Monday, April 11, 2016

Minor League Notebook Vol.4 Ed.1

Phil Kish
Phil Kish/ photo
   The crummy April weather that has had most Southern Ontarians (especially the ones in my household) grumbling this past week also wreaked havoc on the minor league baseball in much of the northeastern section of the U.S.
   Buffalo, New Hampshire, and Lansing all had their season openers postponed by weather more conducive to cross country skiing than baseball.

Notes from Dunedin

   Dunedin did get their season underway, of course, and there was news to report right from the hop on Opening Day.  Conner Greene, who has popped up on the Toronto media's radar, started for the D-Jays, and while he struggled with his command through the early innings, he pitched well over 5 innings.  
  He did catch too much of the strike zone on a 2nd inning Home Run, but overall impressed:

   I did utter a curse when my good internet friend @BaseballBetsy DM'd me to say that Anthony Alford was taken out of the game after a home plate collision, but later we learned that he was only spiked, but was placed on the 7-day DL on Sunday. Word is that the injury is not that serious, but Alford will need a little time to recover.

   Chris King also had some nice things to say about C Danny Jansen, who I've lauded for his defensive skills for some time now:

   For a big kid (6'2", 230), Jansen moves well behind the plate, and can set up a nice target low in the strike zone.  He's already a good pitch framer, and his handling of pitchers has been praised since rookie ball.
    Many eyebrows were raised when both Greene and Alford were sent to High A; both had impressed at big league camp, and while Greene had finished at AA, Alford was outstanding in half a season at High A.  But last year was their first in full season ball, as Blue Jays MiLB field co-ordinator Doug Davis pointed out in the link above, and the pair still need reps.  Just the same, unless they take drastic steps backward in their development, the pair should be in New Hampshire by June.

Jon Harris: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
   The Blue Jays 1st round pick in 2015 is the only 1st rounder in Lansing's lineup at the moment.
He struggled at times last year with Vancouver in his pro debut, although there were some shining moments.  Harris was fatigued after a lengthy college season, and all indications were that he was good to go this spring.

The Good
   Harris did not make it out of the first inning on this cold, windy April day in Midland, MI.  The Lugnuts had their home opener postponed by rain and snow, as well as the game the next day, so this proved to be their first game of the season.
   So, it might not be easy to find anything good to say about his 37-pitch, 2/3 of an inning performance, but there were some positives.  Harris hit 94 with his fastball on a day that would have been tough to get loose, and his breaking ball showed considerable depth.  He struck out the first batter on a breaking ball that dove sharply for the outer part of the plate, and struck out another batter later in the inning with a similar pitch.

The Bad
  Harris lasted 8 batters before having hit his pitch limit.  He walked the last four batters he faced before being pulled.

The Ugly
   Harris, at 6'6", has a lot of moving parts to his delivery, and can lose the strike zone when he rushes his windup, which he did often in this outing.  When he did so, he tended to land on his front foot too early, and did a bit of a stutter step fall off to the 1st Base side of the mound.  He had considerable difficulty repeating the delivery that featured a longer step, as the walks and 18 strikes he threw on the day demonstrated, but when he did, he was more successful in keeping the ball down and hitting his spots.

   Despite not getting out of the first inning, there's not a great deal to be concerned about Harris just yet.  He was squeezed a bit on two of the walks, and a bloop opposite-field double on what looked like it was about to be a lovely outside corner strike three changed the complexion of the inning. There was only one ball hit hard off of Harris, and the cold weather no doubt made things difficult for him, and made it difficult for him to make adjustments.
   Surprisingly, these were not the chilliest conditions he had ever pitched in:

Three Returning Arms
   Three Blue Jays minor league pitchers made their return to action with Dunedin over the past few days.
   Adonys Cardona signed for a $2.8 million bonus as an international free agent in 2010, but has had difficulties both staying healthy and finding the strike zone.  Promoted to Lansing in 2014, Cardona felt something snap in a game, and was diagnosed afterward to have broken the olecranon bone, which is the bony point on the elbow.
   Fully recovered, reports from Florida this spring said that Cardona was throwing an "easy 95, with the heaviest fastball you'll see."  100 weeks after his injury, he was back in action, throwing a scoreless inning for Dunedin on Friday.

