Friday, May 30, 2014

Blue Jays/Red Sox Retro Night ? Yes !!!

  A few of my fellow twits had pointed out that the Jays will play the Red Sox on September 5th, the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth's first pro (and only minor league)  home run at Toronto's Hanlan Point Stadium.
  Many of them suggested that the two teams play in the retro uniforms of the Providence Grays and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the two participants in that pre-World War I game.
   And while the game is in Boston, and not Toronto, we still think it's a great idea.
   The Sox had purchased the 19 year old Ruth from the Baltimore Orioles, who were a minor league powerhouse at that time, early in the 1914 season.  Ruth made his major league debut as a pitcher for the Sox on July 11th, and won four of the five games he started.  Because the Red Sox had a loaded roster, they loaned Ruth to Providence (this was in the era before major league teams had minor league affiliates and farm systems; minor league teams competed and operated as independent entities) so that he could pitch on a regular basis.
   Ruth joined the Red Sox for good in 1915, and won 65 games in 3 years before Boston moved him off the mound and into the outfield to take advantage of his lethal bat.
    The International League season was winding down when Ruth launched his home run over the right field wall and into Lake Ontario.  The Maple Leafs, who represented Toronto in the International League for almost three quarters of a century, had their home park at the time on the Toronto Islands, about where Porter Airlines flights take off today.
    We've done a little research on the uniforms the two teams may have worn that day.

Here's a look at the Providence roster, with a young Ruth in the middle of the back row:

  Finding a team photo for the Maple Leafs of that year proved a little difficult, but we came up with a few from that era, like the 1917 club:

The 1907 team:

   The 07 team is still wearing uniforms that had been in vogue since the late 1800s, with the high, button-up collars.  The hat was plain, with no logo on it.  The 17 team has a more modern look, with what appears to be a white T on the hat.  We're not sure when the club switched looks, but judging from the Providence photo, the 1914 Toronto club probably was wearing something similar to the 1917 uniforms.

    We think this is a great idea, even if the game is taking place a couple of hundred kilometres, instead of a couple of hundred metres, from where the event took place.  Of course, given that the Red Sox practically donated Ruth to the Yankees, launching them on a period of dominance that lasted over 40 years, while the Sox went 87 years between World Series wins might mean that Boston might not be all that interested in such a night.  We'd love to see it happen, just the same.

Who's in Line for a Promotion?

   With minor league baseball approaching its mid-season all-star break for full season leagues in a few weeks, we thought that we would take a look at some players in the Jays system who might be in line for a promotion to the next level.
  We don't know the plans the organization has for these players, of course.  We're looking at things mostly from a numbers perspective, with the odd bit of info gleaned from a handful of sources..  The farm department has a much better idea if a player is mature enough both physically and emotionally to handle the jump that comes from playing at a higher level.  And that's something that we, as fans, tend to forget: at the next level, the fastballs are faster, curveballs sharper, and the pitchers generally pitch with better control.  The hitters are more apt to get around on a fastball, or sit on a pitch if the pitcher is having command issues.  The defences are better, and the catchers are able to throw out base runners more frequently.  Promoting a player before he's ready, of course, can do more harm than good.  At the same time, with 40 man roster decisions looming in the off season, promoting a prospect now gives them time to adjust to the new level, and gives the organization a better barometer by which to measure them.

1.  Daniel Norris
   There's not much more to say about the lefthander.  He has dominated the Florida State League, and only the need to economize his pitch count and throw his fastball down in the zone a little more keeping him there.
For his first 10 starts of the season, Norris has gone 4-0, with a miniscule 0.72 ERA, striking out 60 in 50 innings.  Norris has mixed his fastball with a devastating change, but will need to develop his slider more to get Eastern League hitters out.  Norris has been the best pitching prospect in the organization not named Marcus Stroman.
  The Blue Jays may opt to keep Norris in Florida a little past the break in order to protect his arm, but his ascension to AA is only a matter of time.

2.  John Stilson
   Stilson got off to a slow start in his second stint in Buffalo this season, but he has been lights out over the last month out of the Bisons' pen, striking out 20 in 15 innings, and surrendering but a pair of earned runs.
   Stilson, a converted starter, is a power arm whose road to the majors has likely been blocked by Todd Redmond, who is out of options, and a pitcher the club wanted to keep around after a decent performance last year.  With the starting rotation having mostly righted itself after a rocky April, Redmond has been shuttled to mop up duty, and he has been ill-suited to the role.  It would be a shame to lose Redmond, but at 29, we can't see keeping him over Stilson, who is 5 years younger.

3.  Santiago Nessy
   His bat has cooled off a bit, but Nessy has been lauded as a team leader and a deft handler of a young pitching staff in his return to Lansing after an injury-riddled 2013 season.  With AJ Jimenez promoted to AAA, we can see a scenario in which Derrick Chung (see below) is moved from Dunedin to New Hampshire, creating a spot in Florida for Nessy.

