Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects

   2016 was a year of steady, if not spectacular growth in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system.
After former GM Alex Anthopoulos dealt 18 prospects to improve the major league roster in an eight-month period, the system was bound to go through a dry spell.
   The good news is that there was some talent in the lower levels of the system that showed encouraging signs; the bad news is that there's still a lack of upper-level depth - there are no Blue Jays prospects in Baseball America's Top 50, and only 3 in the back end of the Top 100.
   The new Mark Shapiro-Ross Atkins regime opted to pump the brakes somewhat on the development of prospects.  Promotions were still in the offing, but this is an organization that now opts for a slow but steady approach to bringing a prospect through the system.  It's not likely we will see a player sail through three or four levels in a season, as Dalton Pompey, Daniel Norris, and Kendall Graveman did in 2014, anytime soon. The message to prospects was clear:  you will not be rushed, nor will you make it to the next level until you've checked all the boxes on your list of skills to improve.
   The club's draft philosophy, in what turned out to be Brian Parker's last as head of amateur scouting, took a shift in direction.  After showing a preference for projectable athletes (ie, high school pitchers), the team dipped into the college ranks, taking collegians with 5 of their first 6 picks.  This may have been in the interest of re-stocking the system quickly after Anthopoulos raided the cupboard last year, or it may indicate a desire to go with safer, more polished players who are closer to MLB-ready.  The addition of former Red Sox GM Ben Cherington, who will help oversee player development, is a huge boost to the organization, and will no doubt bring some of his advanced player evaluation methods to the club.
   The system is no longer among the bottom in terms of rankings, but it's not near the top, either.


1.  Vladimir Guerrero Jr  3B
ETA:  late 2019, early 2020
Future Outlook  impact, middle of the order bat
Calling Card:  advanced strike zone judgement, Home Run Derby power

   A year ago, I was hard pressed to include a 16-year old who had never stepped on a professional field in the Top 10 list, and placed him at the back end.
   Now, after watching him handle Appalachian League pitching very well as a 17 year old, I am all in.  In naming him the Appy League's top prospect, despite being the loop's youngest player, Baseball America said:
Guerrero showed elite hard-hit ability, consistently squaring up pitches and covering the plate well. He shows plus bat speed, natural timing in the box, an understanding of the strike zone and an ability to recognize and track offspeed pitches.

   It's early, and there are hurdles for the young slugger to face, but he is already shaping up as possibly the best hitting prospect the organization has ever produced.
  Vlad Jr has shown strike zone judgement (12% walk rate), bat speed (he slugged .449), and an ability to use the whole field:
   That's three ingredients for future success.
   The biggest concerns about Guerrero heading into 2016 were his bulky build, and his ultimate position.  While he'll never be a 30-30 guy like his Dad (he will draw more walks than his Father did, though), Vlad Jr stole 15 bases in 20 attempts, which owed more to base running smarts than it did outright speed, but demonstrated another facet of his game.
   Reports on Guerrero at the hot corner suggested that he was at least adequate in terms of range, footwork, and hands, and has the arm strength to stick there a while longer.  He'll continue to work on his skills at 3rd during Fall Instructional League.
   Guerrero hit .271 and had an .808 OPS - a late season swoon in which he went 3-25 dropped his numbers, but this is a player who more than held his own in his first pro season against players 3-4 years older than him.  If he grew up stateside, Vlad Jr would just be heading into his senior year of high school. Much has been made of his build, which leaned toward the slightly chubby side when he signed, but reports indicate that like Rowdy Tellez and Roberto Osuna before him, Guerrero is slowly transforming his body through training and nutrition.
    I wasn't convinced a year ago, but I'm more than convinced now.  This is a middle-of-the-order, impact bat in the making.  Guerrero has said he wants to be in the majors before he turns 20, and while the club will want to take things gradually with him, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him there by then.  Expect Guerrero to spend next season with Lansing.  He may take a bit of a step back at the start of the season with the colder weather and the more polished pitchers in the Midwest League, but there's every reason to believe he'll adjust.  This is a kid who skipped both the DSL and the GCL; there's some maturity there.
   With his soon to be Hall of Famer Dad in attendance, Jr knocked his first round tripper in his second pro game:

2.  Rowdy Tellez  1B
ETA:  late 2017, early 2018
Future Outlook:  middle of the order bat
Calling Card:  not a one-dimensional slugger; gets on base, uses the whole field.

