Saturday, January 30, 2016

Four Blue Jays Prospects Crack BP's Top 101*

Baseball Betsy Photo

  *kinda, sorta........

   Four players drafted and/or signed by the Blue Jays have cracked Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 prospects list this week.
   The catch is, of course, that only two of them are still with the organization.

   Jeff Hoffman, picked in the 1st round, 9th overall in 2014, did not make his pro debut until May of last year due to Tommy John surgery, and was part of the prospects package Toronto shipped to Colorado in the Troy Tulowitzki-Jose Reyes deal.   Hoffman's 2015 was marked by some command issues, but the velocity and advanced feel for pitching scouts have raved about were still there in abundance. Hoffman came in at #24, and you would have to think there's every chance he's in the Rockies' rotation at some point this year.

  Franklin Barreto, the centerpiece (from an Oakland perspective) of the Josh Donaldson deal, checks in a few spots behind Hoffman at #26.  One of the youngest players on this list, Barreto more than held his own as a 19 year old in High A last year.  He still needs to develop some better plate discipline, but he barrels up balls all over the place, and you wonder how long Oakland will continue playing him at short stop. The sooner he makes the switch to either CF of 2B, the faster his development will accelerate.  It's hard to argue the merits of giving up Barreto in light of the MVP season Donaldson had, but with the latter's possible departure for free agency after 2018 and Barreto just starting to come into his own as a first-division major leaguer by that time (at the age of 23), there's still a chance this deal comes out even in the long run.  The 5'9" Barreto would likely have been a huge fan favourite in Toronto, and depending on when the A's promote him to the big leagues, they'll have him under team control for the rest of this decade, and a couple of years of the next.

  But even with dealing those two, plus 16 other prospects over a span of 18 months, the Blue Jays placed two current farmhands in the Top 100, while a couple more could be knocking on the door by season's end, depending on their progress.

  A year ago, there was considerable promise in the form of CF Anthony Alford, but it was hard to imagine him cracking not just BP's Top 101, but even landing in the top half at #44 (he made it as far as 42nd on MLB Pipeline's list).
  In July of 2014, the prospects for Alford ever rising to the levels his talent prophesized seem slim. For the third straight season, the former Mississippi HS two-sport star had started his baseball season late, and ended it early due to his college football commitment - he didn't even make it until the end of July that year, leaving Lansing, where he had jaws dropping over the tools he demonstrated after a five game stint with the Lugnuts, to get married.  Then GM Alex Anthopoulos had waved a huge contract extension in front of Alford, who he had taken in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft despite Alford's intention to play QB at Southern Miss, but Alford kindly passed. By the end of September, however, Alford had changed his mind, and accepted the Blue Jays offer, which came with an invite to spring training with the big team, and a return plane ticket to Australia, where Alford would make up for lost development time in the ABL.
  To say he struggled in the ABL would be to put it mildly.  Facing veteran pitchers, Alford encountered adversity for the first time in his young baseball career, he scuffled to a .207/.327/.319 line, striking out in 30% of his plate appearances.  He did not square up many pitches, plainly. Alford saw few fastballs in the strike zone, and a lot of breaking pitches:
I saw a lot of breaking balls and fast balls out of the zone. I put myself in a bad situation a lot of times by being too aggressive. But they did do a good job of mixing pitches up on me. Most of the guys I faced had at least 6 or 7 years of experience on me. But I really just came over here to learn and caught up as much as I can. I wasn't really worried about the stats. I know they will come.
    And come they did.
    Starting again in Lansing, Alford was a consistent on-base threat at the top of the linuep, reaching base in 33 straight games.  The strikeouts were still a little on the high side, but Alford also showed great patience, walking 39 times in 50 MWL games before being promoted to Dunedin.  Alford also showed an ability to use the whole field, and stole 27 bases between the two levels.  His arm is not rated as being overly strong, and the power isn't there yet, but it's scary to think where Alford might be a year from now.
   Alford is now clearly on the prospect radar.  And it's rewarding to see.  This is the story of a young man who had something of a difficult upbringing, and the pressure to play football on him, when baseball was his first love, was immense.  Many of the people who have coached him over have the same comment:  this is a kid who has a great head on his shoulders, a natural-born leader with a great work ethic.  When Anthopoulos was in the midst of his wheeling and dealing last July, the name that he was asked about most often was Alford's.
    Baseball America had this scouting report on him:
Alford combines physicality and surprising feel for hitting to profile as a potential impact center fielder. Compact and strong, Alford is an elite athlete with burst and double-plus speed that plays both on the bases, where he’s just scratched the surface as a basestealer, and in center field. What stunned Blue Jays officials and scouts this year were Alford’s instincts, which show up in center as he has excellent range that helps make up for his below-average throwing arm. He also has hitting instincts and an advanced approach for a player of his experience level. It’s more than just taking walks, though he does that. Alford works counts, has some idea of a two-strike approach and spoils pitcher’s pitches well. He has the strength and bat speed to drive the ball to all fields, with the quality of his at-bats remaining consistent throughout the season.
   Alford likely needs at least another year of minor league seasoning.  The jump from A to AA is said to be the highest in the minors, so we should get a true read on his abilities this year when he starts the season with New Hampshire.  A year from now, he should be in Top 10 prospect territory.

