Friday, October 13, 2017

Could Otani Sign with the Blue Jays?

Getty images

     He's been called Japan's Babe Ruth, and for good reason.
   23 year old Shohei Otani of the Nippon Ham Fighters is easily the best player in the world not currently under contract to an MLB team.  That appears about to end, however, as multiple reports from the Far East suggest that he's ready to come stateside next season, foregoing millions of dollars in the process.
   Otani had an inury-plagued 2017, as thigh and ankle issues limited him to 63 games and 4 starts.  The left handed hitter/right handed pitcher was the JPPL's MVP in 2016, hitting .322/.416/.588, and going 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA, fanning 174 in 140 innings.  He underwent surgery on the ankle this week, but all indications are that he'll be ready for spring training.

    Otani is a true generational talent - he can dial his fastball up to 100, and is a dangerous LHH.  His desire is to continue to be a two-way player in North America, although most teams pursuing him appear to be content to let him DH a few times per week between starts.  Otani reportedly would like to play the outfield on occasion as well.  While it's understandable that teams might not want the ace of their staff taking a position on the field in between starts, the Blue Jays happen to have an opening in Right Field, of course, and Otani would fit incredibly well with Marcus Stroman at the top of the rotation.

    Under the terms of a new MLB collective agreement, players under 25 (who have less than six years' experience in a foreign pro league) can't sign for bonuses of more than about $10 million.  Teams are limited to a hard cap of between $4.75 to $5.75 million in bonus money during the IFA signing period, although teams can trade for up to 75% of their bonus pool money - the Yankees received $1.5 million in pool money from Oakland in the Sonny Gray deal, and have quietly upped their total to just over $8 million, the same amount that the Red Sox have to spend.  Would they be willing to blow the bank on one player?  With a player of Otani's status, that seems likely.
   Unlike the bidding for previous Japanese players, the playing field is fairly level.  Some of the bigger players, like the Cubs and Dodgers (who Otani almost signed with out of high school), can't sign an IFA for more than a $300K bonus because they exceeded their pool limits in the past.  There currently are as many as 8 teams that theorectically could offer him the max bonus of $10.1 million, but 3 of them (Royals, Padres, and Cardinals) also are limited to $300K.

   If he was to wait two more years, Otani would likely command a deal in the $150-200 million range. Even  though the new CBA dictates that he has to sign a minor league contract, and would be limited to the MLB minimum of $545 000 (and would be subject to MLB's service time rules, which would mean that he wouldn't be eligible for free agency for six years), there are some who suggest that Otani's reps will be sure to include some sort of under-the-table extension agreement.  While that may be the case, if such an agreement were discovered by MLB, the penalties would be harsh.  The scrutiny the Braves are currently undergoing as a result of past transgressions in the international market (which has already cost GM John Coppolella his job) might cause a team to think twice about such an arrangement.

   Where do the Blue Jays fit in the Otani scenario?   They have quietly been building a relationship with both Otani and the Fighters.  Dan Evans, the Blue Jays Director of Pacific Rim Operations, has a lengthy relationship with teams and player across the ocean dating back to his days as the Dodgers GM. One of the most respected MLB scouts in Asia, Evans has been following Otani since his days as a storied high school player, and has spent a fair amount of time in Japan following him since he turned pro. Evans has also built strong ties with the Fighters' front office.  When Otani returned to action this fall, a number of Jays personnel joined Evans in Japan scouting him, including Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, director of pro scouting Ryan Mittleman, and several west coast scouts. Teams simply don't make this type of investment in a player (sending a sizeable contigent to Japan for several weeks is a huge expense) if they're not all in on him.  Many teams have sent multiple front office types, of course, but few have had as sustained (or as prominent) a presence as the Blue Jays.
   In order to go on the international market, the Fighters will have to post him.  The posting fee this time around is said to be in the $20 million range - a far cry from past posting fees.
   Despite leaving all that money on the table, stories from Japan state that Otani lives very frugally.  His parents give him a stipend of $1000 US per month from his earnings, most of which he spends on fitness books and workout equipment.  This is a player who appears very much to want to prove himself in MLB, and the money - at this point - seems to be secondary.  The Rangers appear to be very much in the running, along with the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Yankees.  Perhaps the Cubs and Dodgers, who covet Otani, could still be in the running despite their bonus limitations, with the promise of future earnings. The Padres and Mariners also reportedly have been in the mix.  One thing is for certain - the team that does sign him will win the lottery, getting an MLB-ready impact player for half the cost of Lourdes Gurriel Jr, who the Blue Jays gave a 7 year/$21 million deal to last year.  Are the Blue Jays a player for his services?   No one knows for sure, but if the Blue Jays fail to sign Otani, it won't be for a lack of effort.  Unlike past IFAs like Aroldis Chapman, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Yu Darvish, all of whom the Jays were reported to be "in" on, there's at least a feeling that the Blue Jays at least have a chance this time.

 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Blue Jays Send Large Contingent to Arizona

Jackson McClelland - Clutchlings photo

  The Blue Jays will be sending one of the largest groups of players to the Arizona Fall League in recent memory.  8 players and one coach will suit up for the Peoria Javelinas when play begins later today.
   The AFL serves as a finishing school for the top prospects in most organizations.  Teams use the experience to see how their players stack up against elite competition.  The time in Arizona is also used by teams to give their players some added reps if they had missed some time due to injury during the regular minor league season.
    Four pitchers will be playing for Peoria on behalf of the Blue Jays, including relievers Andrew Case, Jackson McClelland, and Danny Young.  New Brunswicker Case does not blow hitters away, but with his command and ability to set up batters allowed him to limit hitters to a .230 average at 3 levels this year after beginnning the year in High A.  McClelland, like Case a RHP, saved 15 games in 16 opportunities between Lansing and Dunedin this year, with a tidy 1.08 WHIP.  Young is a sidewiding lefty who changed his arm slot last season.  After starting the season at Dunedin, left handed hitters managed only to hit .154 against him in AA.  The Blue Jays are building some impressive bullpen depth in their system, and it won't be a surprise to see this trio fare well in Arizona.  Starting Pitcher TJ Zeuch, the club's first round pick last year, seemed primed to take off this season.  A lower back strain landed him on the DL in June, and his rehab was set back by a hamstring strain.  Zeuch returned in August, but on a strict innings/pitch limit.  He's in Arizona to make up for lost development time, having only pitched 11 innings since the end of May.
    The Blue Jays will be sending a pair of Catchers to the Southwest.  Max Pentecost has missed considerable time since being drafted in the first round in 2014.  After a successful return in a role limited to DHing last year at Lansing and Dunedin, Pentecost returned to Catching with the D-Jays, also spending time at 1st and DH.  Injuries forced him to be shut down for much of June and again for most of August.  A premium talent who likely would be a big leaguer by now if not for the time lost to injury, it will be interesting not only to see how Pentecost fares against the advanced competition in the the AFL, but what position he will take on the field.  Many have wondered if he can stand up to the rigors of Catching every day, and with the development of Danny Jansen and the acquisition last year of Reese McGuire, the Blue Jays may be contemplating moving him out from behind the plate.
    Javier Hernandez, who may be the best defensive Catcher in the system, will join Pentecost on the Peoria roster.  Injuries limited his season debut until late June, and he's in Arizona for some added reps.
   The verstaile Lourdes Gurriel Jr will also suit up for Peoria.  The much-heralded off season free agent signing from Cuba had his own injury struggles this season.  Splitting his season between Dunedin (18 games) and New Hampshire (46), Gurriel showed plenty of promise on both sides of the ball.  Gurriel split time between SS and 2B this year, but showed MLB-ready skills in terms of his reactions to ground balls, as well as his footwork, hands, and arm.  His bat was a different story, which can be at least in part attributed to two seasons of inactivity prior to this one, and some time on the DL earlier this year.  He's in Arizona to help accelerate his development.
   OF Jonathan Davis, who has shown an ability to get on base throughout his minor league career, and can play all three Outfield positions, is the 8th Toronto prospect assigned to Peoria.
   Rounding out the Toronto contingent is former MLBer Corey Hart, who drew raves for his work as Dunedin's hitting coach this year.
 
   The AFL serves as a lab for the latest MLB pace of play experiments.  The pitch clock will be tinkered with this year - with no runners on, a Pitcher must come set before the 12 second clock runs out.  With runners aboard, he'll have 15 seconds once he receives the ball back from the Catcher.  In addtion, mound visits by Managers or Pitching Coaches will be limited to 30 seconds.  The extra-inning runner replacement rule will also be implemented this fall.  Long used in international play, and adopted by the complex leagues this year, the main purposed of the rule at the lower levels is to help preserve pitching staffs.  Starting with the 10th inning, the player who made the final out in the top of the 9th (or a pinch runner), will be placed on 2nd.  The same will happen in the bottom of the inning.  If no winner is declared after 11 innings of play this fall in the AFL, games will end in a tie.    
   In addition to the Blue Jays prospects, the Peoria lineup features players from the Braves, Mariners, Padres, and Red Sox.  Atlanta hopeful Ronald Acuña, Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year, joins Padres slugging 1B Josh Naylor (a Greater Toronto Area product), and Michael Chavis, Boston's 2nd ranked prospect will don the Javelinas uniform.
   The AFL plays a compressed six-week schedule, with a winner take all championship game November 18th.  The Fall Stars Game on November 4th is usually streamed live, as is the league final. There is a huge assortment of prospect evaluators on Twitter who often live tweet the action.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Clutchlings Minor League Award Winners


Rich Miller - Vancouver Province photo

     The Blue Jays farm system ended the season on a positive note.  As President Mark Shapiro had noted in late August, much of the depth in the organization is still working its way up the ladder, and as if to reinforce that point, 4 of the team's 5 short season clubs made their respective league's post seasons, while three of the four full season teams fell short of .500.

