Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Top 10 Prospects Mid-Season Update

 Time for a mid-season update of how the Blue Jays Top 10 prospects are progressing.  This is not a re-ranking of my Top 10 - because progress in not measured in a straight line, I prefer to let a season play out before I re-evaluate my list.

1.  Daniel Norris
   Last year, of course, was a whirlwind for the 2011 draftee.  Starting the year in High A, he picked up where he had left off after a strong second half of 2013.  Norris was the minor league pitcher of the month for May, pitched in the Futures Game, and capped off his 2014 by striking out David Ortiz in his MLB debut.
   The plan for Norris this spring was to battle for the fifth spot in the rotation, with further seasoning at Buffalo a very real possibility if he didn't win the job.  The knee injury to Marcus Stroman, of course, laid waste to that and other Blue Jays rotation plans, and Norris headed north with the team to open the season.
  And he clearly wasn't ready.
  After getting roughed up by the Braves in his third start, Norris went 7 innings against the Rays, and appeared to be turning things around.  In what turned out to be his final start against the Indians, however, he was lifted after only 3 innings, having thrown only 42 of his 78 pitches for strikes.  Manager John Gibbons, and GM Alex Anthopolous had clearly seen enough.  Relying on his four seam fastball, Norris was not able to throw it often enough for strikes, and when he did, hitters were teeing off on it:
  The one concern I've had with Norris is his pitch management.  Everything will be going along well for him, then he will lose the strike zone in an inning, and up goes the pitch count.  Repeating his delivery seems to be the key - there were concerns in April about a possible velocity drop, but his fastball seems to have come back; it's just his command that appears to be the issue.
   Norris appears to be becoming more consistent over the past two months - he's thrown about 63% of his pitches for strikes, and is generating more weak contact (about twice as many groundouts as flyouts). Forget Norris' 2-10 record for Buffalo since his demotion; he receives less run support than any other Bisons pitcher.  At 22, there's little reason to worry about this apparent step backwards.  With trade rumours swirling about, and reports of many scouts watching his Bisons' starts, Norris likely will pitch again in the majors this season - the question might be where.

2.  Aaron Sanchez
   Sanchez has moved on from this list, and even though he's nearing the end of a rehab stint, looks like he's in the majors to stay.
  Sanchez, of course, was to be part of that 5th-starters battle this spring, with a possible move back to the bullpen if he lost the competition.  Winning the 4th spot with the shuffling that took place after Stroman's surgery, Sanchez scuffled a bit in his first few starts, but as April gave way to May and June, the just-turned 23 year old was growing up right before our very eyes.  After pitching a career-high 8 innings against the Astros, he missed his next start due to what we were told was normal soreness, and was placed on the DL soon after.  His rehab has come along slowly, although Sanchez pronounced himself ready to return after hs last start with Buffalo, but Bisons Manger Gary Allenson, after watching him fall behind 11 of the 17 hitters he faced, wasn't so sure.  
   Was an 8-inning performance too much to ask at this stage of Sanchez's career?  You can understand why Manager John Gibbons may have preferred to let him stay in, rather than turn things over to the beleaguered Blue Jays bullpen.  We all know about pitch counts and innings limits.  A topic I want to research is "pitch cost," a term introduced by Pirates beat reporter Travis Sawchik in his excellent Big Data Baseball, his summary of Pittsburgh's rise to contention through the use of analytics.  Pitch cost, originally coined by former Baseball Prospectus writer and current Pirates Director of Baseball Systems Development Dan Fox, takes into account the fact that not every pitch places the same amount of stress on a pitcher's elbow and shoulder.  Pitches are weighted according to the type of pitch and the leverage of the game situation in which the pitch is thrown.  The exact formula is proprietary, but it would be interesting to look back at the pitches Sanchez threw that game, and how many high leverage situations he faced.  With the Blue Jays deciding to move him into the bullpen because of his command issues, and the lack of time to get him back to a starting pitcher's pitch count, one thing is for certain: he hasn't been the same since that 8-inning start.

