Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Blue Jays Release Instructional League Roster

J.B. Woodman - Vancouver Province photo


  The Toronto Blue Jays today released their list of invitees to Instructional League play in Florida.
The league dates back to 1958, and has served as a place where top prospects can go to receive more detailed and intensive instruction from the team's staff of minor league instructors.  It can be also used for rehabbing veterans who missed time due to injury, or minor league players who are being asked to switch positions.
   Instructs, as it's commonly called, begin in late September, and wrap up in late October.  A typical day begins with on-field instructions and drills from 9 am until noon, and then a game played under controlled conditions at 1 pm. It's a key time for the organization's top executives to watch and evaluate these players in person.
  An invitation to Instructs signals to a prospect that the organization thinks enough of their potential to invited them down to further refine their skills.  The time can be very valuable.  RHP Sean Reid-Foley was taught a new, simplified delivery at last fall's instructs, and had a dominant season at two levels before being shut down in August.  Other times, pitchers are sent to Instructs to work on a new pitch, or refine command of one of their secondary pitches.

   The 2016 roster, with some thoughts:

Pitchers:


  A couple of names stand out:
-Maximo Castillo, who more than held his own as a 17 year old in the GCL this year.  His numbers weren't glittering (17% K rate, 3.74 FIP) but he was one of the youngest players in the league.
-Yennsy Diaz may have led Appy League qualifiers in ERA, but after finally starting to work more down in the zone in August experienced some success.  He sat 93-95 with his fastball for much of the season.  He's raw, but still has lots of projection left.  Here's a look, thanks to Baseball America:

video

-Jose Espada was the club's 6th round pick from Puerto Rico in 2015, and had a successful debut season in the GCL.  He did not fare as well in the Appy League this year.  He's another one of those long, lean, athletic pitchers the organization covets.
-Clinton Hollon is an electric-armed pitcher who has missed two seasons due to Tommy John surgery (2014), and a pair of drug suspensions (2016).  He is looking to get his career back on track. 
-Zach Jackson was selected in the 4th round this past June.  He pitched mostly in relief in college, and pitched exclusively out of the bullpen after being drafted, striking out 23 in 17 innings with Vancouver.  He could move quickly through the system in a relief role.
-Kelyn Jose has an absolutely electric arm, hitting 100 several times with his FB this summer with Bluefield.  He sits 95-97, but has had his troubles finding the plate, walking more (19) than striking out (17) in 17.2 innings.
-Justin Maese is easily the most impressive name on this list.  In only his second pro season, the 2015 2nd rounder out of Texas HS ball advanced as far as Lansing.  Last year at Instructs, he learned a new slider from departed Blue Jays minor league pitching coordinator Sal Fasano.
-Angel Perdomo led both the Blue Jays system and the Midwest League in strikeouts with 157 in 127 innings.  Perdomo seemed to wear down a bit in August, although he may have been working on his secondaries in order to get to the next level.
-2016 1st rounder T.J. Zeuch gets great extension from his 6'7" frame, and will no doubt have his mechanics and secondaries fine tuned this fall.

Catchers

 -Ryan Gold was a 27th rounder out of South Carolina HS this year, and hit well (.280/.359/.402) in the GCL this summer.
-Javier Hernandez is a defence-first player who has already drawn raves about his play behind the plate.  His bat, to this point, has been a different matter.
-Matt Morgan was a highly regarded 4th rounder in 2014 who has struggled greatly (.151/.253/.240) in his three years of pro ball.  Despite his experience, he was the youngest Catcher on Bluefield's roster to open the season.
-Max Pentecost missed all of the 2015 recovering from a pair of shoulder surgeries.  The 2014 1st rounder returned to action with Lansing in May, and was promoted to Dunedin in July.  He hit .302/.361/.486 at both levels.  His 2016 action, of course was all at DH, and with the bevy of pitchers at Instructs, he will be needed to help catch them.  Don't expect him return to his duties behind the plate in game action until next Spring Training, however.
-Yorman Rodriguez has mashed (.318/.379/.438) in two years of pro ball, and earned a promotion to the GCL this summer.  He split his time with the GCL Jays between DH, C, and 1B, indicating that maybe a position switch will be coming up down the road.