    In the minors, development supersedes winning. Teams do like their top prospects to move up and learn to win together, so making the playoffs is viewed as a positive thing.  It can be also be a chance for tired players to injure themselves.  The Blue Jays executives I have spoken to over the years don't necessarily see the minor league post season as a bad thing, but their lack of enthusiasm in noticeable.

    At the bottom of the ladder, the Dominican Summer League's DSL Blue Jays won their division, only to be beaten in the first round by the Dodgers.  Top IFAs from 2016 like Hugo Cardona, Naswell Paulino, Elixon Caballero, and Kenny Mauricio played for the club, which was piloted by veteran Blue Jays minor league Manager John Tamargo.
     One of the realities of minor league ball is that many of the players plying their trade for an organization are roster fillers.  Teams will tell you that they believe that every player they sign has a chance, and while I think the Blue Jays sincerely believe that, the truth is that since only a handful of minor leaguers even get a cup of coffee in the bigs, roster turnover is a fairly frequent thing.  Case in point: DSL Jays OF Andres Martinez, a late 2016 signing who was the club's best hitter, and our pick for Player of the Year.  Martinez was among the team leaders in Average and OBP, but at 19 (he just turned 20), he was a little old for this level.  IF Rafael Lantigua had comparable numbers, and a higher Slugging %, thanks to 6 Triples.  He was also 11-23 in Stolen Bases, negating much of the value he created by getting on base.  Martinez provided little pop (only 7 extra base hits, all Doubles), and that plus his age probably made the Jays feel he wasn't a candidate to move stateside next year.
   The DSL Jays Pitcher of the Year race was a tight one.  LHP Paulino, a converted OF who can dial it up to 96, fanned 52 in 55 innings, and had a couple of outings where he was all but unhittable. Caballero, a Marcus Stroman-sized righty with an advanced feel for pitching, worked mostly out of the bullpen, striking out 36 in 32 frames.  But the award goes to Righty Nathanael Perez, who K'd 55 and walked only 7 in 57 IP.  Paulino and Caballero are only 17, while Perez is 19.  All 3 will start in the GCL next year.  The former two may move fast at some point.

   The next rung on the ladder would be the Gulf Coast Jays, who were tied with the Phillies entry for first in their division with 10 games left in the schedule.  The GCL Jays stumbled to a 4-6 finish, ending up two games behind the Phils and out of the playoffs.
   The GCL is where high schoolers and lower round college players from the June draft begin their careers.  Rehabbing minor leaguers from upper levels also return to action via the GCL.  CF Dominic Abbadessa, a 2016 23rd rounder whose debut season was limited to 15 games, was the team's top player (.340/.402/.408), and our Player of the Year.
   The GCL Jays Pitcher of the Year choice was fairly obvious.  Even on a fairly deep pitching staff, Maverik Buffo stood out.  A 34th round choice out of BYU, Buffo's elbow issues of last year likely caused teams to pass on him, and even the Blue Jays seemed reluctant to let him leave the confines on the minor league complex, where the team's medical staff is located.  Buffo dominated GCL hitters, allowing only 28 hits and all of 2 walks in 34 innings, striking out 36.  His performance earned him a selection to the All Rookie-Level team by Baseball America.  The wraps should come off Buffo next year, and he should be headed to full season ball.

   Another BA All-Rookie Choice, 1B Ryan Noda, gets the nod as Bluefield's Player of the Year. Noda was an Advanced Triple Crown winner - Average, OBP, Slugging - in the Appy League.  The 15th round pick from Cincinnati flirted with .400 for much of the summer, before finally finishing with a line of .364/.507/.575.  Described by a source who saw him with Bluefield as, "very patient, bordering on passive," at the plate, he will see more advanced pitching in full season ball next year.
   Southpaw Randy Pondler is our Pitcher of the Year for Bluefield.  The Nicaraguan formed an effective 1-2 punch with 18 year old Venezuelan Maximo Castillo, and both (along with Buffo and several Vancouver arms) should lead an upgraded pitching staff at Lansing next year.  Pondler is a long and lean lefty with a live arm who throws low 90's heat, and his best secondary is an 11/5 curve that flashed solid depth and bite,  according to reports.
   Appy League voters obviously felt the same way about the pair;  Noda was named Player of the Year, while Pondler took hom Pitcher honours.

   Vancouver returned to the Northwest League finals for the first time since 2014, and didn't disappoint, defeating the Cubs' Eugene affliate 3-1, and capturing their 4th NWL crown in 7 years as a Blue Jays farm club.  SS Logan Warmoth (1st), and C Riley Adams (3rd) were two June picks who stood out in leading the C's to victory.  There was not a lot to choose between the two offensively, but Adams played 52 games at a demanding position, and helped guide a pitching staff that got better as the season progressed, and takes the award as a result.
   The C's Pitcher of the Year was an easy selection:  RHP Nate Pearson, the team's 2nd first round pick (28th overall).  Pearson tired a little at the end of the season, but he consistently sat 96-98 with his fastball, hitting 100 a number of times, and NWL hitters were no match for his heat.  Through his first five innings-limited starts with the C's, Pearson did not allow a runner past 2nd.  In the playoffs, he dialed his fastball up, fanning 10 in 4 innings vs Spokane in the division final.

    SS Bo Bichette and 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr entered the 2017 season as teenagers with considerable promise. They ended it as two of the top prospects in the game.  Bichette was above .400 as late as June 28th, and finished his time in the Midwest League a week later with a .384/.448/.623 line before joining Guerrero in a promotion to Dunedin.  Vladdy Jr may be garnering more prospect acclaim, but there is everything to suggest that Bichette profiles as an impact MLB bat as well, with above average base running skills and Baseball IQ to go with it.  The numbers he posted in Lansing earned him league MVP honours, as well as our POY.
    Lansing's Pitching staff caused some long nights for its fans, finishing at the bottom of the MWL in most stats.  There was promise at the beginning of the season, with Justin Maese and Patrick Murphy fronting the starting rotation, and Zach Jackson and Jackson McClelland anchoring the back of the bullpen.  With the former pair injured for a good chunk of the season, and the latter two promoted to Dunedin, the Lugnuts allowed a considerable number (1.56 WHIP) of base runners. Maese missed all of June and half of July before returning from a shoulder fatigue shutdown. Murphy missed a similar amount of time, but was much more effective than his rotation partner upon his return, earning a late-season promotion to the D-Jays.  His tidy 2.94 ERA over 15 starts,  48.7% groundball rate, and 35.5% opposite field rate speak to a lot of weak contact.  And that earns the Arizonan, who returned last year after missing almost two years due to injury, our Pitcher of the Year nomination for Lansing.

   In the shadow of some more illustrious teammates at Dunedin like the Lansing Bash Twins and Max Pentecost, was Toronto native Connor Panas.  The 1B/DH/OF started slowly, but was one of the Florida State League's most dangerous hitters in the second half.  Panas led the FSL in Home Runs and Fly Ball%, no mean feat in a well-known Pitcher's league, and earns the Player of the Year title.
   Dunedin's opening day rotation was one of the best 1-4 in the minors.  Ryan Borucki, Angel Perdomo, TJ Zeuch, and Markham's Jordan Romano formed a rotation that promised to lead the D-Jays to the post-season.  And while Zeuch and Perdomo missed most of the second half of the season, and Borucki was promoted to AA in August, Dunedin did indeed make it to the playoffs, and captured league co-champion honours in an Irma-shortened playoff format.  Last man standing Romano was a large part of that.  His 138 K's in as many innings were second-best (behind Borucki) in the system. His 10.1% swinging strike rate indicates that he missed a lot of bats.  Romano did not miss a start this season, and with Panas forms an all Greater Toronto Area Player and Pitcher of the Year combo for Dunedin.

