New Zealand Set for Global Baseball Debut

First in a series of World Baseball Classic Previews

By Gabriel Fidler

MARYVILLE, Tenn. – There is no doubt which team will be the underdog in the New Taipei City Qualifying Tournament for the World Baseball Classic (WBC).  New Zealand, or the ‘Diamondblacks’, as fans have dubbed the team, will face a steep road to the main WBC Tournament in 2013.

New Zealand Set for Global Baseball Debut   First in a series of World Baseball Classic previewsThough a baseball association was founded in 1989, interest in the sport has only begun to grow in the last decade in this rugby- and softball-obsessed nation.  While teams have participated in everything from the 1996 Olympic Qualifying Tournament to the yearly Australian Provincial Championships, New Zealand does not regularly field an international team.  New Zealand is unlisted among 76 nations ranked by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), though six other teams from the Baseball Confederation of Oceania made the list.  That will all change on Nov. 15, when the Diamondblacks suit up against Chinese Taipei.  Participation in the WBC, even without a single win, will boost New Zealand to No. 38 in the IBAF rankings.

This recent surge is thanks to the rapid growth of baseball domestically.  According to www.baseballnewzealand, the sport’s official national website, there are more than six thousand players in the country.  A third of that number plays baseball in school, a fact that bodes well for New Zealand’s future hardball prospects.  According to a recentarticle by The New Zealand Herald, the sport grew by 300 percent in 2010 and 2011 despite an operating budget of NZ$ 200,000.

In the past two years, a pair of native New Zealanders has signed contracts with MLB teams.  The first was Te Wera “Beau” Bishop, who inked a minor league contract with the Boston Red Sox after the club convinced him to give up his spot on the New Zealand national softball side.  The most recent professional Kiwi is Daniel Devonshire, who moved to the United States to continue his baseball career and was drafted out of Colby Community College by the Toronto Blue Jays.  Ryan Flynn, chief executive of Baseball New Zealand, told the Herald: “We’ve barely scratched the surface. The whole country can swing a bat, the whole country can throw a ball. There are diamonds here, there are umpires here. There’s coaches already here.”

Flynn continues, “It’s a sporting country. It’s like the stars are aligning for baseball to explode here more than any other nation in the world. Major League Baseball believes that we are coming. They believe there is a ready-made population who are already baseball people.”  The inclusion of New Zealand in the MLB-funded WBC would seem to back the executive’s statements.

Major League Baseball has spent several decades investing in baseball in Australia, and that country ranks 11th on the IBAF list.  MLB has instituted a training academy in Australia to encourage the game to grow locally, and has also supported the Australian Baseball League (ABL).  Tom Nicholson, director of MLB’s operations in Australia and Oceania is aware of the similarities between Australia in the 1980s and New Zealand today and remarked to theHerald: “Down the track we’d love to entertain having New Zealand working on that development pathway.”  Nicholson would seem to agree with Flynn’s assessment, observing, “I would say it’s exciting times for New Zealand, they’ve got some great momentum.”

It will be the task of the first-time WBC entry to continue the process with a strong showing.  The leadership for the All-Blacks—a name synonymous with sporting success in the country, though usually on the rugby pitch—has spent the past few months scouring the world for eligible players.  The resulting team is comprised of a mixture of home-grown players, those with Australian roots, and a few Americans.  It will be led by Andy Skeels, a native of New Zealand and manager of the San Jose Giants high Class-A affiliate.  In 1987, Skeels was the first-ever Kiwi drafted by a major league team.

The roster lacks a star player, but it does have 13 players with professional experience out of 25, with three more roster spots up-for-grabs before the first game.  The offence will likely be led by first baseman Crew “Boss” Moanaroa and second sacker Scott Campbell, a former Futures Game participant.  “Most of the team hasn’t had a lot of experience, but we have a lot of good players on this team,” Moanaroa advised MLB.com. “I think the whole world is going to be shocked at what kind of talent we have in New Zealand.”

Moanaroa is from New Zealand, but was signed out of MLB’s academy in Australia in 2008 and has advanced to full-season Class-A ball.  In 2012, he played 110 games and hit .262/.391/.365, finishing fourth in the league in walks.  He offers little in terms of power (career .375 slugging percentage), but his patient approach will be important on a team that has an average player age of 23.  He also has experience playing competitively against Asian and Oceanic players in the ABL, where his career batting line is a more robust .275, with a .474 slugging percentage and 32 walks in 62 games.  His brother Moko also brings minor league experience, compiling a .257/.335/.349 line in the lower levels of the Red Sox system after signing in 2008 as well.

Campbell was a top prospect for the Blue Jays before a degenerative hip condition ended his promising career.  The chance to play for New Zealand has caused him to fight through the pain to put on the black-and-white uniform and he told the Herald that “Having this opportunity to get out there and perform for my country is kind of special.  It may be my last chance.  Who knows what the hip is going to do over the next couple of years.  It’s going to be a good ride.”  Campbell, who only just turned 28, collected 386 hits over four minor league seasons, notching a strong batting line of .287/.389/.389 and advancing to Triple-A.  He was a strong fielder at the keystone sack.

