Monday, June 26, 2017

Mid-Season Prospect Update with Gil Kim

Clutchlings photo

   Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim is a busy, busy man.
Between overseeing players and staff among the Blue Jays 8 minor league affiliates, co-ordinating with the High Performance division, and meeting recently drafted players at the Bobby Mattick Minor League complex in Dunedin at a four-day mini-camp, he can be a hard man to pin down.

   Kim did agree to take some time out to discuss the progress of several prospects throughout the system.

Injury Update
   The Blue Jays opt to err on the side of caution with their younger prospects, particularly those who are relatively new to full season ball.  As a result, placing players on the DL and sending them to Dunedin for rest and rehab is a common precautionary practice.  That seems to be the case with Max Pentecost, who hasn't played since June 9th.  Slowed by a back strain in his return to full-time Catching duty after Danny Jansen was promoted to New Hampshire to replace the injured Reese McGuire, the Jays opted to shut the 2014 1st round draft choice down for a few weeks.  According to Kim, all indications are that he's doing well in rehab, and should be back in action shortly.
  Speaking of McGuire, who underwent arthroscopic surgery for a torn meniscus in late May, Kim reports that he is rehabbing well, but there is no timetable for his return, although it's expected to be before the end of the season.
   2016 1st rounder T.J. Zeuch has been on the DL since the beginning of June.  Kim wouldn't disclose what the injury was (it has to be shoulder related), but Zeuch is on a throwing program and is expected back soon.
   Lansing starting pitching stalwarts Justin Maese and Patrick Murphy have both been shut down. Maese has been rehabbing a sore shoulder, and hasn't started in a month.  A hamstring slowed Murphy down, and he hasn't pitched in three weeks.  Kim says both are on the mend, and should return to action shortly.
   Anthony Alford, as has been well documented, had surgery to repair a broken hamate bone in his wrist.  He too is doing well in Dunedin, and is expected back for the second half of the season, but there is no timetable yet.

Bo and Vladdy Jr
   As fans, we check out the MiLB box scores every morning to see how our favourite prospects fared. Each promotion up the ladder brings them one step closer to the Major Leagues, where we can see them live and in person.  If there's one question I've been asked most often lateley, it has to be, "when are Bo and/or Vladdy Jr getting promoted?"
   It's understandable that we want to catch a glimpse of players who for the most part have been only names on a webpage.  It's just as understandable that MLB teams want to stick to the plan for their top prospects.
  Kim was non-commital about when (or if) the two Lansing sluggers will get promoted.  All minor league prospects have a skill set that they're working on, and it's no big secret that the High Performance department has been working on agility and strength on the defensive side of the ball with both prospects.  Bichette, in particular, has been working on first-step quickness, working with Lansing Manager Cesar Martin and Hitting Coach Donnie Murphy on fielding countless groundballs.  Guerrero, for his part, is working on his defensive game, too, trying to become quicker at fielding slow rollers, and improving his overall range at 3rd. Both are learning how to play every day, to prepare for games, and how to recover from them afterwards.  As much as we want this to be a fast process, sometimes it isn't.  Both players are very age-appropriate for Low A ball, and Kim's philosophy could be summed up as, "why rush things?"
   Certainly, both have laid waste to Midwest League pitching.  After hitting the .400 mark a week ago, Bichette is hitting .394/.457/.627, and leads the league in several offensive categories.  He's hit in 51 of the 59 games he's played in, and has gone hitless in consecutive games only once.  Guerrero's numbers (.313/.406/.457) are not as gaudy, but no less impressive.  He's hit only .158 over his last 10, perhaps showing some signs of fatigue.
     The most likely path for Bichette is to spend at least the next few weeks with Lansing.  He has a decent chance of being named to July 9th's Futures Game roster, so a promotion after that may be in the offing.  Or, the team may decide to wait a few weeks and see what Lansing's post-season chances look like. Development does trump winning at the minor league level, but teams do like their top prospects to play together on teams that are making a playoff run.  Whatever the case, a promotion for either Bichette or Guerrero will not happen until there's a consensus among the Lansing and minor league staff that one or both are ready.
      A cautionary tale:  there's not a huge jump in terms of the quality of pitching between Low and High A, but the experience of Bradley Jones is one worth considering.  A more seasoned (22 years of age) college grad, Jones was promoted to Dunedin in early June after posting a line of .326/.394/.560 at Lansing.  Facing pitchers with better command of their fastball and secondaries, Jones has scuffled with the D-Jays, hitting only .156 and striking out in almost half of his 68 PAs.  Is the risk of Bichette having a similar experience (perhaps not to the same extent) worth the challenge of moving him to the next level?  Particularly as the season winds down, and his fatigue likely increases?  The Blue Jays will have those and other factors to consider very shortly.

