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.
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