Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Anthony Alford Leaves Ole Miss

   In a stunning development, Blue Jays outfield prospect Anthony Alford has left Ole Miss, where he was attempting to resurrect his collegiate football career, and accepted a presumably enhanced contract offer from the Jays that he initially rejected in July.

   The 2012 third round pick has, in the words of Keith Law, "first round talent," but his original commitment to play Quarterback at Southern Mississippi dropped his draft stock.  He has accumulated all of 97 pro at bats since that time, but that has been more than enough to leave scouts drooling.  The premium athlete began to give glimpses to his vast potential at Lansing this year, before spurning Toronto's contract extension and heading back to Mississippi.

   Alford is a premium athlete who was learning a new position and was a backup in Ole Miss' defensive backfield this season.  He initially was returning punts as well, but that trial ended a few games into the season.  According to Hugh Kellenberger of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Alford was not on scholarship after sitting out a redshirt season as a result of his transferring from Southern Miss, where he had dropped out after a campus incident following a frustrating freshman season .  He had recorded six tackles in four games, and had returned a pair of punts for 8 yards. Alford had taken snaps at QB before the season, but had seen no action at the pivot after training camp ended.  Coach Hugh Frazee had spoken many times of trying to find ways to get Alford on the field.

   We're still looking into why this happened so suddenly.  Someone on Twitter suggested that the Blue Jays may have wanted to protect their investment, and had pressured Alford to leave Ole Miss before an upcoming slew of games against tough SEC opponents.  He may have been unhappy about a reduced role with the Rebels after being one of the nation's top high school recruits in his senior year of high school.  Alford is headed to Florida, likely to report to Instructional League.

   We're a bit puzzled by this, and by other things Alford has done in the past.  We have discussed how he may not have had the strongest and most positive influences growing up (his father is currently incarcerated on drug-related charges, and his mother has done time for drug offences as well).  At only 20 years of age, he has made what appears to be several hasty decisions in the past 24 months.  He played pro ball for only two weeks this year, and left early to get married, which we have heard the Jays brass was understandably less than thrilled about. We think that this last decision, though, abrupt as it was, is the best for his future.

   It's hard to predict exactly what the future holds for Alford the ball player.  We could see him starting next season at Lansing, but he likely will be promoted quickly if he is successful.  He still is a good distance away from the majors, but with the experience he will gain by playing every day, his learning curve is bound to rapidly accelerate.

  To us, Alford was a borderline Top 10 Blue Jays prospect even with his football commitment.  He leaps solidly into that group with today's news.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Blue Jays Instructional League Roster & Some Random Thoughts

    We're a little late on this one for a variety of reasons, life being chief among them, but here is the list of prospects the Blue Jays have sent to Florida for Instructional League:

   A note to those unfamiliar with Instructs - it's based at the spring training sites of the parent Major League clubs.  It's a teaching league, where prospects can have their skills tweaked or refined and tested in game situations where the scores and standings don't really count.  Typically, an organization invites 40 to 50 of their top prospects from the lower levels of the system.  The players are instructed by the best teachers in the system, in the hopes that their play will make significant strides forward the following year.  Sometimes, players who missed significant time due to injury are invited.  Players who are learning a new position also at times get an invitation.  The invite is a sign that the team believes in the upside of the young player, and that they are willing to invest added time into their development.  Players work on skills six days a week from 9 am to noon, followed most days by a 1 pm game.  The schedule is very compact, starting in mid-September, and wrapping up by the end of the first week of October.

    The pitching staff the Blue Jays have assembled speaks to the depth the orgnaization has at this position.  Labourt and Tirado, even though they took a bit of a step backward from Lansing to Vancouver, are still among the top mound prospects in the system.  Castro pitched at three levels, and has to be thought of as the top hopeful on this staff.  Reid-Foley was considered by many to be the steal of the draft, and was listed by Baseball America as the GCL's 8th-ranked prospect.  Smoral and Borucki were ranked the 7th and 12th Appy League prospects, respectively, even though they spent only a half (short) season there. Smith, Greene, and Huffman pitched at both the GCL and Appy, while Tinoco pitched better than his numbers would indicate at Bluefield.  Ramirez is a converted outfielder who pitched well,  while Wells, the club's 3rd round pick in June, struggled at the GCL.  Perdomo was lights out at times in the GCL, and is an intriguing prospect.  Brentz, who is still relatively new to pitching, showed signs at putting things together in the GCL, while Cordero is a fireballing reliever who has hit 100 on the radar gun, but is likely at Instructs to refine his command and secondary pitches, as his numbers haven't reflected his potentially dominating heat.

   Catcher Matt Morgan was a well-regarded 4th round pick in June, but struggled mightily in the GCL, posting an anemic line of .092/.188/.134, with 56 strikeouts in 119 at bats.

