Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Clutchlings Notebook - Week Three

  All four Blue Jays minor league affiliates are well underway with their seasons, so I thought I would narrow my focus a bit and take a look at some players worth keeping an eye on in the system - players who, as you move down the system, may not make an appearance and/or an impact for the big league club this year, but have a chance to get there at some point.

   The Bisons are a veteran team, but are well worth the trip down the QEW to watch, sitting atop the International League north standings.
  At the moment, there are not a lot of players who could reasonably be called prospects - the Bisons roster is filled more with injury insurance guys.
   Of the players who fit that prospect category, C A.J. Jimenez and IF Andy Burns would be the most worth watching.  The oft-injured Jimenez had his season debut delayed by yet another stint on the DL, but after starting at New Hampshire, he's now in Buffalo.  I watched him catch Matt Boyd's start on April 20th, and there's so much to like about him as a receiver.  Jimenez is quick and athletic, and blocks balls in the dirt well.  He's already a good framer of pitches, and helped Boyd immensely on a night when he was fighting his command with his breaking pitches a bit.  The question mark, in addition to his ability to stay healthy, is his bat.  If not for his injury, however, he may have gotten the call over Josh Thole when Dioner Navarro went on the DL. Jimenez will make a fine defense-first catcher, but his bat may limit the extent of his role on a big league club one day.
   Burns is a 3B/SS who was being groomed as a super utility player, but has played mostly 3rd and 2nd this year.  He started with New Hampshire, but was promoted to the Bisons and went 4-4 in his first game.  Burns got off to a slow start at AA last year, and I had originally thought he might be a September call up at the outset of the 2014 season.  He's another one of those overlooked guys the Blue Jays have loved to draft over the last half decade.  He had to sit out his senior NCAA season after transferring from Kentucky to Arizona, but the Jays didn't forget about him, and took him in the 11th round in 2011.
   At 27, Scott Copeland can no longer be considered a prospect, but since last August, he's placed himself on the radar.  As I write this, he went 5 strong innings for Buffalo tonight, giving up 2 runs on 5 hits, walking 3 and striking out 1 - and this has been one of his poorer outings, the first one where he hasn't at least pitched into the 6th.  Copeland, of course, is not a strikeout per inning guy.  He averages over 2.5 groundouts for every fly ball out.  He just doesn't give up a lot of hard contact:

   Of course, the only way we'll likely see Copeland is if there is an injury situation, and/or a complete meltdown of the major league rotation.  And vets like Randy Wolf and maybe Andrew Albers, Jeff Francis, or possibly even Felix Doubront might get the call before him.  At the same time, what Copeland has done since arriving in Buffalo late last season is get hitters out, posting a 1.80 ERA in 7 starts over the last two seasons, and allowing just 27 hits in 45 innings.

New Hampshire
   Boyd is the obvious pick here, but he's not the only one.  I've written before that he had a better April and May than Daniel Norris or Kendall Graveman last year, before running into some injury issues that weren't enough to sideline him, but limited his effectiveness over the last half of the year.
  I have a more detailed post coming up later this week about him, but Boyd is well worth watching.  Like Copeland, he's not necessarily a power arm, although he had added velo this year.  He relies more on command and his feel for pitching.  At the same time, Boyd's 30 K's are just 3 off the minor league lead.  It's best to see him soon if you're thinking of making a trip east to see him, because he may be in Buffalo by June if he continues to pitch as well as he has.
   Dwight Smith Jr is making quite a name for himself as a hitter.  The Blue Jays tried experimenting with him at 2nd in the Arizona Fall League and in spring training, because his bat doesn't really have the power to profile as a corner outfielder.  He put up solid numbers in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, and has continued to rake in AA, hitting .324/.361/.485.  Smith has hit in the 2nd spot in New Hampshire's order, and has benefitted immensely from having vets Jake Fox and KC Hobson behind him the lineup.  If speedster Jon Berti can get on base more frequently ahead of Smith in the order, he'll see even more fastballs.  With Dalton Pompey and Kevin Pillar ahead of him, there's no spot in the majors for Smith at the moment, but he should join Boyd in Buffalo in a few weeks.

   The D-Jays have a young lineup, and have had trouble showing much consistency so far.
Dawel Lugo and Mitch Nay have potential impact bats, but have struggled.  Roemon Fields may be the fastest player in the organization, but he has had trouble getting on base.
    LHP Jairo Labourt has alternated good outings with not-so-good ones so far this year.  Walks have been his nemesis as they were in his abbreviated stint in the Midwest League last year.  He's been missing bats and the strike zone at almost the same rate.  RHP Alberto Tirado has been sent to the bullpen in an attempt to harness his electric stuff, and for the most part, it's been working.  There's just not a lot of projection for a bullpen guy in High A.
   Dunedin is very much a work in progress.  Almost all of the info I get on them is second hand, of course, because there's no milb.tv coverage of the Florida State League, and the D-Jays play in front of a couple thousand empy seats every night.

