Monday, February 29, 2016

Anthony Alford: The Best is Yet to Come


@BaseballBetsy Photo
     18 months ago, the brain trust of the Blue Jays, led by then-GM Alex Anthopoulos, made the five-hour trek from Toronto to Lansing.
    The purpose of their trip was more than just to scout Toronto prospects toiling for the local entry in the Midwest League, the Low-A Lugnuts.  Anthopoulos and his cadre of senior execs had a contract extension offer in hand for Anthony Alford, who had just been promoted to Lansing a week earlier.

    Alford was one of the top high school baseball and football recruits in the nation.  Baseball America offered this scouting report in the spring of 2012:

Alford, a two-sport athlete, has committed to Southern Mississippi for both baseball and football. He's teammates in baseball with Garren Berry, son of USM baseball coach Scott Berry. And the Golden Eagles have a new football coach, Ellis Johnson, who has hired Alford's prep football coach onto his staff. In April Alford indicated he plans to go to college and play both sports. That's too bad, because many scouts considered Alford one of the class' elite athletes. Big and fast at 6 feet, 200 pounds, he was the Magnolia State's football player of the year as a quarterback and chose Southern Miss over such football powers as Louisiana State and Nebraska. He threw for more than 2,000 yards and ran for more than 1,700 as a senior, accounting for 44 touchdowns, but he's at least as intriguing on the diamond, where he's a 70 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale with power potential, too. He helped Petal High win back-to-back state 6-A championships before the team lost in the third round this spring, as Alford batted .483 with four homers.
   Scared off by the college commitment, Alford, who was considered a first-round pick in terms of talent, tumbled out of the top two rounds.  The Blue Jays, who had six picks in the first 100 thanks to letting free agents like Jose Molina, Jon Rauch, and Frank Francisco walk, decided to take a flyer with their seventh in Alford, joining 1st round pick and fellow Mississippian DJ Davis.

   Toronto was willing to wait on Alford, whose first pro summer was limited to 20 GCL plate appearances before heading off to begin his college football career.  His first season at Southern Miss was a bust, off and on the field.  He was one of four quarterbacks who stumbled their way to an 0-12 season, which cost Head Coach Elliott Johnson his job.  In October, Alford's mother was arrested after getting into an altercation with fans who were loudly berating her son's play during a one-sided loss.  This was not the first time mom had encountered trouble while watching her son play.  Alford's parents both had their issues with illegal drugs, and Anthony Alford Sr was arrested for selling Oxycodone in late 2013.
   After the dismal football season was over, Alford was involved in an on-campus incident, and was charged with assault, which was later reduced to conspiracy to possess a firearm, and hindering prosecution.  The incident, however, spelled the end of Alford's career with Southern Miss, and he left campus.  In the New Year, he signed on with Ole Miss, and attended spring practice, delaying his 2013 baseball season until June, and limiting his second pro campaign to 28 PAs.

    Throughout this, the Blue Jays were patient with Alford.  There certainly are two sides to every story, and the club was willing to believe that there were mitigating circumstances in the Southern Miss incident, and they were still committed to being patient with him.
     By 2014, however, that patience was beginning to wear thin.
    Alford had to sit out the 2013 college football season, according to NCAA transfer rules, and there was talk throughout baseball that his development was being limited by football, and the gap between Alford and his peers was growing.  Likely mindful of this, the Blue Jays assigned him to short-season Bluefield for a taste of "under the lights" play, and while the fans in Vancouver were full of anticipation of having Alford spend time at the next level with the Canadians, the Blue Jays skipped him to Lansing after only 9 Appy League games.
   His time in Michigan was brief, but Alford's speed and power combo had jaws dropping, posting a .320/.480/.480 line with 4 steals in only 5 games.  At the end of what proved to be his only week in Lansing, Alford and Anthopoulos sat down to discuss his extension.  Alford admitted that AA made it extremely hard to say no to a deal that likely involved more money than his $750K signing bonus, as well as an invitation to spring training the following year, but Alford did just that.  To top things off, he left Lansing shortly after to get married back home.
   The Blue Jays were likely less than impressed, but were not ready to cut ties with Alford just yet.


