Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Movie Review: The Battered Bastards of Baseball

   On the surface, the premise for the movie The Battered Bastards of Baseball is a sure-fire one, straight from a Hollywood screenwriter:   a city gets left holding the bag by unfeeling owners who let the local team slowly wither and die; rich, benevolent outsider buys the team, not really knowing much about baseball beyond the playing field; team gathers a rag-tag collection of cast-offs, has-beens, and wanna-bes, and somehow fights for the pennant, and revitalizes baseball in the formerly moribund city.

   To be sure, the real-life script of the movie follows that plot-line almost to a "T".  Veteran Hollywood character actor Bing Russell (father of Kurt),  looking for a hobby to occupy him after playing Deputy Clem Foster on the long-running TV hit Bonanza, buys a minor league team in Portland, Oregon, after the franchise had left for Spokane, WA, after years of declining attendance.  Russell, who grew up around the Yankees Spring Training base in Florida, was a dedicated ball player - he had even played a few years of Class D ball in the later 1940s before moving to Hollywood to make it as an actor.
   During his long tv and film career, Russell's love of the game didn't diminish.  He even made a series of instructional videos starring a young Kurt.  When the opportunity came to buy the rights (for $500) to a Portland-based franchise in the short-season Northwest League in 1973, Russell jumped at it, and threw himself in a head-first slide into all aspects of its operation.   Because he had no affiliation with an MLB team (there were several unaffiliated teams at that time, but there number was declining every year), Russell advertised open tryouts for the team across the country, and an army of players of all shapes and sizes descended on the city, chasing the dream.

   No one knew what to expect - Russell appointed Kurt both Vice-President of the club and the team's DH, and found a former ball player who owned a local bar to manage the club (there is a great deal of archival footage in the movie, and much of it features Bing in full uniform in the dugout, so we have suspicions about who the manager really was).  On opening night, Portland pitcher Gene Lanthorn threw a no-hitter, and the Mavericks were off and running.  They beat teams full of highly touted prospects from affiliated teams, and before long, the national media picked up on the phenomenon going on in Portland.  Even broadcaster Joe Garagiola came to town, and came away with enough material for not one, but two features for NBC's "Game of the Week" Saturday broadcast.

   Directed by two of Russell's grandsons, the movie was released directly to Netflix, and deftly weaves the story of the Mavericks around the footage, and first-hand accounts from Kurt, former players, the team's bat boy, and local sports writers who covered the team.  The movie attempts to portray the team as overachieving underdogs, representing the last vestiges of an independent minor leagues, all but buried by the corporate interests of Major League Baseball.  To be sure, the team drew spectacularly well (in a league where most teams drew less than 1000 fans a night), setting both the single-game and season attendance records for the NWL to decrepit Civic Stadium, which was a multi-use bad dream with astro turf.  Russell kept a 30-man roster in order to give more players a chance, and had at the time the minors first and only female General Manager in 24 year-old Lanny Moss.   The Mavericks usually dominated their division standings, but never took home a league title - the movie claims that the affiliated clubs would send some of their best players from higher leagues down to stack their NWL club, the story goes, to keep Portland from winning.

   All of this is well and good, but it flies in the face of some obvious facts.  The Mavericks were, on average, several years older than the other NWL teams.  Major league teams kept only 4-5 farm teams in those days, compared to 6-7 today, and for several, the NWL was an equivalent to complex ball.  Today, the league is stocked mostly with recent college grads and high school players who have had a season or two of rookie ball under their belts.  At that time, the league was much younger, and was filled with many recent high school grads.  Lanthorn, who threw the inaugural game no-hitter, was at 22 a college grad (drafted and let go by the Giants) with a year of NWL experience.  Reggie Thomas, the club's best player and most colourful character was drafted in 1965, and had played as high as AA before joining the Mavericks at the age of 27. In a league where the average age hovered just under 21, the Mavs had a veteran roster almost 3 years older.  Russell boasted that the affiliated clubs did their best to beat his club, citing how Bellingham had thrown Rick Sutcliffe twice against them in one series - Sutcliffe had been a Dodgers' first round pick, but at 18, was all of several weeks out of high school.  In their final season, the Mavs had an average age over 4 years older than the league average.  That the Mavericks never won a NWL title may owe more to the fact that the younger but higher ceilinged opposition was starting to play more to its potential after three months of pro ball than any conspiracy to keep the unaffiliateds from winning.