   It was a long season for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.  In a sign of things to come, their first two games were postponed due to the wet Northeastern spring, and after losing 4 of their first 5, the weather continued to play havoc with the Fisher Cats' schedule.  They finished 21 games under 500, losing 14 in a row to the Yankees Trenton affiliate over several series.
    The shining light of the New Hampshire season had to be the play of OF Anthony Alford, who regained his top prospect status after a sideways 2016.  Called up to the big club, he broke his hamate bone, forcing another long stay on the DL.  When Alford came back, he was sent to New Hampshire until the final weekend of the season.  His final line of .310/.406/.429 for the Cats more than proved he will be in contention for a big league job next spring.
   New Hampshire's Pitcher of the Year was a difficult selection.  At the season's outset, the Fisher Cats had three top prospects fronting their rotation in Sean Reid-Foley, Conner Greene, and Jon Harris.  All three had their struggles, even with Greene hitting 100 numerous times this season.  New Hampshire's bullpen likely kept their season from being a complete write off, and it's from the pen that we bring up Chris Rowley.  The RHP spent all of last year pitching in relief for Dunedin after receiving an exemption from his military commitment, but was pressed into starting duty this year when fatigue and inconsistency hit the rotation.  Rowley did not miss a beat, and used his success in a starting role into an eventual start for the Blue Jays.  Although he threw only 52 innings before being promoted to Buffalo, Rowley allowed only 33 hits and 9 walks, pounding the bottom half of the strike zone.  Rowley is our New Hampshire Pitcher of the Year.

   AAA rosters have become more like temporary holding pens full of major league insurance. Rosters at this level are often in flux, depending on the state of affairs with the big league club. 69 players suited up for the Buffalo Bisons this year, 37 of them pitchers.
   On the player side, one would have thought entering this season that 1B Rowdy Tellez would be a safe bet to be the team's MVP.  Tellez suffered through the worst season of his pro career in 2017, held to a .222/.295/.333 line, with only 6 Home Runs.  OF Roemon Fields was a revelation in his fourth pro season, however, setting career highs en route to a .291/.355/.352 season.  Fields is all about putting the ball in play and getting on base, which he did at a decent rate this season.  His career-best 21.8% line drive rate also suggests that he's making better and more consistent contact. On the bases, he swiped 43 while being caught 12 times (a 78% success rate).  His defence is without question, and he was a fixture in CF and at the bottom of the lineup.  Fields is a fringe major leaguer at this point, with 4th OF potential, but he raised his offensive game this year.
   Buffalo's Pitcher of the Year was a difficult choice.  TJ House, Brett Oberholtzer, and Jarret Grube all logged about 130 innings as starters, but their numbers were fairly mediocre.  Murphy Smith gave the team a lot of valuable 7th and 8th innings, and made 8 starts when the rotation was thin.  That versatility was important for Buffalo, and gives him the nod.

     Since the most successful players in any organization tend to be the ones who play at several levels, they don't necessarily get to stick around to post huge numbers at any one stop.  In recognition of this, it's worth choosing an over all Player and Pitcher of the Year for the Blue Jays organization.
 
   For Player of the Year, two players share the award.  C Danny Jansen was healthy for the first time since his debut in 2013, and the results were very impressive.  Jansen started wearing sport glasses last fall in the Arizona Fall League in order to help him pick up the spin on his Pitcher's pitches better, with an added bonus that it helped him tremendously with pitch recognition at the plate. Jansen started the season at Dunedin and ended it at Buffalo, with the Blue Jays wisely opting to shut him down at the end of the season rather then place him on the 40-man and promoting him on September 1st.  His .323/.400/.484 line for the season was one of the best in recent memory for a Blue Jays minor league Catcher, in addition to his prodigious receiving and Pitcher-handling skills.
 
    Vladdy Jr more than held his own as an 18 year old at Lansing.  While other players his age were preparing for the draft or college last spring, Guerrero was adding to his growing reputation in full season ball.  He put together a line of .316/.409/.480 and played solid if not spectacular defence before being promoted to Dunedin.  Against more advanced Florida State League Pitching, Guerrero built on those stats, hitting .323/.25/.485, earning Player of the Month laurels.  Vladdy Jr now has to be considered the top prospect in the game.
 
    Borucki's performance at three levels this year earns him the Pitcher of the Year award.  After fanning 109 in 98 innings for Dunedin, the possessor of the best Change Up in the organization tossed 7 shutout innings in his Eastern League debut.  His August work for New Hampshire (limiting hitters to a .187 BA) earned him a promotion to Buffalo for his final start of the season, where he tossed another six scoreless frames.  Borucki's 157 Ks led the system and he was among the FSL leaders in Swinging Strike% and GB rate.  The tall southpaw, who is one of the grittiest players in the system after losing two seasons to injury since being drafted in 2012, is on the verge of competing for a Major League job next spring.

    If there was a Manager of the Year award, Vancouver's Rich Miller would be a cinch to win it.  After taking over from John Schneider in 2011 part way through the season to lead the C's to an NWL title, the baseball lifer (Miller has been in the game for 44 years as a player, instructor, scout, and Manager - John Gibbons played for him) had served as a consultant to the Blue Jays for the past several years.  Miller returned to helm the C's this year, and led them back to the league championship.  Managing a short season team is a unique challenge.  Skippers have to blend players who have been at Extended, chomping at the bit for three months for an opportunity to play real games, and recent draftees who have had a whirlwind experience after their collegiate seasons (there was a shorter than usual gap between the MLB draft and the start of the NWL season this year).  Throw in playing in a new country, often far from home, and Miller had a huge challenge in harmonizing his roster and coming up with a winner, coaxing the best from his players, many of whom had never experienced large doses of failure in the game before experiencing it in the Pacific Northwest.  One can only imagine the amount of patience it took.  So now maybe we have a MOY award as well.  Northwest League voters agreed with this choice in naming Miller the league's Manager of the Year.

   ****************************************************************************
   "You're hired to be fired," is another baseball truism.  Baseball is above all else a business.  Clubs make personnel and roster moves that are in what they believe are the long term best interests of the organization.  I was stunned to learn from Miller yesterday that he had been let go by the Blue Jays after bringing a title back to the Lower Mainland.  To his credit, he was still willing to grant the interview request I had made despite this.  I suspect he will be philosophical about his departure, and I'll reserve judgement about it until I speak with him.  He's a good baseball man, and if he chooses to stay in the game I have no doubt he'll find another job quickly.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

A Look at the Van Cs



Logan Warmoth - Clutchlings Photo

  People in the eastern half of the country may not know it, but the country's most successful baseball franchise of the decade has been based on the West Coast.
 
   The Short Season Vancouver Canadians of the Northwest League captured three consecutive league championships (and just missed on a 4th) from 2011-13, and have consistently been among the leaders in attendance, leading the loop for the third season in a row in setting a NWL record by attracting over 239 000 fans this year (an average of 6 303 per game).  And after capturing the first half division title, they are off to the playoffs again this week.

   A fan who was visiting the Lower Mainland and area last week stopped by to catch a couple of games, and came away impressed, which had been the case on his previous visits.  The C's home of Nat Bailey Stadium is located minutes away from downtown Vancouver in an otherwise quiet mid-town neighbourhood.  The Nat, which hosts the University of British Columbia Thnuderbirds in the spring, was built in 1951, and the stadium does show its age.  The Canadians have made a number of improvements and upgrades to the stadium, but the concrete grandstand from 1st to 3rd is still the hub of the park.  Comfortable field level chairs grace the lower half of the stadium, but good old fashioned hard-backed benches are found in the upper level.  Several pillars make for partially obstructed views, and the setting sun down the 1st Base line can make for steamy conditions in the upper reaches along the 3rd Base line in the early innings.  Family friendly entertainment can be found down the LF line, and a new seating area just beyond the LF wall opened last year.  If you're booking more than two tickets, be sure to do so months in advance.  The Nat is also only a short walk away from Vancouver's Sky Train, which may pale a bit in comparison to Toronto's subway system, but is a quick way to get around the city.

   Northwest League rosters are populated by college players taken in the recent June draft, as well as a sprinkling of players who have worked their way up from the lower levels.   The Blue Jays like to have Vancouver as a stop along the way to a major league career for their top prospects - players have an incredible home atmosphere to play in, plus it gives them a taste of living in Canada, learning to deal with issues such as the currency, and going through Customs on road trips.   Several high draft picks from this past June, including SS Logan Warmoth, P Nate Pearson, and C Riley Adams were sent to the Pacific Northwest this year.

   Warmoth is a player the Blue Jays have been following for several years, and Amateur Scouting Director Steve Sanders said the club was thrilled that he was still available when their turn to pick in the 1st round came up.  Unlike many drafted Short Stops, Warmoth is projected to stay at the position. While he didn't have a whole lot of balls hit to him in the games I saw him in, he shows good footwork and reactions to the ball.  He did skip a throw to 1st that bounced down the RF line on a throw from the hole that he may have been better advised to have eaten the ball on.  At the plate, Warmoth has a balanced set up, and an excellent approach.  He barreled up several balls over the series I took in. Smart on the bases, and the possessor of high make up and baseball IQ, he looks every bit an MLBer in the making.fpdde

  Adams, Toronto's 3rd round choice, had a reputation as a bat-first Catcher coming out of San Diego U.  At 6'4", he's somewhat big for the position, but he is athletic (Adams has a Black Belt in Karate), and presents a low target.  His work last week in terms of blocking and handling Pitchers appears to be at least adequate, but his framing needs a bit of work.  He showed a rifle arm in cutting down a runner, but his arm has been described as inconsistent. He will no doubt be going to Catching Finishing School with Roving Catching Instructor Ken Huckaby at Instructs later this month.  At the plate, Adams shows a good approach, and uses the whole field.  He posted a good .305/.374/.438 line in the Northwest League this summer.  Although he needs some work with his receiving skills, Adams too profiles as a major leaguer one day.

