Thursday, June 30, 2016

Blue Jays Minor League Notebook - Short Season and Other Updates

Connor Panas - Clutchlings photo

 As summer approaches, times become truly busy for a minor league baseball blogger, and this humble scribe is no exception.

   Play began in the rookie level Appalachian League this past week.  With all the buzz surrounding the pro debut of Vladimir Guerrero Jr, here's a look at one of the behind-the-scenes people who help bring the far flung Appy League action to us.
   Bailey Angle is the Bluefield Jays broadaster this year.  The team usually brings in a local broadcast journalism student to run the media side of things, and Angle is the latest in a long line of (somewhat) local j-schoolers to fill the roll.
    Angle is heading into his senior year at Virginia Tech in their multimedia journalism program, and has interned with IMG College, one of America's leading collegiate sports marketing companies. Angle is the voice of VT softball.  He has also called college basketball, soccer, and baseball.
   Growing up in New Kent, VA, not far from Richmond, Angle grew up a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan. When he was 8 or 9, Bailey's father took him to a Steelers game.  On the drive home, he heard the voice of legendary broadcaster Myron Cope, and was hooked.  "He had such a grip on the people of the city and was incredibly passionate about the Steelers and sports in general despite not playing them himself," says Angle. "I just thought that was really cool how he could be a part of these huge moments in sports even when he wasn't on the field, but in the booth."
   He became aware of the opening in Bluefield when fellow IMG intern and VT student Danny Nokes, who called the Jays games last year, accepted a similar position with the Yankees Pulaski affiliate.  Angle sent an email to Bluefield Jays GM Jeff Gray, was granted an interview, and received a job offer a few weeks later.
   Calling the Jays game is only a small part of Angle's duties.  His official title is head of media relations, with responsibilities that include broadcasting, writing game re-caps, and setting up interviews with local media outlets.  In minor league baseball, however, staff are jacks-of-all-trades, pitching in with whatever tasks need to be done.  This week, in advance of the club's annual "Meet the Jays" picnic, Angle was driving around Bluefield, scouring grocery stores for gallon cans of vanilla pudding.  He's learned a lot already in his short time on the job.
   Angle lists his one of his biggest career highlights so far is being ranked the 13th best collegiate sportscaster by the Sportscasters Talent Agency of America:  " It was a tremendous honour and just an awesome experience to see my name on a list of so many talented broadcasters."  As far as broadcasting highlights are concerned, travelling with the Virginia Tech softball team, and calling the 2015 NCAA and 2016 ACC tournaments lead the way for Angle.
   Able says his ultimate goal is to land a job as the lead voice of a college or pro sports franchise, or work for a network one day as a play-by-play broadcaster.  For now, he's focused on the short term:  "'I'm hoping that I improve a ton during my time in Bluefield and can take what I gain from here wherever I go in the future."

Vladdy Jr
   Family commitments and some audio difficulties with Bluefield's opening night audio feed meant that I was only able to get some snippets of how the star attraction fared over his first pro weekend, but I get the sense he displayed two things that will dominate the discussion over his future in the coming years:  his prodigious power, and where will he play?
   With his famous dad in attendance, Vlad Jr belted a pair of homers over the weekend, and committed a pair of fielding and a deuce of throwing errors.
   It's way too early to end the Vladdy at 3rd experiment, but he did show that he has miles to go before he can be considered even an adequate hot corner glove.  Of greater concern has to be his weight - he has a great distance to go in transforming his body, too, and hopefully the new sport science department in he Blue Jays administration has already started this process.  Pictures of Jr with dad posted over the weekend show that he's always been on the portly side.  Ultimately, that doesn't matter, nor does his ultimate position matter, because his bat will play, but one hopes that Vladdy will take his condition and agility seriously.
   The hype machine in on full throttle with this young prospect, but he has a learning curve ahead of him, and while it won't be a surprise to see him in Vancouver by summer's end, let's temper expectations a bit.  Very few MLBers don't have to deal with some adversity in their minor league careers, and he should be no exception.  Let's follow his progress with interest, but let's also give him some time.
   ICYMI, here's his first pro homer:

The C's coming soon to a streaming site near you?
   The Vancouver Canadians are truly one of minor league baseball's biggest success stories.
Thanks to new left field bleacher seating, they led the Northwest League in attendance last year, averaging just under 6 000 fans per game.  Lower mainlanders may be saddled with some of the highest housing prices in the country, but there's a lot to be said about a summer lifestyle that includes coming home from work to catch the last half of the Jays game on tv, then heading to the Nat to watch a C's game, while sipping on a Granville Island craft beer.
   The C's have a partnership with Shaw TV, a western Canada cable giant, to broadcast 6 Saturday night home games across the cable network.  Viewers from Victoria to Sault Ste Marie can tune in to watch the games.  The rest of us, whether we are subscribers and/or Eastern Canadians, are out of luck for the time being.
   Few short season teams have their games televised and streamed; the demand often just isn't there.  Hillsboro, the Angels NWL affiliate, does stream their games on, and produce a fairly good quality broadcast.
   Rob Fai, the C's media head, says that things were lined up a few years ago to stream C's home games on the minor league website service, but border issues apparently proved to be an issue.  He wasn't able to give an indication if that will change anytime soon.
   So, some of us will have to wait until Vancouver visits Hillsboro, or hope that suburban Vancouver relatives might let us see if their password/login would work on Shaw's mobile app.  Not that I would personally advocate such a thing, of course.

