Monday, April 6, 2015

Clutchlings Notebook

  It's been a hectic weekend of watching the Blue Jays final spring training games, and checking Twitter for news of where the club has placed its minor league prospects for the year.  Here are some observations and thoughts....

A Primer
  If you are a regular reader, you have my permission to skip this paragraph and go on to the next one.  I've picked up a fair number of new readers over the past month, and since I've been asked on more than one occasion how the different levels of the minor leagues work, here goes:

   With the exception of the Florida State and Gulf Coast League teams, the Blue Jays minor league affiliates are locally owned.  Major League teams sign two or four year Player Development Contracts with the teams, usually renewed in even years.  By the terms of the contract, the MLB team provides and plays players and coaching staff on the team, and the minor league team pays all other expenses.

AAA - one step below the majors.  These teams are generally stocked with injury insurance players, and prospects not quite ready for the big time.  Kevin Pillar spent much of last season at this level, and the thinking before spring training started was that Devon Travis needed a year of seasoning there.  We all know how that turned out.
  The Blue Jays AAA affiliate, as you likely know, is the Buffalo Bisons.  The roster to start the year will be a veteran one, full of guys who have been through several organizations, or have been career minor leaguers.
Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo is a great place to watch a ballgame.  The park is about five minutes away from the Peace Bridge, and prices are extremely reasonable.  The Bisons will accept Canadian money in denominations of $20 or under at par at the box office, concessions, and the restaurant down the right field line for April.  They'll also take our money (same denominations) at par at the box office the whole season (online credit card purchases are subject to the exchange rate).  Even though the Bisons draw well, your chances of purchasing tickets at the box office are reasonably good if you want to save the exchange.
There is ample parking around the ball park.
   Check out Washington Square Grill just a block away from the park for a cheap, hardy meal before the game.
  The Blue Jays/Bisons PDC runs through the 2016 season.

AA - a place where teams often want to assign their top nearly major-league ready prospects, so that they get a chance to play together and get to know each other.  The jump between A and AA is the biggest one in the minors, so players often skip AAA, or spend minimal time there, on their way to the majors.  Aaron Sanchez started the year in AA last year.
    The Blue Jays AA affiliate, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, is based in Manchester, about a 9 hour drive from the GTA.  There was talk a few years ago of the club moving their AA team to Ottawa, but city council was reluctant to pick up the price tag to renovate RCGT Park to bring it up to Minor League Baseball's standards.  Having a team in the nation's capital would be very convenient for fans, and would help to continue to grow the Blue Jays brand across the country, but their current partnership has been very successful, and the club is staying with New Hampshire for now.
   The Blue Jays/Fisher Cats PDC expires in 2018.

High A - where prospects who have played several seasons of minor league ball are sent.  Daniel Norris, starting his second year of full season ball, began the season at Dunedin of the Florida State League last year, as did Dalton Pompey.  High profile top college draft picks also often start their careers at this level.
   Dunedin plays in Florida Auto Exchange stadium, often in front of only a few hundred fans.  The D-Jays are one of the lowest-drawing teams in the FSL, and the Blue Jays are hoping to re-brand the team when their new spring training complex opens.
  Since the Blue Jays own the franchise, there is no PDC.

Low A - the first rung on the full season ball ladder.  The Blue Jays have a very successful partnership with the Lansing Lugnuts of the Midwest League.  Just 4 1/2 hours away from the GTA, scores of Canadian fans have made the trek across the border to catch the Lugs.
   Players at this level are still several years away from the bigs.  For all, it's their first experience playing every day on an extended basis, and learning to deal with the travelling.  For international prospects, it can be their first lengthy experience with American culture beyond the familiar weather and life of Southern Florida.

   The Jays and Lugs are signed to a PDC through 2016.

Short Season Ball
   Playing a condensed schedule that starts in June and wraps up by the end of the first weekend in September, this is where prospects get a taste of pro baseball life.  Players report to spring training in mid-March, and when camp breaks for full season prospects, these players remain in Florida for Extended Spring Training to continue to hone their skills, and play against other minor leaguers in exhibition game.  They usually head out to their assignments early in the second week of June.
   The top rung on his part of the ladder for the Blue Jays in the Northwest League, where the Blue Jays have a wildly successful partnership with Vancouver.  The C's lost in the NWL final last year, snapping their streak of 3 league titles in a row.
   Players in this league tend to be more experienced.  Rosters are full of recent college grads, and players who have a couple of pro seasons under their belts.
   Vancouver is an incredible place to spend a few days.  Outdoor opportunities abound.  In the morning, you can walk the Sea Wall at Stanley Park, or climb a mountain trail at the Grouse Grind, or drive the north shore and sea kayak at Deep Cove.  Then, you can catch a C's game at quaint Nat Bailey Stadium, situated in a nice suburban neighbourhood not far from downtown.
   At the Nat, they serve a wonderful variety of craft beers.  One word of warning:  since the Nat is an older park, there are some views behind home plate obstructed by upright girders, and they don't warn you about that when you buy tickets online.  Either try to get tickets right behind the plate, or down the baselines past the dugouts to avoid this.
   It's hard to get a handle on who will be playing for the C's this year, because many of the players who will be on their roster haven't been drafted yet.  If I had to guess, I would say Lane Thomas, who had a great pro debut last year, will man second for Vancouver this year, along with pitchers Sean Reid-Foley, Grayson Huffman, and Jesus Tinoco may start in Vancouver.