4.  Dalton Pompey
   Pompey first began to gain notice with a hot August last season with Lansing.  He capped his 2013 season off with a MILB Gold Glove Award.
   This season, Pompey has more than responded to hitting in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League.  In his fifth year in the system, the Mississauga native has closed the gap between himself and American and Latin-born players in the organization.  Pompey has slashed .330/.410/.489 in 47 games, adding 19 stolen bases.  At 21, Pompey would be one of the younger players in the Eastern League if he was promoted, but with New Hampshire having promoted outfielder Kenny Wilson to Buffalo, it seems as if a spot may have been opened up for Pompey.

5.  Taylor Cole
   At 24, Cole is something of a late bloomer.  In Norris' (and before his promotion, Matt Boyd) shadow this season at Dunedin, Cole has developed excellent fastball command, and has struck out 75 hitters in 60 innings.  Improved fastball command and the development of his secondary pitches have allowed him to miss a lot of bats in High A. Cole is a little old for this level, and might benefit from a bump up to AA.

6.  Griffin Murphy
   Murphy is the only Lansing Lugnut we feel is ready for a promotion.
The Lugs are one of the youngest teams in the Midwest League, and we were excited to get a glimpse of their roster in April.
  The club has perhaps their greatest depth and wealth of prospects at this level, but it's been an up and down season for several of their prospects, many of whom just experienced their first Midwestern spring, which was a typically chilly and wet one.
   The lefthanded Murphy has been one of the stabilizing influences in the Lansing bullpen.  Repeating Lansing this season, the 2nd round pick in 2010 has emerged as something of a power arm, striking out 32 in 24 innings.  At 23, he doesn't have anything left to prove at this level.

7.  Derrick Chung
  After a torrid May at the plate, Chung is hitting .331/.411/.463.  Having fully committed to catching duties for over a year now, Chung has received high marks for his handling of Dunedin's pitching staff.  At 26, he is old for this level, and with Jimenez promoted to Buffalo, there maybe is room for a catcher at New Hampshire.  Chung's promotion would also allow playing time for both Nessy and Canadian Mike Reeves, who has backed Chung up so far this season.

8.  One of More of Efrain Nieves, Arik Sikula, or Chad Girodo
   And as we type this, we see that Sikula has been promoted to New Hampshire, joining fellow former D-Jay infielder Jose Flores.
As much as the Dunedin starters have gained much of the attention for Dunedin's dominant April and May, this bullpen trio has been absolutely lights out.
  With Sikula handling the closer duties, the three relievers have cumulatively struck out 83 FSL hitters in 71 innings, giving up only 39 hits and a dozen walks.  Sikula has already recorded 15 saves.
   At 26, it was time for Sikula to move on, and the same might be said for the 25 year-old Nieves.  Girodo  the youngest of the group at 23, was a 9th round pick out of Mississippi State last year, and may have been drafted more as an org guy, but the sidearming lefthander is profiling as another one of those power arms the organization seems to be stockpiling.


   And as if to underscore what we said above, a quick check of Twitter reveals that Boyd has been sent back down to Dunedin, just as we were about to hit the "publish" button.
   Boyd was roughed up in his last start for New Hampshire, giving up 6 earned runs in an inning and a third.  We thought he was beginning to figures things out in his previous start, but the organization obviously feels that Boyd could use some more time in High A.  For 6 starts in AA, Boyd was 0-2 with an 8.31 ERA, and an unsightly WHIP of almost 2.  Whether or not this opens up a spot in the New Hampshire rotation for Norris, it does reinforce the notion that a leap from one level to the next is often a huge one for many prospects.  Boyd was as dominant as Norris has been in Florida, and while he struck out a batter an inning in AA, he clearly was missing bats, but not enough of them to stay.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Monday Notebook

  A few odds and ends from a weekend of squeezing in some yard work and quality time with the Mrs while watching a slew of major and minor league games:

 About Aaron Sanchez:  a week ago, we noted his control issues of late, but said that we're not concerned.
His Sunday start for New Hampshire didn't do a whole lot to alleviate that.
   Sanchez didn't make it past the first inning, recording 0 outs before being lifted after 29 pitches, as per the organization's unwritten policy of not letting a minor league pitcher go past 30 in an inning.  Sanchez didn't give up a hit, but faced only 6 hitters, and walked four.  Matched up against the Red Sox Portland affiliate and their ace Henry Owens, it wasn't a good day all around for the Fisher Cats, who were drubbed 18-0.  Outfielder Matt Newman pitched the 9th inning, and was the only one of the six New Hampshire hitters who wasn't scored upon.
  Sanchez has now walked 32 batters in 41 innings, and threw only 10 of those 29 pitches for strikes in his last start.  When he throws his fastball low in the zone, Sanchez induces plenty of weak contact.  When he's up in the zone, his fastball tends to move, possibly so much so that Eastern League hitters have learned to lay off of it.  We're still not overly worried, because if Sanchez had been allowed to pitch his way out of trouble, he may have put things together, and his numbers are skewed a bit because of sample size.  At the same time, the club wants to err on the side of caution.  We are reminded that progress is not always measured in a straight line.