   The depth of infielders is second only to the pitchers among this group.  Barreto, who at 18 led the Northwest League in runs, hits, doubles, total bases and RBI, and was in the top five in several other categories, is the leading prospect in this group.  With a position switch from shortstop having long been predicted for him, we can't help but wonder if this is where and when it's happening, or at least the groundwork is being laid for it.  If Daniel Norris and Dalton Pompey stick with the big club coming out of spring training, it's hard not to think of Barreto as the system's best prospect.
   Joining Barreto is Rowdy Tellez, who skipped from Bluefield to Lansing, going back to Vancouver to help the C's with their playoff run.  Tellez hit .305/.375/.438 in 259 PA's this year, and is looking more and more like a middle of the order bat.  Also on the roster is shortstop Richard Urena, who is arguably the organization's top defensive shortstop (including the MLB club), who was named the #3 Appy prospect by BA.  Shortstop Dawel Lugo, who struggled near the end of his first full season, is also on the roster, along with Mitch Nay, who many considered the top position player in the system prior to the season, and multi-position player Lane Thomas, a June draftee who played at two levels.  Yeltsin Gudino, who struggled with the bat in his first stateside season still has plenty of upside at only 17.

   Outside of Pompey, the system is thin on outfielders.  DJ Davis, who struggled in his first year of full season ball,  is on the roster.  As we have pointed out, Pompey really didn't take off until the last month of his fourth season of pro ball, so there is still considerable hope and time for Davis.  Joining him will be Derrick Loveless, who skipped a level to play at Lansing and didn't look out of place, Josh Almonte, who hit .307/.343/.398 at Bluefield, and Jonathan Davis, who missed much of the season with injury, and Juan Tejada, who turned a lot of heads in the GCL.

   The biggest drawback to this talent pool is that they are all several years away (at best) from the majors, and only a fraction of them will even get a sniff of the big time.  Just the same,  it's an impressive array.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Clutchlings Blue Jays Minor League Awards

   This year has been a year for Blue Jays prospects watchers like no other.

  Possibly stung by criticism that the organization babied their top prospects, pitchers in particular, the club rocketed several players through multiple levels this season.

   The first to get the call was 2012 draftee Marcus Stroman, who some thought was major league ready last year.  Promoted to help the big club's beleaguered bullpen in April, Stroman struggled in relief, and was sent back to down AAA Buffalo.  When he was stretched back out as a starter, Stroman was recalled and inserted into the starting rotation, where he quickly has become a stalwart.

   Stroman proved to be the first, but not the last player to be challenged with a promotion.  Kendall Graveman, who started the year with Low A Lansing, pitched at four minor league levels before getting a September promotion to the big leagues.
   Daniel Norris, who began a remarkable turnaround in May of 2013, captured plenty of attention as he dominated at High A, before being promoted up the ladder all the way to the majors himself, along with teammate Dalton Pompey, who gained plenty of notice of his own this year.
   And it just wasn't the upper level players who made significant progress.  Miguel Castro started at short season Vancouver, and finished the year as a mainstay in High A Dunedin's rotation.  Second year pro Matt Smoral started at advanced rookie Bluefield, was promoted to Vancouver, and has been tabbed by some as a possible breakout candidate in the mold of Norris and Graveman next year.  Rowdy Tellez, after a slow start, bashed at Bluefield, and skipped to Lansing before going down a level to Vancouver to help with their playoff run.  Top pitching prospect Roberto Osuna came back from Tommy John surgery in July with Dunedin, and showed his old velocity and the advanced feel for pitching that scouts rave about, but his control was rusty.  The club's high-risk, high-reward approach to the 2011 and 2012 drafts is starting to manifest itself in prospects filtering upwards into the system.

  The message to all prospects this year from the organization was succeed, and you will advance.

  Not all prospects made upward movements, however.  The pitching staff at Lansing, which we were really looking forward to, was something of a bust.  Alberto Tirado and Jairo Labourt had great difficulty finding the strike zone, and were sent back to extended spring training before resuming their seasons when Vancouver started play in June.  Adonys Cardona and Tom Robson were sidelined by injury, while Chase DeJong never really found his stride, and was shut down in August. Shane Dawson was hampered by injuries and inconsistency. Lugnuts outfielder D.J. Davis, the club's first round pick in 2012,  appeared to take a step back as well, although it's likely that the young, raw prospect was bound to struggle in his first year of full season ball.
  Lefthander Sean Nolin, who matched Stroman almost pitch for pitch and strikeout for strikeout last year at AA, had groin and leg issues and missed large chunks of the season.
   After making huge strides last year, Andy Burns got off to a slow start with New Hampshire, and stayed there for the year.  Before the season, we thought there might be a chance that he could have been a roster expansion call-up this month.
   John Stilson, a power arm who had a shot at a promotion to the Blue Jays bullpen in our eyes this year was shut down after experiencing shoulder soreness, and underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in August.
   Outfielder Jake Anderson, who missed all of last season after surgery for a rib injury, had all of ten at bats with Bluefield before being sidelined again.
  Catcher Max Pentecost, the club's 2nd first round draft choice, struggled defensively at Vancouver, and was shut down in August with a wrist injury, and was likely fatigued after a season that started in February.  Catcher Dan Jansen, who appeared on the rise in the system, was sidelined after a great start with Bluefield by a knee injury.  2013 2nd round pick Clinton Hollon joined Robson in the ranks of re-habbing from Tommy John surgery after undergoing the procedure in May.  First round pick Jeff Hoffman, of course, also underwent TJ prior to the draft.  Righthander Patrick Murphy, who the club rolled the dice on and made a 3rd round pick last year after missing his senior year of high school due to TJ, underwent a second TJ in August. Shortstop Yeltsin Gudino, who at 17 was one of the youngest players in complex ball, struggled with the bat in his stateside debut.