  Another issue we have with the movie is the lionization of Manager Frank Peters.  We're all capable of redemption, but the movie fairly lionized Peters, and to us, he's something of a disgrace.  We can overlook his heavy drinking (he admits in the movie to being tossed out of his own bar at least three times), his descent into the world of drug dealing when he fell behind on his taxes, but we have trouble getting past the fact that he was arrested in 1989 on numerous sex-related offences involving underage girls.  This guy was something of a reptile - maybe he has reformed, and he was a character (Thomas once threatened to shoot Peters for pulling him in the first game of a doubleheader - turns out Thomas had a gun.  In the dugout.), but we're a little uneasy with the movie's deification of him.

  The Mavs only had one player in their lineup who would go on to make the Major Leagues.  Infielder Jeff Cox played a handful of games for the A's in the early 80s.  Portland did boast of one former and soon to be future major leaguer again in knuckleballer Jim Bouton.  The author of our favourite baseball book of all time, Ball Four,  the former Yankee took a vacation from his sportscasting job in 1975 to play a few weeks for the Mavericks, then quit in order to pursue his comeback full time in 1977.  Bouton had called around looking for a team to start his comeback bid with, and only Russell offered him a trial.  The movie did feature some great archival footage of Bouton on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson discussing his attempt to return to the bigs via Portland.  Sadly, Bouton did not make a modern-day appearance during the film to talk about his time in the Northwest League, which culminated with his appearing with Atlanta as a September call-up the following year.  Bouton did do a voice-over just before the credits, and maybe he wasn't available and/or interested in the project, but to us, his absence was a huge disappointment, and took away from the movie a great deal.

   In the end, Organized Baseball "rediscovered" the Portland market, and made plans to take control of the territory from Russell after the 1977 season.  Minor league baseball offered Russell a paltry $5 000 for the franchise rights, while he asked for over $200 000, which an arbitrator eventually agreed with.  Russell may have won the battle, but he lost the war.

   The archival footage of this film does make it an interesting watch. The clip of Bouton with Carson was pure gold.  It would've been interesting to hear what players and management of other NWL teams from that time period had to say about the Mavericks, but we only get the Portland perspective.  Russell's grandsons have spun the tale to fit the outcast/castoff theme.  So be aware that you're getting a one-sided view.  In the end, they may have been well-travelled, but we're not sure the Mavericks were as battered as the movie would have us believe.

   By the way, if you haven't had the chance to read Ball Four, we strongly suggest you do.  Bouton changed the way many fans looked at the game, and how the media covered it.

Jim Bouton

Monday, July 28, 2014

Monday Notebook

Has it been seven days already??
Time for another edition of our Monday Notebook.

It's hard to keep track of the number of words we've written about Aaron Sanchez, but suffice to say that if we were paid for them, we likely would be able to watch him from the comfort of our own private box at the dome.
  The young righthander made his major league debut in a high leverage situation against the Orioles, and after a shaky first inning out of the bullpen (three up, three down, just the same), he settled in for his second inning, striking out a pair on called third strikes.  Manager John Gibbons showed his trust in Sanchez when he brought him in in the 7th inning of another pressure cooker of a game against the Yankees.  Staked to a one run lead in his second inning of work, Sanchez gave up a two-out base hit to Carlos Beltran, allowing Brett Gardner to score from second.  Dioner Navarro brought in Jose Bautista for the game-winning run in the top of the 9th, and Casey Janssen came on to preserve Sanchez' first MLB win.
   We've been hearing some concerns about how Sanchez hasn't missed many bats in his 4 innings of major league work.  According to Brooks Baseball, he has generated only one swing and miss in the 52 pitches he has thrown as a big leaguer, but he has generated plenty of weak contact, and has given up no fly balls off of his four-seam fastball, which has topped 97 on the gun.  We're more than satisfied with that.  The beleaguered likely is, too.

