Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Perspective on the Josh Donaldson Trade - One Year Later

Franklin Barreto
recordnet.com photo
  I remember it like it was just yesterday:  word came out via Twitter on a Friday night in late November that the Blue Jays had acquired Josh Donaldson from the Athletics, in return for Brett Lawrie and a package of minor leaguers.
   As someone who follows the day-by-day progress of players in the Blue Jays system, I held my breath a bit to see who would be in that package.  It was easy to figure that a top prospect would be going to the West Coast, with maybe some mid-level guys included.  Daniel Norris was the obvious first name to come to mind, but it was a bit surprising to see Franklin Barreto as the player the Athletics wanted in return. After a scintillating 2014, Norris was MLB-ready, or close to it.  Barreto, the Northwest League MVP at the tender age of 18, was still a couple of years away from making his MLB debut, and it's hard to see most GM's thinking that far into the future.  Except Billy Beane is not most GMs, and obviously felt the young Venezuelan, whose ultimate position in the majors is still a question, was willing to wait.
   Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin were not huge surprises.  Graveman had a 2014 that was the equal of Norris' in terms of ascent, but the feeling likely was that he had reached his ceiling, and the Blue Jays already had a fair stock of back-of-the-rotation arms.  Nolin, whose inability to stay healthy had to have cost him in terms of prospect status, was a bit of a victim of a numbers game, with fellow southpaws Norris, Matt Boyd, and Jairo Labourt all ahead of him.  Lefty starters in the Blue Jays system now, of course, are something of an endangered species.
   And while it was sad to see a good Canadian boy like Lawrie go, it was fairly plain to see that the club had run out of patience with his injury-riddled, underachieving ways.  Since his debut, he had shown flashes of brilliance, but on the whole had underwhelmed with his performance.  His departure, along with that of Barreto, served to remind that baseball players are assets, and if a GM feels he can improve his roster by dealing one or more of them, he will do it.
    Of the package of prospects, Barreto was the prospect I found the most difficult to see depart.  I had followed his progress since he signed with the organization in 2012, followed his progress in the GCL in 2013.  When he was called up to Bluefield late that season, Clinton Hollon, who had been promoted along with Barreto, tweeted about how young Frankie, who was still not all that fluent in English, was wandering around the Tampa airport, unsure of how, where, or when he was going to catch his flight to the Appalachians.  The following season, he was the top player in a league filled with recent college grads 3 and 4 years older than himself.  The sky appeared to be the limit, and even though I had yet to see him play live, when friends and followers asked which prospect excited me the most, it was this teenaged Venezuelan.

   You can't argue about the return the Blue Jays got for that package of players, of course.  Donaldson became only the 2nd player in club history to capture an MVP award, and his season stands with George Bell's 1987 and Carlos Delgado's 2003, and Jose Bautista's 2010 campaigns as the best by a position player since the Blue Jays' inception.  It's hard to know where to start when talking about Donaldson's season.  He was the first player to score over 120 runs and drive in as many since Albert Pujols in 2009. And he didn't just do it with the bat, either:  his 11.4 Defensive Runs Saved ranked 3rd in all of MLB.  His fiery, dive into the stands for a foul ball competitive spirit helped lift the team to its first playoff berth in 22 years.

   Lawrie was considered one of the top prospects in baseball when the Blue Jays acquired him for Shaun Marcum before the 2011 season.  The only blemish on Lawrie's resume was a question about where he would play - drafted out of a Vancouver-area HS as a catcher, he was converted to a 2nd Baseman by the Brewers.  The Blue Jays moved him to 3rd, and packed him off to their-then AAA affiliate in Las Vegas.  He made his MLB debut in August, and gave fans starved for a homegrown star plenty to dream about with his .293/.373/.580 line in 43 games.
   Lawrie just could not stay off the Disabled List after that, playing 125 games the following year, but only 107 in 2013, and 70 in his final year in Toronto.  His numbers tailed off in each successive year as well, and by 2014 the former 1st round pick was barely a league average player.
   What happened to a player of such promise?  For starters, Lawrie did not fit the power profile of a corner bat, and it's curious to know why Toronto felt he could be.  He did hit 18 Home Runs in the rarefied air of Las Vegas over a little more than half a minor league season, but his slugging totals never put him in the top tier of Hot Cornermen.  Did he know that, and press harder to overcome that, or did the pressure of playing in front of his fellow Canucks cause him to try too hard in a game where sometimes less is more?  Whatever the case, Lawrie's walk rates trended down every year during his time in the blue and white, and his strikeout rate went the opposite direction.  Either through his own over-aggressiveness, or by pitchers challenging him from the start, he had 0-1 counts almost 65% of the time, meaning that he was more often than not facing pitchers; counts.  More of a line drive than a fly ball hitter,  Lawrie was never able to take advantage of the Rogers Centre's hitter-friendly dimensions.  Unlike Jose Bautista (who posted the lowest line drive rate among all MLB hitters this year at 13.9%), or even Donaldson, Lawrie was not able to add some loft to his swing and put some balls into the Rogers Centre jetstream.
   Lawrie's numbers did not figure to improve in the spacious O.co Coliseum, and they didn't in 2015, although he played in a career-high 149 games, 25 better than his high with the Blue Jays.  His steady descent into the realm of a replacement-level player continued, however.  Lawrie's OBP and OPS were both below league average, and his Walk and K rates put him among the lowest contact makers in the game. His defence was not a saving grace, either, as his -8.7 Defensive Runs Saved ranking put him ahead of only the largely immobile Pablo Sandoval among MLB 3rd Basemen. Lawrie did establish career highs in Home Runs (16) and RBIs (60).