The Importance of Make Up
   Kim stressed the importance of this aspect, which he called "the sixth tool," in evaluating and recruiting players for the organization.  It was a phrase which came up several times in discussions about prospects.  When I spoke to Angus Mugford a few weeks ago, it also was something we talked about at length.  The thinking is that there is so little difference among just about all players in terms of their physical abilities, but when push comes to shove, make up can be the difference.

Talking Prospects
   On Rowdy Tellez, who has scuffled mightily (.197/.273/.321 to this point):
  Rowdy we remember last year numbers-wise didn't get off to the start that we had wanted, then rebounded.  He kept working hard and finished the year off very well, and then he went to the Dominican Winter League and had a good season there.  I think right now with Rowdy - he's a young player in Triple A, and he's going through some experiences that are teaching him a lot about who he is, and we fully support him.  He's working hard in Buffalo with Devo (hitting coach Devon White), Meach (manager Bobby Meacham), and  (Field Co-ordinator) Eric Wedge.  We're confident that he's going to be fine, and this experience will be one that we're going to look back on when he's in the big league as one that helped him.

   On Max Pentecost, who returned to Catching duties for the first time since August, 2015:
We really can't say enough about his perserverance through the whole process, and his positivity....being able to channel that positive outlook into his daily routine.  He has done well on the offensive side, which was no surprise, but we were definitely surprised with the strides he's been able to make with his blocking, receiving, and game-calling - despite not having been back there a whole lot in the last couple of years.  It just helps so much when you have a former Catcher like John Schneider (Dunedin's Manager) back there who's passionate about teaching Catching, and has been a great help.

   On Anthony Alford:
Anthony probably along with Danny Jansen are the two most improved players we have, which in Anthony's case is no surprise, given his work ethic and positive attitude.  He became more consistent with his timing, and put in a lot of reps in the Outfield in Spring Training, and he's improved all around in terms of approach and consistent hard contact, and his OF/CF defence.  It's been a pleasure to see the type of player he's made himself into....this is all on him.

   On Danny Jansen, who was leading the Florida State League in hitting before being promoted to New Hampshire to replace McGuire:
Jano's a of our strongest make up guys in the organization.  And what he's doing is not surprising, because he's one of those players who make adjustments and improve.  Coming into it, he was a late invite to big league camp, and his game has just taken off since the Arizona Fall League.  He's concentrating on using more of the field offensively, and has been improving his game-calling.  Schneider and (New Hampshire Manager and former MLB Catcher) Gary Allenson have been a big help there.

   Sean Reid-Foley, who has struggled this year (4.25 BB/9 rate, lowest - 40.7% GB rate of his career), but has started to turn things around in his last few starts:
Sean maybe didn't have the start that he had envisioned, but he has bounced back, and is getting back to his dominant self.  He maybe was pressing a bit early, but he's been doing very well working on maintaining that power delivery, while trying to incorporate his change up more.

   Conner Greene, who has not dominated in his second go-round of AA as some thought he might, although his 59% GB rate is second-best in the Eastern League:
Conner has improved....that's all we can ask.  He's taking all those steps every day to get better - consistency of delivery, fastball command.....hitters aren't necessarily as comfortable against his fastball as they were earlier in Spring Training or last year.  His curve has come a very long way - tighter spin on it, with harder action and depth.

  Chris Rowley, who has been something of a revelation this year, starting in New Hampshire's bullpen before being called upon to fill in for injured starter Francisco Rios.  Rowley is now pitching out of Buffalo's pen:
Chris just knows how to pitch.  He keeps hitters off balance, throws strikes, and competes.  He's another solid make up guy, a true professional, and we're not surprised by the strides that he's made.  We have no plans at the moment to move him out of the pen in Buffalo.
   2nd round draft pick Hagen Danner:
Hagen is going to Catch.  He'll start in the Gulf Coast League, like many of our high school players do.
Players Who Have Surprised
   When asked who has made some giant leaps forward in terms of their development so far this year, Kim offers two names:

Yennsy Diaz, RHP, who started the year in Extended, and has struck out 18 in 11 innings over 3 starts since being promoted to Lansing earlier this month:
Yennsy really has some of the best stuff in the organization.  He's worked hard at getting more consistent, and getting over top of the baseball on his pitches.  He's had a pretty solid start at Lansing.
OF Edward Olivares, who has quietly put together a .279/.315/.513 mark with 14 steals for Lansing:
Edward was injured last year, skipped a level this year.  He has some of the best tools in the organization, and is working hard at dialing it in and refining his game. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Look at Yennsy Diaz photo

  When spring training camp breaks each April, major league teams give prospects a laundry list of things to work on.  Some are assigned to full season affiliates, while others remain behind for an extended spring training season in Florida.  All have various facets of their games to work on:   pitchers have to sharpen their command, continue to develop their velocity, and work on their between-outings routines.  Hitters have to work on pitch recognition, get stronger, and hone their defensive skills.  All players have to work on how they prepare and recover from competition.  Every player in the Blue Jays system has a personal workout plan to improve upon some or all of strength, agility, and endurance.

  It's not until all the boxes on their lists are checked that teams will consider moving players up to the next level.  And as fans, we can all get a little impatient.  But teams stick to the script, and we have to bide our time to wait for a player we really want to see.

   Like Blue Jays RHP Yennsy (pronounced 'Jennsy') Diaz.  With Lansing's starting pitching staff mostly a shambles beyond stalwarts Justin Maese and Patrick Murphy, Diaz' name was one I was continually looking for in the minor league transactions page each day.  But even though the Lugnuts needed starting help, Toronto was not going to be deterred from following the process.  As June approached (and both Maese and Murphy landed on the DL), the 2014 IFA, who has averaged a strikeout per inning through three minor league short seasons, was finally promoted from Extended to Lansing.   And in three pitch-count limited starts, he has been nothing short of electric.

   In his first start, Diaz fanned four in two innings, following that up with 8Ks over 4.2 innings in his second one.  Diaz' third start was a thing of beauty:  facing a tough West Michigan lineup, Diaz set down the first 9 Whitecaps' hitters to come to the plate, striking out 5.  Returning after a half hour rain delay, Diaz was not quite as sharp over the next two innings, but the 20 year-old Dominican offered a glimpse of what is to come.

   Diaz' main weapon is a 97 mph fastball with excellent movement and some arm-side run.  Pitching from a drop-and-drive delivery, Diaz' mechanics are clean.  He can pound the bottom of the strike zone for weak contact, run the ball in on right-handed hitters, or elevate it when he has two strikes on a hitter. West Michigan batters were simply overmatched through the first three frames, where Diaz sat 96-97, and touched 98.  He showed that his secondaries are still a work in progress, however, and he generated few whiffs on off speed pitches.  That fastball gives him a wider margin for error with them, however, and will buy those secondary pitches some time as he develops.

   Diaz' to-do list for April and May included continuing to work on his mechanics.  Diaz can overthrow at times, and that has limited his ability to get behind the ball and impart sufficient movement-inducing spin on his fastball.  For the most part, he stayed with his delivery in his most recent start, but did show a tendency sometimes to come out of it as he tried to keep the ball down in the zone.  He finished out front on the majority of his pitches, however, and mastered hitters through the first three innings.  When he came back after the rain delay, Diaz caught too much of the strike zone, and gave up contact.

   Given that dominant fastball, the previous management regime might have been tempted to acclerate Diaz' development and turn him into a reliever in the hopes of uncovering a back of the bullpen power arm.  With the current administration, Diaz will likely get plenty of time to continue to develop as a starter.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Blue Jays Draft Tracker

Logan Warmoth/Niall O'Donohoe/ photo

  With the signing deadline having passed for the 2017 MLB draft, here is a list of the players the Blue Jays drafted and signed.  The Area Scouts for each player involved are listed too.  Thanks to Mal Romanin, the Blue Jays Manager of Baseball Information for the update.  Bonuses, to the best of my knowledge, are up-to-date....some were easier to find than others.  Fellow interpid Blue Jays bloggers, please let me know about any corrections.