Infielders

-Bo Bichette's name jumps off this list for prospects not named Vladimir Guerrero Jr.  The 2016 2nd pick was hammering GCL pitching (.421/.440/.724), and was rumoured to be on his way to Bluefield when a ruptured appendix interrupted his season on July 21st.  He missed over a month, but came back to go 3-8 in the final two games of the season.  Bichette split time between 2B and SS this year, but the son of the former MLBer will be given every opportunity to stick at short.
-Cavan Biggio, another son of a former Major Leaguer (and Hall of Famer) acquitted himself well mostly at Vancouver his summer after being taken in the 5th round ouf of Notre Dame in June.
-What more can we say about Vladdy Jr?  As a 17 year old, he was one of the top prospects in the Appy League, demonstrating great strike zone judgement.  A late season slump caused his numbers to tail off a bit, but he's the real deal.  From all accounts, he was at least adequate at 3B, and the organization will no doubt want to further develop his skills at the hot corner.  Vlad was at Instructs last year, and hit a few of these:

-Bradley Jones led the Appy League in Home Runs and RBI, leading the league in Total Bases and Slugging, and was 5th in OPS.
-Nash Knight hit .402 at Bluefield in his second pro season, but didn't have enough ABs to qualify after being promoted to Vancouver in August.
-Mitch Nay was once one of the organization's top prospects, and was invited to spring training with the big club last year, but missed almost all of this year due to back problems.

Outfielders
-Josh Palacios stands out on this list to me.  The 2016 4th rounder may already be one of the best athletes in the organization, with quick-twitch skills at the plate, in the field, and on the base paths.
-J.B. Woodman was the team's 2nd round pick this year, and after spending most of the summer with Vancouver, hit .441/.487/.588 in 9 late season games with Lansing.  
-Chavez Young turned some heads in the GCL. The Freeport, Bahamas native (by way of Georgia HS) had 6 multi-hit outings over a 7 game stretch in August.  He heads up one of the more talented OF groups to attend Instructs in several years.  

  There are other names on this list that might stand out to others, but after five months of watching box scores, live MiLB Gameday feeds, live streamed games, Twitter
observations, and emails with personnel across the system, these are the ones that stood out the most to me.

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   One final note:  it has not been confirmed, but sources indicate that an announcement about the Blue Jays spring training facilities in Dunedin will be made in Florida on September 26th.  It has been suggested that a vastly improved (or replaced) Florida Auto Exchange Stadium will be the centerpiece of the new deal between the city and the team to replace the one that will expire next year.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook - Final Edition

Andrea Valo Photo

  The veteran Blue Jays farmhand tweeted the above comment in the wake of Tim Tebow signing with the Mets for a $100 000 bonus after a whirlwind courtship with several teams, the Blue Jays reportedly being one of them.
   There is no doubt about Tebow's athleticism, but at age 29, and not having stepped on a ball diamond for 11 years, he just not was worth the relatively small signing bonus (albeit one that far outnumbered the one Lawrence and hundreds of other minor leaguers received).
  Tebow will report to the Mets' Instructional League camp later this month, but he will be taking one day off per week to honour his college football broadcasting commitment.
  He will no likely help generate some early buzz for the Mets next spring training, but it's hard to see him breaking camp with a team at the end of March.  Never one to turn down a look at an athlete with some projection, the Blue Jays likely considered the lengthy odds against Tebow, and said no, thanks.

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   Former Toronto Sun Blue Jays beat reporter Bob Elliott reported on the Canadian Baseball Network site that the Blue Jays have cancelled the annual (since 1982) R. Howard Webster Award winners weekend. Named for one of the Blue Jays founders, the Award recognizes the MVPs of each Blue Jays affiliate.  For 30 years, the club has brought these prospects to Toronto late in the season to meet the media, and generally become familiar with the city.
  It's not surprising that the new regime has opted to discontinue this tradition, and may hold some sort of ceremony next spring.  With a full house in attendance almost every night, and tv ratings experiencing a boom, it's hard to think that the bottom line might be one of the reasons this event was cancelled.  Bringing the players to the city (as well as the organization's top scout for the year) was a great PR gesture, and introduced these future Blue Jays to the fans.  It was also great recognition for the players, many of whom toil in anonymity.  Few would be able to afford a weekend on a minor leaguer's salary, as well.
   Inquiries to the Blue Jays as to why the event has been ended have gone unanswered.
   Peering into the crystal ball, the Webster Award winners would be:

Buffalo - Jesus Montero
New Hampshire - Rowdy Tellez
Dunedin - Ryan McBroom
Lansing - Ryan Borucki
Vancouver - Joshua Palacios
Bluefield - Bradley Jones
GCL Blue Jays - Bo Bichette
DSL Blue Jays - Yorman Rodriguez



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    Three affiliates were involved in playoff races that went down to the final days of their respective regular seasons, but in the end, only Dunedin made it to the post-season.  With 10 days to go, both Bluefield and Lansing were in playoff positions, but both stumbled down the stretch, and found themselves on the outside looking in when the season was over.
   Dunedin played a lot of baseball in their best of three division final with cross-town rival Tampa, a Yankees affiliate.  While the major league partners were doing battle last week in New York, the minor league teams played an epic series, with Tampa the eventual winner.
   Game 1, played in Tampa, was a classic pitcher's duel.  The teams traded runs in the 3rd inning, then were shut down the rest of the way by the Yankees' Yefrey Ramirez, and the D-Jays' Luis Santos, who struck out 10 over 8 innings.  The end of 9 innings saw the teams still deadlocked at 1.  Both had runners in scoring position with two outs in their halves of the 11th, but couldn't score.  Tampa finally scored in the top of the 13th when top prospect Gleyber Torres cashed in the winning run on a double to left.  The D-Jays were blanked in their half of the inning, and Tampa had a 1-0 lead in the series.
  Facing elimination in game 2, the D-Jays got to work quickly, as an Anthony Alford walk to lead the game off eventually came around to score on a Max Pentecost sac fly.  Dunedin added a pair in the top of the 2nd, but Tampa got those two runs back in their half of the 2nd on a Home Run off of starter Jon Harris.  The teams traded zeroes until the bottom of the 8th, when Tampa tied the score.  Not to be undone, the D-Jays re-took the lead in the top of the 9th, only to have Tampa tie things up in the bottom half.
   Headed to extras again, the bullpens for both clubs held the fort until things burst open in the top of the 15th for Dunedin:

    Tampa failed to score in their turn at bat in the 15th, so the series was headed to a third and deciding game.
   The home Yanks scored first in the bottom of the first inning, but Dunedin got that run back on a solo HR by Ryan McBroom in the 2nd.  Tampa scored again in the bottom of the 4th, but the D-Jays matched that with a run in the 5th, and took the lead with 4 more in the 6th.
   The bottom of the 6th proved to be the turning point in the series, however, as Tampa scored 6 times against tiring Dunedin starter Connor Fisk, taking a 9-6 lead.  The D-Jays scored a run in the 7th, and narrowed the lead to one by scoring a run in the top of the 9th, but stranded pinch-runner Josh Almonte, who came into the game to run for Pentecost after he had doubled in Dunedin's 8th run.  With the tying run in scoring position and only one out, Tampa reliever Jordan Foley struck out Matt Dean and Mike Reeves to preserve the win, giving the Yankees the series win in the process.
   It was a great series for both sides.  Dunedin's J.D. Davis hit .467 for the series, including a 5-7 night in game two.  Dunedin rode a 43-23 second half to reach the post season, one of the best half season records for a Toronto affiliate in recent memory.