   We see that Sanchez has been supplanted as the Blue Jays top prospect on by Daniel Norris on their recent ranking of each organization's prospects.   Actually, it's an interesting list (and looks a lot different from the pre-season one), with two pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery (Roberto Osuna and Jeff Hoffman), and Hoffman's draft-mate Max Pentecost making the Top 10.
   We can argue the merits of Norris and Sanchez all day long, but we'll stick with the latter as our top prospect for the time being.  Norris has certainly come into his own over the past 14 months, but without the scrutiny Sanchez has, and without the organization constantly tinkering with his mechanics and release point. And Norris has shown that now that he's facing hitters with a plan at AA, he needs to make adjustments to his own plan as well, because he's given up some hard contact, and has struggled a bit with his command.  Don't get us wrong -we see these two at the top of the Blue Jays rotation by about 2016 (along with Marcus Stroman),  but he still see Sanchez as having the higher upside.
   That Dalton Pompey has emerged as the #3 prospect behind these two is no surprise.  The toolsy outfielder had a rough introduction to AA, but he has figured things out, hitting .450/.488/.600 over his last 10 games with New Hampshire.  Hoffman comes in at #4, followed by Osuna and Pentecost.  Following at #7/#8/#9 are Mitch Nay, Franklin Barreto, and DJ Davis.  We're mildly surprised by Davis' inclusion in the top 10, as he has struggled for much of the year at Low A ball.  Rounding out the top 10 is another 2014 draftee, RHP Sean Reid-Foley.  That 3 June draftees rank in the top 10 speaks both to the struggles some of the experienced prospects (Jairo Labourt, Alberto Tirado, and Chase De Jong) have had, and to the excellent draft the  Blue Jays had, coming away with three top 20 pre-draft  talents.

   As August rolls around, we start to think of who might merit a promotion to the next level.  The Blue Jays have been less conservative with their top prospects this year.  With that in mind, we think the playoff-bound Dunedin Blue Jays could benefit from the bats of one or more of Nay, Dawel Lugo, or Matt Dean.  The first two were promoted from Bluefield to Vancouver last last August to help the C's with their playoff run, while Dean, the Appy League's batting champ last year, has been Lansing's most consistent hitter this year, posting a line of .296/.344/.466.  We could see Pentecost skip a level to join Dunedin, as well, possibly with Barreto, although we can also see one or both staying with Vancouver if they are in a playoff hunt.  If such has the case, we could also predict that one or more of Bluefield's pitching staff could move up, including Joey Aquino, Evan Smith, or Ryan Borucki.  If Barreto was promoted, Richard Urena of the Bluefield Jays would be in line to take his place.  Andy Burns has not had the season many had hoped he would have, but has hit .290/.342/.500 since the 1st of June, and may be ready for AAA.  We don't think Norris is line for a promotion at this point, and his innings need to be closely watched - he's a likely candidate for the Arizona Fall League.  Kyle Drabek, who has been used in relief by Buffalo for about a month, may see a September call-up to help the big club.

   One last Roberto Osuna update:  his one and only appearance this year on July 8th in the GCL, where he pitched a scoreless 1-2-3 inning, less than a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery.  Many Jays fans on Twitter have been expressing some concern over his absence from games since that time.  According to Gregor Chisholm, who covers the Jays for, he is pitching in simulated games at the Jays Florida complex for now, and that the GCL outing was a one-time thing.  He is not expected to pitch again in game action until next spring.  So, we shouldn't expect to see him make an appearance at Lansing or the AFL, presumably.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Two Prospects/Two Different Paths of Development Update

      With the Giants announcing the signing of first round pick Tyler Beede, we thought that we would update his progress as a prospect with that of Blue Jays farmhand Daniel Norris.

