 6 teams) High A West season. First and foremost had to be the second half experienced by 1B Spencer Horwitz, who put together a record hitting streak and has vaulted his way onto the Blue Jays top prospects list. Zickel says Horwitz’ production actually dipped at mid-season, until perhaps someone in the Jays organization made a suggestion. “He was still working the count, seeing a lot of pitches, but I wonder if someone said, ‘if you’re going to play 1st base walks are great, but you’ve got to produce,’ and he just took off after that,” as Horwitz ran off a 27 game hitting streak, the longest in league history, and he was in AA shortly after the run ended. In the C’s last visit to Everett, he hit one over the netting at Funko Field out onto the street beyond it. “We don’t know where it landed,” said Zickel, “but it had to be at least 440 feet.” Since the season concluded, Horwitz was named a High A West All Star, as well as the league’s top MLB prospect. Sent to the Arizona Fall League for further reps against top competition, Horwitz has largely picked up where he left off, posting a .986 OPS in the dessert.
As for Kloffenstein, Zickel agrees that he pitched better than his numbers (6.22 ERA in 23 starts), but that there’s still plenty of upside. “There would be games when he would be pitching well, then lose the strike zone for an inning, even for a couple of batters, and drive his pitch count up, and before you knew it, he was out of the game.” Zickel points out that Kloff was still one of the youngest players in the High A West. He thinks that with a good spring, especially if someone in the organization lets Kloff know, “hey, this is it,” he should start next year in AA.
As for RHP CJ Van Eyk, Toronto’s 2nd round pick in 2020, much was expected, but like Kloffenstein, the results fell short of expectations. “For C.J., I think it may have been a case of making adjustments in his first pro season,” Zickel observed, “and he was making really good progress in August before he went on the DL.” True enough, Van Eyk posted a 2.57 ERA in 5 August starts before being shelved. Van Eyk fanned 100 in 80 innings for Vancouver this summer, and Zickel things there’s more to come from him next year.
Orelvis Martinez caught fire in July, and found himself in the Northwest. Zickel agrees that 3rd base is his likely destination, but “the Blue Jays want to see how far he can go as a short stop.” Martinez struggled a bit with breaking balls at the higher level, but Zickel says, “Orelvis was every bit as advertised. (SS) Luis de Los Santos took him under his wing, and we were very impressed with him on and off the field.”
Similarly, Sem Robberse created quite an impression. Zickel termed him “light years ahead,” in his maturity and approach to the game. Like Martinez, Robberse struggled at first at the higher level, and if a return to at least start the season will be in the cards for him, Zickel looks forward to seeing Robberse as the C’s opening day starter.
When asked for other C’s who caught his eye this season, Zickel mentions IF Tanner Morris and OF Cameron Eden. Morris, the High A All Star 2nd baseman, didn’t go more than two straight games without getting on base, and in Zickel’s’ eyes, was the team’s MVP, a guy who should be in the Blue Jays top 30 prospects. Eden was among the High A leaders in stolen bases before going on the injured list in July. “He was my favourite player to watch,” Eden said, “he was a real threat at the top of the lineup, a really good guy off the field, really thinks the game well and has a high baseball IQ.”
All in all, while it was a successful season for the C’s in some ways (Toronto provided accommodation for the players to help avoid any issues in that regard, in what was likely a precursor to what all organizations will soon be doing for their minor league players), but not playing in front of a supportive home crowd had its effect on the team. Playing in front of mostly friends, family, and diehard baseball fans, the C’s averaged about 250 fans per “home” game in Hillsboro instead of the boisterous 6000+ at the Nat.
As for a return to Vancouver next year, Zickel is looking forward to getting to know the city. He’s also hopeful, as has happened with other Blue Jays minor league broadcasters in recent years, when asked if an invitation to spring training – and possibly call a few innings of a Jays exhibition game – was raised. Heading to Florida for spring training would put him back in touch with many of the contacts he’s made throughout the organization – he lists coach John Schneider and minor league hitting coordinator Hunter Mense as two of his biggest influences and boosters in the system.
When asked if the C’s home games will be streamed next year, Zickel admits that’s unknown at this time. Vancouver did air six home games on Sportsnet in 2019, and part of the new set of operating dictates from MLB includes teams streaming their games in high def by 2022. Hopefully, that will sort itself out in the weeks to come.