   If there was a trademark of the Anthopoulos era when it came to scouting, drafting, and developing players, it was that of the tall, lean, athletic high school pitcher.  Certainly, they stepped out of that box to sign a Roberto Osuna or draft a Marcus Stroman, but they've stuck with that tried and true trend.  In 2010, the Jays had 7 of the first 80 picks in the draft, and took 4 HS pitchers with them, including Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, and Justin Nicolino.  The following year, they took prep hurlers with their first 7 picks, including Tennessee LHP Daniel Norris.
    Included with that number was a 6'3" California high schooler by the name of Conner Greene, who was viewed at that point not for what he was, but he one day might be, according to BA:
Long and lean at 6-foot-3, 160 pounds, Greene is all about projection. He has a high waist, long legs and a quick arm, and he has cleaned up his delivery, helping him touch 91-92 mph on occasion. He usually pitches at 87-88, and his secondary stuff is underdeveloped. He throws a splitter rather than a changeup, and the pitch has sink but is inconsistent. His curve has 11-to-5 break, and his best ones rate as 40s on the 20-80 scouting scale. He needs to sharpen it up and improve his command of his entire repertoire. 
   Brought into the system under the tutelage of the Blue Jays minor league coaching staff, Greene has progressed steadily, and had a breakout 2015 at three levels, which allowed him to claim spot #100 on the list.  His curve has been vastly upgraded, and his velo now sits 93-95.  Greene pounds the lower half of the strike zone, and even though he gives up some contact, it's often of the singles variety, which can often be erased given his propensity to throw groundouts.
   Now that the Toronto media has taken notice of Greene, there's a tendency to think of him as major league ready.  Which he's not.   He still needs to refine his curve, and his change up, while effective against left-handed hitters last year, did not fool righties as often.  Greene's ascendancy was merited, but it owed in part to the lack of depth in the system.  With Buffalo's rotation full of veterans at the moment, there's plenty of reason to let Greene start the season at New Hampshire.

Who's Knocking on the Door?
   There's such a temptation to say Vladimir Guerrero Jr should be the next to crack this list, and while his bat attracted a lot of attention in Instructs last fall, there are still some reasons to hold back one's enthusiasm.
   First of all, the Vlad the Younger won't be 17 until March.  Secondly, while there's little question about his bat, there are plenty about his glove.  Third, he has what scouts have generously described as a thick body - let's go with stocky.  Now, the AL does have this position called the Designated Hitter, and at 17, there's room for growth, and the Blue Jays training staff have already begun the process of transforming his body with proper nutrition, cardio work and weight training, but those red flags are reason enough to be cautious in projecting his future.
   Just the same, there's ample evidence to suggest that this kid is the real deal.  My fellow blogger Baseball Betsy posted a video of one of his Instructs' no-doubters:

  Can he crack the Top 100 this year, or by this time next year?  In all honesty, it wouldn't come as much of a surprise, despite the warning signs.  The Blue Jays staff have worked small miracles with Osuna and Rowdy Tellez, getting them to buy into the need to slim down and develop their bodies as well as their games.  The great Branch Rickey once said that speed is the only skill you can't teach, but there is plenty of time to turn Vlad into a slimmer, more agile version of his younger self.

    There's also a strong possibility that one or more of Tellez, Jon Harris, or even Max Pentecost could be on this list a year from now.  Tellez mashed at two levels last year, and is more than a one-dimensional slugger.  Hitting LHP better is his main challenge now.  Forget last year's numbers: Harris is a better pitcher that his debut year showed, and there's plenty of reason to think that he could move quickly this year. Pentecost is something of a forgotten prospect due to his injuries, and while he can take the field this year, he won't be behind the plate to start the season.  BA is still impressed by him, however:
When healthy, Pentecost showed a tantalizing combination of athleticism and hitting ability for a catcher. He has a sustained track record for hitting thanks to a quick, short swing that he repeats well with modest effort. He has flashed plus raw power in the past, though club officials see him as a hit-first, power-second player. He’s still rebuilding arm strength from his shoulder surgeries, and a return to his previous plus arm strength will take patience and hard work. He’ll need plenty of reps to hone his receiving and blocking skills while working with pro pitchers.
   There's also a chance we're talking about Sean Reid-Foley in the context of this list a year from now.  Everything is there - a fastball that touches 97, with movement and a sharp downward plane. His slider grades a plus pitch, but what seems to hamper SRF is his mechanics.  He repeats his delivery from a consistent slot and arm angle well, but he tends to lose that release point when his foot lands too late, dragging his arm behind.  When this happens, Reid-Foley is prone to drive up his pitch count, causing fatigue and further messing up his mechanics.  When he learns to make those inning-to-inning or even pitch-to-pitch adjustments to get his delivery back in line, Reid-Foley will be ready for prime time.  Even though it has not been mentioned publicly, word is that the Blue Jays do see some similarities between SRF and Jonathan Papelbon, and while the team can always use a back of the bullpen power arm, Reid-Foley will be given every chance to prove he's a starter.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Blue Jays Prospects Prosper In Australia Amid Questions About the ABL's Future

David Harris\
Canberra Times photo

  As play heads into its final weekend before the post-season, questions abound amongst Australian baseball fans about the future of the Australian Baseball League.

