Monday, February 20, 2017

Ontario Native Jon Lalonde Fills a Vital Scouting Role with the Blue Jays

    Like many teenagers, Jon Lalonde was in a bit of a mild panic as his high school days were coming to an end.
    Unsure of what he wanted to do, the sports-minded Penetanguishene (ON) Secondary School student was hopeful to somehow parlay his love of baseball into a career.  Lalonde happened to attend a seminar that Sudbury's Laurentian University put on at his school thanks to the Guidance Department, and his ears perked up when the school's Sports Administration program was mentioned.
    Lalonde grew up in the village of Wyevale, ON, about an hour and a half north of Toronto, outside of Midland/Penetanguishene.  He started playing fast-pitch softball in Wyevale, then baseball in Midland, but Lalonde played every sport available - except hockey.  For a sports-minded kid like Lalonde, Sports Admin was almost a natural fit.

  At Laurentian, Lalonde says he received a great education.  "The program combined the traditional elements of a commerce degree with a sports perspective," he observed.  In the fourth and final year of the program, students completed a field project which involved making a presentation to a team in a major sports market.  Past students had travelled all over the continent, but in Lalonde's year the trip was to Toronto, where his group was involved in what he would call, "One of the great things in my life" - a presentation to the Blue Jays Marketing department about gaining and preserving season ticket holders.
  Admittedly, this was not the most glamorous of topics for someone with a playing background like Lalonde, but it gave him that all important foot in the door.  After the presentation, Mark Lemmon, who was then the Blue Jays VP, Corporate Partnerships and Business Development, told Lalonde to "keep in touch," and while it took a few months after graduation before Lalonde heard anything, an opportunity came up, and he joined Corporate Partnerships in November, 1999.  Again, this was a bit removed from where Lalonde wanted to be, but he was now a part of the Toronto organization.
    One of Lalonde's responsibilities in his first job was the club was helping to organize Fuji photo day, a chance for fans to come onto the field before a game and take pictures of their favourite players.  This was more than simply a point and shoot exercise, and Lalonde had to liaise with the baseball side of the organization a fair bit.  This put him into contact with then-Assistant GM Tim McCleary, who clearly was impressed with his work.  When the Scouting Coordinator position became open on the baseball side in 2001, McClearly encouraged Lalonde to apply, and he was successful.  Off to scout school in Arizona Lalonde went that fall, where he would meet up with a young Expos employee by the name of Alex Anthopoulos.
   The Scouting Coordinator's job was largely administrative.  There were myriad reports to write and expense claims to file.  In preparation for the amateur draft, Lalonde would have to gather medicals, meet with the Scouting Director before the draft, and assign risk rates to players.  Lalonde would also have to apply for Draft IDs for players beyond the top 200, organize pre-draft meetings, and throughout the year, he would chart pitches, file more reports, and compile budgets.  He gained considerable experience in the operational side of the scouting department in very short order.
   By 2004, at the tender age of 27, Lalonde had risen to the Director of Amateur Scouting position under GM J.P. Ricciardi, who involved him a great deal in the process of recruiting and evaluating talent.  In addition to the usual administrative duties, Lalonde was able to get eyes-on the top 75-100 draft prospects every year, and form his own evaluations of them.  Due to budgetary constraints at the time, the Blue Jays were focused on low-risk, highly-signable college seniors, but Lalonde's baseball education was reaching the Masters level with the experience he was gathering.
   In 2010, with his old friend AA having taking over the GM's reigns the year before, Lalonde moved to the pro scouting side of the team, where he has remained since. photo

   The life of a pro scout is something of a vagabond existence.  From mid-February to the end of October, it's a series of airports, hotels, and ballpark food.  Lalonde is typically assigned five or so teams to cover during the course of a season, monitoring their roster, and watching them live several times over the course of a season.  He logs every pitch thrown by the teams he watches, and says his job is to compile as much information as he can before and during a game.  His scouting trips can last several weeks, which can be difficult on a young family (we waited until his daughter was down for her afternoon nap before we started our phone conversation, something any parent can easily relate to).  Luckily, Lalonde is home during the off season, and no doubt gets to catch up on parental duties at that time.  In the off season, he's responsible for staying up-to-date with what's going on across the league, especially as it pertains to teams he covers.  He does have some specific tasks, such as combing through the minor league free agent and reserve list for possible Rule 5 draft recommendations.  Luckily, he can do that from the comfort of home.
   Now that spring training has arrived, Lalonde's domestic duties have been curtailed somewhat.  While responding to an email this weekend, he was packing for a flight to Tampa for spring training, to take part in Blue Jays pro scouting meetings over the next few days, where the club decides the priorities and strategies for the season, and all front office personnel get a chance to re-connect.  Once the World Baseball Classic begins next month, Lalonde will find himself in South Korea, covering the first round teams of that pool (South Korea, the Netherlands, Chinese Taipei, and Israel) from March 6-10th.  After that, he will head to Tokyo to catch second round competition.  After that, Lalonde will likely head back to Florida for some spring training assignments based on the team's needs at that time, before assuming his regular season duties.

