Friday, May 31, 2013

Updates on Smoral, Sanchez, and Osuna

   Thanks to Shi Davidi of Sportsnet, there is some good news/bad news regarding the progress of three prized injured Jays' pitching prospects.
   Smoral, the 6'8" lefthander who was a sandwich round pick (thanks, Frank Francisco) in 2012, dropped in the draft because of a foot injury, and concerns that he was college bound.  In other words, a good fit with the Jays' high-risk, high-reward draft strategy.  Smoral sat out the entire 2012 season while he recovered from surgery to correct the problem, which had dogged him since his junior year in high school.  Jays pitching instructor Pat Hentgen came away from watching Smoral throw in a bullpen session at extended spring training highly impressed.  "Sometimes when you stand behind the pitcher, the ball looks small," he told Davidi.  "Smoral (has) that bb effect, where the ball just looks small."
   Smoral will likely open the year in a few weeks with the Gulf Coast Jays in the complex rookie ball league.  If all goes well, a mid-season promotion to Bluefield in the higher rookie league Appalachian League will likely be in the works.
   Righthander Aaron Sanchez, the Jays' first round choice in 2012, and Clutchlings' top-ranked prospect, was placed on the minor league 7-day disabled list earlier this month, is doing well, according to GM Alex Anthopolous.  Anthopolous told Davidi that Sanchez "feels great, he doesn't have any pain, any soreness, so he should get going here soon."  Sanchez, in 9 starts with High A Dunedin, is 2-2 with a 3.16 ERA.  In 42 innings, Sanchez has allowed 25 hits, and 16 walks, with 37 strikeouts.  Florida State League hitters are batting .166 against him.
   Placing Sanchez on the DL was likely a precaution by the Jays, who monitor their lower level prospects' pitch counts and innings closely. Some suggest that Sanchez is just going through a "dead arm" period.  The Jays aren't taking any chances, just the same.
   Osuna, Clutchlings' #3 prospect, was also shut down earlier this month.The 18 year-old Mexican righthander is one of the youngest players in the Midwest League this year, and isn't even of draft age until next year.  Osuna was sent from Lansing back to extended spring training after being placed on the DL, with a program of rest and light throwing prescribed to try to rehabilitate his ulnar collateral ligament, which was torn as indicated by an MRI.  Facing the prospect of Tommy John surgery, Osuna has started throwing again, but hasn't faced live hitters, and there are no plans for him to do so.  Osuna is 1-2 with a 3.63 ERA with Lansing this season, striking out 31 and only walking 4 in 22 innings.  If he proceeds with the surgery, Osuna likely won't return to action until the 2015 season.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Two Prospects, Two Different Results

   Last night, righhander Marcus Stroman showed that he may not be as close to major league readiness as had been originally thought, while lefthander Daniel Norris demonstrated that he may be closer.
   Duke grad Stroman, the Jays 1st pick in the 2012 draft, missed 50 games last year and this for a positive PED test.  After a pair of promising relief outings for the Jays at the end of spring training, and a pair of impressive starts coming off his suspension for AA New Hampshire, Stroman was hit early and often by Portland last night, giving up 7 earned runs on 8 hits, while walking one and striking out 2 in just an inning in taking the loss.  For the season with the Fisher Cats, Stroman is 1-1, with an 8.10 ERA bloated by last night's shellacking.  After the recall of Chad Jenkins and Sean Nolin by the parent club, some thought Stroman might be next to get the call.  This start likely shows that he still needs to gain some experience and arm strength that will come with further seasoning at AA.
   Norris, the Jays 2nd pick in 2011, had well-documented struggles in his first pro season last year, and through his first several starts with Low A Lansing this season.  Over his past 4 starts for the Lugnuts, however, his stuff has been electric.  Last night against Fort Wayne, Norris gave up just a run on 4 hits over 4 innings, allowing 4 hits and 3 walks, while recording 6K's before reaching his pitch limit.  Over his past 4 starts, Norris is 0-1 with a 1.13 ERA and 1.38 WHIP.  In 37 innings this season, Norris has struck out 43, and last night's start lowered his ERA to 5.79.  Norris may be farther away from the bigs than Stroman is, but his performance this past month has shown glimpses of his vast potential.

Alford Off to the GCL

   The Blue Jays pursued a strategy in last year's draft that saw them roll the dice, and they looked for high-risk, high-reward prospects.  They took Duke righthander Marcus Stroman with their first choice, a pitcher who some viewed as the closest to major league ready among all 2012 draftees, but possibly had a limited ceiling due to his hieght.
In the 2nd round, they took Ohio high school pitcher Matt Smoral - Smoral had been projected as a first round pick, but the lefthander tumbled to the Jays in the sandwich round because of a foot injury and signability concerns.
   With their 3rd pick, the Jays reached outside the box once more and took Mississippi multiple-sport star Anthony Alford.  A three-time state high school player of the year for Pearl High School, most teams were turned off by Alford's stated intent to play quarterback at Southern Mississippi. There was no doubt about Alford's talent: Baseball America had him ranked as the 36th best prospect prior to the 2012 draft; Keith Law had him at #48.  He was widely considered a 5-tool player, but there was that football thing. The gambling Jays agreed to allow Alford to leave baseball early in August to chase his football dream, and he signed and reported to Florida.
   The Jays assigned him to their Gulf Coast rookie team, where he hit .167/.250/.333 in only 20 plate appearances.
   And then things began to fall apart for Alford. He started five games for Southern Miss, but the team scuffled along to an 0-12 record.  In November, Alford was arrested for campus police for aggravated assault, a charge which was later reduced.  The Golden Eagles released Alford from his scholarship in December, and reports in the new year indicated that he would be enrolling at Ole Miss.  At spring practice, he played safety, before reporting to extended spring training last week.
   Alford told Jason Munz of the Hattiesburg American that he would be reporting to the GCL Jays when their season opens in June, and then would be heading to short season Vancouver.  Given his inexperience and lack of ABs this spring, that timetable may be wishful thinking.  Bluefield might be a more likely destination than the Northwest League, which is made up mostly of college grads.
   Clutchlings has been hesitant to rank Alford as a top prospect because of his football commitment and personal issues, but it will be truly interesting to watch his development this summer.

The History of Minor League Baseball: Restructuring and Decline 1962-1991

   Minor league baseball entered the 1960s now completely dependent on support from the major leagues in order to survive.  Television and expansion had eroded and/or taken away the biggest minor league markets.
Attendance continued its steep decline from the mid 1950s, and by 1962, the National Association had shrunk to 20 leagues and 132 clubs.
   With the folding of so many teams and leagues, another reorganization of the minor league classification system was necessary by 1963, leaving us with something looking very much like the system we have today:
   At the top was Triple A, followed by Double A and Single A leagues.  A rookie level was created below that for players in their first year of pro ball. All levels below Class A were disbanded, with some of the leagues joining the new classifications.
   A new Player Development plan was implemented, whereby major league teams agreed to financially support at least 5 minor league teams by subsidizing player salaries, team travel expenses, and club officials' salaries.
  The number of leagues stayed fairly stable for much of this time period. The number of teams grew modestly after rounds of expansion in 1969 and 1976.  For their part, major league teams likely appreciated the lower expense of maintaining five or six teams, as opposed to the empires of upwards of 20 teams clubs like the Dodgers and Yankees owned all or part of in the 30s and 40s.
  Marketing was not nearly as intensive as it is for minor league teams now. In 1971, for example, the Philadelphia Phillies had 6 farm teams, with 5 of them using the Phillies nickname.  Similarly, teams invested little in stadium infrastructure, with many teams playing in municipally-owned facilities that dated back to the 30s or 40s.
   As a result, there were many who felt that the lower levels of minor league ball might not survive, and might even be replaced by college baseball, which had steadily been growing in popularity in the 60s and 70s.
   With the outlook bleak, something remarkable happened: minor league baseball experienced a huge turnaround and a resulting boom in the 1980s.  Many point to Buffalo as being the turning point.  The city lost a major league expansion franchise because of the stadium they were to play in, aging War Memorial, built in 1937, and expanded many times over the years.
   The stadium (known not always affectionately as The Rockpile) fell into rapid decline in the 1970s, when the NFL Bills vacated War Memorial for suburban Rich Stadium, because the stadium was deemed unacceptable by the terms of the NLF-AFL merger.  Buffalo businessman Robert Rich, Jr, in a bout of civic pride, built downtown Pilot Field to house the International League's Bisons.  In 1988, the Bisons shattered the minor league single-season attendance mark, drawing over 1 million fans.  That same year, the Kevin Costner blockbuster Bull Durham brought renewed interest in minor league baseball.
   A new round of stadium construction across the NAPBL soon followed, and the stage was set for another rebirth and re-emergence of the minor leagues.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Not So Fast, Ottawa: AA ball is Farther Away Than Thought

AA coming to the Nation's Capital ? Not so fast.....

