Monday, March 31, 2014

How 'Bout Those Lugnuts ?!

   The Blue Jays may or may not experience much more success this year than they did last - it all depends on that starting rotation.
 They do promise to have one of the most exciting teams in all of minor league ball at Low A with Lansing of the Midwest League.
   The Lugnuts released their roster today, and it includes much of the organization's wealth of talent.

 Making their full-season debuts are a bevy of talented pitching prospects, inlcuding righthanders Chase DeJong, Adonys Cardona, Jeremy Gabryszwski, Canadian Tom Robson, and Alberto Tirado, to go along with leftyJairo Labourt.
  We had initially thought that the Latin members of the above group might be held back in extended spring training until the midwestern weather had warmed up, but it looks like the club will be challenging them right off the bat.  This is something of a departure for the organization, which prefers to advance young pitchers one level at at time.  Cardona, Tirado, DeJong, and Labourt are all skipping from rookie-level Bluefied to pitch in full season ball for Lansing.  The club also appears to be reviving the piggyback method with their prized arms - Labourt and Tirado will be a tandem on Friday.
  Righthander Roberto Osuna is on the Lugnuts roster, but the 18 year old will be sidelined for much of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

   Santiago Nessy has fallen off the prospect charts after a 2013 season of growing pains, but at 21 there's still lots of room for projection.  Handling this pitching staff will be a good challenge for him - if he develops as some think he will, he may be calling games for some of them in the majors one day.
   Jorge Saez was skipped from Bluefield, and while at 23  he may have almost maxed out his ability, he is still lauded for his leadership skills, and will form a solid catching duo with Nessy.

  Matt Dean and Mitch Nay both skipped Vancouver (Nay did suit up for the C's in the Northwest League playoffs, and was named MVP), and will be joined by Dawel Lugo, who may have one of the most exciting bats in the system, and Dickie Thon.  There is some question as to whether or not Lugo will be able to stick at short in the long run, but the plan for now seems to be to let him play himself out of a spot.
  Lots of offensive upside with this group.

   D.J. Davis, the club's first pick in the 2012 draft, has drawn raves for his tool kit since his pro debut, although his bat is still developing.  He, too, has been skipped a level in being sent to Lansing.  He may experience some further growing pains early in his first year of full season ball, but playing every day should accelerate his development in the long run.

Montreal Still a Longshot to Host an MLB Team

   For Expos fans, of which there still apparently are many, this past weekend of exhibition games, tributes, and reunions was heavenly.
   Over 90 000 fans crammed ageing Olympic Stadium (there were concerns that more than 3 cm of snow would have put one or more games in jeopardy, thanks to the sagging roof) for the final pair of preseason tilts for the Blue Jays against the Mets.
  And while there is a growing sentiment that since MLB has no expansion plans for the near or distant future, Montreal should seek a current franchise for relocation, like the Tampa Bay Rays, it's hard to see that happening.
   While shifting the Rays to Montreal would create a rivalry not just with the Blue Jays, but the Yankees and Red Sox (who have thousands of fans making the trek to Toronto every year) as well, the chances of Montreal ever hosting a major league team again are slim at best.
   Two related factors would weigh heavily against MLB ever granting Montreal a franchise again.  One would have to be a suitable stadium.  The Big Owe can hold 45 000, but it is not, nor was it ever really ever a great facility for baseball.  We visited the park in 2002, and judging from the state of the place, it would take a major retrofit just to get it up to MLB standards in terms of parking, washrooms, and concessions. And with the park pushing 40 years of age, it's become very outdated in this day and age of retro parks full of corporate suites. At best, it could be used for 2-3 years while a new one gets built.
   In order to get a stadium built, a local ownership group is needed.  A recent study proposed a downtown site, but would need about $750 million (out a $1 billion price tag) of private funding to get built. And there just aren't many potential candidates with that kind of finances in Montreal.  The Molson family purchased the Canadiens back from American businessman George Gillette in 2009, so it's doubtful they would have the resources to fund a major league team.  Bell has corporate headquarters in Montreal, and sponsor the building in which the Habs play, but they already jointly own 75% of MLSE with Rogers.  Transportation giant Bombardier is based there as well, but they do not appear interested in being players in the franchise-owning game. Quebecor, the powerful media conglomerate, has backed attempts to build a new arena in Quebec City in the hopes of bringing the NHL back to the provincial capital.  They might represent the best hope to purchase a franchise and move it (a ball club might be a great marketing tool, in the manner of Rogers with the Jays), but there has been no indication yet that they're interested.  The Saputo family is one of the top 10 producers of dairy products in the world, and are based in Montreal, but are heavily involved with the Impact of the MLS.  Otherwise, there aren't any other large corporations headquartered there.  It would likely take a consortium of corporate interests to assets to purchase an existing team and build a new stadium
   And let's not forget that despite this past weekend's love-in, there's the lingering memory of the dwindling crowds the Expos drew after the 1994 strike, as they failed to exceed the 1 million fan mark every year from 1998-2004. When then-owner Jeffery Loria failed to secure public financing for a proposed downtown stadium site, the club fell into sharp decline, and after no local ownership could be found, major league baseball operated the club on a shoestring for its final years.  What's to say that after an initial honeymoon period after acquiring the Rays, the same thing doesn't happen again ? Attendance could easily drop again, even with a contending team.  The Stadium is old, and it's not that accessible.
  So, unfortunately, there will be no MLB team for Montreal until a suitable stadium is built (or approved to be) by a deep-pocketed owner, who will have to rely on considerable provincial government funding in an unpredictable political environment.

Friday, March 28, 2014

My First MLB Game - Jarry Park, 1973

   In honour of the return of baseball, albeit in exhibition game form, to Montreal, I thought I would re-post this account from another blog of mine about the first ever MLB game I attended.

