Friday, April 1, 2016

Blue Jays Farm System 2016 Overview

Sean Reid-Foley/Clutchlings Photo

     As spring training winds down, I begin to gear up for another season of minor league baseball.
As someone who grew up playing, coaching, umpiring, and watching the game, I find my heart is still more at the grassroots level; don't get me wrong - I will take your unwanted Blue Jays tickets if you don't want them, but on many summer evenings, you will find me with my laptop open as I watch our beloved Torontos on tv, scrolling through minor league boxscores, or watching Jays affiliates on ($49/yr - the video quality varies).  When the Jays were not competitive  for what seemed an eternity before last season, I was usually far more interested in what was going on in the farm system - with sometimes all seven teams in action on summer nights, there was usually a more interesting story going on than the one that was on tv.
   The minors, to me, bring back memories of the baseball of my youth.  The fans are closer to the action, and generally speaking, the players are much more accessible, be it at the park, or on social media.  When I visited the Phillies minor league contest to watch some games between the Phils and Jays prospects, I had the greatest view in the world - right behind home plate, a place I've never been at a major league game. When spring training games are on Sportsnet or my computer, I'm the guy who waits to watch until the late innings, when all the regulars are out of the game, to watch the minor leaguers I don't get to see a whole lot of.
   I've been following the progress of Blue Jays prospects since the early part of the century, when the internet began to make it increasingly easier.  I've been writing about them since 2013. I'm not a scout or a journalist - I fit somewhere in between.  I do like to evaluate players, and I think my skill in that area continues to be refined from season to season.  My sources of information are my own eyes, whether it be watching live, or (more likely) on my subscription, as well as secondary sources from social media and online sources such as Baseball America.  I will look at a player's stats, but in the lower minors, sample size and context can be an issue, and a player's line can be impacted by things which he has little control over (in the case of pitcher's the defence behind them), so I look at secondary stats walk and strikeout rates, groundball rates, etc.

   The minors are a hierarchy.  Like any such organization, there are plenty of members at the bottom, and progressively fewer as you reach the top.  At any given time, a Major League team will have as many as 150 (or more) players in their minor league systems, but only a fraction of those will ever reach MLB.  Of the 900 players drafted every June, BA found that only about 1 in 6 (17%) of them will make it.  It's said that baseball is a game of failure, and the minors prove that - about no more 5 on any mnor league team, on average, will play even one game in the bigs.  For many, this is their first extended taste of adversity. Some respond to the challenge and up their game, while others don't, and wash out quickly.  Most were stars on their Little League, high school, or college teams.  Even the lowest picks can use the experience of 62nd rounder Mike Piazza, or closer to home,. 32nd round pick Kevin Pillar for motivation.  For those that are released by the Blue Jays, there's the hope that another organization will pick them up - Balbino Fuenmayor was signed with much hype as a 16-year-old in 2006, but was released 7 years later without having played above Low A. Fuenmayor resuscitated his career in independent ball after that, and now is on the verge of making the major leagues with the Royals.  Very few achieve such heights however.

   No other sport has an extensive a system of development as baseball's.  Because MLB players play every day, their skill level is exponentially higher than an amateur's, and it can take 4 or more years for even the highest rated prospects to make it.  As a result, most teams have 6 or 7 minor league teams, as well as an entry in the Dominican Summer League (a similar league existed in Venezuela, until political and economic turmoil there caused MLB teams to pull up stakes last fall).  The minors can be broken up into three distinct levels:  Short Season, Full Season, and the High Minors.  I will explain:

Short Season
   At the end of spring training, more advanced prospects head off to play for one of the four full season teams.  The rest stay behind in Florida for Extended Spring Training, in order to further their baseball educations before Short Season play begins.
   Playing a compressed schedule of about 60 games, Short Season play starts just past mid June, and wraps up by Labour Day, followed by a brief playoff.
   The Dominican Summer League houses prospects from across the Caribbean, most of whom were signed the previous year.  Players are housed in the team's complex, and take English classes, and get proper nutrition and training under one roof.  The schedule runs from late June til late August, with a brief playoff.  With the shuttering of the Venezuelan League, many top players from there will be sent to the Dominican, which may cause problems for teams without adequate space.  It's expected that most teams will have more than one entry in the DSL this summer. Predicting which top prospects will play there is always difficult, especially so for the Blue Jays, who spent most of their bonus pool allotment last year on Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who will probably skip the DSL (this just in.....there's a chance that he even skips the GCL).  Among the names expected to gather some attention are 17 year old Venezuelan OF McGergory Contreras, described as having "ability to hit and show power from the right side from his 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame," Dominican RHP Orlando Pascual, who touched 96 after signing, and Venezuelan RHP Maximo Castillo, who reportedly had a deal in place with the Yankees, but fell through because of an elbow problem, will likely make their pro debuts in the DSL this summer.