Tom Robson, we have learned from Charlie Caskey on the left coast, has been sent down to extended spring training.  Assistant GM Tony LaCava told Shi Davidi of Sportsnet that Robson had "a little setback," and was sent to Florida to consult with a surgeon there, and also presumably to rest and rehab his arm.
Robson was removed from his last start after being dinged for 7 earned runs in 3 innings.
   We don't have anything to go by as far as a definitive diagnosis or plan for Robson is concerned, but his plight seems to mirror that of Roberto Osuna.  Osuna was sent back to EST almost a year ago with elbow soreness. with a prescription of rest and rehab, and we suggested perhaps some Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy, although we couldn't confirm that.  Osuna went back to Lansing after a month, and was dominant in his first few starts back, then was diagnosed with a torn UCL in July after being shelled in a start before much of the team's senior admin.  Osuna underwent Tommy John surgery in late July, and is rehabbing in Florida, with the expectation likely that he will get into some rookie league games late in the summer.
   So, if Robson appears to be on the same path, why not get it over with ?  Good question.  We can't blame a club for trying the rest/rehab path first, but it seems to have limited effectiveness.  The bottom line is, we've probably seen the last of the B.C. native for the rest of this year, and much of the next.

Edwin Encarnacion would not normally be the subject of one our posts, as much as we like him as a ball player.
   We recently wrote about how developing an MLB player is a long process, and it doesn't necessarily end when the player reaches the bigs.  A series of adjustments need to be made on and off the field, and many players need a return trip to the minors to get themselves back together.
  Encarnacion could've been had by any MLB team when the Jays DFA'd him in 2010.  In fact, Oakland claimed him off of waivers in the 2010 off season, only to lose him as a free agent when they couldn't agree to a contract with him. The Blue Jays did sign him, but Encarnacion's career as an MLBer was tenuous at best.
   Encarnacion's defensive struggles at third base were legendary, earning him the nickname "E5" amongst Toronto fans.  The club decided to limit his time at third in 2011, and he responded with his best season in 4 years.  Sharing first base with Adam Lind the following season, Encarnacion had a breakout season at the plate.
Over the past year he has taken away the majority of the playing time at first from Lind, and the results have been equally as dramatic.  Over the course of the past week, he has won games with both his glove and his bat.  Our favourite glove gem was this play in the 8th inning of a game against Oakland:

   With two runners aboard and only one out in the top of the 8th as the A's were threatening, Yoenis Cespedes fouled a pitch off of Brett Cecil down the first base line in shallow right fied. The Jays had played the righthand hitting Cespedes to pull, meaning that Encarnacion was on his own as he sprinted after the pop up down the right field line.
  With the warning track looming in foul territory as he made his way down the line, and with rightfielder Bautista and second baseman Tolleson bearing down on him, Encarnacion kept his focus, and never lost sight of the ball, making a basket catch over his shoulder to record a huge second out.  And he had the presence of mind to quickly spin around in case the runners on first and second had any thoughts about tagging.
   That play, and the others he's made this season have to be the result of hours of coaches hitting fungoes at him before the game starts.  You just don't fall out of bed and make that play - making a catch over your shoulder, with you back to home plate, has to be one of the toughest ones in all of baseball.  And it shows that even though Encarnacion has firmly re-established himself as an every day player, he is still developing with his defensive skills.

Kamakani Usui was called up to the Dunedin Blue Jays from extended spring training, and has been perfect so far in his first two Florida State League stints, covering 4 innings.
  Usui was an undrafted free agent signee last year to help fill the rookie-level GCL Blue Jays roster.  He played collegiately at Vanguard (CA) last season, after pitching for Cal State Los Angeles, and Santa Rosa JC for two years before that.
   So, at 24, the Hawaiin born Usui has been around.  We had thought that he might end up in Vancouver this season.  Kudos for his start to the season, but he's strictly an org guy to us, although we'll keep an eye on him just the same.