The City of Ottawa moved rapidly to bring minor league ball back to the Nation's Capital after city council gave its blessing last fall.  After consulting with a number of groups in private talks, however, it seems that the plan has had a major setback, and the city is not ready to host a team for several years.
   The Blue Jays Player Development contract with their AA Eastern League affiliate in New Hampshire expires after the 2014 season.  Moving the club to Ottawa made sense for a number of reasons, including proximity to Toronto (many major league clubs prefer to assign their top prospects to AA ball), and the Jays' popularity in the National Capital Region would make for a good fit from a marketing perspective.
  The city has come to realize, however, that development of the existing stadium is a bigger project than had been originally thought. The city had floated the idea of developing the parking lot beside the stadium into a residential development to help pay for the renovations, but the loss of parking spaces while a new underground lot is built would be detrimental to the new team. After the AAA Lynx left the city following the 2007 season, the owners indicated that losing parking spaces was a huge problem for the team.  The renovations would come in at a minimum of just under $6 million to develop the stadium into a "total experience."
   Another problem with the stadium site is its relatively inaccessible location. A new rail line, with a planned pedestrian bridge to the park, is in the works.
   So it would take a minor miracle for Ottawa to come up with the funds to finance and complete the needed renovations by the spring of 2014, or even 2015. The Jays will likely have to either renew with New Hampshire for 2 more years, or negotiate with another AA club (preferable in the Eastern League) when their current PDC expires.  The city is taking the longer view, hoping to put something in place that will attract and keep a minor league team for a long time, but the timing may not be right for a Jays AA affiliate in Ottawa for several more years.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Deconstructing Nolin

   New Hampshire Fisher Cats lefthander Sean Nolin became the first of Clutchlings' pre-season Top 10 Blue Jays prospects to graduate to the major leagues last week, when he was summoned for a Friday home start against the Orioles.
   That Nolin was called up was not a huge surprise; much of the talent ranked ahead of him is a level or two below him.  And despite missing April with an injury, he was tabbed by several publications in March to be one of the first call-ups for the big club. He had been dominant in 3 May starts at AA.
   Just the same, watching the first of our Top Prospect list make it to the majors was a little like watching your child about to walk across the stage at their high school graduation.  Except that in this case, given the results of Nolin's start, it was more like watching your kid trip on their gown as they climbed the stairs, and  tumble into the dais, knocking down the presenter, and a few faculty members in a domino-like sequence.

   Nolin lasted but an inning and a third in his major league debut, giving up 6 earned runs, 7 hits, and 1 walk, with no strikeouts.  Nolin threw 35 pitches, 22 for strikes.  A little troubling is the fact that he generated only 1 swing and miss - he didn't miss many bats.  I leave it up to the true sabermaticians to quantify the reasons for Nolin's struggles that day, but it comes down to this:  Nolin, who admitted that he was more than pumped up for this game, likely showed a case of nerves, and while throwing mainly two and four seamer fastballs, had his troubles hitting the strike zone - and when he did, especially to righthanded hitters, caught too much of the strike zone.

   We feel particularly bad for Nolin's parents, who drove for 10 hours to watch their son's brief MLB debut.
At the same time, even though he was sent back to New Hampshire after the game (which was likely the plan all along), Nolin has skyrocketed through the minors, and will be back at some point in the next calendar year.  He last lost a game at Low A in 2011, going a perfect 10-0 at two levels.  Thus far at New Hampshire, he is 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA, with 16Ks in 15 innings.
   We have a huge number of friends who are Jays fans, and many (incorrectly) criticized Nolin's promotion after the game.  This was not a situation like Ricky Romero's in April (and man, now that you think about it, some front office people really need to be called to account on judging him ready after one start at High A), when desperation was a factor.  With injuries wreaking havoc with the big club's starting staff, we had wondered earlier this month if former top prospect Deck McGuire might be in line for a promotion after a nice little series of good outings, but he's been  roughed up a bit in his last couple of starts.  Nolin was the best option available (the Buffalo Bisons are not in 2nd place in the International League's Northern Division on the strength of their starting pitching), and even though down the road he may profile better as a reliever (Keith Law rates his change up as "fringy"), it's easy to understand why the parent club put out the call for him.  He's had a pretty dominant run over the past season and a bit.
   Marc Hulet of Fangraphs  doesn't think Nolin's recall was as logical as I do:

   (T)he promotion of Nolin may not be in the best long-term interests of the club or the young pitching prospect.
From a business standpoint, Nolin doesn’t have to be added to the 40-man roster until after the season. If he gets called up this year — prior to roster expansion on Sept. 1 — it presumably won’t be to stay so he’ll burn his first of three option years. Perhaps more importantly, the southpaw opened the year on the disabled list and has made just three starts in 2013, as well as just six starts above A-ball (including last year) for his career.

   With Josh Johnson and J.A. Happ injured, Romero getting pounded in Buffalo, and much of the organization's depth at many positions depleted in an effort to bolster the major league roster, Nolin is about all there is available at this time.   
   The best thing for Nolin is for him to continue to build his arm strength at New Hampshire, and continue to work on his change.  And forget about the outing against Baltimore.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Serving Up More Mock Draft


   With just under three weeks to go before the major league draft, the possible choices for the Blue Jays, who hold the 10th pick, are becoming a little clearer.
   One player, lhp Sean Manaea of Indiana State, has seen his stock fall out the top ten due to ankle, hip, and shoulder injuries.
   Five others have clearly established themselves from the pack, and will in all likelihood be off the board when the Jays get ready to pick:
    -Oklahoma rhp Sonny Gray
    -Stanford rhp Mark Appel
    -San Diego 3B Kris Bryant
    -North Carolina 3B Colin Moran
    -Georgia HS OF Clint Frazier

    After that, it gets interesting.  Several players are in the mix for the next few picks, including:
    -Texas HS rhp Kohl Stewart
    -Indiana HS lhp Trey Ball
    -Georgia HS OF Austin Meadows
    -Washington HS C Reese McGuire
    -Nevada rhp Braden Shipley
    -Oral Roberts rhp Alex Gonzalez

   One player who the Jays had reportedly been looking closely at was Mississippi State OF Hunter Renfroe, who has slumped badly this spring, and has seen his stock tumble.
   Of the latter group, many mock drafts we've read have had the Jays selecting Ball or Meadows, which would fit nicely with the organization's preference for high-ceiling players. We find Stewart to be the most intriguing prospect, but he's unlikely to still be available when it's the Jays turn to pick.
   Meadows is tall, athletic, and projectable.  He is said to have an advanced approach at the plate, and has plenty of speed.  He should add power as he matures. It's easy to visualize him patrolling the centrefield turf (grass one day, maybe?) of the Rogers Centre by 2016.
   Ball is a 6'6" stringbean who also oozes projection. A multi-sport player, Ball hopes to be given the chance to make it as an outfielder, but most teams that have scouted him are planning on drafting him as a pitcher.  He has hit 96 with his fastball this spring, and both his curve and change have been graded as plus pitches.  He should add to that fastball as he grows and fills out.
   McGuire profiles with an above average bat from the left side, and has plus defensive skills.With two of the organization's top catching prospects (D'Arnaud and Perez) dealt in the past year in deals to strengthen the big league club, McGuire could rise very quickly in the system.
   Shipley features three above average pitches (fb/curve/change).  His fastball has been described as major-league ready, and has hit 96 this spring.  His is the kind of power arm the club has been trying to stockpile.
   Gonzalez, of course, would be the 3rd A Gonz to play for the Jays if he made it to the majors.  He has quietly and steadily worked his way up into top (or close to it) 10 territory.  He's yet another power arm.
    Clutchlings will continue to follow the various mock drafts as the MLB draft approaches next month.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Daniel Norris: Finding His Groove

  We here at Clutchlings feel pretty protective about the prospects we cover.  Daniel Norris is among them.
   Norris appeared on Baseball America's weekly Prospect Hot Sheet earlier this season - and not in a good way.  In the "not so hot" section, BA asked how someone with Norris' stuff gets lit up so often.
A valid question, given his less than awesome performance over the first year and a bit of pro ball.
In 2012, Norris sported a record of 2-4 8.44 at two short season levels.  Over his first 4 starts this season with Low A Lansing (on limited pitch counts), Norris was 0-1, with an ERA of 12. An inability to get ahead in the count in some innings led largely to the inflated ERA.
  Over his past 6 starts, however (if you discount a disastrous outing against Dayton), Norris has been lights out: 0-1, with a 1.44 ERA in 25 innings, in which he's given up 21 hits, 15 walks, and has struck out 31.
  His most recent start was easily the best of his young career.  Against Great Lakes, Norris struck out 10 over 4 innings, allowing no runs, and giving up 3 hits and 2 walks.  Norris told that a relaxed mindset, with the help of pitching coach Vince Horsman, has been a key part of the turnaround:.

