Monday, April 3, 2017

Blue Jays 2017 Minor League Primer



  This will be my fifth season of following the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system closely and reporting to you on the latest developments with its players and staff.

   The Blue Jays have undergone significant changes in their minor league operations over the past 18 months, with a huge focus on player development.  President Mark Shapiro, who came up through the minor league ops in Cleveland, places a huge emphasis on his team acquiring and developing its own players, and browsing the free agent and trade markets for the missing pieces.  This is a significant departure from the Alex Anthopoulos era, which used prospects as currency to bolster the major league roster (a practice that dates back to the Father of the farm system, Branch Rickey, who liked to grow prospects like corn, and "watch them grow into money,") and creativity on draft day to re-stock the system.  From November 2015 to the end of July 2016, Anthopoulos traded a total of 18 prospects in deals that were inspired by the mantra, "Prospects are good, Parades are better." Given the back-to-back playoff appearances to break a drought that started when most of the millenials who follow the team were born, it's hard to argue with the results.  At the same time, it left the Blue Jays with an ageing core, and a farm system that was thin on top-level prospects.  With Shapiro, GM Ross Atkins, and VP Ben Cherington now in the Blue Jays front office, there are three former farm directors overseeing the direction of the team.  Couple that with the new high performance division, which designs individual training, nutrition, sleep, and sport psychology plans for each player, and you have a team that is laser-focused on building from within. Anthopoulos got the team back to the post-season; Shapiro's goal is to make it competitive on an annual basis.

   The Blue Jays farm system rebounded last year thanks in part to the four college players they took with their first five picks in the June draft.  Much of the depth of the organization is still in the lower levels, but this is a system that is on the rise.  While the Blue Jays under AA were not wedded to the philosophy, they tended to take projectable athletes when push came to shove, valuing baseball's most volatile commodity, the high school pitcher, in the process.  High risk-high reward talent, and players from non-traditional markets helped the Blue Jays gain a competitive advantage.  Under new amateur scouting director Steve Sanders, the Blue Jays draft board may line up differently this year than it has in the past, but Sanders has a proven track record in drafting premium athletes during his time with the Red Sox, using methods that were outside of the box in terms of traditional ones.
   The Blue Jays start all players in short season play; which of the three teams they begin at is largely a function of their experience prior to joining the organization.  Players typically play one or two seasons before moving up to full season play.  The Blue Jays prefer a prospect spend a year at each full season level, whether that's in the course of one season, or over two.  Prospects move up a level when they demonstrate from a competitive and maturity standpoint that they're ready.  For pitchers, it means that they've demonstrated an ability to either miss bats, or induce weak contact; for hitters, it means that they have shown the skills to consistently barrel up balls.

  No other sport has a development system as extensive as baseball's.  It takes 3-5 years, on average, to develop a major league player.  The Blue Jays this year will field 8 farm teams: six in the U.S, one in the Dominican Republic, and one in Canada.  5 of these teams are owned locally, and the Blue Jays have Player Development Contracts with all of them to provide players.  The affiliates, in return, provide a good environment for players, coaching staff, and roving instructors to play and work in.   Starting from the bottom, here's a brief recap of each team and the level they play at.


Dominican Summer League
   The DSL Blue Jays play in the team's year-round facility in Boca Chica, a resort town just outside of Santo Domingo.  Players at this level are the youngest and rawest in terms of talent in the system. International players, as they're called (most hail from the Dominican, Venezuela, or Mexico), can sign as early as 16. When they do sign, it's a contract that starts the following year.  After they sign (July 2nd is the earliest date that most International players can be signed), players compete in a local loop called the Tricky League against prospects from other teams, and then report back to Boca Chica the following March for spring training.  The complex shuts down for April, then opens up again in May for the Dominican version of Extended Spring Training.  Play in the DSL begins in mid-June, and ends in late August.  Players typically live in dorms at their team's complex, training and taking English classes.  As one might expect, only a handful of players from this level ever make the major leagues.  Because the average DSL player is signed one-two years earlier than stateside players, their gestation period is typically much longer.  Miguel Castro, who opened the 2016 season in the Blue Jays bullpen before being shipped to Colorado as part of a package of players for Troy Tulowitzki, played for the 2012 DSL Jays, as did southpaw Angel Perdomo, who will pitch at Dunedin this year, and may one day pitch in relief in the majors.  Emilio Guerrero, who will likely play at Buffalo this year and has an outside shot as a super utility player one day, was a member of the 2011 DSL Jays. High profile signings like Roberto Osuna, Franklin Barreto (dealt to Oakland in the Josh Donaldson deal - now the Athletics' top prospect), and Vladimir Guerrero Jr have all skipped the DSL.
   Blue Jays Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish and Director of Latin American Operations Sandy Rosario oversee the running of the Blue Jays Dominican scouting and player development.  Longtime Blue Jays minor league Manager John Tamargo Jr will take the reins of the club this year, assisted by longtime Field Co-ordinator Pablo Cruz.