   I am a long-time reader and fan of the publication Baseball Digest.  One of my favourite features is the Letters section.  People ask questions which the editors duly answer.  The typical letter seems to have a request that goes something along the lines of, "I remember seeing a game at Wrigley Field in the early 60s...Jim Brewer was the starter..can you give me any more information about the game?..."  The staff manages to find the game, prints the box score,  then delivers a brief summary to the nostalgic reader.
    Inspired,  I've spent a fair amount of time trying to track down the exact details of the first major league baseball game I ever saw in person.
    I was about 10 or 11 years old, and the game was at Jarry Park, the one-time home of the gone (but not forgotten, by me at least) Montreal Expos, sometime in the early 1970s. 
    I've asked my dad if he can remember any of the details of the game:  what year, who was playing, the final score, but even though he's a very physically and mentally sharp 79 year-old, he can't recall any of them.
    Here's the sum of what I remember:  the game was played in either late July or early August (my dad got two weeks' holiday when his company, the long-gone RCA picture tube manufacturing plant in Midland, Ontario was shut down), I got Scotty Bowman's autograph (or more like my dad shoved me with a program and a pen to where Scotty was sitting, a few rows down from us - I hardly had any idea who Scotty Bowman was, but my dad, being a life-long Canadiens fan, did), and Ron Woods hit a huge home run late in the game to put the Expos into the lead.
 Other than that, nothing.  Couldn't recall the score, or even the year.
A few notes about my dad:  he grew up in a farming village in Eastern Ontario, the oldest of 5 children.  Born in the Depression, he grew up during pretty rough times.  He left the farm for good to find a job in Toronto in 1950.  I can't imagine the culture shock.  His family was still a few years away from even getting electricity back on the farm.  
 I learned only recently that my dad had an Aunt who would have loaned him the money for a university education when he graduated high school, but for some reason he wasn't able to take her up on it.  That's unfortunate, because even though he had a very successful 47-year career as a manufacturing accountant, who knows what career he might have landed in with a university education?


    My dad was also a good athlete, even though opportunities for playing organized sports where he grew up were slim.  He played a fair amount of fastball, a game that is amazingly popular in rural communities across Canada, for reasons which elude me.  I mean, why not play baseball ?  There's more than enough room.  When he moved to Toronto, he was able to catch on with a high-level team playing in what we would now call the Greater Toronto Area.
   He was a catcher, and apparently caught some pretty good pitchers:  Pete Landers and Metro Zuryk, to name two.  Those names might not be familiar to many, but the former is one of only three fastball players in Canada's Sports Hall of Fame.
    I never got to see my dad play.  He had given up the game by 1967, when he moved our family from Oshawa to Midland, where he had been hired at the brand-new RCA picture tube plant.  In the late 70s, he helped set up a co-ed three-pitch league at RCA.   He didn't play much, preferring to do the organizing and the cheerleading, but I remember one at-bat where he whalloped the first pitch off of the roof of the school they were playing at.  The ball jumped off of his bat, and after a long parabola of a flight it bounced off the top of the roof like a lacrosse ball, then it skipped across the parking lot and rolled across the street into the Southern Ontario night . All were silent during the ball's long flight.
   So I come by my love of baseball naturally.  And genetically.  My dad was involved  with the coaching or umpiring of most of the games my older brother and I played as kids.  There's nothing like having your dad umping home plate while you catch.  "Why did you call that pitch?"  he would mutter under his mask after a long blast that split the outfielders and seemed to roll forever.   That was almost as bad as him fishing the puck out of the net after a goal was scored on me (he was a hockey referee as well), asking why I didn't stand up on that one.

   Their home, Jarry Park, was a jerry-rigged former minor league stadium that was meant to fill the void until Montreal's Olympic Stadium was built.  It had no covered stands, mostly aluminum seats, and a swimming pool beyond the right-field scoreboard that Wille Stargell often seemed to hit home runs into.
The atmosphere, despite the losing, was racuous, and Jarry Park was labelled, "Canada's largest outdoor insane asylum."
  So, even though I may not have been old enough to follow the team on a day-to-day basis, I was a huge fan.  Every Wednesday night, CBC would broadcast a home game, opening up a whole new world to me.
On one of those broadcasts, John Boccabella hit a walk-off home run to complete a huge comeback over the Pirates (when Boccabella came to bat, legendary PA announcer Claude Mouton would draw out his last name - BOCCCCC- A - BELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLA!).  That home run led to some confusion for me as I tried to look up the details of this game I saw in person. Or did I see that game in person, and watch Ron Woods launch a walk-off homer on tv ?
 As the mists of time obscure even the best of memories, I had the two games confused.  Which one did I see live, and which one did I watch on tv ?
 Enter Baseball Reference.
What a treasure trove for statistics freaks like myself.  My dad's youngest brother introduced me to Strat-O-Matic baseball, and I can still recite stats from the players' cards (to wit:  Jim Hickman's 32 Home Runs, Clarence -later Cito- Gaston's .318 average from the 1970 set).  Baseball Reference is a great waste of time.
  Anyway, I searched both Boccabella and Woods on BR.  A quick check of each player's HR log revealed that Boccabella had but the one walk-off homer, Woods had none.  And Boccabella's was hit in September of 1970.  We wouldn't have been at that game, because my dad had only that two weeks in July/August. Boccabella's had to be the TV Home Run.
 So, a more thorough check of Woods' HR log was next.
Woods was signed out of high school by the Pirates in 1961, and spent the next 8 years in the minors, before debuting with the Tigers. After a couple of seasons with the Yankees, the Expos acquired him for Ron Swoboda, of Amazin' Mets fame.
 Woods was a right-handed hitting outfielder, who likely earned a major league spot as a result of the 1969 expansion.  He was a part-time player, and more known for his glove than his bat.
 He hit only 26 career home runs, so tracking this game down wasn't a huge challenge.  I do recall that the home run came late in the game, with the Expos behind.  I don't actually recall seeing it, because I was 10 years old, and everyone stood up to watch it, blocking my view.
 There it was, after a brief search:  

Wednesday, July 4, 1973,
, Parc Jarry
Attendance: 15,801, Time of Game: 2:41

                1  2  3   4  5  6   7  8  9    R  H  E
                -  -  -   -  -  -   -  -  -    -  -  -
Mets            3  0  1   0  0  1   0  0  0    5  7  1
Expos           0  0  0   0  0  0   0  7  X    7  9  0

 Now, I had to check with my dad, because the date didn't fall within his usual holiday period, but it turns out that he had a few weeks of unused vacation from the previous year, and used them that summer of 1973.
  More notes:  about our summer vacations.....
We were not big travellers.  With my brother and I so immersed in hockey and baseball, there wasn't time for a lot of vacationing.
I didn't take my first warm weather vacation until I was well into my 30s.  With only a few weeks of vacation every summer, and with my parents not being all that adventurous, we seldom made it further than my grandparents' farm near Kingston, Ontario.  One year, my mom insisted that we venture at least farther than that, so for some unknown reason, we vacationed in Pembroke, Ontario, on the Ottawa River.  I think we did a brief tour of Ottawa, but spent the rest of the time at the motel in Pembroke.  There was a pool there, so my mom was content to lounge around it.  The only other detail I remember is hearing Charlie Pride's Greatest Hits played endlessly on the 8-track of our Ford Montego.