"Vince and I had a talk and he basically said, 'Enough is enough. Your stuff is too good to be giving up the hits and runs you're giving up, you've gotta trust your stuff.' And it hit home. I was sick of the results I was getting. He said, 'Don't think about your mechanics, just go out and throw and have fun.' I've done that and it's actually helped make my mechanics better."

   As a result, Norris reached #6 on this week's edition of BA's Hot Sheet.  Norris was chosen by the Jays in the 2nd round of the 2011 draft.  Earlier this season, we compared Norris with righthander Tyler Beede, the Jays first round choice that year, who spurned the Jays offer in favour of Vanderbilt.  And while Beede has likely claimed a top 10 spot in the 2014 draft, Norris has begun to close the gap between the two.
   With teammate Roberto Osuna possibly facing Tommy John surgery, and Dunedin's Aaron Sanchez on the 7-day DL with what is believed to be dead arm symptoms, Norris at least temporarily takes over the mantle of the Jays' top pitching prospect.

Bye Bye Balbino

   The Lansing Lugnuts gave First Baseman Balbino Fuenmayor his release yesterday.
Fuenmayor received a $750 000 bonus from the Jays as a 16 year old in 2007. In 7 minor league seasons, none of which were above Low A ball, the Venezuelan hit .248/.293/.396.  He was hitting .208 with 4 HR and 17 RBI in 108 AB with Lansing this year.
   Originally signed as a third baseman, Fuenmayor eventually outgrew the position, and was moved across the diamond to first in 2009.  He was the Jays player of the year with the Gulf Coast Jays in 2008, when he hit .307/.360/.458.  That was probably the high point of his career.
   Fuenmayor is a big kid, and he probably became too big.  There are several reports of him losing weight, gaining weight, etc.  Other reports suggest he was a batting practice monster.  Obviously, he has huge holes in his swing. At 23, he's still young enough to catch on with another organization.  
   $750K, in the grand scheme of things, isn't that much to pay for an elite player.  When it goes to a 16 year-old Internationl signee, though, one has to wonder.  Predicting future success for high school and college grads is hard enough. It's hard to believe its possible at that young age.  Kids develop at varying rates, and a standout at 16 could be an org guy at 20.  The Blue Jays have been as aggressive as anyone in the IFA sweepstakes in the past few years, going after the high risk, high reward prospects they seem to have a preference for.  Maybe it nets them a Jurickson Profar, or more likely a  Mario Martinez.
   As for Fuenmayor, hopefully he can catch on with another MLB team, or maybe a Caribbean team. At 23 years of age, he's devoted the last 7 years of his young life to his dream of reaching the gigs, but time is running out.  We hope he's invested his bonus wisely.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Grow the Arms and Buy the Bats?: A Look at the Jays' Top Positional Prospects

     It's no secret by now that the top Blue Jays prospects currently toiling in the minors can be found on the mound.  Aaron Sanchez, John Stilson, Sean Nolin, Marcus Stroman, and Derek Norris are among the brightest lights in the system.  After using the farm system to bolster the major league club, the Jays fell sharply in most organizational rankings, although with this depth of pitching, it's hard to believe they won't be ranked higher in a year. You have to dig a little deeper to find the best everday prospects, though.
    Why is this ?  Does this reflect an organizational philosophy of choosing the best young arms come draft day, slowly and carefully developing them in the minors, then keeping the best while using the rest as trade fodder ?  Or is it because impact everyday players are hard to find, develop, and keep ?  Are pitchers easier to scout and nurture ?
   If you look at the Jays' current starting line-up, it's hard not to lean toward the latter.  In looking at the Opening Day line-up, we find two successful reclamation projects (Bautista and Encarnacion), two free agents (Cabrera and Izturis), 3 acquired by trade (Bonafacio, Reyes, and Rasmus), and two "home-grown" players (Arencibia and Lind).  When time warrants, I would like to devote some more research to this premise, but it would look like for most teams, developing solid, "above replacement" level players is difficult.

   So, if we take a look at the Blue Jays organization from a positional player point of view,  here is a brief summary of the top prospects:

1.  D. J. Davis OF
   And this is a hard one to get a read on, of course, because Davis is still in extended spring training.  Davis doesn't turn 19 until mid-July, and hit .250/.355/.386 in 3 stops in short season ball last year. He looked very overmatched in a brief stint with Vancouver last year, playing in a league of mostly college grads.  Davis has outstanding tools, including premium speed.  His arm is the only tool that doesn't rank as plus yet, although his bat is still a work in progress.
  With older, more experienced players in the system like Chris Hawkins, Dalton Pompey, and Dwight Smith playing ahead of him at Lansing, the Jays are obviously content to take their time with Davis.  A return to Vancouver would seem logical, with a mid-season promotion a possibility, depending on his development.

2.  Kevin Pillar OF
   While he doesn't have one outstanding tool, Pillar has hit at every level he has played at.  He may have been a bit old for the Appy League two years ago and the Midwest League last year,  but his hitting has continued at AA this year.  Overachieving fourth outfielder is the label that has been applied to Pillar, but he has performed at every stop.  He hasn't hit for great power, but he has shown a knack for getting on base, and while his speed may not rank as plus, he appears to be a smart base runner.  At 24, he may have reached his ceiling, though.
   With Anthony Gose recently promoted to the big club, maybe there is a chance Pillar could be tested at the AAA level.  If Rajai Davis doesn't have a lengthy stay on the DL, however, that opportunity may not occur.  It would be interesting to see what Pillar could do at a higher level.

3.  Christian Lopes 2B
   Lopes was a high-profile shortstop prospect since he was 12, when he was named the U13 Player of the Year in 2006 by National Youth Baseball. A mediocre senior year and rumours that he was bound for USC caused him to slide to the 7th round of the 2011 draft.  As he grew throughout his high school years, his speed regressed to below average, severely reducing his range. Some scouts suggested that he tended to sit back on balls, and at times, despite showing good hands, added unnecessary flash.
  The Jays switched him to 2nd, and challenged him by promoting him to Vancouver after starting 2012 with Bluefield in Rookie Ball.
   This season, Lopes has continued to hit in Low A with Lansing.  He leads the team in batting average, with a line of .319/..347/.425, hitting 3rd in the lineup, without a lot of support behind him.  At 21, Lopes is still a few years away from premium prospect status, but if he continues to swing the bat like he has this year, he will move up the list of prospects quickly.

#4 Andy Burns, 3B
   Colorado native Burns was originally drafted by the Rockies in 2008, but opted to attend the U of Kentucky instead (Burns transferred to Arizona after his sophomore year, and sat out the 2011 season).  The Jays drafted him the 11th round of the 2011 draft.
   Burns pro debut was underwhelming.  After proving the Appy League was too easy, the Jays promoted Burns to short season Vancouver for the last month of the Northwest League season.  Burns struggled against the tougher competition, hitting .179/..233/.298.  Expectations were low when Burns was sent to Lansing for the 2012 season, where he managed only .248/.351/.464, striking out almost 25% of the time.
   The patient Jays nonetheless promoted Burns to High A Dunedin this year, where a huge turnaround has taken place.  Hitting 3rd in the D-Jays lineup, Burns has slugged his way to a .322/.406/.526 line, leading Dunedin in most hitting categories.
   He's been slow to develop, but Burns may be starting to show some promise.

#5 A.J. Jimenez C
    Tommy John surgery last May limited Jimenez to 105 AB in AA.  He recently was re-activated, and was sent to High A.  With the D-Jays, Jimenez is hitting .368 in only 19 at bats.  Jimenez has shown some promise with the bat in the past.  The Jays are clearly taking their time with him this season.