     Beede was the Blue Jays' first round pick in 2011, drafted 21st overall, while Norris was taken in the second round, the 74th selection in the draft.  Toronto had a tough task ahead in signing both:  Beede had announced before the draft that he had committed to Vanderbilt, while Norris had committed to Clemson. Negotiations with both were protracted and went right to the then-mid August deadline, but Norris signed for a $2 million bonus a few hours before the deadline, while talks between the Blue Jays and Beede went right to the final hour, with Beede believed to be asking for a $3 million price tag, while the Blue Jays were offering around $2.5 million.
   Beede turned down the Jays final offer, and a few weeks later was off to Tennessee to begin his collegiate career, with the knowledge that he wouldn't be eligible for the draft again until 2014.  It was too late in the season for Norris to make his pro debut.
   As the winter of 2012 gave way to spring, Beede was set to make his college debut with the Volunteers, while Norris was kept behind in extended spring training until short season play began in June.  Beede overcame a slow start to be named to the All-Tournament team at the Raleigh Regional; Norris struggled in short season ball, posting an 8.44 ERA in 42 innings.  Beede was clearly ahead at this point.
   In 2013, the gap appeared to widen as the collegiate season wound down.  Beede's 14 victories matched David Price's school record, while Norris had a disastrous April, and after his first start in May, had a 10.07 ERA.
   The gap between the two was at its widest at that point.  Beede was on his way to being named to Team USA for the summer, and was being touted as a top 5 pick in the June 2014 draft, while Norris was being termed a bust, and Baseball America wondered how a prospect like Norris who had such great stuff could be hit so often and so hard.
   And that's when the tide began to turn.
   Norris began to stop nibbling, and went after hitters with a mid 90s fastball, using his secondary pitches later in the count.  Over his next 17 starts, Norris struck out 84 hitters in 68 innings, posted a miniscule 1.98 ERA, and received a late season promotion to High A.  Beede, on the other hand, pitching against top international competition, struggled to find the strike zone, and finished the summer with a 6.59 ERA.
   Clearly, the gap was starting to close.  Norris had started to gain mention in numerous end of season top prospects lists, while Beede was still being mentioned as a first round pick in the following year's draft, maybe in the top 5.  As late as March of this year, Keith Law walked away from a Beede start proclaiming, "That's the Tyler Beede we've all been waiting for."
   Norris, meanwhile, started the year at High A in Dunedin, and was simply dominant from day one.  Pounding the zone down low with his fastball, Norris was named's prospect pitcher of the month for May,  overmatching Florida State League hitters.  With 76 strikeouts in 66 innings, and a sparkling 1.22 ERA, Norris was promoted to AA in June, and was later named to Team USA's roster for the Futures Game.
   At the same time, things began to head south for Beede.  Outings like the ones Law saw were few and far between, and he was hit hard in two important starts late in the NCAA playoffs.  With a chance to sew up a national championship for Vandy, Beede was sharp through the first five innings against Virginia, but wound up leaving the game with two outs in the 7th, having surrendered six runs on 10 hits and 3 walks.  Vanderbilt did win the title the next night, but Beede's draft stock had taken a hit.  Reports suggest that he had all but abandoned his breaking ball in the playoffs.
   On draft day, the Giants, an organization with a good track record when it comes to developing pitchers, took Beede with the 14th pick, and signed him in early July to a $2.6 million bonus.
   So, did Beede's gamble pay off?   He did move up in the draft, from 21st in 2011 to 14th in 2014, but under the new slot value system put in place by MLB, if reports from 2011 are to be believed, he gained about $100 000.  Was it worth it?
   That's hard to say, of course.  With some experts thinking that Beede will need extended time in the minors to overhaul his breaking pitch, he might not be looking at an MLB ETA until around 2017 or 2018 (he has yet to start his pro career, and likely won't pitch much more this summer).  Norris, on the other hand, even though he has been hit hard in his last few AA starts, is looking at being in the majors sometime in 2015, although Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous has suggested that the club might look at using Norris out of the bullpen this season.
   Either way, Norris looks to be several years ahead of Beede at this point.  Arbitration-wise and salary wise, that puts him far ahead financially, presuming both have major league careers that last that long. Had he accepted the Jays' offer, it's hard not to think that Beede wouldn't be in a similar position as Norris.  The argument could be made, of course, that Beede received an education in the process, although his Vanderbilt bio says that he didn't declare a major after his first year, and while he likely did after that, his bio makes no mention of it, and he's likely a number of credits shy of a degree.  It's nearly impossible to be a full-time student athlete and do justice to both. So we can't really consider education a factor.  From a financial standpoint, then, it's hard to say that Beede is better off for having gone to college.  He didn't get the bonus he wanted, and his development as a pitcher may have taken a step backward.
   Did failing to meet Beede's bonus demands in 2011 pay off for the Blue Jays?  The answer is an emphatic yes, on more than one count.  They were able to offer Norris enough of a bonus to dissuade him from going the collegiate route (he was viewed by many as the top prep lefthander in the draft), and with the compensation pick Toronto received the following year, they landed Duke RHP Marcus Stroman, who is quickly becoming a mainstay in the Blue Jays rotation, two years after they had drafted him.
    Beede is currently at the Giants' complex in Arizona, taking part in a conditioning program and most likely having his mechanics tweaked.  Norris is in New Hampshire, awaiting a call either to the majors in September, or the Arizona Fall League in October.  Norris has worked his way into many Top 50 mid-season prospects lists, while Beede would have a tough time cracking the Giants Top 10.  Beede has gone from potential top 5 pick to prospect in search of an identity, while Norris has made the journey from near-bust to the cusp of the majors.
   Our comparison between the two may not be over, but we give a decided edge to Norris.  And the Blue Jays.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Hard Not to Be Proud