Blue Jays dip into the services again
   By and large, players at America's service academies are usually not considered top prospects.
   Baseball is not necessarily the reason they're attending their respective schools, and then there's the spectre of a looming commitment.  Still, always ones to roll the dice during the Anthopoulos team, the Blue Jays have selected players from the Air Force (C Garrett Custons, 10th round, 2013), the U.S. Military Academy (P Chris Rowley, undrafted 2013), and the U.S. Naval Academy (OF Alex Azor, 10th, 2012) in an attempt to find a nugget while filling out minor league rosters.
   Athletes who wish to forego their service commitment in order to advance their pro careers can apply for an exemption, the most famous of which was basketball star David Robinson.  Rowley applied for and received his exemption last fall, and has resumed his career with Dunedin, while Custons and Azor have not.
   Toronto dipped into the Naval Academy again earlier this month when they chose LHP Luke Gillingham.  The 37th rounder is not considered a top prospect both because of his upcoming commitment and a fastball that doesn't top 90, but the club feels there is room for projection, and he has had positive reviews for his pitchability, his command, and an apparent uptick in velocity.
   Gillingham will start the year in Bluefield, and while he may be gone before the season ends (academy grads have 60 days to report for duty after graduation), it's always interesting to see how these stories unfold.

GCL Jays Open Season
   The lowest rung on the stateside ladder, the Gulf Coast League does not get much attention, except from scouts and a few hardy prospectors.
   If baseball's system of development resembles a pyramid, the GCL is firmly on the bottom row.
   Last year's GCL Jays squad was the most successful edition in club history (they were a little heavier with college players than usual), and will be a tough act to follow this year.
   A few names on the roster were surprising, because they had played in the GCL last year.
Among the names are LHP Travis Bergen, who struck out 11 in only 5 innings for Vancouver last year before being shut down.  His presence in Florida to start his second pro season may be an indication that he's working through an injury, and he's likely being kept there as a precaution.
  RHPs Lupe Chavez and Juan Meza were prized IFA signings out of Mexico and Venezueal, respectively, in 2014, and both spent time stateside at the end of their rookie seasons last year.  Neither may be there for long, although this seems to fit the pattern of pumping the developmental brakes on top pitching prospects that the club showed with some of their full-season assignments.  LHP Miguel Burgos spent all of last season with Bluefield, so starting him back in the GCL may indicate some injury issues, too.
   C Owen Spiwak would have merited a promotion to Bluefield too, one would have thought.  The Mississauga native hit .293/.337/.329 for the GCL Jays after being selected in the 10th round last year.  He split time with 2014 4th rounder Matt Morgan last year, and that may explain his return to the GCL.  The club has more invested in Morgan, and even though he has been a disappointment with the bat in his first two pro seasons, the club may be trying to accelerate his development after two years in the GCL.
   In addition to 2016 2nd rounder IF Bo Bichette, SS Kevin Vicuna, another 2014 IFA, is a player to watch.  Of Norberto Obeso hit .351 and drew an amazing 58 walks in 71 games in the DSL last year, and it will be interesting to see if his power develops.
   Ist round pick T.J Zeuch has also been added to the roster, but that may be because he hasn't pitched since May, and the club may want to monitor him while building him up before shipping him out to Vancouver.

In Praise of Pentecost
   A regular reader of this blog (and prolific Tweeter) had been critical of the 2014 1st rounder a few weeks ago, because after a hot start, his batting average had dipped to as low as .255
   I won't mention names, but I took that particular Tweep to task, because of all the metrics by which to evaluate minor league hitters, batting average may be the least effective.
   Blue Jays minor league instructor Steve Springer calls batting average, "the biggest trap in baseball."
   If the goal of every hitter is to get on base, Pentecost is accomplishing that in spades in his first pro action in almost two years.  He's in the midst of a 21-game on base streak for Lansing, and has been getting on base at a .362 clip since his return in May.
   What we tend to forget sometimes is that while they keep score, development trumps winning for much of the minor league season.  Hitters are often implementing new tweaks to their swing in minor league games, which to may explain and 0-fer stretch.  Pentecost certainly had to make some adjustments, but even when his average dipped, he was seeing lots of pitches and getting on base.
   Here's a double he hit earlier this month.  Note the quick hands, and how he the speedy Pentecost reaches 2nd long before the throw has come in from the outfield.  This guy is an athlete:

The promotions of Jason Leblebijian and Derrick Loveless created some domino-effect like openings at the lower levels.  Lansing OF Josh Almonte was sent to Dunedin to take Loveless' place, and Vancouver OF Juan Tejada moved up to take Almonte's.  Lansing IF Gunner Heidt moved up to Dunedin to fill Lebelbijian's spot.
   Two weeks ago, P Sean Reid-Foley and P Conner Greene were elevated to Dunedin and New Hampshire, respectively.  Neither were thrilled with repeating this year, but it's hard to argue with the results.
It will be interesting to see if either Angel Perdomo, who struck out 12 in six innings in his last start, or Jon Harris gets the nod to take Greene's spot in the D-Jays rotation, joining former Lansing teammate Francisco Rios, who was named to the Futures Game roster this week.

Connor Panas
   Yet another GTA product is heating up with Lansing.
I liked what I saw of his compact, but powerful swing in spring training, but he had not put things together until the past few weeks.
He's homered in 4 straight games, 5 of his last 6, and 6 of his last 10, hitting .378 over that stretch.  His 9 round trippers have him just one off the Midwest League lead.  One of this shots this week was measured at 447 feet.
The play of Panas has moved Juan Kelly over to 3rd, and has added a potent bat to the Lugnuts' lineup.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Look at the Bluefield and GCL Blue Jays

YouTube photo
  With short season play started in the Domincan Summer League two weeks ago, and the Northwest League last week, play in the remaining summer rookie ball loops is set to get underway later this week.

   The Bluefield Blue Jays, a Jays affiliate since 2011, compete in the Appalachian League.  The Appy League is a grouping of clubs in the Virginias, North Carolina, and Tennessee.  Bluefield itself has a long minor league history, inlcuding a lengthy affiliation with the Orioles.  The Blue Jays/Bluefield Player Development Contract comes up for renewal after the season, but indications are that the relationship will continue.

   The Appy League is the first taste of extended "under the lights" play for prospects:  their first time having to deal with the rigors of playing every day, travelling, and playing for crowds larger than the handfuls found at Gulf Coast League games, although  Appy League games rarely draw more than 1000 spectators.

