Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Look at Kendall Graveman photo

   Among prospect evaluators, the consensus top Blue Jays pitching prospects would include Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Daniel Norris, and Roberto Osuna, a group that received about a combined $6 million in signing bonuses.  It could be argued that Kendall Graveman, who signed for $5 000 as an 8th round pick out of Mississippi State last year, has worked his way into the conversation about that group.

   The paltry bonus Graveman received was not necessarily an indication of how the Blue Jays felt about his talent.  Given that he had little negotiating leverage as a college senior, and also given the new rules around the slotting system and limits on bonuses MLB had implemented, Graveman had little choice but to accept the offer (the assigned value for the pick was $150 000).  He was not alone, as the Jays used this strategy with all of their picks from rounds 4 to 10 in 2013, and saved up the allotted bonus money from those choices to convince Rowdy Tellez to forego his college commitment after selecting him in the 30th round.
   Perhaps as an acknowledgment to Graveman both for accepting their low offer, and the work he has done in the off-season, the Jays have advanced him through four levels this season, and is on the verge of a promotion to the 40-man roster (although there is no rush - they don't have to place him on the 40 man for another two years).  Graveman has rocketed through the Jays system this year, and has posted a record of 14-6, with a 1.83 ERA in 27 starts, with a WHIP just over 1, and a ground ball to fly ball ratio of almost 2-1.
   The knock against Graveman is that he wasn't a strikeout pitcher in college, and he has not proven to be a strikeout per inning guy in the minors.  What some miss, however, is the improvements John Lott of the National Post mentioned in a recent article.  Graveman eschewed the heavy ball routine that is popular among Jays pitchers right now, and opted for a Trevor Bauer-like regimen of long toss in the off season, in order to build up arm strength.  The result was an increase in velocity from the high 80s to the low 90s. Graveman also began to experiment (by accident) with a four seam fastball in early June, and began to learn how to cut it.  Minor league hitters have been swinging and missing at the pitch in greater frequency.

   We had our first opportunity to see Graveman pitch on this week.  Technical difficulties (at Milb's end) prevented us from watching and tweeting about it live, but we watched closely the following day.  There were no radar readings available, and the Scranton-Wilkes Barre tv commentator didn't mention Graveman's speed at all, so we focussed on his delivery and the movement on his pitches, which was actually a nice change.  Often, when we're watching a pitcher live, I find myself looking from the pitcher to the scoreboard to my pitch chart, and I find I often miss some subtle things about a pitcher that can tell you a lot about him.

   Graveman showed a nice, smooth delivery, and while it's not as effortless as Aaron Sanchez's, he has nice loose mechanics, repeats his delivery and release point, and fields his position well - which is good for someone who generates so many ground ball outs.  The SWB tv guy mentioned early in the game that Graveman had thrown 6 DP balls in his last 56 hitters, after he athletically raced to cover first to get the back end of a 3-6-1 twin killing.
   Graveman also showed good command of his four seamer, especially to right handed hitters.  He started it over the plate, and it would come in on their hands and tie them up, or he could start it outside, and have it back door over the outside corner.  We suspect he was aided by the work of AJ Jimenez, who we were getting our first look at in a while.  Jimenez is quick and athletic behind the plate, and appears to be a good framer of pitches.
   For a guy who a guy who doesn't miss many bats, Graveman struck out the side in the bottom of the first, the first two swinging and the third on a called strike.  He gave up a run on three hits in the 3rd, with only one ball hit hard.  Graveman found himself in trouble after giving up three straight singles (one of the soft variety, the other one a 'tweener, one a legit line drive), before another double play ball and a groundout limited the damage to one run.
   Graveman left with one out and a runner on first in the sixth, and the runner came around to score off of reliever Colt Hynes.  Graveman was consistently ahead of the hitters through the first four innings, but pitched behind often in the fifth and sixth.  When Graveman missed, he tended to miss up in the strike zone, but off of the plate.
  For the game, Graveman gave up 7 hits, 3 runs (all earned), and a pair of walks in 5.1 innings, with 7 strikeouts.  He threw 97 pitches, 60 of them for strikes.  Graveman got 5 ground ball outs, and 2 via the fly ball.  Thanks to the 11 run cushion the Bisons gave him after the top of the 3rd, Graveman picked up his 3rd International League victory.

   Will we see Graveman in September?  We think it's unlikely, but not highly so.  The parent club, at this writing, is all but out of contention for a wild card playoff spot, so the urgency to put him on the 40 man and call him up is lessened.  He doesn't profile as a bullpen guy, either, so that diminishes the need for him even further.  Graveman has also pitched a great deal the last two years:  152 innings (26 of them pro) between college and minor league ball last year, and 167 so far this year.  It truly might be time for the Blue Jays to shut him down, although a trip to the Arizona Fall League, which starts play in October, might give the club a look at what he can do at a high level of competition.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Blue Jays Name Players to Arizona Fall League