   Graveman is who he is - a back of the rotation arm who has the potential to eat up some innings.  In a bit of an up and down year, he made the team out of spring training, was sent down for a month of AAA action at the end of April, and was back to stay for good in June.  Graveman went on a two-month run following his return to the bigs, posting a 2.01 ERA in 8 starts.  A strained oblique put him on the DL in late August, and the Athletics opted not to bring him back with the team out of contention.
  Graveman had a respectable 50% Ground ball rate, but gave up a lot of medium and hard contact (81.6%), and not much (15.4%) of the soft variety.  Simply put, he didn't miss as many bats in the big leagues as he did in his rise through the minors last year.  He has to be considered a strong candidate to land a mid-rotation job again next year.  Graveman is very athletic, and is capable of making the adjustments necessary to avoid barrels on a greater basis than he did in 2015.

   Nolin was unable to remain healthy in 2015, tossing only 47 AAA innings before getting a September call-up.  He pitched reasonably well in 6 starts, but his velocity was in the mid-80s, and he had trouble limiting his walks, giving up 12 in 26 innings.  Once upon a time, he profiled as one of those innings eaters, but over the past several years, the innings have eaten him.  The 119 innings he threw at several levels (including the Arizona Fall League) last year is the highest total he's managed since turning pro in 2010.  It's hard to see Nolin being anything than a fringy major leaguer at this point, unless he can stay healthy long enough to see some regular work.

   Which brings us to Barreto, the likely centrepiece of the deal from Oakland's perspective.  Skipping Low A, Barreto played at High A Stockton this year, and overcame a slow start and injuries which limited him to 90 games to post a decent line of .302/.333/.500.  And while there was some concern about the consistency of his swing, it's important to remember that Barreto was playing in his first year of full-season ball at the age of 19.
   Barreto was a much-heralded youth player in his native Venezuela, and was already well-known in baseball circles when the Blue Jays signed him in 2012.  He was ranked the Northwest League's Top Prospect last season, when he also cracked Baseball America's Top 100 for the first time.  This year, he had made it all the way up to the Top 25 (at 22nd), and was named the California League's 2nd Top Prospect.  A position switch is drawing very near for Barreto, who has neither the footwork or arm to stick at Short - his Venezuelan League team has played him in the Outfield during this winter league season.  Just the same, he barrels up balls frequently, and still profiles as a middle-of-the-order bat.

   Who "won" the trade, then?

Obviously, Toronto.  Barreto is a future blue chipper, Lawrie may still turn things around (he's only 25), and Graveman and maybe even Nolin will give the Athletics some innings.  But Donaldson was almost a 9 WAR player this year, and with another year of team control will provide a 2016 of similar value.  And even if you wait the customary 3-4 years to judge a trade, Toronto will still have gotten the better of Oakland. Donaldson has proven to be a franchise player - one whose impact on the team was felt on and off the field. He set an example not only to his teammates, but to all players in the organization with his work ethic - only a week into Spring Training last year, I asked Anthony Alford, who was in his first big league spring camp with the team, who impressed him the most, and he said Donaldson without hesitation.  Barreto was likely the centerpiece of the deal from an Oakland perspective, so to be fair, we have to say that Toronto won the deal for now.  Breaking a two decades-plus playoff drought is the added component to evaluating this trade. No disrespect to Lawrie, but this team probably does not break through even with him in the lineup for 149 games.  Donaldson brought a desire to win that seemed, to a fan, to be lacking in previous years - a penchant for clutch hits, daring baserunning, and diving into the stands that lit a serious fire under this team, and only intensified when the club was drastically upgraded at the trade deadline.

   In many ways, the deal captured the essence of both  Alex Anthopoulos and Beane.  The former, who espoused the roll-the-dice strategy when it came to trades and draft picks, opted to patiently build up the farm system, and then use its depth to strengthen the big club.  The latter showed that he's not afraid to deal a player whose affordability window is rapidly closing, even if it's likely that player will succeed with his new team.  Both, of course, are no longer GMs, with Beane now running the baseball side from the executive suite in Oakland, and Anthopoulos looking for a similar gig elsewhere.  There's little doubt that both would probably make that deal again.

   If re-signing David Price is the first task of the new management team of Tony LaCava and Mark Shapiro, locking up Donaldson to a long-term deal should be the second.  Or maybe even the first.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

First Sip of the Rule 5 Draft

   Baseball's Rule 5 draft has often been less than the sum of its parts.
Some intriguing names get offered up every year, but teams rarely, if ever, take a chance on them.
For the uninitiated, the Rule 5 draft actually goes back to the 1950s, when it was instituted to prevent teams from signing hot young prospects to huge bonuses, then stockpile those prospects in the minors for years.  It has undergone many revisions, but the main intent is to give a deadline for teams to put their prospects on a 40-man roster, in order to give those players an opportunity.
   The draft can be risky - teams must keep players they draft on their 25-man roster for an entire season, or offer them back to their original organization for half the $50 000 price tag they came with.
   Players are eligible for the December 10th Rule 5 draft if by the deadline (Friday, November 20th):

-they are not on their team's 40-man roster prior to the draft;
-were 18 or younger on the June 5th preceding their signing, and this is the fifth Rule 5 draft since that signing;
-were 19 or older, and this is their fourth Rule 5 draft.