3.  Dalton Pompey
   In many ways, Pompey's breakout 2014 mirrored Norris' year.  And like Norris, he was deemed not quite ready for prime time after a month in the bigs in 2015.
  Pompey's struggles at the plate jogged out with him to the outfield, surprisingly, and the Blue Jays wisely sent him back to Buffalo to get his confidence back.  He continued to struggle at the plate there, however, and the team decided that Western New York was still a little too close to home, so the Mississauga product was sent down to New Hampshire, away from the limelight, to get himself back together.
   Which he has done - and then some.
   Hitting just .222/.300/.263 at Buffalo, Pompey has torn up AA pitching, putting up a .950 OPS for the Fisher Cats, and from all reports, squaring up a lot of balls, earning him a promotion back to AAA.
   With Pompey's name mildly circulating in trade rumours, he, like Norris, is bound to be back in the bigs this year, destination unknown.  Which brings about a question - can a Canadian ever play for an extended period of time for the Blue Jays?  Is carrying the weight of a winner-starved hometown's expectations too much of a burden to carry?  No Canuck position player has ever held a long-term regular role with the Blue Jays.  Granted, no one of Pompey's talents has come along, but I think it's a question worth asking, and while my preference is to see an outfield with Pompey and Anthony Alford in it one day, I won't be surprised if the local kid makes his name playing somewhere else.

4.  Jeff Hoffman
   Hoffman's name has widely circulated in social media as possible trade bait for the Blue Jays to use to help upgrade their major league roster before the trade deadline.
  Wise people know better.  Hoffman's a keeper.
   The 9th overall pick in last year's draft made his pro debut in May with Dunedin, just over a year after having undergone Tommy John surgery.  And while you can't argue that he's been lights out, his velocity has returned, and his wipeout curveball has already been labelled one of the best in the minors.
   Like all TJ patients, Hoffman's command has been the last tool in the kit to return, but all evidence suggests that it's coming.  Promoted to AA this past week, Hoffman had a solid debut at that level, giving up 5 hits and 2 earned runs in 6 innings last night.
  Some will point to the relatively low strikeout totals (just under 6 per 9IP over 60 minor league innings) as a cause for concern.  I counter that with the almost 3:1 ground ball to fly ball ratio he posted over his last 3 starts prior to his promotion as evidence that he's progressing.
  Hoffman, at this point, is not ready to contribute to the major league club, and it would be foolish to assume otherwise.  Yes, he could make an Aaron Sanchez-like impact in September with a pared-down arsenal of pitches, but a pennant race is no time for experimentation like that (while he didn't exactly pitch in a pressure-packed September environment last year, Sanchez had almost a month and a half to grow into that role prior to September).  Let him continue to develop his full complement of pitches in the minors, refine his command, maybe send him to the Arizona Fall League for some more innings, then give him every chance to win a rotation spot in 2016.

5.  Roberto Osuna
   A year ago, if you had told me that Osuna would be the most effective performer in the Blue Jays bullpen, I would have said that Canada winning Pan-Am Baseball Gold against the USA on an errant pick-off throw in extra innings would have been more likely.
   In July of last year, Osuna was about to make his return from Tommy John surgery performed in 2013, and while the K rate was encouraging, he struggled with his command in both the Florida State and Arizona Fall Leagues.  Osuna impressed early in spring training this year, and even when the hitters began to get their timing down by late March, he was still lights out in relief.  Brought north with the team when camp broke, it's hard to think of where the Blue Jays bullpen would be without him.  What's even more encouraging is the prospect of him in a starter's role next year.  He has an advanced feel for pitching that's allowed him to get MLB hitters out in late game situations, even at the tender age of 20.