   The Blue Jays PDC with Vancouver runs through 2016, and unless things change dramatically with local ownership, it's hard to see this one expiring for a long, long time.

    The next step down (or up, depending on your perspective) for Blue Jays prospects is the Appalachian League.  This is the first experience "under the lights" for prospects, playing in front of a few hundred (sometimes more) people, and travelling.  The Blue Jays affiliate at this level is in beautiful Bluefield, WV, a 9 hour drive from Toronto.  Many Jays fans who make the trip stop along the way in Pittsburgh and catch a couple of Pirates games.  This is usually the second stop for prospects.  Again, the makeup of the Bluefield roster is a bit hard to predict at the moment, but I would think C Matt Morgan, pitchers Angel Perdomo, Nick Wells, and Jake Brentz, and intriguing OF prospect Juan Tejada will get to play under the lights in Bluefield to start the year. There was talk that the Blue Jays might look for another affiliate at this level last fall but they have re-upped with Bluefield for another two years.
   The Gulf Coast League is the entry-level for many Blue Jays prospects, including recent high school draft picks, international players getting their first taste of stateside plays, and some rehabbing minor leaguers.  GCL players work out in the morning, and then play against other teams GCL entries around noon, under the blazing Florida sun, earning the league the nickname the Gulf Roast League.  Crowds here consist of scouts, girlfriends, and parents.  The visiting parents often get adopted by the whole team, who are just grateful to have someone watching them.  The games are free of charge to watch, but only the hardiest of northerners make the trek to view them.
   Below this level is the Dominican Summer League, stocked mostly with 16 and 17 year old international prospects getting their first taste of pro ball.  Only a handful of them are deemed worthy of moving up to the GCL the next year.

Matt Boyd/Taylor Cole
   The pair figure to be mainstays in the New Hampshire rotation this year, and they both got a taste of big league action in the Olympic Stadium games this past weekend.
   Boyd followed Daniel Norris in the first game, and struggled a bit with his command, and was obviously a victim of the jitters.  Veteran Russell Martin came out to calm him down, and he got the final out.  Here's a look at his performance:

  While I've followed Boyd closely for the past year, this is the first time I've seen him pitch live.  I like his leg kick, which apparently has been brought down a bit, because it helps create some deception.  When he missed during this outing, he missed down, and his change up showed good movement.  The starters in Buffalo will get the first recall if one goes down with the big club, but there's an outside chance Boyd could be in the majors by the end of the year.  If not for a foot injury and some bone chips that needed removing at the end of the season, Boyd could have followed fellow prospects Daniel Norris and Kendall Graveman to Toronto.  His season up until the mid-way point was that good.
   Cole is a good story.  He missed two years of pitching when he spent two years on a Mormon mission (in Toronto, of all places), and at 25 has been labelled old for most of the levels he's pitched at .  Fangraphs' Carson Cistulli has been following Cole, and likes what he sees:
Strikeout- and walk-rate differential is among the most quickly stabilizing of pitcher metrics that’s also predictive of future run prevention. Daniel Norris, who sits atop this list, produced the best such mark (23.9 points) last year among all qualified starters at High-A or above. The right-handed Cole finished second (22.6 points) by that same critera. The two were actually teammates at High-A Dunedin until mid-June. While Norris eventually earned a series of promotions that brought him to the majors, however, Cole was relegated to a pair of Double-A starts in early August before returning to the Florida State League
    Cole was even named Fangraphs Fringe Prospect of the Year in 2014.  Given his age, he's a long shot to make the majors, but he should succeed at AA.  He came into the 9th inning of the second game, and gave up a run, but finished the game well.
   If you can't quite get enough baseball to watch, and/or can watch more than one game at a time, a subscription to the minor leagues' streaming service is for you.
   This year, home games for all 30 AAA teams will be carried, meaning that you can catch a fair amount of the Bisons.  All 30 AA teams will be covered as well, and it appears that the Fisher Cats home games will be televised.  You can watch on any device.
  Beyond that, it gets a little dicey.  There is no Florida State League coverage, and only a half dozen Midwest League teams do, meaning that you can only catch the Lugnuts on the road.  The quality of the telecasts have improved, but it can be a buyer beware scenario below AA.  Having said that, I saw Miguel Castro's start at West Michigan when he pitched for Lansing last year, and while the coverage obviously lacks the cameras and technology that MLB telecasts do, it was adequate for me to get a really good look at him.
  The subscription price is $12.99/month, or $49.99 for the season.  You can go month-by-month, but your subscription will automatically be renewed each month unless you specify otherwise.
   All of the Blue Jays affiliates' (other than the GCL and DSL teams)  games can be listened to on your device via the teams' websites.  The Fan 590 will even feature 15 Bisons games this year.