   The Arizona Fall League announced the names of three Blue Jays prospects who will be heading to the American Southwest to play for the Mesa Solar Sox this week.
   The AFL was founded by MLB in 1992, and is meant to serve as "grad school" for the top prospects of each organization.  Rather than send these players off to winter ball, where they could not be closely monitored, or treated according to team guidelines in the event of an injury, MLB opted to start a league where the players could be properly monitored.
  Each MLB team sends six prospects, most of whom played at AAA or AA that year.  One player below AA is allowed, as is one foreign player, as long as there is no winter ball in his country (and he's not on that nation's protected list). The six AFL teams play in MLB spring training sites in the Phoenix area.  Play begins in early October, and wraps up by mid-November.
   Last year, the Blue Jays used the AFL to help accelerate the development of Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, and the rehabilitation of Drew Hutchison.
   This year, the club has named Buffalo OF Dalton Pompey, New Hampshire 2B Jon Berti, and Dunedin OF Dwight Smith.  The three pitching prospects have yet to be named, and likely won't be until after the minor league playoff are over.
   Pompey's inclusion is not much of a surprise.  He has played at three levels this year, and has caught the eye of many evaluators and scouts.  Smith, Pompey's teammate in the Florida State League this year, is not a huge surprise, either.  Even though he has not produced overwhelming numbers in the pitching-friendly FSL, the 2011 sandwich round pick is still well thought of by the organization.  Berti's presence on the Mesa roster caught us a bit by surprise, although a look at his numbers at New Hampshire suggests that he has had a solid season.  The 2011 18th rounder has moved up the Blue Jays minor league ladder one step at a time, and even though he's a bit of a longshot to reach the minors, has to be considered one of the top 2B prospects in the system.  This year, he is among the Eastern League leaders in games played, and has been a consistent presence at the top of the Fisher Cats batting order, hitting ..273/.326/.379, and has stolen 39 bases.
   It's a toss-up as to which pitchers the club will send to Arizona.  Daniel Norris might be an obvious pick, but he may be shut down for the season after getting shelled in his final start this week.  There has also been talk of moving him to the bullpen to prepared him for a promotion to Toronto in September.  Either way, we can't see the organization asking him to pitch more innings after next month.
   Roberto Osuna could use some fall innings to help speed up his rehab, but if he pitches at all this off-season, it will be in Mexico.  Miguel Castro might be tapped - there is winter ball in the Dominican, but he may not be on that country's protected list.
   Matt Boyd and Taylor Cole of Dunedin have both logged a lot of innings this season, and seem to be wearing down as the minor league season draws to a close.  We can see an off-season shut down in the works for the pair.
   The other prospects who we might have projected earlier in the season as possible Solar Sox are either injured, or are pitching in short season ball.
   Kendall Graveman, Norris' teammate at Buffalo, has pitched at four levels this season, and might be a logical candidate to play in Mesa.
  If we were to look for other possibilities, we might look at players who the Blue Jays must place on their 40-man roster by the end of November, or risk losing them in the Rule 5 draft.  Falling into that category are converted infielder Justin Jackson, who pitched in relief at AA this year, Kramer Champlin, who has been injured for much of the year, but has worked his way back to Dunedin, or Ben White, who recently was promoted from Dunedin to New Hampshire.


  We were somewhat remiss last week, when we discussed which affiliates were involved in playoff races, and we failed to include the Lansing Lugnuts, who this morning sit one game out of a wild card spot in the Midwest League's East Division.
   It's been a long season for the Michigan club, which held much promise at the outset of the season, but saw its young pitching staff beset by injuries and inconsistency.  Just the same, a pair of wins this week over Dayton, holders of the last playoff spot in the division, have Lugnuts fans excited.
   Is it fair that a team that is 8 games under .500 this half, and 13 games under for the season, has a shot at a playoff spot ?   Not really, but this is minor league baseball, after all.  There has to be some incentive for both the fans and players as the season drags on.  Minor league teams and their followers are completely at the mercy of their major league affiliates, of course.  Development trumps competitiveness, as the Lugnuts fans can attest to, having seen two of their top players promoted to Dunedin last week to bolster their roster for the playoffs.  If one of their farm teams makes the playoffs, that's a bonus for MLB teams, but they won't let it stand in the way of the progress of their prospects.  The extra playoff spots are maybe something of a carrot for players and fans at the end of a long season.  And Lansing fans haven't had all that much to cheer about this year. Or last.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Marquee Match Up That Wasn't photo 
  It promised to be one of the top pitching match ups of the minor league season between two of the minors' top pitching prospects:  The Red Sox Henry Owens up against the Blue Jays Daniel Norris, as Pawtucket took on Buffalo, two teams locked in a battle for the International League's wild card playoff spot.
   In the end, it proved to be anything but for a guy and his dad who drove for 2 1/2 hours to watch the game, Buffalo's final regular season home contest of the year.

   Norris' ascendancy through the Jays minor league system has been well-documented.  He was dominant in two months of High A action in the Florida State League, which prompted a promotion to AA New Hampshire in early June.  His results at AA were a bit mixed, but he has been dominant in three AAA starts since his early August promotion.  Norris had struck out 157 hitters in 117 innings prior to last night's start.
    Owens is the top pitching prospect in a deep Red Sox system.  He was named Best Pitching Prospect in the AA Eastern League by Baseball America earlier this month, and also was labelled as having the best change up and best breaking ball in the loop.  The 2011 sandwich pick was promoted to AAA at the end of July, after posting a 14-4, 2.60 record with Portland, striking out 126 batters in 120 innings, while allowing only 89 hits, and walking 47.
   Owens was the starting pitcher for the US team in the Futures Game, and was relieved by Norris in the 2nd.  The two may have their careers intertwined if they continue to pitch for their current organizations.

