Sunday, September 15, 2013

System Watch: First Base

  When my brother and I were younger, we would misspend much of our youth by playing Best of Seven series with Strat-O-Matic baseball.
   We would pile the cards into a bowl, and then pick 35 or so, then make 10 "cuts" to get down to our final roster. I would whittle my positional players down by their defensive skills.  I took great pride in fielding a team of Bill Russells, Aurelio Rodriguezes, and Garry Maddoxes.  My brother would go for offense, fielding a team of Dave Kingmans, Greg Luzinskis, and Willie Stargells, and hide them at first or dh.  And he would beat me almost every single time.
  Which brings us to our analysis of the Blue Jays first base prospects.  Now, a true first baseman should have some skills beyond his bat, because it is a demanding position.  Just the same, maybe because the mobility requirements aren't the same as they are for other positions, and because you're big makes you a nice target for throws, many players who only have that hit tool wind up at first.  Even when Stargell, in his later years, had all the agility of a phone booth, he still made a substantial contribution to the Pirates' offense.  Being able to hit the ball a long way makes up for a number of other shortcomings.
   Which is why although our Top 10 list for this position looks a little thin, it can change perhaps more than any other position, as players are converted to the position mainly because of their defensive struggles elsewhere, or as new players come into the organization.
   As in our look at the state of the Catcher position in the Jays system, we'll look at the players level by level, then come up with our Top 10.
   Buffalo's 1st base duties this year were shared by a trio of lead-footed sluggers: Mauro Gomez, Luis Jimenez, and Clint Robinson, all of whom fit the profile mentioned above.
   Gomez, the 2012 International League MVP, seemed to have a shot at sticking with the Red Sox last year, but they ultimately decided that David Ortiz still had a few good years left, and let Gomez go.  He signed on with the Jays, his fourth organization.  And he continued to hit, posting .249/.322/.521, to go along with 29 home runs (some of them moon shots) and 73 RBI. Gomez has hit 155 homeruns over his last 5 milb seasons. That the Jays Designated him for Assignment days after the season tells you much of what you need to know about their long-term hopes for Gomez.  The Nationals picked him up, but at 29, he has passed the line from prospect to suspect.
   At 31, Jimenez has made a similar journey into Wily Mo Pena Quad-A land.  He has made the tour of 8 organizations, and has spent time in Japan.  For the Bisons this year, he hit .285/.351/.494, and was an important cog in the Buffalo offence, but he obviously doesn't fit into the Jays' plans.  Nor does Clint Robinson, who won the Texas League triple crown in 2010, but was stuck behind Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, and Kila Ka'aihue in the Royals' system.  Robinson went to training camp with the Pirates, but was DFA'd at the end of spring training.  The Jays picked him up, and sent him to New Hampshire.  Between AA and AAA, he hit .254/.353/.421.  He similarly doesn't fit into the Jays' plans.
   At AA, the prospect outlook isn't much brighter.  Robinson played the bulk of the Fisher Cats games at 1st, with Kevin Ahrens and Gabe Jacobo playing the remainder.  The former is a 2007 1st round pick, who has hit . 237/.316/.354 over 7 minor league seasons, while the latter has shown some pop, but at 26 has a rapidly closing window.
   It's not until you reach the lower levels of the system that the picture brightens somewhat. K.C. Hobson, a 2009 6th round pick, showed some pop in the humid air and big ballparks of the Florida State League, but hasn't advanced past A ball in his first four pro seasons.  1B at Lansing was split between several players, with Kevin Patterson, Jordan Leyland, and Kellen Sweeney getting the majority of the starts.  Patterson was one of the few home run threats in the Lugnuts lineup, but hit only .212/.301/.424, and at 25, was a little old for Low A ball.  Leyland started the season by repeating at Vancouver, but was leading the Northwest League in hitting when he was promoted to Lansing, where he struggled at the plate. Sweeney split time between first and third, but hit only .185, and has put up a line of .198/.305/.299 over 4 minor league seasons.
   It's not until you get to short season and rookie ball that the brightest lights at the end of the system tunnel appear.  LB Dantzler went from the campus of the University of South Carolina to Vancouver, and was the Northwest League's MVP, as he led the Canadians to their third straight league title.  Dantzler hit .302/.385/.504, with 9 Home Runs (in a tough park) and 35 RBI.  Dantzler was more of a line-drive hitter through his first three seasons for the Gamecocks, but became a huge power threat in his senior year.  Raw power is the term that was common in many scouting reports about him. We'll know more about him when he's finished his first year of full season ball a year from now.
   Matt Dean probably wasn't thrilled at repeating at rookie level Bluefield, but his disappointment faded quickly.  Dean led the Appy League in hitting, and was an all-star at DH (even though he led the loof in fielding percentage).  Dean and Dantzler will probably present a bit of a quandry next spring for the club, because they likely will both need to skip a level in order to play full season ball.
   And maybe the best prospect of all could be found at the lowest level.  Rowdy Tellez was labelled the best left handed high school bat in the draft, but fell to the Jays in the 30th round when he wouldn't back down from his bonus demands.  It took a little while for Tellez to adjust to pro ball when he was sent to the Gulf Coast League, but he finished the season with a flourish.  It will be very interesting to see where he starts the year next year.
  Juan Kelly and Michael De La Cruz split 1st chores for the DSL Jays. It's hard to project either one at the moment.

Top 10 Prospects
1. LB Dantzler
2. Matt Dean
3. Rowdy Tellez
4. Kevin Patterson
5. Gabe Jacobo
6. K.C. Hobson
7. Jordan Leyland
8. Clint Robinson
9.  Michael De La Cruz
10. Kellen Sweeney

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