 Another year, we became even more daring, and headed out to Montreal.  Once again, a pool with a motel was a must (how did people find these in the pre-internet days ?  did we just drive around Montreal until we found one ?) for my mom.  She had no interest in watching a ball game.  Living in a house with 3 males must have been tough.  Just ask my wife, who lives in the same kind of environment.  Hence, her insistence on female dogs as pets.
 So, it was my dad and I off on a Wednesday night to watch the Expos and the Mets.


Thanks to, I was able to find play-by-play details.
 As mentioned earlier, the Expos were pretenders for their first four years of existence.  1973 didn't promise to be much different.  The team did have 3 promising young players (Mike Jorgensen, Ken Singleton and Tim Foli) who they received in exchange for Le Grand Orange, Rusty Staub.  And there was Mike Marshall in the bullpen, who was still a few years away from bigger fame, but was already demonstrating the ability to throw multiple innings per outing out of the bullpen.  The rest of the team was a mix of cast-offs from other organizations.  Like Ron Woods.
 The Expos stumbled out of the gate with a 7-11 April.  May and June were slightly better, and they were only two games under .500 as the summer started.  That record might have been enough to have them out of contention in other years and divisions, but this was the 1973 National League East, meaning that they were right in the middle of a pennant race.
 The Expos' line-up was lead by Ron Hunt, who had to be one of the most battered men in the history of the game.  Standing almost on top of the plate, Hunt was hit a record 51 times in 1971.  I love a quote attributed to him:  "“Some people give their bodies to science; I gave mine to baseball."
 Their batting order, while middle of the pack in the league in terms of runs and average, was actually reasonably decent:  Ron Fairly (one of the slowest players I've ever seen), Jorgensen, Singleton and a rejuvenated Bob Bailey, an original Expo, who would go on to hit 30 HR that year.
 The pitching staff was a mix of youth and veterans.  The starting rotation was anchored by Steve Renko, who was in the midst of a career year.  In May, he would be joined by minor league call-up Steve Rogers, who recorded a 1.54 ERA for the season, and went on to become the Expos' all-time leader in numerous pitching categories.  Sadly, the late Dick Williams had some unkind words about Rogers' performance in big games in his book.  Rogers was my favourite Expo.  Even though I wasn't a pitcher, I loved imitating his herky-jerky delivery as I warmed up with my teammates on the sidelines before games.
  The bullpen was essentially a two-man show, featuring Tom Walker, who had come from nowhere to emerge as a set-up man to the rubber-armed Marshall, who with his 14 wins and 31 saves, had a hand in over half of the Expos' victories that year.  He pitched 176 innings in 92 games - unheard of stats for a closer today.
 I didn't realize it at the time, but the Met's starting centre fielder that night was 43 yr old hall-of-famer-to-be Willie Mays.
 A three-run homer in the first inning by George Theodore off of struggling Expos starter Balor Moore gave the visitors and early lead.
  Taking the mound that day for the Mets was another eventual hall-of-famer: 300 game winner Tom Seaver.
 Seaver cruised through the first seven innings, and the Mets added another in the third (on a Mays' homer - Number 657 for his career; he would hit only three more), and one more in the sixth, to take a comfortable 5-0 lead as the Expos prepared to bat in the bottom of the 8th.
 Hunt walked to lead off the Expos' 8th.  They may have ranked in the middle of the pack in most batting stats, but they were far and away the leader in On Base Percentage.  Not that many people paid attention to that stat in those days, but they were a team that could get on base, and could find a way to get runners home.
 Jorgensen followed with a single to right, and then Hunt moved up to third on a flyout to right by Fairly.
Mets' SS Teddy Martinez then made an error on a ball hit by Singleton (don't know if it was a routine DP ball or not), scoring Hunt and moving Jorgensen to 2nd.  A tiring Seaver then gave up a double to CF Boots Day, scoring Jorgensen with the second run of the inning. A single to centre by Bailey scored Singleton and Day, and ended Seaver's day, cutting the Mets' lead to one.
 Buzz Capra (can't forget that name) came in from the bullpen to relieve Seaver.  He gave up a single to Foli, then retired Boccabella.  With two men on, Capra was an out away from ending the inning.
 In came Ron Woods to hit for reliever Joe Gilbert, the Expos' fourth pitcher of the game.  
Woods hit a three-run home run into the left-field bleachers (that I didn't see - everyone stood up, and blocked my view) to put the Expos ahead, 7-5.
Marshall came in to pitch a 1-2-3 9th for his 11th save.
And that was it.  15 801 people saw the game.  I thought there were more people than that, but I had never been in a crowd that big.  I do remember that Jarry Park was loud - in great contrast to the funereal atmosphere at Olympic Stadium in the Expos' final years.  That's another post for another time.
 Joe Gilbert got the win.  Two weeks later, he would be sent back down to Triple A, never to return to the Majors.
The Expos continued to stay in the hunt in the crowded NL East.  The Mets, Cards, Pirates and Expos would go down to the final weekend.  The Expos reeled off 6 wins in a row in mid-September to move within a game of the Mets, but then promptly lost their next 7.  With the mediocrity of the division, though, they weren't out of it until a loss to the Mets in Game 159.  The Mets took the division with a record of 83-79, the worst record of any pennant winner in major league history.  Just the same, they upset in the Reds in the NLCS, and took the defending World Series Champion A's to 7 games.
  Ron Woods would hit only one more major league home run, and was released by the Expos at the end of the following season.  He played two seasons in Japan before calling it quits.
 And that was the one and only Expos game I saw live and in person at Jarry Park.  
  Four seasons later, the Expos left the cozy confines of Jarry Park for the cavernous Olympic Stadium.
A new generation of home grown players, like Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie, and Larry Parrish, led the team to near-great heights.  To me, they still remain one of the best teams to never win it all.

