Monday, July 31, 2017

Do Trades for Prospects Really Work?

Franklin Barreto - photo

  On November 28th, 2014, then-Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos dealt 3rd Baseman Brett Lawrie and three prospects for Oakland 3B Josh Donaldson.  It was not the first time Anthopoulos had dealt prospects in an attempt to bolster the major league roster, of course, and the November deal did not bring about an end to his prospect dealing.  In 4 separate deadline deals in 2015, Anthopoulos dealt a total of 10 prospects at the July trade deadline.

   At that time, many hard core Blue Jays fans had mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the club was able to pick up key pieces like Troy Tulowitzki and David Price without sacrificing a player from the 25-man roster.  On the other, the club parted with some top prospects like Jeff Hoffman and Daniel Norris, and dealt some of its prospect depth.

   By September, of 2015, however, most of that concern had long since faded away.  The Blue Jays turned their season around, playing scorching baseball down the stretch to break a two decades long playoff drought.   As the 2017 season progresses, the team's aging core is showing signs of wear and tear, and while the farm system is producing talent in abundance,  in the words of President Mark Shaprio, "Most of it is at the lower levels."  The club looks to be at the fringes of a post-season berth, at best.

   Will Shapiro and his front office colleagues be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline?  Will they look to shed some contractual obligations, or will they try to once again upgrade the major league roster by dealing some of that far-off prospect depth?

   History suggests that dealing for prospects doesn't always work.  Here's a look at the deals Anthopoulos made to give us much of the current big league roster, and an analysis of the benefits they brought to the club:

November 28, 2014
   Josh Donaldson for Franklin Barreto, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin, and Brett Lawrie.

    Donaldson has provided 17.7 WAR (BR's version) of value, an MVP award, and led the team to a pair of post-season appearances since his acquisiton.  Barreto won the Northwest League's MVP award that year at the tender age of 18, and was the centrepiece of that deal.  He made his MLB debut in June, and was returned to AAA after hitting .190/.262/.381.  Graveman did a decent job in the back of the Athletics' rotation last year, but injuries have limited him to 8 starts this year, and he's currently on a rehab assignment.  The oft-injured Noin made 6 starts for Oakland in 2015, spent all of last year on the DL, and was picked up by Milwaukee on waivers last fall.  He's been on the DL again since Opening Day.  Lawrie was dealt to the White Sox after one season, and was released early in spring training this year, and has yet to catch on with an MLB organization.
    It was sad to see Barreto go, but he was so far away (and there was considerable doubt about his eventual position), so the victors in this deal were clearly the Blue Jays.

July 28, 2015
   Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins for Jose Reyes, Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro, and Jesus Tinoco.
    Tulo plugged the gaping hole at SS that was Reyes, and Hawkins stablilized the 7th inning for the club, and both were integral parts of the run to the pennant that year.  Hoffman was a 1st round pick in 2014, but was coming off Tommy John surgery.  He made 4 starts for Colorado in 2016, and now has become a mainstay of their rotation, but like many pitchers who ply their trade in Coors Field, his numbers are a bit unsightly.  Castro was an electric-armed reliever who rocketed through the Blue Jays farm system in 2014, and broke camp with the club the following year, even though he had never pitched about High A.  MLB hitters teed off on his fastball, which consistently caught too much of the plate, and he was back in the minors after a month.  Traded to Baltimore at the start of this season, Castro has been on the MLB/AAA shuffle, but appears to be sticking with the O's this time around, and has posted a 2.70 ERA in 26 innings.  Tinoco made great progress in Low A in 2015, but has struggled since then, and has yet to pitch above High A.
   Hawkins retired after 2015, and while Tulo has had his struggles with the bat this year, and is possibly out for the season after injuring his ankle this weekend,  the Blue Jays are once again clearly the hands-down winners of this deal.  His contributions on and off the field have been numerous.