   It's Rowdy time!
   I have been an enthusiastic fan of the oversized slugger since his first pro season.  The organization has patiently moved him through the system, and he has responded to every challenge.
   Sent to AA New Hampshire to start the season (when several of his fellow prospects were sent back to Dunedin for more seasoning) because of his advanced feel for the strike zone, Tellez did not see a lot of strikes in April, as pitchers avoided him and preferred to pitch to his slow-starting Fisher Cats teammates. Tellez did not expand his strike zone that month, and stayed patient, hitting only .164, but posting a .345 OBP.  As his teammates heated up, so did Tellez, and he put up solid numbers: .297/.387/.917, with 23 Homers, finishing 3rd in the Eastern League in Slugging and OPS.
   What has always impressed me the most about Tellez is that he's more than a one-dimensional slugger. There have always been concerns about his lack of speed and his fielding, but he has done as much as any player in the organization to transform his body and become more agile.  And while there's 30-Homer potential there, Tellez does not go up to the plate swinging from the heels, telling David Lauria of Fangraphs:
“I’ve watched a lot of guys over the years. The two I’ve really narrowed it down to watching — dissecting their swings and approaches — are Adrian Gonzalez and Anthony Rizzo. I look at how easy Gonzalez swings and I’ve adopted a little bit of what Rizzo does with two strikes. He takes out his leg kick and works on driving the ball the other way. He knows he can hit home runs to all fields, even with a two-strike approach and not having the leg kick. That’s what I’m doing now. If you can eliminate strikeouts… it’s a huge game-changer."
   The plan for Tellez is to begin the year with Buffalo in 2017, but I'm willing to go out on a limb and suggest that if the Blue Jays are unable to re-sign Edwin Encarnacion, and he has a decent spring, Tellez could break camp with the big club as the starting 1st Baseman next year.  Replacing Edwing's bat in the lineup will be a tall order, but Tellez could offer the club a player that gets on base, puts the ball in play, and isn't afraid to change his approach with two strikes.
   It's easy to picture this smooth left-handed stroke in the Rogers Centre:

3.  Anthony Alford OF
ETA:  2018
Future Outlook  Kenny Lofton-like lead off hitter
Calling Card:  game-changing speed and developing gap power

  2015 was a breakout year for the former two-sport star, who gave up his gridiron dreams in the fall of 2014 to focus on baseball after three years of part-time play since being drafted in the 3rd round of 2012. After a solid half season at Dunedin at the end of last season, it was reasonable to expect Alford would start at New Hampshire.  Not so fast, said the organization, recognizing his relative baseball inexperience, and the need to improve his pitch recognition and strike zone judgement, sending him back to the D-Jays to open the season.
   Injured in a home-plate collision on Dunedin's opening day, and put on the shelf again six weeks later with a concussion suffered in an outfield collision, Alford's first half was pretty much a wipeout.
   And that's not a bad thing.  Almost all successful prospects have to go through some adversity on their way up the ladder, and this year was the Mississippian's turn.  The bad times can be more instructive than the good times.
   After a .200/.277/.256 first half, Alford was finally healthy by July, and turned things around, posting a .257/.381/.449 line.  Alford's 117 strikeouts have to be a concern to the organization, although his K rate was 37% in the first half, when he was in and out of the lineup, and only 25% in the second, when he was a fixture atop the D-Jays' batting order.  The 7 Home Runs he hit in the 2nd half hint at some developing power.
   Alford has always trusted his ability, and he has learned to put failure on the field into perspective, as he told
"I'm just learning, learning more about myself. This season has been a good learning season for me because I've never had to deal with failure. I've failed a lot this year. I guess that's something I needed to go through," he said. "I'm not afraid to fail because I know myself and I know my ability and my mind-set. I'm going to overcome it and I'm going to make the adjustment because that's just who I am as an athlete."
   Even though he stole only 18 bases in 24 attempts after swiping 27 a year ago, Alford still profiles as a top of the order bat with game-changing speed.  He works the count well, and the club is hoping that he will learn not to expand his strike zone so much with two strikes to help cut down on the whiffs. That the organization still views him as a top prospect is evidenced by the fact that he was selected to play in the Arizona Fall League, where he will make up for some missed playing time, and hone his skills against top competition.  Alford will begin 2017 in New Hampshire, where he should regain much of his former prospect lustre.
   The Florida State League is a black hole for streaming video, so we'll have to make do with some clouds of dust as Alford triples for Lansing in 2015:

4.  Sean Reid-Foley  RHP
ETA:  2018
Future Outlook:  #2 or #3 starter; innings eater
Calling Card:  95 mph fastball with command to both sides of the plate

   The 2014 2nd rounder impressed many in his first year of full season ball last year, and after splitting time between Dunedin and Lansing last year, it was a bit of a surprise that he started the year in Michigan.
   But the new management team sent a clear message across the organization that promotion to the next level isn't automatic, and is contingent upon a prospect working on a number of things.
   And for Reid-Foley, that thing was commanding his fastball to both sides of the plate.
   As I wrote earlier this year, Reid-Foley came into 2016 with a new, simplified delivery.  First implemented at Instructs of Fall 2015, the new mechanics were meant to simplify things, and help Reid-Foley find a delivery that he could repeat consistently.  In 2015, he would lose the strike zone almost without warning during a game that he was cruising along in, and scouts noted that he lacked the experience to make the mechanical adjustments that would help him re-discover it, driving up his pitch count, and hastening his exit from the game.
  Reid-Foley fanned 59 in 58 innings in his first 11 starts with Lansing, with only 22 walks, earning a return trip to Dunedin, where he struck out a career-high 12 over 7 innings in his first start.  In his next start, he fanned only 3 thru 6, but more impressive was that he didn't walk a batter - in 57 innings with the D-Jays, he whiffed 71, while walking only 16.   His season would have been even more impressive had he not been shut down for the rest of the season after August 10th.  Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim told Sportsnet's Shi Davidi that it was for precautionary reasons:
"You always want to be conservative or cautious with pitchers and elbows. He returned to throwing three weeks ago, he’s doing fine, he feels great. It was more precautionary than anything. He had a great season, made a lot of positive strides, and we didn’t want to push anything there, although he wanted to pitch."
   Reid-Foley is a power pitcher who missed a lot of bats with his 93-95 fastball and wipeout slider.  Sent to Instructs once again, he'll try to refine command of his changeup.  There once were comparisons to Jonathan Papelbon, but Reid-Foley has demonstrated an ability to turn over a lineup, and now is the most promising starting pitcher in the organization.  Only three years out of high school, he will continue his slow but steady climb up the ladder at New Hampshire next year.

   SRF from 2015 displaying his swing-and-miss stuff:

5.  Richard Urena SS
ETA:  late 2017, early 2018
Future Outlook:  steady defensive middle infielder
Calling Card:  surprising pop - more than just a glove

