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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Four Blue Jays Prospects Crack BP's Top 101*

Baseball Betsy Photo

  *kinda, sorta........

   Four players drafted and/or signed by the Blue Jays have cracked Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 prospects list this week.
   The catch is, of course, that only two of them are still with the organization.

   Jeff Hoffman, picked in the 1st round, 9th overall in 2014, did not make his pro debut until May of last year due to Tommy John surgery, and was part of the prospects package Toronto shipped to Colorado in the Troy Tulowitzki-Jose Reyes deal.   Hoffman's 2015 was marked by some command issues, but the velocity and advanced feel for pitching scouts have raved about were still there in abundance. Hoffman came in at #24, and you would have to think there's every chance he's in the Rockies' rotation at some point this year.

  Franklin Barreto, the centerpiece (from an Oakland perspective) of the Josh Donaldson deal, checks in a few spots behind Hoffman at #26.  One of the youngest players on this list, Barreto more than held his own as a 19 year old in High A last year.  He still needs to develop some better plate discipline, but he barrels up balls all over the place, and you wonder how long Oakland will continue playing him at short stop. The sooner he makes the switch to either CF of 2B, the faster his development will accelerate.  It's hard to argue the merits of giving up Barreto in light of the MVP season Donaldson had, but with the latter's possible departure for free agency after 2018 and Barreto just starting to come into his own as a first-division major leaguer by that time (at the age of 23), there's still a chance this deal comes out even in the long run.  The 5'9" Barreto would likely have been a huge fan favourite in Toronto, and depending on when the A's promote him to the big leagues, they'll have him under team control for the rest of this decade, and a couple of years of the next.

  But even with dealing those two, plus 16 other prospects over a span of 18 months, the Blue Jays placed two current farmhands in the Top 100, while a couple more could be knocking on the door by season's end, depending on their progress.

  A year ago, there was considerable promise in the form of CF Anthony Alford, but it was hard to imagine him cracking not just BP's Top 101, but even landing in the top half at #44 (he made it as far as 42nd on MLB Pipeline's list).
  In July of 2014, the prospects for Alford ever rising to the levels his talent prophesized seem slim. For the third straight season, the former Mississippi HS two-sport star had started his baseball season late, and ended it early due to his college football commitment - he didn't even make it until the end of July that year, leaving Lansing, where he had jaws dropping over the tools he demonstrated after a five game stint with the Lugnuts, to get married.  Then GM Alex Anthopoulos had waved a huge contract extension in front of Alford, who he had taken in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft despite Alford's intention to play QB at Southern Miss, but Alford kindly passed. By the end of September, however, Alford had changed his mind, and accepted the Blue Jays offer, which came with an invite to spring training with the big team, and a return plane ticket to Australia, where Alford would make up for lost development time in the ABL.
  To say he struggled in the ABL would be to put it mildly.  Facing veteran pitchers, Alford encountered adversity for the first time in his young baseball career, he scuffled to a .207/.327/.319 line, striking out in 30% of his plate appearances.  He did not square up many pitches, plainly. Alford saw few fastballs in the strike zone, and a lot of breaking pitches:
I saw a lot of breaking balls and fast balls out of the zone. I put myself in a bad situation a lot of times by being too aggressive. But they did do a good job of mixing pitches up on me. Most of the guys I faced had at least 6 or 7 years of experience on me. But I really just came over here to learn and caught up as much as I can. I wasn't really worried about the stats. I know they will come.
    And come they did.
    Starting again in Lansing, Alford was a consistent on-base threat at the top of the linuep, reaching base in 33 straight games.  The strikeouts were still a little on the high side, but Alford also showed great patience, walking 39 times in 50 MWL games before being promoted to Dunedin.  Alford also showed an ability to use the whole field, and stole 27 bases between the two levels.  His arm is not rated as being overly strong, and the power isn't there yet, but it's scary to think where Alford might be a year from now.
   Alford is now clearly on the prospect radar.  And it's rewarding to see.  This is the story of a young man who had something of a difficult upbringing, and the pressure to play football on him, when baseball was his first love, was immense.  Many of the people who have coached him over have the same comment:  this is a kid who has a great head on his shoulders, a natural-born leader with a great work ethic.  When Anthopoulos was in the midst of his wheeling and dealing last July, the name that he was asked about most often was Alford's.
    Baseball America had this scouting report on him:
Alford combines physicality and surprising feel for hitting to profile as a potential impact center fielder. Compact and strong, Alford is an elite athlete with burst and double-plus speed that plays both on the bases, where he’s just scratched the surface as a basestealer, and in center field. What stunned Blue Jays officials and scouts this year were Alford’s instincts, which show up in center as he has excellent range that helps make up for his below-average throwing arm. He also has hitting instincts and an advanced approach for a player of his experience level. It’s more than just taking walks, though he does that. Alford works counts, has some idea of a two-strike approach and spoils pitcher’s pitches well. He has the strength and bat speed to drive the ball to all fields, with the quality of his at-bats remaining consistent throughout the season.
   Alford likely needs at least another year of minor league seasoning.  The jump from A to AA is said to be the highest in the minors, so we should get a true read on his abilities this year when he starts the season with New Hampshire.  A year from now, he should be in Top 10 prospect territory.

