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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What Does the Russell Martin Signing Mean for Blue Jays Milb Catchers?


    The signing of free agent catcher Russell Martin has been equally lauded and panned across print, online and electronic media.
   While we can argue with the economics of the deal, it was more a reflection of where the market is going, and that in baseball, you are paid more often for what you have done, as opposed to what you might do in the future.
   And what Russell might do in the future is to upgrade the position for the Jays, possibly offer some roster flexibility, and give their minor league receivers more time to develop.

   We acknowledge that Russell is on the downside of his career - only 86 men have caught more games than Russell's 1121.  Just the same, he has been termed one of the top five framers of pitches over the period 2007-2011, and has justifiably gained a reputation as a good handler of young pitchers.  With Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison already in the starting rotation, and Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris on the verge of joining it, that had to be an important consideration for the club.

   While his production may be declining, Martin did have his best season at the plate last year (albeit it in only 460 PAs) since 2008.  Just the same, he likely won't match the offensive output of incumbent Dionner Navarro.
   What Martin's presence on the roster does do is give the Blue Jays a chance to either use the switch-hitting Navarro in a variety of spots, including First Base, DH, and spelling Martin (and acting as injury insurance).  Or, it may give the club an opportunity to mull over trade offers for Navarro to shore up other areas of the club, in which case a spot might open up on the roster for AJ Jimenez, who would likely make a good back up to Martin while he gains MLB experience.

   The signing also buys some added development time for Jimenez and the other catching prospects in the Blue Jays system.  The concern all along for Jimenez is his bat, and given his injury issues over the past two seasons, he could still benefit from added exposure to Triple A pitching.
   Injuries and a long collegiate season limited 2014 first round pick Max Pentecost to only 72 innings behind the plate this season.  Shoulder surgery in October will delay his 2015 debut until likely some time in May.  There was thought that Pentecost could be in the major by 2016, and while that may still happen, there isn't the urgency to rush him now that Martin is under contract.
   Danny Jansen, who would be next in line in terms of prospects, will now likely get the chance to hone his game-calling and offensive skills for a full season at Lansing, and not be rushed up the ladder.

   This is not to say, of course, that Martin is a long-term solution.  The odds of him still being a regular and productive player at the MLB level in five years would have to be long.  And given that catching depth is still one of the weaker lengths in the organizational chain, it still needs to be addressed.  Just the same, signing Martin bolsters both the major league club and the minor league organization.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Blue Jays Upgrade Roster, Say Good-Bye to Gose

Buffalo Bisons photo

   The Blue Jays closed the door on the Anthony Gose era late Wednesday night, swapping the outfielder to the Tigers for Second Baseman Devon Travis, named Detroit's top prospect this week by Baseball America.

   
The athletic Gose was taken by the Phillies in the 2nd round of the 2008 draft.  The Blue Jays had their eyes on him long before they swapped first baseman Brett Wallace for him in 2010, after the Phils had traded him to Houston.

   Despite some highlight reel defence in centrefield, Gose has never fully developed his hit tool, hitting .234/.301/.332 in over 600 MLB plate appearances since 2012.  With the emergence of Dalton Pompey, and the versatility of Kevin Pillar, Gose was deemed surplus by the Blue Jays.  Truth be told, we have thought that Pillar would most the most likely to be dealt.  Banished to Buffalo after an ill-timed temper dugout temper tantrum, Pillar laid waste to International League pitching for July and almost all of August before being recalled.  With offense at a premium when the Jays struggled without much of the heart of their batting order through an injury epidemic mid-summer, Pillar could have both gained more MLB experience and helped contribute to the Jays anemic attack.  We're not suggesting that he could have salvaged the season, but that the club kept him in exile on the Niagara Frontier for two months spoke volumes about what we thought the organization thought of him.

   The caveat with Travis being the Tigers top prospect is that they have a very thin minor league system. With Ian Kinsler firmly ensconced at second, Travis' path to the bigs appeared to be blocked, and the club was going to try him in centrefield during the Arizona Fall League season, but he underwent surgery for a sports hernia in September.