July 30, 2015
   David Price for Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd
    On paper, this deal had the greatest potential to be win-win for both sides.  Price gave the Blue Jays a legitimate ace, and Norris and Boyd promised to give the Tigers some long-term rotation depth.
     Price, of course, moved on to the Red Sox as a free agent at the end of the season.  Norris had some health issues, but over the last month of 2016 appeared to be on the verge of becoming a front-of-the-rotation arm.  Boyd was never a highly-heralded prospect, but all he did as a minor leaguer was get hitters out.  He made 18 starts for the Tigers in 2016, and it was easy to pencil him in as a back-of-the-rotation guy for 2017.  Both have had their struggles this year:  Norris posted a 5.29 ERA in 16 starts before going on the DL in early July, and is rehabbing in AAA; Boyd has been on the Detroit-Toledo shuffle after making the club out of spring training, and is currently with the Tigers.
    Price led the Blue Jays to the post-season.  Norris and Boyd have not put the Tigers over the top.  If there was a winner in this deal, a slight edge would go to the Blue Jays, although they have proved they could have used some starting pitching depth this year.

July 31st, 2015
   Mark Lowe for Jake Brentz and Nick Wells.
    Lowe, along with Hawkins, helped bolster the Blue Jays pennant run in 2015.  He left for the Tigers as a free agent after the season, and has bounced to the Mariners and the White Sox, for whom he's pitching in AAA at the moment.
    Brentz was a project - a guy who hadn't pitched a whole lot before being drafted, and was still learning the craft in 2015.  Dealt to the Pirates last year, he was moved to the bullpen full time this year, and was recently promoted to AA.  In four pro seasons, Wells has not pitched above Low A.
    This is a  deal that is almost a wash, except for the fact that Lowe played some post-season ball in 2015.

July 31, 2015
   Ben Revere for Jimmy Cordero and Alberto Tirado.
   Revere played very well for the Blue Jays for two months in 2015, and was a fixture at the top of the order, getting on base at a rate well above his career average.  Things have been pretty much downhill for him since then.
   Cordero had a fastball that could reach triple digits, but he didn't always know where it was going, and he's walked as many (32) as he has struck out in 42 innings at AA this year.  Tirado seems to have been around forever, but is only 22.  He had been moved to the bullpen that year after having difficulties as a starter, but the Phillies sent him from High to Low A last year in an attempt to move him back into the rotation.  It seems to have succeeded, as Tirado was promoted to AA recently.
    Slight edge to the Blue Jays.  Revere is long gone, but he gave the club two months of value and contributed to a pennant winner.

   There was some wringing of hands among Blue Jays fans about the number of prospects that were given up, but the truth of the matter is that the only quality players the team gave up were Barreto, Norris, and Hoffman, and all three have yet to make a big impact at the major league level.  The Blue Jays in 2015 were still able to hang onto the prospects they were least willing to part with (Anthony Alford, Rowdy Tellez, Richard Ureña, Conner Greene, Sean Reid-Foley), and yet they acquired key pieces to their pennant drive.
   Recent research by Baseball America suggests that prospect deals made at the trade deadline don't work out for the team acquiring prospects more often than they do.  Most teams now are very reluctant to give up young, controllable players whom they've already invested a great deal of time and money in. And the Blue Jays' experience in 2015 seems to point in that direction.  The short-term gain the team experienced more than cancelled out any long term consequences of the deal, and they still were able to hold on to the prospects the prized the most.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

What To Expect From Chris Rowley

Eddie Michels/ photo

   One early sweltering early August Florida afternoon in 2013, RHP Chris Rowley took the mound for the Blue Jays Gulf Coast League entry.  After limiting the Pirates' GCL team to one run on four hits over six innings, Rowley jumped into the team traniner's car the following morning (his 23rd birthday) for the airport.  His destination:  New York, from where he would travel to West Point to begin fulfilling his service commitment after graduating from the US Military Academy that spring.
   Four years later, after serving his two-year hitch, which included a deployment to Eastern Europe (where he threw to the company medic to keep up his arm strength), Rowley is on the cusp of a big league job, having faced down incredibly long odds just to make it to pro ball.

  Rowley was lightly scouted even though he was the ace of the Black Knights' staff in his senior year at West Point; his military commitment no doubt dissuaded most teams.  He quickly signed with the Jays, who needed pitching for their GCL club after the 2013 draft. He was one of the team's most effective starters (1.09 ERA, 10.6 K/9) for the GCL Jays, but while other pitchers on the club received promotions to Bluefield or Vancouver as the summer progressed, Rowley remained in Dunedin, with the 60 days he had to report after graduating quickly counting down.

