Saturday, December 27, 2014

Ty Cobb's Last Game

    On the 100th anniversary of the event in September, we wrote about Babe Ruth's first professional Home Run, hit in Toronto.  Since that time, we've learned that Ty Cobb played his last game in an MLB uniform in Toronto, as well.

   It was a mid-September 1928 exhibition game against the International League's Maple Leafs franchise, in their sparkling new park, Maple Leaf Stadium, at the foot of Bathurst Street.  Cobb was wearing the uniform of the Philadelphia Athletics, who were in the middle of a pennant race -  which didn't stop Athletics' owner Connie Mack, who was always looking for sources of revenue in between sales of his star players.

   Cobb, of course, is best known for his days as a Detroit Tiger.  He served as player-manager for the Tigers from 1921-26, but never finished higher than 3rd place.  Cobb, supposedly worn out and tired of baseball, retired following the 1926 season.  Earlier in the season, Cobb and fellow future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker were both alleged to have thrown a game several years earlier, which came to light just after the season ended. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis declared the pair innocent after a lengthy investigation.  Eager to restore his name, Cobb looked for an opportunity to resume his playing career, and Mack gave him 50 000 reasons to become an Athletic.  At the age of 40, Cobb hit .357/.440/.482 for Philadelphia in 1927.
   Cobb was one of the most reviled players in the history of baseball.  The Georgia product made his MLB debut in August of 1905 with the Tigers, just three weeks after his mother, mistaking his father for an intruder, shot and killed him.  During her trial, it was revealed that Cobb's father suspected her of infidelity, and was sneaking past her window, supposedly on a business trip, trying to catch her in the act.  Cobb's mother was acquitted, but he admitted his daring, brusque, and downright dangerous playing style was in memory of his late father, who Cobb worshiped.
  Cobb quarreled throughout his career with teammates, fans, and team owners.  He went into the stands in a 1912 game in New York to go after a fan who had been heckling him, and beat him senseless.  Turns out the man only had one arm.  An avowed racist, Cobb was involved in many ugly incidents with racial overtones.
   Cobb also knew the value of a dollar.  He was one of the first investors in a fledgling company called Coca-Cola, and early in his playing day befriended a young, unknown auto maker named Olds.

  Cobb got off to a good start in 1928, and was hitting .340/.382/.476 by mid-May, but three doubleheaders late in the month dropped his average (Cobb hit .206 in 6 doubleheader Game 2's for the month) perilously close to the .300 mark.

   The 1928 A's were one of the greatest teams of all time.  With Cobb, Speaker (who had joined the club with Cobb the year before), and Eddie Collins on the roster,  Philadelphia had 3 players with over 3 000 career hits, the only time in MLB history this has happened.  Along with pitcher Lefty Grove (who some would argue was the greatest hurler in baseball history), catcher Mickey Cochrane, outfielder Al Simmons, and a young corner infielder named Jimmy Foxx, the Athletics featured seven future hall of famers, in addition to legendary Manager Mack.

   Despite this collection of talent, the Athletics finished 19 games behind the Yankees' famous Murderers Row team the year before.  In 1928, however, they stayed neck and neck with New York for the American League lead for most of the season.

   Cobb continued to hit as the spring turned into summer, but playing right field every day was beginning to take its toll.  The A's played 8 doubleheaders in July, and he was clearly running out of gas.  Mack was notorious for scheduling exhibition games on off days in those pre-player's union days.  And the road trips, because travel was done by rail, tended to be long and gruelling.  Philadelphia spent almost the month of June on the road, on a 6-city, 23 game trip.  We couldn't find record of it, but it's highly likely that Mack had scheduled some games on the five days off the club had during the trip.  By the end of July, Cobb's legs could no longer stand the stress of playing every day, and he made his last-ever MLB start on the 26th against the White Sox, going 2-5.  The next day, Cobb was replaced in the Athletic's lineup by 24 year old Mule Haas, while Cobb was relegated to pinch hitting duties.

   The A's and Yankees continued their pennant race into September.  When they beat the Red Sox on September 8th, they were a half game ahead in the standings.  Philadelphia travelled to New York to take on the Yankees the next day, and fell out of first by losing three of four to the Bronx Bombers.  A week earlier, Cobb recorded his 4191st and final hit against Washington, and grounded out in his final at bat, a pinch hit appearance against New York, on September 11th.

  A dispirited group of Philadelphia ballplayers likely boarded the train in New York, destined for their final road trip of the season, a three week venture to Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and St Louis to close out the season.  Mack, of course, had scheduled exhibition games against Albany and Toronto along the way.

   Cobb started the game despite not having started in over a month and a half, likely to give the regulars a bit of rest, and maybe also because shrewd businessman that he was, he probably had negotiated a cut of the gate with Mack.  We've found no proof of this, but we can't really see a reason for him sticking with the club and getting only 9 ABs since the end of July otherwise.

Maple Leaf Stadium

QMI Photo

    Maple Leaf Stadium, a bowl-shaped stadium facing Lake Ontario, had opened a year earlier, to rave reviews.  The growing and affluent population of Toronto no longer had to dodge trains at the foot of Yonge Street and wait in line for the ferry before and after games like they did when the team played at Hanlon's Point, on Toronto Island.  With a capacity of 23,500, it was the largest and one of the finest parks in all of the minor leagues.  Mack and the Toronto people who arranged the game must have thought that fans would have come out in droves to see Cobb, Speaker, and Collins.  Toronto fans must have known that Speaker and Collins were even closer to the end of their careers than Cobb, however, as both had seen only pinch hit and spot duty all season.  A crowd estimated at less than 2500 fans made the trip to the waterfront to see these soon-to-be-gone legends perform.

   Cobb went two for three, smacking a pair of hits off of a pitcher named Lefty Thompson (listed only as Thompson? in Baseball Reference), before grounding out.  Cobb was replaced in right field, and walked off the playing field for the last time.  He retired for good by the time the club had arrived for their next series in Cleveland.  Cobb left the game with 12 batting titles, three .400 seasons, and a .367 lifetime batting average that will never be equalled.
    The Athletics were unsuccessful in their pursuit of the Yankees once again, but they captured the AL Pennant the next three seasons, and the World Series in two of them.  

   Cobb was a man of many contradictions.  Despite his personal prejudices, he was a very generous man, donating money to build a hospital in his home town in his parents' name, establishing an education fund that still exists today, and privately paying the medical bills of many former teammates and opponents.  The movie Cobb, starring Tommy Lee Jones and directed by Ron Shelton of Bull Durham fame, was released in 1995, and failed spectacularly at the box office.  The movie was based on the writing of sportswriter Al Stump, who Cobb had asked to help collaborate on an autobiography in his final days, and many of Stump's claims of his time with Cobb have been called into question, meaning that even more than 30 years after his death, Cobb remained a polarizing figure.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Blue Jays Prospects: Who Could Contribute This Year?

   A Twitter follower asked us if we could come up with a list of prospects not named Daniel Norris or Dalton Pompey who we thought might make a contribution with the Blue Jays in 2015.
   That's a tough task, given that the club's top two hopefuls (Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman) not only had lengthy stays on the 25 man roster last year, they also made significant contributions to the club, and Norris and Pompey are likely to have a similar impact at some point next year.  Of all the prospects in the Blue Jays system, there is only one who might have any kind of similar impact in 2015:

Miguel Castro, RHP
   The one player who could make an Aaron Sanchez-like impact is this tall, skinny Dominican hurler.
   Castro regularly hits 98 on the gun and touches 100 with his fastball. Northwest League hitters were over matched against him, so he was promoted to Lansing and then Dunedin before season's end.
   The knock against Castro, as has been well documented, is that his secondary pitches grade as average at best. He will likely start at Dunedin and be moved to New Hampshire if he continues to have the kind of success he has had to date.  If his offspeed repertoire has not advanced enough, AA hitters will likely make him pay for it - if they can get around on his fastball.
  Alex Anthopolous himself has suggested that we may see Castro in the Toronto bullpen this summer.  If his first few starts at AA are rough ones, we don't think the club would hesitate to make the switch, and have him follow a conversion similar to that of Sanchez - a couple of Milb relief appearances, and a promotion to the bigs by mid-summer.
  As much as we would like the club to give Castro every chance to prove he can be a starter this year, and given the status of the current Toronto pen, this plan makes a lot of sense. gives us a glimpse of the 19 year old:

 So, the following players are ones who we think have an outside shot at making an appearance at some point in the major leagues this year, but their impact will likely be less dramatic.

