|Michael Fabiaschi photo|
The lowest rung of the ladder is the Gulf Coast League. Teams are housed at the spring training complexes of their major league clubs (there's a league in Arizona, too). Players practice early in the morning, and then play a late morning game in the hopes of avoiding the hot Florida sun. Attendance figures are not kept (because the crowds are sparse), and up until a few years ago, there wasn't even a playoff at the end of the regular season. Players from the Caribbean summer leagues, who are getting their first taste of playing stateside, recent high school draftees, and lower-level college picks populate this league.
The next rung is Rookie ball, and there are several leagues across the US. The Blue Jays have an affiliate in Bluefield, WV that plays in the Appalachian League. Players here play "under the lights," usually in front of a couple of hundred fans, and get to experience travel.
The top rung of short season ball is advanced rookie ball - the Blue Jays have an affiliated team in Vancouver, with the Northwest League. High college draftees and players who have had a season or two of pro ball play in this league. Vancouver has a hugely successful club on an off the field. They are one of the best-run organizations in all of minor league ball, and after winning three straight NWL finals, lost in the final last year.
I have a source in the Gulf Coast League who sweats it out and sends me photos and updates. I've never been to Bluefield, but the park looks like it was carved out of the Appalachian forest, and I plan to head there in 2016 or 2017. Vancouver is a great place to watch a game. The crowds are huge, and the stadium has undergone extensive renovations. If I went to a game again, I would probably check (either by calling or emailing) to make sure my seat wasn't an obstructed one. There are 6 pillars supporting the grandstand, and our seats on the 1st base side of home had an effectively blocked view of the hitters. Luckily, the seats beside ours were empty, so we were able to move down - that doesn't happen often. The selection of craft beers at the park helped to make up for it somewhat, but that is a caution I would give when buying tickets.
Let's start at the top, and look at Vancouver's roster so far (players will be added in the next few days).
The Canadians have a nice mix of pitching on their roster. The top prospect (at the moment) would have to be Clinton Hollon, a 2nd round pick in 2013 who the Jays took despite a partial UCL tear that needed surgery to fix a year ago. Hollon has an electric arm, and hits 96 with his fastball. Reports I've had about him this spring say he's back to his old velocity. Daniel Lietz was undrafted out of high school, but hit the weight room, and added velo, causing the Blue Jays to take him in the 5th round in 2013. He's repeating Vancouver. Evan Smith is a tall, lean lefty the Blue Jays took ahead of Lietz.
As for position players, Lane Thomas is the most promising at the moment. A bit of a sleeper last year, the Blue Jays took him last year in the 5th round, and he played well at two levels. It sounds like he may have been hurt this spring, and didn't get into a full slate of games in Extended Spring Training. At 5'10", 155 lbs, Juan Kelly may not look like a corner infielder, but the 1st baseman has some pop projected in his bat. Juan Tejada drew some rave reviews for his power in the GCL last year.
At the moment, this team doesn't look to have the same talent level that past Vancouver has had. That should change as news filters in about signed draft picks. At this point Jon Harris, Carl Wise, JC Cardenas, Travis Bergen, Conor Panas, and Owen Spiwak have signed from amongst the top 10 picks from colleges, so several of them should at least start with Vancouver, giving them a major roster upgrade. There will likely be some lower college picks joining them, too. Adonys Cardona, who is magnificently talented but has underachieved to this point, may show up in the northwest after recovering from surgery to repair a broken elbow last year. The Blue Jays signed Cardona out of Venezuela for $2.8M in 2010 - still a record for a Venezuelan signee. Bend Badler of Baseball America wrote an excellent article on the aftermath of Hugo Chavez's demise in the South American country, and its effects on scouting and player development there.