   There is still plenty of upside to the Toronto system.  The upper ranks have become a bit thin in terms of prospects, but there were several notables in the lower reaches, starting with shortstop Franklin Barreto, who at 18 consistently barreled up pitchers three and four years older than him with Vancouver.  Smoral and Ryan Borucki were the aces of the Vancouver pitching staff, shortstop Richard Urena, who some have tabbed as major league ready defensively hit very well at Bluefield and Vancouver, and 2014 draftee Lane Thomas opened eyes with his bat and versatility.  The issue, of course, is that all of these players are several years away, and much could go wrong in terms of their development.  Outside of Barreto, none could be considered a lock for the big leagues just yet.

   While the on-field performance of their affiliates is secondary to the development of prospects, a pair of clubs (Vancouver and Dunedin) made the playoffs, while Buffalo and Lansing were in the playoff hunt until the final weekend.

   Here's how the system's winning percentage compared to the rest of MLB:

MLBfarm.com chart

   Attendance figures for each team (GCL does not charge admission):

       Team                               Level                        Average Attendance            Rank in League
8 110
New Hampshire
5 156
High A
Low A
4 832
Short Season
4 870
Adv Rookie

    Toronto's Player Development Contracts with Lansing and Bluefield expired at the end of the 2014 season, but were extended for another two years. The PDC with each of their affiliates comes up for renewal after the 2016 season.  After talk of Ottawa being home to a new AA affiliate died when city council couldn't stomach the idea of a huge cash outlay for ballpark renovations in an election year, the Jays have established a nice relationship with New Hampshire.  The club has been actively looking for a new home for their High A club, but were rebuffed by voters in Palm Beach County when the club put forward plans for a development with Houston.  Word reached us yesterday that the city of Dunedin has found new land that might not be large enough to house a full spring training site, but would accommodate a facility  to replace inadequate Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

On with the awards.....

Most Surprising Club
   No one club stood out this year in this category.  With their blazing start, Dunedin takes the award, easily winning the first half Florida State League crown for their division. At one point, Dunedin had the best won-loss record in all of Organized Baseball.
  With the promotions of Norris and Pompey, Derrick Chung, and  Matt Boyd, the D-Jays struggled in the second half.  Boyd came back, but he and Taylor Cole had logged a lot of innings, and Dunedin was no match for eventual league champs Daytona in the first round of the playoffs.

Most Disappointing Club
   For the second year in a row, we have to award this to Lansing.
We expected big things from the Lugnuts, and perhaps in hindsight that wasn't fair.  Many players were making their full season ball debut, and the unusually cold midwestern spring didn't help those who were used to more temperate climates.
 The additions of journeymen pitchers Brad Allen and Brent Powers stabilized the starting rotation after the young guns faltered, and the club was in the playoff race until losing their final three games of the season.
   The success the organization has had in Vancouver has yet to really translate into more of the same at Lansing.  The affiliation has been very successful, with more and more Ontario fans pouring across the border to make the trek to the state capital.

Biggest Steps Forward
   Without a doubt, Pompey.
Heading into his fifth year with the organization, Pompey had really yet to fulfill the potential the Blue Jays saw when they drafted him in the 16th round out of Mississauga's John Fraser SS in 2010.
  Behind his peers in development as a result of his birth certificate, Pompey put up pedestrian numbers in his first two pro seasons, and was injured for much of his third.  Sent to full season ball at Lansing last year, Pompey's performance was less than overwhelming, but he caught fire over the final few weeks of the season, hitting .345/479/.618.
   Promoted to High A Dunedin to start 2014, Pompey raised his game to an altogether higher level, putting up a line of .319/.397/.471 and playing highlight-reel centre field defense for the D-Jays over 70 games, earning an elevation to AA.  After going hitless in his first 13 at bats, Pompey picked up the torrid pace with his bat, hitting .295/.378/.473  in 31 games for New Hampshire, which in turned earned him a promotion to AAA, where he slashed .358/.393/.453 in a dozen games hitting leadoff for the Bisons.  For the minor league season, Pompey hit .317/.392/.469, with 9 home runs and 51 RBI, and was 43-50 in stolen bases.
   Along the way, Pompey earned a trip to the Futures Game, and we began to see his name in trade rumours at the trade deadline.  Clearly, the Blue Jays are intrigued by Pompey, and want to see what they have in the blossoming young local product.   Scouts have said that Pompey's ceiling is more of a fourth outfielder, but we're not convinced of that, but at the same time, we think that he's nowhere near a finished product.  While we respect the opinions of scouts, we can't but help but wonder that they weren't able to get a long and good enough look at him in his amateur days to truly assess his potential.
   Pompey's speed has to be seen to be believed.  We didn't get a chance to time him down the first base line when we saw him play in Buffalo, but he gets out of the box incredibly quickly.  He's a smart base runner, and appears to have a high baseball IQ.
  In only his second season of full season play, Pompey has opened a lot of eyes.  It's easy to see him patrolling centrefield and leading off for the Blue Jays in the near future.