The final native professionals are the youngest in Bishop and Devonshire. Bishop (19) began his professional career in 2012 with the Gulf Coast League Red Sox, where he hit .189, though he ended the season with seven hits in the final eight games.  In 2011, he played for MLB’s Australian Academy, where he hit .288/.371/.333 and threw out 4-of-16 baserunners.  Devonshire (20) collected four hits in 27 at bats in the same league after hitting .308/.345/.500 in in 52 at bats for Colby Community College in Kansas.

New Zealand Set for Global Baseball Debut   First in a series of World Baseball Classic previewsThe team has one European star in Daniel Lamb-Hunt, who was signed by the Atlanta Braves in 2005, but never saw minor league action.  His last three years have been in Germany, most recently with the Bonn Capitals, where he was a teammate of Great Britain’s Bradley Roper-Hubbert.  In three Bundesliga seasons, he has hit .376 in 306 at bats and slugged .624, collecting Best Batter awards in 2010 and 2011.  The utility player has only a .140 average in the ABL in 43 at bats.

Campbell, Moanaroa, Devonshire, and Bishop are likely to hit 3-4-5-6 for the Diamondblacks, but the rest of the offence will come from a motley collection of players.  In a recent exhibition game in Australia, the leadoff hitter was Alan Schoenberger, a former minor leaguer with eight years’ experience, but the man behind him was only 19 and a college freshman, albeit one who hit .339 with seven stolen bases for Bellevue College, an NAIA programme in Washington.  After the aforementioned heart of the order, the manager’s 40-year old younger brother David Skeels batted seventh, with the North Central Alberta Baseball League’s All-Star Game MVP following him, and the order finished with 19-year old Daniel Bradley.

The pitching staff is similarly cobbled together, with three former professional players and several youngsters, including 17-year old Joe Boyce.  The group of hurlers will be led by brothers Lincoln and John Holdzkom, two of six pairs of siblings donning the black-and-white after growing up in California.

Lincoln is the elder and has eight years of minor league play under his belt.  John has the faster stuff, hitting 101 mph/163 kmh on occasion, but Lincoln has had better success with a tamer mid-90s cut fastball, a two-seam fastball, and a slurvy breaking ball.  The older sibling accumulated a 2.96 ERA in 337.2 innings from 2001-2009, striking out 330 batters.  Incredibly, it was not until his sixth campaign that any batter hit a home run off him, and he surrendered only seven in his career.

Like John, he has struggled with his command, walking 5.3 per nine innings in his career.  The younger Holdzkom has struck out 153 and allowed a mere five four-baggers in 134.2 innings, but has also given up 107 free passes in totalling a 5.55 ERA.  Despite being released from Cincinnati’s advanced-A team in June after only six games, John had what would turn out to be an audition against Skeels’ San Jose club, whiffing the only batter he faced.  Less than seven months later, his now-manager will rely on him heavily alongside his brother.

The rest of the pitching staff is made up mostly of young Canadians and Kiwis with limited college or ABL experience.  For some, the exhibition games that the Diamondblacks are playing in preparation for the qualifier are among the most high-profile contests in their career.  Skeels, joined by former MLB all-stars Jay Bell as bench coach and Darrell Evans as hitting coach, has the team competing against a handful of Australian teams in preparations for the qualifier, giving the full roster playing time.  The results have been understandably mixed, with two drubbings at the hands of the Sydney Blue Sox, and a shellacking of a local adult league team, but scouts from Chinese Taipei have been spotted in the stands.

Flynn spoke about their progress to the team’s website, noting, “Collectively we feel good about team chemistry and players stepping up to do their jobs.  It’s important to remember that the coaching staff has never seen a single player from this team play in a true baseball game.”

Skeels may have to hope for beginner’s luck to escape from a group that includes baseball powerhouse Chinese Taipei, ranked No. 8 by IBAF, as well as No. 27 Thailand and No. 34 Philippines, both of whom have received major league reinforcements.  The players are clearly not intimidated, as Devonshire stated to the Herald.  “You don’t make it to professional baseball thinking ‘that guy is better than me’. You walk on that field knowing that no one is better than you.”

Skeels agrees, though perhaps with tempered expectations. “We are realistic about where we are as a country and the depth of our talent, but you have to be hopeful and you have to be optimistic. I’ve seen enough players here where, if that seed keeps growing, it could turn into something really good.”

The All-Blacks begin play in New Taipei City against the hosts on 15 November at 10:30 a.m. GMT.  Their second game will be on the 16th at 3:30 a.m, GMT.  Only the winner of the tournament advances to the main WBC draw in 2013.  All World Baseball Classic games are shown live at www.worldbaseballclassic.com.

Follow Extra Innings on Twitter @gabrielfidler.

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About Gabriel Fidler

Card Sharp is devoted to my chief indoor hobby-baseball (and occasionally football [that's soccer to you Americans], hockey, American football, and basketball) card collecting.
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