Ryan Tepera, RHP
   A middling starter for much of his career since being chosen by Toronto in the 19th round of the 2009 draft, Tepera's fortunes began to change when the organization moved him to a bullpen role with New Hampshire in 2013.
   Left off the 40 man roster and eligible for the Rule 5 draft last fall, Marc Hulett named Tepera as his top selection.  Luckily, all 30 MLB teams passed on him, and Tepera pitched in relief for Buffalo last season.  His numbers were not overwhelming, but he struck out slightly more than a batter per inning, and had a decent BB/K ratio.
   Tepera has hit 96 with his fastball, and has a sinker with good downward action.  The Blue Jays thought enough of him that they put him on the 40 man just before the November deadline this year, in order to keep him out of the Rule 5 draft.  We can't see him breaking camp with the big team in April, but we can see him with the club at some point, especially if there are any bullpen meltdowns.
  You won't get a strike out the side type of power arm with Tepera, but what you will get is a pitcher who throws strikes, and pounds the lower part of the strike zone.  His likely role with the club would be in long relief, doing a Chad Jenkins-like Toronto-Buffalo QEW Shuffle.

Chad Jenkins, RHP
   We can't really think of the 2009 1st rounder as a prospect anymore, but the truth is that he pitched well for the club in a variety of roles last year, including emergency starter and first guy out of the pen.
  Jenkins is not a flamethrower, barely topping 91 with his fastball.  What he does is keep the ball down, essential for any Rogers Centre pitcher:

  Jenkins has one year of options remaining, so it's likely that he will continue in his role as a fill-in, cross the Peace Bridge multiple times guy.  He can make a contribution, but it will most likely be in an emergency role.

AJ Jimenez, C
   Once a fringe Top 10 prospect, Jimenez has fallen off the radar due to an inability to stay healthy over the past two years, and growing concerns about his bat.
   Having watched a fair bit of him, he has the makings of a premium backstop.  Lithe and athletic, his moves behind the plate are cat-like.  He is adept at blocking balls in the dirt, and is a good handler of pitchers - he's caught a fair amount of Stroman, Sanchez, and a bit of Norris.
   At the plate, Jimenez has a line drive stroke, but doesn't project to hit for much power.  He doesn't walk or strikeout out a whole lot:
    The signing of Russell Martin, of course, was not good news for Jimenez.  With Josh Thole firmly ensconced as RA Dickey's catcher, there would appear to be no room for Jimenez, who is heading into his final year of options.  If Martin proves successful at catching Dickey's knuckler, or if he gets injured, a spot might open up for Jimenez.  With Max Pentecost and Danny Jansen on their way up the system, Jimenez's time with the organization might be limited, anyway.  If he were to make a contribution to the club this year, it would be in a reserve role.

Andy Burns, 3B
   Burns was the surprise of the organization last year, playing at A+ and AA before finishing off his season in fine style in the Arizona Fall League.
  A slow start cost him a chance at advancement this year.  Burns hit .200/.261/.294 in April, and .223/.317/.359 in May before finally heating up, and finishing the year at .255/.315/.430.  
   He played mostly 3rd this year at AA, but Burns has the athleticism to play a variety of positions both infield and outfield.  The Blue Jays played him at five positions in Arizona, as it looks like they are priming him to be a super utility player.  With things more or less open in the competition for the 2nd base job with Toronto at spring training, it will be interesting to see where the club decides to play Burns, who will likely play at Buffalo.  
  If injuries and/or inconsistency open up a spot for a player who can play a variety of positions, Burns could get an audition.

Jon Berti, 2B, Devon Travis 2B
   The acquisition of Travis  pushes Berti down the depth chart.  Berti projects to have plus speed, but the question is if he will get on base enough to take advantage of it.  Berti drew good reviews for his play against top calibre competition in the Arizona Fall League.
   Travis, similar to Kevin Pillar, has hit just about everywhere he has played, but like Pillar has more than his fair share of detractors.  He will likely start the season at Buffalo, with Berti returning to New Hampshire.  The need for some offence at the position on the big club is so huge that we can easily see one of the pair get a trial in the majors if they get off to a blazing start.
   With his speed, Berti profiles more as a leadoff hitter, although he posted his lowest walk rate in four years of pro ball last year at AA.  Travis is projected to be more of a bat will play kind of guy, likely in the bottom third of the order.

   And that's about it.  Farm systems tend to be cyclical in nature, so this year may be a bit of a down year in terms of producing players who can make a significant impact at the major league level.  As we have written before, with over half of the system's depth a Low A or lower, and with 3 of its top 20 prospects traded in the Josh Donaldson deal, it will take at least another year to produce any more top level talent.

Friday, December 19, 2014

That's Just Crazy, Buster

   ESPN Baseball Insider Buster Olney suggested in a blog post today that the Baltimore Orioles might be entitled to huge compensation from the Blue Jays if they are successful in hiring current O's GM Dan Duquette.
   Duquette is under contract with the Orioles until 2018.  As a courtesy, most teams will allow an employee under contract to interview for a promotion with another club.  Legally, Olney points out, O's owner Peter Angelos would be within his rights to ask for compensation if Duquette is hired by the Blue Jays.
   We are truly in an era when top baseball executives can have a significant impact on the direction and fortunes of an organization.  "Great baseball executives," writes Olney, "continue to be the most undervalued asset in an industry currently obsessed with identifying value."  He suggests that the return the Red Sox received from the Cubs for the hiring of Theo Epstein (reliever Chris "The Other One" Carpenter), was paltry when compared to the value the Cubs received in the form of Epstein. Adds Olney:

   Think about that: Epstein is regarded as one of the best and brightest minds in baseball and was being pursued for a leadership position with a billion-dollar company, and he was under contract, and all the Red Sox received was a second-tier relief pitcher.

  The history of compensation for signing major league managers and executives is sparse to begin with.  The Blue Jays received infielder Mike Aviles from the Red Sox when they hire John Farrell away from Toronto in 2013.  The Blue Jays then donated Aviles and catcher Yan Gomes to the Indians in return for pitcher Esmil Rogers. When the Cubs and Red Sox could not initially agree on compensation for the signing of Epstein, both sides submitted written proposals to Commissioner Bud Selig, before reaching an agreement in the form of Carpenter.

  Olney suggests the O's could be entitled to one of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, or Daniel Norris, or a package of top prospects Jeff Hoffman, Max Pentecost, and Richard Urena, in return for agreeing to let Duquette go.

  And with all due respect, that's ridiculous.

  Certainly, the O's should receive more compensation than a middling reliever or slightly above league average middle infielder.  The Blue Jays are a direct competitor, and Duquette not only would bring his vast baseball knowledge to Toronto, he would also be packing a depth of information about O's players both on the 40-man roster, and in their minor league organization.  And it's understandable that Baltimore would aim their sights that high: the Red Sox were reportedly asking for Matt Garza and/or Starlin Castro in return for Epstein, but settled for considerably less.  Still, if the matter of compensation between Toronto and Baltimore could not be agreed upon, the price Olney suggests is far too steep, and could severely limit the movement of executives in the future.
   Duquette would not doubt add value to the Toronto organization.  The Blue Jays players Olney mentions could add tens of millions of dollars to the club's player values.  Given the history of compensation, though, we just can't see it, and even though the Blue Jays have shown that they are not afraid to use top prospects as currency, we find it hard to believe that they would agree to the demands Olney suggests.