6.  Miguel Castro 
   With the exception of Norris, Pompey, and maybe Kendall Graveman, no prospect made as much progress last year as Castro did.
   The Blue Jays openly mused about using him in relief in 2015 as early as last November.  His electric fastball (and slowly developing secondaries) made him a good candidate, and when he opened spring training with a slew of scoreless appearances, his stock soared.  Even as hitters began to time him better over the last half of March, his status didn't waver, and he opened the season as a back end of the bullpen reliever, and was anointed closer in the season's first week, when Brett Cecil was unable to answer the bell on Opening Day.
   Castro was overmatched in the role, of course.  And maybe having a youngster just three months removed from his 20th birthday, who hadn't even pitched a full season stateside, as the closer was the equivalent of throwing Castro in the deep end in the hopes that he could master the butterfly stroke.  His fastball was its usual vapour-trail self, averaging 97 through the month, but his slider came in at 82 - too much of a separation to be effective.  A pumped Castro then tried to blow his four seamer past hitters, but it can be a difficult pitch to control, and he found the meat of the strike zone too often with it.  In the minors, he could get away with that;  MLB hitters made him pay a heavy price for living in the high rent district that is the middle of the strike zone:

   The news is not all bad, of course.  Sent down to AAA to be stretched out as a starter, Castro missed most of June with a thumb injury, and the the Blue Jays wisely returned him to the bullpen upon his return. His last two outings for Buffalo have been strong ones, so there's a high probability we'll see him back in the bigs before summer is over.

7.  Richard Urena
   Outside of Anthony Alford, no Blue Jays position prospect has made as much progress as Urena this year.  At 19, his promotion from Lansing to Dunedin caught me a bit by surprise, as I thought he would be given a whole year in Low A.  As the organization has proved with their young pitchers, however, they are not afraid to challenge a prospect, and they have sent Urena, who was among the Midwest League Home Run hitters, to the next level, where he is now the youngest player in the Florida State League.
  Urena's pop is a surprise - he hit 12 in a tough hitter's park and league with Lansing, far surpassing his career total of 3.  Hitting lefthanders continues to be a bit of a challenge for him, however.  Just the same, he has barreled up a lot of balls this year, and when you add to that his premium defence, he is Jose Reyes' successor.

8.  Max Pentecost
   We've been waiting a while to see the second of the Blue Jays first round draft choices.  His pro debut last year was limited to 25 games (much of it as a DH), and he was shut down in early August with what turned out to be shoulder woes.  Surgery in October was reportedly successful, although he wasn't ready to start the season.  Word came a month ago that he was throwing again, and not far from returning to action.  Just today came news via fellow prospect blogger Charlie Caskey that Pentecost had a setback last week, and has been shut down once again, his season likely over.
   Pentecost's name had been mentioned (mostly by fans on social media) in trade rumours as the trade deadline approaches.  If that was a thing, it likely isn't any more.

9.  Devon Travis
   Sometimes, you go out on a limb, and it proves to be worth it.  If anything, in hindsight I wish I had gone further.
   A number of people on Twitter took me to task for suggesting that Travis would make an impact for the Jays at some point.  I wasn't sure if it would be this season or next, and I certainly didn't anticipate his knockout April, but Travis has been exactly as advertised.
   After missing time on the DL, Travis has picked up right where he left off, and has put up a line of .302/.352/.487.  With uber-prospect Carlos Correa playing well since his debut, Travis may not be a lock for American League Rookie of the Year, but he certainly should be in the conversation by season's end if he can keep up this level of play.
   Travis puts the ball in play, gets on base, has good baserunning instincts, plays solid defence, and generally displays a high baseball IQ.  He has filled a huge hole in the Blue Jays lineup that has existed for years.

