Monday, December 14, 2015

5 Sleeper Blue Jays Prospects

  A Sleeper prospect is typically one who possesses abundant natural talent, but for a myriad of reasons, is more about potential than performance when they acquire that label.  Sometimes, they figure it out:  for hitters, it can come in the form of a mechanical adjustment, giving them more time to either wait on a pitch, or to get more of the bat barrel through the hitting zone.  For pitchers, it can come in the form of mastering their mechanics, using a new arm slot, or finding a new grip on a pitch that leads to better bat-dodging movement. For some, adjusting to a new country, with a new language, currency, food, and customs takes time, while for others, pro ball gives them their first extended taste of failure; both situations take a while to adjust to.
  Whatever the case, until those discoveries occur (and more often than not, they don't), said prospect is a Sleeper:  one who faces long odds, but has shown enough glimpses of the tools in their kit to make them worth keeping an eye on.

  Before we start, here's a quick glimpse at some Sleepers I identified last spring:
Bryan Lizardo 3B - struggled big time in the GCL, which he should repeat in 2016.
Angel Perdomo LHP - pitched well at Bluefield, even better at Vancouver; at 21, there's not a lot of room left for projection, but he should make his full season debut this year.
Jordan Romano RHP - had a decent debut year in 2014, tore his UCL last March.  He should return to competition by April, but he may stay at Extended til the weather farther north warms up.
Jesus Tinoco RHP - pitched well at Lansing, skipping Vancouver, but was part of the package dealt to Colorado in exchange for Troy Tulowitzki.
Roemon Fields OF - started at Dunedin, made it as high as Buffalo.  No longer under the radar.

Kelyn Jose LHP
  Southpaw relievers who can hit 101 with their fastball tend to get your attention.
I admit to being a velo addict:  the sight of hitters flailing away futilely at high heat is one of the most impressive things in baseball.  They know it's coming, but they can't catch up to it.  Seeing a flamethrower live is a sight like few in sports - the pop of the catcher's mitt turns head all around the park.  Baseball has undergone rule changes and significant innovations since the days of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, but the one constant throughout that time is that battle between the pitcher and hitter.
  However, velocity is one thing, and command is sometimes entirely another creature, and pitchers who have the former but not the latter tend to bump their heads against a AA/AAA ceiling for several seasons.
  Signed as an 18 year old out of the Dominican Republic in 2013, Jose has struck out 51 batters in 43.2 minor league innings over two seasons, the last of which was in the GCL.  Jose has also walked 35 during that time, indicating that he doesn't always know where that fastball is going.
   Fastball command is a tool that makes the other pitches in a pitcher's arsenal that much more effective.  Being able to consistently throw a fastball for strikes allows a pitcher more margin for error with those secondary pitches.  As we saw with Miguel Castro in April, however, four-seam fastballs don't tend to have a lot of movement, and if a pitcher catches too much of the strike zone with it, all the velo in the world won't matter.  Hitters will time it and tag it.
  If Jose can harness his command, and develop at least one complementary pitch, he could quickly move through the system.

Chad Girodo LHP
   I've been beating around the bushes about this, so I should just come out and say it: with the struggles of Aaron Loup last year, Girodo has a shot at unseating him for the first lefty up in the bullpen job.
   Girodo was drafted in the 9th round of 2013 out of Mississippi St, and signed for an org-guy $5000 bonus.  He pitched in relief during his college career, and the Blue Jays have kept him in that role. Girodo does not blow hitters away, relying on deception and location to induce weak contact, judging by the .221 average MiLB hitters managed against him at 3 levels this year.  The sidewinding Girodo pounds the lower part of the strike zone, and his delivery can be tough for left handed hitters to pick up.

Travis Bergen LHP
   Bergen is one of those stories that I love as a prospect blogger.  Bergen was well-regarded by the scouting community, but his chances of making the majors as a starter were deemed to be limited, mostly because of his size (6', 200), and he didn't get a lot of love on draft day, falling close to org-guy range as a 7th rounder.
   After throwing 100 innings for Kennesaw State (Max Pentecost's alma mater), including leading them to a NCAA regional victory in their tournament debut as a sophomore, and following that up with a solid summer in the Cape Cod League meant that Bergen had thrown a lot of innings over an 18-month period, and the Blue Jays limited him to a pair of appearances totalling 5 innings for Vancouver after drafting him.
   But what a 5 innings it was.  Bergen missed a lot of bats and gave up mostly weak contact, striking out 11, giving up a pair of hits, and walking one in his two relief appearances.
   The cross-firing lefthanded Bergen can hit 94 with his fastball, but usually sits 88-92.  He has a slider that has been described as fringy, and a cutter that flashes as a plus pitch.  His delivery produces good arm-side run and sink:

    If the Blue Jays keep him in the bullpen, Bergen should experience an uptick in velocity, and given his command and lefthandedness, may move through the system very quickly.
   These are the kind of guys I love researching, allowing me to buy in on the ground floor of a player people may be asking "where did he come from?" a year from now.

