Friday, October 2, 2015

Toronto Blue Jays Next Ten: Top Prospects 11-20

Clinton Hollon
@BaseballBetsy photo
A year ago, putting my Top 10 Blue Jays prospects list was a difficult task because of the depth of the system. Putting together the Next 10 was a little bit easier - it became a repository for players who had impressed, but didn't quite make the Top 10 cut.
   This year's Next 10 list was not such an easy task.
   With the system emptied of 5 of the Top 10 prospects from my original list last fall (and 7 of the Top 20), it seems we are left with prospects whose development has stalled for one reason or another, or players who have shown promise in limited sample sizes.
   As I mentioned in the Top 10 article, the Blue Jays are not afraid to use prospects as currency to upgrade the big league roster; what we witnessed this summer is unprecedented in club history.  This fits with the "roll the dice" draft day philosophy the club has adopted in the Anthopoulos regime. The Blue Jay brain trust knew the risk they were taking by trading so many prospects, but they at the same time were banking on their ability to re-stock the system, having done this once before.

   What makes a prospect a Next 10 guy?  Usually some combination of lesser ceilings, injuries, and limited experience that makes projecting them as a top tier prospect difficult, at least at the moment. The one thing that I have learned above all else since I started following prospects a few years ago is that progress is seldom measured in a straight line.  Some prospects rocket through the system and on to the major leagues, but they are the exception and not the rule.  For some of the guys on the list, having the needle at least move forward more than it does the opposite direction is the key.  And sometimes you find nuggets:  both Sean Reid-Foley and Rowdy Tellez were near-bottom Next 10 prospects at this time last year, and climbed the ranks because the organization put them in spots where they could blossom. Their rise to the top list was not necessarily though default.  And I just didn't know enough about Devon Travis to rank him any higher, although I had a hunch he was a Top 10 player.

11.  Dwight Smith, Jr  OF
   Putting Smith in this spot is admittedly a bit of a reach, and is very reflective of his current prospect class.
   Smith's .265/.335/.376 line in his first year of AA ball was not especially impressive.  In fairness to him, he was dealing with a leg injury in May which limited his effectiveness for the next two months, and he was down for the last part of July.
  Smith emerged from his time on the shelf a different player, hitting .281/.374/.447 with 13 extra-base hits over the last month of the season, including a .333 average over the final 10 games of the season.
  Smith does not do one thing overwhelmingly well.  He's a decent hitter, but does not hit with enough power for a corner outfield spot.  He has good speed, but is not enough of a base stealer to hit at the top of the order.  Smith is a reasonably good outfielder, but doesn't have the instincts or arm to play anything other than Left Field.  The Blue Jays even experimented with him at 2nd Base in the Arizona Fall League last year, but abandoned that by spring training.
  Just the same, he has a bat that may play somewhere.  If he's healthy next year, he should be a different player at AAA.  Prior to this season, he had good offensive seasons at Lansing in 2013, and Dunedin in 2014, in leagues that are friendlier to pitchers than hitters. With Dalton Pompey and Anthony Alford well ahead of Smith at the moment, it's hard to see where he fits in the long term plans of the organization, but off-season deals could change that quickly.
  If he's not placed on the 40-man roster this fall, Smith will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft, and while it's not out of the realm of possibility for a team to take a chance on him, it seems unlikely.

12.  Justin Maese  RHP
   In keeping with the out on a limb theme, let's go with a premium athlete from an out of the way place.
   Here's what Baseball America said about Maese (say "My-AY-zee") prior to this year's draft:

Maese climbed this spring from off of draft boards into consideration for the top 10 rounds because scouts who saw him at his best saw an above-average fastball and a slider that flashed above-average. But scouts who stuck around for a few more starts saw the stuff often drop back from the 93-96 mph he showed at his best to 88-92 mph. Maese's feel for the breaking ball comes and goes and his delivery involves effort and is somewhat mechanical. But Maese has lots of arm speed and potential if he can smooth out the rough edges. He is committed to Texas Tech.
  And here's what Baseball Prospectus' Chris King was saying about him by late summer:

   El Paso, TX, is not exactly a baseball hot bed, but the Blue Jays were one of the teams that kept coming back to see the young righthander. Maese put up a record of 5-0, with a 1.01 ERA in 35 Gulf Coast innings.  In the GCL Jays semi-final, he delivered a brilliant six innings, giving up 4 hits and an earned run, while walking only 1 and striking out a career-high 10.
   It's hard to put a lot of stock in numbers posted in the GCL, but Maese's are encouraging.  The level of play in the league was above what it has been in years past.  Maese appears to be developing a four pitch arsenal - three are looking like they're right on track, and he's likely working on his slider at Instructs as you read this. Reports say his fastball touched 95 this year, and that number will likely bump up a notch or two as he matures.
   Maese obviously benefits from the lack of players above him, and we truly won't get a read on him until full-season ball, which may not be until 2017 (or late 2016) in his case.  He recently donated $6 000 to his family's church in his hometown, , which suggests good character.  Those concerns about his delivery seem to have abated, too.  This is an arm worth watching.

13.  Clinton Hollon RHP
   A cautionary tale: a young pitching prospect, a high draft choice, fails a test for a performance enhancing drug (likely an over-the-counter substance), and receives a 50-game suspension.  Even though he was given a list of approved substances, and was warned about the evils of unapproved ones -many of which have ingredient labels which can't be trusted - the prospect still went ahead and took the substance.  He expresses remorse, and claims he did not knowingly take the banned substance, but he has only himself to blame.
   Sound familiar?
  It should, because it happened to Marcus Stroman, and cost him the end of his 2012 season, and the first six weeks of 2013.  Stroman was found to have taken the stimulant methylhexaneamine, which is a short-acting stimulant slightly more powerful than a cup of coffee.  Stroman says he took the drug inadvertently, which is likely the case; methylhexaneamine is found in many popular supplements at drug stores, and chain nutritional stores like GNC.
   There is no word as to what substance Hollon has taken, except that is was an amphetamine, which fits into the stimulant category.  One of the benefits of following minor league players on Twitter is that they have the time and eagerness to answer your questions.  However, they can also duck them, unlike major league players who are the subject of media requests, if they choose to.  The normally quick to respond Hollon is reportedly devastated, but has been understandably reluctant to talk.
    And unlike Stroman, the timing of the suspension comes at an unfortunate time for Hollon.  Selected by the Jays in the 2013 draft out of Kentucky HS, he slipped to the 2nd round despite leading his school to the state championship because of concerns about his delivery, elbow, and makeup.  When the team failed to sign 1st round pick Phil Bickford, Hollon became the de facto top pick.
   Hollon made his debut in late 2013, and battled elbow soreness.  He tried to fight through it again in the spring of 2014, but tests confirmed a torn UCL, and he underwent Tommy John in May.
   New father Hollon returned to competition with Vancouver this June with a refined delivery, and a determined attitude.  He had a sizzling debut as the C's Opening Day starter, striking out 7 in 5 shutout innings, while allowing only a walk and a pair of hits.  Promoted to Lansing in August, he showed a continued flair for making an entrance.  In his MWL debut, he loaded the bases on a hit and two walks in the first inning, then retired the next 19 batters in a row.
   There is no doubt that Hollon has an electric arm.  He has a loose arm action, and has regained most of his former velo, which topped at 95 in his senior year of high school.  He throws a two-plane slider, curve, and change, and despite projections that his smaller size might mean an eventual destination in the bullpen, he shows an advanced feel for pitching that will keep him in a starting rotation until results determine otherwise.
   And about that attitude.  There are two sides to every story, and I've been told that it wasn't easy being small-town boy Clinton Hollon growing up, and that may have meant he developed a chip on his shoulder.  Did he take a banned substance because he thought he knew better?  Did he think the results were worth the risk?  Or, more likely, as in the case of Stroman, did he ingest something without knowing, despite warnings from the organization?
   Only Hollon knows the answer to that question, but the questions about his maturity and emotional makeup will continue in the wake of his suspension, which coupled with his surgery pushes his development back. The Blue Jays no doubt will continue to be patient with their young pitcher, who won't turn 21 until Christmas Eve.  He won't be eligible to pitch until mid-May.
14.  Dan Jansen C
   When the Blue Jays signed Russell Martin to a 5 year, $82 million contract in the off season, some thought it might be a sign that the club had little faith in their catching prospects.
   Nothing could be further from the truth.
   The contract they signed Martin to was the going rate and term for a catcher of his immense defensive skills.  And while many bemoaned Martin's lack of offence in August and early September, Manager John Gibbons wisely continued to write Martin's name in the lineup.  As the club heads to the post-season, Martin's signing is looking more and more like a shrewd investment.
  Of all defensive positions on the field, none are more important (outside of pitching itself) than Catcher, a spot with myriad responsibilities.
   Martin's signing has certainly helped to shore up both the Blue Jays defence and pitching staff.  It has also bought additional development time for Jansen and Max Pentecost.
   Jansen, a 16th round Wisconsin HS pick in 2013, has moved slowly through the system.  A knee injury caused a shutdown last year, and while with Lansing this year, a broken hand after being hit by a Dayton hitter's follow-through in May cost him almost three months.
   Despite that missed time, Jansen is emerging as a premium defender.  He moves well for his size (6'2", 230) behind the plate.  Jansen blocks balls in the dirt well, and is already an excellent framer of pitches.  He's been lauded for his ability to handle pitchers, which is a skill which may not directly show up in box scores, but is one of the most important tools in a Catcher's kit.
   Jansen struggled with the bat this year after a decent 2014 at Bluefield.  He struggled to stay above .200, but his bat was coming around in May before his injury.  Jansen showed some pop, with 5 HR in 183 ABs, and when Marcus Stroman came to Lansing for a rehab start, it was no coincidence that Jansen was behind the plate.
   That in and of itself speaks volumes about Jansen's future with the organization. He does not profile as an offensive catcher like Pentecost does, but does seem to be more of a defense-first catcher in the mold of Martin.