  The Blue Jays have had a very successful partnership with the Canberra Cavalry, one of the few profitable teams in the loop.  Former Jays farmhand C Jack Murphy was the ABL MVP and led the Cavalry to the ABL title, as well as an Asia Series Championship in 2013-14.  The lessons the backwards-pitching veteran ABL pitchers taught Anthony Alford about pitch recognition last year helped to contribute to his breakout stateside season in 2015.  This year, 2B David Harris, and SS Jason Leblebijian, who both split time with Lansing and Dunedin, have been the offensive leaders as the Cavs sit 2nd to Brisbane, and have a post-season series with Adelaide starting next weekend.  Harris leads the league in hitting, while Leblebijian is tied for the lead in RBI.

  The original ABL ran from 1989-1999, but folded as many of the outfit's teams were awash in a sea of red ink, and there were problems distributing talent evenly.  The loop was briefly re-established shortly after the turn of the century, and was resuscitated once again in 2009, with MLB taking on a 75% ownership stake, with Baseball Australia taking on the other quarter.  Some of the teams have been successful in gaining local sponsorships, but questions about the league's future began about a year ago, when MLB's original five-year commitment was about the expire.

   The start of the ABL season in late October was marked with controversy when CEO Peter Wermuth was abruptly fired on the eve of the season opener.  A permanent replacement still has yet to be named, with Baseball Australia head Brett Pickett acting as spokesperson.  Few tears were shed at Wermuth's dismissal, however, as Aussie fans had grown impatient with his failure to grow the league over his five-year tenure.
   The ABL is crucial to the development of the sport down under, but it ranks far down the list of the average Aussie's favourite sport.  A quick scan of the Canberra Times is a challenge if you're looking for baseball stories.  Cricket, Australian Rules Football, Soccer, and Women's Basketball appear to far outpace baseball in terms of popularity.  Attendance figures are not published with league box scores, and while Canberra and Perth seem to be well-supported, there are scores of empty seats at the home parks of the other four teams.
   Clouding the ABL's future is Pickett's admission that MLB is looking to reduce its majority stake in the league, but he insists that there will be a 2016-17 ABL season.  The league is looking for corporate partners in North America, Asia, and Australia to give the league a fresh injection of capital.  According to Pickett, there is no timetable for the MLB to reduce their stake in the league. In the short term, there will be an ABL, but the long-term outlook is less than clear.  MLB, in their original agreement with Baseball Australia, signed on for a five-year term.  With that coming to a close, MLB is clearly not optimistic about the league's future, and was growing tired of subsidizing a money-losing operation.

   With relations between the USA and Cuba continuing to thaw, there has been considerable speculation that MLB may shift their focus in that direction.  Cuba would certainly be closer for organizations to keep an eye on their prospects, although there is nothing imminent between the island nation and MLB.  For Australian baseball fans, it's been a fun time, but it appears that there aren't enough of them to make this league viable.
  From a Blue Jays perspective, it's hard to say how the club feels about these developments.  On the one hand, no Blue Jay prospect who was sent to Australia has played in the majors (former Cavs Didi Gregorius and Kevin Kiermaier have), but aside from Alford, the club has sent no top-level prospects to the ABL.  But the league does fill a developmental niche for the club:  Alford did not play against top-level high school competition in his native Mississippi, and because of his college football commitment, had amassed just over 100 PAs in his first three minor league seasons.  The ABL was like summer school for the toolsy outfielder, and it's doubtful he's a top 100 prospect now without that catch-up experience.  The ABL also can give players like Colton Turner and Phil Kish a chance to make up for innings lost because of injury, and if nothing else for org guys like Harris and Leblebijian, it can accelerate their development to the point where they could become very serviceable depth pieces in the upper minors.  A personal note about Harris - I saw the 2013 36th rounder (out of Southern Arkansas) in his rookie season with Vancouver, where he made a pair of athletic plays in a July game.  Playing 2nd Base, Harris had to sidestep a runner advancing from first while he charged a 1st inning slow roller, which he fielded cleanly and threw across his body to nip the batter at 1st.  Several innings later, he ranged far down the right field line to grab an opposite-field flare that threatened to drop in.   A fixture at the top of the Cavalry batting order, Harris has played CF for Canberra this year, demonstrating his multi-position versatility.  I've watched his career very closely since that night at The Nat, the home of the Vancouver Canadians.
   All things being equal, it's likely that while the Jays are supportive of the ABL, if there was an opportunity one day to have their farmhands play winter ball closer to home, where the cost of transporting and housing them would be cheaper, they would welcome it.  While the players they've sent have for the most part not Top 10 guys, they have sent many players who have made a significant impact for the Cavalry.

