Monday, April 29, 2013

History of the Minor Leagues Part 4 - The Struggle for Survival 1929-46

   After the boom years of the 1920s, the stock market crash ushered in almost two decades of the leanest years in the history of the minor leagues, and brought about a transformation that ushered in a relationship between the minors and the majors that is more like the one that we know now.  It also brought several significant innovations in the promotion of the game that was to have profound effects.  The game at the minor league level has probably not gone through a more turbulent time.
   Both levels suffered significant declines in attendance during the first years of the Depression.  Baseball no longer was a luxury that the average American could afford.  Gate receipts dropped 70% in 1931 and 32 from 1930, and it took sixteen years to reach the high-water mark of 10 million after that season.  Profits dropped at the major league level from $1.3 million in 1929 to a loss of $1.7 million in 1933. To make end meet, the Senators sold future Hall of Famer SS Joe Cronin to the Red Sox for $250 000 - a sum which was greater than the payroll of 14 of the 16 major league teams. Part of the problem in the decline in revenue was the majors' refusal to drop ticket prices,  citing the fact that they didn't raise prices during the boom years of the 20s.
   So, with the high unemployment of the Depression, baseball tickets of any kind were out of reach for most people.  And for those fortunate enough to have a job, taking a day off work to watch a game was not an option.  The minors began to experiment with night games as a way to both give workers a chance to catch a game, and to bring in other spectators by the novelty  factor. It took a few years, but the majors, originally resistant to the idea, gave in in the mid 30s, and soon night games became a standard feature of minor and major league schedules.
  Despite this, minor league teams still saw themselves as independents (the Pacific Coast League, which we have not touched upon, viewed itself almost as a third major league, and stayed quite independent until the late 50s).  But their independence was waning. Attendance was still in decline, partly because of economics, and perhaps partly because the expansion of major league teams' radio broadcast networks allowed teams to follow their favourite major league team instead.
    Faced with the declining revenues of the Great Depression, they became more indentured to major league teams as a source of funds to make up for the shortfall, via the sale of top players.  The majors, for their part, agreed to help the minors, but in return they wanted some sort of agreement for the procurement of players that went beyond the traditional one.  With the minors down to a handful of leagues and teams by the mid 30s, more and more minor leagues and teams were becoming subservient to the majors.  The Cards, Yankees, and Dodgers all built vast farm systems during this period, buying interests in teams across all levels of the minors.  The Cards, with no major league competition to the south or west, held tryout camps that drew thousands of prospective recruits, with which they stocked their minor league teams.
   Baseball Commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis was less than thrilled with this development, especially with the optics caused by major league clubs sometimes owning shares of multiple clubs in the same league.  He had "freed" several players in the 20s and 30s who teams had "covered up" - that is, they transferred them from one farm team to another, to avoid having them exposed in the draft Landis had instituted, whereby major league teams could draft a minor league player if he played on the same minor league team for two consecutive seasons.  In 1938, he "freed" 70 players from the Cardinals system who had been "covered up."  Matters came to a head when Landis and Dodgers GM Branch Rickey had a memorable exchange when their competing philosophies clashed when Rickey was summoned to Landis' office later that year.  Landis was of the view that talent should be allowed to bubble up from the bottom of the minor league pool naturally, whereas Rickey believed that the farm system would allow a team to nurture and teach a player how to play the game the Dodger way, even if that player was "blocked" by a better or more experienced player.  While Landis was concerned about the future and autonomy of the minors, he could do little to stem a tide that had already turned.  Out of economic survival, the minors were on their way to becoming branch plants of the major league, their reason for being not to win games for their fans, but to supply players for the teams above them, up to the majors.

   The onset of World War II, of course, did not help the minors' plight.  With the shortage of manpower caused by the war, the minors had only 66 teams in total, and drew less than 6 million fans, an all-time low.  Armed with player development and financial agreements that they had procured in the  Depression, however, the minors were poised for a tremendous comeback at the end of the war.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Checking Up on the Top 10

   The season is almost a month old, and sample sizes are stating to get bigger, so it's a good time to check in on the progress of Clutchlings' Top 10 Blue Jays Prospects. Current age in parentheses.

#1 Aaron Sanchez (20)
   Has more than justified his top ranking.  Pitching in High A with Dunedin of the Flordia State League, Sanchez has had a couple of brilliant outings.  So far, he's 1-1, with a 3.16 ERA over 5 starts.  25 IP, 16 H, 8 BB, 22 K, 0.94 WHIP, .170 OBA.  Sanchez has touched 98 with his fastball, and D-Jays pitching coach Darold Knowles claims his change-up is major-league ready.

#2 Marcus Stroman rhp (22 this week)
   20 days left in his prohibited substance suspension.  Stroman pitched in a couple of games for the Jays near the end of spring training, and had a couple of hitless outings.  Pitched well in a relief stint against the Phillies the weekend before the season started.  Probably headed to AA New Hampshire, but could reach the majors by the summer and help the Jays' bullpen, unless the club elects to stretch him out as a starter.

#3  Roberto Osuna lhp (18)
   The youngest player in the Midwest League, he has been dominant at times.  1-1, 2.95 ERA, in 18 innings.  Has given up 12 hits and only 3 walks, while striking out 26.  0.83 WHIP, and a .178 OBA.  Osuna has been as advertised.

#4 Daniel Norris lhp (20)
   Norris command and location issues from last season have continued to dog him at Low A Lansing.  He has alternated 1-2-3 innings with frames where he falls behind on hitters, and his fastball gets hit hard.  0-2 with a 9.56 ERA, Norris has given up 22 hits and 11 walks in 16 innings, while striking out 13.  2.06 WHIP, and a .328 OBA.  Norris' last start was his best outing of the year, giving up only a run on 3 hits over 4 innings.

#5 Sean Nolin rhp (23)
   Ticketed for AA New Hampshire, Nolin suffered a leg injury toward the end of spring training, and is on the minor league disabled list.

#6  D.J. Davis of (18)
   Davis is currently at extended spring training in Florida.  Likely heading to short season Vancouver in mid-June when their season starts.

#7 Matt Smoral lhp (19)
   After missing last season with a foot injury, Smoral will likely start the season with one of the rookie level teams, either in the Gulf Coast League, or with Bluefield in the Appy League. Pitch count and innings will be very limited in his first pro season.

#8  Adonys Cardona
   Extended spring training.  Probably heading to Bluefield in late June.

#9  John Stilson rhp (22)
   Also on New Hampshire's disabled list.

#10 Santiago Nessy
   With Lansing of the Midwest League, has been lauded for his work ethic. Has caught the bulk of the Lugnuts' games.  Hitting .250/.302./.350, with 0 HR and 7 RBI. Placed on Lansing's 7-day DL last week.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Overwhelming Osuna

    Roberto Osuna may be the youngest player in the Midwest League (and one of only a handful of players born in 1995 playing full-season ball at the moment), but he turned in another dazzling performance on Thursday night that belied his young age.
   Osuna limited Quad Cities to one run over 4 2/3 innings before reaching his pitch limit, allowing just one hit and one walk, while striking out 8.  His youthfulness may have shown up a bit with 4 wild pitches, but he was dominant on the night, striking out Carlos Correa, the top pick by Houston in the 2012 draft, twice, once swining, and once looking.
   The visiting Lugnuts scored 4 runs in the 6th, en route to a 6-2 win over the River Bandits.  Osuna did not figure in the decision.
   The outing lowered Osuna's ERA to 2.95.  In 18 1/3 innings this spring, he has surrendered 12 hits, walked only 3, and struck out 26.  Osuna has a WHIP of 0.83, and Midwest League batters are hitting only .176 against him.
  With the parent club struggling, it's comforting to know that help is on the way one day.  Having pitched only 43 innings in his professional debut last year, however, it's doubtful that Osuna's timetable will be moved up.  He's likely to spend much of the season in the MWL, with a possible promotion to High A Dunedin a possibility later in the season, where his innings and pitch counts will continue to be strictly monitored.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Meteoric Rise of Dave Stieb

"We didn't like him as a hitter, but he sure as hell opened our eyes when he started pitching"
-Jays VP Bobby Mattick, after scouting Dave Stieb in college

   It's not unusual for a light-hitting infielder or outfielder (or even a catcher) to be converted to pitching.
Baseball history is full of players with plus arms whose struggles at the plate (most often in the minors) led their organizations to convince them that their future was on the mound.  Hall of Famer Bob Lemon was switched to the mound when he couldn't hit major league pitching - he even played centrefield the day another converted outfielder, Bob Feller, hurled a no-hitter. Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan, and Troy Percival are all recent examples of players who found success on the mound after meeting with little success as an everyday player.  And with baseball's increased reliance on power arms in the bullpen, teams are not hesitant to encourage strong-armed position players to make the switch.  For the Toronto Blue Jays, no turnaround was more dramatic or more rapid than that of Dave Stieb, the winningest pitcher in club history.