Biggest Steps Backward
   There are a few candidates, but we give the nod to Alberto Tirado.
Labelled a "beast in the making" by now former Baseball Prospectus writer Jason Parks (who has landed a scouting gig with the Cubs), Tirado walked 40 batters in as many innings for Lansing, and had a 2.10 WHIP.
Sent back to extended and then to Vancouver, his struggles continued, until he was moved to the C's bullpen.  Relief pitchers in short season ball do not rank among the game's highest prospects.
   At the same time, Tirado is young (doesn't turn 20 until December), and he would not be the first Caribbean prospect to struggle in his first year of full season baseball.  And he did have 76 strikeouts in 75 innings this year, to go along with 67 walks. Just the same, based on his performance last year, we had expected bigger things from him.

Pitcher of the Year
   It was close, but we'll take Norris over Graveman.
Norris was dominant in High A, going 6-0 with a 1.22 ERA in 66 innings over 13 starts, striking out 76, with a sparkling 1.03 WHIP.  Milb.com's pitcher of the month for May was sent to AA in June, and struggled slightly, before an August promotion to AAA, where he was brilliant in his first three starts, striking out 32 batters in his first 3 starts.
  We saw Norris' last start against Pawtucket, and he was hit hard, but at 124 innings for the season was far past his previous minor league high.  In his first bullpen outing a few days later for the Bisons, no hitter was able to even put a pitch in play against him in his first relief inning.
  Promoted to the Blue Jays, Norris struck out David Ortiz in his debut, freezing Big Papi with a nasty curve for strike three.
   Regarded by many as the top high school southpaw in the 2011 draft, Norris overcame difficulties at the beginning of his pro career to become one of the top prospects in all of baseball.  A dedicated surfer, Westfalia van owner, and photographer, Norris in not your typical athlete, and we think he has the mindset to deal with the ups and downs of major league baseball.  He still may need a half a season in the minors to further refine his pitches, but Norris is the real deal, and should be part of a revamped rotation before long.

Player of the Year
  This was a close call, coming down to Pompey and Vancouver's Franklin Barreto.
In the end, we took Barreto by a nose.
   The 18 year old was one of the youngest players in the Northwest League, but was named the league's player of the year by Baseball America, which also selected Barreto as the short season player of the year.
   A 70 game schedule hardly shows how dominant Barreto was, particularly at the plate.  A fixture in the three-hole in the Canadians' batting order, Barreto was near the top of most of the league's offensive categories.
   Fatigue likely played a factor in a late season dip, but Barreto put together a solid line of .311/.384/.481 over 315 plate appearances, with 23 doubles and 29 stolen bases on top of that.  Reports we received all summer mentioned how Barreto rarely got cheated in an at bat, and when he made contact, he barreled up the ball hard somewhere.
  ESPN's Chirs Crawford had this end of season observation about Barreto:

At the plate, Barreto has a compact swing, but his strong wrists and solid plane allow him to hit line drives to all parts of the field, and despite his small size, he has enough strength to project solid-average power at the position. The approach is still a work in progress, but he has shown he's not allergic to walks nor working counts into his favor, and scouts tell me his pitch recognition has improved considerably as well. He's also a plus runner, and seasons of 20-30 steals aren't out of the question.

   The question is, of course, where Barreto ultimately winds up on the playing field, because all indications are that it won't be shortstop, not with Richard Urena behind him in the system.  Barreto has speed, athleticism, but his footwork at short verges on clumsy at times.  A move to second or even third, or centrefield likely are in the works for Barreto when he reaches full season ball next year.
   There has been no need to push him because of his young age, but Barreto is a candidate for multiple promotions in our mind next year, at least once he has been moved to and learns his new position.  As they say, the bat will play. 

The Dave Stieb Meteoric Rise Award
   An 8th round pick out of Mississippi State last year, Graveman signed for a low ($5000) bonus, and was sent to Lansing ostensibly to fill out the full season's club starting rotation.  His 10 starts with the Lugnuts were nothing to write home about, and Graveman went home with plans to work on a long toss routine to build arm strength in the off-season.
   The result was that he added at least 3-4 mph on his fastball, and the added arm strength gave more sink to it.  Repeating at Lansing to start the year, Midwest League hitters were no match for Graveman, who took a no-hitter into the 9th inning against Beloit, and was promoted to Dunedin after his next start.
   Against the more advanced High A hitters, Graveman did not dominate as he had at Low A, until he discovered a four seamer by accident that he could cut and command at will.  His ERA began a steady descent after that, until he was elevated to New Hampshire in July, and promoted to Buffalo after only one start.  Graveman continued his mastery over International League hitters, and pitched at his fifth level when the Blue Jays recalled him on September 1st, and he was sent in to face Yoenis Cespedes.
   Graveman can throw his cutter equally against left and right handed hitters.  He back doors it against righties, and brings it in on the hands of lefties when he has it working.   Graveman routinely throws more than 60% of his pitches for strikes, and fields his position very well. For the season, his record was 14-6, and while wins don't tell the whole story, especially for a minor league starter, it speaks to how Graveman routinely pitched into the 7th and 8th inning in his starts, often turning things over to the back of the bullpen.  His 1.83 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and only 31 walks in 167 innings are tough to ignore.
   There are some who suggest that Graveman has far exceeded his ceiling, and profiles more as a back of the rotation guy.  We say that he still likely needs more time in the minors, but we think he will continue to develop his arm strength and his command, and we see a mid-rotation starter.