   It just seems appropriate to include a Murphy Walk Off HR to conclude this piece:

Friday, January 22, 2016

Smoral Looking to Rebound in 2016 photo

    Progress in any field of endeavour is seldom made in a straight line.
In the world of professional sports, especially one with a development curve as steep and long as baseball's is, progress can come in a series of backward and forward steps that on balance leave the player moving forward.

   Organizations don't always mind seeing a prospect struggle.  For some, the difficulties they experience in their early years of pro ball are the first extended taste of failure they've ever had at a game that has come so easily for them.  The lessons learned from that adversity can go a long way to helping to develop that prospect.

   And that may mean that Blue Jays LHP Matthew Smoral is ready to break through, and start to fulfill the potential the team saw in him when they took him as a first round compensation pick (50th overall) in 2012, despite having missed most of his senior year of high school competition with a foot injury.

   The accepted wisdom in baseball that left-handers seem to take longer to develop, and tall ones even more so.  6"8" Smoral made his pro debut in the GCL in the summer of 2013, walking 26, hitting 10, and striking out 27 in 25 innings.  Invited to Instructs that fall, the organization worked on refining Smoral's delivery to help correct his control issues.  Sent to Bluefield for the start of the 2014 season, Smoral had a scintillating Appy League debut, striking out 8 batters over 3 innings.  By mid-season, he was promoted to Vancouver, and played a prominent role in the C's bid for a fourth consecutive NWL title that just fell short.

   Heading into 2015, the sky appeared to be the limit for Smoral.  The year before, he routinely sat between 91-93with his fastball, touching 95 and showing great movement when down in the strike zone, and showed a slider that could be downright nasty when he commanded it.  The plan likely was for the Ohio native to start in the Midwest League with Lansing, but back issues kept him in Florida when spring training camp broke.  Brought along slowly, Smoral pitched under the watchful eyes of the Blue Jays medical staff out of Dunedin's bullpen in June, then was sent to Bluefield to presumably get stretched out.
   Except that Smoral really never did get stretched out, and was limited to 10.2 innings over 8 appearances, before a late-August screaming line drive off of the side of his head caused the Blue Jays to shut him down for the season.

  Entering 2016, Smoral has disappeared from the prospect radar.  The Blue Jays 9th ranked prospect after 2012, 13th after 2013, and 11th after 2014, as well as the Appalachian League's 7th top prospect in 2014 by Baseball America, Smoral is appearing on few top prospects lists at this point, and for good reason:  2014 was a major step backward for him.
  But there is good news on the horizon.  Smoral tweeted a video of himself which clearly shows he's healthy once again:

  It would also appear that Smoral has been working with the crew from Driveline Baseball, a pitching consulting firm that has worked with a number of Jays prospects:

  The improved arm angle should allow Smoral to stay on top of his pitches better, and keep the ball down in the strike zone with greater consistency.  Besides staying healthy, command has been his biggest issue since turning pro.

 Undoubtedly, Smoral still has a long road ahead of him.  Entering his 4th pro season, he has thrown all of 4 innings above short season ball.  At the same time, his health and his mechanics appear to be the best they've been in some time.  It's hard to predict a breakthrough season for him just yet, but some of the ingredients are there.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Blue Jays Quietly Building a Strong Organization

Gil Kim
National Post photo

   A Major League Baseball team's off-field personnel roster encompasses many people, with a wide variety of skills and backgrounds.  There are those who specialize in scouting, while others have expertise in instructing and developing minor leaguers, and more and more teams are building analytics departments. If each of those groups pull on their oars in their own direction, the result for the organization will be chaos, and the team will be sailing in circles on second division seas for years.  It takes a concerted effort for all of these employees to be on the same page, and to work toward a common goal.

   Mark Shapiro has taken more than his fair share of heat since he took over as President at the end of the season, effectively becoming the face of the franchise.  A slumbering fan base had been re-energized, and thousands more lapsed fans scrambled aboard the Blue Jays band wagon, but the elation of October baseball turned to the November blues for many when GM Alex Anthopoulos, opted not to accept a new contract when his expired at the end of October, and free agent David Price, who would have been a difficult sign even if AA had remained with the organization, bolted for the Red Sox.

    AA was a tough act for Shapiro to follow in the eyes of many.  Anthopoulos was the (kind of) local boy who made good, a guy who worked his way up from interning the Expos mail room to running the nation's baseball team.  And where Anthopoulos was effusive (if not evasive) with the media, Shapiro is concise, and not afraid to be blunt - his comment that a grass playing surface at the Rogers Centre was not a priority may have been correct, but it sure did not play well with some.  To his credit, Shapiro did not tiptoe around the issue, however, or offer vague promises somewhere down the road.  Still, this rankled with some fans, who have turned Shapiro their own personal Rogers-bashing pinata.

   So, while fans and the media may be complaining about the failure to sign Price, or any other remaining free agents, and the fact that departing President Paul Beeston's warm and fuzzy assurance about grass coming to the Dome by 2017 seem to ignore the major engineering issues that will come with that project, Shapiro has been quietly revamping the organization, particularly the player development side.

