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: 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.'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.

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