   It's hard for Canadians to understand the grasp football has on young men in places like Alabama, Texas, or Mississippi.  When you're the state player of the year, accolades from other sports are nice, but they're just distractions.  The expectation is that you will suit up for the Crimson Tide, or Longhorns, or Rebels, and do your hometown and state proud before setting off for a career in the NFL.  If you grow up without a lot, the path of riches probably seems to be paved with five yard markers and goalposts.  Such was the pressure on Alford to play football.  But somewhere along the line, he began to realize that his football dream was fading.  Maybe it was getting married, and recognizing that he will have to be a provider one day.  Perhaps it was reading the writing on the wall after being removed from Ole Miss' starting lineup after a failed season at QB with Southern. It may have been the forehead-smacking moment of revelation when Alford realized that he wanted to play baseball all along, and the Blue Jays were waving a good pile of cash in front of him to do so. Whatever it was, Alford shocked many when he gave up on football a month into the season (after saying that, "Even if I made $100 million from baseball, I'd still regret not giving football a shot,") and agreed to the Blue Jays offer.
   For the Blue Jays, the challenge was now how to make up for that lost development time.  He was able to squeeze in the last two weeks of Instructional League play, but Toronto was ready to accelerate Alford's timetable now that he had committed full time to baseball.  Even though they knew he likely would struggle, they shipped Alford and his new bride off to Australia, to play for Canberra of the ABL.  Along for the ride was Blue Jays minor league instructor Kenny Graham, who was Alford's GCL Manager, and is widely regarded as one of the best teachers in the organization. Graham served as Canberra's 3rd Base coach, but his main job was to tutor Alford in the fine points of baseball instruction he had missed.
   What ensued was a crash course in pitch recognition.  For many elite athletes, they are able to play the game up to a certain level on the strength of their physical talents alone.  Few can reach the top relying solely upon their tools, and in baseball, where the battle between pitcher and hitter is at the epicenter of the game, the ability to have a plan, and be able to make adjustments, becomes crucial.
   And Alford failed quite spectacularly at that down under.  By his own admission, he became too eager, and could not sit on the fastball as he had his whole baseball life up until that point.  "It's like they pitch you backwards," he said of the veteran Aussie League pitchers,who rarely threw Alford a hittable fastball, forcing him to chase pitcher's pitches.  Rather than being patient after facing adversity for the first time in his pro career, Alford tried harder, and saw more and more breaking pitches just off the plate as a result.  He finished the season with a line of .207/.327/.319, and struck out in over a quarter of his at bats.
   If there was a glimmer of hope in that time in the ABL, it was in the quality of the at bats Alford was getting.  He still was in too many pitcher's counts, and making weak contact as a result, but he was seeing more and more pitches per at bat as the season progressed.  His 12% walk rate was not great for a lead off hitter, but was a considerable improvement over his previous total, and was offering evidence of his improving ability to make that critical split-second decision about where the pitch was heading, and what kind of pitch it was as it came out of the pitcher's hand.  At the end of January of 2015, he came home upbeat, eager to put the lessons he learned when stateside play resumed a few months later.
  Alford had a few weeks of down time in February (about the longest stretch since he was drafted), and then late in the month headed to Florida with Davis.  Alford was a bit wide-eyed in his first big league camp, but learned a great deal from just watching players like Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista.  Sent back to Lansing to resume his pro career, Alford wasted little time demonstrating the benefits of his time spent in Australia.  Alford became adept at working the count, and hitting the ball to all fields.  While the strikeouts were still on the high side, he had become much more proficient at getting on base, and with his speed at the top of the lineup, he became quite a distraction to opposition pitching.
   Alford reached base in his first 27 games with the Lugnuts, and by the time he was promoted to High A Dunedin in mid-June, had only failed to reach base in a game four times, posting a line of .293/.418/.394  In the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, Alford didn't miss a beat, getting on base at a .380 clip, becoming the league's 8th-ranked process in just a half a season.
   But it wasn't just the numbers that were turning heads.  It was Alford's leadership skills and baseball IQ that wowed scouts.  It wasn't unexpected that his performance would progerss rapidly once he focussed solely on baseball, but it was all the other facets of his game that were just as impressive.  Which, to someone who has watched him and corresponded with him for a while, is not surprising.  Alford is a quality individual, and a natural born leader.  Talk to the people he grew up with, be it teammates or coaches, and they all rave about his maturity and leadership skills.  Given his upbringing, and the spotlight that has been on him since a very young age, and it would be understandable if Alford had a chip on his shoulder.  But he doesn't.  He is very engaging, polite, and accommodating.  The demands on his time will become greater as he nears the majors, but Alford still has time to tell a blogger who is making the trip to spring training next month that he looks forward to meeting him.  He was invited to be part of a mentoring group for kids in his hometown, and he explained his involvement in articulate and passionate terms.  

   Despite they hype and the progress he made last year, there is still room for growth in Alford's game. While he barrels up balls, he still doesn't have a lot of loft in his swing, so his power has yet to materialize. Despite the increase in walks, Alford still struck out a lot for a top of the order batter (23% of the time), and even though he was a high school quarterback, his arm grades as slightly below average.  Scouts feel that the power is coming, however, and a slight adjustment to his swing path might create more pop.  That K-BB differential came down drastically last year, and there's every indication that the trend will continue, and Alford's speeds and good reads help to compensate for whatever shortcomings his arm might possess.
He faces the biggest jump of his career this year with the jump to AA, where he will be facing pitchers more like the ones he saw in Australia - ones with command of their secondary pitches, and have a plan when they're on the mound.  He may begin the season at Dunedin, as the Bue Jays have shown a preference for starting a prospect off at the level they finished the previous season in the case of half-seasons.  Just the same, he will be at New Hampshire sooner rather than later, and may find himself in Buffalo by season's end.   The scouting media has certainly taken notice.  Alford was ranked the 44th top prospect by Baseball Prospectus, 42nd by MLB Pipeline, and 25th by BA.
   There is no need to rush Alford, and his minor league apprenticeship may not be quite complete, but there's everything in his physical tools and makeup to suggest that he's the real deal.  He profiles as that on-base machine/speed threat that's ideal in the leadoff spot.  Alford should be patrolling Centrefield at the Rogers Centre for years to come.



Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Conner Greene and The Good Face


Connergreene.com photo
“Beneath an unruly mop of dark brown hair the boy had the sharp features the scouts loved. Some of the scouts still believed they could tell by the structure of a young man’s face not only his character but his future in pro ball. They had a phrase they used: “the Good Face.” Billy had the Good Face.”   
-Michael Lewis, Moneyball 
 "We're not selling jeans here."
-Billy Beane, quoted in Moneyball
 Meet Conner Greene: right handed starter/model/actor—a guy who’s literally capable of selling jeans. We’ll spare you the full-on Parks-ian description of Greene’s physique and facial features but let’s just say he has “the good face.”
BaseballProspectus.com Top 10 Toronto Blue Jays prospects 
       "You ever hear of 'the good face'? Well, I never used to sign a boy
unless I could look in his face and see what I wanted to see: drive,
determination, maturity, whatever. And when I was the Dodgers'
scouting director, we used to have a real thing about that. Some
scout would give me a report on a boy, and I'd say 'Tell me about
his face,' or 'Does he have the good face?'"
           Al Campanis, quoted in Dollar Sign on the Muscle
     The world of amateur baseball scouting is fascinating.  Thanks to Moneyball and sabermetrics, we've come to favour analytics over traditional methods when it comes to evaluating MLB players, because of the warehouse of data that results from each MLB game.  Evaluating minor league and amateur players, who don't have a dozen cameras, radar guns, and other high-tech measurement devices aimed at them every take the field, is a different story.
   Certainly, when it comes to scouting pitchers, there are some quantitative measures:  speed on the gun, amount of break on the curveball, and the ability to repeat a delivery consistently can all be quantified to varying extents.  The proliferation of showcase events across North America certainly give scouts a chance to see how players stack up against elite competition, but sometimes a lack of data or comparability means that scouting can become subjective.

   Which brings us back to The Good Face.  Psychologists may have a different term for it:
The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias in which our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about his or her character. Essentially, your overall impression of a person ("He is nice!") impacts your evaluations of that person's specific traits ("He is also smart!"). One great example of the halo effect in action is our overall impression of celebrities. Since we perceive them as attractive, successful, and often likeable, we also tend to see them as intelligent, kind, and funny.
    Most younger scouts do not believe in the concept of The Good Face, at least in the vague form that it once existed. The lead quote from Baseball Prospectus aside (which was more of an attempt at poking fun at former BP Prospect writer Jason Parks, known for his over-the-top and graphic description of some young players),  The Good Face does seem to come from another era, when scouts had to go more on their gut instincts about a player than any substantial amount of hard data.  One of those scouts was George Genovese, who passed away recently after 7 decades in the game.  In his biography, Genovese recounts watching and projecting a 17-year-old three-sport High School star named Giancarlo Stanton, who was little known by the scouting community in Southern California, because he didn't play travel ball:

The more I watched Stanton, the more eager I became.  It was easy to look at him and believe he would gain another 20 pounds and become even stronger.  Experience told me once he was playing more than a 24-game high school season, his pitch recognition and understanding of the game would improve greatly, and he would get even better.