   When it comes to analytics, Lalonde admits that he doesn't go into detail with them as much as some, but he's aware of the basics, and says they serve a function, as it's "important to see a player through as many lenses as you can."  He readily admits to being open to all areas of player evaluation, and when it was suggested to him that any club that ignores the mountain of data available to them does so at their own peril, he readily agreed.

   Lalonde is very modest, and when it was suggested his extensive administrative and scouting experience would make him a good candidate for the Team Canada GM job at next spring's World Baseball Classic, he quickly demurs, and recommends fellow Canadian and Blue Jays Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish as the man for that position.  Toronto Sun columnist Bob Elliott ranked Lalonde #61 on his most recent Top 100 Most Influential Canadians in Baseball, and more importantly, praised Lalonde and fellow scout Dan Evans for their advance work on the Rangers prior to last year's ALDS.  Lalonde prepared reports on the Rangers' pitching staff, while Evans compiled data on their hitters, but he admits that relied on Evans' experience and acumen:  "Dan has such incredible experience and feel for the smallest intricacies of the game that I lean on him heavily."
   The respect between Lalonde and Evans is clearly mutual.  For his part, Evans calls Lalonde a 'trusted friend' as well as a colleague:
It has been an honour to work closely with Jon Lalonde the last two years as we did the advance scouting for our ALDS match ups.  When you have that enormous responsibility for a potential playoff match up, you work very closely with your scouting teammate for an extended period, and I have thoroughly enjoyed going through that process with Jon.
His extensive scouting experience and keen eye are so evident, and he is relentless and tireless in his quest to get things right. Highly inquisitive and competitive, Jon is never satisfied just skimming the surface. We constantly challenge each other with ideas and concepts, and that requires mutual respect and trust. I have tremendous respect for Jon as a professional and an individual, and now, as a result of all of our time together, he has become a trusted friend whom I so enjoy working closely with as a fellow Blue Jay staff member.

   As for advice to any young Canadian man or woman considering a career in baseball, Lalonde encourages them to go into it with "eyes wide open."  Pursue your passion, he urges, but go all in:
 There's nothing quite like having a genuine passion for your area of study and, if you're fortunate enough, your career opportunity. In most instances, mine included, however you need to be aware of the level of competition for jobs related to sport, and professional sport in particular. It's difficult to speak to everyone with a broad brush but I do believe that the level of commitment needed to break in and ultimately succeed in the field is significant and shouldn't be underestimated.
   Given his background, and the heights he's scaled in his time with the Blue Jays, Lalonde knows of what he speaks.   He followed his passion, and was willing to take on any task to demonstrate his commitment.


   If an army marches on its stomach, a baseball team marches on the strength of its scouting staff.  Trades and free agency may be glitzy ways to turn a team around, but more often than not they're quick fixes.  The teams that are competitive year in and year out are the ones that recruit and develop the best prospects, supplementing that with data on their opponents put together by their advance scouts.  Solid farm systems give teams added flexibility, whether it's to promote prospects to the bigs, or to use them as currency to upgrade the major league roster. This is not new - it dates back to the early days of Branch Rickey, who said he liked to stockpile prospects and "watch them grow into money."
   Scouts are truly the unsung heroes of the game.  Working almost anonymously, they have to blend what their eyes tell them with what their gut feels.  And the information they gather has to be presented in just the right way.   Legendary scout Hugh Alexander told author Kevin Kerrane in the seminal Dollar Sign on the Muscle,
"If I'm in the same town with the team when they start a series, I go into the clubhouse before the game and talk to the team myself.  I go over all the other team's players - who's hurt, who's playing even though he's hurt.....And I talk to the pitchers - I might say, 'Bull Durham is a wild-swingin' guy, won't draw too many walks' - but I never tell them how to pitch to a hitter.  Who the hell am I to tell Steve Carlton how to pitch?  I just say, 'Hey, I've watched this club play four games this week, and this is what I saw other pitchers get their hitters out with.'

   Living out of a suitcase can't be easy, despite how glamorous it might sound.  Scouts can't call in sick - during the season, there's always a game to cover, reports to write, and expense claims to file.   Even in the presence of fellow scouts from other teams, it can be a solitary, far-from-home experience.  And yet information, which is valuable in any business, is absolutely golden in this one.  It takes a whole host of specialists to make a baseball organization to run - business-side people, and coaches, trainers, and admin staff on the baseball side.  But those people are only as good as the talent that's provided to them.  Scouts are truly the unsung heroes of any successful baseball operation.