   Prior to 2007, teams had four and three years to protect players.  The extra year has allowed most teams to take their players' development slower - many players in the draft have yet to play past AA.
   The draft has a fairly lengthy history.  Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente was one of the first Rule 5 draftees.  More recently, Johan Santana, Jason Werth, Bobby Bonilla, and some young Dominican prospect named Jose Bautista were selected.  The Blue Jays, for their part, have a lengthy history on Rule 5 day.  In 1977, they grabbed a young 1st Baseman from the Yankees organization by the name of Willie Upshaw, who went on to play an important role as the team broke into contention in the mid-80s.  Kelly Gruber and Manny Lee, who later acquired World Series rings with the team, were Rule 5 pick ups.  And perhaps one of the best hitters in club history, George Bell, was stolen out from under the nose of the Phillies in a great story of cloak-and-dagger work.
   The Rule 5 draft has fallen on some fallen times of late.  With most teams employing two more pitchers than they did twenty years ago, many can't afford to draft a position player who may have to spend the year glued to the bench.  Relief pitchers are somewhat less of a gamble, which is why 69 of the player selected between 2008 and last year were pitchers who wound up in the bullpen - and at that, half of those players were returned to their original team.  The Blue Jays have been mostly quiet during the last few years of the draft.  Pitcher Zech Zinicola was taken from the Nationals in 2009, but returned before spring training the following spring was over.  In 2013, they chose P Brian Moran from the Mariners, but sent him to the Angels for International pool money.
    Last year was called a banner year for Rule 5 draftees.  The Mets picked up Sean Gilmartin, the Phillies Odubel Herrera, the Athletics Mark Canha, and the Rangers acquired Delino DeShields Jr.  
    Because of Alex Anthopoulos' trade deadline frenzy, there is a smaller than usual number of Blue Jays prospects eligible.  Among those who may be exposed to the draft for the first time are:

Dwight Smith Jr OF
   The 2011 Ist Round Supplemental pick has moved steadily through the system, drawing good reviews wherever he's played.  He battled injuries this year, posting a line of .265/.335/.376 at New Hampshire. Smith does have enough pop for a corner outfield position, and the organization experimented with him at 2nd Base in the Arizona Fall League in 2014.  It's hard to see a team risking as 25-man spot on a player who has had one season at AA, so he's not highly likely to be put on the 40-man, although it's not out of the realm of possibility to see him in the Majors one day.

Matt Dean  1B/DH
   Dean's 14 Home Runs in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League is an accomplishment worthy of noting, but he's a long shot to have a big league career at this point.  The 2013 Appy League batting champ also struck out 139 times in 521 PAs this year, so there's plenty of miss to his approach.  It won't be a risk to expose him to the draft.

Tom Robson P
   The BC native made his return from Tommy John surgery mid way through the summer, and reports on his velocity were good.  Command, not so much.  Robson is a potential sleeper arm, and if he refines that command next season, he will definitely be a 40-man candidate.  This year, however, he'll be left unprotected.  He's pitched only 26 innings above Low A so far in his career.

From 2014, the Blue Jays currently have a few players to make decisions upon:

Andy Burns  IF
   Burns hit .293/.351/.372 in 126 games with Buffalo this season, playing primarily 2nd and 3rd.  Drafted as a SS, he can also play 1B and the outfield, which helps boost his value.  In this age of dozen-man pitching staffs, there is a premium on bench players who can play a multiple of positions.   Burns should be added to the 40-man later this week.

Taylor Cole RHP
   Cole was considered one of the minor's top fringe prospects last year, when a 11.66 K/9 rate at Dunedin opened some eyes.  He did not miss bats at the same rate at AA this year.  Cole throws a fastball that tops out at 91, but has a change that can be devastating.  The surprise here is that the Blue Jays have not cut down on his repertoire and treid him in the bullpen as they did with Ryan Tepera.  Cole is a considerable longshot, but it's possible a team that views him as first righty up in the pen kind of guy may take a chance on him.

Blake McFarland  RHP
   A talented artist as well as an emerging  late-blooming (at 27) power arm, McFarland has pitched out of the pen for the last four seasons, and only a log jam of arms at Buffalo kept him at AA for most of the year, where he dominated Eastern League hitters, walking only 6 and striking out 62 in 47 innings.  He's a likely candidate to claim one of those final 40-man spots.

John Stilson RHP
   The Blue Jays gambled and left the hard-throwing, but oft-injured Stilson unprotected last November, and no one took a chance on his surgically repaired (and not for the first time) right shoulder.  Stilson has averaged almost a K per inning in four minor league seasons, but has missed time due to injury in almost every single one of them.  He made only one appearance for Dunedin this year in May, before being shut down for the remainder of the season.  If not for his health issues, Stilson would have been placed on the 40-man and made his MLB debut long ago.  If teams were a bit spooked by him last year, they will be downright scared this year.

Dickie Joe Thon UT
   The son of the former big leaguer of the same name was a 5th round choice in 2010.  He has moved slowly through the system, repeating Lansing last year because of a glut of middle infielders ahead of him.  Promoted to Dunedin, he filled a utility role, but struggled with the bat.  He played for Puerto Rico at the Premier12 tournament in Taiwan.  There is no chance a team will select him.

Danny Barnes RHP
   A 35th round pick out of Princeton won't get a lot of fanfare or move very quickly in an organization, but Barnes was on the fast track after saving 34 games for Lansing in 2012.  Barnes lost 2013 to Tommy John surgery, however, and had mixed results with Dunedin in 2014 as he tried to rediscover his command.  It came back with a flourish in AA this year, striking out 74 in 60 innings.  Barnes does not light up the radar gun, but he gets the job done.  If he is not protected, there's not an overwhelming chance that he will be selected, but some teams might be tempted by his career minor league 12.0K/9, and over 4:1 K:BB ratio.

   As of this writing, there are 7 spots open on the Blue Jays 40-man roster after a number of moves earlier this month.  It's likely some names will be added after Friday deadline - some from within the organization, and some from outside.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Examining the Blue Jays 2010 Draft

Alex Anthopoulos/Andrew Tinnish
Brock University photo

   Given that it takes a player, on average, 3-5 years to break into the major leagues, it's a good time to look back on the 2010 draft from a Blue Jays perspective.