Vancouver Canadians
   The three-time defending Northwest League champs are three weeks away from their season opener, and their roster is starting to take shape.  Outfielders Boomer Collins, Jonathan Davis, Melvin Garcia and Brendan Kalfus will travel with the team from Florida to British Columbia, along with infielders David Harris (who was with the team last year) and Christian Vasquez.  Matt Hill  returns to help handle catching duties along with Daniel Klein, while pitchers Garret Pickens, Ajax (ON) native Sean Ratcliffe, and Jairo Labout have been named to the roster so far.  Labourt was sent back to extended spring after opening the season with Lansing, and Caskey says that word is Labourt's been lights out since the demotion.
  The rest of the roster is a guessing game at this point.  Two-sport star Anthony Alford should make the team until he has to head back to school in July.  We fully expect to see shortstop Frankie Barreto with the team, along with pitcher Miguel Castro, who turned a lot of heads in his first pro season.
  Canadians broadcaster and Assistan GM Rob Fai has indicated that there will be very few returnees to the Canadians this season.  The organization in the past has stocked this team mostly with recent college draftees, but with the lower rungs of the system now starting to produce some quality, we see that trend diminishing somewhat.
  It should be another fun summer for Mr Caskey and the C's fans.

  And last week we called for the promotion of Deck McGuire to Buffalo, with the rationale that he pretty much has little left to prove in his third year of AA, and lo and behold, the righthander was promoted over the weekend. We had suggested that the time had come to put an end to Ricky Romero's comeback, at least as a starter, but we see that Romero is starting for the Bisons tonight.  The Jays feel that leaving Romero in the rotation will allow him to get some instruction on the side between starts.  We'd like to believe that, but it doesn't look good.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Development Takes Time


 For my Twitter followers (thanks, Dad), you may have noticed that I'm not one to back down from what I feel is impatience and unwarranted criticism from Blue Jays fans about the club's prospects.
   As spring training ended, I took on a couple of fellow Twits who were very down on Kevin Pillar, preferring the toolsy but highly unpolished Moises Sierra.
  Earlier this month, I did battle with a critic of Marcus Stroman, who was ready to unload him after all of 4 major league appearances.
   Even though with his first three hit game of his young career did Pillar manage more hits in a game than Sierra did in almost a month with the club before being designated for assignment, we take no great pride in that, because it takes time to develop a major league ball player, and that process doesn't necessarily end when they're promoted to the bigs. Sierra just ran out of it with the Blue Jays.

   We're reminded of Crash Davis' advice to young Ebbie (Nuke) LaLoosh upon learning of Nuke's call up to The Show:

   Look, Nuke -- these Big League hitters 
                         are gonna light you up like a pin 
                         ball machine for awhile -- don't 
                         worry about it. Be cocky and arrogant 
                         even when you're getting beat. That's 
                         the secret.

   And then there was this little exchange with a follower who had made his mind up about Stroman pretty early in his MLB career.  Apparently, the scouts, front office personnel, and evaluators like Baseball America don't have a clue what they're talking about:

Fortunately for Toronto, it has young starting pitching ready to help in No. 2 prospect Marcus Stroman.
Stroman was Duke’s first-ever first-round pick in 2012, so he’s not a stranger to longshots, which is good because he faces more scrutiny for his size.
Stroman is just 5-foot-9, and since 1960, only two righthanders that size or shorter (Tom Phoebus and Tom Gordon) have made more than 30 starts.
What he does possess is plus stuff. Stroman has a heavy fastball at 92-95 with above-average movement, and he has an out pitch in his upper-80s slider. His weapons also include a plus cutter that can touch the low 90s and an average changeup that flashes plus potential.
He also possesses quick-twitch athleticism and is an excellent defender, helping cut down on other teams’ running games. One thing to note is Stroman was suspended for 50 games in August 2012 after he tested positive for amphetamines.
Coincidentally, the Jays have kept Stroman and McGowan on the same schedule, meaning Stroman could step right in, with McGowan moving to the bullpen, where he was successful last season. McGowan is expected to start Tuesday, but clearly, the Jays are expecting more.
Stroman’s size might scare off some teams—or fantasy owners—but not the Blue Jays. John Lott of the National Post in Toronto cited a source within the Jays’ management who said Stroman is a “fully-formed pitcher” ready to help now and just needing a spot to open in Toronto.
Stroman is 1-2, 2.18 at Triple-A Buffalo with 26 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings and while his changeup still needs work, his fastball and slider appear ready for the big time. His control remains a positive, as he’s walked just six after walking just 27 in 112 IP in 2013.
But Stroman, who turns 23 Thursday, had only pitched 131 innings as a pro entering the season with a high of 112 in 2013 and it’s unclear how much of a burden Toronto would put on him this soon. Expect the team to monitor his innings and pitches likely for the entire season, should he be called up this early.
-Baseball America, April 29, 2014

  1. rather than just watch, you should probably read and research as well. You obviously lack a lot of baseball knowledge
  2. the way you speak of him, you already think he's a star. He's not. You yourself remind me of Gibbons. Unreal.
  3. he hasn't since he was called up. Talk to you in September, that's if you don't mind being wrong
  4. Stroman is an overrated prospect at best. He's 5'9". That height can cut it in minors, not in the bigs. Silver platter.
  5. can't go by MILB numbers. He doesn't have it. Stop comparing him to Halladay. That's ridiculous.

