Thursday, January 19, 2017

Tim Raines - A Personal History

si.com photo

   It was a Saturday afternoon in late September of 1979 that I first saw Tim Raines.
Just a few days past his 20th birthday, he had been called up earlier that month and added to the expanded 40-man roster as a pinch runner as the Montreal Expos took part in my first pennant race.
   The Expos had been in a pennant race in 1973, but that was before I was old enough to appreciate meaningful September baseball.
   Given uniform number 60, Raines was called in to pinch run for Ellis Valentine after he led off the bottom of the 9th in a tie game with a single.  The Expos had lost to the Phillies the night before at Olympic Stadium, putting them two games back of the NL East-leading Pirates.  Quite simply, it was do or die for Montreal, and even though Valentine was a decent runner, Manager Dick Williams was pulling out all the stops to keep the Expos from being eliminated from post-season play after the Phils had tied the game in the top of the 9th.
   Slugger Larry Parrish laid down a bunt to advance Raines to 2nd, then Pitcher Rawley Eastwick's wild pitch moved the winning run to 3rd a batter later.  With Rusty Staub (re-acquired in July) about to pinch-hit for the Pitcher's spot, Philadelphia brought in southpaw Tug McGraw to face the left-hand hitting Staub. Williams countered with Dave Cash, a forgotten man who had come to Montreal with much fanfare as a free agent in 1977, but had lost his 2nd base job that year to Rodney Scott.
   Cash's single to right field scored Raines, giving the Expos the walk-off win.  With the Pirates losing in 13 innings to the Cubs, the Expos had pulled to within a game of the Bucs.
 
    In the late 1970s, Canadians were limited to two televised games per week - the regular Wednesday night Expos broadcast on CBC, and the weekend game of the week on NBC.  On this September weekend, however, CBC added both the Saturday and Sunday Expos games.  As a young fan who had followed the team closely, however, I had no idea who this young pinch runner was in those pre-Baseball America days.  And while the Expos always seemed to just fall short for the next half dozen years, one constant was this speedy outfielder.
      Throughout the 1980s, I tried to pattern my game after Raines.  I wore his number, and even tried to grow a moustache like his.  We had a couple of similarities - both of us were on the smaller side, both relied on speed, but other than that, that was about it.  There was little Raines could not do - he was not a big power hitter, of course, but he could work the count like few players in MLB history. Over the course of his 23 year career, he struck out more than he walked only once.  And then there was his 1983 line:
          G     PA   AB   R      H   2B   3B    HR  RBI   SB   CS   SO   BB    AVE OBP SLG OPS
156 720 615 133 183 32 8 11 71     90 14 97 70 .298 . 393 .429  .822

  This was in the midst of seven of the best consecutive offensive seasons by any player in MLB history.  Raines could seemingly get on base and steal second almost at will.  In 1987, when his season debut was delayed until May 1st because the owners thought they could get together and deny themselves the best free agents, Raines (without a spring training) went 4-5 with a walk, stolen base, and a game-winning grand slam. Raines, at his peak, could beat you in so many ways.  Early in his career, it was via the walk and stolen base; as he aged and matured as a hitter, Raines was shifted to the 3rd spot in the order,  and he became a dangerous hitter, posting a .955 OPS in 87.  His base-stealing talents were obvious, but he was a true student of the running game.  Many times, it appeared that the Catcher's throw had beaten Raines to second, but he would avoid the tag by sliding to the inside part of the bag.  Those smarts would allow him to swipe 40 consecutive bases later in his career.  Not gifted with a strong throwing arm, the Expos did have trouble finding a place for Raines to play.  He started out at 2nd, but was shifted to the outfield in his second season. His ability to get good reads on fly balls and his accurate arm allowed him to record 21 assists in 1983.
   Raines' drug difficulties in 1982 have been well documented.  It was a time when cocaine use was fairly rampant across the game, and his involvement likely cost him in the eyes of some Hall of Fame voters.  To his credit, with the help of teammate (and fellow Hall of Famer) Hawk Dawson, Raines took ownership of his addiction, got himself cleaned up, and was a model citizen for the rest of his career.

