Friday, February 27, 2015

Why the Blue Jays (Might Have) Signed Santana

  The signing of Johan Santana to a minor league deal by the Blue Jays was derided by many, understandably so.
 Santana has not thrown a pitch in an MLB game since 2012.  He attempted a comeback with the Orioles last year, but a torn achilles tendon put an end to that..
  The two-time Cy Young Award winner was pitching in his native Venezuela this winter, and according to reports was pitching well, if not at his former velocity, before being shut down with shoulder tightness in January.

  What’s the point in bringing Santana aboard, a reasonable person might well ask?
After all, the guy hasn’t pitched in almost three years, and he seemed for all intents and purposes to be finished after a 134 pitch no-hitter in 2012.  He won’t be ready for Opening Day, and may not be ready until May, at the earliest. And he has a lengthy history of injuries and resulting surgeries, so at the age of 35, isn’t it time to look elsewhere for starting pitching support?

  It’s hard to explain the Blue Jays thinking, but here goes….

  We all know that the first four spots in the Blue Jays starting rotation are all but sewn up by Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, Drew Hutchison, and Marcus Stroman (and not necessarily in that order). The fifth spot is up for grabs, with Daniel Norris, Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada the leading candidates, and Todd Redmond and Chad Jenkins on the furthest margins for the job.

  Sanchez has a history of struggling with the command of his full repertoire of pitches, although he was lights out when limited to his fastball/sinker in a half season of relief last year.  Brett Cecil would appear to have the edge for the closer’s job at the moment, but if he struggles, or if the club has trouble filling out their bullpen with suitable arms, Sanchez could find himself in an 8th or 9th inning role fairly quickly.  As much as it makes sense to try to give him an opportunity to establish himself as a starter, if he scuffles, that may have to take place in Buffalo.

 Norris rode an incredible wave of helium to rise from High A ball to the Majors last year, and has firmly established himself as one the game’s top prospects.  His mid-90s fastball and secondary pitches allowed him to miss a lot of bats last year.  At the same time, economizing his pitch count was an issue in 2014.  Norris was on a strict 90 pitch count for much of the season, but he worked his way beyond the sixth inning in only 2 out of 25 starts.  The next step in his development as a pitcher is to learn to induce more weak contact from hitters.  Strikeouts are great, and decrease reliance on the defence, but groundball outs are more efficient.  Pitchers who can get some outs in the seventh innings save wear and tear on their bullpens. Stroman has already proven that he has learned this lesson.  Norris may need more time at AAA in order to learn it himself.

  So, in the best and rosiest of scenarios, Santana gets himself back into shape in spring training, then gets his feet underneath him four 3-4 starts at Buffalo. With off days on the 7th and 20th of April, the team may only need 3 starts from the fifth man in the rotation for the month.  Estrada, if the two youngsters falter, could hold down that spot, and then help bolster the bullpen when Santana is ready. With his flyball tendency, it's better for Estrada to have his pitches cut back, and have him throw out of the bullpen in the long term.
 A medium-case scenario would have Santana pitching until mid-season, by which time Norris has proven he’s ready for the big time.  Or Santana has a prolonged stay in Buffalo, and provides some insurance. Since he can opt out of his deal if he's not on the 25-man by April 28th, that's not likely. And if he's not on the 25-man by then, his already slim chances of helping the team will have become eye of the needle-like.

 Worst case scenario:  Santana has nothing left, and proves that he’s finished once and for all.  It cost very little, and it’s not like there’s a hole in the rotation left by his absence.  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Saunders Injury Points Out Weakness in Jays' System

 And there it is.
One misstep on the field has left the Blue Jays scrambling for a replacement for the injured Michael Saunders, who is now out until the All Star break with a torn meniscus.
This certainly opens the door wider for Kevin Pillar and Dalton Pompey to earn jobs with the big club this spring, but with the trade of Anthony Gose for Devon Travis, it points out how thin the Blue Jays are at that position, and may force an earlier than anticipated dealing of surplus catcher Dioner Navarro.

Here's a sampling of Outfielders the Blue Jays have drafted since Alex Anthopoulos took over as GM:

Player                                                                 Year/Round
Dalton Pompey                                                    2010/16
Jacob Anderson                                                   2011/1st supp.
Dwight Smith                                                      2011/1st supp.
Derrick Loveless                                                 2011/27
Kevin Pillar                                                         2011/32
D.J. Davis                                                            2012/1st
Anthony Alford                                                   2012/3rd
Ian Parmley                                                          2012/7th
D.J. Jones                                                             2012/20th
Josh Almonte                                                       2012/22nd
Jonathan Davis                                                     2013/15th
Chaz Frank                                                           2013/20th
Brendan Kalfus                                                    2013/23rd
Lane Thomas                                                       2014/5th

 On the one hand, this list should not be a surprise.  The Blue Jays have loaded up on pitching with many of their top picks over the last 4 drafts - again, no surprise, because "grow the arms, buy the bats" is a time-honoured and accepted practice in the industry.  Scouting pitchers is more quantifiable than hitters, because there are more common benchmarks (velocity, break on the curve ball, repeating the delivery, etc) to use when evaluating a pitching prospect.
  Many players drafted at one position also tend to outgrow that spot, sometime necessitating a move to the outfield, so the relative lack of drafted outfielders the Jays have drafted isn't a huge concern.
  At the same time, of the players on the above list, only Pompey and Pillar have played above High A ball.  Anderson has had 10 AB in the past three seasons, Davis was a disappointment after his first year of full season ball, and Alford has shown that despite his impressive toolkit, he still is several years away.
   Anthopolous has several options here, including dealing Navarro and/or some of that minor league pitching depth, but either way, his hand has been forced, and outside of Dwight Smith (who has been auditioned at second), there's no one in the system who is remotely close.
  Another option might be to try Travis in the outfield.  The Tigers were planning on giving him a trial in the Arizona Fall League there, until he was sidelined by an injury.  Learning a new position at the major league level is not optimal, however.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Maxed Pentecost?