Prized pitching prospect Aaron Sanchez made his MLB debut for the Blue Jays Wednesday night against Boston. He threw two perfect innings in relief of starter R.A. Dickey.
Toronto Star Photo
   The life of a prospect blogger is something of a strange one, we'll be the first to admit.
Trying to balance a family, home, and a career, while at the same time checking Twitter multiple times a day, following games on, and writing about players who are years away (if ever) from the bigs can be a difficult task.
   It all comes together on nights like last night.
We've been following every start Aaron Sanchez has made for the past two years, ever since we first read about him piggybacking at Lansing with the now-departed Justin Nicolino and Noah Syndergaard.  We've listened to's feeds, followed updates on their website, and even put up with sub-standard video feeds on (one game this year made Sanchez and other pitchers in the game look like they were wearing clown feet from the centrefield camera, which was the predominant angle for the game).  We've read the reports, which have read from glowing, top of the rotation potential, to command-challenged, potential end of the bullpen forecasts for the young righthander.  We worried when he was shut down for a month last season with shoulder soreness, and we were elated when he dominated the Arizona Fall League.
   And last night, the major league's youngest pitcher (at the moment), made his MLB debut in relief in a tight game against the Red Sox.  Manager John Gibbons, who rarely gets credit for strokes of brilliance like this, likely brought Sanchez in at that point because he knew the Boston hitters would have trouble adjusting to Sanchez's mid-90s heat after flailing away at the low-80s knuckeball of R.A. Dickey.
   Sanchez left the ball up in his first inning of work, and got three flyball outs, the last one a loud one, uncharacteristic of a pitcher who had induced plenty of weak contact in the minors this year.  Sanchez overcame his nerves in his second inning of work, striking out a pair, hitting 98 on the Rogers Centre gun, and flashing a 12-6 curve that's been major league ready for some time.
    Sanchez's outing no doubt gave the club a huge lift.  Dickey told reporters who came to his locker after the game that the game was all about the youngster.  And as someone who has tracked his progress almost as closely as the team and his own family has, I agree.  There will be rough outings for him in the future, and his innings will be closely monitored (he only has about 30 left this year before the organization shuts him down), but last night was vindication for both Sanchez in the face of the negative reports about him, and for those of us who had faith in someone who was on a learning curve.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Monday Notebook


 It was another week of comings and goings in the Blue Jays minor league system...

  We were somewhat surprised to see that Deck McGuire was DFA'd.
The Blue Jays first round pick in 2010 had mostly underachieved since turning pro, repeating AA for the third time this season.  He had pitched well at New Hampshire over the last half of the season, and gave the club reason to place him on the 40-man roster, in order to avoid potentially losing him the the Rule 5 draft.
Promoted to Buffalo in May, he was rock solid in his first three starts, the highlight being an outing against Toledo where he struck out 10 over 7 innings, but seems to have progressively lost the strike zone with each passing start, to the point where he walked 7 in just 4 innings in his last start.
   The move was made in order to accommodate the re-acquisition of lefthander Brad Mills, likely to help bolster the big league bullpen, but it was curious in that it left Buffalo with only 4 starters, with Kyle Drabek and now Aaron Sanchez plying their trade in relief for the Bisons.
   McGuire watched the Bisons the night he was DFA'd not from the dugout, but on his tv, and you had to feel for him:

Watching the on tv right now is one of the hardest things I've ever done!

