Major step awaits Canada's Armstrong

Major step awaits Canada's Armstrong

It's probably not that surprising that the provisional roster for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic is so loaded with good catchers.

You know, that hockey mentality.

Led by two-time All-Star Russell Martin of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the club also could choose to field 12-year veteran backstop Pete Laforest, Red Sox prospect George Kottaras or 19-year-old phenom Brett Lawrie. (The latter is a 2008 first-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers who has yet to make his professional debut, opting instead to play for Canada at the Summer Olympics.)

Finally, Canada has a very attractive option in Chicago White Sox prospect Cole Armstrong, who grew up in British Columbia as a hockey goalie and catcher.

The left-handed hitter, now 25, has put himself on the prospect map over the past few years.

Now he comes into Spring Training facing a win-win situation. Should he make the late February cut to the 28-man roster, does he play for his country? Or does he stay in camp and vie for a spot on the White Sox's 25-man roster and a Major League debut? Right now, he and A.J. Pierzynski are the only catchers on the 40-man roster.

This may not be a decision he thought he might be looking at a few years ago.

"I spent a lot of time before I made it to A-ball," he recalled, "when the big leagues seemed so far away."

Armstrong was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 12th round in 2001 out of Chipola College in Marianna, Fla. That's the same school that produced Martin and, ironically, Tyler Flowers, the prospect the White Sox acquired from the Braves this offseason who eventually could form a 1-2 punch behind the plate with Armstrong.

In December 2005, after he had spent his first full season at Class A Rome, Armstrong was plucked by the White Sox out of the Braves system in the Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft.

Two years later, they added him to the 40-man roster.

This past summer, he combined to bat .261 with eight homers and 48 RBIs in 99 games at Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte, then hit .338 with six homers and 17 RBIs in the Arizona Fall League, where he and Flowers were among the top catchers.

"No doubt for me, with the kind of up-and-down season I had, it was a huge confidence boost," Armstrong said of his stellar fall performance. "When you can go to the AFL and walk into that locker room, and to your left and your right you've read about everyone, and then be able to do pretty well there, that's huge."

Growing up in Canada, Armstrong, like most of his baseball-playing compatriots, saw some national team action, playing for the Junior squad from 1999-2001. In fact, he caught while Martin manned third base.

But this year's selection to the provisional roster is the first time since '01 that Armstrong has been tabbed for Team Canada.

"It's a huge honor anytime you get asked to play for your country, but especially now with Canada having so many big-name guys," he said. "It would be a really neat opportunity to get to play with some of them. And I haven't had the chance to play in front of 50,000 people, so that would be a nice experience too."

Just because he hasn't donned the uniform in eight years doesn't mean it wouldn't be like a reunion of sorts, however.

"Talking to some of the guys who were on the Olympic team or the qualifying team, they say it's definitely like you come back together," he said. "Everyone knows each other. Even if you never actually played together, you know the same people."

The White Sox, however, clearly have their own plans for Armstrong in the not-too-distant future, further evidenced by the decision to send him to the recent Rookie Career Development Program, an honor saved for an organization's top "big league-ready" prospects.

"That was something I really wasn't expecting," he said. "From day one since the White Sox picked me up in the Rule 5 Draft, they have been such an incredible organization and have given me so many opportunities that I probably wouldn't have gotten with other organizations."

Other White Sox on Classic rosters
3B Javier Castillo is on the Panamanian provisional roster. The 25-year-old moved from shortstop to third base in 2007 and, coincidentally or not, his bat has broken through in that two-year span. After making his pro debut in '02 in the Dominican Summer League, he slowly worked his way through the Sox system, not reaching Advanced Class A until '07, when he hit .288 with nine homers and 62 RBIs at Winston-Salem. In '08, he batted .289 with eight homers and 58 RBIs at Double-A Birmingham, then hit .287 in a brief stint at Triple-A Charlotte down the stretch. His 76 RBIs last year were a career high.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.