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 UreƱa 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.


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