Riley Adams - Clutchlings Photo


  We detailed Pearson in a previous post.  After fanning 10 over 4 innings in the C's first playoff game against Spokane, he further cemented his status as a rising Pitching prospect.

   The C's had a solid group of next level prospects as well - guys who may not profile as Major Leaguers just yet, but are worth following.  9th rounder LHP Zach Logue and 10th round RHP Justin Dillon formed an effective piggyback duo over the last half of the season.  White Rock, BC native Brayden Bouchey was very strong out of the C's pen.  He topped out at 90-91, but the 6"6" righty has a funky, over-the-top delivery that can be tough on right handed hitters. LHP Travis Bergen, who has missed considerable time since being drafted in the 7th round in 2015, was lights out in relief, sitting 92, but with excellent fastball command and secondaries.  If he were to stay healthy and perhaps add a tick or two of velo, he could move quickly next year.

Brayden Bouchey - Clutchlings Photo

  1B Kacy Clemens, son of Hall of Famer Roger, showed good defensive skills at 1st, but his bat speed seem to be wanting.  Vancouver press box regulars suggested that he's worn out after his first pro season, which is not unusual for a college player; between college and the pros, he's played over 120 games this year.

  CF Reggie Pruitt is among the fastest players in the system, and covers a tremendous amount of ground in the outfield.  He's progressed at the plate, but his strike zone judgement is still in need of further development - a 26% K rate won't cut it for a player with his game-changing speed.  His offensive numbers were better in the second half, so maybe he's on an upward trajectory.

Reggie Pruitt - Clutchlings Photo


   The C's swept Spokane, and face the Cubs' Eugene affiliate in the Best of Five League finals.  The series starts in Eugene this weekend, then shifts to Vancouver for the remainder of the series.

 

 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Look at Nate Pearson

Clutchlings Photo

   The first thing you notice about Nate Pearson when he's on the mound is his size.  At 6'6"/245, he looks more like a Tight End than a Pitcher.  When hitters come to the plate to face him, they know that triple digit heat is on its way.

   Pearson faced the Rockies' Northwest League affiliate Boise Hawks in Vancouver's last home game of the regular season on August 30th.  Coming into the game, NWL hitters had been entirely at Pearson's mercy over his previous six starts since coming north in late July.  In 16 innings, the righthander had allowed only 5 baserunners, with none advancing past 2nd Base.

   Pearson was not highly scouted as a high school senior, with his fastball sitting in the 92-93 range. He enrolled at Florida International, and pitched 30 innings as a freshman.  Pearson weighed 225 entering college, but it was at FIU that he became serious about adding some bulk to his frame.  He transferred to Central Florida JC in order to be closer to home, but he continued to commit to getting stronger.  He used a long toss program, weighted balls, and the teachings of Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball, a Washington-based training program to add velocity.  While at Central Florida, he also worked on his secondaries.

   Things began to come together in a big way for Pearson last fall, when he hit 100 in a Florida college showcase.  Scouts began to follow him closely this past spring, and he didn't disappoint.  While he seldom approached triple digits, he did consistently sit 93-94, touching 97.  The biggest difference was the quality of his secondary pitches:  his changeup began to grade as a plus pitch, and he showed a slurvy slider with good shape.  His fastball itself was noted for its late run, as well as his command of it. As the spring progressed, his change and slider developed from "show me" pitches to legitimate strike-inducing complements to his heat.  Pearson had a screw inserted into his pitching elbow in high school, but all reports the Blue Jays had received said that he was healthy, and after taking North Carolina SS Logan Warmoth with the first of their two 1st round selections, the Blue Jays selected Pearson with their second, 28th overall.

   There were suggestions among some scouts that Pearson could move quickly through the minors as a reliever.  In short stints, he certainly can dial his fastball up.  But the Blue Jays felt he had the build, mindset, and repertoire to turn a lineup over, and sent him to Vancouver after one start in the GCL.  His pitch count and innings have been closely monitored since then.  Against Boise on a hot late August afternoon at charming Nat Bailey stadium in the shadow of the Coast Mountains, the shackles were likely going to be loosened a bit more on Pearson after throwing 60 pitches in his last start.

    In his first inning, Pearson came out firing, hitting 100 with his third pitch.  In a sign of things to come, however, he walked that first batter on 7 pitches.  Pearson was squeezed a bit, but he also struggled to command his fastball to both sides of the plate.  He settled down after that leadoff walk, getting the next hitter on a called 97 third strike fastball, and getting the third hitter on a weak flyball to CF.  On his next pitch, a 97 called strike to Boise's clean up hitter, C Riley Adams fired a cannon to 2nd to cut down an attempted steal, ending the inning.

  Pearson's 2nd inning was his longest of the afternoon.  A 9-pitch AB by the leadoff hitter resulted in a weak groundout to 1B Kacy Clemens, but it was a sign of things to come.  Pearson was still sitting 96-98, and tried to get swings off of a pair of off-the-plate curves, but Boise hitters didn't bite.  With two out and ahead in the count to the third batter of the inning, Pearson tried to sneak a change up past the Boise hitter, who drove it down the 3rd Base line for a double.  The next hitter grounded a single up the middle, and CF Reggie Pruitt charged hard and came up throwing.  His throw appeared to arrive in plenty of time to C Riley Adams at the plate, but Adams bobbled it, and Pearson had given up his first run in pro ball.  He struck out the next batter looking to end the inning after having thrown 28 pitches.
   Pearson was back to his more dominant former self in the 3rd inning, striking out the side swinging, using his change and curve more effectively.  He was touched 98 with several pitches, and topped out at 99.
    By the fourth, though, Pearson's velo and command started to flag.  He was now sitting 94-96, and while his offspeed pitches were sharper, his overall command wasn't.  Pearson loaded the bases on a base hit sandwiched by a pair of walks, and his afternoon was over.  Great relief work by local product Brayden Bouchey limited the damage to a single run on the inning.
   For the game, Pearson threw 73 pitches, 40 for strikes.  He fanned 5 and walked three, and had a pair of ground ball outs.  Truth be told, Pearson was probably the least effective Vancouver pitched on the day; Bouchey pitched a pair of scoreless innings, while lefty Travis Bergen, making his way back from over a year of inactivity due to injury, tossed three scoreless frames, striking out 6.  Just the same, there was much to take away that was positive from Pearson's outing.  His fastball was no match for Boise hitters, but his secondaries were not effective offerings on this occasion.  He consistently repeats his drop-and-drive delivery, and throws his offspeed pitches from the same arm slot as his fastball.  Standing in a modifed stretch on the rubber, there are not a lot of moving parts to his mechanics.  And while Adams has been the Canadians' best player, and comes to pro ball with a reputation as a solid defensive Catcher, he has some work to do in terms of framing pitches.  On some of the borderline pitches, Adams appeared to reach rather than coax the ball into the strike zone, and this may be an area he works on at Instructional League.

    There is a great deal about Pearson that can lead one to profile him as a top of the rotation starter. The fastball velocity gives him a greater margin for error on his secondaries, which by many reports have come a long way over the past year.  Baseball wisdom suggests that a true measure of a Pitcher is how he performs when he doesn't have his best stuff.  If that is true, at 20, Pearson still has some maturing to do.  Perhaps knowing that his outings would be limited to 3-4 innings, and given the huge home crowd, Pearson may have been a little too pumped up, and we're willing to give him plenty of further opportunities to prove himself.  The Blue Jays prefer to let their new draftees play, and worry about making refinements after their first pro season.  Pearson will likely be headed to Florida to continue to develop his fastball command, as well as the consistency of his secondary pitches.  It's still early in his career, but there's every reason to believe that the Blue Jays have a front end starter in the making.

    According to our good friend Charlie Caskey (@CharlieCaskey on Twitter), who we sat with in the Vancouver press box for Pearson's start, C's Pitching Coach Jim Czajkowski, who has served in that capacity with team for 6 of their 7 seasons as a Blue Jays affiliate, Pearson is the best arm he's ever had.  That would put Pearson ahead of such major leaguers as Roberto Osuna, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, and Noah Syndergaard.  After fanning 10 hitters over 4 innings in Vancouver's first playoff game, Pearson appears to have backed that claim up.


 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Panas Slugging His Way into Prospect Picture

Clutchlings Photo

   The Blue Jays' Low A affiliate, the Lansing Lugnuts of the Midwest League, host an annual exhibition game with the Michigan State Spartans - the "Crosstown Showdown" of the state capital's two ball teams.
    Last year, a Home Run derby took place before the game, which was held after the Lugs' regular season ended.  A pair of prospects from lower levels by the name of Guerrero and Bichette were invited to take part in the derby.  Each side entered three players.  The contest was won not by one of the prized youngsters, but by Toronto's own Connor Panas, who played for Lansing.