   This was not an anecdote from the 30s or 40s.  Decades of watching young players gave Genovese the knowledge on how to view prospects like Stanton not as they were, but as they would be in 4 or 5 years. What was it that made up that knowledge base?  Was The Good Face part of that?  Whatever it was, Genovese had it:  among others, he signed the likes of Bobby Bonds, Garry Maddox, George Foster, Gary Mathews, and Dave Kingman while scouting for the Giants.  So, while Campanis may have had something of a very arbitrary ("whatever") element to it, Genovese at least was able to look at the overall prospect and project his frame and his skills into the future.
When evaluating talent, one has to make multiple determinations based on small sample sizes, unbalanced competitive landscapes, and a plethora of unknown eventualities.....Is it possible (for a scout) to separate our own deficienices and insecurities from the process?        Jason Parks, Baseball Prospectus

   Campanis, for his part, had a history of not being able to express himself clearly, despite being a New York University grad, and his unfortunate verbal meltdown on Ted Koppel's Nightline  undid much of  a marvelous baseball legacy that included leading the Dodgers to four World Series as a GM for twenty years, being a mentor to Jackie Robinson, and learning from the great Branch Rickey about how to acquire and develop players.
   But Campanis, despite his verbal bumbling, was expressing a widely-held belief of the scouting community for much of the last century:  intuition was an important factor in evaluating a player.  The problem was that it could be full of bias.  Kevin Kerrane, in Dollar Sign on the Muscle, talked to Dave Ritterpusch, who brought psychological evaluations like the Athletic Motivation Inventory (AMI) to Baltimore's front office, about the problems with solely subjective analysis of players:
 A lot of baseball scouts feel threatened by a tool like the AMI, because they like to believe that they 'just know' about a kid's makeup.  Sometimes they do - and when they talk about 'the good face,' they may be on to something, by intuition, that's fundamentally important, like honesty or aggressiveness.  But how do you make very fine distinctions?  What kind of number-system would you use to grade good faces?
   An example Ritterpusch used was that of Hall of Famer Eddie Murray.   Murray's motivational profile indicated that his drive was well above average, and his emotional control was off the charts.  Many scouts confused his calm, cool, and collected manner with being lazy to the point of being lackadaisical.  And that was one of the problems when white scouts evaluated black prospects:  a cultural divide that the scouts couldn't necessarily see or account for in their reports. Murray had ample drive, but his emotional control allowed him to keep it in check.
  For many scouts, Murray probably didn't have The Good Face.  Kerrane observed that many of the old-time scouts he talked to use the phrase "for me" in their discussions of players, as in "that kid doesn't do it for me."  Probably more than one scout said that in regard to Murray.  Over 3000 hits, 500 Home Runs, and 1900 RBI would indicate otherwise.

   The modern scouting world doesn't pay a lot of attention to The Good Face anymore.  Perhaps the move to a more scientific approach to scouting was initiated by Ewing Kaufmann of the Royals, who developed a baseball academy specifically dedicated to evaluating and developing prospects.  The Royals used multiple types of methods to grade players, including video analysis and psychological tests.  Major Leaguers Frank White and U.L. Washington graduated from the Academy before it closed in 1974.  Kaufmann maintained that the worst mistake he had ever made was allowing the Academy to be shuttered, but the die had already been cast for a new way of looking at amateur players.

   Of course, there still is room for instinct in scouting players today, and one look no further than Toronto's own Jim Stevenson, who while scouting the Midwest for the Astros over a decade ago kept close tabs on a high school pitcher in his adopted hometown of Tulsa.  "He was 84-86 mph with his fastball," he told Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun, "but you could project."
   Stevenson followed the pitcher when he joined the University of Arkansas throughout his freshman, sophomore, and junior years:
“He was a Friday night starter in the SEC. Friday night guys were all in their mid-90s. He was 86-90. Yet, when you look up and he had rolled 13 or 14 grounders and didn’t walk anyone.  He reminded me of a guy like Tom Glavine with plus command and control as well as a disappearing fastball. He had three average pitches, with plus pitchability, plus-command and plus-control.  Guys would sit behind the screen at Arkansas holding radar guns.  I'd put the gun down - he was a crafty lefty.  Hitters told me if he could pitch.
    In the 2009 draft, Stevenson was on the phone to the Astros war room after the third round, insisting that they draft this "crafty lefty," which they did - in the 7th round.  That pick turned into 2015 AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel.


    Which brings us back to Conner Greene.  Described as mostly arms and legs in high school, Greene was all about projection, which more and more is the modern day equivalent of The Good Face.  Again, scouting Greene in high school was about what he would be, and not what he was as an 18-year-old.  Had he gone to college and pitched under a bigger spotlight against tougher competition, providing a larger sample size, Greene would have been relatively easier to scout than he was as a high schooler.  Like Keuchel, he was a 7th rounder (class of 2013), and Blue Jays West Coast scout Jim Lentine likely had to lobby as hard as Stevenson did to get the Blue Jays to sign him.
   And so far, it's looking more and more like a shrewd pick.  Greene may not develop into a Cy Young winner, but in his first year of full-season ball he pitched at three levels, finishing the year at AA and firmly establishing himself as one of the top prospects in the system.
   Greene has the typical Californian good looks - when he reaches the majors, the Toronto media will be full of stories about his days as a model, and his brief role on Charlie Sheen's Anger Management.  In that sense, he truly is The Good Face, but he also has the long, athletic build that MLB teams covet.
    And maybe there isn't all that much question about the Good Face, either.  Maybe it was used as a cute little ironic throwaway line in the BP article about Greene, and the concept certainly was broadened beyond all definition by the scouts Kerrane interviewed in his first edition of Dollar Sign, but there is something to be said for intangibles, the instincts of a seasoned scout, and the modern day term for it is "Makeup." Thanks to psychological profiles, the data they provide can help confirm a scout's intuition about a player.  Makeup consists of a player's physical, mental, and emotional constitution - his "tools," character, work ethic, resilience, and understanding of the game.  It encompasses subjective and objective evaluations.