   The centrepiece of this year's edition of the Bluefield Jays figures 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.  The top international prospect last year, even at 17 and with a position switch from the outfield, the organization feels that he is mature enough both competitively and emotionally to skip the GCL.
   The rest of the Bluefield roster is kind of thin when it comes to prospects.  OF Reggie Pruitt, a 24th round choice last year whose stock fell because of a college committment, is toolsy but raw.  He started well in the GCL last year, but tailed off as the summer progressed.
  P Jose Espada, a 6th round choice out of Puerto Rico last year, impressed in the GCL, and should be a mainstay in the Bluefield rotation.  RP Kelyn Jose, who hits triple digits with his fastball but has had his share of control issues, is an intriguing arm to watch. RHP Yennsy Diaz pitched in the DSL and the GCL last year, and it another prospect worth keeping tabs on.  C Matt Morgan, a highly-regarded 4th rounder two years ago, has progressed defensively, but his bat has held his development back.
   The GCL Jays had a roster with more college players than usual on it, and several of them will be making the move to Bluefield.  This should make the team more competitive than last year's 25-42 club. Nothing will be official for another day or so, but we can place several players on their roster by a process of elimination.
   2nd rounder Florida HS SS Bo Bichette will start the season in the GCL, and will be an interesting follow.  He profiles as a possible impact bat, but is unlikely to stay at short.  He does not get cheated on his swings:

   The process for draftees is for them to report to the Blue Jays Dunedin complex after signing, and the club makes an evaluation soon after where they will start the season. Toronto's other 2nd round choice this month, OF J.B. Woodman, has already shipped out to Vancouver. For now, 1st rounder P T.J. Zeuch appears to be in Florida, but his stay there may be brief.  The club tends to hang onto pitchers a little longer, usually for mechanics-related reasons.  Tweaking means a short stay, while an overhaul usually means a longer one.
   Other prospects likely to start with the GCL Jays include SS Kevin Vicuna, P Lupe Sanchez, and OF Norberto Obeso, who put up a line of .351/.469/.429 in the DSL at the age of 19 last summer.

   I hate to cut this post short, but I'm in the midst of making some travel plans for the first week of July.  I leave you with some Bluefield video:

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook Mid Season Edition

Jordan Romano/Lansing Lugnuts photo

The MLB draft, Dominican Summer League action already well underway, short season rosters are taking shape the return of Jordan Romano, and some mid-season promotions head up a busy edition of the notebook.....

The Draft
Given the gestation period of 3 to 5 years for most MLB draftees, we really can't fully evaluate this one until 2019 at the earliest.  And although the team will be limited to bonuses of no more than $300K during this year's international free agent signing period after going over cap to sign Vladimir Guerrero Jr last year, you have to keep in mind that the draft is just one method of acquiring players.

  It is interesting to see the apparent change in drafting philosophy in this the first draft of the Mark Shapiro/Ross Atkins regime.  After going all in on high school arms under previous GM Alex Anthopoulos, the Jays took three college position players in the first 5 rounds of the draft, and they did not select a high school pitcher with one of their top 10 round picks since the J.P. Ricciardi era.

  It's hard to say if this apparent paradigm shift is a long term development, or just reflective of this year's draft crop.  The former regime valued projection above all else, and while the success of that strategy can be debated, one thing is certain: the trading spree that saw Anthopoulos deal almost 20 prospects in less than a year has emptied the system of much of its upper level talent, and that as much as anything may have dictated this year's draft strategy.  Any deadline dealing this year will be limited by the lack of depth in the system, and the club likely viewed this year as an opportunity to quickly re-stock.  A review of the Indians' approach over the last few years shows some flexibility from year to year.  Blue Jays director of amateur scouting Brian Parker was pleased with the haul the club landed, telling
"I think we got a good mix .We got some position players up high -- three of our first five picks were position players. I think [J.B.] Woodman is at a premium position in center field, Bo Bichette is an up-the-middle infielder, [Joshua] Palacios from Auburn can play all three outfield spots."

   The top pick, Pitt RHP T.J. Zeuch, had been linked to the Jays in the last few weeks heading into the draft, and other than his college background, fits that long, lean, and athletic profile the team covets in pitchers.  Baseball America is bullish on the main Zeuch's main components:
 Zeuch's best pitch is his fastball, which sits at 92-94 and sometimes touches higher. Zeuch's extra large, 6-foot-7 frame allows him to generate solid extension towards home plate, making his pitches even more difficult for hitters to pick up out of his hand. His fastball also shows both sink and arm-side run, making it an effective ground ball-inducing pitch.
  His secondaries are a different matter, rating as fringe-average among most scouts, and will determine his ultimate future.  You can bet that he will be given every opportunity to make it as a starter, and Zeuch should head west to Vancouver once he signs. Slot value for this pick is just under $2.3 million, and early reports indicate that a deal may be close at hand.

   Mississippi OF J.B. Woodman, taken with the 57th pick as compensation for failing to come to terms with Florida HS P Brady Singer last year, checks a lot of boxes as an athletic outfielder who is projected to stay in CF.  The second of the club's 2nd round picks was Florida HS SS Bo Bichette, son of former MLB OF Dante Bichette.  Atkins was ecstatic to land the toolsy Bichette, telling Sportsnet's Shi Davidi:
“You always have the outlier in the evaluation where someone is going to be lower, but with him it was unanimous that our evaluators felt like if he was still around for us at that round, we would be absolutely elated,” said Atkins. “The ability to hit, the athleticism, the pedigree, the drive, the passion, it was really our scouts’ evaluations that we really liked as an organization.”
  BA was very impressed with Bichette's hit tool:
Bichette shows a mature approach at the plate and plus power. The righthanded hitter has exceptionally fast hands, allowing him to whip the bat through the zone and drive the ball. His swing includes a deep load and an exaggerated back elbow swoop, but his bat works through the zone well and he controlled at-bats against elite competition on the showcase circuit.   
  A throwback to the projection era was the selection of 3rd rounder Zach Jackson from Arkansas, who has reportedly come to terms with the club.  Jackson misses bats and the strike zone with almost equal frequency, but the organization is apparently going to give him an opportunity to have a trial as a starter.