Gulf Coast League
   Playing before a sparse gathering of scouts, family, girlfriends, and prospect watchers, the GCL begins play in late June, and finishes around Labour Day.  No admission is charged, and spectators must bring their own refreshments.  Games are often played in the late morning to avoid afternoon thunderstorms and the scorching Florida sun.  The GCL Blue Jays play out of the team's minor league complex in Dunedin.  Luis Hurtado, who once caught in the Jays system, is making his Managerial debut for the team this year.  Joining Hurtado will be Pitching Coach Juan Rincon, who pitched for four teams over a 10 year MLB career, and Hitting Coach Paul Elliott, who has scouted, coached, and managed in the system for two decades.
   The GCL is stocked with players who have graduated from the DSL, and players selected in the lower rounds of the June draft.

Appalachian League - Bluefield Blue Jays
  The DSL and GCL are termed "rookie leagues," and there are eligibility restrictions (typically, a player may not have more than three years' of playing experience).  The Appy League is considered an advanced rookie league, with travel and paying spectators.  For most players, it's their first experience playing "under the lights" in pro ball. Bluefield's most well-known grad is Kevin Pillar, who won the league batting title and MVP award playing for the Bluefield Blue Jays in 2011.  Dennis Holmberg, who has been with the organization for 38 years, will return to manage this year, joined by Pitching Coach Antonio Caceres, and Hitting Coach Carlos Villalobos, who is moving up from the DSL.  Villalobos is a veteran of minor league ball, having played in the US, Mexico, Taiwan, and China.

Northwest League - Vancouver Canadians
   It's a common sight when the Blue Jays visit Seattle to take on the Mariners - the stands are full of Blue Jays fans.  There has always been a strong Toronto following on Canada's West Coast, but the partnership between the Blue Jays and the Vancouver Canadians has strengthened the bonds considerably.
   The Northwest League is considered short-season baseball.  Play begins in late June, and the playoffs wrap up by the second week of September.  Players in this league have worked their way up from the lower levels, or are college grads recently drafted.
   Vancouver has been a Toronto affiliate since 2011.  In their first three seasons, they won the league championship, and made it to the final in their fourth.  The last two years have been somewhat lean, and while the objective for major league teams sees development over winning, the fans of Vancouver deserve a strong team on the field. This year may be a bit of a test - C's fans know that the emphasis is on development, but if the team fields another non-playoff team again, it will be interesting to see if fan interest is maintained.
   Vancouver is one of the most successful franchises in minor league baseball, and if you are visiting Van for any reason in July or August, you owe it to yourself to take in a C's game.  Vancouver has been among the NWL leaders in attendance for the past six seasons, and the addition of new left field bleachers last season put them over the top. Over 6 000 fans watch the Blue Jays game from Toronto on their tvs at home, then head out to quaint Nat Bailey Stadium to watch the C's.
  C's fans still talk about the gem a 17-year old call up named Roberto Osuna tossed in 2012, striking out 13 of the 15 hitters he faced.
   Veteran minor league staffer Rich Miller, who managed the C's to their win in 2011, is returning to the fold to run the team again.  He's aided by veteran Pitching Coach Jim Czajkowski and Hitting Coach Dave Pano.