    The job of the scout is a difficult one, and the best ones are among the most valuable members of their organizations.  There is the issue of small sample size, as Parks mentioned, as well as other issues that are not as visible as bat speed, arm slot, or pop times.  How will a certain prospect deal with the vicissitudes of playing pro ball?  How will he adapt to being on his home, far from home, without his family and support system?  How will he deal with failing at a game that has come so easily to him since about the 3rd Grade? Will he eat properly, stick with his conditioning, and handle his money properly (keeping in mind, of course that the vast majority of players in short season ball have little)?  Will he turn into the player the scout had projected?  Psychological testing may help to determine the probabilities of those questions, but sometimes the only way to tell is by the gut feeling scouts can have that comes from having interacted with hundreds of past prospects.

   After Moneyball debunked so many myths of old time methods of scouting and evaluating players, the pendulum is swinging back from analytical methods to some of that former wisdom.  We have learned, contrary to what quantitative methods may have originally told us, that defence DOES matter - it's no coincidence that Toronto's hot run to the pennant in August and September owed to its improved infield defence.  So perhaps the organizations that will succeed in the future will be those that best marry the information they receive from scouts and analysts.

   The last word on the subject goes to Kerrane, who updated Dollar Sign a few years ago, and talked to scouts in other sports to see how their methods varied from baseball's.  He spoke with Baltimore Assistant GM Eric Da Costa, who had a strong football scouting background:
"I thought Moneyballwas a great book," he said, "and the one part that really stuck with me were the pages on Billy Beane's own playing career when he would dwell on his mistakes, like when he would strike out and then take that negativity out into the field with him, or into his next at-bat. Or Beane might let himself get intimidated by some hard-throwing pitcher, whereas a guy like Lenny Dykstra would look at the same pitcher and say: "I can't wait to hit against that son of a bitch!'"

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Chris Rowley Released from Army Commitment

Eddie Michels - Rocketsports.com photo


      Athletes who play for US Armed Force Academies have to deal with the fact throughout their collegiate careers that their chances of playing their sport professionally are slim.
     There are exceptions - David Robinson did go on to a storied NBA career after he literally outgrew the Naval Academy; Napoleon McCallum was able to play for the Los Angeles Raiders for a season while the ship he was assigned to was home ported nearby.  Mitch Harris was drafted by the St Louis Cardinals in 2008, but had to delay his career for 5 years while serving in the Navy, and made his MLB debut last year. Nick Hill, considered one of the best players in the history of the US Military Academy, was able to receive an exemption after being drafted by the Mariners in 2007.  8 years and some bad injury luck later, he finished 2015 with the Phillies AAA affiliate.
   From a Blue Jays perspective, they took a flyer from the US Air Force Academy in the 10th round of the 2013 draft in C Garrett Custons, and signed P Chris Rowley as a free agent from the Army after he went undrafted that year. Assigned to Bluefield, Custons hit .222/.295/.315 in 17 games before reporting for duty at the Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, FL.  Rowley was sent to the Gulf Coast League, where he dominated the younger hitters, striking out 39 in 32 innings, and allowing only 22 batters to reach base.  At last report, Custons was working as a Budget Analyst with the Air Force at Patrick AFB in Florida.

   Academy athletes owe Uncle Sam a service commitment after graduation, and players like Custons and Rowley have managed to sneak some pro ball into the 60 days they have before reporting for duty.  Some apply for exemptions, but they have to serve two years of active duty before applying. And there are no ways around the system - no playing on weekends or vacation time, no time off to attend minor league spring training.  On August 8th, in his last outing in 2013, Rowley shut out the GCL Pirates over 6 innings.  The next day, on his 23rd birthday, he was on a flight back to New York, headed to West Point to start fulfilling his commitment. At first, Rowley served as a grad assistant for his former team.  After that, he was stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and then Fort Stewart, in his home state of Georgia.  Rowley re-connected there with his Army catcher, J.T. Watkins, who was drafted by the Red Sox (10th round) in 2012, and after a handful of games in the New York-Penn League that summer, applied for an exemption, and was able to play for the Sox Class A affiliates in 2015.
   Deployment eventually was in store for Rowley, who was shipped out to Eastern Europe, but he was able to keep his arm in shape by throwing to his company's senior medic, Sgt Cody Berndt, who Rowley said, "helped me a ton."

   Rowley applied almost a year ago for the exemption, and he received word of his approval in October - our first hint that something might be in the works was when Rowley's named was listed on the Blue Jays Instructional League roster.
   He confirmed this week that he received the exemption, and will be heading to Dunedin on March 5th, as minor league camp gets set to open.
   What are Rowley's chances?   Not great, to be honest.  He was signed as an org guy - a college arm signed to eat up GCL innings in order to proctect 2013 high school draftees and International Free Agents like Conner Greene, Clinton Hollon, Jesus Tinoco, Jake Brentz, and Evan Smith.  Blue Jays pitching consultant Paul Quantrill watched Rowley pitch, and sent back a report that graded him as "100% bullpen, zero pro value."  As a non-drafted free agent who signed for no bonus, Rowley's leash would be much shorter than most prospects - he will be only given so long to prove himself.  He hasn't faced a live batter in about 30 months, and he hasn't pitched above rookie ball. Turning 26 in August, the clock is ticking very loudly for Rowley.
   At the same time, had he not had the looming military hitch, Rowley might have been promoted up the ladder to see what he could do (he may well have been drafted in the first dozen rounds, as well). In the ensuing two years, he may have risen as high as AA if he had continued his GCL success. He might profile best as a starter, but his ascent through the organization may be quicker through the bullpen. Rowley sat at around 92 with his fastball in his GCL stint, with impeccable command. Other than his last two GCL outings, he had an excellent groundball/flyball ratio. Quite simply, Rowley fills the strike zone, mostly in the bottom half. He should start the season at Lansing or Dunedin.
   Of all the stories involving minor leaguers, this is the kind I enjoy the most.  How can you not be pulling for a kid like this?
   Rowley is clearly giving up a lot to pursue this dream,  putting his career on hold to chase it.  There might be some who would suggest that given his age and the odds he faces, why not just get on with life?  But for those of us who are older, 25 is still very young, and there is still plenty of time for a career in whatever field he chooses (Rowley graduated pre-law, making the Dean's List at the Military Academy - he will have some options if baseball doesn't work out).  Life is short enough as it is to begin with, and living with regret is no way to do it.  I'm looking forward to making the trip south to Dunedin next month to catch both major and minor league camps at the Blue Jays complex.  My eyes will be focussed more closely on guys like Rowley and Gabe Noyalis - guys who came to camp with a story.

