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.

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