Midwest League - Lansing Lugnuts
   Lansing is the lowest rung on the "full season" ladder, beginning regular season play in early April, and ending on Labour Day.
   The Lugnuts have been an affiliate of the Blue Jays since 2005.  Given the proximity of Lansing to Toronto, it's not uncommon to see several Jays executives at a game.
   Lansing will be managed by Cesar Martin, seen by many as an up-and-coming managerial prospect. Martin played in the Blue Jays system, and for the last two years led the highly successful GCL Jays, drawing raves for his work with the team's youngest prospects. Martin will be assisted by Pitching Coach Willie Collazo, Hitting Coach Donnie Murphy, and Position Coach Chris Schaeffer.
   In 2012, the Lugnuts had a trio of teenaged starters who "piggybacked" each other in the first half of the season.  Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, and Aaron Sanchez have all gone on to establish themselves as solid MLB starters.  The buzz this year is about 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who will likely start the year in Lansing, and at 18 has already established himself as one of the top prospects in the game.
I took a stab at projecting Lansing's roster here.  I'm already off by one, as Jake Anderson, a 2011 supplemental first rounder, was released last month after six injury-plagued seasons.

Florida State League - Dunedin Blue Jays
   There's a bit of a hangover in this sleepy Gulf Coast community when spring training ends.  It seems to manifest itself the most with the D-Jays, who play before a few thousand empty seats at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, spring training home of the Blue Jays.  And when the construction crews move in when play in the FSL ends in September this year, the team will be looking for a temporary home while upgrades are made to the stadium.
   Just the same, the D-Jays are an important link in the Blue Jays minor league chain.  Because the team's high performance division is headquartered in Dunedin, rehabbing minor and major leaguers take their first few post-injury steps with the team.
   Dunedin was one of the Blue Jays' first farm teams, beginning in 1978.  The team was mothballed after its second season, but has been a Toronto affiliate since 1987.  Many future major leaguers have passed through Dunedin, including a Cy Young Winner (Roy Halladay) and a three-time All Star (Carlos Delgado).
 John Schneider, who with 9 years of experience is the longest-tenured Manager in the system, is moving up from Lansing to helm the D-Jays this year.  Former MLBer Corey Hart will serve as the Hitting Coach, and Miguel Abreu will be the Position Coach.    
I looked into the crystal ball and tried to project Dunedin's Opening Day roster.  

Eastern League - New Hampshire Fisher Cats
   Deep in the heart of Red Sox country there has been a Blue Jays affiliate since 2006, bringing home a league title in 2011.
   Several years ago, it seemed that the Blue Jays were on the verge of switching their affiliation to a team that was considering re-locating to Ottawa, which would have been a great fit in terms of continuing to grow the Blue Jays brand.  A lack of political will among the civic leaders in the nation's capital to fund necessary stadium upgrades brought an end to those plans, and to tell the truth, the Blue Jays and New Hampshire are quite happy with their partnership.
   Former MLBer Gary Allenson, who Managed at Buffalo the past several seasons, returns to New Hampshire, who he last managed in 2013.  Former Jays farmhand Andy Fermin will join Allenson as Position Coach, while Canadian Vince Horsman will move up from Dunedin to be the Pitching Coach, and Ronnie Ortegon, who came over from the Braves organization, will be the Hitting Coach.
My projections for the group that will open New Hampshire's season can be found here.

International League - Buffalo Bisons
   Another very successful partnership just 90 minutes away can be found on the Niagara Frontier, and it's always been a bit surprising that the two sides didn't connect until 2013.
   Canadian money is accepted at par at Coca Cola Field until the end of April, and even after that, there are lots of places to dine at for reasonable prices just steps away from the ballpark.  Top prospect Rowdy Tellez will begin the season at Buffalo, and other top prospects like Conner Greene, Reese McGuire, and Anthony Alford may join him (if he's still there, of course) later this summer.
  Bobby Meacham moves up from New Hampshire to become the Bisons' Manager this year, aided by longtime Pitching Coach Bob Stanley, and Blue Jays World Series hero Devon White, who is making his coaching debut as Hitting Coach.
  Buffalo's roster was just too difficult to try to predict this year.
 