   The first half of the 80s were rollicking times at the Big Owe.  One of my memories of that time was driving home from my grandparents farm in Eastern Ontario (a four hour trip), listening to Dave Van Horne and Duke Snider calling the games on an AM radio station in Oshawa, ON, with the strains of The Happy Wanderer in the background during Van Horne's pre-game, as well as the Expos theme song:


   The mid-80s also ushered in a new era of sports broadcasting, with the advent of  TSN in Canada. Eager for programming, the new network dished out a huge slate of games of both the Expos and the Blue Jays. Now, we could see Raines' brilliance on a regular basis.  We take for granted today that we can watch every game of our team's coverage, but up until 1984, that wasn't the case.  It was a true novelty to have it, and with TSN's birth coinciding with the Blue Jays rise to pennant contender, it was as if a baseball fan had died and gone to heaven.

   All good things come to an end, however, and as the 80s came to a close, the Expos were no longer consistently competitive, and the Big O was no longer full.  Raines' 1987 was to be the high water mark of his career.  My playing days were coming to an end, and so was Raines' time as an Expo.    He continued to be a useful player into his 40s, but work and raising a family in the 90s gave me little time to follow him as closely has I had in his heyday.
 
   Raines has added to his considerable reputation with his work as a Blue Jays minor league instructor, and in my writing about Blue Jays prospects, I've had many players and people in the organization rave about his work.  His popularity with the players is obvious:










     Anthony Alford, who had a breakout season in 2015 under Raines' tutelage, had this to say about his mentor:
 I know he's one of the best guys you will ever meet. He's been awesome. Not only as an instructor, but also as a person. It's always a good time working with him. He makes everything fun. When you're having a bad day, he will find a way to make you smile. One of the most genuine guys I've ever been around. Everyone in the org loves him. I'm definitely a big fan of Rock.
   Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, the Lansing Lugnuts broadcaster and director of media relations, has watched Raines work with young Blue Jays prospects since 2012, and finds him "fascinating':
----- one of the greatest players in MLB history, and yet totally approachable, hilarious, and a pleasure to watch with the young players. I love whenever Rock comes to town.  
If you didn't know about his career, and you were only just meeting him, you'd have no idea that this relaxed, affable guy was one of the greatest leadoff hitters / base stealers of all time. And he's a heck of a ping-pong player.
   It was a long time coming, but Raines is finally going to Cooperstown.  His induction brought back a flood of memories for many, including Canada's Prime Minister:

Friday, January 13, 2017

Projecting the Rosters - Dunedin


The Dunedin Blue Jays are Toronto's longest-serving minor league affiliate.  Toronto has fielded a team in their Florida State League home since 1987, when they revived a franchise that had been mothballed since 1978.  Local ownership could not be found, so the team assumed control of the team when it returned to FSL play.  The D-Jays are one of the lowest-drawing teams in the league, consistently ranking last or next-to-last in attendance for two decades.  The FSL is not one of the minors' attendance leaders, but Toronto prospects usually play for crowds of about 750 in their home park.  That's probably not a major concern for the organization, however.  In addition to acting as another rung on the developmental ladder, Dunedin is a place where prospects with some medical issues can be housed in order to keep a closer eye on them.
   Hopefully, with the stadium upgrades that the Blue Jays and the City of Dunedin agreed upon last fall, that might translate into more fans for the players when they are completed by the spring of 2019.

   These roster projections are a matter of conjecture.  I make them by considering the development of each player, and trying to match it with the goals the organization likely has for that player.  With minor league spring training still just under two months away, many changes can take place. Injuries, stalled or accelerated development, and roster moves at other levels all could have an impact on prospect placement.

