Friday, September 25, 2015

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects


Anthony Alford
+baseballbetsy photo

   What a difference a year makes.

Twelve months ago, a sterling crop of prospects made their way north to Toronto when rosters expanded on September 1st.  With the club all but out of playoff contention, a few of them like Daniel Norris and Dalton Pompey played fairly prominent roles, and the years of rolling the dice in the draft under GM Alex Anthopoulos appeared to be finally paying off.  Shucking convention on draft day, and looking for projectable players whose draft stock had fallen for one reason or another, the Blue Jays had already received a competitive shot in the arm from the promotions of former First Round picks like Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman.  And with 2014 first round picks Jeff Hoffman and Max Pentecost in the fold, the system could take a hit like it did in November, when top prospects Frankie Barreto, Kendall Graveman, and Sean Nolin were shipped to Oakland as part of the Josh Donaldson deal.

Those heady days are no more, of course.  Norris, Hoffman, and a slew of next-tier prospects like Matt Boyd were part of a huge parcel of prospects to improve the major league roster at the July 31st deadline. Of course, prospects are just that, and when it comes right down to it, they are assets that can be used to better the big club in one way or another. Just the same, this system has been emptied of much of its depth, and it will be a few years before it can get back to the quality it housed prior to this summer.  Not only are 5 of last year's pre-Barreto Top 10 gone (throw in Miguel Castro among those who departed in July), four of the Top 20 (Mitch Nay, Dwight Smith Jr, Matt Smoral, and Pentecost) took steps backward in their development this year.

It all adds up to a pretty serious blow to the farm system.  The Jays' brain trust is gambling, of course, that the years of control they have acquired will help buy the system some time to recover.  At least 3 of the first 60 or so (depending on the final standings) picks belong to Toronto next year, and it won't be surprising to see a veteran outfielder dealt for prospects to create an opening for Pompey, who after a dream 2014, failed his audition in the bigs in April, and found himself in the minors, although he did his best to bash his way back before September.
The Blue Jays, with a local fan base of over 6 million, serve the Southern Ontario market of 12 million, and have a captive audience across the country, with 35 million potential fans.  Not all of those, of course, would be ticket buyers, but as August/September have shown, they watch the club on the owner's tv station and its affiliated platforms in huge numbers.  So, they should be able to act like a large market team, but as August/September have shown, there are a lot of fans in this market that are Blue Jays fans first, and baseball fans second.  As a result, while the resources can be there, they only to seem to be available when the team is winning, and for the long term, they should act more like a small market team, putting maximum resources into scouting and player development.  After several years of operating like the former, they've been run this year like the latter.
The Blue Jays, for their part, are confident of their ability to rebuild the system.  Anthopoulos gave up five prospects as part of a package to bring JA Happ to Toronto  in 2012, and top prospects like Travis d'Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, and Jake Marisnick in separate deals with the Mets and Marlins.  Assistant GM Tony LaCava, speaking to Sportsnet's Shi Davidi, thinks they can rebuild the system quickly:
“We’re confident in our scouts and in our development staff to find and develop players that have value to us and other teams. Having done it once, we’ve proved that we can replenish and not only have players for our major-league club, and we’re using some rookies and younger players this year, but also for trades.”
Something to keep in mind when talking about prospects is that they don't develop at the same rate.  Some make huge strides one year, but seem to fall back a bit the next.  When I rank prospects, I try to treat their statistics as secondary in importance, because stats at the lower levels can be very deceiving.  Also, when I talk about a Top 100 prospect, I'm referring to the benchmark that is provided by Baseball America's prospect rankings.

1.  Dalton Pompey OF

   No prospect represents the Blue Jays drafting and developmental philosophy of the Anthopoulos era more than the graduate of John Fraser SS in Mississauga:

1.  Look for athleticism above all else
2.  Look for players in non-traditional markets
3.  Develop them slowly, then accelerate their development when they prove to be ready from a
     maturity and competitive viewpoint.

