Sunday, July 6, 2014

Top Ten Mid-Season Report

      The minor league season has actually long since passed its halfway point, but given that it's now mid-season in the Major Leagues, we offer a look at how our pre-season Top 10 Blue Jays prospects have fared this season.
   This is not a re-ranking of the prospects, and while we will suggest some names that could merit end of season consideration for our updated list, we don't think a mid-season adjusting of the list is fair, given that not all prospects are at the same point on the development curve.
   To keep things simple, we have three evaluations for each prospect:  Above Expectations, Met Expectations, Below Expectations.

1 .  Aaron Sanchez
   There always seems to be the feeling that Sanchez is much more than the sum of his parts, and that he's fallen short of expectations.  We would argue that he's just about right on schedule.
   The 3rd-youngest player in the International League, Sanchez was promoted to Buffalo, and had what was likely his most effective start at any level this season last weekend.  Some shoddy defence and questionable defensive positioning marred what was otherwise a dominant outing.
   Control problems have still plagued Sanchez at both AA and AAA this season.  The organization has continued to tinker with his mechanics, and he has struggled at times to find a consistent release point, and has had trouble repeating his delivery.  At the same time,  Sanchez has been next to impossible to square up.  When he's on, Sanchez pounds the strike zone down low with a 96 mph fastball, which generates swings and misses, or weak contact.  When he's not, Sanchez misses high in the zone, resulting either in walks or decent contact.  The just-turned 22 Sanchez is still learning to harness that fastball. His curve is already graded as a plus pitch, and will only become more effective once he improves that fastball command.
   Sanchez had an electric outing against the Mets in the Jays final pre-season game at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.  As the starting rotation faltered in mid-April, there were many calls for his promotion to the bigs.  The Jays, wisely, have stuck to their timetable.  Once he had ironed out the latest adjustments to his delivery at AA, the club challenged him with a promotion to AAA.  With the bullpen having faltered a bit likely as a result of early season overuse, GM Alex Anthopolous has suggested that Sanchez could bolster the Blue Jays 'pen.
   Sanchez's name, of course, has been mentioned prominently in trade rumours for several months now.  Those who think he might not be ready for the pressure of a pennant race might forget that he's been under the microscope every time he takes to the mound for about a calendar year now, and that he's had to pitch knowing that he could be dealt at any moment.

Evaluation:  Met Expectations

2.  Marcus Stroman
   It's been a tale of two seasons for the Duke grad.
Dominant in April at AAA, Stroman was summoned from Buffalo at the end of April to help shore up a fatigued bullpen.  Some would suggest that this was where the right hander deserved to be, but he struggled in the role, and was shipped back to Buffalo a few weeks later. He actually struggled in two starts with the Bisons after his return, but that may have been due more to rust than anything else.
  Promoted to the rotation at the end of May, Stroman has been solid, posting 3 wins and a tidy 2.43 ERA since that time.  He's pitched into the sixth inning in all but one of his six starts, when Yankee Stadium's freakish dimensions got the better of him.  Stroman atoned for that outing by blanking the Yanks over 8 innings at home in his next start. We expressed concerned about the high pitch count when he came out to start the 8th, and all he did was throw another 7 scoreless innings against the Athletics in his next start.
   Stroman commands both sides of the plate with a fastball in the mid-90s, complemented by a wipeout slider.  He tends to struggle when he tries to nibble, as evidenced in the Yankees game.  With an elevated pitch count, he was gone from the game before the end of the fourth inning.
   Stroman too was mentioned in off-season and even early season trade talks.  Having firmly established himself in the rotation, we're no longer hearing these rumours.  Our only concern going forward is Stroman's innings total, which will likely far exceed his previous pro high.  In the midst of a pennant race, you can be sure that the club is monitoring it, but is hoping to have to deal with it later rather than sooner.

Evaluation: Above Expectations

3.  Daniel Norris
   It could be said that Norris has made the largest strides of any Blue Jays prospect this year.
After dominating High A hitters in the Florida State League for two months, Norris was promoted to AA, and hasn't skipped a beat, and was named to the US squad for the Futures Game.'s pitcher of the month for May, Norris has struck out an amazing 101 hitters in 82.2 innings so far this season.  Commanding a mid 90s fastball, Norris throws four pitches extremely well.  With his control, Norris can throw any pitch in any count, and keeps hitters consistently off balance.  The only thing he appears to need to work on is economizing his pitches by attacking hitters a little more.
   This guy has been lights out.  His name has been prominent in trade rumours as well, but we've argued against that.  As long as Yankee Stadium has a chipping green for right field bleachers, strong left handed pitching is a must for any AL East opponent.