     The Expos, of course,  left Montreal for Washington in 2004, but in the minds of most Montrealers, they had left several years before that. 
   I wish I could remember more details about that game.  I wish that I could've understood the significance of watching two one-day hall of famers.  I wish that I could have seen that home run ball land. Oh, well.
   I was just a young lad, enjoying a day at the ballpark with his dad.  And maybe that was the most important thing to remember.  This past summer, I took my dad and my two sons to a game.  Baseball hasn't gripped either of them in quite the same way it did me, but I hope the memory of the games we've been to over the years will stay with them, too.

 I almost forgot to include the box score:

Game Played on Wednesday, July 4, 1973 (N) at Parc Jarry

NY  N    3  0  1    0  0  1    0  0  0  -   5  7  1
MON N    0  0  0    0  0  0    0  7  x  -   7  9  0
New York Mets                AB   R   H RBI      BB  SO      PO   A
Garrett 3b                    2   1   0   0       3   0       1   1
Millan 2b                     5   0   0   0       0   0       3   3
Mays cf                       4   1   2   1       0   0       4   0
  Hahn cf                     1   0   0   0       0   0       1   0
Staub rf                      4   1   0   0       1   0       2   0
Theodore lf                   3   1   2   3       1   1       2   0
Milner 1b                     4   0   0   0       0   1       5   0
Dyer c                        3   1   2   1       1   0       5   0
Martinez ss                   4   0   1   0       0   2       1   1
Seaver p                      3   0   0   0       1   2       0   1
  Capra p                     0   0   0   0       0   0       0   0
  Sadecki p                   0   0   0   0       0   0       0   0
Totals                       33   5   7   5       7   6      24   6
E: Martinez (5).
PB: Dyer (3).
HR: Theodore (1,1st inning off Moore 2 on 2 out); Mays (3,3rd inning off Moore
0 on 0 out); Dyer (1,6th inning off Walker 0 on 0 out).
GDP: Milner (7,off Jarvis).
Team LOB: 8.
Montreal Expos               AB   R   H RBI      BB  SO      PO   A
Hunt 2b                       2   1   0   0       2   0       1   4
Jorgensen 1b                  5   1   3   0       0   0       8   1
Fairly lf                     4   0   0   0       1   0       2   0
  Marshall p                  0   0   0   0       0   0       0   0
Singleton rf                  3   1   0   1       1   1       5   0
Day cf,lf                     4   1   1   1       0   1       3   0
Bailey 3b                     4   1   1   2       0   1       1   0
Foli ss                       4   1   2   0       0   0       1   4
Boccabella c                  4   0   1   0       0   1       6   0
Moore p                       0   0   0   0       0   0       0   0
  Jarvis p                    1   0   0   0       0   1       0   0
  Mashore ph                  1   0   0   0       0   0       0   0
  Walker p                    0   0   0   0       0   0       0   0
  Breeden ph                  1   0   0   0       0   0       0   0
  Gilbert p                   0   0   0   0       0   0       0   1
  Woods ph,cf                 1   1   1   3       0   0       0   0
Totals                       34   7   9   7       4   5      27  10
DP: 1. Jorgensen-Foli-Jorgensen.
2B: Day (6,off Seaver).
HR: Woods (3,8th inning off Capra 2 on 2 out).
HBP: Hunt (19,by Capra).
Team LOB: 8.
New York Mets                IP     H   R  ER  BB  SO  HR BFP
Seaver                        7.1   6   5   3   4   5   0  33
Capra L(0-4)                  0.1   2   2   2   0   0   1   4
Sadecki                       0.1   1   0   0   0   0   0   2
Totals                        8     9   7   3*  4   5   1  39

 - Team earned runs does not equal the composite totals for all pitchers due 
to instances in which provisions of Section 10.18 (i) of the Scoring rules were 

HBP: Capra (1,Hunt).
Montreal Expos               IP     H   R  ER  BB  SO  HR BFP
Moore                         2.2   3   4   4   5   2   2  16
Jarvis                        2.1   2   0   0   0   1   0   8
Walker                        2     1   1   1   1   3   1   8
Gilbert W(1-1)                1     1   0   0   1   0   0   5
Marshall SV(13)               1     0   0   0   0   0   0   3
Totals                        9     7   5   5   7   6   3  40
WP: Moore (5), Jarvis (1).
Umpires: HP - Satch Davidson, 1B - Augie Donatelli, 2B - Bob Engel, 3B - Harry Wendelstedt
Time of Game: 2:41   Attendance: 15801

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Time is Not Right for Aaron Sanchez

Top Jay pitching prospect Aaron Sanchez could contribute with the big club some time this season.
Toronto Star photo