  After two years of service, Rowley was released from further commitment by the Army under a new program that allowed elite athletes in the military to pursue their sports.  Rowley reported to Florida for Instructs in the fall of 2015, and has quickly made up for lost time.  He was a mainstay in High A Dunedin's bullpen in 2016, and moved up the ladder to New Hampshire this year, where he continued his strong relief work until injuries in the Fisher Cats' rotation forced Manager Gary Allenson to press Rowley into starting duties.  Rowley did not miss a beat, and after taking a shutout into the 6th inning in his first start, he didn't allow more than one run in his next three.  That helped earn Rowley a promotion to Buffalo, where he returned to the bullpen.  Injuries and call ups forced him back into the starting rotation, and Rowley has not allowed a run over his last two starts.

   Chris Rowley does not blow hitters away.  He relies on his command, and a sinker that he says, "I couldn't throw straight even if I tried."  He mixes in a rapdily improving change up and a late-breaking slider with good depth.  He throws all 3 pitches from the same arm slot, making it very hard for hitters to pick up spin/rotation.  Rowley works quickly, standing on the rubber and peering in for the sign from his Catcher as soon as he gets the ball back.  His delivery has a slight pause, which can disrupt hitters' ability to time him.  Rowley is a good athlete who lands in a good fielding position, and is quick off the mound.  Most important of all, he pounds the lower part of the strike zone, walking only 20 over close to 90 innings. Hitters at two levels have found him extremely tought to square up.

   Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim calls Rowley, "A solid make up guy, (and) a true professional."  He is respectful to all throughout the game, and faithfully answers questions from a writer who's followed him for several years.  The Toronto media will no doubt quickly latch onto his Cinderella story - in a little under two years, he's gone from the US Army to the brink of the major leagues.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A Look at What's In the System

Tim Mayza - Clutchlings Photo

   With the Toronto Blue Jays struggling to score runs,  and a recent Statscast release demonstrating that in terms of baserunning speed, they have one of the slowest lineups in baseball,  thoughts of many fans are turning into what volume of selling the club will be doing at the trade deadline.
    It's hard to predict either way what the team will do at the end of this month.  A decent winning streak could put them right back into the thick of things.  But with Troy Tulowitzki struggling, Kevin Pillar reverting to career norms, and minus the spark that Devon Travis provided, it's hard to see this team playing meaningful September baseball.  The question for Blue Jays management is whether or not a quick fix, in the form of trades to shore up weak spots in the lineup is the answer, or if a complete tear-down is more in order.
   Before a team decides to blow it up and start from scratch, they have to take stock of their minor league systems.  Are there players who are close enough that their development as every day major leaguers won't be impaired by rushing them?  Are there enough players at key positions?  Will rebuilding be a long, painful, and attendance-costing process, or is there enough talent at the upper levels of the system to keep the team competitive?

   Here's a look, position-by-position, at what's in the system, and how close those players might be.

   This is possibly the deepest position in the system - quite a turnaround from even a year ago.
Danny Jansen has gone fron oft-injured to AA All Star in the course of a year.  Reese McGuire underwent surgery for a torn meniscus in May and is out until at least August, and was replaced by Jansen.  Max Pentecost returned to Catching duties this year after two  Going deeper into the system, recent draftees Riley Adams and Hagen Danner show tremendous promise.
   Jansen and McGuire (that's the order I see them in - Jansen should become the everyday receiver, with McGuire a more than competent back up who can allow the Blue Jays to keep Jansen's bat in the lineup once in a while as a DH) are both at least a year away, while the newbies in the system are several.
   With Russ Martin under contract for two more years, and Miguel Montero just picked up from the Cubs, this position does not seem to be a priority for the Jays to re-tool.  With 3 decent prospects in full season ball, and a pair in short season, this is a position of strength for the organzation, and if the club was looking to upgrade the major league roster, this might be an area to deal from.