   Growing up in Southern California, Stieb's parents would not allow him or his brother Steve (who later caught in the Braves organization) to pitch, fearing the wear and tear on their arms.  So, Stieb took to the outfield, while his brother picked up the tools of ignorance behind the plate.  After high school, Stieb played for San Jose Community College for two years, then followed Steve to Southern Illinois University.  In his one and only season with the Salukis, Stieb led the team in hitting, hits, extra base hits, homeruns, and RBI, and led them to the NCAA's Midwest Regional.
  Despite Stieb's hitting heroics, he hadn't garnered a lot of attention from professional scouts prior to the 1978 draft.  Blue Jays executives Bobby Mattick and Al LaMacchia (who had over 90 years' experience in OB between them) decided to drop in to catch a Salukis game in Carbondale early one May on the recommendation of scout Don Welke.
  And to be blunt, they didn't come away impressed with Stieb the outfielder.  Speaking in a May, 1983, Sports Illustrated article, Mattick admitted, "I didn't like his swing."
  Both executives were likely checking their watches as the game wore on, thinking about their next stop on their cross-checking tour, when something happened in the 6th inning that changed the course of the Blue Jays' history. With the Salukis' starting pitcher wearing down, Stieb jogged in from the outfield to take over duties on the mound. Mattick and LaMacchia looked at each other in disbelief, and decided to stick around for another inning or so.
   This wasn't the first time Stieb had come into a game in relief.  Earlier in the season,SIU  pitching coach Mark Newman had watched him throw batting practice, and decided to work with Stieb a little bit more.
According to Head Coach Richard "Itchy" Jones, 

  "After working with him for a day or two, Mark told me Dave already had a better breaking ball than any of our starters.  And he had great velocity.  We didn't find out he could pitch until April 1st.  Shows how smart we were."
Sports Illustrated, "A Rare Bird: The Natural," by Ron Fimrite, May 16, 1983

   Stieb only threw a total of 17 innings for Southern Illinois that spring.  Mattick and LaMacchia saw two of them, but that was enough.  In June, the Blue Jays selected Stieb in the fifth round of the draft.  Mattick says that staying to watch Stieb pitch was one of the smartest things he had ever done (this from a man who once scouted and signed Frank Robinson).

    "Stieb knocked our eyes out.  He was absolutely overpowering.  We didn't like him as a hitter, but he sure as hell opened our eyes when  he started pitching."
SI, "A Rare Bird: The Natural"

   Stieb, of course, had never pitched at any level prior to his brief stint with the Salukis, and he still envisioned himself as an outfielder first.  The Blue Jays assigned him to High Class A Dunedin of the Florida State League after the draft, and he played his first game there on June 29, 1978.  Manager Dennis Menke was given instructions to have Stieb take a regular turn in the starting rotation every 5th day.  The day after a start, he was to DH, and then could play the outfield on the other days in between starts.  Stieb, a fiery and intense competitor, bristled at the idea of pitching at first:

  "It was hard for me to fathom why they wanted me to be something I wasn't.  I don't think I even knew how to figure out an ERA in those days.  I still felt I could make it as a hitter."
SI, "A Rare Bird: The Natural"

   The results of a summer spent at Dunedin were impossible to ignore:  Stieb the everyday player hit an underwhelming .192, while Stieb the pitcher sported a record of 2-0, with a sparkling 2.08 ERA.  Reluctantly, Stieb realized that his path to the big leagues was as a pitcher, and he reported to Instructional League that fall to complete the makeover from the outfield to the mound.  Working every day for several weeks with Mattick, Stieb worked on expanding his repertoire of pitches, which at first consisted of a "heavy" fastball that sunk on righthanded hitters, and a slider he had picked up from Coach Newman at Southern Illinois.  Mattick worked with him on his control, and taught him a changeup.  Recalls Mattick:

    "We didn't monkey around with his mechanics at all.  He has the same delivery he has today as he had then.  He was a natural, one in a million.  He had such a desire to excel.  He had that good slider.  That's not a tough pitch to pick up.  It's all in the release, and he had that from the start.  It's a funny thing, but most converted infielders and outfielders have good control, especially if they've been used to throwing at a target.  Someone who has been a pitcher from High School on up may actually have more problems.  It's all in what they call the rhythm.  I call it a feel.  Dave had that feel."
SI, "A Rare Bird: The Natural"

   The next season, Stieb reported to Dunedin again to repeat High A ball, but as a pitcher.  His rise was as fast as it was unexpected.  He went 5-0, and was promoted to Triple A Syracuse in May, where he went 5-2, with a 2.13 ERA.  Stieb was called up to the Major Leagues on June 29th, a year to the day from his minor league debut, and about 14 months since the accidental discovery of his pitching prowess by Mattick and LaMacchia.  In his rookie season, Stieb went 8-8, with a respectable 4.31 ERA.  In 1981, he became the first Blue Jays pitcher to post a winning record, and appeared in his first All Star Game.  Stieb appeared in 6 more All Star Games, starting in 1983 and 84.  Stieb was a workhorse, averaging an astounding 275 IP from 1982-85.  
   And while his hitting days were behind him when he reached the bigs, Stieb had two memorable at bats as a pitcher.  The first came in August of 1980, when the Blue Jays finished a game from the night before that was suspended after 15 innings.  Stieb became the first Jays pitcher to ever have a plate appearance, and battled Minnesota reliever Albert Williams before flying out to centre. The next came in the 1981 All Star Game, when AL manager Jim Frey had run out of pitchers in a close game. With the AL holding a slim 4-3 lead over the NL heading into the top of the 9th, Frey summoned closer Rollie Fingers to try to hold the lead.  Fingers was unable to, as the NL touched him for a pair of runs, giving way to Stieb with one out.  Stieb threw the final 1 2/3 innings, and came to bat with one out in the bottom of the 9th.  On the mound for the NL was Bruce Sutter, a dominant closer from the late 70s/early 80s who had popularized the split finger fastball.  Despite not having picked up a bat in over a year, Stieb acquitted himself well, hitting a line drive down the left field line that just went into the seats foul before striking out (the NL held on to win, 5-4).
   Stieb took a pair of no-hitters into the 9th inning on consecutive starts in 1988, only to have the no-hit bids broken up.  The following year, he took a perfect game into the 9th, and got the first two outs, only to lose it on a bloop single.  He recorded the Jays' first and only no-hitter in 1990.  Stieb was a member of the Jays first World Series winner in 1992, but was not an integral part of it, the toll of almost 3000 innings on his arm having added up.  He was released by the White Sox the following season after having filed for free agency.
While throwing batting practice as a guest instructor in spring training in 1998, Stieb was encouraged to make a comeback after his nasty slider had returned.  Stieb started 12 games in the minors, and had dazzling stats, but had mixed results in his return to the big leagues: 1-2 record in 50 innings, with a 4.83 ERA .  He retired for good after that season.
  Stieb was ranked the 67th top pitcher of all time by

History of the Minor Leagues Part 3: The Golden Years 1904-29

        This is the fourth installment of my (brief) history of the minor leagues.  I won't pretend that this is an exhaustive study of the topic, which is far more detailed and complex than I can adequately describe and give justice to.
  I have leaned quite heavily on a few excerpts about the minors from Bill James' first Historical Baseball Abstract, which is one of the greatest books ever written on the topic, in my opinion.
Ox Eckhardt

The minor leagues grew and prospered alongside the majors after the signing of the National Agreement in 1903.  No longer were they subject to roster raiding, although, of course, the sale of top players was an important source of revenue.
   Some leagues held out joining the new NA, fearing it was just another attempt at establishing yet another major league, but that fear quickly passed, and the minors expanded rapidly. In 1912, the AA classification was added at the top of the system to reflect that expansion. World War I and the brief but intense growth of the Federal League presented a huge challenge to the minors, and by the end of WWI they had contracted down to only 9 leagues.
  By the 1920s, however, as the rest of America prospered, so too did the minor leagues.  The minor league teams (and remember, this was more a term used by sportswriters in major league cities) viewed themselves and their leagues as independent. There were no formal agreements for player acquisition between the majors and minors. This was the era of minor league dynasties in then-minor league cities like Baltimore, St Paul, Fort Worth, and San Francisco.  15 of's top 100 minor league teams played in this era.  By the end of the decade, the number of teams and leagues had doubled.  Modern fans might wonder how these teams were able to succeed year after year in the face of the pressure to sell their top players to major league clubs.  According to Bill James, when people ask why minor league superstars like Ox Eckhardt (who logged a career batting average of .367) "didn't get a chance" to play in the majors:

   "He's not a player who might have done things if he'd had the chance; he's a player who did things. He played baseball.  He made a good living playing baseball.  His picture was on baseball cards; he was a local celebrity....if he hit .370 one year, the reason that he wanted to hit .380 the next year was not so he would get called up to a higher level, but so he would get a better contract, just as if he were a 'major leaguer' so his team might win the pennant."