  Selected in the 16th round of the 2010 draft, Pompey was not heavily scouted, having not grown up in a baseball hot bed.  Long, lean, and athletic, Pompey was described in scouting reports as toolsy but painfully raw.
   The Blue Jays were patient with Pompey when he struggled through his first three seasons of pro ball, and were ready to challenge him when he broke through in his fifth.  Although he seems to have taken a step backward this year after a disappointing April, he still is a Top 100 prospect, and still should fit into the team's future.
   After a .188/.258/.329 first month of the season in which he surprisingly struggled on defence, the club wisely decided to send Pompey back to Buffalo for more seasoning, away from the glare of his hometown spotlight.  The problem, of course, was that Western New York was not far enough away, and his difficulties at the plate followed him over the Peace Bridge to Coca-Cola Field, and after another month of scuffling, Pompey was sent to re-discover himself at New Hampshire.
  Five weeks in New England was the perfect wake up call for Pompey's slumbering bat, and he found himself back in Buffalo.  There was thought that he might get the call at the trade deadline, but the acquisition of Ben Revere showed that the organization didn't think the time was right.
   Pompey has proven himself ready for prime time.  He will be hard-pressed to repeat his Minor League numbers from a year ago at the MLB level, but all signs point to a successful career.  Pompey gets on base, uses the whole field with growing pop, runs the bases extremely well, is a superb defender, and has a baseball IQ that is off the charts.  With Kevin Pillar, Jose Bautista, and Revere established in the Blue Jay outfield for the moment, Pompey needs to play regularly in 2016, and the organization will have to find a way to make that happen.

ETA:  2016

2.  Anthony Alford  OF

   I have written so much about Alford that I'm almost running out of things to say.  Almost.

   A consensus first round pick in 2012, Alford tumbled to the 3rd round because of his college football commitment to Southern Miss.  A two-time Mississippi HS player of the year in football, the pressure on him to pursue his gridiron dreams in the football-mad state was too much for him to resist. The Blue Jays signed him to a $750 000 bonus, knowing that his development would be hindered for at least a couple of seasons because of his part-time baseball status.
  Anthopoulos nearly had Alford agree to a contract extension last July, and after a month of play at Ole Miss (he had transferred as a result of a campus incident in his freshman year at Southern Miss, and had to redshirt), Alford relented, and signed that extended contract.
  The Blue Jays and Alford had a lot of missed development time (just over 100 plate appearances in three minor league seasons) to make up for.  Sent first to Florida to catch the tail end of Instructs, and then to Australia for four months, Alford took a crash course in pitch recognition, and while he struggled at first against the veteran, backward-pitching Aussie League pitchers, his early difficulties paid off in spades this year.
   Quite simply, Alford has gone from a fringe to a Top 100 prospect in the space of a minor league season. Improved knowledge of the strike zone, an ability to use the whole field, game-changing speed on the base paths, and highlight reel defence (a source from Canberra, where he played last winter, asked me the other day if Alford has made any Superman catches this year) are all part of the Anthony Alford package.  The only tool in his kit needing further honing is his power, and that's coming.
  Alford still strikes out too often for a leadoff hitter, but the organization expects the K's to continue to decrease as he gains more experience.  At least one more year of minor league seasoning is likely necessary for Alford, but the sky is the limit for a player his teammates lovingly call The Freak, in tribute to his athletic ability.  This kid has turned his career around, and despite something of a difficult upbringing, is a leader, and a young man of considerable character and integrity (he patiently answered a blogger's questions about his down under experience on the plane ride home).
   Alford's name topped the list of many of the teams the Blue Jays talked to in the days and weeks leading up to the trade deadline, but Anthopoulos was adamant that he was untouchable. If the Blue Jays have a difficult decision coming with their outfield this offseason, it may pale in comparison to the one they will have after the 2016 campaign.  I fully expect Alford to be at least a Top 20 prospect by this time next year.
 