Bluefield is a bit of a different story. They receive players from the GCL and advanced high school picks. Their roster has only a handful of names on it at the moment, but that will be subject to serious change in the next week as the club decides who's ready to play under the lights, and who needs more time at the complex. Infielder Deiferson Barreto (no relation to Franklin), who hit well in Extended, should be a lock, and may be joined by Short Stop Yeltsin Gudino, who at 17 was overmatched in the GCL this year, but has added some muscle in the off season. Catcher Matt Morgan was highly regarded, but the fourth round pick from last year had a difficult year at the plate last year, and struggled in Extended. Freddy Rodriguez, an 18 year old out of Venezuela, had middling numbers in the GCL, but hit over .300 in Extended. 2014 31st rounder Dave Pepe hit .304/.430/.362 in the GCL and in truth was a bit old for that level, and should find himself at Bluefield (or even Vancouver) this year.
On the pitching side, 2014 6th rounder Grayson Huffman pitched well in the GCL and Appy Leagues this year, and may start in Bluefield. Expect him to move quickly if he pitches well again.
Angel Perdomo, who averaged over 11K/9 in the GCL last year, will follow Huffman's path, as well as 2014 3rd rounder Nick Wells. Jake Brentz, a lightning-armed lefty who can hit 97 with his fastball, is likely headed to Bluefield as well. Depending on who winds up there, Bluefield has the makings of a good rotation.
The GCL Jays roster is one of the hardest to predict. They will likely feature high school picks Brady Singer (assuming he signs), Justin Maese, and Jose Espada to start the season, but they likely will accelerate fairly quickly to Bluefield unless their development dictates otherwise. Juan Meza was the 10th-ranked International prospect last year, and signed with the Jays but did not play for the Dominican Summer League Jays. He's not on the DSL Jays roster this year (they began play two weeks ago), so the thinking is that he will pitch stateside in the GCL this year. 3B Bryan Lizardo didn't hit well in Extended, but did the in the DSL last year, and appears to be headed to the GCL. The roster will be filled out with high school and lower round college players.
Patrick Murphy is one of those players the Blue Jays often seem to find - tall, lean, athletic, and forgotten. Drafted in the 3rd round of 2013, Murphy missed his senior year of high school competition because of Tommy John surgery. He didn't make his pro debut until last year, but was shut down in mid-July with shoulder issues. He had more surgery (likely a clean up) in April. His debut may be delayed, but he will be looking to get his career back on track in the GCL.
Jake Anderson was a first round pick (35th overall) in 2010. A lot of eyebrows were raised by the pick, but after a promising start to his career, he has been sidelined by injuries almost ever since. Anderson missed all of 2013, and amassed all of 11 PAs with Bluefield last year before being shut down. Reports from Florida indicate that he didn't play a lot in Extended, and didn't show a great deal, either. He has a long way to go to resurrect his career, and the GCL may be where he starts.
A couple more injury notes.........Ryan Borucki, like Murphy, was a high school pitcher with an injury history who the Blue Jays were willing to wait and gamble on. He rewarded the organization with a solid 2014 at Bluefield and Vancouver, but submitted to surgery once again when he had a clean-out performed on his elbow. His timetable is unknown, but he may see time at Vancouver once he's healthy. Tom Robson underwent Tommy John just over a year ago, and is likely being held back until the start of short season play to at least get a few outings in before returning to full season play, Dunedin being the logical guess.
....And, just as I was getting ready to hit the old "publish" button, comes word via Charlie Caskey on Twitter that Cardona was throwing well at Extended, but was having some discomfort in his surgically-repaired elbow. The surgeons had to insert another plate and do some extra work on the repair, and now Cardona is basically out for the year.
Adding to the injury report update, thanks to Caskey, is that Max Pentecost, the 2nd of Toronto's first round picks who was banged up thanks to a long college season, was shut down in August, and then underwent shoulder surgery in October, is inching toward game action. Pentecost is doing all regular hitting and catching activities, but is on a throwing program that has him tossing from 75 to 90 feet. The hope is that he will be ready to return by the end of the month, and will likely start in Vancouver - much to Caskey's elation.