Crouse honing his craft in Australian Baseball League
Blue Jays outfield prospect getting in extra reps as he prepares for Spring Training
Toronto Blue Jays fans so rarely get treated to homegrown Canadian talent. For now, there is Brett Lawrie, currently a month away from beginning his third Spring Training as a part of the Blue Jays. Meanwhile, 23-year-old prospect Mike Crouse is honing his skills in a very different part of the world.
A native of Port Moody, British Columbia, Crouse, who was selected in the 16th round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, currently finds himself enjoying his first stint in the Australian Baseball League. In fact, the easygoing outfielder has taken to the experience quite naturally.
"There's a lot of similarities between Australians and Canadians," Crouse said before suiting up for the Canberra Cavalry on a breezy Sunday afternoon. "It's really cool, really chill over here; an easy atmosphere to live in."
Crouse's strongest season to date came in 2011, when he hit .261 in 101 games for the Lansing Lugnuts. That year, he displayed his fierce combination of power and speed, stealing 38 bases while belting 14 home runs.
After a frustrating 2012 season and a delayed start last year due to a minor oblique injury, the broad-shouldered outfielder returned to form this past summer, hitting .250, with eight home runs, 41 RBIs and 21 steals in just 85 games for the Dunedin Blue Jays.
"Other than that little oblique stint at the beginning of the year, everything went according to plan," said Crouse. "I started to get my swing back to where it needed to be and felt like I was playing the way I should be playing."
And it left him hungry for more.
"After finishing a good year, and finishing the year healthy, I wanted to play some extra ball and get some extra reps in, and this is a perfect way to do it," Crouse said of his reasons for coming to Australia.
"It's a 46-game schedule. You only play during the weekends and you practice during the week, so it's kind of like you're in an offseason yet you're playing ball. It was a no-brainer."
The idea has proven to be a good one. With three weeks remaining in the regular season, Crouse has put up some of the best numbers in the ABL. He ranks fifth in the league with a .326 batting average, third with six home runs, third with a .980 OPS and fifth with 10 stolen bases.
The stolen bases, Crouse conceded, are of great importance going forward.
"I [have got to] keep the bags up there," Crouse said. "They count like doubles and triples if you can steal them in the right counts."
And while Crouse is enjoying the success, he hasn't lost sight of why he came to Australia in the first place.
"I just want to keep working on the things I was working on this season; that approach at the plate, baserunning, my defense -- everything," Crouse said. "Then come back into Spring Training and take off from there."
You'd think an aspiring baseball player growing up in Western Canada would have grown up a Blue Jays fan, but as Crouse carefully puts it, that was "not necessarily" the case.
"Being in Canada, there's not a lot of baseball going on -- especially on the West Coast -- so I more followed players than anything -- [Derek] Jeter, [Alex Rodriguez], Ken Griffey Jr., those types of guys."
While Crouse has spent parts of the past two seasons in the Florida State League, a perennial hotbed for rehabbing Major Leaguers, he has gotten to play opposite and alongside a number of notable Major Leaguers.
"It's a neat little experience," Crouse said of contests played opposite Rodriguez, who was one of his childhood idols.
"[The Dunedin Blue Jays] had Jose Reyes this year," Crouse said. "It's fun to see [Major Leaguers] show up at the same time we do and get all their work done and see how they work. It's neat."
But for now, all the focus is on winning and preparing for 2014 back in North America. His Canberra Cavalry are defending champions of the ABL, and the winning culture has been a plus of the Australian experience.
"The chemistry we have on this team is really good," Crouse said. "We have a winning ballclub here, which is really nice to see. A championship is the expectation. You go out here, throw up a 'W' and that's a solid night."
With the Cavalry currently in second place and just a dozen games remaining, the idea going forward is simple: win and continue to improve.
"My goal is to finish this winter league -- or I guess summer league, as you'd call it in Australia -- healthy, and make some strides, and come into Spring Training in full stride," Crouse said. "And then we'll take it from there."
Craig Durham is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.