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.

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