Friday, October 25, 2013

Clutchlings' Blue Jays Minor League Awards

   With the 2013 minor league season now a fading memory, we thought that we would take a moment to present our own set of annual awards to the Blue Jays minor league system.

 Most Surprising Club Award  Vancouver Canadians
   This award shouldn't have been a surprise. But it was.
   The two-time defending Northwest League champs won 18 of their first 30 games, and appeared to be strong contenders for a three-peat.
  July rolled into August, and the C's limped home, with a pair of four-game losing streaks in the month, edging out Spokane by a game to clinch 2nd place in the combined Northern division standings, and qualified for the semi-finals.  Down the stretch, they lost starting shortstop Dickie Thon Jr, and Alberta-born and raised starting pitcher Shane Dawson.
   Buoyed by the call-ups of Dawel Lugo and Mitch Nay from Bluefield of  rookie-level Appalachian, Vancouver swept arch-rival Everett in two games in the semi-finals. They dropped the opening game of the final series to Boise, then took the next to games to capture their third consecutive NWL crown. Nay was named the championship series MVP.

Vancouver Sun photo

  Most Disappointing Club Lansing Lugnuts
Given the success the organization has had at Vancouver, the Lugnuts could be said to underachieved this year. Lansing lost 5 straight games at the end of April to finish the month 8-15, but were 15-15 for May, and appeared on the upswing, despite the loss of heralded phenon hurler Roberto Osuna, who was shut down and sent to Florida with a torn UCL that he ultimately would have surgery on later in the season.
   June and July were rough months for the Lugnuts, who went 23-32.  By July 17, they had been no-hit on three occasions, as the offence sputtered after a decent start.  Catcher Santiago Nessy received national attention in early July when teammate Chris Hawkins appeared to have hit a walk-off single against Great Lakes.  Nessy, who was on first, failed to touch 2nd base, and while Nessy raced to join his fellow Lugnuts as they mobbed Hawkins, the Loons alertly relayed the ball from the outfield to force him at 2nd.  It was a crowining moment in a month to forget.
  A decent August helped bump the Lugnuts' final record to 61-77, their first sub-.500 season since becoming a Toronto affiliate in 2005.
   There are many possibilities as to why the Lugnuts had a disappointing season. There's one school of thought that says that if you have a team 15 games under .500, the players on the roster are not ready for that level.  But since the Jays have had such success at the short-season level, one would think that eventually that would translate into more success at the next stop.  Some would suggest that the Jays tend to stock Vancouver with college players who succeed in short season ball, but reach  their ceiling once they reach A ball.
   Another possibility is that while Lansing was not one of the younger clubs in the Midwest League, they did have some young players at key positions, like Nessy.  And they did lose Osuna for over half of the season, and Daniel Norris for a month.
  It wasn't all a lost season for the Lugnuts, however.  After a rough start, Norris turned things around, outfielders Dwight Smith Jr and Dalton Pompey turned in solid seasons, shortstop Emilio Guerrero had a sizzling August, and 2013 draftee Kramer Champlin was a pleasant surprise in the starting rotation.
  With an influx of promotees from Vancouver and a number of players who likely will repeat Low A ball to start the season, Lansing should return to their winning ways next season.

Biggest Steps Forward   Daniel Norris
   After posting a bloated 8.44 ERA in his 2012 pro debut and having a rough April this season, there were concerns that the 2011 2nd round choice out of Science Hill HS in Johnson City, Tennessee might be a washout.  Baseball America wondered how someone with such electric stuff could be hit so hard and so often in its weekly Prospect Hot Sheet.
  After his first 7 outings ths year, Norris was 0-3, with an unslightly 10.07 ERA, giving up 34 hits over his first 22 innings.
  And then began the turnaround. Even after missing a month due to some elbow soreness, Norris went 2-5, with a 2.71 ERA.  While the won-loss record was misleading due to a strict (60-pitch) limit, Norris struck out 85 batters in 69 innings.  He was simply electric for the last half of the season, and earned a late season promotion to High A Dunedin, where by all accounts he continued to pitch well in one regular season and one playoff game for the D-Jays. He too made the national highlights when he snared a line drive in a game in August, narrowly avoiding decapitation.
   For the season, Norris was 1-7, with a 4.20 ERA.  He struck out 99 batters in 85 innings.  His poor start likely cost Norris a spot on Baseball America's Top 20 Midwest League prospects.
   There have been concerns about Norris' command and his ability to repeat his delivery.  Keith Law feels that his future lies in the bullpen.  We think that it's way too early to give up on Norris as a starter.  All indications are that with the help of Lansing pitching coach Vince Horsman, Norris made the transition from thrower to pitcher this year.