      Word came down from Sportsnet's Ben Nicholson-Smith that Max Pentecost, the club's second first round pick last June, had a second procedure performed on his throwing shoulder this week.
He referred to the procedure as a "clean out" of the shoulder joint, performed by arthroscopic surgery.
Nicholson-Smith says the same operation was performed in October,

   I have to admit to being a little confused about the whole situation.  According to multiple reports last fall, Pentecost had surgery to repair a torn labrum, which is a much more extensive, invasive and delicate procedure.  With an arthroscope, the scope is inserted through an incision to examine the affected area, and make any necessary repairs.  Recovery from a torn labrum can take up to a year, depending on the extent of the tear.  The recovery time for a scope is much shorter - Pentecost can start throwing in May.  Reliever John Stilson underwent labrum surgery last August (his second such operation), and likely won't be ready to start throwing until the end of spring training at the earliest.

   Which one was it?   Nicholson-Smith claims the October surgery was a scope.  The always-excellent Alexis Brudnicki of the Canadian Baseball Network, Baseball America, and several other places, reported that it was a partial tear shortly after the first surgery. To me, it's not clear.

   Either way, there's really no reason to panic.  With the acquisition of Russell Martin, Pentecost's development has been pushed back anyway, and even though he was hurting in his short audition with Vancouver behind the plate last year, sources indicate that his defensive skills need some work.
Scouts have generally regarded him as having good pop time, but he needs further tutoring and refinement of his footwork, pitch blocking, and game-calling skills. His bat and base-running ability will always be his most prominent tools, but his work behind the plate needs upgrading before he's ready for prime time.  In a way, this injury buys him more development time.

   It's not unusual for baseball players to need their elbows and/or shoulders cleaned up.  The violent and unnatural action that is throwing a baseball is bound to lead to fibre and bone detritus floating around in those joints.  Daniel Norris had bone chips removed from his throwing elbow after last season, as did prospect Matt Boyd.  I don't want to say that it's routine, but the success rate is pretty high.

  There are some who are already calling Pentecost damaged goods.  He did wear down after a long college season last summer, and had a number of dings, including his shoulder, that necessitated an early shutdown and return to Florida.  His timetable for making the major leagues, to me, was always 2-3 years away in the best of scenarios.  It's hard for any prospect to make the leap from college ball to the majors right away, and catching may be one of the biggest leaps of all.  The Blue Jays aren't planning on having Pentecost in the lineup this year, nor the next.  If this procedure was a scope, as Nicholson-Smith says, there's not a lot to worry about.  Pentecost may be able to DH early this year, although his recovery time will probably cut into how many plate appearances he can accumulate.
The most likely path for him this year is to stay in Florida for extended spring training for some or all of April, and then be assigned to Dunedin of the Florida State League.

  Lastly, as I am not a medical doctor (although I have a fair amount of first-hand surgical experience, which, unfortunately, I was not awake for), my medical advice and knowledge is suspect, so here is a good resource on all things related to shoulder injuries and their treatment.  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Blue Jays Prospects on the Bubble

  With something like only 17 days left before Daylight Savings Time, the light at the end of the winter tunnel no longer appears to be a train, although if you live in Atlantic Canada, it may be snowplow.
    Spring training is almost upon us, a time when we take time in the days just before it approaches to take stock of things from a Blue Jays prospect perspective.  For some prospects, 2015 will be a make or break year, either because they are out of options, or because the club will have to decide on their future by the end of November, or risk losing them in the Rule 5 draft.
   Thanks to Bluebird Banter for graphics which show information about each Blue Jays minor leaguer's Rule 5 status, and their outright and options status.

   Not every prospect in the Blue Jays system is facing such a potentially make or break year.  Players are eligible for selection in the Rule 5 draft if they are not on their team's 40 man roster, and were 18 or younger on the June 5th preceding their signing, and the upcoming Rule 5 draft will be the fifth Rule 5 draft, or if they were 19 or older on the June 5 preceding their signing, and this will be the fourth Rule 5 draft.  In most cases this applies to High Schoolers and International Free Agents drafted/signed in 2011, and college players selected in the 2012 June draft.  Also, we should consider players whose options were used up in 2014 - this group is on the extreme edge of the bubble.

Players Out of Options
   This year, even though we can't really consider them prospects anymore, Kyle Drabek and Liam Hendriks are out of options, and will be under the microscope this spring.
  Drabek, the jewel of the Roy Halladay trade, was once the organization's top prospect, but has struggled with his command since his second Tommy John surgery in 2012.  Mid-way through last season, the team converted him to relief, and he pitched reasonably well out of Buffalo's bullpen.  He even pitched well in a pair of games during a brief August call-up.
  Drabek has not recovered the velocity he had prior to his second TJ.  Prior to it, he sat 93-95 with his fourseamer/sinker touching 97.  Now, he sits at 91, which creates less separation between his fastball and his curve and change, making them less effective.  He has turned to his sinker more in an effort to get more groundball contact.  I saw him late in the season at Buffalo, and he was pounded by the Red Sox affiliate.  It was a small sample size to be sure, but he wasn't fooling anyone.
   While the Blue Jays still likely love his arm, he will need to have a knockout spring to make the major league roster.
   Hendriks was a sensation with Buffalo last year, and even had a brief stint with the big club before being packaged in the Danny Valencia deal with Kansas City.  Toronto reacquired him this off season, but it would take an enormous stumble by all the candidates ahead of him for the 5th starters' job, including Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris, Marco Estrada, Todd Redmond, and maybe even Chad Jenkins, for that to happen.
The Blue Jays are likely hopeful he would accept an assignment to Buffalo if he doesn't make the big club out of spring training, because with the trading of Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin, the organization is a little thin on starting pitcher depth.