   Baseball America studied every MLB draft from 1987 (when the draft went from being held twice yearly to only once) to 2008, and found that about 1 in 6 players drafted played at least a game in the Major Leagues.
   The chances of a player making the bigs went from 73% for a 1st rounder during that time period, to a 6.8% chance for players selected after the 21st round.  A player chosen in the first round also had a 39% chance of playing at least three years in the majors, dropping to less than 2% for those late rounders.
   Despite this day and age of analytics and technology, baseball's annual draft is something of a crapshoot.  Selecting first rounders has become easier, primarily thanks to showcase events like those held by Perfect Game, which give scouts more opportunities to see a prospect in action.
   And scouting high school and college players is only one source of potential players for an organization.  The International Free Agent market is also one where teams can find players, as well as other teams' minor league systems.  Japan has long been a supplier of talent, and Korea seems poised to begin sending players as well.  Then there is Cuba, which is a talent keg MLB teams are all too ready to tap as the Obama Administration has brought about a thawing of relations.
   Five years after the draft, most players are just beginning to make a contribution, and for only a handful of them is that a significant one.  Perhaps the best way to truly evaluate each draft is to wait a longer period before examining them, but who has time for that?

   The 2010 draft was Alex Anthopoulos' first as the Blue Jays GM.  His predecessor, J.P. Ricciardi, had long demonstrated a preference for drafting signable college players with his top picks since taking the helm in 2001 - he did veer from that policy in his last few seasons, but from 2001 to 2009, Toronto selected a total of only 15 High School players with their top 10 draft picks, and they went from 2003 to 2005 without selecting a single HS player with any of their first 10 choices.
   The result of that was that Toronto had a number of players who reached the majors quickly (Gabe Gross, Russ Adam, Curtis Thigpen), but reached their limited ceilings quickly, and had short MLB careers.  In terms of Wins Above Replacement, the Blue Jays ranked in the middle of the pack in a study of MLB drafts from 2002-11 by J.P. Breen of Fangraphs:

TeamTotal WARAverage WAR
Boston Red Sox100.34.36
San Francisco Giants97.92.88
Los Angeles Dodgers95.53.98
Milwaukee Brewers863.91
Tampa Bay Rays80.24.46
Detroit Tigers78.72.25
Atlanta Braves70.93.22
Oakland Athletics70.82.83
Kansas City Royals65.22.61
Cincinnati Reds64.52.58
Colorado Rockies63.72.45
Los Angeles Angels60.22.15
Miami Marlins59.11.48
Minnesota Twins582.64
Washington Nationals57.72.31
Arizona Diamondbacks57.62.22
Toronto Blue Jays54.82.19
Texas Rangers48.72.32
San Diego Padres44.71.44
Baltimore Orioles41.51.73
Pittsburgh Pirates40.32.02
New York Yankees34.71.73
St. Louis Cardinals30.90.97
New York Mets30.81.62
Philadelphia Phillies30.21.78
Houston Astros24.21.51
Chicago Cubs19.30.92
Cleveland Indians15.50.65
Chicago White Sox11.90.54
Seattle Mariners8.90.45

    That study overlapped the Anthopoulos and Ricciardi eras, but most of the Wins accumulated were by the former's amateur scouting department.  No matter how you look at it, their mediocrity at the draft table, coupled with their virtual absence on the IFA scene doomed the Blue Jays to a decade of second division finished that spilled over into Anthopoulos' tenure.