   Who would the O's be entitled to?  As we said, they should be compensated above the norm.  To us, though, that means a #11-20 prospect of Toronto's choosing - and even that's a huge price, given the precedent established.  With the Blue Jays on an upward swing in their competitive cycle, it will be hard to measure exactly how much value Duquette would add to the organization.  It won't be as hard to determine the value the players mentioned will have.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

5 Sleeper Prospects

Amazon photo
   The term "Sleeper" as applied to a prospect is a bit of a misnomer, as it suggests that a player has latent talent that is just waiting to be woken up.  In our experience, prospects don't develop at the same rate, so when a player has a breakout season, it's often more because they have figured something out (new release point, repeating delivery consistently, a new grip on their four-seamer, how to recognize breaking pitches better, etc), or have seen a commitment to training (proper fitness, nutrition, sleep, and specific skill work) start to pay off.  The point is that the breakout came as a result of the player actively seeking to unlock their ability - the term "Sleeper," again suggests a passive process, when the result is anything but.

  In the spirit of our last post, which looked at five Blue Jays prospects who we considered, but ultimately decided against including in our Top 20 Prospect list, here are 5 more who we may have overlooked, but could make impressive gains next year if the stars align and all goes well for them. They may be "Sleepers," in the sense that they really haven't broken through into the spotlight yet, but their skill level and athleticism suggest they could:

BDT Photo
Lane Thomas IF/OF    
   The Blue Jays took the Tennessee HS product in the 5th round of last June's draft.  Thomas has the athleticism the team prefers in a draft pick, and has a skill set that is described as well rounded.  A plus runner, there were some thoughts that he could develop into a premium centrefielder, but reports on his work there are mixed.  There is thought that his agility and arm strength is better suited to SS or 3B.
   Thomas started the year in the GCL, and was elevated to Bluefield for the final month of the season.  Thomas' development took off in the Appy League, and he hit .323/.384/.431 at the higher level.  Here's what Baseball America's Clint Longenecker had to say about him:

    Lane Thomas is an exciting player that the Bluefield staff praised. He got time at third base this summer, an interesting development because he has an above-average arm. He ran well but was not a true burner in center field, where he played most as an amateur. He plays the game hard and has natural aptitude for the game. He will likely see some time at Bluefield or Vancouver next summer, given the Blue Jays history with recent high school draftees, and will absolutely be                                                                                                 someone who could factor onto the (top prospect)                                                                                                      list.

   In Thomas' case, it's mostly sample size that has kept him out of consideration for one of our top prospect slots.  That may not be the case after 2015.

Matt Boyd LHP
   Boyd was looking like a lock for our Top 20 in April, when he had a better month than Daniel Norris and Kendall Graveman.
   The Jays' 6th round pick out of Oregon State last year, Boyd was promoted to AA after giving up only one earned run over his first 5 starts this year with Dunedin, covering 31 innings.  Over that time, he surrendered only 18 hits, walked 5, and struck out 37, including 12 in his final start.
Dunedin starter Matt Boyd carried a no hitter into the top of the six when Langley, BC native Wes Darvill hit a solo shot to right to bring the score to the 5-1 final.   (Eddie Michels photo) 
   Things did not go as well for Boyd in AA.  Boyd hurt his foot shortly after the promotion, and he admits that he failed to repeat his delivery consistently after it had healed, and the more experienced Eastern League hitters barreled him up often in 2 of his first 3 starts.  Boyd seemed to be figuring things out when he was roughed up in a start at the end of May, and was sent back to Dunedin.
   He pitched reasonably well for Dunedin in June, and found himself back in AA by July as a result of some injury issues and roster moves higher in the organization, striking out 9 in his first start, but was back in Dunedin to finish the season.  Boyd was lit up in his last couple of starts with the D-Jays, and we have to wonder if the almost 280 innings (he helped OSU get to the College World Series in 2013) he has logged between his senior year of college and first two years of pro ball (a span of about 18 months) have taken their toll.
   Boyd was a reliever in his first three years of college, and with his low three quarters arm slot was tough on lefthanded hitters.  He raised his arm slot and was sent to the OSU starting rotation for his senior year, and had a fantastic season.  Boyd sits between 90 and 92 with his fastball, and has touched 94.  He doesn't have one outstanding pitch, but throws all four of his pitches well. He projects as a back of the rotation starter.
   If the club was to consider moving Boyd into a relief role, he might rocket through the system quickly.
Taylor Cole RHP
   It's hard not to be a fan of this guy.  At 25, he was old for High A ball this year.  A two-year missionary commitment during his days at Brigham Young (in Toronto, of all places) meant that the righthander didn't debut in pro ball until he was 22.
   Cole has a plus fastball, and he trusted it more this year, and led the minor leagues in strikeouts with 181, as a result. Paired with a solid change up and a vastly improved slider,  BA named him their top Fringe Prospect of the Year, and while that's something of a dubious honour (he wasn't named a Top 20 Florida State League prospect), it's evidence that the scouting community at least took notice of his year.
   Cole made a pair of starts for New Hampshire in early August, and had command issues in both.  Returned to Dunedin for the rest of the year. he seemed to wear down like Boyd did, and wasn't effective in the FSL playoffs.
   It's very hard to see Cole as a major league starter, but his 11.9K/9 this year is really hard to ignore.  He could become another one of those bullpen power arms with his fastball/change combo.  The graph below indicates a lot of swing and misses and weak contact: 

Jesus Tinoco RHP
    He has yet to put up the numbers to match his talent, but Tinoco is dripping with potential.
Here's what BA's Longenecker had to say about him:
  Jesus Tinoco has a real chance to emerge with continued development, both physically and mentally. He has youth (19), a great body, the fastball (velo and life) as a foundation for his prospect status. He can really sink the baseball. His combination of fastball velocity and heavy sink reminded some of former Blue Jay farmhand Henderson Alvarez, who has the 7th highest GB rate among MLB starters. His changeup is presently his best secondary offering and his curveball shows 12-6 tilt at its best, though it is inconsistent. Tinoco will need to improve his lower half in his delivery because he often collapses his front leg and falls off to the first base side, causing him to not get on top of his pitches. But he has the raw materials to emerge. Keep your eye on Tinoco.

   We talked to Danny Jansen, who caught Tinoco at Bluefield this year, and he said Tinoco was dominant at times, and could be tough to hit when his sinker was on.  When he's on, Tinoco induces twice as much groundball contact as he does the flyball variety.  When he's not, he tends to catch too much of the strike zone and gets hit.  Tinoco won't turn 20 until the first month of full season ball next year, but he's already a veteran of three minor league seasons, two of them stateside.  It still is hard to determine his ceiling, but he has the makings of                                                                                                 yet another power arm.

 Clinton Hollon, RHP
   We admittedly are going far, far out on a limb here, or maybe you haven't noticed our preference for projection.
  Hollon, a 2nd round pick in 2013, saw his draft stock slip after a drop in velo caused by elbow soreness before his senior year of high school.  He had regularly hit the mid-90s as a sophomore.  The Blue Jays knew of his elbow troubles, but couldn't ignore his potential.   Hollon has been limited to 17 innings as a pro, and underwent Tommy John surgery in May.
   Much has been made of Hollon's max effort delivery, and there's little doubt that the Blue Jays will work to correct that.  Prior to his injury, his slider was graded as a plus pitch, and his change was average.  If he can find his former velocity and improve his mechanics, Hollon could emerge as one of the steals of his draft year.  He would not be the first pitcher to undergo this sort of transformation with the Blue Jay organization.
   He won't be returning to game action until May, and even then that will be likely at Extended.  The good folks of Vancouver may get to see another electric arm in him this summer.