    Others to watch include OF Anthony Alford, who has shown a preference for football and has had some off-field issues.  Alford apparently has tools to match anyone in the system.  If he was to commit to a full season, he might leap up the rankings quickly.  Another player to keep an eye on is SS Franklin Barreto. Just turned 17 in March, Barreto was one of the top international signings last year.  Some scouts suggest he profiles more as a CF.  His advanced bat may see him open the season with Bluefield.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Kevin Pillar: The Non-Prospect Who Wouldn't Be

   Canadians are brought up on a steady diet of Maple Syrup, Molson Canadian, Hockey, and the works of author Farley Mowat.
   The prolific novelist has written extensively about the Canadian wilderness.  Novels such as Never Cry Wolf and The Boat Who Wouldn't Float show his talents for storytelling,  and not letting a few facts get in the way of a good tale.  One of the earliest books of Mowat's I can remember reading was The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, a tale of an unusual dog who could climb ladders, had unique hunting skills,  and wore goggles while riding in the family car, set in Saskatchewan in the 1930s.  Mutt didn't seem to realize that he was a dog.  He was the dog who wouldn't be.
   Blue Jays farmhand Kevin Pillar has the same affliction.  Everywhere he has played, the word has been that he's not fast enough, doesn't hit with enough power, can't throw runners out, or has been too old.  Yet everywhere he's played, from high school to college, and now to AA, the guy has confounded all the scouts who have labelled him as a fringy prospect.  He's the non-prospect who wouldn't be.
   Pillar didn't elicit much interest from pro scouts or major college programs,  and wound up at Division II Cal State Dominguez Hills.  Where he raked, hitting .463 as a senior.  In his junior year, Pillar put together an D-II record 54-game hitting streak, which got him a little (but not a lot) of notice.  Playing for a small school in a lesser division meant that he didn't draw much attention from Area Scouts. And those scouts who did see him said that while they liked him, he didn't have one tool that stood out.
   On draft day in 2011, Pillar lasted until the 32nd round, until the Blue Jays took him with the 979th pick.  With the D-II season ending in May, Pillar hadn't played in over a month when he reported to the Jays's rookie-level team at Bluefield.  After a slow start, Pillar finished with a .347/.377/.473 line, with 7 HR and 37 RBI in 60 games.  Nice, said the scouting world, but at 22, Pillar was a bit old for a league stocked mostly with high school grads.
   Undeterred, Pillar picked up where he left off in the 2012 season.  Promoted to Low A Lansing, Pillar hit .322/.390/.451, and after a half a season was promoted to High A Dunedin.  Despite playing only 87 games with Lansing, Pillar was named the Midwest League MVP and Best Batting Prospect.  And in the Florida State League with Dunedin, where the parks are bigger, balls don't carry as well in the humidity and batting averages tend to drop as a result, Pillar hit .323/..339/.415.  He stole a combined 51 bases at both levels.  Again, scouts suggested that while the numbers were impressive, he still was a bit old for A ball, and stealing bases at that level, where pitchers are still learning to hold runners on and catchers are working on their footwork and release, isn't that difficult.  
   This year, Pillar was elevated to AA New Hampshire.  Where he hasn't stopped hitting. Again.  His most recent numbers are .339/.374/.486.  Every where this guy has played, he has hit.  And yet he can't shake the "overachieving fourth outfielder-at best" label.  The player he is most frequently compared to is former Reed Johnson.  And while Johnson carved out a decent career for himself, his minor league stats don't compare to Pillar's.  At 24, he's no longer "too old" for his current level, but AA pitchers don't appear to have mastered him yet.  Pillar's not supposed to be a major league prospect, but he has played like one at every level.
   It is true that Pillar doesn't have one overwhelming tool.  He hasn't hit for a lot of power yet, and he shows decent but not burning speed, and he hasn't thrown out a lot of baserunners in his minor league career (although assist stats, of course, are misleading).  At the same time, he gets on base, hits for average, and can play all three outfield positions.  If he's played in a role that best utilizes his talents, Pillar can make a good contribution at the major league level.
   With Anthony Gose, Moises Sierra, and Ryan Langerhans playing the outfield for AAA Buffalo, it's best for Pillar to bide his time and play everday at AA.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dustin McGowan 5.0 Returns!!

   Righthander Dustin McGowan, who has seemingly been on the 60-day DL for most of this Century, was sent on a 30-day Minor League rehab assignment yesterday, and was placed on the roster of the High A Dunedin Blue Jays of the Florida State League.
   The oft-injured former first round (2000) draft pick pitched in his first professional game since September of 2011 last night, and came in from the bullpen in the 7th inning, striking out the side and giving up one hit.

      The D-Jays topped the high-flying Fort Myers Miracle 9-3 in a showdown of division leaders.
McGowan's medical history, of course, is voluminous to say the least.  After missing the 2009 and 2010 seasons due to surgery and complications that followed, McGowan returned to the Jays in the fall of 2011, and was moderately impressive in 4 starts, and appeared to be in the running for a job either at the back end of the rotation or in long relief the following spring.  He developed plantar fasciitis in the spring of 2012, however, and then developed more shoulder issues as he tried to compensate with his delivery.  
   This spring, after being held back in spring training, McGowan was kept in EST after training camp ended. He became a devotee of Steve Delabar's legendary heavy ball training regimen, and was pleased with the results.  He reported no soreness after throwing as a result of adopting the program.  For now, the plan is likely to have him throw out of the D-Jays bullpen.  Due to a slew of rainouts, several of their starters are well-rested.
   As a result, the Jays decided to put him on the 30-day rehab list.  McGowan isn't eligible to come off the 60-day DL until May 30th, meaning that a return to the big leagues is at least half a month away, more likely a month.  Jays GM Alex Anthopolous told the National Post's John Lott that he's pleasantly surprised by McGowan's progress:  "This is as optimistic as I've been, because it's been quite some time now that he continues to feel great."
  Many eyebrows were raised, given McGowan's health, when the Jays signed him to a 2 year, $13 million extension after the 2012 season.  The road ahead is very long, but if he continues to hit the mid-90s, that deal will seem like a bargain.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Norris and Sanchez Continue to Impress

  Righthander Aaron Sanchez, #1 on Clutchlings' Top 10 Jays Prospects list, and southpaw Daniel Norris, ranked #4, both turned in impressive performances last night.
   Sanchez had a tall order in facing a Fort Myers lineup that boasts several of the Twins top prospects, including #1 ranked 3rd baseman Miguel Sano, who is tied for the minor league home run lead with 10.  The Miracle reeled off 11 consecutive wins to start the Florida State League season, and sit atop the FSL's Southern Division with a 27-8 record, which is far and away the best won-loss records in the minors as well.  Against this tough lineup, Sanchez held his own, although control issues led to a season high 4 walks.  Sanchez allowed 3 runs in 5 innings, giving up 3 hits and striking out a season-low 1 Fort Myers batter, as the Miracle topped the Northern Division-leading D-Jays 6-2. 8 of his 11 outs not by strikeout were recorded on groundouts, indicating that Sanchez was once again pounding the strike zone down low.  The loss evened Sanchez' record to 2-2, with a 2.95 ERA.  In 39 innings, he's limited FSL batters to a .164 BA, and has allowed 14 walks while striking out 35.

  Daniel Norris was even more impressive in his start against Great Lakes.  While the Loons have scuffled along with Norris' Lansing Lugnuts near the bottom of the Midwest League's Eastern Division standings, Norris easily had his best start of the still-young season last night.  After giving up 8 runs in 1 1/3 innings in his last start, Norris pitched 4 scoreless innings against Great Lakes, as the Lugnuts blanked the Loons 5-0.  Norris gave up only 1 hit, while walking 3 and striking out 5.  According to Lugnuts' play-by-play man Jesse Goldberg-Strasser:
   Clearly, Norris was not experiencing the command issues he's often had through his first two pro seasons.  In fact, if you take away a disastrous outing against Dayton last week, he's 0-1 with a 2.08 ERA in 3 of his last 4 starts.  On the year, Norris is 0-3 with an 8.54 ERA, but the ERA drops to 6.48 without that start.  It's still early, but maybe Norris is beginning to show signs of filling the promise that the Jays saw when they drafted him in the 2nd round of the 2011 draft, a draft in which many thought he was the top prep lefthander.
   With the performances of Chad Jenkins at the major league level, the return of Sean Nolin and the re-emergence of Deck McGuire at AA, Sanchez and Norris are adding to the depth of arms in the organization.

Monday, May 13, 2013

McGuire on the Rebound?

   Righthander Deck McGuire was the Jays' first round choice (11th overall) in the 2010 draft out of Georgia Tech.  After a decent first year in pro ball, McGuire struggled in AA last year, and his overall minor league numbers, as a result, have been underwhelming.  Over his last few starts this year with New Hampshire, he quietly is showing signs of reclaiming his prospect status.
   It's puzzling to understand why McGuire had troubles last year, but his secondary stats indicate that he wasn't missing as many bats in 2012 as he had the year before.  The Cats continued to give him his regular turn in the rotation, as he scuffled along to a 5-15 record, with a 5.88 ERA. McGuire admitted that it was the first time he had really experienced prolonged difficulties at any level, and was frustrated by his performance.
  The Jays sent McGuire to the Arizona Fall League in the hopes of turning things around, and pitching mostly out of the bullpen, he showed signs of improvement in limited innings (which did include a couple of high-leverage situations).  McGuire actually handled left-handed hitters better than righties in the AFL.  Despite this progress, ESPN's Keith Law still described McGuire as "fringy" prospect.
   This season, McGuire is repeating AA, and perhaps with the weight of expectations having been lifted somewhat, his stats are evidence of a modest turnaround.  In 7 starts, McGuire is 2-3 with a 5.11 ERA, and a 1.43 WHIP.  If you cull a disastrous outing against Binghamton on April 21st from his stats when, McGuire was shelled for 8 runs in 4 innings, the ERA drops to 3.58, and the WHIP to 1.11 (McGuire walked 6 in that start as well).  Compared to last year, McGuire's K% is on the rise.
   With teammate Chad Jenkins recalled to the Jays, and Sean Nolin back from the disabled list, McGuire may be able to continue to progress a little bit removed from the spotlight.  Given his success in Arizona last fall, his stuff may play better out of the pen.  The Jays will likely continue to take their time with him, but a mid-season promotion to Buffalo may be in store for the 6'6" hurler.