Matt Smoral LHP
   And as much as I enjoy finding nuggets like Bergen, I enjoy writing about players who have lost their prospect shine like Smoral, and are trying to turn things around.
   Taken in the sandwich round in 2012, Smoral missed all of his senior year of high school with a foot injury, or he likely would have gone much higher.  Brought along slowly, he had a coming out of sorts in 2014, striking out 70 in 53 innings between Bluefield and Vancouver.
   Smoral was named the 7th best Appalachian League prospect by Baseball America that season, despite spending only half of it there.  They offered this synopsis:
Smoral has the potential to pitch in the front half of a rotation but will need to improve his control and changeup to reach his upside. The 6-foot-8, 220-pound southpaw has an extra-large frame and improved his athleticism and flexibility when he lost weight over the last year. His fastball sat 89-93 mph and touched 95 with above-average life when down in the zone. His slider was one of the best breaking balls in the Appy League and has at least plus potential, as he varies the shape of the offering.
   2015 promised to be the season Smoral made his debut at the full-season level - the Ohioan would have not minded the cold spring in the Midwestern League.  Back issues kept him at extended spring training, however, and after a couple of outings with Dunedin in June, Smoral was back in Bluefield, limited to 2-inning bullpen outings.  Results with the Appy League team were decidedly mixed, as Smoral gave up 14 walks, while fanning 16 in 10 innings.
   Smoral's season came to a screeching halt on August 23rd when he was hit on the side of his head by a line drive.  It was a scary moment, and while he tweeted a photo of himself complete with 8 stitches around his right eye, and assuring everyone that he was well, the Blue Jays shut him down for the year.
   Tall (Smoral is 6'8") lefthanders seem to take longer to develop, and such has been the case with this one. He will be 22 by the time spring training breaks, and this year will be an important one in his development.  Smoral will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft if he's not placed on the 40-man roster by next November; the chances of that are probably almost as remote as a team selecting him in the Rule 5, but the club is facing decision-time with him - allow him to continue as a starter, or move him to the bullpen full time?

Reggie Pruitt OF
   The Blue Jays now find themselves with quite a stock of fleet, athletic centrefielders.  Pruitt joins Anthony Alford, Roemon Fields, and D.J Davis (you could even throw Josh Almonte in there) in a group of speedy ballhawks.
   The Jays took the Georgia native in the 24th round last June, and a $500K signing bonus dissuaded him from going the college route with Vanderbilt.  Already a premium defender, Pruitt runs a sub 6.5 60, and would likely give Fields, Davis, and Alford a run for their money in the 100m.  His glove is ahead of his bat at this point, and even though he got off to a hot start at the plate in the GCL, he wilted under the Florida heat in his first pro summer, finishing with a .223/.309/.289 line, and was 15-17 in stolen bases.
  Pruitt's approach at the plate has been termed inconsistent, which he will have to refine if he's to reach his possible top of the order projection.  His swing before the draft looked a little long, and his bat often was a bit late, which was likely a focus of instructors during Instructional League this fall.

Brady Dragmire LHP 
  I have to admit that Dragmire was not on my radar; a guy who Florida State League batters hit at a .313 clip in his fifth year with the organization doesn't tend to pop up on it.
   The 2011 17th round choice has posted mostly decent numbers prior to his year, almost all in relief.  Still, A-ball relievers are a dime a dozen, and I was surprised when he was named to the Jays contingent that headed to the Arizona Fall League after the season.  It was an even bigger surprise when he was named to the 40-man roster last month, although this speaks to the thinned-out depth of the system as much as anything.
   When this happens, I start to scour the internet to see what I've missed.  And maybe this chart has some clues:

   Now we're getting somewhere.  This graph suggests a guy who is often around the strike zone, and when he does give up contact, it's of the groundball variety.  And those guys tend to give up some hits, and can be at the mercy of their infield defence, which could explain the 80 hits he gave up in 63 innings.  The 20 walks he gave up this year (vs 57Ks) and the 9 (yes, 9) he allowed in 77 IP with Lansing in 2014 back up the idea that he's around the plate a lot.  His 2.52 FIP, which was less than half of his ERA, also lends support to the notion that he was a bit of a victim of circumstances largely beyond his control.
   Dragmire's 2015 campaign with Dunedin was also a tale of two seasons.  He got off to a slow start, and was sent back to Extended Spring Training.  Dragmire returned a different pitcher, particularly in July, when he struck out 22 in 17 innings.
    Dragmire experienced success in a small (9 games/11IP - in fairness, he was on a 20+-man pitching staff) sample in Arizona.  His two-seam fastball hit 94, and had great movement, and he touched 95 with his four-seamer.
    Dragmire does not profile as a typical flame-throwing reliever, although he missed a fair number of bats (14Ks) in Arizona.  He does throw a lot of strikes, and pounds the bottom half of the strike zone.  The new Blue Jays are currently tip-toeing their way around the free-agent reliever market, according to new President Mark Shapiro:

“We know we’ve got to find some alternatives and we know we’ve got to play in that market,” Shapiro said. “To play in the upper ends of that market it’s a dangerous place to play. You’d better have a lot of flexibility and your threshold for risk had better be very high.”
  Reading between the lines, it would appear that the newly risk-averse Jays have found most of the free agent bullpen arms available to rich for their tastes.  They have also made noises about changing their preferences from flamethrowers who tend to have short baseball life spans to durable pitchers who can get outs, whether that be by the strikeout or weak contact.  Dragmire may fit that mold.
   The jump from A ball to AA is the biggest in the minors, and it will be interesting to see if Dragmire can carry his success from the last half of 2015 over to a higher level next year.

   Let's face it - all of the names above are still in the longshot stage as far as an MLB career is concerned.  They are all more about projection than they are about performance at the moment.  But this is one of the parts of baseball I find the most appealing - because baseball is played every day, the players at the top of the pyramid in MLB have skills that took years to hone, giving baseball the most extensive development system in all of professional sports.  One or more of these guys may figure it out this year, or maybe next year, or not at all.  They all have the physical talent - it's the mental side: learning to deal with adversity, and how to be consistent, that determines ultimately who makes the leap and who doesn't.

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