Manager of the Year
   A large part of a minor league manager's job is doing the best that you can with what you have at the moment.  With players coming down from one level and up from another, balancing a lineup and satisfying the parent club with playing time for prospects who don't always deserve it can take a considerable amount of skill.  Which is why Buffalo manager Gary Allenson is this year's winner.
   The Bisons made a Triple A record 238 roster moves, and used a total of 72 players this year.  Somehow, Allenson kept this team in contention amidst all this shuffling, even though he lost his most valuable player, Kevin Pillar, with six days left in the season.
    A minor league manager for 20 years, the former major league catcher came aboard with the organization in 2013 and managed New Hampshire, and was promoted to Buffalo to replace the popular Marty Brown. Despite the revolving door of players, he kept his collection of prospects and minor league veterans in a playoff race right until the season's final weekend.

Sleeper Award
   Two candidates emerge for us:  Smoral, who made a successful jump from advanced rookie to short season ball this season, and while he some ups and downs, the tall lefthander seems to be putting things together.  Unlike some of the Lansing pitchers who had trouble with the April and May temperatures of the Midwest League, Smoral, an Ohio native, should be more comfortable with them, and as he gets to take a turn in the Lansing rotation every fifth day next year, we can see him becoming increasingly consistent with this mechanics and his command, with a resulting multiple level jump a possibility.
  Castro has to be another favourite, but having already pitched at High A, he's not starting from as far back as Smoral.  We watched his last Lansing start before he was promoted and came away understanding what the hype has been all about.  At 19, there's really not a need to rush him, which may limit how high he reaches in the organization next year, but like Graveman and Norris, he may leave the club little choice but to move him.

Power Arm Award
   Gregory Infante, who spent most of the season with New Hampshire, gets the nod, having been clocked at 101 mph.
  Originally signed by the White Sox, for whom he pitched in 5 games during the 2010 season, Infante unfortunately has little else other than his heater going for him.  When you can't throw your secondary pitches for strikes, your fastball becomes a little bit slower, because hitters know you're likely going to throw it in a crucial situation.
   The Blue Jays actually have a wealth of minor league reliever depth (not all of them power arms, however), but such players are literally a dime a dozen.  Sometimes these players can fly under the prospect radar, though, and we might one day see a Griffin Murphy, Arik Sikula, or Phil Kish in a big league bullpen.

   It's interesting to see how the Blue Jays approach to the June draft has morphed over the years, changing according to new slot rules and from varying levels of depth from year to year.
   The club has gone with the projectable picks (Aaron Sanchez), the scared off by college commitment picks (Norris), the high-risk, high-reward choices (Stroman and Anthony Alford), the under-the-radar because of injury picks (Smoral), and the raw but toolsy types (Davis).
   The club altered their strategy in 2013 with the new bonus rules, taking a flyer on college seniors with no leverage (Graveman), and turning the accrued savings into high risk, high reward, maybe college-bound player in a lower round (Tellez), all the while honing in on top international players (Barreto, Osuna, Labourt, Castro).  The club has not been afraid to punt a top pick, be it Tyler Beede (who turned into Stroman), or Phil Bickford, who the club turned into Max Pentecost, to go along with another roll of the dice, TJ patient Jeff Hoffman.
   For that, and many other reasons, we can't wait until next year.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Monday Notebook

 Here it is, folks, our last Monday Notebook of the minor league season.

This was truly a great year to be following Blue Jays prospects.  Only two affiliates made the post season, but a number of prospects, starting with Marcus Stroman, who was soon followed by Aaron Sanhcez, who in turn was followed by a bevy of prospects (featuring Daniel Norris) when major league rosters expanded on September 1st were promoted to the majors.  And the promotions were not limited to the upper level prospects, as players like Miguel Castro were aggressively elevated, which was a sharp contrast to previous seasons.
  The highlight of the past week, of course, had to be Norris' mlb debut.  All Manager John Gibbons asked of the lefthander, now pitching out of the bullpen as he has surpassed his innings limit for the year, was to get David Ortiz out in the 7th inning of a crucial game.  Here's how he fared:

  • Pitcher
    D. Norris
  • Batter
    D. Ortiz
174CurveballCalled Strike
393Fastball (Four-seam)Ball
490Fastball (Four-seam)Ball
591Fastball (Four-seam)Foul
671CurveballCalled Strike

    After starting Papi off with his nasty hook, Norris missed with three pitches out of the strike zone, low and away.  Ortiz just managed to foul off the 5th pitch, likely with that breaking ball in the back of his mind, and then Norris put him away with another curve - not one that bent as much as the first, but it caught enough of the inside corner to catch the feared slugger looking to end the 7th.
   Norris' fellow prospect Kendall Graveman had his own challenge the next inning, pitching to Yoenis Cespedes to start the inning.  Graveman gave up a line drive base hit to Cespedes, and then was lited in favour of Aaron Loup, who allowed Cespedes to come around and score, giving Graveman an ERA of infinity until at least his next outing.