Catcher

PositionAge2016 teamAve/OBP/SLG
CMax Pentecost23Lansing-Dun.302/361/.486
CRyan Hissey22Lansing .246/.310/.337

   Pentecost DH'd exclusively since returning in early May last year, his first game action in almost two years while he recovered from shoulder surgeries. While his ultimate position may be somewhere else on the diamond, the plan for this year is to have him return behind the plate to get much needed reps.  Hissey did the bulk of the Catching at Lansing last year, and even though his bat tailed off a bit from 2015, he improved his receiving skills by leaps and bounds.  Michael De La Cruz and Justin Atkinson have served in back up roles (Atkinson in several positions), but the Blue Jays would likely prefer a more polished receiver like Hissey to give Pentecost regular breaks.

Infield

1BJuan Kelly22Lansing.274/.356/.448
2BJohn LaPrise23Lansing-Dun.261/.336/.318
SSJC Cardenas22Lansing.206/.279/.294
3BCarl Wise22Lansing..240/.291/.329
UTRyan Metzler23Lansing.164/.260/.246
1B/OFConnor Panas23Lansing.231/.343/.430

    Not the strongest assemblage of talent in the organization, Kelly made the most progress of the group, and Panas tied for 3rd in the Midwest League in Home Runs.

Outfield

PositionPlayerAge2016 teamAve/OBP/SLG
OFJosh Almonte22Lansing-Dun.199/.245/.275
OFDJ Davis22Dunedin.197/.295/.263
OFAndrew Guillotte23Lansing-Dun.244/.315/.337
OFLane Thomas21Lansing.216/.330/.348
  
  Again, not a stronghold of prospects.  Davis will likely repeat High A, and Thomas has had trouble staying healthy the last two seasons, although moving him back to CF seemed to help his game last year.

Starting Pitching

PositionPlayerAge2016 teamWHIP/K/9/BB/9
SPJon Harris23Lansing-Dun1.15/6.9/2.6
SPFranciso Rios21Lansing-Dun1.14/8.1/2.2
SP Angel Perdomo22Lansing1.18/8.7/3.9
SPRyan Borucki22Dunedin-Lan1.35/7.8/2.5
SPJordan Romano23Lansing1.05/8.9/3.3
SPClinton Hollon22DNP
   This is one of the strongest rotations in the system.  Depending on what kind of roster additions are made at New Hampshire and Buffalo, Harris may begin the year at AA, despite the organization preferring to keep prospects at one level for at least the equivalent of one full season.
   Rios was dominant at Lansing before his May promotion to Dunedin, and despite his numbers taking a bit of a step back at the higher level, he missed more bats in the FSL.  Perdomo and Rios both were left unprotected at Rule 5 draft time, but both went unclaimed.  Borucki, making a comeback after missing most of 2015, started in Dunedin last year, but struggled, and went to Lansing when the Michigan weather warmed up.  He finished 2nd in the MWL in ERA, and was added to the 40-man roster in November. Romano came back from injury as well, and quietly had one of the best seasons of any Blue Jays pitching prospects, striking out a batter an inning - his 2.11 ERA would have led the MWL if he had enough innings to qualify.  Hollon is the forgotten man, his career interrupted by Tommy John, and a pair of drug suspensions.  Hollon was invited to Instructs last fall, and is looking to get his career back on track.

Relief Pitching

PositionPlayerAge2016 teamWHIP/K/9/BB/9
RPAndrew Case24Lansing1.10/7.2/2.3
RPDusty Isaacs25Lansing-Dun1.11/10.6/2.3
RPDan Lietz22Lansing1.35/7.1/3.9
RPDanny Young22Lansing1.50/6.9/3.9
RPKirby Snead22Lansing1.34/6.0/1.1
RPTom Robson23Dunedin-Lan2.07/6.6/6.5
RPJosh DeGraaf23Lansing1.23/7.4/2.5
   Again, another strength of this potential roster.  Case missed part of 2016 after failing to take a drug test, but was solid along with Isaacs, Lietz, Snead, and Young in Lansing's bullpen last year.  In his return from Tommy John, Robson seemed poised for great things last spring, but struggled with his command all year, and was eventually moved into relief.  DeGraaf's starting and relieving versatility will be a help when double headers start to pile up.  