   After allowing only an unearned run on 4 hits over 6 innings to the Pirates GCL entry on August 13th, 2013, Chris Rowley got into a trainer's car and headed to the airport, off to fulfill his commitment to the US Military. The undrafted free agent spent the next couple of years serving his country, which included a deployment to Eastern Europe.  He did not give up on his baseball dreams, however, even keeping up a regular throwing program with the company medic.  Rowley applied for an exemption to the remainder of his five-year obligation last May, and received it in October.
   Rowley returned to baseball action with Dunedin this weekend as well, 32 months since his last professional pitch.  He's had a pair of scoreless outings for the D-Jays, the most recent being a 2.1 inning stint.  He's yet to give up a run.

 LHP Ryan Borucki was taken in the 15th round of the 2012 draft.  He was one of those rolls of the dice by Toronto, overlooked because of concerns about his pitching arm.
   He pitched in the GCL in his draft year, but underwent Tommy John surgery in March of 2013.  A year later, he pitched very well in short season ball, ranking as the Appalachian League's 12th Top Prospect in Baseball America's ratings despite spending only half a season there:
Borucki’s fastball was 90-94 early in the season and sat 88-92, touching 94 later in the season. He relies on his two-seamer that has at least average sink and arm-side run. Borucki demonstrates advanced feel for a changeup with plus potential. His curveball is a below-average to fringe-average offering, and Borucki could begin throwing a slider this offseason. He has a starter’s build at a lanky 6-foot-4 with a high waist and significant projection remaining.

    The organization has long been a fan of his makeup and advanced feel for pitching.  Coming into 2015, he seemed destined for full season ball, but tendinitis in his throwing arm caused him to be shut down, He was limited to an early July inning in the GCL last year, and 5 in the Northwest League before his season ended in late July.
   The Blue Jays opted to keep Borucki in Florida and assigned him to Dunedin so that the medical staff could closely monitor him.  In his first competition in almost 9 months, Borucki was hammered by Clearwater on Saturday, surrendering 8 runs on 9 hits before reaching his pitch limit with one out in the 5th.  An observer at the game said that he was hit hard.  A silver lining would have to be the 7 groundouts Borucki recorded.
     It's only one start, but the road ahead for Borucki is long.

Saying Good-bye
   Phil Kish played mostly short stop in high school for New Smyrna Beach (FL) High, and headed off to play for Daytona State College as a pitcher.  After a year, he transferred to West Florida, but saw limited action due to inflammation in his throwing arm.  Kish then got in touch with the coach at Southeastern University, an NAIA school in Lakeland, who had recruited him in high school.  The coach told Kish that his starting rotation was full, but he did have need of bullpen arms.  Kish went on to set the NAIA all-time saves record with 44 in his four years with Southeastern, and graduated with a finance and accounting degree.
   Because he was from an NAIA school, Kish was lightly scouted, and wasn't drafted when he graduated in 2013; his age (24) deterred scouts as well.  The Blue Jays have proven adept over the last number of years at unearthing that kind of hidden talent, and signed Kish after the draft, and sent him to the GCL, where the younger hitters were no match for him.
   Kish skipped the rest of the short season levels and was assigned to Lansing to start 2014.  He pitched well in the back end of the bullpen on a young Lugnuts team that didn't provide a lot of save opportunities.  Kish was shipped to Vancouver in August of that year to help the C's in their pursuit of a fourth consecutive NWL title, and saved 9 games in as many opportunities as Vancouver's title dreams just fell short.
   Kish's 2015 did not go as well as he had hoped.  Opening the season with Lansing, he spent some time in Dunedin before finishing the season with the Lugnuts.  A pair of stints on the 7-Day minor league DL, as well as some inconsistency with his mechanics caused Kish to be hit fairly hard in 2015.  By October, he was ready to put the season behind him and resume his internship with the accounting firm Ernst and Young, where he started in the auditing department the previous off season. "They have been working with me by being flexible with my start date," he said last fall. Much to Kish's surprise, he received a call from the Blue Jays, inviting him to spend a winter with Canberra of the Australian Baseball League.
   Kish jumped at the chance, and after a few rough outings at the start of his Aussie career, pitched well over the rest of the season, which concluded at the end of January.  Reporting to the Jays minor league camp at the beginning of March, the clock was ticking loudly for Kish, who will turn 27 in August.  The Blue Jays gave him his unconditional release at the end of the month, which is not surprising - top draft picks, who the organization lavished huge signing bonuses upon, tend to get far more chances and time to prove themselves than non-drafted free agents.
   Picking a highlight of his time in the Jays organization was tough, but Kish listed playoff runs and spending some time living in Vancouver as times he'll always remember.
   Phil likely considered giving independent ball a try after his release, but with an offer waiting for him from Ernst and Young, he decided to hang up his cleats.  Unlike a lot of other minor league ball players who reach the end of the line, Kish had a good backup plan, and had already started laying the groundwork for his life beyond baseball during his playing days.
   We wish him all the best with his new career.