   Here's part of BA's evaluation of his skills:

 Travis’ tools aren’t flashy, but scouts come to appreciate him the more they see him because of his ability to hit, manage the strike zone and play smart, fundamentally sound baseball in all areas of the game. He can turn in times a tick slower out of the box, but he’s an average runner underway who moves well going first to third, with sharp instincts that make him an efficient basestealer. He’s an adequate defender at second base who makes the routine plays and is smooth on the double play pivot.


   Playing at AA Erie this past season, Travis missed six weeks with an oblique injury, which brought down his line somewhat, but he still hit a solid .298/.358/.460 for the season.  Barring a knockout spring, the next step for him likely is at least a few months at AAA Buffalo in 2015.   We are not necessarily looking at an all-star here, but what the Blue Jays likely will end up with is a solid bat that can play at second, plugging a hole in the lineup that has plagued the club for several years. 

   Because we've been meaning to find a way to work this into a post, and this is about as good a time as we can think of, here's what Jason Parks, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, now scouting complex league players in Arizona, had to say about scouting second basemen:

  The first question to ask when scouting a second baseman is, "Can he play shortstop?" The most skilled athletes start up the middle and move to the corners when their skills diminish or get exposed by the level of competition.  If a lower-level talent is already playing second base, the burden of success has shifted to the bat - and that's a heavy burden.
  A second baseman has to have first-step quickness and a good glove, but the arm doesn't have to be plus to play the position.  Negotiating the double play requires good footwork, body control, and co-ordination, so the body needs to be athletic and project that way throughout the player's development.  Second base requires more athleticism than a corner spot, but it doesn't require a shortstop's fast-twitch skills, so if the bat plays, the glove stays.  To put it another way, take a shortstop, subtract the soft hands, strong arm, and range, and you have second baseman.
   
   Travis is not a converted shortstop.  Except for a 3 game trial in Erie's outfield, he has been a second baseman since the Tigers drafted him out of Florida State, where he also played second.  

   As for Gose, we are sad to see an athlete with his physical skills go, but he truly had become expendable.  With the departure of Austin Jackson via trade last season, and the likely loss of Torii Hunter to free agency, the Tigers have become thin in terms of outfield depth.  Struggles with pitch recognition led to a K/BB rate that left Gose unable to use his speed on the bases - and to be honest, we found Pompey, while probably a step slower than Gose, to be be a smarter and better baserunner. 

   The upside for the Jays is that they have upgraded their roster without giving up an integral part of the big league roster.  With the depth of prospects in the Blue Jays system, Travis doesn't necessarily become an upper-level member, but the deal has caused a rewrite in our upcoming Top 10 list.

Monday, November 10, 2014

What's In the System: Power Arms


      In our last post, we look at the most promising arms in the Blue Jays system.
What we overlooked, however, are some of the power arms that have performed well in bullpens across the system.
    The conventional thinking goes that minor league relievers are not high value players.  Major league relievers tend to be failed starters who couldn't command their secondary pitches and had trouble getting hitters out the second time through the batting order.  Casey Janssen and Brett Cecil are two examples of pitchers who came up as starters, but found success out of the bullpen with their repertoires pared down.
   Cecil first came up the the Jays as a starting pitcher in 2009, and made 65 starts, winning a career high 15 games in 2010.  He was hit hard (5.10 FIP) in 2011, and found himself splitting time between the big club and the minors over the next two seasons.
   Here's a summary of what Cecil through from 2009 - 2011:

Pitch Type      Count       Freq Velo (mph)
Fourseam          2113      34.42%   90.52
Sinker                1091      17.77%   89.99
Change              1225      19.96% 81.76
Slider                 1095      17.84%   84.28
Curve                  428          6.97%  83.68
Cutter                  186         3.03%   87.33

 And here's what he has thrown since then:

Pitch Type       Count Freq       Velo (mph)
Fourseam           744 26.65% 91.88
Sinker                 351 12.57%     91.36
Change               252 9.03% 84.25
Slider                    55 1.97% 82.49
Curve                 896 32.09% 82.97
Cutter                479 17.16% 89.20

   Having limited himself to a fastball or curve 75% of the time since his move to the pen, Cecil experienced success like never before, and was a 2013 All Star.

