Friday, November 28, 2014

Toronto Blue Jays Top Prospects: 11-20

11.  Devon Travis 2B
     Travis is the latecomer to this list, and while what we've read about him has mostly been positive, we don't know enough about him yet to bump him further up the list.
  Travis reminds us a bit of Kevin Pillar.  Not highly rated in his draft year and the owner of average to slightly above average tools, all Travis has done in three minor league seasons is hit, posting a .323/.388/.487 line.  Baseball America is firmly in the Travis camp, noting that he has hit at every level.  Here's more from their latest report on him:
   He has superb hand-eye coordination, good balance at the plate and strong bat control, which allows him to make consistent contact and use the whole field. He’s a smart player who’s been able to make adjustments as he’s moved up the ladder

   Keith Law, on the other hand, is less than sold:

   Had a great year but....... he's old for where he played, and he's an undersized guy without tools. Not a prospect for me, nor for any of the scouts I talked to who'd seen him.

   The true evaluation of Travis probably lies somewhere in between.  The Tigers, faced with a thin market for outfielders, felt that Anthony Gose could develop into at least a league average player, and act as insurance if Steven Moya proves to be not quite ready for MLB action.  They also felt that they could live with several more years of Ian Kinsler, even with his production due to start to decline, at second base, ahead of Travis.
   You're not getting an all star with Travis.  You're not getting a gold glover or much of a base stealing threat, either.  What you are getting is a guy who consistently barrels up the ball, who may hit 10 to 15 home runs a year, and a guy who has made the necessary adjustments at every level he has played at.  And with second being a bit of a black hole in the Jays lineup for several years, the club will take that.

Travis' Milb Page

ETA: late 2015/early 2016
Projection: everyday 2nd baseman, bottom third of the order bate
Worst Case Scenario:  utility infielder

12.  Sean Nolin  LHP
   Nolin has been the forgotten man in the Blue Jays plans, but he showed this fall in Arizona that when he's healthy, he can very much be in the picture.
   Leg injuries have limited Nolin to 20 starts in each of the last two years.  In 2013, he matched Marcus Stroman strikeout for strikeout with New Hampshire.  At 6"4"/230, Nolin is projected as a back of the rotation innings eater.
   Nolin commands all four of his pitches well.  His fastball grades as average, but he can touch 95 on occasion.  His size allows him to create a downhill plane on his pitches, and his delivery can make it tough for hitters to pick up the ball.  Nolin gave up a fair number of fly balls earlier in his minor league career, but he induced much more groundball contact this year.
   The biggest challenge Nolin has faced the past two years is staying healthy.  Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris, and possibly even Kendall Graveman have passed him.  The lefthander went to Arizona this fall to make up for lost innings, and after a couple of rough outings early in the schedule, he was back to his old form over the last half.
   It's hard to say where Nolin fits in the Blue Jays plans.  Called up in 2013 for an emergency start, he caught too much of the strike zone and was pummeled by the Orioles.  Even though he missed almost a month this year, he pitched well down the stretch for Buffalo, and was called up when MLB rosters expanded at the end of August, but pitched all of one inning in September.
 With the the starting rotation beginning to become a bit crowded,  Nolin's greatest value to the club may be as trade bait.

Nolin's Milb Page

ETA:   2015
Projection:  Back of the rotation starter
Worst Case Scenario:  Front of the bullpen guy

13.  Max Pentecost  C
 The Blue Jays nabbed Pentecost with their second first round pick in June, 11th overall.
All indications were that he was a hit-first, defence-second receiver, but was at least adequate behind the plate.  Jason Kendall comps were made.
  After he signed,  Pentecost spent the obligatory week in the Gulf Coast League, then was off to Vancouver, for what was presumed to be the real start of a brief apprenticeship in the minors, which would see him in the majors leagues as early as next summer.
   Pentecost arrived in the Pacific Northwest in rough shape however, likely from the rigors of an extended collegiate season on a frame that scouts felt could use some bulking up to begin with.  Pentecost was behind the plate for only 6 games for the C's, and was limited to 87 Plate Appearances before being shut down and sent back to Florida for rest and rehab in August. Reports we had about his catching skills in that small sample size were less than glowing, but we'll give Pentecost a pass for now.
   Pentecost turned out to have a shoulder injury which didn't respond to treatment, and underwent what we presume is surgery to repair a torn labrum on October 8th.  Recovery from the procedure, of course, depends on the extent of the damage, but it's typically 9 months to a year for a full recovery. Which means that 2015 isn't necessarily a write off for him, but it does move the projection back, and the signing of Russell Martin takes away the urgency.
   Pentecost has above-average speed for a catcher, and has a line drive swing that isn't projected to produce great power, but should generate plenty of singles and doubles.  There is every indication that he is a premium athlete - he was the MVP of the summer collegiate Cape Cod League in 2013, and won the Johnny Bench Award as the nation's top college catcher in 2014.  There is every indication that he will be a solid contributor to the lineup.  The injury issue which has stalled his timetable is the only thing keeping him out of the Top 10.

Pentecost's Milb Page

ETA:  Late 2016
Projection: hit first, defence second catcher
Worst Case Scenario: platoon catcher

14.  Mitch Nay  3B
  Nay may have been surpassed by Pompey, Barreto, and maybe Alford as the best position player prospect in the system, but he still figures highly in the Blue Jays future plans.
  Nay missed a season of development in 2012 due to a broken foot, but had a breakout year in short season play in 2013, raking at Bluefield before being promoted to Vancouver in time for the NWL playoffs, in which he was named the MVP.  This season at Lansing, the power wasn't in present in as much quantity as had been hoped, but his 34 doubles were tied for third in the league.  The Midwest League is not a home run hitters paradise, particularly the Lugnuts' home Cooley Law School Stadium.  Power is often the last took in a hitter's kit to develop, so the thinking that some of those doubles will turn into homers in more favourable environments.
  Nay has an advanced approach at the plate, and makes consistently hard, up the middle contact.  He still projects as a middle of the order of the bat.  The concern about Nay has always been about his range, which can take away from his plus arm.  With Brett Lawrie ensconced at third for the foreseeable future, a move across the diamond may be in store for Nay.
  Other top prospects list have ranked Nay higher than we have, and while we're still high on him, his presence on this secondary tier is more of a reflection on the rate of his development relative to other players in the system.

Nay's Milb Page

ETA:  Late 2017
Projection:  Middle of the order, starting 3rd Baseman
Worst Case Scenario:  IB/DH platoon player

15.  Matt Smoral  LHP
   Smoral was yet another gem the Blue Jays drafted who other scouts shied away from because of a broken foot in his senior year of high school and a college commitment.  Toronto took him as a comp pick in 2012 and gave him a $2 million bonus, and were prepared to wait on the 6'8" lefthander.
   Smoral didn't make his pro debut until the GCL started in June of 2013, and missed a fair number of bats.  And when he wasn't missing bats, he was missing the strike zone.
   The Blue Jays moved him up the ladder to the Appalachian League in 2014,  Smoral's  Appy debut was a sizzling one, striking out 8 and walking 3 in 3 innings.  Named the league's 7th prospect by BA, Smoral was promoted to Vancouver in August, and wasn't overmatched against older hitters, although a meltdown in the NWL finals by Smoral cost the C's a chance at a four-peat.
   Smoral touches 96 with his fastball, with late life.  His slider was one of the best in short season ball, and projects as a plus pitch.  While he made strides with his delivery this season, Smoral still must improve on his command (5.7K/9 this year).
   Smoral projects as a front of the rotation starter if he can harness his command.  Tall lefthanders who missed a year of development tend to take longer to reach their ceiling, so the Blue Jays may not be as aggressive with their promotion of him as they were with other pitchers this year.

