Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What's In the System: Middle Infield




       Other than on the mound, the Blue Jays greatest collection of prospects is up the middle and second base and shortstop. where the club has stockpiled a number of premium athletes, especially in the lower levels of the system, and has brought that group of players along one step at a time through the system.

   At the upper levels of the organization, there's really no one ready to succeed Jose Reyes at short, and second base may continue to be a soft spot in the lineup for several more years, unless the club goes outside the system to acquire a player.   Ryan Goins has spent the most time of any middle IF prospect with the big club, and while he plays major league defence at both spots, his bat is highly questionable, and his glove may not be enough to compensate for it.  Still etched vividly in our minds is a play Goins made at second that we witnessed first hand from behind the visitors dugout during Marcus Stroman's brilliant one-hit over seven innings gem in a July matinee against the Red Sox. Goins ranged far to his left on a sharply hit ball between first and second, and with the ball seemingly headed to right field for a base hit, Goins slid to corral the ball, and came up throwing to nip the runner at first.  The play showed all the hallmarks of an above-average defender:  anticipating and reacting to the ball, ranging far to get it (and not giving up on it), and making an agile, athletic slide to get the ball, while still coming up in a good throwing position, demonstrating good arm strength to make the throw to get the out.

    Jonathan Diaz came back to the Blue Jays after playing in the Red Sox system (and making his MLB debut) last year, but only a torrid final month of the season at Buffalo brought his average over the Mendoza Line.  Kevin Nolan and Ryan Schimpf (who played a multitude of positions, mostly at 2nd) played at Buffalo and New Hampshire this year, but are organizational depth players at this point.  Jon Berti has played reasonably well in the Arizona Fall League, as the club decides whether or not to place him on the 40 man roster or risk losing him in the Rule 5 draft in December, but the speedster (40 SB at New Hampshire) is a longshot to win a major league job, even with the apparent current opening.  The diminutive Jorge Flores, and Shane Opitz, who was limited to 32 minor league games (all below AA) this year due to injury, add more infield depth.

   As you progress down the organizational ladder, the quality of prospects starts to improve considerably.  Emilio Guerrero showed some promise at short last year both with the glove and the bat, but at 6'4" has possibly outgrown the position, as evidenced by the 20 games he played in the outfield for Dunedin this season.  And we keep hoping for signs of life from Christian Lopes' bat. Once one of the most highly rated youth players in the nation, Lopes has posted very pedestrian numbers at the plate over four minor league seasons.

   The Blue Jays spent over $7.5 million on international players in 2011, with Dawel Lugo coming away with $1.3 million of it.  Lugo played his first year of full season ball at Lansing this year, and struggled at the end of it.  Just the same, there is a bat there that may play one day (especially if he improves his pitch recognition and starts to draw more walks), but likely not at short.  The thinking among many scouts is that the strong-armed Lugo, who lacks the twitchy quickness that the Jays covet in a middle infielder, will ultimately wind up at third.  We saw Lugo on milb.tv games several times at different points of the season, and were actually pleasantly surprised by his defence.  His bat really tired as the season progressed, taking away from a hot mid-summer stretch that landed him on Baseball America's weekly Prospect Hot Sheet.
   Dickie Joe Thon was a 5th round pick in 2010, and while he has not produced at the plate as may have been hoped, he has posted solid, but somewhat unspectacular numbers.  After playing exclusively at short through his first three minor league seasons, Thon played 68 games at 2nd, 33 in Leftfield, and none at short this season, his first year of full season ball, at Lansing.
   David Harris and Jason Leblebijian are added depth players at Lansing, but we would love to see the latter make it to the majors, if only to hear how badly Buck Martinez might mangle his last name.

  Vancouver boasted not one, but by the end of the season, two of the top up the middle prospects in all of baseball in Franklin Barreto and Richard Urena.  At the tender age of 18, Barreto led the Northwest League in 5 offensive categories, was named the loop's MVP, and was Baseball America's Short Season Player of the Year.  Questions abounded about his defence before the season began, and while there is no doubt about his athleticism, Barreto did little to answer them.  His footwork can be awkward at times, and reports are that he doesn't quite have the arm strength to make those long throws to first from the hole.  The bat will absolutely play, however.  Barreto barrels up the ball and consistently hits it hard to all fields.  He will move up to full season play at Lansing next year, and is the best prospect in this organization not named Daniel Norris or Dalton Pompey.  Barreto's future may lie at second, or in centrefield.
    Urena, on the other hand, has been termed major league ready defensively, and while he acquitted himself well at the plate for Bluefield and Vancouver, he's not on the same level as Barreto with the bat.  Promoted to Vancouver in mid-August, Urena played mostly 2nd and 3rd for the C's, with the organization deciding to leave Barreto at short. Just the same, he is likely the Blue Jays shortstop of the future, and the organization will have an interesting decision on its hands next March, because Urena is likely headed to full season ball as well, and they may have to start working Barreto in at other spots on the diamond.  Urena, by the way, is all of one day older than Barreto.  It will be more than worth the 5 hour drive from Southern Ontario to Lansing to watch both play in 2015.
   Vancouver had a few other prospects up the middle who will be worth watching as they move up the ranks.  Tim Locastro was a 13th round pick in 2013 who played Division III ball, and while he may not have much projectability left, has hit well in two years of short season ball.  Locastro played 33 games at 2nd in Vancouver's crowded infield.  Gunnar Heidt, drafted in the 13th round after leading the College of Charleston to its second-ever NCAA Super Regional, took over 2nd from Locastro until Urena's arrival. While he was a shortstop in college, Heidt's toolkit appears to be best suited to second base.
 
   At the lowest level of the organization is 17 year old Yeltsin Gudino, who was very overmatched at the plate in his first year of stateside play in the GCL this past summer.  That the Jays thought enough of his skills and his maturity to have him skip the Dominican League, which is the usual step for Caribbean players to make, tells us that there is still plenty of room for growth in his bat, and that the organization thinks highly of him.  Deiferson Barreto played his first year of stateside ball as well, and manned 2nd for 51 games with the GCL Jays this summer.  Barreto showed enough with the bat that we would like to see what he can do at a higher level next year.
 
   And as we were preparing these rankings, we live tweeted an Arizona Fall League game where Blue Jays OF prospect Dwight Smith Jr started at 2nd.  The thinking is that Smith may not have the power necessary for a corner infield position, and his bat and defensive skills may be a good fit at second.  The AFL, of course, is a league where organizations tweak prospect's games, or look to add to their versatility (because we're all looking for the next Ben Zobrist), but we will see if he makes any further appearances there before the league wraps up play in a few weeks.

   This is a group which shows immense promise, although the earliest we might see one of them in the majors would be late 2016/early 2017 at the earliest.  It's also a group which might be useful in terms of trade fodder to strengthen the big club.

Our rankings:

1.  F. Barreto
2.  Urena
3.  Lugo
4.  Berti
5.  Thon
6.   Locastro
7.   Gudino
8.   Heidt
9.   D. Barreto
10.  Guerrero




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