Fisher Cats Bring Hope at Two Levels

   Sunday was quite a day for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats starting rotation. For two starters, in particular.
  Righthander Chad Jenkins, the Jays 1st round pick in 2009, pitched into the 6th against the Red Sox, picking up the 10-4 win as the Jays took two of three from Boston.  Making only his second start of the year at any level, the recently re-activated Jenkins was charged with a pair of runs in 5 innings, giving up 7 hits and 1 walk, while striking out two.  Jenkins told Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star that he threw fastballs and changeups the whole game.  Jenkins pitched reasonably well in an audition with the club when injuries ravaged the pitching staff last summer, recording a 1-3 record with a 4.50 ERA, and 1.34 WHIP.
   Meanwhile, lefthander Sean Nolin was also making his second start of the year for New Hampshire, tossing 6 scoreless innings as the Fisher Cats topped Trenton, 4-0.  Nolin allowed 4 hits, walking 2 and striking out 8.  Some pre-season rankings had Nolin as one of the first prospects to be summoned to the big club if any of the starters encountered difficulties, but a leg injury suffered near the end of spring training held that timetable back.  Nolin has been described as not having overwhelming stuff, but he has an advanced feel for pitching. It's likely that the parent club may prefer to keep Nolin in AA for a few more starts, but it appears he's close to being ready for a call-up to the major leagues.
  And there's more good news, of course, on the way for the Fisher Cats, with last year's first round pick Marcus Stroman just a bit more than a week away from serving out his suspension, and likely on the way to New Hampshire's starting rotation.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Serving Up the Mock Draft

   With the major league draft less than a month away, we'll start paying closer attention to the slew of mock drafts and player rankings that are hitting the 'net about now.
   The Blue Jays have the 10th overall selection.  Unlike the last few years, they have no "sandwich" picks, so they only have 3 picks in the top 100.  Will this cause them to alter their strategy ?  Last year, of course, was the draft of living dangerously, picking high-risk, high-reward players.  With fewer picks, will they play things more conservatively ?  Will they target a particular position, or will they draft the best available athlete ? Do they go for a close-to-ready college senior, or a higher-ceilinged high school player, who will take 4-5 years to develop ?
   Righthander  Jonathan Gray of Oklahoma seems to have taken over top spot in most rankings, although that may be by default because of signability concerns over #2, rhp Mark Appel of Stanford, who spurned the Pirates $3.8 million signing bonus at the 8th overall pick last year. Appel will likely fall to the deep-pocketed Cubs with the 2nd pick.
  After those two picks, it gets interesting.  Georgian outfielders Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows are ranked by most lists somewhere in the top 5-7 players, meaning the toolsy prospects will be off the board when the Jays' turn to draft comes up.  Several players have been linked to the Jays.  Baseball America suggested Reese McGuire, a left-handed hitting Washington high school catcher, about a month ago, but McGuire seems to have climbed the list.  Several reports had the Jays watching Mississippi State outfielder Hunter Renfroe.  In BA's first mock draft this week, they had Toronto picking Indiana HS product Trey Ball, a 6'6" leftie who is a two-way player, but whom scouts seem to feel has a better future on the mound.
   If the Jays are feeling like rolling the dice again, Texas HS righthander Kohl Stewart may fit the bill.  Stewart has committed to Texas A&M, in the hopes of playing Quarterback.  The top-ranked prep rhp may or not be available when the Jays pick, because teams ahead of them may not be willing and/or able to come up with enough of a signing bonus to dissuade Stewart from pursuing his football dreams.
His 95 mph fastball demonstrates the kind of power arm the Jays might not be able to pass up, if he's still on the board when pick #10 comes.
 Scouts aren't as excited about this year's crop of top prospects as they were last year's.  Sevearl of the top ranked college pitchers have taken a step or two backwards this spring. We'll follow the shifting of prospects as the draft draws nearer.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Osuna Joins The Ranks of the Injured

    Premium prospect Roberto Osuna, Clutchlings' #3 ranked Blue Jays Prospect, was removed from his last start with Low A Lansing of the Midwest League last week with right elbow soreness.
After a visit with famed surgeon Dr James Andrews, Osuna was diagnosed with a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament.  Surgery to repair the tear (Tommy John surgery) has not been recommended yet, but given the experiences of dozens of other players with a similar injury, is likely if the prescribed regimen of rest and rehab doesn't work.
   Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous told that Osuna has been shut down, and will begin playing catch from 60 feet today.  If he doesn't respond to treatment, TJ surgery will be the next course of action.  It typically takes one full year for a starting pitcher to recover.  Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, and Luis Perez all had the surgery last summer, and have been throwing side sessions for the past few weeks, and are scheduled to face live hitters near the end of the month.  Perez is a little bit ahead of the other two, possibly because he is a reliever, and doesn't need to build up the same amount of endurance.
   Josh Johnson and Sergio Santos are on the major league disabled list, Brandon Morrow has been pushed back for his next start, and R.A. Dickey has been plagued by back and neck issues since April.
Dustin McGowan, on the 60-day DL, has started an arm-strengthening program, and Ricky Romero was sent back down to work on his delivery and command issues.  Not the greatest week for the organization from a pitching perspective.
  Interesting sidenote about TJ surgery:  a myth has developed that pitchers develop greater velocity as a result of the operation.  Orthopedic surgeons have reported that parents have come to them, asking them to perform the surgery on their un-injured sons.  Dr Frank Jobe, who pioneered the procedure, debunked the myth - while acknowledging the bump in speed, Jobe suggests that it is due to the pitchers' increased attention to conditioning after the surgery, and the fact that the tear tends to develop over several seasons in the first place, leading to a gradual loss of velocity.
  If therapy is unsuccessful, Osuna likely will require surgery by the summer, meaning that his return to the mound in a starting role won't likely happen until 2015, or late in the 2014 season.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

The History of the Minor Leagues Part 5: Return to Glory

   The years 1946-63 have often been to referred to the Golden Years of minor league baseball.
America emerged from a decade and a half of war and depression ready to take on the world.  The manufacturing infrastructure developed during the War was turned to the production of consumer goods.  People suddenly had huge amounts of money and leisure time for the first time in years. Returning soldiers were ready to resume their chase of the baseball dream.
   By 1949, the minors had exploded to 59 leagues, containing a total of 448 teams.  That year, the minors set an attendance record of 39.6 million fans - a record that stood for over 50 years.
   With so many new leagues and teams, another reorganization of the classification system to ranks teams was required.  The highest level was re-classified as AAA (formerly AA).  The rest of the system went from AA and A down the alphabet as far as Class D.
   When I think of the minor leagues, this is the time period I think about.  Almost overnight, every small city and town seemed to have a team, as more and more major league teams bought into Branch Rickey's farm system concept.  Most major league teams had at least 10 farm teams spread out across the levels of minor league ball, with Rickey's Brooklyn Dodgers leading the way with 21 affiliates.  For a glimpse of what this life was like, I highly recommend Pat Jordan's A False Spring, which details the author's life as a bonus baby in the days before the draft.  Jordan spent his first summer in 1959 with the Milwaukee Braves' farm team in  McCook, NB, a small  (pop. 7500) farming community in Nebraska, which played in the Class D Nebraska State League.  His observations of life in McCook are pure Americana.
   My favourite story from this time involves the KOM (Kansas-Oklahama-Missouri) League, a Class D loop which was formed in 1946 in six small towns across the three states.  The final regular season records for the teams were:
                          Team                              W     L     GBL      Affiliation
                    Chanute                               68     53      -           Topeka (KS) Owls
                    Miami                                  69     54     1.0         Brooklyn Dodgers
                    Iola                                      63     57     4.5         Chicago Cubs
                    Pittsburg                               61     59     6.0        St Louis Browns
                    Carthage                              54     66     13.5      St Louis Cardinals
                    Bartlesville                            47     73    20.5      Pittsburgh Pirates