   His first and most notable hiring was Ross Atkins, his VP of Player Personnel in Cleveland, who was brought over to fill the same role in Toronto.  Despite many fans' misgivings about the new guy bringing along one of his own to run the team, Atkins' story is one of shrewdness and determination.   Atkins has an impressive record as a drafter and developer of talent, with the Indians now boasting one of the deepest farm systems in baseball.  While the Blue Jays pennant run filled the Rogers Centre (and Rogers' coffers) unlike at any time since they took ownership of the Jays over a decade ago, the heavy toll it took in terms of prospects clearly did not set well with the corporation - hiring Atkins is proof that this is a team that wants to work towards being a model of player development.

  Atkins' hiring was just the first of several for the Blue Jays.  Just before Christmas, the team announced that analyst Joe Sheehan was promoted to Director of Analytics, taking over a newly-created department.  The Blue Jays, under Anthopoulos, under-utilized Sheehan, and lost several promising younger analysts and interns when they proved reluctant to use their data interpreting skills for much more than figuring out if a player would be a good fit in the clubhouse.  The Indians, of course, with their proprietary baseball information system DiamondView, were pioneers in developing the analytical side of the game.  Shapiro protegee Neal Huntington married the best of traditional and analytical methods shortly after taking over as GM of the Pirates, and the club was named organization of the year by Baseball America for its ability to find value in players, and new methods of playing the game.  Travis Sawchik's excellent Big Data Baseball detailed how the Pirates were able to blend analytics and traditional baseball methods seamlessly.

  Early in the New Year, the Blue Jays announced the hiring of Angus Mugford as the head of their new High Performance division, responsible for the mental and physical development of all Blue Jays players.  Mugford has an impressive resume, having worked as a sports psychologist at the famed IMG Academy in Florida. His plan is to expand the department, hiring another psychologist, and experts in nutrition and sport science. The whole performance coach issue is not new to the Jays - hitting guru Steve Springer has done an excellent job working with Jays prospects on the mental side of the game, but the hiring of Mugford is a huge investment in the players in the organization, and takes the sport science angle to a higher level.

   The hirings continued last week when the Blue Jays hired world-travelling Gil Kim from the Rangers (who he was scouting for) to become their first-ever Director of Player Development, overseeing the club's minor league operations.  Kim has extensive playing experience from time spent in the Netherlands, China, Spain, and Venezuela, soaking up as much baseball knowledge as he could at each stop.  Like Atkins, Gil speaks Spanish, and has the ability to develop a rapport with Latin players, which gives an indication about where the team may be headed as far as scouting is concerned.  The club did lose Ismael Cruz to the Dodgers after the season ended, and while they may decide to promote his replacement from within, the Indians and Director of Latin American operations Ramon Pena parted ways last week, and it may be just a matter of time before he's introduced in that role with the Blue Jays.

   The most recent hiring this past weekend was Mike Murov in yet another newly created post, that of Baseball Operations Director.  Murov had been with the Red Sox since 2010, and will be responsible for creating and implementing decision-making processes, according to a press release. He will help in the preparation of financial, statistical, and contractual information, coordinating contract negotiation, and preparing for arbitration hearings.  One of this last duties with the Red Sox was to help put together a study on Price prior to his signing with Boston.

  So, looking from a glance, the Blue Jays have hired an expert that will develop the conditioning, nutrition, and psychological aspects of their players, as well as a co-ordinator of the minors who has a background in working with Latin players, expanded their analytics department, and have hired a specialist in contract negotiations.   This is another sign that the Shapiro regime is in things for the long term, and while Blue Jays fans may be more concerned about the present more than the future, the organization does appear to be building a template to gain a competitive advantage for years to come.   A MLB front office is a complicated, many-headed beast, and Shapiro is at least attempting to tame that monster, and it's unlikely that he's done just yet.

   For further reading on the analytics-driven growth of MLB front offices, here is an excellent look at that trend by Fangraphs' Dave Cameron.  The Blue Jays appear to be headed in the direction of what Cameron calls a "classically hierarchical (vertical) structure."

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Lifting the Lid on the 2016 Draft photo
  It may be mid January, and the upcoming baseball season may only be little more than a faint distant whisper to those of us in Southern Ontario, but it's coming just the same.
  South of the border, college baseball season opens in late February, while high school seasons begin to open in early March in the southern states and makes its way north, all of which means that it's not too early to look at the preliminary rankings of prospects for the June MLB draft.
   These rankings will change considerably, of course, as the college and high school season progress, and we don't know a lot about what will happen when the Blue Jays turn comes up at #23 at this early point.
   The Jays actually have 3 of the first 65 picks in this lottery - two of their own, and the 57th pick for failing to come to terms with their 2nd round choice last year, Florida HS P Brady Singer.

   While some players will drop in the rankings, and others will catch a heavy dose of helium and rise up them, the top of the draft is fairly clear at the moment.  While there isn't a consensus number 1 pick, several players, including a pair of LHP's (Florida's A.J. Puk, and Florida High Schooler Jason Groome), and a brace of RHP's (Alec Hansen of Oklahoma, and Kansas HS Riley Pint), and Louisville OF Corey Ray have for the time being separated themselves from the top of the class. Since those players will likely not be around, barring injury or poor performance, come the Blue Jays turn in the first round, we'll focus our attention on a group of players in the coming weeks who have been ranked between 20-30 by sources such as MLB Pipeline, and Baseball America (once their high school list comes out).