   It's worth asking, of course, why baseball has gotten to his point.  The Blue Jays aren't trend setters in the use of their relievers.  The one inning power arm reliever is now widespread throughout the game.  Where did it begin?
   Certainly, baseball has been heading in this direction for some time.  The percentage of innings pitched by starting pitchers has been in steady decline, as shown below:

michaelbein.com graph

   The importance of the bullpen has steadily increased.  And then as the 1960s turned into the 70s came the closer, the reliever who would come into a game after the 7th inning to save the win:

michaelbein.com graph


   When he was managing the Athletics, Tony LaRussa led the bullpen game into its next phase of development.  He and pitching coach Dave Duncan converted Dennis Eckersley, a broken down starter who had thrown a no-hitter and won 20 games for the Red Sox in 1978, into a relief specialist: the 9th inning closer, who only came in when his team had a lead, most often of no more than 3 runs.  Eckersley was utterly dominant for six seasons, culminating with a 1992 season in which he captured both the American League Cy Young and MVP awards.  Eckersley was reportedly less than thrilled with the move at first, but came to realize that it saved his career, and helped eventually propel him to the Hall of Fame:

   "It was a hell of an idea, and I was the lucky recipient," says the Eck.  "I was 32.  Starting was getting to be difficult.  I couldn't go through six or seven innings , wade through all of those left-handers anymore.  But just pitching one inning, my fastball came back.  I was throwing like I was 25 again.  One inning suited me very well.  I never would have lasted if I had to pitch two or three innings all the time.  Plus, I would have had my head knocked off."



    Not content with that extent of bullpen specialization,  LaRussa went even further.  He broke roles down into eighth and seventh inning guys, and gave us the LOOGY, the left-handed one out guy.  Bullpens ballooned from 4 members in the 70s to as many as 7 or 8 by the turn of the century.
   In response to the influx of late-inning power arms, major league hitters began to strike out at an unprecedented rate:

michaelblein.com
   
   There are several Blue Jays prospects who at one time or another have been mentioned as possible bullpen arms in the long run, starting with Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez.  The scouting community has long been concerned about Sanchez's command, but with his arsenal stripped down to two pitches, Sanchez was lights out in two months of relief work for the Blue Jays this season.  Alberto Tirado, who was a back end of most Top 10 Blue Jays prospects (including ours)  guy before the season, struggled greatly with his command this year until he was moved to Vancouver's pen.  Jairo Labout and Miguel Castro will have to develop their secondary pitches more as they move about A ball if they hope to remain in the picture for a starting job (BA tabbed Castro as the Blue Jays' closer on their projected Blue Jays 2018 lineup).

    From time to time, though, a pitcher comes along who was already well established as a minor league reliever, but fits a need with the major league club.  Aaron Loup started only 5 games in the minors, but has appeared in 168 in relief for the Blue Jays, and has been an important contributor to the club.  A combination of fastball velocity/movement, the refinement of his slider, and a deceptive delivery have helped to make him a mainstay in the Toronto relief corps.  Loup has never appeared on one of the system's top prospect lists.  A 2009 9th rounder, Loup didn't really start to put things together until he was with New Hampshire in 2012, the same year he made his pro debut.  In essence, you could say that he came out of nowhere. 

   With that in mind, we thought we would take a look at some other Blue Jays minor league relievers who may be long shots, but might fill a role like Loup does.