Evaluation:  Above Expectations

4.  Sean Nolin 
   The big left hander has had a hard time staying healthy this season.  Thought to have an outside chance at a back end of the rotation spot in the spring, Nolin's performance matched Stroman's for the first six weeks of the season, before being sidelined by a groin strain in mid-May.  He came back for a pair of starts in early June, but struggled before going on the DL again.
   Nolin reports feeling better, but has not progressed to throwing off of a mound yet, and the organization likely wants to take things slowly with him this time around.
   No longer in the picture for a promotion to the majors at this point, Nolin will need a prolonged period of health and effectiveness before he returns to consideration for a big league role.

Evaluation:  Below Expectations

5.  Kevin Pillar
   The object of a lot of criticism on Twitter, Pillar to us has been everything he's been advertised to be. More valuable as a role player at this point in his career than as an everyday player, Pillar has played all three outfield positions, and has flashed speed on the basepaths.  In his most recent call up, he appeared on the verge of putting things together at the MLB level, when an apparent mini-tantrum over being pinch-hit for was caught by Sportsnet's cameras.
   When you have all of 139 major league plate appearances and are fighting to keep a big league job, you don't show up the manager (or your teammates) like that, and Pillar was promptly shipped back to Buffalo the next day.  He's struggled a bit since his return, but a jammed wrist may be to blame for that.
   When will Pillar return?  That's hard to say.  He needs to play every day, and likely do his penance by spending time in Buffalo.  We still prefer him in the fourth outfielder role over Anthony Gose.  He's more versatile, and has proven that he can hit at every level.  Gose may have the better toolkit, but Pillar has done more with his, and has shown a higher baseball IQ.
   If you see Pillar as an everyday, middle of the order type of player, you're bound to be disappointed in him.  If you view him more as that overachieving fourth outfielder type, you won't.  Some fans are already writing Pillar off as a AAAA player.  We say it's way too early to apply that label to him.  We think the club will bring him back before September, and he'll play an important utility role down the stretch.

Evaluation:  Met Expectations

6.  Roberto Osuna
   The young right hander is a veteran of minor league ball, but he only turned 19 this past February.
Sidelined since the end of last July after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Osuna is nearing a return to competition.  As we reported last weekend, Osuna has just started throwing live BP sessions in Florida. Venezuelan-Mexican baseball reporter Alexander Azuaje tweeted this week that Osuna was hitting between 95 and 97 with his fastball during Tuesday's session, and barring any last-minute setbacks, is set to make his return to competition with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays next week.

Luego de 2 live BP (rectas entre 95 a 97 MPH), el mexicano está listo para su 1ra apertura vs en la Rookie League
Translated from Spanish by 
After 2 live BP (straight lines between 95 to 97 MPH), the Mexican is ready for his opening 1st vs in the Rookie League)

   While this is exciting, and Osuna is pretty much right on schedule, we're not expecting to see him return to form until next year.  What we're hoping to see is a slimmed down pitcher who pays more attention to his fitness than he previously did.  A healthy Osuna just adds to this organization's pitching depth.

Evaluation:  Met Expectations

7.  D.J. Davis
   The Blue Jays surprised many observers when they assigned Davis to full-season ball at Lansing.  We had thought he might be sent to extended, then to Vancouver, with a promotion to Lansing by mid-summer, if all went well.
   The Mississippi high school product, to us, has a lot in common with our own Dalton Pompey.  When they were drafted, both had obvious physical tools, but were behind players who came from more traditional baseball hotbeds in terms of development.  Pompey didn't begin to start to recognize his potential until the latter stages of his fourth season in the minors, and has fully taken off now in his fifth.  We can foresee a similar timeline for Davis, with the obvious difference that as a 16th round choice, Pompey could develop out of the spotlight, while Davis as the 17th pick in the 2012 draft has had to do so under the spotlight.
   One of the youngest players in the Midwest League, Davis has experienced numerous growing pains this season.  He is on pace to strike out 170 times, and has yet to improve his pitch recognition.  Despite his speed, Davis has still not learned the fine art of base stealing, and while he has made some highlight plays in the outfield, he still takes some curious routes to flyballs.
   There are encouraging signs that Davis is starting to put things together.  Over his last 10 games, Davis has slashed his way to a .293/.326/.463 line.  Davis has been dropped to 2nd in the batting order, behind either Chaz Frank or recently-promoted fellow Mississippian Anthony Alford,  and perhaps the pressure to get on base is off (and he's seeing more fastballs) .  Regardless, Davis is still several years away, but we're encouraged by the last two weeks.

