Friday, January 31, 2014

Is Gibby The Right Man For the Job?

Toronto Sun photo
   More than a few eyebrows were raised when the Blue Jays recycled John Gibbons as their manager prior to the 2013 season.
    And even though the balancing act he performed with the club's bullpen was along the lines of a loaves-and-fishes variety last year, we're not sure he's the best choice to run the club in the long term.
   Granted, you can't pin all of last year's problems on Gibby.  It's not his fault that Jose Reyes badly injured his ankle less than a month into the season (and a lack of depth in the upper levels of the system excaberated that situation).  That Brandon Morrow can't seem to stay healthy long enough for his performance to match his ability, and that Josh Johnson couldn't find the strike zone north of the Mason-Dixon line (after some tabbed him as a Cy Young candidate in March) also were not a product of his managerial skills, or lack thereof. Ditto for the struggles of Emilio Bonifacio and J.P. Arencibia - in the case of those two, it might have been more a matter of having their limitations exposed when they were put into roles beyond their skill level.
   Gibby appears very much to be a players' manager - one who assumes that the veterans know how to play, and lets them do so. A Gibbons spring training is more about letting vets play themselves into shape, and less about fundamentals, which don't get practised during the season, because, hey, it's a long season, after all, and players need to pace themselves. This may be great for established players who have been on the roster for a number of seasons, but not for those who are new to the club, like Izturis, Bonifacio, and Reyes, who struggled for the first month-plus with the speedy Rogers Centre turf.  And the base-running gaffes and defensive miscues which characterized much of the first half of the season can easily be traced back to a lack of working on the fundamentals of the game.
   A late-August visit by Baltimore seemed to underscore the weakness of this approach.  During the Orioles BP, coaches hit flyballs to Adam Jones and Nick Markakis as part of their daily drill and kill.  Apparently, this was a revelation to the Jays, as Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star reported the next day, when he began his column with, "Finally, a fundamentals sighting at the Rogers Centre," as rookies Pillar, Gose, and Sierra were seen getting in some flyball-shagging practice prior to the game.  If a gold glover like Adam Jones needs daily practice, shouldn't that be part of the daily regimen for all Blue Jays players - not just the rookies?
   Gibby did acknowledge to Griffin that more work in those areas is needed this spring, and hopefully it will be adequately addressed.  This team threw away too many games in the first half of last season due to defensive and baserunning gaffes.
   But is Gibbons the best choice for this team, say, in 2017 ?   The club is set pretty much for at least the next two to three years with contracts given to Dickey, Reyes, and Bautista. As much as we personally like the guy, who seems very genuine, we think he's not the long-term answer.  By that year, position players in the lower reaches of the system like Mitch Nay, Dawel Lugo, Frankie Barreto, and D.J. Davis may be on the verge of earning big league jobs, to go along with the depth of pitching the club has at that level.  Granted, not all of those prospects will pan out, and some will likely be dealt to shore up other areas of the big league club, but all the signs point to this being a much younger team by that time, a team that will experience growing pains in terms of their basic skills and understanding of the game.  Gibbons demonstrated this year that he prefers to manage players as opposed to teaching them, so unless he shows a drastic turnaround in that approach, the club would be better off with the latter type of manager.
   So, just as GM Alex Anthopolous has gone on record as saying prior to last season that the club's current roster has a two to three year window to contend in the AL East, perhaps that window applies to the manager as well.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

2014 MLB Draft Preview #1: No More Punting ?

  For the second time in three years, the Blue Jays opted to drop back and punt their first round draft pick last year, likely feeling that there was no one available with the 10th pick that was worth the expenditure of  about $10 million (or more) in bonus money (and the loss of bonsu money for players taken in subsequent rounds)
.  While it will take a few years to truly determine the wisdom of that move, a quick look at the top 20 players taken in last year's draft seems to bear that out - outside of a couple of players (Mc Guire & J.P. Crawford), there's a noticeable difference in quality between the top half and the bottom at this point.
  Thee Blue Jays decided that much like California prep righthander Phil Bickford this past year, Massachussets HS righty Tyler Beede wasn't worth the high  price tag in 2011.  Of course, both players had college committments, so we'll likely never know how close either of the young hurlers was to signing, but for the Jays, who have shown through the Anthopolous era that they're not afraid to roll the dice on draft day, it seems that they preferred to ultimately pass on the pick in both cases, and collect an additional first rounder the following year. In 2012, it netted them Duke righthander Marcus Stroman at #23, to go along with highly-valued Mississppi HS outfielder D.J. Davis, who was drafted 17th overall.
   This June, the stakes may be even higher - the Jays get the 9th overall pick as a reward (?) for their disappointing 2013 season, as well as the 11th pick as compensation for the inability to sign Bickford.
It's still early, but indications are that this year's draft crop could be the equal of 2011's.  NC State leftie Carlos Rodon is a power arm who may have gone fist overall in the last two drafts, and barring a major catastrophe, is headed to the Astros.  
   The consensus #2 is East Carolina righthander Jeff Hoffman, who won't be available when the Jays' turns come up in the first round.
   Keeping in mind that it is still very early, here are some possibilities for the Jays:

Brady Aiken, California HS LHP
   Baseball America terms Aiken a "projectable lefty with an ideal pitcher's body," which is something the Jays covet.
Nick Gordon, Florida HS SS/RHP
   The son of former major leaguer Tom, and step-brother of Dodger prospect Dee, Gordon has the arm and range to stick at short, where most scouts prefer him.
Aaron Nola, LSU RHP
   Originally drafted by the Jays in the 22nd round of the 2011 draft, Nola is described as undersized finesse pitcher.
Michael Gettys, Georgia HS OF/RHP
   Described as an explosive athlete with plus-plus speed, and a 95 mph fastball to go with it.
Jacob Gatewood, California HS SS
   Put on a BP spectacle at the Futures Game last year.  Called arguably the best power bat in this year's draft.
   This is all highly subject to change, of course.  Multiple times.  Over the coming months, we'll try to focus on the players ranked between 8th and 12th, to try to get an idea of who the Jays might be looking at.    
   Interestingly, Beede has been ranked as high as 6th by some of the lists we've viewed, and as low as 21st.  Beede set a Vanderbilt record for wins last season, but most reports refer to control issues that he has to work out.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Final Nail in the Coffin for AA ball in Ottawa

      The City Council of Ottawa, demonstrating a lack of an appetite for a more than modest tax increase in an election year, approved a deal with the independent Can-Am League to bring baseball back to the National Capital Region for the 2015 season.  Council had voted last fall against a stadium renovation plan that would have attracted a possible relocated AA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.
   The Eastern League, which the team is a member of, had asked for upwards of $40 million in renovations to Ottawa Stadium, which has sat mostly vacant since the departure of the AAA Lynx in 2007, except for brief interludes by a previous ill-fated Can-Am team, and the Fat Cats of the Intercounty Baseball League, which drew well, but didn't have their lease renewed after 2012, as the city (briefly) pursued the affliation dream.   Some have suggested that the price tag to bring the stadium up to "full game experience" would have been less; Ottawa Mayor Jim Wilson, in an exchange with us on Twitter, put it in the $25 million range (which would add an extra 1% to a 1.9% increase on the city's 2014 budget).
Having spent well in excess of the originally budgeted $300 million to renovate Lansdowne Park, the city likely wanted no part of this project at any price, and no private groups stepped forward to help pay the bill.
Only about $5 million in upgrades will be necessary at this point.
   So, Ottawa is left with the Can-Am League, a loop that is on life support, and after the loss of the poorly-drawing Newark Bears, is now down to 4 teams, and has been forced to partner with the fellow independent American Association for at least the 2014 season.
   In our eyes, an AA team for Ottawa would have been beneficial for many reasons.  As a member of the Eastern League, with teams spread throughout the northeastern U.S., travel would not have been a huge issue. And an affiliation with Toronto would have further grown the Blue Jays brand - perhaps not to the extent that the partnership with AAA Buffalo has, but there likely would have been regular carvans of fans driving up the 401/416 from the GTA (and points across Southern Ontario) to watch the team play, bringing added economic benefit to Ottawa's hotels and restaurants. We would've been among them.  The Blue Jays have developed a following among 20 and 30 young professionals who have the mobility and dollars to follow their team's prospects across nearby minor league stops like Lansing, MI, and New Hampshire.  It would be easy to see that becoming the case with Ottawa.
     Ottawa city council figures that 50 Can-Am dates and 60-70 other events in the stadium will make it a viable venture.  If the Can-Am is still part of the American Association in 2015, the travel budget will be huge - while there are two teams in Quebec and a pair in the northeastern U.S., the teams in the AA loop are based in the American Midwest.
   And there are some in the nation's capital who hope that Ottawa will become the Winnipeg of the east, emulating one of independent ball's most successful teams.  That's highly unlikely, given that Winnipeg's location makes it unattractive to affiliated ball, and the team plays in a beautiful Shaw Park, part of the legacy from the 1999 Pan-Am Games.
   We admit to not knowing a great deal about the city's finances.  American cities, with broader tax bases and a lesser overall tax burden for most of their residents, have the ability to levy taxes that can finance stadium construction or renovation that Canadian cities can't reasonably compete with. And with a dropping Canadian dollar forecast by the Royal Bank to drop to 87.5 cents/US$ by the end of 2015, the chances of any city north of the border hosting an MiLB team in the next few years has slid to just about nil.
   Just the same, we have trouble seeing the Can-Am League being a viable entity in our Nation's Capital.
This is indeed the golden age of independent ball, but everything about this says it's a makeshift measure. It's hard not to view this venture as a back-up, second-best plan.
   Ottawa city council was all for pursuing an Eastern League team, be it New Hampshire or even Binghamton, until they found out about the price tag.  About the only way we could ever see this happening now in the next few decades is if the city pursues some large-scale competition like the Commonwealth or Pan-Am Games, which would leave some legacy facilities.  And the likelihood of that seems slim.
   All in all, it's a missed opportunity.  And minor league baseball in Ottawa is dead, likely for several generations.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Spring Training Reading

  With the days getting longer, and the pitchers and catchers less than a month from reporting, we usually start our own Spring Training by re-reading a couple of our favourite baseball books:

  We usually start with the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.  Even though our copy is over 20 years old (really need to put the new one on our  Christmas list one year), James' decade-by-decade tracing of the origins of the game provide concise insights into how the game was played, and how it slowly transformed over the past century-plus.  James is also a huge fan of the minors, and is an excellent chronicler of its history and contribution to the game.
   James' prose, in our opinion, is vastly underrated.  Here's a pair of gems from the biographies section (perhaps our favourite part of the book).  On Hal Chase, the early 1900s 1st baseman who gambling scandals seemed to follow around, James wrote:

    "Could he really have existed, or was he perhaps invented by Robert Lewis Stevenson?…there is some evidence that he appeared in the flesh, but I lean more toward the invention theory… what mother, if she/he was real, what Rosemary, could have given birth to such a creature?…There is an evil, a smallness, lust, and greed that lives inside all of us.   And the secret of Hal Chase, I believe, was that he was able to reach out and embrace the evil…”

   About catcher Ernie Lombardi, a prodigious hitter who apparently had a nose to match, James observed:

  "Lombardi was a huge man, with huge, oak-trunk legs and huge feet and huge hands and a promontory with nostrils that protruded from a lumpy face.....As he got older, he acquired a huge belly, which he lugged around with a huge effort.....His knees were too low to the ground, and his center of gravity was about four feet behind him...:

  Of interest in our copy is the section James devotes to his measures of quantitative analysis, which seem kind of antiquated in this day of advanced metrics.  It's interesting to read the work of one of the pioneers of the sabrmetric movement just the same. Offensive Winning Percentage seems pretty quaint when compared to UZR or WAR.

   If reading James' work is the equivalent of doing some light jogging and stretching, Roger Kahn's Good Enough to Dream, is like playing some long toss in the outfield.
   Good Enough to Dream is Kahn's account of his year at the helm of the Utica Blue Sox, an independent team full of cast-offs from other organizations, in the New-York Penn League in 1983.
   Kahn, who covered the Dodgers in the early 50s, and turned his reminisces and recollections about that colourful group of characters into the highly acclaimed The Boys of Summer, was president and majority shareholder of the Blue Sox, who played in antiquated Murnane Field.  Kahn and his daughter moved to Utica for the summer, and he became a very hands-on owner with the club.
   We won't spoil the plot for you, but we found the day-to-day life of a minor league club full of players that nobody wanted to be fascinating.  With Kahn offering a first person view of the ups and downs of a minor league club, we felt like we were right there along with him for the roller coaster ride of a season.
   Truth be told, we preferred Good Enough to Dream to The Boys of Summer, likely because we weren't around when the Boys were in their prime, and we dog-eared every page with examples of Kahn's memorable prose.  Before long, the book was full of dog-eared pages.  This passage from Good Enough summarizes the effect his Utica summer had on the author:

"I knew that this was a low minor league pennant race, being played out in Jefferson County, an obscure and impoverished corner of New York State with no national media, no television cameramen paying attention. But I was stirred, as John Lardner used to put it, clear to my ganglia."

   My spring warm-up now in full swing, I turn at this point to Pat Jordan's A False Spring.  Jordan was originally a bonus baby in the days of high bonuses for high schoolers in the late 1950s, before the June draft was instituted.

  Again, being careful not to reveal too much of the plot,  Jordan was a keen observer of minor league life around him in his odyssey across America.  He showed considerable insight into the thoughts and actions of others through lengthy narrative passages like this:

   With time they would discover that their experience had marked them off from their contemporaries who, no matter how talented, had never gone to spring training, never, even for a week, been a professional athlete. It was as if they had been privy to a vision, had been blessed with a divine grace that would always remain a mystery to the unblessed. They learned to play to this grace, to build around it myths about that experience, which, to them, had been no big thing at the time. They had seen no mysteries, but they did not let on. They took pleasure even in the manner in which their town's sports-wise people now referred to them: "He was the boy who went away." Vague, yet oddly precise. The boy who went away—that was all anyone knew. He had gone away and then come back and whatever had occurred in between only he knew. It elevated him. He floated above those whose talents would forever be circumscribed by the fact that they had never gone away. Of such a stay-at-home people would say, "He was good. The best around. But who knows for sure? He never went away."

   Jordan proved, in the end, to have considerable insight into everything and everyone but himself, and by the time he had gained this self-awareness, his career was beyond salvaging.  His observations of daily life in the low minors is precious just the same, and with the golden age of the minors coming to an end, and vast changes in store for America on the horizon, Jordan gives us a glimpse of American society at that time, a time that was about to disappear forever.

   Finally, like a starter approaching the end of spring training, we're ready to stretch out a bit.  Jim Bouton's Ball Four was the first "insider" book to truly tell it like it was.  Bouton spared no details, from tales of managment's penury, to the use of amphetamines ("greenies") by players, and the sex life of a mjaor league ballplayer.  His was the first "tell all," and in many ways, it's still the best.
  As a marginal relief pitcher throwing the knuckleball on an expansion team nobody cared about, Bouton's diary of his 1969 season (and recollections of his time with the Yankees at the end of their glory years in the early 60s) shocked the sports world.  Sparing no details, Bouton became an overnight celebrity in the media, and a virtual pariah in the sports world.  Legendary baseball writer Dick Young of the New York Daily News called Bouton a "social leper" for breaking the longheld supposed sanctity of the clubhouse.  "Fuck You, Shakespeare!" yelled Pete Rose from the top step of the Reds' dugout.  Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, in one of the books' mroe hilarious passages, tried (unsuccessfully) to get Bouton to admit publicly that the book was all just one huge bunch of lies.  
  There were many parents (including ours) in the early 1970s who were concerned about the impact the book would have on impressionable youngsters, and forbade them to read it.  This only made us more eager to secretly read it with a flashlight under the covers late at night, and became the first true "adult" length book that we ever read from cover to cover.  And while some of the tales were a little wild for small town young minds, kids are remarkably resilient, and able to put things into perspective, and that was the case for us.  Far from corrupting us, the book made us want to work that much harder to make a life in baseball, because Bouton made it seem like so much fun.
   Bouton wrote a seqeul to Ball Four, the less popular but still enjoyable I'm Glad You Didn't Take it Personally, the title of which was taken from Bouton's first encounter with Young in New York after Ball Four was published.  Bouton made a comeback with the Braves in 1979, and a chapter about that episode was added in a 1981 revision, then another was added in the 20th anniversary edition, and then a final chapter was included Ball Four: The Final Pitch, which was published in 2001.  In this last tome, Bouton catches readers up on the post-baseball events of his life, including (finally) being inivted to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers Day, after years of being ignored, and the tragic death of his daughter, who along with Bouton's other kids seemed like family to us after reading Ball Four.
   In 1996, the New York Public Library named Ball Four one of its Top 100 Books of the Twentieth Century.  No other sports book made the list. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