   A personal note.  Jon Lalonde and I are from the same area.  I grew up in Midland, Ontario, a town of 15 000 (or so) on the shores of Georgian Bay, about 90 minutes north of Toronto.  Lalonde grew up in the hamlet of Wyevale, a former whistle stop on the old North Simcoe Railway, minutes outside of Midland.  He grew up playing softball, and later switched to baseball in Midland, while I took the opposite path.  We talked for over an hour about Midland, his high school days (he attended Midland Secondary's now defunct arch-rival, nearby Penetanguishene SS), the differences between trying to hit a baseball and a softball, his Uncle Ernie (a good left-handed LF/P who I played with, and is now the butcher at my local Metro), and which Lalondes I grew up with whom he might be related to - we couldn't find a common one, Lalonde being a very popular surname in the Midland-Penetang area.
   Midland has a rich baseball history (which I've written about before), going back almost 100 years, and one day I hope to scour the archives of my now-extinct local newspaper, the Midland Free Press, to write more about it - it would be a history of the game in this country as much as it would be of Midland's. Given this baseball legacy, I think it's fitting that a product of the local ballpark has landed an important role with Canada's baseball team.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Top Blue Jays Prospect Storylines photo

    After a mild January, the snow squall machine cranked up here in Southern Ontario's snowbelt this past week,  the Atlantic provinces are closing in on 100 cm of snow in less than 7 days, and normally balmy Vancouver has seen record-breaking snowfall amounts this winter.  Just the same, Canada's celebrity groundhogs have predicted an early spring, and with Pitchers and Catchers reporting to spring training this week, the end of the tunnel that is a northern winter is firmly in sight.
   Minor league spring training begins a few weeks after the major league version, and even though the participants perform far from the spotlight that the big leaguers are under, the competition is no less intense. With the Blue Jays under Mark Shapiro renewing their commitment to drafting, teaching, and developing players in their minor league system to help replenish the major league team, there should be a number of interesting stories to follow at the minor league complex in March.

Will Vladdy Jr continue to rake in full-season ball?
   The top international free agent signing of 2015 did not disappoint in his debut season last year.
Skipping the complex leagues, Vladimir Guerrero Jr put together a solid season against older competition in the Appalachian League, showcasing outstanding strike zone judgement, developing power, and surprising defence.   He more than caught the attention of Baseball America:
Guerrero does just about everything evaluators want to see in a teenage hitter. He has tremendous hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball skills, to the point he seems to have been born to hit. His special hands allow him to manipulate the barrel and square up pitches of all types. He has excellent strike-zone judgement for a 17-year-old, walking nearly as often as he struck out and showing an ability to lay off breaking balls that will be further tested at higher levels. He has tremendous raw power and showed the ability to drive the ball to all fields at an advanced rate for his age. Guerrero covers the plate well and should be an above-average hitter with 30-plus homer potential down the line
    Guerrero has little left to prove in short season ball, and it is entirely likely that he gets to experience a Midwestern spring with Lansing this April.  And it's there that we will get a better idea of how legit his bat is, and if his future is indeed at 3rd Base.  Guerrero has said that he wants to be in the big leagues sooner rather than later (BA thinks 2019), and while the Blue Jays under Shapiro and Director of Player Development Gil Kim have shown a preference for slow and steady progressions of prospects, there may be a temptation to accelerate his timetable somewhere along the line.  Still, this will likely be a season of adjustments for Vladdy Jr (playing every day, in a relatively new culture, in a cold spring climate), so it's reasonable to see him stay for the season in the Midwest League.
    BA named Guerrero their 20th overall prospect - heady stuff for a player who would be in his senior year of high school if he had been raised stateside.  Interestingly, Baseball Prospectus left him off their Top 101 list this past week, the rationalization being:
 We really like the bat, but he's a 17 year old that looks like he is going to end up at first base. That's a tough profile and I need to see a full-season ball resume before I jump on board. I fully expect him to be on next year's list, and he was on various iterations of this year's.

Will Sean Reid-Foley be able to continue to dominate hitters at AA
    After reaching the second step of full season ball at Dunedin in his first crack, Reid-Foley returned to Lansing last year to start 2016.  Equipped with a new, streamlined delivery, Reid-Foley was on a mission to harness command of his fastball.  And command it he did, fanning 59 in 58 innings, earning a return trip to Dunedin, where he continued to cut down on his walks, allowing only 16 free passes (vs 71 Ks) in 57 innings.
   Reid-Foley was shut down in August for a second consecutive season for precautionary measures, meaning that his durability becomes something of a question, along with whether or not he can continue to command the strike zone at AA, where he should begin the season, or find himself by June.
   The jump from A to AA ball is the biggest in the minors.  Players can no longer get by on the strength of their physical gifts alone; hitters must be able to demonstrate more patience, and pitchers must have command and secondary pitches working for them.  And that's where the challenge will come for Reid-Foley.  There is little question about his fastball or wipeout slider.  It will be his ability to throw that fastball to both sides of the plate, and to complement it with his change up (which he worked on in Instructional League play last fall) that will ultimately determine if he meets his projection of #2 starter.  This is the season when we will finally decide how close he will come to fulfilling that.
How will Max Pentecost's shoulder respond to Catching every day?
   When Pentecost stepped into the batter's box for Lansing last May, it was his first game action in 21 months.  While his bat showed no signs of rust from the layoff, he did not go behind the plate in 2016, as the organization opted to protect his thrice-surgically repaired shoulder.
   The plan will be to have Pentecost return to Catching duties this spring, and make up for the reps he's missed since being drafted in the 1st round in 2014.
   The question is, of course, will his shoulder stand up to the rigours of Catching?  More importantly, given concerns about his receiving skills, will the results of this season ultimately force the Blue Jays to move him to another position?
   Pentecost will likely start in Dunedin, where the team's medical staff can monitor him.  All the reports suggest that he is a premium athlete, and while he probably will be an offense-first Catcher,  Pentecost should develop into at least an adequate backstop.