Corner Infielders
   This was the year that Rowdy Tellez was going to challenge Justin Smoak for a job by mid-season.
   So much for that.
    Tellez faced on and off-field struggles this half   His bat has started to show signs of life, but he's hovered around the Mendoza Line for much of the season to date.  Tellez was one of the youngest players in AA last year, and at 22, he's one of the youngest again at AAA.  There's not much to be gained by rushing him at this point.
    Vladimir Guerrero Jr may be on his way to best-prospect-in-baseball status, but he's still only 18, and several years away.
   There isn't much else at these positions.

Middle Infielders
    There is truly a glut of players in the system who can play 2nd and SS.   The most promising, of course, is Guerrero's bashing Lansing brother Bo Bichette, who is still a few years away as well.
  Richard Ureña was one of the youngest players in AA at the start of the season.  After settling many questions about his bat the past two years, he's struggled at the plate this year.  There is no doubt about his defensive skills.  He is the eventual successor to Troy Tulowitzki, but he likely is destined to be a bottom third of the order hitter.
    Jason Leblebijian has had the most successful season of any Blue Jays middle infielder.  Once viewed as an org guy, he went to Australia a couple of seasons ago, mashed his way to an MVP award, and seemingly hasn't stopped hitting.  At 26, his prospect status is starting to wane, however, and he can't really be viewed as a long-term answer.
    Top draft pick Logan Warmoth made his pro debut in the GCL, and now is a fixture in Vancouver's lineup.  He may even make it to Lansing by the end of the summer. He's not likely to make his MLB debut this decade, though.
   Lourdes Gurriel is something of a wild card here.  He could profile as a SS, 2B, or a LF.  After not playing for almost two years following his defection from Cuba, the Blue Jays expected some rust, but injuries have slowed his development this year.  A recent series against Bradenton showed some issues with bat speed and timing, but that apepars to be coming around now that he's healthy and in the lineup of AA New Hampshire every day.

   Blue Jays fans got a glimpse of the future when toolsy Anthony Alford made his MLB debut this year.  It was a brief one, of course, but if his recovery from wrist surgery goes well, (he's been back for about a week), there's every chance we see him in a Blue Jays uniform this summer.
   And the stock of good players at this position who are close begins and ends with Alford.  Roemon Fields has put together a surprising .298/.348/.385 line at Buffalo, but has struggled throughout much of his full-season minor league career to get on base enough to take advantage of his speed.  Dwight Smith Jr likewise has put up decent numbers at AAA, and even hit well in a brief audition with the big club, but he and Fields really should be considered to be no more than fourth outfielders at best.
   Edward Olivares has opened at lot of eyes at Lansing this year, but has to prove that he can maintain that kind of contact at the higher levels.  An aside: watching Olivares take BP earlier this year, it was kind of mystifying to watch him drive so many pitches into the top of the cage in an obvious attempt to put some loft on the ball.  Given his build and speed, an observer might have been tempted to think that a line drive, on-base approach might be better.  During the game that followed, Olivares lofted a HR over the wall in Left-Centre, a noteworthy blast in April at Cooley Law School Stadium.  He is a five-tool player (leads all Midwest League OFs in Assists) and a premium athlete who is still several years away.
2016 2nd rounder J.B. Woodman has swung and missed at a lot of pitches so far this year in the Midwest League.
  Dalton Pompey continues to try to stay healthy and see his name on the lineup card every day.
  This is not a positon of depth in the system, however.