   We acknowledge that there are other names that could have been considered for this list.  LHPs Jake Brentz and Grayson Huffman are part of an impressive pool of arms in the lower levels of the system, and may move quickly with added experience.  And Andy Burns has dropped off of our radar a bit this season, but he had an impressive second half with New Hampshire, and could easily find himself in a super utility role with the big club later this year or next.  Josh Almonte had a banner year at Bluefield, and could press for a spot on Lansing's roster this spring.  The signing of Russell Martin has given the organization's catching prospects more time to develop, but it likely hurts AJ Jimenez's chances of a spot on the major league roster, which is unfortunate, because we really like his work behind the plate.  Shortstop Yeltsin Gudino made his stateside debut this summer, and was the 7th youngest player in the GCL, which showed in his struggles at the plate, but there is still plenty of upside to him.
   But we have to draw the line somewhere, or at least come up with a Top 50 Prospects list if we can't.
   Over half of its talent is below full season ball, but there is a lot to be optimistic about with this farm system.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Top Prospects: Five Who Just Missed

   When you follow prospects, you're used to them having a series of ups and downs over the course of several weeks and months.  Sometimes the peaks and valleys even out, and the prospect continues on an upward trajectory of development. For some prospects, it's not that smooth a process.
   For those that don't ride the wave and are stuck in a trough that lasts a whole season, it's tough to include them on a top prospects list, no matter how good their tools may be.  Other prospects are difficult to include because their small sample sizes make projections hard to determine.  Even other prospects make for tough decisions because they were a bit old for the level they were playing at.  And sometimes we just overvalued them, ignoring some flaws that were not necessarily obvious ones, but were there just the same.
  Here are five prospects who just missed the cut for our top 20 prospects list.  We're still high on all of them, but felt there wasn't enough there to justify their inclusion this year.

  We've been waiting a while for DJ Davis to fulfill the expectations the Blue Jays had for him when they made him the 17th pick in the 2012 draft.  One of the youngest players in the draft, and raw because of his Mississippi HS background,  the toolsy Davis  made Baseball America's GCL Top Prospects List at #3 that year, and was their 2nd-ranked Appy League Prospect last year. Here's what BA's Clint Longenecker had to say about him after that season:

      He was one of the league’s most exciting players, offering quick-twitch athleticism, a center-field profile and game-changing speed—though he’s learning how to take full advantage of it.
Davis has quick hands, above-average bat speed and surprised many with his power, as 41 percent of his hits went for extra bases. Although peak power of 10-15 home runs is most likely, the most optimistic evaluators believed Davis has the power to hit 20.

   What a difference a year makes.  Davis had monumental struggles at the plate this year in his first go at full season ball in the Midwest League.  Davis hit .213/.268/.316, and his 167 strikeouts (in 542 PAs) were 2nd in the loop.  The left-handed hitting Davis hit only .161 against lefthanders, and indications are that a lot of his swing and misses were not necessarily at pitches out of the zone (although pitch recognition is also an area of concern, too), indicating some issues with his swing plane.  One of the fastest  players in all of minor league baseball, Davis has yet to learn to take advantage of that tool, getting thrown out 20 times in 39 stolen base attempts.

   One of the youngest players in the league, Davis did play some highlight-reel defence, And he finished the season on a high note, hitting .265/.375/.441 over his last 10 games (there were 16 Ks over that span), which included 3 straight successful steals in a game against Dayton.  We've made the comparison between Davis and Dalton Pompey before, and while maybe it's not a completely fair or accurate one, we think there are many parallels between the two, the latest being that Pompey caught fire in his last few weeks at Lansing last year as well.  Given his draft status, Davis has more ground to catch up on. At 20 years of age, we're not ready to give up on him, but we couldn't justify including him in our Top 20 this year.  He will likely need to at least start the season again in Lansing. Graph

   Alberto Tirado was labelled a "beast" by Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus after a breakout 2013 season.  BA labelled him the prospect with the most upside on a very deep Bluefield pitching staff that he helped lead to the Appy League playoffs:

  The athletic Tirado is an unrefined pitcher whom scouts can dream on because he has some of the most electric stuff in the lower minors. He has a thin, wiry build, long limbs and a loose arm that is lightning quick, and the ball explodes out his hand. His fastball sat 92-96 mph with late life and touched 98, and he is working a sinker into game action. 

    BA also observed that Tirado had a tendency to overthrow, and could get off line with his delivery, resulting in command issues.  The club opted to skip him over Vancouver this season, and made him one of the youngest players in the Midwest League, where he struggled mightily.  Tirado had a scintillating debut with Lansing in April, striking out 7 in 4 innings.  We watched an early May start Tirado made against Dayton, and other than one inning, he really wasn't in trouble, allowing 1 run and one hit, with three walks and four strikeouts over 5.  He demonstrated reasonably good command on a cool spring Ohio night, and we didn't see the delivery issues that must have plagued him in other outings. It turns out that that outing was likely his high water mark for the season, as his control slipped after that, and he was sent back to Florida for Extended a month later.  His totals for a truncated season at Low A included 40Ks in 39 innings, but along with 40 walks.

  A week after leaving Lansing, Tirado headed northwest to join Vancouver when short season play started.  He continued to struggle with his command, and was shut down for a few weeks in late June, likely for emotional as well as physical reasons.  When he came back, Tirado pitched out of the C's pen, and except for getting roughed up in one outing, was mostly effective.  When he was on, he was sitting between 93-95 and creating a lot of weak contact.

   You can't give up on an arm like Tirado's, and he would be far from the first Dominican prospect to struggle in his first year of full season ball, learning to adjust to a new culture, new language, and new climate.  At the same time, he may have been over-rated off of last year's performance.  At 6' 180 lbs, he doesn't have a typical pitcher's build, and his command issues may limit him in the future to bullpen duties.  Those two red flags, combined with the step backward his development took this year meant that we considered him, but ultimately decided against his inclusion in our Top 20. Graph

 Sometimes, a prospect has shown enough in limited action to warrant closer scrutiny, but the sample size just isn't big enough.  We like what we have seen, but they just haven't played enough at a higher level to make a firm prediction about their ceiling.  Such is the case with Dan Jansen, another player from a non-traditional baseball state (Wisconsin) that the Jays took with their 16th round pick in 2013.
   Jansen has shown effectiveness on both sides of the ball in his first two pro seasons, but a knee injury limited his 2014 season to 36 games with Bluefield.  He was named the Appy League's 16th best prospect this year after positing a .282/.390/.484 line.  At 6'2, 215 lbs, he has a great build for a catcher, and shows excellent bat speed.  Behind the plate, he projects to be at least an average defender.  The advancement of his receiving skills are something of a surprise, given his relatively limited high school playing time. He's a good blocker of balls in the dirt, but his arm is graded as average.  He has drawn raves for his maturity and ability to handle a pitching staff.
   The problem, of course, is that Jansen has played only parts to two years in short season ball.  He was in consideration for a spot in the back end of our Top 20, but we don't have a big enough body of work to go on.  Jansen is still far away.  With the acquisition of free agent catcher Russell Martin, the need to accelerate Jansen isn't pressing, but given what we've read about his leadership abilities, the Blue Jays may likely skip him over Vancouver to Lansing this year, giving him a chance to handle a potentially deep, young pitching staff (with possibly Borucki, Smoral, and Tinoco on board), and to play every day.  We will be following him closely next year.
   Jansen contemplated a college football career.  He talks about his decision to sign with the Blue Jays here:

    Sometimes, a player puts up amazing numbers in a league, but upon closer inspection,  it turns out that the player was several years older than the average player in the league.  And that opens up some suspicion about what the player's true ceiling is.
   Such is the case with Roemon Fields.  Fields was the true good news story of the year in the organization.  Undrafted after graduating from a tiny Kansas NAIA school (after transferring from a Washington State college), Fields was working for the US Postal Service in his hometown of Seattle, when he was asked to join an American entry in an International amateur tournament in Prince George, BC.  He caught the eye there of  Matt Bishoff, who made Fields his first sign as a Toronto scout.
   Fields made his pro debut with Vancouver in 2014, and obliterated the Northwest League's stolen base record with 48 in 57 attempts, and hit .269/.338/.350 for the C's.  BA ranked him as the NWL's 20th prospect.
   At 23, Fields was playing in a league populated mostly be 2014 college grads, but he still was a bit old for that level.  He does hit to all fields, but not for much power, and he needs to make more consistent contact and get on base more frequently to take advantage of his speed.  He is a maker of highlight reel catches in centrefield.  At his age, there isn't much room (if any) left for projection:  he is what he is, and what he's going to be.
   So, we have to take Fields' first pro season with a grain of salt.  In all likelihood, he will move up to Lansing this year (or even Dunedin, if Davis repeats at Lansing), so we will watch with interest to see how he measures up in full season ball - where he still will be one of the oldest players.