   Kyle Drabek at one time was one of the brightest prospects in all of baseball.  He was the centrepiece of the Roy Halladay deal, but his career has been derailed by his second Tommy John surgery in 2012.  Drabek has fought his command since his return.  This year at Buffalo, he struggled to find the strike zone, and was hit hard when he found too much of it.  Moved to the bullpen mid-season, he posted better numbers, but when we saw him pitch in relief in late August, he was rocked.  Drabek really seemed to have no clue where his pitches were going, falling behind hitters and then getting pounded when he had to throw a strike.  Still, we're not willing to give up on this arm just yet.  The bullpen may be his ultimate home, but Drabek is still young enough to turn things around.
   John Stilson, to our minds, was on the verge of earning a major league job at some point int 2014.  A return of his shoulder woes caused him to be shut down early, and he underwent his second surgery for a torn labrum in August.  The average return to competition for this surgery is about 9 months, which sets his timetable back.
   Gregory Infante hit 100 on the radar gun several times with New Hampshire in 2014, and converted 22 of 23 save chances.  Originally signed by the White Sox, he appeared in 5 games with them in 2010 when they moved him to the bullpen.  Signed as a free agent last off season by the Jays, Infante's lack of secondary pitches and fastball command have kept him in the minors since then.  
   Blake McFarland switched between the pen and the rotation his first two pro seasons, and was moved to relief permanently in 2013, and has averaged over a strikeout an inning since, working his way up to AA for the second half of 2014.  With Rule 5 exposure looming this fall, the Jays sent McFarland to the Arizona Fall League to see how he fared against top flight competition.  McFarland has yet to give up a run in 8 relief outings, so the Blue Jays may have a tough decision on their hands at the end of the month.
  Arik Sikula, McFarland's teammate at Arizona, Dunedin, and New Hampshire this season, has accumulated 61 saves since joining the organization in 2011.  Rated the best reliever in the Florida State League by Baseball America, Sikula notched 31 saves for Dunedin before being promoted to New Hampshire, and averaged over 12K/9 this year.  
   Lefthander Tyler Ybarra had numerous health and personal struggles over his first three pro seasons, but put things together at Dunedin last year.  His command wasn't as good at AA this year, but he still remains an intriguing prospect.  His fastball sits 91-95 with late life, and his delivery can be tough for lefthanded batters to pick up.  
   Griffin Murphy was a 2nd round pick and the second HS lefthander taken in the 2010 draft.  After dominating at Lansing, he struggled with his command when he was promoted to Dunedin.  Still, he has averaged almost a K per inning over the course of his minor league career.  A strike throwing lefty is a pitcher to keep an eye on, especially when your team plays 10 games a year in Yankee Stadium.
  
   It wouldn't be unreasonable to predict that none of these arms could make it to the majors, although the odds for a southpaw seem to be a little better.  Any one of the higher profile starting prospects ahead of them could falter, and supplant them in the bullpen queue.  


Friday, November 7, 2014

Group Reported Interested in Bringing Back the Expos

  

   According to a report in La Presse, several prominent Montreal businessmen have been investigating the possibility of bringing major league baseball back to Montreal.

   For over a year, a group that includes Stephen Bronfman, Mitch Garber, Larry Rossy, and representatives from Bell Canada have been looking into that possibility, in the event that a Major League team (hello, Tampa) becomes available, and financing for a new downtown stadium is secured.

   Bronfman, son of the man who brought the Expos to Montreal, and their majority owner from 1969 to 1991, was a minority shareholder in the Expos himself from 1999 to 2004.  He headed a consortium that unsuccessfully tried to purchase the Montreal Canadiens in 2009.

   Garber is CEO of Caesars Acquisition Company, one of the largest online gambling companies in the world, including the rights to the World Series of Poker.  Caesars is traded on NASDAQ, and has a net worth of $1.38 billion.  Their headquarters are in Montreal.

   Rossy is CEO of the Dollarama chain of bargain stores. Canadian Business magazine last year estimated the Rossy family fortune to be in the neighbourhood of $1.4 billion.

   According to the report, Bell, which owns 18% of the group which owns the Canadiens and the Bell Centre, funded the study, and has expressed interest in being part of an eventual ownership group.

   All of the talks, of course, are very preliminary at this point, although there have been rumours that Tampa owner Stuart Sternberg has been in Montreal lately, presumably not to try the smoked meat at Schwartz's Deli.

   While we think that the return of Major League Baseball to Montreal is still the longshot poster child, it's comforting to know that there's a fairly deep-pocketed group that could operate a team on a day-to-day basis.  Would they be able to amass enough capital to purchase a team and help finance a new stadium?

   There have been no talks between the group and the government about a stadium, which would be the cornerstone of any franchise move.  It has been estimated that the cost of the team would come in at around $525 million, while the stadium would cost close to $500 million, with the group expected to finance a third of that cost.

   So, could this group raise close to $700 million ?  The article suggests that they could raise about $200 million.  And would the federal and provincial governments be willing to foot stadium costs of over $350 million?  That seems unlikely, especially given the current finances of the Quebec government, and the federal government's policy of not investing in pro sports stadiums.