Will Anthony Alford make consistent contact to take advantage of his speed?
   Injuries led to what can be termed a sideways 2016 for Alford.  A 37% K rate in the first half could probably be attributed to layoffs from a pair of stints on the Disabled List, as he managed a more reasonable 25% in the second.
   Like Reid-Foley, Alford is destined for New Hampshire this season, where some holes in his swing could be potentially be exploited.  Alford will not be able to sit back and hammer mistakes at AA like he did in A ball.  At the same time, he has made so many adjustments in such a relatively short period of time, it would be hard to bet against Alford continuing his upward progression.
   He more than held his own in the Arizona Fall League, although there are still concerns about the relative lack of loft in his swing.  The 7 Home Runs he hit in the second half in the pitcher-friendly FSL may be evidence that his power is starting to develop. Alford uses the whole field, and even though there will always be a swing-and-miss element to his game, he makes the pitcher work in the majority of his at bats, and can draw walks, which brings his game-changing speed into play.  We will get a much truer read on his abilities this season.

Will Rowdy Tellez break camp with the Blue Jays?
   If there is any doubt that Tellez profiles as a middle-of-the-order bat, he erased that with his performance at New Hampshire.  Despite seeing few strikes in the month of April, he managed to finish 5th in the Eastern League in Home Runs, 2nd in OBP, as well as 3rd in both Slugging and OPS.
   Unlike many bat-first players, Tellez has proven to be willing to change his approach with two strikes, cutting down on his swing in an attempt to put the ball in play.
   Over at Jay Journal, Lucas Silva posits that Tellez may potentially have a problem catching up to MLB fastballs because of his habit of "casting" (ie., moving his hands away from his body as he starts loading his swing, which tends to result in a slower bat because of the longer path it has to travel).
   Now, I am not a scout, and while I enjoy reading about scouts and their work a great deal, I don't profess to know as much as others do about swing mechanics.  While his article is well written, Silva's video evidence is not compelling, and as someone who watched about 100 Tellez ABs when he was with New Hampshire last year, I have always noticed how he moves his hands slightly back as he loads (as a good hitter does), but I don't really see any real evidence of him casting.
   Silva offers as part of his argument a bit of an offhanded Keith Law remark on Tellez:  "Bad athlete.  Can't hit good fastballs."  I love Law's work as much as anyone, and I can't wait for the April release of his book, but he is known for developing a bias (hello, Devon Travis) about a player and sticking with it.  Silva also uses Josh Norris of Baseball America's rationale for leaving Tellez off BA's Top 20 Eastern League prospects list:
   “Some evaluators noted he doesn’t have the bat speed to portend the big power necessary to profile as a major league first baseman. Almost all of his power, too, is to the pull-side. He’s not a particularly deft defender, and was aided by New Hampshire’s short porch in right field.”
   For what it's worth, the dimensions at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium are very similar to the Rogers Centre, with foul line distances about three feet shorter than Toronto's.

 Tellez has worked hard to overcome the bad-body/DH profile he was tagged with as a high schooler, and while he has come a long way, he will never be confused with Wes Parker at 1st.  Veteran scout Bernie Pleskoff scouted Tellez in the Arizona Fall League in 2015, and while he gave a nod to the bat speed, he was impressed with the overall hit tool:

 An imposing presence at the plate, Tellez is one of several very capable left-handed-hitting first basemen playing in the 2015 Arizona Fall League.
Thus far in Arizona, I've seen a less aggressive swing than I anticipated. Tellez's pull side power could be game changing. However, he has patience at the plate and can accept a walk.
There is little question Tellez's raw power is his best and most refined tool. His hitting mechanics are still a work in progress. Tellez's hands seem slow through the ball. The slow bat speed results in some late reactions and swings and misses. Tellez makes good use of his lower half in his swing, getting those huge legs and hips to generate a true power stroke.
I view Tellez as a hitter and not just a slugger. He has compiled a .285 batting average in parts of three Minor League seasons. Tellez's power is real. His role may depend upon how much he develops as a defender. Regardless, at the minimum, Tellez can certainly look to a future as a fence-busting designated hitter.

