In the best case scenario, MLB farm departments like to give players at least two months of play to start the season at a level before they make a decision as to whether some players need to move on to the next level, or stay where they're at. Sometimes, injuries and/or inconsistency at the top of the organization (that is, the major league team) can have a huge influence on this plan.
This past weekend, it was almost dizzying to see how many roster moves were made as the Blue Jays had to overcome the placing of Jose Reyes on the 15-day Disabled List. Jonathan Diaz was called up from Buffalo to take his place, which immediately left Buffalo a middle infielder short, so Kevin Nolan got the call in New Hampshire to come up and take his place. Moving up from Dunedin to New Hampshire were Christian Lopes and Emilio Guerrero to provide some middle infield help. Lopes was off to a slow start - he had a monster second half of the season in Australia this winter, until a hamstring injury ended his season and sent him home in time to heal for spring training.
Another promotion to New Hampshire of note was that of Tiago da Silva, the much traveled Brazilian reliever.
Those moves all came on Friday. On Saturday, with Scott Copeland recalled from Buffalo to make his MLB debut, Casey Lawrence was promoted from New Hampshire to the Bisons to take his place. If Ryan Schimpf was moved up as well. IF Dickie Joe Thon and P Justin Shafer were promoted from Lansing to Dunedin to shore up their roster.
Much has been made this weekend over the demotions of Daniel Norris, Dalton Pompey, and Miguel Castro. They would not be the first rookies to ever struggle and need further time in the minors - that's part of the reason teams get three option years on players new to the 40-man roster.
I thought it would be worth a quick look to see exactly why all three had their difficulties this month.
Daniel Norris had a solid spring training, and while the injury to Marcus Stroman threw a monkey wrench into the team's pitching staff plans, Norris may have made the team as the 5th starter despite Stroman tearing up his knee.
Norris complained of going through a dead arm stretch in the middle of the month, but overall his velocity held firm between 91 and 93:
His last start against the Indians, when he was lifted after throwing 78 pitches in 3 innings, shows that he really didn't trust his changeup or sinker, and almost half of the pitches he threw were fastballs, which hitters mashed at a .407 clip. Accompanying the increase in fourseam usage was quite a bump in the use of his slider, which he has had more success with. Norris recorded only 3 swinging strikes in the Cleveland game, none with his fastball or sinker.
Is something physically wrong with Norris? An MRI performed on April 21 revealed no structural damage to his elbow. It is worth noting that Norris had bone chips removed from his left elbow after last season, and he was shut down for a month in 2013 as a precaution. He also admits to having gone through a dead arm phase last season (he did get dinged in a couple of early July starts at AA), and the stress of spring training may have worn him out a bit:
“My workload in spring training was — I was working really hard, trying to make this team and maybe that’s catching up to me a little bit right now, but I think I’m on the tail end of it. I’m feeling better,”
Whatever the case is, Norris is not the dominant pitcher who raced through four levels last year. Time in Buffalo may be necessary for him to re-discover himself in a less pressure-filled environment. He makes his first start for the Bisons on Wednesday.
The GTA product struggled on both sides of the ball this month. His difficulties at the plate weren't all that surprising, but his troubles in the field were. He misjudged some fly balls, and took curious routes on others. The former Minor League gold glove winner was supposed to be more dependable than that. That, coupled with his .193/.264/.337 line caused the Blue Jays to send him to Buffalo for some time to re-group.
Quite simply, Pompey is way better than what he has shown. He may have been pressing too much, especially during the 10 game home stand, when he likely was inundated with interview and ticket requests, and didn't have enough time to prepare and focus on baseball.
Again, injuries may have forced the issue here. Michael Saunders knee surgery meant a temporary halt to what likely would have been a platoon between Pompey and Kevin Pillar. Instead, Pompey was thrown into the deep end, and when he lost his centerfield spot to Pillar, he no doubt took his fielding woes to the plate, and vice-versa.
Pompey will be back.
His inclusion on the Jays roster was perhaps the biggest surprise of all coming out of spring training. Castro simply made it impossible for the Blue Jays to send him down, and given that hey showed a distaste for crop of available free agent relievers, that may have been their hope all along.