 It's been a whirlwind 18 months for Blue Jays prospect Aaron Sanchez.
   Tabbed as the prospect they were least willing to give up in the R.A. Dickey deal in December of 2012, Sanchez dealt with shoulder issues in June, and some mechanics issues in July as the club shortened his stride.
   By August, prospect evaluators were leaping off the Sanchez bandwagon en masse, as former teammate Noah Syndergaard was on the cusp of the majors, while Sanchez was having control issues in the Florida Stage League.
  During his time in the Arizona Fall League, some of the naysayers came back around in their thinking, but there were still concerns about his delivery and high walk rate, despite his 96 mph Fastball and nasty breaking stuff. Those concerns became muted as Sanchez was named the AFL All-Star game starter, giving up only 1 run in his final four starts in the desert.
   Flash forward to this spring, and there are many who are terming Sanchez as major league-ready, despite having never pitched above High A ball.  So, Sanchez has gone from top prospect to suspect and back.
   The Blue Jays, wisely, sent him to minor league camp last week, even despite having dominated Tampa hitters in his final spring training outing.  Sanchez has thrown 256 innings in four minor league seasons since being selected in the 1st round of the 2010 draft, and the club decided that despite the concerns about the back end of the rotation, Sanchez, who won't turn 22 until July, needed more seasoning in the minors.
   The club has been criticized by some for being too cautious with their pitching prospects, and the club has hinted that there has been some division amongst front office staff about the need to protect young arms versus the need to challenge them.
   Bob Elliot of the Toronto Sun is among those who say that Sanchez' time is now, mainly because babying arms like Kyle Drabek, Brandon Morrow, and Drew Hutchison didn't work out all that well, anyway.
   Broadcasters Buck Martinez and Bob McCown have also called for Sanchez to break camp with the team.  "I see composure, confidence, and a feel for pitching," Martinez told The Fan 590's morning show.
   We did some research last year about the so called "year after effect," detailing the rate of injury for pitchers under 25 who pitched 30 or more innings than they did in the previous year, and the data strongly suggests a correlation.  Of even more interest is the school of thought that pitch counts are more of an effective guideline in determining when to take a pitcher out of a game.  The number of pitches in an inning can be even more specific in helping to prevent an injury: the more pitches a pitcher throws in an inning, the more fatigued he can become, with a resulting increase in the sloppiness of his mechanics.
   Sanchez threw a total of 109 innings last year, to High A and mostly Double A (in the AFL) hitters.  Respecting the year after effect, Sanchez would have a limit of between 130 and 140 innings this year, and as a fourth or fifth starter, he likely would hit that after about 25 starts. If, by some miracle, the Jays find themselves in a pennant race, they will be faced with the prospect of having to shut their prized young hurler down.  And given that his control issues may not necessarily be behind him just yet, he would likely face some long innings with high pitch counts against major league hitters (hello Yankees and Red Sox lineups) who won't offer at his pitches outside of the strike zone.  Sanchez was on a strict pitch limit after his stint on the DL in June with shoulder tightness, and averaged a little over 4 innings per start last season.  The quantum leap in pitches and innings he would be facing in the majors is a surefire recipe for injury.
   Sanchez has had an impressive spring, and he seemed to get better with each outing.  We agree that Sanchez does need to be challenged this year, but he needs to start at AA, keeping in line with the organization's philosophy of promoting young pitchers one level at a time.  We're also in agreement with The Star's Richard Griffin, who wrote, "He needs to overmatch young hitters at that level, before he takes the next and final step to the major leagues." We would hasten to amend that to having him move up to AAA if the parent club is out of contention at the All-Star break.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

How Doing Their Homework Landed the Blue Jays a Future MVP

  Over the course of the first three years of their existence, the Blue Jays were lovable losers, losing over 100 games each season, but managing to draw almost 5 million fans.   Unknown to most, however, the club was quickly stockpiling minor league talent, and gaining a reputation throughout baseball for their scouting. That reputation was enhanced when they plucked one of the best players ever chosen in the Rule 5 draft, an outfielder from the Phillies system named George Bell.
   While their expansion cousins Seattle Mariners were loading up on fringe veterans to post a respectable record for an expansion team in 1977, the Blue Jays chose more young players with potential who were playing in the lower levels of the minors.  They were also scouring the US and the Caribbean for players at any level, including heavy scouting of other MLB teams' minor leaguers. According to Kevin Kerrane in the epic Dollar Sign on the Muscle, "their staff was considered the most aggressive in the business."
   The Rule 5 draft pre-dates the Rule 4 draft, which is the well-known lottery of high school and college players baseball holds every June.  The Rule 5 dates back to bonus baby days, when teams would outbid each other for premium high school prospects, and then some organizations would stockpile those picks in the minors for years. To lessen that problem, MLB instituted the Bonus Rule in the late 1940s, forcing teams which signed a player for a bonus of over $4000 to keep that player on the major league roster for at least two seasons, or expose him to waivers if they failed to comply.  The most famous player to be claimed from that era was Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, who the Pirates claimed from the Dodgers in 1954. The Bonus rule ended with the advent of the Major League draft in 1965.
   When an organization signs a player at the age of 18 or under, they have five years until they have to place the player on the team's 40 man roster.  If drafted at the age of 19 or older, a team has four years to do so.
    When a player reaches their expiry date and isn't placed on their team's 40 man, they are eligible to be drafted by any MLB teams in the November Rule 5 draft.  To prevent the draft from becoming a free-for-all raiding of some teams' minor league talent, each draftee costs $50 000, and must be kept on the 25 man major league roster for the whole season.  If the drafting team opts not to keep the player, they must offer him back to the original team for half that amount.
   Bell was signed by the Phillies (who were considering the leading MLB organization in terms of scouting in the 1970s) out of San Pedro de Macoris  in the Dominican Republic in 1978.  The 19 year old Bell was sent to Helena of the Rookie Level Pioneer League in 1979, where he hit .311/.373/.387.  Promoted to Low A Spartanburg the next year, Bell took off, hitting 22 Home Runs and driving in 102, while posting a line of .305/..345/.550.
   The word was probably starting to get out about Bell after that season, and the Blue Jays were no doubt among the first to know about him.  Promoted to AA the next season, Bell was off to a hot start,  but suffered a stress fracture of his right shoulder at the end of April, and was out until July.  In his first game back, he re-injured the shoulder in a home-plate collision, and his season was over.
   Under the Rule 5 guidelines of that time, the Phillies had to place Bell on their 40-man roster prior to the November 1980 edition of the draft, or risk losing him.  They sent him back to the Dominican, and let him work out with Escogido, a local team the Phils had an informal working agreement with.