      I'm not suggesting that Silva is wrong in his analysis, but his video evidence is inconclusive.  It does seem hard to believe, on the surface, that a prospect of his stature would be allowed to continue hitting with faulty mechanics, especially for a problem that is relatively easily corrected.  And despite these issues, Tellez still posted strong numbers as a 21 year old in his first go-round at AA.  Hitting mechanics, while fundamental to a player's success, are only one part of the overall package known as approach.  Former Baseball Prospectus writer Jason Parks, who was recently promoted to the Cubs' front office, in his essay "How Are Players Scouted, Acquired, and Developed," wrote:
The ability to recognize pitches, make adjustments to those pitches, and execute when presented with these conditions are what take the physical tool from its raw state to its ultimate ceiling.
  That, in a nutshell (to me, at least), is Tellez.  As someone who has watched a lot of him over the past two years, I have been impressed with how he has continued to mature as a hitter.  The concerns about his size, lack of speed, and defensive shortcomings seem to have overshadowed his bat for some.  Granted, players of his type are working with a smaller margin of error than most, but he has proven that he is more than a one-dimensional slugger.  He has worked hard on his conditioning and nutrition (he admitted that he really only learned how to cook properly for himself last year) - Tellez weighs 30 lbs less than he did as a high school senior.  Working hard with Blue Jays infield instructor Mike Mordecai on his positioning and footwork last year, becoming at least an adequate defender seems to be a possibility.  Old notions seem to die hard, however.
   Will he break camp with the Blue Jays this spring?  It seems unlikely - there is no rush to put him on the 40-man roster until after the season, and the consensus is that he could use another year of seasoning in Buffalo.  However, given Kendrys Morales' age and potential defensive limitations, and the decline of production from Justin Smoak, Tellez could make a contribution before next season.  One thing is for certain - he should see some regular action against MLB pitching this spring, which should help to begin to settle the question about whether or not he projects as a major league hitter.

Where will Lourdes Gurriel start the season?
   Last week, Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim said that Gurriel, who can play several positions, is most comfortable at Short Stop, but could play Left Field as well.  He has not faced live pitching since 2015, of course, so his ultimate landing spot come April will be dependent on how well and how quickly he can scrape the rust off this spring.
   If he does in fact play short, there is the issue of where Richard Urena would start the season. It's hard to see Gurriel in Buffalo, but Urena seems ticketed for a return to New Hampshire for at least half a season. The club will likely let Gurriel dictate his timeline this season.  It will be interesting to see where he's headed when camp breaks.

Will Reese McGuire develop some pop to go along with his elite defensive skills?
   There is no doubt that McGuire will develop into an elite receiver.  His handling of pitchers, blocking and framing skills, and incredible pop time and accurate arm are already superb.  One scout said last summer that McGuire was far and away the best defensive Catcher he had seen in the minors that year.
   The question will be about his bat.  He has shown an ability to put the ball in play, and the potential for power is there, but it has yet to manifest itself (McGuire has hit 4 Home Runs in almost 1400 PAs).
   One source suggested that the Blue Jays were looking at McGuire as a candidate to back up Russell Martin this season, but the signing of Jarrod Saltalamacchia has all but put an end to that.
   The best plan for McGuire will be to continue to develop, likely in Buffalo.  There have been suggestions that his lack of power stems from a relatively flat swing plane.  Kim said that when they acquire a player, the Blue Jays are in no rush to make drastic changes to his game.  With Instructs behind and a full spring ahead of him, maybe the club's hitting instructors will have time to help him develop more loft, which could result in more hard contact.

   There will be other interesting storylines that develop at the minor league complex, but these seem to be the most likely.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Gil Kim and the State of the Blue Jays Farm System

National Post photo

  When you talk to Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim, one thing becomes readily apparent: the possessor of a strong work ethic himself, that quality is one of the first that he mentions when discussing the merits of staff and top prospects in the Toronto minor league system.  The other word you hear repeated is passion:  a trait Kim has in abundance himself.
  Kim recently discussed the state of the Blue Jays system in a wide-ranging discussion.  Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro has been given the means to build a state-of-the-art baseball organization, one that combines the best of the worlds of traditional scouting, analytics, top-notch minor league instruction, and sport medicine.  The goal is to build an organization that hopes to not only be competitive in the short-term, but in the long run as well.  And the 35-year old Kim, whose story is as good as anyone's in pro ball, will be a huge part of that in his role as overseer of minor league players and coaches.

The Overall State of the System
   Kim agrees that the system took quite a hit as a result of Alex Anthopolous' trading spree from November, 2014, to July, 2015, when he dealt 18 minor leaguers in upgrading the major league roster.  But he counters that not only did the system rebound last summer as a result of a strong draft and the huge steps forward taken by several prospects already in the system, but opportunities for players like Andy Burns, Chad Girodo, Matt Dermody, and Danny Barnes  to step up were created as well.  Much of the projectable talent may be in the lower levels of system, but Kim feels that there are a number of players who will start in Buffalo that could make a contribution to the 25-man roster if the need arises.