    The truth is, that while the major leagues were growing in popularity across the country, player salaries did not keep pace, and the players increasingly rebelled at the tight-fisted treatment they received from the owners, which reached its peak with the Black Sox scandal of 1919.  Many minor league players were happier playing there; some had been to the majors, but the majority felt that they were treated better (and in some cases, paid better) in the minors.
   At the same time as the minors were flourishing, major league teams were becoming frustrated with the process of procuring talent from those leagues.  The legendary Branch Rickey, then GM of the St Louis Cardinals, was growing tired of scouting a player, only to lose him to wealthier teams.  With the help of owner Sam Breedon's deep pockets, Rickey began buying interests in teams (often several in the same league) across the minors, making it easier for him to acquire a player when the time was right.  Rickey coined the term "farm club," when he compared developing players on minor league teams to "growing players down on the farm like corn."  At one point in the 1930s, the Cards had as many as 30 farm teams (modern day teams have 5 or 6).  With this elaborate system of amassing talent in place, St Louis won 6 World Series titles between 1926 and 1946.
   With the stock market crash of 1929, and the Great Depression which followed, like most American businesses, the minors experienced considerable financial pressures, and their independence on major league baseball to help keep afloat increased.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Two Prospects, Two Different Paths of Development

   Righthander Tyler Beede, out of Lawrence Academy HS in Massachusetts, and Lefthander Daniel Norris, a product of Science Hill HS in Johnson City, Tennessee, were drafted 1-2 by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2011 draft, Beede in the first round with the 21st pick, and Norris at #74 in the second round.  Both were among the highest-ranked prep pitchers heading into the draft.
   Having attended summer baseball camps at Vanderbilt University since he was a freshman in High School, Beede was adamant that he preferred to go the collegiate route.  His bonus asking price was said to be in the $3.5 million range.  Norris himself had committed to Clemson University.  Beede had sent a letter to all major league teams prior to the draft stating that his intention was to attend Vandy.  Norris, for his part, saw his draft stock fall because he similarly was seen as bound for college.  The Blue Jays took a gamble and selected them both.
   As the mid-August (now mid-July) deadline for signing approached, Beede stuck to his demands.  It's rumoured that the Blue Jays and Beede wound up about $1 million apart.  15 minutes before the deadline, Norris signed for $2 million, while Beede spurned the Jays' final offer in favour of Vanderbilt.  The signing of Norris took some of the sting out of the failure to reach an agreement with Beede, who now won't be draft-eligible until 2014.
   So, Beede headed off to college in August, and Norris, who signed too late to see action in 2011, had to wait until the spring before starting his pro career.
   It's interesting to see where both are in terms of their development now.  Pitching in the strong SEC, Beede, who struggled early in his first collegiate season, began to come into his own come regionals time, and made the regional all-tournament team.  In his freshman campaign, Beede compiled a 1-5 record, with a 4.52 ERA.  In 71.2 innings, he gave up 78 hits, walked 36, and struck out 68.  Command was a bit of an issue, and batters hit .287 against him. Beede appeared in 16 games, starting 5 of them.
  Flash forward a season, and as Beede enters the final weeks of his 2013 sophomore campaign, he has become a solid part of Vandy's starting rotation. Beede is a perfect 10-0 on the season, becoming only the 9th pitcher to reach that plateau in school history.  In 65.2 innings,  he has given up 36 hits, with walks still a bit of an issue (38), and 67 K's.  Hitters are batting a paltry .164 against Beede this season.
   Norris remained  in Florida for 2012 extended spring training, reporting to Bluefield of the Short-Season Rookie Appalachian League in June. His first season, like Beede's, was one of ups and downs. Norris posted a 2-3 record in 11 appearances (10 starts) with Bluefield, posting a 7.97 ERA.  Still, Norris showed enough promise to warrant a late promotion to Short Season Vancouver.  Some scouts feel that Norris' inflated ERA was due to a couple of big innings, which came about as a result of his inability to get ahead in the count.
  Norris was promoted to Low A Lansing of the Midwestern League this season, and while it's early, the results again are mixed.  Norris can breeze through one inning, then struggle the next.  Thus far at Lansing, he's 0-1, with an unsightly 12.00 ERA over 12 innings.
   So, who's ahead on the development curve ? At the moment, the answer is clearly Beede, but having gone the college route, he's thrown 137 innings to Norris' 54 over the past two seasons, so perhaps the comparison isn't completely accurate.  And while Norris' mechanics and delivery were changed, (as is the case with many high school draftees) in extended spring training last year, Beede has been left pretty much to continue to pitch with the delivery he used in high school.  This could lead to bad habits, command issues, and even injuries down the road. Then there's the question of pitch count and the protection of young arms at the collegiate level, where the emphasis is not necessarily on development.
    As a result, the jury is still out on who is ahead in real terms of development.  The Blue Jays hope by August that Norris has at least pulled even.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Wow, Aaron Sanchez, Wow

  Righthander Aaron Sanchez, Clutchlings #1 Blue Jays prospect, continued his string of impressive performances with perhaps his best outing in this young season in a 9-1 thrashing of the Daytona Cubs, a club that boasts top prospects shortstop Javier Baez, and outfielder Jorge Soler
   Sanchez pitched into the 7th inning in his longest start to date.  He limited Daytona to 1 run and 2 hits, walking 1 and striking out 5.  The lone run came in courtesy of a Sanchez wild pitch. In previous starts, Sanchez had a higher groundball:flyball ratio, but in this outing he gave up 4 flyouts and 8 groundouts.
  Command issues were a bit of a problem for Sanchez in a season split between Rookie Ball and Low Class A last year,  but he has shown an ability to throw strikes, mostly low in the strike zone, so far this season. He has walked only 7 batters in 20 innings pitched, and lowered his WHIP to 0.87, and his ERA to 3.05.  Florida Stage League hitters are batting a paltry .149 against him.
  Sanchez picked up the victory, his first on the season, and a hitless performance by the D-Jays bullpen against Daytona improved the Jays' Northern Division-leading record to 13-4, with a 3 game lead on 2nd place Brevard County.
  Sanchez was economical with his pitches in going past the 5th inning for the first time this year.  His pitch and innings count will no doubt continue to be closely monitored, but he's shown why the Blue Jays braintrust opted to keep him over fellow prospects Syndergaard and Nicolino when they upgraded the major league roster before Christmas.

Update:   I asked Marcus Stroman for his impression of Sanchez last night:

The Matchup of Highly Prized Prospects....That Wasn't Quite

     Many eyes in the scouting world were turned to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the host Tin Caps were set to take on the visiting Lansing Lugnuts in Midwestern League (Low A) action yesterday.  Prized pitching prospect Max Fried, the #2 prospect in the San Diego system, was set to go up against Lugnuts' righthander Roberto Osuna, the 4th-ranked prospect in the Jays' organization.
   Showdowns between highly touted pitching prospects at this level seldom go beyond the 5th inning, because of pitch counts.  And while both hurlers struggled at times before they reached their limits, both showed flashes of why they are considered to be front end of the rotation major league starters one day.
  Fried, who was picked 7th overall in the 2012 draft by the Padres out of Harvard-Westlake HS in Los Angeles (where he emerged from the shadow of more highly regarded teammate Lucas Giolito, who was sidelined by UCL problems last spring), started 2013 as Baseball America's 46th ranked prospect. The offensively struggling Lugnuts (.227 team BA) touched Fried for a pair of runs in the first and third innings.
Overall, Fried gave up 7 hits, 4 runs (all earned), walked a pair and struck out five over his four inning outing.
  Osuna, who the Jays signed as a 16 year-old from Mexico, was widely considered the top international prospect in 2011.  He was ranked 90th on's preseason list.  Osuna perhaps faced a bigger challenge with the Tin Caps, who came into the game with a .272 team BA, and a 31 pitch first inning was a huge test for the 18 year-old, who escaped the frame haven given up only a walk.  Fort Wayne touched Osuna for 3 runs in the bottom of the third, one of which came after he failed to cover home on a wild pitch, allowing the 2nd run of the inning to score from third base.  Osuna hurled 3 2/3 innings, giving up 5 hits, 3 runs (all earned), while walking one and striking out five, with one wild pitch.  Osuna was also up in the strike zone a bit, recording only one groundball out and five flyouts.
   Fort Wayne lit up the Lansing bullpen for 14 runs after the departure of the heralded prospects to win the game 14-8.  Neither starter figured in the decision.
  A highlight of the game offensively for Lansing was the play of second baseman Christian Lopes, who went 3 for 5, and improved his line to .327/.333/.429.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

