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.

Bluefield
   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 milb.com 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 milb.com, 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:

 Promotions
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.




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