Toronto-born players making presence felt in minors

NEW YORK — Before Joey Votto was challenging the laws of baseball history, who exactly was he?

Well, simply put, he was himself. You just never heard of him. That, of course, wouldn’t be true if you followed the Chattanooga Lookouts, the Cincinnati Reds’ Class AA affiliate in Tennessee.

It was there that Votto, after an impressive junior career with the Etobicoke Rangers, began turning heads with his ability to turn on fastballs.

The left-handed hitting slugger from Toronto terrorized Southern League pitching well before his emergence as an MVP-caliber player in the majors.

In 2006, the 22-year-old Votto led the Lookouts to a North Division title after leading the league in batting (.319), runs (85), hits (162), doubles (46), walks (78), on-base plus slugging percentage (.958) and total bases (270) in 136 games.

Votto added 22 home runs and drove in 77 runs that year en route to a number of minor league awards, including the Southern League MVP.

With that, a closer look at three Toronto-born players currently in the minor leagues. And although they may not amount to Votto-like status anytime soon, keep an eye on this talented trio in the years to come.

Tim Smith, LF, Northwest Arkansas Naturals Double-A (Texas League)

MLB Club: Kansas City Royals

Smith is as versatile a talent as they come.

The six-foot-three, 225-pound outfielder is a product of the well-respected baseball program at Arizona State, one in which has produced MLBers such as Dustin Pedroia and ex-Toronto Blue Jays prospect, Brett Wallace.

All the former Sun Devil did this year was hit .306 with nine homers, 50 RBI and 15 stolen bases.

Smith, drafted by the New York Mets in 2004 (21st round), the Milwaukee Brewers in 2005 (17th round), and again by the Texas Rangers in the seventh round of the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft, is a career .306 hitter over four minor league seasons.

The 24-year-old lefty has all the tools to have a successful career in the majors.

“I enjoy playing baseball for a living, I can’t see myself doing anything else,” said the 2010 Texas League Mid-Season All-Star. “I can’t really control my destiny, so I’m going to try and keep everything positive.”

Marcus Knecht, OF/DH, Auburn Doubledays Class A (New York-Penn League)

MLB Club: Toronto Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays didn’t have to look far to find their third round pick of the 2010 MLB First-Year Player Draft, selecting the six-foot-one, 200-pound Knecht out of Connors State Junior College in Oklahoma.

While Knecht doesn’t come with the checkered minor league resume Smith does, he has plenty of experience playing high-level baseball.

After being drafted by the Brewers in the 23rd round of the 2008 draft, the former Ontario Blue Jay opted for school instead, attending Oklahoma State for a year before transferring to Connors.

Having made a name for himself as a youngster in the North York baseball program, Knecht continued to impress in college, posting eye-popping numbers in a limited amount of time.

The right-handed slugger belted 23 homers and drove in 87 runners to go along with a scorching .442 batting average in just 59 games.

“This kid’s always been athletic, he’s always been the best player,” Andrew Tinnish, the Blue Jays’ director of amateur scouting, told the National Post following the draft. “He’s always been a standout.”

The 20-year-old hit .268 with five home runs, and 34 RBI, while adding seven stolen bases in 61 games for the Doubledays in the Class A Short-Season New York-Penn League.

Sammie Starr, SS, Aberdeen IronBirds Class A (New York-Penn League)

MLB Club: Baltimore Orioles

For the Orioles sake, let’s hope Sammie’s name is a sign of things to come.

Baltimore selected the 22-year-old shortstop out of the University of British Colombia in the 34th round of this year’s draft and if his speed on the base paths is any indication, the Orioles may not have to wait too long to see return on their modest investment.

Starr… well, starred for the UBC Thunderbirds this past season, batting .366 in 54 games, while leading the team in runs (47), triples (4) and stolen bases (14).

The five-foot-eight, 165-pound product of the junior elite program Toronto Mets is undersized at a position getting increasingly bigger physically. However, with the right seasoning, Starr has the ability to be a bottom-of-the-order type sparkplug if not top, should he succeed in the Orioles farm system.

Starr appeared in 35 games this year in the Class A Short-Season New York-Penn league, hitting .242 with 17 runs scored for the IronBirds.