ETA:  2017

3.  Rowdy Tellez 1B

   Relatively speaking, it's easy to be a one-dimensional baseball player.  Hitting a baseball long and far, or throwing a four-seam fastball 100 mph are singular talents that can attract the attention of scouts.
  As we saw this spring with the now-departed Miguel Castro, that can only get you so far.  Certainly, it's enough to advance past Low A, but as we saw with Castro, an inability to command that fastball, develop complementary secondary pitches, and that reliance on velocity makes a player one-dimensional; that type finds themselves back in AAA before long.
   It's the same with the ability to hit moonshots.  If lead-footed, stone-handed, base-clogging sluggers don't develop other aspects of their games, they tend to bounce around the periphery of the majors, never landing a full-time job.
   Tellez is doing his level best to become more than a batting practice legend, or a "five o'clock hitter," in baseball parlance.  The 6'4" 245 lb Southern Californian fell to the Blue Jays in the 28th round of the 2013 draft, with his commitment to USC having dissuaded the other major league clubs from selecting him.
  Tellez began his pro career in the GCL that year, and after a slow start, mashed in the final week of play.  Sent to Bluefield last year, he went through an 0-33 stretch before rediscovering his stroke, and saw time in Lansing and Vancouver before the season was out.
  He reported to Spring Training this year a much slimmed-down version of his former self, and worked hard on his agility in the off season to help make his glove a bigger part of his game.  A below-average runner, Tellez has also put in work this year to become a smarter base runner.  And while his bat will always be his calling card, Tellez is more than a mere slugger.  He works the count well, and while as hitter of his stature will always have a hit-or-miss element to his game, he puts a lot of balls in play for a power hitter.
   Anthopoulos no doubt fielded a lot of inquiries about Tellez as well at the trade deadline, and the temptation to let him go and hang onto some of that left handed pitching must have been tremendous.
Tellez is doing his best to be more than a one-dimensional player, and has turned himself in a close to the Top 100 prospect in the game in doing so.

ETA: late 2017

4.  Sean Reid-Foley RHP

   SRF is yet another high profile, athletic prospect whose draft stock slipped to the 2nd round last year because of his college commitment, where the Blue Jays happily snapped him up and signed him for slot value ($1.1 million).  He started his career in the GCL in 2014, and was challenged with an aggressive assignment to full season ball at Lansing to start the year, then was promoted to Dunedin in July, where he was one of the youngest players in the Florida State League.  Seeing a pattern at all here?
   In his first year of full season play, Reid-Foley missed a lot of bats, striking out a whopping 125 batters in 96 innings before being shut down in late August.  His 67 walks also showed that he missed the strike zone a lot, too.
   Reid-Foley can touch 96 with his fastball,  usually sits 92-94, but as he matures, that velocity should trend upward.  His slider sits 85-87, and is particularly effective against right-handed hitters.  His change is still a work in progress.  When he gets ahead of hitters, Reid-Foley can unleash the slider, or elevate his fastball.  In a game I watched earlier this season, that high heat was no match for Midwestern League hitters. 
  SRF runs into trouble when he loses the strike zone, which comes down to mechanics.  Because of his high strikeout totals, he tends to throw a lot of pitches, and begins to tire by the fourth or fifth innings if his command has been off, and he has trouble repeating his delivery.  Even with roving instructors and pitching coaches available, it can be tough for a prospect coping with the demands of playing full season ball for the first time to make necessary adjustments.  Some scouts suggest that as he matures, Reid-Foley will become more adept at tweaking his delivery from inning-to-inning, or even batter-to-batter.  He should get some additional mechanical help in the Fall Instructional League starting this week, and will likely continue his rapid rise in the system next year.
  This is another prospect who likely was coveted by many other teams in July.  Reid-Foley projects at least as a middle of the rotation starter.  As he matures and learns to command the strike zone better, he should gradually transition from a flamethrower to a generator of weak contact.   He is close to a Top 100 prospect, and should arrive there some time next season.