High Schoolers Drafted/IFA's signed in 2011
   The Blue Jays signed an impressive crop of International Free Agents in 2011.  Toronto gave then Latin America director Marco Paddy  a huge budget to work with, and they outspent every team except for the Rangers.
  Among the most notable signings was Mexican RHP Roberto Osuna, who received a $1.5 million bonus.  Osuna has given the Blue Jays good value for that money, even though he missed the last half of 2013 and the first half of 2014 as a result of Tommy John surgery.  Post TJ Roberto Osuna is a slimmed down version of the old one, and as an added bonus, he's had an uptick in velocity, now sitting mid 90 with his fastball. Control was an issue in both the Florida State and Arizona Fall leagues last year, but that's a common pattern with Tommy John patients.  Osuna likely will begin the season in New Hampshire, and should be a lock to be placed on the 40 man by November.
  Dwight Smith Jr is seen by many as something of a sleeper prospect.  He hit well in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League without much protection in the lineup, and fared well as a taxi-squad player in the Arizona Fall League, where he had a brief trial at 2nd base.  Because he may lack the power of a corner outfielder, the trial may continue.  Unless he stumbles at AA, Smith should be added to the 40 by November, too.
   Jairo Labourt signed for $350 000, and had an up and down year in 2014, but finished on a high note with Vancouver.  He may move quickly this year, and has an outside shot at a roster spot by season's end, depending on his progress.
   Dawel Lugo signed for $1.3 million, and was making a name for himself as a potential impact back before last year.  He did not hit as well in his first year of full season ball with Lansing, although a hot July may have given a glimpse of what is to come.  The thinking was that Lugo's size would mean an eventual move from shortstop, but he has played steady, if unspectacular defence there, and will likely remain there for this year, which for him will likely begin in the FSL. It's hard to see him making the 40 man unless he has a huge breakout year.  The advantage to not skipping a player over a rung on the minor league ladder can be that by the time he becomes Rule 5 eligible, he's too far away to consider taking a flyer on.
   Matt Dean is in a similar spot.  Taken in the 13th round, he produced well at Bluefield and won a batting title there in 2013, and produced respectable numbers at Lansing, but nothing comparable to what he did in the Appy League.  He likely will move up the ladder this year, but he doesn't seem to give indications that he's a breakout prospect.
   Alberto Tirado was on everyone's radar after 2014, but command issues last year have lessened his status somewhat.  He still has is on some Top 10 prospects lists, but since his most effective pitching this season was done out of the bullpen, he doesn't carry a lot of value.  It will be interesting to see if the organization continues using him in relief this year, or gives him another shot at starting.  If he is effective this year, they may have to make a decision on him in November - if he returns to his former electric arm state, he may be tough for some teams to pass on in the Rule 5 draft.
   Christian Lopes was a highly rated high school player, but his stock dropped in his senior year, and the Blue Jays took him in the 7th round.  His numbers have not been overwhelming in four minor league seasons, but he had a bit of a breakout in the Aussie Winter League before injuring a hamstring.  Unless he has a similar bust out this year, he's a long shot for the 40, as is IFA Emilio Guerrero, who teamed with Lopes in Dunedin's infield in 2014.
  Jeremy Gabryszwski's last name is now firmly entrenched in my laptop's spellcheck, and I'm grateful for that.  Gaby was taken in the 2nd round in 2011, and truth be told, has pitched decently, but has not missed a lot of bats in his milb career.  To his credit, he doesn't walk a lot of hitters, either, so he's been a bit of a victim of BABIP.  At the higher levels, the lack of strikeouts isn't as alarming, but at the lower levels, if you're giving up 176 hits in 141 IP, you're likely not in possession of an electric fastball.  He likely will start the year at Dunedin.  To this point, there isn't much in his performance to label him a prospect.
   One more body to add to this list is Jacob Anderson, who is more of a missing persons case.  The 2011 sandwich round pick missed all of 2013 with a rib injury, and amassed all of 10 PA's at Bluefield this year before being shut down again.  I've scoured the milb transactions page at Baseball America to make sure he  is even still with the organization.
   For players who don't get placed on the 40 man, it's not the end of the road, but the view starts to get a little clearer.  For most of these players, there's little chance an MLB team will take them in the Rule 5 draft. Just ask Jon Berti, John Stilson, or Andy Burns, who were left unprotected last November.  What it does mean, though, is that the clock essentially starts on their minor league free agency, which they can opt for after their sixth season.  And their window for making the majors is rapidly closing.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Who's the Next Blue Jays Breakout Prospect?

   After Blue Jays prospects Daniel Norris, Kendall Graveman, Miguel Castro, and Dalton Pompey caught heavy doses of helium and quickly ascended the prospect ladder in 2014, it's time to take a look to see who could be poised for a similar breakout this year.
   Norris was on most Top 10 Blue Jays prospects list heading into last season.  Such was not the case with Graveman and Pompey.  And while Pompey and Norris' stats over the final weeks of the 2013 season gave a small glimpse of what was to come, Graveman gave no such indication of the quantum leap he was about to take.
  So, in determining who these prospects might be,  we looked at what their numbers over the last six or so weeks of the season were like.  We also tended to look at those outside of our Top 10, too.  So, here are several players who might make several jumps up the minor league ladder this year, and become familiar names to diehard Blue Jays fans -  if everything falls into place for them:

1.  Jairo Labourt, LHP
   Labourt's 2014 was very much a tale of two seasons.
  Challenged with an assignment to Lansing to start the season, Labourt struggled with his command, and was sent back to extended spring training after walking 20 in his first 14 innings.
Labourt regrouped in Florida and was sent to Vancouver when Northwest League play started in June. He was brilliant in the C's rotation, and was named the league's 3rd best prospect by Baseball America.  
   He rediscovered his command in the Pacific Northwest, striking out 82 in 71 innings, while walking 37.  Right handed hitters managed only a .171/.286/.202 line against him.
   Labourt's fastball sits in the low 90s, and touches 95.  His slider rates as his best secondary pitch, sometimes showing tilt and depth, but he had trouble commanding it this year.
 Why he may breakout:  From mid-July on, Labourt posted an 0.95 ERA in 9 starts totalling 47 innings.  He walked 22, and struck out 53.  He will be eager to repeat that success in a second shot at the Midwest League.  If he continues to command his fastball and develop this secondaries, Labourt could advance several levels this year.

