Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook Vol 4 Ed 2

Tim Mayza - Clutchlings photo

 Another wrap of the goings on in the Blue Jays minor league system for the past week.

Is he or isn't he hurt?
   I wrote last week that top prospect Anthony Alford was injured in a home-plate collision in Dunedin's first game, and that to eyewitnesses the injury did not appear to be all that serious.
   Our first clue that something wasn't right with the prized outfielder came a few days after, when he was placed on the 7-day Disabled List.  Word started to leak out through social media that the injury was more serious than had been first reported.
   D-Jays broadcaster Spence Siegel (@SpenceSiegel) reported on Jesse Goldberg-Strassler's weekly review of the Blue Jays organization "Around the Nest" that the club was seeking a "second opinion," on Alford.  Shi Davidi of Sportsnet divulged a few days later that Alford had undergone ACL surgery in high school, and that the home plate injury may have been knee-related.
   The incident illustrates one of the frustrations of writing about minor league baseball. Injuries are treated like state secrets by teams, and it's hard to fathom just why that is.  Certainly, prospects are always under consideration as currency for trades to upgrade the major league team, so perhaps there's some need to keep that information under wraps, although it's hard in this day and age to think that a team could successfully keep that from the public for any length of time.  Those of us who follow the progress of prospects from afar find it frustrating when a player we've watched for several years basically disappears from the radar, with nary a word about it.
   Emails to several club officials when unanswered, and an inquiry to the D-Jays led to a vague response.  Some of my Twitter followers said that they contacted Alford through social media - this is a route I prefer not to take, because sometimes the prospects are the lowest links on the food chain in these situations, and I would rather not get them into difficulties with the organization.
   Davidi went on to say in his article that the club prefers that Alford rehab his knee, rather than opt for surgery, which is not uncommon for the team in situations where the tear of the ligament in question is not complete.  When Roberto Osuna had a slight tear of his UCL early in 2013, they opted for an ultimately unsuccessful regimen of rest, rehab, and PRP therapy to try to mend the injury.
   So, reading between the lines, we can surmise that the injury to Alford is serious enough to keep him out of the lineup, but not sufficient to undergo surgery (at least in the club's medical staff's opinion).  Either way, it's looking more and more like a lengthy absence for the speedy Mississippian.

The Dunedin Bullpen
   The D-Jays are off to a great start, thanks to a bullpen that gave up only 5 runs over 43 innings through their first 8 games.  It truly is one of the deepest pens in the system, featuring arms lik Adonys Cardona, converted OF Carlos Ramirez, Matt Dermody, Tim Mayza, Jose Fernandez, Alonzo Gonzalez, and Chris Rowley.  There's a good balance between left and right handers in this mix, and if Dunedin starters can make it to the 5th inning with a lead, there's a good chance that this group will preserve the win.   There may not be a lot of value in relievers at the lower levels of the minors, but this could prove to be one of the better groups this team has had in the bullpen at High A in some time.
    Command may be an issue from time to time, as the bullpen issued 14 walks over 5 innings on Sunday.

Jordan Romano Update
   The Markham native missed all of last year as a result of Tommy John surgery.  The 10th round pick out of Oral Roberts in 2014 has been pitching in extended spring training, and reports that he's hit 95 with his fastball, and is sitting 92-94 in his return.  He was pleasantly surprised by his command, as well, noting, "Honestly everything is back to normal. Thrown 4 innings, and issued 1 walk."
   Romano struck out almost 12 batters per 9 innings pitching out of Bluefield's pen in 2014, limiting Appy League hitters to a .209 average.  He is getting closer to returning to game action, but it will be interesting to see where he lands this season.  The organization's preference is to keep rehabbing prospects in Dunedin, but there may not be space for him.  Romano may start in the GCL, then quickly move to Vancouver.
   Another good arm for an organization that is stockpiling them at the lower levels.

Kevin Pillar and Pitch Recognition
   I'm straying from my usual focus in writing about a Major Leaguer, but I've always been a huge fan of Pillar's.
    Lightly recruited in high school, Pillar attended Division 2 Cal State Dominguez, where his high school baseball coach had landed as job as an assistant coach.  The gritty Pillar knew only one way to play the game, according to an article in the L.A. Daily News - full out:
“We had a saying: ‘Game Speed,’ ” said Murphy Su’a, then the Toros’ baseball coach. “That’s the way we wanted to do everything. Kevin was at the forefront of that.” 
   Pillar broke his foot in his sophomore year.  In batting practice, when he collided with the centerfield wall.  And he didn't leave the field.

   Much of the rest of Pillar's history is well known:  an NCAA record 54-game hitting streak in his junior year still didn't garner much attention, and he lasted until the 32nd round of the 2011 draft.
Sent to Bluefield to start his pro career,  Pillar won the Appalachian League batting title in 2011.  Just wait until he gets to the next level, some said - his limitations will be exposed.  Skipping Vancouver, Pillar spent only a half season with Lansing in 2012, but observers there saw enough to name him the Midwest League's MVP.  Still, the best projection most evaluators could bestow on him was, "overachieving, Reed Johnson-type fourth outfielder."

   Despite the detractors, Pillar made his MLB debut in 2013, and played a vital role in the ending the Blue Jays' 22-year playoff drought in 2015.  He got to the majors to stay through a combination of athleticism, high baseball IQ, and a never-say-die attitude.
   That aggressiveness, of course, can be a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, it allows Pillar to make incredible, highlight-reel catches.  On the other, perhaps because he's had to fight for pretty much everything he's accomplished in baseball, Pillar is not content to be a patient pitch hunter.  As a result, he tends to put himself in pitcher's counts.  His average exit velocity ranked 715th among all MLB players last year, and only 5 players swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone last year.  Those two facts don't add up to being in a hitter's count much of the time.
   Pillar's walk rates have consistently hovered at around 5% throughout his time in the minors and the majors.  He's a volume hitter, however - he could post higher OBP and batting averages in minor league baseball, because the pitchers there lacked command, and Pillar could sit back and wait to hammer the occasional cookie delivered into his wheelhouse.  At the major league level, where pitchers can command their arsenal of pitches better, Pillar's aggressiveness at the plate has been something of an impediment.
   Manager John Gibbons showed great faith in placing Pillar atop the Blue Jays batting order this season, but that faith was not rewarded.  Pillar suggested to the Toronto media that his pitch selection might be improved in the leadoff role, but such has proven not to be the case over the first half month of the season.  And maybe it wasn't fair to put him in that role - not just because analytics suggest that a player with his skill set would be better suited to the bottom of the order, where his speed could be more of a factor in putting him in scoring position ahead of a singles hitter like Ryan Goins, but also because for years, Pillar has known only one approach at the plate:  see the ball, hit the ball - put the ball in play, and make the defence get him out.   It may be too late for him to drastically change that.  Just as a generation of Dominican prospects grew up with the mantra, "you can\t walk your way off the island," the same may have held true for Pillar's generation of D2 players.

   If you felt so obliged, you can enter your email address near the top of this page to receive these and other Blue Jays prospect updates without having to search for them.  Later this week, I'll be posting about RHP Jeremy Gabryszwski, who is pitching for New Hampshire this year.  Never considered a top prospect, he gives up contact, but has managed to get hitters out at every level.  For daily updates about all things Blue Jays prospects, follow me on Twitter:  @Clutchlings77.

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