Thursday, November 5, 2015

Five Who Just Missed

Ryan McBroom
Kyle Castle 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.

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