    A rough month can do a lot to derail a prospect's progress, not to mention his batting average.  For a young pro ball player, their first prolonged slump can be a devastating thing.  For many, it's their first real experience with failure on an extended basis.  For those that survive, they quickly learn to put failure behind them, and at the same time not to become overly elated with success.  Elite athletes all share that quality of being able to quickly put failure behind them.
   For Shortstop Dawel Lugo, August of 2014 was a month to forget.  Not only did his average drop over 30 points, his presence on our Top 20 list dropped as well.  Coming off a hot July in which he hit .298/.324/.423, Lugo hit a paltry .147/.180/.189 in August, the grind of his first year of full season ball no doubt having taken its toll on his young frame and psyche.
   Lugo still needs to walk more (18 in 492 PAs this year), but he puts the ball in play (only 74 Ks).  It's not a matter of pitch recognition as much as it is a need to become more selective, and work pitchers into deeper counts in order to get a more favourable pitch.  Laying off pitches outside of the strike zone would help, too. There's nothing like a good spray chart to illustrate how many balls Lugo puts in play: graph

   Lugo is not projected to stay at Short, but in the games we observed him in he showed good lateral movement, soft hands, a fairly quick release, and a strong, accurate arm.  His range likely will be an issue as he continues to grow (he's only 20), so a move to a corner infield spot may be in his future. Baseball Prospectus labelled him a potential impact bat after 2013, and BA named him the Appalachian League's #5 prospect.  If his season had ended about July 20th, Lugo would have likely been a solid mid-teens member of our Top 20 list.  He can easily put himself back on our radar with a good start next year.
 There you have it:  5 prospects who have not turned into suspects, but 5 for whom 2015 will be an important season in determining their future.

   By the way, we wrote about how the Blue Jays acquired 1987 AL MVP George Bell in the 1980 edition of the Rule 5 draft, despite the Phillies' best attempts to hide him.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Scouring the Bargain Bins at the Rule 5 Draft

   Baseball's Rule 5 draft used to have great significance, and added fuel to the Hot Stove embers.
Teams that tried to sneak an eligible player through the draft would get creative in where and how they hid them, while teams like the Blue Jays would get equally creative in the lengths they would go to uncover them.
  The draft has had many incarnations over the years, but the main purpose of it remains to give long-serving minor leaguers an opportunity to reach the bigs with another organization, and to keep teams from stockpiling talent.
   To draft an eligible player, the team acquiring him must pay $50 000.  The player must be kept on the team's 25 man roster for the entire season.  If the drafting team changes their mind on said player, he must be offered back to his original club for $25 000.
  The Rule 5 draft used to remind me of the bargain bins at Coles, when the bookstore chain once was in every mall of every size in our fair country (that country being Canada, of course).  Everything in the bins was under $5, and once in a while you would score a huge bargain.  Author/musician Dave Bidini's Baseballissimo was an informative and entertaining account of a summer Bidini spent following an Italian semi-pro team.  John Grisham is widely known for his legal thrillers, but he stepped outside of the courtroom to pen Playing for Pizza, a fictional account of a back up quarterback who somehow got into an NFL game, and put on such a poor performance that he was exiled to the Italian Pro (and we use that term loosely) Football League.  I have long wanted to travel to Italy to take a cycling holiday and visit the grave of a Great Uncle who was killed in WWII.  After reading Grisham's book, I now want to go for the food too. His descriptions of the post game meals were reason enough to read the book.
   But the reason those books wound up in the bin, with all due respect to the authors, is that no one wanted them, or maybe they were beyond their shelf life.  Same with players in the Rule 5 draft.  Their current organizations either didn't see enough progress or projection to place them on the 40 man roster.
   The rule 5 draft is open to players who:

-are not on their major league organization's 40-man roster (as of November 20th), and:

– were 18 or younger on the June 5 preceding their signing and this is the fifth Rule 5 draft upcoming; or

– were 19 or older on the June 5 preceding their signing and this is the fourth Rule 5 draft upcoming.

   Up until 2007, teams were only allowed four and three years for the above players.  With the extra year of eligibility, clubs now have more time to make a more informed decision about their players, and fewer impact players are exposed to the draft as a result.
   The increased number of pitchers, particularly relievers, a team uses each year has gone steadily up as well.  We've used an admittedly arbitrary benchmark of 20 appearances for a pitcher over the course of almost 30 seasons.   In 1985, the Blue Jays had 10 pitchers who pitched in at least that many games.  In 1995, it was 10 as well, 12 by 2005, and 14 last year.  Injuries and how the team used its bullpen certainly figured into those numbers, but the trend clearly shows that the club has carried more pitchers (usually 12) now compared to an average of 10 thirty years ago.  With the decreased number of position players on the roster, teams can no longer afford to draft a rule 5 player and keep him on the bench for most of the season, like the Blue Jays did with youngsters Manny Lee and Lou Thornton in 1985.
   A pitcher can be stashed away (somewhat) in a bullpen, and only used in specific situations, which is likely why 69 of the 93 players chosen since 2008 have been pitchers.  21 players were selected in the draft in the first year after the rule change, and has steadily dwindled to a low of 9 last year.  Over 50% of the players selected during that time were returned to their original clubs.
   The Blue Jays for the past several years have taken a very conservative approach with their minor league players, particularly high school pitchers.  They have taken a more aggressive route with some of the organization's top prospects, but draftees still typically spend between 1 and 2 years in short season ball (more for international prospects, many of whom are signed at 16 or 17), and progress up the ladder one rung at a time, meaning that it often takes 4 or 5 years just to move beyond A ball.  As a result, of the 23 (by our count - we may be off by one or two either way) Toronto minor leaguers who are newly eligible for this year's draft, only two (relievers Blake McFarland and the injured John Stilson), have spent any significant time above High A.  We should add, of course, that players who were not put on the 40 man roster in previous years, and still have not been placed on it this year are eligible as well.

   So, who is likely to be taken from the Blue Jays list of eligible players?  Well, most who haven't played above A are not, and neither is Ricky Romero, who is owed $7.5 million this year and a $13.1 million team option with a $600K buyout for 2016 (we think we know which way that's headed), after knee surgery in June ended a season in which he had walked 42 batters in 38 AAA innings.  Another who won't be taken is righthander Ryan Tepera, who was added to the 40-man at the November 20th deadline.  A starter for his first five years in the system, Tepera was converted to relief this year, and quietly had a good season in Buffalo, striking out 67 in 64 IP.  He likely would've been scooped up if he hadn't been added.
    Baseball America's JJ Cooper took a look across the minors to see who might be most likely to be bargain bin scoops, and he identifies three Blue Jays who teams may take a flyer on:  Stilson, and relievers Tyler Ybarra and Gregory Infante.
   Stilson is coming off his second shoulder surgery since 2011, but hit 97 for Buffalo this year, and sat between 93-95.  If not for his shoulder woes, he might have taken up residence in the Blue Jays bullpen.  Rule 5 players have to spend 90 days on an MLB roster, but he can spend time on the disabled list.  The risk, of course, is that there are no guarantees for a player in Stilson's position, and if teams likely won't want to have to pay for subsequent operations if the most recent was unsuccessful.  Toronto is likely banking on that, and it's highly unlikely that Stilson will be taken.
  Infante hit 100 on the radar gun for New Hampshire this year, but he tends to have little movement on his fastball, and often catches too much of the strike zone.  Still, he pitched well in AA and AAA, and when BA's prospect report lands in our inbox every morning of late, he's often had another good outing in Venezuela.  Infante has had a go of major league life already, having made his debut with the White Sox in 2010.  He might be worth a gamble.
  Ybarra can light up the radar gun, too.  The lefthander sits between 94 and 97, and after overmatching High A hitters last year, Ybarra was roughed up a bit at AA, struggling with command (30 BB in 53 innings), and he gave up 8 home runs.  All 29 other MLB teams passed on him last year, and it's likely that they will again this year, too.
  Cooper didn't make mention of lefty John Anderson, who was exposed to the 2013 draft, but wasn't chosen.  Anderson struck out 72 in 68 innings with New Hampshire this year.  The huge red flag with Anderson is the pair of Tommy John surgeries he had within 15 months of each other earlier in his career. Still, he's averaged more than a K per inning since resuming his career in 2013.  With his injury history, being selected this year is still unlikely.
   The Blue Jays, for their part, have largely eschewed the Rule 5 draft during the Alex Anthopolous era.  The only player they have selected since 2010 was lefthanded reliever Brian Moran last year from Seattle, who they promptly traded to the Angels for International bonus pool money, in effect getting something for relatively nothing.
   A player who is intriguing and will be available in the draft this year is Astros prospect Delino DeShields.  The offspring of the former MLBer by the same name.  DeShields has richly deserved a reputation as a problem child, having been benched multiple times for giving less than a full effort on the field.  The 8th overall pick in the 2008 has the best tools in this draft (he has Milb's only 10-100 season ever, hitting 12HRs and stealing 101 bases in 2012), but after hitting .236/.346/.360 in AA this year, he may still be a few years away.  DeShields plays an adequate centre field, and can also play second.  He's a huge gamble, but given the Blue Jays troubles at the latter position, and their penchant for rolling the dice with premium athletes, we could see them taking DeShields and giving him spring training to see if he could make the leap.
  There are some interesting power arms in this year's draft, but the Blue Jays likely are content with the supply of such pitchers they already have.  The draft takes place on December 11th.

