Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Clutchlings Minor League Award Winners

Rich Miller - Vancouver Province photo

     The Blue Jays farm system ended the season on a positive note.  As President Mark Shapiro had noted in late August, much of the depth in the organization is still working its way up the ladder, and as if to reinforce that point, 4 of the team's 5 short season clubs made their respective league's post seasons, while three of the four full season teams fell short of .500.

    In the minors, development supersedes winning. Teams do like their top prospects to move up and learn to win together, so making the playoffs is viewed as a positive thing.  It can be also be a chance for tired players to injure themselves.  The Blue Jays executives I have spoken to over the years don't necessarily see the minor league post season as a bad thing, but their lack of enthusiasm in noticeable.

    At the bottom of the ladder, the Dominican Summer League's DSL Blue Jays won their division, only to be beaten in the first round by the Dodgers.  Top IFAs from 2016 like Hugo Cardona, Naswell Paulino, Elixon Caballero, and Kenny Mauricio played for the club, which was piloted by veteran Blue Jays minor league Manager John Tamargo.
     One of the realities of minor league ball is that many of the players plying their trade for an organization are roster fillers.  Teams will tell you that they believe that every player they sign has a chance, and while I think the Blue Jays sincerely believe that, the truth is that since only a handful of minor leaguers even get a cup of coffee in the bigs, roster turnover is a fairly frequent thing.  Case in point: DSL Jays OF Andres Martinez, a late 2016 signing who was the club's best hitter, and our pick for Player of the Year.  Martinez was among the team leaders in Average and OBP, but at 19 (he just turned 20), he was a little old for this level.  IF Rafael Lantigua had comparable numbers, and a higher Slugging %, thanks to 6 Triples.  He was also 11-23 in Stolen Bases, negating much of the value he created by getting on base.  Martinez provided little pop (only 7 extra base hits, all Doubles), and that plus his age probably made the Jays feel he wasn't a candidate to move stateside next year.
   The DSL Jays Pitcher of the Year race was a tight one.  LHP Paulino, a converted OF who can dial it up to 96, fanned 52 in 55 innings, and had a couple of outings where he was all but unhittable. Caballero, a Marcus Stroman-sized righty with an advanced feel for pitching, worked mostly out of the bullpen, striking out 36 in 32 frames.  But the award goes to Righty Nathanael Perez, who K'd 55 and walked only 7 in 57 IP.  Paulino and Caballero are only 17, while Perez is 19.  All 3 will start in the GCL next year.  The former two may move fast at some point.

   The next rung on the ladder would be the Gulf Coast Jays, who were tied with the Phillies entry for first in their division with 10 games left in the schedule.  The GCL Jays stumbled to a 4-6 finish, ending up two games behind the Phils and out of the playoffs.
   The GCL is where high schoolers and lower round college players from the June draft begin their careers.  Rehabbing minor leaguers from upper levels also return to action via the GCL.  CF Dominic Abbadessa, a 2016 23rd rounder whose debut season was limited to 15 games, was the team's top player (.340/.402/.408), and our Player of the Year.
   The GCL Jays Pitcher of the Year choice was fairly obvious.  Even on a fairly deep pitching staff, Maverik Buffo stood out.  A 34th round choice out of BYU, Buffo's elbow issues of last year likely caused teams to pass on him, and even the Blue Jays seemed reluctant to let him leave the confines on the minor league complex, where the team's medical staff is located.  Buffo dominated GCL hitters, allowing only 28 hits and all of 2 walks in 34 innings, striking out 36.  His performance earned him a selection to the All Rookie-Level team by Baseball America.  The wraps should come off Buffo next year, and he should be headed to full season ball.

   Another BA All-Rookie Choice, 1B Ryan Noda, gets the nod as Bluefield's Player of the Year. Noda was an Advanced Triple Crown winner - Average, OBP, Slugging - in the Appy League.  The 15th round pick from Cincinnati flirted with .400 for much of the summer, before finally finishing with a line of .364/.507/.575.  Described by a source who saw him with Bluefield as, "very patient, bordering on passive," at the plate, he will see more advanced pitching in full season ball next year.
   Southpaw Randy Pondler is our Pitcher of the Year for Bluefield.  The Nicaraguan formed an effective 1-2 punch with 18 year old Venezuelan Maximo Castillo, and both (along with Buffo and several Vancouver arms) should lead an upgraded pitching staff at Lansing next year.  Pondler is a long and lean lefty with a live arm who throws low 90's heat, and his best secondary is an 11/5 curve that flashed solid depth and bite,  according to reports.
   Appy League voters obviously felt the same way about the pair;  Noda was named Player of the Year, while Pondler took hom Pitcher honours.

