As the minor league season settles firmly into its second half, three Toronto Blue Jays prospects have emerged as not only as among the top ones in the organization, but in all of minor league baseball, as well.
Rowdy Tellez was a legend on the showcase circuit for his batting practice and home run derby displays as a high schooler. Thought to be a lock to attend USC, the Blue Jays took a flyer on him in the 28th round in 2013 as a result some draft day dealing that may one day go down as one of former GM Alex Anthopoulos' best moves.
With a new system of bonuses in place for draftees (and penalties for teams that went over their allotted bonus budget), the Blue Jays loaded up on college seniors after the 4th round (they did take a high schooler named Conner Greene in the 7th round). With little leverage, many of these players had no choice but to sign - Matt Boyd signed for $75 000, while Kendall Graveman and Chad Girodo each signed for $5 000.
Using the savings they gained through those rounds, Toronto chose Tellez in the 28th round, and threw a $750 000 bonus at him to forego his college commitment.
Tellez did not rocket through the Jays system after making his debut with the GCL Jays later that summer. An 0-34 start at Bluefield in 2014 exposed some flaws, and talk was growing that the Californian was turning into a bad-bodied, base-clogging, one-dimensional slugger.
But the organization was patient with the 6'4"/250 prospect, giving him time to re-configure his body, and work on other parts of his game. In a 2015 split between Lansing and Dunedin, Tellez began to turn some heads and change some minds.
Some eyebrows were raised when Tellez was sent to AA New Hampshire to begin 2016, but the club obviously felt he was more than up to the challenge. Unlike many other hitting prospects, Tellez is a patient, use-the-whole-field hitter, and that advanced approach helped when he didn't see a whole lot of strikes in April, putting up a .706 OPS despite a .164 batting average.
As other hitters in New Hampshire's lineup like Dwight Smith Jr began to heat up in May, opposition pitches could not pitch around Tellez as much, and the results showed. Despite being one of the youngest players (he turned 21 in March) in the Eastern League, he's tied for the league lead in walks, and is in the top 5 in OBP and OPS. Over his last 10 games, Tellez is hitting a torrid .441, with 3 homers. On the year, he's now hitting .281/.390/.492.
What does Tellez have to work on in order to get to the next level? Not much, beyond hitting lefthanders better. He can be streaky, but he has a solid approach to hitting that allows him to contribute even when the hits aren't falling in for him. He will never be the fastest of baserunners or the most agile of fielders, but Tellez is smart on the basepaths, shows surprising agility around the bag at 1st, and generates Quality AB after Quality AB, wearing pitchers down.
Sean Reid-Foley was as surprised as anyone to repeat Lansing this year. After a mid-season promotion to Dunedin last year, Reid-Foley was sent back to Lansing for the Midwest League playoffs, but was shut down before season's end.
In only his second pro season, the club had challenged him with an assignment to full season ball, but the new regime likely felt this year that Reid-Foley still needed to work on his fastball command, and Low A was the place to do it.
Reid-Foley tended to lose his mechanics somewhere in the middle innings of games last year, losing the strike zone, driving up his pitch count, and resulting in many early exits. Reid-Foley's delivery was tweaked last fall in Instructs, and the result was improved command this year that led another mid-June promotion to Dunedin.
Since his return to Florida, the 2014 2nd round pick has not looked back. His season debut with the D-Jays was a 7 inning, 2 hit/12 K outing, while his most recent was a dominant effort in which he pitched into the 8th inning for the second time in his career, giving up just one hit, fanning nine, and most importantly, issuing no walks. Long-time Dunedin PA Announcer Bill Christie was impressed:
@DunedinBlueJays #BlueJays best pitching performance by a DJay that I have witnessed, Reid-Foley 7 1/3 1H 0R 96P vs Tampa Yanks— Bill Christie (@billsportsnews) July 4, 2016
In 26 Florida State League innings since his recall, Reid-Foley has struck out 32 while allowing only 6 walks. He can hit 97 with his fastball, and sits 92-95. When he's on, which appears to be often lately, he commands that fastball to both sides of the plate with arm side run. With two strikes on a hitter, he can elevate that pitch to good effect. Reid-Foley complements that fastball with a mid-80s slider that flashes plus.
The biggest concern about Reid-Foley was that fastball command, but he seems to have found the key to consistently repeating his delivery to pound the bottom of the strike zone and generate weak contact. He doesn't turn 20 until August, and in his third pro season there's no need to rush him, and the Jonathan Papelbon back-of-the-bullpen arm comps we heard about a year ago have been quieted.
As fans, one thing about pro ball players we tend to have difficulty understanding is the toll playing every day takes on a player. Playing high school, travel, and college ball is intense, but there's little to prepare prospects for the physical and mental grind of playing every day. There's travel, eating properly (often without the means to do so consistently), dealing with nagging injuries, and personal things on top of having to show up to the park and give your best effort with only a handful of off-days during the season.
For the second of the Blue Jays two 2014 first rounders, that experience has been delayed by almost two seasons while Pentecost recovered from several shoulder surgeries after a brief pro debut with Vancouver that year.
And while some are impatient for Pentecost to move to the next level after making his return to action with Lansing only two months ago, he's still barely into his development. And if the first two months are any indication, the athletic, bat-first Catcher will be worth the wait.
After going 3-4 with a Home Run in his Midwest League debut, Pentecost smacked 8 hits in his first four games, and rode a hot May before tailing off as June rolled around. He's picked again of late, hitting .378 over his last 10 games, bringing his line up to .292/.361/.429. Not to sound cliche, but when Pentecost steps up to bat, he looks like an athlete. He has a good approach both in terms of mechanics and pitch selection.
What's keeping Pentecost in Lansing for now is the fact that he's yet to play a game behind the plate, DHing during his stint with the Lugnuts. He's obviously chomping at the bit, and word is that he's not far from returning to some on-field action, but the club will want to protect their investment, and it's hard to see Pentecost catching much this season.
And there's the rub.
He may be the best Catching prospect in the system, but he's been limited to all of 72 innings behind the plate in his pro career. He'll need a minimum of several hundred before he's ready to handle a big league pitching staff. With Russell Martin signed for three more seasons after this one, there's no great urgency to rush things with Pentecost.