System Watch: Pitchers

   This is where the true depth of the system lies.
With an emphasis on high-risk, high-reward prospects, the Blue Jays appear to be following a developmental philosophy of "grow the arms and buy the bats."
   Baseball America summarizes the Blue Jays system:

   The farm system still has high-ceiling arms, but after the wave of trades the talent is concentrated at the lower levels of the organization. The trades left the upper minors short on prospects and long in the tooth
   The Jays are arguably as deep and as talented as any organization at the lower levels, with a strong contingent of Latin American pitchers and infielders and early-round draft picks from 2012 and 2013.

  The Jays take things very slowly with their minor league pitchers, high school grads in particular.  The club likes pitching prospects to advance one level per season, giving them an opportunity to develop both arm strength and their secondary pitches.  The club is quick to shut prospects who develop elbow or shoulder problems quickly, erring on the side of caution.  Minor league pitchers are kept on strict pitch count limits. Some might argue that this keeps young pitchers from learning how to pitch out of trouble or how to pace themselves to last deep into starts, but all the injury data seems to indicate that the risk of injury for most prospects doesn't start to decline until around 23 year of age, depending on a number of factors.
   The Blue Jays often enjoy a "piggybacking" system with their young pitchers, designating a trio to take turns starting and relieving each other over the course of part of a season.  Lansing employed this approach in 2012 with Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, and Justin Nicolino, and the Mets and Marlins were the beneficiaries when the latter two were obtained in trades last off season.
   The organization's top pitching prospects can be separated into two tiers, with the top one being the closest to major league ready.

Tier One
1.  Aaron Sanchez rhp
    A year ago, Sanchez was the consensus top prospect in the organization.  Other pitchers were dealt in trades designed to strengthen the big league club, but Sanchez was an untouchable.
   There are some who feel that the bloom is off the rose with Sanchez, though.  He had a strong season at High A, but had it interrupted by shoulder and blister issues.  Some, like Keith Law, suggest, that the Jays were toying with Sanchez too much - Law says a mid-July shelling was the result of Sanchez trying a sinker the organization ordered him to try.  We're not so sure about that.
  Some don't like Sanchez' delivery, while others point out that he still hasn't cut down on his walks over the past two seasons.  Some top evaluators, like Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks, feel that Marcus Stroman has passed Sanchez as the club's top prospect.
  We disagree.
 Sanchez hit his stride in August, after a month long layoff that ended in early July.  After shaking off a bit of rust in the Arizona Fall League, he was again dominant, this time against some of the top hitting prospects in the game.  Sanchez started the AFL All-Star game, and posted a 1.16 ERA in 23 innings.  AFL comparisons with Stroman, who was Sanchez' teammate at Salt River, are meaningless, because Sanchez was making up for lost innings, while Stroman's workload was limited after pitching 111 minor league innings.
   Less conservative organizations may have been more aggressive with Sanchez, both in terms of pitch counts and promotion.  It is likely true that Stroman is ahead of Sanchez in terms of development.  That's because while Sanchez was limited to 25 innings in his pro debut in 2010, Stroman threw 57 as a freshman at Duke.  While Stroman threw 220 innings over 3 seasons at Duke, Sanchez had thrown 50 fewer innings.
   While we like Stroman a lot, and acknowledge that he is closer to being major league-ready than is Sanchez, we still like Sanchez' ceiling more.  Sanchez' fastball regularly sits in the mid-90s, and is complimented by a curve that his Dunedin pitching coach termed major league ready. There are some concerns about his delivery, but this could be attributed to being young, and still learning to implement the tweaks the organization made this season.
   Given that the club likes to have their prospects progress one level at a time, Sanchez will likely spend the whole season at AA New Hampshire.