   A 9th round pick out of Canisius in 2015, Panas' scouting report from Baseball America was hardly glowing:
Panas makes up for his lack of plus tools with a lack of weaknesses. A graduate of the Toronto Mets club program, Panas is as polished as college players come. He's a lefthanded hitter with fringe-average bat speed and a good understanding of what he's able to do, though he can sometimes expand the strike zone. He is able to drive mistakes a long way, though his power is closer to fringe than it is average. Panas is 6-foot, 215 pounds and plays passable defense at third base, showing quick feet and an average arm. He is a slightly below-average runner out of the box. Overall, Panas' lack of major weaknesses will entice a team to give him a chance, especially as a senior who has four years of performance under his belt.
  And to be honest, through his first two pro seasons, while he did show some pop at Lansing (16 Homers in a difficult HR league), there was not a lot to suggest that he would be a breakout candidate in 2017.  But after posting a line of .231/.343/430 at Lansing last year, Panas has become one of the Florida State League's most dangerous hitters this season.  The pair of Homers he hit on Thursday night gave him the FSL lead with 18, and he leads the league in flyball rate, is second in Slugging, and sits 5th in OBP. His performance has led to a league post-season all start selection.
 
    Panas says the key for him this year has been a change in his mechanics to keep his head still while he tracks pitches, with has boosted his pitch recognition skills tremendously:
When I have the least amount of head movement that's when I'm at my best because I recognize pitches early and I'm able to square them up more often. Limiting my movement and simplifying everything has been what stands out the most. 
  With the change in mechanics comes something of an adjustment in terms of his approach.  Like all Blue Jays prospects, he's taught to hunt the fastball, but he's now started to be more selective at the plate.  "This year has been very beneficial to me," he responded when asked what has been the difference this year.  "Not just in production numbers, but now I have come to realize and process what works well for me at the plate."
 
   The Blue Jays new High Performance Department has had an impact on Panas.  In addition to staff who tailor strength/cardio/flexibility and nutrition plans for each player, the Department helps players deal with the mental aspect of the game.  And that is the area in which Panas feels he's benefitted the most:
  One thing that stands out the most when it comes to helping me develop as a player  (is) the mental side of baseball is a tricky thing to overcome especially when you are playing 140 games. You'll have your ups and downs but it's crucial to stay level  minded. Don't get to high or too low.  We have several psychological strength coaches that are always there for you.
   Panas has gotten stronger both physically and mentally as the season has progressed.  Through July 1st, he had hit all of 4 Home Runs, and was hitting a paltry .223.  Since that time, he's been one of the hottest hitters in the organization, slashing .332/.403/.621.  There is not a lot of video to dissect as only one FSL team (Bradenton) has a stream on milb.com, but the few games that are available back up Panas' claim about keeping his head still.  The left handed hitter sits deep in the box, and has an upright, slightly open stance.  He has only a slight leg kick that likely assists in minimizing movement in all parts of his swing.  His bat speed, combined with this stance, allow him to maximize plate coverage.
 
   A decent defender, Panas has played mostly in the OF for Dunedin this year, with over half of his games coming in RF.  He can also play 1B, and he DHs on occasion.  With his performance over the second half of the season, he's starting to profile as a versatile, corner OF/1B type of bat-first player. Playing in a Blue Jays system that is vastly upgraded from what it was two years ago, he may not be a Top 10 player, but he's certainly working his way into the conversation.


Friday, September 1, 2017

A Look at the First Wave of September Call Ups

Richard Ureña Clutchlings Photo

   The Blue Jays called up 5 players in preparation for Major Legue Rosters expanding to 40 players today.
   OFs Michael Saunders, Teoscar Hernandez, C Luke Maille, SS Richard Ureña, and P Carlos Ramirez will join the team in Baltimore.

   Former Jay Saunders has come full circle since being released earlier in the season by the Phillies, and gives the team some much needed OF depth for September.  Maille solidifies the team behind the plate in the wake of the struggles of Raffy Lopez.

    Hernandez, Ureña, and Ramirez are all worth a longer look.

    Hernandez came to the Jays from the Astros in the Francisco Liriano deal, and was the Astros 5th-ranked prospect at the time of the deal.  After a slow start in Buffalo, the five-tool Hernandez finished with a flurry, cracking 5 Home Runs in his last 10 AAA games.  With the Blue Jays OF likely to sport a much different look next year, the Blue Jays are kicking the tires on the 24-year old Dominican.

   We have followed Ureña since 2014, when he started the year at Bluefield, and finished it with playoff bound Vancouver.  Signed in the same IFA class as SS Frankie Barreto, the Jays decided that Ureña was the better long-term prospect at the position when they dealt Barreto to Oakland in the Josh Donaldson deal.  Noted more as a glove first player, Ureña had a breakout year at the plate at Lansing and Dunedin in 2015, cracking 15 Home Runs.  This year, at New Hampshire, his numbers at the plate (.247/.286/.359) were a bit more pedestrian, but a slow start was at least partly to blame.  In the field, Ureña may be remembered by some fans more for his struggles with the big club in spring training this year, but he is a solid defender with a plus arm.  He has shown a tendency in the past to flub the routine plays, but he has the fast twitch reflexes to cover a lot of ground at short.  Troy Tulowitzki has made all the right noises about wanting to stay at SS, but Ureña will be his eventual successor.  With the Blue Jays strongly considering a different make up for the middle of their infield next year, having a look at Ureña this fall makes sense.  Added to the 40 man roster last fall, it seems like the Dominican has been around forever, but he's only 21, and is still probably a year or two away. He may not profile as a top of the order bat, but he should provide steady up the middle defence eventually.

  RHP Ramirez is one of 2017's feel-good stories.  Signed as an OF in 2009, Ramirez put up a line of .225/.292/.347 through his first five minor league seasons, and was on the verge of being released in the spring of 2014.  The Blue Jays converted him to Pitching, and sent him back to short season ball to essentially start all over again.  By 2016, he had become part of a lights out bullpen in Dunedin.  Sent to AA, he spent all of May and June on the DL, but became dominant in the back end of New Hampshire's pen upon his return.  Promoted to Buffalo in mid-August, Ramirez didn't allow a run in 7 outings, 6 of them 2+ inning stints.  In 39 innings between the two levels, Ramirez fanned 45.  At 6'5", Ramirez is an imposing presence on the mound, and gets good extension on his mid-90s fastball, which is paired up with a wipeout slider.  Minor league hitters have been overmatched against him this season. With the beleagured Blue Jays bullpen in need of reinforcements, Ramirez more than fits the bill.


   There will likely be a second wave of minor league call-ups once their season ends on Labour Day. Vancouver and Dunedin are headed to the post-season, but their rosters will not be impacted.  It's reasonable to expect that OF Anthony Alford returns.  LF Dwight Smith Jr might also return. RHP Chris Rowley was promoted last month, and might return to provide some bullpen help.  LHP  Ryan Borucki, who had a scintillating AAA last night might be a candidate, but he's also blown past his career high in Innings Pitched, and the team may opt either for a shut down, or a late-September call up. IF Lourdes Gurriel Jr, a prized free agent signing last off season, is heading to the Arizona Fall League in October to make up for some missed development time.

  Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro has said that when it comes to building a winner, there are no shortcuts.  He also said earlier this week that he doesn't think the system has enough upper level depth - there are no "waves" of prospects on the immediate horizon just yet.  So, while a re-tooling of the team would to appear to be in the works unless they can pull off a miracle this month, it's apparent that an influx of prospects won't be part of the rebuild at least for a few seasons.
 
 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Maverik Aims to be Blue Jays Top Gun


Provo Daily Herald photo
“Time to get to work and prove some people wrong,” Buffo said. “The biggest thing I’ve been looking for more than the money is to be with a team that makes an investment in me and will give me the chance to prove myself.”    

   One of the first things we should get out of the way in regards to Toronto Blue Jays prospect Maverik Buffo is that yes, he was named after Tom Cruise's character from the movie Top Gun.  The 34th round pick from Brigham Young, who is currently dominating the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, says he has been heckled many times over the course of his baseball life with plenty of lines from the movie. "People ask me all the time, 'Hey Maverik, where's Goose?'"
  Buffo adds that he will be getting a dog this offseason, and (you guessed it) will name it after Cruise's sidekick.
 
