Sunday, October 18, 2015

Clutchlings Notebook - Off Season Edition

Jack Murphy
Canberra Times photo
The minor league season has been over for six weeks now, but that doesn't mean an end to baseball activity for prospects.

   Instructional League play has been taking place in both Florida and Arizona since late September. Organizations invite their top prospects (most of them from the lower levels) for further instruction and refinement.  The Blue Jays hold their Instructs camp at their Dunedin complex - prospects work on skills in the morning, then play games in the afternoon against other minor league instructional league teams from the area.
   News from Instructs can be sketchy.  I do have a couple of Florida-based sources who have updated me on the progress of several prospects.  Stats are barely kept, and they can be misleading, as prospects are trying to put newly learned skills into game use. Former Jays greats George Bell and Ernie Whitt were on hand to help with the instruction - Whitt, who managed Canada to an incredible Gold Medal win at the Pan Am Games, will be once again guiding a Canadian team this fall.  This time, the former Catcher will lead the senior men's team at the International Baseball Federation's Premier 12 tournament in Taiwan.  This tournament involves the top ten ranked baseball countries in the world (Canada sits at 7th), and opens November 8th.   I'm still waiting to find out about Canada's roster, but we do know at this point that Justin Atkinson, who started the year at Lansing, and finished at Vancouver, will be on it.  The 5th year pro, a 26th round pick out of North Surrey (BC) HS, can catch and play the corner infield positions.  He will be called upon to be a back up at all three of those spots at this tournament.  Canada plays 3rd ranked Cuba in their opening game.
  We also know that Vladimir Guerrero Jr, the top ranked international free agent signed this past July, has turned a lot of heads with his power.  His first Home Run was described by Eddie Michels of Rocket Sports, a Tampa-based web broadcaster:

The shot was hit so high to left field at the Blue Jays Mattick Complex that it landed on the concrete walkway behind the 30-foot screen then bounced about half way over the clubhouse landing on the roof.  

   Guerrero hit another homer a day later, and this time my friend and frequent photo contributor @BaseballBetsy was there to capture it:

   Guerrero will probably play stateside in the GCL next year - he may not start there, but he likely will finish.  Despite his bat, the biggest challenge he faces is rebuilding his potentially high-maintenance body.  I would really like to see him embrace a better conditioning routine and diet.  Much has been made already of Guerrero not having the all around game like his father did, and while 1st Base will be his likely destination one day, it would give the organization more flexibility if Jr can change his body and develop some improved agility.   

    Even though Instructional League play has wound down, there is still baseball being played somewhere.
And one of those places is Arizona, where the Arizona Fall League began play this week.  The AFL is a chance for teams to give their top prospects additional experience playing against elite competition.  The Blue Jays have sent several players to suit up for the Salt River Rafters  river (rafting apparently is a big thing in the Phoenix area):  pitchers Justin Shafer, Chad Girodo and Brady Dragmire, as well as speedy OF Roemon Fields, IF/OF Emilio Guerrero, and 1B/DH Rowdy Tellez.  P Jeremy Gabryszwski was a late addition to the roster.
   This may not be as talented a group as others the Blue Jays have sent to the Southwest, but the bundle of prospects they gave up in July may be to blame for that.  Tellez is a masher who made it to High A in his third  pro season, and is 4-8, with a HR and 8 RBI in his first two games.  Girodo is a submarining lefty who to me has a shot at unseating Aaron Loup as the first southpaw up in the bullpen if not next year, then definitely in 2017.  His delivery makes him extremely tough on left-handed hitters.
   And we received word earlier this week that the Blue Jays have named the group of prospects who will be making the trip down under to play in the Australian Baseball League.  Toronto has had a partnership with the Canberra Cavalry, who have been reasonably competitive in the loop, which is designed to promote the game and give homegrown talent a chance to play.  It also gives MLB prospects a chance to accelerate their development, and it often gives players who were let go by a major league organization to showcase themselves for other teams.  David Polkinghorne, who covers the Cavalry for the Canberra Times,  says that while the league is important for Aussie baseball, the game sits "well behind cricket (our national summer sport), and in Canberra it sits just ahead of soccer and women's basketball," in terms of popularity.
   The ABL relies heavily on MLB for players and financial support.  The Australian Government and a handful of Aussie corporations contribute to the league's operating expenses as well.  Polkinghorne says that possibly only Canberra and perennial contender Perth are financially viable on their own.
  The league has an import rule that dictates that at least 5 players in the 10-man on-field lineup must be Aussies.  That rule cost Canberra a game last year, when Australian OF Adam Silva was hit by a pitch in the 6th inning of a game and couldn't continue, and the Cavs had no homegrown replacement on the bench.  The easiest way around this rule, of course, is to have top-level (that is to say, MLB-owned) native talent on your roster, but the distribution of strong amatuer program in Australia is uneven, and most Aussie MLB prospects prefer to play for their hometowns, meaning that teams like Canberra, that don't have a good amateur organizations in their area, as Polkinghorne says, get "players the other states don't want."
   There's extensive video coverage of the ABL on their website.  There are limited camera angles, and the Aussie commentary is a bit different to North American ears, but it's a good opportunity to watch some of these and other prospects.
   One of Canberra's favourite Blue Jays farmhands, C Jack Murphy, was dealt to the Dodgers in the Darwin Barney deal, was a hero in the nation's capital, returning year after year, and leading the Cavs to an ABL title in 2013, as well as an Asia Series championship, a competition for Asian club teams. Murphy originally declined Canberra's offer to return, but changed his mind this past week.  Because he has played more than two consecutive seasons in the ABL, he doesn't count as an import.  That could be huge for the Cavalry roster.
   The Aussie League is a haven for pitchers who topped out at AA - veteran types who know how to get hitters out with more than pure velocity, but lack something in their arsenal to allow them to progress further. After he gave up on college football to focus on baseball last September, the Blue Jays sent Anthony Alford to the league for a crash course in pitch recognition.  The backwards-pitching veteran Aussie hurlers made life tough for Alford, but his breakthrough season this year is not a coincidence, and was very much a product of his struggles in Australia.  There is no Alford amongst this year's group that will be crossing the Pacific, but there is some promise.  Here's a brief summary of each.