  We wrote about the Rule 5 Draft and how the Blue Jays used it to acquire one of the best players in team history, and you can read about it here.
  You can read JJ Cooper's BA article here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

AA Speaks!

   Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopolous was a guest on Prime Time Sports on Toronto's The Fan 590 on Monday for a lengthy chat about the genesis of the Josh Donaldson deal.  Hosts Bob McCown and Michael Grange did a good job of getting out of AA's way,  feeding him questions about the deal that he could respond to in great detail.  The interview lent fascinating insight into how MLB trades get made, and how organizations view their players and prospects.  Say what you will about Anthopolous - depending on the question, you may not always get as straight an answer as you would like, but you will get an honest one.
   According to Anthopolous, the deal had its origins in October, when he made a general inquiry with Oakland GM Billy Beane about Donaldson.  Beane's initial answer, not surprisingly, was "no."  A successful GM, though, obviously learns to take 'no' not as a dead end, but more like, "Come up with a package that will blow me away."   And it wasn't until Brett Lawrie was included in the deal did it happen - we had thought that he would have been part of it all along, but the Blue Jays had toyed with the idea of moving Lawrie across to 2nd base if they had been able to acquire Donaldson with their intial offer.

   Anthopolous admits that the organization was reluctant to part with all three prospects.  The Blue Jays had one of their healthiest starting rotations in recent memory last year, but still needed 9 starters over the course of the season.  Trading Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin takes away from the club's depth of starters, with really only Daniel Norris, the re-acquired Liam Hendriks, and Todd Redmond as back up starters - we would add Scott Copeland to that list, he contniues to pitch like he did over the final half of last year.  If Norris and/or Sanchez make the starting rotation next spring, that alleviates the situation somewhat.  Beyond that, the Blue Jays have Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna, who likely will pitch at AA next year, and a trio of pitchers in Jairo Labourt, Matt Smoral, and Ryan Borucki, who will likely take the mound for Lansing when April rolls around.  So, there may be some finger crossing in the Blue Jays front office this year.  Dealing Graveman and Nolin all but assures that the starting rotation that finished last year will likely start next year, but if the injury bug bites hard, the club is in trouble.

  According to Anthopolous, the club felt that Graveman could compete for a starting job if they had kept him, and he expects him to land a spot in the back end of the Athletics rotation, while he suggested Nolin might find himself in Oakland's bullpen.

  It was a bit of a surprise that AA mentioned that if Franklin Barrreto was still with the organization, he would have started the year at Dunedin (with an invite to the big club's spring training camp), which probably indicates that they were still willing to let him play himself out of shortstop.  If the Athletics follow suit, Barreto will start in the California League next year.  We fully expect him to advance quickly once he starts playing every day in full season ball.
  Anthopolous also raised our eyebrows a bit when he told McCown and Grange that we could see Castro in the Blue Jays bullpen next summer.  His lack of secondary pitches has always been a bit of a concern, but his 100 mph fastball could see him reprising Aaron Sanchez's role in the club's 2014 bullpen.
   We can't wait.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Post Athletics Trade: Putting Things Into Perspective

   We watched as our Twitter timeline blew up late Friday night with news of the Josh Donaldson trade, and we have to admit to a touch of sadness, mixed in with the elation of getting a bonafide first division player.
   When you follow the progress of players in the Blue Jays system as closely as we do, it's hard not to get at least a little emotionally invested in them.  When one (or more) gets dealt,  it's hard not to be a little disappointed, no matter the return.  At the same time, baseball is a business, and prospects can often be used as currency that can be turned into assets that can improve the business.
  We'll be flat out honest - we were really looking forward to watching Franklin Barreto in a Blue Jays uniform one day.  We had already planned a couple of road trips to Lansing to watch him play - early in the season, in case of a mid-season promotion to Dunedin.  He was the best prospect in the organization not named Daniel Norris, Aaron Sanchez, or Dalton Pompey.  He will crack most Top 100 lists this year, and we fully expect him to be a Top 10 prospect by 2016.
   It's also interesting to wonder why an organization decides to trade a prospect.   Is it as simple as to get quality, you have to give it up in return?  Or is it a flaw that the organization's scouts had spotted?  In the case of Kendall Graveman, it's likely that while the club liked his rapid progress and strike-throwing ability this year, maybe they felt that his fastball velocity wasn't going to be enough to get AL East hitters out.  And Sean Nolin, who has had trouble staying healthy the last two seasons, might have the type of high maintenance body that might keep him from being the innings eater that they originally thought they had.  As for Barreto, it's hard to imagine there being any flaws in his game other than chasing the odd breaking pitch out of the zone, but maybe the club realized after last season that he wasn't going to stay at shortstop, and with Dalton Pompey and Anthony Alford in the outfield picture, maybe things were going to be a bit crowded with him.  We read the stats, watch the games on, and even attend them in person, but there's so much about prospects we don't know.  We don't know about their characters, their personalities, or the mental side of them.  Are they mature?  Do they have some issues with self-regulation and impulse control that might inhibit them from reaching their ceilings ?  Have they already reached their ceilings ? Only the organization knows for sure.
   This much we do know - all three have upside, with Barreto leading the pack.  At 18, he was the MVP of the Northwest League, a loop populated by college grads 3 and 4 years older.  He has been a high profile player since he was 12, and everything in his pro experience so far suggests that he will be an impact bat.  He has above average speed, and top notch athleticism.  The only downside in his game, of course, is his glove, and it may just be a case of shortstop not being a good fit for his skills.  Whatever the case, the bat will play, and Athletics' fans should take comfort in that.  This kid will hit, and while he still is relatively far away, his development will likely accelerate once he reaches full season ball next year, and he may advance quickly.
   Graveman is another premium athlete, who fields his position well, repeats his delivery, and is a groundout machine.   He showed durability this year, and should log a lot of innings in the future.  He will have some stiff competition for a starting job with Oakland next spring, but he has a shot at a back of the rotation spot.  Graveman will log a lot of innings, and break a few bats along the way if he continues to develop as he has this year.
   Nolin was a bit of a victim of a numbers game, and his inability to stay healthy over the past two seasons.  He matched Marcus Stroman K for K in AA two years ago, and while command of all four of his pitches is more of a selling point with him than his velocity, he can dial it up to 95 on occasion.  Nolin, too, profiles as a back end of the rotation starter.  Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, and Daniel Norris surpassed him on the organization's depth chart this year, which likely made him expendable.
   We admit to beaming with more than a little pride when Sanchez made his bullpen debut in scintillating fashion this summer.  We had watched for more than a year as the criticisms piled up on the tall righthander: lacked command on his fastball, landed in too upright a position with his delivery, etc.  While he was lights out in relief this year, he still is an unproven commodity as a starter, which reminds us of a baseball truism: prospects are just that.  They're not battle-tested, time-proven major leaguers.  They may be one day, but when they're in the minors (especially the low minors), they're still far away.  There was much gnashing of teeth when the Blue Jays traded Justin Nicolino to the Marlins,  and Noah Syndergaard to the Mets two years ago, but the former had one of the lowest K/IP in the minors this season, and the latter was hit pretty hard in the rarefied air of the Pacific Coast League and Las Vegas' Cashman Stadium launching pad.  The Blue Jays scouting staff obviously saw more in Sanchez.  And say what you will about R.A. Dickey, Toronto has had 440 innings from the knuckleballer since acquiring him.  The Mets have had 0 from Syndergaard.
   Getting Josh Donaldson in return, of course, is a plus.  The Blue Jays are getting a power hitting third baseman in his prime, whom the team will have under control for the next three seasons.  Our disappointment is nothing compared to A's fans - this was how management tried to distract them on Friday:

View image on Twitter
"Hey, we may not have Josh Donaldson, but look - Billy Butler!"

   The Blue Jays have one of the largest pro and amateur scouting staffs in baseball, and a wealth of senior administrative experience.  If they deemed Barreto surplus, it may have been because of a flaw not yet apparent in his game, or because they felt there was an adequate depth of projectable players in the system to replace him (hello, Richard Urena).  Or maybe they just felt that this was the price that had to be paid to land a premium player.  Even though GM Alex Anthopolous said Brett Lawrie was the key to the deal being consummated, maybe the A's don't even entertain the notion of a trade to begin with unless Barreto was included.
 No matter what, if we want to watch him play in Lansing, it may have to wait until August, when Oakland's Midwest League affiliate, the Beloit Snappers, are in town to play the Lugnuts. We're betting he will already be in the High A California League by then.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Toronto Blue Jays Top Prospects: 11-20

11.  Devon Travis 2B
     Travis is the latecomer to this list, and while what we've read about him has mostly been positive, we don't know enough about him yet to bump him further up the list.
  Travis reminds us a bit of Kevin Pillar.  Not highly rated in his draft year and the owner of average to slightly above average tools, all Travis has done in three minor league seasons is hit, posting a .323/.388/.487 line.  Baseball America is firmly in the Travis camp, noting that he has hit at every level.  Here's more from their latest report on him:
   He has superb hand-eye coordination, good balance at the plate and strong bat control, which allows him to make consistent contact and use the whole field. He’s a smart player who’s been able to make adjustments as he’s moved up the ladder

   Keith Law, on the other hand, is less than sold:

   Had a great year but....... he's old for where he played, and he's an undersized guy without tools. Not a prospect for me, nor for any of the scouts I talked to who'd seen him.

   The true evaluation of Travis probably lies somewhere in between.  The Tigers, faced with a thin market for outfielders, felt that Anthony Gose could develop into at least a league average player, and act as insurance if Steven Moya proves to be not quite ready for MLB action.  They also felt that they could live with several more years of Ian Kinsler, even with his production due to start to decline, at second base, ahead of Travis.
   You're not getting an all star with Travis.  You're not getting a gold glover or much of a base stealing threat, either.  What you are getting is a guy who consistently barrels up the ball, who may hit 10 to 15 home runs a year, and a guy who has made the necessary adjustments at every level he has played at.  And with second being a bit of a black hole in the Jays lineup for several years, the club will take that.

Travis' Milb Page

ETA: late 2015/early 2016
Projection: everyday 2nd baseman, bottom third of the order bate
Worst Case Scenario:  utility infielder

12.  Sean Nolin  LHP
   Nolin has been the forgotten man in the Blue Jays plans, but he showed this fall in Arizona that when he's healthy, he can very much be in the picture.
   Leg injuries have limited Nolin to 20 starts in each of the last two years.  In 2013, he matched Marcus Stroman strikeout for strikeout with New Hampshire.  At 6"4"/230, Nolin is projected as a back of the rotation innings eater.
   Nolin commands all four of his pitches well.  His fastball grades as average, but he can touch 95 on occasion.  His size allows him to create a downhill plane on his pitches, and his delivery can make it tough for hitters to pick up the ball.  Nolin gave up a fair number of fly balls earlier in his minor league career, but he induced much more groundball contact this year.
   The biggest challenge Nolin has faced the past two years is staying healthy.  Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris, and possibly even Kendall Graveman have passed him.  The lefthander went to Arizona this fall to make up for lost innings, and after a couple of rough outings early in the schedule, he was back to his old form over the last half.
   It's hard to say where Nolin fits in the Blue Jays plans.  Called up in 2013 for an emergency start, he caught too much of the strike zone and was pummeled by the Orioles.  Even though he missed almost a month this year, he pitched well down the stretch for Buffalo, and was called up when MLB rosters expanded at the end of August, but pitched all of one inning in September.
 With the the starting rotation beginning to become a bit crowded,  Nolin's greatest value to the club may be as trade bait.

Nolin's Milb Page

ETA:   2015
Projection:  Back of the rotation starter
Worst Case Scenario:  Front of the bullpen guy

13.  Max Pentecost  C
 The Blue Jays nabbed Pentecost with their second first round pick in June, 11th overall.
All indications were that he was a hit-first, defence-second receiver, but was at least adequate behind the plate.  Jason Kendall comps were made.
  After he signed,  Pentecost spent the obligatory week in the Gulf Coast League, then was off to Vancouver, for what was presumed to be the real start of a brief apprenticeship in the minors, which would see him in the majors leagues as early as next summer.
   Pentecost arrived in the Pacific Northwest in rough shape however, likely from the rigors of an extended collegiate season on a frame that scouts felt could use some bulking up to begin with.  Pentecost was behind the plate for only 6 games for the C's, and was limited to 87 Plate Appearances before being shut down and sent back to Florida for rest and rehab in August. Reports we had about his catching skills in that small sample size were less than glowing, but we'll give Pentecost a pass for now.
   Pentecost turned out to have a shoulder injury which didn't respond to treatment, and underwent what we presume is surgery to repair a torn labrum on October 8th.  Recovery from the procedure, of course, depends on the extent of the damage, but it's typically 9 months to a year for a full recovery. Which means that 2015 isn't necessarily a write off for him, but it does move the projection back, and the signing of Russell Martin takes away the urgency.
   Pentecost has above-average speed for a catcher, and has a line drive swing that isn't projected to produce great power, but should generate plenty of singles and doubles.  There is every indication that he is a premium athlete - he was the MVP of the summer collegiate Cape Cod League in 2013, and won the Johnny Bench Award as the nation's top college catcher in 2014.  There is every indication that he will be a solid contributor to the lineup.  The injury issue which has stalled his timetable is the only thing keeping him out of the Top 10.

Pentecost's Milb Page

ETA:  Late 2016
Projection: hit first, defence second catcher
Worst Case Scenario: platoon catcher

14.  Mitch Nay  3B
  Nay may have been surpassed by Pompey, Barreto, and maybe Alford as the best position player prospect in the system, but he still figures highly in the Blue Jays future plans.
  Nay missed a season of development in 2012 due to a broken foot, but had a breakout year in short season play in 2013, raking at Bluefield before being promoted to Vancouver in time for the NWL playoffs, in which he was named the MVP.  This season at Lansing, the power wasn't in present in as much quantity as had been hoped, but his 34 doubles were tied for third in the league.  The Midwest League is not a home run hitters paradise, particularly the Lugnuts' home Cooley Law School Stadium.  Power is often the last took in a hitter's kit to develop, so the thinking that some of those doubles will turn into homers in more favourable environments.
  Nay has an advanced approach at the plate, and makes consistently hard, up the middle contact.  He still projects as a middle of the order of the bat.  The concern about Nay has always been about his range, which can take away from his plus arm.  With Brett Lawrie ensconced at third for the foreseeable future, a move across the diamond may be in store for Nay.
  Other top prospects list have ranked Nay higher than we have, and while we're still high on him, his presence on this secondary tier is more of a reflection on the rate of his development relative to other players in the system.