    If you've been keeping track, this list actually has 26 names on it, instead of the maximum of 25, because I had trouble finding places for some of these players.  Pentecost and maybe Panas are the only impact bats in this lineup, but the pitching staff will likely keep the D-Jays in the majority of their games.  Still, while the post-season is not a priority, it's hard to see this team earning a playoff berth.

   If you want to follow the D-Jays progress this year, your options are limited.  Games are not streamed through MiLB.com's website, so listening online is about the only way to follow.  

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Projecting the Rosters - Lansing


   Even though a snow squall is currently obliterating the view out my family room window onto my backyard this blustery Sunday Southern Ontario morning, there is light at the end of the tunnel - Minor League Opening Day is about 90 days (or so) away.
    So that means it's time to call up Baseball Reference, grab a yellow legal pad, sharpen some pencils, and try to project the rosters of the Blue Jays four full season minor league teams.
 
   Starting at the bottom, we have the Lansing Lugnuts, of the Low A Midwestern League.  These are exciting times in the Michigan city - this past off season, they renewed their Player Development Contract with the Blue Jays for two years, a new 2000 sq ft special events venue in the outfield opens this season, and a three-story/84-unit apartment complex opened along the centrefield wall last August.  To top it off, Lansing may have the best collection of projected talent in the system this year, including 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who at 17 may already be one of the best prospects in all of baseball.

   In the process of constructing these rosters, I've looked at the performance of players on teams below them the previous season.  It's usually customary to advance one rung at a time up the full season ladder, but complicating the job of building Lansing's 2017 roster is that there are players from three levels (Vancouver, Bluefield, GCL Blue Jays) to consider.
   At best, these rosters are educated guesses, and there is considerable information unavailable to the average fan about team's plans for their players this season.  As well, spring training can largely dictate where a player lands that season - Rowdy Tellez seemed ticketed for another half season with Dunedin at the close of spring training last year, but his maturity and strike zone management persuaded the organization to accelerate his development, and he more than responded to the challenge.
   Like MLB teams, minor league clubs can have no more than 25 players on their active rosters. At times, they can be creative with their 7-Day disabled list,  in order to facilitate one or two more players for a brief period of time.
   I have included each player's age (as of January 1st, 2017), 2016 team(s), and relevant stats.
Catchers

PositionPlayer Age2016 teamAve/OBP/Slug
CJavier Hernandez20Vancouver.215/.291/.313
CMatt Morgan20Bluefield.179/.313/.286

  Hernandez is already possibly the best defensive Catchers in the organization, although his bat has been slow to develop.  Morgan has shown very little since being a 4th round pick two seasons ago.  He may be in competition with Bluefield teammate Ridge Smith, a 12th round pick last year.  

Infielders

PositionPlayer Age2016 teamAve/OBP/Slug
1BChristian Williams20Vancouver.236/.341/.340
2BCavan Biggio21Vancouver.273/.371/.349
2B/SSBo Bichette18GCL Jays.427/.451/.732
SSYeltsin Gudino19Vancouver.226/.338/.258
3BBryan Lizardo19Vancouver.220/.284/.333
3BVladimir Guerrero Jr17Bluefield.271/.359/.449
UTDeiferson Barreto21Vancouver.215/.259/.333
DHBradley Jones21Bluefield.291/.336/.578
   This will be an exciting group.  Guerrero is the obvious standout, but Biggio, and Bichette (whose first year of pro ball was a smashing success, despite missing a month due to appendicitis), and Appalachian League Home Run leader Jones will mean that this is a club that should produce some runs.  Bichette may split time with Gudino and Biggio, and the only reason that he may start the season in Vancouver in June instead of Lansing in April is to give him more playing time at Extended.  