  Courtesy of my friends Baseball Betsy and Ross, is some video of Vladdy Jr hitting one out last fall:

...and some video from Chris King from a few weeks ago:

   The lowest level of Short Season play is the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, often known as the Gulf Roast League.  The Blue Jays entry is based out of their minor league complex in Dunedin, and they play other teams similarly based at their team's spring training bases.  Players take to the field at about 10 am for drills and instruction, then play a game under the hot Florida sun at about noon.  The "crowd" in attendance is limited to a few parents, girlfriends, and a handful of locals.  No admission is charged.  This is the first stop on the pro ball train for most players, or the first stop on the stateside line for Dominican and Venezuelan players.  Recent high school draftees and roster-filling free agents help fill out the roster.  Teams are not named for the towns or cities they play in, but for their MLB affiliation - some teams enter more than one team.  A sister league operates in Arizona at the same time.  Both may have an inflated number of teams this year, as many teams will not be able to house all of their Venezuelan players at their Dominican complexes, so many teams may have multiple entries in the GCL.

   The Blue Jays have traditionally not had stronger entries in this league - after all, winning takes a back seat in most minor leagues to development, perhaps most of all in the GCL - but last year was the most successful season in club history, as the team advanced to the championship series. June draftees like Pitchers Justin Maese and Jose Espada, and OF Reggie Pruitt made substantial contributions to the team, which was more of a veteran team than in the past.  SS Kevin Vicuna, OF Noberto Obeso, and Pitchers Jonathon Torres, Juan Meza  and Jairo Rosario may begin 2016 at this level.  For many Caribbean players, this is their first exposure to "Stateside" play, and can be a huge jump competitively and culturally for them.  When many rehabbing Blue Jays are ready to come off the Disabled List and return to action, they begin their return to action under the watchful eyes of team medical staff in the GCL.  Jason Parks, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, wrote an excellent article about the hurdles Caribbean prospects face when they come to America in an essay called, "From the Buscones to the Bus Leagues," and is well worth the read if you come across it.

   The next level of Short Season play is the "under the lights" Advanced Rookie leagues.  The Blue Jays have an entry in Bluefield, WV, in the Appalachian League.  For many players (except those from major college programs, who usually start at a higher level), this is their first extended experience with travel baseball, and playing night games in front of paying spectators.  The crowds are not huge (the Bluefield Jays attracted an average of just over 800 fans per game), but it's the next step in their baseball education. Top prospects don't tend to spend a lot of time in Bluefield, but the team made the 2014 Appy League playoffs. Bluefield is managed by legendary Blue Jays lifer Dennis Holmberg, who has been with the organization since 1979.  It seems like an assignment to Bluefield is entirely dependent on how a prospect fares in Extended Spring Training;  a successful spring seems to result in a skip from the GCL to Vancouver, while a struggling player often only moves up the one rung from the GCL to the Appy League.

  The highest rung on the Short Season ladder is Short Season Class A.  These leagues still play compressed schedules (70 games), and are populated mostly by recent college draftees, and players who have a year or two of pro experience.  The Blue Jays have had a wildly successful affiliation with the Vancouver Canadians of the Northwest League.  The C's captured the Northwest League title in the first three years of their partnership with the Jays, and reached the final in their fourth.  The team missed the playoffs last year for a variety of reasons - some of the prospects who were sent to the Lower Mainland did not fare as expected, and many of the other players sent to Vancouver were more organization guy-types than top prospects.  Again, with development being the focus of minor league teams, the C's run was the exception, not the rule.