Nay's Milb Page

ETA:  Late 2017
Projection:  Middle of the order, starting 3rd Baseman
Worst Case Scenario:  IB/DH platoon player

15.  Matt Smoral  LHP
   Smoral was yet another gem the Blue Jays drafted who other scouts shied away from because of a broken foot in his senior year of high school and a college commitment.  Toronto took him as a comp pick in 2012 and gave him a $2 million bonus, and were prepared to wait on the 6'8" lefthander.
   Smoral didn't make his pro debut until the GCL started in June of 2013, and missed a fair number of bats.  And when he wasn't missing bats, he was missing the strike zone.
   The Blue Jays moved him up the ladder to the Appalachian League in 2014,  Smoral's  Appy debut was a sizzling one, striking out 8 and walking 3 in 3 innings.  Named the league's 7th prospect by BA, Smoral was promoted to Vancouver in August, and wasn't overmatched against older hitters, although a meltdown in the NWL finals by Smoral cost the C's a chance at a four-peat.
   Smoral touches 96 with his fastball, with late life.  His slider was one of the best in short season ball, and projects as a plus pitch.  While he made strides with his delivery this season, Smoral still must improve on his command (5.7K/9 this year).
   Smoral projects as a front of the rotation starter if he can harness his command.  Tall lefthanders who missed a year of development tend to take longer to reach their ceiling, so the Blue Jays may not be as aggressive with their promotion of him as they were with other pitchers this year.

Smoral's Milb Page

ETA:  2017
Projection: #2/#3 starter
Worst Case Scenario:  Brett Cecil or Aaron Loup's replacement

16.  Dwight Smith
   If Mitch Nay flew under the radar this year in the shadow of more high profile position players in the system, the son of the former Major Leaguer by the same name was barely a blip on the screen.
Playing in the Florida State League in front of dozens of spectators every night, all Smith did was post an OPS of .816 with virtually no protection in the lineup, in cavernous FSL stadiums, and in the flyball-killing Florida heat.
   A sandwich pick in 2011, Smith has made steady, if unspectacular progress.  Smith lacks the power of a corner outfielder, and the Blue Jays may have plans to try to turn him into a multi-position utility player, as evidenced by the brief trial he had at second base in the Arizona Fall League. It will be interesting to see if the club has him play several positions at New Hampshire next year.
   We find that when we talk about prospects who are in this tier, we tend to talk about what they can't do.  What Smith can do is get on base consistently, and use his line drive stroke to find the gaps.  He has average speed, which all but rules out centrefield, except in an emergency.
   It doesn't hurt that Smith hits from the left side, too.

Smith's Milb Page

ETA: Late 2016/early 2017
Projection:  Platoon Corner OF
Worst Case Scenario:  Utility Player

17.  Rowdy Tellez
   The legend of Rowdy Tellez is growing.
A hitter of prodigious BP and Home Run Derby blasts in various Showcase events as a High Schooler, MLB teams were scared off by his USC commitment prior to last year's draft, but the Blue Jays used savings gained elsewhere in the draft to convince him to sign after taking him in the 28th round.
   Tellez struggled in the first weeks of his pro debut season in the GCL last year, but found his groove in the closing week, when he hit everything hard.  Sent to Bluefield this season, Tellez got off to another slow start, including an 0-33 stretch, but caught fire and hit .293/.358/.424.  The club skipped Tellez over Vancouver to Lansing, where he acquitted himself well in two weeks of play.
  There is no disguising Tellez's role.  He is a bat first player, period.  Yet his is not necessarily a hit or miss approach.  Tellez has shown patience at the plate, walking almost as much as he struck out this year.  He has above average bat speed, and can drive balls to the opposite field.
   At 6"5"/230, Tellez is a below average runner who will have to pay attention to his conditioning, and work hard to be even an average first baseman.  He should return to Lansing this year, and will likely split time at first and DH with the presence of Ryan McBroom, who had a great debut season at Vancouver.  We are excited about his future, but he is still far away, and if he doesn't hit, he won't provide any value to the club.

Tellez's Milb Page

ETA:  2017/18
Projection:  Middle of the Order 1B/DH
Worst Case Scenario:  AAAA Player

18.  Jairo Labourt
   There's a temptation to label Labourt as a disappointment this year.
The tall Dominican lefty started the year with Lansing, where he was one of the youngest players in the Midwest League, and he struggled mightily, walking 20 batters in 14 innings. To be fair, he was not the only prospect on the team who had difficulty with the challenge the organization presented him with.
   Sent back to extended spring training, Labourt rediscovered his command, and was sent off to Vancouver when short season play started, where he became the C's ace, and was named the NWL's third best prospect by BA.
   Labourt challenges hitters with his mid 90s fastball, and was very successful against right handed hitters, who hit .171/.286/.202.  Labourt demonstrated much better command with Vancouver, striking out 82 and walking 37 in 71 innings. He did hit 8 batters, showing a willingness to pitch inside.
   If not for his Lansing experience, we would no doubt be looking at Labourt's season through a different lens.  His is a live arm that should perform well in another stint at Lansing.  The organization has to make a 40 man roster decision on Labourt after next season, so his timeline may be moved up.

Labourt's Milb Page

ETA:  2017
Projection:  Middle of the rotation starter
Worst Case Scenario:  Front of the bullpen guy

19.  Sean Reid-Foley

   When a prospect drops in the draft due to concerns either about signability or durability, you can bet that the Blue Jays will be in the running to scoop him up.  They covet impact players.
   Such was the case with righthander Reid-Foley, who fell to the Blue Jays in the second round last June.  Some teams were scared off by his delivery, while others felt that he was committed to Florida State. The Blue Jays felt that they scored another first rounder.
   Reid-Foley caught a heavy dose of helium last spring with added velocity on his fastball.  At 6'3"/215, and with a fastball that touched 97, he was a man among boys in Florida high school competition.  He pounds the strike zone, and shows an advanced feel for pitching.
  There are concerns about his delivery.   He throws across his body, and the inverted W in his delivery is a tell-tale sign of future elbow/shoulder issues to some.  You can't really see the W here, but what you can see is a compact delivery, a nasty slider, and hit and miss stuff:

ETA: 2018
Projection:   Front of the rotation starter
Worst Case Scenario:  Hard to determine - he's very far away

20.  Ryan Borucki

   This was the hardest of all our prospect picks to make.  We had to choose from a variety of players at different stages of development.  There were some we considered who had disappointing seasons but still have high ceilings (DJ Davis), some who surprised, but are too far away (Lane Thomas),  and some who we're still high on, but have to wonder about their earlier projections (Dawel Lugo/Alberto Tirado).
   Ultimately, we've decided to go with Borucki.  In his high school senior year, he played mostly first base, due to an elbow injury that he chose to rehab.  The Blue Jays took a flyer on the tall, athletic Illinoisan, and took him in the 15th round in 2012.
   The injury didn't respond to treatment, and Borucki opted for Tommy John surgery in March the following season, which cost him all of 2013.  Borucki teamed up with Smoral in the Bluefield rotation this year, and followed him to Vancouver late in the season.  He had the lowest walk/9 ratio (1.6), and the best K-BB ratio (5.0) of any lefthander in the Appy League.  He pitched even better in the Northwest League.  On the year, Borucki gave up just 39 hits in 57 IP this year, walking  only 9, while striking out 52.
   Borucki sat between 92-94 early in the season, but lost a touch of velocity as the season wore on, which isn't a surprise.  He pitches off his fastball, and the best of his secondary pitches at this point is his change, which shows plus potential.  His curveball will need an upgrade if he is to repeat his success at higher levels.
  At 6'4", Borucki still has plenty of room for projection.

Borucki's Milb Page

ETA:  Late 2017/Early 2018
Projection: Middle to end of the rotation starter
Worst Case Scenario:  Front end of the bullpen guy