   Vancouver returned to the Northwest League finals for the first time since 2014, and didn't disappoint, defeating the Cubs' Eugene affliate 3-1, and capturing their 4th NWL crown in 7 years as a Blue Jays farm club.  SS Logan Warmoth (1st), and C Riley Adams (3rd) were two June picks who stood out in leading the C's to victory.  There was not a lot to choose between the two offensively, but Adams played 52 games at a demanding position, and helped guide a pitching staff that got better as the season progressed, and takes the award as a result.
   The C's Pitcher of the Year was an easy selection:  RHP Nate Pearson, the team's 2nd first round pick (28th overall).  Pearson tired a little at the end of the season, but he consistently sat 96-98 with his fastball, hitting 100 a number of times, and NWL hitters were no match for his heat.  Through his first five innings-limited starts with the C's, Pearson did not allow a runner past 2nd.  In the playoffs, he dialed his fastball up, fanning 10 in 4 innings vs Spokane in the division final.

    SS Bo Bichette and 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr entered the 2017 season as teenagers with considerable promise. They ended it as two of the top prospects in the game.  Bichette was above .400 as late as June 28th, and finished his time in the Midwest League a week later with a .384/.448/.623 line before joining Guerrero in a promotion to Dunedin.  Vladdy Jr may be garnering more prospect acclaim, but there is everything to suggest that Bichette profiles as an impact MLB bat as well, with above average base running skills and Baseball IQ to go with it.  The numbers he posted in Lansing earned him league MVP honours, as well as our POY.
    Lansing's Pitching staff caused some long nights for its fans, finishing at the bottom of the MWL in most stats.  There was promise at the beginning of the season, with Justin Maese and Patrick Murphy fronting the starting rotation, and Zach Jackson and Jackson McClelland anchoring the back of the bullpen.  With the former pair injured for a good chunk of the season, and the latter two promoted to Dunedin, the Lugnuts allowed a considerable number (1.56 WHIP) of base runners. Maese missed all of June and half of July before returning from a shoulder fatigue shutdown. Murphy missed a similar amount of time, but was much more effective than his rotation partner upon his return, earning a late-season promotion to the D-Jays.  His tidy 2.94 ERA over 15 starts,  48.7% groundball rate, and 35.5% opposite field rate speak to a lot of weak contact.  And that earns the Arizonan, who returned last year after missing almost two years due to injury, our Pitcher of the Year nomination for Lansing.

   In the shadow of some more illustrious teammates at Dunedin like the Lansing Bash Twins and Max Pentecost, was Toronto native Connor Panas.  The 1B/DH/OF started slowly, but was one of the Florida State League's most dangerous hitters in the second half.  Panas led the FSL in Home Runs and Fly Ball%, no mean feat in a well-known Pitcher's league, and earns the Player of the Year title.
   Dunedin's opening day rotation was one of the best 1-4 in the minors.  Ryan Borucki, Angel Perdomo, TJ Zeuch, and Markham's Jordan Romano formed a rotation that promised to lead the D-Jays to the post-season.  And while Zeuch and Perdomo missed most of the second half of the season, and Borucki was promoted to AA in August, Dunedin did indeed make it to the playoffs, and captured league co-champion honours in an Irma-shortened playoff format.  Last man standing Romano was a large part of that.  His 138 K's in as many innings were second-best (behind Borucki) in the system. His 10.1% swinging strike rate indicates that he missed a lot of bats.  Romano did not miss a start this season, and with Panas forms an all Greater Toronto Area Player and Pitcher of the Year combo for Dunedin.

   It was a long season for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.  In a sign of things to come, their first two games were postponed due to the wet Northeastern spring, and after losing 4 of their first 5, the weather continued to play havoc with the Fisher Cats' schedule.  They finished 21 games under 500, losing 14 in a row to the Yankees Trenton affiliate over several series.
    The shining light of the New Hampshire season had to be the play of OF Anthony Alford, who regained his top prospect status after a sideways 2016.  Called up to the big club, he broke his hamate bone, forcing another long stay on the DL.  When Alford came back, he was sent to New Hampshire until the final weekend of the season.  His final line of .310/.406/.429 for the Cats more than proved he will be in contention for a big league job next spring.
   New Hampshire's Pitcher of the Year was a difficult selection.  At the season's outset, the Fisher Cats had three top prospects fronting their rotation in Sean Reid-Foley, Conner Greene, and Jon Harris.  All three had their struggles, even with Greene hitting 100 numerous times this season.  New Hampshire's bullpen likely kept their season from being a complete write off, and it's from the pen that we bring up Chris Rowley.  The RHP spent all of last year pitching in relief for Dunedin after receiving an exemption from his military commitment, but was pressed into starting duty this year when fatigue and inconsistency hit the rotation.  Rowley did not miss a beat, and used his success in a starting role into an eventual start for the Blue Jays.  Although he threw only 52 innings before being promoted to Buffalo, Rowley allowed only 33 hits and 9 walks, pounding the bottom half of the strike zone.  Rowley is our New Hampshire Pitcher of the Year.