  The gave it a great try, but in the end a four-peat just wasn't in the works for the Vancouver Canadians, but they did make it to the Northwest League Finals for the fourth successive year.
  The C's clinched a playoff spot on the next to last day of the season, and then dispatched division Spokane rival to reach the finals, where they were in tough against Arizona's affiliate, the Hillsboro Hops. Hillsboro, the oldest team in the league, led the NWL in wins during the regular season, and proved to be a formidable opponent for Vancouver.
  The first game of the best of three final was played in Vancouver, and the Canadians got off to a roaring start, scoring five runs over the first two innings.  The usually reliable C's pitching staff couldn't hang onto the lead, however, and the Hops took Game 1 by a score of 7-5.
  The series switched to Hillsboro for Game 2, with Matt Smoral taking the mound for Vancouver as they sought to even up the series.  Smoral, who has been tabbed by some as a possible breakout performer next season, had what might have been some jitters in his first post-season start.  He walked the first Hops batter, then threw the ball away on a pick off attempt.  A rattled Smoral gave up three runs to Hillsboro, and then gave up another in the second without giving up a hit, via a hit by pitch, stolen base, advancement on a groundout, and a wild pitch.
  The C's battled back, scoring single runs in the 4th, 6th, and 7th.  With two out and a pair of men on in that inning, Rowdy Tellez smashed a drive to the deepest part of the ball park for the final out.  Like Tellez's fly ball, the C's came up just a few inches short from their fourth title in a row, as the Hops' bullpen shut them down over the final two innings to preserve the win, and give Hillsboro the title.
   Still, you would have to consider the season a wildly successful one for the franchise.  For the 7th year in a row, they finished 2nd to Spokane in attendance, drawing over 180 000 fans to Nat Bailey, for an average of 4 870 a game.  


   The Dunedin Blue Jays were the only other affiliate to reach the post-season, and unlike Vancouver, were unable to get past the first round, as they were swept in a pair of games by the Cubs powerful Daytona affiliate.
   The first half winning D-Jays were 7 games under for the second half.  Wracked by promotions, Dunedin stumbled down the stretch, losing 8 of their final 10 regular season games.  And starters Matt Boyd and Taylor Cole, who were unhittable for stretches of the first half, were clearly running on fumes as the season wound down.  Boyd gave up 8 hits and 4 earned runs against Daytona in his last regular season start, and was pounded by the Cubs again in the playoffs, touched for 8 hits and 7 earned runs after exiting the game with one out in the fourth.  Cole lasted only 1.1 innings in his start, allowing 6 hits and as many earned runs.
  Young guns Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro may have helped in the playoffs, but the latter was at his innings limit for the season, while the former likely would have started if the series had gone to a third game.  Boyd and Cole were better bets to start, at least on paper, because of their age and experience.


 In our post about the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth's one and only minor league home run in Toronto last week, we neglected to mention the inspiration for the post.
   Gift of the Bambino, by Toronto author Jerry Amernic, is a heart-warming tale about a young boy's relationship with the game and his grandfather, with Babe Ruth skillfully woven into the plot several times over the course of twenty years.  Amernic devoted a chapter to Ruth's home run game at Hanlan's Point, and did a masterful job of painting a picture of the young city in the early years of the last century, and baseball's place in it.  We thoroughly recommend the book, which we found on Amazon. Amernic also painted a detailed portrait of Ruth's last game, which was a performance for the ages that we seldom hear about.  Well worth a read.
   We tried to paint a smaller portrait of Toronto that Labour Day weekend 100 years ago, in a young nation about to take its place on the international stage for the first time, as the world went to war. There were scant newspaper mentions of the game, so thanks to the box score and Amernic's narrative, we tried to connect the dots and give you an outline of the landmark day.

  We will dial things back a bit in the off-season, but we will endeavour to keep the posts coming.  We'll watch with interest and post about any Blue Jays prospects that capture end of season awards, and we will also scour Baseball America's top prospects by league lists, due later this month.
  We will come up with our own end of season awards for players in the system this month, and post our top prospect lists in October, or maybe November.  We'll report on the performances of the Jays prospects playing the Arizona Fall League, post an essay or two, and before you know it, it will be time for spring training.
  Thanks to many people who have put up with this obsession of ours, including my wife Sherry, my dogs, Olive and Daphne, and Twitter friends Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, Trey Wilson, Charlie Caskey, Kevin Fitzgerald, and Chris King.  Thanks for answering my many questions, guys.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Babe Ruth's First (and Only) Minor League Home Run


   It was a sunny first Saturday in September in the bustling city of Toronto.  The year was 1914.  Across the ocean, Gavrilo Princip had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in late July.  Tensions had been building across Europe for months, and when Britain entered World War 1 a week later, there was little doubt that Canada would join her.  Said Prime Minister Robert Borden:

   "It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country."