PlayerRoundSlotBonusSchool Area Scout
Logan Warmoth127952820UNC Chapel HillChris Kline
Nate Pearson123022453College of Central FloridaMatt Bishoff
Hagen Danner210431500Huntington Beach HSJoey Aversa
Riley Adams3542542U San DiegoJim Lentine
Kevin Smith4405505U Maryland College ParkDoug Witt
Cullen Large5302302College of William and MaryDoug Witt
Brock Lundquist6234175Cal St Long BeachJoey Aversa
Colton Laws7183183UNC CharlotteChris Kline
Kacy Clemens815250University of TexasBrian Johnston
Zach Logue9139125University of KentuckyNate Murrie
Justin Dillon101325Cal State SacramentoDarold Brown
Donnie Sellers11125Wake Forest UniversityChris Kline
Matt Shannon1280Angelo State UGerald Turner
Brody Rodning13100Minnesota St MankatoWes Penick
P.K. Morris14206.5Steinbrenner HSMatt Bishoff
Ryan Noda15125University of CincinnatiCoulson Barbiche
Ty Tice1690U Central ArkansasDallas Black
Jordan Barrett181Elon UniversityChris Kline
Tanner Kiwaner2040Niagara UJamie Lehman
Turner Larkins21125Texas A&M UBrian Johnston
D.J. Neal26100University of South CarolinaChris Kline
Davis Schneider2850Eastern HSMike Alberts
Joe DiBenedetto291Nova Southeastern UniversityMatt O'Brien
Reilly Johnson30100State College of Florida Manatee-SarasotaMatt Bishoff
Graham Spraker311Quincy UniversityJeff Johnson
Matthew Gunter331Hawaii Pacific UJim Lentine
Maverik Buffo3450Brigham Young UniversityPete Holmes
Brandon Polizzi3520Cal State Dominguez HillsBud Smith
Jonathan Cheshire361Davenport UCoulson Barbiche
Justin Watts371U Southern IndianaJeff Johnson
Marcus Reyes381San Diego State UJim Lentine

Friday, June 16, 2017

Bo Bichette Pursues .400

Clutchlings Photo

   It's a magical number - .400.   Ted Williams was the last to reach it 66 years ago.  Rod Carew flirted with it in the late 70s, as did George Brett in 1980.  Tony Gwynn was the last to approach that plateau when the labour disruption of 1994 ended his season in early August with a .394 average.  Blue Jays prospect Bo Bichette reached that number with an incredibe 7-8 performance against the Cubs' Midwest League affiliate South Bend in a double header last night.

   Here's a breakdown of Bichette's incredible night:

At Bat #1
   Facing Cubs' RHP Duncan Robinson, who stood 3rd in the MWL in ERA entering the night, he took an 0-1 fastball on the outer edge of the plate to right field for his first hit of the night in Lansing's top of the 1st.

At Bat #2
   Robinson clearly wanted no part of Bichette, offering up a steady diet of breaking balls in the top of the 3rd.  With the count 2-1, Robinson tried to get a fastball in on Bichette, but missed badly.  Bichette hammered it into the gap in Left Centre, driving in a run.

At Bat #3
  Bichette led off the top of the sixth, and Robinson continued to avoid giving him fastballs anywhere near the plate.  He hung a 2-2 change, and Bichette hammered it into the LF bleachers for his 7th Home Run, touching off a 5-run frame for Lansing.

At Bat #4
  After sending 9 men to the plate the previous inning, Bichette led off the top of the 7th, the final frame of Game 1 against reliever Jared Cheek.
   This 9 pitch AB may have been his best of the night.
   Down 0-2, Bichette fouled off a number of borderline pitches, before Cheek caught too much of the plate with a breaking ball, which Bichette lined into CF for a base hit.  His average now stood at .394.

Game 2
At Bat #1
   Facing Cubs RHP Erling Moreno, Bichette hit a 2-1 pitch into the hole at short, and beat the off-line throw to first for an infield single.

At Bat #2
   Moreno continued the breaking ball regimen.  Bichette hammered a mistake fastball all the way to the wall in Right Centre field, raising his average to .399.

At Bat #3
   Facing soft-tossing reliever Tyson Miller, Bichette showed some rare impatience, chasing a breaking ball out of the zone, and fout-tipping a low fastball into the Catcher's mitt for a swinging strikeout.  .400 would have to wait.

At Bat #4
   In his final at bat of the night, Bichette looped a fastball on the outer half to right field for a base hit, and his average finally reached .400.

  Of his 7 hits on the night, at least 5 of them were of the hard-hit variety.