On Coaching Changes
    Cesar Martin is the first name that was discussed when it comes to the spate of personnel changes that were made in the minor league system.  A long-time coach in the system. Martin drew accolades with his work with the Gulf Coast League Jays the last two summers.  Kim praises Martin as, "a great communicator, and someone who is easy to talk to."  Kim says that Martin is able to build a rapport with both Latin and North American players, and can motivate his charges:
Cesar has such a good way about him, always positive and makes coaches and players feel comfortable...very knowledgeable, great person to be leading our young men.  
  Martin is a hard worker, and Kim admits he has learned a great deal from him.  It has been suggested that Martin's promotion to Lansing has much to do with the likely presence of top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr, but Kim says that it was entirely on merit.  Martin is viewed as an up-and-coming managerial talent by the team.
     For the past two seasons, former Blue Jays backstop Sal Fasano served as the club's minor league pitching coordinator.  After serving as the system's roving Catching instructor previously, he unofficially continued to mentor the organization's receivers in addition to his pitching duties.  While Fasano was highly regarded, and many players in the system expressed their disappointment when he was let go last August, Kim and the Blue Jays had wanted to split the position back into two.  That was accomplished with the promotion of Jeff Ware, formerly Lansing's pitching coach, to the pitching co-ordinator's job.  Another former Blue Jays C, Ken Huckaby, who managed Dunedin to a playoff appearance last year, takes over the Catching Instructor role.
    Kim also had words of praise for both coaches.  Of Ware, Kim called him a strong communicator who gets the most out of his pitchers, a humble man despite his background (former first round draft choice). Huckaby has a passion for Catching:  "he loves talking about it, and he loves teaching it."
    Former Blue Jays World Series hero Devon White has carved out a post-playing career as a baseball instructor and a Jays goodwill ambassador.  He now can add hitting coach for AAA Buffalo to his resume. White came to Instructs last fall, and Kim was impressed with his enthusiasm.  When it came time for outfielders to perform some drills, the fit White went onto the field and did them with the prospects.  Given how much he enjoyed himself, Kim says it was a "no-brainer" to have him coach at the higher levels of the system, where he can have a significant impact on players who are on the cusp of the major leagues.
   Kim was also asked about Rich Miller, who is returning at the age of 66 to manage at short-season Vancouver.  Miller managed the C's to the Northwest League title in his first year at the helm in 2011 (their first year of affiliation with Toronto), and has been a senior advisor in the organization for the past couple of seasons.  Kim describes him as, "an old-fashioned coach, who demands accountability from his players, and is passionate about teaching the fundamentals."   The Vancouver fans are among the most devoted in all of minor league baseball, and deserve a competitive team on the field, even if development is the priority. Returning Miller to the dugout is a step in that direction.

On Reese McGuire
   McGuire, acquired from the Pirates in the Liriano-Hutchison deal last summer, has been rumoured by some to be in the running for the job of backing up Russ Martin.  With the signing of veteran backstop Jarrod Saltalamacchia, it would seem that McGuire will still be destined for more minor league seasoning. With the DFA'ing of  A.J. Jimenez, it would seem that the way has been cleared for McGuire to get that experience at AAA Buffalo.
   A scouting report from last spring lauded McGuire's defensive skills, but questioned his bat, partially because of his mechanics.  Video from his time in New Hampshire after the trade last season showed that he had stopped dropping his hands prior to swinging, resulting in some harder contact. Asked if the team had worked on correcting McGuire's swing, he responded by saying that, "as a general rule, we don't like to make mechanical changes after we acquire a player.  We like to establish a relationship, and in many ways, we're still getting to know Reese."  Kim does like his short, compact stroke, as well as his elite receiving skills.  "As a young player, he's had a heavy workload already," Kim continued, "and he's an intelligent Catcher, retains information very well, and demonstrates leadership on and off the field."

On Lourdes Gurriel
   Landing the Cuban on a team-friendly contract was something of a coup.  There has been speculation that Gurriel would start the season playing SS for Buffalo, but considering he's had almost a two-year layoff, that would seem to be optimistic.  Similar to McGuire, Kim says the club is still getting to know Gurriel, but he has been impressed with the Cuban's work ethic, professionalism, and high baseball IQ after watching him work out in Dunedin.
    Kim does acknowledge that Gurriel is probably the most comfortable at Short Stop, but says that he feels at home in Left Field as well.  Understandably, while he's certainly expecting much from Gurriel in the future, Kim is not in a rush to name an April assignment for him.  Much of that will be up to Gurriel himself.

Pace-of-Play Rule Changes
   Pitch clocks were instituted in AA and AAA parks two years ago, and word came this week that there is a proposal from MLB to experiment with a new rule in the complex leagues this year whereby teams start extra innings frames with a runner on 2nd base.
   Kim was reluctant to express a negative opinion about the rule, saying that MLB is constantly looking at ways to improve its product.  It's hard to see this rule ever making it to the majors, but it should help save minor league arms from extended extra-inning games at the complex level.

On Integration with the High Performance Division
   It did not receive a great deal of fanfare last year, but the Blue Jays creating a department that was charged with the conditioning, training, and nutrition of its players puts it on the cutting edge of player development in the sport (even if baseball is still lagging behind many other sports in this area).
 Kim is proud of the integration between the minor league and high performance departments, saying that they work hand-in-hand in many ways, from setting individual strength/flexibility/nutrition goals for each player, to working together in developing schedules and moves for each player.
   There are few high performance divisions across MLB, and none rival the Blue Jays' in terms of staff.   Kim stresses that it's just not players the team is developing - it's personnel as well.  And staff are encouraged, if the need arises, to step beyond their roles to help develop "the whole player."  It's a holistic approach that's reflected in the high performance division's philosophy.