    The 2010 draft was much-anticipated because of the presence of the equally anticipated presence of Bryce Harper, who promised to be a generational talent, and with 19.8 WAR so far in his career, is holding true to that projection.  Also selected in the first round was Manny Machado and Matt Harvey, who have proven to be cornerstones for the Orioles and Mets, respectively.
   When Anthopoulos took over, he made a number of changes to the scouting department.  Wyevale, Ontario's own Jon Lalonde, a graduate of Laurentian University's Sports Administration program, was moved from director of amateur scouting, a position he had held for most of Ricciardi's reign, to director of pro scouting.  Taking the reigns for the draft was fellow Canuck Andrew Tinnish, a Blue Jays staffer since beginning with the organization as an intern in 2001.  And the change in philosophy was a huge departure from the Ricciardi era almost from the start.  With 8 of the first 93 picks, the Blue Jays were poised to become a much deeper and improved organization in a hurry.
     Toronto's 1st pick, at 10th overall, on the surface, did not look like such a radical departure.  Georgia Tech starter Deck McGuire had something of an up-and-down collegiate career.  Baseball America did acknowledge that:
 He's an excellent competitor who doesn't fold up with runners on base. He's a proven college winner with a good track record of performance and durability; similar prospects rarely last through the first half of the first round.
   So, it McGuire's selection could be viewed as a safe one.  At the same time, his selection also showed that the Blue Jays were about to demonstrate a preference for their pitchers:  tall (McGuire is 6'6"), lean, and athletic.  McGuire, of course, has yet to reach the majors.  After a promising rookie season in High A, McGuire spent four seasons at AA, where he didn't miss a lot of bats.  After a few decent starts with Buffalo in 2014, he reverted to form, and the Blue Jays sold him to the Athletics July 25th, 2014.  The A's released him at the end of spring training this year, and after catching on with the Dodgers, was granted free agency earlier this month.
    McGuire, despite his lack of success, was a safe selection.  Florida Gulf Coast LHP Chris Sale was still on the board, however, when McGuire was selected.  Luckily, the Jays rolled the dice and wound up more than making up for it with their subsequent picks.  With the 34th pick in the compensation round, Toronto selected California HS RHP Aaron Sanchez, described by many as raw but projectable.  Four picks later, they chose Texas HS RHP Noah Syndergaard.  With the 41st choice, the Blue Jays dipped back into the college ranks to take The Citadel RHP Asher Wojciechowski.  Sanchez battled command issues as a starter in the minors before being converted to relief in 2014, and he was a revelation in the Blue Jays bullpen after making his debut in July.  Put back into the rotation for 2015, Sanchez was sidelined by injury in June, and moved back to the pen upon his return.  All indications are that he will get another shot at starting next Spring Training.
   Syndergaard, of course, was part of the package used to pry Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets.  He made his MLB debut this year, and only one other player in the majors threw more pitches 95+ than he did.  Wojciechowski, sent to the Astros in the J.A. Happ deal, also made his MLB debut this summer.
   The Toronto scouting department went back to selecting HS players with their remaining picks in the top 100, but were not as successful.  Griffin Murphy, a Californian LHP selected with the Blue Jays 2nd round pick (61st overall), was a washout as a starter in the Jays minor league system, but had a successful year closing in 2014.  After 5 minor league seasons in which he had risen no higher than A ball, Murphy was released earlier this month.  Kellen Sweeney was a compensation pick for the club's failure to sign 2009 2nd rounder Jake Eliopoulos, posted a career line of .199/.304/.300 before being released last year. Supplemental  2nd round pick Justin Nicolino, a Florida High Schooler, went to the Marlins in the 2012 deal that preceded the Mets' blockbuster, and made his debut with Miami this year.
  Third round picks Chris Hawkins and Canadian Marcus Knecht are no longer with the organization, but a 4th rounder from South Carolina made life difficult for Toronto during the ALDS. Sam Dyson rose quickly despite missing the 2010 season due to labrum surgery, and the following season to Tommy John, making his MLB debut in 2012.  Short on reliable bullpen arms, Dyson was moved to the pen after only 6 AA starts, and after being named to the Eastern League All-Star Game, was pitching in relief in the majors. Then-Manager John Farrell said that Dyson might have the best overall stuff in the organization.
  The Blue Jays lost Dyson to the Marlins when they removed him from the 40-man roster in order to make room for veteran Mark DeRosa.  Dyson gave  Miami a couple of seasons of reliable relief before being traded to Texas this season.  He was lights out for the Rangers, walking only 4 batters in 30 innings, and was a big part of Texas' playoff run.
  Sean Nolin was the only pick from Rounds 5 to 15 who has advanced as far as the Majors. 5th rounder Dickie Joe Thon Jr has yet to play above High A Showing a knack for being able to find hidden talent far removed from the amateur baseball hotbeds of California, Flordia, and Georgia, the Blue Jays selected a skinny OF from John Fraser SS in Mississauga by the name of Dalton Pompey.  The farm department was content to slowly let the raw Canadian develop, then challenge him with aggressive promotions during his breakthrough year of 2014.  And with the 18th pick, they selected a Las Vegas high schooler about whom BA filed this assessment:
He entered the summer with lofty expectations, but he often looked overmatched at the plate during the showcase circuit last summer. When he's on, he's a treat to watch. He has a lean, 6-foot-5, 195-pound frame and light-tower power that draws comparisons to a young Troy Glaus. The power, however, mostly shows up during batting practice or when he has a metal bat in his hands. There are a lot of moving parts to his swing and he has trouble barreling balls up with wood, so how much usable power he ends up having is a big question. He has a long, loopy swing and he never changes his approach when he's struggling. He's athletic for a big guy and may be able to handle third base. He has the arm for it, and some scouts said they wouldn't be shocked if he eventually ended up on the mound. Some scouts love his power enough to take him in the back half of the first round, while others turned him in as a token gesture and have little interest in him--especially for the price it will take to lure him away from his San Diego commitment.
     That overmatched hitter, of course, turned out to be Kris Bryant, who spurned the Jays offer to attend college, and slugged his way through the minors en route to a 26 HR, 99 RBI Rookie of the Year 2015 season after the Cubs had taken him with the 2nd overall pick in 2013.  Coming out of high school, however, the reports on him were not glowing, and given their tendency in later years to gamble on players with projection, the Blue Jays may have had Bryant much higher on their draft board than other teams, and decided to take a flyer on him. That Bryant went the collegiate route was no surprise, just as it wasn't much of an eyebrow-raiser when he didn't sign with Toronto.

   All in all, it was a solid draft for the new regime's first effort.  How did it rank compared to other teams?
Team Total WAR WAR/player
White Sox 31.8 6.4
Braves 23.9 3.4
Mets 22.6 3.8
Nationals 20.6 3.5
Orioles 18.4 6.1
Rays 14.8 1.6
Marlins 13.9 1.7
Blue Jays 13.3 1.7
Diamondbacks 9.3 2.3
Dodgers 7.8 1.3
Indians 7.4 1.2
Tigers 7.3 0.9
Angels 5.8 1
Padres 4.3 0.9
Mariners 3.5 0.7
Brewers 3.3 0.8
Rockies 2.8 0.4
Athletics 2.3 1.1
Royals 1.8 0.4
Phillies 1.3 0.4
Twins 0.5 0.1
Cardinals 0.4 0.1
Yankees 0.2 0
Giants -0.1 -0.1
Pirates -0.1 -0.1
Astros -0.3 -0.1
Cubs -0.9 -0.1
Red Sox -1 -0.3
Rangers -1.3 -0.2   
    Of the 13 Wins the Blue Jays have accumulated, of course, half have come from the departed Bryant and Syndergaard.  And one player can skew the total - Andrelton Simmons is responsible for 17.2 of the Braves' total,  Harper 19.8 of the Nationals', and Sale a whopping 26.2 of the White Sox'.  Still the Blue Jays results were respectable, even if you do subtract the totals of the departed players and Bryant, leaving 3.9 WAR split by Sanchez and Pompey.
    Was this draft a success?  It did not produce (as of yet) a cornerstone player, although chances are very good that Pompey and Sanchez will turn out to be decent  - if not first division - players in time.
Tinnish, Anthopoulos, and the Blue Jays brain trust was still finding itself in terms of the type of player they like to draft, but the signs were there.  Collegian McGuire did not pan out, and the club showed an overwhelming preference for taking high school pitchers with their top picks, save for Marcus Stroman (who was a roll of the dice on his own) and Jeff Hoffman between 2010 and 2014.  In years to come the Blue Jays would hone their skills at the draft, sometimes punting high picks (Tyler Beede, Phil Bickford), taking players with college commitments that scared some teams away (Anthony Alford, Daniel Norris, Sean Reid-Foley), and more players from non-traditional baseball hotbeds (Danny Jansen, Sanchez, Justin Maese).  They would take advantage of new rules governing bonuses to load up on low-leverage college seniors in the middle rounds, using the savings on later picks (Rowdy Tellez).  After whiffing on their first pick, they drafted well in the next few rounds, but came up empty (other than Pompey) in the teen rounds.  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Five Who Just Missed