   Coming into the season, teammate Vladimir Guerrero Jr received all the attention, but Bichette, who hit .427/.451/.732 in a rookie season shortened by appendicitis in the GCL, has taken over the spotlight.
And rightly so.  Bichette leads the MWL in batting average, hits, doubles, OBP, Slugging, wRC+, and Line Drive rate.  He has hit safely in 46 of his first 52 games.  And he's not just feasting on mediocre pitching - Bichette has hit .361 against Top 20 prospects in his brief career.

    Blue Jays director of minor league operations Gil Kim had indicated earlier this year that the plan for the teenaged Lansing sluggers (Guerrero is 18, Bichette 19) was to stay in Michigan for the whole season, their first year of full season ball - the Blue Jays stated preference is to have their prospects spend a whole year at one level.  Kim, of course, is not tipping his hand, but you have to wonder if there is intense debate within the organization to up that timetable as the calendar flips from June to July.

   When Bichette reaches Advanced A, he will have adjustments to make.  The Pitchers there can locate their fastballs better, so he will likely see fewer mistakes to jump on.  Their secondary pitches will be better in terms of deception and location, so his pitch recognition skills will be tested.  Still, he has literally torn the cover off the ball, hitting .407/.463/.669 in 331 PAs over 72 games in his first two pro seasons.  Bichette is patient, does not expand his strike zone when down in the count, and hits the ball to all fields.  Quite simply, he's the most promising bat in the system right now.  Guerrero may catch up to him, but Bichette has raked..

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Blue Jays Draft Recap: The Top Guys

Charlotte Observer Photo

  The internet is full of evaluations from a variety of sources about the Blue Jays draft.
I don't pretend for a moment to know all that much about any of the prospects, and much of what follows is a summary of online reports and my own observations from watching video.  Just the same, here's a look at the Blue Jays top draft picks:

Logan Warmoth  SS North Carolina
    Described by many as a "safe pick", Warmoth has been comped with long-time MLB SS J.J. Hardy, and that's a reasonable projection.
   In the field, Warmoth has fluid movements, combining agility with good hands and footwork. When he has time, he sets and makes strong, accurate throws.  He can also make that crossfire, on-the-run throw to first.  His arm is currently ranked as the strongest tool in his kit.  He's projected to stay at SS, and the Blue Jays will likely give him every opportunity to do so, although some reports suggest he's better off as a 2B long term.
   He has what is described as a solid approach at the plate, but it appears that he makes a lot of groundball contact and may have to work at adding some loft to his swing.  He has a simple, quiet set up, using a toe tap to start his load.  There's not a lot of movement in his short, compact swing.  He should put a lot of balls in play, and because of his ability to work a count, he should see a fair number of balls to barrel.
  Warmoth has been lauded for his baseball IQ, and in a trend that the Blue Jays are for the moment at the leading edge of, makeup.
   Warmoth should start the season at Vancouver, but could easily finish up at Lansing, depending on the playoff hunts of both teams.  He may move quickly through the system, and in most cases might be among the first of his draft class to make it to MLB.

Nate Pearson RHP College of Central Florida (JC)
   With their second first round pick, the Blue Jays opted to go for upside and chose Pearson, who has topped 100 several times this season, and usually sits 96-98.
   Unlike a lot of fireballers, Pearson works mostly down in the zone, getting good eye plane-changing downward movement.
  Pitching from a 3/4, semi-stretch delivery, there are not a lot of moving parts to his motion.  Pearson uses his lower half very well, and throws with intent.  At 6'6"/240, he is an imposing presence on the mound, and with his size and a glove flip during his delivery, can be very hard on right hand hitters.
He does not land in a good fielding position, however, and that part of his mechanics will need some refining.
   Pearson relies on his fastball, and has a slider that shows some promise with some late break.  His curve is not a well developed pitch - he often gets on top of it, and does not disguise it well.  It's highly likely that he will shelve that pitch once he turns pro.  His change is described as a work in progress.  There's a lot to like with that fastball, however, which should buy his secondaries time to develop.
   Scouts were encouraged that Pearson was able to maintain his velocity late into games.  He has a commitment to LSU, so there is no guarantee that he will sign.  The pick is protected, so the Blue Jays are covered if Pearson decides to return to school.  Drafting Warmoth with the first pick was a safe bet in the event that Pearson does not sign.
     There has been speculation that he could be moved to the bullpen full time, in which case he projects to possibly breeze through the minors and find himself in the back end of a major league pen with that velo in short order.  The more likely scenario is that the Blue Jays audition him as a starter, in which case he likely starts his season in Bluefield.  There is a considerable high risk/high reward element to this pick:  Pearson could develop into a solid starter if he can harness his secondaries, or he could become a lights out bullpen arm.  There is also a chance that he returns to school if the Blue Jays are unwilling to go much over slot for him.

