Thursday, August 17, 2017

Maverik Aims to be Blue Jays Top Gun


Provo Daily Herald photo
“Time to get to work and prove some people wrong,” Buffo said. “The biggest thing I’ve been looking for more than the money is to be with a team that makes an investment in me and will give me the chance to prove myself.”    

   One of the first things we should get out of the way in regards to Toronto Blue Jays prospect Maverik Buffo is that yes, he was named after Tom Cruise's character from the movie Top Gun.  The 34th round pick from Brigham Young, who is currently dominating the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, says he has been heckled many times over the course of his baseball life with plenty of lines from the movie. "People ask me all the time, 'Hey Maverik, where's Goose?'"
  Buffo adds that he will be getting a dog this offseason, and (you guessed it) will name it after Cruise's sidekick.
 
  Utah native Buffo had become BYU's 2nd starter in his sophomore year, and seemed primed to go in the top 10 rounds of the draft following his junior year until he suffered a torn UCL.  Rest and rehab is the usual route for UCL tears, often followed by Tommy John surgery if the regimen was not successful.  Buffo opted to try a relatively new therapy:
 For my rehab, I got a stem cell injection as well as a PRP injection and then I began rehabbing with my trainer at BYU throughout the rest of that season and then all through off season and then I was cleared 100% before fall had started. That's when I started throwing in scrimmages and in fall games and then I have felt great ever since. 
  The PRP (Platelet-Rich Therapy) treatment was the course of action the Blue Jays went with Roberto Osuna when he tore his UCL in 2014, but it was ultimately unsuccessful, and its results across baseball have been mixed at best.  Stem cell treatment is used in more severe tears.
   Buffo returned to BYU's rotation this year, but his numbers were less than spectacular.  Still, his velocity had returned to the 92-93 range, hitting 95 on occasion.  But those stats, along with some concerns about his elbow, caused his draft stock to tumble.  According to the Provo (UT) Daily Herald, Buffo thought at one point during the draft that he might be going to the Yankees in the 18th or 19th round, or to the Diamondbacks later, but by Day Three he was still waiting for his name to be called, until the Blue Jays finally selected him:
“It’s hard to sit there and watch and get calls from different teams who tell you that they want to draft you and when your name doesn’t get called ... it’s pretty stressful. But then when I heard my name called, I felt a pit in my stomach and thought, ‘You just got drafted.’”
  Buffo could have gone back to Brigham Young for his senior year in order to improve his draft stock, but he was ready to turn pro:
 Playing professional baseball has been my dream for as long as I can remember. And it is something that I have worked so hard for. To me I felt that I was ready for the next chapter in my life and that I was ready to pursue my dream. I loved everything about BYU they played a major role in getting me where I am today but I just felt the time was right for me to continue to chase that dream. I felt I got everything i could possibly learn and wanted to continue to get better at the next level. 
   After the post-draft orientation in Florida, Buffo remained at the minor league complex to pitch for the GCL Jays, likely because the team wanted to keep an eye on him for medical reasons, and possibly because the team has a good stockpile of Pitchers at Bluefield and Vancouver, the other two short season clubs in the system.  He has dominated GCL hitters through 24 innings, including 4 starts.  He's a few innings short of qualifying for the league's lead with his microscopic 0.37  ERA, but his 43.1% swinging strike rate is second only to teammate Justin Watts'.
  Buffo's arsenal has been described as a five-pitch mix, but like so many successful Pitchers, everything is dictated by the Fastball:
I go after hitters very aggressively. I want to attack them with my fastball. I want to challenge them, my best vs their best. That's what is so fun about this game. I look at the way these hitters react to the previous pitch whether it may be how their body reacted or how their swing was to determine what I am gonna throw next. But for the most part I love to challenge them with my fastball and make them get themselves out. With my breaking ball, it depends on the count but I try to think fastball with it. I try to think fastball with all my off speed pitches because I want everything to look the same. 
  Florida-based Pro and Amateur Scout (and good friend of this blog) Chris King has seen Buffo in action several times in the GCL and has come away impressed:
He's been 92-95 with good movement. Throws strikes and likes to work down in the zone. Has a sharp breaking ball that has tight shape and horizontal break. Very durable frame as well. Mechanics are simple and repeatable.
  A 34th round pick could largely be seen as a roster filler.  Many MLB teams, however, are taking chances on Pitchers on Day 3.  Sometimes there is something in their profile that stands out (like spin rates) that makes a team take a gamble on them - get them in the system, and put them on a weighted ball or some other program to increase velocity, and see what happens. At $50 000, Buffo's signing bonus was higher than that of most players in his draft neighbourhood, but in the larger scheme of things is pretty minimal to an MLB team.  In Buffo's case, Blue Jays Area Scout Pete Holmes went on his past performance and his make up to convince the club to take him.