   Taylor Cole took over the minor league strikeout lead with a 12 K performance over 6.2 innings earlier today for Dunedin-.
   Not known for being a strikeout per inning guy prior to this season, it would appear that the work that Cole has done with the weighted ball program has paid off.  Just the same, the club placed him on the 7 day DL in late June.  Over three starts from June 18th to 28th, Cole was hammered, giving up 23 hits in 14 innings, and sported an ERA of 9.00.
   Likely suffering from a dead arm, Cole was given 12 days of rest, and it appears to have paid off.  In his last 3 starts, Cole has struck out 27 over 16.2 innings, and has surrendered only 2 earned runs.  The 12 strikeouts today were a career high, and raised his total to 133 for the season.
   At 24, the BYU Grad is a little old for High A, of course.  The 29th round 2011 draftee did a two-year mission after his first year of university at the College of Southern Nevada (which produced Bryce Harper), and was drafted in the 31st round by Arizona, but opted for missionary work for the Church of Latter Day Saints.  He was sent to Canada, and spent time knocking on doors in Toronto as part of his mission.  After completing his two year stint, he transferred to BYU in 2010.
   This year, Cole has used his fastball, which was clocked at 94 in today's game, early in the count to get ahead of hitters, then has used his slider and change to keep hitters off balance.  Cole has walked only 29 hitters in 109 innings.
   One would think that Cole will be in line for a promotion at some point and join his former D-Jays rotation mates Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris in AA, although with Dunedin already having clinched a spot in the Florida State League playoffs, we could see him remain in the Sunshine State for the rest of the season.

   Roberto Osuna hasn't pitched since his first post-TJ surgery outing almost two weeks ago, and it's been the cause for some alarm amongst some of our friends on Twitter.
   We're not surprised that he hasn't thrown since that 1-2-3, 2K inning, in which he sat between 95 and 97 with his fastball.  He's less than a year removed from the surgery, and setbacks during recovery are not uncommon.  That the Blue Jays haven't said a word about it isn't all that unusual, either.  Really, 2014 should be a write off for the still-young righthander, who we didn't think would see game action until August, anyway.  There may have been some soreness after that July 9th outing, or maybe after a subsequent sideline session, and a shut down of a couple of weeks shouldn't be a huge concern.  We will, of course, continue to monitor the situation.

   And as we were about to hit the "publish" button this morning comes word of the promotion of Aaron Sanchez to the big club, along with infielder Ryan Goins.  Sanchez has pitched out of the Buffalo bullpen for the past week in preparation for this move.  As a starter, we don't think that Sanchez is quite ready, although he has been a bit of a victim of BABIP the past few weeks, and for that reason, we think the promotion of Goins was a wise one.  Goins has been the Bisons' best defensive player, and has actually hit well in AAA after struggling at the plate in his first big league go-round.  His presence in the infield, wherever he plays, will be a help to Sanchez, who has morphed into a groundball pitcher.   Marcus Stroman did not take well to the bullpen role when he was first called up this season, but he and Sanchez are different pitchers, and while we ultimately want to see Sanchez in a starting role, he might be a shot in the arm to the club's sagging pen down the stretch.

   Lastly, we were remiss last week in not talking about Dunedin RHP Kendall Graveman.  The 2013 8th rounder out of Mississippi State, Graveman may have been overshadowed by his more illustrious D-Jay fellow starters Norris, Cole, and Boyd, but he has been just as effective in his own right.  Graveman started the year in Lansing, but was quickly promoted to High A.  In 90 innings, Graveman has surrendered 81 hits, and sports a tidy 2.30 ERA, with 62 Ks and only 16 walks.  There may not be room above him for another promotion, but Graveman has been a mainstay in the D-Jays rotation.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Monday Notebook

   Another busy week of Blue Jays minor league play just concluded, with a great deal to report on (as usual):