  Utah native Buffo had become BYU's 2nd starter in his sophomore year, and seemed primed to go in the top 10 rounds of the draft following his junior year until he suffered a torn UCL.  Rest and rehab is the usual route for UCL tears, often followed by Tommy John surgery if the regimen was not successful.  Buffo opted to try a relatively new therapy:
 For my rehab, I got a stem cell injection as well as a PRP injection and then I began rehabbing with my trainer at BYU throughout the rest of that season and then all through off season and then I was cleared 100% before fall had started. That's when I started throwing in scrimmages and in fall games and then I have felt great ever since. 
  The PRP (Platelet-Rich Therapy) treatment was the course of action the Blue Jays went with Roberto Osuna when he tore his UCL in 2014, but it was ultimately unsuccessful, and its results across baseball have been mixed at best.  Stem cell treatment is used in more severe tears.
   Buffo returned to BYU's rotation this year, but his numbers were less than spectacular.  Still, his velocity had returned to the 92-93 range, hitting 95 on occasion.  But those stats, along with some concerns about his elbow, caused his draft stock to tumble.  According to the Provo (UT) Daily Herald, Buffo thought at one point during the draft that he might be going to the Yankees in the 18th or 19th round, or to the Diamondbacks later, but by Day Three he was still waiting for his name to be called, until the Blue Jays finally selected him:
“It’s hard to sit there and watch and get calls from different teams who tell you that they want to draft you and when your name doesn’t get called ... it’s pretty stressful. But then when I heard my name called, I felt a pit in my stomach and thought, ‘You just got drafted.’”
  Buffo could have gone back to Brigham Young for his senior year in order to improve his draft stock, but he was ready to turn pro:
 Playing professional baseball has been my dream for as long as I can remember. And it is something that I have worked so hard for. To me I felt that I was ready for the next chapter in my life and that I was ready to pursue my dream. I loved everything about BYU they played a major role in getting me where I am today but I just felt the time was right for me to continue to chase that dream. I felt I got everything i could possibly learn and wanted to continue to get better at the next level. 
   After the post-draft orientation in Florida, Buffo remained at the minor league complex to pitch for the GCL Jays, likely because the team wanted to keep an eye on him for medical reasons, and possibly because the team has a good stockpile of Pitchers at Bluefield and Vancouver, the other two short season clubs in the system.  He has dominated GCL hitters through 24 innings, including 4 starts.  He's a few innings short of qualifying for the league's lead with his microscopic 0.37  ERA, but his 43.1% swinging strike rate is second only to teammate Justin Watts'.
  Buffo's arsenal has been described as a five-pitch mix, but like so many successful Pitchers, everything is dictated by the Fastball:
I go after hitters very aggressively. I want to attack them with my fastball. I want to challenge them, my best vs their best. That's what is so fun about this game. I look at the way these hitters react to the previous pitch whether it may be how their body reacted or how their swing was to determine what I am gonna throw next. But for the most part I love to challenge them with my fastball and make them get themselves out. With my breaking ball, it depends on the count but I try to think fastball with it. I try to think fastball with all my off speed pitches because I want everything to look the same. 
  Florida-based Pro and Amateur Scout (and good friend of this blog) Chris King has seen Buffo in action several times in the GCL and has come away impressed:
He's been 92-95 with good movement. Throws strikes and likes to work down in the zone. Has a sharp breaking ball that has tight shape and horizontal break. Very durable frame as well. Mechanics are simple and repeatable.
  A 34th round pick could largely be seen as a roster filler.  Many MLB teams, however, are taking chances on Pitchers on Day 3.  Sometimes there is something in their profile that stands out (like spin rates) that makes a team take a gamble on them - get them in the system, and put them on a weighted ball or some other program to increase velocity, and see what happens. At $50 000, Buffo's signing bonus was higher than that of most players in his draft neighbourhood, but in the larger scheme of things is pretty minimal to an MLB team.  In Buffo's case, Blue Jays Area Scout Pete Holmes went on his past performance and his make up to convince the club to take him.

   With Vancouver and Bluefield both gearing up for playoff runs (the former has already clinched a post-season berth; the latter is tied for their division lead), there might be a promotion in the offing for Buffo.  Or they might opt to limit his innings (he threw 88 in college, in addition to the two dozen he's thrown as a pro) as the season winds down.  Either way, there's an excellent chance he skips a couple of levels and lands in Lansing next year.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Blue Jays Scouting Director Weighs in on MLB Draft

Riley Adams/milb.com photo

    Blue Jays Director of Amateur Scouting Steve Sanders moved to Toronto last fall after being named to the job following six years with the Red Sox, but with the duties that come with running the department charged with selecting players in the annual June draft, he admits that he hasn't seen a lot of the city just yet.

    We caught up with Sanders in Chicago, where he was waiting on a flight to Tampa.  The Under Armour Showcase, an annual gathering of the top draft-eligible high school players that takes place at Wrigley Field, had just wrapped up.  The East Coast Pro Showcase was on tap next for Florida, followed by the Area Code Games in California the week after.

   The Blue Jays' drafting philosophy had undergone a change under the leadership of President Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins from the days of Alex Anthopolous, which was evident last year.  Up to 2015, the Blue Jays had been willing to roll the dice on draft day, selecting players with high upside, but often with accompanying high risk.  The high school pitcher, perhaps the riskiest commodity in the market, was the Blue Jays preference, as well as athletes in non-traditional baseball places.  In 2016, the club went with a more conservative approach, selecting college players with five of their first six picks, which may have been an effort to re-stock the system in response to the prospect dealing Anthopoulos did in his final year at the Blue Jays helm.

  Approaching the draft, the goal for Blue Jays scouts, says Sanders, is "a complete understanding of the player on and off the field....his strengths, weaknesses, and make-up."  Players are evaluated not just for their tools, but for their aptitutde, and coachability, and as Sanders says, "how their values align with our organization's."

   Working with the Blue Jays High Performance Department on evaluating players, Sanders says the club is always, "working to find new ways to gather and evaluate information more efficiently." For obvious reasons, he wouldn't divulge what some of the team's methods were, but it was well known that the Red Sox, his former employer, used neuroscience to help evaluate potential draftees.   Angus Mugford, who heads up the High Performance group, said just before the draft that his role was to create "a good physical and mental fundamental makeup of as many players as possible," with the mental component being a huge factor.  Make up has become a huge focus of the Blue Jays' evaluaton of prospects - Director of Player Development Gil Kim calls it "the sixth tool."  With talent levels being so even across a wide spectrum of players, it's often traits like grit and resilience that separate the prospects from the suspects. Sanders added that the Blue Jays' Area Scouts take pride in getting to know players - "the more we know (about a player), the better draft day decisions we can make."

  After taking over from former Scouting Director Blake Parker last fall, Sanders made few changes to the scouting staff.  In the early years of the Anthopoulos era, the Blue Jays had one of the largest amateur scouting staffs in baseball, but the numbers have been cut back over the past few years. Sanders felt that wholesale change wasn't necessary when he took over:  "this is a group that had a lot of success before I got here."  As for his philosophy on draft day, he says because each draft is unique in terms of the composition of its top players, and the important thing is to "attack the draft, adding as much impact talent as we can."  More often that not, this translates to the "best player available," when the Blue Jays' turn to select comes up each round.  Sanders says it's best to be "open-minded" when it comes to the draft - some years college players dominate, and sometimes there are more arms than bats, as well as the reverse.  In preparing for next year's draft, Sanders already suggests that it will be different in terms of its composition of top propsects than this year's was.


 Sanders was asked for some capsule comments on the team's top draft picks:

On North Carolina SS Logan Warmoth, taken 22nd overall:
He's a player we've scouted for a long time....he wasn't a propsect out of High School, but he steadily improved at North Carolina, and that really showed this year.  He's very steady and a well-rounded player, with a chance to stay at SS and hit for power.  His make up is off the charts, and he has the intangibles to be a top of the lineup hitter.
The second Blue Jays 1st rounder was Florida Juco RHP Nate Pearson:
His stuff in undeniable.  He's shown steady improvement, and (Area Scout) Matt Bishoff has known him for a long time.  It's not just his velocity, his secondaries are good pitches as well.  He's a good athlete, repeats his delivery well, and has the ingredients to be a top of the rotation arm.
  2nd round pick C Hagen Danner:
 Very athletic player who we scouted as both a catcher and a pitcher. Strong with projectable power, has a chance to be a run producer with the bat to go along with good hands and plus arm behind the plate. Was up to 95 with quality 3 pitch mix off the mound. Great competitor & teammate who bring a lot of winning attributes.
3rd rounder C Riley Adams:
Strong performer in his 3 years at USD and in the Cape league, has power to all fields and shown ability to hit for average and get on base. Easy arm strength and another very good athlete which we feel will help him stay behind the plate despite his larger frame. Works hard on both sides of the ball and continued to get better defensively throughout our looks this season.
4th round pick SS Kevin Smith:
 Quality defender with hands and instincts to stick at SS. Has some pullside power at the plate and showed off what he can do with the bat in the Cape league last summer. Student of the game that's remade parts of his swing over the last few years, did a nice job of making some adjustments this spring to bounce back from a slow start. As he continues to develop, we feel he has the tools to bring value on both sides of the ball as an everyday SS.
5th round pick 2B Cullen Large:
Offensive switch hitting infielder with feel for the bat from both sides. Quality performer for three years at William & Mary. Has played mostly 2B but may be able to move around some for added versatility.
6th rounder OF Brock Lundquist:
LHH college OF with feel to hit & track record of performance at Long Beach State. Can play both corners.
7th round pick RHP Colton Laws:
 Big 6'7 RHP with three pitch mix, gets downhill and throws a lot of strikes. Has impressive feel to pitch, size and angle add deception and can make him a tough look for hitters. Good athlete who was a basketball player in HS, feel he's going to continue to get better as he continues to log innings.
Canadian OF Tanner Kirwer, taken in the 20th round:
CF with plus speed to impact the game in the outfield and on the bases. Was starting to hit his stride offensively before being hit by pitch at the end of July (he was recently placed on the 60-day DL). Great makeup and energy, originally from Alberta, Canada before heading to Niagara U.