   With Vancouver and Bluefield both gearing up for playoff runs (the former has already clinched a post-season berth; the latter is tied for their division lead), there might be a promotion in the offing for Buffo.  Or they might opt to limit his innings (he threw 88 in college, in addition to the two dozen he's thrown as a pro) as the season winds down.  Either way, there's an excellent chance he skips a couple of levels and lands in Lansing next year.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Blue Jays Scouting Director Weighs in on MLB Draft

Riley Adams/milb.com photo

    Blue Jays Director of Amateur Scouting Steve Sanders moved to Toronto last fall after being named to the job following six years with the Red Sox, but with the duties that come with running the department charged with selecting players in the annual June draft, he admits that he hasn't seen a lot of the city just yet.

    We caught up with Sanders in Chicago, where he was waiting on a flight to Tampa.  The Under Armour Showcase, an annual gathering of the top draft-eligible high school players that takes place at Wrigley Field, had just wrapped up.  The East Coast Pro Showcase was on tap next for Florida, followed by the Area Code Games in California the week after.

   The Blue Jays' drafting philosophy had undergone a change under the leadership of President Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins from the days of Alex Anthopolous, which was evident last year.  Up to 2015, the Blue Jays had been willing to roll the dice on draft day, selecting players with high upside, but often with accompanying high risk.  The high school pitcher, perhaps the riskiest commodity in the market, was the Blue Jays preference, as well as athletes in non-traditional baseball places.  In 2016, the club went with a more conservative approach, selecting college players with five of their first six picks, which may have been an effort to re-stock the system in response to the prospect dealing Anthopoulos did in his final year at the Blue Jays helm.

  Approaching the draft, the goal for Blue Jays scouts, says Sanders, is "a complete understanding of the player on and off the field....his strengths, weaknesses, and make-up."  Players are evaluated not just for their tools, but for their aptitutde, and coachability, and as Sanders says, "how their values align with our organization's."

   Working with the Blue Jays High Performance Department on evaluating players, Sanders says the club is always, "working to find new ways to gather and evaluate information more efficiently." For obvious reasons, he wouldn't divulge what some of the team's methods were, but it was well known that the Red Sox, his former employer, used neuroscience to help evaluate potential draftees.   Angus Mugford, who heads up the High Performance group, said just before the draft that his role was to create "a good physical and mental fundamental makeup of as many players as possible," with the mental component being a huge factor.  Make up has become a huge focus of the Blue Jays' evaluaton of prospects - Director of Player Development Gil Kim calls it "the sixth tool."  With talent levels being so even across a wide spectrum of players, it's often traits like grit and resilience that separate the prospects from the suspects. Sanders added that the Blue Jays' Area Scouts take pride in getting to know players - "the more we know (about a player), the better draft day decisions we can make."

  After taking over from former Scouting Director Blake Parker last fall, Sanders made few changes to the scouting staff.  In the early years of the Anthopoulos era, the Blue Jays had one of the largest amateur scouting staffs in baseball, but the numbers have been cut back over the past few years. Sanders felt that wholesale change wasn't necessary when he took over:  "this is a group that had a lot of success before I got here."  As for his philosophy on draft day, he says because each draft is unique in terms of the composition of its top players, and the important thing is to "attack the draft, adding as much impact talent as we can."  More often that not, this translates to the "best player available," when the Blue Jays' turn to select comes up each round.  Sanders says it's best to be "open-minded" when it comes to the draft - some years college players dominate, and sometimes there are more arms than bats, as well as the reverse.  In preparing for next year's draft, Sanders already suggests that it will be different in terms of its composition of top propsects than this year's was.