   If there was a trademark of the Anthopoulos era when it came to scouting, drafting, and developing players, it was that of the tall, lean, athletic high school pitcher.  Certainly, they stepped out of that box to sign a Roberto Osuna or draft a Marcus Stroman, but they've stuck with that tried and true trend.  In 2010, the Jays had 7 of the first 80 picks in the draft, and took 4 HS pitchers with them, including Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, and Justin Nicolino.  The following year, they took prep hurlers with their first 7 picks, including Tennessee LHP Daniel Norris.
    Included with that number was a 6'3" California high schooler by the name of Conner Greene, who was viewed at that point not for what he was, but he one day might be, according to BA:
Long and lean at 6-foot-3, 160 pounds, Greene is all about projection. He has a high waist, long legs and a quick arm, and he has cleaned up his delivery, helping him touch 91-92 mph on occasion. He usually pitches at 87-88, and his secondary stuff is underdeveloped. He throws a splitter rather than a changeup, and the pitch has sink but is inconsistent. His curve has 11-to-5 break, and his best ones rate as 40s on the 20-80 scouting scale. He needs to sharpen it up and improve his command of his entire repertoire. 
   Brought into the system under the tutelage of the Blue Jays minor league coaching staff, Greene has progressed steadily, and had a breakout 2015 at three levels, which allowed him to claim spot #100 on the list.  His curve has been vastly upgraded, and his velo now sits 93-95.  Greene pounds the lower half of the strike zone, and even though he gives up some contact, it's often of the singles variety, which can often be erased given his propensity to throw groundouts.
   Now that the Toronto media has taken notice of Greene, there's a tendency to think of him as major league ready.  Which he's not.   He still needs to refine his curve, and his change up, while effective against left-handed hitters last year, did not fool righties as often.  Greene's ascendancy was merited, but it owed in part to the lack of depth in the system.  With Buffalo's rotation full of veterans at the moment, there's plenty of reason to let Greene start the season at New Hampshire.

Who's Knocking on the Door?
   There's such a temptation to say Vladimir Guerrero Jr should be the next to crack this list, and while his bat attracted a lot of attention in Instructs last fall, there are still some reasons to hold back one's enthusiasm.
   First of all, the Vlad the Younger won't be 17 until March.  Secondly, while there's little question about his bat, there are plenty about his glove.  Third, he has what scouts have generously described as a thick body - let's go with stocky.  Now, the AL does have this position called the Designated Hitter, and at 17, there's room for growth, and the Blue Jays training staff have already begun the process of transforming his body with proper nutrition, cardio work and weight training, but those red flags are reason enough to be cautious in projecting his future.
   Just the same, there's ample evidence to suggest that this kid is the real deal.  My fellow blogger Baseball Betsy posted a video of one of his Instructs' no-doubters:

  Can he crack the Top 100 this year, or by this time next year?  In all honesty, it wouldn't come as much of a surprise, despite the warning signs.  The Blue Jays staff have worked small miracles with Osuna and Rowdy Tellez, getting them to buy into the need to slim down and develop their bodies as well as their games.  The great Branch Rickey once said that speed is the only skill you can't teach, but there is plenty of time to turn Vlad into a slimmer, more agile version of his younger self.

