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.
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