   For now, here are some names to keep an eye on:

Cal Quantrill, RHP Stanford
   At the outset of the last NCAA season,  the son of former Jay Paul Quantrill was considered one of the top sophomores in the country, and was touted as a possible top of the 1st round pick.  A torn UCL necessitated Tommy John surgery in March,
    Quantrill was chosen by the Yankees in the 26th round of the 2013 draft, but opted to attend Stanford.  He was named Pac 12 Freshman of the Year, and made the Louisville Slugger and Perfect Game All-Freshman teams, while leading Stanford in Innings Pitched and Strikeouts.  He was the first freshman to start on Opening Day for Stanford since Mike Mussina in 1988.  After the college season, he was ranked the top Coastal Summer League prospect by BA.

   Quantrill has a four-pitch mix, all of which are projected to be at least MLB average.  His fastball sits in the low 90s, and he commands the lower part of the strike zone well with it.  His curve is ranked as being ahead of his slider for now, and his change has good fade and sink.  Scouts laud his feel for pitching and mound presence.
   At this point, Quantrill is an obvious question mark.  He still projects as a first rounder, but it's still unknown where he'll land.  He won't be at the one year mark after surgery when Stanford opens its season on February 19th, so his return to competition may be delayed.
   Stanford plays their home games at one of the most picturesque parks in all of college baseball, Klein Field, on the Stanford campus.  Many Cardinal games will be carried on the Pac-12 network, so those of you who are skilled at finding live streams can have a first-hand look at Quantrill when he gets back in action.
   The ties here are obvious:  dad Paul is a Blue Jays pitching consultant, and Cal, who like his dad grew up on the shores of Lake Ontario in Port Hope, a 75-minute drive east of Toronto.  Cal played his high school sports at Trinity College in his hometown, and has worn the Maple Leaf internationally on several occasions, winning a silver medal with the U18 team at the 2012 Worlds in South Korea.  At 6"3"/185. he has the long, lean, and athletic profile that the Blue Jays like in a pitcher.  If he picks up where he left off after his freshman year, it's likely he won't be around past the first dozen picks.  Because his season may start a bit later, and he may struggle with his command as many TJ patients do in their first few weeks/months back, he also may be in a perfect spot for Toronto to scoop the native son up.
 How and Why the Jays Might Pick Him:  
1.  He was an outstanding prospect before TJ
2.  Profiles as a starter
3.  Lots of projection left
4.  Advanced feel for pitching
5.  Bloodlines
6.  Stock may not fall so much as he may not have enough time to move up

Kyle Funkhouser RHP Louisville
   The 2014 U.S. Collegiate team was one of the strongest in recent years, featuring three players (Dansby Swanson, Alex Bregman, and Carson Fullmer) who would be drafted in the Top 10 the following June.  Ranking ahead of all of them at the end of that summer was Funkhouser.  During his sophomore year, he set a school record for wins, and almost matched previous school high totals for innings and K's.
   A late-season slump and a failure to drop his signing bonus saw him drop to the Dodgers with the 35th pick, and after the two sides were unable to come to an agreement, Funkhouser decided to return to school for his senior year.
   Funkhouser's control has been labeled below-average for a first-round arm, but that may be due to the movement on his four-seamer.  His two-seamer sits at 91-92, but it has great sinking action, and grades as a possible plus pitch.  He shows a four-pitch assortment that projects him to be at least a mid-rotation starter.
   At 6'2"/235, Funkhouser may not have the same body type as Quantrill's but he did not miss a start over his last two college seasons.  He has a lot to prove this season, and even if he doesn't live up to the potential he flashed as a sophomore, some organization may look at that durability and mix of pitches with the idea of drafting him as something of a project.
How and Why the Jays Might Pick Him:
1.  The philosophy may have changed with the departure of Alex Anthopoulos, but this is an amateur scouting department that likes to roll the dice.
2.  Solid innings-eater build
3.  Blue Jays minor league instructors may be able to harness his potential

Forrest Whitley RHP Texas HS
   Whitley grew almost six inches during his freshman year of high school, and added about 15 mph to his fastball.  The 6'7" San Antonian has the velocity (95) and developing secondaries to profile as a starter, and has that feel for pitching that allows him to turn a lineup over.
  Some scouts feel that his relative lack of athleticism will keep him from being a top of the draft kind of prospect, but there's a ton of projection here, if  the Blue Jays are in that kind of mood.
How and Why the Jays Might Pick Him:
1.  If they survey the prospect landscape after Whitley and come away unimpressed, here's a player worth bringing along slowly
2.  The lack of athleticism knock may drop him down some draft boards
3.  The Jays have had an excellent track record of re-shaping the bodies of young pitchers.

