Blue Jays Right-Handed Pitcher Conner Greene soared through three levels of the minor leagues last year and pitched well enough in spring training in a few outings with the big club in spring training that some fans were clamouring for him to head north with the team (or at least, AAA Buffalo), and the Toronto media had already taken notice of the Californian with the movie-star looks and IMDB resume.
Greene cracked Baseball America's Top 100 prospects after his dazzling season, and Fangraphs ranked him as the Blue Jays 2nd prospect:
Many were shocked when Greene, after reaching AA in August last year in his first year of full season ball, was sent back to Dunedin to begin the season.His stuff still needs tightening up, but his command and exceptional changeup give him the weapons to breeze through most minor-league lineups in the meantime.Having added weight to his athletic frame in recent years, Greene now sits in the low- to mid-90s with good command of his fastball. He can spot it down in the zone with good movement or run it across the letters with “rise” on his four-seam. He throws a changeup that will play at least above-average because of arm speed and command, though it probably won’t be a swing-and-miss offering.There is still some physical projection left in his frame, lending hope for another tick or two of sustained velocity on his fastball. His curveball has plus potential if he learns to throw it with the same conviction as his changeup and fastball, perhaps also helped by expected strength gains. He’s athletic on the mound with clean actions.
Greene's assignment was not surprising to others, though, given that he didn't turn 21 until Opening Day, and was just three years removed from high school. His rapid rise in the system was at least as attributable to the flurry of deadline deals then-GM Alex Anthopoulos made, and the former regime's preference to challenge young pitchers with aggressive assignments as much as it was to Greene's own performance which, while impressive, showed some areas that he needed to work on.
Fastball command was perhaps the biggest reason why Greene had advanced so quickly last year, but his time at AA (12BB in 25IP) showed that there was still room for improvement. While elite hitters can get around on just about any fastball (if you've never heard the story about Julio Franco and the cranked-up batting machine, do yourself a favour and read it here), the ability to throw the fastball where he wants it remains the heart of a pitcher's tool kit. Jason Parks, now a scout with the Cubs, wrote about the importance of it for Baseball Prospectus:
Radar gun readings can be sexy, but if velocity isn't accompanied by command and movement, velocity is exploitable by hitters at the highest levels of the game. While it certainly affords pitchers more room for error, it is only one variable to the overall fastball equation, and very rarely is it strong enough to survive on its own. Straight fastballs often find barrels, and hard contact isn't a desired result of any at bat......fastball command is the perfect building block for the rest of the arsenal. It creates the opportunity for a more effective secondary arsenal before (it) is even deployed.Greene, with a fastball that touched 97 last year, and sat 92-94, had plenty of movement on his pitches, but still had not mastered control of them. The incoming Blue Jays upper management team felt that High A was a better place for Greene to refine this. And while we're here, here's something about promoting young players that few fans are aware of: in most organizations, prospects are only moved to the next level when there is unanimous consent among all the relevant player development staff that he's ready for it. That means not only front office people, but also the player's current minor league manager and coaches, as well as minor league instructional staff, have to sign off on it. This may explain as well why Greene remained in Florida to start the season - there was at least one (if not more) staffer who felt he wasn't ready for a return to New Hampshire.
Held to an 80-pitch limit for the first month of 2016, Greene seemed to have harnessed that fastball, until a disastrous May 10th outing in which he gave up 10 hits and 6 walks in 5.2 innings. He continued to struggle with walks for the rest of the month, then began to turn things around in June. His June 21st start in which he gave up no runs, three hits, and only a pair of walks over 7 innings while striking out as many likely convinced the organization that he was ready, and after his next Dunedin start he was on his way to Binghamton, where he made his 2016 AA debut for the Fisher Cats.
While likely not thrilled with repeating Dunedin, Greene was not fazed by it, telling Alex Hall of the Manchester Union-Leader, ""Last year, I had a good year and I relied almost strictly off (my talent) . This is a big learning year. I'm not too worried about the statistics of it because I'm gaining so much information right now and I'm applying things and just taking away and going about my plan."
