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 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.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
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.