      Even though Stroman was sent back down, we have no doubt that he will be back, and while there's still some question as to whether his long term future lies in the rotation or the bullpen, he has an electric arm, and not only does he have little left to prove in AAA, it may have a negative impact on his development if he spends too much time there.
   And to be clear, we weren't suggesting that he was another Halladay, but we did point out that Halladay was rocked in his second major league season, posting a 10.64 ERA, the highest in MLB history for a pitcher who threw more than 100 innings in a season.  If Twitter existed back then, it's likely that fans like Mr Adornetto would be screaming for Halladay's demotion.  Our point in making the comp is that development takes time.  In Halladay's case, that meant going all the way back to High A ball and completely rebuilding both his delivery and his confidence.  It wasn't until his fifth year in the bigs that Halladay started to fulfill the promise that had led the Blue Jays to take him with the 17th pick in the draft eight seasons earlier.
   The Blue Jays roster, of course, is full of players who needed multiple chances to finally prove themselves and stick in the bigs.  Jose Bautista's career was all but over when he got a chance to play everyday at the end of a lost season for the club in 2009, and smacked 10 home runs in September.  Bautista had been discarded by five teams (four of them in one season), before breaking through in 2010 at the age of 30, and capturing the AL MVP.  Edwin Encarnacion, who just beat the Red Sox with his bat and his glove as the Jays swept the Beantowners, took three seasons to stick with the Reds, but they gave up on him in his fourth year, insisting the Blue Jays take him as part of the Scott Rolen deal.  The Jays optioned, then DFA'd Encarnacion in June of 2010, meaning that all 29 other MLB teams could have taken him, but passed.  Brett Lawrie seemed to take a step back in his third season last year, and while he seems to have rebounded at the plate, he's still onlymbl 24, several years away from his prime.  RA Dickey's minor league adventures are too detailed to list here.
   Baseball is full of jumps for most players (high school/college to rookie ball, rookie to full season, A to AA, AA to AAA), and of all of them, the leap from minor league to major league ball is the biggest.  Some make the necessary adjustments, and manage to stick their first time up.  Many, many others need one or more stints back in AAA, and some of those fail to adapt, and run out of options.  When a team promotes a player, it's not a throw at the dart board; it's only when the minor league team's coaching staff, the parent organization's scouting staff, farm system people, and management agree that the player is mature enough and developed sufficiently that they feel that they will at some point respond to the challenge of being in the major leagues, and that keeping them in the minors will likely only serve to limit or impair their progress.  If it's a warm body a team needs to replace an injured player at the MLB level, there are plenty of those in AAA, and organizations will choose one of those  if a prospect is deemed not ready.  That Marcus Stroman struggled more likely was his inability to handle the initial pressure as well as the transition from starter to reliever, and not his ability as a pitcher.  He has been successful everywhere he has pitched, including college, and this experience was more of a speed bump than a roadblock.  He's been hearing he's too small for quite some time.
   It's hard to quantify how long it takes for a player to prove he's an MLB regular.  Generally speaking, the larger the signing bonus the player was paid, the longer time the team will give a player to play himself in or out of a job.  Whether that's 300, 400, or 500 plate appearances, or 100, 150, or 200 innings depends largely on the player's performance, bonus, and the team's status as a contender.  The Jays have invested $1.8 million in Stroman, and while that was below slot, it still represents a hefty expenditure, and the club isn't likely to give up on him just yet.  Since his change is still a work in progress compared to his fastball and slider, that's likely what the club has instructed him to continue to work on in Buffalo.  There was nothing wrong with his velocity in his brief MLB stint, but he quickly found out major league hitters can square up a 95 mph fastball that catches too much of the plate. It's the location/velocity/movement of the fastball and the quality of secondary pitches that get hitters out.  Just the same, 6 big league innings are not enough to prove that Stroman is either destined for greatness or a bust.  The club thought that putting him in the bullpen would give him the best introduction and chance to succeed in the bigs, but it just didn't work out that way, and with both the starting rotation and the bullpen having stabilized, there wasn't enough work available for Stroman, and it's better for him to pitch in Buffalo than sit in the bullpen in Toronto.
   It takes time to develop not just baseball players, but pro athletes in general.  That the Toronto Maple Leafs have one of the poorest drafting records of any professional team is testament to the fact that maybe the organization (not to mention the fans) hasn't grasped this. If there's one lesson that we've learned from all of this, it's that even the most heralded of prospects can struggle once they reach the majors, and that an organization needs to be patient.  Development doesn't stop when a player reaches MLB, and for some, it can continue for several seasons.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Time to Shuffle Deck