Smoral's Milb Page

ETA:  2017
Projection: #2/#3 starter
Worst Case Scenario:  Brett Cecil or Aaron Loup's replacement

16.  Dwight Smith
   If Mitch Nay flew under the radar this year in the shadow of more high profile position players in the system, the son of the former Major Leaguer by the same name was barely a blip on the screen.
Playing in the Florida State League in front of dozens of spectators every night, all Smith did was post an OPS of .816 with virtually no protection in the lineup, in cavernous FSL stadiums, and in the flyball-killing Florida heat.
   A sandwich pick in 2011, Smith has made steady, if unspectacular progress.  Smith lacks the power of a corner outfielder, and the Blue Jays may have plans to try to turn him into a multi-position utility player, as evidenced by the brief trial he had at second base in the Arizona Fall League. It will be interesting to see if the club has him play several positions at New Hampshire next year.
   We find that when we talk about prospects who are in this tier, we tend to talk about what they can't do.  What Smith can do is get on base consistently, and use his line drive stroke to find the gaps.  He has average speed, which all but rules out centrefield, except in an emergency.
   It doesn't hurt that Smith hits from the left side, too.

Smith's Milb Page

ETA: Late 2016/early 2017
Projection:  Platoon Corner OF
Worst Case Scenario:  Utility Player

17.  Rowdy Tellez
   The legend of Rowdy Tellez is growing.
A hitter of prodigious BP and Home Run Derby blasts in various Showcase events as a High Schooler, MLB teams were scared off by his USC commitment prior to last year's draft, but the Blue Jays used savings gained elsewhere in the draft to convince him to sign after taking him in the 28th round.
   Tellez struggled in the first weeks of his pro debut season in the GCL last year, but found his groove in the closing week, when he hit everything hard.  Sent to Bluefield this season, Tellez got off to another slow start, including an 0-33 stretch, but caught fire and hit .293/.358/.424.  The club skipped Tellez over Vancouver to Lansing, where he acquitted himself well in two weeks of play.
  There is no disguising Tellez's role.  He is a bat first player, period.  Yet his is not necessarily a hit or miss approach.  Tellez has shown patience at the plate, walking almost as much as he struck out this year.  He has above average bat speed, and can drive balls to the opposite field.
   At 6"5"/230, Tellez is a below average runner who will have to pay attention to his conditioning, and work hard to be even an average first baseman.  He should return to Lansing this year, and will likely split time at first and DH with the presence of Ryan McBroom, who had a great debut season at Vancouver.  We are excited about his future, but he is still far away, and if he doesn't hit, he won't provide any value to the club.

Tellez's Milb Page

ETA:  2017/18
Projection:  Middle of the Order 1B/DH
Worst Case Scenario:  AAAA Player

18.  Jairo Labourt
   There's a temptation to label Labourt as a disappointment this year.
The tall Dominican lefty started the year with Lansing, where he was one of the youngest players in the Midwest League, and he struggled mightily, walking 20 batters in 14 innings. To be fair, he was not the only prospect on the team who had difficulty with the challenge the organization presented him with.
   Sent back to extended spring training, Labourt rediscovered his command, and was sent off to Vancouver when short season play started, where he became the C's ace, and was named the NWL's third best prospect by BA.
   Labourt challenges hitters with his mid 90s fastball, and was very successful against right handed hitters, who hit .171/.286/.202.  Labourt demonstrated much better command with Vancouver, striking out 82 and walking 37 in 71 innings. He did hit 8 batters, showing a willingness to pitch inside.
   If not for his Lansing experience, we would no doubt be looking at Labourt's season through a different lens.  His is a live arm that should perform well in another stint at Lansing.  The organization has to make a 40 man roster decision on Labourt after next season, so his timeline may be moved up.

Labourt's Milb Page

ETA:  2017
Projection:  Middle of the rotation starter
Worst Case Scenario:  Front of the bullpen guy

19.  Sean Reid-Foley

   When a prospect drops in the draft due to concerns either about signability or durability, you can bet that the Blue Jays will be in the running to scoop him up.  They covet impact players.
   Such was the case with righthander Reid-Foley, who fell to the Blue Jays in the second round last June.  Some teams were scared off by his delivery, while others felt that he was committed to Florida State. The Blue Jays felt that they scored another first rounder.
   Reid-Foley caught a heavy dose of helium last spring with added velocity on his fastball.  At 6'3"/215, and with a fastball that touched 97, he was a man among boys in Florida high school competition.  He pounds the strike zone, and shows an advanced feel for pitching.
  There are concerns about his delivery.   He throws across his body, and the inverted W in his delivery is a tell-tale sign of future elbow/shoulder issues to some.  You can't really see the W here, but what you can see is a compact delivery, a nasty slider, and hit and miss stuff:

ETA: 2018
Projection:   Front of the rotation starter
Worst Case Scenario:  Hard to determine - he's very far away

20.  Ryan Borucki

   This was the hardest of all our prospect picks to make.  We had to choose from a variety of players at different stages of development.  There were some we considered who had disappointing seasons but still have high ceilings (DJ Davis), some who surprised, but are too far away (Lane Thomas),  and some who we're still high on, but have to wonder about their earlier projections (Dawel Lugo/Alberto Tirado).
   Ultimately, we've decided to go with Borucki.  In his high school senior year, he played mostly first base, due to an elbow injury that he chose to rehab.  The Blue Jays took a flyer on the tall, athletic Illinoisan, and took him in the 15th round in 2012.
   The injury didn't respond to treatment, and Borucki opted for Tommy John surgery in March the following season, which cost him all of 2013.  Borucki teamed up with Smoral in the Bluefield rotation this year, and followed him to Vancouver late in the season.  He had the lowest walk/9 ratio (1.6), and the best K-BB ratio (5.0) of any lefthander in the Appy League.  He pitched even better in the Northwest League.  On the year, Borucki gave up just 39 hits in 57 IP this year, walking  only 9, while striking out 52.
   Borucki sat between 92-94 early in the season, but lost a touch of velocity as the season wore on, which isn't a surprise.  He pitches off his fastball, and the best of his secondary pitches at this point is his change, which shows plus potential.  His curveball will need an upgrade if he is to repeat his success at higher levels.
  At 6'4", Borucki still has plenty of room for projection.

Borucki's Milb Page

ETA:  Late 2017/Early 2018
Projection: Middle to end of the rotation starter
Worst Case Scenario:  Front end of the bullpen guy

Monday, November 24, 2014

Clutchlings Blue Jays Prospects: The Top 10

      We've given a great deal of thought to this year's top prospects list.
  We do like to take our time putting it together, assembling a fair amount of research from a number of credible sources, and our own observations of prospects we have seen in action. We also like for Fall Instructs, the Arizona Fall League, and the first wave of GM meetings to play themselves out before putting a list together.
  This year, unlike any other in recent memory, has been one of the more successful ones in Blue Jays minor league history.  The club's focus on drafting high risk, high reward players starting in 2010, along with a concentration on the international market and drafting players who may have been overlooked because of injury and/or college commitments, is starting to bear fruit.  For the first time, we won't be grasping for names when we compile our list of the 11th to 20th ranked prospects - we actually had a tough time not including some names, and found ourselves making up top 10 and top 20 lists, only to remake them a week later.
   For the first time in several years, the farm system actually graduated players to the major league club who made a more than limited contribution to the team.  Marcus Stroman came up in early May and struggled out of the bullpen.  Sent back to Buffalo to get stretched out as a starter, he came back to the club and quickly became a mainstay in the rotation, posting a record of 3-0, 1.71 ERA with an 0.95 WHIP and .193 Opponents BA in 5 July starts.
   Aaron Sanchez started the year at AA, and was promoted to AAA in June.  Called up to the big club and installed in the bullpen, Sanchez cut down his repertoire of pitches to his fourseamer and sinker and was lights out in relief, posting a tiny 1.09 ERA in 24 appearances.
  On September 1st, when major league rosters expanded, the Blue Jays promoted an incredible 8 minor leaguers.  Even though the club was out of contention, lefthander Daniel Norris and outfielder Dalton Pompey had an impact, and served notice that they were in the running for spots on the 25 man roster when spring training breaks next March.
   A note about qualification for this list before we begin.  A player with more than 90 at bats, or 45 innings pitched, or 45 days on a major league roster before September is no longer to be eligible for rookie of the year voting the following year.  Using that guideline, Marcus Stroman doesn't qualify as a rookie any more, but Aaron Sanchez does, and to us still merits consideration as a prospect.