Dominican Summer League
     Play in the Dominican Summer League began this week.   Founded in 1985, it houses international free agent signees at teams' minor league complexes in the Dominican Republic.  Teams play a 72-game schedule, followed by an abbreviated playoff season.  With the political unrest in Venezuela, that country's summer league has been shuttered, and teams have moved to the Dominican, resulting in a record-number (42) of teams (some MLB clubs have multiple entries) taking part in the league this season.
   This is the absolute lowest rung on the professional baseball ladder, and the average age of the league is typically just over 18.  IFA's can be signed as young as 16, make their pro debuts at 17, and many players spend at least a season in the DSL before moving onto stateside play in the Gulf Coast League.
   The 2015 DSL Jays were one of the most successful editions in club history, tying for their division lead before losing in the first round of the playoffs.  Because these players are so far away, it may be a while (if ever) before we hear the names of some of the better players on that team like Juan Meza, Lupe Chavez, or Norberto Obeso.  Many names we will never hear of - most players on any given DSL roster will not make it off the island.
   The Blue Jays had their Latin operations run during the Anthopoulos era by Ismael Cruz, who left last fall to join his former boss in Los Angeles.  Sandy Rosario took over from Cruz, and given the more active presence of the Indians when Mark Shapiro was running the organization. the Blue Jays may be a greater player in the IFA market in years to come.  This year, they are limited to offering bonuses to players of no more than $300 000 after going over their cap to sign Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

   Information about the DSL is pretty much limited to perusing box scores and second hand accounts.  Here is a compilation of some of the players to watch on this year's edition of the DSL Blue Jays:

McGregory Contreras OF
   -termed a "Sleeper" who showed good hit and run tools when he signed last July 2nd, his tools have reportedly ticked upward since then.

Maximo Castillo  RHP
   The Venezuelan had a deal in place with the Yankees, but arm problems caused the deal to fall through.  A storied youth player in his home country, Castillo is built more like a young Roberto Osuna, but already hits 93 with room for more projection.  Command has been an issue for him.

Orlando Pascual RHP
-has hit 97 with his fastball

Ronald Concepcion SS
-projected to stay at the position
-good glove/average speed/gap power

Jesus Navarro SS
   This is easily an essay topic for another time, but one thing that can hold Dominican prospects back when compared to their Venezuelan and Mexican peers is the lack of grassroots baseball in their country.
   Sometimes, grinder/high baseball IQ players slip through the signing cracks, because their skills come out more in game situations than they do individual workouts.
  Navarro may be one of those types. Described as an offensive minded SS with a line-drive stroke and occasional gap power, he's repeating this level, but may move stateside before long.

Jordan Romano Returns
   Markham, ON native Jordan Romano came up through the excellent Ontario Blue Jays development program.  He was travelling with the club in Oklahoma several years ago, and caught the eye of Perry Keith, legendary head coach of junior college power Connors State.  Keith was already familiar with the young Canadian, having recruited his brother Chris two seasons before.
   Romano caught the eye of the Oral Roberts coaching staff while pitching for Connors State, and he joined the nearby Golden Eagles for what would be his final season of collegiate play before being taken by the Blue Jays in the 10th round of the 2014 draft after saving 12 games for ORU.
   Given the load he shouldered in the 2014 college season, the Blue Jays limited him to 11 games, all in relief, for Bluefield in his first pro season.
   Ready for his first full season, Romano was up to 95 with his fastball before tearing his UCL mid-way through spring training last year.  The tear was complete, so the club opted for surgery at the end of March over rehab, and Romano's season was over.
   Romano threw himself fully into his recovery, and two weeks after the surgery was eagerly rehabbing his right arm.  By summertime, he was working on strengthening his shoulder four times per week, and was doing cardio work six times per week.  On August 18th, he was able to throw from 45 ft off flat ground at about 80% effort for 80 pitches 3 times per week, and was throwing from 60 ft a month later.  By December, he was throwing off a mound again at max effort, but was not allowed to throw breaking balls.
   When asked what the worst and best part of his recovery was, he responded:
I had to watch gcl games when I was down there. And It really sucked seeing everyone play and know that I couldn't even throw a baseball.  The best part was kinda the healing process of my elbow. Like day by day it got better. At first It looked pretty bad and slowly my body just started to heal it. That was pretty cool.
   By March, he was facing live hitters in batting practice, and found that both his former velocity and command had returned.  Kept behind for extended spring training in Dunedin, Romano learned that the club planned to stretch him out in a starter's role.  His innings were slowly built up, and when the warm weather returned to the midwest for good, he was promoted to Lansing last week to make his full season debut.
   And what a debut it was:  in his first pro start, Romano pitched a 7-inning complete game in the first half of a doubleheader, allowing only two hits and a walk while striking out a career-high seven batters.
    During his recovery, Romano had plenty of time to think, and one thing that he spent considerable time pondering was his mindset as a starter.  He decided, "The biggest thing for me is not letting a bad or good inning effect my mindset for the next inning. Keep the same mentality going into every inning."  After the start, he admitted to some pre-game nervousness:
Before the game of course I was a bit nervous even though I told everyone I wasn't haha. Honestly I had the mindset that I was gonna go the whole game.  I waited almost 2 years to pitch so I didn't wanna go just 2-3 innings. After the game was done it felt good just to help contribute to a team win.  
  At 6'4/200, Romano checks all the physical boxes for the prototypical Blue Jays pitching prospect. At 23, he's also not necessarily a kid, despite his lack of pro experience.  Romano has much lost development time to make up for, and he bears watching closely.  He could move quickly.

