|Ryan McBrrom - Clutchlings photo|
The Arizona Fall League was established almost a quarter century ago to serve as a finishing school for team's top prospects. With play centered at the spring training homes of several MLB teams in the Phoenix area, it's the ideal lab for scouts to evaluate prospects' play against top competition. Sometimes teams send players there to learn a new position or role, make up for missed time, or to generally have a chance to play against elite competition.
When Tommy John surgery shut him down for the last half of 2013 and the first half of the following season, Roberto Osuna had a chance to pitch in a relief role to get some added innings in Arizona in the fall of 2014. The team saw enough to invite him to spring training the following year, where he impressed enough (even though he had never pitched above High A) to break camp with the team, and the rest is history.
Six Blue Jays prospects and pitching coach Vince Horsman will make the trek southwest when play begins in October to suit up for the Mesa Solar Sox. The league features six teams, and the schedule opens on October 11th, with the season wrapping up with the playoff final on November 19th. The Fall Stars game on November 5th will be televised, but few other games likely will be. Fortunately, there is a bevy of prospect evaluators live Tweeting the games, so there are sources of information.
Here's a look at the invited Blue Jays
Conner Greene RHP
The organization's top pitching prospect had his development intentionally slowed this season. Despite finishing last year at AA (in his first year of full season ball), Greene began 2016 back at Dunedin, with a goal of improving his fastball command. Experimenting with several arm angles, Greene's results in April and May would suggest that he was struggling, but it was more a product of coming up with an effective arm slot - as fans, we sometimes don't realize that minor league pitchers do not always approach a start with having a goal of producing a W for the team. One Blue Jays prospect whose change up needs refining said that he is under orders to throw 10 of them in a game. As a minor league pitcher, there are always things to work on.
Greene began to blow Florida State League hitters away in early June, and was back in New Hampshire by July. He tossed a couple of gems with the Fisher Cats, most noticeably six innings of no-hit ball in mid-August. While he can dial his fastball up to the mid-90s, he's at his most effective when he works down in the zone, inducing weak contact.
Anthony Alford OF
There's nothing wrong with a prospect facing adversity early in his career. If he treats it as a learning experience, and keeps to the fundamentals and skills he's been taught by the organizations's instructors, he'll eventually break out of it.
Such is the case for the Blue Jays top prospect entering the 2016 season, who scuffled through an injury-plagued first half of the year after a breakout 2015 campaign, his first since quitting football to focus solely on baseball.
Alford was injured in a home plate collision on Dunedin's opening game, then missed time with a concussion suffered just a few weeks after his return in May.
Consistency at the plate was elusive for Alford in the season's first half, and there was a lot of swing and miss to his game, as his K rate reached 30%. Still, Alford works the count well, gets on base, and uses the whole field, and what has to be encouraging to the club is the 8 Home Runs and .459 slugging percentage he's posted in the second half, suggesting that the power is starting to show.
Alford is in Arizona to get more reps, and to be challenged by the top level pitching he's going to face. It's another stepping stone on his way to the big leagues.
Matt Dermody LHP
Dermody was yet another tall, lean (6"5", 180) pitcher the Jays stockpiled during the Brian Parker/Alex Anthopoulos era. I saw him start in Vancouver in 2013, weeks after he had been selected in the 28th round out of Iowa.
Dermody was drafted out of high school (where he threw the first 6-inning, 18K perfect game in state history) by the Pirates in the 26th round, but opted to attend college in his home state. The Rockies chose him in the 29th round in 2011, but he opted to stay in school. The Diamondbacks took him in the 23rd round in 2012, and Dermody was on the verge of signing, until an MRI revealed a 40% UCL tear. Dermody went back to school and rehabbed his elbow, but had little signing leverage, and the Blue Jays, always big fans of projection, chose him late, and shipped him off the to GCL.
My notes from his Vancouver outing showed that he sat 92 with his fastball, which had some life down in the zone, but he struggled with his secondaries. He split time as a starter and reliever with Lansing the following season, and by 2015, he was a full time bullpen arm with Dunedin. After giving up 98 hits in 77 FSL innings last year, there was little to suggest that he would be due for a breakout season a year later.
Repeating Dunedin this year, he quickly rose to New Hampshire and then Buffalo, joining the Bisons solid bullpen corps. His numbers this year tell a different story, as he posted a 1.82 ERA between the three levels over 54 innings.
What has been responsible for Dermody's transformation? The usual suspects - adding some deception to his delivery to make him tougher on lefthanded hitters, and improved command of his fastball and slider.
Dermody's rise up the ladder was made complete by a promotion to Toronto when major league rosters expanded today. He likely won't play a huge role in September, but gives the bullpen some much-needed southpaw depth.
Danny Jansen C
The Blue Jays have stockpiled pitching since 2010. They seem to be doing the same with catchers, which is not such a bad idea, given the uniqueness and demands of the position, and the length of time it takes to develop one.
Jansen has moved steadily up the ladder, spending this year at Dunedin, but has missed parts of the last three seasons due to injury, and the team is likely anxious to speed up his development. Early in his career, the highly-regarded 2013 16th rounder was drawing raves for his catching skills. He is already an excellent pitch framer and blocker of balls in the dirt, and has been praised for his ability to handle a pitching staff.
Jansen will never be a middle-of-the-order hitter, but the organization thinks enough of his skills to give him some added experience in Arizona. Even with Max Pentecost and Reese McGuire ahead of him on the Blue Jays catching depth charts, there are many who have said that Jansen could play in the majors one day.
Tim Mayza LHP
Minor league relievers don't tend to have a lot of value. Their main job, it seems to an observer, is to protect the valuable young arms of the starting rotation from having to go beyond their pitch count, which usually leads to a fairly high attrition rate.
Lefty bullpen arms can sometimes be a different matter, and Mayza is developing into one of them. Armed with a fastball that can touch 95, and complemented by an improving slider, Mayza had a breakout season with Lansing last year, and sandwiched a promotion to AA between stints with Dunedin this year, fanning 63 in as many innings.
Mayza has a "tall and fall" delivery, and with his back partially turned to home plate, can be tough on left handed hitters, and profiles as another southpaw specialist. He struggled a bit with his command at AA, but the organization felt comfortable in challenging him with an assignment to the AFL.
Ryan McBroom 1B/DH
Originally drafted by the Royals after his junior year at West Virginia, McBroom opted to go back to school, and the Blue Jays nabbed him in the 15th round in 2014. And all he's done in his first three pro seasons is hit: .297/.339/.502 at Vancouver, .315/.387/.482 (and Midwest League MVP) at Lansing, and .279/.329/.477 mostly with Dunedin this year.
McBroom is rarely mentioned in talk of the system's best prospects, however. At 6'3"/230, he's pretty limited defensively, and while he's passed L.B. Dantzler as a prospect, his path upwards will likely always be blocked by Rowdy Tellez. The team experimented with him in the outfield last year, and perhaps there will be a return to that in Arizona, but McBroom's future is entirely dependent on his bat.
But what a bat it is - McBroom has topped 20 Home Runs in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, and while he scuffled in a brief trial with New Hampshire this summer, it will be very interesting to see how he fares against tougher pitching in Arizona. Success in the southwest may help him break through as a prospect.