Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Player Development Contracts and Spring Training Updates

Florida Auto Exchange Stadium - ballparkreviews.com photo

  Every two years (in even-numbered years), Player Development Contracts between MLB teams and their minor league affiliates come up for renewal in September.

   In the standard PDC, the MLB team agrees to provide players and coaching staff to the minor league team.  The MiLB team agrees to provide a small-scale MLB experience, with standard training facilities.
The agreement between the two hinges on many aspects, but from the MLB's team point of view, they want a good atmosphere for their prospects to develop in, and the MiLB team wants a good supply of  quality prospects to make the team competitive.

  AAA Buffalo has been a Blue Jays affiliate since 2013, and it has been highly successful relationship for both sides.  The Blue Jays can quickly recall a player from Buffalo, and the team has been very successful both on the field and at the gate during their partnership.  The team drew over 551 000 fans last year, and will come close to that mark again this year.  With prospects like Rowdy Tellez, Reese McGuire, Richard Urena, and Conner Greene likely to be donning Bisons colours at some point next season, Bisons fans on both sides of the border should have plenty of reason to head to Coca-Cola Field, one of the top venues in the minors. Because their affiliation has been so successful, the Blue Jays and Bisons put to rest any doubts about their collective future in early April when they extended their PDC to 2018.

  Toronto is the only MLB affiliation the AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats have known since coming into existence in 2014.  There was talk a few years ago about the Blue Jays switching affiliation in the event of a shift of an existing Eastern League team to Ottawa, and while several prospective ownership groups offered to run the team, no one (including Ottawa City Council) stepped forward to fund necessary stadium improvements.  New Hampshire has been competitive as a Blue Jays affiliate as well, wining a pair of league titles since their inception.  Both sides agreed to a four-year extension in May of 2014.

  Dunedin is owned by the Blue Jays, so there is no PDC coming up for renewal between the two sides.

  Lansing has been another highly successful partnership, dating back to 2005.  It's a little surprising that no extension has been announced (often, they aren't - they just continue) to date, but indications are that both sides are pleased with their agreement.  Lansing is fairly easy to access for Blue Jays roving instructors and front-office executives.  Cooley Law Stadium is a top-notch facility, and the team draws well.  One has to feel for Lansing fans, however, because by being on the bottom of the full season ladder in the system, they often are the first to lose players to promotion.  With the Lugs fighting for a playoff spot as the season winds down, they likely would be headed to the post-season if the still had some or all of promoted players like Jon Harris, Francisco Rios, Sean Reid-Foley, or Max Pentecost, but that is the reality of life in the minors. Toronto did airlift in high profile June draftees like Cavan Biggio, Josh Palacios, J.B. Woodman, and T.J. Zeuch to help with the playoff push, which is good, because the Lansing fans deserved it.

  Vancouver is the Blue Jays' top short season affiliate, and the pairing has been a runaway success since it started in 2011.  It's a natural match in many ways - it helps to grow the Blue Jays brand, and it gives prospects a taste of living in Canada, albeit a brief one.  The C's won the Northwest League title in their first three years as a Blue Jays farm team, and made it to the final in the 4th, but missed the playoffs last year, and are headed to one of their worst finishes of all time as a NWL franchise.  Additions to venerable Nat Bailey Stadium have allowed Vancouver to become the league's runaway attendance leader this year (setting a franchise attendance record in the process, averaging over 6 000 fans per game), but the quality of prospects the team was provided has fallen short, with starting pitching being a huge concern.  One of Mark Shapiro's first acts in 2016 was to get Canadians' ownership to agree to a PDC extension to 2018. Let's hope the team can be competitive next year, because the C's fan base is deserving of it as well.