Short Season Rosters
   Next to Opening Day, this is one of my favourite times on the baseball calendar.  Play will begin for the Blue Jays in three short season leagues next week, featuring several of some of the more promising prospects in the organization.

   The Canadians are a runaway success story, one of the top franchises in all of minor league baseball.
The C's won the Northwest League title in their first three seasons as a Blue Jays affiliate, made it to the final in their fourth, and while they failed to make the post-season last year, smashed gate records in leading the NWL in attendance, averaging just under 6 000 fans per game.
   After fielding a team that was thin on top prospects last year, this year's edition promises to be more competitive, led by RHP Justin Maese, a 3rd round Texas high schooler who put together an impressive pro debut season in the GCL.  Maese featured an advanced three pitch mix that overmatched GCL hitters, and earned him a skip of the Appy League this year.
   C Javier Hernandez is a 19 year old Venezuelan whose hit tool has yet to really materialize, but has already earned rave reviews for his handling the GCL Jays pitching staff last year.
   6'8" 2012 comp pick Matt Smoral is returning to Vancouver to try to resurrect his career.  The southpaw suffered through back issues last year before being shut down in late August after taking a line drive off of his left forehead.  Reliever Gabe Noyalis, who gave up the game after this sophomore college season, was signed by the Jays in the off season after rediscovering his love for the game and some new velo on his fastball, will also start the season with the C's.
   Just-signed 2nd rounder OF J.B. Woodman should find his way to Vancouver shortly, as should Zeuch, Palacios, and Jackson, which should give the C's a tremendous boost.
   The Appy League is the first level where travel and "under the lights" play is involved, so prospects there tend to be more advanced.  Bluefield's roster will not be made official until early next week, but the persistent rumour since March has been that 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr will begin his pro career there.
  Even if Vlad Jr doesn't begin the season with the B-Jays, they should still inherit a fairly talented roster from last season's GCL Jays, which was the most successful entry in the Blue Jays' Gulf Coast history.  The GCL Jays were a more veteran outfit than the Blue Jays have fielded there in the past, but youngsters like OF Reggie Pruitt, and P's Jose Espada, Juan Meza, triple-digit reliever Kelyn Jose, and Lupe Chavez should all start the season with Bluefield.

GCL Jays
   Their games are played at noon under the scorching Florida sun, usually in front of a smattering of family, girlfriends, and scouts.  The Gulf Coast League is truly the lowest rung on the stateside baseball ladder. 2016 HS draftees like Bichette should start the season with the GCL Jays, as well as late-round choices from small colleges, and some members from the strong 2015 DSL Jays roster like OF Noberto Obeso,  SS Kevin Vicuna, and P Jonathan Torres.

Monday, June 6, 2016

A Look at Angel Perdomo

Kyle Castle/Lansing Lugnuts photo
   July 2nd is a date all prospect watchers have circled on their calendars, because that's the day each year that the signing frenzy that is the International free agent signing period begins.
   The Blue Jays have been major players on that day, inking the likes of Franklin Barreto, Roberto OsunaRichard Urena, Lupe Chavez, and one day perhaps the biggest IFA fish of them all, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
   The players who sign on that date are mostly only 16, but scouts have been following them for several years.  These players tend to have the loudest tools and attract the most attention as a result, but there's a group of players that often get overlooked on that date for a variety of reasons.  Scouts tend to get most of their views of each IFA crop through workouts, and there are some players whose skills show up better in game situations. Some are late bloomers who have yet to hit a growth spurt at that tender age.
   The Blue Jays Angel Perdomo fits both of those descriptions.
   A late season, under-the-radar signing in 2011, the Blue Jays have brought the tall (I've seen his height listed between 6"6" and 6'8", so let's go with 6'7") Dominican southpaw along very slowly, advancing him through the system one step at a time.
   He has struck out more than a batter an inning (10.8/9) over his minor league career, but has also struggled with his command (4.6/9) as well.  With his height, he naturally gets an eye-changing downward plane and great extension on his delivery, giving his fastball late life.  Left-handed hitters have a tough time picking up the ball from him.  Perdomo has a nice easy windup, somewhat reminiscent of a lefty Aaron Sanchez - the ball seems to explode from his hand. I have been following him since 2014, and have always been a fan. I was able to catch a glimpse of him in a late-season appearance with Vancouver last year,  and have followed his progress closely.  It was somewhat by default given the trade deadline activity last year, but Perdomo made his way into my post-2015 Top 10 Blue Jays prospects list.

   Fangraphs gave this evaluation of Perdomo in ranking him as the Blue Jays 9th prospect prior to the season:
Perdomo’s story is still relatively unchanged: he’s a hard-throwing left-hander with command issues and physical projection left in his 6-foot-6 frame. He continues to pile up strikeouts at lower levels, but the command hasn’t stepped forward yet, and it’s looking more likely it moves him out of the rotation. Both his slider and changeup could be average offerings, but it’s his fastball that’s going to keep him moving forward. There’s interesting upside here in the almost 22-year-old that will start to flesh out more over this season and next. Some big-framed pitchers take a bit longer to control their bodies, but he has a ways to go before looking like a big-league starter.
   Baseball America was less enthusiastic, ranking him as the Jays 26th prospect:
 He started to put things together in 2015, earning a late-season promotion from Rookie-level Bluefield to short-season Vancouver. Perdomo has strength gains to make, which will help him maintain his delivery. He has some funk to his mechanics, some crossfire action that gives him deception, but has a clean arm that produces 92-93 mph velocity. He ditched a curveball and settled on a slider that flashes average potential when he stays on top of it. He throws a changeup but it's a distant third pitch. His fielding and holding runners need polish. Perdomo gets weak contact with his fastball and should stay in the rotation for 2016 when he moves up to low Class A Lansing.
   Promoted to full season ball this year, Perdomo has been lights out for the Lugnuts.  His tiny 1.28 ERA is among the Midwest League leaders, as are his strikeouts (62 in 49 innings), and his .132 batting average against leads all of minor league baseball.  I asked Lugnuts' broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler (@jgoldstrass on Twitter) what the secret to Perdomo's success has been this year:
Most impressive thing about Angel is that he's getting guys out with three different pitches. I love that. The FB, SL and CH are all effective in and out of the zone. He's just wicked to try to hit against, breaking bats, and unfair against left-handed batters.