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   For Further Reading....
For a detailed analysis of the Blue Jays Top 10 prospects, go to https://clutchlings.blogspot.ca/2016/09/toronto-blue-jays-top-10-prospects.html

If you really want to go deeper, here's a look at the prospects I've ranked 11-20:
https://clutchlings.blogspot.ca/2016/10/the-next-10-toronto-blue-jays-prospects.html

If you want to know more about life in the Gulf Coast League, I wrote about it several years ago:
https://clutchlings.blogspot.ca/2013/07/the-gulf-roast-league-baseballs-basement.html


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About Me
    I'm one of those guys - I've been a fan since Day One, when my parents let me skip school for the afternoon to watch that snowy April Home Opener.
   That makes me a bit older than the average prospect blogger.  Unlike others who blog from their mother's basement, I blog from my own.  Actually, I watch archived minor league games on my iPad while I run on my treadmill in my own basement.  Then I write about them from the comfort of a La-Z-Boy in my family room.  At times, I think that maybe I'm a bit old for this, but then I consider John Lott, who has a few years on me but gets better with both his writing and photography every year, and Roger Angell, whose brilliance has not faded as he continues to write into his 90s.  Angell recently wrote:
I’ve also become a blogger, and enjoy the ease and freedom of the form: it’s a bit like making a paper airplane and then watching it take wing below your window.
  Given the excellence of that pair, I figure I have a few decades of writing ahead of me.  If I can even approach the quality they have produced, I will be truly grateful.
  I have been playing, studying, and reading about the game for decades.  My Uncle Tommy introduced me to Strat-O-Matic baseball in the early 1970s.  Around that time, I found a copy of the old Sporting News Baseball Guide of his, and I was mesmerized by the volume of minor league stats, and that the game was played in places like Holyoke, MA, or even Thetford Mines, PQ.
   I have always loved grassroots baseball.  Growing up in Midland, ON, a former bustling grain harbour on the Great Lakes, I was an ardent fan of our local men's team, the Midland Indians, who played in a beautiful park in the middle of town ringed by stately old oaks and maples.  My dream was to one day patrol centrefield one day for my hometown team, but that dream died when I turned 16 and had graduated from our town's minor baseball system.  Our aged local arena, which skirted the left field line, had burned down the previous summer, and the team folded when the ball field was taken over by the old building's demolition.A player who I followed closely on the Indians was a RHP named Gordie Dyment, who had pitched in the Phillies and Giants systems.  While with the latter, his pitching coach one year was legendary Hall of Fame Pitcher Carl Hubbell, who with his screwball fanned Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin (five HoFers who totaled over 13 000 hits between them) in the 1934 All Star Game.  Dyment tutored many of us Midland Minor Ball players, and I always think about that connection. I was mentored by a guy who was coached by someone who struck out Babe Ruth.
 
   Over the five years that I have been cranking this blog out, I've made contacts with countless minor league broadcasters, players, scouts, and fellow bloggers.  Over the past year or so I've narrowed my focus to evaluating players, and talking to some of the behind-the-scenes people in the Blue Jays front office.  I am not a scout, and I don't expect an organization will pay my way to scout school one day, but I have studied and talked to scouts a great deal, and I think I have started to develop an eye for what they look for in a player.  Speaking to Blue Jays executives has given me a sense of where this organization is going, and it's helped me to see things that are not always readily apparent in their development philosophy.

   I try to look at players through a scout's lens.  Minor league advanced stats are hard to come by, and the ones that do exist can be misleading.  When I watch a minor league game, I'm scouting players, not the game.  And while I can't get the same perspective you can get from being there, I can get a sense of a pitcher's command of his fastball, or a hitter's pitch recognition skills.  You will seldom read stats in one of my reports.  I'm focused on deeper things than that.

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  One name I almost forgot to mention is Gil Kim, whose official title is Director of Player Development.  Gil is a baseball lifer, and the story of his long and winding minor league path is a good read.  Gil works with the scouting, instructional, and high performance staff to help develop players in the Blue Jays system.  He is a great guy to talk to, and is most accommodating.  Kim's hiring last spring was another piece in the puzzle of putting together a first-rate player development system.  He has backgrounds in playing, coaching, and scouting, putting together a resume that is an ideal for a jack-of-all-trades position such as his.  Gil oversees the day-to-day operations of the Blue Jays minor league organization.  He is quick to credit others in the Blue Jays front office for the farm system's success, and from talking to him, you can tell that he is thrilled to be working for the team. He's another great hire by Mark Shapiro.
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