Ryan McBroom
Kyle Castle Milb.com Photo
In what I hope will become an annual event, I take a look at 5 Blue Jays prospects who just missed my Top 20 rankings.

   Before we begin, there's nothing like some revisionist history, so let's look at how last year's Five Who Just Missed fared....

1.  Alberto Tirado P
    Tirado began 2014 as one of the youngest players in the Midwest League, after having rapidly risen up the prospect rankings of many evaluators the year before.  The advanced competition and cold Midwestern spring did not agree with him, and he found himself back in Florida after a month, playing in Extended Spring Training. Sent to Vancouver when their season began, he found some success out of the bullpen, which is where he found himself with Dunedin when 2015 began.
   Tirado pitched reasonably well with the D-Jays, averaging a K per inning, but his command issues continued to plague him.  The Blue Jays obviously felt that despite the lightning in his arm, he would never conquer his control of the strike zone, and packaged him in a deal to the Phillies in return for Ben Revere.
   Tirado moved across the bay to pitch for Philadelphia's Clearwater affiliate, and continued to struggle, walking 18 in 16 innings.   There's a lot to like about Tirado - he hit 100 a couple of times on the radar gun this year, so there's huge swing and miss potential with his four-seam fastball.  The problem with a four-seamer, of course, is that it tends to have little movement, and is difficult to command, so it can leave a barrel in a hurry if it meanders too deep into the heart of the strike zone. Or it can miss the strike zone entirely, which seems to have been the case for Tirado this year.  Tirado turns 21 in December, so there is still time for him to develop into a power reliever, but those prospects will grow dimmer with each passing year.

2.  Jairo Labourt P
   Labourt followed a similar path to Tirado in 2014, the difference being that he found success as a starter in Vancouver, and was ranked the Northwest League's 3rd Top Prospect by Baseball America.
Skipped to Dunedin this year, the tall southpaw had mixed results in High A, but pitched a sizzling inning in the Futures Game.  Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs had some interesting observations about him after he was part of the package that was sent to the Tigers in return for David Price:
Labourt is big and has what scouts call a high-maintenance body. His command still wavers and he falls in love with his velo at times, along with other typical kid stuff, like not hiding the fact that he didn’t like the cold in Low-A Lansing and short-season Vancouver. Sometimes this sort of prospect never figures it out and becomes a 7th/8th-inning reliever and sometimes everything clicks, he loses the bad weight and turns into the terror that he shows in glimpses now. Labourt was 12th in a deep Jays organization entering the year as a 45 FV (Future Value - out of 80) and the new velo prompted me to bump him into the 50 FV group, but probably at the bottom of that tier (100-140 among all prospects) until he shows more progress. There’s #3 starter upside and it could all come together at any time, but there’s still some stuff on which the Tigers development will have to work with a talent that would’ve easily been a 1st rounder this past year when comparing him to his peers (college juniors).
   Labourt could be a groundball-inducing machine if he could pound the bottom part of the strike zone more effectively.  That's a huge "if", however.

3.  Dawel Lugo, SS
   There was a time when Lugo, labeled one of the best bats in the 2011 International Free Agent class, was considered a potential impact bat.  He has not produced at that kind of level since starting full season ball last year, and found himself back in Low A in August.
   Lugo has top-notch bat speed.  He puts a lot of balls in play, but because he doesn't tend to walk much, he often finds himself in pitcher's counts, and does not make the kind of contact that skill would normally lend itself to.  And while there were initial concerns about Lugo being able to stay at short, from all reports and my own observations, he's an adequate defender, with decent lateral movement, and he gets rid of the ball quickly.
   Just the same, the Blue Jays sent him, along with some cash, to the Diamondbacks for Cliff Pennington.

4. Danny Jansen C
Now that Anthony Alford has committed to baseball, and is well on his way to Top 100 Prospect (the Holy Land for Prospects) Status, I guess I have to write thousands of words about someone else.
   And for different reasons, that someone is the 2013 16th round pick from the non-baseball hotbed of Wisconsin.
   It's hard to explain why a player you have only seen brief glimpses of is a Just Missed kind of player, but Jansen truly is.  Already a top-notch receiver, with game-calling, pitcher-handling, and pitch-framing skills beyond his years, Jansen has done much of what the organization has asked him to do - except stay healthy.
   Jansen missed a good chunk of short season play with a knee injury this year, and missed almost three more months this year after breaking his hand as a result of being hit by a batter's follow-through.
   The organization thought enough of him that they had him catch Marcus Stroman during his rehab stint with Lansing.  Jansen did struggle at the plate in his first year of full-season ball, but hit reasonably well (.259/.355/.296) in August.  Only 20, it takes a long time to develop catchers, anyway.  Another Catcher who has had more than his share of health issues, Max Pentecost, may jump ahead of Jansen on the organizational depth chart this season, but all the pieces are there for Jansen to become a solid, defence-first backstop.