  Lansing, unfortunately, does not provide a video feed (along with Jesse's excellent play by play) of their home games on's subscription service, so those wanting to catch a glimpse of Perdomo have had to wait.  His last televised start was against Beloit in late April, but Perdomo took to the mound against South Bend, the Cubs' MWL affiliate, in front of a Sunday Memorial Day weekend crowd of over 7 000.
   Hitting 94 with his fastball, Perdomo needed 19 pitches to get through the inning, allowing an infield single that turned about to be South Bend's only hit against him on the day.  He retired the side in order in the 2nd, but needed a pair of fine defensive plays from CF Andrew Guillotte and 2B Lane Thomas to get two of the three outs.
   Perdomo struggled a bit with his command in the 3rd and 4th, getting the first two hitters out on three and four pitches respectively, before driving up his pitch count with pitches outside of the strike zone.  On some pitches, he seemed to rush his arm action during his delivery, and he bounced a few sliders in the dirt.  Perdomo issued a two-out walk in the fourth, but a nice play on a groundball up the middle to force the runner at 2nd by SS Gunnar Heidt ended the inning.
   In the 5th and 6th, Perdomo was much more economical with his pitches, needing only 21 to get through the two frames.  As his velocity began to drop, he relied more on his slider - his fastball did show some good movement to right-handed hitters, getting in on their hands in a hurry.
     The 7th inning saw Perdomo pitch past the 6th for the first time in his career.  He needed 17 pitches to complete the frame, but he continued to get weak contact, before getting a flyball out to complete the frame:

   On the day, Perdomo threw a career-high 96 pitches, 57 for strikes.  He threw first-pitch strikes to 13 of the 27 hitters he faced, although with a 59% strike percentage, he was often behind in the count. He generated 5 swings and misses on the day.  Perdomo clearly did not have his best command on this occasion, as generated by his 3 strikeouts, which was well below his average.  On days like that, however, you can tell a lot about a pitcher, and even though he was not at his best, Perdomo held the Midwest League's leading offence in check, limiting them to that first inning infield single, a pair of walks, and a hit batter over his seven innings - South Bend did not advance a runner as far as 2nd Base.
   Blue Jays minor league pitching coordinator Sal Fasano was in the Lansing dugout for the weekend series, and told that he was impressed with Perdomo's work:
"A very good, positive outing, first and foremost," Blue Jays pitching coordinator Sal Fasano said. "He had a nice balance of pitches and continues to work on his off-speed stuff, making a commitment to execute the plan during the game. He's got great deception in his delivery which helps make his fastball look that much harder.  It's nice to see him put a plan together and go out and do it. His deception, his high fastballs, it allows him to get away with some pitches. So we just want to continue to take his best attributes and make them better and better."
    At the same time, Fasano acknowledged Perdomo still has room for improvement:
"The biggest thing with him is repeating his delivery," he said. "He's making quality pitches -- or pitches in the zone where he wants them -- around 70 percent of the time. But he still falls off to the third-base side of the mound, although not as bad. It's a work in progress, but he's making some big strides. When he starts repeating his delivery with more consistency and starts executing pitchers at a higher rate, he'll move quickly. He has the ability to have a pretty good slider, so hopefully, we can work on that and master it. But the development of his off-speed pitches still has a ways to go.
  A scout who covers the Midwest League for another organization sees Perdomo as a potential gem that still needs some polishing:
I like Angel's potential, but there is a concern about his mechanics. He has trouble repeating a delivery,  and it makes his command in the low end of the strike zone sketchy. The kid is all legs, and it does create a fair bit of deception in terms of fast ball velocity. He has a good 4 seamer at the top end, but I would be concerned about moving up without the lower zone command. He lives off the 4 seamer up and more disciplined hitters will not swing as much as the lower A guys. Physically, he has an outstanding lower body but with his mechanics some times it is synergistic, but too often his arm drags or is too quick, which causes him to fall off to his glove hand side, in poor position to field the ball. In short, it is definitely a guy that can move quickly, but not until he is better in his mechanics and consistent with them. He is getting a lot of guys to chase the high 4 seam fast ball in the mid west league. If he can develop the 2 seam and change low, with the hook, then he will not be around the Midwest League long.
   Tall southpaws seem to take longer to develop, and Perdomo appears to be no exception.  His command issues are still his biggest challenge, but he has more than held his own against Midwest League hitters. Getting Low A hitters out is one thing; continuing to do so against hitters with greater pitch selection skills who can turn on a fastball better will be a bigger challenge for him as he moves up the ladder. An imposing presence on the mound, he should get every opportunity to improve and challenge himself further with a promotion to Dunedin at some point in the second half of the season.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Another Look at Sean Reid-Foley

Clutchlings photo
   Florida HS RHP Sean Reid-Foley was the Blue Jays 2nd round selection in 2014.  Projected by many as a first round talent, his stock dropped due to sign-ability concerns, but the Blue Jays were able to dissuade him from a commitment to Florida State after selecting him with the 49th pick.
   Reid-Foley made his pro debut in the GCL, and in something of a surprise opened last year with full season Lansing.  He caught a heavy dose of helium and soared up many rankings with a breakout year.  
   Reid-Foley has missed a lot of bats in his brief pro career, striking out well over a batter an inning.  He's also missed the strike zone a fair bit, which may be one of the reasons he found himself back in Lansing to start this year after a late-season promotion to Dunedin last year.
   Even with his premium velocity, the knock against Reid-Foley has been his fastball command, which seems to disappear from time to time.  He will cruise along for several innings, then lose the strike zone.  Scouts have suggested that he lacked the experience last year to know how to make adjustments to his delivery from inning to inning, driving up his pitch count, and forcing an early exit from some games.  He's had some ups and downs since returning to Michigan (four four-walk outings in 9 starts), but things have been starting to come together for him.  