1.  Daniel Norris
   This was a tough decision, as it came down to Norris or Sanchez.
While Sanchez had a scintillating MLB debut, Norris actually had a far better season as a starting pitcher.
Minor League Baseball's pitcher of the month for May, Norris started the year in High A, and finished it in the majors.  It's been some time since a Blue Jays prospect had as dominant a season.

  Promoted to New Hampshire in June after dominating Florida State League hitters, Norris actually struggled to economize his pitch count, but the Blue Jays brass had seen enough in his last AA start (6.2IP, 5H, 1 R/ER, 0BB, 8K) to challenge him further with a promotion to Buffalo.  And whatever adjustments he had made in that last AA start carried over to Buffalo, where he struck out 32 hitters in 16.2 innings over his first 3 starts.  At that point, having thrown 118 innings for the season (20 more than his career high), it was announced that Norris had made his last start.  With Buffalo in the midst of a playoff race, however, the organization had a change of heart, and let Norris make one last start against the Red Sox Pawtucket affiliate (who the Bisons were chasing for the final playoff spot).  We made the trip to Coca-Cola field to watch the start.  Norris breezed through his first two innings, but suffered a noticeable decline in his fastball velocity, and the Paw Sox hitters knocked him out of the game by the fourth.
  The decline in velocity, of course, was due to bone chips in his pitching elbow, which were removed at season's end.  Norris was part of the massive airlift of prospects who were called up when rosters were expanded on September 1st, and he made his MLB debut four days later.  Called upon to face the Red Sox David Ortiz in a LOOGY situation, Norris got a first pitch strike on a curve, and then five pitches later froze Papi on an inside curve.  The ironic part of this story is that there was a bit of a language barrier problem between Norris and Dionner Navarro.  In a quick chat before he started his warm up pitches, a pumped-up Norris told Navarro that he preferred to go with fastballs because he felt he didn't have the feel for a curve, only to have Navarro put two fingers down for his first pitch.
   Norris was the Blue Jays 2nd round pick in 2011, but signed for the 20th highest bonus, largely thanks to the club's inability to sign first round pick Tyler Beede.  Regarded by some as the best prep lefthander in the draft that year, he became the first high school lefty from his draft class to reach the majors.
   Norris' first year and a half in pro ball was a bit of a disaster, as the club had altered his delivery, and he showed a reluctance to rely on his fastball.  After getting pounded in an early May start at Lansing last year, Norris and pitching coach Vince Horsman had a heart-to-heart, and Norris began to use his fastball more, which only improved the effectiveness of his secondary pitches once his command improved.  Since June of last year, he has struck out 213 batters in 176 IP.
   Norris posted the highest strikeout rate in all of minor league baseball (11.8/9) this year - his K rate actually improved at every minor league step up the ladder this year:


    Norris experienced an uptick in velocity this year, usually sitting between 91 and 95 with his fastball, touching 97.  His slider has plus potential, as does his change up.  Norris throws with an upright delivery, ha smooth mechanics toward the plate that gives him good downhill plane on his pitches, and usually leaves him in a good fielding position after he completes his windup.
   Norris, to some extent, came out of nowhere this year.  He went from being nowhere near anyone's top 100 Milb prospects to leaping into the top 10.  We've had our eye on him since his transformation mid-season last year, but even we didn't think he would make a leap of this significance this season.  He may start the season in Buffalo, but it's only a matter of time before Norris established himself at least in the middle of the Blue Jays rotation.

ETA:  2015 Mid Season
Projection: #2/#3 starter
Worst Case Scenario:  8th inning bullpen guy

2.  Aaron Sanchez
   There were some who thought the Blue Jays had made a huge mistake when they took Sanchez with the 34th pick of the 2010 draft.  A tall, lanky, and gangly specimen, there were some who thought that Sanchez would always be overvalued because of his size.  The Blue Jays brought Sanchez along slowly, putting him through two seasons of rookie and short season ball before his first full season with Lansing.  Command issues plagued him almost from the outset. Last year at Dunedin, the whispers about Sanchez having command issues and not being quite the sum of all his parts began to grow.  By the time the Arizona Fall League rolled around, the Sanchez bandwagon had become noticeably lighter.  Here's a comment we had from a reader a little over a year ago:

   Funny how tendencies have a habit of sticking around. I saw Sanchez pitch as a high school prospect in the 2009 Tournament of Stars in Cary, NC. While he had that easy delivery and good velo that earned him more than his share of excitement from the scouting community, I came away with a 'what the hell am I missing here' impression. His lack of command and inability to repeat pitches stood out like a sore thumb. His results weren't bad, given the unrefined tendencies of high school batters to swing at high-velo or high-movement pitches that aren't strikes. But still, I thought he was a project, and it raised my eyebrows when he went in the first round with an almost-$800K bonus. You never know when a player can blow up, but following my own son's progress to pro ball made it glaringly obvious that for a group of professionals whose sole job it is to evaluate talent, scouts just get it wrong with their projectability assessments way more often than they get it right (in both directions!). To me at the time, Sanchez should have been more like a 3rd-to-5th round sign. His lingering tendencies have produced results that have proven that so far. I do hope for his sake that he has a serendipitous encounter with some pitching coach who is able to spot that as-yet unknown little fault in his delivery and turn his fortunes around
 This did not deter the Blue Jays, nor Sanchez.  Some of his struggles may have been to the organization tinkering with his delivery, having him land in a more upright position, and due to his experimenting with a sinker.
   Fast forward to 2014.  Sanchez opened the season at AA, and even though the results were somewhat mixed (40BB in 66IP), the club challenged him, in what would become a system-wide trend,  with a promotion to Buffalo.  Sanchez demonstrated better control after a half dozen AAA starts, when they put him on the next path of his development, sending him to the bullpen.  Two relief outings later, Sanchez found himself in an MLB bullpen, tossing a pair of scoreless relief innings against the Red Sox.
   Sanchez was barely hittable for the rest of the season, filling a huge set-up role void in the Toronto bullpen, and posting a miniscule 1.09 ERA in 33 innings, with a ridiculous 0.70 WHIP.  The main reason for Sanchez's success was the club paring down his repertoire of pitches:

Brooks Baseball

   Not having to worry about getting hitters out a second time through the order, Sanchez could use his fastball, which seems to explode on batters from his easy-effort delivery to induce swings and misses, or weak, groundball contact.  He consistently sat between 93 and 95 with his fastball, and touched 97 with it.  Sanchez gets plenty of extension from his delivery,   His curve has been described as major league ready since he was in A ball, and his change improved this season.
   The Blue Jays appear to have a tough decision on their hands with Sanchez:  keep him in the bullpen, where he's been successful, or let him vie for a spot in the starting rotation, where he has not met with as much success.  For the time being, the club appears to be willing to let him compete for a starting job in spring training.  

ETA:  2015
Projection: #2/#3 starter
Worst Case Scenario:  late innings bullpen guy

3.  Dalton Pompey
  The Blue Jays took a flyer on Pompey in the 16th round of the 2010 draft.  The Mississauga HS product was described as toolsy, but incredibly raw.
   His development over the course of his first three pro seasons was very slow and unremarkable.  A hand injury limited his playing time in 2012, and his first year of full season ball at Lansing was fairly nondescript, until he caught fire in the final weeks of the season, 
   He carried that hot finish over to the 2014 season, hitting .319/.397/.491 with 29 stolen bases in a little over two months of play in the Florida State League.  Promoted to AA, where pitchers have a plan, and don't rely just on their ability to blow the ball by hitters, Pompey needed a week to figure things out, and began raking once more, earning a trip to the Futures Game.  His storybook season didn't end there, however, as he joined Buffalo in August and was a sparkplug at the top of their batting order during the Bisons' playoff push.  Pompey's season culminated in a call up to the Blue Jays on September 1st, and his 4-4 game with a pair of triples late in the season against Baltimore capped off his rise through four levels of play.  Likely a little worn out from his longest season, Pompey's numbers were a little less than expected against the elite caliber of competition in the Arizona Fall League, but he was named one of the loop's Top 10 Prospects after play ended last week.
   Pompey's breakout year was well worth the wait.  An Milb Gold Glove winner, Pompey has gap-closing speed in the outfield that profiles as a centrefielder, and a plus arm that could play right.  The switch-hitter likes to lay down drag bunts, especially on the left side, and is incredibly quick out of the box.  He has shown both power and patience, drawing walks at an above average rate.  He is also a smart baserunner who uses his speed effectively and wisely on the bases.
   He may start the season in Buffalo, but Pompey has the makings of a first division major leaguer.  He outperformed projections for him last year, and because he is still developing, he may outperform them again this year, even though that would be a tough act to follow.