   The likelihood of any of the above being chosen by the Jays is a longshot.  The nature of scouting being what it is, you could look at 20 sets or rankings and come away with 20 completely different lists.  At the moment, these are three names that seem to slot into that 20-20 tier, and gives me something to follow in the coming weeks.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook: Happy New Year Edition photo

The days are getting longer (about a minute- split between sunrise and sunset- per day), and while in some ways these are truly the doldrums of the baseball off season, spring training, and all the promise of a new season, is not far off.
   Here are some of the developments that have taken place in the Blue Jays farm system over the past several weeks:

Boomer Collins Cricket Update
   Almost a month ago, I wrote about the former Jays farmhand who was trying to make a go of things in T20 Cricket, a fast-paced and condensed version of the sport, after being released by Toronto after three years in their organization.
   Collins is training under internationally renowned cricket coach Julien Fountain.  The two first met about a year ago, and Collins' committed full-time to the sport after being released in November. Collins received a crash course in cricket fundamentals in his home state of Texas before travelling to India in early December, in the hopes of catching on with a pro T20 side there.
   Collins, as one might expect, had a little trouble adjusting to hitting balls that bounced or were aimed at his head, but all in all, he had a positive experience.  He was ranked as a "silver" prospect (mid-tier) in a recent draft of prospects by the Pakistani Super League, but wasn't selected.
   He headed home for Christmas, which was part of the plan all along, and is hoping to catch on with a local team to further his cricket education.  He's also had at least one invitation from an English side to join them.  Whatever the case, Fountain has invested some of his own money in training Collins as part of a project to lure other former baseball players to the sport, called SwitchHit20.  Both Fountain and Collins are in this for the long run - the latter is hoping for a breakthrough, while the former has staked his reputation on this project.
   T20 is wildly popular outside of North America.  Players can make a considerable sum of money playing the game - seasons last only several weeks, but are held at different times in different countries, and players can hop from one country to another.
  Collins enjoyed the experience, despite the culture shock of moving from a Dallas suburb to the busy city of Bangalore:  "The most difficult part (of the experience) was getting across the street." He enjoyed the chance to train every day, and feels he just needs playing time to refine his skills and understanding of the game.
   Fountain posted a video to YouTube of Collins' progress while he was in India:

Gabe Noyalis
   He faces long odds to make it much past A ball, and his signing underscores the lack of pitching depth in the organization after all of Alex Anthopoulos' wheeling and dealing dating back to November 2014, but you have to have a heart of granite not to be pulling for the Jays most recent free agent signing.
   The native of Williamsport, PA, pitched for Bucknell as a freshman, and despite appearing only 7 games that year, was slated to be their closer the following season before an ankle injury cost him all of his sophomore year.
Williamsport Sun Gazette Photo
  Noyalis transferred to Misericordia, a Division III powerhouse near Wilkes-Barre PA the following year, but walked away from the game after only one season with the Cougars. Soon after, he began hitting the weight room regularly, and fell in love with lifting.  Then, he told me in a Twitter conversation this week, his old high school team needed someone to throw batting practice to them before a state playoff game last June, and "I hit 91 a few times," despite not having picked up a ball in a couple of years.  Intrigued, he threw a few more times after that, and was up to 93-94, which led to a tryout with the Phillies, but no contract offer. Noyalis threw himself into his comeback full after that, throwing every day.  His velo was up to 97, and the Braves decided to give him a look. 
  At this point, Noyalis realized how much he missed the game, and gave his 7th grade basketball coach a call to update him on things.  His coach just happened to be Blue Jays pro scout Matt Anderson:
He was a scout for the Marlins at the time and had a World Series ring with them and I remember all of us were entranced by it. But yeah I've known Matt since then, he followed my high school and college career but once he moved to Texas and I stopped playing I wasn't in contact with him until this year when I told him how things were going.

   Anderson invited Noyalis to come and throw for him in early December.  The grey, wet late fall/early winter Central Pennsylvania weather, coupled with a lack of a partner to catch him meant that he was limited to throwing sand-filled balls against a wall in his gym's basement.   Nonetheless, Noyalis flew down to Anderson's baseball camp in Texas, and threw between 95-98, and was offered a contract.

   Noyalis will be in Dunedin when training camp opens, and while it's not likely that he breaks camp with a full season team, if his velocity and command hold up, he could see time in Lansing before season's end.  After not having pitched for three and a half years, he will likely need some time to regain feel for his secondary pitches.

   Noyalis' story is somewhat reminiscent of Steve Delabar, who was out of baseball for two years after elbow problems, and after implementing an arm-strengthening program for a high school team he was helping to coach while working as a supply teacher, found his own velocity had improved.  After a successful tryout with the Mariners, Delabar made his MLB debut in 2011, and was dealt to Toronto in 2012, and while he has scuffled the last two years, Delabar represented the Jays at the 2013 All Star game.