****************************************
  Hats off to writer Gare Joyce, who wrote an article about Rowley in Sportsnet Magazine which formed part of the research I did for this post.  Joyce, who normally writes about hockey, put together an excellent profile about Rowley, which you can read here.  He also wrote an excellent piece about former Jays farmhand Boomer Collins, who is now trying to make a go of things as a T20 Cricket player - you can google that for yourself.  Joyce also wrote an excellent book entitled, ""Future Greats and Heartbreaks," a journal of his year spent following scouts and prospects for the 2006 NHL Entry draft, which included some insights into the character of the mercurial Phil Kessel.
   Joyce is a very underrated writer, in my opinion.  I enjoy his work a great deal.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Keith Law Goes Out on a Limb

Juan Meza - Baseball America photo

 Noted baseball columnist Keith Law has been posting his Top 10 prospects (for Insiders only, sadly) for each MLB team, and he released his Blue Jays list this week.

   Law ranks the entire Blue Jays system at 25th, which is not a huge surprise, given the volume of prospects Alex Anthopoulos has dealt since November 2014.

   Law's top half dozen Blue Jays prospects amount to pretty much a no-brainer:  Anthony Alford, Conner Greene, Jon Harris, Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Richard Urena, and Sean Reid-Foley.

   It's the next four names that are a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.

   Look, I can make mistakes in evaluating prospects just as easily as the next prospect blogger.  I ranked Dalton Pompey ahead of Alford last fall, even though Pompey really no longer qualifies as a prospect, because I wasn't comfortable ranking a guy who hadn't played above A ball that high just yet.
   And that was just wrong.
   If you're new to this blog, if you scroll through my archives, you'll see I've written a couple of thousand words about Alford, and probably will write a few more before he establishes himself as a full-time MLBer. At times he has frustrated me with what seemed to be a  lack of commitment to baseball, but I'm now fully on board with him.  Alford has overcome a difficult upbringing, and the Atlas-sized load of expectations on his shoulders that came with being named one of the top gridiron recruits in the nation, and Mr Football by Mississippi's largest newspaper.  He faces the biggest jump of his young career this season when he plays at AA, but I'm fully committed, and will even make the trip to Buffalo to see him play if/when he's promoted to AAA this season.

    But back to Law......
 For prospects 7 through 10, Law chose (in order) Clinton Hollon, Justin Maese, Juan Meza, and Dan Jansen.  For the record, I am high on that whole group, but there isn't enough of a sample size, in my opinion, to warrant ranking any of them with the possible exception of Maese that high.
  To be fair to Law, he uses the 20 to 80 grading scale when evaluating prospects, so for him, this list is a matter of math as much as it is anything else.  There are few people as connected in the business in terms of talking with scouts and other player development people as well as he is.  I even agree with him that this system isn't likely to produce a player who has a significant impact on the 2016 Blue Jays.
   But let's take a closer look at those players....

   Concerns about his delivery, a drop in velocity prior to the draft, and being a bit undersized caused Hollon to fall to the 2nd round in 2013, where the Blue Jays happily snapped him up.  As they subsequently proved with Jeff Hoffman, Toronto was not concerned about taking a pitcher with UCL issues - it has been rumoured that before taking D.J. Davis with the 17th pick in 2012, the club was strongly looking at California HS pitcher Lucas Giolito, who fell out of the top 10 because of Tommy John surgery.   The Nationals took Giolito at 16, and now he is among the top prospects in MLB.
   Hollon tried to gut his way through his elbow issues, throwing 17 pro innings, but finally underwent surgery in May of 2014.  He was named Vancouver's Opening Day starter in 2015, and had a scintillating debut with Lansing later last summer, before his season came to a screeching halt when a positive PED test meant a 50 game suspension, which will carry over into the first six weeks of this season. The concerns about his make up that surrounded him in his draft year will continue, despite the progress he made last year.
   There is plenty of upside to Hollon.  He can touch 95 with his fastball, has perhaps the best curveball in the system, and possesses an advanced feel for pitching.  Because of his size and some command issues, there is thought that he profiles better as a bullpen arm, but he will be in a starting rotation for the foreseeable future. While there is a lot to be positive about with Hollon, he's only pitched a total of 76 minor league innings, and we need to see more from him before committing to a higher slot.

  Maese was little-known outside of El Paso, TX, which is removed from the traditional scouting hotbeds. The heralded high school QB caught the Blue Jays' eyes, however, and they signed him for half of slot value ($330K) after selecting him in the 3rd round.
  Maese had an eye-popping GCL debut, including a 10 strikeout, 6-inning outing.  GCL hitters were overmatched by Maese's fastball, which hit 96, and sat at 89-93.  He has never played year-round ball, so there's a large possibility that he will add to that velo.  Secondary pitches are still a work in progress, which is to be expected.  Maese has every chance to skip the remaining steps of short season ball and make Lansing's opening day roster.  He wasn't a Top 10 guy for me because of sample size, but I won't quibble with lists that include him. There's a lot of upside to Maese.

     RHP Meza was the 10th ranked prospect by Baseball America in the 2014 international free agent class from Venezuela, and by the sounds of things, he may be the last Blue Jays signing from that country for some time.  BA's report on Meza was particularly encouraging:

 With a large, projectable build and strong legs, Meza attacks hitters with downhill angle on a lively fastball that ranges from 88-91 mph. At times he has worked at lower speeds, but the physical projection and arm speed are there for him to throw harder within a few years. Meza has good arm action, a sound delivery and throws strikes. His low-80s changeup has good sink and fade to keep hitters off his fastball. He’s still learning to repeat his release point on the changeup, but it’s a projectable pitch and he maintains his arm speed. Meza’s curveball is the pitch that will need the most work. He has some feel to spin the breaking ball, but it does get slurvy. Scouts highest on Meza see the potential for three average or better pitches, which combined with his size and pitchability makes for a starter profile. 
   Meza's first pro season in pro ball was less than stellar, with control problems plaguing him, although the organization saw enough to start him in the GCL.  He struggled to find the strike zone, however and was sent down to the DSL after only a handful of outings.  Command issues followed him to that level, as he gave up 22 free passes in 30 innings. At 17, he still perhaps has yet to grow into his body, and as John Manuel of BA said, "He's a hope and a dream right now, rather than a prospect."  You can go all in on a 16-17 year old if he's Vladdy Jr; it's another matter when the player scuffled in his first year of pro ball.  Meza may well turn things completely around this season, but there's little justification for including him anywhere near the top two dozen prospects in the organization.