I charted Blue Jays prospect Sean Reid-Foley's May 31st start against Dayton, almost exactly a year to the day that I charted another start against the same opponent.  

One thing was obvious from the last prolonged look I had at Reid-Foley:  he has altered his delivery somewhat:

   The top GIF is from his start against Dayton a year and a day ago, while the bottom one is from that May 31st start.  As you can see, in the top animation, he is perpendicular to the hitter at the start of his windup, and makes a deliberate stepping on the rubber with his back leg motion before initiating his front leg kick.
   In the bottom video, he begins almost in a stretch position on the mound, and appears to be standing on the 3rd Base side, and he stands at a 45 degree angle to the hitter - similar to Marco Estrada and (from the left side) David Price. What's harder to pick up is the fact that in the bottom, he has a separation of his hands at the start of his windup - he removes the ball slightly from his glove as he goes into it.
   Lansing pitching coach Jeff Ware says that the changes to Reid-Foley's delivery were made at instructs last fall, and were done to simplify things for him, reducing some moving parts from his windup into a streamlined version that would be easier to repeat on a more consistent basis. I saw Reid-Foley pitch a few innings in spring training at the Phillies minor league complex in March, and while I noticed a more streamlined delivery, I didn't realize the extent of it until I looked at last year's video.

   This start, in essence, saw three Sean Reid-Foleys: over the first four innings, he was a fireballing control artist, painting the outside corner with a fastball that touched 95, and featuring a curveball that was always lurking when he got to two strikes on a hitter.  Reid-Foley retired the first 12 hitters he faced, needing only 42 pitches to do so.
   In the 5th, things unravelled a bit for him.  Dayton hitters were more aggressive, and began to hunt his first-pitch fastball.  Leadoff hitter James Vasquez broke up Reid-Foley's perfect game by sharply lining the first pitch of the frame to CF. A one-out infield single by the third hitter came around to score when the fourth hitter of the inning sat on Reid-Foley's curve, and lined one down the right field line for a two-run triple.  A 55-foot curveball eluded Lansing C Justin Atkinson, and allowed a third run with two outs to score.  Reid-Foley threw 26 pitches in the inning.
   He went to his curve far more often in the 6th and 7th, retiring 6 in a row on only 16 pitches.  Reid-Foley pitched into the 8th inning for the first time in his career, and struck out the last two hitters he faced, tying his career high of 10.  He set down the final 10 hitters he faced in order.
   Down 3-2 heading into the 9th, the Lugnuts scored a pair of runs, and closer Dusty Isaacs slammed the door shut on Dayton in the bottom half of the inning, saving the game for Reid-Foley, and evening his record at 3-3.  Take away that 5th inning, and he was perfect, retiring 21 hitters in a row.
   Reid-Foley threw exactly 100 pitches (a high water mark for his career), an astounding 75 of them for strikes.  He recorded 8 groundouts, against only one flyball out - Dayton hitters really only squared him up twice on the evening.  Dayton hitters swung and missed at 14 of his pitches, and threw first-pitch strikes to 13 of the 27 hitters he faced, and got to 2 strikes on 18 of them.  That  3-run 5th inning was the only time he had trouble staying ahead of the hitters.
   Reid-Foley threw primarily that fastball, moving more to the curve as he began to tire, and threw in a few sliders and the odd change to show hitters a different look.  It's that fastball/curve combo that was at the heart of his arsenal tonight.  He threw both consistently for strikes.

   It will be interesting to see where Reid-Foley's career trajectory takes him from here.  In the short term, you would have to think that he finds himself in Dunedin before the end of the season, while in the long term, there have been comparisons to Jonathan Papelbon in terms of his potential as a back end of the bullpen arm.  Results like this, however, will keep him in the starting rotation for some time to come, and won't see him in Lansing much longer.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook - Who Wants a Promotion?

Matt Smoral
Eddie Michels photo

  After a week off, it's time for another look around the Blue Jays minor league system.

Who's in Line for a Promotion?
   Full season minor leagues are a only a few weeks away from mid-season, which is usually the time when organizations bump their top-performing prospects up to the next level.
  Over the past few seasons, this has been a busy time for those of us who follow Blue Jays prospects, but the pickings appear to be slimmer this time around.
   One of the reasons for that would be an apparent change in philosophy by the new regime running the development side of the organization.  The multi-level promotions of prospects within a season like that of Daniel Norris, Dalton Pompey, and Kendall Graveman may be a thing of the past.
  Another factor is likely that after all of former GM Alex Anthopoulos' trade deadline wheeling and dealing is that many of the fastest rising prospects are no longer in the organization.

   When teams promote a player, there are many considerations.  A player's readiness from a competitive point of view is probably chief among them, but teams also consider the physical and emotional maturity of the player.
    It is somewhat easier to decide if a pitcher is ready more so than a hitter, based on the organization's assessment of his delivery, fastball command, and secondary pitches.  With a hitter, there are more performance-related aspects to consider - does he have weaknesses in his swing and/or pitch recognition that will be exploited by pitchers at the next level?  Is there a position for him to play?
    In deciding whether or not to promote a player, teams gather opinions from many people in the organization:  the player's manager and coach, minor league instructors, farm department people, and scouting staff.  In addition to the above, they consider the player's makeup - does he have the work ethic to hone the skills he may need to upgrade to succeed at the next level?  How well will he handle the pressure?  How will he react in the event of adversity?