15.  DJ Davis OF
  Few players demonstrate the fact that development is a long, not necessarily straight-line process better than the young Mississippian.
   When the Blue Jays drafted Davis in the 1st round of the 2012 draft, he was both one of the youngest and rawest players in his class.  Davis' father Wayne played for years in the Toronto system in the mid-80s, never rising about High A, and like his son, was a speedy but contact-challenged outfielder.
   Davis was ranked the #3 prospect in the Gulf Coast League in his rookie year, and was the 8th ranked prospect in the Appalachian League the following year, despite less than sterling statistics.  Challenged with an assignment to full-season ball at Lansing last year, Davis' swing and miss tendencies were in full bloom, as he led the Midwest League in strikeouts with 167.  Despite his speed, he didn't show last year that he was turning into a threat on the basepaths, going 19-39 in stolen base attempts.  Davis has cut down on his long, loopy swing.
   Sent to Lansing to repeat Low A, Davis has made huge advances in his game.  He cut his K's down almost 30%, and stole 21 bases, and was caught only 10 times.  His overall line of .282/.340/.391 was a huge improvement over 2014's .213/.268/.316.  Not enough to put him back into Top 10 country, but encouraging nonetheless.
   In 2014, the left-handed hitting Davis hit more balls to left center, and ground balls to the right side:
   This year, he's shown a tendency to pull the ball a bit more, while still using the whole field:

   Still only 21, there is still time for Davis to develop.  He put more balls in play than he did last year, made harder contact, and with his plus speed, that's a positive step forward.
   Davis had a career day on June 8th, driving in a franchise record-tying 8 runs:

16.  Tom Robson RHP
   Like Maese, British Columbia born-and-raised Robson owes his ascent to the Next 10 somewhat to default.  He more likely would be in the next tier of prospects if July 31st had been a quiet day for Blue Jays fans.
  The 2011 4th rounder was making steady progress through the system before blowing out his elbow early in the 2014 season.  He came back this summer, and like most returning Tommy John patients, had re-captured his former velocity, but not his command.
   Robson hit 97 with his fastball this year, and sat between 93-95.  When he locates it, it has good sink, and he pounds the bottom of the strike zone, where ground balls are born, well.  Robson complements that fastball with a decent curve and change-up.  His arsenal revolves around his ability to command that fastball - which rarely happened this year.
  Still, there is a lot to like about Robson, and we won't begin to get a true reading on his potential until next year, when he likely will be a High A Dunedin.  If he maintains that velocity and regains his command, Robson profiles as a sleeper ground ball-inducing machine.
   Robson is also eligible for the Rule 5 this fall, but it's hard to see a team selecting him at this point.  However, if you want a sleeper prospect, he could be one.

17.  Roemon Fields OF
   If you don't know Fields' story by now....well, you just should.
   After high school, the Washington State product played Juco ball close to home, then transferred to tiny Bethany (KS), a NAIA school, where he ran track and played ball.
  Undrafted after he graduated, Fields worked in a mall selling hats, and then for the US Postal Service.  He had all but given up on his MLB dreams, when his former Juco coach invited him to play for a team he had assembled at an international tournament in Prince George, BC, and caught the eye of Jays scout Matt Bishoff, who signed the fleet Fields to a contract off of his play there.
   Fields made his pro debut with Vancouver in 2014, and broke the Northwest League for stolen bases.  He skipped Lansing for Dunedin this year, and held his own before being promoted to New Hampshire (with a brief trial in Buffalo) to end the year.  He stole 46 bases (in 60 attempts), and hit .262/.316/.321 at three levels.  Here's a sample of his speed from spring training:

   Pretty heady stuff for a guy who really didn't get a sniff from pro scouts in his senior year.  Fields is proof that if you cast your scouting net far and wide, you'll catch the odd potential keeper.
   Fields is possibly the fastest player in the organization, with the possible exception of Anthony Alford.  He is also more of a slap hitter (career .656 OPS), and profiles as a fourth outfielder.
   At the same time, Fields did not play year round ball while he was in college like so many of his peers did, so he still may be catching up on lost development time.  Fields, who turns 25 in November, is what he is. He still could make better contact and put more balls in play, because he has elite (70 grade) speed that puts a lot of pressure on defenders.  It was mildly surprising that he didn't receive an elevation to the 40-man and a place on the Blue Jays September roster to see some pinch-running duty down the stretch.  At the same time, there wasn't much room on that 40-man roster, and with Dalton Pompey already there, perhaps the time wasn't quite right for Fields.  He has been assigned to the Arizona Fall League, where we'll get a much better read on his future prospects against elite competition.

18.  Mitch Nay 3B
   There are few prospects who demonstrate the lengthy process development often entails than Nay.
In 2012, he was named Arizona's High School Player of the Year, and was considered one of the best prep power bats heading into the draft.
  A broken foot suffered prior to draft day, and a commitment to Arizona State caused his stock to slip, and the Blue Jays, who were without a first round pick, snapped him up in the supplemental round, 58th overall.
Nay's pro debut was delayed until 2013, and it was an impressive one, as he and Matt Dean formed a potent heart-of-the-order combination at Bluefield.  Nay capped off that rookie season with a promotion to Vancouver for the NWL playoffs, where he was named Playoff MVP as he led the C's to the league crown.
  Nay was challenged with an assignment to Lansing for 2014, and while his power had yet to make itself known, he led the pitcher-friendly Midwest League in Doubles, and hit a solid .285/.342/.389.  The thought was that all those doubles would turn into home runs as he matured.
Promoted to Dunedin to start 2015, the prospecting community began to sour on Nay as he struggled mightily through the first half of the season.  Jeff Moore of Baseball Prospectus, in particular, was very down on him:
The overall package is underwhelming, however, without a true carrying tool. With only average bat speed, he can get beat inside with average velocity. He needs to get his hands extended in order to drive the ball with any authority. He’s strong, but his up-the-middle approach leads to more doubles than home run production. Most importantly, he struggles to recognize spin. On defense, he’s already limited by his range, with a poor first step and below-average foot speed. He’ll never be better than an average defender at third base, and even that would take some natural refinement. He’s currently below average.
In order to end up with any kind of regular playing time, he’ll have to learn to drive the ball more consistently. Without the ability to catch up to premium velocity, his only way to do that will be on mistakes with breaking balls.
  The problem with making such an evaluation on a still relatively young player is that they are nowhere near a finished product in the low minors, and it turns out that Nay was asked by the organization to alter his swing this year in order to pull the ball more, and accelerate that power development. Nay hit just .218/.287/.333 in the first half, as he adjusted to the new approach.  He hit a much more promising .280/.327/.382 in the second half, before being shut down after being hit by a pitch in August.
   The power still didn't show up, as Nay hit 5 round trippers in the first half, and none in the second.  Again, the Florida State League is another pitcher's haven, and if you base Nay's season on his numbers alone, you're doing him a disservice.  Next year, however is a bit of a make-or-break for him, likely at New Hampshire.