2.  Rowdy Tellez, 1B
   We've tried not to go overboard in our praise of the Californian slugger.  This may be the year that the Blue Jays take the wraps off of him and let him soar.
   A legend on the showcase circuit during his high school years, Tellez struggled in his first summer of pro ball in the GCL in 2013, but brought his final numbers up to near-respectability with a hot final week of the short season summer.  Reports out of Florida said that he barreled up a lot of balls in the final two weeks of the season.
   He struggled again at the next level with Bluefield of the Appalachian League again this summer, going 0-33 at one point.  And then Tellez took off.  He mashed Appy League pitching, and earned a late season promotion to Lansing, before moving back down to Vancouver to help with the C's bid for a fourth straight NWL crown.
     For the season, his line was .305/.375/.438.  Despite the fact that his hit tool far surpasses anything else in his toolkit, Tellez is not a one-dimensional slugger, as his OBP would suggest.  Tellez has a respectable K/BB ratio for a power hitter.
   The Blue Jays have been very patient with Tellez to this point.  The Midwest League can be tough on a young hitter, but if Tellez can overcome his tendency to start slowly, he may start to move rapidly this year.
   Tellez is another one of Blue Jays Performance Coach Steve Springer's protegees, and you can almost hear Springer in Tellez's approach to hitting:

“The name of the game is to not get yourself out,” espoused Tellez. “You want to be selective in the zone and not chase. And when you do get your pitch, don’t miss it. Pitchers are going to make pitches and hitters are going to miss pitches they should hit. That’s why it’s a game of failure. It is what it is. It’s baseball. But I don’t find myself striking out a lot, ever, really. Knock on wood.”
Why he may break out:  From mid-July, Tellez hit .365/.421/.535.  He has a solid approach at the plate.  His development may accelerate in full season ball.

 3.  Matt Smoral, LHP
   The Blue Jays have made a habit of taking longer looks at players whose senior high school seasons were disrupted or even lost to injury, and they took a pair in 2012 in Arizona HS third baseman Mitch Nay, and Ohio Prep Southpaw Smoral, who was shut down for his senior year after surgery to repair a foot injury. Both are still developing, but the Blue Jays may have acquired good value for both.
   Smoral didn't make his pro debut until 2013, and struggled in the GCL, but that wasn't a surprise.  The complex league is a place where the organization places some prospects on the potter's wheel and re-molds them in a more efficient cast.  The GCL is often the place where those new products get some of the rough edges rounded off.
   Playing under the lights for the first time with Bluefield this year, Smoral was electric in his debut, striking out 8 in 3 innings.  Promoted to Vancouver, Smoral held his own against the more advanced NWL hitters.  He likely will be anxious to atone for a poor outing which likely cost the C's the final game of the league championship series.
  Command of his fastball is the issue for Smoral.  Once he consistently develops it, his secondary pitches, his slider in particular, will become that much more effective.  At 6'8", he gets considerable downward on his plane, and his high elbow lift gives him good deception in his delivery.  His size also gives him good extension on his fastball, and gives it late life.
Why he may break out: Tall lefthanders, for whatever reason, seem to take longer to develop.  Once he develops improved control of his fastball, he will take off.  Smoral will start at Lansing this year, and could be poised to make multiple jumps up the ladder.  

4.  Ryan Borucki, LHP
   Because you can't have enough tall, athletic left handed pitchers.
Borucki was another 2012 draftee whose arm issues scared most teams away.  The Blue Jays took him in the 15th round, and he gutted out 4 outings in the GCL that year.  The elbow did not improve, and Borucki underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of spring training, 2013.
  Sent to Bluefield with Smoral to begin 2014, Borucki was lights out in the Appy League, striking out 30 and walking only 6 in 33 innings.  Sent to Vancouver, Borucki didn't miss a beat, and Northwest League hitters managed only a .159 batting average against him.
   Borucki threw 90-93 before his surgery, and indications are that he has that velocity back.  He won't blow hitters away, but he missed a lot of bats this year despite being around the plate a lot.  That tells you a great deal about not just his command, but his feel for pitching.
  Borcuki will start at Lansing, and may move quickly.  As a midwesterner, he's familiar with the cool Midwest League spring.
Why he may break out:  Borucki already seems to have conquered any command issues.  He knows how to pitch.

5.  Dan Jansen, C
   As with any sort of final pick, this was a tough one.  Matt Boyd, yet another southpaw, merits consideration.  He pitched better than Graveman and Norris through May, but a foot injury and later bone chips led to inconsistency and a loss in velocity.  Boyd says he is healthy, and if he makes a quantum leap this year, well, you read it here first.
   This spot has to go to Jansen, though.  With only a relatively small sample size on his playing resume, he has already drawn rave reviews for his receiving skills, and has established himself as a decent hitter.  Another overlooked high school player (from the non-baseball hotbed of Wisconsin - the most noted Dan Jansen from that state to this point is the former Olympic speed skater), Jansen missed the last month of the season with a knee injury, but all reports say that he is recovered and ready to go for spring training.  He has excellent bat speed, and has been lauded for how he handles a pitching staff.
Why he may break out: The drafting of Max Pentecost and the signing of Russell Martin pushes Jansen down the depth charts, but that may be doing him a favour.  There is no need to rush his development.  That may allow him to spend most of the season at Lansing, and while he may not move up the ladder at a rocket pace, it may allow his status as a prospect grow, and make him a breakout prospect in that manner.