Hagen Danner P/C California HS
  Selected with the 61st pick overall, Danner was one of the most intriguing players in the draft due to his two-way abilities, but scouts appear divided on where his prospects are best in the long term.
  He throws a three-pitch mix which includes a fastball that can touch 95, and will almost certainly add a tick or two to that as a pro.  Behind the plate, he has been termed a solid defensive Catcher who lacks elite bat speed.
  It will be interesting to see which direction the Blue Jays go with Danner.  Will they move him to one position or the other, or given the need for versatility on a 25-man roster in this day and age of multi-arm bullpens, will they allow him to play both?
  On the showcase circuit, Danner spent more time pitching than he did behind the plate, and that may be a clue as to where his future lies.  The GCL appears to be a logical starting point for Danner, but he probably won't finish the season there.

Riley Adams C San Diego
   Adams is a bat-first Catcher who improved his stock considerably this spring.
At 6'4", he's a bit big for the position, and scouts have noted inconsistencies with this throwing and receiving skills.  More than one report indicated that his makeup is considered plus, which was no doubt a factor in the Blue Jays selecting him.
  Adams hit well in the wood bat Cape Cod League last summer, adding legitimacy to his hit tool, but his swing is long, and there is a swing-and-miss element to his game, although he does see a lot of pitches.
  Adams should start the season at Vancouver.

A few final thoughts:
-it's worth remembering that as much as we cram in the days leading up to the draft, we don't really know these players.  Scouts do.  They've been following most of the players in their areas since their sophomore years of high school.  They've talked to the players, their parents, and their coaches. Scouts have a much better of the make up of a player than the rest of us do.  And with the physical talents between many draftees being only slight in terms of their differences, it's make up that often separates the prospects from the suspects.

-not that they have no value, but I don't tend to obsess much over guys picked later than the third round. These are the players that statistically speaking have the highest chance of reaching the majors.  The upper minors, of course, are littered with guys selected in lower rounds than that, but rather than take a shot-gun approach, I try to focus on the top selections.  Historically, they have the better chance of advancing.  After Round Three, the scouting staff typically takes over selecting players, and while they're always looking for that "arm behind the barn," to borrow a phrase from another era, the main purpose of picking players beyond that point is to stock rosters of the lower level affiliates.

-while there are almost a limitless supply of scouting reports and video online, most of it is in isolation - there's very little game action video, so you don't get a true sense of how a player responds in game situations.  And this is why that even though I read through all that material to get a sense of a player's profile, they're pretty much a blank slate to me, and I look forward to seeing them live (yours truly has not one, but two trips to Vancouver planned for this summer - helps to have family out there) or online.  I promise to have plenty of photos, video, and reports.

-speaking of the latter, if you can't make it out to the Left Coast this summer to watch the C's, broadcaster Rob Fai has confirmed that the Saturday night televised Canadians games will continue this summer.  Shaw TV televised the games last year, and while the games were not shown live east of Sault Ste Marie, they were available on YouTube.  Shaw sold its media division in order to get into the wireless market, and there were concerns that the new owners of Shaw TV properties, Corus Entertainment, would not be interested in showing the games.  It's only a half dozen games, but viewers get an excellent chance to watch some of the Jays prospects sent to Vancouver in action.

Monday, June 5, 2017

DSL Blue Jays Season Underway

Naswell Paulino - Twitter photo

   Play in the Dominican Summer League opened this past weekend, with the DSL Red Sox paying tribute to native son David Ortiz at their home opener against the DSL Royals.  The DSL Blue Jays topped the Orioles' entry 2-0 in their opener.
    The 40-team league (several MLB teams have more than one entry) play a 72 game schedule, which translates to 6 games per week, wrapping up with a brief playoff among the division winners in late August.  Games start at 10:30 in the morning to avoid the worst of the afternoon Caribbean heat.
   The Blue Jays entry plays out of their Boca Chica complex, just outside of Santo Domingo.  The majority of the players in this league are between the ages of 16 and 18 - most were signed sometime on or after July 2nd of last year.   Of the 40 or so players the team will likely use this year, only about a quarter will go on to stateside play in the Gulf Coast League.  High profile international signings usually skip the DSL for the more advanced competition in the U.S. - Roberto Osuna, Franklin Barreto, and Vladimir Guerrero all started their pro careers stateside.  Still, it's an important step in the development of international prospects.  Learning about proper nutrition and training, as well as English classes, are part of each player's baseball education.