History of the Minor Leagues Part 2 - The Early Years 1871-1903

"The minor leagues did not start out as what they are.  By a long series of actions and agreements, inducements, and rewards, the minor leagues were reduced in tiny degrees from entirely independent sovereignties into vassal states, existing only to serve the needs of major league baseball."
-Bill James, The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

   The minor leagues as we know them today really didn't exist in the 1800s.  The Cincinnati Red Stockings, history tells us, were the first professional team, founded in 1869.  For much of the following decade, a steady succession of leagues started and folded, sometimes in the same season.  Franchises were founded in all of the major (eastern) U.S. cities, along with teams in not-so-major cities like Troy, NY, Keokuk, Illinois, and Mansfield, Ohio.  In an attempt to rule out the weaker teams in financial and competitive terms, the National League was formed in 1876.  Despite this exclusivity, teams outside the NL considered themselves to be very much in competition with those in the first major league, both in terms of revenue and players.
   For much of the remainder of the century, that competition only intensified.  There was no agreement or affiliation between teams at the different ends of the competitive spectrum.  There was no method of "calling up" a player from a "farm team" (that term didn't come into use until the 1930s).  If a National League wanted a player from, say, the New York State League, they simply purchased that player from the team involved, or worked out a trade.  This arrangement continued until well into the 1920s, when the then International League Baltimore Orioles dominated minor league play.
   As the game became increasingly popular in the 1870s, players were able to demand and receive correspondingly higher salaries.  In an attempt to keep the salaries in check, the National League instituted the Reserve Clause, which allowed them to retain the services of a player from year to year (thus preventing players from "team hopping").  This, of course, also kept teams from lesser leagues from bidding on those players.  The Reserve Clause withstood numerous challenges from rival leagues and the courts, until the famous Curt Flood case of 1969.
  Over the 1880s and 90s, more and more teams and leagues outside the realm of the National League signed onto the National Agreement, which was entered into by the NL, the rival American Association, and the Northwestern League (which was briefly considered one of baseball's first minor leagues) in 1883.  This brought some relative peace and stability to organized baseball, until the fiery Ban Johnson took over control of the Western League in 1893.  In 1899,  the National League decided to terminate franchises in Baltimore, Cleveland, Louisville, and Washington.  The Western League scooped up those vacancies, although they were still considered to be a lesser league than the National.  Shortly after this, however, the Western changed its name to the American League, and declined their participation in the National Agreement.  This started a heated bidding war between the two leagues for players, as the American League didn't respect the National's Reserve Claus.
  With the raiding of rosters heating up, teams in lower level leagues began to be concerned for their future, as the salary escalation at the top of the ladder would likely put increased pressure on the bottom lines of the teams and leagues on the lower rungs.
  The National Agreement of 1903 ended the war between the two leagues, and set in place rules for the acquisition of players from other leagues.  Lower levels teams would now be fairly compensated for the players they had taken the time to scout and develop.  And those teams didn't have to sell their players if they didn't want to - but they often did, as such sales were important to teams' financial stability, especially during difficult economic times.  The original agreement included 96 teams across 14 leagues, and organized the leagues according to level of competition, with Class A the highest, and Class D the lowest.
   The "minor" leagues still didn't really exist at this point - this was a term used mostly by reporters from major newspapers.  Lower level teams still viewed themselves as independent businesses, and in this time before mass communications, they had intense followings among local fans.  There still was no formal agreement between leagues - the "major" league teams preferred to leave the "minor" league teams to the task of finding and grooming young players..
  With the stability created by the new National Agreement, the minors were set for a long period of prosperity.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Lawrence Pitches Into the 10th in D-Jays Extra-Inning Victory

  In this day of pitch counts and protecting young arms, complete games in the lower levels of the minors are a rarity.  Dunedin Blue Jays righthander Casey Lawrence didn't toss one in the D-Jays extra inning victory over the Tigers affiliate Lakeland, but he took a four hit shutout into the 10th inning in Florida State League action last night.
   Through 9 innings, Lawrence had thrown only 85 pitches, so Manager Bobby Meacham wasn't hesitant to send him back out for the 10th.  It was only after giving up a two-out single in the 10th, followed by a walk, that Lawrence's day ended after 103 pitches.
   Lawrence got ahead on the hitters, throwing first-pitch strikes to 27 of the 35 hitters he faced.  He struck out two and walked a pair in lowering his ERA to 1.13.  Lawrence induced 13 groundouts on the day. The only time he was in trouble was in the 6th, when he got out of a jam with one out and runners on 2nd and 3rd with a groundout to first and a strikeout.  The 25 year old Lawrence split last year between Dunedin and New Hampshire, with a combined 9-7 record, and a 3.87 ERA.  He made one start for AAA Buffalo in the first week of the season, before being sent back to Dunedin.
   The D-Jays scored in the top of the 13th to top Lakeland, 1-0. Lefthander Tony Davis picked up the victory for Dunedin, who improved their record to 10-4, good enough for a 1 game lead over Brevard County in the FSL's Northern Division.

Bisons Hammer Chiefs in Record-Setting Win

  The wind was blowing out toward left field at Syracuse yesterday, and several pages from the International League record book were blown away as a result, as the visiting Buffalo Bisons hammered the Chiefs 27-9.
  Buffalo native Jim Negrych led the game off with a triple, en route to becoming the first ILer to hit for the cycle in a little under a year.  The two teams combined for 43 hits, with 7 home runs on the day.
   The Bisons set League records for most runs and hits (29) in a nine-inning game.  Their 18-run margin of victory also set a new mark, and their 10 run seventh inning set a club record for most runs in an inning.
  Of the Bisons' 29 hits, 13 were for extra bases.  The Bisons currently lead the IL in most offensive categories, including a line of .333/.406/.531, with 85 runs, 16 home runs, and 212 total bases.
   Negrych finished the day 4-7, and leads the loop in hitting with a .515 average.  Outfielder Moises Sierra went 6-6.  He had three chances to hit the homer he needed to join Negrych in the cycle club.  First Basemen Luis Jimenez was 5-7 with 8 RBI on the day, while Ryan Langerhans homered twice, doubled, and drove in six runs.  The Bisons sent at least 9 batters to the plate in 4 innings, and 8 of the 9 hitters had at least two hits and one RBI.
   Bisons Manager Marty Brown also managed the 2004 Bisons club whose 25 runs in Rochester were surpassed yeseterday, and recalls that the same kind of windy conditions were present that day.
  As would be expected, the pitching staffs on both teams took a hammering.  Bisons starter Edwin Gonzalez allowed 5 runs on 8 hits over 4 innings, while the Chiefs' Tanner Roark gave up 10 runs on 12 hits in 3.2 innings in taking the loss.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A History of the Minor Leagues - Part 1

1969 Midland (Ont) Indians
OBA Champs

   Growing up as a baseball-obsessed lad in Midland, Ontario in the early 1970s, my exposure to live major league action was limited to a mid-week CBC telecast of the Montreal Expos, a weekend Game of the Week on NBC (featuring commentary by Tony Kubek, who was later to be a font of knowledge for me when he broadcast games for the Blue Jays from 1977-89, but was strangely less eloquent in his explanation of the game when he partnered with Joe Garagiola on the NBC games), boxscores and a brief  "Major League Roundup" article in the Toronto Star, and the occasional copy of the Sporting News that I purchased at Parker's Variety downtown.
  The only other games I could watch were either the ones I was playing in, or the Thursday night home games of the Midland Indians, a storied amateur team that played in the York-Simcoe League.  The Indians games were a highlight for me, and instilled a love for that game at the grassroots level that I still have today. Sadly, while my older brother played for the Indians for a few years, the club had folded by the time I would have been old enough to patrol centrefield for them.
   As the 70s progressed, major league baseball came to Toronto, and while we were still limited to one or two televised games per week until the mid 80s, it was a great time to be a young baseball fan.  With the birth of the Blue Jays came a renewed interest in baseball across Canada, and minor league franchises found their way to places like Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton, and even low level minor league teams were based in smaller places like London, St Catharines, and Welland, Ont.  The struggling Canadian dollar made the cost of operating these teams cost ineffective for their major league parents, however, and soon all of those teams had moved south, except for a short season club in Vancouver, although independent league franchises have fared well in places like Winnipeg and Quebec City.
   When I bought those copies of the Sporting News with my hard-earned babysitting money in the 70s, I would spend countless hours poring over statistics from the minor leagues.  The minors and I grew apart in the 80s, but I discovered Baseball America in the 90s, and my love was renewed. Several books I had read over the years talked about life in the minors, at levels like Class B - in one of the best-written baseball books I've ever read, A False Spring, by Pat Jordan, the author details arriving in McCook, Nebraska, in 1959 to play for the local team in the Class D Nebraska State League. As I read stories like these, I began to wonder when the minor leagues had contracted into the four levels they're at now.  How did this process happen ?  Why and when did it happen ?  Which set me on the path to finding the answers to those very questions.
  In researching this topic, I found that the minor leagues have evolved and changed in numerous ways over the past 125 years.  I found that these changes can be grouped into:

