2011 Blue Jays season preview: A hot prospect

Canadian Brett Lawrie's go-go attitude has, at times, led to trouble. But it also makes him a prized acquisition.

A hot prospect

Photograph by Blair Gable

Greg Hamilton has witnessed a few tours de force in his time with Canada’s national baseball program, but none compare to the show a brash teenager from Langley, B.C., put on three years ago during a double-header in the Dominican Republic. Playing as an 18-year-old with Canada’s national junior team, Brett Lawrie cranked five home runs over two exhibition games against a team of Seattle Mariners prospects, cementing his status as one of the game’s up-and-comers. Scouts drooled, and Lawrie whipped up the major league draft rankings. Hamilton, now coach of this country’s national team, was struck not so much by the number of homers as where Lawrie hit them: “He literally went foul pole to foul pole. I’d never seen anything like it. I think you’d have to poll a lot of baseball people to find one who had.”

The Blue Jays, in short, got themselves a bona fide blue-chipper last winter when they dealt pitcher Shaun Marcum to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for the infielder, the highest drafted position player ever to come out of this country. But fans expecting an athlete in the Sidney Crosby mould—all maple syrup and say-the-right-thing—might want to brace themselves. Lawrie is not the sort of player to tread lightly on people’s sensibilities. “I don’t try to piss people off,” he tells Maclean’s, “but I think my personality has sometimes had that effect.”

To this, the 21-year-old attributes his upbringing, and unbridled ambition. Raised in a sports-mad family, Lawrie took his competitive cues from his father Russ, who coached him in Little League, and his sister Danielle, who went on to become a star pitcher with the Canadian women’s fastball team. Russ was known as a tough coach, says Brett—to the point that other parents were aghast at how he dealt with his own kids. “At the ballpark, my dad would yell and scream at us,” he recalls. “But it kind of set us straight. My sister and I both had a high level of intensity. My dad was always there to push us to go further in the game.”

On balance, the go-go attitude has served the family well. By 14, Brett was playing elite ball in B.C.’s under-18 Premier League, while Danielle won a scholarship to the University of Washington. The following year, Brett made the junior national team, and in 2008 cracked the lineup to represent Canada at the Beijing Olympics. That summer, the Brewers drafted him 16th overall, and he seemed well on his way to a major league career.

But not everybody appreciated the kid-in-a-hurry routine. Brewers management was reportedly put off by Lawrie’s desire to skip developmental steps they’d laid out for him, such as a trip to a fall instructional league in Arizona. They were also skeptical, Lawrie says, when he lobbied for a promotion from single- to double-A baseball. To this day, he believes the Brewers expected him to fail and planned to start him again at a lower level. “I kind of proved them wrong,” he says. “I was a two-time all-star in double-A.”

His game is defined by boundless energy: he runs out grounders and sprints to the dugout after innings—à la the game’s greatest keener, Pete Rose. Off the field, he’s a perpetual motion machine: during a recent visit to the mansion he shared during spring training with fellow Jays Travis Snider and J.P. Arencibia, he hopped between the dinner table and a toy basketball net set up in a great room adjacent to the kitchen. There he badgered the laid-back Arencibia into endless free-throw contests, trash-talking as he went. “It’s part of who I am,” he says in his rapid-fire manner. “You know: gotta get going, gotta get the mind going, gotta get fired up and hopefully get the other guys fired up, too.”

Hamilton, whom Lawrie considers a mentor, acknowledges the youngster can “overdo things.” But his energy is his strength, “and you don’t want to try to take that out of him,” says Hamilton. “You want him being himself, going out and doing stuff easily and naturally. You don’t want a guy like that feeling his way through things.” His growing pains have caused some embarrassment, not least a series of Facebook photos that surfaced in December after Toronto acquired him, showing a 19-year-old Lawrie in full party mode. In one, he was pictured shirtless with a beer can duct-taped to his hand. His massive tattoo—a tribute to his sister Nicole—was on prominent display.

Still, the Jays seem pleased with their prize off-season acquisition. During spring training, media scrums with manager John Farrell frequently devolved into hymns to Lawrie’s work ethic. When management demoted him last week to the triple-A Las Vegas 51s, it was less a reflection of Lawrie’s play than Toronto’s reluctance to squander a year of his contractual rights before he enters his prime. “He can run, he can throw, and he’s very, very strong,” says Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos. “He’s got an incredible will to win and a desire to be great.” As for the idea that he signed the rookie out of nationalist sentiment, Anthopoulos scoffs: “Brett Lawrie could be Puerto Rican. We’d still want him.”

The question now is whether he can maintain his momentum, taking in stride the setbacks that will surely come. His father, for one, is quick to offer reassurance. “Never worry about Brett’s game,” says Russ Lawrie. “If he stays healthy, he’s going to be very, very productive for the Blue Jays.” Brett, meanwhile, has begun making the distinct sounds of a boy growing up. Las Vegas was hardly his chosen destination, he admits, after he hit .282, with a pair of home runs, in 17 games of Grapefruit League action. “You don’t want to go back to the minor league side after getting a taste for this.” But he grasps the Jays’ desire to bring him along as far as possible before calling him up. “Maybe from a baseball perspective I’m ready,” he says. “But I understand that it’s a business. Triple-A’s not bad. But my ultimate goal is to play major league baseball. I just want the best opportunity to show my stuff.”

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