ETA:  2017

5.  Conner Greene RHP  
   With their preference for tall, lean, athletic pitchers, you could say that some of the Blue Jays pitching prospects look like they walked off the set of a Hollywood studio.
   With Greene, that's almost the case.
   The righthander attended Santa Monica (CA) High, which among many famous alumni boasts actor Charlie Sheen.  Greene, who modelled as a child, has had brief movie parts, and has had an appearance in Sheen's latest show, Anger Management.
   Unlike Sheen's fireballing character Rick Vaughn from the Major League movie franchise, Greene has an idea of where his pitches are going.  Drafted in the 7th round in 2013, Greene made steady progress in his first two years of pro ball, and with the clearance of pitching prospects and Greene's own ascendance, he has become the closest to major league-ready hurler in the system.
   Greene has gone from topping 90 with his fastball as a high school senior to hitting 98 this year.  He's added velocity to his curve as well, and has markedly improved the command of his change up.  Starting the year at Lansing, he struck out 65 MLW hitters in 67 innings, before being promoted to Dunedin in July.  He didn't miss a beat at the higher level, and after a 7 inning shutout, 2-hit, 0 walk, 10 strikeout performance in his 7th start with the D-Jays, was promoted to New Hampshire, where he held his own despite being one of the youngest players in AA.
   With the areas of red showing the areas of greatest contact, it's apparent that Greene generates a lot of groundballs:

   No prospect, pitcher or position player, made as much progress as Greene did this year.  He projects as a middle of the rotation starter, but he shows an ability to command three and sometimes four pitches  His rise through the system has been somewhat through default, but he should crack the Top 100 some time next season.  He is a tribute to the organization's ability to find those diamonds in the rough that other teams have overlooked.

ETA: 2017  
Interestingly, AA yesterday suggested that Greene could be invited to major league spring training next year:  his command issues may keep him in AA/AAA for a while yet.

6.  Richard Urena SS
   On July 2, 2012, the Blue Jays began the International Free Agent signing period by signing a trio of shortstops:  Barreto, Dawel Lugo, and Urena, the 9th ranked prospect.
   Lugo, the more advanced of the three, played a level above Barreto in 2013 and 2014.  Urena spent the 2013 and 2014 seasons in Barreto's shadow, staying a level below him, and even playing 2nd and 3d (even though he is a superior defender), leaving Barrett at short, when Urena was called up to Vancouver late in the 2014 season.
   When Oakland dangled Josh Donaldson in front of the Blue Jays in the offseason, their surplus of shortstops in the low minors had to have caught the eye of A's GM Billy Beane.  So, Barreto, who will probably move off of the position as early as next season was included in the deal, leaving the slick-fielding Urena as the top prospect at the 6-hole in the system.  When the Jays needed a replacement for Devon Travis after injuries ended his season, they sent Lugo to Arizona for Cliff Pennington, leaving Urena as the sole surviving SS prospect.
   Some have labelled Urena MLB-ready with the glove already.  He has the fast-twitch athleticism that will allow him to stay at shortstop, as well as a rifle arm.  What we really weren't ready for this year was how far he has come with the bat.  Urena showed surprising pop this year - after hitting all of three Home Runs in his first two seasons, he hit 15 for Lansing and 1 for Dunedin.  Like most young players (Urena was one of the youngest players in the Midwest League), Urena needs to improve his pitch recognition (16 walks vs 110 strikeouts), and the switch hitter needs to hit southpaws better (.217/.245/.293).
   Before the acquisition of Troy Tulowitzki, Urena was looking very much like Jose Reyes' successor at short.  Tulo's presence gives Urena some necessary added development time.