The Early Years: 1871-1903
The Golden Years: 1904-29
Struggle for Survival: 1929-46
Rebirth and Renewal: 1946-62
Restructuring and Decline: 1962 -91
Back to Glory: 1991 - present

   This is not to be a definitive study of the history of minor league baseball.  Being employed full-time, and having a not-lightning speed internet connection will limit the scope of my work somewhat.  Just the same, I hope to convey how the minors came to be, and how they evolved from independent entities to fully-indentured servants of the major leagues in posts to come.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Tale of Two Prospects

   Righthander Roberto Osuna and Lefthander Daniel Norris have both been considered top pitching prospects before they even entered the Blue Jays organization.
   The two have followed very different career trajectories to date.
   Osuna and Norris are both with the Lansing Lugnuts of the Low A Midwestern League, the first full-season experience for both.  But while Osuna dazzled in his debut in the Appalachian and Northwest Leagues last year, Norris struggled at both levels.  Both started games in Sunday in the Lugnuts' doubleheader with South Bend, and both continued true to form.
  Osuna started the opener, and while he showed a tendency to rely more on his fastball than his off-speed pitches, he put together a decent outing, with a line of 4.2 IP, 4H, IR, 1 BB, 6 K's, and 1 wild pitch.
On any other day, that might have been good enough for the victory, but on this occasion, local college star Kyle Schepel, in just his 2nd pro appearance (Schepel spent last year in Independent Ball), threw a 7-inning no-hitter against Lansing, with a 5th inning walk the only thing keeping him from perfection.  Osuna took the loss, to even his record at 1-1, with a sparkling 1.86 ERA and 0.72 WHIP.
  Norris did not fare so well in the nightcap, as the Lugnuts fell 8-2.  In 4 innings of work, Norris gave up 4 hits, 5 runs (the key being a 3-run HR to South Bend's Roidany Aguila), walked 1 and struck out 5.  Norris also uncorked a pair of wild pitches, and hit a pair of batters.  While his stuff, by all accounts, was electric as usual, Norris also obviously struggled with his command, forcing him to be too fine when he fell behind hitters.  Norris took the loss to drop his record to 0-1, with a 12.36 ERA.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Slim Pickings in System for Reyes' Replacement

 To be honest, I had gone to bed early, skipping the end of the Jays-Royals game for a few extra hours of sleep, when I checked my Twitter feed one last time before turning out the light.....
  I didn't know that many psuedo medical professionals stayed up to watch and tweet the Jays games. My feed had exploded with reactions (many of them unprintable) to an apparent injury to SS Jose Reyes. A number of instant diagnoses were offered.
  By now, we've all seen countless replays of  Reyes' awkward slide into 2nd.  And while many members of Blue Jays Nation are gnashing their teeth and offering their prognoses on Twitter, the injury does underscore the lack of major-league ready (or close to it) talent in the higher levels of the Minors.
    Adeny Hechevarria, of course, would've been the heir-apparent a year ago, but after a brief apprenticeship with the parent club was shipped off in the blockbuster Miami deal.  That leaves Buffalo shortstop Ryan Goins and New Hampshire's Kevin Nolan as the top prospect candidates.   Goins, at 25, has likely reached his ceiling, and profiles more as a utility player if he reaches the bigs.  Richard Griffin of the Star doesn't believe that Goins can be trusted with the everyday defensive duties of shortstop after watching him play this spring.  Nolan, a hometown Nashua boy, has hit reasonably well at every minor league stop, but he, too, is 25, and has likely crossed the line from prospect to suspect.
   At the lower levels of the system, of course, it's too soon to get a read on most of the Jays' shortstop prospects.  One who is intriguing, and has already cracked many top 20 Jays Prospects lists is Venezuelan Franklin Barreto, who was regarded as the best available international free agent last summer (signed for $1.45 million), but is only 17, and likely destined for the Coast League and perhaps Bluefield of the rookie-level Appalachian league this summer, and is still a number of years away.  Nonetheless, Barreto has drawn rave reviews already, and is a prospect to watch.
   As is the case with most sprains, the swelling in Reyes' ankle likely made a diagnosis based on an MRI after the game difficult.  A more likely scenario is that it will take another week to ten days before the extent of the inury (and how long Reyes will be out) can be determined.  As a probable stop gap measure, the Jays called up veteran Japanese shortstop Munenori Kawasaki from Buffalo after the injury.  Kawasaki has won several Gold Gloves in Japan, and hit .192 with Seattle last year.
   Once the length of Reyes' absence can be determined, the Jays may part with a surplus minor league outfielder (Moises Sierra, Kevin Pillar, Kenny Wilson) to obtain a stopgap shortstop with a better bat.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Daniel Norris and the Prospect Not-So-Hot Sheet

  Lefthander Daniel Norris, #4 on Clutchlings' pre-season Top 10 Prospect list, made Baseball America's weekly "Prospect Hot Sheet," this week, but not in the section he would've liked.
  Norris was widely considered to be one of the top prep southpaws prior to the 2011 draft, and while he continues to show electric stuff on occasion, he has struggled since making his pro debut last June.
  BA's Hot Sheet is a weekly review of who's hot and who's not among minor league prospects.  J.J. Cooper, who compiles the column, writes about Norris that "it's hard to explain how a lefty who can touch 96 mph and pairs it with a breaking ball that show flashes of being a plus pitch can get squared up outing after outing."
   Norris allowed 13 baserunners in 4 IP last week for Lansing of the Midwest League.  And while it should come under the heading of "It's a Small Sample Size," lefthanded hitters have a 2.300 OPS against him this season.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sanchez Dominates Yankees

  In his second start of the young season, top ranked Blue Jays prospect righthander Aaron Sanchez faced one batter over the minimum over the first four innings, enroute to an impressive five inning, no-hit performance against the Tampa Yankees in Florida State League play on Thursday.
   Sanchez walked a pair and struck out three, and recorded 9 groundball outs.  Reports are that he sat at 93-95 with his fastball, and touched 98.  As in his last start, the high (9:1) groundball/flyball ratio indicates that Sanchez again was able to pound the strike zone down low.
 Sanchez did not figure in the decision.

Sierra Off to a Hot Start in Buffalo

  Moises Sierra gained some valuable experience at the Major League level last year, hitting  .224/..274/.378 in 157 plate appearances.  His 49 games took him off the eligible list for Clutchings' Top 10 Prospects this year, but we like to keep tabs on players like him just the same.
  Buoyed by his time with the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, where hit hit .200 in 4 games, Sierra is off to a great start with Buffalo of the AAA International League. While it represents a small sample size, Sierra is hitting .409/.440/.895 in 6 games, with 0 HR and 3 RBI.
 Sierra has been ranked "Best Outfield Arm" at four different minor league stops.

Jays to Move AA affiliate to Ottawa ?

  Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson is hopeful of bringing minor league baseball back to the Nation's Capital, with a Blue Jay connection.
   Watson has meetings scheduled with Blue Jays officials in the hopes of convincing the parent club to move its AA affiliate to the likely-to-be-renamed Ottawa Baseball Stadium.  Watson also is to meet with officials of the Eastern League, which is said to be quite interested in an Ottawa franchise.
   Last September, Ottawa City Council reached an agreement with Beacon Sports Capital Partners on a lease and renovation plan for the stadium that took effect on January 1st of this year.  It is believed that Beacon is acting on behalf of Ryan-Sanders Entertainment, which is owned by Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan and his sons.  Ryan-Sanders already owns and operates a Triple A and Double A franchise. Renovations are said to include an updated scoreboard, upgraded locker rooms, less seating, and a larger playground/picnic area.
  Although the Jays renewed their player-development contract with their current AA club, the Eastern League's New Hampshire Fisher Cats, for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Watson is eager to establish a formal agreement with the Jays.
  According to, Watson said, "We think it would be a win-win situation to have the Jays affiliate with our AA (team)," after a council meeting last night.  "Certainly in our discussions with a lot of fans in Ottawa, they think that without the Jays, it wouldn't be a success because you need to have that high-profile and credible organization like the Jays involved."
  Ottawa has a lengthy minor league history.  The most recent club in be based in Ottawa were the Lynx, which began play in 1993 as a Montreal Expos AAA farm club, playing in the International League.  The Lynx also had affiliations with Baltimore and Philadelphia, before being sold and relocated to Allentown, PA, where they have operated since 2007 as the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.
  With the Jays agreement with New Hampshire in place, a move to Ottawa isn't likely until 2015.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dunedin Jays Off to a Good Start

   The Jays High affiliate, the Dunedin Blue Jays, took 3 of 4 games from their division rivals Clearwater Threshers over the weekend.
   The starting staff led the way, limiting the Threshers offense to a .145 batting average over the series. In 23 IP, Jays' starters allowed only 4 ER, while striking out 18 and walking 6.
    Not to be denied, the Jays' hitters compiled a .289 average over the weekend, in a league known more for its pitching.
  Jesse Hernandez, who allowed only 2 hits and 1 earned run over 6 innings in his first start, while allowing 2 BB and recording 6 K's, takes the mound tonight in the series opener against the Yankees' Tampa club.