  Norris, making his last start of the season, had a tidy 1-2-3 inning, while the Bisons barrelled up several balls hard off of Owen in the game's first inning.  Dalton Pompey led off Buffalo's half of the first with a perfect push bunt on the first base side past Owens (the Bisons pushed a couple of bunts past him in the game; Owens falls off toward 3rd with his delivery, and had great difficulty getting his 6'6" frame over toward first), and Buffalo sent 7 men to the plate as they scored three runs, although Owens only thew 17 pitches in the inning.
   Back out for the 2nd, Norris simply wasn't the same pitcher that he was in the first.  He struggled greatly with his command, missing high in the strike zone several times, a likely indicator of fatigue, which isn't all that surprising given how much he has pitched this year.  Ahead of every hitter in the first inning, Norris was consistently behind almost every batter in the second, working several 3 ball counts. It was the Paw Sox turn to barrel up Norris, as he gave up a pair of ground rule doubles and a hard-hit double down the 3rd base line as Pawtucket evened the score.  We don't know if the Coca-Cola Field gun is accurate or not, but Norris' velocity peaked at 93 in this inning - down from the 96 he had touched in previous starts.  He also had difficulty commanding his slider, and the Red Sox hitters sat back and waited for his fastball.
   Norris struggled again in the third, but seemed to put things back together in the fourth, but was still having trouble getting ahead in the count.  Owens, after his rocky first, settled down.  He did allow base runners in every inning for the rest of his outing, was able to get critical outs when he needed them, with his fastball sitting between 90 and 92.  He snuffed out a mini Buffalo rally in the 5th when he picked off a leaning Anthony Gose at first.
   By the fifth, Norris was clearly on the ropes, with his fastball down to 89.  He lasted only three batters, and got none of them out.  The telling blast was a laser beam of a home run by Bryce Brentz, which would have skipped the left field wall and bounced out onto the interstate and may have rolled all the way across the Peace Bridge to Fort Erie, if not for the protective netting behind the left field fence.  Outfielders Mastroianni and Pompey barely moved after the ball left Brentz's bat.
   Pawtucket added three more in the 7th to take the game 9-3, giving them a 1.5 game lead in the wild card race.  Owens lasted into the seventh, giving up 8 hits and 3 runs (all earned), walking four and striking out 8.  Not a dominant performance, but enough to get the Win on a night when Norris had nowhere near the kind of command and velocity he had in his three previous starts.  Norris officially lasted 4 innings, giving up 8 hits, 6 runs (all earned), walked three and struck out as many.  Owens threw 105 pitches, 61 for strikes, while Norris threw 91-52.


  It was painful to watch a pair of struggling former big leaguers scuffle in relief for Buffalo.  Steve Delabar started the 6th inning, and had great difficulty commanding the strike zone. says he threw 20 of his 30 pitches for strikes - our scorecard had him at 17-13.  The former MLB all star really seemed to struggle with his release point; he really had no clue where any of his pitchers were going. Delabar missed high, he missed outside, and his breaking pitches were mostly in the dirt.  One promising sign was that his velocity was consistently 92-93.
   Delabar was followed by Kyle Drabek, back from a recent brief stint with the big club.  Drabek actually got a pair of  quick outs by getting ahead in the count, but then started falling behind hitters, and gave up five straight line drive hits as he caught too much of the plate.  For his inning, Drabek gave up three runs.


   The evening was made complete on the drive home, as we listened to the Blue Jays tie the Red Sox on Jose Bautista's home run, only to have Sergio Santos meltdown in extra innings.  Driving on Highway 407, we think we may have seen Mike Napoil's fifth-deck shot in and amongst the arriving and departing aircraft at Pearson.


  Coca-Cola Field has been called a gem of a minor league field, and except for the Interstate just beyond the outfield, it is.  It was packed (18 025) on Fan Appreciation Night, and the concourses were very full and difficult to move around in - obviously, the park is not this full most nights.  Reaching the park from Canada is quite easy.  Fearing a border crossing line up, we crossed the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls before the game, and it was actually a bit of a drive after that.  We took I-190 to the Peace Bridge and crossed at Fort Erie on the way home, and it was a much quicker and easier drive.
   The park itself is easy to find, literally right off of I-190, and there is ample parking around it.  Parking rates vary, but we found a lot that was charging only $5 a block away.  There are many restaurants and bars in the area.  We were a little pressed for time, so we ate at Washington Square, a bar and grill steps from Coca-Cola Field's entrance.  The food was standard fare, but it was cheap and filling.  Our waitress was a rookie, but she was enthusiastic and polite, so we left her a good tip, which paid off moments later, when she chased us down near the park gates to return my favourite hoodie which I had left behind.