His performance over his last ten outings has been spotty:
DATE OPP W L ERA SV IP H ER BB SO
04/12/2015 @BAL 0 0 0.00 1 1.0 1 0 1 0
04/14/2015 TB 0 1 0.00 0 1.1 2 0 1 2
04/17/2015 ATL 0 0 0.00 0 1.0 0 0 1 0
04/18/2015 ATL 0 0 1.23 0 1.0 2 1 0 1
04/22/2015 BAL 0 0 1.04 1 1.1 1 0 1 1
04/23/2015 BAL 0 0 1.93 1 0.2 1 1 0 1
04/25/2015 @TB 0 0 2.79 0 0.1 2 1 0 0
04/27/2015 @BOS 0 1 3.60 0 0.1 3 1 0 1
05/01/2015 @CLE 0 0 3.27 0 1.0 1 0 0 2
05/03/2015 @CLE 0 0 4.38 0 1.1 2 2 2 2
TOTALS 0 2 5.79 3 9.1 15 6 6 10
I had originally thought that Castro's troubles might have resulted from wearing down as a result of overuse in high leverage situations, but his velocity has been fairly consistent:
Game Fourseam Sinker Change Slider
TOR@NYA (4/6/15) 97.50 97.94 86.31 82.20
TOR@NYA (4/8/15) 97.08 0.00 89.32 0.00
TOR@NYA (4/9/15) 97.18 0.00 91.21 83.79
TOR@BAL (4/12/15) 97.19 0.00 88.87 82.37
TBA@TOR (4/14/15) 98.08 0.00 0.00 83.66
ATL@TOR (4/17/15) 98.73 0.00 89.92 82.58
ATL@TOR (4/18/15) 97.11 97.45 87.56 83.84
BAL@TOR (4/22/15) 97.40 0.00 86.16 84.81
BAL@TOR (4/23/15) 96.01 0.00 0.00 81.97
TOR@TBA (4/25/15) 95.63 0.00 84.96 81.02
TOR@BOS (4/27/15) 96.89 96.84 88.16 82.12
TOR@CLE (5/1/15) 96.95 96.50 89.37 81.75
TOR@CLE (5/3/15) 96.45 97.00 89.10 83.28
His fastball velo is down a bit from that peak against Atlanta, Quite simply, he's caught too much of the plate at times:
And when he's done so, it's most often been with his fastball or sinker. Hitters have been laying off of his change and slider, forcing him to come with the heat - and hitters have been ready.
The concern all along for Castro has been his lack of secondary pitches. However, Aaron Sanchez came in and was lights out throwing primarily the fourseam/sinker combination last year. Castro needs to work on his command in Buffalo. Just as I was about to hit the 'publish' button, GM Alex Anthopoulos said that Castro will pitch out of the Bisons' starting rotation. Which makes me wonder if we will see him again this season.
And you have to feel happy for Steve Delabar, who joins Chad Jenkins as they pass Castro and Copeland headed the opposite way on the QEW. Delabar was very upset that he didn't make the club coming out of spring training. Delabar seemed to have most of his old velo back, but I suspect a rough outing late in March against the Orioles, and the fact that he had options (and Liam Hendriks and Todd Redmond didn't) remaining sealed his fate.
Bisons Manager Gary Allenson used Delabar very sparingly in the early going, giving him several days off between outings, and not using him in high leverage situations. As April turned into May, Allenson began going to Delabar more often, and later in games. He's appeared in 6 games since April 22nd, and five of those have been scoreless outings.
There's no real secret to Delabar's struggles in 2014, after an All Star year in 2013. By his own admission, Delabar relies on velocity, and not movement, to get hitters out. His fastball lost a tick last year, as did his ability to command it, and hitters were waiting for him. If he's back to a more reasonable facsimile of his 2013 self, as opposed to last year's version, he should be a stabilizing force in the Blue Jays pen. Of course, with options remaining, he could be in Toronto only until Castro turns himself around.
Jenkins should probably get ready to ride that QEW shuffle some more. Until the rotation straightens itself out, the Blue Jays appear to be relying on whichever starter is up next for Buffalo to help in long relief.
I can't let an opportunity pass without a final word about LHP Ricky Romero, released by the club last week. Romero was the darling of Toronto in 2011, anointed the staff ace, and given a huge multi-year contract. With the Blue Jays on the hook for 2016 for a $7.5 million salary, they exercised a $600 000 buyout to get out from under that deal. They also did it early enough in the season to give him a chance to catch on with another team.
Romero's troubles started in 2012, when hitters started to lay off of his change up, a pitch with so much movement that it often fell right out of the strike zone. Injuries caused a drop in velocity, meaning that Romero often had to come in with a sub-par fastball in hitters' counts.
He struggled through a pair of seasons after that in which he simply wasn't healthy. Surgically repaired and ready to go this spring, I had no reports about him, but that the club kept him behind in extended after training camp broke tells you much of what you need to know. He wasn't ready to return to competition, and the Blue Jays obviously felt his MLB days were behind him.
Several people on Twitter complained that the Blue Jays wrecked Romero, but that's far from accurate. Their handling of him in 2013, when they kept him behind in Florida for all of one FSL start after spring training before rushing him up for a start that he clearly wasn't prepared for was puzzling, but the organization has been patient with him. Hitters adjusted to Romero, and either because of health or an inability to make corresponding adjustments himself, Romero was no longer an effective starting pitcher by the end of 2012.
In summary, many eyebrows were raised when the Blue Jays broke camp with 6 rookies. Some of that number was by design, some by accident, but the bottom line is that the Blue Jays felt that half dozen was a better option than the alternative. And while Castro, Norris, and Pompey needed to be farmed out, the contributions from Devon Travis, Roberto Osuna, and even Aaron Sanchez, in that order, have been significant. To me, this is just an extension of the roll the dice strategy the team has used in drafting players: the upside of this group is such that given the injuries to Stroman and Saunders, the club felt that it was a worthwhile risk. Did they expect that all six of them would instantly adjust? Probably not. If such was the case, the demoted trio would likely still be with the team. The season is still young enough that it's not lost, and if these three can get themselves back together, they could still make a contribution to the team before the season is over.