ETA:  Mid 2015
Projection:  Lead Off Sparkplug Centrefielder
Worst Case Scenario:  Platoon corner outfielder

4.  Franklin Barreto
  Barreto was part of an impressive haul of international shortstops the Blue Jays signed in 2012 (along with Dawel Lugo, who played at Lansing this year, and Richard Urena).  A fabled youth player, all Barreto has done since his pro debut is hit.  Brought stateside for rookie ball last year, Barreto was dominant in the Northwest League this year, at the tender age of 18, in a league filled mostly with college grads.
  Hitting third in Vancouver's batting order, Barreto led the NWL in Games, Runs, Hits, Doubles, RBIs, and Total Bases, and was the league's MVP.  He was also named Baseball America's Short Season Player of the Year.
   Barreto barrels up balls to all fields:

   At 5'9", Barreto has a strong, compact build.  He has plus speed, and profiles as a middle of the order, impact bat.  Like many young players, he still can chase breaking balls out of the strike zone, but there is every indication that a player of his athletic intelligence will ultimately figure that part of the game out.
   The only concerns about Barreto involve his defence.  He committed 26 errors at short for Vancouver, many of them on the back end of double play balls.  His footwork can be awkward, and he doesn't always show great arm strength on long throws from the hole.  Still, he has the type of fast-twitch skills that the Blue Jays covet, and while he may end up at second base or centrefield, the Blue Jays are content to let him stay at the position at Lansing next season, basically until he plays himself out of it.
  Wherever he winds up on the diamond, Barreto's bat will play.  The  It will be no surprise to us if he tops this list next season.  

ETA:  late 2017
Projection:  Middle of the lineup hitter, up the middle defender
Worst Case Scenario:  decent bat, corner outfielder

5.  Roberto Osuna
   The Blue Jays signed  Osuna out of Mexico for $1.5 million in 2011. Already something of a prodigy, the 15 year old Osuna was throwing in the 90s, and pitching in the Mexican League at the time.  He made his stateside debut in 2012, and is still talked about with reverence by Vancouverites for a start he made as a 17 year old in 2012 where he struck out 13 of the 19 hitters he faced.
   Osuna made his full season debut with Lansing last year, and was continuing his steady climb up the prospect charts until he was sidelined with a torn UCL in May, which required Tommy John to repair in July.
   He didn't make his return to competition until July of this year, and pitched for Dunedin in August.  The results, as one would expect, were less than stellar, as Osuna was struggling to regain his velocity and control (although he did have a 12.3K/9 rate in 30 IP).  
  Sent to Arizona to both get some extra work and face some tough competition, Osuna still has yet to post the numbers that he did prior to his surgery.  At 19, there's not a lot to worry about, however.  He did have his velocity back up to between 91 and 93, and touched 95.
  What keeps Osuna near the top of our list is what has been called his advanced feel for pitching.  His innings have been carefully monitored this year, but the bubble wrap will start to come off next year, when he likely will be pitching at New Hampshire.
   Osuna's top secondary pitch is a changeup, which is rated plus.  He caught too much of the strike zone at times in Arizona, and paid for it against hitters who can easily jump on such mistakes.  His fastball can lack movement at times, and the organization is working on altering his delivery to correct it.
   Prior to his surgery, Osuna's body was characterized as high maintenance.  Meaning, to put it blunty, he was chubby.  Both our observations of him in Arizona and reports we have read indicate that he has slimmed down, and appears to be paying more attention to his diet and conditioning.

ETA:  mid 2016
Projection:  #3/#4 starter
Worst Case Scenario:  Set up bullpen guy

6. Jeff Hoffman
   Hoffman has forced us to re-write our list numerous times.
The Blue Jays apparently have had their eye on Hoffman for some time.  Seen as talented but very undeveloped coming out of high school in upstate New York, Hoffman pitched for three years at East Carolina.
  Pitching out of the bullpen as a freshman, he hit 95 with his fastball.  He made what would be his last collegiate start on April 17th of last year, striking out 16.  A game in which he threw 117 pitches.  He felt some discomfort in his elbow late in the start, but told his pitching coach he was ok to continue.  The discomfort, of course didn't go away, and Hoffman underwent Tommy John in early May.
   The Blue Jays had followed Hoffman's every start this year, and were not put off by the surgery, and made Hoffman, who had been projected by many to be a top five, maybe even top three pick, the ninth pick overall, and signed him for a bonus of just over $3 million.
   Hoffman has been described as a premium athlete.  At 6'4", 190, he has the ideal body size and composition for the club - long, lean, and projectable.  His fastball sits 91-95 (his final inning this spring had him at 94-95), and touches 97, with arm side run  and heavy sinking action that generates plenty of weak contact.  He gets great extension with his delivery, and like Sanchez, the ball seems to explode out of his hand.  His curve is projected as plus, and his change and slider developed noticeably last year.  With his athleticism, Hoffman is a premium defender.
   Tommy John, of course, throws this all into question, even though it's becoming almost a rite of passage for young pitchers, and like any surgery that is repeated, the procedure is becoming increasingly successful.
All indications are that his recovery has gone well, and if it continues to do so, he should see game action sometime in May.  His pitch count will be strictly monitored, of course, which will also limit his progress this year.  Most pitchers (Osuna included) get most of their velocity back quickly after returning to competition, but command (see Kyle Drabek) can take longer to come back.
   Hoffman is projected as a front of the rotation starter, and if not for the surgery might have found himself in the major league rotation next year.  All indications are that the Blue Jays got a top three pick for a (comparatively) bargain price.  His progress now will be delayed.  We had difficulty including Hoffman on our original list as a result, but our research indicates his ceiling is so high that we couldn't relegate him to the second tier list.  The Blue Jays have once again rolled the dice.

ETA: mid 2016
Projection: front of the rotation starter
Worst Case Scenario: back of the rotation starter

7.  Richard Urena
 The 6"1" 170 Urena was part of that trio of talented international package of shortstops the Blue Jays signed in 2011, and he is the most likely to stick at the position.
   His defence has been labelled major league ready, although the 19 errors (many of the mental variety) he committed at Bluefield have us wondering if that's the case.
  Urena has those quick-twitch movements that create good reaction to batted balls, and has soft hands, a quick release, and a plus arm.   
   Urena is a natural lefthanded hitter, but took up switch-hitting this year, and reports are that he was successful at it.  He has above average bat speed, and is learning to barrel up the ball.  His power projects as below average, but he does profile as a gap hitter, with plenty of potential for doubles.
  At 18 (he's a day younger than Barreto), Urena spent most of last year in the Appy League, and was called up to Vancouver late in the season to help the C's playoff drive.  Interestingly, he did not supplant Barreto at short, playing second and third in his short NWL stint.  He's ready for a full season assignment, however, and the organization will have a huge decision on its hands this spring as the drama plays out on the back fields of Dunedin.  Will Urena play short at Lansing, with Barreto moving over to second?  The club appears determined to let the latter play himself out of the position, but the time may be right for the move.  Maybe the Blue Jays have their own Trammell-Whitaker combo in the making.