  A final word of caution:  these are prospects, after all.  Their development is not necessarily linear.
The odds of all of the above leaping into mega-prospect status are still long, and we may not see the type of leaps made by Norris/Graveman/Pompey/Castro for a long time.  The above, however, are players who allowed the same kind of glimpses into their potential that group gave us in 2013.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Clutchlings' Revised Top 10 Blue Jays Prospects

   The laptop had no more than cooled off after we published our first Top 10 list a few months ago, when the Blue Jays traded Franklin Barreto, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin, and Brett Lawrie to Oakland for Josh Donaldson.  While we hated to see Barreto, in particular, go, the addition of Donaldson makes an already-potent top half of the batting order that much better.
   Given that Barreto and Graveman were in that Top 10, and given some other developments over the past few weeks, we decided to revise that list.  Noticeable for his absence is OF Anthony Alford, who just missed the cut.  Watching the youngster against the veteran Australian League pitchers this winter has made us realize that he's a bit further away that we had originally thought.  By his own admission, Alford was too aggressive at times, and the ABL pitchers made him pay.  Still, the experience will only pay off for him down the road, and if you think Dalton Pompey plays some highlight-reel defence, wait until you see Alford and his Dysonian glove cover centerfield.

#1  Daniel Norris, LHP
   Norris has become something of a folk hero this off-season, with his shaggy beard and Westfalia van of the same name.  Personally, I don't find it odd at all that a young man his age loves the outdoors and adventure, but some in the media are playing up that granola-ish image. The problem with promoting such an image is that intends to become a lasting impression for some, which is a shame, because Norris is more than a ball player.  He's a bright, articulate, thoughtful young man who is quite interested in the world around him. Let's hope the media doesn't turn him into something of a caricature.  Former Cards and Brewers C/DH Ted Simmons once said of his years in the late 60s at the University of Michigan, "(it was) a time when I learned more how to function as a member of society, and less as someone who was trying to hit the curveball." And in the world of baseball, it takes a lot of courage to think like that.
   After hammering out his control issues and learning to trust his fastball in Low A in 2013, Norris rode a rocket to the big leagues last year.  Bone chips in his elbow that had to be removed after the season cost him some velocity when he was called up to the Blue Jays in September, but it was impressive how he used his guile and secondary pitches to get outs just the same.
   Norris led all minor leaguers with a 11.8/9 strikeout rate this year.  Sitting between 91-95 with his fastball, he touched 97 on occasion.  His slider and change project to be plus offerings, and he lands in a good fielding position after his delivery.  Norris is the total package.
  About the only thing that Norris has to work on is economizing his pitch count, and lasting deeper into games.  If he has proven that he is capable of doing that this spring, he should break camp with the Blue Jays.  If not, he will head to Buffalo for more seasoning, but his stay there may not be all that long.

#2 Aaron Sanchez
  The ascent of Sanchez, while not as meteoric as that of Norris, was still a welcome development last year.
  It's not easy wearing the crown of Top Prospect for as long as Sanchez has, and the team's minor league development staff have put considerable work in helping him harness his abundant natural ability.
   Sanchez, to put if bluntly, has had troubles keeping his walk totals down as a minor league starter.  With the big league bullpen in shambles, the club converted Sanchez to relief shortly after promoting him to Buffalo.  After a couple of appearances, he found himself on a big league mound in Toronto.
   Sanchez was lights out in relief.  With his pitch repertoire pared down to his sinker (thrown 60% on the time while in the majors), and his fourseamer (23%), Sanchez was brilliant for two months in the Toronto bullpen.
   The dilemma now becomes should he be stretched back out as a starter, and compete for the 5th starter's job with Norris and others?  The answer for now seems to be yes.
   Sanchez throws with a nice, easy delivery, and the ball seems to explode out of his hand.  There are concerns with how short his landing is, as the club has shortened the stride in his delivery to help him keep on top of the ball.  The concern, among some, is that this delivery puts unnecessary strain on his shoulder, and an injury may only be a matter of time.
   If Sanchez struggles with his control in spring training, will the club send him back to Buffalo to get things ironed out, or will he become a back of the bullpen arm?  As with many players the Blue Jays have drafted over the years, the upside and risk of Aaron Sanchez appear to be of almost equal proportions.

#3 Dalton Pompey
    The development of Pompey is a tribute to the doggedness of the Blue Jays scouting staff, and the patience of their minor league people.  They stuck with him through his first three minor league seasons, when his performance was marked by inconsistency and injury, gave him time to develop in Lansing, and then watched him blossom last year. There were signs in his last month at Lansing in 2013 that he was about to bust out, but no one expected that he would become the mega-prospect he turned into in 2014.
   Pompey hits the ball hard, draws walks, plays highlight reel defence, and is both a stolen base threat and a smart baserunner.  Unless he stumbles badly in spring training, you would have to think that he will either claim the centrefield job outright, or earn a portion of it in tandem with Kevin Pillar.
   He should be a fixture in the top of the Blue Jays batting order for years to come.

4.  Jeff Hoffman, rhp
 We've been back and forth on Hoffman.  That the Baltimore Orioles, either themselves or through media intermediaries, were said to be insisting on the 2014 draftee as part of any compensation package for GM Dan Duquette, tells a great deal about his potential.  The Blue Jays, wisely (if this was the case), backed away.  We also learned, via Jeff Blair of Sportsnet, that the Braves were asking about Hoffman, and were  willing to send Justin Upton in return.
   Hoffman had Tommy John surgery in early May.  All appears to be going well with his rehab. He was throwing off a mound around Christmas time, and appears to be on schedule to return to game action in late April or early May.
  Everything that we have heard and read about Hoffman is that he is front-of-the-rotation material.  The Blue Jays appear to have obtained a top 3 pick for 9th pick bonus money.  Patience for at least this year is the key.  He will have to deal with the usual command and velocity issues that players coming back from the surgery have to deal with.  Like the next guy on the list.

