Saturday, October 22, 2016

Blue Jays Name Prospects Headed to Australia

Canberra mascot Sarge in New York
Peter Bojkowski photo

   The Blue Jays have (finally) named the prospects that will be headed to the Australian Baseball League to suit up for the Canberra Cavalry when ABL play opens at the end of the month.

  Relievers Andrew Case, Jackson LoweryJosh DeGraaf, outfielders DJ Davis and Josh Almonte, and Catcher Mike Reeves will take to the field for Canberra, who have had a successful partnership with the Blue Jays dating back several years.  The Blue Jays tend to use the down under experience to help a player make up for lost time due to injury or other issues, or to accelerate their development.  Anthony Alford was sent to Australia in 2015 after stepping away from college football, and the crash course he took in pitch recognition helped him break out as a prospect that year when he returned stateside.  "It's like they pitch you backward," Alford said of the mostly veteran-laden Aussie pitching staffs after struggling in the ABL with a heavy diet of breaking balls and fastballs just off the plate.  The experience helped him leap onto Baseball America's Top 100 list after the 2015 season. IF Jason Leblebijian was just another utility org guy in the system before hitting .324/.401/.578 for Canberra last season, and he didn't stop hitting when he returned home, slashing .294/.361/.436 between Dunedin and New Hampshire this season, establishing himself as a future MLB prospect. Cavalry Manger Michael Collins called the team's MVP the best SS the ABL has seen since Didi Gregorious (who played for Canberra in their first season):
After you get past Didi, Lebby's provided great defence, he's made a lot of great plays that people have almost come to expect as somewhat routine, which definitely are not [routine] ... plays that most people don't even get close to and he's almost making.

    RHP Case, a native of Saint John, NB, was signed as a free agent after a dominant performance at the inaugural Roberto Alomar T12 tournament in Toronto, a September showcase of the best amateur players in Canada, in 2013.  Case threw a 13-strikeout no-hitter in the semi-final, earning a contract with the Blue Jays.  He was suspended by MLB for 50 games in March of this year after failing to take a drug test.  Case claimed that he couldn't afford the flight from Alberta, where he was training, to Toronto for the test.  In truth, he may have mismanaged his time as well as his money.  Case, who was likely headed to Lansing, where he finished 2015, but had his season debut pushed back to July as a result of the suspension.  He posted an 0-2 record with a 2.28 ERA and 11 Saves in 22 appearances for Lansing, fanning 19 and helping to fortify the back end of the Lugnuts' bullpen.
  Case is not a power pitcher, topping out at 93 with his fastball.  He relies on command of his fastball to both sides of the plate, and a curveball that has nice shape and depth to it, which he can consistently throw for strikes.

    Righthander Lowery was another undrafted free agent signed out of Arkansas last season, where one of his teammates was 2016 4th rounder LHP  Zach Jackson.  Lowery went originally to Central Arkansas as an infielder, but transferred after a year to Meridian (MS) CC in order to pitch.  The following year, he realized a dream when he returned home to pitch with the Razorbacks.  Even though he became a long relief mainstay for Arkansas that year, his relative pitching inexperience and his size (6'0", 175) caused him to be overlooked in the draft in 2015.
  After a solid debut season in rookie ball last year, Jackson started the season with Vancouver, but was promoted to Lansing this year after saving 5 games in as many opportunities with the C's.  With Lansing, he pitched well in July and the first part of August, but struggled down the stretch, and it didn't sit well with him. "(I) didn't finish like I wanted, and let my team down a few times.  It will make me a better person this offseason."
   Lowery is a sinker/slider pitcher who, like Case, uses sequencing and location to get hitters out.  The contact he gives up tends to be of the ground ball variety.  He admitted that he was a little hesitant to accept travelling far from home, but sees the bigger picture in terms of his baseball career:
At first it got to me a little, not the distance but the time away, missing things like duck season and my family during the holidays. In order to accomplish the things that I want to accomplish in this game I have to sacrifice things and I'm willing to sacrifice almost anything in order to live out this dream. I have the support of my family so I'll do whatever it takes. It's an honor to be invited to this league and to have the support of the Blue Jays. I owe it all to them. They are the reason I am still playing and it is a privilege to represent the organization. I hope to continue to grow as a pitcher mentally and physically and continue to get stronger for next season.