   The Blue Jays are quite happy with their affiliation with Vancouver.  Playing in BC gives the players a sample of what life is like in Canada, with our metric system, multi-coloured currency, and other differences from life in America, as well as the experience of going through Customs to play other teams in the League.  Plus, the C's help grow the Blue Jays brand.  After finishing 2nd to Spokane in attendance for the last number of years, after installing a new set of left field bleachers, Vancouver led the NWL last year, averaging almost 6000 fans a game, and setting a new league mark.  If you find yourself on the West Coast, be sure to take in a C's game, and have a craft beer for me.
  It's very hard to put a handle on which prospects will be sent to each level.  Some go one step at a time, while others get skipped if the organization feels they're up to the challenge.  Vancouver should see prospects like Maese, Espada, and Pruitt at some point this summer, and maybe even Pitchers like Guadalupe Chavez.

Full Season
Class A
   Full season leagues are just that - ones that play a schedule similar to a major league team's.  Full season ball starts just a few days after MLB, and ends on Labour Day.  To help keep fan interest up, most leagues have a split season format, which means that the winner of the first half of each division usually meets a second half winner in the first round of an expanded playoff format.  Class A is divided into Low and Advanced A - the Low-A players are often getting their first shot at playing every day, while Advanced A is for players in need of a greater challenge.  Both levels give players a chance to experience extended road trips, and whereas many Short Season players live with a host family, players in Class A are on their own, which brings with it a whole other set of challenges.

  The Blue Jays Low-A affiliate is based in Lansing, MI, in the Midwest League.  It's only a five-hour trip from Toronto, and many Southern Ontario fans make the trek to catch the Lugnuts.  Blue Jays front office exces also make the trip from time-to-time to check up on prospects.  Lansing is also a convenient place for a rehabbing MLBer like a Marcus Stroman or Brett Lawrie to spend a few days in.  Top prospects possibly headed to Lansing include last year's first round pick RHP Jon Harris,,  LHP Angel Perdomo, LHP Evan Smith, IF Lane Thomas and possibly the oft-injured but talented LHP Ryan Borucki, and Toronto native IF Connor Panas.

Connor Panas/Clutchlings Photo

  Toronto's High A affiliate plays at their spring training base in Dunedin, in the Florida State League. Unlike their other minor league teams (save for the GCL Jays), the Blue Jays own the Dunedin Blue Jays.  The Florida State League is a very pitcher-friendly league, as the humid Florida air and the MLB-sized spring training parks the other FSL teams play in help to turn many long balls into warning track outs.  2015 Midwest League MVP Ryan McBroom, C Danny Jansen, RHP Sean Reid-Foley, and Canadian RHP Tom Robson, who came back from Tommy John surgery late last summer, and just hit 97 on the gun in Florida - Robson may be a fast mover this season.
Tom Robson/Clutchlings Photo
   The jump from A to AA can be one of the biggest transitions in the minors.  Up until that point, players can sometimes get by on physical talent alone, but players at this level tend to have a plan.
  Pitchers who could get by on the velocity of their fastball in the lower levels now need some deception, as the hitters at this level can get around on premium velo.  AA pitchers need to have command of their secondary pitches to be able to succeed at this level.
   The Blue Jays have been quite happy with their affiliation with the Eastern League's New Hampshire Fisher Cats, even though their home of Manchester, NH, is in the heart of Red Sox country, as their website would suggest:

  For several years, it was rumoured that several groups were trying to relocate an existing Eastern League franchise to Ottawa.  The nation's capital would be a great fit for the Blue Jays, but city council balked at the price tag to bring RCGT Park up to MiLB standards.  For now, the issue is mostly dead, and the Blue Jays and Fisher Cats have an agreement until 2018, so it's likely to remain so for some time.  
   CF Anthony Alford, 1B Rowdy Tellez, and P Conner Greene will likely be heading to New Hampshire to begin the season.

   More and more, this level has become a holding pen for minor and major league veterans who are only a phone call away in the event of an injury.  Teams now tend to use their Major League and AAA bullpens almost interchangeably - an MLB team's pen is now limited not to the 7 relievers on the 25-man roster, but 4 or 5 arms in AAA as well.  AAA also serves as a sort of finishing school for a few top prospects like Dalton Pompey. The Jays have had a great relationship with Buffalo since 2013.  Its proximity to the GTA means that bullpen help can be summoned in the morning, and arrive in time for a game that night with plenty of time to spare.  The Bisons also benefit from the association with the Blue Jays brand, as many Ontario licence plates can be seen at border crossings prior to a Bisons game.  Many restaurants dot the area around Coca-Cola Field, just a short hop over the Peace Bridge.  At Washington Sqaure Grill, a Cheers-like establishment, dinner and a beverage for two goes for about $20 US.  The Anchor Bar, birthplace of the Buffalo chicken wing, is nearby. The Bisons will be accepting the Canadian dollar at par for tickets and concessions through May 8th. They also will have a cool new alternate cap this year:


  The Bisons will be stocked with veterans this year, but one or more of Alford, Greene, and Tellez may arrive there this summer.  Regardless of who is on the roster, Buffalo is well worth making the trip down the QEW.  Beautiful downtown ballpark, and great value for the money is what it offers.

     How the Minor Leagues Work
   The minor leagues were one time wholly independent entities. They depended on gate receipts ahd the sale of players to make a profit. Babe Ruth became a Red Sox in 1914 because the owner of the team that signed him, the (then) minor league Baltimore Orioles, was in dire straits because of a new Federal League franchise in town.  Branch Rickey was one of the first baseball executives to realize that the minors could be a steady source of players in an MLB team was to find a way to take control of minor league teams, giving birth to the first farm system. As Bill James said:
"The minor leagues did not start out as what they are.  By a long series of actions and agreements, inducements, and rewards, the minor leagues were reduced in tiny degrees from entirely independent sovereignties into vassal states, existing only to serve the needs of major league baseball."
   The minors and majors continued an uneasy alliance for the first half of the last century.  On the one hand, after World War Two, they were prospering, with 448 teams spread over 59 leagues drawing just under 40 million fans.  On the other, MLB teams were gobbling up their minor league brethren at an alarming rate, with fewer and fewer independent teams existing each season.  With the advent of radio (the St Louis Cardinals flagship station, clear-channel KMOX began broadcasting games throught the south and west in the 1950s; many cite this as a major death blow to minor leage ball), the minors began to rapidly shrink in popularity.  Expansion, televsion, and the growth of other sports all spelled the end of the minors as was known for over eight decades.  A renaissance of sorts has occurred over the past two decades, as minor league baseball has seen a re-birth thanks to a spate of new stadiums, and a fun, fan-friendly environment.
  The minors are dependent on the major league club for financial support (the MLB teams pay the salaries of all their affiliated players), while the MLB team needs the minor club to provide an atmosphere that is conducive to player development.
   Minor league players are paid on a scale according to their experience and the level they're at. - they don't make much.  Certainly, players who signed for a bonus aren't hurting financially, but most MiLBers are pretty strapped - they earn less than minimum wage, do not get paid during spring training, and get only a $20/day meal allowance when they're not at home.
   The lifeline between MLB and MiLB teams is the Player Development Contract.  They are renewed in September of even years. A minor league team may opt out on the expiry date if they're not happy with the quality of players they've received; a major league team may do the same if they feel it's not an appropriate environment for their prospects.  The Jays' PDC with all of their teams other than New Hampshire and Dunedin are up for renewal this fall; it's hard to see them making any changes at this point.

   When a player is signed or drafted, the major league team has four or five years (depending on their age) to place them on the team's 40-man roster, or they risk losing them in the Rule 5 draft, which was designed to prevent teams from hoarding minor league talent.  The Rule 5 is a gamble, because the team selecting a player in that draft has to keep him on the major league roster for a full season, or offer him back to his original team for half the $50 000 draft price.  Teams have become adept at finding niche players in this draft, with the Blue Jays Joe Biagini being one.  Biagini had a limited future as a starter, but the Blue Jays felt that putting him in the bullpen and paring his pitch arsenal down would result in more velo and better command.
  In order for a player to be eligible to be called up to the major leagues, he must be placed on the team's 40-man roster first - this often results in other roster moves to make room for him.  Once placed on the 40, a team can option a player to the minors an unlimited number of times for three seasons.  After that, if a team wishes to send a 40-man player to the minors, he must pass through waivers, or a team can designate him for assignment, which gives them 10 days to release, trade, be put on waivers, or outrighted to the minors (if he clears waivers), removing him from the 40-man.

    I regularly write about the goings on in the Blue Jays minor league system.  Often, I know I'm writing about players only a few of us care about, but if you want to know who the next Blue Jays rising star is before your friends, please fill in the box at the top of this page, and weekly (or more often) update emails will show up in your inbox.

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