   I would not want to be a border crossing guard.  I would imagine that the work is pressure filled, and it's not exactly the most stimulating of careers.  Just the same, I can't understand why US border officials almost all seem to have anger management and customer service issues.  Our guard was curt, to be polite, and was very condescending to my senior citizen dad, who is becoming hard of hearing.  Sitting in the passenger seat, he was unable to hear the guard, who sat up at a high angle on his stool in his booth.  Dad took a second to respond when he was asked his country of citizenship, whereupon the guard asked in a sarcastic tone, "You speak English, sir?".  One look at the names on the passports would have confirmed this, but he really didn't need to ask in that manner.  When he asked if we had anything to declare, I garbled my reply, with the season's first sore throat making its growing presence known in my mouth.  "Answer YES or NO, SIR!!" was the guard's response.  Not necessary.  I would imagine that they have difficult jobs, but two white men, one middle aged-ish and another a senior in a new compact Ford with Ontario plates couldn't possibly be all that high on the list of  national security threats.
   The Canadian border guard on the way home just looked bored.


   Maybe most of the fans in the attendance on this evening were Bisons fans, as opposed to baseball fans, but we couldn't believe the steady up-and-down parade of people to the concessions during the game.
Having sat in every section of the Rogers Centre many times over the past quarter century, we know that each section has its quirks:  the field level chairs tend to be a mix of dedicated season ticket holders, who make maybe one trip up the concourse during the game, and people who received their tickets from a friend.  The latter type are up and down multiple times, rarely waiting until the end of an inning to make their trip.
The 200s tend to have a lot of families, who are understandably up and down like yo-yos, and we rarely sit in that level, except for the outfield seats.  The 500s seem to have the truest fans - people who can only afford to sit there, but like to watch the game.  The angle is steeper, so shorter fans don't have to spend the game craning for views of the action around taller ones seated in front of them.
   After this game, we won't complain about field level fans at Blue Jays games again.  There was a steady procession of fans from our section, just past first base down the right field line, to the concessions.  Maybe the prices were cheaper than the Rogers Centre (we didn't buy anything), but fans seem to be purchasing huge meals on multiple occasions. We felt like we didn't get to see a whole lot of the game.


   This was our first live look at Dalton Pompey, and we came away impressed.  He wasn't that busy in the outfield, expect for trying to track down some rockets that he had no chance on.  His speed was what caught us by surprise.  His push bunt past Owens was a thing of beauty.  Several pitches later, he easily went from first to third on a base hit to right by Gose.
  If Pompey was to match up against Gose in a sprint across the outfield, it's hard to say who would win, but Pompey is definitely faster around the bases.  That Gose was caught leaning by Owens, who is very deliberate and does not have a good move to first, shows that he still has plenty to learn about reading pitchers and stealing bases.  Gose did uncork a beautiful throw to home to nail a runner in the 2nd.  Pompey appears to have gap power that will only improve as he matures, and he looked like he may become a true table-setting leadoff hitter in the future.
   We think Pompey still needs more development time, but we are starting to think that he projects as an everyday centrefielder.


  At 122 innings for the year, Norris is just beyond the recommended limit for the season, which for young pitchers is no more than 30 IP than the season before.  Having struck out 32 batters in his previous three starts, Norris has thrown a lot of maximum effort pitches this month, and he likely was running on fumes in this one.  His previous start was supposed to be his last before being sent to the bullpen in what was possibly an effort to groom him for a relief role with the big club in September, but the organization decided to give him one more.  His lower velocity was troubling, but he has pitched more this year than he ever has, and he's bound to be fatigued.  Watching Norris warm up in the right field bullpen just below our seats before the game, I reflected on just how far he has come in about 15 months.  After a rough pro debut season in 2012, he was getting lit up through his first several starts last year, and there were some who were calling the 2nd round pick from 2011 a bust.  He has been lights out since that time, and has rocketed through the minors.

   This start shows that he still may some distance away, but at the same time, we think that Norris' progress shows that the development of prospects, especially pitchers, takes time, and is not always an even, linear process.  The same could be said for Pompey, who started to break through toward the end of his fourth minor league season, and has broken through this year in his fifth.  There might also be more scrutiny on a prospect who was labelled the best prep southpaw in his draft year, and a 16th round pick from a Canadian high school.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Monday Notebook

   We all got more than a little excited last week when it was announced that Daniel Norris would make his last start for Buffalo last week.  Norris is very close (as in 2 IP away) from his "year after effect" limit, a guideline which loosely recommends that young pitchers do not throw more than 30 innings above what they threw the year before.  Pitch counts, of course, are a more exact measure of when a pitcher reaches his fatigue point, the point at which their mechanics become undone and the risk of arm and/or shoulder injury increases significantly, but innings pitched helps monitor when a young (under 23) pitcher needs to be shut down for the season.
  Fans and media flocked to Norris' start for Buffalo last week, and didn't walk away disappointed.  Norris allowed only a home run and a walk through 5 innings, striking out 9, and missing striking out double digit batters for the third straight start.   And just as Blue Jays fans in the aftermath of Norris' start were rubbing their hands with the thought of seeing the young lefthander in the big league bullpen when major league rosters expand on September 1st, the pitcher/surfer/photographer/magic bus driver told Amy Moritz of the Buffalo News that he will make one last start tomorrow.  We scurried to the Bisons' website to buy tickets.
  Norris has been dominant at two of the three levels he has pitched at this year.  That he had only moderate success at AA may be due to some adjustments he had to make as he made the huge jump from A ball.
  Here are his totals for the year from