5.  Roberto Osuna, rhp
   Osuna had no trouble dialing up his old velocity, touching 95 with his fastball in the Arizona Fall League.
   His plus changeup, and his advanced feel (for someone just turning 20) for pitching returned, too.  What he appeared to be missing was his command of all of his pitches.  Osuna caught too much of the strike zone in the AFL, and the elite hitters there made him pay for it.
  There is also a concern among some that Osuna's fastball doesn't have enough movement, due to the wrist wrap in his delivery.  The club has invited him to spring training with the major league club, which suggests they have high hopes for him.
  One positive thing about Osuna's TJ surgery in July of 2013 is that you don't hear the words "high maintenance body" applied to him any more.  He has lost considerable weight, and appears to be taking his nutrition and conditioning seriously.

6.  Miguel Castro, rhp
   Take away the impressive seasons Norris and Kendall Graveman had, and no other Blue Jays pitcher made as much progress as Castro did last season.
  In only his second stateside season, he progressed as far as High A,  dazzling hitters with the command of his plus fastball.  Just turned 20 on Christmas Eve, Castro was invited to spring training as well, with the suggestion from GM Alex Anthopoulos that we will see Castro pitching out of the Blue Jays pen sooner rather than later this summer.
   The issue with Castro has been the development of his secondary pitches, although his fastball gives him a larger margin of error than it would for other pitchers.  He gets good sink on his fastball, which can bore in on right handed hitters; with his milb career splits against them, we can understand the Blue Jays toying with the idea of having him pitch in relief.  He is still so young, however, we hope that he will be given at least one more season to develop his off speed and breaking pitches.

7.  Richard Urena, ss
   With the Barreto trade, Urena now becomes the team's shortstop of the future.  Some have labelled him major league-ready defensively. Unlike Barreto and Dawel Lugo, who were part of the same IFA class as Urena in 2012, he is projected to stay at the position.
   A natural lefthanded hitter, Urena tried switch-hitting this year, and was successful.  Reports suggest his power grades as below average, but he has plus bat speed, and barrels up balls well to all fields.  Urena will not turn 19 until later this month, but once he reaches full season ball (which should be this year), his development could accelerate quickly.

8.  Max Pentecost, c
   Pentecost leaps into our top 10 from the margins after some second thought (and the trade of Graveman and Barreto).  His shoulder surgery will back up his developmental timetable somewhat, but the kid is an athlete - one who can actually play.
   Pentecost profiles as a bat-first catcher.  The club has some work to do with his receiving and game-calling skills.  He is regarded as fast, and not just for a catcher.
  Which brings to mind tales of the legendary Branch Rickey.  In the days when farm systems were in their infancy, Rickey pioneered the tryout camp, where mass numbers of players were culled.  For Rickey, the most important tool was speed, both from an offensive and defensive perspective, and one of the first acts of his camps was to line the prospective players up and run a 60 yard dash; those who finished in the back of the pack were sent home before they ever even picked up a glove or bat.
According to Kevin Kerrane, who wrote the excellent treatise on scouting that is Dollar Sign on the Muscle, "(Rickey) believed it (speed) to be the single biggest indicator of major league potential."
  Keeping that in mind, we're inclined to look a little more favourably on Pentecost now.
9.  Devon Travis, 2b
   There is no Blue Jays prospect who has sparked as much divided opinion as Travis.
Blocked by Ian Kinsler in Detroit, the Tigers were set to give him a shot in the outfield, but ultimately saw Anthony Gose as a better bet for depth.
   At this point, the only thing holding Travis back would be his lack of experience.  Unless he has a knockout spring, that would be the only reason to send him to Buffalo.  And if incumbent Maicer Izturis' rehabbed knee isn't up to the task, the time may be sooner rather than later for Travis.
   Travis lacks one outstanding tool, and that seems to be the hangup for some people.  There's everything in the CV he has compiled to this point to indicate that he will hit.  Maybe not for a batting title, but he will provide some spark to the offence, while playing adequate defence.
   We have to make room for him on this list.  He's almost major league ready.  He's maybe not a multiple WAR guy, but he's not far away from helping this club plug a longstanding hole.

10.  Sean Reid-Foley, rhp
  We've developed a tradition of using this spot for a high ceiling, but far away player.  Like Alford, who we still believe in, but he still has a steep learning curve ahead of him.
   Again, reading over reports this winter, there's a growing consensus that the Blue Jays stole one when they selected Reid-Foley. The Blue Jays may once more have acquired a top level talent without paying a commensurate (relatively speaking) price for it. He did not overwhelm in his first pro season, but you have to look no further than the top 3 players on this list to realize that you can't read much into that.  In the back fields of the Dunedin complex, much goes on in the way of rebuilding swings and overhauling deliveries.  Reid-Foley may have been in the shop for some alterations last summer, and it will be interesting to see where and how he develops this season.  We think prospects like Ryan Borucki and Matt Smoral who are ahead of Reid-Foley in terms of age, experience, and devlopment may be more likely breakthrough candidates this year, but he may ultimately have the highest ceiling.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Prospect for Prospect Trades

   The Blue Jays yesterday dealt LHP Tyler Ybarra to Colorado for LHP Jayson Aquino.

  On the surface of it, this trade doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense.   Aquino had been designated for assignment, but the Rockies still had two years of options left with him, after placing him on the 40 man roster after the 2013 season.

When teams deal minor league players, it's usually for one of several reasons, including:

1.  The team needs to acquire a player to upgrade or fill a 25 man roster spot (Noah Syndergaard in the RA Dickey trade);
2.  The team feels that the prospect will never reach their ceiling (Brett Wallace)
3.  The team is reluctant to part with the prospect, but they were an essential part of the
       other team's asking price, and/or the club feels they can replace the player (Franklin Barreto)

  It's rare to see a prospect-for-prospect trade.  And calling both of these players prospects, at this point in their careers, is generous. Aquino, signed as a NDFA in 2009 from the Dominican, peaked at a prospect after the 2012 season, when he reached #9 on the Rockies' list.  Wins and losses are of minor importance to a prospect, but Aquino went 0-10 in 2013, mostly at Low A.  Baseball America also had an interesting comment about him following that season:
He's too emotional and must learn to ignore umpires' calls that he disagrees with, and he also needs to develop better tempo in his delivery. He doesn't field his position or hold runners well.