ETA:  late 2017/early 2018
Projection:  #2 hitter, everyday shortstop
Worst Case Scenario:  utility player

8.  Miguel Castro
   If you've read any posts on this blog (including this one), it's obvious that the Blue Jays have an overwhelming preference for a certain type of pitcher when they scout the high school, college, and international ranks. They like them tall (in order to create a downhill plane on their pitches, which can be harder for a hitter to track), lean (that is, not of a high-maintenance body type), and athletic (in order to be able to repeat their deliveries, especially if they have to have their mechanics altered).
   Sometimes the Blue Jays scouting staff colour outside the lines and draft a Marcus Stroman (who is all of the above, except for tall), but otherwise they have stayed rigidly with that guideline.
   And Miguel Castro fits that guideline to a tee 
Castro was a bargain ($180K) signing in 2011.  After dominating the Dominican Summer League in 2012, his stateside debut last year was delayed due to visa problems, limiting him to 30 innings.   He has more than made up for lost time this year, pitching at three levels, and finishing the year with Dunedin.
   Castro's fastball sits in the mid 90s, and touches 99.  His three quarters delivery gives his fastball plenty of arm side run, and a sinking action that generates plenty of groundball contact - essential for a player who may one day pitch in the Rogers Centre.  
   Secondary pitches are the issue for Castro.  His change is his best offering of that group at the moment, with his slider being more of a slurve.  When you throw as hard as he does, however, it makes the secondary pitches less important for now, although he will need more of an arsenal to throw at hitters as he makes his way up the ladder.
  We watched Castro's August 20th start for Lansing on, when he threw a 7 inning, 3 hit, shutout gem, his longest stint as a pro.  He was never in trouble until his final inning, but worked his way out of a jam to cap off an impressive performance that proved to be his last at that level.
   BA has projected Castro to be a reliever at the major league level.  Developing a breaking pitch will likely be a priority for him this year.

ETA: late 2016
Projection: mid rotation starter
Worst Case Scenario:  late inning bullpen arm

9.  Kendall Graveman
   A year ago, Graveman, who the Jays took in the eighth round of 2013, was nowhere near anyone's top prospect list.  Lost somewhat in the shadow of Pompey and Norris, he had a season that was simply lights out.
   Graveman started the year at Lansing, and ended it in Toronto, pitching at five levels.  Drafted as a sinker control artist, Graveman added velocity this year as a result of the famed weighted ball program he used during the off-season.
   Promoted to Dunedin in May, Graveman began to experiment with a new grip on his fastball, which resulted in a four seamer that he could cut against right and left handed hitters.  The result was plenty of groundball contact:


   Graveman was promoted to New Hampshire in late July, and was elevated to Buffalo after only one start, and made a half dozen excellent starts as part of the Bisons' torrid stretch run.  On the year, Graveman was 14-6 with a 1.83 ERA, 1.02 WHIP in 27 starts.  Graveman repeats his delivery, and fields his position well.  He, too, caused a number of re-writes of this list.  Graveman may not have the ceiling of Daniel Norris, but he may the most major league-ready player on this list outside of Aaron Sanchez.  Graveman profiles as a back of the rotation innings eater whose path to the bigs may be blocked at the moment, but he would be in the running for a spot on the 25 man roster next spring if the Blue Jays make rumoured deals involving Mark Buerhle and/or JA Happ.

ETA:  2015
Projection:  Back of the rotation starter
Worst Case Scenario:  front of the bullpen guy
10.  Anthony Alford
  During the JP Ricciardi era, the Blue Jays deservedly gained a reputation as a club that was primarily interested in using their early picks to draft close to MLB-ready and signable college players.  The club viewed high school players as risky, and with college as an option, their bonus demands would not fit inside ownerships' tight salary demands.
   During the years JP was at the helm, the Blue Jays draftees amassed all of 89.8  WAR (over a third of it by Shaun Marcum and Aaron Hill), putting them in the lowest tier of all MLB clubs.  There are no guarantees in the draft, especially when selecting HS school players who may be years away, but here is a sample of prep players the Blue Jays passed on in the first round over the years.

2001   David Wright
2002   Matt Cain/Scott Kazmir/Cole Hamels
2004   Gio Gonzalez
2005   Andrew McCutchen
2007   Rick Porcello
2009   Mike Trout (in fairness, 24 other teams passed on him, too)

 The only HS grad the Blue Jays took during Ricciardi's reign was Kevin Ahrens in 2007, who has played only 73 games above High A in 8 minor league seasons, and is no longer with the organization.
   The result of this policy was a depth of prospects that doomed the franchise to second division status for most of the decade.
   In 2010, that draft strategy changed, under the new stewardship of scouting director Andrew Tinnish and GM Alex Anthopolous.  The club followed the new way of thinking that believed that college grads sometimes came to the pros with bad fundamentals, and/or as damaged goods, especially pitchers.  Tinnish and Anthopolous went further, looking specifically for high risk/high reward athletes that might take longer to develop, and the scouting community had shied away from.  They looked in places few scouts had bothered to spend much time in before, including Mississippi.
   Mississippi is hardly a hot bed of high school baseball.  Teams prefer to see how top prep players from the state fare against collegiate competition before making a commitment - Hunter Renfroe was a first round pick last year, but was taken in the 19th round as a HS senior.
   There are several reasons why the state is something of a scouting backwater.  First of all, football is king in the state.  Kids in Mississippi dream of growing up to play in the SEC, and many take the junior college route to get there.  Even if they show some promise on the diamond, most top two-sport players are under immense pressure to choose football.  Petal is a town of just over 10 000 in southern Mississippi, near Hattiesburg.  Take a look at Petal High's football stadium:


   Granted, the Americans place a higher priority on building athletic facilities than we do here in the land of free medical care for all, but Petal's stadium complex is bigger than many Canadian universities'.    
   The poverty rate in the state is the nation's highest, according to the last census.  Travel ball, select teams, and showcase events are out of the reach financially for all but a few kids.  Mississippi also has a highly rural population, with less competition between schools.  Most major cities in the country have more 5A schools than the entire state has.  In an article about high school prospects in the state by BA's John Manuel, one scout compared the obstacles Mississippi prospects face with the transition from a slow pace, rural lifestyle to the bus rides and grinder mentality with what young players from the Dominican are presented with.  
    The Blue Jays bucked the traditional views of scouting in the state in the spring of 2012, and came away with a pair of high schoolers who came with the toolsy-but-raw tag.  DJ Davis was touted as a potential five-tool player, and the Blue Jays took him with the 17th pick of the first round.  Named a top 20 league prospect in his first two short seasons, Davis struggled mightily at the plate in his first go at full season ball this year, striking out in nearly a third of his plate appearances.
   With their third round pick that year, the Blue Jays chose Petal outfielder Anthony Alford, who was a two-time Gatorade state football player of the year.  As late as April that year, Alford was telling MLB teams not to bother drafting him, as he was intent on playing football and baseball at Southern Mississippi.
   And, again, if you have read other posts on this blog, you know how that worked out. He was described by many as a third round pick with first round talent.
   We won't recount the long and winding road that led Alford, after the Blue Jays had tried to extend his contract and convince him to give up football this summer, to suddenly quit the Ole Miss program and accept the Jays offer in late September (but we encourage you to look it up on our blog if you don't know the story).
   The long and short of it is that Alford, at the tender age of 20, has been through a great deal, and now finds himself and his young bride on the other side of the world, taking a crash course in pitch recognition in the Australian Baseball League.  
  Alford has caused us to rewrite this list more than any other prospect on it.  He is the best athlete in the system, as well as possibly the fastest, and in our viewing of him on ABL tv, has shown great instincts on the basepaths and in the outfield.  At the same time, he's shown how far away he truly is.  In his first few weeks of ABL play, he has shown developing patience, but has chased a lot of off speed pitches out of the zone.  In his early at bats, he appeared to be going up to the plate and hacking, but at least he's now seeing more pitches, and appears to have a plan.  Many of the pitchers in the ABL are the crafty veteran types many years his senior, and it's likely he hasn't seen breaking balls of this quality yet in his career.  Alford has a short, quick swing, and in his brief pro career has barreled up the ball to all fields.  His speed on the bases is a legitimate distraction for the opposition.  
   Alford will need time to mature.  Dreams of seeing him patrolling the Rogers Centre carpet next year have changed now to seeing him there in 2016 or even 2017.  He has played so little (less than 100 ABs in three seasons) that we have to give him time to make up for that lost development.  He just has so much talent that we couldn't leave him off of this list.

ETA:  2017
Projection:  lead off hitter, centrefielder, base stealing king
Worst Case Scenario:  fourth outfielder

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What Does the Russell Martin Signing Mean for Blue Jays Milb Catchers?