ETA:  2018

7.  Jon Harris RHP
   Sometimes when you evaluate a prospect, you have to filter out the noise that his statistics can produce - sometimes those stats over inflate his value, or in Harris' case, undersell it.
   The Blue Jays were thrilled when the tall right hander, who they had drafted out of high school in the 33rd round three years earlier, fell to them with the 29th pick.  Sent to Vancouver, Harris struggled in the Northwest League, with a bloated 6.75 ERA in 36 innings.  After a long college season, Harris was on a strict pitch count with the C's, and often hit his limit with runners on in the middle of innings, many of them coming around to score after he was out of the game.  Next year, when that count will be extended, he no doubt will be able to pitch out of trouble more often.
   Harris' 32 Ks are evidence of his potential, although his groundball/flyball ratio of 1.06 suggests that he left the ball up, often the trademark of a tired pitcher.  I charted his August 14th start, and he was dominant, giving up 4 hits (only 2 that were barreled up), striking out 4, and walking a pair.  Harris seemed to get out of sync with his delivery at times, and that tended to give his pitches some out of the strike zone movement.
  Harris has been sent to the Florida Instructional League in order to further refine his mechanics.  For some players, the transition to college to pro ball is seamless; for Harris, pitching every 5th day, travelling, and getting used to every day ball obviously was a bit overwhelming.  Add to that the fact that according to some observers, the farm department changed his delivery in order to protect his elbow, added up to a fairly steep learning curve.  There is everything to suggest in his physical and emotional make up that he will rebound and move quickly next year.

ETA:  2018

8.  Angel Perdomo, LHP
   Ok, I know this one will likely raise some eyebrows.  I shall attempt to explain.
First of all, with the trade of southpaws Norris, Boyd, Jairo Labourt, Nick Wells, and Jake Brentz, Perdomo finds himself as the top left handed prospect in the organization.  And while the next two names that follow Perdomo's have higher ceilings, I'm just not ready to rank them higher yet, which
I'll detail below.
Perdomo has been brought along very slowly by the organization - he signed in 2012 at 18, which is on the old side for a Dominican prospect.  After a pair of summers in the DSL, he pitched stateside in the GCL, then moved up to Bluefield last year.  He turned things up a notch after a promotion to Vancouver in August, striking out 7 over 4 innings in his debut, and finishing with a 9K performance in 5.1 innings in his last outing.
  Perdomo can hit 96 with his fastball, and at 6'6", the ball seems to come at hitters more quickly, and left handed hitters in particular can have trouble picking the ball up out of his hand.  At that height, of course, his delivery has a lot of moving parts, and he can lose the strike zone when he rushes his wind up.  His secondaries are still a work in progress.
  He struck out 31 batters in 21 innings against advanced competition in the Northwest League, although his 16 walks reinforce his command issues.  Perdomo should easily advance to full season ball at Lansing next year, when we will get a better read of whether he is starting material, or a potential power bullpen arm.
   I know that I'm going out on a limb here putting Perdomo in the Top 10 - he wasn't even a Top 20 Appy League Prospect.  Hudson Belinsky of BA was lukewarm about him:
Fastball had velocity (88-93) but it was a bit flat at times. CH projects as average, SL lacked consistency. He didn’t have great control of his body, which is something you worry about with a 6-foot-6 pitcher. But hey, he’s physical, lefthanded, has a loose arm, and has some stuff.
  There's obviously a lot of difference between the 8th prospect this year and last, and Perdomo has claimed this spot as a result of what happened on July 31st.  At 21, there is little room left for projection.  At the same time, he missed a lot of bats in the NWL, and lefties seem to take longer to develop.  I've been back and forth on this one many, many times over the past few weeks, which has made me realize how lucky I've been over the past couple of seasons - the depth of the system made me feel more confident about the #8 spot.


ETA:  2018

9.  Max Pentecost C
   Max Who?
The 2014 1st round pick had his pro debut season limited to 105 ABs (most as a DH), when he was shut down due to what we were told at the time was a series of nagging injuries at the end of a long season that began in February.
It turned out that Pentecost needed a "clean out" surgical procedure on his throwing shoulder in October, but the organization said that he would be ready for action come April or May.  He needed a second such surgery in February, pushing his timetable back further.  Then we were told in July that he had begun throwing with an eye to returning to competition, only to be shut down again.
  The latest news out of Florida, where Pentecost has been rehabbing, is that he is throwing again, but there's no schedule for his return:
Eddie Michels photo

