|Jackson McClelland - Clutchlings photo|
The Blue Jays will be sending one of the largest groups of players to the Arizona Fall League in recent memory. 8 players and one coach will suit up for the Peoria Javelinas when play begins later today.
The AFL serves as a finishing school for the top prospects in most organizations. Teams use the experience to see how their players stack up against elite competition. The time in Arizona is also used by teams to give their players some added reps if they had missed some time due to injury during the regular minor league season.
Four pitchers will be playing for Peoria on behalf of the Blue Jays, including relievers Andrew Case, Jackson McClelland, and Danny Young. New Brunswicker Case does not blow hitters away, but with his command and ability to set up batters allowed him to limit hitters to a .230 average at 3 levels this year after beginnning the year in High A. McClelland, like Case a RHP, saved 15 games in 16 opportunities between Lansing and Dunedin this year, with a tidy 1.08 WHIP. Young is a sidewiding lefty who changed his arm slot last season. After starting the season at Dunedin, left handed hitters managed only to hit .154 against him in AA. The Blue Jays are building some impressive bullpen depth in their system, and it won't be a surprise to see this trio fare well in Arizona. Starting Pitcher TJ Zeuch, the club's first round pick last year, seemed primed to take off this season. A lower back strain landed him on the DL in June, and his rehab was set back by a hamstring strain. Zeuch returned in August, but on a strict innings/pitch limit. He's in Arizona to make up for lost development time, having only pitched 11 innings since the end of May.
The Blue Jays will be sending a pair of Catchers to the Southwest. Max Pentecost has missed considerable time since being drafted in the first round in 2014. After a successful return in a role limited to DHing last year at Lansing and Dunedin, Pentecost returned to Catching with the D-Jays, also spending time at 1st and DH. Injuries forced him to be shut down for much of June and again for most of August. A premium talent who likely would be a big leaguer by now if not for the time lost to injury, it will be interesting not only to see how Pentecost fares against the advanced competition in the the AFL, but what position he will take on the field. Many have wondered if he can stand up to the rigors of Catching every day, and with the development of Danny Jansen and the acquisition last year of Reese McGuire, the Blue Jays may be contemplating moving him out from behind the plate.
Javier Hernandez, who may be the best defensive Catcher in the system, will join Pentecost on the Peoria roster. Injuries limited his season debut until late June, and he's in Arizona for some added reps.
The verstaile Lourdes Gurriel Jr will also suit up for Peoria. The much-heralded off season free agent signing from Cuba had his own injury struggles this season. Splitting his season between Dunedin (18 games) and New Hampshire (46), Gurriel showed plenty of promise on both sides of the ball. Gurriel split time between SS and 2B this year, but showed MLB-ready skills in terms of his reactions to ground balls, as well as his footwork, hands, and arm. His bat was a different story, which can be at least in part attributed to two seasons of inactivity prior to this one, and some time on the DL earlier this year. He's in Arizona to help accelerate his development.
OF Jonathan Davis, who has shown an ability to get on base throughout his minor league career, and can play all three Outfield positions, is the 8th Toronto prospect assigned to Peoria.
Rounding out the Toronto contingent is former MLBer Corey Hart, who drew raves for his work as Dunedin's hitting coach this year.
The AFL serves as a lab for the latest MLB pace of play experiments. The pitch clock will be tinkered with this year - with no runners on, a Pitcher must come set before the 12 second clock runs out. With runners aboard, he'll have 15 seconds once he receives the ball back from the Catcher. In addtion, mound visits by Managers or Pitching Coaches will be limited to 30 seconds. The extra-inning runner replacement rule will also be implemented this fall. Long used in international play, and adopted by the complex leagues this year, the main purposed of the rule at the lower levels is to help preserve pitching staffs. Starting with the 10th inning, the player who made the final out in the top of the 9th (or a pinch runner), will be placed on 2nd. The same will happen in the bottom of the inning. If no winner is declared after 11 innings of play this fall in the AFL, games will end in a tie.
In addition to the Blue Jays prospects, the Peoria lineup features players from the Braves, Mariners, Padres, and Red Sox. Atlanta hopeful Ronald Acuña, Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year, joins Padres slugging 1B Josh Naylor (a Greater Toronto Area product), and Michael Chavis, Boston's 2nd ranked prospect will don the Javelinas uniform.
The AFL plays a compressed six-week schedule, with a winner take all championship game November 18th. The Fall Stars Game on November 4th is usually streamed live, as is the league final. There is a huge assortment of prospect evaluators on Twitter who often live tweet the action.