   The Blue Jays, who had the fourth pick in the draft, had done their usual due diligence, and had assigned famed Dominican scout Epy Guerrero to keep tabs on Bell.  As the fall progressed, it was clear that Bell had fully recovered.  The nervous Phillies ordered the Escogido manager to keep Bell out of games until after the draft was over, but the horse had already left the barn.  Legendary Blue Jays scout Al LaMacchia, a veteran of four decades in the game as a player, scout, and front office man, showed up in Santo Domingo in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Bell.  After watching an early morning workout of the ballclub, LaMacchia contacted GM Pat Gillick right away, and told him Bell was sound.  The Blue Jays scooped him up with the fourth pick of the draft, and the Phillies' plan to hide Bell in the Dominican was foiled.
   The club had to keep Bell on the roster for the whole year, of course, and he played only a minor role, managing only 168 plate appearances in 1981, putting up modest .233/.256/.350 numbers.  The Jays were were still far from being a contender in those days of four-man (at the most) bullpens, so keeping the youngster was not a burden on the roster. After that season, Bell was optioned to AAA, but the Jays' brain trust saw him as the final piece of a potential all-star outfield, along with a skinny outfielder they drafted in the middle rounds in 1977, and a former high school basketballer who they took with the 2nd overall pick the following year.
   The plan was likely to re-unite Bell with Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby sometime in 1982, but a Lynn McGlothlen fastball to Bell's jaw limited Bell to 37 minor league games that year, and understandably left him with a low tolerance of pitchers who tried to jam him that would crop up throughout the rest of his career, most notably when Red Sox pitcher Bruce Kison came in too close for Bell's liking in 1985, which led to Bell charging the mound and karate-kicking Kison.
   Fully recovered by 1983, Bell was recalled midway through the season, and with Moseby and Barfield, formed what many considered the best young outfield in baseball.  Bell broke through in 1984, hitting .292/.326/.498, as the Blue Jays themselves broke through from perennial losers to contenders.  Then there was Bell's monster year of 1987, when he set a club record with 47 Home Runs and 134 RBI, and became the first Toronto player to capture the AL MVP award.
  1987 represented Bell's peak, and his numbers began to fall off afterward.  Never a great defensive player, Bell feuded with Manager Jimy Williams when he was moved to full time DH in 1988. Perhaps still fuming after learning of this switch mid-way through spring training, Bell hit 3 Home Runs on Opening Day, the only player in major league history to do so. Bell also hit the last home run (a walk off) at Exhibition Stadium. His relationship with Toronto fans soured toward the end of his time in the city, and Bell finished his career with the Cubs and the White Sox, retiring in 1993.  Bell and the Blue Jays patched things up, however, and he was named to the club's Level of Excellence in 1996. He is a guest instructor at spring training for the club now.
   Bell was not the only gem the Jays plucked from the Rule 5 draft.  Shortstop Manny Lee, taken from the Astros in 1984, took over the position when starter Tony Fernandez was dealt to the Padres, and played for the 92 World Series champs.
   Next to Johan Santana and Josh Hamilton, Bell was one of the best Rule 5 picks of all time.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

MLB Draft Update #2


With the college and most high school baseball seasons (at least in the warmer climates) well underway, it's time for another look at the top ranked players for the upcoming June Major League Baseball draft.
   The Blue Jays have both the 9th pick in the first round, and the 11th, as compensation for not signing California HS pitcher Phil Bickford.  We'll focus on the top 15 prospects, with an eye towards who the Blue Jays might pick, given the drafting trends they've shown in the past few years.
   A couple of words of warning about the information contained within this post:

1.  Even though spring training has passed the half way point, we're still very early in the college and high school seasons.  A lot could change between now and the June draft.
2.  This information is a synthesis of the observations of the top talent evaluators in the online world.  It's no substitute for scouting in person.
3.  While the Blue Jays have shown a willingness to roll the dice with their draft picks, trying to pick a player for their draft spots based on our perception of the team's needs and preferences is still very difficult.  We will likely rotate many players through the 9th and 11th draft positions, and the Jays may take none of them, which wouldn't be all that surprising to us.

   At this point, the potential first round picks seem to have separated themselves into at least three distinct tiers.
  The first tier contains the premium prospects that will not be around when the Blue Jays turns to pick come up.  Among those are:

Carlos Rodon lhp NC State  -hasn't been as dominant as his past two collegiate seasons, but still
                                                   has huge upside.
Tyler Kolek rhp Texas HS    -rocketing his way up the rankings; has topped 100 on the radar.
                                                  Some suggest that the Astros may take him over Rodon to help
                                                  spread the bonus money around, which would make him the first
                                                 prep righthander taken first overall in the modern draft era.
Jeff Hoffman rhp East Carolina  -has been passed by some evaluators by Kolek, but still a solid top 5
Jacob Gatewood ss California HS   -Gatewood is a BP monster, although there are some concerns about
                                                            his ability to translate into game performances.
Alex Jackson c California HS      -there are some concerns about his long-term future behind the plate,
                                                        but his bat will play.
Tyler Beede, rhp Vanderbilt   -the likelihood of the Jays drafting him was slim to none to begin with, but
                                                  Beede's performance to date has taken him into this upper tier.

  Gatewood and/or Jackson may slip out of this group, and join the next tier:

Aaron Nola rhp LSU     -there are some who don't like Nola's low arm slot, and project him as a
                                         reliever, but it's hard to argue with the results so far.
Nick Gordon ss Florida HS   -the brother of Dee and son of Flash was ranked the top SS prospect in the
                                                 draft by Keith Law.  Unlike many other SS prospects, he's projected to
                                                 stay at the position.  Also has a low 90s FB.
Brady Aiken lhp California HS   -throws 94-97 with a plus curveball, and at 6'4" fits the Jays' love of
                                                       long, lean athletic prep pitchers.
Erick Fedde rhp UNLV        -off to a strong start, he will need to continue to pitch well after an
                                                inconsistent sophomore season.  Athletic, with a plus fastball.
Trea Turner ss NC State     -elite speed and likely to stay at short, but scouts don't feel his bat
                                                  has a lot of upside.
Sean Newcomb lhp Hartford   -bad weather has hampered his season so far, and after being shut                                                          down summer ball last year after contracting mono, has shown some
Max Pentecost c Kennesaw State  -the best of a thin pool of catching talent, has average to above
                                                           average tools across the board.
Derek Fisher of Virginia        -tabbed as a 60-hit, 60-power left handed hitter whose stock could rise
                                                 due to a lack of impact bats in the draft. No one seems impressed with
                                                   his defence.  Fisher broke the hamate bone in his right wrist on March
                                                   8th, and will miss 4-6 weeks.
Justus Sheffield lhp Tennessee  -nephew of former MLBer Gary, he doesn't have the stuff of Aiken,
                                                      but has what's been described as a clean, athletic delivery, that gives                                                        lots of room for projection.

    Of the above group, given the Blue Jays recent draft history, we would have to say that Aiken and Gordon best fit the club's preference for athletic high schoolers.  One or both may be gone by the time the 9th pick comes up.   Pentecost would fit a need in the system for a toolsy catcher, and could advance quickly.