His In-Season Routine
   Kim took questions while in transit to his home in New York, and a listener on the other end of the phone conversation had to compete with the sounds of police sirens in the background to focus on what Kim was saying.  During the season, his job involves a great deal of travelling - he's on the road three weeks a month, checking in on the minor league affiliates, overseeing players and staff.  He does spend a fair amount of time in Dunedin, where the high performance division is headquartered.  It's fitting that Kim is on the move during a phone interview, because his job requires a lot of that.

On Tim Raines
   It's not everyday that you have a Hall of Famer on your staff, but that's the case with the man everyone in the organization refers to as Rock.  Kim states that Raines has an infectious laugh and sense of humour, and "a special ability to make people feel confident."  His knowledge base, especially when it comes to base stealing, is expansive.  Kim isn't old enough to have remember seeing Raines at his peak, but it's obvious he's a huge fan.

   The Blue Jays were ranked as the 24th-best minor league organization by Baseball America last year, and were more recently graded by Keith Law as the 21st.  Five prospects have cracked BA's Top 100 (Vladimir Guerrero Jr/20th, Anthony Alford 59th, Gurriel 73rd, Sean Reid-Foley 75th, Rowdy Tellez/95th), and it's possible a few more (Max Pentecost, T.J. Zeuch) may join them next year.  Kim would not commit to a team to watch among the Blue Jays affiliates this year, but it's hard not to think of Lansing being that squad.  In a system on the rise, much of the remaining projectable talent in the organization will likely start the year there.

   Mark Shapiro took quite a beating from some fans over the past year, mainly perhaps because he wasn't Alex Anthopoulos.  Unlike during his tenure in Cleveland, when budget constraints always seem to be hampering his efforts, Shapiro has quietly been building a first class operation in all aspects of the game.  He inherited a considerable amount of baseball acumen in the likes of Tony LaCava, Andrew Tinnish, Dana Brown, and Perry Minasian, he's greatly buffeted the operations department by hiring Mike Murov, the minor league staff (Kim and Ben Cherington), and the scouting side (Steve Sanders), as well as creating the high performance division (Angus Mugford).  One would be hard-pressed to find a management group with as impressive a collective baseball resume as this one.   The rest of the baseball world has taken note that Shapiro is creating a structure that will keep the club competitive on an annual basis.  And Kim is thrilled to be a part of that.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

Blue Jays Prospects Likely to Make a Spring Training Impact

   Teams invite their top prospects to Major League training for a whole host of reasons.  The main purpose is to expose the youngsters to MLB life, and to give them a sense of not only how close they are to making it, but what it takes from a physical and mental point of view to get there - and stay there.
    Prospects tend to be brought along slowly in spring training, with their playing time in the first few weeks restricted to late-inning duty, when the regulars have finished their work for the day.  Playing against fellow prospects and fringe MLBers, some shine, while others show that there is still work to do.  When minor league spring training opens in late February, many of these players are sent back for further seasoning.

   In 2015, little was expected from prospects Miguel Castro or Roberto Osuna.  Castro had a breakout 2014, but had not pitched above A ball.  Given his difficulties with his secondary pitches, and openings in the Blue Jays bullpen, he was moved into relief and showed well in his first few late-inning outings, and continued to pitch well when rosters were pared, and he parlayed that into an Opening Day job with the big club. Osuna, whose 2014 was limited to a handful of innings after coming back from Tommy John surgery, fared well in the Arizona Fall League, and while his repertoire and advanced feel for pitching projected him as a starter, he too found work in the back end of the Blue Jays bullpen when the season opened.

  There tend to be two waves of impact prospects in spring training.  The first consists of players who were invited to spring training, and the second is comprised of players who weren't originally invited, but as the spring wears on and more bodies are needed, have earned their way into some MLB action.

Here, in the order of probable impact, are the players who could be worth watching on your tv or computer this spring after the regulars have been removed from the starting lineup, starting with the first wave.

1.  Anthony Alford
   This will actually be Alford's third spring with the big club.  In the summer of 2014, he turned down a contract extension offer, and returned to school for another season of college football.  Sensing that his future might not lie on the gridiron, he packed in his pro football dreams to become a full-time baseball player.  A sizeable contract offer which included an invite to spring training likely helped to change his mind.
   Alford was in awe and very over-matched in 2015 spring training....

.... but he took some of the lessons he learned to the minors, and ended the year as a Top 100 prospect.  Even despite a sideways 2016, he showed well against advanced competition in the Arizona Fall League, and he should stand out more this year.  Alford is still developing his offensive skills, but he works the count, uses the whole field, and has game-changing speed.  If he's used in those late-game situations early in spring training, Alford should make an impact.

2.  Conner Greene
   As spring training progresses, the need for pitching tends to increase as teams try to monitor the innings of players most likely to break camp with team.  Greene was part of the second wave last year, and was impressive, striking out three of the four hitters he faced in his debut.
   After a breakout 2015, Greene appeared headed to AA New Hampshire, putting him on the cusp of the major leaguers.  Management felt otherwise, sending him back to High A Dunedin to work on his fastball command and between-starts routine.  Greene is a free spirit, and this pumping the brakes on his development was probably a signal to him that his emotional maturation wasn't complete.
   Greene returned to New Hampshire last August, and didn't miss a beat.  He likely will open the season with the Fisher Cats again, but his fastball, which can touch 98, should allow him to overpower the fellow prospects he'll be facing in early spring training.  It will be interesting to see how he fares if he's given some starts this spring, when he'll be facing major league hitters.