   In July of 2012, the Blue Jays secured the services of the two highest-rated shortstops of the International free agent class.  Urena and Venezuelan Franklin Barreto moved up the lower levels of the organization in lock step, with Barreto usually a level ahead of Urena.  The consensus was that Barreto's defensive skill set was best suited to another position, and that Urena proejcted as a better defensive player, but when the two briefly played together in Vancouver in 2014, Barreto played short, and Urena played 3rd.
  That off season, when then-GM Alex Anthopoulos was in the midst of putting together a deal to acquire Josh Donaldson from Oakland, he had to decide which of the two youngsters was the team's shortstop of the future.
  He chose Urena.
  To be honest, I was disappointed that the club let Barreto go after winning the Northwest League MVP at the age of 18, but you have to give up something to get something, and one can hardly argue with the results of that deal.
   And Urena, who had been regarded as a defence-first player, has done nothing but hit in the ensuing two seasons, and actually out hit Barreto this year (.295/.334/.434 vs  .284/.342/.422) - Barreto spent much of his year in AA, while Urena was promoted to that level in August.
   Urena is a slick fielder, with quick twitch reactions.  The knock against his defensive skills was his tendency to nonchalant routine plays, a knack which he has cut back drastically on.  After starting the year at Dunedin (where he was named a Florida State League All Start despite missing the final month of the season), he was promoted to New Hampshire in August after putting up a .305/.351/.447 line, and he was a hit in the Eastern League, going 7-14 in his first three games, and demonstrating his speed and gap power with a pair of triples, and three more in a game a week later.
   Urena is aggressive at the plate, and jumps on fastballs early in the game.  He's shown improved plate discipline, and cut down on his strikeout totals from last year.  His swing from the right side has been a work in progress, and still needs further refining, although he posted respectable numbers.  In naming him their top Blue Jays mid-season prospect, MLB Pipeline noted:
Urena also made significant progress on defense last season by making only 23 errors in 120 games at shortstop, after he committed 40 in 119 games between his first two pro seasons. He has the tools to stick at the position, with soft hands, clean actions and plus arm strength. Urena may be a ways away from making an impact at the highest level, but he shows the makings of an everyday shortstop capable of hitting for some average and 15-20 homers in a given season.
  He has kind of gotten lost in the ascendancy of Tellez, SRF, and Guerrero, but Urena is on the verge of being MLB-ready.   While Troy Tulowitzki shows no signs of slowing down, he's Tulo's eventual successor at short.  With Tellez, Urena, and Greene in the lineup next year, AAA Buffalo will be a team worth watching.
  Urena triples for his first AA hit in August:

6.  Conner Greene RHP
ETA:  2018
Future Outlook: mid rotation starter
Calling Card:  pounder of the lower half of the strike zone
   Greene caught a heavy dose of helium last year, in his first campaign of full season ball, beginning the year at Lansing, and finishing at New Hampshire.  Invited to MLB spring training, he had a successful debut, and appeared set to step back on that rocket ride to the top.
   Except like Reid-Foley, he still had things to work on, and was sent back to Dunedin, fastball command and his secondaries being the items in question.  Kim also told Sportsnet's Davidi that there were some things he needed to work on between starts:
This year he worked on his five-day routine … becoming more consistent, whether it’s side sessions, or long toss, locking everything in with the same focus he has on the mound. Those are areas of his game that have improved.
   By mid-season, Greene was back in AA, and seemed to alternate lights out appearances with ones in which he was knocked around.  He did throw six innings of no-hit ball in one mid-August start.  Greene sits 92-94 with his fastball, and has a change that is particularly effective.  He did not miss as many bats this year as he did last year (2016 on the top, 2015 on the bottom).....

      ....but he did generate more ground ball outs, evidence of his success in keeping his pitches down in the zone.
   There is a tendency to think that Greene took a slight step backward in his development this year if you make that kind of judgement based solely on his numbers.  Still, he is young (he turned 21 as the season opened in April), but this was truly a year of refinement for the athletic righthander.  It's easy to look solely at a prospect's numbers for a given season and ignore the body of work and the ongoing adjustments that were part of it.  Even after a breakout season in 2015, there was still room for improvement.  Greene may begin the year at New Hampshire, but should see Buffalo by season's end.