    Pentecost obviously is not sufficiently recovered to take part in Florida Instructional League play.  Even though he missed all of 2015, there are still plenty of reasons to include him in the Top 10.  He's arguably the top catching prospect in the organization, and may be one of the best athletes not named Anthony Alford in it.  Pentecost profiles as an offensive catcher, and is an above average runner for that position.
   Baseball America in a pre-draft scouting report, noted "his 6-foot-1, 190-pound body could use more strength to hold up under the rigors of catching 100-plus games."  How prophetic they were.  Still, Pentecost was the 2013 Cape Cod League (one of the top summer collegiate leagues) MVP, and won the Johnny Bench award as the NCAA's top college catcher last year.  This is a guy who can play.
   There is so much to like about Pentecost in terms of potential, but he has yet to show his skills fully in pro ball, and he yet to demonstrate that his body can stand up to the rigors of a full season of catching.  That, as much as anything, keeps me from ranking him higher.

ETA:  2018

10. Vladimir Guerrero Jr OF
   When players are in short season ball, it's rare to see them play live (Hillsboro of the NWL is an exception; they put out an excellent videocast).  It's for that reason, and the fact that he won't be 17 until next year that I can't put Vlad Jr any higher than 10th - I just haven't seen him.  And despite that, I fully expect him to leap higher up this list next season.
   There is legitimate thunder in his bat, and the Blue Jays basically gave up on the rest of the 2015 IFA crop to get him.  The only question appears to be where he ultimately will play.  Scouting reports have already indicated that he lacks his father's speed and arm, and the fact that he was listed as a 3rd Baseman on the Instructional League roster indicates that the Blue Jays may feel that he profiles more as a corner infielder.  BA had this to say about the top international prospect this year:
Guerrero is an offensive-oriented prospect who several scouts said has the top combination of hitting ability and power in this year’s class. Guerrero has terrific bat speed, unleashing a quick, compact swing with hitting mannerisms reminiscent of his father. He has excellent hand-eye coordination and bat control, which allows him to make frequent contact. Guerrero has good plate coverage, with the ability to square up premium velocity and breaking balls. Some scouts thought Guerrero could get out of control at times, but most thought his hitting approach was advanced for a 16-year-old. Guerrero’s strength, bat speed and weight transfer produce flashes of plus raw power, striking the ball with as much consistent hard contact as any player in the class.
  While we can't wait to see Guerrero in action, he likely will start his pro career next summer in the Dominican Summer League. If he succeeds at Instructs, it's likely that he will start in the GCL next summer, which will speed up his timetable considerably, and we might see him in full season play perhaps late in the 2017 season.  The Blue Jays started Barreto ins the DSL, and two summers later he was the Northwestern League MVP.  There are a lot of factors at play, but there is plenty of time for Guerrero's development.

ETA:  2019

   A year ago, I had great difficulty in winnowing the Top Prospects down to a list of 10; I had the opposite problem this year.  The immediate future doesn't promise to be any better:  no Blue Jays prospects made BA's short season leagues Top 20 prospects list (to be fair, the Gulf Coast League talent pool this year was the deepest it has been in some time).  The club is rolling the dice that they have bought themselves time to re-stock the system - "hey, we've done it once before, we can do it again."   If age and/or injury slows down a sizable portion of the big league roster, there are few MLB-ready youngsters in the organization ready to step in and take their places.


 For reference, here were the Top 10 Prospects before the Donaldson trade:
1.  Norris
2.  Sanchez
3.  Pompey
4.  Barreto
5.  Osuna
6.  Hoffman
7.  Urena
8.  Castro
9.  Graveman
10. Alford

And the Top 10 after the deal:
1.  Norris
2.  Sanchez
3.  Pompey
4.  Hoffman
5.  Osuna
6.  Castro
7.  Urena
8.  Pentecost
9.  Devon Travis
10.  Reid-Foley

  If putting together the Top 10 was a challenge, compiling 11-20 will be even more so.  It's not the lack of prospects so much as the fact that the relatively small sample sizes many of these players have compiled makes comparing them a difficult process.
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