Starting Pitchers
   Sean Reid-Foley would have been considered the top starting prospect in the system this year.  In his first try at AA, he's been too fine with his pitches, and has had his ups and downs, athough his most recent outing was a gem.  He's also only 21, and obviously needs more time.
    The same could be said of Conner Greene, who's walking hitters at a career-high rate (5.5/9) as SRF's rotation-mate.  Greene has shown flashes of brilliance, but has yet to put a solid stretch together - he walked 8 and fanned only 2 over only 4 innings in his last start.
   TJ Zeuch, the club's 1st round pick last year, showed promise in High A, but struggled to stay healthy as many pitchers do in his first full season, and is on the DL.  He's resumed baseball activities since being shut down a month ago, but there is not date for his return.
   Ryan Borucki was added to the 40-man last August, but his lengthy injury history prompted the team to shut him down briefly early in the season, and he was on a pitch-count limit until June.  Teammate and GTA product Jordan Romano has probably been the best starter in the Blue Jays system this year, although he may profile more as an MLB reliever. Both have to be considered two-three years away.
   Justin Maese reached Lansing in only his second pro season (quite a feat for a high school P) last August, but he too has been shut down with shoulder issues.  He returned to action in a GCL rehab stint this week, but the club is likely understandably reluctant to rush things.  Both Maese and Zeuch are several years away.
   Southpaw Angel Perdomo has been brought slowly through the system, and has pitched well at High A this year.  Most scouts are of the belief that his lights-out fastball will play better in a bullpen one day, but the Blue Jays are content for now to allow him to continue to develop as a starter.
   2015 1st rounder Jon Harris has had his struggles at AA this year, but seems to be turning things around.
   Yennsy Diaz has dazzled Midwest League hitters with his electric fastball since making his full season debut last month.  If his secondaries continue to develop, he will be an arm worth watching.

Relief Pitchers
   If there is one area that has consistently been one of the deepest pools of talent in the system.
Which is a good thing, considering the short shelf life of the modern day MLB reliever.
   Chris Rowley has rocketed through the system after being released from his military commitment last February.  He does not blow hitters away, but uses a combination of location and movement to keep hitters off balance.  He pitched in relief last year and for the first two months of this year, but injuries in New Hampshire's rotation forced him into a starting role.  He has been lights out in either capacity, earning a promotion to Buffalo.  The Blue Jays would have preferred to keep him in relief, according to a team official, but he's proven valuable in the swing man role.  He's knocking on the door of a major league job.
   Southpaw Matt Dermody has made tremendous strides since being switched to full-time bullpen duties two years ago, and even made a few appearances with the big club last fall.  He was hit hard in his only MLB outing this year, and has given up some contact with Buffalo, but is still striking out a batter per inning.  Fellow lefty Tim Mayza turned some heads in spring training, and after dazzling with an electric fastball that hits 97.  RHP John Stilson and his 96 mph fastball have been knocking on the major league door for some time, but injuries seem to keep getting in the way.
  At AA, Dusty Isaacs and New Brunswick's Andrew Case (recetnly promoted to Buffalo) haven't had a lot of opportunities to close the door on opponents for the last-place Fisher Cats, but have been very effective in late inning situations.  And while we usually don't go below that level to look for potential bullpen arms, Kirby Snead, Zach Jackson and Jackson McClelland have put together impressive seasons first at Lansing and now Dunedin.
   This is another position of strength for the organization in terms of depth.

Zach Jackson - Clutchlings photo

    In short, this is a system with a growing stockpile of talent, but there is little of it that's ready to step into an everyday role with the big league club.  Alford is the most obvious candidate, but the struggles of Tellez, Reid-Foley, and Greene indicate that they're still at least a year away.  Bichette and Guerrero are clearly the jewels of the system, but 2019 would have to be the earliest we would see them, and that date is probably a bit on the optimistic side.
    There is some trade depth if the Blue Jays were looking to upgrade the major league roster.  If Pentecost does not pan out behind the plate, his athleticism would be a fit for many teams.  Olivares offers a toolkit that might be very tempting.  And despite not being able to offer more than a $300K bonus to any of their international signings last year in the hangover that was the 2015 Vladdy Jr signing, there are some intriguing arms in that group.
    It's hard to say which way the Blue Jays management group is leaning, but if past performance is any indication, this is an administration which prefers to build from within, using young controllable players.  We're not apt to see the likes of Alex Anthopoulos' dealing two years ago (he traded 18 prospects in the span of eight months).   Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro is well aware of the risks of doing a full-on tear down, and is not likely to make a wholesale overhaul of the major league roster. The deals that he and GM Ross Atkins would make, if any, would probably involve the return of upper-level prospects for players on the 25-man with soon to be expiring contracts.  With a stable of prospects reaching the middle levels of the system this year, and a likely Top 10 draft pick next year barring a remarkable second half turnaround, it seems more likely that the Blue Jays will not be holding a fire sale later this month, but may look to move one or two contracts, with an eye to the club becoming more competitive in the next two years.