The Rosters
   There are some surprises on the four full season team rosters, but they tend to be at the lower levels.

 To the surprise of few, the Bisons roster is a veteran one, but if any of the top prospects like Sanchez, Norris, Pompey, Travis,  or Pillar falter at the big league level, that could change.
 Buffalo will be going with a veteran pitching rotation, which included Chad Jenkins being stretched out into a starting role.  If there's a red flag with the big club, it's the lack of starting pitching depth.  Randy Wolf and, eventually, Johan Santana will be part of the starting rotation, at least for the first part of the season.
   Ryan Goins' demotion was a tough thing to see, but there's a strong possibility he will be back with the Blue Jays before long, especially when Michael Saunders is healthy.  John Stilson is injured at the moment, and probably not back until June.
  If I had to wager who a couple of outside the box promotions might be if other plans go awry, I would point to starter Scott Copeland and reliever Ryan Tepara.  Copeland has been an org guy during his minor league days, but learned to pound the strike zone down low last year, and pitched well for the Bisons.  Tepara, a converted starter, could be a power arm out of the pen.

New Hampshire
  With Boyd and Cole anchoring the starting rotation, and veteran Casey Lawrence joining them, have the makings of a solid starting corps.  Reliever John Anderson has been converted to starting, and will be joined by late-season pickup Mike Lee to round out the corps.
   With Devon Travis making the big club, some (including me) thought that Jon Berti would be playing second for Buffalo, but he's back for a second season with the Fisher Cats.
   Outfielder and sometime second baseman Dwight Smith, who apparently has added a bit of a leg kick in order to boost his power, will make his AA debut.
  If Miguel Castro or Roberto Osuna falter at the big league level, it would make sense for one or both of them to be sent to New Hampshire.

   Jairo Labourt headlines the D-Jays rotation, and will be joined by off season addition Jayson Aquino.  The Dunedin bullpen could be interesting, with holdover Chad Girodo, converted starter Alberto Tirado, flamethrowing Jimmy Cordero, and international signing veteran Tiago Da Silva, who we thought would be heading to New Hampshire.
   Matt Dean and Dawel Lugo move up from Lansing to join former Lugnut teammate Matt Nay.  Christian Lopes tore up the Australian League over the second half before injuring his hamstring, and I thought he might merit a promotion to AA, but is back along with Aussie and Dunedin teammate LB Dantzler.
   Roemon Fields is skipping Lansing, and promises to be a player to watch.  An elite defender and possibly the fastest player in the organization, Fields impressed many this spring, and the former US Postal worker may move quickly this year.

   This was what we thought would be a team to watch last year, but their young pitching staff (including Labourt and Tirado) struggled.
  There are a few names we thought might be there that I wrote about in my last post like pitchers Ryan Borucki and Matt Smoral, but they are being kept back in Extended.  Borucki apparently had bone chips removed from his elbow, so he is a while from returning to competition.
  There's still a lot to like on this roster.  Pitcher Chase De Jong is repeating, but there are indications that he could recapture his former top prospect status.  The surprising Starlyn Suriel and Alberta's own Shane Dawson will join him in the rotation.
  As far as position players go, there are four that could make the trip to Lansing worthwhile for Blue Jays fans travelling from Southern Ontario.  Shortstop Richard Urena was labelled major-league ready on defence last year, and while he's always profiled more as a glove first player, his bat is coming along.  Last fall, we envisioned a Urena-Franklin Barreto keystone combination, but the Blue Jays felt confident enough in Urena's development to deal Barreto to Oakland as part of the Josh Donaldson deal.  Many of Urena's throws across the diamond to first will be to Rowdy Tellez, the top first base prospect in the system.  Tellez came to camp in excellent shape, and even though the Lugnuts home Cooley Law Stadium is a canyon of a park, Tellez may bust out this year.
   The Lugnuts outfield will resemble a track team, featuring Anthony Alford, DJ Davis, and Jonathan Davis.  Alford committed full time to baseball last fall, foregoing his college football dream, and went to spring training with the big club.  DJ Davis was the club's first round pick in 2012, but struggled mightily last year with the Lugs.  He played his best ball of the season when his friend and fellow Mississippian Alford was in town.  Jon Davis was hurt much of last season, and is looking to make up for lost time.
   Danny Jansen may well be the catcher of the future, despite being behind the convalescing Max Pentecost on the depth chart.  Scouts rave about his receiving skills and bat.

Around the Nest
   Every Friday,  Lugnuts' excellent broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler hosts this online look at the Jays system, featuring reports from the play-by-play guys of the Toronto affiliates.  It's a great source of information for those who like to follow prospects - news you can't get anywhere else.
    Here's a link to the first podcast of the season.
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