 Sanders was asked for some capsule comments on the team's top draft picks:

On North Carolina SS Logan Warmoth, taken 22nd overall:
He's a player we've scouted for a long time....he wasn't a propsect out of High School, but he steadily improved at North Carolina, and that really showed this year.  He's very steady and a well-rounded player, with a chance to stay at SS and hit for power.  His make up is off the charts, and he has the intangibles to be a top of the lineup hitter.
The second Blue Jays 1st rounder was Florida Juco RHP Nate Pearson:
His stuff in undeniable.  He's shown steady improvement, and (Area Scout) Matt Bishoff has known him for a long time.  It's not just his velocity, his secondaries are good pitches as well.  He's a good athlete, repeats his delivery well, and has the ingredients to be a top of the rotation arm.
  2nd round pick C Hagen Danner:
 Very athletic player who we scouted as both a catcher and a pitcher. Strong with projectable power, has a chance to be a run producer with the bat to go along with good hands and plus arm behind the plate. Was up to 95 with quality 3 pitch mix off the mound. Great competitor & teammate who bring a lot of winning attributes.
3rd rounder C Riley Adams:
Strong performer in his 3 years at USD and in the Cape league, has power to all fields and shown ability to hit for average and get on base. Easy arm strength and another very good athlete which we feel will help him stay behind the plate despite his larger frame. Works hard on both sides of the ball and continued to get better defensively throughout our looks this season.
4th round pick SS Kevin Smith:
 Quality defender with hands and instincts to stick at SS. Has some pullside power at the plate and showed off what he can do with the bat in the Cape league last summer. Student of the game that's remade parts of his swing over the last few years, did a nice job of making some adjustments this spring to bounce back from a slow start. As he continues to develop, we feel he has the tools to bring value on both sides of the ball as an everyday SS.
5th round pick 2B Cullen Large:
Offensive switch hitting infielder with feel for the bat from both sides. Quality performer for three years at William & Mary. Has played mostly 2B but may be able to move around some for added versatility.
6th rounder OF Brock Lundquist:
LHH college OF with feel to hit & track record of performance at Long Beach State. Can play both corners.
7th round pick RHP Colton Laws:
 Big 6'7 RHP with three pitch mix, gets downhill and throws a lot of strikes. Has impressive feel to pitch, size and angle add deception and can make him a tough look for hitters. Good athlete who was a basketball player in HS, feel he's going to continue to get better as he continues to log innings.
Canadian OF Tanner Kirwer, taken in the 20th round:
CF with plus speed to impact the game in the outfield and on the bases. Was starting to hit his stride offensively before being hit by pitch at the end of July (he was recently placed on the 60-day DL). Great makeup and energy, originally from Alberta, Canada before heading to Niagara U.

 
   As the draft heads into Day 2, the knowledge of the Area Scouts is "the locomotive that drives the process," according to Sanders, and is a good example of why these individuals are among the most important in the organization.  They know the players better than anyone, having seen them play over the course of several years.  The intuition of Area Scouts becomes even more important on Day 3, when there is little information available about players who have yet to be drafted.  Many selected at this point become what is known in the trade as "organization guys" - players drafted in order to fill rosters at the lower levels of the farm system.  But, as Sanders says, "for every guy we drafted, there was someone on the staff who believed in them."

   At 29, Sanders is one of the youngest Scouting Directors in baseball.  He is, in baseball terms, "a gamer."  Sanders attended Northwestern, but tore his labrum before attending the school, and redshirted his first three years.  After graduation, he interned with Dodgers in his hometown before moving across the country to become the Red Sox Amateur Scouting Coordinator in 2012, moving up to Assistant Director in 2015.  He has as reputation as having strong people and analytical skills.  When asked what allowed Sanders to stand out among the candidates the Blue Jays were considering for the job, Shapiro responded:
 It was helpful that Steve had worked with people that we knew well and aligned with like Ben Cherington, Mike Hazen and Mike Murov.  Throughout our time with him, he was thoughtful, intelligent, passionate and humble.  Steve impressed upon us that he was driven to learn and improve – and more importantly help others do the same.  He also exuded many of the leadership traits that I think separate great leaders.  Even better, he has over delivered on those interview attributes in his everyday leadership.  He works to build strong, respectful relationships throughout our organization and to utilize every person and source of information to help us make better scouting decisions.  We are fortunate to have Steve leading our Amateur Scouting staff.

  Once things settle down at the end of the summer, Sanders admits that he's looking forward to getting to know Toronto better before planning and scouting for next year's draft begins.