Norris Struggles in Low A Debut

    Lefthander Daniel Norris, #4 on Clutchlings' Top 10, struggled in his debut with Lansing of the Midwest League against Bowling Green last night.
  Norris gave up a pair of runs in the bottom of the 1st, and in 3 IP allowed 3 runs on 6 hits, walked a pair, and struck out none, as the Hot Rods edged the Lugnuts 4-3.
  Norris starts the year as the Lugnuts' fifth starter.  The adjustments the organization made to his mechanics last year are still in the "in progress" stage.
  In his blog, Lugnuts broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler felt that Norris did a good job of limiting the damage.
   A case of nerves for Norris last night, perhaps, but given his struggles of last season, not the start he or the organization likely wanted.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Impressive Debuts for Sanchez and Osuna

   While sitting in the right field seats watching R.A. Dickey and Dave Bush get pummeled by the Red Sox, I took consolation in the performances of Top 10 Prospects Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna this weekend.
  On Saturday, Sanchez (#1 on the list) made his High A debut with Dunedin.  In 5 innings pitched, he allowed 3 hits, 1 run, walked one, and struck out 4.  Of note were his 10 groundball outs, which indicates that Sanchez was pounding the strike zone down low with great success.
  Sanchez didn't figure in the decision, though, with the D-Jays falling to Clearwater, 7-3.

   Roberto Osuna (#3) was even more dominant in his Low A debut with Lansing.  Osuna tossed 5 innings, surrendering 2 hits, 1 run (on an inside-the-park homer), walked none, and K'd 8.  Osuna struck out 8 of the 16 hitters (1 over the minimum) he faced. He got the victory as the Lugnuts took the third of four opening series games from Lake County by a score of 7-1.

  And Brett Cecil had another good outing, too.  The Coronas and fajitas at Lone Star after the game helped get over the disappointment of the day, too.

How the Minor Leagues Work

Bowen Field
Home of the Bluefield (Appy)
Blue Jays

   If you’re a hard-core fan, move along, there’s nothing to see here….you should know this.
  If you’re not, here’s a primer on how baseball’s minor leagues work.

  Perhaps no other sport has a development system that is so extensive as baseball's.  One could argue that football, at least the European version, with its series of leagues and promotions is, but that system is not an amalgamated collection of affiliated clubs – it more resembles minor league baseball in the first half of the last century (more on that one in a future post). 
   Baseball’s system of development is a pyramid in shape, with the majority of players in the lowest reaches of the system.  A major league team typically has between 5 and 7 farm clubs, often with several teams on the lower rungs of the ladder, and one at each of the top two levels.  A player right out of high school (or an international free agent, most of whom are signed between the ages of 16 – 18) will typically take 4 to 5 years to make it to the major leagues, whereas a college graduate may only require half  that time.  Most of the lowest levels, of course, are stocked with players who will never progress to the next level.  Teams draft and sign many players who they know will likely not advance, but are needed to fill out rosters.  These players are know as “org” (short for organization) guys.
   The minors are separated into 4 main levels, with a couple of sub-levels in the lowest league.  AAA is the top of the heap, followed by AA and A, and rookie ball.
   Rookie ball is mostly comprised of high school grads and international free agents, with the odd low college draft choice completing the roster. After spring training ends, these players will be kept at the clubs’ minor league complex, where they will take part in drills and practice games – this is referred to as extended spring training. Depending on the location of the minor league complex, teams are entered in the (Florida) Gulf Coast or Arizona Leagues.  This level is  known as short-season league, with a 60 game schedule which begins in late June, and finishes on Labour Day . A number of teams have also opened complexes for top Caribbean prospects in the Dominican Republic (including the Jays).  There is an advanced rookie ball level above this, with teams playing a 72 game schedule.  The Appalachian League (based in West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia), Pioneer League (most teams in and  around where the boundaries of Utah, Idaho, and Montana meet) are the leagues which make up this level. Rookies who have advanced quickly, plus lower-round drafted college seniors play in these leagues.  Most teams have a team in at least one of those the levels.  The Blue Jays will field both a Gulf Coast team and an Appalachian League team in Bluefield, West Virginia
   The next step up is the more advanced short season leagues, which play a similar schedule.. These leagues are stocked with higher round draft choices, players who played in the complex leagues the season before, or players who received an in-season promotion from that lower level.  The Northwest League (teams based in the Pacific Northwest),  and the New York-Penn League make up this level. One of my favourite baseball books is Roger Kahn’s Good Enough to Dream, which chronicles the famed author’s travails as an owner for a season in the early 80s in the NY-Penn league. The Jays’ affiliate at this level is Vancouver of the Northwest League, who have won two consecutive league titles.

   The next rung on the development ladder are the full-season leagues.  Prospects in these leagues get a chance to experience the day-to-day grind and travel that more closely approximates the major leagues. Starting with Class A ball, there are low level and high level leagues.  The Midwest and South Atlantic League make up the former, and the Carolina, Florida State and California Leagues making up the latter.  Most major league clubs have a team at each of the two levels.  Jays prospects play for Lansing, Michigan, of the Midwest League, and the Dunedin Blue Jays of the FSL.
  AA ball is the next stop.  Many teams will group their top prospects at this level, to get them used to one day playing together for the parent club. It’s not unusual for a player to make the jump to the majors from AA. There is no distinction between the AA leagues, which include the Eastern League, Southern League, and Texas League.  The Blue Jays are rumoured to be interested in re-locating their AA team to Ottawa, but for now they are housed at New Hampshire of the EL.

   AAA is one step away from the minors.  Many parent teams use this level more for keeping injury replacements on hand than they do for development, but sometimes players who appear major-league ready but have not had success there make return trips to AAA to further hone their skills. AAA players tend to be older (the median age of this year’s IL is just over 27), and many have had some major league experience.  The International and Pacific Coast Leagues make up this level.  After several years of basing their AAA team in the hitter friendly confines of Cashman Field at Las Vegas of the PCL, where the ball tends to travel further in the thinner mountain air (and the Blue Jays were very hesitant to promote a pitcher there, as a result) , the Jays’ AAA affiliate is now just down the QEW at Buffalo of the IL. This is a much better situation for injury call-ups, who can be in Toronto in an hour and a half, instead of half a day.
   Players in do not necessarily move in lock step from one level to the other.  It depends more on their rate of development.  Some need to repeat at least a half a season with their previous club before moving on.  Pitchers who come to the minors directly from high school tend to be placed on strict pitch counts, so it can take several seasons at Class A before they advance.  Once a high profile prospect shows signs of being ready, they can easily skip a level.  It’s not unusual for a player to be in High A ball, and then in the majors a year and a half later if their development takes off.

   When a player is signed, if he does not advance high enough to be placed on the major league 40-man roster by the end of their fourth year of minor league service (5 years if they were younger than 19 on the June 5 immediately before they signed), he is either eligible for the Rule 5 draft (which is a huge gamble for most clubs – such players cost $50 000, and must be kept on the 25-man major league roster for the whole season – of offer him back to the club they drafted him from for half that price), or may become a minor league free agent.

   Once a player is placed on the 40-man roster, the team has options on him for three seasons.  This means that the major league club can either keep him on the major league roster, or send him back to the minors without having to expose the player to waivers for three seasons.  After those three years, the team is out of options on that player, and he is eligible to be chosen by any other major league team through the waiver process.  From time to time, clubs like the Jays risk losing players like Adam Lind, who is struggling at the big league level and could use some time to get themselves back together in the minors, but has long since run out of options.  All other teams were scared off by Lind’s salary, and he was able to be sent to the minors.
   And development doesn’t necessarily end when the regular season ends.  The top prospects (usually AA or High A players) are invited to play in the Arizona Fall League, which runs from early October to late November.  Other prospects are invited to attend Instructional League camps, which usually last from late September to mid October.  Players who are converting from position player to pitching (or the opposite) are often invited as well, and so are top international prospects who signed after July 2nd, in order to get a taste to the different culture and language.  Arizona Fall League prospects benefit from playing at a high level of competition, while Instructional League players are exposed to some of the best coaching the organization can offer.  From there, some players go on to play Winter Ball in Mexico, the Caribbean, or Australia.