  Catcher Jansen has long been one of my favourite prospects to follow.  The 2013 16th rounder from Wisconsin was regarded as something of a steal, but his progress has been hampered by injuries.  He already has proven to be a great handler or pitchers - the 6'2", 230 lb Jansen presents a big target behind the plate, but can set up a low target extremely well, and moves that big frame adeptly to block pitches.  He's developing into a good pitch framer, too.  But those injuries......
   Jansen's 2014 was shortened by a knee injury, and he missed a couple of months this year when his hand was broken on a batter's follow-through.  He just wasn't the same at the plate when he returned, although when Marcus Stroman made a rehab start at Lansing, it's not a coincidence that Jansen was behind the plate. The organization wanted him to have that challenge, and he was more than up to it. When asked what it was like to catch Stroman, Jansen said, "he was absolutely filthy."
   As was the case with Hollon and Maese (to a lesser extent), sample size prohibits me from ranking Jansen higher at the moment, although with the catching future of Max Pentecost uncertain, you could make a case for him being the Catcher of the Future.

   One name that Law is surprisingly down on is Rowdy Tellez:
   (Tellez) has big power but could not hit even an average fastball in the Arizona Fall League, as he struggled to adjust to off-speed stuff as well. He has played first base but is better suited to DH
   This comes as news to those of us who follow Blue Jays prospects.  The reports from Arizona failed to mention any difficulty getting around on those average fastballs.  Tellez has had to work extremely hard on his conditioning, defence, and agility, and while he'll never be confused with Wes Parker, he's hardly a one-dimensional base clogger.   Tellez gets on base, uses the whole field, and has become at least something of an adequate defender.  He solidly projects as a 5/6 hitter in the lineup, and while his frame may one day see him move to full-time DH duties, his stroke should play very well in the Rogers Centre.  This guy has a plan when he's up at the plate.
   At one time, Tellez had more than his share of detractors.  He came into pro ball more of a bad-bodied, one-trick pony, but he has grown to be more of that.  It reminds one of Law's lack of enthusiasm for Devon Travis just over a year ago:
Had a great year (in 2014) but as you said, he's old for where he played, and he's an undersized guy without tools. Not a prospect for me, nor for any of the scouts I talked to who'd seen him.
  All Travis did before injuries ended his season, of course, was put his name forward as a Rookie of the Year candidate.  Maybe Law gets hung up on first impressions too much, but that was a pretty big miss, made smaller only by Travis not finishing the season.  His numbers may not have held up, but he definitely showed a pretty good tool kit, along with a sharp set of instincts for the game.

   To Law's credit, he did identify Tom Robson and Ryan Borucki as sleeper prospects, and it takes some knowledge of both the system and their credentials to make that kind of call.  Robson, who came back from Tommy John in July and was limited to 36 innings on the year, has a mid-90s fastball, and a chance to move through the system quickly.  Borucki has had a hard time staying healthy himself, but scouts laud his velo, makeup, and feel for pitching.

   Perhaps Law looked at the lack of depth in the system past the top half dozen, and figured he might as well bank on projection with the rest.  He has gone on record as saying that guys in short season ball and the low rungs of the minors don't have a lot of value, but he must feel that it's better to roll the dice on a couple of those types of players over the other prospects in the system.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Sean Nolin DFA'd by Oakland


Sean Nolin is 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA in six Eastern League starts over two years.
MLB.com photo
    Once a Blue Jays prospect, always a Blue Jays prospect, in my mind.

   Tall (6'4"), stocky (250 lbs) Sean Nolin was a 6th round pick by Toronto in the 2010 draft, from legendary San Jacinto JC.  Nolin had been drafted in the late rounds by the Brewers in 2008, and the Mariners in 2009, but the Long Island, NY native turned them down.

   Nolin's draft report from Baseball America was decent, but hardly impressive:
At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Sean Nolin looks like a lefthanded version of Jason Jennings. Nolin's fastball will sit at 86-89 mph in some games and 88-92 in others, and he backs it up with a solid changeup and fringy curveball.
   Nonetheless, aided especially by that change, he rocketed through the lower levels of the Blue Jays system, striking out more than a batter per inning,  reaching AA by 2012.  He made his first appearance on the Toronto Top 10 prospects list after that season, but 2012 proved to be the high water mark for his Blue Jays career.
   Nolin's 2013 got off to a slow start due to a lingering groin injury, but he was surprisingly added to the 40-man roster in late May, and was rocked for 6 runs in an inning and a third. in his MLB debut against the Orioles. Nolin was sent back to the minors after that start, burning one of his options.
   Still, there was plenty to be optimistic about.  Fangraphs was still high on Nolin as a back of the rotation innings eater heading into 2014:
 Nolin could develop into a solid No. 4 starter with the ability to chew up a ton of innings. The southpaw has good control but is still working to establish consistent fastball command. His heater ranges from the high-80s to the low-90s. His repertoire also includes an above-average changeup and two breaking balls (curveball, slider). Standing 6-5, Nolin needs to do a better job of leveraging his height to create a downward plane on the ball in an effort to work down in the strike zone on a more consistent basis..... the native of New York state has a chance to be a reliable back-of-the-rotation workhorse, and players of that description are harder to come by than you might think — especially ones that throw left-handed. He might be attractive to another organization as a nearly-ready, southpaw hurler should trade discussions turn into something concrete this off-season.
  Injuries once again derailed Nolin's 2014, limiting him to 100 innings.  By this time, not only had he been passed by  the likes of Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, but other prospects like Daniel Norris, Kendall Graveman, Matt Boyd, and Miguel Castro had moved ahead of Nolin in the eyes of the organization.  A strong Arizona Fall League campaign redeemed Nolin's status somewhat, but it may have been more to showcase him, as Toronto packaged him in the deal for Josh Donaldson in the November, 2014 deal with Oakland.  Again, an inability to stay healthy limited Nolin in 2015, and that, coupled with his lack of remaining options mean that when the Athletics' acquired OF Khris Davis from the Brewers to fill a gap in their lineup yesterday, something had to give in order to create room on the 40-man for Davis.  Oakland Designated Nolin for Assignment, meaning they have 10 days to release him, trade him, or place him on waivers, which is the most likely bet - the Athletics haven't necessarily given up on him, but at this point he doesn't fit into their immediate future.