   In the playoffs, Chanute topped Pittsburg 3 games to 2.  Iola defeated Miami in 5  games, as well.  And that's where things started to get interesting.  Chanute and Iola were tied at 3 games apiece in the best of seven final, when a roster dispute arose following the 7th game, won by Chanute.  Chanute was down a player, and arranged for the loan of a player from Miami (who had loaned players to Iola during the regular season), which, surprisingly, the Iola owner originally agreed to.  But he changed his mind after the game, and protested.  The league ruled the game null, and a replay was ordered - problem was, is that it was late in the season.  Several attempts at playing the game were halted by prolonged rainy weather.  Eventually, many of the players had to return to school, and the rodeo (this was the KOM League, after all), was scheduled to take over the Chanute ball park.  So a winner was never declared.
  In 1949, a young shortstop from just over the border in Commerce, Oklahoma, made his professional debut with the Yankees club in Independence.  The 18 year old struggled at first, and wanted to quit.  His father made the drive to Independence to tell him to stick with it, and stick with it he did, hitting .313 with 7 HR and 63 RBI.  That earned him a promotion to Class C, where he struggled with the glove (but not the bat), prompting a move to centrefield.  The following year, Mickey Mantle would be starting in that position for the big league club, en route to a Hall of Fame career.
   Although the KOM league lasted until  1953, attendance steadily declined, as it did across the minor leagues.  The main culprit was believed to be radio broadcasts of games, followed by televised games.  Why watch an inferior product, some claimed, when you could listen to (and later, watch) the real thing. The rise of television, in general, has also been blamed (for lower leagues south and west of St Louis, even radio blackouts couldn't help them, as pressure was placed on teams and owners in those leagues to allow fans to listen).  Or perhaps the phenomenal growth in the post-war years just wasn't sustainable.  Either way, attendance was in steep decline, and the Golden Age was coming to an end.
  By 1960, the minors had shrunk to just 20 leagues.  All teams by this point were dependent on their affiliation with their major league parents. The days of minor league teams and leagues competing as independent entities was over.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Jays Higher Level Minors Depth Improving

   Heading into this season, most of the Blue Jays top prospects were slated to start the year in the low minors, a few years away from the bigs. Even though the Buffalo Bisons are sitting atop the International League's Northern Division standings, their roster is comprised mostly of minor league veterans. With some players returning from injury and other issues, however, the picture in the upper levels from a prospect perspective is getting brighter.
   Lefthander Sean Nolin, sidelined since suffering a leg injury near the end of spring training after a dazzling 2012, returned to action with New Hampshire last night, and had a respectable outing, considering his layoff.   Nolin gave up 3 runs (2 earned) on 6 hits in 3 1/3 innings in an eventual 8-5 loss to New Britain, walking one and striking out three.  The day before, righthander Chad Jenkins, who appeared in 13 games (3 starts) with the Blue Jays last year, also made his season debut with the Fisher Cats, allowing 2 runs in 5 innings.  Jenkins allowed 3 hits, with 1 BB and 1 K.  Adding to this new depth is the imminent return of righthander Marcus Stroman, who is 15 days away from returning from his suspension.  The plan is likely for Stroman to join New Hampshire's starting rotation.
   Not to be outdone, OF Kevin Pillar has hit .349 in his last 10 games for the Fisher Cats, and leading the club in hitting with a .324/.383/.467 line.
  With the parent club on a modest run with a pair of come-from-behind wins as part of a 3 game winning streak, the high-flying Bisons, the strong performances of some of the club's top prospects in A ball, and now the bolstering of New Hampshire's roster, things are looking a lot better for the organization than they were a week ago.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A.J. Jimenez Mashes for D-Jays

  Catcher A.J. Jimenez underwent Tommy John surgery last May.  He was considered one of the rising prospects in the Jays' system, but the uncertainty that always follows recovery from TJ was one of the reasons he narrowly missed out on making Clutchlings' Top 10 Prospects list in April.
  Jimenez hit .295/.371/.666 in his abbreviated season with AA New Hampshire in 2012.  He was recently re-activated and sent to Class A+ Dunedin.  Judging from how he has swung the bat in his first week with the D-Jays, he may not be there for long.
  Jimenez went 3-4 with a home run and 4 RBI last night as Dunedin edged Bradenton 8-7, giving them a 2 1/2 game lead over Brevard County in the Florida State League's Northern Division.
   Bradenton tested Jimenez' surgically repaired arm, with 3 stolen bases.  Jimenez also threw a runner out at 2nd.
  In 4 games, Jimenez is hitting .412/.625/.1.037, with a homer and 5 runs driven in.  Top prospect Aaron Sanchez takes the mound tonight for the D-Jays against Bradenton.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Justin Jackson Returns to Lansing

   In 2008,  the Blue Jays assigned 19 year old shortstop Justin Jackson to Lansing of the Midwest League.  Jackson was a sandwich pick (45th) overall in the previous year's draft.  He had been highly touted while he was a High School Senior in North Carolina, recognized as a second team All-American by Baseball America.  Jackson was a five-tool athlete, noted for his cannon of an arm.
   But Jackson's path to the majors was not a straight one.  He hit only .238/.340./.368, striking out 154 times in 454 at bats.  He continued to struggle at the plate for the next several seasons.  By 2012, his defense began to suffer possibly as a result, and he filled a utility role at High A Dunedin and AA New Hampshire.
   So, Jackson had some soul searching to do in the off-season.  A career .230 minor league hitter, Jackson had gone from prospect to minor league roster filler.  Early in January, he announced on Twitter that he and the Jays had decided to convert him to a pitcher.  He wasn't completely unfamiliar with the position - Jackson had pitched in high school, and he enlisted the help of former big league hurler Darrin Holmes to help him with his conversion.
   The Jays kept Jackson in Florida for extended spring training.  Last week, he was sent to Lansing once again.   The Lugnuts brought him in from the bullpen in an exhibition game against Michigan State, pitching a scoreless inning and striking out one.  Jackson made his MWL debut as a pitcher last night in an 11-6 loss to Beloit.  Jackson gave up one run over 2 2/3 innings, allowing 2 hits and striking out one.  He pitched a 1-2-3 sixth inning to finish his performance.
   While his fastball hit 95 in extended spring training, Jackson likely will continue to pitch out of the bullpen for the foreseeable future while he builds up arm strength and develops his secondary pitches.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Top 10 Jays Prospects of All Time: Part 2

#5  Vernon Wells OF 
   Drafted in the first round (5th overall) of the 1997 June draft out of high school in Texas (where he was compared to a young Ron Gant), Wells shot through the system in 1999, starting the year in High A ball, and mashing his way through three levels (he was named top prospect in the FSL, SL & IL that year) en route to a major league call-up at the end of August.  No other Jays prospect put up the kind of minor league numbers Wells did that season.  Wells is the best outfield prospect the club has signed and developed since Lloyd Moseby, and it could be argued that he is the best in club history in that regard.
  Wells couldn't beat out incumbent CF Jose Cruz, Jr for the centrefield job in 2000, so he returned to AAA for parts of two more seasons before sticking with the big league club for good in 2002.  Over the next 5 seasons, he averaged  .302  28 HR & 97 RBI, usually hitting 3rd in the lineup.  After winning his third straight Gold Glove award in 2006, Wells signed a back-loaded 7-year, $126 million contract.
  And things kind of came apart after that.....
Three years of diminished production and injuries led Wells and his huge contract to become a lightning rod for frustrated fans.  Mercifully, Alex Anthopolous convinced the Angels to take on the remaining years of his deal in 2011, although the years of steep decline continued.  The injury-ravaged Yankees dealt for Wells this spring, and he's had a bit of a resurgence, in part thanks to Jays fans, who lustily booed him on his return in pinstripes.  Much to my frustration.  It wasn't Wells' fault that he signed the huge contract - that was where the market was at at the time.  And he wouldn't be the first former Toronto player who has responded in such a manner to this treatment.  Ricciardi did rip Wells and a few other teammates for indifferent play in a series against the Royals, but I never got the sense that he was giving less than 100%.  He was at the absolute peak of his career when he signed the deal, and history and Bill James tell us that production tends to start to decline after a player reaches age 27 or 28.  Wells' numbers were following central tendency theory pretty closely.
  Wells was the Jays top-ranked prospect by BA in 2000 and 2001, and was one of only 3 Jays to rank as high as 4th on the BA top 100 prospects list in 2001.  He ranks behind Delgado in many career stats in team annals.