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   They came to pro ball from three different, non-traditional directions.  But 2016 ended on a high note for right-handed pitchers Jordan Romano, Jackson Lowery, and Gabe Noyalis.
   Romano, a Markham, Ontario native, was playing for the Ontario Blue Jays (a Toronto-based travel ball team), when he played in a tournament in Oklahoma.  The former Canadian national junior team member caught the eye of a recruiter at Connors State, a junior college in Muskogee.  He pitched for the Cowboys for two seasons before moving to Oral Roberts, a Division 1 school about an hour away.  Romano served as the Golden Eagles closer, and was drafted after his junior year in the 10th round by the Blue Jays in 2014.
  Romano had a strong pro debut, striking out 34 hitters in 28 innings (all but 3 of them with Bluefield), and headed into 2015 full of optimism.  A torn UCL near the end of spring training put his plans on hold, as Romano underwent Tommy John surgery, and missed the entire season.
   Lowery attended Central Arkansas out of high school as an infielder, but transferred after his freshman year to Meridian (MS) Community College to become a pitcher.  The next year, the Arkansas native returned home to realize a dream and pitch for the Razorbacks.  In his senior year, he became a mainstay in long relief for Arkansas late in the season.  Undrafted after that season, the sinker/slider pitcher signed as a free agent in early July of 2015.  Lowery was determined to prove the teams that passed on him wrong.  He pitched in the GCL and at Bluefield last summer.
  Gabe Noyalis may have taken the most unconventional route to pro ball of this trio.  Noyalis pitched for Bucknell in his first year of college play, then transfered to D3 powerhouse Misericordia for his sophomore season, only to walk away from the game completely after that campaign.  He did start to hit the weight room regularly after that, and fell in love with lifting.  Baseball was off his radar until the spring of 2015, when his former high school coach asked him to throw some BP to the team prior to a state playoff game.  Noyalis hit 91 with this fastball, and with some encouragement got in touch with Blue Jays scout Matt Anderson, who was his 7th Grade basketball coach.  After auditioning for a few teams, Noyalis signed with the Jays after hitting 98 at Anderson's baseball camp in Texas.

 
     Romano threw himself into his rehab after his surgery last spring,  was pitching off a mound again by January, and was throwing batting practice a month later.  Held behind as spring training camp broke, he was itching to get into game action.  Romano, who was told he would be a starter this year, began pitching in two and three inning stints in extended in April, and was sitting 92-94 with his fastball.  By late May, he was up to 5 innings, as the club determined his readiness to get back into competition.  His first appearance in 22 months came on June 13th, as he limited Great Lakes to one run and two hits over 7, striking out 7.  He struggled at times with his fastball command, but it improved as the summer progressed, and he described his slider as, "the best it's ever been."  He put everything together in a late August start against Dayton, fanning 10 in 6 innings in one of the best starts by a Blue Jays minor league pitcher this year.  He was removed from the start for precautionary reasons in the top of the 7th after losing control of a couple of fastballs and was shaking his arm as he walked off the mound, but tests revealed no damage, and he returned to action in a piggyback role with top draft pick T.J. Zeuch before the season ended.
   For the season, Romano was 3-2 with a 2.11 ERA, which would have led the Midwest League if he had enough innings to qualify.  He struck out 72 hitters in as many innings, walked 27, and MWL hitters managed only a .191 average against him.
  When asked what he learned from his first year of full season ball, Romano responded, "(I) Learned a good routine with throwing and working out that helped my arm feel good.  A big thing is that if I had a bad start or two I shouldn't try to change a bunch of things.   Just try to stick with what got me here."  His plan for the off season is to improve his fastball command.  For next year, his goals are to improve his change up to the point where it's a viable third pitch, and make it as high as AA.

   Lowery stayed behind in extended when spring training broke, and was sent to Vancouver when short season play began in June.  Northwest League hitters were over matched against him, and after 9 appearances, he was on his way to Lansing.  Lowery was lights out for much of August for the Lugnuts, reeling off 8 scoreless outings at one point, but he had a couple of rough outings down the stretch as Lansing fell out of a playoff spot, and it weighed heavy on him, saying, "I didn't finish like I wanted and let my team down a few times.  (It) will make me better this off season."
   As to what lessons he took away from this season, Lowery observed:
I learned a lot this year. One of the biggest things I learned is to focus more on certain things in pregame throwing and limit my throws. I could definitely feel a difference when I didn't throw as much and made each throw important to what I needed to work on.  
  He also joked that he learned that the higher the level, the less he needs to throw his fastball.  Sometimes the best lessons are the most painful ones.
   Lowery's plan for the off season is to get stronger and put on weight - at 6'/175, Lowery has always been viewed as undersized.  He may have been a bit disappointed with how his season finished, but he put together an impressive body of work this year.