    The signing of free agent catcher Russell Martin has been equally lauded and panned across print, online and electronic media.
   While we can argue with the economics of the deal, it was more a reflection of where the market is going, and that in baseball, you are paid more often for what you have done, as opposed to what you might do in the future.
   And what Russell might do in the future is to upgrade the position for the Jays, possibly offer some roster flexibility, and give their minor league receivers more time to develop.

   We acknowledge that Russell is on the downside of his career - only 86 men have caught more games than Russell's 1121.  Just the same, he has been termed one of the top five framers of pitches over the period 2007-2011, and has justifiably gained a reputation as a good handler of young pitchers.  With Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison already in the starting rotation, and Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris on the verge of joining it, that had to be an important consideration for the club.

   While his production may be declining, Martin did have his best season at the plate last year (albeit it in only 460 PAs) since 2008.  Just the same, he likely won't match the offensive output of incumbent Dionner Navarro.
   What Martin's presence on the roster does do is give the Blue Jays a chance to either use the switch-hitting Navarro in a variety of spots, including First Base, DH, and spelling Martin (and acting as injury insurance).  Or, it may give the club an opportunity to mull over trade offers for Navarro to shore up other areas of the club, in which case a spot might open up on the roster for AJ Jimenez, who would likely make a good back up to Martin while he gains MLB experience.

   The signing also buys some added development time for Jimenez and the other catching prospects in the Blue Jays system.  The concern all along for Jimenez is his bat, and given his injury issues over the past two seasons, he could still benefit from added exposure to Triple A pitching.
   Injuries and a long collegiate season limited 2014 first round pick Max Pentecost to only 72 innings behind the plate this season.  Shoulder surgery in October will delay his 2015 debut until likely some time in May.  There was thought that Pentecost could be in the major by 2016, and while that may still happen, there isn't the urgency to rush him now that Martin is under contract.
   Danny Jansen, who would be next in line in terms of prospects, will now likely get the chance to hone his game-calling and offensive skills for a full season at Lansing, and not be rushed up the ladder.

   This is not to say, of course, that Martin is a long-term solution.  The odds of him still being a regular and productive player at the MLB level in five years would have to be long.  And given that catching depth is still one of the weaker lengths in the organizational chain, it still needs to be addressed.  Just the same, signing Martin bolsters both the major league club and the minor league organization.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Blue Jays Upgrade Roster, Say Good-Bye to Gose

Buffalo Bisons photo

   The Blue Jays closed the door on the Anthony Gose era late Wednesday night, swapping the outfielder to the Tigers for Second Baseman Devon Travis, named Detroit's top prospect this week by Baseball America.

The athletic Gose was taken by the Phillies in the 2nd round of the 2008 draft.  The Blue Jays had their eyes on him long before they swapped first baseman Brett Wallace for him in 2010, after the Phils had traded him to Houston.

   Despite some highlight reel defence in centrefield, Gose has never fully developed his hit tool, hitting .234/.301/.332 in over 600 MLB plate appearances since 2012.  With the emergence of Dalton Pompey, and the versatility of Kevin Pillar, Gose was deemed surplus by the Blue Jays.  Truth be told, we have thought that Pillar would most the most likely to be dealt.  Banished to Buffalo after an ill-timed temper dugout temper tantrum, Pillar laid waste to International League pitching for July and almost all of August before being recalled.  With offense at a premium when the Jays struggled without much of the heart of their batting order through an injury epidemic mid-summer, Pillar could have both gained more MLB experience and helped contribute to the Jays anemic attack.  We're not suggesting that he could have salvaged the season, but that the club kept him in exile on the Niagara Frontier for two months spoke volumes about what we thought the organization thought of him.

   The caveat with Travis being the Tigers top prospect is that they have a very thin minor league system. With Ian Kinsler firmly ensconced at second, Travis' path to the bigs appeared to be blocked, and the club was going to try him in centrefield during the Arizona Fall League season, but he underwent surgery for a sports hernia in September.

   Here's part of BA's evaluation of his skills:

 Travis’ tools aren’t flashy, but scouts come to appreciate him the more they see him because of his ability to hit, manage the strike zone and play smart, fundamentally sound baseball in all areas of the game. He can turn in times a tick slower out of the box, but he’s an average runner underway who moves well going first to third, with sharp instincts that make him an efficient basestealer. He’s an adequate defender at second base who makes the routine plays and is smooth on the double play pivot.

   Playing at AA Erie this past season, Travis missed six weeks with an oblique injury, which brought down his line somewhat, but he still hit a solid .298/.358/.460 for the season.  Barring a knockout spring, the next step for him likely is at least a few months at AAA Buffalo in 2015.   We are not necessarily looking at an all-star here, but what the Blue Jays likely will end up with is a solid bat that can play at second, plugging a hole in the lineup that has plagued the club for several years. 

   Because we've been meaning to find a way to work this into a post, and this is about as good a time as we can think of, here's what Jason Parks, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, now scouting complex league players in Arizona, had to say about scouting second basemen:

  The first question to ask when scouting a second baseman is, "Can he play shortstop?" The most skilled athletes start up the middle and move to the corners when their skills diminish or get exposed by the level of competition.  If a lower-level talent is already playing second base, the burden of success has shifted to the bat - and that's a heavy burden.
  A second baseman has to have first-step quickness and a good glove, but the arm doesn't have to be plus to play the position.  Negotiating the double play requires good footwork, body control, and co-ordination, so the body needs to be athletic and project that way throughout the player's development.  Second base requires more athleticism than a corner spot, but it doesn't require a shortstop's fast-twitch skills, so if the bat plays, the glove stays.  To put it another way, take a shortstop, subtract the soft hands, strong arm, and range, and you have second baseman.
   Travis is not a converted shortstop.  Except for a 3 game trial in Erie's outfield, he has been a second baseman since the Tigers drafted him out of Florida State, where he also played second.  

   As for Gose, we are sad to see an athlete with his physical skills go, but he truly had become expendable.  With the departure of Austin Jackson via trade last season, and the likely loss of Torii Hunter to free agency, the Tigers have become thin in terms of outfield depth.  Struggles with pitch recognition led to a K/BB rate that left Gose unable to use his speed on the bases - and to be honest, we found Pompey, while probably a step slower than Gose, to be be a smarter and better baserunner. 

   The upside for the Jays is that they have upgraded their roster without giving up an integral part of the big league roster.  With the depth of prospects in the Blue Jays system, Travis doesn't necessarily become an upper-level member, but the deal has caused a rewrite in our upcoming Top 10 list.

Monday, November 10, 2014

What's In the System: Power Arms

      In our last post, we look at the most promising arms in the Blue Jays system.
What we overlooked, however, are some of the power arms that have performed well in bullpens across the system.
    The conventional thinking goes that minor league relievers are not high value players.  Major league relievers tend to be failed starters who couldn't command their secondary pitches and had trouble getting hitters out the second time through the batting order.  Casey Janssen and Brett Cecil are two examples of pitchers who came up as starters, but found success out of the bullpen with their repertoires pared down.
   Cecil first came up the the Jays as a starting pitcher in 2009, and made 65 starts, winning a career high 15 games in 2010.  He was hit hard (5.10 FIP) in 2011, and found himself splitting time between the big club and the minors over the next two seasons.
   Here's a summary of what Cecil through from 2009 - 2011:

Pitch Type      Count       Freq Velo (mph)
Fourseam          2113      34.42%   90.52
Sinker                1091      17.77%   89.99
Change              1225      19.96% 81.76
Slider                 1095      17.84%   84.28
Curve                  428          6.97%  83.68
Cutter                  186         3.03%   87.33

 And here's what he has thrown since then:

Pitch Type       Count Freq       Velo (mph)
Fourseam           744 26.65% 91.88
Sinker                 351 12.57%     91.36
Change               252 9.03% 84.25
Slider                    55 1.97% 82.49
Curve                 896 32.09% 82.97
Cutter                479 17.16% 89.20

   Having limited himself to a fastball or curve 75% of the time since his move to the pen, Cecil experienced success like never before, and was a 2013 All Star.

