Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook - Playoff Hunt Edition

Vladimir Guerrero Jr - milb.com photo

      Minor league playoff races, in terms of excitement, don't generate a whole lot of buzz beyond the cities and leagues involved, but they hearken back somewhat to the golden age of the minors, when teams acted as independent entities, and were very much in competition with big league teams for players and the entertainment dollar.  As the season winds down, four Blue Jays affiliates are in a playoff position at the moment.

   The GCL Blue Jays, who perform in front of a small gathering of scouts, family, and girlfriends with no video scoreboards, walk-up music, or between-innings in-game entertainment, sit atop the Northwest Division standings with a league-best 36-13 record, but are separated by only percentage points from the GLC Phillies.  In the abbreviated GCL playoff format, only the four division winners qualify, pairing off in a one-game semi-final with the winners meeting in a best of three final.  The Jays have had to do without their leading hitter, 2nd round pick Bo Bichette, who had his appendix removed in late July.  The infielder was tearing apart the GCL in his pro debut, slashing .421/.440/.744.  There is no word on his return, but with 10 games left in the season, his bat would give the lineup a huge boost.  Last year, the club made it to the league final with one of the more veteran teams in the loop, but they are one of the youngest this year, and have the second-youngest pitching staff.

  If Bichette had remained healthy, he might have moved up to Bluefield of the Appalachian League, forming a potent 1-2 punch in the lineup with 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.  Bluefield currently sits in 2nd in the Appy League's East Division, a game back of Burlington, and a half game ahead of Princeton.  The top 2 teams in each division make the post-season.  The club lost leading hitter Nash Knight when he was promoted to Vancouver, but there is still plenty of pop in the lineup - Bluefield leads the league in Home Runs with 50.

   The Low A Lansing Lugnuts also occupy a playoff position at the moment, a half game ahead of both Great Lakes and 1.5 games up on Lake County for the second (and final) Eastern Division playoff spot.  Full season teams see a lot of players come and go, and such is the case with Lansing, who have seen Francisco Rios, Jon Harris, and now Max Pentecost move on to Dunedin.

  Dunedin also is in a playoff spot at the moment, sitting atop the Florida State League's North Division, thanks to a 7-game winning streak.  The D-Jays lost SS Richard Urena to New Hampshire earlier this month, but still have the organization's top prospect in rebounding OF Anthony Alford.

   Playoff participation is something of a double-edge sword for MLB farm departments.  On the one hand, the pressure is a good experience for their prospects, but with some of their younger pitchers already having exceeded their career highs in innings pitched, Managers have to have one eye on the pitch count as well as one on the scoreboard.  Already, Rios has been moved to Dunedin's pen to preserve his arm, and other starters like Ryan Borucki, who has found himself with Lansing this year, are seeing their pitch counts reduced as the season winds down.  Similarly, especially with some of the Lansing roster, many players are in their first year of full season ball, and are wearing down as well.  Still, especially for the top prospects, the organization do doubt likes having them take part in the playoffs together.


   One team that is conspicuous by its absence from the post-season for the second straight year is Vancouver.  The C's won the Northwest League title in their first three seasons as a Jays affiliate, and made it to the final in their fourth.  The partnership with the Jays has been wildly successful, and the C's lead the NWL in attendance by almost an average of 1 000 fans a game.
   For the second straight year, however, the C's are mostly devoid of top prospects.  Roberto Osuna, Kevin Pillar, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, and the departed Franklin Barreto have all spent time in YVR, but the only high profile prospect to adorn the lineup this year was P Justin Maese, who was promoted to Lansing a month ago.
   The C's are next to last in the league in batting average and ERA.  Thanks to the Shaw Cable network, select Saturday night home games are televised - the quality is decent, and you have to love the high camera angle on plays at 1st Base.  After watching a few Shaw games, as well as some at Hillsboro, which provides an milb.tv feed, it's been possible for Eastern Canadians to catch a glimpse of the C's, and get a read on some of their players.
   Three players that have stood out are outfielders Josh Palacios and J.B. Woodman, and SS Yeltsin Gudino.  Palacios, a 4th round pick in June, looks like a 110m hurdler, and his athleticism will no doubt translate well as he gains experience.  Woodman, the team's 2nd round pick, has bat speed but a bit of a long swing, and has struck out in 31% of his ABs.  Gudino, a prized IFA signing from 2013, is slick at shortstop, with good hands and a quick release.  The question has always been about his bat, and while his .214/.328/.244 line has done nothing to quell that, he shows quick hands and makes contact.  At 19, he's fared reasonably well against higher competition after failing to crack the Mendoza line in his previous two minor league stops. C Javier Hernandez is probably another name worth mentioning.  He has already drawn praise for his defensive work from previous seasons, but he's not produced a great deal offensively.
   Fielding a competitive NWL team can be difficult.  The league is filled with recent college grads, most of whom were mid-level draftees.  These players tend to produce well in short season ball, but have low ceilings.  In order to stock an NWL team, an organization has to risk some of its picks on this type of player. Ryan McBroom was among the most successful of these, but this year, the organization has opted to place younger players, like Gudino, Hernanedez, and 3B Bryan Lizardo in Vancouver, and while they ultimately may have higher ceilings, they've mostly struggled against the advanced NWL pitching.
   Still the fans in Vancouver deserve more.  The Blue Jays in the past have liked sending their top prospects there, to give them a taste of life in Canada.  With strong entries in Bluefield and the GCL this year, hopefully that will translate into a more successful C's team next year.

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