5.  Roemon Fields  OF
   Fields leaped onto my Top 20 list this year, through a combination of performance and timing.
With many of the names ahead of him dealt at the end of July, Fields did climb up partially through default, but in two minor league seasons, the undrafted free agent has progressed from short season ball to AAA.
  Fields may be the fastest player in the organization, and is the best base stealer outside of Dalton Pompey.  His 44 steals this year are hard to overlook.  As the saying goes, you can't steal first base, and Fields' struggles so far against advanced competition in the Arizona Fall League show that his hit tool is still a work in progress.  He does put the ball in play, but profiles as a Juan Pierre slap hitting type.  He still does not put enough balls in play to pressure defences and take advantage of his speed.

On to this year's Five.
And this year's candidates were not easy ones to come up with.
Let's face it -if you are a top prospect, it's either because you were a recent high draft pick, or because you've built a resume of several years of progression.  If you're a Just Missed guy, you maybe have one of those two traits, but you just have not shown enough evidence, either because of performance or sample size, to warrant being in the Top 20.  They've shown promise - just not enough of it. And after July 31st, there just aren't many guys in the system who fit that profile.   Truth be told, I did think of canning this feature, because it has been a struggle to come up with five names.  In what proved to be his parting press conference, Alex Anthopoulos praised the farm system, rightly pointing out the upper-level talent in it.  What his trading spree has done, however, is truly remove depth from the organization.  And you can't expect trading 14 prospects, no matter their potential, to have any other effect.  But having done it once before, the Blue Jays amateur scouting staff can likely rebuild it again.

1.  Ryan McBroom 1B/DH
    If his birth certificate said 1994 instead of 1992, the Virgina grade would be on many Top Prospects list. A likely Northwest League MVP in 2014 if not for teammate Frankie Barreto, McBroom was the Midwest League's Most Valuable Player this year, leading the league in OBP, Doubles, and was second in batting (he led the league for much of the summer), RBIs, Slugging, and extra base hits.
   If there is depth in the organization, it's at McBroom's position, which is why he spent the whole season at Lansing.  At 23, there were many who said that he was a bit old for that level.  Just the same, another season like this and we have to start taking a closer look.
    Originally drafted in the 36th round out of West Virgina by the Royals, McBroom felt that staying in school for his senior year and finishing his degree in Sports and Exercise Psychology would be a better option that turning pro.  It turned out to be a smart move, as the Blue Jays took him in the 15th round a year later, and while the $100 000 bonus for that slot (McBroom, as a senior with little bargaining leverage likely signed for less) wouldn't be enough to allow a prospect to, say, live in a van and surf during the off-season, it allowed McBroom to secure his future.
  At 6'3"/240, McBroom has worked very hard on his conditioning, and while he may not be the among the fleetest athletes in the system, he's one of its most diligent workers.  The organization tried him in the outfield this year, but he's pretty much limited to a 1B/DH role.  He has below average speed on the bases, and that doesn't promise to improve as he ages.  McBroom, with his academic background, pays close attention to his nutrition, and is a frequent visitor to the weight room.  His 12 Home Runs may seem like a low total for his profile, but the Midwest League is a pitcher-friendly loop, and his home park of Cooley Law Stadium can be a tough park to hit one out of unless you can straddle the foul poles.
   McBroom works the count well, and is patient.  What he does have to work on is going the other way with the ball - the right-handed hitter can get a little pull-happy.  He's an adequate fielder at 1st - he has been compared to Chris Colabello.   He is a long shot at this point, but if he puts up the same kind of numbers at Dunedin next year as he did in his first two pro seasons, it will be time to start thinking about him more seriously as a prospect.

2.  Shane Dawson, LHP
   As far as I can figure out, the Drayton Valley, AB resident has the most northerly baseball background of any player in all of Organized Baseball.    Born in Fort McMurray, he spent his teenage years in the farming community about an hour and a half southwest of Edmonton.
   As John Lott of the National Post wrote, Dawons was born without the infraspinatus muscle in his shoulder, which may account for the fact that he relies on location, command, and guile to get hitters out, as opposed to velocity.
   Dawson broke his leg before his senior year of high school, and after getting little attention from MLB scouts, enroled at Lethbridge Community College, where he played for the Prairie Baseball Academy.  This time, Dawson did get noticed, and the Blue Jays took him with the 17th pick in 2012.
   Dawson has been a one step up the ladder at a time guy, and his shoulder issue, which puts considerable strain on his shoulder, has caused him to be shut down several times for varying stretches.  2015 was his biggest year in terms of the amount he pitched, and it also marked his most successful season since turning pro.  Dawson was a Midwest League All Star with Lansing, and his 12 victories were good enough for thrid in the league, even though he started 5 games for Dunedin after a promotion.
   Despite topping out at about 91 with his fastball, Dawson struck out 98 MWL hitters in 101 innings, and another 22 in 26 IP for the D-Jays.  Control pitcher Dawson K'd about 4 hitters for every 1 he walked this year.  As you might expect with a pitcher who is around the plate so much, he does give up some contact, but kept it to under a hit an inning this year.
   Dawson doesn't really profile as a top prospect because of the veloctiy, and because of concerns about his shoulder.  However, you just have to look at the successful 16-year career of Mark Buehrle to know that there's more to getting hitters out than blowing them away.  As Hall of Famer Warren Spahn (another lefty who knew how to get hitters out) said, "Hitting is Timing.  Pitching is disrupting timing."
   Dawson will likely start the year at Dunedin.  If he succeeds, and earns a promotion to New Hampshire - and can continue to get hitters out - we have to look at him in a whole new light.