Daniel Norris Stats Summary

New Hampshire

   So, does the recent promotions of Norris, Mitch Nay, Miguel Castro, Rowdy Tellez, Richard Urena, and even Gustavo Pierre signal a change in philosophy for the organization?  The answer has to be yes.
   The club has been known to slowly move prospects, especially high school-drafted pitchers, letting them spend a season at each level before moving them up.  There were suggestions in the media during the off-season that there was some debate in the organization about the merits of that.  The case of Aaron Sanchez clearly shows the shift in thinking.  Brought along slowly and methodically since being drafted in the 1st round in 2010, there were some who said that his development stalled in High A last year.  Results were good, but still likely less than had been hoped for at AA this year, before Sanchez was suddenly promoted to Buffalo, and less than a few weeks later, he was pitching in relief in Yankee Stadium, picking up his first big league W.
   Now, we see that approach has been applied to Norris, Kendall Graveman, Dalton Pompey, and Castro.  They even skipped a level with Tellez's promotion.  The message, especially to pitchers, seems to be pitch well, and we'll move you up.
   At the same time, however, we can point out examples of aggressive promotions that didn't work:  Matt Boyd, Taylor Cole, and most of Lansing's pitching staff.
   Certainly, playoff implications figured into some of these moves.  Pompey's promotion was obviously meant to bolster Buffalo's outfield, while Urena's was meant to help shore up Vancouver's infield defense.  And sometimes these moves can work in the opposite direction:  Vancouver received closer Phil Kish from Lansing to help boost their sagging relief corps.  

   There's hot, and then there's Buffalo Bisons hot.
A month ago, the Bisons were at .500, and a playoff spot was rapidly vanishing. Since then, they have gone 24-9, and with a wild extra-inning, walk off grand slam by Brett Wallace (his third home run of the day) over the Pawtucket Red Sox, Buffalo leaped over Pawtucket and into the International League's wild card spot.
   In addition to the solid starting pitching the club has received from Norris, Graveman, and even call up (since returned to AA) Scott Copeland, the offence has been sparked by Kevin Pillar, who has hit .371/.394/.663.  Pillar's 39 doubles lead the International League.  Anchored by Pillar, Pompey, and their returning Anthony Gose, the Bisons have one of the best outfields in all of minor leauge ball.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Busy Times in Prospect Land...

busytimes1 graphic

 With the minor league seasons winding down and finishing regular season play next weekend, you would think that things would start to slow down a bit for someone who tracks the progress of milb prospects, but if the last 48 hours are any indication, things are finishing in a flurry of activity.
   This is not unusual, of course.  Teams that are gearing up for the playoffs often receive players from other levels of the organization that are out of a playoff hunt.

   Things got started on Tuesday night when OF Dalton Pompey returned to New Hampshire's lineup after missing three weeks with a quad injury.  We were under the impression that he had been shut down for the year, but not only was he batting leadoff for the Fisher Cats that night, we received word after the game (where Pompey was 1-4 with a 2-run HR that lead New Hampshire to victory) that Pompey was promoted to AAA Buffalo, just a step below the major leagues.

   It's been quite a year for Pompey, who has blossomed in his fifth year with the organization.  After missing much of the 2012 season with a hand injury, the native of Mississauga struggled at the beginning of 2013 with Lansing, but caught fire down the stretch, and was moved up the ladder to High A Dunedin for the 2014 season.  Pompey hit .319/397/.491 in 70 games with the D-Jays, with 29 bases in 31 attempts.  At the start of June, he was rewarded with a promotion to AA, and after going hitless in his first 13 Eastern League at bats, went on a tear, and was named to the World lineup for the Futures Game.  Hitting .432 over his last 10 games, Pompey brought his line up to .295/.378/.473.
   Pompey must be placed on the Blue Jays 40-man roster by November, or the Jays would risk losing him in the Rule 5 draft.  His inclusion on that roster is a no-brainer.  The Blue Jays have been rewarded for their patience with Pompey, and we see parallels between him and Lansing OF DJ Davis, the Jays' first round pick in 2012.  Davis has struggled in his first year of full season ball, and is in his third year with the club.  Like Pompey, Davis was drafted out of high school in a non-traditional baseball hotbed. The term used most often to describe both was raw.  It wasn't until late in his fourth year that Pompey started to turn things around.

   Yesterday, we learned that Lansing 3rd Baseman Mitch Nay was promoted from Lansing to Dunedin.  Regarded as the club's best position playing prospect prior to the season, Nay was playing his first year of full season ball with the Lugnuts.  The MVP of last year's Northwest League playoffs got off to a good start in April, slowed down a bit in May, and has been on fire at the plate almost ever since.  His power has not been there (3 HR), but that is to be expected.  What's more promising is the 34 doubles he hit with Lansing. At only 20 years of age, there's every reason to expect that some of those doubles will turn into home runs as he matures.