2.  Marcus Stroman rhp
   No Blue Jays prospect made as much progress as the Duke grad this season.  Making up for some lost time of his own (thanks to a 50 game suspension levied at the end of the 2012 season for a positive PED test), Stroman was dominant in the Eastern League.
   There has been considerable debate as to whether Stroman profiles as a starter or end of the bullpen reliever in the long run.  The Jays chose to let Stroman start this year, likely to not only build up his arm and secondary pitches, but also because they feel more inclined toward the former role for him.
   Stroman struck out 129 AA batters in 111 innings, and demonstrated a feel for all of his pitches.  His fastball sits in the low 90s, and is supported by a wipe-out slider, and a change that came along tremendously this year.
   Stroman could likely make the big league team out of spring training this year, but there is no rush.  His arbitration clock likely won't be set in motion until mid-season at the earliest, depending on the health of the major league starters.  Stroman will start the year in Buffalo at AAA, where he will continue to build his arm (at 23, he's almost out of the highest risk age group for arm injuries), and refine those secondary pitches.
   This kid is a major competitor.  Almost any profile of him begins with mention of his height, and while it has to be considered a factor in any evaluation, Stroman is keen to prove his detractors wrong, and he's been doing so successfully since high school.  Indications are that the Blue Jays are going to give him every chance to prove himself as a starter.

3.  Daniel Norris, lhp
   Norris is the one member of this tier who doesn't fit the pattern, because he's not close to major league ready.
  Just the same, he probably would rank right behind Stroman in terms of progress among the organization's pitching prospects over the past season.  Labelled the best prep lefthander in the 2012 draft, Norris struggled mightily with his release point in control during his first pro season.  The problems seemed to follow him into this year, until he turned things around in early May.
  Despite missing a month due to shoulder soreness, Norris was lights out, and was promoted to High A at the end of the season.  His promotion likely would've come sooner, if not for the shoulder issue, which limited his pitch count for almost half of the season.
   Norris struck out 99 Midwest League batters in 85 innings.  He sported an 0-2, 9.56 ERA at the end of April, and was 2-5, with a 2.77 ERA for the rest of the season, with 87 K's in 74 innings.
   Norris shows an above average fastball, and a promising curve, and a change that isn't far behind.  While he's not projected to be a #1 starter, but is no longer necessarily seen as a middle of the rotation guy, either.
Norris has both the makeup and the athleticism to move quickly up the ladder.  He will begin the season at High A, but could see another late season promotion if he continues on this development curve.

4.  Sean Nolin, lhp
   Nolin is the only one of the group to have seen major league action - all 1 1/3 innings of it coming in a shelling in late May by the Orioles.
   Nolin has rocketed through the system in the past two years, however, sporting a 19-4 record over three levels during that time.  He spent most of this year in AA, striking out 103 Eastern League batters in 91 innings, and pitched well during an August promotion to Buffalo.
   Nolin's fastball sits in the high 80s and low 90s.  He has a plus changeup, and two adequate breaking balls (slider and curve).  At 6'5", he has the build for the prototypical back of the rotation innings eater.  With Dickey, Morrow (fingers crossed) and Buerhle pencilled in at the top of  Toronto's rotation, there will be intense competition this spring for the final two spots.  That may leave Nolin on the outside looking in, and a return to Buffalo may be in the works.  He should make a return to the majors at some point this season, though, and should meet with considerably more success this time around.

5.  John Stilson, rhp
   Stilson didn't make our Top 10 prospects list, and by the looks of things, he didn't make many others, either.
   That doesn't mean he should be counted out, because as far as major league readiness is concerned, he may be right behind Stroman and Nolin.
   Moved to the bullpen full time this year, Stilson was lights out for AAA Buffalo, limiting International League hitters to a .211 batting average in 47 innings, with 47 strikeouts.
   The move to the bullpen allowed Stilson to dial up his fastball a notch from his starting days, and he often sits in the mid 90s with some good downward movement.  Stilson's command allows him to get ahead in the count, and he can use his changeup well as a result.
  Stilson projects as the kind of power late-inning arm that the Jays covet.  Barring a knockout spring, his most likely destination in 2013 is a return to Buffalo, but he may not stay there for the whole season.  Injuries and/or inconsistency may cause his promotion, or he may be a tradeable commodity if the club is in contention, and is looking to upgrade the roster prior to the tradeline.

Tier Two
6.  Roberto Osuna, rhp
   Tommy John surgery in late July and his age (18) are the only things keeping Osuna from a higher spot on this list.
   Osuna's 2014 season will most likely be a write-off, with only a slim possibility that he could get some innings in the GCL in late August.
   "Advanced" is the word that comes up most often in scouting reports about Osuna.  Advanced command, control, and feel for pitching.  Osuna, prior to the surgery, showed a low to mid 90s fastball, and an above-average change.  His curve still is a work in progress.
   Much has been made of Osuna's "high maintenance" body.  We're betting that he will pay more attention to his strength, flexibility, and conditioning as a result of the surgery. Osuna has the projected ceiling of a #2 starter, and while his road back will be long, there is still plenty of time for him to reach it.

7.  Alberto Tirado, rhp
   The 18 year old was one of the Jays' prized international signings in 2011, and is beginning to attract some notice.
   The organization has typically brought him along slowly, limiting him to two summers of short season ball to this point.
   Tirado dominated the Appalachian League this summer in much the same manner as the did the GCL in 2012, posting a 3-0, 1.68 ERA record in 12 appearances, 8 of them starts. Tirado is not of the long and lean mold of pitcher the Jays prefer, but his record speaks for itself.
   Tirado throws as four-seamer that can touch the mid-90s, and a change and slider.  There's not a consensus among evaluators about which of the latter two pitches is better.  Tirado missed a lot of bats this summer, and induced a great deal of ground balls from those hitters who did make contact.
   Given the organization's past record, it seems likely that Tirado will be kept in Florida for extended spring training. Once the weather warms up, he likely will be sent to the next rung on the ladder at Vancouver, or may even be challenged by a full season assignment ot Low A ball at Lansing.

