Monday, September 23, 2013

System Watch: Up the Middle

Dawel Lugo
Vancouver Province photo

   For our next installment of our position-by-position look at the Blue Jays minor league prospects, we thought that we would combine 2nd Base and Shortstop.  The positions are fairly similar in terms of their defensive requirements, and a study of the players at those places on the diamond reveal that many spend a fair amount of time at both.
   Starting from top to bottom in the system, let's look at Ryan Goins and Jim Negrych, who handled the majority of games at short and second at AAA Buffalo, respectively.  Goins was something of a power hitter in college, but has turned into more of a line drive hitter since turning pro.  He was called up in late August after the parent club put Maicer Izturis on the DL, and after a hot start, he has cooled off with the bat.  It's Goins' glove that will ultimately get him to the majors to stay, and he has provided solid defense at second in his September audition.  His ceiling is likely as a utilityman at the major league level.
   Jim Negrych had a sizzling first half at the plate, and there were calls to have him promoted.  His second half was another matter, as the career minor leaguer hit .212/.308/.253 from mid-June on.  While he was a useful player for Buffalo, Negrych is an org guy at this point.
   John Tolisano and Ryan Schimpf split most of the second base duties at New Hampshire, while local boy Kevin Nolan played 116 games at short.  Tolisano was limited by injuries to only 64 games, but has hit .238/.322/.395 in 7 minor league seasons.  Schimpf hit a career-high 23 Home Runs, but hit only .210, with 138 K's.  He did manage a .338 OBA.  At 25, he's hit his ceiling.  Nolan hit .262, his lowest average since his first pro season.  Nolan has progressed slowly up the minor league ladder, and at 26 should no longer be considered a prospect.
   Jon Berti played the overwhelming majority of games at 2nd for High A Dunedin.  He was named the FSL's All-Star 2nd baseman, but that may have been more of a reflection of the talent pool.  He's hit.254/.352/.323 in 4 milb seasons.  The undersized Berti racked up 56 steals this season.  He should continue to advance up the ladder next season to New Hampshire, where we'll get a better idea of his long-term prospect status.
  Short at Dunedin was manned by the trio of Peter Mooney, Shane Opitz, and late season call-up Jorge Flores.  Mooney is undersized as well at 5'6".  He hit .244/.365/.321.  Opitz, an early season promotee from Lansing, split his time between 2nd, 3rd, and Short.  The 11th round choice in 2010 out of Colorado HS hit .309/.362/.399 in 60 games with Dunedin.  The athletic Opitz should also get a promotion to New Hampshire at some point next year. The diminutive (5'5") Flores (what is it with this organization and all the Altuves ?)  was promoted from Lansing part way through the year, and was lauded for his defensive skills.  His bat doesn't profile as major league, however.
  As with some of the other positions in the system, it's not until you get to the lower levels of the system that you find the higher-ceiling prospects.  Emilio Guerrero tops that list.  Guerrero is not your typical International signee.  For one, he signed at the relatively old (for an International prospect) age of 18, and just finished his first season of full-season ball at Lansing.  The other oddity is that he's 6'4" - tall for a shortstop.
   Marc Hulet of Fangraphs said, "His actions at shortstop are clunky at times and he lacks fluidity."
So, his body and physical abilities may not project well at short, but all indications are that he just grew into the position over the course of the season, hitting .277/.355/.402, and earning a promotion to playoff-bound Dunedin late in the season.  Guerrero has good bat speed, and uses the whole field.  His future probably lies as a corner infielder, although there's doubt he'll hit enough.  Second base at Lansing was manned by Christian Lopes.  Lopes got off to a flying start in his first full season, hitting .319/.347/. 425 through the first seven weeks of the season.  The Bluefield 2012 team MVP struggled the rest of the way, along with most of his young Lansing teammates, hitting .216/.289/.299 over the second half of the season.  At 21, there's still plenty of room for growth and projection for Lopes.
   Dickie Thon played the bulk of the shortstop action for short season Vancouver.  The namesake of the former major leaguer continued his steady, if not rapid, progress this season. After struggling at the bat for his first two pro seasons, things came together for Thon this season, hitting .280/.370/.378.   Opinions about Thon's ceiling are still varied, but he was an integral part of the league-champion 
Canadians' lineup, even though he missed much of August due to injury.  David Harris played most of the Canadians' games at second, and even though he is likely only an org guy, he came along with 
the bat as the season wore on, and he impressed us with the glove during our visit to B.C.  in July.  
Early in the game, he ranged far to his left to nab a dying quail of a pop-up to short right field. Later, he deftly fielded a slow roller hit to the first base side of second, avoiding the runner headed to second, and threw across his body to get the batter at first.
  Thon was felled by an ankle inury in late August, and was replaced for the playoffs in the Vancouver by Dawel Lugo, who played short for rookie-level Bluefield. Even though he too isn't likely to remain at the position, Lugo is a potential future impact offensive player.  Multiple reports claim the ball explodes off his bat.  Mark Anderson of Baseball Prospect Nation had this to say about Lugo:

   "Summation: Love what he brings to the table. The natural hitting ability smacks you in the face. 
Really impressed with the feel for the strike zone, ability to recognize and track pitches at a young 
age, even though he prefers to swing a lot. You can see it working in his head. Plus hit projection is 
very attainable and he could blow that out of the water. Potential .290+ hitter. Power is in there and will manifest with additional physical maturation and development of his offensive approach. Has lift in the swing and bat speed for 20+ home runs, backed up by piles of doubles. Potential impact middle-of-the-order hitter with average and power. Defensive profile is an open question but has the reactions, hands and solid arm strength to support a shift to third base instead of shortstop. If body comes up short of projections, then he could survive at shortstop in a fringe-average sort of way, particularly with his bat. The development is likely to be slow, but there’s an impact big leaguer in there."

   Sounds like a power-hitting 3rd baseman of the future to us. 

And things get better the deeper you progress.  The possible jewel of the system is Franklin Barreto, who doesn't turn 18 until February.  Barreto was labelled the top international signing in 2012, and his first pro season in 2013 did nothing to diminish that status. You can just about have your pick of the online analyses of Barreto's potential.  Here's one of my favourites from Baseball America's Ben Badler:

   Several teams have Barreto as the top player on their boards. A 16-year-old from Miranda, Barreto has two standout tools in his hitting and his speed. Some scouts project Barreto as a future plus hitter. He has quick hands, a short swing, recognizes pitches well and hits the ball to all fields. With his hitting acumen and plus-plus speed, he could become a potential .300 hitter. Barreto is small and is already a strong, physically mature player, so there are questions about projection, but he hits hard line drives and has shown he can hit the ball out of the park in games, with 15-20 homer potential.

   Barreto hit .299/.368/.529 in his first season of pro ball in the rookie level Gulf Coast League, and then was promoted to Bluefield in August, as part of the moves that saw Lugo go to Vancouver.  After a flashy start, Barreto did struggle against the tougher pitching, but that the Blue Jays brass felt comfortable sending him there tells a great deal how they feel about his character, and his ability to handle a challenge.  Of course, most scouting reports suggest that Barreto profiles more as a 2nd baseman or an outfielder, but he's an exciting offensive player, whose bat will take him to the majors.
   Tim Locastro and Alexis Maldonado split the 2nd base chores at Bluefield.  The former was a low bonus 13th round pick in June, and the latter was a free agent out of Holy Cross. Both played short stop in their senior college seasons.  Locastro had a decent season with the bat (.283/.367/.384), but the sample sizes for both are barely large enough to make a decent judgement on.
  The same could be said for Will Dupont and Rolando Segovia, who shared most of the 2nd base duties opposite Barreto in the GCL.
   One last prospect who shows tremendous upside is Richard Urena.  Urena hit .333/.400./.407 in a brief GCL trial as Barreto's replacement, after hitting .296/.381/.403 in the Dominican Summer League. Urena hits from the left side, and unlike Barreto, Lugo, and Guerrero, is projected to stay at short. Urena attended the Perfect Game showcase in June of last year, and they noted him as:

   Slender young athletic build, wiry strength. 6.96 runner, very light on his feet defensively, quick actions, circles the ball very well, quick release, outstanding arm strength, has all the defensive tools you would look for. Left handed hitter, simple swing mechanics, loose swing with quick hands, stays inside the ball well, aggressive approach, pull contact, projects with the bat.

    Barreto's older brother Deiferson played 2nd for the DSL Jays this summer.  He hit .300/.404/.383, but it was his second tour of the DSL.  It's a bit surprising that he hasn't made it to the GCL yet.  
   So, we have a bit of a dilemma on our hands, mainly because two of the top prospects in this group aren't expected to stay at their current positions.  Just the same, that the club has yet to move them suggests that they will at least let them play themselves out of that position.

Top 10 Blue Jays Middle Infield Prospects

1. F. Barreto
2. Lugo
3. Guerrero
4. Urena
5. Thon
6. Opitz
7. Lopes
8. Berti
9. Schimpf
10. Tolisano
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