   As the fledgling nation was hastily assembling an ill-prepared expeditionary force to fight the Axis powers overseas, crowds were gathering at the ferry docks at the foot of Bay Street to head over to Toronto Islands, long a place of relaxation and amusement for citizens of the young city. Generations of Torontonians had escaped the city for the peace and tranquility of the Islands, first by horse and buggy when they were connected to the mainland by a narrow spit of land, and then by ferry for over 50 years after a storm had washed the spit away.  The Islands housed summer homes for the well-to-do, resorts, yacht clubs, and amusement parks.  In the late 1800s, as baseball and lacrosse became popular spectator sports in the city, playing fields were built on Hanlan's Point, roughly about where planes take off and land at Billy Bishop Airport today.
   The first baseball stadium, home to the International League's Toronto Maple Leafs, was built in 1897, but was destroyed by fire a few years later, as was a second stadium.  A concrete structure was opened in 1910, and with a capacity of 17000, was one of the largest parks in the minor leagues.

   The minor leagues by 1914 did not resemble the minors of today.  All teams acted and operated as independent entities, but by a series of events over the previous 40 years had assembled themselves into something of a hierarchy, with the International League at the top, hosting the larger cities that did not have a team in the National or American Leagues.  Minor League teams were in direct competition with the big league teams for players, as well as fans.  The "major league" teams, for their part, had loose and often informal agreements with minor league teams on the sale and loan of players.  Over the next three decades, the minors became increasingly dependent on the majors for their continued existence, and lost their independence by a series of steps as major league teams assembled the "farm systems" that we know today.
   One of the stronger International League franchises was located in Baltimore.  Under Manager Jack Dunn, the Orioles would hold their own in exhibition games against major league teams into the 1920s.
1914 was a difficult year for the Orioles, however.  The Federal League had been established the year before in an attempt to become a third major league, and had awarded Baltimore a franchise, the Terrapins.  The Terps played in a more spacious and modern stadium than the O's, who saw their box office revenues quickly decline in the face of this new competition.  Dunn was forced to sell his most popular and valuable player, a local lad signed out of a Baltimore Reform School earlier that spring by the name of George Ruth.  A fireballing lefthanded pitcher, Ruth was only 19 years old (one of Dunn's "Young Babes," according to local media), but more than held his own against the older and more advanced competition.  With the Orioles locked in a battle for survival, however Dunn had no choice but to sell Ruth to the Red Sox, for whom he made his big league debut on July 11th.


   The Red Sox had a loaded roster.  With pitchers like Smokey Joe Wood, Rube Foster, Dutch Leonard, and Ernie Shore ahead of Ruth on the Sox depth chart, there wasn't a great deal of playing time for Ruth (in a day and age when most pitchers finished what they started, bullpens did not have the importance-or size- they have today).  The Red Sox loaned Ruth to the Orioles' rival Providence Grays, likely much to the O's chagrin.
   Ruth teamed up with Carl Mays (who would go on to infamy several years later after his fatal beaning of the Indians Ray Chapman) to give the Grays a potent 1-2 combination at the top of their rotation, and heading into the league's final weekend, the Grays held a 3 game lead over both Rochester and Buffalo for first place in the eight team league.  Toronto was 16 games back, and out of playoff contention, but had a respectable three games above .500 record.
   Hanlan's Point was also the site of Toronto's first amusement park, and the crowds departing across the hazy harbour on the ferry that day were probably headed there in a number equal to those going to the ball park for a double header between the Grays and the Maple Leafs.  A wooden roller coaster, called "The Big Scream," ringed the ballpark and lacrosse grounds.

   Ruth was scheduled to start the first game of the double header.  He limited the Maple Leafs to one hit in tossing a complete game shutout, and in the sixth inning hit a prodigious blast which cleared the right field wall, and landed in the waters of Lake Ontario just a few feet beyond.  It was his first- and last - minor league home run. Providence took the second game in a contest that was shortened to 7 innings in order to allow the Grays to catch the last train out of Toronto.
   The International League season ended two days later, and the Grays ultimately won the league title.  Ruth returned to the Red Sox rotation the next year, and the rest, as they say, is history.
  His one and only minor league home run ball sat at the bottom of the Lake's murky waters, apparently, until the 1920s, when it was supposedly found, and many years later was put on display at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, which at the time was housed at Ontario Place.  In 1987, the display was broken into by two youths, Chased by security, the youths allegedly left the museum, and tossed the ball back into the Lake.  Frogmen searched, but found no ball, which also apparently had been signed by Ruth in 1925.
  We have great difficulty believing that the ball on display was actually Ruth's, but we do like a good story, and don't want to spoil it.  Toronto was a good minor league city for almost a century.  When a new stadium was built at the end of Bathurst St in the 1920s, crowds continued to flock to it, and the city had an International League franchise until 1967.  Ruth's story adds to the colourful lore of minor league baseball in the city.
   A plaque marks the spot near where the stadium once stood:

thepracticaldreamer.wordpress.com photo

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Monday Notebook


One next-to-last edition of the Monday Notebook is here for you, Blue Jays Prospect Fans..

