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.
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