  Last night, we got our first glimpse of pitcher Miguel Castro of Lansing, and we were not disappointed.  Hitting 97 with his fastball, and showing nice bite on his slider and good downward movement with his change, Castro gave up a leadoff single, then retired 17 straight hitters.  He pitched into the 7th, and got into a bit of a jam with runners at first and second and none out, but got out of it, and pitched his longest professional game.
   We didn't get to see him, but lefthander Matt Smoral was just as dominant for Vancouver.  Smoral threw four scoreless innings for the Canadians, to run his streak to nine, allowing just one hit, walking a pair, and striking out 5.  Beset by control problems in his first pro season last year, Smoral has allowed only 17 walks in 38 innings this year, against 48 strikeouts.  He may not be Top 10 Prospect material yet, but he may be in the conversation by this time next year.

   We also see that Bluefield, who now appear to be a longshot to make the Appy League playoffs, promoted two of their best players today.  Richard Urena, who hit over .300 hitting leadoff while playing stellar defense at short, was promoted to Vancouver, while power hitting first baseman Rowdy Tellez was skipped to Lansing.  With Matt Dean moved from first to third to make up for the absence of Nay, Tellez likely will take Dean's spot at first.  It's interesting to see what will happen in Vancouver.  Urena is projected to stay at short as he rises through the system, while the C's incumbent, Frankie Barreto, is not.  We can't see Urena moving Barreto off of short at this point in the season, however.

   Speaking of the playoffs, Buffalo is within 3 games of a wildcard spot in the International League, Dunedin is already in the Florida State League by virtue of winning the first half of the season, and Vancouver is a half game out of a playoff spot.  Minor league playoffs may not mean all that much to the casual baseball fan, but it's a good environment for prospects to be in, and while the emphasis for much of the season is on development, playoff experience can bolster that.

   Fun times as the season winds down.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Monday Notebook - One Last Look at the Top 10

   With the minor league season winding down, we decided to take one last look at how our pre-season Top 10 Blue Jays prospects have fared.
   We will re-rank our list in the fall, after play in the Arizona Fall League winds down.

1.  Aaron Sanchez
   We had predicted great things for the young righthander - in 2015.
With the Blue Jays' bullpen in tatters, the club promoted Sanchez to Buffalo in June, and then sent him to the bullpen in July for a couple of appearances, before bringing him to the majors.
 Pitching in the middle of a playoff race, Sanchez has bolstered the club's relief corps.
 He had some command issues at both minor league stops this season, but his control has been excellent as a big league reliever, walking only two hitters in 15 innings.  Sanchez has thrown his four-seamer the majority (80%) of the time, and is averaging 97.1 mph with it.
   Moving Sanchez to the bullpen has both served as a good introduction to the major leagues, and has also allowed the club to still be able to use him, without having to worry about his innings total.

2.  Marcus Stroman
   It has been a tale of two seasons for the righthander.
Summoned to the big club at the end of April, he too pitched out of the bullpen, but not effectively, and was sent back to AAA to get stretched out.
   Since his return at the end of May, Stroman has pitched so well that he has quickly become a mainstay of the Toronto rotation.  He took a no-hitter into the 7th against the Red Sox, and matched Max Scherzer pitch for pitch in another start.  He has been rocked a few times, and may have been tipping his pitches against the White Sox in his most recent start, but it's hard to see the Blue Jays in playoff contention without his contributions.

3.  Daniel Norris
   Norris, a dedicated surfer, has ridden a huge wave of helium for the past calendar year, to the point where he could join Sanchez in the Blue Jays bullpen in September.
  Norris started the year in High A, and was Milb's pitcher of the month for April.  Promoted to AA, he had minor struggles with control and economizing his pitch count, but appeared to iron things out enough to merit a promotion to AAA, where he has been dominant in his first two starts, striking out a career-high 13 in his last start.
   Hitting 96 with his fastball and keeping hitters off balance with his change, Norris has struck out 148 batters in 113 minor league innings, and threw a scoreless inning at the Futures Game.  Quite a turnaround for a prospect who seemed to be on the verge of being a bust 16 months ago.  We're very excited about a rotation that will likely include Sanchez, Stroman, and Norris a year from now.

4.  Sean Nolin
  The forgotten man of our top 10 list, Nolin has been bitten by the injury bug this year with ongoing groin issues, but appears to have bounced back.  He likely won't see a September call-up, but he still likely figures into the club's plans, depending on whether or not Mark Buehrle and/or RA Dickey return next year.  Nolin profiles as a back of the rotation innings eater.

5.  Kevin Pillar
   Overmatched in the first weeks of his second promotion to the bigs, Pillar appeared on the verge of putting things together until cameras caught a bit of a dugout temper tantrum after he was pinch hit for, and Pillar was exiled to Buffalo, where he's been for the summer.
   And all he has done since his return to the minors is hit:  .323/366/.476 for the AAA season, with 27 steals in 33 attempts.  We were mildly surprised that Pillar was still a Blue Jay after the July trade deadline, and while we think he'll be a September call-up, his future with the club may be cloudy.
   In order to improve his pitch recognition and stop chasing breaking balls out of the strike zone, Pillar needs to play.  We still believe his ceiling is as a versatile fourth outfielder, but in this day and age of multiple man bullpens, there's a premium on that type of player.  He may reach that ceiling with another organization, though.  With the club's struggles against left-handed pitching this summer, we've struggled to understand why Pillar wasn't called back up.