   A victim of the numbers game like former fellow Blue Jays farmhand Chad Jenkins, Nolin has demonstrated enough to be an important minor league depth piece, but not enough to continue to occupy a space on a major league roster.  His left-handedness and ability to fill up the strike zone will mean that some organization will want him.  Oakland knew at the end of the season that he probably didn't fit into their plans for 2016, but hung onto him long enough to make sure that other teams had their rosters full or close to full as spring training approached.
   The website SwinginAs.com thought that DFA'ing Nolin was a huge mistake, suggesting that either one-time Blue Jay Felix Doubront, or Aaron Brooks would potentially contribute less than Nolin to the A's rotation.  Susan Slusser, who covers the Athletics for the San Francisco Chronicle, was surprised at the move, and wondered if it was made because the club thought they might be able to sneak Nolin through waivers, or because he could bring back some value in a trade.
    Either way, Oakland appears to be cutting bait from the Donaldson deal:  they do have Franklin Barreto, who is among the top prospects in the game, but now Nolin risks becoming a former A, along with trade-mate Brett Lawrie.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Chad Jenkins: End of the QEW Shuffle?


Toronto Star photo


   The Blue Jays signed Gavin Floyd to a major league contract on Saturday, designating Swingman Chad Jenkins for assignment.


   Jenkins was the Jays 1st round pick (20th overall) in 2009, the last first round pick of the J.P Ricciardi era.  Say what you will about the club's approach to drafting during the Ricciardi era, this last go produced a fair amount of talent for Toronto (and other clubs), including:

-1st round compensation pick (for the loss of Marco Scutaro) James Paxton, who the Blue Jays were unable to sign.  With the compensation pick they received the following year, they selected Noah Syndergaard, who went to the Mets in the R.A. Dickey deal.
-3rd round comp pick (for the loss of free agent A.J. Burnett), they chose Jake Marisnick, who was part of the package sent to Florida in the Jose Reyes-Mark Buehrle deal.
-4th round pick Ryan Goins filled in admirably for both Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki last year
-5th round pick Ryan Schimpf has topped 20 Home Runs each of the past four minor league seasons, and has been a good MiLB depth piece.
-9th round pick Aaron Loup has provided solid long relief out of the bullpen since 2012
-10th rounder Yan Gomes, who was dealt to the Indians for no apparent reason, has provided Cleveland with decent value
-15th round pick Drew Hutchison
-19th rounder Ryan Tepara has a shot at a spot in long relief after making his MLB debut last year.
   Not an outstanding group (outside, potentially, of Syndergaard), but only the Braves and White Sox 2010 draft classes have produced more WAR as a group.

   A then-August 15th deadline signing, Jenkins moved slowly but steadily through the Toronto system after making his pro debut in 2010.  Baseball America's draft report about Jenkins said:
A mid-80s guy in high school, Jenkins had a soft body but his arm worked well, and he has improved significantly in college. He had a strong sophomore season, first with Kennesaw State (5-5, 3.96), then in the Great Lakes League. Jenkins has firmed up his still soft body, and his velocity has caught up with his ability to throw strikes. He now has two or three plus pitches at times with good command, giving him serious helium. Jenkins has a great feel for pitching and now sits at 90-93 mph with his hard sinker and reaches back for 96 mph with a four-seamer at times. His sinker has boring action in on righthanded hitters when it's going well. His slider gives him a second plus pitch. His changeup is average. Jenkins repeats his delivery, and scouts see his big 6-foot-4, 225-pound body as a durable asset, particularly if he keeps getting in better shape. He resembles Phillies righthander Joe Blanton, with better command, and should go in the first 20 picks.

   By 2012, he had advanced to AA, and after a near-epidemic of injuries to the pitching staff, made his MLB debut in August, pitching decently in a relief role, before being given three starts at the end of the season. Injuries cost him a chunk of 2013, but he pitched well in 10 appearances (3 starts) with the team.  2014 again saw him spend a fair amount of time on the QEW, with 3 separate stints with the Jays, all in relief, but he put up decent numbers, only to have his season end when he was fractured his hand during batting practice in early September.
2015 saw him make all of two appearances with Toronto, seeming to be the beginning of the end of his time with the Blue Jays.
The Blue Jays now have 10 days to trade Jenkins, place him on waivers, release him, or outright him to the minors.  What went wrong for Jenkins?  How did he wind up getting to know some of the Peace Bridge customs officials on both sides of the border on a first name basis?
2009 was the year, of course, the Blue Jays passed on a New Jersey High Schooler named Mike Trout, but then again, 23 other teams did too.  The Nationals took San Diego St RHP Stephen Strasburg with the 1st overall pick, and newly acquired Blue Jay Drew Storen with the 10th, the Braves took P Shelby Miller with the pick before Jenkins, and the Twins took P Kyle Gibson.  Garrett Richards was taken by the Angels with the 42nd pick.  What I'm trying to suggest is that by the time the Blue Jays' turn to pick came around at 20, there wasn't a lot left in terms of upper-level talent, and Jenkins was as good a pick as any.

   As a starter, Jenkins throws a four-pitch mix, but his four-seamer doesn't get a lot of movement, and generated no swings and misses when he threw it to major leaguers in 2014.  His sinker, which came in at 91-92, tended not to have a lot of depth to it either, meaning that he gave up some contact.  As a reliever, that's not what the club was necessarily looking for.  As a guy with options remaining in 2013 and 2014, he was often the first one sent down - he was recalled from Buffalo a total of 10 times in his career.  In 2015, after starting in his first four appearances (and pitching well, other than his first), Jenkins was shuttled to the bullpen as insurance for May, June, and July, waiting for a call that never came.  If there's one thing apparent from his time with the Blue Jays, is that while he filled the strike zone reasonably well, he didn't miss enough bats to stick:


    Jenkins didn't experience a significant uptick in velocity when he moved to the bullpen, and he was sometimes a victim of a numbers game.  With Liam Hendriks experiencing success in a long relief role with Toronto this year, Jenkins was the odd man out, which is unfortunate, because he may have benefitted from the improved infield defence the club fielded in the second half of the season.  Jenkins profiles more as a tweener, someone who could start and relieve, but wasn't effective enough at either to have a more secure and defined role on a Major League roster. Even with the holes in Buffalo's rotation after last season, Jenkins was not considered to be a piece of that puzzle due to his option status.  In the end, he was good, but not good enough.
    This morning, it was announced that Jenkins had indeed cleared waiviers, and was outrighted to Buffalo, meaning not much has changed, other than he no longer has a spot on the 40-man roster. His AAAA status is all but secure.