Outfielders

PositionPlayer Age2016 teamAve/OBP/Slug
OFJoshua Palacios21Vancouver.330/.397/.426
OFJ.B. Woodman22Vancouver.297/.391/.445
OFJake Anderson24Lansing/Van.199/.260/.290
OFReggie Pruitt19Bluefield.237/.316/.266
   Palacios and Woodman were promoted to Lansing in late August, and both more than held their own against MWL pitching.  Anderson, the prodigal 2011 compensation round pick, made his return to competition last year after being limited to only 73 At Bats from 2013 to 2015 because of injury.  He began the season with Lansing, but finished with Vancouver, and didn't see a whole lot of strikes in his time in the Northwest League.  Pruitt, the 2015 23rd rounder whose draft stock dipped because of a college commitment, re-tooled his swing at Instructs last fall, and may be a spring training surprise.  If he isn't, Rodrgio Orozco (.241/.348/.289 at Vancouver last year),  Norberto Obeso (.316/.441/.408 in the GCL), or Lance Jones (.325/.486/.429 at Bluefield) may fill out the roster.

Starting Pitchers

PositionPlayerAge2016 teamWHIP/K/9/BB.9
SPJustin Maese20Van-Lansing1.14/7.0/1.6
SPPatrick Murphy20Lansing-Van1.46/6.8/3.7
SPT.J. Zeuch21Van-Lansing1.12/10.1/1.9
SPYennsy Diaz20Bluefield1.53/7.7/4.8
SPJose Espada19Bluefield1.23/.5.4/2.0
   The top end of this rotation can probably match any in the MWL.  Maese, a 2015 3rd rounder, reached Lansing last summer in only his second season of pro ball, while Murphy, whose own injury woes kept him sidelined him for almost two years, made a strong comeback in 2016, and was Vancouver's top pitcher. Zeuch, Toronto's top pick in last year's draft, gives Lansing a formidable 1-2-3 set of starters.  Beyond that, it's a toss-up.  Diaz impressed in the Appy League last year, but had some command issues, and Espada, after a solid pro debut in 2015, didn't miss as many bats when he moved up a level last year.  Some dark-horse candidates to make the rotation may include Wilfri Aleton, who fanned almost a batter per inning in the GCL last year, Juliandry Higuera, who has spent most of the last two seasons with Bluefield, or even Maximo Castillo, who pitched as a 17 year old in the GCL last summer.  Luis Sanchez made 12 starts for Vancouver last year, and may fill out the back end of the Lansing rotation if the other candidates don't prove to be ready.

Relief Pitchers

PositionPlayerAge2016 teamWHIP/K/9/BB.9
RPJackson McClelland22Vancouver1.35/7.4/3.0
RPGriffin Glaude24Van-Lansing1.32/10.2/4.2
RPZach Jackson22Vancouver1.42/6.1/11.7
RP Jackson Lowery24Van-Lansing1.13/8.7/2.5
RPJared Carkuff23GCL Jays-Van1.01/12.5/1.4
RPGeno Encina22Van-Lansing1.03/9.0/1.6
   This is probably the hardest group to predict.  Jackson may be the most notable name of the group. Owner of one of the best curveballs in the system, he may not be in Lansing long.  A few names who might elbow their way into contention for a spot include Travis Bergen (limited to 5 innings last year), Conner Eller (7 Saves for Bluefield, 8.6K/9 for Bluefield in 2016), or Vancouver relievers Gabe Noyalis, Grayson Huffman, or Evan Smith.  Despite the uncertainty of its makeup, the bullpen may be one of its strengths.

   The 2016 Lugnuts promise to be one of the better editions of the team in recent years, although their pitching depth may be a concern.  With Lansing just over a 4 hour drive from the Greater Toronto Area (there are no plans as of this moment to stream the Lugs' home games over milb.tv), the trip may be well worth your while this year.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Ware Named Minor League Pitching Coordinator


   At the end of the winter meetings last month, Shi Davidi of Sportsnet mentioned that the Blue Jays have filled their vacant minor league pitching coordinator position with Jeff Ware, who has served as Lansing's pitching coach the past two seasons.