Evaluation:  Met Expectations

8.  Andy Burns
   Sent to AA, where he spent half of last season, we had high expectations for Burns, who enjoyed a superb 2013 season, and we could even envision a super-utility role for him with the big club.  Without a lot of protection in the New Hampshire lineup, however, Burns has struggled this year, hitting .235/.314/.374, although he's hit .270/.349/.514 over his last 10 games.  He hit only .200 for April and .223 for May, but hit .272 for June, so he is on the upswing.
   Spending most of his season at 3rd base, Burns has provided stellar defence for the Fisher Cats.   If Burns had gotten off to a better start, he may have been in consideration for a call-up when Brett Lawrie went on the DL.  We think he's still worth a spot on a big league roster, but his timetable has been moved back a bit.  We could see a September call-up if the Jays are still in a pennant race.  Burns can play multiple positions, is an effective righthanded bat, and can pinch run.

Evaluation: Below Expectations

9.  Franklin Barreto
   We've had to wait a while for him, but Barreto has been everything we thought he would be.
We had originally thought he might start the season with Lansing, but the organization wisely kept the youngster in extended, with an assignment to Vancouver in mid-June when the Northwest League season opened.
  After a torrid start, the 3rd-youngest player in the league has cooled off a bit, but still hits in the heart of the Canadians order, with a line of .304/.389/.392.  Barreto barrels up plenty of balls, and is viewed by many as a one-day impact bat at the major league level.
  The only question about Barreto is his eventual position in a big league lineup.  Many scouts feel that he has neither the arm or footwork to stay at short stop, and his 9 errors so far might seem to bear that out, although the stats suggest that Barreto is getting to more balls than he did in his two previous minor league seasons.
  With Ryan McBroom starting to swing the bat in the lineup behind him, and first round pick C Max Pentecost on his way to the middle of the Canadians' batting order, Barreto should see plenty of good pitches to hit this summer.  He is still several seasons away, but will be well worth the wait.

Evaluation:  Above Expectations

10.  Alberto Tirado
   We originally applauded the assignment of Tirado to the Midwest League, but the challenge of full season ball proved to be too much, too soon for the right hander.  Sent back to Florida for extended, Tirado was sent to Vancouver, but apparently is going through a bit of a dead arm stretch, and won't be pitching again until he's overcome the fatigue.
   At 19 years of age and with a fairly slight build, this may be nothing to worry about.  As far as we have been able to ascertain, Tirado is still with the C's, so that should be seen as a good sign.  If the club feared some elbow or shoulder damage, he likely would have been sent to Florida for rest and rehab.
   Tirado's biggest challenge in Lansing was finding the strike zone, walking 39 hitters in 40 innings.  That Tirado has been mentioned in some of those trade rumours discussed above is indicative of how other organizations feel about him, and he wouldn't be the first Latin pitcher to take a step back after his first shot at full season.

Evaluation:  Below Expectations

Who's Not on the List...but Could Be.

Dalton Pompey
 Promoted to AA, named to the Futures Game, and bandied about in those trade rumours.  That's been Pompey's first half.  Pompey is a true five-tool player.
  He's had a bit of a rough start in AA, where many of the pitchers he's facing have a plan, and he'll have to adjust accordingly.
   Jon Morosi of Fox Sports was one of the first to include Pompey's name in trade speculation.  He also said Pompey was about a year away.  We think it's more like two.
   And while it's great that Pompey is a good Ontario boy, we don't really care what a player's birth certificate says if he can help the team.  And if that good Ontario boy was part of the price for a player who could upgrade the major league roster, so be it.

Miguel Castro
   The tall right hander had pitched only 17 innings stateside before this year.  Sent to Vancouver, he's responded well to the challenge, playing at 19 against a league stocked with recent college grads.
  With a fastball that has touched 98 and sits at 95/96, with a slider that's a work in progress, we're intrigued by this live young arm.

Anthony Alford
   We've written extensively about the two-sport star, and we had pretty much abandoned hope for him ever reaching the majors.  Playing for only a few weeks each summer while he chases his football dream, we felt that Alford's development would lag far behind his cohorts.
   Alford started the season with Bluefield, and was then sent to Lansing, where he has shown the speed/power combo that caused the Jays to gamble a 3rd round pick and $750K bonus on him two years ago.
   Alford just spent his last weekend with the club, returning to Mississippi to get married, and prepare for the upcoming college football season.  It was but a tease, and given that he will have two more seasons of NCAA eligibility after the 2014 season, we may have to get used to it.

Mitch Nay
   After a hot April, Nay cooled off in May, but he has been labelled by some scouts as the best position prospect in the system.  Reports indicate that he has improved his footwork at 3rd, which some suggested would eventually move him off of the position.

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