 As the minor league season entered its final weekend, three Blue Jays affiliates were in contention for a playoff spot.
   The Vancouver Canadians clinched the second half Northern Division title in the Northwest League by virtue of a victory over Spokane, the first half champs.
  Vancouver played some inconsistent ball over the second half, but made what is becoming for them a patented run in the last week of the season, and clinched a playoff birth against Spokane on Sunday.  They open their first round series against - you guessed it - Spokane today.
   Buffalo was well back of a playoff spot over a month ago.  Bolstered by the additions of Dalton Pompey, Daniel Norris, and Kendall Graveman from AA, and the return of Cole Gillespie and acquisition of Matt Hague, the Bisons went 24-9 in one stretch, and even briefly overtook Pawtucket for the final playoff spot.  The Bisons entered the final weekend of play needing to sweep playoff-bound Syracuse for the wild card spot, but fell short on Sunday.  Despite a perfect game through 5 and a no-hitter through six by the newly promoted Paolo Espino, the Bisons scored runs in the 7th, 8th, and 9th to tie the contest, only to lose on a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 9th.
   Lansing entered the weekend with a shot at a wild card spot, but failed to make the Midwest League playoffs.
  Dunedin already clinched a spot in the post-season by winning their first half Florida State League division title.  Even though they stumbled a bit down the stretch, the D-Jays are anchored by a rotation of Matt Boyd, Taylor Cole, and Roberto Osuna/Miguel Castro, and have a decent shot at a title.


   Late last night, our Twitter feed was exploding with news of Blue Jays promotions.  Pompey, Graveman, and Norris were promoted, according to Sportsnet's Shi Davidi, along with Sean Nolin, George Kottaras, Ryan Goins, Dan Johnson, Anthony Gose, and a rehabbing Brendan Morrow.  There has been no confirmation yet from the Blue Jays, and we admit that we're surprised that AJ Jimenez was not part of that group.  Stay tuned....


   We've been meaning to look into this for a while, but we give a tip of the hat to fellow Blue Jays prospect follower Minor Leaguer for pointing out the the Blue Jays Player Development Contracts with two of their minor league affiliates expire at the end of this season.
   The vast majority of minor league teams are owned by private or community interests.  Toronto owns only one of its minor league clubs outright, its Dunedin club in the Advanced A Florida State League.  PDCs usually come up for renewal every other September in even years.

   The Blue Jays PDCs with the Low A Lansing Lugnuts and the Rookie Level Bluefield Blue Jays come up for renewal next month.  A number of minor league teams have already renewed or switched affiliations, but the Blue Jays have yet to give any indication about their plans. The Jays have been affiliated with Bluefield since 2010, and Lansing since 2005.

   In case you're wondering, the Blue Jays have a PDC with Buffalo through 2016.  Even though there was a glimmer of hope they might switch affiliates if Ottawa's city council had voted if favour of stadium improvements in order to house an Eastern League team, the Jays re-upped with New Hampshire until 2016 as well.  The Jays also have a PDC with Vancouver, their short season affiliate, until 2016.  All three have solid local ownership, and draw well.  The 90 minute drive from Buffalo to Toronto is a huge benefit. The partnership with Vancouver has been wildly successful, and has helped to grow the Blue Jays brand in B.C.

   Would the Jays consider moving one or both of their expiring affiliations?  We can't see it in the case of Lansing.  The Lugnuts play in a great stadium, draw well despite fielding losing teams the past several seasons, and is only a 4 1/2 - 5 hour drive away from Toronto, making it the closest of the 8 other teams in the Midwest League which  have PDCs coming up for renewal.   One drawback of Lansing's northern location is that prospects who were raised in temperate climates sometimes struggle in the cold temperatures of the season's opening weeks.
   As for Bluefield, they don't draw as well, but they have been relatively successful in the Blue Jays short time there, after being an Orioles affiliate for decades.
    Other factors, such as quality of facilities, proximity to airports and interstates for roving instructors and front office personnel, likely come into play when deciding whether or not to extend a PDC, as does the affiliates' level of satisfaction with the major league club.  Only one other Appy League team has a PDC expiring this year, and only three Pioneer League (the other short season rookie level league) have ones due for renewal.

   One last note:  we had said in our last post that we thought that if Osuna pitched anywhere this off-season, it would be in Mexico.  We were working off some information we were given that he was a protected player, but obviously that information was false, as the righthander tweeted himself that he was going to the Arizona Fall League.  And we're thrilled, both to see what he can do against some tough competition, and so that we can follow his progress more closely than we likely could if we was pitching in his homeland.