   With the continued struggles of lefthander Ricky Romero in the Buffalo rotation, we're thinking that the time has come to promote New Hampshire righthander Deck McGuire to take his place.
   Of the seven starts Romero has had in AAA this season, only two could be classed as decent, and even those were marked by control struggles.  For the season, Romero is 0-2 with a 6.07 ERA, walking 32 batters in 29 innings.  In his last start, he walked 9 in only 2 2/3 innings, and has allowed 24 free passes in his last 14 innings.  The Blue Jays may not have treated Romero fairly last year, keeping him back in Florida after spring training broke, then rushing him back to Toronto after one start in High A ball.  Sent back to Buffalo, Romero's struggles continued, and 2013 was pretty much a lost season for him.
   McGuire, on the other hand, doesn't have a lot left to prove in his third successive stint in AA.  3-4 with a 2.98 for a team that struggles to score runs every night, McGuire has been a beacon of consistency for the Fisher Cats, pitching into the sixth inning in 9 of his 10 starts.  The consensus still seems to be that the first round pick in 2011 has been something of a bust, but he has pitched well since last August, and needs to be challenged with a promotion.
   We've written about Romero before, and while we admire his determination and his attitude, it's becoming increasingly painful to watch him.  He will turn 30 in June, and he's now just a shadow of his 2011 All Star self. McGuire will turn 25 in a few weeks, and maybe it's time to hand him Romero's spot in the Buffalo rotation while Romero works out his issues in the bullpen.  Perhaps the only thing keeping Romero on the Buffalo roster is the $7.5 million the Jays owe him in the next to last year of his contract, part of a $30.1 million contract he signed in August of 2010, which didn't seem like such a bad deal at the time.
   Last year and in 2012, hitters seemed to have learned to lay off of Romero's change, sitting on his sub-par fastball.  This year, he doesn't seem to be able to find the plate, after finding too much of it in the two previous years.  We hope for the best for the personable lefthander, who has refused to make excuses for his poor performance, but it's hard to see him turning things around at this point, at least as a starter.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tuesday Notebook

   A number of observations from a weekend of Blue Jays minor league play:

Daniel Norris threw yet another gem for High A Dunedin on Friday night.  Matched up against Tyler Glasnow, the Pirates 5th-ranked prospect, Norris matched Glasnow pitch for pitch.  Norris didn't give up his first hit until the 5th inning, when according to Chris King of Baseball Prospectus, he began getting his pitches up in the zone.  Norris was stretched out in this start, pitching into the 7th inning for the first time this year, hitting 93 with his fastball on his last pitch to record a strikeout for the second out of the inning.  For his 6 2/3 innings, Norris gave up a run on 4 hits, striking out 6 and walking one.  Norris' ERA for 40 innings on the year is .090, and Florida State League hitters are managing only a .204 average against him.  He threw 88 pitches on the night, 25 more than his previous season high.  With the bump in pitches, it's looking more and more like the Blue Jays are prepping Norris for a mid-season promotion to AA.

Aaron Sanchez again dazzled with his plus fastball for New Hampshire on Sunday, but had more command issues, walking 4 batters for the third time in his last four starts.  He only surrendered 1 run in 5 innings, giving up 2 hits while striking out 6.  We're not going to obsess  over every one of his starts, but Sanchez is having trouble going deeper into games because of his elevated pitch counts.
   Chris Mellen of BP had the chance to watch Sanchez earlier this month, and filed this report:

Three-quarters arm slot; loose, efficient delivery; doesn’t strain to create velocity; fast arm; soft landing; tends to stay high during finish of delivery; inconsistent throwing downhill; quick out of the stretch; short stride–not much lower body; 1.32-1.43 out of stretch; kept focus with men on base; held velocity deep into outing; doesn’t wear himself out
   In that outing, Mellen noted Sanchez had average fastball command, with considerable arm-side run, plus command on his curve, and below average command of his change.  He noted, as have many others, that Sanchez' fastball seems to explode out of his hand, and can be next to impossible to square up when he keeps it low in the strike zone.
   Jeff Moore of BP watched his most recent start, and observed, " With most pitching prospects, we’d be drooling over Sanchez’s ability to miss bats, but because the overall package is so enticing, we’re disappointed in his inability to go out and dominate, thanks to below-average fastball command."
   Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous apparently hinted in a radio interview that Sanchez might be called up this year; unless he can start to demonstrate control more consistently, we can't see it.
   Keeping things in perspective, Sanchez has a 2.98 ERA despite all those baserunners. There's still plenty of upside.