   AAA rosters have become more like temporary holding pens full of major league insurance. Rosters at this level are often in flux, depending on the state of affairs with the big league club. 69 players suited up for the Buffalo Bisons this year, 37 of them pitchers.
   On the player side, one would have thought entering this season that 1B Rowdy Tellez would be a safe bet to be the team's MVP.  Tellez suffered through the worst season of his pro career in 2017, held to a .222/.295/.333 line, with only 6 Home Runs.  OF Roemon Fields was a revelation in his fourth pro season, however, setting career highs en route to a .291/.355/.352 season.  Fields is all about putting the ball in play and getting on base, which he did at a decent rate this season.  His career-best 21.8% line drive rate also suggests that he's making better and more consistent contact. On the bases, he swiped 43 while being caught 12 times (a 78% success rate).  His defence is without question, and he was a fixture in CF and at the bottom of the lineup.  Fields is a fringe major leaguer at this point, with 4th OF potential, but he raised his offensive game this year.
   Buffalo's Pitcher of the Year was a difficult choice.  TJ House, Brett Oberholtzer, and Jarret Grube all logged about 130 innings as starters, but their numbers were fairly mediocre.  Murphy Smith gave the team a lot of valuable 7th and 8th innings, and made 8 starts when the rotation was thin.  That versatility was important for Buffalo, and gives him the nod.

     Since the most successful players in any organization tend to be the ones who play at several levels, they don't necessarily get to stick around to post huge numbers at any one stop.  In recognition of this, it's worth choosing an over all Player and Pitcher of the Year for the Blue Jays organization.
   For Player of the Year, two players share the award.  C Danny Jansen was healthy for the first time since his debut in 2013, and the results were very impressive.  Jansen started wearing sport glasses last fall in the Arizona Fall League in order to help him pick up the spin on his Pitcher's pitches better, with an added bonus that it helped him tremendously with pitch recognition at the plate. Jansen started the season at Dunedin and ended it at Buffalo, with the Blue Jays wisely opting to shut him down at the end of the season rather then place him on the 40-man and promoting him on September 1st.  His .323/.400/.484 line for the season was one of the best in recent memory for a Blue Jays minor league Catcher, in addition to his prodigious receiving and Pitcher-handling skills.
    Vladdy Jr more than held his own as an 18 year old at Lansing.  While other players his age were preparing for the draft or college last spring, Guerrero was adding to his growing reputation in full season ball.  He put together a line of .316/.409/.480 and played solid if not spectacular defence before being promoted to Dunedin.  Against more advanced Florida State League Pitching, Guerrero built on those stats, hitting .323/.25/.485, earning Player of the Month laurels.  Vladdy Jr now has to be considered the top prospect in the game.
    Borucki's performance at three levels this year earns him the Pitcher of the Year award.  After fanning 109 in 98 innings for Dunedin, the possessor of the best Change Up in the organization tossed 7 shutout innings in his Eastern League debut.  His August work for New Hampshire (limiting hitters to a .187 BA) earned him a promotion to Buffalo for his final start of the season, where he tossed another six scoreless frames.  Borucki's 157 Ks led the system and he was among the FSL leaders in Swinging Strike% and GB rate.  The tall southpaw, who is one of the grittiest players in the system after losing two seasons to injury since being drafted in 2012, is on the verge of competing for a Major League job next spring.

    If there was a Manager of the Year award, Vancouver's Rich Miller would be a cinch to win it.  After taking over from John Schneider in 2011 part way through the season to lead the C's to an NWL title, the baseball lifer (Miller has been in the game for 44 years as a player, instructor, scout, and Manager - John Gibbons played for him) had served as a consultant to the Blue Jays for the past several years.  Miller returned to helm the C's this year, and led them back to the league championship.  Managing a short season team is a unique challenge.  Skippers have to blend players who have been at Extended, chomping at the bit for three months for an opportunity to play real games, and recent draftees who have had a whirlwind experience after their collegiate seasons (there was a shorter than usual gap between the MLB draft and the start of the NWL season this year).  Throw in playing in a new country, often far from home, and Miller had a huge challenge in harmonizing his roster and coming up with a winner, coaxing the best from his players, many of whom had never experienced large doses of failure in the game before experiencing it in the Pacific Northwest.  One can only imagine the amount of patience it took.  So now maybe we have a MOY award as well.  Northwest League voters agreed with this choice in naming Miller the league's Manager of the Year.

   "You're hired to be fired," is another baseball truism.  Baseball is above all else a business.  Clubs make personnel and roster moves that are in what they believe are the long term best interests of the organization.  I was stunned to learn from Miller yesterday that he had been let go by the Blue Jays after bringing a title back to the Lower Mainland.  To his credit, he was still willing to grant the interview request I had made despite this.  I suspect he will be philosophical about his departure, and I'll reserve judgement about it until I speak with him.  He's a good baseball man, and if he chooses to stay in the game I have no doubt he'll find another job quickly.
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