   The Blue Jays drafted Ybarra in the 43rd round in 2008, and his minor league career got off to a rocky start.  He didn't pitch well in 2009 in the GCL, and then spent 2010 on the restricted list as he took time off to take care of some family and personal matters.  He did make it as far as #31 on BA's Blue Jays top prospects list in 2012 after a dominant year in Lansing's bullpen, and was just as dominant in Dunedin the following year.  2014 was a struggle for him, however, as he battled control problems at AA.  Ybarra seemed to be on the upswing as a prospect prior to this season.  The timing of the deal isn't the greatest, as his daughter was scheduled to undergo open heart surgery that same day. 

   Why did the teams agree to this trade?  In the case of the Rockies, of course, they were on the clock for making some sort of deal for Aquino.  Lefthanded bullpen power arms that throw between 91-95 can be tough to come by, but with the Blue Jays having upgraded their minor league relief depth this off season, his innings may have been limited.  He gets to start over again, in essence, with the Colorado organization.

   Aquino has mostly been a starter, and will probably continue in that role in the Toronto system.
The organization ran into some depth problems at the lower levels last year, and Aquino's acquisition may have been an attempt to bolster that situation.  

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Blue Jays Prospects Invited to Spring Training

   With the calendar having rolled over into February, the days getting longer, and the sun's warmth becoming an actual event for a few minutes some days, baseball's annual rite of spring training can't be far away.  And for those of us who live close enough to Toronto to make a few Rogers Centre pilgrimages every season, that's good news.

   The Blue Jays invited several non-roster prospects to attend the big club's spring training, which starts with pitchers and catchers reporting in just a few weeks.  Clubs do this with prospects who are on the cusp of a breakthrough.  It lets the young players soak up the major league atmosphere, and see how established major leaguers prepare themselves for the season ahead.

   To that end, Toronto has invited a handful of prospects to join the team in camp this spring.  The chances of any of them sticking with the club when camp breaks are slim to none, but that's not the point.  It's to get them ready for major league life - the travel, and looking after themselves and preparing for each day.

  In no particular order, the prospects invited are:

C - Jack Murphy/Derrick Chung/Sean Ochinko
   A lot of pitchers, roster and non roster types, are invited to spring training (we count 31, at the moment), and as a result, you need a lot of catchers, at least until the club starts to pare the number of arms down.  This trio, to a large extent, is part of that catching depth.  At the same time, the invite is a reward for Murphy, who had another sterling season of winter ball in Australia, as well as converted infielder Chung, who made it as far as AA last year.  Ochinko started the season under a 50 game suspension for Adderall use, and then suffered a severe concussion in extended spring training. He played in the Arizona Fall League, and acquitted himself well.  With Max Pentecost about to leap over all three on the Blue Jays depth chart, likely at some point this season, there's some jockeying for minor league assignments that will be going on between the three.  Chung did catch Aaron Sanchez in the club's final exhibition series at Olympic Stadium, but none of the three figure to last much past the middle of training camp.  Still, just to get the invitation is an accomplishment.

Infielders - Mitch Nay/Devon Travis
    I suspect you faithful readers know all about the latter.  You would have to think that Travis would have to blow the doors off this spring in order to break camp with the team, but he'll be getting some valuable experience just the same, and unlike some of his fellow prospects, may get to start fairly often in the exhibition games.
   Nay did not hit for the power that some thought he would display last year, but Lansing is a tough home run park, and power is always the last part of the toolkit to develop.  Nay did hit 30 doubles, and the thinking is likely that some of them will turn into home runs one day.  The question has always been if Nay can stay at 3rd base.  By all accounts, he played well there in 2014, and will likely stay at the position for at least this year.

Outfielders - Anthony Alford/Dwight Smith, Jr.
   Alford struggled in Australia against veteran pitching after making a full time commitment to baseball; this invitation was likely part of the the package the Blue Jays used to convince him to give up his gridiron dreams.  While Alford is still a long way away, the experience at spring training should set him up nicely in his first year of full season ball.
   Smith had a very underrated year in the Florida State League, and we've heard lots of talk that if he hits at AA this year, he could very well be on his way.  If we were to pick out a potential sleeper position player at spring training, he would be it.

Pitchers - Roberto Osuna/Miguel Castro/Gregory Infante
   An intriguing trio of arms.  Osuna came back last summer after TJ surgery, and while he showed that he had regained most of his former velo and his advanced feel for pitching, he often caught too much of the plate.  2015 will be a big year for him, and the club has challenged him with this invitation.  And he doesn't turn 20 until later this week.
   Castro had the best season for a Blue Jays prospect not named Daniel Norris or Kendall Graveman last year.  He throws heat with his 96 mph fastball, but the nagging concern is about his secondary pitches.  Of all the prospects invited to this camp (save for Travis, maybe), his invitation could be considered to be an audition.  While we would like to see him get an opportunity to continue starting, Alex Anthopoulos has mentioned on more than one occasion that we could see Castro in the Blue Jays pen sooner, rather than later.  Castro turned 20 just before Christmas.
   Infante may throw even harder than Castro, but the former White Sox pitcher does not tend to have a lot of movement on his pitches.  He pitched well in Venezuela this winter, and could be on the fringes of a big league return.

Monday, February 2, 2015

In Praise of Andrew Stoeten

    I have been a huge fan of Andrew Stoeten, going back to his work with the blog Drunk Jays Fans (which inspired me to start this humble blog a couple of years ago), and  his latest gigs with his own blog (the excellent, and the National Post.
   I have never met the man, but I suspect I would enjoy watching a ballgame and having an adult beverage with him.  He's a guy of strong opinions, but they're generally well informed.  Because of a comment about Blue Jays prospect Devon Travis made by ESPN's Keith Law, Stoeten and I got into a debate on Sunday night that turned into a bit of a street fight, with others joining in to attack my (supposed) position, while still others rushed in to defend me with equal veracity.

