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.

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