OF Derrick Loveless
 The left-hand hitting Loveless is possibly the best potential bat heading to Australia, but he struggled with Dunedin this year.  The 2011 27th rounder has been a one step at a time guy up the minor league ladder, and looked to be putting things together with a .753 OPS season at Lansing, but he took a bit of a step back in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League this year, hitting .216/321/.345.  Still, he hit 10 Home Runs in a league that's tough to put up double-digit totals. There was concern that a strained shoulder would keep Loveless stateside, but the most recent word is that he will be making the trip.

IF/OF David Harris
   Personal bias alert:  I've been a fan of the 2013 36th round pick since I saw him play in his first season at Vancouver.  In one game, playing 2nd Base, he made a pair of impressive plays in one inning - on one, he had to dodge a runner on 1st heading to 2nd in order to field a slow roller to just nip the hitter at 1st.  Two batters later, he ranged far down the 1st base line to snare a dying quail of a pop-up off the bat of a right hand hitter.   Harris was drafted as an org guy, and he's filled that role to a "T", playing a multitude of positions effectively.  He split time between Lansing and Dunedin this year, and had more success at the former, hitting .280/.333/.427 for the Lugnuts.  His versatility should come in handy for Canberra.

IF Jason Leblebijian
   Like Harris, the 2012 25th rounder can play a variety of positions, but is probably most adept at Shortstop.  He hit .277/.345/.473 at Lansing, but struggled at Dunedin.  He likely will play multiple positions with Canberra

P Phil Kish
   The veteran reliever saved 15 games between Vancouver and Lansing last year, but struggled in 2015.  He's clearly here to get in some extra work.

P Colton Turner
 Turner missed all of 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and came back with Lansing as a reliever this year, pitching in 31 games.

  As a post-script, I should add that I thought that C Danny Jansen, who missed significant time for the second straight year, might be Australia-bound.  With those veteran pitchers, perhaps a more experienced hand like Murphy was needed, and Canberra already had local boy Robbie Perkins, who played in the Sally League for Colorado's affiliate this year on the roster.  Perkins will probably head to the outfield with Murphy in camp now.

 The ABL and MLB originally signed a 5 year agreement prior to the 2010-11 season (each campaign starts in late October, and ends in late February), and it expired prior to this season.   Attendance has been for the most part low since the league's inception (outside of Perth and Canberra, mostly), and this past week, both the Chief Executive of the ABL and MLB's Director of Australia and Oceania were fired.  There are some who think that these were moves that have to be made, as a change of direction was needed to grow the league. There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the ABL as its Opening Day approaches.

  Other Blue Jays farmhands playing winter ball include:
Dominican League:  Bobby Korecky, Andy Fermin, Richard Urena, Melky Mesa, Luis Santos
Mexican League:  Jorge Flores
Venezuelan League:  Andrew Albers, Casey Lawrence, Gabriel Cenas, Michael Lee, Miguel Burgos, Gregory Infante, Austen Bibens-Dirx, Jonathan Torres

Puerto Rican League rosters are not up yet, but it's a safe bet that Dickie Joe Thon and A.J. Jimenez will be on one.

   It will also be interesting to see how Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos re-tools the major league roster after this season is over.  With his farm system all but bare save for a few prospects like Alford and Tellez he wouldn't give up at the trade deadline, it's hard to see him pull off a deal involving a player with the stature of Josh Donaldson.  Will he be bold, and work in the reverse direction, dealing a high-profile everyday player for futures?  That seems unlikely - it's hard to see him wanting to alter this lineup beyond some minor tweaking.  One thing is certain:  the club has emptied the system once before, and is confident in its ability to re-stock it.

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