    There's also a strong possibility that one or more of Tellez, Jon Harris, or even Max Pentecost could be on this list a year from now.  Tellez mashed at two levels last year, and is more than a one-dimensional slugger.  Hitting LHP better is his main challenge now.  Forget last year's numbers: Harris is a better pitcher that his debut year showed, and there's plenty of reason to think that he could move quickly this year. Pentecost is something of a forgotten prospect due to his injuries, and while he can take the field this year, he won't be behind the plate to start the season.  BA is still impressed by him, however:
When healthy, Pentecost showed a tantalizing combination of athleticism and hitting ability for a catcher. He has a sustained track record for hitting thanks to a quick, short swing that he repeats well with modest effort. He has flashed plus raw power in the past, though club officials see him as a hit-first, power-second player. He’s still rebuilding arm strength from his shoulder surgeries, and a return to his previous plus arm strength will take patience and hard work. He’ll need plenty of reps to hone his receiving and blocking skills while working with pro pitchers.
   There's also a chance we're talking about Sean Reid-Foley in the context of this list a year from now.  Everything is there - a fastball that touches 97, with movement and a sharp downward plane. His slider grades a plus pitch, but what seems to hamper SRF is his mechanics.  He repeats his delivery from a consistent slot and arm angle well, but he tends to lose that release point when his foot lands too late, dragging his arm behind.  When this happens, Reid-Foley is prone to drive up his pitch count, causing fatigue and further messing up his mechanics.  When he learns to make those inning-to-inning or even pitch-to-pitch adjustments to get his delivery back in line, Reid-Foley will be ready for prime time.  Even though it has not been mentioned publicly, word is that the Blue Jays do see some similarities between SRF and Jonathan Papelbon, and while the team can always use a back of the bullpen power arm, Reid-Foley will be given every chance to prove he's a starter.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Blue Jays Prospects Prosper In Australia Amid Questions About the ABL's Future

David Harris\
Canberra Times photo

  As play heads into its final weekend before the post-season, questions abound amongst Australian baseball fans about the future of the Australian Baseball League.

  The Blue Jays have had a very successful partnership with the Canberra Cavalry, one of the few profitable teams in the loop.  Former Jays farmhand C Jack Murphy was the ABL MVP and led the Cavalry to the ABL title, as well as an Asia Series Championship in 2013-14.  The lessons the backwards-pitching veteran ABL pitchers taught Anthony Alford about pitch recognition last year helped to contribute to his breakout stateside season in 2015.  This year, 2B David Harris, and SS Jason Leblebijian, who both split time with Lansing and Dunedin, have been the offensive leaders as the Cavs sit 2nd to Brisbane, and have a post-season series with Adelaide starting next weekend.  Harris leads the league in hitting, while Leblebijian is tied for the lead in RBI.

  The original ABL ran from 1989-1999, but folded as many of the outfit's teams were awash in a sea of red ink, and there were problems distributing talent evenly.  The loop was briefly re-established shortly after the turn of the century, and was resuscitated once again in 2009, with MLB taking on a 75% ownership stake, with Baseball Australia taking on the other quarter.  Some of the teams have been successful in gaining local sponsorships, but questions about the league's future began about a year ago, when MLB's original five-year commitment was about the expire.

   The start of the ABL season in late October was marked with controversy when CEO Peter Wermuth was abruptly fired on the eve of the season opener.  A permanent replacement still has yet to be named, with Baseball Australia head Brett Pickett acting as spokesperson.  Few tears were shed at Wermuth's dismissal, however, as Aussie fans had grown impatient with his failure to grow the league over his five-year tenure.
   The ABL is crucial to the development of the sport down under, but it ranks far down the list of the average Aussie's favourite sport.  A quick scan of the Canberra Times is a challenge if you're looking for baseball stories.  Cricket, Australian Rules Football, Soccer, and Women's Basketball appear to far outpace baseball in terms of popularity.  Attendance figures are not published with league box scores, and while Canberra and Perth seem to be well-supported, there are scores of empty seats at the home parks of the other four teams.
   Clouding the ABL's future is Pickett's admission that MLB is looking to reduce its majority stake in the league, but he insists that there will be a 2016-17 ABL season.  The league is looking for corporate partners in North America, Asia, and Australia to give the league a fresh injection of capital.  According to Pickett, there is no timetable for the MLB to reduce their stake in the league. In the short term, there will be an ABL, but the long-term outlook is less than clear.  MLB, in their original agreement with Baseball Australia, signed on for a five-year term.  With that coming to a close, MLB is clearly not optimistic about the league's future, and was growing tired of subsidizing a money-losing operation.