   The week culminated with the Futures Game, which kicked off the All Star Game celebrations in Minneapolis.  The Blue Jays were represented by A.J. Jimenez, Dalton Pompey and Daniel Norris, who acquitted themselves well in front of the biggest live and television audience the trio have likely ever played in front of.
  Leading off for the World team, Pompey flew out and struck out in his first two at bats, but then lined a pair of singles (including one off of a 97 mph fastball from Reds top prospect Robert Stephenson), and scored a run.
   Norris worked an efficient 11-pitch second inning, striking out Gabby Guerrero (nephew of Vlad) of the Mariners organization to complete a 1-2-3 frame.  Norris has picked up considerable helium this year, and has leaped into many pre-season top prospect polls.  Baseball America has him ranked as their 25th prospect, and Baseball Prospectus has him at #33.  His name has been mentioned frequently in trade rumours, and Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous has suggested that both Norris and Aaron Sanchez could help the parent club out of the bullpen down the stretch.
   In front of an audience that included numerous scouts and BA's Ben Badler, Norris didn't make it out of the first inning of his start last week, pulled after throwing 33 pitches.  A 9-day layoff, thanks in part to rainouts and a reshuffling of New Hampshire's rotation, may have been the culprit.

   Roberto Osuna made his first rehab start for the GCL Jays last week, a little under a year after having Tommy John surgery.  Osuna pitched an easy 1-2-3 first inning against overmatched young hitters, striking out a pair.  BP's Chris King had Osuna at between 95-97 with his fastball.  Osuna's outing wasn't the only highlight of the night, though.  Max Pentecost, the second of the club's two first round picks last month, made his second start and picked up his first pro hit, then picked up four more in a 5-5 night.
   Sean Reid-Foley, the Jays second-round pick in June, had a much better second pro outing, giving up only 1 hit in 2 innings, striking out 3.
   Another name to keep tabs on from the GCL is lefthander Angel Perdomo.  The 6'6" Dominican was signed as a free agent in November, 2011, and was invited to Instructional League last fall.  In his first stateside game action this season, he has been lights out in the GCL Jays pen, with 24K's in 18 innings over 5 appearances.

   The players on their roster are far away from a shot at the bigs, but the Bluefield Blue Jays are fast becoming one of our favourite farm teams.
   The Jays won 6 out of 7 games last week, much of it on the strength of its pitching staff, which fired a pair of shutouts during that stretch.
   On Monday, a quarter of hurlers, led by starter Joey Aquino, held the Royals' Burlington affiliate to no runs and five hits, and then Daniel Lietz and Jesus Tinoco blanked the Bristol Pirates on six hits, to go along with 8 strikeouts.  And on Sunday, while the parent club was losing against the Tampa Bay Rays, Bluefield took a second straight game from their Appy League club in Princeton, with Francisco Rios, Oscar Cabrera, and Canadian Jordan Romano holding the P-Rays to a run and six hits.
    While the pitching staff has been the backbone of the team, the offence is picking up.  Rowdy Tellez snapped an 0-26 streak on Tuesday, and his 7 for his last 16 at bats.  Shortstop Richard Urena hit an extra-innings home run against Princeton to lead the Jays to victory, and is hitting .302/.333/.467, as well as playing stellar defence.  Outfielder Josh Almonte is hitting .318/.363/.447, and might not be at this level for much longer if he continues to hit at this pace.

   We were about to write about New Hampshire starter Casey Lawrence and his scoreless innings streak, but it was broken at about the same time we sat down to tell you about it.  Lawrence had not allowed a run in 32 innings over 5 starts, when he surrendered a pair of second inning runs to Portland.  Included in that streak was a near-perfect 7 inning one hitter.  At 26, Lawrence, who has had an up and down minor league career, is no longer considered a prospect, but he's had a nice run this year just the same.
   Lawrence's teammate Andy Burns had a day to tell his grandchildren about last Sunday.  It was his girlfriend's 23rd birthday, and he gave her 23 roses, each with a note attached with a different reason about why he loved her.  He had a special 24th rose ready for dinner after the Fisher Cats game that day.  Problem was, the game went to extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Burns took matters into his own hands, and hit a two-run, walk-off homer that gave New Hampshire the win.  Burns' teammates knew that he had planned to propose to his girlfriend after the game, and the Fisher Cats wives and girlfriends were in tears as he rounded third.
  Later that night, the pair met up with several teammates, whereupon Burns took out the 24th and final rose, got down on one knee, and popped the question.  She said yes, of course, and budding photographer Daniel Norris was there to take photos.