     Righthy DeGraaf, a 2015 31st rounder out of NAIA Taylor University, is a finesse pitcher like his Lansing teammates Case and Lowery.  He did a little bit of everything for the Lugnuts this year, starting 7 games, pitching in long relief, and saving 3 games over 94 innings.  He complements his sinker with a slider and a changeup, his out pitch.
   One of the things that I have come to really enjoy about writing this blog is researching the background of players like DeGraaf - guys who were not highly touted, but have maximized their ability.  DeGraaf's high school coach spoke glowingly about him:
“We knew that Josh would go on to good things,” Kein said. “When he was playing for us, it was evident that he wasn’t as physically mature as he was going to get. He has done a lot of hard work. He is one of the best players I have ever coached. He played shortstop for three years on the varsity level. He was a great program kid and a great leader. He is one of the few players I have ever hadl that was a captain in both his junior and senior years. It was his intelligence that put him head and shoulders above others. He is a very smart player. He knew our system inside and out and the game in general. He was a great teacher to the younger kids.”
   Of all the prospects headed to the ABL, none have the pedigree of Davis - and few have underachieved to the extent he has.  A 2012 1st rounder from Mississippi HS ball, Davis was one of the youngest players in his draft class, and represented a roll of the dice for the Blue Jays amateur scouting staff.  His tools were without question, but The Magnolia State is more known for producing footballers than it is baseball players.
In five minor league seasons, Davis has posted a line of .239/.312/.352, which was inflated by a .282/.340/.391 2015 season with Lansing - his second at that level, after striking out a league-high 167 times the year before.
   Davis missed a month due to injury this year with Dunedin, and hit only .197 for the D-Jays in 97 games. He's headed to the ABL not only to make up for that lost time, but also perhaps to sharpen his pitch recognition skills - he's struck out almost 30% of the time over his minor league career.
   He's fallen off the prospect radar, but the tools are no doubt still there, and at 22, there is still time for Davis to turn his career around.

   Almonte was a 22nd rounder taken out of Long Island, NY high school in 2012, and the club's patience in his gradual development was rewarded with a breakout .307/.343/.398 season with short-season Bluefield in 2014.  He had trouble staying healthy with Lansing in 2015, and slipped below the Mendoza line between Lansing and Dunedin this year, hitting .199/.245/.275.  The tools are there, but the performance mostly has not.

  Reeves is from the hockey hotbed of Peterborough, ON, by way of Florida Gulf Coast University in the 2013 draft.  In four years in mostly a back up role, he has yet to play above High A.  Reeves will provide some depth for Canberra behind the plate.

  The Blue Jays, for their part, are pleased with the partnership they have with Canberra.  The Cavalry draw decent crowds, and are well supported by the community.  The level of competition is not elite, but it's reasonably good.  The league has a number of  AA-type pitchers and indy ball veterans who are hopeful of another shot at affiliated ball, and are putting their beset foot forward.  Despite being far from home, it's a good atmosphere for prospects who wouldn't have an opportunity to play elsewhere.  The Canberra organization is similarly pleased with the arrangement, according to Cavalry CEO Donn McMichael:
The Canberra Cavalry consider our relationship with The Blue Jays as THE most important of all that we have. The Blue Jays have always been very professional in our dealings with them and have always tried to support any gaps in our roster. They communicate well with us and we are aware early in compiling our roster who they intend on sending to us.
 The players that have played with us from the Jays have all been quality men and have been willing to assist us in our community engagement with visits to schools, paediatric wards at the hospital etc

   It's a unique experience for these players, most of whom have never been so far from home.  As Lowery suggested, it's a necessary step to help further their careers.  Alford has some words of advice for the prospects the Blue Jays have sent to Australia:
Just be a student of the game. Continue to sharpen their craft. Don't get caught up in the results, because the stats there don't determine who they are as a baseball player. Continue to learn, because you can never learn too much.
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   The elephant in the ABL, of course, is the decision by MLB to pull its funding this year after the original five-year commitment they made to Australian baseball ended.  Baseball is still a fringe sport in Australia, and the ABL is a crucial part of its development.  League rules mandate that at least 5 homegrown players must be in a team's lineup at all time.  When MLB stepped in to help revive the ABL in 2010, they agreed to finance the league for 75% of its expenses (most of which went to building playing facilities that were brought up to MLB standards), with the Australian Baseball Federation picking up the rest.
   The 2015-16 season did not get off to a rousing start when league CEO Peter Wermuth was let go on the eve of the season opener.  Fans were frustrated over the league's lack of growth.  This season, with the funding cut backs, the regular season was shortened from 55 to 40 games.
   The league still faces an uncertain future.  Some teams, like Canberra, have developed partnerships with the local business community, but other teams in the 6-team loop are struggling at the gate and on their spreadsheets. In some parks around the league, the empty seats and lack of advertising don't suggest a rosy financial picture.  MLB has looked at other emerging markets like China in which to grow the game and discover new talent.  Still, McMichael is optimistic about the league's future:
I am very confident that the ABL will continue to grow and help develop the talent that we are producing in Australia, and be a destination for both affiliated and independent ball players to play winter ball.
 This year is very much a year of consolidation for the ABL after the departure of MLB. It is fair to say that without the assistance of MLB over the past 6 years the ABL would not be in the strong position that it is and we are very grateful for all that they have done is assisting us.

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      Only Brisbane has secured sponsorship to stream all of its games on the ABL's website.  The other teams will stream one game per series.  The ABL does have a YouTube channel, where you can watch highlights and archived games.
   The time difference between Canberra and Toronto is 15 hours, so watching the Cavs will often mean getting up in the dark at about 4:30 am to watch.  
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