 
   As the draft heads into Day 2, the knowledge of the Area Scouts is "the locomotive that drives the process," according to Sanders, and is a good example of why these individuals are among the most important in the organization.  They know the players better than anyone, having seen them play over the course of several years.  The intuition of Area Scouts becomes even more important on Day 3, when there is little information available about players who have yet to be drafted.  Many selected at this point become what is known in the trade as "organization guys" - players drafted in order to fill rosters at the lower levels of the farm system.  But, as Sanders says, "for every guy we drafted, there was someone on the staff who believed in them."

   At 29, Sanders is one of the youngest Scouting Directors in baseball.  He is, in baseball terms, "a gamer."  Sanders attended Northwestern, but tore his labrum before attending the school, and redshirted his first three years.  After graduation, he interned with Dodgers in his hometown before moving across the country to become the Red Sox Amateur Scouting Coordinator in 2012, moving up to Assistant Director in 2015.  He has as reputation as having strong people and analytical skills.  When asked what allowed Sanders to stand out among the candidates the Blue Jays were considering for the job, Shapiro responded:
 It was helpful that Steve had worked with people that we knew well and aligned with like Ben Cherington, Mike Hazen and Mike Murov.  Throughout our time with him, he was thoughtful, intelligent, passionate and humble.  Steve impressed upon us that he was driven to learn and improve – and more importantly help others do the same.  He also exuded many of the leadership traits that I think separate great leaders.  Even better, he has over delivered on those interview attributes in his everyday leadership.  He works to build strong, respectful relationships throughout our organization and to utilize every person and source of information to help us make better scouting decisions.  We are fortunate to have Steve leading our Amateur Scouting staff.

  Once things settle down at the end of the summer, Sanders admits that he's looking forward to getting to know Toronto better before planning and scouting for next year's draft begins.

 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Look at Samad Taylor


   IF Samad Taylor was acquired by the Blue Jays in the Joe Smith deadline deal, along with LHP Thomas Pannone.  Taylor was a 10th round pick of Cleveland in 2016.  In the aftermath of the deal, the term that seemed to be applied to the athletic Californian is intriguing.
   Viewed as undersized, he put on quite a performance in front of an armada of scouts at the 2015 Area Code Games tryouts that changed a number of teams' minds.  A draft report from Baseball America suggests he was a Best Player Available pick:
He's athletic and has some quick hands that give him surprising power at his size. He's a plus runner who could wind up as a utility player and has a good chance to stay in the infield. He's undersized at 5-foot-9, 159 pounds and may not have the arm strength to stick at shortstop.
  As is the case with most high school picks, Taylor spent his first year in pro ball in a complex league, putting up a respectable .293/.359/.397 line for Cleveland's Arizona League entry.  Sent to short season Mahoning Valley of the New York-Penn League, he's put up decent numbers again, showing a little more pop, but getting on base less often.
   Taylor is one of those fast-twitch, athletic guys that teams covet.  He was a switch-hitter in high school, but the Indians had him hitting only from the right side when he turned pro.  Hitting from a tall stance with a very simple set of mechanics, Taylor uses his lower half and quick hands to produce a line-drive swing.  He makes consistent hard contact, although his BB-K ratio this year suggests that his pitch recognition skills are being put to the test by the more advanced NY-Penn pitchers.
   In the field, Taylor has quick reactions to the ball, including a swift first step.  His actions are smooth, fundamentals are sound,  moves well laterally, and he covers a lot of ground and gets to a lot of balls as a result.  He does not have the strongest or most graceful arm action, however, which is why he's projected to be a 2B as he advances.  He doesn't appear to have the arm for SS.
   On the bases, Taylor's speed gets a 70 (out of 80) grade, and most reports make reference to this tool. That raw speed has not translated into stolen bases just yet, but if he continues to develop as a hitter with power to the gaps, it could result in higher double and triples totals.

  Video of Taylor from his draft year.....


  Taylor is listed at 5'10"/160, and both figures are probably on the generous side.  He's no doubt added some weight to his medium frame, which should add some power.  He turned 19 in July, so there is still some room for projection.

    Taylor was not listed among Cleveland's Top 30 pre-season prospects, which is not a surprise given his inexperience and the depth of their system.  He been a fixture at the top of Mahoning Valley's order this season, and he profiles as a top of the order hitter if he can continue to get on base.  His likely destination in Vancouver, but he probably has to get a passport before that can happen.   The Northwest League is on their all-star break, and the C's resume play at Hillsboro on Friday - which is good news, because if Taylor is somehow in the lineup, the Hops' home games are broadcast on milb.com.

   Does the athletic Taylor have an MLB future?  That is incredibly difficult to say at this point.  Given his tools and skills, he could profile as an MLB utility player if he doesn't pan out as a full-time Second Baseman.  His acquisition does add to the growing stable of athletes in the Blue Jays system.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Scouting Thomas Pannone

milb.com photo

   The Blue Jays acquired LHP Thomas Pannone, along with IF Samad Taylor, from Cleveland in the trade for Joe Smith at the trade deadline.  Here's a look at his minor league career so far, with a focus on his most recent start on July 29th.

   First, some background:    A Rhode Island native, Pannone was taken in the 33rd round by the Cubs. He opted to attend the Community College of Southern Nevada, a junior college which has sent several players to MLB, most noticeably Bryce Harper.   He was a high makeup, athletic prospect, according to Baseball America's draft report:

Pannone was a 33rd-round pick of the Cubs out Bishop Hendricken High (Warwick, R.I.) last year, but he didn't sign and made the cross-country trek to JC of Southern Nevada after initially committing to Miami. At 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, he's a tightly wound athlete who was a two-way player in high school. He played more in the outfield for the Coyotes early in the year, and scouts said watching his pregame throws was a treat. He started getting more time on the mound midway through the season, and scouts see him in that role as a pro. Pannone was on the mound for Bishop Hendricken's state championship game last year, but as a two-way player from the Northeast he is still raw as a pitcher. His fastball sits in the 91-93 mph range, and he can spot it, but his secondary stuff is below-average. His curveball is ahead of his changeup. Scouts like his athleticism and bulldog mentality. 
    As a converted pitcher with average velocity, Pannone has had to prove himself at every level.  He's made a steady rise through Cleveland's system, although he repeated Low A in 2016.  This year, he began the season at High A, was was unhittable in 5 starts, allowing only 10 hits in 27 innings, while fanning 39 and not allowing an earned run before a promotion to AA. According to my good internet friend Justin L, (@JL_Baseball on Twitter), who follows the Cleveland system extensively from top to bottom, some mechanical changes this year have resulted in a breakthrough for the southpaw:
(He has a) 89-92 fastball that he can spot pretty well. Fixed his mechanics this year a bit to stop from being so closed off. Helped him maintain some consistency in his velocity (was down to low 80s for a period last year). Breaking ball has come a long way this year and so has changeup. I think the curve is better than the change but some think the opposite. Change is 79-81. Good arm speed on change command just needs to improve. Over all he's a strike thrower who sits 89-92. If command keeps coming I think he could be a #4/5 guy consistently, at worst he's a depth starter/swingman with that potential.

  Jim Callis of mlb.com, when asked about why Pannone, who wasn't listed among Cleveland's Top 30 prospects on MLB Pipeline before the season, was at a bit of a loss to explain his ascension this year:
 He took off after making some delivery adjustments last year, though his dominance is hard to explain. Pannone works with a 90-92 mph and can throw strikes with a decent curveball and changeup, and while his stuff isn't overwhelming, hitters just don't seem to see his fastball.

   Pannone started the second half of a doubleheader against the Orioles' AA affiliate on July 29th.  He was a model of efficiency in a 13-pitch first inning, retiring the side in order with a swinging strike on an outside curve.  In the 2nd, he was squared up twice with two outs, but retired the side.  Throwing first pitch strikes, then using his change and curve to put hitters away or induce weak contact (Pannone also threw a four-seamer that was a tick or two higher than his usual low 90s velo to try to get swings and misses), he retired the side in order in the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th.  Into the 7th, Pannone had set down 14 hitters in a row before surrendering a one out single.  The next hitter launched one over the centrefield wall to break the shutout, and bring an end to Pannone's night.