Random Scouting Reports
   When you scan your Tweetdeck timeline as regularly as I do, you come across some good scouting nuggets.  CJ Wittman, who has filed scouting reports for Baseball Prospectus and, tweeted some notes from spring training:

   Lizardo had received positive reviews in 2014, but struggled in his first season of stateside ball last year.  Wittman also praised Lizardo's baseball IQ and approach at the plate. He will start in Vancouver or Bluefield, but is worth keeping tabs on. Only 19, there's plenty of development time ahead of him.

  A 6th round pick from Puerto Rico last year, Espada pitched well in the GCL, and should reach Vancouver this year.

  In the "if he ever finds the plate" department, you will find reliever Jose.  The July, 2013 IFA has hit triple digits with his fastball in the past.  He has struck out over a batter per inning so far in his young career.  Bluefield should be where he starts, Vancouver where he finishes.

   The 18-year-old Venezuelan was the 30th-ranked IFA by BA two years ago.  He played in the DSL this year, and will most likely start in the GCL once short season play begins.

   Meza was the 10th-ranked IFA in 2014.  He pitched in the DSL last summer, and made a brief appearance at the end of the GCL season.  Will likely repeat the GCL to start, but could move quickly.  The velocity may seem to be a bit low, but Wittmann pointed out in a subsequent tweet that it was still relatively early in spring training.

The Gabe Noyalis Story Continues
  I wrote about Noyalis last fall.  He walked away from college ball several years ago, but found an outlet in weightlifting.  The lifting resulted in new life on his fastball, which he discovered when he was asked to pitch batting practice for his former high school team before an upcoming playoff game.
  Encouraged by the uptick in velo, Noyalis began throwing in his gym's basement. He was scouted by the Braves and Phillies before being signed by Blue Jays scout Matt Anderson, his 7th Grade basketball coach.  Noyalis was up to 95 last fall.
  I caught up to him this spring, and he reported that he was working on his change and slider.  I asked him if the club had given him any indication where he would start the season, and he responded:
Not too sure yet, they haven't really said anything besides I have to make a club and they just started working on me on tweaks and things like that after watching me for a while and seeing what I have so I think it'll depend on how fast I can progress with the tweaks and everything they make with my.. Also I'd like to get my arm stretched out more I was 90-93 first outing 92-95 2nd outing and today 90-93 again I'd like to see those numbers creep up a little more and sit around 94 eventually.. Definitely feeling confident in the change up and slider at the moment and as a 1 inning guy I'll only need those 3 pitches and just bag the curve
   A week later, he reported that he would be kept in Florida for extended spring training:  "Yeah I'm not upset about it I figured they'd keep me in extended since I haven't played since 2012 so it makes sense and I just want to get better."   When asked what he was working on, he said, " mechanical things, throwing a slider, only going from the stretch.. Things like that, plus just getting my body adjusted to the grind of playing everyday."

   Noyalis should start in the GCL this year.


  This is a labour of love for me, reflective of my long involvement in the grassroots level of the game.  As I stood behind the backstop of one of the minor league fields at the Phillies spring training complex last month, watching as they played the Jays High A and AA teams, I was taken back to my youth.  Growing up in Midland, Ontario, a small town on Georgian Bay 90 minutes north of Toronto, I spent many a summer night in the same position as our town's local senior men's team, the Indians, took to the field.  On game nights, the crowd would slowly file in. Seniors with lawn chairs would occupy spots behind the home plate screen along the 1st base (Home) side, and the bleachers behind would slowly fill up with fans.  The 3rd base stands behind the Visitor's bench would be sparsely populated.  The sportscaster for the local radio station, 1230 CKMP, would set up his equipment on a little swing-up shelf on the screen directly behind home plate. The smell of hand cut french fries from a little kiosk behind the backstop run by John Deakos, who operated a larger chip stand in nearby Little Lake Park, wafted through the pre-game warmups.  I would stand with my friends somewhere between there and the radio man, watching the game, and dreaming of the day I could patrol center field for my hometown nine one day.
   The team, unfortunately, folded the year I graduated from Midland's minor baseball system, because the field was left unplayable when our ancient arena beside it burned to the ground one summer night.
   Because this is a labour of love, if you were to follow me on Twitter (@Clutchlings77), like my Facebook page, or click on some ads when you read this blog, that would help, in small part, fund my writing and research efforts.

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