Draft Update:
    John Sickels of Minor League Ball suggests that the Jays might take Florida HS RHP Touki Toussaint with the 9th pick in the first round, then injured ECU RHP Jeff Hoffman with the 11th pick.
    And this doesn't sound all that far fetched.
   Toussaint is one of those high risk/high reward prospects the Jays covet.  His FB sits between 92 and 95, but there are concerns about his delivery, both from a command and injury perspective.  The Haitian has only been playing baseball for four or five years, so there is time for a club to alter his mechanics.  We've seen Toussaint listed anywhere from about 8th to the start of the 2nd round.
   Hoffman was starting to gather some helium until he was diagnosed with a torn UCL in early May.  He was almost unanimously a top five pick prior to the injury, and with the Jays willing to take the risk (see below), this pick would make sense, as it might lead to some bonus savings that the club could use in later rounds.

Clinton Hollon
   The Kentucky righthander, drafted by the Jays in the 2nd round of last year's draft, announced on Twitter that he was going to have to undergo Tommy John surgery for a torn UCL, making him about the 27 000th young hurler this season to have the procedure.
   Even though he pitched well in rookie ball last year, this news doesn't come as a surprise.  Hollon's stock slipped throughout his senior year of High School due to concerns about his delivery and a possible sore elbow.  The Blue Jays, who love a good roll of the dice as much as anyone, may well have known about this, but took him at a reduced price anyway, likely using the savings to entice lower picks to sign.  That the club took Arizona prep pitcher Patrick Murphy even though he missed his senior year with TJ surgery right after Hollon would seem to lend some credence to that possibility.
   See you next June, Clinton.

   And our report would not be complete without a Marcus Stroman update.  The righthander was sent back to Buffalo, likely for a variety of reasons.  The major league starting rotation seems to have righted itself, and with some off-days interspersed throughout the next few weeks of the schedule, the need for a 5th starter became less immediate.  Dustin McGowan was moved back to the pen, causing someone to be bumped, and Stroman, with his 12.79 ERA, was the guy. Stroman caught too much of the strike zone in his bullpen outings, and missed few bats.  As we wrote this, he was moving along fairly well in his first start back in Buffalo, until he started leaving the ball up, and gave up a three run homer in the 4th.  It may have been a very bumpy MLB debut, but Stroman will be back.  

Friday, May 16, 2014

Is This Destroying Major League Baseball?

      Major league hitters are being groomed and developed like never before in the history of the game.  With the advent of year-round amateur baseball, video analysis and personalized hitting instruction, hitters are raking at all levels of the game.   To counteract this, MLB teams have focussed more and more on power pitchers, live young arms that can blow the ball by the improved hitters.  Between 2008 and 2013, the average fastball velocity of major league pitchers rose from 90.9 to 92.0 mph.  This need for increased speed has filtered its way down to the amateur ranks, where an army of radar gun-armed scouts can be found behind home plate at the games of most of the top prospects, raising their arms in unison behind home plate as the nation's top prep pitchers start their windups.   Unfortunately, many medical experts are telling us that the teenage arm is not built to withstand sustained pitches above 85 mph.   And with more and more top draft picks being sidelined with torn Ulnar Collateral Ligaments in their first few years of pro ball, one wonders what the future holds for major league pitching staffs.
   Lucas Giolito was drafted by the Nationals in 2012 even though he and his 100 mph fastball required Tommy John surgery shortly after he signed.  The ranks of TJ patients among the top picks of the last few years include the Pirates' Jamieson Taillon (2nd overall, 2010), the Orioles Dylan Bundy (4th, 2011), Taylor Guerreri (Rays, 24th overall, 2011), and Cam Bedrosian of the Angels (29th - 2010), as well as the Diamondbacks' Archie Bradley, the 7th overall pick in 2011, who is out with what is termed a strained elbow.  The Marlins Jose Fernandez, who they took with the 14th pick of the 2011 draft,  just underwent TJ surgery as well.  These players all had two things in common: they were all drafted out of high school, and they all hit the mid 90s with regularity in their senior year.
   Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, who penned an excellent article about what he called "The Year After Effect," about the hazards of increasing a young pitchers Innings Pitch beyond 30 from one season to the next, has written an article in this month's SI about MLB's Tommy John "Problem."  Verducci noted that with the advent of "showcase" events held across America, combined with the obsession of a player's "hits" on the radar gun,  many young high school pitchers have become "damaged goods," by the time they're drafted.  They're forming what Verducci calls an exclusive group - "pitchers who blow out their arms before they even accrue any major league mileage."  He adds that this group hardly existed five years ago. Go back to 2002, Verducci researched, and you had a first round group that included pitchers Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, and Cole Hamels, none of whom threw harder than 94 as seniors, and they have gone on to log over 1500 innings.
Rate of Top-30 High School Draft Picks to Undergo Tommy John Surgery
YearsTotal PitchersTommy John surgeriesPercent
2002-09           39                         5     12.8
2010-12           16                       5     31.3