#4 Roy Halladay P
   The best first-round draft choice the Jays have ever developed.  Plain and simple.
Halladay was chosen 17th overall in the 1995 draft.  He has recorded 65 WAR since he broke into the majors in 1998.  Only Todd Helton (chosen 8th that year) has a WAR (61.6) that even comes close from that draft.
  Halladay developed relatively slowly, and split time between starting and the bullpen for his first two seasons, even taking a no-hitter into the 9th in a game in 1998.  Then came 1999.  Halladay compiled a 4-7 record, with an astronomical 10.64 ERA, the highest in major league history for a pitcher with at least 50 IP.
The story is well documented of how Halladay went all the way back down to High A ball to rebuild his delivery with one-time mentor Bill Monboquette.  The Jays lowered his arm slot, and throwing from a three-quarters position instead of over the top, Halladay was able to gain all kinds of movement on both his fastball and slider.  Having made the transition from thrower to pitcher, he was back in the majors to stay a month and a half later.
   It's interesting that the Jays recently decided to take the same course of action with lefthander Ricky Romero, keeping him in Florida after the season began and rebuilding his delivery.  While the results of Romero's makeover won't truly be known for a while, its surprising that more teams don't take the same course of action with struggling starters.  Sometimes it's an options situation, but the Florida State League, with its bigger parks and the humid Florida air keeping balls in play, is not a bad place to send someone who needs to get his arm (and sometimes head) together.  I'm sure it's a huge ego blow to be sent back to A ball, but even in this day of instant mass communications, it's still a bit out of the spotlight.  It sure beats, say, Las Vegas. Or anywhere in the PCL, for that matter.
   Halladay was the Jays' top-ranked prospect in 97, 98 and 99, and was the 5th ranked in 1996.
   I can't decide if he or Dave Stieb would rank as the best hurler to don a Blue Jays uniform.  Both had nasty, lights-out stuff in their primes.  It's kind of sad to see the struggles Halladay is going through right now. Maybe the toll of so many innings and his legendary workouts are adding up.  Even though we wears a different uniform now, it's impossible not to be pulling for him to get through this.

#3  Alex Gonzalez ss
   We're not talking, of course, about the most recent shortstop of the same name who played half a season for the Jays before being dealt to the Braves for Yuniel Escobar.
   The other Alex Gonzalez came to the club with much fanfare.  He slid to the 14th round in the 1991 draft, because many teams were convinced that he would attend U of Miami, where his dad was a professor.  Instead, he took the Jays' offer, and began a quick ascent up the minor league ladder.  Along with Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado, he was one of the jewels of the minor league system, quietly developing together as the parent club was in its glory years.
   Gonzalez was the club's top ranked prospect in 93 and 94, and was 2nd ranked in 92 and 95. In 1994, Gonzalez joined Delgado and Halladay as the highest-ever ranking Jays prospect (#4) in Baseball America's annual Top 100 list..  He made his debut in 1995, and while he hit .243/322./398, he helped solidify Toronto's up-the-middle defence.  The problem is, of course, is that line almost mirrored his career averages.  Quite simply, Gonzalez never hit enough, despite the rave reviews he earned in the minors (where his offensive numbers were better, but not overwhelming),  He was capable of going on a tear for a week or so, but then would return to his less-productive ways (Gonzalez struck out over 100 5 times in his 7 full seasons with the club).  The Jays thought they had a better prospect in Felipe Lopez, so they dealt Gonzalez to the Cubs after the 2001 season.  Gonzalez played in the memorable Steve Bartman game in the 2003 NLCS against the Marlins, booting a potential double play grounder moments after the famous incident.
   Why do players like Gonzalez, who was so highly ranked, not quite measure up to expectations ?  Good question.  His career was decent, but probably not up to the level that such a high ranking would seem to prophesize.  Do they have habits that can be overcome by their athleticism in the minors, but not the majors ?   Did Gonzalez see fellow prospects Green and Delgado become stars because of their power, and try to emulate them ?  Did the fact that he was so proficient defensively make him focus less on his approach at the plate, because his glove was keeping him in the bigs ?  Sounds like a post for another time.

#2 Tony Fernandez ss
   In the days before the internet, prospects like Tony Fernandez were invisible, almost mythical creatures.  The only was to see them play was in person.  We knew he was coming.  It was just a matter of when.        Signed by legendary Latin American scout Epy Guerrero from the Dominican shortstop factory of San Pedro de Macoris, Fernandez occupies this spot on the the list with an asterisk.  He was the Jays' top-ranked prospect in 1983 and 84, and would've likely ranked high on a few more lists, had BA been compiling them prior to 83.  Fans were impatient to see him reach the bigs, but the club took its time with his development, and he was partially blocked by his inexperience and the play of fellow Dominican Alfredo Griffin.  In 1983, Bill James had wondered in his Baseball Abstract, "who the hell is Alfredo Griffin that he can play ahead of Tony Fernandez?"
   Fernandez was called up for good in 1984, and did not disappoint, winning 4 consecutive Gold Gloves between 1986 and 1989, and hitting as high as .322 in 1987.  Fernandez played short with grace and flair, showing incredible range, and an arcing sidearm flip throw to first that always seemed to nip the runner.
He was part of the trade for Joe Carter before the 91 season, but came back to the Jays in 93, in time to lead them to another World Series win.  Fernandez had two more stints with the club before retiring in 2001.  James has ranked him as the 24th best shortstop of all time, which puts him in pretty good company.  He most definitely is the best shortstop in Blue Jays history.

#1  Dustin McGowan rhp
   Oh, what could've been.
Some prospects never reach or even approach their ceiling for a variety of reasons.  Some can't make the adjustments that are necessary after other teams find their weaknesses after a time or two around the league. Others get too distracted by the temptations of big league life.  Maybe a few can't handle the fact that the game isn't coming to them as easily as it always had.  And some just can't stay healthy.  Like Dustin McGowan.
Drafted in the 1st round (33rd overall) by the Jays in the 2000 draft out of high school in Georgia, McGowan made the Jays' Top 10 List in 2002, 03,04, 05, and topped the list in 06.  Tommy John surgery delayed his major league debut, but after shutting between the bullpen and he starting rotation for two seasons,  he made 27 starts in 2007, and took a no-hitter into the 9th inning in a game against the Tigers.
  And that's almost when things started to fall apart.
McGowan has spent most of the time on the disabled list since 2008, appearing in a total of only 24 games.  He persevered, and battled arm and knee injuries, as well as health issues caused by diabetes, and returned at the end of the 2011 season to make 5 starts, and appeared to have the inside track on a long relief job the following season.
  It's just too depressing to list ever trip he's made to the disabled list since then.  Just when it seems like McGowan is on the verge of being healthy and returning to the majors, he suffers another setback.  He's currently on the 60-day DL with a foot injury that the club is keeping pretty tight-lipped about.  After the promise showed by his late season showing in 2011, the club signed McGowan to a 2 year extension.  So, McGowan remains in Florida at extended spring training, rehabbing yet another injury.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Top 10 All-Time Blue Jays Prospects: Part 1

   I've had this idea for a post in mind for some time, and finally got around to doing the necessary research.  As my studies progressed, I realized that his was a bigger topic than I had initially thought.
Thus, I'm splitting it up into two parts, and keeping you dear readers in suspense as you wait for the next installment..

   Having been a Jays fan since their inception, I've certainly lived through a lot of ups and downs.
I've lived through the ugly years of the late 70s, the years of promise of the mid-80s (and the years of frustration that followed), as well as the glory years of the early 90s, and the very lean times of the past 20 years.
   One thing that has kept me going when the Jays suffer through yet another season when they've fallen out of contention by August is the hope for the future that their minor league prospects offer. From Lloyd Moseby to Tony Fernandez to Derek Bell to Vernon Wells to Dustin McGowan and on to Aaron Sanchez, the glimmer of optimism that the future might bring is reason to look forward to the following spring.
  I lean pretty heavily on the good folks at Baseball America for a lot of my prospecting research, going to back to the mid 80s, when one Sil Campusano was one of their cover boys.  They've been compiling their Top Prospects lists for each major league organization going back to 1983, so I thought I would compile my own list of all time Jays' prospects using their rankings.  The system I used is simple: 10 points for the top prospect each year, going down to 1 point for the 10th.  Then I added up the points for every year a player made the top 10 list (tie breaker: number of #1 finishes), and came up with the following (in reverse order):