6.  Roberto Osuna
   The 19 year old underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of July last year, and made his first start less than a year later in the GCL.
   A few weeks later, he made his Florida State League debut, where he became the league's youngest pitcher, and showed why he is so highly regarded.
   Osuna is regularly hitting 95 with his fastball, and is flashing his plus curve and change, and an advanced feel for pitching that is seldom seen in a pitcher his age.  As most players post TJ surgery do, he has struggled with his command.
   In a way, the surgery may have been a bit of a blessing, because there had been many concerns about his high maintenance body.  Osuna appears to have taken the need for proper conditioning seriously, which is vital, as he works his way up the ladder.
7.  D.J. Davis
   It's been a long summer for the outfielder, which was not wholly unexpected.
Davis has shown flashes, and has been brilliant defensively, but he has struggled mightily at the plate (.210/.262/.305), and on the bases (15-33). He has had trouble with pitch recognition, as his 151 strikeouts (although only 2 in his last 10 games) demonstrates.
   While he has taken a bit of a step back in his first year of full season ball, he is still a premium talent.  He may repeat at least a half season of Low A ball next year.  We have to remember that he came from a state (Mississippi) where the high school schedule is all of 20 games long, and Davis just turned 20.  To be honest, we had expected more, but time is still firmly on Davis' side.  Sometimes you have to be patient for a little bit longer.

8.  Andy Burns
   After a great 2013, followed by solid performances in the Arizona Fall League and in spring training, we thought that Burns might see a late-season promotion to the big club.
  A slow start (.200 in April, and .223 in May), may have taken care of that.  Burns had a sizzling July, and has cooled off a bit of late, but has brought his line up to a respectable .256/.319/.419, with 12 home runs and 17 stolen bases.
   Burns has played most of the year at 3rd, although he has been moved around a bit in the second half of the season.  We still envision a super utility role for Burns - like Pillar, his versatility could be his ticket to a big league job.

9.  Franklin Barreto
   The youngest position player in the Northwest League has been exactly as advertised this season.  Hitting third in the Vancouver batting order, he barrels up plenty of balls, leading to a line of .318/.394/.508, with 20 stolen bases in 23 attempts thrown in.  Playing against players 3 years older, he leads the NWL in doubles, rbi, total bases, and runs, and is in the top 10 in just about every offensive category in the loop.
   Barreto's defence remains a work in progress.  It's almost a given that he will end up in the outfield, or perhaps at second.  And we're not all that worried.  Richard Urena, playing behind Barreto at Bluefield, is projected to stay at shortstop, and if his bat in the Appy League this year is any indication, his hit tool is plus.
Both are a long way away from the bigs, but Barreto looms as an impact bat.

10.  Alberto Tirado
   At start of the season, many eyes were focused on the young pitching staff that the Blue Jays had assembled.  One by one, most have fallen to injury (Cardona, Robson, Dawson), or inconsistency, with Tirado and Jairo Labourt falling in that category.
   Labelled a beast in the making by Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus, Tirado struggled to find the plate in the Midwest League, and was sent back to extended spring training in early June after putting up a 6.30 ERA in 40 innings, which included 40Ks, but an unsightly 39 walks.
   Sent to Vancouver when short season play began, Tirado has still had command issues, but has pitched well in his last few outings in relief.
   Tirado has taken a bit of a step back this year, but at 19, there's not great cause for concern, and he would not be the first Latin player to struggle in his first year of full season ball.


  A bit more news....
Joining Max Pentecost and Jake Paterson in injury rehab in Florida was catcher Dan Jansen.  A 16th round pick last year, Jansen was showing signs of putting things together in Bluefield this year, hitting .282/.390/.484 before being sidelined by a knee injury in early August.  The news is not all bad on the injury front, however, as New Hampshire OF Dalton Pompey, who we were originally told would be out for much of the rest of the year with a quad injury, is back in the Fisher Cats' lineup tonight.

   Norris and Barreto both made the latest edition of Baseball America's Prospect Hot Sheet, Norris at #7, and Barreto at #13.  After few Blue Jays prospects have made the sheet this summer, we're up to 5 in 2 weeks.  Labourt made the "Team Photo."
   Lansing SS Dawel Lugo made the list, but for the wrong reasons.  After hitting .155/.152/.178 this month, he made the Not-So-Hot section.  After a .298/.324/.423 July, Lugo, one of the youngest everyday players in the Midwest League, appears to have hit the wall.  Lugo doesn't turn 20 until December, so we shouldn't be raising the alarm just yet.  Like Barreto, Lugo doesn't project to stay at short, but his bat is still considered to be of the potential impact variety.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Monday Notebook

   Seems like we got to see a lot of baseball this weekend.