3.  Rowdy Tellez
   Slow starts are almost a Tellez trademark.  He hit .107/.286/.143 in his first month of pro ball in 2013, was 6 for his first 37 ABs the following year, and .164/.345/.361 last April.   If there's one thing he's proved that he's capable of, however, it's making adjustments, and it's easy to see him hitting some long blasts in late-game action this spring if he sees any strikes.  He should make the move to a starting role fairly quickly this spring, however, as the Blue Jays try to determine his MLB-readiness.

4.  Glenn Sparkman
   Sparkman is not officially an invitee, because he was selected in the Rule 5 draft in November.  If he makes the team out of spring training, he has to stay on the 40-man roster for the entire season; if not, he has to be offered back to his original team (Kansas City).  A successful starter before his Tommy John surgery, Sparkman was working his way back last year.  The Blue Jays likely feel that he could be this year's Joe Biagini, and he probably will be put into high leverage situations fairly early this spring.

5.  Richie Urena
   He may be the Blue Jays top prospect, according to some rankings, but Urena is not about to supplant starting SS Troy Tulowitzki just yet.  Still, his gap power and fast-twitch reflexes at short may bring fans out of their seats several times this spring before he heads to minor league camp.

Clutchlings photo

6..  Reese McGuire
   If you can believe much of what you read online, the Blue Jays are considering McGuire as a potential back up to Russ Martin this year.  His glove may be MLB-ready, but his bat probably is not.  McGuire can control a running game like few others, and he may make an impact early with this ability to throw runners out with his elite pop time and strong, accurate arm.

The Next Wave
   There's no guarantee any of the following will see any time in an MLB uniform this spring - no one has that kind of crystal ball.  Still, due to injuries or a need for some extra days off, openings occur in spring training, and if these players continue to develop this spring on the same trajectory that they did last year, it's conceivable that they could see some playing time.

1.  Sean Reid-Foley
    SRF, like Greene, had some adjustments to make last year in consistently finding the strike zone last year, and like Greene, may have a sizzling spring training debut.  If he can continue to harness his fastball command like he did in the second half last year, Reid-Foley is the top starting prospect in the organization. He has no chance of breaking camp with the team, but may make catching the late innings of games this March worth your while.

2.  Angel Perdomo
   The 6"8" lefty with the easy delivery and electric fastball was left off the 40-man roster last fall.  The Blue Jays gambled that they could sneak him past the Rule 5 draft.  Perdomo needs to refine his command and develop his secondaries more, but he could be lights out in short relief stints with a pared-down arsenal.
Baseball America photo

3.  Ryan Borucki
   Borucki made a comeback from arm and shoulder injuries in 2016, and was added to the 40-man in November.  He has the best change up in the system, and his development may take off this year.  In a late spring cameo, the depth of that change might be on display, and would likely disrupt hitters' timing.

4.  Vladimir Guerrero Jr
   This is really going out on a limb, admittedly.  If he had been born stateside, Jr would be entering into his draft-eligible year.  Instead, he's a Top 100 prospect, and will likely be a Top 10 by season's end.  With the Lansing Lugnuts, Guerrero's likely Opening Day assignment, starting Midwest League play later the following week at nearby Midland, MI, it would be fairly easy to get him there after travelling with the big team to Montreal for a pair of exhibition games with the Pirates to open April.  He might be over-matched, but his plate appearances would be cause for standing ovations on his dad's former home field.

5.  Danny Jansen
   He may have been lost a bit in the shuffle.  McGuire is the organization's top Catching prospect at the moment, and no doubt some attention will be paid over at the minor league complex to Max Pentecost's return behind the plate this spring, but if you had to build a prototypical Catcher, you would likely start with Jansen.
   Even though injuries have curtailed three of his first four pro seasons, Jansen has already drawn raves for his defensive abilities.  The power potential is there, and he more than held his own in the Arizona Fall League.  A late spring cameo could enhance his prospect status.

6.  Jonathan Davis
   Not to be confused with the under-achieving 2012 first rounder, DJ Davis, this Davis has turned in a pair of quality minor league seasons the past two seasons in A ball. With Dunedin last year, he was 2nd in the Florida State League in steals, 3rd in walks, and 5th in OBP.  Davis should flank Alford in New Hampshire.  The 5'8"/190 power plug added 14 HR in the pitcher-friendly FSL last year, and his speed/power/on-base combination might be on display with the big club late in the spring if an opportunity arises.

   Blue Jays minor leaguers report to camp in Dunedin on February 27th.  After the first week, they are placed into groupings that loosely resemble their likely Opening Day destinations, although the groupings can be flexible.  Buffalo announced a 14-game schedule against other International League teams housed in the Tampa area.  A group of players representing New Hampshire usually accompanies them, playing other AA teams on adjoining diamonds.   If you are in the area, it's worth the short drive to some of the other minor league complexes to watch two games at once.