   This is the must-see team in the organization, and thanks to milb.tv, you can see them a fair amount, although not at home.
   Any discussion about this team now starts with Anthony Alford, the two sport star who is as fabulous a story as he is an athlete.  I've written a few thousand words about him, so please go back through my archives and have a look.
   The Reader's Digest Alford story:  A Mississippi all-state baseball and football star, small-town Alford was one of the nation's top football recruits in 2012, and the Blue Jays took him with their 3rd round pick, even though he had a scholarship to Southern Miss in hand.  He was labelled a 3rd rounder with first round talent - a story making the rounds recently is that the Blue Jays area scout for MS gave him the highest grade of any prospect in that year's draft class.
   Alford was involved in a campus incident in which a gun was pulled (not by him) after his freshman year, and he had his scholarship lifted.  Alford then enrolled at Ole Miss, and had to sit out a year due to transfer rules. He continued to report to the Blue Jays minor league complex in Florida after spring football, but his seasons were always cut short by the need to head back to campus in August, meaning that he had amassed just over 100 PAs over his first three minor league seasons.
   The Blue Jays offered Alford much of Front Street to give up football this past summer, but he declined.
Suddenly, in late September, he left Ole Miss, and announced his intention to give up his gridiron dreams.  I talked to him via Twitter about it, and while he didn't come right out and say it, Alford suggested that he initially went with football because he felt pressured to do so.  Football is King in Mississippi, and it's completely understandable that a young, impressionable young man would feel an obligation to pursue it if he was blessed with such talent.  Somehow, someone said something this fall that lifted the world off of his shoulders, and it convinced him that it was okay for him to make the switch to his first love of baseball, and he reported to Florida for Instructional League play.
   In order to get him some more ABs, the Blue Jays sent him to play in the Australian Baseball League this winter.  The veteran ABL pitchers with their breaking pitches often tied Alford up in knots, and he admitted that he got into a lot of unfavourable hitters' counts.  The experience seems to have paid off however, as had the time he spent with the Blue Jays in spring training (he said Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson made the biggest impression on him).  He spent some time this month on Lansing's DL with a knee issue, but he's been bashing since his return this past week, hitting .364/.417/.500 in 5 games with the Lugs.  The highlight of his week had to be the night he scored on a sacrifice fly - from 2nd base.
   I asked Lansing broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler about what has impressed him the most about Alford, and he said his AB's have been a study in patience, often working into 2-2 or 3-2 counts.  Unlike in Australia, when he widened his strike zone considerably with two strikes,  Goldberg-Strassler says that Alford looks like a very comfortable two-strike hitter.  And Alford's also not trying to pull the ball - he's hitting the ball up the middle and to right field.  All of these are signs of rapidly improving pitch recognition.
   I don't want to get ahead of myself, but Alford could be the best position player in the organization very soon.
    But Alford is not the only prospect on display in the Michigan State Capital. Among the others:

-1B Rowdy Tellez -  a power-hitting first baseman who has transformed his formerly chunky body.  The Midwest League is a tough home runs hitter's loop because of its parks with high outfield walls and the April and May winds that always seem to be knocking fly balls down, but I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of power numbers Tellez produces for Lansing.

-1B/DH/OF Ryan McBroom  The 15th round pick from last year's draft has mostly hit behind Tellez in the Lugnuts order, and pretty much all he has done is hit.  The power hasn't shown up just yet, but he's posted an impressive .323/.408/.418 line.

-OF DJ Davis  Davis is repeating Low A after failing to make much contact last year, striking out in 32% of his PAs.  And his vaunted speed didn't translate into a high stolen base total, as he was thrown out more times (20) than he wasn't (19).  Davis is making betting contact so far this season, and is hitting .302/.397/.444.

-C Danny Jansen When he's healthy and finally activated, Max Pentecost may ascend to the majors faster, but Jansen may well prove to be the Blue Jays catcher of the future.  He's had a slow start at the plate, but his bat has started to come around, and word has spread around the MWL that Jansen is tough to run on.

-RHP Chase De Jong  De Jong is repeating Lansing as well, and with the exception of his last start, appears to be on track for a mid-season promotion to Dunedin.  De Jong struck out 9 in his first start, but he's more of a finesse pitcher who relies on finesse and command. Which he didn't have in his most recent outing, and gave up a pair of homers.

-RHP Sean Reid-Foley The 2014 2nd round steal is perhaps the highest-ceiling member of Lansing's rotation.  On a shorter pitch count leash than his teammates at this point, Reid-Foley has struck out 13 in only 7 innings over 3 starts.

-SS Richard Urena Jose Reyes' potential successor, the 19 year old has held his own at the plate so far, hitting .241/.274/.345, and playing stellar defence.  Some have labelled his glove major league ready.  A switch hitter, Urena's bat from the right side has always been a concern, and he's struggled against lefties so far.

-LHP Shane Dawson The soft-tossing Drayton Valley, AB (as far as I can tell, only two minor leaguers come from a more northerly location than Dawson), southpaw relies on deception to get hitters out, which he's been doing at a healthy clip.  Shoulder injuries have sidelined Dawson each of the past two years, but he is fully recovered, and should move up to Dunedin at some point this season.  MWL hitters are currently hitting a paltry .113 against him.

  Other names due to soon get an assignment to a full-season team:  2015 1st rounder Jeff Hoffman, almost a year removed from Tommy John surgery; 2014 2nd rounder Clinton Hollon, and possible lefty Matt Smoral, who I thought was a lock for Lansing, but struggled this spring and was kept behind for extended spring training.

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