10. Sean Reid-Foley
   Reid-Foley is another prospect who the Jays have rewarded with aggressive promotions.  In only his second pro season,  he was challenged by an assignment to full-season ball, and recently he was challenged again by a promotion from Lansing to Dunedin. Again, at only 19, I was mildly surprised by this.
  SRF struck out 79 MWL hitters in 54 innings, but his 40 walks come from mechanical issues, an area that he needs to work on before he continues his ascent up the ladder.  Here's what Baseball America's John Manuel had to say about Reid-Foley recently:
Reid-Foley’s stuff is Top 100 worthy for sure. His stuff’s electric, as was described in his draft report last year (just go to his player page to see the report). The scouts we’ve talked to say he’s just not to the point yet where he can fix his own mechanical issues; he needs a coach to figure that out, either in mid-inning or between innings. But he’s not that different from a guy like Grant Holmes that I mentioned earlier, though Holmes has more polish and a bit better breaking ball at this point.
   I watched Reid-Foley's dominant May 30th start with Lansing, and you can read about it here.
His name has been mentioned too in trade talks, but possibly more by people who don't realize that A-ball prospects who aren't in the Top 100 in the minors don't have as much value as they might think.  Still, if he continues to develop, he's not far from Toronto.

Ok - let's acknowledge that Sanchez and Travis have graduated from this list.  While I'm not in favour of re-ranking my Top 10 prospects, I will admit that maybe there's room for two more:

Anthony Alford
   Almost exactly a year ago, Alford was on his way back to Mississippi to get ready for his upcoming wedding and the college football season. after having teased us with a week of jaw-dropping play at Lansing.
  What a difference a year makes.
   Alford gave up on his gridiron dreams in late September, and after catching the tail end of Instructional League play, he and his young bride packed up and headed off to Australia.  Facing veteran pitching the 2012 3rd round pick's inexperience showed down under, as his over-aggressiveness got him into a lot of pitcher's counts.
   An invite to major league camp (as well as a huge contract offer) likely convinced Alford to give up football, and he's made up for lost development time this year as a result.  A fixture at the top of Lansing's lineup, Alford reached base safely in his first 34 games of the year.  Promoted to Dunedin after the MWL All Star game, Alford has not missed a beat, and after going 0-5 in his FSL debut, rattled off a 19 game hit streak.
  There are so many areas Alford has made strides in, but chief among them is pitch recognition.  He isn't striking out as frequently as he did over his first three abbreviated pro seasons, and while he still needs to put more balls in play, he has also shown a drastically improved ability to work the count and take a walk.  Gone is the pull-happy hitter, and in his place is one who uses the whole field, and driving the ball to right-centre more.  The power has yet to manifest itself, but it likely will in time.
  The next jump up the ladder will be one of the biggest ones prospects have to make, and it will give us a true read on Alford when he makes it (likely next year), but both he and the Blue Jays have to be happy with the decision he made last September.

Matt Boyd
   Sometimes, teams draft college seniors to fill out the rosters of their minor league affiliates.  Other times, they draft them with the hope that maybe a full time focus on baseball will accelerate their development.  Such was the case with Boyd.
 Drafted in the 6th round of 2013, Boyd was on his way to his own breakout year in 2014 before elbow issues and inconsistency slowed him down.
  Healthy again, and a devoted disciple of pitching guru Kyle Boddy in the offseason, Boyd added velocity to his fastball, and was far and away the best pitcher in the Eastern League in April and May.  Promoted to Buffalo, he found himself in Toronto a few weeks later, making his MLB debut - and it was a good one.
  The next start - not so much.
  Boyd was blasted by the Red Sox, not retiring a batter and giving up 6 earned runs before being pulled in the 1st.  Undeterred, he has been his usual effective self since his return to Buffalo.  His name also popped up in trade talks, but that outing against Boston has silenced much of it.

Honourable Mention
Rowdy Tellez - the former California HS legend was not content to be just a bopper; he came into spring training in incredible shape, and it has paid off in spades on defence and at the plate.  Promoted to Dunedin a few weeks ago, Tellez has continued to mash.  He's still far off, but this may be a bat for the future.