   Their games are often finished long after those of those in the Eastern Time Zone have called it a night, but the Vancouver Canadians, Canada's only Milb team, continue to be fun to follow.  The C's 18-12 record puts them in 2nd place in the Northwest League's North Division, and the rest of the baseball world is starting to take notice.  Pitcher Miguel Castro was the NWL Pitcher of the Week for the week of June 30 - July 5.
   We've taken quite a liking to outfielder Roemon Fields.  Fields, a Seattle native, played at tiny Bethany College in Kansas, where he put up huge numbers on the ball field, and was a 60m sprinter during indoor track season. Since much of his stats were compiled against NAIA competition, he didn't draw much attention from pro scouts, and was working for the US Postal Service last summer after failing to get drafted by an MLB team.
   Fields' junior college coach contacted him to see if he was interested in playing in an international tournament in Prince George, BC, that summer.  While there, Fields caught the eye of a Blue Jays scout, and was signed to a pro contract last fall.
   Fields has wasted no time in making a name for himself in the NWL.  He has hit .302/396/.397 as a fixture at the top of the Canadians' order, and after stealing his 23rd and 24th bases on Sunday, is one away from tying the Vancouver franchise record.
   At 23, Fields may be a touch old for short season ball, but he has quickly made a name for himself, and we're anxious to see what he can do at higher levels.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Bluefield Building a Solid Pitching Staff

   They may be several years away from the big leagues in even the most optimistic of best-case scenarios, but the Blue Jays have assembled a talented starting pitching corps in Bluefield.
   The Bluefield Jays stumbled out of the gate a little bit, but have come on in Appalachian League play of late, largely due to it starting pitching.  Among the leaders of the group are:

Ryan Borucki
 The tall lefty is the type of lean, athletic, projectable pitcher that the Blue Jays covet.
The top-ranked LH pitcher in Illinois before the 2012 draft, Borucki grew almost half a foot between his sophomore and senior HS seasons, with an accompanying increase in velocity.  Not surprisingly, thought, Borucki injured his elbow early in the spring of his draft year, and played mostly first base.
  Borucki came back to pitching just before the draft, and showed enough for the Jays to take a flyer on him in the 15th round.  He pitched in only 4 GCL games before being shut down, and continued to battle elbow soreness for the next several months, until he underwent TJ surgery the day before his 19th birthday in 2013.
   The velocity is starting to come back for Borucki, who threw between 91-93 before his injury.

Jesus Tinoco
   Tinoco was not one of the glamour names in the Blue Jays international free agent class of 2011 ( which included Osuna. Becerra, Lugo, Tirado, Labourt, and Castro), and signed in September of that year for $400 000.
   The 19 year-old Tinoco has a similar build to Borucki's, but throws from the right.  Cuffed around a bit in his first and third starts with Bluefield, he was solid in his second, and lights out in his fourth, giving up just a run on four hits, with 7 strikeouts over 6 innings.  Which is a pattern he will probably repeat for much of the season.
   Ben Badler of Baseball America described Tinoco as "a potential power arm with a loose arm, solid delivery, and a good feel for a mid-to-high 70s curveball."

Miguel Burgos
   At 5'9" and 155 lbs, the 17 year old Venezuelan is a younger version of Marcus Stroman.  The 19 year-old Venezuelan was part of the 2011 class with Tinoco et al.
   In his first year stateside, Burgos skipped the GCL and is pitching in the Appy League - which says a lot about how the organization feels about him.  They believe he has the physical and emotional maturity to make the leap.
   With his size, he may not have a lot of projection, but he pitched very well in his small sample size, throwing five scoreless innings against the Twins affiliate in his most recent start, striking out 6.

Joey Aquino
   At 24, the well-travelled Hawaiian is a bit old for the Appy League, and really can't be viewed as a prospect.
  Aquino was chosen in the 35th round in this past June's draft out of San Diego Christian College.  He also spent time in junior college in Texas, as well as a year at Tarleton State.  So he's been around.  You have to admire his perseverance.

   Add to this staff pitchers like Matt Smoral, Alberto Guzman, 2013 draftee Daniel Lietz, and the recently promoted Evan Smith, and the Blue Jays have a wealth of young arms in the West Virginia town.