Phil Kish Pitches on Down Under
   One of the more enjoyable things about being a minor league blogger is that you can get fairly good and consistent access to the players.  Before he was dealt, Matt Boyd was a frequent correspondent and friend of this blog.  Anthony Alford has always responded to questions, as well.
   Phil Kish is proving to be just as accessible and insightful.  Labelled undersized (at 5"10") and undrafted in 2013 after graduating from Southern University (where he obtained a finance and accounting degree), righthander  Kish had a decent first two pro seasons pitching in relief, but he struggled this year, reaching as far as High A Dunedin.
   As the 2015 season was drawing to a close, Kish had heard rumours that he might be part of the Blue Jays contingent of prospects making their way to Canberra to play in the Australian Baseball League this winter, but he didn't hear anything definite, so he was preparing to resume his internship with Ernst and Young as he worked toward an accounting designation. When he did finally get the word that he was going, Kish was, in his words, "ecstatic":
This past season I had mixed results of struggle and positive and getting this opportunity to come down here to improve my craft was a blessing. Usually after a bad year this was the last opportunity I was expecting. The Blue Jays giving me this opportunity is awesome and I can't be more appreciative. To make the most out of this experience I have to just pitch and learn my mechanics. Pitching is all about making adjustments. I am beyond excited to be representing the Blue Jays and I hope that I can compete at this level and improve my game so I can pitch in Toronto in the near future.
 In his first few outings, Kish admits that he didn't pitch as well as he would've liked, but the hits he gave up were of the groundball variety, which he says, "I'm perfectly okay with since I'm keeping the ball in the park."
   When he's on, Kish pounds the bottom of the strike zone.  I made this gif of a nasty slider he threw to an Aussie League hitter, and it got considerable attention on Twitter:

  When asked how he was adjusting to the ABL a few weeks ago, Kish responded:
You pitch how you know how to pitch if that makes sense. My game is keep the ball down and get ahead of hitters. All it is for me is to execute each pitch with authority. I'm always going to give up more hits than innings because I'm a sinker ball pitcher. Ground ball needs to be a double play for the next hitter. Real adjustments is throwing more change ups ahead and behind in the count.
   Being far from home during the winter was an adjustment in itself for Kish, as was living in a foreign country, with different currency and driving rules.  I have long maintained this is a great arrangement for Blue Jays prospects - even though Canberra is much farther away from home than Toronto is for most of them, the experience of living in a country that's similar, but different from their own gives prospects a taste of what living in Canada might be like.  At Thanksgiving the Canberra players and staff had a turkey dinner down the 3rd Base line, and when I checked in with him in mid-December as Christmas approached, he admitted, "I'm not sure if I am a fan of the Australian Christmas. I need actual cold weather to make it feel like Christmas."   He did acknowledge, however,  that his arm felt great, and he was pleased was how he was pitching.  And the results are backing that up - he had a run of four scoreless outings around Christmas, before giving up a run against Perth, but came back the next day to pitch 2 1/3 scoreless innings.
  At 26, the clock is ticking very loudly on Kish's time in the Blue Jays organization.  Just the same, the fact that they kept him after releasing some of his fellow relievers like Griffin Murphy and Arik Sikula suggests that the club still believes in the sinkerballer.

Jordan Romano Update
   I also have a soft spot for Canadian prospects.  The game has grown so much at the grassroots level in this country, thanks mainly to the efforts of Baseball Canada and National Team coach Greg Hamilton. photo
   Romano is from the Toronto suburb of Markham, about a 40-minute drive away from the CN Tower.  He pitched collegiately at Oral Roberts, and the Blue Jays took the hometown boy in the 10th round of 2014. The former Ontario Blue Jay had an excellent pro debut, striking out 33 in 26 innings for Bluefield.
  As spring training opened last year, Romano had a shot at earning a spot on Lansing's roster, but a torn UCL ended his season before it began, and he underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of March.  
   I've talked to him numerous times since the surgery, and he has been consistently upbeat with every check-in.  He began rehabbing the arm just a few weeks after the operation, but throwing would have to wait until the five month mark.  
   By July, he was really sounding positive.  He rehabbed his shoulder 3-4 hours per day, 4 times per week, as well as working on conditioning 6 times weekly.  This is key for Tommy John patients - the return of velocity is often attributed to the surgery, but it's the focused attention on mechanics, nutrition, and conditioning that allows pitchers to return to their pre-op form.
   By late August, Romano was finally throwing again, and by late September he was throwing 80 pitches from a distance of 45 feet three times per week, at 80% effort (although he admits he let loose with the odd throw, and it felt great).  Just this past week, he said he'll finally be throwing off of a mound by the weekend.
   If all goes well, he should be throwing breaking balls and facing live hitters by spring training, with a return to competition sometime after the end of March.  The most likely scenario would be to keep him in the warm weather at the Dunedin complex for at least the month of April, in order to see how his arm responds at extended spring training.  
    Like Kish and Noyalis, Romano has to be considered a long shot to reach the majors.  Still, for those of us who follow the minors as closely as they do MLB, they represent the heart and soul of MiLB.  None had much in the way of negotiating leverage when it came to signing their first contract; Kish and Noyalis likely received no bonus, and college senior Romano accepted a $25 000 bonus, which was almost $140 000 below slot.  Despite working for wages that are lower than a fast food worker's, even though they're among the top at their trade in North America, the dedication these players have never fails to impress.  The one thing all three have in common is their love of the game.

*********************************************************************************   If you write about Minor League Baseball yourself, and/or enjoying reading about it, I would encourage you to join the Minor League Baseball Bloggers group on Facebook.  There is a surprising amount of quality MiLB content out there by people from all walks of life.