   The Blue Jays have been considered to be among the top farm systems in baseball for the past several years.  This year, with the trade of several of their top prospects, the club has fallen to 22nd in Baseball America’s rankings. This is not to say that there is a dearth of talent in the system, because most experts agree that the Jays have a wealth of talent, but given the deals they made to bolster the big league club, most of the top prospects are considered to be several years away from the minors.  The Blue Jays were one of the most aggressive teams in the most recent player draft, and have one of the largest scouting staffs in baseball.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Who's Where ?

   Today marks Opening Day in most full season minor leagues.
Here's where some of the Top 10 will start the season:

Aaron Sanchez - Dunedin (Florida State League)
Daniel Norris - Lansing (Midwest League)
Roberto Osuna - Lansing
Santiago Nessy - Lansing
John Stilson - New Hampshire (Eastern League)
Marcus Stroman - New Hampshire (when suspension ends mid-May)

Sean Nolin injured his leg toward the end of March, and will likely join New Hampshire when he's healthy.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

2013 Top 10 Prospects

The Top 10
   Ranking the Jays’ top 10 prospects is a little bit like assembling a jigsaw puzzle in the dark.
There are bits and pieces of research available on the web.  Some are fabulous, others are a waste of time.  Some are simply cut and paste jobs from other sites.  Some sites are in bad need of an update.
Some are free and chalk full of information, while others reveal nothing until you break out your wallet..
And then there’s the fact that other than some shaky, hidden camera-like quality videos to watch on MLB Prospect Portal, the reports that are available to compile this list from are second-hand.  At best.
  Then there’s the whole methodology and rationale on how to go about evaluating and compiling the prospects on this list.  Do you go for ceiling, or close to major league readiness ? Or a combination of both ?  Working with young people and trying to project them four to five years down the road is an inexact and risky science.  At the same time, we love potential:  those that are, in the words of General Manager Joanne Gerace in Roger Kahn’s book of the same name, “Good Enough to Dream.”

  Given the above issues, I have endeavoured to put together a list that is the best that I can cobble together from the various sources, and tried to balance both the questions of projection and preparedness.  I am not a major league scout; I have spent a lifetime working with and coaching young people in a variety of sports, including baseball, and I think I can tell an athlete from a non-athlete (that’s a post for another time).
  I have including rankings from the 4 sources I respect the most: Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, and Keith Law.  Probably in that order.  Note:  some rankings had not been updated since December.  Top 100 rankings, where applicable, are included in brackets.

 #1  Aaron Sanchez
7/1/92             6’4” 190 lbs               BR/TR      Acquired:  1st Round (34th), 2010
Baseball America:  1 (65th )            Baseball Prospectus:  1 (32nd)
Fangraphs:  1 (23rd)                         Keith Law:   1 (19th)

  As the final details of the R.A. Dickey trade were being finalized, I was “Klaw’ed” on Twitter:

  Keith Law was not terribly impressed with the above comparison.  Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star, among others, came to my defence moments later.  The Halladay comp came from a pretty credible source - Jays’ pitching co-ordinator Pat Hentgen, who apparently came away quite impressed after a visit to low Class A Lansing to visit the club’s trio of prized arms (Sanchez, Syndergaard, and Justin Nicolino). 
   That Sanchez was viewed as the pick of the crop in the mids of the Jays’ braintrust  became apparent as the other two young arms were dealt in Alex Anthopolous’ overhaul of the parent club.  And while one can argue the relative merits of the three,  in the aftermath of the wheeling and dealing, Sanchez became the consensus pick as the organization’s top prospect.
   Pitching in low class A at the age of 19, Sanchez’ innings were closely monitored.  While he had some command issues, most scouts seem to feel that it was more a product of his youth and the movement on his fastball.
  If he can harness his control difficulties, most agree that Sanchez projects as a future top of the rotation pitcher. 

-throws 3 pitches (Fastball/Change/Curve), all of which grade above average;
-fastball clocks in the mid-90’s, with natural life, down in the zone;
-12-6 curveball;
-loose, easy delivery;

-control problems at times
-difficulty finding a consistent release point
-still more of a “thrower” in some scouts’ eyes.

#2 Marcus Stroman
5/1/91           5’9” 185lbs       BR/TR              Acquired: 1st round (22nd overall) 2012
Baseball America:   3rd                                   Baseball Prospectus:  6th
Fangraphs:  7th                                                Keith Law:  3rd

    One day, the 2012 draft may be seen as the tipping point for the Blue Jays.  While the details represent a post for another time, it changed the club’s drafting strategy immensely.  The club opted to roll the dice, and took a number of high-risk/high reward picks.
  Like Marcus Stroman.
  While many detractors were concerned about his size, Stroman was labeled among the most major-league ready of all the draft prospects.  And with a rash of injuries to the major league staff, Stroman appeared on his way to a September call up, after stops in short season and AA ball…..
   Until a positive drug test in late August resulted in a 50 game suspension.
  Never mind that the steroid in question isn’t prohibited in the major leages (he wasn’t on the 40 man roster at that point).  Apparently, it was a supplement he bought from a GNC-type store (he now wisely allows the Jays training staff to program his dietary regimen).  Now, some may doubt, but as the parent of two high level athletes, I’m amazed at the products they add to their smoothies – legally, it seems, because they have to be tested throughout their seasons – yet I could see how they could easily purchase and ingest something that was on the banned substances list without knowing it.  As a result, I’m prepared to give Stroman the benefit of the doubt.  In an interview with Griffin this spring, he seemed genuinely contrite for his actions.
  Despite concerns about his size, Stroman throws a plus fastball, and his slider has been tagged as his out pitch.  The question is what his role will be.  There are those who feel his fastest path to the bigs is via the bullpen.
  Pleased with his progress, the Jays allowed him to pitch in a game toward the end of spring training against the Pirates, where he threw two hitless innings, and impressed many.

-fastball that sits in the 92-93 range
-slider in the low 80s with “nasty movement” to both sides of the plate

-lack of downward plane on the fastball due to height
-lack of movement on fastball

#3 Roberto Osuna
2/7/1995         6’2” 230 lbs                 BR/TR              Acquired:  FA 2010 ($1.5m)
Baseball America: 2nd                         Baseball Prospectus: 4th
Fangraphs:  2nd                                   Keith Law:  2nd (87th overall)

   A year from now, I may kick myself for not ranking Osuna first or second on this list, but his age, coupled with Stroman’s apparent major-league readiness, have him in the 3 spot.
   There’s a lot to like with this kid:  a plus fastball (92 – touches 94), that he can cut, giving him  movement, an advanced change-up for his age, and a slider that from all accounts has improved dramatically.
   And then there are the gems he twirled last season:  in his short-season debut with Vancouver, he struck out 13 of 17 hitters he faced (many of them college players), and gave up only one hit over 5 innings – at the age of 17.  He was similarly dominant in two playoff starts, and got the victory for Lansing in front of 12 000 fans in an exhibition game against Michigan State.
    So….what’s not to like ?  Well, his size, for starters.  Already a big boy, scouts have expressed concerns about his conditioning as he matures.  He has reportedly worked hard to stay in shape, however. 
 And some have expressed concerns about his mechanics.  The start of Osuna’s delivery is smooth and compact, but he finishes with a somewhat violent motion, and there are those who worry about the stress that torque might put on his shoulder.
  Still, there’s so much to like.  He’s just (hopefully) quite a few years away.  If he were American, Osuna wouldn’t even be draft eligible until 2014.  There’s plenty of projection with this kid, but as with all youngsters, he’s bound to have some downs with his ups along the way.

-throws three plus pitches
-advanced command and feel, especially with his changeup
-mechanics – stress on shoulder

#4 Daniel Norris
4/25/1993       6’2” 180 lbs                 BL/TL               Acquired:  2nd Rd 2011 Draft
Baseball America:  NR (pre-trade rankings)            Baseball Prospectus:  7th
Fangraphs:  6th                                                  Keith Law:  NR

  Yet another roll of the dice for the Jays’ scouting staff.
Widely considered to be among the top prep lefthanders in the 2011 draft, signability concerns led Norris to slip the the 2nd round, where the Blue Jays gave him 2 million reasons to forego his commitment to Clemson (and helped the club get over the inability to strike a deal with top pick Tyler Beede).
   Because he signed only hours before the mid-August deadline, Norris’ professional debut was delayed until to 2012.  And the results were decidedly mixed.
   Norris throws three pitches that can be considered plus.  His fastball touches 96, his changeup sits mid 80s with some movement, and his curve (when it’s on), features a sharp bite.
  He had trouble, at times, commanding his curve last year, and some inconsistency with his delivery may have led to a whopping 8.44 ERA (albeit in just 42 innings).  Some scouts suggest that his overall performance was solid (as his peripheral numbers would suggest), and that he was victimized by a few big innings.
   Norris is ranked by many as a potential front of the rotation starter if he can iron out the command and release point issues.  He still is a considerable distance away from the majors.