   As we have noted before, damage to the UCL is a cumulative thing.  It happens over a period of time, until the tear in the ligament becomes severe enough that the pitcher is in considerable pain, and experiences a significant drop in velocity.  Renowned surgeon Dr James Andrews, who now performs 3-4 TJ surgeries on high school pitchers per week, claims that the physique and physiology of a teenager can't withstand consistently throwing a ball faster than 85 mph.   Studies by the American Sports Medicine Institute seem to back this up.  One study found that high school pitchers who threw faster than 85 are more likely to have surgery before they turn 20, and more importantly, the risk increases exponentially when a pitcher passes his point of fatigue - the number of pitches either in a game or an inning when a pitcher's tiredness translates into sloppy mechanics. ASMI found that a high school pitcher's risk increased thirty six times when they pass their point of fatigue, which is not an unlikely scenario for a kid pitching for a travel team playing in a weekend tournament (interestingly, the Blue Jays instantly remove a minor league pitcher when they've hit 30 pitches in an inning, regardless of the circumstances).
  The ASMI also undertook a huge 10 year study where they tracked almost 500 young pitchers between the ages of 9 and 14.  They found that pitchers who threw more than 100 innings in a calendar year were 3 1/2 times more likely to be injured than those who threw less.
   But is the radar gun solely to blame?  Certainly, it's a huge factor.  Verducci notes that it's a common sight at the games of 10-year old travel teams for parents to be timing kids behind the backstop with a pocket radar gun that looks like a smartphone.  Even for parents who don't know much about baseball, they know what velocity means.  For scouts, it's very seductive.  Even though location and movement are considered to be equally as important as velocity in getting MLB hitters out, a 96 mph fastball pitcher tends to have a greater margin for error than one who throws 90.
   Dr Andrews believes that there are a number of contributing factors.  In an interview with ESPN, he listed year-round baseball and players pitching in multiple leagues as an issue.  Pitch counts aren't necessarily co-ordinated, and young arms don't get the recovery time they need.  Showcase events are also an issue.  Perfect Game is one of the biggest outfits in the Showcase business, with a full-time staff of 50, who co-ordinate over 100 "events" across America every year.  If a pro career isn't in the offing, a college scholarship might be as a result of participating in one of these events.  85% of players who have attended PG's National Showcase every year have ended up signing with one of the top college programs in the country.
    Verducci added that Taillon threw at six PG events over a 13 month period as a 16 year old. At these showcases, pitchers may be fatigued from throwing only a day or two before, but the pressure is still on to light up the scouts' radar guns.
   Andrews also recommended mandatory pitch counts for high school pitchers, but we think that will take a long time, if ever, to happen.  It's one thing for a parent to let their high school aged son not play with concussion symptoms, it's another to agree to coach taking Johnny out of a game because he's reached his pitch count with an armada of college and pro scouts sitting in the stands.
   The frequency of this injury doesn't seem to be deterring big league clubs.  The Nationals gave Giolito a $2.95 million signing bonus, even though he hadn't pitched past March of his draft year.  LSU pitcher Jeff Hoffman recently was diagnosed with a torn UCL, but it wouldn't be a shock to see him go in the top 10 of this June's draft (it also wouldn't be a shock if the Blue Jays take him if his stock falls to a lower round).  So, are pitchers becoming disposable ?  Certainly, if the Blue Jays are any indication, that seems to be the case, at least as far as bullpen arms are concerned.  
   So the issue doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.  Until the emphasis on showcases, year round baseball, and velocity decreases, parents and high school pitchers are going to continue to feel pressured to be a part of all of this.  MLB teams no doubt do all that they can to protect their young arms once they come into the club's minor league system, but as Verducci says, its may already be too late: "The American Way has found them first, and when they are most vulnerable."
   The blessing of velocity, Verducci concludes, is also a curse.  "The typical kid who throws very hard probably pitches on multiple travel teams, attends showcases across three seasons, sees a year-round coach, doesn't play other sports, and keeps adding velocity, even though his body may not bear well the wear and tear from its force."
  It can be asked, of course, what the big deal is?   Tommy John surgery has something like an 80% success rate, and that's probably a conservative estimate.  MLB teams have shown that losing a pitcher, even one that they've invested heavily in, is not a big deal.  If this trend is only in its infancy, however, maybe this will become more and more prevalent.  And as the largely unsuccessful return from TJ surgery that Kyle Drabek has had (after his second such surgery, to boot) has shown us, not all pitchers can come back from the procedure.  The radar gun isn't going away, but maybe it's time organizations put more emphasis on the other elements of a bat-missing fastball, as well as command, and the development of secondary pitches like the change-up.