   Ware was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 1st round in 1991, but shoulder injuries derailed his career.  He did pitch in 38 games for the team from 1995-96.  He began his coaching career with the Yankees in 2001 before joining the Blue Jays and serving as Vancouver's pitching coach in 2014.

  The work Ware has done in his two years with the Lugnuts has been impressive.  Under his watch, first-time full season players like Conner Greene, Jesus Tinoco, and Chase DeJong became stalwarts in the Lansing rotation.  This year, he helped 2015 1st rounder Jon Harris get back on track before his promotion to Dunedin, and helped Ryan Borucki, who had been sent down to Lansing after giving up 40 hits in 20 Florida State League innings, add some deception in his delivery.  Borucki went on to become one of the top starters in the Midwest League, and was added to the Blue Jays 40-man roster this fall.   Ware also helped to change and simplify Sean Reid-Foley's delivery, and helped the Top 10 prospect post the lowest BB/9 rates of his career.

   Markham, ON's Jordan Romano came back from Tommy John surgery in June to pitch for the Lugnuts, and credits Ware for much of the success he experienced last summer.  Under Ware, Romano pitched out of the stretch at all times, and Ware helped him get the proper angle on his fastball.  "Sometimes, I would be working side to side with my fastball, instead of up and down," he said.  "Whenever I would have a good angle on my fastball, it would be a tough night for the hitters, so we worked on that a lot."

   Ware has some big shoes to fill in replacing Sal Fasano, who was revered by many Blue Jays pitching prospects.  Ware is quieter and not as outgoing as the departed Fasano, but he has just as many admirers in the system, and has quietly put together an impressive body of work.  Ware is not just adept at correcting mechanical flaws in a pitcher - he understands the psychology of working with young pitchers, as well.  Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim confirmed Ware's hiring, saying, "Jeff possesses a high standard of excellence for both himself and his teammates, a competitive drive to get better every day, and a humble personality who has a passion for helping people."
 
   The Blue Jays may have more pressing needs at the moment (ie the team's 25-man roster), but this was an excellent hire.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Is it Time for Rowdy?

MiLB.com photo

   One of the joys of writing about baseball prospects takes place when the team you follow lands a player in the late rounds of the June amateur draft that even though he was highly ranked, fell in the draft because of a college commitment.
    Rowdy Tellez, for me, was perhaps the ultimate late-round choice by the Jays.
    A batting-practice legend on the Showcase Circuit as a high schooler, Tellez was thought to be headed to USC after his senior season.  Taking advantage of new rules regarding slot values in the 2013 draft, GM Alex Anthopoulos and his Amateur Scouting Director Blake Parker found a way around the slots, drafting low-leverage college seniors in rounds 4 through 10  (except for California HS P Conner Greene) , and offering them slim bonuses (Matt Boyd, traded to the Tigers as part of the David Price deal, received a $75 000 bonus as a 6th rounder: Chad Girodo, taken in the 9th round, signed for a $5 000 bonus.  The Blue Jays used those savings to sign Tellez, who they took with their 30th round pick,  at a bonus of $750 000.