   It's worth asking, of course, why baseball has gotten to his point.  The Blue Jays aren't trend setters in the use of their relievers.  The one inning power arm reliever is now widespread throughout the game.  Where did it begin?
   Certainly, baseball has been heading in this direction for some time.  The percentage of innings pitched by starting pitchers has been in steady decline, as shown below: graph

   The importance of the bullpen has steadily increased.  And then as the 1960s turned into the 70s came the closer, the reliever who would come into a game after the 7th inning to save the win: graph

   When he was managing the Athletics, Tony LaRussa led the bullpen game into its next phase of development.  He and pitching coach Dave Duncan converted Dennis Eckersley, a broken down starter who had thrown a no-hitter and won 20 games for the Red Sox in 1978, into a relief specialist: the 9th inning closer, who only came in when his team had a lead, most often of no more than 3 runs.  Eckersley was utterly dominant for six seasons, culminating with a 1992 season in which he captured both the American League Cy Young and MVP awards.  Eckersley was reportedly less than thrilled with the move at first, but came to realize that it saved his career, and helped eventually propel him to the Hall of Fame:

   "It was a hell of an idea, and I was the lucky recipient," says the Eck.  "I was 32.  Starting was getting to be difficult.  I couldn't go through six or seven innings , wade through all of those left-handers anymore.  But just pitching one inning, my fastball came back.  I was throwing like I was 25 again.  One inning suited me very well.  I never would have lasted if I had to pitch two or three innings all the time.  Plus, I would have had my head knocked off."

    Not content with that extent of bullpen specialization,  LaRussa went even further.  He broke roles down into eighth and seventh inning guys, and gave us the LOOGY, the left-handed one out guy.  Bullpens ballooned from 4 members in the 70s to as many as 7 or 8 by the turn of the century.
   In response to the influx of late-inning power arms, major league hitters began to strike out at an unprecedented rate:
   There are several Blue Jays prospects who at one time or another have been mentioned as possible bullpen arms in the long run, starting with Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez.  The scouting community has long been concerned about Sanchez's command, but with his arsenal stripped down to two pitches, Sanchez was lights out in two months of relief work for the Blue Jays this season.  Alberto Tirado, who was a back end of most Top 10 Blue Jays prospects (including ours)  guy before the season, struggled greatly with his command this year until he was moved to Vancouver's pen.  Jairo Labout and Miguel Castro will have to develop their secondary pitches more as they move about A ball if they hope to remain in the picture for a starting job (BA tabbed Castro as the Blue Jays' closer on their projected Blue Jays 2018 lineup).

    From time to time, though, a pitcher comes along who was already well established as a minor league reliever, but fits a need with the major league club.  Aaron Loup started only 5 games in the minors, but has appeared in 168 in relief for the Blue Jays, and has been an important contributor to the club.  A combination of fastball velocity/movement, the refinement of his slider, and a deceptive delivery have helped to make him a mainstay in the Toronto relief corps.  Loup has never appeared on one of the system's top prospect lists.  A 2009 9th rounder, Loup didn't really start to put things together until he was with New Hampshire in 2012, the same year he made his pro debut.  In essence, you could say that he came out of nowhere. 

   With that in mind, we thought we would take a look at some other Blue Jays minor league relievers who may be long shots, but might fill a role like Loup does.

   Kyle Drabek at one time was one of the brightest prospects in all of baseball.  He was the centrepiece of the Roy Halladay deal, but his career has been derailed by his second Tommy John surgery in 2012.  Drabek has fought his command since his return.  This year at Buffalo, he struggled to find the strike zone, and was hit hard when he found too much of it.  Moved to the bullpen mid-season, he posted better numbers, but when we saw him pitch in relief in late August, he was rocked.  Drabek really seemed to have no clue where his pitches were going, falling behind hitters and then getting pounded when he had to throw a strike.  Still, we're not willing to give up on this arm just yet.  The bullpen may be his ultimate home, but Drabek is still young enough to turn things around.
   John Stilson, to our minds, was on the verge of earning a major league job at some point int 2014.  A return of his shoulder woes caused him to be shut down early, and he underwent his second surgery for a torn labrum in August.  The average return to competition for this surgery is about 9 months, which sets his timetable back.
   Gregory Infante hit 100 on the radar gun several times with New Hampshire in 2014, and converted 22 of 23 save chances.  Originally signed by the White Sox, he appeared in 5 games with them in 2010 when they moved him to the bullpen.  Signed as a free agent last off season by the Jays, Infante's lack of secondary pitches and fastball command have kept him in the minors since then.  
   Blake McFarland switched between the pen and the rotation his first two pro seasons, and was moved to relief permanently in 2013, and has averaged over a strikeout an inning since, working his way up to AA for the second half of 2014.  With Rule 5 exposure looming this fall, the Jays sent McFarland to the Arizona Fall League to see how he fared against top flight competition.  McFarland has yet to give up a run in 8 relief outings, so the Blue Jays may have a tough decision on their hands at the end of the month.
  Arik Sikula, McFarland's teammate at Arizona, Dunedin, and New Hampshire this season, has accumulated 61 saves since joining the organization in 2011.  Rated the best reliever in the Florida State League by Baseball America, Sikula notched 31 saves for Dunedin before being promoted to New Hampshire, and averaged over 12K/9 this year.  
   Lefthander Tyler Ybarra had numerous health and personal struggles over his first three pro seasons, but put things together at Dunedin last year.  His command wasn't as good at AA this year, but he still remains an intriguing prospect.  His fastball sits 91-95 with late life, and his delivery can be tough for lefthanded batters to pick up.  
   Griffin Murphy was a 2nd round pick and the second HS lefthander taken in the 2010 draft.  After dominating at Lansing, he struggled with his command when he was promoted to Dunedin.  Still, he has averaged almost a K per inning over the course of his minor league career.  A strike throwing lefty is a pitcher to keep an eye on, especially when your team plays 10 games a year in Yankee Stadium.
   It wouldn't be unreasonable to predict that none of these arms could make it to the majors, although the odds for a southpaw seem to be a little better.  Any one of the higher profile starting prospects ahead of them could falter, and supplant them in the bullpen queue.  

Friday, November 7, 2014

Group Reported Interested in Bringing Back the Expos


   According to a report in La Presse, several prominent Montreal businessmen have been investigating the possibility of bringing major league baseball back to Montreal.

   For over a year, a group that includes Stephen Bronfman, Mitch Garber, Larry Rossy, and representatives from Bell Canada have been looking into that possibility, in the event that a Major League team (hello, Tampa) becomes available, and financing for a new downtown stadium is secured.

   Bronfman, son of the man who brought the Expos to Montreal, and their majority owner from 1969 to 1991, was a minority shareholder in the Expos himself from 1999 to 2004.  He headed a consortium that unsuccessfully tried to purchase the Montreal Canadiens in 2009.

   Garber is CEO of Caesars Acquisition Company, one of the largest online gambling companies in the world, including the rights to the World Series of Poker.  Caesars is traded on NASDAQ, and has a net worth of $1.38 billion.  Their headquarters are in Montreal.

   Rossy is CEO of the Dollarama chain of bargain stores. Canadian Business magazine last year estimated the Rossy family fortune to be in the neighbourhood of $1.4 billion.

   According to the report, Bell, which owns 18% of the group which owns the Canadiens and the Bell Centre, funded the study, and has expressed interest in being part of an eventual ownership group.

   All of the talks, of course, are very preliminary at this point, although there have been rumours that Tampa owner Stuart Sternberg has been in Montreal lately, presumably not to try the smoked meat at Schwartz's Deli.

   While we think that the return of Major League Baseball to Montreal is still the longshot poster child, it's comforting to know that there's a fairly deep-pocketed group that could operate a team on a day-to-day basis.  Would they be able to amass enough capital to purchase a team and help finance a new stadium?

   There have been no talks between the group and the government about a stadium, which would be the cornerstone of any franchise move.  It has been estimated that the cost of the team would come in at around $525 million, while the stadium would cost close to $500 million, with the group expected to finance a third of that cost.

   So, could this group raise close to $700 million ?  The article suggests that they could raise about $200 million.  And would the federal and provincial governments be willing to foot stadium costs of over $350 million?  That seems unlikely, especially given the current finances of the Quebec government, and the federal government's policy of not investing in pro sports stadiums.

   Although there is a federal election coming up in 11 months....