   How does Pannone get hitters out?  By a solid combination of command of all three of his pitches (fastball, curve, change), and by sequencing.  A tall-and-fall pitcher, Pannone has a bit of deception to his delivery, throws all three of his pitches from the same three-quarters arm slot, and consistently gets ahead of hitters,  where his secondaries become more of a weapon.  He can back door his curve to right-handed hitters, and throws his change in any count.  He threw first pitch strikes to 16 of the 23 hitters he faced, opening each inning from the 3rd through to the 7th with a strike.

   MLB.com grades his fastball and curve as average, and his change as a slight bit above average:
Pannone can run his fastball up to 92-93 mph but usually sits more in the 88-91 mph range. Though not overpowering, Pannone's heater plays above its velocity on account of his deception, allowing him to induce whiffs inside the zone. He has good feel for his curveball, showing the ability to throw it for a strike and also bury it in the dirt when vying for whiffs, and he's adept at adding and subtracting with the pitch as needed. His changeup gives him a third average-or-better offering, albeit one he uses sparingly, and he has good command of all three pitches.

  Here is the thing about Pannone: despite the fact that he lacks a plus pitch in his arsenal, he gets hitters out.  Will that translate to success in the major leagues?   It's very hard to say - the relative lack of velo gives him less margin for error with his command and secondaries.  But the guy appears to be pitching above his grades.  Pannone is a competitor, who seems to have made the necessary adjustments to miss barrels and climb the minor league ladder.  That may not translate to a top-of-the-rotation arm, but given his pitch economy, he could profile as a back-of-the-rotation innings-eater pitcher at the major league level.

  A mid-season Eastern League All Star, Pannone is among the league leaders in several pitching categories.  He lacks the innings to qualify, but his 2.62 ERA is the second lowest in the league.  His K% (24.5) is the highest, and his 11.8% swinging strike rate is the second highest.  To this point, this is a guy who has pitched above his scouting grades.
   Pannone should report to New Hampshire and join their rotation, where he will join prospects Conner Greene, Sean Reid-Foley, and Jon Harris.

    Some Pannone video for your viewing pleasure....
video

Monday, July 31, 2017

Do Trades for Prospects Really Work?

Franklin Barreto - milb.com photo


  On November 28th, 2014, then-Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos dealt 3rd Baseman Brett Lawrie and three prospects for Oakland 3B Josh Donaldson.  It was not the first time Anthopoulos had dealt prospects in an attempt to bolster the major league roster, of course, and the November deal did not bring about an end to his prospect dealing.  In 4 separate deadline deals in 2015, Anthopoulos dealt a total of 10 prospects at the July trade deadline.

   At that time, many hard core Blue Jays fans had mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the club was able to pick up key pieces like Troy Tulowitzki and David Price without sacrificing a player from the 25-man roster.  On the other, the club parted with some top prospects like Jeff Hoffman and Daniel Norris, and dealt some of its prospect depth.

   By September, of 2015, however, most of that concern had long since faded away.  The Blue Jays turned their season around, playing scorching baseball down the stretch to break a two decades long playoff drought.   As the 2017 season progresses, the team's aging core is showing signs of wear and tear, and while the farm system is producing talent in abundance,  in the words of President Mark Shaprio, "Most of it is at the lower levels."  The club looks to be at the fringes of a post-season berth, at best.

   Will Shapiro and his front office colleagues be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline?  Will they look to shed some contractual obligations, or will they try to once again upgrade the major league roster by dealing some of that far-off prospect depth?

   History suggests that dealing for prospects doesn't always work.  Here's a look at the deals Anthopoulos made to give us much of the current big league roster, and an analysis of the benefits they brought to the club:

November 28, 2014
   Josh Donaldson for Franklin Barreto, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin, and Brett Lawrie.

    Donaldson has provided 17.7 WAR (BR's version) of value, an MVP award, and led the team to a pair of post-season appearances since his acquisiton.  Barreto won the Northwest League's MVP award that year at the tender age of 18, and was the centrepiece of that deal.  He made his MLB debut in June, and was returned to AAA after hitting .190/.262/.381.  Graveman did a decent job in the back of the Athletics' rotation last year, but injuries have limited him to 8 starts this year, and he's currently on a rehab assignment.  The oft-injured Noin made 6 starts for Oakland in 2015, spent all of last year on the DL, and was picked up by Milwaukee on waivers last fall.  He's been on the DL again since Opening Day.  Lawrie was dealt to the White Sox after one season, and was released early in spring training this year, and has yet to catch on with an MLB organization.
    It was sad to see Barreto go, but he was so far away (and there was considerable doubt about his eventual position), so the victors in this deal were clearly the Blue Jays.

July 28, 2015
   Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins for Jose Reyes, Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro, and Jesus Tinoco.
   
    Tulo plugged the gaping hole at SS that was Reyes, and Hawkins stablilized the 7th inning for the club, and both were integral parts of the run to the pennant that year.  Hoffman was a 1st round pick in 2014, but was coming off Tommy John surgery.  He made 4 starts for Colorado in 2016, and now has become a mainstay of their rotation, but like many pitchers who ply their trade in Coors Field, his numbers are a bit unsightly.  Castro was an electric-armed reliever who rocketed through the Blue Jays farm system in 2014, and broke camp with the club the following year, even though he had never pitched about High A.  MLB hitters teed off on his fastball, which consistently caught too much of the plate, and he was back in the minors after a month.  Traded to Baltimore at the start of this season, Castro has been on the MLB/AAA shuffle, but appears to be sticking with the O's this time around, and has posted a 2.70 ERA in 26 innings.  Tinoco made great progress in Low A in 2015, but has struggled since then, and has yet to pitch above High A.
   Hawkins retired after 2015, and while Tulo has had his struggles with the bat this year, and is possibly out for the season after injuring his ankle this weekend,  the Blue Jays are once again clearly the hands-down winners of this deal.  His contributions on and off the field have been numerous.

July 30, 2015
   David Price for Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd
    On paper, this deal had the greatest potential to be win-win for both sides.  Price gave the Blue Jays a legitimate ace, and Norris and Boyd promised to give the Tigers some long-term rotation depth.
     Price, of course, moved on to the Red Sox as a free agent at the end of the season.  Norris had some health issues, but over the last month of 2016 appeared to be on the verge of becoming a front-of-the-rotation arm.  Boyd was never a highly-heralded prospect, but all he did as a minor leaguer was get hitters out.  He made 18 starts for the Tigers in 2016, and it was easy to pencil him in as a back-of-the-rotation guy for 2017.  Both have had their struggles this year:  Norris posted a 5.29 ERA in 16 starts before going on the DL in early July, and is rehabbing in AAA; Boyd has been on the Detroit-Toledo shuffle after making the club out of spring training, and is currently with the Tigers.
    Price led the Blue Jays to the post-season.  Norris and Boyd have not put the Tigers over the top.  If there was a winner in this deal, a slight edge would go to the Blue Jays, although they have proved they could have used some starting pitching depth this year.

July 31st, 2015
   Mark Lowe for Jake Brentz and Nick Wells.
    Lowe, along with Hawkins, helped bolster the Blue Jays pennant run in 2015.  He left for the Tigers as a free agent after the season, and has bounced to the Mariners and the White Sox, for whom he's pitching in AAA at the moment.
    Brentz was a project - a guy who hadn't pitched a whole lot before being drafted, and was still learning the craft in 2015.  Dealt to the Pirates last year, he was moved to the bullpen full time this year, and was recently promoted to AA.  In four pro seasons, Wells has not pitched above Low A.
    This is a  deal that is almost a wash, except for the fact that Lowe played some post-season ball in 2015.

July 31, 2015
   Ben Revere for Jimmy Cordero and Alberto Tirado.
   Revere played very well for the Blue Jays for two months in 2015, and was a fixture at the top of the order, getting on base at a rate well above his career average.  Things have been pretty much downhill for him since then.
   Cordero had a fastball that could reach triple digits, but he didn't always know where it was going, and he's walked as many (32) as he has struck out in 42 innings at AA this year.  Tirado seems to have been around forever, but is only 22.  He had been moved to the bullpen that year after having difficulties as a starter, but the Phillies sent him from High to Low A last year in an attempt to move him back into the rotation.  It seems to have succeeded, as Tirado was promoted to AA recently.
    Slight edge to the Blue Jays.  Revere is long gone, but he gave the club two months of value and contributed to a pennant winner.

   There was some wringing of hands among Blue Jays fans about the number of prospects that were given up, but the truth of the matter is that the only quality players the team gave up were Barreto, Norris, and Hoffman, and all three have yet to make a big impact at the major league level.  The Blue Jays in 2015 were still able to hang onto the prospects they were least willing to part with (Anthony Alford, Rowdy Tellez, Richard Ureña, Conner Greene, Sean Reid-Foley), and yet they acquired key pieces to their pennant drive.
   Recent research by Baseball America suggests that prospect deals made at the trade deadline don't work out for the team acquiring prospects more often than they do.  Most teams now are very reluctant to give up young, controllable players whom they've already invested a great deal of time and money in. And the Blue Jays' experience in 2015 seems to point in that direction.  The short-term gain the team experienced more than cancelled out any long term consequences of the deal, and they still were able to hold on to the prospects the prized the most.