   Due to bonus pool limits imposed as a result of the over-slot signing of Guerrero in 2015, the Blue Jays do not have a lot of highly regarded IFAs making their debuts in the DSL this year.  Top 2016 signing Joseph Reyes will begin his career in the GCL, as will RHP Rothier Hernandez.  But there will be some talent on the Blue Jays' DSL entry:  players that had flown under the prospect radar due to age, poor workouts, etc., and there are the usual high-tools but (so far) under-performing prospects.  Among the players to watch if you're a daily box score puruser are:

1.  Venezuelan SS Hugo Cardona.  Blue Jays Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, whose portfolio includes overseeing international scouting and development, labels Cardona's speed "plus," and his arm "plus-plus."  His glove is well ahead of his bat at this point, but if his bat does develop, he could profile as a to of the order hitter.

2.  Venezuelan RHP Elixon Caballero, a Marcus Stroman-sized Pitcher who added 4-5 mph to his fastball after signing, and now sits in the mid-90s.  Tinnish is impressed by his athleticsm and smooth delivery.

3.  LHP Naswell Paulino, a converted OF, who has made great progress is a short period of time.

Two players not currently on the DSL Jays roster who Tinnish also mentioned last fall include Mexican RHP Felix Castaneda, who has an advanced feel for pitching and an effective change-up, and RHP Eliezer Medrano, who like Caballero experience a bump in velo after signing.

  Given the lengthy developmental timetable and the distance of the DSL from MLB, what are the chances we see any of these names on our TVs or devices anytime soon?  The range is from slim to none, with a heavy leaning toward the latter.  A study of the 2012 DSL Jays roster notes that only one player from that roster (Miguel Castro) has reached the majors, one is at AA (Jose Fernandez), with the rest who have moved on (such as Juan Kelly, Angel Perdomo, Osman Gutierrez, Jesus Tinoco) still in A ball.

   As if on cue, Paulino was dazzling in his DSL debut today, striking out 5 in 2 and a third innings, as the DSL Jays shut out the Orioles for the second game in a row.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Who Gets a Promotion?

Clutchlings Photo

   Moving Week in minor league baseball is inching closer.
  Sometime in the first two weeks of June, as the minor league baseball season reaches its halfway point, teams begin the process of moving their deserving prospects up to the next level for a greater challenge.
 There must be a consensus among the minor league staff involved - from minor league managers and coaches, through to roving instructors, to front office personnel - that the player is ready for the physical and mental challenges that will come with moving up.
   Generally speaking, the Blue Jays have demonstrated under the Shapiro/Atkins regime a preference for moving a player up the ladder one step at a time, and having them spend at least a full season (whether that happen over the course of one calendar year or two) at each full season level.  There are exceptions, of course, but this is a leadership group that prefers the slow and steady path of development for their top prospects.
  And there are other factors that determine whether or not a player gets moved.  Having an open roster spot is an issue - sometimes, there just isn't room for a player at the next level.
    Having said all of that, it just doesn't look like there will be a lot of movement in the system this season.  The injury to Reese McGuire of New Hampshire created an opening for the most likely promotional candidate, Danny Jansen, just over a week ago.  Other than that, it's hard to see many other players making a move.  The strength of this system lies in its players at the lower levels, and while teams want to make sure their players are challenged, there's no need to rush many of them just yet.
   Still, that won't stop us from making a few educated guesses.....