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What's In the System: Pitchers

   The Blue Jays employed a strategy of choosing high risk, high reward players in the 2010, 2011, and 2013 drafts, gambling on players who other organizations had backed away from due to concerns about signability or injury.
   The club was prepared to wait and patiently develop most of these players, progressing them up through the organizational ladder one rung at a time.
   With the promotion of Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez to the majors during the season, and the call up of Daniel Norris and Kendall Graveman after the expansion of major league rosters on September 1st, the club changed course, and challenged their top pitching prospects with rapid promotions.
   This approach has already started to pay off:  Stroman, after a rough debut out the bullpen, was sent back down to AAA in May to get stretched back out as a starter, and came back in June and quickly became a rotation mainstay.  Sanchez too was promoted to the bullpen, and with his pitch arsenal pared down to his fourseamer and sinker, was lights out in relief from mid-summer on.  While we want to be Stroman believers, no pitcher his size has been able to sustain the level of performance he attained as a starter this year for an extended period of time, and Sanchez may struggle with his command as a starter with expansion of his repertoire.  Just the same, the future looks extremely bright for the pair.
    Norris was a 2nd round pick in 2011 who signed for what was essentially first round money, a commitment to Clemson having scared off most teams.  His pro debut season was marked by inflated stats likely caused by the overhaul of his mechanics that the organization embarked on.
   After some modest success as the 2013 season ended, he was on no one's top 100 list at the start of 2014.  He ended it as's breakout pitcher of the year, and celebreated his MLB debut by striking out David Ortiz.  Norris was the first HS lefthander from his draft year to reach the majors, and had the highest strikeout rate (11.8K/ 9inn) of any starting pitcher in full season ball.
   We had seen Norris a number of times on throughout the season, and had the chance to see him in person in late August in Buffalo.  Norris was racked, to put it mildly, and didn't last past the fourth inning. We were alarmed to see a drop in velocity from his usual 93-95 to the high 80s on his fastball.  We saw the same thing in his debut against Ortiz, and in subsequent outings.  We pointed it out on Twitter, but were met with doubt by a number of tweeps.........

Tweet text

   It turns out, of course, that Norris required surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow after the season.  He should be ready by spring training.

   Kendall Graveman may have been overshadowed by Norris this year, but his rise through five levels of play this year was truly outstanding.  A $5000 supposed org guy drafted in 2013, Graveman added velocity to his fastball this year, and then discovered a new four seamer grip by accident.  The results had batters at three minor league levels swinging and missing at a 26.6% K rate.
   While he made his major league debut this fall as well, Graveman may be farther away than Norris, Stroman, or Sanchez from the majors.  He may not have a fastball that is as overpowering as the big three, but he has demonstrated great athleticism, and an advanced feel for pitching.

   Sean Nolin has been something of a forgotten man, but he still is clearly in the picture.  He has had trouble staying healthy the past two seasons, but has shown signs of getting back on track in Arizona, where he was sent to get in some extra innings.  He matched Stroman almost strikeout for strikeout at AA in 2013.

   Roberto Osuna had developed a huge following among prospect hunters even before he made his full season debut at the tender age of 18 last year.  He had pitched in the Mexican League as a 15 year old, and as a 17 year old made a memorable start for Vancouver in 2012 in which he struck out 13 hitters in 5 innings.
   Osuna's path the majors hit a speed bump when he was diagnosed with a UCL tear in May of last year.  Rehab did nothing to correct it, and he underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of July.  Osuna returned to competition this year in the GCL and FSL, and is currently pitching in the Arizona Fall League.  Osuna showed a return to form with his velocity, and showed maturity on the mound beyond his years.  His control has yet to fully return, as he caught too much of the strike zone in both the FSL and Arizona, although he has turned that around of late.
   Much has been made of Osuna's high-maintenance body prior to his surgery, but reports are that he looks much more fit and toned since undergoing the procedure.  This can only bode well for Osuna going forward.

  And as is the case with several other positions within the system, the depth of the organization's pitching only gets more impressive as we move down the ladder.

   Miguel Castro did not make his stateside debut (partially due to visa problems) until last year, but has rocketed his way up the ladder,   making it all the way to the FSL by August.  Castro, who is all of a day older than Osuna, is impressive on the mound, sitting in the mid 90s with his fastball, and maxing at 99.  His secondary pitches are still a work in progress, and will need to be further refined as he works his way up against more advanced hitters.

   Jeff Hoffman is a bit of a wild card at this point.  The Jays have apparently long had their eyes on Hoffman, who was having something of a nondescript college season when he blew scouts away with a 16K performance in early May, then was diagnosed with a torn UCL a week later.  Undaunted, the Blue Jays liked what they had seen from their long look at him, and took him with the 9th pick. Hoffman has been projected as a front of the rotation starter.  Before his TJ surgery, he sat 93-95 with his fastball, and showed good command of his secondary pitches.  The surgery puts his timetable back - he won't be game ready until at least late April/early May, and that will likely be in Extended.  We likely won't see him in game action until June approaches.  Hoffman has all the makings of a rotation anchor, but we have to withhold our judgement a bit until he is finished rehabbing his injury.

  Hanging around and inhabiting a space between prospect and org guy are Matt Boyd and Taylor Cole.  Boyd, a 2013 6th rounder, had a spring that was almost as impressive as Norris', but was hit hard upon his promotion to AA, and seemed to be out of gas by season's end back in A+.  Cole, Baseball America's top fringe prospect, challenged for the minor league strikeout lead.  Both are longshots to make the majors, but the seasons they had make them worth following.

   By season's end, Vancouver featured a trio of lefthanders who could all see time in the majors.  Jairo Labourt started the season at Lansing, but struggled with his command, and was sent back to Extended.  Labourt was sent to B.C. once the Northwest League season started, and he was dominant, leading the league in ERA, Ks per 9 innings, and opponents batting average.  Labourt was named the loop's third best prospect.  Ryan Borucki missed all of 2013 recovering from Tommy John, but made up for lost time quickly, starting the year with Bluefield, and finishing with the C's.  Borucki can hit 94 with his fastball, has a plus changeup, and still offers plenty of room for projection.  Matt Smoral was another one of those gambles from 2012, and his development took off this year.  Smoral commands a backdoor slider that can get right handed hitters out.  The only thing that may hold him back from a starting job in the bigs one day is his ability to command his fastball.

   Concerns about his delivery and signability saw Sean Reid-Foley to slip to the 2nd round of the June draft, but there are indications that the Blue Jays made a huge steal when they snapped him up.  Alberto Tirado, like Labourt, was challenged with an aggressive assignment to Lansing to start 2014, and like Labourt was sent back to Florida, and then to Vancouver.  Some had tabbed him as a breakout candidate last year, but he struggled with his command until a move to the bullpen seemed to settle things down for him.  At only 19, it's too early to write Tirado off just yet, and he would not be the first international prospect to take a bit of a step back in his first full season.  Jesus Tinoco pitched much better than his record at Bluefield would indicate, and the organizaton is still very high on him.  2013 4th rounder Evan Smith progressed to Bluefield in his second pro season, and showed an improved ability to throw strikes.  Jake Brentz is still relatively new to pitching, and has yet to make it out of complex ball in his first two pro seasons, but is worth keeping an eye on.

   And there is a group of young pitchers who struggled with injuries and/or inconsistency last year.  Clinton Hollon was a 2013 2nd rounder out of Kentucky HS who reportedly already had UCL damage when he was drafted.  Hollon underwent TJ in May of this year, and won't be back until May/June of 2015.  Tom Robson started at Lansing, but was shut down in May, and had TJ in July after an unsuccessful rehab.  Shane Dawson's season with Lansing didn't get underway until May, and then he was shut down for the season in mid-July.  Chase DeJong struggled at Lansing as well, and didn't pitch after the first week of August, but reportedly felt fine and threw well at Instructs. One or all of that group could rebound next season.

    This is where the strength of the organization lies.  As this depth works its way up through the system, its value may be as possible trade fodder to improve the major league roster.

Our rankings:

1.  Norris
2.  Hoffman
3.  Osuna
4.  Castro
5.  Graveman
6.  Nolin
7.  Reid-Foley
8.  Smoral
9. Labourt
10. Borucki