  Bluefield is the other PDC that is up for renewal.  The town had a long relationship with the Orioles before becoming a Toronto affiliate in 2011.  The Appalachian League is a nice buffer between the complex leagues and short season play, and there have been no suggestions from either side that there are problems in their relationship.  It's reasonable to assume that it will continue.
  From a purely personal standpoint, it would be nice one day to see a Blue Jays affiliate in the New York-Penn League (which, over half a century ago, was known as the Pennsylvania Ontario New York - PONY - league).  The NY-Penn league is a short season loop on par with the Appy League, and Toronto did have a franchise there for a number of years based in St Catharines, ON, but a declining Canadian dollar saw the team move to Queens, NY for the 2000 season.
 
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   The Blue Jays have known only one spring training site since their first spring almost 40 years ago.
Times have changed, and the club has looked at other sites in Florida and possibly Arizona over the past few years, as talks with the City of Dunedin have lagged.  The club would like a new facility - currently, the minor league complex and Florida Auto Exchange Stadium are about a 10-15 (depending on traffic) bus ride away. With other teams in the Tampa area having had huge sums of cash thrown at them over the past decade to remain in the region with upgraded, all-at-one-site complexes, the Blue Jays would like to have a similar one.
  The current agreement between the two sides expires in 2017, and talks have been quietly ongoing to broker a new deal.  The city, of course, would like the team to stay - reports suggest the six weeks of spring training has an economic impact of about $85 million.  The Blue Jays, for their part, would like a considerable upgrade to either FAES or the minor league complex.  Both sides seem to have reached the conclusion that a "one address" site probably is not feasible in Dunedin.  The question becomes which facility will receive upgrades, and how will they be paid for.
   FAES, originally named Grant Field, was built in 1990, and seats 5 000.  The website ballparkdigest.com calls the park, "outdated yet charming,"  but it pales in comparisons to the aesthetics and amenities of other stadiums in the area.  Its landlocked location limits parking, there is no concourse, and the facility's infrastructure is outdated.  The Florida State League Dunedin Blue Jays draw sparse crowds that number in the hundreds, and while FAES is a good place to watch a game, it does feel on the antiquated side.
   There are some quaint features to the stadium.  Located just blocks from the waterway which separates the mainland from Clearwater Beach and the Gulf of Mexico, the park is in a very picturesque setting.  Both teams have to walk down their respective base lines to get to their clubhouses, giving fans ample access for autographs.  Quite a group gathers down the right field line to see their Blue Jays heroes, and the players seem to enjoy interacting with the fans.
A block west of FAES stadium - Clutchlings photo

  The city is in the process to applying to local and state sources of funding to secure financing for the project, and a group of city officials met with the Blue Jays in Toronto in late July.  Megan Reeves of the Tampa Bay Times writes that an announcement from the city should be forthcoming sometime in the next few weeks.   It does appear that funding will be available, but as with most government processes, it takes some time to secure.
   The Blue Jays, for their part, understand the history of their team and Dunedin, and also realize how accessible the city is for Canadians.  Spring training has become an important marketing vehicle for the team, and relocating (especially to Arizona) would hamper those efforts.
   The short take on this is that the Blue Jays will not have their spring training and minor league complexes under one roof, but significant changes should be coming to one of them, meaning that the team will remain in Dunedin.  Word should be coming sometime in the next month about what those changes will look like.

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  Just before hitting the "publish" button, I noticed that Lansing RHP Jordan Romano, who threw a lights-out 10Ks over 6 IP in his last start, went on the 7-day DL.  He was removed from the 7th inning of that start for precautionary reasons, and said he felt fine and wouldn't miss his next turn in the rotation, but with Romano coming back this season from Tommy John surgery, and at a career-high 100 innings, the club opted to shut him down.  The move was retroactive to August 27th.
  Romano threw a bullpen session with no ill effects yesterday, and will likely come off the DL and pitch in a piggyback situation before the season ends.
  The club and Romano, a Markham, ON native, have to be thrilled with his first full season, and his first one as a starter to boot.  Romano missed all of 2015, and went 3-2 with a 2.17 ERA in 14 starts for the Lugnuts.  He struck out 69 in 70 IP, allowing only 48 hits.  Midwest League hitters managed only a .192 batting average against him.
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