If James Paxton had a better earned-run average and an agent who didn't scare Major League Baseball teams, he'd be a much better bet to make Canadian baseball history tomorrow.
As it is, he's still got a chance.
The lanky left-hander from Ladner, B.C., is projected to go in the first round of MLB's entry draft tomorrow. If he does, it would be the third consecutive year that a Canadian has been selected in the opening round, which hasn't happened since Canadians became eligible for the amateur draft in 1985.
Since last year, when he was "anonymous," according to Baseball America, Paxton has grown, and has added velocity to a fastball that now touches 97 miles an hour. The University of Kentucky starter draws body-and-mind comparisons to injured Colorado Rockies ace Jeff Francis, a fellow British Columbian southpaw and the ninth overall pick in the 2002 draft.
But as with any prospect, there are knocks.
Paxton, 20, selected agent Scott Boras as his adviser. Boras represents a who's who of major-leaguers and has made many of them rich, but he is also known for holding out clients.
In baseball, the likelihood of a player signing can be as important as talent in terms of draft position. A player considered difficult to sign by the Aug. 15 deadline could slip.
"I don't think it's a matter of [Boras]being like that at all," Paxton said. "They should be drafting me on my ability and not who my adviser is."
Boras often demands more than slot bonuses, which MLB recommends teams pay players at every draft position. Some teams routinely pay more than slot, while others are leery of big financial demands.
Should he be selected in the first round, Paxton would join two high-school players to form a history-making triumvirate.
Brett Lawrie, a catcher from Langley, B.C., became the highest drafted Canadian position player ever last year, going 16th overall to the Milwaukee Brewers. In 2007, pitcher Phillippe Aumont, a right-hander from Gatineau, Que., was taken 11th overall by the Seattle Mariners.
"It's a great honour to be Canada's guy this year, and I hope I can fill that spot as well as the others," Paxton said.
Like Lawrie and Aumont, Paxton was a fast riser in his draft year, even if his stock has dipped recently.
In scout parlance, Paxton is "projectable," not necessarily refined, and he is one of the more polarizing players in this year's draft class. He could be chosen in the first 20 picks, or he could slide out of the first round altogether.
At Kentucky, Paxton grew nearly four inches, to 6 foot 4, and filled out to 215 pounds, 10 pounds heavier than the 6-foot-5 Francis. Paxton's fastball increased 10 mph, and he developed an above-average breaking ball. He struck out 109 batters in 73 innings this season while walking just 20, but he also sported a 5.86 ERA and gave up 83 hits.
"He's learned how to pitch and has matured physically," Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson said. "He's intelligent, thoughtful and well spoken."
Paxton is an accounting major with a 3.3 grade-point average (out of 4), and says he wants to finish his degree while pitching professionally. Francis, who is on the 60-day disabled list and expected to miss the season after shoulder surgery, studied physics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia.
Both of them played for the North Delta Blue Jays in the prospect-rich B.C. Premier League.
"Jeff Francis was a very unique individual," said Ari Mellios, a former North Delta coach and Montreal Expos scout.
"I never thought I'd come across another kid like that, but James is close. Jeff was probably the smartest player I ever coached, and Paxton was probably second."