#10 Derek Bell OF
   Bell was a 2nd round pick in the 1987 draft out of high school in Tampa.  By the middle of his second pro season, he had progressed as far as AA.  He was named the organization's top prospect in 1989, 2nd ranked in 1990, and the top ranked again in 1991, when he had a monster year at AAA, winning the International League batting title, and taking home both IL MVP and BA player of the year honours.
   Bell had trouble cracking a solid major league outfield with the parent club, and there were whispers of an attitude problem, so Bell was shipped with a minor leaguer to San Diego for veteran outfielder Darrin Jackson, which was probably ample evidence of what the Blue Jays thought of Bell.
   He seemed to find himself with Padres, and had a pair of decent seasons. Early in his second season with San Diego, he and a teammate were arrested in New York City before a game with the Mets with soliciting an undercover policewoman.  The charges were dropped after the season, but the Padres sent Bell to the Astros as part of a 12-player trade.
   It was in Houston that Bell experienced his greatest success, driving in 108 runs in 1995, and becoming part of the famed "Killer Bees" (Bell, Bagwell, Biggio, Berkman), and was an integral part of 3 consecutive division winners.
  Bell soon wore out his welcome in Houston, however.  In 1999, Manager Larry Dierker was returning to the club after a month-long absence from emergency brain surgery following a seizure.  Bell was upset that Dierker, upon his return, had dropped the slumping Bell from 2nd to 6th in the batting order.
Bell was critical of his manager after the game - on the day he had returned from a near-death experience.  Bell was traded to the Mets in the off-season and helped lead them to a division title, but the Mets let him walk after one season as a free agent.
  The only team to take a chance on Bell after that was the Pirates, who signed him to a two-year, $9 million deal for no apparent reason in 2001.  Bell hit all of .176 that year, and was told the following spring that he was going to have to battle to keep his starting job.  Bell told reporters:

 "Nobody told me I was in competition. If there is competition, somebody better let me know. If there is competition, they better eliminate me out of the race and go ahead and do what they're going to do with me. I ain't never hit in spring training and I never will. If it ain't settled with me out there, then they can trade me. I ain't going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job. If it is [a competition], then I'm going into 'Operation Shutdown.' Tell them exactly what I said. I haven't competed for a job since 1991."

    Bell left the team for his yacht on March 29th, and was released two days later. Pittsburgh sports columnist Mark Madden had the final and best observation of the Derek Bell era, with a column titled, "Derek Bell becomes ultimate pirate: Lives on a boat and steals money."
   His troubles did not end there, although his baseball career did.  He was arrested in Florida on cocaine possession charges in 2006, and again in 2008.  Several years later, having squandered most of the $26 million he made during his playing career, Bell put the World Series ring he earned with the 1992 Jays on ebay, but didn't get his asking price of $17 000.
   For his career, Bell hit .276, with 134 HR and 668 RBI.  

#9 Travis Snider - OF
      The Jays' first round choice (14th overall) in the 2006 out of high school in Washington, Snider rose through the minors rapidly. And then things kind of stalled....
  I could go on about how Snider's Jays' career was a study in injury and inconsistency, but it comes down to this:  they called him up waaaaaay too early.  In 2007, Snider was one of the youngest players in the Low A Midwest League.  A year later, he was a major leaguer. At 20. 
   I can't decide if this was a huge miscalculation on the part of J.P Ricciardi and his braintrust, or if the Jays' former GM, stung by criticism that he could only scout, sign and develop low ceiling but signable college pitchers in the first round, brought Snider up at such a young age to show everyone, "oh, yes I can."   Either way, Snider came to the majors with mechanics and habits that allowed him to succeed in the minors, but major league pitchers would quickly learn and exploit.
   Manager Cito Gaston and Bench Coach both saw the flaws in Snider's swing, and tried to change him, but he was either resistant to such suggestions, or the communications were mighty bad.  Just the same, I ask why he was brought up with these issues ? Didn't someone along the way notice ? The major leagues were no place for a makeover.  
   The Jays tried to work with Snider, but with minimal success.  Perhaps he was just too immature at that point.  Maybe with the unlucky string of injuries he suffered forced him to put too much pressure on himself.
   For the next four seasons after his debut, Snider spent significant time in the minors.  Whispers abounded that he was a AAAA player - too good for the minors, but not good enough to stick in the bigs.
   What the Jays should have done was to let Snider progress one level at a time.  Maybe he could have  had a mid-season promotion, but there likely was no convincing him that he needed to make changes when he was called up in the fall of 2008.  He had zipped through 3 levels on his way to the bigs that year.  And maybe Cito and Geno weren't the guys to convince a young player - bringing back Cito was a desperation move, and even though there was a brief improvement in the club's forturnes (especially for Aaron Hill and Adam Lind), I think it set the franchise back several years.  It certainly cost them their best prospect in years.
   Snider was the Jays' top BA prospect in 2008 and 2009, and ranked 2nd in 2007.
   The Jays traded Snider to Pittsburgh at the July trade deadline last year.  He's rebounded a bit in a lesser role with the Pirates this year (.305, but with no pop), but he's a shell of the player he once was.  At 25 years of age.

#8 Fred McGriff 1b

   Originally drafted out of high school in the 9th round by the Yankees in 1981, McGriff was part of a trade that saw reliever Dale Murray go to the Yankees in 1983.  McGriff made the Jays for good in 1987, and hit 105 home runs for them over the next four years before being dealt to San Diego along with Tony Fernandez for Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter.
   McGriff also played for the Braves (who he won a World Series with in 1995), the Rays, and the Cubs over the course of his 19 year career.  He finished just 7 home runs shy of 500, and hit at least 30 home runs in 7 consecutive seasons. In 1992, he became the first player since the deadball era to lead both leagues in homeruns.
   It would have been great to see McGriff be part of the Jays World Series years, but that would also have meant no Joe Carter or Robbie Alomar.  He was a good player who is a borderline hall of famer. His chances may  have dimmed somewhat by the steroid era, although he was never linked with PED's. has listed Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey (both in the hall) as having career statistics similar to McGriff's.
   McGriff was the Jays' 5th ranked prospect in 1983, 2nd in 1984, 1st in 85, and 5th in 86.

#7 Carlos Delgado 1b
   You know you are getting old when a player who reaches the majors as your first kid is born calls it a career as the kid is getting ready to go off to university.
   The Jays signed Delgado as an undrafted free agent when he was 16, in 1988. Originally a catcher, Delgado had a couple of monster years in the minors before the Jays moved him to first (after a brief trial as an outfielder) in 1994  It took a couple of years for Delgado to establish himself as a major league regular, but he broke through in '96, with a .270/.353./.490 line, to go along with 25 home runs and 92 RBI.  Over the next 7 seasons, Delgado averaged 39 homers and 123 RBI.
   Delgado had the misfortune to play for a team that was seldom in contention late in the season.  In 2005, the Jays could no longer afford him, and Delgado signed as a free agent with the Mets.  Delgado finished his career with a .280 average, 473 home runs, and 1512 RBI.
   He was the Jays top prospect in 1993, ranked 2nd in 94, 5th in 92, and 6th in 91.
   Delgado is the Jays' career leader in many offensive categories, including homers (336) and RBI (1,058).
For over a decade, he was as dangerous a hitter as there was in baseball.  

#6 Silvestre Campusano
    Few prospects have been hyped as much as Sil Campusano.  And even fewer have been a bigger bust.
   Signed out of the Dominican in 1984, he was the Jays' top ranked prospect in 1986, 87, and 88. Campusano made the team out of spring training in 1988, and was set to start in left field.  The only problem was that the previous left fielder was George Bell, the reigning AL MVP, just off a 47 HR 134 RBI season.  Manager Jimy Williams didn't like Bell's defence, and pencilled in the rookie in his place.  Bell hit 3 home runs against the Royals on Opening Day, but spent much of the season feuding with Williams.  Campusano didn't help his own cause, hitting .218/.282/.359 in 73 games, before earning a demotion back to Triple A.
   Campusano spent 1989 in AAA, his premium prospect status long gone.  The Phillies picked him up in the Rule V draft in the offseason.  He spent parts of two seasons with them, being most notable for breaking up Doug Drabek's no-hit bid with two outs in the 9th during Drabek's Cy Young season of 1990.  The Phils released him after the 1991 season.  Campusano experienced some success in China and Mexico before his career ended.
  So - the obvious question:  how could someone so highly ranked flame out so dramatically ?
That's tough to say.  Was he over-rated ?  Possibly, but then a lot of people beyond the staff of Baseball America were guilty of that, if that was the case.  Certainly, his minor league numbers outside of one season weren't all that spectacular, but he had legions of admirers at every level.  Was he rushed too quickly to the majors ? Maybe.  His progress up the minor league ladder was accelerated after that one good year in 1985, and maybe he wasn't ready for it.  He was all of 21 when the Blue Jays, a team that had seen a 3 1/2 game lead with less than a week to play slip away in a frustrating and heartbreaking weekend against the Tigers, handed him the starting left field job, relegating the previous season's MVP to DH duties.  Perhaps that was just too much pressure to put on a youngster.  At any rate, the Blue Jays decided pretty quickly that he couldn't play, banishing him to the minors, then leaving him off the 40 man roster just over a year after he was ranked as their top prospect.
   Campusano hit .202 for his career.  I'm still puzzled as to how his stock fell so rapidly.