3.  Justin Shafer, RHP
   If you are looking for a sleeper prospect, this athletic Floridian might be your man.
Drafted in the 8th round last year, Shafer was mostly an outfielder for his three NCAA seasons with Florida, pitching 36 innings in his draft year.
   Sent to Vancouver last year, Shafer was assigned to Lansing to start the season, and earned a promotion to Dunedin early in the season.  The challenge proved to be a bit too much, and he finished the season in Lansing.
   Still, Shafer's rise is quite remarkable when you consider he didn't become a full-time pitcher until he turned pro.  He's added velocity on his fastball, touching 97 this year, but Shafer's bread-and-butter pitch is his sinker, which generates plenty of weak contact.  He also throws a change and slider, and added a cutter to his arsenal this year.
  Shafer is very much still a work in progress, and is still in the undergrad years of his pitching degree.  Sequencing pitches and learning to make mechanical adjustments during games are still areas requiring further development.  Just the same, Midwest League batters only managed a .223 average against him, and he had many outings where he had twice as many ground ball as fly ball outs.
   Shafer is still far, far away (if ever) from the bright lights of the big leagues. At the same time, he's made huge progress in a short period of time.  He is not a polished, finished product by any stretch of the imagination.  If he continues to develop, he could rise up the ranks quickly.  The Blue Jays seem to think so too, evidenced by his assignment to the Arizona Fall League.  Shafer's name may be one to toss out and casually mention to your baseball-minded friends, then remind them about him a year or two later.

4.  Lane Thomas, IF
   The usual progression for Blue Jays High School draftees goes as follows:  Gulf Coast League for season one, then the Appy and Northwest Leagues for seasons two and three.  Some accelerated prospects get to Vancouver sometime in their second season.
   Thomas was in that second group.  And as is the case sometimes, challenging a prospect with aggressive promotions can sometimes backfire.  A 5th round pick in 2014 from Bearden HS in Knoxville, TN, Thomas surged through the system last year, finishing strongly at Bluefield.  The premium athlete, who played mostly outfield in High School, seemed to be settling in nicely at 2nd Base when he was sent to the Pacific Northwest in June when the NWL season started.
   Thomas was hampered by a nagging wrist injury for much of the season, and struggled with the Canadians, hitting .225/.257/.391 in 43 games. He struggled to make to make good contact in June, fared a little better in July, and hit .500/.526/.778 in 4 games in the first week of August.   Promoted to Lansing after that run, he was overmatched by Low A pitchers before finishing the final two weeks of the season on the Disabled List.
    2015 was a huge year of adjustment for Lane.  He was learning a new position, as well as having to deal with living in, as much as we Canadians hate to admit it, in a foreign country, and dealing with the travel and playing under the lights for the first time - and at the more advanced competitive level of the NWL, as well.
  Baseball America had this to say about Lane in a pre-draft report:
Thomas, whose father Mike is a professional drag racer, is a good athlete with a strong build and well-rounded skill set, a plus runner under way with a chance to be a legitimate center fielder. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Thomas has a quick stroke and the ability to create lots of hard contact, and he could develop average power. He drives the ball primarily to the pull side. Although he has rarely played shortstop this spring, he takes plenty of ground balls and some teams think his skill set plays better in the dirt with his above-average arm and athleticism. Scouts have split views on him depending up on how they view his defensive profile and bat. Some teams value him as high as the third round, while others think he is likely to reach campus at Tennessee.
   Thomas "just missed" this list last year; sample size was about the only thing holding back.  It would have been reasonable to assume a year ago that he would leap into the Top 20 this offseason, but 2015 was a setback year for him.  Setbacks for young players are not necessarily a bad thing, however - for some, this is their first extended taste of failure in a game that has been ridiculously easy for them since about the 3rd Grade.  If Thomas can put the adjustments he had to make and lessons he had to learn to good use next year, he should continue that upward trajectory.

5.  Lupe Chavez, RHP
   To close, why not go out on a limb?   In 2011, the Blue Jays signed a portly 16-year-old who had already faced men in Mexican League action.  Five years later, a slimmed-down Roberto Osuna played an integral role in the team's race to the post-season.
   In 2014, the team once again dipped into the ranks of teenaged Mexican hurlers to sign the 16-year-old Chavez.  Chavez had been an outfielder, but converted to pitching, and was considered one of the best pitching prospects in the country.  With a skinny (6'2"/150) but projectable build, scouts liked Chavez's advanced feel for pitching (the same thing many of them said about Osuna).  When he was signed, Chavez was already hitting 91, and was projected to climb as he matured.  His best pitch has long been his change-up, and has a steadily improving breaking ball.
  The usual starting point for International Free Agents like Chavez is the Dominican Summer League, where organizations can house their young players, making sure that they received proper nutrition and instruction.  If successful, they usually start the next season stateside in the GCL.  By many reports, Chavez had a terrific debut at Florida Instructs last fall, but a bit of a roster crunch saw him begin 2015 in the DSL.  He outpitched Juan Meza, who the Blue Jays signed to a higher bonus after being ranked the 10th best IFA last year.
  After dominating DSL hitters in 10 starts, Chavez' timetable was moved up, and he found himself in the GCL in August.  In 4 appearances for the GCL Jays, he did not look out of place.  Clearly, he's on the fast track, and should begin next year in Bluefield.
   It's both a sign of the lack of depth in the system and a testament to Chavez' rise that I think that he's worthy of inclusion on this list.