   Although there is a federal election coming up in 11 months....

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What's In the System: Pitchers



   The Blue Jays employed a strategy of choosing high risk, high reward players in the 2010, 2011, and 2013 drafts, gambling on players who other organizations had backed away from due to concerns about signability or injury.
   The club was prepared to wait and patiently develop most of these players, progressing them up through the organizational ladder one rung at a time.
   With the promotion of Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez to the majors during the season, and the call up of Daniel Norris and Kendall Graveman after the expansion of major league rosters on September 1st, the club changed course, and challenged their top pitching prospects with rapid promotions.
   This approach has already started to pay off:  Stroman, after a rough debut out the bullpen, was sent back down to AAA in May to get stretched back out as a starter, and came back in June and quickly became a rotation mainstay.  Sanchez too was promoted to the bullpen, and with his pitch arsenal pared down to his fourseamer and sinker, was lights out in relief from mid-summer on.  While we want to be Stroman believers, no pitcher his size has been able to sustain the level of performance he attained as a starter this year for an extended period of time, and Sanchez may struggle with his command as a starter with expansion of his repertoire.  Just the same, the future looks extremely bright for the pair.
    Norris was a 2nd round pick in 2011 who signed for what was essentially first round money, a commitment to Clemson having scared off most teams.  His pro debut season was marked by inflated stats likely caused by the overhaul of his mechanics that the organization embarked on.
   After some modest success as the 2013 season ended, he was on no one's top 100 list at the start of 2014.  He ended it as Milb.com's breakout pitcher of the year, and celebreated his MLB debut by striking out David Ortiz.  Norris was the first HS lefthander from his draft year to reach the majors, and had the highest strikeout rate (11.8K/ 9inn) of any starting pitcher in full season ball.
   We had seen Norris a number of times on Milb.tv throughout the season, and had the chance to see him in person in late August in Buffalo.  Norris was racked, to put it mildly, and didn't last past the fourth inning. We were alarmed to see a drop in velocity from his usual 93-95 to the high 80s on his fastball.  We saw the same thing in his debut against Ortiz, and in subsequent outings.  We pointed it out on Twitter, but were met with doubt by a number of tweeps.........



Tweet text

   It turns out, of course, that Norris required surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow after the season.  He should be ready by spring training.

   Kendall Graveman may have been overshadowed by Norris this year, but his rise through five levels of play this year was truly outstanding.  A $5000 supposed org guy drafted in 2013, Graveman added velocity to his fastball this year, and then discovered a new four seamer grip by accident.  The results had batters at three minor league levels swinging and missing at a 26.6% K rate.
   While he made his major league debut this fall as well, Graveman may be farther away than Norris, Stroman, or Sanchez from the majors.  He may not have a fastball that is as overpowering as the big three, but he has demonstrated great athleticism, and an advanced feel for pitching.

   Sean Nolin has been something of a forgotten man, but he still is clearly in the picture.  He has had trouble staying healthy the past two seasons, but has shown signs of getting back on track in Arizona, where he was sent to get in some extra innings.  He matched Stroman almost strikeout for strikeout at AA in 2013.

   Roberto Osuna had developed a huge following among prospect hunters even before he made his full season debut at the tender age of 18 last year.  He had pitched in the Mexican League as a 15 year old, and as a 17 year old made a memorable start for Vancouver in 2012 in which he struck out 13 hitters in 5 innings.
   Osuna's path the majors hit a speed bump when he was diagnosed with a UCL tear in May of last year.  Rehab did nothing to correct it, and he underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of July.  Osuna returned to competition this year in the GCL and FSL, and is currently pitching in the Arizona Fall League.  Osuna showed a return to form with his velocity, and showed maturity on the mound beyond his years.  His control has yet to fully return, as he caught too much of the strike zone in both the FSL and Arizona, although he has turned that around of late.
   Much has been made of Osuna's high-maintenance body prior to his surgery, but reports are that he looks much more fit and toned since undergoing the procedure.  This can only bode well for Osuna going forward.

  And as is the case with several other positions within the system, the depth of the organization's pitching only gets more impressive as we move down the ladder.