Biggest Steps Backward  Adonys Cardona
   Cardona made many pre-season Top 10 Jays' Prospects lists, including ours.
Promoted to Bluefield to start the season, Cardona struggled, and was shut down in early August, after putting together an 0-2, 6.75 ERA record, with a WHIP of 1.92.  He did have a pair of starts where he could be said to have been dominant, but his ERA was fluffed up a bit by several other starts that weren't.
He still made BA's Top 20 Appy League prospects list this season.  Apparently the scouts have seen something that those of us who can't get a first hand glimpse of him haven't.  Just the same, while you can't put a lot of stock in stats from the low minors, Cardona didn't do much this season to justify such lofty opinions.
 Obviously, although no one connected with the Jays is saying it, Cardona needs some time to recover physically or emotionally (or both) from whatever has been ailing him this season.  He doesn't turn 20 until the New Year, so time is on Cardona's side.

Pitcher of the Year  Marcus Stroman
   With the injury to Osuna and the struggles of Aaron Sanchez, Stroman emerged as the organization's top starter, and one who is neck-and-neck with Sean Nolin in terms of major league readiness.
  Because of last year's PED suspension, Stroman didn't make his season debut until May 17.  Most projections have Stroman as a late-inning power arm, but the Jays had him in a starting role in AA, likely to build arm strength, and to harness his secondary offerings.
   In 20 starts with New Hampshire, Stroman went 9-5, with a 3.30 ERA.  He struck out 129 batters in 111 innings, with only 27 walks.  Of some concern were the 13 home runs he gave up.
   Because he's all of 5'9", there are those who question his long term value as a starter.  There likely would be few questions if he was four inches taller.  Stroman was lights out at times this season, with a pair of 13 K games, and a pair of 11 punchout games. Yes, because of his height, he lacks a downward plane on some of his pitches, particularly his fastball, but he generated a lot of swings and misses for a short guy. In his first full season (minus the suspension) of pro ball, at that.  His future may lie in the bullpen (his current role in the Arizona Fall League), but Stroman was everything the Jays had hoped for this year.
   New Hampshire teammate Nolin was a close second.  Nolin was 8-3, 3.01 with the Fisher Cats, and was summoned (and pummeled) to the bigs for a start in late May.  Nolin finished the year at Buffalo, and is on the cusp of a spot in the big league rotation. Nolin struck out 116 batters in 110 innings between the two minor league stops.  He projects as a middle of the rotation starter, who should eat up major league innings one day.

Player of the Year   LB Dantzler
   Dantzler, described as a "solid senior value sign," was a 14th round pick in this year's draft (presumably for the $5 000 bonus the Jays gave mid-round seniors) out of South Carolina.
  Dantlzer showed some suprising pop in his final college season, which likely bumped his draft status.
His floor has been described as a high minor league first baseman, and he has drawn Lyle Overbay comps for his ceiling.
  Whatever his future holds, Dantzler was a rock in the Vancouver batting order this season, hitting .302/.502/.889, along with 9 homeruns in a difficult home run park.  Dantzler showed an ability to get on base, and was named the Northwest League's MVP. Baseball America tabbed him as the NWL's 19th best prospect.
   Dantzler was among the system's leaders in batting average, OBP, and slugging.  While there are questions about his long term value, he led his team to their thrid straight title.  Manager Clayton McCullough, on the C's website, observed:
    "He was prepared to play every day and made the players around him that much better because of the way he handled himself both on and off the field. He is just a quality human being and I couldn't be happier for him."'s Chris Slade, who saw a lot of Dantzler in college as a Gamecocks' season ticket holder, had this to say about Dantzler:
    "Even if he does have some contact issues (Slade described him as having holes in his swing prior to the draft) as he moves up the ladder, I still think Dantzler can maintain an above average power output and reach base often via the walk. From what I've seen, I think he has everything else you look for in a hitter (a quick, compact stroke, above average barrel to the ball ability, major league pop, discerning batting eye, willingness to take walks). I believe his Senior season at S.C. was a legitimate breakthrough."   
   Slade describes Dantzler as one to watch for next season, which will likely see him at Lansing.

The Dave Stieb Meteoric Rise Award:   Kevin Pillar
   Pillar continued his rapid rise through the system in a year that saw him start at AA, and culminated in a late-August promotion to the majors. It took him less than 3 minor league seasons to get there.  The Midwest League was so impressed with Pillar last season that he was voted league MVP, even though he was promoted to Dunedin after 86 games with Lansing.
   Pillar hit .313/.341/.494 in a half season at New Hampshire, and .299/.341/.493 at AAA Buffalo.  Pillar got off to a slow start in the bigs, starting his career with 0-13.  Pillar was overmatched in his first few weeks with the Jays, and didn't see as much playing time as some thought he would get with the injuries to Colby Rasmus and Jose Bautista.  Pillar's slow start, along with the strong showings of fellow Bison outfielders Moises Sierra and Anthony Gose limited his playing time, but Pillar did manage to climb above the Mendoza line with a strong finish, hitting .206/.250/.333, with 3 HR and 13 RBI.
   It has been well documented that the scouting consensus about Pillar has been overachieving fourth outfielder.  With the reasonably strong showings by Gose and Sierra during their September stints, as well as Pillar's outstanding minor league resume, the outfield situation with the big club has become a little more crowded than it was at the start of the year.  Pillar has hit at every minor league stop, and depsite his slow start in the bigs, it's hard to believe that he won't continue to do so if he's given a chance to adjust to major league pitching.