   Noyalis headed northwest with Lowery to begin the season with Vancouver as well, and had a pair of scoreless outings in his first mound action in four years.  The next six weeks did not go as well, and Noyalis' ERA ballooned to 8.41 by mid-August.  His final two weeks in the Northwest League were a much different story, as Noyalis ended the year with 4 scoreless outings in his final 5 appearances, striking out 4 in 2 innings in his final game.
     Noyalis reflected on his first pro season:
I learned a lot, mostly how to handle the workload of a professional season, the pace of the game, the ins and outs of a professional organization and how it's ran from a players perspective, what kind of pitcher I am/aim to be, things of that sort.
    One of the reasons the Blue Jays like having Vancouver as an affiliate is that it gives their prospects a brief taste of living in Canada, with it's different currency, and cross-border travel.  Noyalis enjoyed his time in British Colombia:
 (It) was a great experience that I'll never forget, the city was amazing and I couldn't have asked for a better host family.. I got to see Stanley Park but didn't make it to the (Grouse) Grind and I'm not sure if I saw the (Capilano) bridge but I was on a few of them.. I was also at Granville Island and I got to go downtown quite a bit.
   Noyalis' off season plans include getting as strong as possible while still maintaining his mobility, and when he resumes throwing at the end of October, he wants to focus on his fastball command by getting more consistent with his mechanics.

   All three took circuitous routes to get there, but they've already outlasted hundreds of other players to make it to full season ball (where Noyalis will be next year).  The road ahead is still a long one, and the trio faces tall odds to make it to MLB despite the progress they've made so far.   All three are reflective, articulate, and motivated young men, and it has been fascinating to follow their progress so far and have them share their thoughts on the journey.

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   The Lugnuts and Michigan State Spartans play an exhibition game every April on the eve of Lansing's home opener.  This year's game was snowed out, so it was moved to the day after Labour Day, which gave a chance for prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette to suit up for the Lugs.  Along with Toronto's own Connor Panas, who hit 16 round trippers for Lansing this year, the three took part in a pre-game Home Run Derby.
   Panas ultimately won the Derby, but Vlad Jr gave us all to look forward to next spring (when he should break camp with Lansing:

video

   Thanks to Chad Hillman for the video.  Chad watches a lot of Lugnuts and Tigers games, and live tweets his great insights.  Follow him at @HillmanChad.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Clinton Hollon Invited to Instructs

+baseballbetsy photo


  Toronto Blue Jays RHP prospect Clinton Hollon, who has lost considerable time to injury and suspension since he joined the organization, has been invited to the Blue Jays Instructional League camp later this month to resume his career.

  The electric-armed righty led his high school to a state title as a junior, but concerns about both his right elbow and makeup caused him to fall out of the first round of the 2013 draft, and he fell to the Blue Jays in the 2nd round. He pitched through elbow pain in his first pro season that year, and gutted it out some more the following spring, but ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery in May of 2014.

  Hollon came back with a bang in June of 2015, quickly becoming the ace of Vancouver's staff before sizzling in his Midwest League debut with Lansing two months later.  

   That, unfortunately, has proven to be the high water mark of his career to date, as 2016 was a complete washout for Hollon.  A positive PED test for amphetamines in late August of 2015 cost him the last two weeks of that season, and would have cost him the first 8 weeks of 2016, but just a few weeks before his scheduled return, the Commissioner' Office announced another 50-game suspension for Hollon after he failed a second drug test for a drug of abuse.

  In the past, the club has shown little patience for players who have failed a drug of abuse test, but considering their investment in Hollon and a few other factors, they sent him home to Kentucky in May, where he has spent most of his time regrouping and pondering his future.  Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim confirmed that Hollon is now at the team's minor league complex in Dunedin working on his strength and conditioning, and will be taking part in Instructs once camp opens in a few weeks.

  Hollon formerly had a strong presence on social media, but understandably has cut back on his accessibility.   He has a great deal of promise, and here's to hoping that this is the first step in getting his career back on track.

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   In an unrelated note, Kim confirmed that C Max Pentecost, who was limited to DH duties at Lansing and Dunedin this year after losing all of 2015 to shoulder issues, will not be getting back behind the plate until next spring training.  There had been some thought that he might return at some point late this summer, but the club opted for caution with the 2014 1st rounder.  With Russell Martin firmly ensconced at the position in Toronto, there is no need to rush Pentecost, who will likely begin next year with Dunedin.