The most recent summer of the Alcohol. Think Again Perth Heat’s partnership with the Tampa Bay Rays saw seven exciting young prospects – four positional players and three pitchers – arrive in Australia ahead of what was a difficult 2020-21 Australian Baseball League Season.
During a tournament affected by a number of Covid-19 breakouts around Australia, the Heat didn’t let the disruption of living and playing in hub situations slow them down as they finished second with a 12-9 win/loss record on their way to an eventual loss in the championship decider against the Melbourne Aces.
The seven players assigned to the Heat were left-handed outfielder/first baseman Grant Witherspoon, catcher/infielder Ford Proctor, speedy outfielder Shane Sasaki, agile switch-hitting Dominican infielder Abiezel Ramirez, and pitchers Alan Strong, Jacob Lopez and Nathan Wiles.
Witherspoon’s solid performances in rookie and A-level ball saw him assigned to Perth to see if his trajectory continued on an upwards trend. Comfortable at either right field or first base, he was safer than Fort Knox on defence – he finished with a perfect fielding percentage – while at the plate he consistently found ways to get on base, whether by making solid contact for a hit or via vision and discipline to draw walks. His .333/.402/.653 slash line attests to that, and he also added 4 homeruns and 20 RBI in just 21 games for good measure.
Like Zacrey Law before him, the converted catcher was sent to the Heat to try and get more pitches behind home plate under his belt. Unlike Law, Proctor split catching duties with Hall and also covered third base and shortstop. Like Witherspoon, Proctor impressed with bat in hand and his ability to get on base was invaluable, finishing with a slash line of .324/.452/.544 an notching 3 homeruns and 17 RBI along with 7 stolen bases.
Recruited straight out of high school, the speedy Hawaiian hadn’t played in front of a crowd since his final game at Ionlani HS in Honolulu. His first hit in the Australian Baseball League was a homerun bomb to centre field against Adelaide in the Brisbane hub. Showed off his wheels with a league-leading 8 stolen bases, and finished the season with a .179 batting average, 2 homeruns – including a two-out, two-strike walk-off dinger against Adelaide in the Heat’s first home game – and 8 RBI.
After impressive performances in rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League and Appalachian League, the next step in the Dominican’s progression was to see how he fared in Australia against seasoned pros and other youngsters in a similar position to himself. Possessing lightning reflexes in the field and pace to burn around the bags, Ramirez collected 17 hits at .257 including a pair of homeruns and 8 RBI. He was rewarded on his return to the US with a promotion to one of the Rays’ A-ball affiliates.
Strong by name and, after his performance in an exhibition game against the Brisbane Futures, he was looking strong by nature before he was recalled to the US to begin early preparations for spring training. Strong made just two appearances and his 0-1 record and 5.40 ERA bellied how confident and commanding he looked on the mound.
Acquired from San Francisco in 2019, Lopez emerged from two weeks in quarantine on a mission to improve and impress his new(ish) employers. The big left hander threw in five games for the Heat and showed good progression on his 2019 A-ball performances, allowing just five hits and one run in 13.2 innings on the mound. Also registered 21 strikeouts.
Drafted in the 8th round of the 2019 draft by the Rays, Wiles added to his senior experience in the Cape Cod Summer League and New York-Pennsylvania League with a stint down under. The right hander’s fast ball often clocked 97mph, and his role as a starting pitcher impressed many who watched him. Five starts resulted in a 1-1 record with a 1.61 ERA and just 16 hits and four earned runs given up in 22.1 innings. Showed he has good strikeout ability with his 30 punch outs leading the Heat and among the best in the ABL.
Sean Smedley (coach)
A catcher signed by the Rays as a free agent in 2013, Smedley finished his playing career in 2016 and switched to coaching. After spending 2016 as the Princeton Rays’ video co-ordinator, Smedley became a coach with the same team in 2017 and was promoted to the Hudson Valley Renegades in 2019. The next step in his progression saw him spent a summer in Perth to learn from Andy Kyle.
RC Lichtenstein (coach)
After a pitching career in the minor leagues in the 1990s, Lichtenstein switched to coaching and became manager of the Dubois County Dragons of the independent Heartland League in 1996. He made the step up to a Major League organisation when he joined the Milwaukee Brewers as a pitching coach from 1998 to 2002, the last three seasons with the Beloit Snappers. He returned to the independent leagues in 2003 as skipper of the Alexandria Aces of the Central Baseball League and was pitching coach of the Edinburg Roadrunners the following year. Lichtenstein joined the Tampa Bay Rays as a member of the Southwest Michigan Devil Rays coaching staff in 2005-2006 and served as pitching coach of the Vero Beach Devil Rays in 2007-2008, Bowling Green Hot Rods in 2009-2011 and Montgomery Biscuits in 2012-2019.