Sunday, February 7, 2016

Blue Jays Extend Affiliation with Vancouver


www.canadiansbaseball.com
   In what must rank as one of the least-surprising happenings of the Blue Jays off-season, Toronto has renewed its Player Development Contract with the Vancouver Canadians of the Northwest League for another two seasons.  During the C's annual Hot Stove Luncheon,  Managing General Jake Kerr said:
"We have seen a number of Toronto's top prospects over the years and we look forward to further helping in their development. The Canadians relationship with the Blue Jays remains as strong as ever and we appreciate the quality of young men they have sent to represent our city and organization,"
   Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins was on hand for the announcement, and added:
 The Canadians provide a great culture for our young athletes to develop, as both people and baseball players. We look forward to working with the Canadians for many years to come
  MLB teams and their affiliates typically have two or four-year agreements, which come up for renewal in even-numbered years. The MLB team provides players (and pays their salaries), while the affiliate provides adequate facilities for the players and visiting staff from the big team.

  To say that the relationship between the Jays and the C's has been successful would be a vast understatement.  Since connecting in 2010, the C's captured three successive NWL titles, and nearly captured a fourth.  Last year's edition failed to make the playoffs. Previously, Vancouver had a PDC with Oakland dating back to 2000.  The NWL C's replaced a AAA version of the franchise that operated in the Pacific Coast League from 1978-1999.
   The 2015 Canadians led the Northwest League in attendance (setting a club record in the process), after having finished second to Spokane every year since coming under the Blue Jays umbrella.  New left field seating helped put the C's over the top, leading to an average attendance of just under 6 000.  Nat Bailey field is a lively, raucous place, and has been a huge factor in the Canadians' success.  And the industry has taken notice, awarding the C's with the Bob Freitas award as the Short Season Organization of the Year Award in 2011, and the President's Award as the Minor League Organization of the Year in 2013.  If you ever find yourself on the West Coast in the summer, after you go to see the Vancouver Aquarium, the Capilano Suspension Bridge, or Stanley Park, do yourself a favour and catch a C's game.  Nat Bailey Stadium is quaint (be careful of the obstructions caused by the grandstand pillars), and the Granville Island craft beer selections are an added plus.  Even the grounds crew gets into the act:



  The partnership between the Jays and C's has benefitted both sides considerably.  For Toronto, there is a chance to grow the Blue Jays brand, and the experience of playing in Vancouver gives prospects not only a chance to play in front of an incredibly supportive crowd, it also allows many of them to have a taste of what living in Canada is like, with the customs issues, and the different currency.  We tend to take all of this for granted as Canadians, but for many Americans, our country is significantly different.  For the C's, as Canada's only minor league team, the benefits of joining forces with the nation's only major league team are obvious, but perhaps the biggest one has been the players the club has stocked Vancouver with.  Kevin Pillar, Roberto Osuna, Marcus Stroman, and Aaron Sanchez all spent time in the NWL.
   What's somewhat interesting is that this year, with the C's out of playoff contention early in the first half, there were some grumblings about the quality of prospects the Blue Jays had shipped to Vancouver this year.  The NWL is considered to be a college grad's league, with many of its players getting their first taste of pro ball, and the Blue Jays have always sent a fair contingent of college draftees westward, but the blue-chip quality of players Vancouverites has been used to wasn't there in abundance this year, and the upper tier prospects who were sent there, like Jon Harris, Carl Wise and Lane Thomas, struggled.
   All of this underscores the basic give-and-take of a PDC:  the parent club wants to know their prospects and visiting roving staff will be taken care of; the affiliate wants to know that they can put a quality product, including prospects and the odd rehabbing big name MLBer, on the field.  The last round of agreement expirations in 2014 saw some 20 affiliate changes, one of the largest set of shuffles in some time.  While some agreements (13 in all) have been extended to either 2018 or 2020 since last year, a number will be coming up for renewal this year, including the Blue Jays' PDC's with Buffalo (AAA), Lansing (Low A), and Bluefield (Short Season).  Toronto owns both their High A and rookie franchises in Dunedin, so those relationships will continue until the Blue Jays choose otherwise.
   Will the Blue Jays renew with Buffalo and Lansing?   Certainly, both sides have benefitted.  The Bisons have been in the top 5 in International League attendance every year since they joined forces with Toronto in 2013.  The Blue Jays have had few top prospects spend much time in western New York, but they have fielded veteran teams that have been mostly competitive.  Proximity certainly helps both the Blue Jays grow the brand, and it allows executives (and fans) to make regular trips down the QEW to check the progress of various players.  So, will the partnership continue?  It's hard to see it not, although one would have thought the Bisons had a pretty good thing going with their previous partner, the Mets.  The ties between Toronto and Buffalo, of course, are much stronger, so there's every chance this PDC gets extended to 2018.
   How about the Lugnuts?   This partnership has been very successful, too.  On top of the other factors, the communication between the two sides has been excellent, and that appears to be the most important facet of the relationship.  Having Sanchez, Osuna, and Anthony Alford, along with rehabbers like Brett Lawrie and Stroman have helped.  Lansing plays in a beautiful park, and the team is among the top drawers in the league outside of Dayton.  So that looks like an extension in the making.
   The Blue Jays were rumoured to be supportive of the move of the Binghamton AA Eastern League franchise to Ottawa, which hosted AAA baseball from 1993 to 2007.  Even though they are reportedly quite happy with their current AA affiliation with New Hampshire, it's easy to see why this switch would make sense.  Several ownership groups were interested in buying Binghamton and making the move across the border, but ultimately Ottawa city council balked at footing the bill for upgrades to bring the city-owned Ottawa Stadium up to current MiLB standards.  Sensing that baseball in Ottawa was a no-go, the Blue Jays renewed their agreement with the AA Fisher Cats until 2018.
   Since some clubs have extended their agreements until 2020, the question could be asked if this will happen with Buffalo and/or Lansing.  Even with the all of the player development hirings in Toronto (and at that, we should remember that two mainstays of the Blue Jays minor league operations, Doug Davis and Charlie Wilson, will be staying in their current roles), that may be likely - it all depends on how long boths sides are willing to go for.  A number of teams have re-upped with some of their affiliates until 2020 over the past few months. The Blue Jays are very pleased with both partnerships.  In the case of Buffalo, bullpen reinforcements are only 90 minutes away.
   This whole business of Player Development Contracts may not seem important when compared to moves that impact the 40-man roster (like signing free agents), but it can also be seen as a big part of the player development commitment the club is making.  Having their prospects in locations that are relatively easy to access, with top-notch facilities likely will be an ongoing priority for this regime.