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.

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