   This year, the organization decided to send Anthony Alford and Conner Greene back to Dunedin to start the year, even though Greene had ended 2015 with New Hampshire, and Alford cracked the upper levels of many Top 100 lists.  Sean Reid-Foley was sent to Lansing, even though he had spent time in Dunedin last year.  The message to these players was that they still had aspects of their game to work on, and that promotions were not necessarily guaranteed.  Alford missed a month of action after being injured in a home plate collision in Dunedin's first game and is just getting his timing back, while Reid-Foley has had some ups and downs as he adjusts to a tweaked delivery (which I'll detail in a future post), but was masterful in his last start against Dayton, an 8-inning, 10K effort, which has to have lifted his stock considerably with Lansing.  Greene would seem to be the likeliest candidate of the three, although there isn't necessarily an opening for him in New Hampshire's rotation at the moment.
   The prospect with the highest chance of being elevated would have to be Jon Harris.  After failing to get out of the first inning in his first start of the year in April, Harris has been lights out, running off a 34 inning scoreless streak over his next 6 starts before coming back to earth (9 hits, 7 earned runs in 4.1 IP) in his last start.  Harris has dominated Midwest League hitters, and there appears to be a spot in Dunedin's rotation for him.  As much as the new management seems to wanting to be taking things gradually with their top prospects, it will be a surprise if the 2015 1st rounder is still in Lansing a month from now.

   Beyond Harris and possibly Greene, it's hard to see another player being elevated at this point.  Of course, a pair of Lansing relievers (Colton Turner and Connor Fisk) and starter Francisco Rios were promoted earlier this month. RHP Patrick Murphy was promoted from extended to Lansing a few weeks ago. If there was a name that might be worth mentioning, however, it's that of New Hampshire OF Dwight Smith Jr, who has hit .390 over his last 10 games, and has been a big part of the Fisher Cats resurgence, although there does not appear to be a spot for him in Buffalo's outfield at the moment.

Smoral on the Rebound
   When I get asked "whatever happened to...?" about a prospect, Smoral's name almost always comes up.
    The 2012 sandwich rounder has had a hard time staying healthy, putting together only one solid season (and in short season ball, at that) during his time in the Blue Jays system.
   Back issues kept him in extended last year, and his season came to a crashing halt in August when he took a line drive off his temple.
   He pitched for the first time since then earlier in May in extended, and after a rough outing pitched much better in a two-inning inter squad stint just over a week ago. Baby steps to be sure, but perhaps Smoral is on the road to resuming his career.  The good news is that he's pitching, period.

Jordan Romano Update
   I like to keep an eye on as many Canadian born and raised prospects as I can; those who toil in the Blue Jays organization are a special interest.
   Romano, a 10th round pick from Oral Roberts in 2014, missed all of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery.  Regular readers of this blog know that I've been following his progress closely since then.  Checking in with him last week, the Markham native was upbeat (as usual), and informed that he will be working as a starter this year.  When asked what the difference in his mindset between relieving (which he did in his first year in the system) and starting, Romano responded:
I'm getting my reps in down here but I'm itching to get out of here. The biggest thing for me is not letting a bad or good inning effect my mindset for the next inning. Keep the same mentality going into every inning.  It's pretty fun going 5 or 6 instead of 1.
   Romano reports no problems with his elbow, which many Tommy John patients report in their first few months after starting to throw again, "Just regular general stiffness, there's like no extra soreness in my elbow after throwing."  For now, Romano is biding his time, waiting either for a spot in Lansing, or in short season in a couple of weeks.  Reports from Florida indicate that he hit 97 in a game against the Pirates.  At 6'4"/200, he is yet another long, lean, and athletic pitching prospect that the organization is stockpiling.


A Dearth of Hitters?
   Scouting amateur pitchers, in many ways, is a less complex task than scouting hitters.
Scouts can easily identify a pitcher with promising mechanics, fastball velocity/command, and secondary pitches, regardless of the competition.  That's not necessarily the case with hitters, where the unevenness of competition, especially at the high school level, can cloud a hitter's potential.
   This may be one of the reasons the Blue Jays have shown a preference for high school pitchers - even after last July, 14 of the Top 30 Blue Jays prospects according to MLB Pipeline are pitchers.
The Blue Jays have tried to choose hitters in the upper rounds of the draft (except for 2013, when 11 of their first 12 picks were pitchers), but to this point there have been more misses than hits.  The international market has seen a similar focus on pitchers - the only true potential impact bat IFA signing during the Anthopoulos era was Franklin Barreto, who went to Oakland in the Josh Donaldson deal.
   While you can't put a lot of stock in minor league statistics, this one stands out:
   Lansing has the third-lowest (.216) batting average in all of minor league baseball.  New Hampshire ranks last in the Eastern League in batting average, and is next-to-last in slugging and OBP.  For all their strengths in identifying possible impact arms, the Blue Jays have had great difficulty developing high-level bats.  At the moment, about the only hitters who might project favourably at the major league level are Alford, Rowdy Tellez (whose bat has awoken after a slow start), and Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who not surprisingly is struggling a bit with offspeed stuff in extended.  

  While the Blue Jays have focused on pitching, the Red Sox have drafted the likes of Mookie Betts and signed IFA's like Xander Bogaerts, who project to be first-division players for the next decade. Perhaps this will change with the new regime - the top 3 Indians prospects at the moment are hitters, and their system has already graduated Francisco Lindor.  With an aging core of everyday players, however, there does not promise to be a great deal of immediate help from the farm system.

Dwight Smith Jr on a Tear
   So not all is doom and gloom when it comes to the hitting prospects.  After a slow start, the 2011 sandwich rounder is tearing the cover off the ball for New Hampshire, helping to revive a moribund Fisher Cat offence.  
   Hitting as low as .206 on May 14th, Smith has been on a tear, hitting .364 over his last 10 games, and logging six multi-hit games during that stretch. Smith is repeating AA after an injury and inconsistency riddled 2015, and while the organization would likely prefer to see a more sustained stretch of this type of production, you would have to think he will see AAA Buffalo at some point this season.
   The knock on Smith has been that he does not have the kind of power a corner outfield bat should have, and the organization did experiment with him at 2nd in the Arizona Fall League a few seasons ago.  Just the same, his line-drive stroke is hard to ignore, and he may be finally starting to put things together.