Marcus Stroman hopped on a bus Tuesday morning as he began the journey to what he hopes will be a career in the big leagues.
The Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect, chosen in the first round of this year’s Major League Baseball draft, is getting ready to commence his career with the Vancouver Canadians of the single-A Northwest League amidst high hopes from the parent club.
He is expected to take the mound Wednesay against the Boise Hawks.
“I feel like I’m ready to go,” said the 21-year-old. “There’ll definitely be some butterflies in my stomach when I’m out there for my professional debut, but I’m excited, man. I can’t wait to get out there and compete. I’m ready to roll.”
The Blue Jays took Stroman with the 22nd pick overall. Assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish, formerly the team’s scouting director, and Toronto manager John Farrell have said Stroman could rise to the majors by September. Usually, clubs avoid such predictions about players starting out in single-A ball.
“I’m just trying to focus on what I can do for the Vancouver Canadians,” said Stroman. “I’ve started to develop a pretty close relationship with some of the guys here, and I’m just enjoying them. The guys are awesome on this team. So I’m not worried about moving up or anything. I’m worrying about the now and doing my best for the Vancouver Canadians and helping them win and, hopefully, everything else takes care of itself.”
The right-hander joined the Jays organization after three standout seasons at Duke University, where he struck out 136 batters in 98 innings last season. He also starred for Team USA in the summer of 2011 as a closer.
He has received much more hype than some of the players on the Canadians’ roster, several of whom were signed as non-drafted free agents and are considered longshots at best to reach the majors.
But he has also dealt with many nay sayers. Listed at five-foot-nine and 185 pounds, he does not fit the prototypical mould of the tall and lanky hurler prevalent on many major-league clubs’ rosters. He has used the criticism as a motivating force.
“Ever since I started playing, size has always been an issue — not an issue in my eyes, but an issue in everyone else’s eyes as far as how far I’d be able to go with my talent and my height,” said Stroman.
“So I just put stuff in the back of my mind every time I’m in the game and every time on the mound that I just have to constantly prove people wrong. I like it. It motivates me. I’d be the first one to tell you that I don’t wish I was 6-1, 6-2, 6-3. I like what I have.”
Basketball was Stroman’s “first love” while growing up on Long Island. But after realizing his height would work against him on the court, he dedicated himself in his early high school years to excelling on the diamond.
The sport did not come naturally to him. His father Earl Stroman, a police detective, played football growing up. But the father still helped the son as much as possible, enabling Stroman to rise to prominence.
“At times, I didn’t like him growing up,” said Stroman. “I thought he might have pushed me too hard. We butted heads most of the time when I was young and got into a bunch of fights, but I realize now that it was all for the better. If that hadn’t happened, who knows where I would be today?”
Stroman, who also credits his mother Adlin Auffant for much of his success, struggled to find the best position that would take him to the pros. He also played shortstop in college. After serving as a closer in a summer league for top prospects following his freshman year, he realized that he should focus on pitching.
Despite his lack of size, his 97 m.p.h. fast ball has turned the heads of batters and scouts alike. He has also developed three other pitches in his arsenal.
“I definitely pitch off my fastball, and then I throw a slider,” said Stroman. “It’s usually my put-away pitch. I’ve started mixing in a cutter and change-up this year, too, since I’ve started, so that gives me two more weapons.”
Canadians manager Clayton McCullough plans to deploy him out of the bullpen as a middle reliever. But Stroman said he is comfortable in either a starter or reliever role.
“This past year at Duke, I just started,” said Stroman. “But my whole career before that, I did both. So I’m used to coming out of the pen continuously.”
McCullough said Stroman has come as advertised with a big-time fastball and a good feel for secondary pitches that he can spin different ways. He has also fit in extremely well among players with more pro experience.
“First-round pick, a lot of things come along with that, and all the attention that comes with it,” said McCullough. “You walk into a new clubhouse where you don’t know anybody, but they’ve all read about you and heard about you. But he’s come right in. He’s a great kid.”
The Blue Jays are battling injuries to pitchers and are on the lookout for help from within their system, but McCullough said it has yet to be determined — and it’s impossible to know — how soon Stroman will rise through the ranks.
Right now, the aim is to make sure he makes a smooth transition from college to the pros.
“You don’t want to do anything crazy this summer,” said McCullough. “Just get his feet wet and get him moving along.”