Toronto Star Photo

Manager of the Year  Clayton McCullough
   Some would say picking the manager of a team which wins its league title is an easy thing, but McCullough must have worked some serious magic in his second season at the helm of Vancouver to lead the Canadians to that third straight NWL crown.
   Vancouver got off to a strong start, but faded badly in August, due to injuries and inconsistency.  They rallied to make the playoffs on the final day of the season, having taken a four game losing streak into the season's next-to-last weekend. With callups Lugo, Dean, and Nay, McCullough nursed the team into the playoffs, and through the semis and finals.  Taking this team of 19 to 22 year olds must have taken infinite amounts of patience as they struggled down the stretch.
   McCullough has managed in the system for 7 years, even though he's only 33.  McCullough will be managing several Jays prospects in the Australian Winter League this offseason.

 Nastiest Stuff Award   Aaron Sanchez
   Some might say Sanchez took a slight step back in his development this year.  They would point to the progress former teammates Justin Nicolino and Noah Syndergaard made. They might also mention the month Sanchez missed due to shoulder issues. Sanchez also apparently had some blister issues this summer (although Keith Law suggests that he was blown out in one July start not because of blisters, but because the Jays for unknown - to Law - reasons were trying to get him to throw a sinker, which apparently didn't sink in that particular start) that may have limited his effectiveness.
   Sanchez also struggled a bit with his command, as he has throughout his minor league career.  At the same time, his stuff can just be downright filthy sometimes.  Sanchez can  reach 98 with his fastball, and has a change-up that many scouts have deemed major league-ready.

Best Toolkit    DJ Davis
   Going by stats alone, Davis didn't have the greatest year.  He spent the whole season at Bluefield, and wasn't called up to Vancouver in late August to help the Canadians with their playoff drive as some of his teammates were, which was something of a surprise.
   At the same time, scouts and media covering the Appy League see plenty of room for projection for Davis.  Baseball America tabbed him as the 2nd best prospect in the rookie level loop.  They weren't concerned by his numbers, which did suffer from a late season slump.  Davis flashed signs of power and speed that prompted Carl Crawford comparisons.  That's good enough for us.

Power Arm     Tyler Ybarra
   The 43rd round pick in the 2008 draft has missed a lot of bats since being moved to the bullpen in his 2nd year of pro ball.
  In 154 innings in the last 3 seasons, the lefthander has struck out 176 batters.  At High A Dunedin this year,  in 55 innings Ybarra struck out 66 FSL batters, who hit .156 against him. The 33 walks are a bit of a concern, but it's an improvement over last year, and maybe partially comes with a 95 mph fastball with movement.
   Ybarra made a number of mechanical adjustments in 2012 with Lansing, and was able to translate that into increased velocity this year.
  Ybarra was originally named as one of the AFL Seven in late August, but the Jays opted later not to send him to the Southwest, likely to protect his arm after a relatively heavy workload with the D-Jays.
   He hasn't garnered the notice that the higher-profile prospects in the system have, but at 23, he seems poised to climb the ladder quickly.

Most Dangerous Bat   Rowdy Tellez
   Labelled as the top High School power bat in this year's draft, Tellez' bonus demands and his supposed committment ot USC saw his stock plummet to the 30th round, where the Jays scooped up perhaps the steal of the draft for an $850 000 bonus.
   Tellez didn't make his pro debut until late July, and predictably struggled through his first weeks in the Gulf Coast League.  He hit .107/.286/.143 for the month, and by mid-August, still had an unsightly .189/.284/.247 line.  And then he began to figure things out.  Tellez went on an end of the season tear, going 9-16 over his last 4 games, hitting his first two pro home runs.  Tellez drove in 5 runs in his last game of the season, and the raves started. Chris King of Baseball Prospectus was among the many to tweet Tellez' praises, stating the Tellez has "huge power," that was "starting to show up in game action."
   While information out of fall instructional league in Florida was limited, the glowing reports of Tellez' power continued. King, a trusted source of Jays in Florida info, was laid up for much of September by illness and recovery from a car accident, but he did see Tellez in action once more, and marvelled at how much better his swing looked, with a much more direct path to the ball.
   Tellez won't be 19 until March, and will likely start next season in Bluefield, which means we may have to wait on this potential impact bat for a while.

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