Conner Greene
   When spring training breaks and players are assigned to minor league teams, they're given a list of things to work on during the season.  Greene's list no doubt included continuing to harness that electric fastball, which has topped 100 mph several times this spring.  And on that count, he's been inconsistent so far this season, walking 25 in 52 IP at New Hampshire.
   Still, the time may be coming for the 2013 draftee (and made 12 starts for the Fisher Cats last year), who must be placed on the 40-man roster this November, to move up.  When he's at his best, Greene commands the lower part of the strike zone with his moving two-seamer, and uses the four-seamer up in the zone to finish hitters off late in the count.  His 64.5% ground ball rate leads the Eastern League, demonstrating that while that latter gets the acclaim, it's the former that gets most of his outs.
   Greene's next-to-last start against Portland was a microcosm of his season so far.  His command was spotty, walking the lead off hitter, who scored two batters later.  In the third, he retired the side in quick fashion with a pair of gb outs and a swinging K.  After receiving the toss from 1B Ryan McBroom to retire the hitter at 1st in one inning, he slammed the ball to the ground in obvious frustration after recording the out - something that may have made it into Manager Gary Allenson's post-game report.
   With the shuffling in Buffalo's rotation, there may be room for Greene on the Niagara Frontier just the same, and the Blue Jays may decide to challenge him with a promotion there.

Bo Bichette
   The initial campaign of full season ball is a huge adjustment for most players.  Not only must they deal with the physical and emotional challenges of playing every day, they need to learn to take care of their bodies and personal affairs off the field.  Add in experiencing failure for perhaps the first time in their baseball lives, 8-hour bus rides, and doing it all far from home and family, and it can be a difficult time for some players, which is why many organizations are content to let their top prospects ride things out and spend a full season in Low A.
   But it's becoming harder to see the 2016 2nd rounder spending a whole season at Lansing.
   After an April in which he hit .371, Bichette has not cooled off in May, hitting .383.   He leads the Midwest League in Average, Runs, and Slugging and is 2nd in Doubles and OBP.  His 31.6% Line Drive rate leads the loop as well.  Heady stuff for a player in just his second year of pro ball.
   Among the list of things Bichette has had to work on, of course, is his defence.  He has split time between SS and 2B, with the organization no doubt wanting to improve his range (which is at least adequate) and his arm strength (which is accurate, but still fringy).  Bichette has good reactions to batted balls, but we're going to have to give him some time to see if he can consistently make that throw from the hole at SS.  Cavan Biggio is the incumbent 2B at Dunedin, so Bichette might not be able to split time between the two up-the-middle positions, and he may stay at Lansing as a result.
   At 19, while he's still one of the youngest players in the MWL, his mastery of Low A pitching may prompt the Blue Jays to send him to Dunedin for a greater challenge.

    An AB from Opening Weekend.....

Justin Maese
   Without as much fanfare as a couple of his higher profile teammates, Maese is putting together a solid season at Lansing.  A May 24th 7-inning complete game in which he fanned 12 and walked none, might be the most compelling demonstration of his growing domination of MWL hitters.
   Maese quite simply fills the strike zone, using his two-seamer to induce a great deal of weak contact.  In his late May start, 71 of his 97 pitches were thrown for strikes.  He does give up some contact, but as he refines his command, he is becoming tougher to barrel up.
   Last year, in only his second pro season, Maese skipped a level to play in Vancouver, and finished the season with Lansing.  He is approaching a full calendar year with the Lugnuts, and the organization may want to move him on to the next level.

Bradley Jones
   Like Maese, Jones has not received the acclaim his teenaged fellow infielders have received, but he has popped up on the prospect radar as a legitimate bat.
   Jones is among the MWL leaders in Slugging and Total Bases, slashing .324/.389/.568 so far this season, demonstrating an advanced approach at the plate.  If there was a concern about his production at the plate prior to this season, it would have to have been pitch recognition and working counts better.  He has done an outstanding job of that, and it wouldn't be going too far out on a limb to suggest that he has the best approach in the Lansing lineup.
   A 1st Baseman last year, Jones was told to pack a collection of gloves for the move to Michigan, and he's split time between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd this year.  His reactions on groundballs are better than had been anticpated, but his arm still is somehere in the fringy range.  But that almost doesn't matter - the bat will play.
   Turning 22 next month, it may be time to move Jones up to Dunedin.

   Jones at the plate in early April:

   Beyond that, it's hard to see much movement next month.  Fans have been clamoring to see top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr moved to the next level, but there is absolutely no need to rush him. Had he been born stateside, he would be preparing for next month's draft.  Rapid ascension is likely in his future, but not this year.  Anthony Alford would have been a good candidate to move to Buffalo next month, but his wrist injury has taken care of that.  Upon his return from a successful rehab, it's possible we see him with the Bisons in August if they're in a playoff hunt.