8.  Chase DeJong, rhp
   DeJong is yet another high school arm who is being developed one step at a time.
The 2012 2nd round choice pitched at Bluefield this summer, and was actually ranked ahead (6th) of  Tirado (8th) on Baseball America's top 20 prospects list.
   DeJong led Bluefield in innings with 55, and K's with 66, and posted a 3.05 ERA that was likely bumped up by a high BABIP. He was promoted to Vancouver late in the season to bolster the Canadians' bullpen.
   DeJong's fastball sits in the low 90s, and several evaluators expressed surprise that his velocity hasn't come around yet.  His curve is already rated a plus pitch.
   At 6'4", DeJong is the body type that the Jays covet.  That we have him ranked a notch below at Tirado at this point is due to the fact that Tirado has accomplished more at a younger age (by two years).  There are those who suggest DeJong will rise quickly in the Jays' system.

9.  Tom Robson, rhp
  The highest drafted Canadian in the 2011 draft, the club has brought the Ladner, BC, native along slowly.
He was promoted mid way through the Appy League season after going 3-0, 1.68, and was even more dominant in the Northwest League, putting up a 3-0, 0.94 record, and helping Vancouver to an amazing 3rd straight NWL crown.
   Robson isn't a threat to light up radar guns, sitting mostly in the low 90s.  His command, plus a heavy sinker, may not see him miss as many bats as the names above him on this list do, but like Tirado, he generates a lot of groundballs.  Robson is of a similar body type as DeJong, with a bit bigger frame, so he too has room for projection, and at 20 is almost finished growing.
   A likely path for Robson this year is to return to Vancouver, with a promotion to full season ball at Lansing for the second half if all goes well.  As it likey should - in a league populated mostly by college grads, Robson was lights out.

10.  Jairo Labourt, lhp
   Labourt joined Bluefield teammates Davis, Nay, Lugo, Tirado, Cardona, and DeJong on BA's top 20 Appy League prospects list, coming in at #12.
   Labourt is another in a long list of long-limbed pitchers in the Jays system.  Former BP staffer Zach Mortimer calls Labourt, "an intriguing arm that needs to be looked at more closely."
   Labourt got stronger as the Appy League season progressed, refining his command. His fastball can touch 94, and at 19 years of age, there's room for projection, and he flashes a potential wipeout slider.
  Labourt was called up to Vancouver for the end of the regular season, and struck out 10 hitters in 5 2/3 innings of the first game of the playoffs.
   The likely timetable for Labourt may be similar to Robson's - back to Vancouver after extended spring training, with a possible mid-season promotion to Lansing.  Some have suggested that he start the season there, but there really is no rush.

Honourable Mention
  Deck McGuire, rhp - the Jays' first pick in 2010 can't be written off just yet.  August may have been a teaser, but the club saw fit to place him on the 40 man roster thsi fall.
  Matt Smoral, lhp - finally healthy, Smoral alternated flashes of brilliance with an inability to find the plate in the GCL.  It's said that lefthanders take time to develop.  It probably takes 6'8" lefties who missed their senior year of high school even longer.
  Adonys Cardona, rhp - shut down by elbow issues in August, Cardona really didn't show much stats-wise at Bluefield this year, but BA thought enough of him to rank him as the Appy League's 16th best prospect.
  Shane Dawson, lhp - another Canadian to consider, Dawson had a strong season at two levels this year, but was shut down in late August with elbow issues, and wasn't healthy enough to pitch in instructional league.
   Clinton Hollon, rhp - the 2nd round pick in last June's draft saw his stock fall due to elbow issues.  He pitched well in his debut in the GCL, however, and was promoted to Bluefield late in the season.  Throws a mid 90s fastball, with a plus fastball.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Jays Spring Training Move in Limbo?

   The Blue Jays plan to join the Houston Astros in relocating their spring training site on Florida's Atlantic Coast hit a snag just before Christmas, when residents of Palm Beach County expressed concerns about increased traffic and noise the project would bring.
    On December 19th, Palm Beach city staff asked county officials to evaluate other sites in the county for a stadium complex.
   The Blue Jays have been dissatisfied with their current spring training site in Dunedin, on the Gulf Coast.  The club is unhappy with the less than state of the art conditions at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, citing inadequate parking, washrooms, and concessions for fans, as well as the distance between their practice fields and the stadium.  Things were hush hush for a while, but the Jays let it be known this fall that they had entered into an agreement with the Astros for a possible move to Palm Beach Gardens.
   Toronto's agreement with Dunedin ends in 2017, while Houston's lease with their spring training site at Kissimmee expires in 2016. The Jays would be looking to move their High A affiliate out of Dunedin as well.
   In a prepared statement, Palm Beach Gardens city manager Ron Ferris said:

   "As we have continually stated, the City of Palm Beach Gardens currently does not have a financial commitment from the two major league teams.  After months of community feedback and public presentations, we are requesting that Palm Beach County staff explore alternative sites in locations outside the City of Palm Beach Gardens."
   The Astros had been working for months on a deal with Palm Beach Gardens after the Florida state legislature approved $50 million in incentives for the two clubs to build a new joint spring training complex last April.
   The proposed stadium site is located along I-95, near PGA Boulevard.  The site is near two schools and an environmentally sensitive area, and would require zoning changes before being approved.
   In a city council meeting this past week to determine the site's fate, council voted 4-1 against approving the project in the proposed interstate location.  Over 250 community members attended the meeting, including VP Joe Biden's brother Frank, who is a Palm Beach County resident.
   Supporters of the site said that the city was missing out on a great economic opportunity.  Local developer Joel Channing, who is part of a local group in favour of the project, told the Palm Beach Post, "It was a bad day for baseball.  We can't be certain that we won't reap the benefits to our youth athletic programs that would have resulted from having 12 free additional baseball and soccer fields."
   The $50 million the state approved was an attempt to save spring training on the Atlantic Coast.  The Washington Nationals recently announced that they will be leaving their site in Brevard County, and if there were fewer than 4 teams in the area, the Marlins and Cardinals would be allowed to leave their site in Jupiter.
   Palm Beach council has stated that the project isn't dead - it just won't happen in that location. One option that has been put forward  is to have neighbouring St Lucie County consider allowing the complex to be built there.  A real estate attorney from Boca Raton, 40 minutes south of Palm Beach Gardens, has suggested that there is ample land in his area to develop the project.
    The Astros have indicated that they would look at alternative sites in Arizona if a plan for the Atlantic Coast region isn't finalized by the end of the 2014 season.
   The Blue Jays have held their spring training at Dunedin since their inception in 1977. The city has a legal obligation to the Jays until at least 2017.  Toronto has two five-year options that could extend the contract if they don't move.
   There likely is more than a little gamesmanship behind these moves.  Palm Beach Gardens was likely upset over the lack of commitment from the two clubs, who likely didn't want to make a formal announcement of any sort until a stadium deal was finalized. The Astros, with their lease ending in 2016, are in a bit more of a bind than the Jays, who are in the driver's seat with Dunedin.
  With Palm Beach Gardens looking at other sites in the county, and hoping maybe that their neighbour St Lucie steps up, the proposal is not off the table, but it's hanging on the edge. With $50 million in state funds available to keep spring training alive on the Atlantic Coast, and the economic benefits that it brings, it's hard to believe that a suitable site can't be found somewhere in the area.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Roberto Osuna and Recovery from TJ Surgery


   Blue Jays prized pitching prospect Roberto Osuna, who made a dazzling debut with short season Vancouver in 2012, continued his rapid rise up the organization's prospect ranking list with a strong start to the season with Low A Lansing in 2013.
  Osuna's season was derailed by a diagnosis of a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament in early May.  The club immediately shut the Mexican righthander down, and sent him for a month of rest and rehab in Florida.  Upon his return, it appeared that the regimen had been successful, as Osuna ran off a stretch of dominant starts in June.  That run was short-lived, however, and after he was lit up for 10 runs in 1 1/3 innings in an early July start, Osuna was shut down again, and underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of the month.
   All signs seem to indicate that the surgery was a success, and Osuna was on the road to recovery.  TJ surgery takes about a year to recover from.  According to the website, here's a brief synopsis of the recovery timeline:

Days 1 - 7  
   The elbow is put into a hard brace and immobilized at 90 degrees. The baseball player will be able to move their hand and do light grip exercises.
Week 2      
   Baseball players can begin to use the arm to eat and do other everyday movements. The elbow extension is gradually increased. The baseball player can get rid of the brace at 4 - 6 weeks.
Weeks 3 -8
    The baseball player will start working on their range of motion. He can also start doing light dumbell exercises.            .
Week 10      
    The baseball player will be able to simulate a throwing motion.
Weeks 12 -14
    The baseball player will be able to start to swing a golf club!! He will also start going through the throwing motion with a 1 pound medicine ball.
Week 16      
    Baseball players will begin a throwing program. It will be a flat ground, soft tossing at 45 feet.  It will be 50 tosses broken into two 25 toss sessions. This is to be done every other day. Distance and repetitions will be increased every week until the baseball player can reach 150 feet.
Month 6      
    The baseball player will begin to throw off of the mound if they are a pitcher. They are only to throw fastballs at  50% gradually increasing the number of pitches and intensity.
Month 7      
    The pitcher will begin throwing breaking balls on flat grounds.
Month 8 - 10
    Start practicing in game conditions.
Month 11 - 12
    The baseball player can return to competition. It usually takes a full season for a baseball                         player/pitcher to feel as good as he did before the injury.

    As the calendar gets set to turn over to a new year, we see that Osuna should be at about month 6, and should be starting to throw off of a mound.  He indicated on Twitter that all was well about a month after surgery.  A photo he posted around that time seems to show a slimmed down teenager:

   And this is probably a good thing.  There has been much discussion about Osuna's high maintenance body.  Keeping in mind that he was pitching in the Mexican League as a 16 year old, however, we're not sure if the supposed body issues led to the torn UCL.  UCL tears develop over time, and according to, more often than not they develop as a result of biomechanical issues. With so much stress being placed in his elbow at such a young age, a torn UCL may have been inevitable .
    Just the same, we're hopeful that the injury has been a bit of a wake up call for Osuna, who is now reportedly more devoted to conditioning than he had been prior to the surgery.  For pitchers who make a full recovery from TJ surgery, the additional velocity that they sometimes develop comes from that improved fitness, and not from the surgery. Being in shape will only benefit his career.