 We admit to being caught by surprise when Daniel Norris was promoted to Buffalo last week.  In 8 starts at AA, he had pitched reasonably well, but his numbers did not match those he put up in High A earlier in the year.  Struggling a bit with his command, Norris posted a 4.54 ERA in 35.2 AA innings, striking out 49.  We were not surprised with his difficulties, as the leap between A+ and AA can be the biggest jump in the minors.  In his last AA start on August 3rd, however, Norris must have shown to the organization he was ready, giving up one run in 6.2 innings, walking none and striking out eight.
   Norris made his AAA debut on Sunday, and facing a Durham lineup that included a rehabbing Wil Myers, Norris was lights out.  In 6 scoreless innings, he gave up just two hits and a walk, while striking out 10.  He commanded the strike zone with his fastball, which touched 96, and his change up, which the Durham hitters were pretty much defenseless.
   Does this set the wheels in motion for a promotion to the big club?  Probably not just yet, but with another start like that it may just be a matter of time, especially given Mark Buerhle's struggles.
   Mitch Nay has pretty much flown under the radar for us this year.  Nay didn't make our top 10 Blue Jays prospects heading into the season, but he did make several others', and he did merit serious consideration. Some have gone as far as to label him the top position player prospect in the system.  The NWL playoff MVP has been solid, if not spectacular, in his first year of full season ball.  He struggled in May, but has surged since June, so much so that Baseball America noticed, and listed him as the 6th hottest prospect in Milb after a 12-28 week.  Here's BA's synopsis of his season:

    Nay’s home run this week was his first since May 12, which is a pretty lengthy gap for a hitter who came out of high school with above-average raw power. But Nay is an example of a young hitter for which home run totals don’t tell the whole story. The 20-year-old is second in the Midwest League with 30 doubles, and while two-baggers don’t always turn into home runs as a hitter matures, they often do. That’s the best-case for scenario Nay, who has just three home runs this year at a power-oriented position.

   We've been a bit concerned that Nay's power has been largely absent this year, but we know that's often the last tool in the kit to develop, and Cooley Law School Stadium in a tough home run park.  There were concerns about his defence entering the season, but he was recently named Best Defensive 3rd Baseman in BA's Best of Tools for the Midwest League.  All in all, Nay is right on track.

   Nay was joined on the Hot Sheet by Bluefield first baseman Rowdy Tellez, who was #11 on the list after a 11-20 week.  Tellez had a slow start once again in his second pro season, but has been on fire the last month, and has a line of .288/354/.406 for the season.  BA observed:
    He ranked among the best lefthanded power bats available in 2013. He’s a big guy (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) who will have to focus on conditioning, but he has above-average bat speed and can drive the ball to the opposite field. That’s good because Tellez’s bat must carry him.

   And that pretty much sums up our opinion of Tellez.  This guy could be an impact bat one day, and we're thinking that the folks in Vancouver may get to see him in time for a playoff push in a couple of weeks.  

   Andy Burns joined Nay and Tellez "in the team photo" section of the list, after a 13-31 week.  We think Burns might have an outside chance to be promoted to the big club when MLB rosters expand on September 1st.  He can play a multitude of positions, can steal a base, and hits from the right side with a bit of pop.  

Two of Nay's teammates also caught our attention last week.  Pitchers Starlyn Suriel and Miguel Castro turned in impressive performances.  Suriel, a little old for an international signing when he signed with Toronto in 2013, was dominant in his last start for Lansing, pitching a scoreless six innings, and allowing only one hit, walking none and striking out four.  Castro pitched better than his line would indicate in his Midwest League debut, and pitched well again in his second start, giving up a run in 4.2 innings, striking out four.  It's been a long season for the Lugnuts, and their prized prospect rotation really didn't materialize, but the pair have been a bright spot as the season winds down.

   We heard today, via Charlie Caskey, who blogs about the Vancouver Canadians, that catcher and first-round pick Max Pentecost has been sent back to the organization's base in Florida to have "a couple of nicks," in the words of C's manager John Schneider. looked at.
   Pentecost has been out of the lineup for three games, and has mostly DH'd over the past two weeks.
We wonder if he's run down after a season which basically began in February.  Pentecost led Kennesaw State to the NCAA Super Regionals.  He did have about a month off after being drafted by the Jays before starting his pro career in Vancouver, but obviously there was a nagging injury of some sort that worsened shortly after he arrived.  
   The Jays, as is their policy, are tight-lipped about the situation, and truth be told, we're not sure there's a lot to be concerned about.  Caskey suggested that if Pentecost does play again this season, it might be for Dunedin in the playoffs.  For fans of the C's, who are a in a battle to claim a playoff bid and a chance to play for their fourth straight NWL title, the loss of Pentecost and Castro no doubt hurts.  Such is the life of a minor league fan, however.  
   New Hampshire outfielder Dalton Pompey may also be done for the year, after the return of a quad injury that he originally suffered at the end of July.  Pompey made the most progress of any Jays prospect this year, leaping into many top 100 lists.  After a slow start following his promotion to AA, Pompey was on fire at the plate, hitting .459 over his last 10 games before being sidelined.  The Jays will likely want to be careful with Pompey, so we may not see him again until the Arizona Fall Leauge.

   We also learned, via Bluefield broadcaster Kevin Fitzgerald on the "Around the Nest" podcast, that outfielder Jake Anderson is injured again, and has returned to Florida.  The sandwich-round pick in 2011 missed all of 2013 after undergoing surgery to correct a rib problem, and had all of 10 at bats this year before being sidelined in late June.