 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Look at Samad Taylor


   IF Samad Taylor was acquired by the Blue Jays in the Joe Smith deadline deal, along with LHP Thomas Pannone.  Taylor was a 10th round pick of Cleveland in 2016.  In the aftermath of the deal, the term that seemed to be applied to the athletic Californian is intriguing.
   Viewed as undersized, he put on quite a performance in front of an armada of scouts at the 2015 Area Code Games tryouts that changed a number of teams' minds.  A draft report from Baseball America suggests he was a Best Player Available pick:
He's athletic and has some quick hands that give him surprising power at his size. He's a plus runner who could wind up as a utility player and has a good chance to stay in the infield. He's undersized at 5-foot-9, 159 pounds and may not have the arm strength to stick at shortstop.
  As is the case with most high school picks, Taylor spent his first year in pro ball in a complex league, putting up a respectable .293/.359/.397 line for Cleveland's Arizona League entry.  Sent to short season Mahoning Valley of the New York-Penn League, he's put up decent numbers again, showing a little more pop, but getting on base less often.
   Taylor is one of those fast-twitch, athletic guys that teams covet.  He was a switch-hitter in high school, but the Indians had him hitting only from the right side when he turned pro.  Hitting from a tall stance with a very simple set of mechanics, Taylor uses his lower half and quick hands to produce a line-drive swing.  He makes consistent hard contact, although his BB-K ratio this year suggests that his pitch recognition skills are being put to the test by the more advanced NY-Penn pitchers.
   In the field, Taylor has quick reactions to the ball, including a swift first step.  His actions are smooth, fundamentals are sound,  moves well laterally, and he covers a lot of ground and gets to a lot of balls as a result.  He does not have the strongest or most graceful arm action, however, which is why he's projected to be a 2B as he advances.  He doesn't appear to have the arm for SS.
   On the bases, Taylor's speed gets a 70 (out of 80) grade, and most reports make reference to this tool. That raw speed has not translated into stolen bases just yet, but if he continues to develop as a hitter with power to the gaps, it could result in higher double and triples totals.

  Video of Taylor from his draft year.....


  Taylor is listed at 5'10"/160, and both figures are probably on the generous side.  He's no doubt added some weight to his medium frame, which should add some power.  He turned 19 in July, so there is still some room for projection.

    Taylor was not listed among Cleveland's Top 30 pre-season prospects, which is not a surprise given his inexperience and the depth of their system.  He been a fixture at the top of Mahoning Valley's order this season, and he profiles as a top of the order hitter if he can continue to get on base.  His likely destination in Vancouver, but he probably has to get a passport before that can happen.   The Northwest League is on their all-star break, and the C's resume play at Hillsboro on Friday - which is good news, because if Taylor is somehow in the lineup, the Hops' home games are broadcast on milb.com.

   Does the athletic Taylor have an MLB future?  That is incredibly difficult to say at this point.  Given his tools and skills, he could profile as an MLB utility player if he doesn't pan out as a full-time Second Baseman.  His acquisition does add to the growing stable of athletes in the Blue Jays system.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Scouting Thomas Pannone

milb.com photo

   The Blue Jays acquired LHP Thomas Pannone, along with IF Samad Taylor, from Cleveland in the trade for Joe Smith at the trade deadline.  Here's a look at his minor league career so far, with a focus on his most recent start on July 29th.

   First, some background:    A Rhode Island native, Pannone was taken in the 33rd round by the Cubs. He opted to attend the Community College of Southern Nevada, a junior college which has sent several players to MLB, most noticeably Bryce Harper.   He was a high makeup, athletic prospect, according to Baseball America's draft report:

Pannone was a 33rd-round pick of the Cubs out Bishop Hendricken High (Warwick, R.I.) last year, but he didn't sign and made the cross-country trek to JC of Southern Nevada after initially committing to Miami. At 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, he's a tightly wound athlete who was a two-way player in high school. He played more in the outfield for the Coyotes early in the year, and scouts said watching his pregame throws was a treat. He started getting more time on the mound midway through the season, and scouts see him in that role as a pro. Pannone was on the mound for Bishop Hendricken's state championship game last year, but as a two-way player from the Northeast he is still raw as a pitcher. His fastball sits in the 91-93 mph range, and he can spot it, but his secondary stuff is below-average. His curveball is ahead of his changeup. Scouts like his athleticism and bulldog mentality. 
    As a converted pitcher with average velocity, Pannone has had to prove himself at every level.  He's made a steady rise through Cleveland's system, although he repeated Low A in 2016.  This year, he began the season at High A, was was unhittable in 5 starts, allowing only 10 hits in 27 innings, while fanning 39 and not allowing an earned run before a promotion to AA. According to my good internet friend Justin L, (@JL_Baseball on Twitter), who follows the Cleveland system extensively from top to bottom, some mechanical changes this year have resulted in a breakthrough for the southpaw:
(He has a) 89-92 fastball that he can spot pretty well. Fixed his mechanics this year a bit to stop from being so closed off. Helped him maintain some consistency in his velocity (was down to low 80s for a period last year). Breaking ball has come a long way this year and so has changeup. I think the curve is better than the change but some think the opposite. Change is 79-81. Good arm speed on change command just needs to improve. Over all he's a strike thrower who sits 89-92. If command keeps coming I think he could be a #4/5 guy consistently, at worst he's a depth starter/swingman with that potential.

  Jim Callis of mlb.com, when asked about why Pannone, who wasn't listed among Cleveland's Top 30 prospects on MLB Pipeline before the season, was at a bit of a loss to explain his ascension this year:
 He took off after making some delivery adjustments last year, though his dominance is hard to explain. Pannone works with a 90-92 mph and can throw strikes with a decent curveball and changeup, and while his stuff isn't overwhelming, hitters just don't seem to see his fastball.

   Pannone started the second half of a doubleheader against the Orioles' AA affiliate on July 29th.  He was a model of efficiency in a 13-pitch first inning, retiring the side in order with a swinging strike on an outside curve.  In the 2nd, he was squared up twice with two outs, but retired the side.  Throwing first pitch strikes, then using his change and curve to put hitters away or induce weak contact (Pannone also threw a four-seamer that was a tick or two higher than his usual low 90s velo to try to get swings and misses), he retired the side in order in the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th.  Into the 7th, Pannone had set down 14 hitters in a row before surrendering a one out single.  The next hitter launched one over the centrefield wall to break the shutout, and bring an end to Pannone's night.

   How does Pannone get hitters out?  By a solid combination of command of all three of his pitches (fastball, curve, change), and by sequencing.  A tall-and-fall pitcher, Pannone has a bit of deception to his delivery, throws all three of his pitches from the same three-quarters arm slot, and consistently gets ahead of hitters,  where his secondaries become more of a weapon.  He can back door his curve to right-handed hitters, and throws his change in any count.  He threw first pitch strikes to 16 of the 23 hitters he faced, opening each inning from the 3rd through to the 7th with a strike.

   MLB.com grades his fastball and curve as average, and his change as a slight bit above average:
Pannone can run his fastball up to 92-93 mph but usually sits more in the 88-91 mph range. Though not overpowering, Pannone's heater plays above its velocity on account of his deception, allowing him to induce whiffs inside the zone. He has good feel for his curveball, showing the ability to throw it for a strike and also bury it in the dirt when vying for whiffs, and he's adept at adding and subtracting with the pitch as needed. His changeup gives him a third average-or-better offering, albeit one he uses sparingly, and he has good command of all three pitches.

  Here is the thing about Pannone: despite the fact that he lacks a plus pitch in his arsenal, he gets hitters out.  Will that translate to success in the major leagues?   It's very hard to say - the relative lack of velo gives him less margin for error with his command and secondaries.  But the guy appears to be pitching above his grades.  Pannone is a competitor, who seems to have made the necessary adjustments to miss barrels and climb the minor league ladder.  That may not translate to a top-of-the-rotation arm, but given his pitch economy, he could profile as a back-of-the-rotation innings-eater pitcher at the major league level.

  A mid-season Eastern League All Star, Pannone is among the league leaders in several pitching categories.  He lacks the innings to qualify, but his 2.62 ERA is the second lowest in the league.  His K% (24.5) is the highest, and his 11.8% swinging strike rate is the second highest.  To this point, this is a guy who has pitched above his scouting grades.
   Pannone should report to New Hampshire and join their rotation, where he will join prospects Conner Greene, Sean Reid-Foley, and Jon Harris.

    Some Pannone video for your viewing pleasure....
video