   Miguel Castro did not make his stateside debut (partially due to visa problems) until last year, but has rocketed his way up the ladder,   making it all the way to the FSL by August.  Castro, who is all of a day older than Osuna, is impressive on the mound, sitting in the mid 90s with his fastball, and maxing at 99.  His secondary pitches are still a work in progress, and will need to be further refined as he works his way up against more advanced hitters.

   Jeff Hoffman is a bit of a wild card at this point.  The Jays have apparently long had their eyes on Hoffman, who was having something of a nondescript college season when he blew scouts away with a 16K performance in early May, then was diagnosed with a torn UCL a week later.  Undaunted, the Blue Jays liked what they had seen from their long look at him, and took him with the 9th pick. Hoffman has been projected as a front of the rotation starter.  Before his TJ surgery, he sat 93-95 with his fastball, and showed good command of his secondary pitches.  The surgery puts his timetable back - he won't be game ready until at least late April/early May, and that will likely be in Extended.  We likely won't see him in game action until June approaches.  Hoffman has all the makings of a rotation anchor, but we have to withhold our judgement a bit until he is finished rehabbing his injury.

  Hanging around and inhabiting a space between prospect and org guy are Matt Boyd and Taylor Cole.  Boyd, a 2013 6th rounder, had a spring that was almost as impressive as Norris', but was hit hard upon his promotion to AA, and seemed to be out of gas by season's end back in A+.  Cole, Baseball America's top fringe prospect, challenged for the minor league strikeout lead.  Both are longshots to make the majors, but the seasons they had make them worth following.

   By season's end, Vancouver featured a trio of lefthanders who could all see time in the majors.  Jairo Labourt started the season at Lansing, but struggled with his command, and was sent back to Extended.  Labourt was sent to B.C. once the Northwest League season started, and he was dominant, leading the league in ERA, Ks per 9 innings, and opponents batting average.  Labourt was named the loop's third best prospect.  Ryan Borucki missed all of 2013 recovering from Tommy John, but made up for lost time quickly, starting the year with Bluefield, and finishing with the C's.  Borucki can hit 94 with his fastball, has a plus changeup, and still offers plenty of room for projection.  Matt Smoral was another one of those gambles from 2012, and his development took off this year.  Smoral commands a backdoor slider that can get right handed hitters out.  The only thing that may hold him back from a starting job in the bigs one day is his ability to command his fastball.

   Concerns about his delivery and signability saw Sean Reid-Foley to slip to the 2nd round of the June draft, but there are indications that the Blue Jays made a huge steal when they snapped him up.  Alberto Tirado, like Labourt, was challenged with an aggressive assignment to Lansing to start 2014, and like Labourt was sent back to Florida, and then to Vancouver.  Some had tabbed him as a breakout candidate last year, but he struggled with his command until a move to the bullpen seemed to settle things down for him.  At only 19, it's too early to write Tirado off just yet, and he would not be the first international prospect to take a bit of a step back in his first full season.  Jesus Tinoco pitched much better than his record at Bluefield would indicate, and the organizaton is still very high on him.  2013 4th rounder Evan Smith progressed to Bluefield in his second pro season, and showed an improved ability to throw strikes.  Jake Brentz is still relatively new to pitching, and has yet to make it out of complex ball in his first two pro seasons, but is worth keeping an eye on.

   And there is a group of young pitchers who struggled with injuries and/or inconsistency last year.  Clinton Hollon was a 2013 2nd rounder out of Kentucky HS who reportedly already had UCL damage when he was drafted.  Hollon underwent TJ in May of this year, and won't be back until May/June of 2015.  Tom Robson started at Lansing, but was shut down in May, and had TJ in July after an unsuccessful rehab.  Shane Dawson's season with Lansing didn't get underway until May, and then he was shut down for the season in mid-July.  Chase DeJong struggled at Lansing as well, and didn't pitch after the first week of August, but reportedly felt fine and threw well at Instructs. One or all of that group could rebound next season.

    This is where the strength of the organization lies.  As this depth works its way up through the system, its value may be as possible trade fodder to improve the major league roster.

Our rankings:

1.  Norris
2.  Hoffman
3.  Osuna
4.  Castro
5.  Graveman
6.  Nolin
7.  Reid-Foley
8.  Smoral
9. Labourt
10. Borucki