   The Blue Jays have taken Tellez' development slowly and steadily, giving him two years in short season ball before starting him in full season at Lansing in 2015.  The knock against him prior to the draft was that he was a base-clogging, one dimensional slugger, but Tellez has worked hard at many aspects of his game to become more of an all-around player, and his time in short season allowed him to sand off the rough edges.
   Tellez checked in at about 275 lbs when he left high school, but through a dedicated regimen of nutrition and conditioning, he now weighs 245.  Tellez admitted that he knew little about how to eat properly, or even prepare his own food until recently, but has come a long way in that regard.
   As for improving his defence, Tellez has worked on his agility, and infield coordinator Mike Mordecai worked extensively with him on his footwork and positioning around 1st base over the past two seasons. Tellez may not remind anyone of Wes Parker, but he has upgraded his skills tremendously.  "Everybody is confident in throwing the ball over to me and pitchers don’t worry about ground balls hit to me," he told Fangraphs' David Laurila. "Defense is what I’ve worked on the most. I’ve worked on it day in, day out."
   At the plate is where Tellez excels.  His strike zone management was what convinced the organization that he could handle the jump to AA this year after only one season of A ball.  And he has modelled himself after major leaguers like Adrian Gonzalez and Anthony Rizzo when it comes to his approach with two strikes.  He told Laurila:
 I look at how easy Gonzalez swings and I’ve adopted a little bit of what Rizzo does with two strikes. He takes out his leg kick and works on driving the ball the other way. He knows he can hit home runs to all fields, even with a two-strike approach and not having the leg kick. That’s what I’m doing now. If you can eliminate strikeouts… it’s a huge game-changer.
 Tellez' spray chart from 2016 would seem to bear that out.  Half of his doubles were to the opposite field (while only 1 Home Run was):


   Tellez got off to a rocky start with New Hampshire in 2016, and was hitting only .164 at the end of April. Some of that could be attributed to the fact that he saw very few pitches to hit over that opening month, with ABs like these being fairly typical:


   
   
       Despite seeing few strikes and even fewer fastballs, Tellez still posted a .345 OBP for April.  As the weather heated up, so did Tellez and his Fisher Cats teammates, with his OPS climbing every month, culminating in a 1.046 mark for August.  In his first year of AA ball, where he was one of the youngest players in the league, Tellez managed 54 extra-base hits, and posted an impressive 12.4% walk rate.

   With Edwin Encarnacion gone, and Jose Bautista seemingly set to follow, there may be a looming power shortage in the Blue Jays lineup.  Kendrys Morales' approach and swing may be far more suited to the Rogers Centre than many fans would realize, and Steve Pearce's value and versatility can't be understated, but barring a move in the New Year to bolster the starting lineup, it appears that maybe the Blue Jays are leaning toward Tellez earning a 25-man roster spot this spring.  The ideal plan would be fore him to receive at least a half season of AAA experience, but it's not unusual for a player to bypass that level once he's proven himself in AA, either.
   Tellez is what he is:  a bat-first player, who will not get any faster or more agile as he ages.  But just as Encarnacion worked hard to become at least an adequate 1st Baseman, so has Tellez, and he has shown the work ethic that makes one think that he could continue to improve his defensive skills.  He profiles as a put-the-ball-in-play, make the pitcher work (I've been charting his ABs for the first few weeks of the 2016 season, and have him at just over 5 pitches/PA), use the whole field, and change the approach with two strikes kind of hitter that this lineup proved to be sorely lacking down the stretch last year and into the ALCS.  There is some thought that the slight hitch in his swing might be exploited by MLB pitchers, but this is a player that has made adjustments throughout his career (despite a 1-37 stretch in 2014 with Bluefield, he still finished with a .293/.358/.424 line), and considering his strike zone judgement, will likely continue to do so.  Whether or not it happens this April, at mid-season, or in 2018, Tellez should be a fixture in the middle of the Blue Jays lineup for years to come.

   Tellez' swing has remained largely the same since this BP session in high school:


Monday, December 12, 2016

A Look at Glenn Sparkman

   
Brad Glazer/Milb.com photo
   The Blue Jays surprised a number of people (myself included) when they selected RHP Glenn Sparkman from Kansas City in last week's Rule 5 draft.
  Coming off Tommy John surgery last year, Sparkman, a 20th round choice by the Royals in 2013 out of Wharton County (TX) JC, was very much an under-the-radar Rule 5 candidate after pitching 60 innings at 4 levels this year, the highest of which was AA.  Sparkman's 2015 was limited to 4 AA starts.
   "The arrows were pointing right at him," GM Ross Atkins told the media after the draft.  "It was clear he was the guy that we'd like to select if he was still available.  We feel like there might be some upside to his stuff as well."
    Much of the information that we've received about Sparkman since he was drafted is stats-based.  I like to go deeper than that, so I've conducted some research, asked people some questions, pored over his secondary numbers, and watched a number of his 2016 outings online.  Here's a summary of my efforts:

   Sparkman grew up in Ganado, TX, a town of 2 000 about two hours southwest of Houston.  He was not heavily recruited as a high school shortstop, so he walked on at nearby Wharton County CC, where he was converted to pitching.  He struck out less than a batter per inning in his two years there, but he also showed a feel for the strike zone, walking only 8 batters over 78 innings in his final season.
 Sparkman moved quickly through the Royals system, missing bats along the way.  He averaged 11.5K/9 in his first pro season in rookie ball in 2013, and he skipped Low A to start his second season, which he attributes partially to learning how to pitch.  When he arrived at Wharton, he didn't really know how to throw off of a mound, but under the tutelage of his college and then his pro coaches, he made up for lost time in a hurry.
   In his final start in 2014, he felt a strain in his forearm in his final inning of the year, but his elbow felt fine. He woke up the next morning with severe pain in the elbow, but an MRI revealed only a 10% UCL tear, and he was ordered to rest and rehab his arm.  The regimen did not work, however, and he underwent Tommy John in June of 2015.
   Even though minor league back-of-the-baseball-card stats can be incredibly misleading, Sparkman did post the second-lowest ERA in all of minor league baseball in 2014 (and was named Carolina League Pitcher of the Year), and even though he posted an inflated 5.22 ERA this year, take two outings out of that record and you have a 3.93 ERA.  More impressively, despite a 4.58 ERA at his last stop in AA, he had a 3.24 FIP.
   But let's go behind the numbers

   Sparkman showed some obvious signs of rust this year.  His command began to improve as the summer progressed, but his velocity didn't make a full return.  Prior to the surgery, he touched 96, and sat anywhere from 89-94 with his fastball.  Reports this year had him sitting at 90-92.
   Standing on the 3rd base side of the pitching rubber, Sparkman has a smooth, drop and drive delivery, which can be deceptive, both from the angle it presents to right-handed hitters, and the slow-fast tempo of his windup, making him tough on hitters from both sides to time.  He can command his fastball to both sides of the plate, as well as his curve and slider.  His change up has good depth and some glove-side run:

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   If the best pitch in baseball is strike one, Sparkman has one of the better ones in minor league baseball. He often gets ahead of hitters (despite his command issues in his comeback this year, he allowed only 10 walks), when his secondary pitches become more effective.  He can also use his fastball in pitchers' counts to induce whiffs, as hitters are often sitting on his secondaries.

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 Because he is around the plate so much, Sparkman does give up some contact, but it's not often of the hard variety.  He was victimized by less-than-stellar defence in his AA outings this year, which inflated his numbers.

   A preview of this year's Rule 5 draft by Baseball America made no mention of Sparkman, who was the Royals' 17th-ranked prospect after the 2014 season.  And to tell the truth, given the success of Joe Biagini in his conversion from middling MiLB starter to MLB bullpen stalwart, it was easy to overlook Sparkman in favour of more projectable arms (with far less control, however) that could be more reasonably expected to add velocity in a relief role. This is a guy who knows how to pitch - how to set up hitters, and how to command the strike zone.  With a catcher who can frame pitches effectively, and a sound defence behind him, Sparkman could one day become a mid to back of the rotation pitcher.
  Perhaps limited to his fastball and one of his offspeed pitches, Sparkman's fastball could return to its former velocity, and he could become 2017's Biagini.  He has experienced more success than Biagini as a minor league starter (and please, please don't throw Biagini's 2.42 ERA at AA in 2015 at me, or I will bury you with secondary stats and scouting reports), so he is an interesting choice, because he appears to profile better in that role in the long run.  Just the same, you can never have enough good arms in spring training, and even if Toronto feels Sparkman won't fit into their plans, he only will have cost $50 000 if the Royals take him back.