   Here's Laws's comment about Travis that started it all:

   Had a great year but as you said, 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.

  We're all entitled to our opinions, and I greatly enjoy Law's work as well, but I found this one to be cheap, weak, and dismissive, and I've come to expect better from him.  And this is what I said in response to a tweep who pointed out that Blue Jays radio guy Mike Wilner had brought up Law's comments on The Fan 590 Sunday afternoon.  I also said that Law tends to form an opinion about a prospect, and rarely changes it: case in point, Aaron Sanchez.  Law saw Sanchez get tonged in a Florida State League start in 2013, and that brief outing has formed Law's evaluation of him to this point.  Law questions Sanchez's delivery, even though the majority of people in the prospect business rave about the ease and looseness of it, and how the ball seems to explode out of his hand.  Granted, Sanchez had huge command issues in the minors, and his success last year can be attributed as much to the Blue Jays cutting his repertoire in half, as opposed to any adjustments to his mechanics. At the same time, his view seems to be out of step with the majority's. But that's his opinion, and it's my right to point out what I perceive to be the flaw in it.

   So, Law is certainly entitled to his views about Travis, even though it doesn't sound like he has seen much (if any) of him live.  According to Baseball Reference, the average age of an Eastern League player last season was 24.7, meaning that the then-23 year old Travis was below the league mean. Maybe 23 is a bit old for a prospect, but not necessarily the EL, and maybe not for a college grad who has been deliberately moved up one rung of the system's ladder at a time (and hit at every one of them). But that's beside the point, and was not what I had originally said.

   Those who were critical of me questioned Travis' future value, and they have every right to do that. Since he's a prospect, there's no guarantee that he will even stick in the majors, let alone become at least a league-average player.  Stoeten suggested, though, that I was critical of Law because of my feelings about Travis. And here's the thing:  at no point during this debate, on this blog, or anywhere else where my writing appears, have I ever said that Travis is a top prospect.   Even though BA labelled him the top prospect in a weak Tigers' system prior to the Anthony Gose trade, I didn't include him in my Blue Jays Top 10 prospects in November.  I have never said that he's an all-star in the making, and I don't even see him making the team this spring unless he has a knockout time at the plate that leaves the club no choice but to head north with him..

   I am not a scout, and will never pretend to be one.  A scout can look at a kid at 18 and project whether or not they can eventually play.  They are wrong far more often than they are right, but they have the skills to project a player several years in advance.  They can look past mechanical issues (see high schooler Daniel Norris), and see the diamond in the rough. I, for my part, have a list of things I look for when I watch a prospect, and that's a post for another time.   My evaluations of Blue Jays prospects come from chiefly what others have said and/or written about them over several seasons, a bit of stats-based scouting (you have to consider all data, in my opinion), and my own impressions, either from seeing them play live, or from  While I admit to never having seen him play live, the thing I like about Devon Travis is that he has hit everywhere he has played.  I do not see him as a top prospect, but I do think he would nicely fill what has been a bit of a black hole for the Blue Jays for some time.  The scouting report on him suggests that he does not have one outstanding tool, but his bat will play, and that's huge in this runs-starved era.  But, again, this was not my point.

   That tweeps, Stoeten included, continued to be critical of me ignored the fact that at no point had I said anything about Travis' projection is both amusing and bewildering.  Are we so quick to jump on others that we give the facts of the situation a pass, so that we can continue the argument, and prove that we have the superior position?  I was being attacked for positions I hadn't even taken.  My original (and only) point was that Law sometimes makes his evaluations upon the slimmest of facts, and tends to stick with them.  Law sees a great many players from high schoolers to college players to minor league prospects.  It's probably next to impossible to have a thick database on each and every one of them.  I will admit that sometimes I have the odd mental gap and/or lapse about a Blue Jays prospect, especially those outside of my Top 20.  We are all entitled to our opinions; I try to make sure mine is as informed as it can be.  Law's opinion of Travis, in my opinion, is a bit lazy, and flies in the face of what many others have said.  At the same time, Law has more than enough of a body of work that I can live with that - and disagree with him, if I so choose.

   To get back to Mr Stoeten, who chided me for my views on Law, and helped ignite a debate that raged on Twitter as Tom Brady marched the Patriots down the field for what turned out to be, thanks to what some called questionable play calling (the late, great Earl Weaver would call it, "A move that didn't work"), the winning Super Bowl touchdown:  just as I think Law is capable of better, so is he. I admit that I can mis-read and misinterpret the comments of others as easily as the next person.  As a close friend and mentor entered the final hours of his losing battle with cancer a week ago, I misread a text from my son that said the friend was in critical condition, thinking that it meant he was in the hospital (he wasn't; he passed peacefully at home, surrounded by his family),  and that set off a series of unfortunate events among my friends and family that I deeply regret.  Stoeten is a great writer, offering go-to scoops and insights into the Blue Jays.   He missed the point of my original rebuttal completely, and helped launch a tidal wave of tweets that swept many of us, chief among them me, away.  I'm a big boy, and more than capable of handling criticism, but we all have a responsibility for our comments.  Stoeten may not have been responsible for the words of others, but he did have one to be certain of the ground he was occupying.

   It all kind of reminded me of a schoolyard melee, something I'm far more acquainted with than Devon Travis.
   No harm, no foul, Andrew.  I'm still a big fan.  I will leave the last words to someone else, however:

@AndrewStoeten @Clutchlings77 Klaw did same with Goldschmidt, said he was platoon guy at best, refused to budge even after he had success.

@AndrewStoeten @Clutchlings77 I like reading Keith but like many of us he doesn't like to admit mistakes. Consensus is he's wrong on Travis