Greene was re-united at New Hampshire with veteran Catcher Ryan Lavarnway, picked up by the club in late May. Lavarnway, like Greene a Burbank, CA native, had played with Greene's older brother in high school, and had known Greene since he was 8. He was likely brought on board to mentor young pitchers like Greene, Shane Dawson, and Jeremy Gabryzswski.
Greene's most recent outing was on July 15th against the Red Sox' Portland affiliate. The Sea Dogs may occupy the Eastern League's Eastern Division basement, 7 games back of the Fisher Cats, but they boast two to the Top 10 prospects in the game: Futures Game MVP Yoan Moncada (#1), and 2015 draftee Andrew Benintendi (#9). This was to be Greene's second start in a row against Portland, who roughed him up to the tune of 5 earned runs and 7 hits over 4.1 innings eight days before.
Greene wanted no part of leadoff hitter Moncada, walking him on 5 pitches. He gave up a single to the next hitter, and appeared to be having some issues with the mound at that point, prompting the first of what turned out to be a half dozen visits from Lavarnway over the course to the game to get him back on track. He retired the next three hitters, but gave up a one-out sac fly, allowing Moncada to cross the plate with the first run of the game. Greene needed 23 pitches to get through the inning.
In the second, he seemed to become more comfortable on the mound, hitting 95 with his fastball. After giving up a leadoff single, Greene settled down, and after Lavarnway gunned out that runner trying to steal 2nd, he appeared to be out of the inning when 3B Emilio Guerrero threw a short-armed sinker that 1B Rowdy Tellez was unable to scoop out of the dirt. Greene painted the outside corner with a 94 mph fasball to a right-handed hitter to retire the side.
Greene was at his most economical in the 3rd, needing only 8 pitches to retire the side. Moncada hit a second-pitch shot that was looking like a triple to the left-centrefield gap that CF Roemon Fields made a twisting, desperation grab of. The final out came on a nifty diving play by Tellez, who robbed Benintendi of extra bases with a grab of a shot down the line, throwing to a covering Greene just in time.
Trouble reared its head in the 4th, when Greene gave up a screaming single to leadoff hitter Nate Fryman off the "Maine Monster" in left on his first pitch. One out later, a walk and another single had loaded the bases for Portland, when Guerrero started a nifty 5-4-3 double play to end the threat.
Greene needed only 8 pitches to retire the side in the 5th, getting the second out by catching the left-handed hitting Moncada looking on a fastball on the outside corner. Greene started using that pitch more to lefties in that inning, starting it inside under the hands, and having it cut in on the inside corner at the last minute. When he commanded it, it was a very effective pitch.
The sixth proved to be his final frame. He didn't help his cause by dropping the throw from 2B Christian Lopes while covering the bat at 1st against the leadoff hitter. A tiring Greene loaded the bases once again, but gave up a two-run, two-out single before recording the final out on a flyball to right.
For the game, Greene threw 91 pitches, 56 for strikes. He gave up 3 runs, only 1 earned, and 6 hits. Greene walked 3 and struck out 3. He had trouble staying ahead of hitters for much of the game, throwing first-pitch strikes to 15 of hit 26 hitters. He recorded 8 outs by groundballs, 5 by flyballs. By a rough count, he thew about a dozen pitches in the dirt, all deftly fielded by Lavarnway - this may have been an attempt to generate swings and misses on pitches out of the zone, or it may have been a result of losing the bottom of the strike zone. This was not a dominant outing by Greene - he gave up some hard contact, and struggled to find the strike zone at times. Just the same, he breezed through a couple of innings, offering a good foundation to build upon.
Much has been made of Greene's slender frame. When he was drafted, he was all of 165 lbs. That's not the profile of an innings eater, but he's bulked up considerably since then to about 180, from what a visitor to spring training who chatted with him briefly in spring training observed. Still, as a long, lean, and athletic pitcher, he checks all the boxes in what the Blue Jays like in a starter. Having just turned 21, there's still some projection remaining, and no need to rush him.