7.  Jon Harris RHP
ETA: 2018
Future Outlook: durable back of the rotation arm
Calling Card:  lots of groundball outs
   During the Alex Anthopoulos era, the Blue Jays showed a preference for drafting athletic high school pitchers who may not have always been at the top of the scouting lists, but fit a profile that promised future projection.  HS pitchers have always been among the biggest gambles in the draft, but the Blue Jays shunned tradition, with the goal of getting those athletes into the system as soon as possible in order to overhaul just about every aspect of their pitching profile.
   One of those was a 6'2/150 pitcher from surburban St Louis who was so skinny he probably had to run around in the shower to get wet named Jon Harris, in the 33rd round.  Harris opted to attend Missouri State, and the Blue Jays were ecstatic when his name was still on the board three years later when it came time to make their first overall pick at number 29.  Harris had grown to 6'4"/190, and had become one of the top collegiate pitchers in the nation.
   His first summer in pro ball was not a successful one, however, as Harris struggled with this command at Vancouver, missing the plate on many occasions, or finding too much of it on others.  There was talk that Harris was worn down from a long NCAA season, but there were also suggestions that his delivery, which had a lot of moving parts, was to blame.  A major re-make of hs mechanics was in store during Instructs, and you can see the results from one of his final college outings to one with Lansing this spring. The deliveries are similar, but his hands rise over his head in the bottom one, leading to a more deliberate motion, and a less awkward finish, leaving him in a better fielding positon:



   Harris was also taught the grip for a four-seam change up to go along with his four-seam fastball, and the results were impressive.  Sent to Lansing to start the season, Harris gave up an unearned run in his second start, then allowed no runs over his next six starts, a span of 32 innings.  In each of his final two starts, he struck out 11 in 7 innings, both career highs.  Harris was promoted to Dunedin in late July.
  Harris offers a four pitch mix, with his fastball, slider and change having been graded as potential plus pitches.  He sits 92-94 with that fastball, which has some heavy sink to it when he's on, leading to a lot of ground balls.  He commented during the season that keeping weight on was an issue for him throughout high school and college, but he's managed to pack on some pounds and strength.  Harris projects as an inning-eating back of the rotation arm, and he likely will repeat Dunedin next year for at least a half season.
8.  Max Pentecost C
ETA:  2019
Future Outlook:  Russell Martin's heir apparent
Calling Card:  plus athleticism, translating to success at the plate and on the basepaths
   When Pentecost took to the field (as a DH, actually) for Lansing, it marked his first game in almost two years.  Shut down after only 25 games with Vancouver after being drafted 11th overall by the Blue Jays in 2014, it took three surgeries to properly repair his throwing shoulder.
   Pentecost was limited to DH duties all year, but continued to work on his receiving skills on the sideline, and will continue to do so at Instructs.  The plan is to have him back behind the plate by spring training, meaning that 2017 will be a huge year for Pentecost.  It usually takes several hundred minor league games to develop a catcher, but Pentecost may have to cram a lot into a few years.
  For now, the big club is set with Russell Martin signed for 3 more seasons, and the acquisition of Reese McGuire this summer has helped to shore up a position that was becoming dangerously thin in the organization.  This buys Pentecost some valuable development time.
   Pentecost has a compact swing, and sprays the ball to all fields.  He is not the prototypical lumbering, base-clogging Catcher - he was labelled one of the best athletes in his draft class.  He showed some pop (10 Homers between Dunedin and Lansing - two tough HR parks - in just over 300 PAs), but his 32% K rate is on the high side for a guy with good speed.  Some of that may have been due to rust, but Pentecost needs to put the ball in play more.
    Pentecost will likely start the season at Dunedin, with a possible move to AA by mid-season.
In this video clip, Pentecost shows both his power and speed:

9.  T.J Zeuch RHP
ETA: 2019
Future Outlook: mid-rotation starter
Calling Card:  heavy fastball that bores in on right-handed hitters
   Zeuch missed the first month of his college season with a groin injury, and because his Pitt Panthers were eliminated from NCAA play in May, the 1st round pick didn't pitch until early July.  So, we didn't see a lot of the 6'7" righty.
   But rest assured, we will see plenty next year.
   Zeuch made 6 starts for Vancouver and Lansing, usually limited to around 75 pitches per outing.  He sat 92-94 with his fastball, and will no doubt be working on his secondary pitches at Instructs.
   With his size, Zeuch gets late life on his fastball, which gets in on hitters in a hurry.  He has a fair amount of sinking movement on his sinker, and his slider is probably his best off-speed pitch.  In his time with Vancouver, he missed bats, and generated a lot of weak contact:

   Zeuch will return to Lansing to start 2016.  Even though his mechanics may not need as much refining as did Harris', chances are we'll see a different Zeuch next season.  

10.  Bo Bichette SS/2B
ETA: 2019
Future Outlook:  power-hitting 2B
Calling Card:  elite bat speed

   The 2nd round pick this year laid waste to GCL pitching, putting up a video game-like line of .427/.451/.732 despite missing over a month after an emergency appendectomy in July.
   Almost any GCL stats should come with a disclaimer (his brother Dante hit .342/.446/.505 there in 2011, but hasn't hit above .271 since then), but it's hard not to be impressed with Bichette's approach, and the number of balls he squared up in Florida.
   Drafted as a SS, Bichette will be given a chance to stick there, but he will likely wind up at 2nd or possibly 3rd if his power continues to develop.  He has some of the fast-twitch reflexes necessary to play short, but his arm can be erratic. Scouts were concerned about his hitting mechanics prior to the draft, particularly his set-up, but it's hard to argue with the results.
   Our good internet friend Chris King, who evaluates pro and amateur players and lives not far from the Jays minor league complex, was impressed:
   As an added bonus, Bichette and his brother Dante Jr were able to suit up for Brazil in their World Baseball Classic Qualifier in Brooklyn this past week.  Playing SS, Bichette showed both his upside and inexperience.  In one inning, he deftly fielded a groundball on the short hop, throwing across his body on the run to nip the runner at first.  Two batters later, he dove to his left to spear a sharply hit groundball, only to throw the ball wildly over his brother's head at 1st.  At the plate, in the pair of at bats I saw, he showed good patience in the first, not expanding his strike zone, and went the other way with a fastball for a base hit.  In his next plate appearance, perhaps a little frustrated at the steady diet of breaking balls he was seeing, he chased a pitch outside of the strike zone for strike three.
   Gil Kim calls Bichette one of the most projectable hitters in the system, and despite pre-draft concerns about his swing, the organization will not tinker with it at Instructs:
 We are not concerned with his mechanics or defense, but we will work in Instructs on getting him caught up with some ABs that he missed during the season. 
   Bichette was recently named the GCL's 4th best prospect by Baseball America, and gave this evaluation:
With hitting mannerisms reminiscent of Josh Donaldson, Bichette gears up for his swing with a leg kick, cranks his back elbow with a deep load, then accelerates the bat head into the hitting zone thanks to terrific bat speed. He keeps the barrel on plane through the zone for a long time, showing a mature approach and polished feel to hit for his age, and he quiets his swing when he gets into two-strike counts. He hits to all fields and drives the ball with plus power.

 It will not be a surprise at all if Bichette skips two levels to join Vladdy Jr at Lansing to start 2017.  If not for his appendectomy, he likely would have spent August playing under the lights with Bluefield, anyway.  You can judge his swing for yourself in this pre-draft video:

Update:   A few days after publishing this post, an alert reader pointed out the Bichette had been hospitalized for acute appendicitis.  Bichette had actually not been feeling well for several days in mid July, but was told by a doctor that what he had was viral, and would pass.  Bichette tried to soldier on for a few days, but could go no further, and went to the emergency ward.  There, doctors discovered that his appendix had in fact burst, but his body was slowly absorbing the toxins - Bichette joked that he performed surgery on himself.
   As someone who had his appendix rupture as it was being removed, I can only marvel at Bichette.  I have never been so sick in all my life.  

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