   With relations between the USA and Cuba continuing to thaw, there has been considerable speculation that MLB may shift their focus in that direction.  Cuba would certainly be closer for organizations to keep an eye on their prospects, although there is nothing imminent between the island nation and MLB.  For Australian baseball fans, it's been a fun time, but it appears that there aren't enough of them to make this league viable.
  From a Blue Jays perspective, it's hard to say how the club feels about these developments.  On the one hand, no Blue Jay prospect who was sent to Australia has played in the majors (former Cavs Didi Gregorius and Kevin Kiermaier have), but aside from Alford, the club has sent no top-level prospects to the ABL.  But the league does fill a developmental niche for the club:  Alford did not play against top-level high school competition in his native Mississippi, and because of his college football commitment, had amassed just over 100 PAs in his first three minor league seasons.  The ABL was like summer school for the toolsy outfielder, and it's doubtful he's a top 100 prospect now without that catch-up experience.  The ABL also can give players like Colton Turner and Phil Kish a chance to make up for innings lost because of injury, and if nothing else for org guys like Harris and Leblebijian, it can accelerate their development to the point where they could become very serviceable depth pieces in the upper minors.  A personal note about Harris - I saw the 2013 36th rounder (out of Southern Arkansas) in his rookie season with Vancouver, where he made a pair of athletic plays in a July game.  Playing 2nd Base, Harris had to sidestep a runner advancing from first while he charged a 1st inning slow roller, which he fielded cleanly and threw across his body to nip the batter at 1st.  Several innings later, he ranged far down the right field line to grab an opposite-field flare that threatened to drop in.   A fixture at the top of the Cavalry batting order, Harris has played CF for Canberra this year, demonstrating his multi-position versatility.  I've watched his career very closely since that night at The Nat, the home of the Vancouver Canadians.
   All things being equal, it's likely that while the Jays are supportive of the ABL, if there was an opportunity one day to have their farmhands play winter ball closer to home, where the cost of transporting and housing them would be cheaper, they would welcome it.  While the players they've sent have for the most part not Top 10 guys, they have sent many players who have made a significant impact for the Cavalry.

   It just seems appropriate to include a Murphy Walk Off HR to conclude this piece:

Friday, January 22, 2016

Smoral Looking to Rebound in 2016 photo

    Progress in any field of endeavour is seldom made in a straight line.
In the world of professional sports, especially one with a development curve as steep and long as baseball's is, progress can come in a series of backward and forward steps that on balance leave the player moving forward.

   Organizations don't always mind seeing a prospect struggle.  For some, the difficulties they experience in their early years of pro ball are the first extended taste of failure they've ever had at a game that has come so easily for them.  The lessons learned from that adversity can go a long way to helping to develop that prospect.

   And that may mean that Blue Jays LHP Matthew Smoral is ready to break through, and start to fulfill the potential the team saw in him when they took him as a first round compensation pick (50th overall) in 2012, despite having missed most of his senior year of high school competition with a foot injury.

   The accepted wisdom in baseball that left-handers seem to take longer to develop, and tall ones even more so.  6"8" Smoral made his pro debut in the GCL in the summer of 2013, walking 26, hitting 10, and striking out 27 in 25 innings.  Invited to Instructs that fall, the organization worked on refining Smoral's delivery to help correct his control issues.  Sent to Bluefield for the start of the 2014 season, Smoral had a scintillating Appy League debut, striking out 8 batters over 3 innings.  By mid-season, he was promoted to Vancouver, and played a prominent role in the C's bid for a fourth consecutive NWL title that just fell short.

   Heading into 2015, the sky appeared to be the limit for Smoral.  The year before, he routinely sat between 91-93with his fastball, touching 95 and showing great movement when down in the strike zone, and showed a slider that could be downright nasty when he commanded it.  The plan likely was for the Ohio native to start in the Midwest League with Lansing, but back issues kept him in Florida when spring training camp broke.  Brought along slowly, Smoral pitched under the watchful eyes of the Blue Jays medical staff out of Dunedin's bullpen in June, then was sent to Bluefield to presumably get stretched out.
   Except that Smoral really never did get stretched out, and was limited to 10.2 innings over 8 appearances, before a late-August screaming line drive off of the side of his head caused the Blue Jays to shut him down for the season.

  Entering 2016, Smoral has disappeared from the prospect radar.  The Blue Jays 9th ranked prospect after 2012, 13th after 2013, and 11th after 2014, as well as the Appalachian League's 7th top prospect in 2014 by Baseball America, Smoral is appearing on few top prospects lists at this point, and for good reason:  2014 was a major step backward for him.
  But there is good news on the horizon.  Smoral tweeted a video of himself which clearly shows he's healthy once again:

  It would also appear that Smoral has been working with the crew from Driveline Baseball, a pitching consulting firm that has worked with a number of Jays prospects:

  The improved arm angle should allow Smoral to stay on top of his pitches better, and keep the ball down in the strike zone with greater consistency.  Besides staying healthy, command has been his biggest issue since turning pro.

 Undoubtedly, Smoral still has a long road ahead of him.  Entering his 4th pro season, he has thrown all of 4 innings above short season ball.  At the same time, his health and his mechanics appear to be the best they've been in some time.  It's hard to predict a breakthrough season for him just yet, but some of the ingredients are there.