   Thought we would throw in a Tyler Beede update.
In his first 5 starts, the Jays first pick in the 2011 draft has upped his stock considerably.
Beede sports a 4-1 record, striking out 40 batters in 32 innings, with a tiny 0.63 WHIP.  Opposing batters are hitting only .128 against him.
   Prospect guru Keith Law watched a recent Beede start against Stanford, and came away impressed:

   "...while he's always been good (Law has been following Beede since his junior year of
   High School), he'd never put together the single dominating performance where he would show
   both stuff and command that would make me feel that he was a clear top-ten or top-five pick.
   He did that on Friday night, an outing against a good team that had area scouts walking 
   away saying the same thing:  that's the Tyler Beede we've all been waiting before."

   Law feels that Beede has propelled himself into the upper echelon of draft prospects.  Everything appears to be coming together for the righthander:  command, velocity deep into his start, and a good feel for his changeup, all as a result of an easy delivery.
   Many Jays fans still fume at the club's inability to sign Beede in 2011, because of differences over money and other unknown aspects of the negotiations.  Law says criticism of the Jays for not signing him are unfair, as the offer they made him was more than generous:

   "...the Jays did offer more than $2 million (well above slot) to him,  a very reasonable amount
   given the type of prospect he was at that time."

   Beede stands to cash in far in excess of the Jays' 2011 offer.  Barring injury, he projects to be a top-five pick this June.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lack of Minor League Depth Painting AA into a Corner ?

    With the sometimes bizarre turns in the Ervin Santana free agent watch that took place this weekend, we can't help but feel that Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous was gnashing his teeth behind closed doors this past weekend.
AA, as is widely known, prefers not to do his wheeling and dealing in the media, although after the stunning blockbusters with the Marlins and the Mets in December of 2012, it's becoming harder for him to do so.  And in the case of courting one of the last remaining free agents, it's nearly impossible.
   We can't help but wonder if the mid to upper level talent that Anthopolous dealt in the last half of 2012 has tied his hands in making deals this offseason, leaving him little choice but to go after free agents like Santana.
And it's not, of course, that the Jays are lacking in premium talent in the minors - it's just that the bulk of it is below High A ball.  Talent at that level is highly undervalued, for obvious reasons. Teams looking to upgrade their major league rosters know that those players are at least several years away, and a high percentage of them wash out at the higher levels, or become replacement-level players at best.
   7 of Baseball America's top 10 Jays prospects will be starting the season at High A or lower (the same goes for MLB Pipeline's) , as will 6 of Fangraph's top 10, and 8 of scouting guru Keith Law's top 10.  Now that will mean the Lansing Lugnuts may be one of the most watched Milb teams this summer, but at least as far as last offseason goes, there wasn't much depth for AA to deal.
   For those who don't recall the names Anthopolous traded in the Mets and Marlins deals, let's just say it's highly likely you'll be hearing a lot this season about Noah Syndergaard and Travis d'Arnaud (# 1 and #2 on BA's list), and this year or next you may be hearing more about Jake Marisnick, Justin Nicolino, and Anthony DeScalfini (3/4/5 on BA's Marlins' list).  That's a lot of talent - granted, not all of it premium, but still - that's a lot for a farm system to recover from, and maybe  a few years from now we'll truly come to appreciate the jobs the Jays scouting department has done both in the draft and internationally since 2011.
  In the meantime, the Jays front office is experiencing life on a tenterhook, as Santana and his agent take their time in choosing from several suitors.  With JA Happ injured and inconsistent, competition for not only the 5th spot in the rotation, but now likely the 4th as well has intensified.  With Marcus Stroman demonstrating that he's still learning, and Sean Nolin showing that perhaps he's not ready yet, and with Drew Hutchison emerging as the leading candidate to grab one of those last two spots, it's down to Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, and Kyle Drabek for that last spot.  Hence, the interest in Santana, even at an inflated price tag.
   When AA traded that minor league depth in 2012,  it was part of a plan that would see the club contend from 2013 to 2015.  That plan went awry last year, and Anthopolous has been handcuffed in his attempts to restock the starting rotation this year.  He may be in a much stronger position next season (as may have been the plan all along), but that's of little consolation to Jays fans who had expected bigger things.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ricky Romero (maybe Roberto Osuna) and Stem Cell and Platelet-Rich Plasma Therapies

   Although he insists that his control and velocity issues of the past two seasons are decidedly of the mental variety, and not the physical kind, Blue Jays highly-paid farmhand Ricky Romero admitted that he received injections as part of  Stem Cell therapy last October, and had undergone Platelet-Rich Plasma Therapy after the 2012 season.
   Romero made the admission to John Lott of the National Post.  Romero underwent the painful procedure, in which plasma is removed from bone marrow in one part of the body (in this case, his lower back), and injected into another (his aching knees).  Romero has been reluctant to acknowledge his health issues, because he didn't want that to be an excuse for his performance, but he did agree that he may have overdone it working on his lower body in the weight room, and that his physical issues did become mental.
   Stem cell therapy has been used very successfully on the tendons and ligaments of injured racehorses.  Conventional therapies tend to lead to the formation of fibrous scar tissue, which can reduce mobility and full joint movement. Stem cell therapy allowed more horses return to racing, and greatly reduced the rate of re-injury in one study over a three year period.
   Platelet-Rich Plasma Therapy has been used by a number of major league teams to treat torn ulnar collateral ligaments, with varying degrees of success.  The process involves spinning a patient's blood in a centrifuge in order to remove the platelets, which are then injected into the elbow to promote faster healing and tissue regeneration.  As we wrote about in an earlier post, the lack of success for some pitchers may have resulted in contaminated platelets, or inefficient injection into the injury site.
   We speculated in that post that Roberto Osuna maybe have undergone PRP therapy during one of his two shutdowns last season.  That Romero underwent the procedure (albeit for his knees) may indicate that it has the blessing of management, increasing to us the likelihood that Osuna had it as well.  It also would appear that the treatment was unsuccessful as well.
  In that earlier post, we also outlined a timeline for recovery and a return to throwing for a pitcher who had undergone Tommy John surgery to replace the damaged UCL, as Osuna had at the end of July.  By month 7, which would've passed last week, a pitcher can start to throw on flat ground, if the recovery has gone well up to that point.  Osuna, according to his Twitter feed, is there:

     Osuna also posted a picture of himself, which shows the slimmed-down teenager we saw in that earlier post:

   Questions about Osuna's conditioning and high-maintenance body have been present almost since he made his pro debut.  Maybe he's ready to take his conditioning more seriously.
   If all continues to go well for Osuna, he will begin throwing off a mound in about a month.  When spring training camp breaks, he will continue to rehab in Florida.  He may get into some game action in the lower minors in August.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

5 Overlooked Prospects and a Ricky Romero Update

     Ok, everyone.
Just to recap, here are our preseason Top 10 Blue Jays prospects:

1.  Aaron Sanchez
2. Marcus Stroman
3. Daniel Norris
4. Sean Nolin
5. Kevin Pillar
6. Roberto Osuna
7. D.J. Davis
8. Andy Burns
9. Frankie Barreto
10. Alberto Osuna

 We compiled a list of our 11th through 20th ranked prospects, but didn't feel that there was enough sample size to warrant separating and individually ranking them.  In no particular order, they are:

Chase DeJong
Jairo Labourt
Dawel Lugo
Mitch Nay
Rowdy Tellez
Tom Robson
L.B. Dantzler
A.J. Jimenez (he doesn't quite fit the above description, granted)
Kenny Wilson
Dalton Pompey

   Keeping in mind that progress is seldom measured in a straight line, and in the case of people in their late teens/early 20s even more so, here are 5 prospects that have flown under the radar for one reason or another, and it wouldn't surprise us if one or more of them made it onto one of the above lists by the end of the season.

1.  Adonys Cardona rhp
   One of the highest ranked international prospects of the 2010 crop, the Blue Jays signed Cardona for $2.8 million.  They haven't recouped much of that investment to this point.
   Just the same, Cardona is still highly regarded by the scouting community.  Baseball America ranked him as the 16th best prospect in the Appy League last year, despite an unsightly 1.90 WHIP in 25 innings.  The Blue Jays shut him down in August.
   Cardona throws hard (mid 90s on the fastball, when healthy - hit 99 in extended spring training), and throws a hammer 12-6 curve.  2013 marked the second straight year in which he had been shut down due to shoulder/elbow soreness. The Blue Jays have definitely taken their time with Cardona, who turned 20 this past January.  He will be kept behind in Florida for extended spring training, but it may just be a matter of time before he puts it all together - if he can stay healthy.

2.  Jacob Anderson, of
   Opinion was divided on Anderson during his 2011 draft year, but the Blue Jays took the Californian with the 35th pick overall, and gave him a $990K bonus to talk him out of his commitment to Pepperdine.
 Anderson tore up the GCL in his pro debut, but struggled at Bluefield in 2012.  A rib injury, which likely took place during that season, needed surgery to repair, and cost Anderson all of his 2013 season.
  Anderson is reportedly fully recovered from the surgery, and ready to start the season.  With not a lot of high ranking prospects playing ahead of him, Anderson may start the season in Lansing, and his development may accelerate with playing every day in full season ball.

3.  Richard Urena, ss
   With Barreto manning short for the GCL Jays until late in the season, Urena played in the Dominican Summer League.  When Barreto was promoted to Bluefield in late August, Urena took his spot in Florida, and made a huge impression.
   Signed for a $725K bonus in 2012, Urena just turned 18.  Unlike some of the higher profile shortstops in the organization, Urena is projected to actually stick at the position.  Ben Badler of BA tabbed Urena as a "breakout prospect" for 2014:

    Urena doesn't have flashy tools, but he has a high baseball IQ, a patient approach, and a line 
    drive stroke with occasional gap power......he should make a louder impression in the U.S. this

4.  Matt Smoral, lhp
   Smoral made our pre-season top 10 list a year ago, but took a minor step backwards in 2013, and in hindsight, it shouldn't be that much of a surprise.
   Considered one of the top prep southpaws heading in the spring of 2012, a foot injury and subsequent surgery delayed Smoral's debut until 2013 in the GCL, where he alternated near dominant outings with ones in which he could command neither side of the plate.  Tall lefthanders take time to develop, especially ones who missed a year of development.  There is still plenty to like about Smoral.  He could make a quantum leap this year.

5.  Miguel Castro, rhp
  With the plethora of pitching prospects the Jays have at the lower levels of the system, Castro is sometimes the forgotten man, but possibly not for much longer.
   Castro shot up the ranks of rookie ball last season, striking out 71 DSL batters in 53 innings, which earned him a promotion to the GCL.  Castro even threw three shutout innings in the playoffs for Bluefield.  Castro won't turn 20 until December.  It's interesting to see if the Blue Jays use the cautious approach with him after spring training this year, or challenge him.


   Since Lefthander Ricky Romero was removed from the 40 man roster last fall, we kind of have to start thinking of him as a minor leaguer for the time being, if not a prospect.
   As we detailed in an earlier post, Romero lost velocity on all of his pitches in 2012 and 2013, and the data suggests that either his change up had gained added movement, or hitters had learned to lay off of it, and his sub-par fastball caught too much of the plate in what must have been a miserable 2013 for the former ace.
   Romero made his first spring appearance this past Saturday, and while he emerged unscathed from his inning, the results weren't encouraging.  One positive note is that his velocity appeared to be up - the MASN feed had him at 91 on his FB, and there were suggestions on Twitter that the gun was slow.
  Romero walked the first hitter he faced on four pitches, and the next on five.  Most of his misses were low, but well off the strike zone.  Flirting with disaster, Romero induced the dangerous Chris Davis to pop up, and then retired Adam Jones and Nick Markakis on routine flyballs.
  Looking at the glass half full, Romero gave up no runs, showed increased velocity, and got out of a potential jam against three proven major league hitters.
   From a half empty perspective, Romero had trouble with his location, and was walking on a tightrope.  A guy trying to reclaim a spot not only on the big league club but even on the 40 man can't afford many more of those kind of outings.
  We can't blame Romero if he was nervous, so we're willing to give him a mulligan on this outing.  He's not a veteran who is working on things this spring, though.  He's in a very uphill battle to claim a spot on the big league club.