19.  Andy Burns UT
   Burns is very much a forgotten man as far as prospects are concerned, but I think he's still very much in the picture.
  Burns sat out his final year of college after transferring, and he fell to the Blue Jays in the 11th round of the 2011 draft.  He has progressed steadily through the system, and garnered some attention with a line of .327/.383/.524 in half a season at Dunedin in 2013.
   After a so-so year at the plate with New Hampshire in 2014, Burns busted out again this year at Buffalo, hitting .291/.350/.373.
  Burns does not project as an everyday player, but he does profile as a potential super utility player.  His normal position is short stop, but with Jonathan Diaz and Munenori Kawasaki on Buffalo's roster for most of the season, Burns saw duty at short (8 games), 2nd (46), 3rd (50), 1st (13) and the outfield (8 games split between left and right).  Burns is not currently on the 40-man roster, and while 2104 was his first year of Rule 5 eligibility, there's a slight chance he could be snapped up this year if he's not promoted.
  In this day and age of 7 and 8 man bullpens, a player who can play a multitude of positions is a truly valuable commodity.  And while he's not a speed merchant, Burns runs the bases well, adding to his versatility.  I do not see Burns as an everyday player, and I'm not sure I even see him as a Ben Zobrist type. I do see him as having an MLB future with his ability to fill a lot of roles, and handle the bat well.  He's worth including in the prospect picture.

20.  Jose Espada RHP
   The Blue Jays took right handed pitchers with 4 of their first 5 picks last June, with Espada being the last.
   The Puerto Rican HS grade does not have that long, lean build that the Blue Jays covet in a pitcher, but he does have the athleticism, upside, and power arm that they love.
  Espada showed good command in his first pro season in the GCL, striking out 31 in 34 IP, while allowing only 8 walks.  His fastball sits at 89-91, and touched 93 - there's little doubt that there's room for projection there.  He showed a very sharp front-door breaking ball, and impressive feel for his change.
  Espada is said to be very polished for a high school pitcher, and the GCL didn't present much of a challenge for him.  Like Maese, he didn't make the cut for the Top 20 GCL prospects list because of that deep crop of players ahead of him.  He may not start next year in full season ball, but I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up there.  My fellow prospect hunters in Vancouver will likely get to see a fair amount of him next year, as I expect him to skip Bluefield.

   After July 31st, the cupboard may not be bare, but it's certainly time to consider a trip to the grocery store to re-stock.  This organization has proven adept at rebuilding the system before, and they're not afraid to do it again.  There is some depth in short season ball, but players at that level are so far away that they don't have a lot of value.
   In my next post, I'll take a look at five players who just missed the Top 20.

For reference purposes, here's last year's Next 10:

11.  Travis
12.  Sean Nolin
13.  Pentecost
14.  Nay
15.  Matt Smoral
16.  Smith
17.  Tellez
18.  Jairo Labourt
19.  Reid-Foley
20.  Ryan Borucki


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