      So, now that we have reached about the halfway point in Osuna's rehab, the question has to be asked: why did they wait so long ?  News first broke about the UCL tear in early May, and Osuna didn't have the surgery until almost 3 months later.  Why the delay ?  What was the rehab regimen that he underwent in Florida after the first shutdown?
    We don't know, and won't likely know the reason(s) for sure, but there is a possibility that the club tried Platelet-Rich Therapy on Osuna after his first shutdown.
   Regenexx, which is a clinic which offers "(a)family of non-surgical stem cell and blood platelet treatments for common injuries and degenerative joint conditions, such as osteoarthritis and avascular necrosis,"offered some insights into why the therapy hadn't been meeting with success among injured MLB pitchers The treatment involves taking  a small amount of the athlete's blood and spinning it in a  centrifuge, to separate the platelet-rich plasma from other blood components.     The concentrated platelets are then injected into the injury site.
   The theory behind the treatment is that the platelets secrete growth factors that spur tissue recovery.  Tiger Woods has had the treatment (although he was treated by Dr Anthony Galea, who pleaded guilty to transporting Human Growth Hormone across the Canada-US border), as has NFLer Hines Ward.
   Scientific American, in an article about PRP therapy, quoted Dr Denis Cordone of New York University, who has used PRP for many of the school's athletes.  Dr Cordone indicated that they had
had some success treating tendon injuries such as achilles tendonitis.  According to Dr Cordone:

 A reason why it's difficult to heal these tendon injuries is related to poor blood supply to the region. 
The perfect example would be the Achilles. It's a tendon with, in general, a poor blood supply, so when there are these microscopic tears or chronic scarring, the body has a difficult time healing it. The theory is that the body can't on its own get enough of these healing or growth factors to the area, but now this concentrated platelet injected there just enhances the nutrients and growth factors to allow the body to heal it.

 Dr Cordone did admit that the body of research about the therapy's effectiveness was still quite small, and more study was needed to determine the treatment's true value.
  So, it's easy to understand why teams would opt for this treatment in the case of a torn UCL.  It's a less invasive form of treatment, and there has been some success.
    It may also be falling out of favour, however. Regenexx referenced a Sports Illustrated  article that  reported that the Orioles had opted for TJ surgery on mega-prospect Dylan Bundy, who underwent two months of PRP therapy.  Chad Billingsley, Jaime Garcia, and Johnny Venters all opted for TJ after PRP failed to treat their torn UCLs as well.. Mets phenom Matt Harvey tried the rehab route as well after tearing his UCL in August, but ultimately settled for TJ surgery in October.
  Regenexx expressed surprise at the lack of success of the therapy, and offered some suggestions as to why it hadn't worked with the above group.Regenexx argues that contamination is often found in PRP mixes, giving patients a sub-optimal dosage (Rengenexx argues that the athlete's own stem cells would be the best treatment for severe tears, but few clinics are equipped to use this form of therapy).  Further, Regenexx claims that few sports orthopedists have access to ultrasound technology, which would provide a more accurate map of the UCL tear than an MRI does.  As a result, the PRP may be administered, in their words, "blindly." Regenexx  quoted a paper that found that when surgeons injected PRP into the UCL while observing it under stress in an ultrasound, there was an 88% success rate for the athletes involved in the study.  It was noted that the UCL tears being treated were partial tears.
  So, PRP is at best an unproven form of treatment, but it's inconsistent application may be limiting its effectiveness, or it's being prescribed for tears that are too large. We don't know for certain, of course, that Osuna underwent this therapy, but it seems likely, given how many other teams have tried it. If, in fact, the treatment was tried on Osuna before surgery was considered, we can understand it.  A UCL tear is a major injury to a throwing athlete.  You're looking at at least a year of rehab.  So, the Jays may have figured, the remainder of 2013 and  most of 2014 will be a write-off for Osuna anyway, so why not try a treatment that has worked in some cases first ?
  Athlete's Care, a sports medicine clinic in Toronto, offers PRP injections, according to their website, likely for those with extended health care plans. Regenexx suggests that some UCL tears are just too extensive for PRP therapy to work.  So, while some injured pitchers have tried it without success, it still seems like a wise first course of action, depending on the extent of the tear, which perhaps medical science hasn't been able to establish benchmarks on.
    Osuna won't turn 19 until February, by which time spring training will just be getting started.  If his rehab continues to go well, he will be throwing pitching in simulated games by April, at which point he likely will be kept in Florida for extended spring training.  And if things progress well from there, he may be back pitching in the minors by August.  Luckily, Osuna is young, and doesn't have to unlearn years of ineffective mechanics and questionable conditioning habits.

Update: December 26th, 2014

   Osuna made his return to competition with an outing in the GCL on July 9th this year.  He didn't pitch for almost a month after that, this time in the Florida State League.
  Reports indicate that Osuna had most of his former velocity back, but command was an issue.  Such was the case for him in the Arizona Fall League - he caught too much of the strike zone at times, and the advanced hitters he faced made him pay for it, at times.
   Osuna's pattern in very much the norm - speed seems to return before control.
   Of minor concern is Osuna's wrist wrap, which some scouts feel limits the movement on his fastball, which makes it easier for hitters to track.  Osuna's changeup continues to draw rave reviews, as does his advanced feel for pitching.
   Much has been made about Osuna's supposed high-maintenance body.  Reports from Arizona indicated that he has radically changed his physique, meaning that he has taken conditioning and proper nutrition more seriously.
   Osuna may repeat High A this year, and will likely be rewarded with a promotion once he demonstrates mastery of hitters at that level.