-electric fastball;
-already features 3 plus pitches;
-hitters sit on his fastball when he can’t command his curve;
-still working on consistently repeating his delivery;

#5 Sean Nolin
12/26/1989     6’5” 235 lbs        BL/TL            Acquired: 6th Rd, 2010 Draft
Baseball America: NR*                      Baseball Prospectus:  2nd  (97th)
Fangraphs:  7th                                    Keith Law: 5th

    No other pitcher, perhaps no other player period, made as much progress over the course of the 2012 minor league season as Nolin did. He dominated High A ball with Dunedin, with a 9-0 record and a 2.19 ERA, and didn’t miss a beat when promoted to AA New Hampshire in August, posting a win and 2 no-decisions in 3 starts.  If the injury bug rears its ugly head again with the major league staff, Nolin may be among the first call-ups.
   At the same time, at the age of 23, there’s a feeling that Nolin may have come close to reaching his ceiling.  His fastball grades as average, as does his curve and slider, and Nolin has a  changeup that KLaw terms “fringy.”  In fact, Law sees more value for Nolin in a relief role.  Most
rankings have him as a fourth starter. Just the same, he missed a lot of bats last year.
   Besides Stroman, Nolin may be the most major-league ready prospect in the organization.

-could likely step into a major league bullpen with little difficulty;
-could see a higher ceiling if he can better develop his secondary pitches;

-average fastball; lack of secondary pitches at the moment;
-not much more room for projection;

#6 D.J. Davis
7/24/1994       6’ 180 lbs        BL/TR                          Acquired: 1st Rd (17th overall) 2012 draft
Baseball America: 9th                                     Baseball Prospectus: 5th
Fangraphs: 5th                                                 Keith Law: 7th

   Most scouts would agree that Davis is a premium athlete, and he may have been the fastest player in the 2012 draft.  He was labeled as the best Mississippi high school draftee since Charlie Hayes.  Davis progressed through three leagues, ending the season in the short season Northwest League. 
    He’s the highest-ranked position player in the organization. So why don’t I have him ranked higher ? 
     Again, I call on the genius of KLaw:

   This is not to say that I’m not a believer; Davis may be the least major-league ready position player prospect on this list.  Most lists have him ahead of Nolin; I would have him behind Matt Smoral if not for the fact that he hasn’t thrown a minor league inning yet.
   Why am I hesitant to be higher on Davis, then?  Despite his speed, there have been more than a few suggestions that he doesn’t get good reads or take effective routes to flyballs, and his arm doesn’t grade out high enough to overcome those misjudgements.  Others have suggested that he still has much to learn as a base stealer, as well.  And his bat is projected to be more of a line-drive type, with limited power.
   At the same time, many comparisons have been made with Kenny Lofton.  Of course, Lofton played only a handful of college games, and didn’t make his major league debut until he was 24 years old.  All of which means that there’s still plenty of time for Davis.  He’s just very raw at the moment.

-speed to burn; could become an impact player offensively and defensively;
-elite athlete; lots of projection;

-incredibly raw – will need plenty of development time;
-power and arm grade out as average, at best, at the moment;

#7 Matt Smoral
3/18/1994       6’8” 230 lbs                 BL/TL               Acquired: Ist Rd (Comp) (50th) 2012 draft
Baseball America:  NR*                                 Baseball Prospectus:  7th
Fangraphs:  9th                                                Keith Law:  4th

   Not even Marcus Stroman symbolized the Jays’ 2012 high risk/high reward draft philosophy more than Ohio prep lefty Matt Smoral.  Ranked among the top high school southpaws heading into the draft, a freak accident during a spring trip to South Carolina with his High School team led to a stress fracture in his foot, and subsequent surgery, which ended his senior year after only one start.
   As a result, Smoral fell to the Compensation Round of the draft, where the Blue Jays were able to persuade him from playing college ball for North Carolina, thanks to a $2 million bonus.
   Smoral’s fastball touches 95, and his slider hits the mid 80s, with plenty of sink to right-handers.  Opinions about his changeup vary; some call it a work in progress, while others call it an above-average pitch. 
   Madison Bumgarner is the comp most frequently made to Smoral.  While his path to the majors may not be as rapid as Bumgarner’s was, Smoral has plenty of room for projection.  Many scouts view him as a front of the rotation, power type of pitcher.  He, too, is a number of years away.

-plus fastball already;
-potential power pitcher;

-command/control issues
-hasn’t pitched in over a year

#8 Adonys Cardona
1/16/1994       6’1” 170 lbs                 BR/TR              Acquired: FA 2010 ($2 mill)
Baseball America: NR                                    Baseball Prospectus: NR
Fangraphs: NR                                    Keith Law: 8th

 So, it’s my turn to go out on a limb.
Cardona was widely considered the top hurler in the 2010 International Free Agent class.The Blue Jays signed him to a $2.8 million bonus, the highest ever for a Venezuelan Free Agent.  Higher than Felix Hernandez, or Jesus Montero, to name a few.
   To date, the results don’t seem to have borne out this bonus prophesized, through through a combination of arm soreness and the Jays’ cautious approach.
   Cardona was only 16 years old when he was signed, so the slow path of development is understandable.  After being kept in Florida for extended spring training for a second year, Cardona was sent to Bluefield of short season ball, where he pitched only 15 innings before arm soreness shut him down for the season.  In his less than 50 IP of pro ball, he has demonstrated some command issues.
  Given that he hasn’t demonstrated a lot beyond a lack of arm strength to this point, it is not easy to defend his inclusion in this list.  Just the same, he oozes projection.  Cardona already touches 95 mph with his fastball, and several sources describe his 12-6 curve as a “hammer.” Cardona has an easy delivery and sound mechanics, and his overhead arm slot creates a good downward plane on his pitches.  His changeup is not at the same level of development, but there is hope, given his age, that it will come.  Watching video of Cardona, the ball seems to explode out of his hand.
  With the plan for Cardona to continue to build his arm strength this year, his innings will again likely be limited and closely monitored.  He still projects as a front end of the rotation starter.

-plenty of projection; still growing and maturing;
-fastball already can hit 95;

-still needs to develop arm strength; hasn’t thrown many innings yet;
-control issues;

#9  John Stilson
7/28/90           6’3” 200 lbs                 BR/TR              Acquired: 3rd Rd 2011 draft
Baseball America:  5th                        Baseball Prospectus: NR
Fangraphs:  11th                                  Keith Law:  NR

   In early 2011, Stilson was projected as a possible first-round pick.  The Texas A&M product had led NCAA Division 1 pitchers with a microscopic 0.80 ERA in 2010.  A torn labrum in May caused him to slip to the 3rd round.  Surgery was initially prescribed, but a regimen of rest and rehab was later ordered, postponing Stilson’s pro debut until 2012.
  Stilson progressed through two levels last season, ending his year with AA New Hampshire.  His numbers would suggest that he tired as the season wore on, which wouldn’t be a surprise.
  He throws two pitches which have been graded as plus.  Stilson’s fastball sits between 93 and 96 mph, and his changeup (which BA described as “wipeout”) has great sink to righthanders.  He also throws a slurvy type of breaking ball, which he can change speeds on to be a curve or slider.
   While the Blue Jays have cleaned up Stilson’s mechanics, there is still concern that his delivery, with a cross body action, is quite violent, and could lead to further injury down the road.
   His quickest path to the major leagues could be as a reliever.  He has the type of batt-missing power arm the Jays covet in the bullpen.

-potential power arm, with plus fastball
-devastating changeup

-injury history; mechanics concerns
-some control issues last year

   #10 Santiago Nessy
8/12/1992       6’2” 230 lbs                 BR/TR              Acquired:  FA (2009)
Baseball America:  NR                       Baseball Prospectus:  NR
Fangraphs:  8th                                    Keith Law:  10th  

    Baseball is a game of timing.  With the trade of a pair of catchers ahead of him on the depth chart (D’Arnaud and Perez), and the injury (Jimenez – may be limited to DH duty at New Hampshire for the first part of the season due to Tommy John surgery), Nessy’s path to the major leagues may be a lot clearer and quicker. He might soon be in the right place at the right time.
  Nessy, the 10th ranked prospect in the rookie level Appalachian League with Bluefield, will likely reach the majors because of his bat, although his defence has come a relatively long way.  Despite his size, reports suggest that he has improved greatly at blocking balls in the dirt.  Working with the legendary Sal Fasano, Nessy’s game-calling ability has drawn rave reviews.  His arm grades out as plus, and he threw out 33% of baserunners last year.
  Nessy’s swing can be a little long, and selectivity at the plate appears to be a concern. He shows an ability to drive the ball, just the same.
   Nessy is still quite young for a catcher, and still very raw.  His development will likely take a very slow and gradual progression, despite the openings above him.

-offensive abilities;
-leadership qualities; level of effort to improve
-despite improvement, offence still ahead of defence;
-despite pop in bat, a better approach at the plate is needed;