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Sunday, January 25, 2015

ABL Wrap Up & Anthony Alford's Thoughts

   The Canberra Elite Cavalry topped the Sydney Blue Sox 7-2 on Sunday, to wrap up their Australian Baseball League schedule.  The Cavalry had the same won-loss record as the Sox, but Sydney gained the last ABL playoff spot by virtue of a better head-to-head record with Canberra, which was all but sealed when they took 5 of the first 6 games of the season from the Cavalry.

   The Blue Jays sent four players to Canberra, including fan favourite C Jack Murphy, back for his third stint with the Cavalry, and first timers 2B Christian Lopes, 1B LB Dantzler, and OF Anthony Alford.  Lopes tore up the league, hitting .371/.421/.581, including a batting average of .450 over his last 10 games, before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury with three rounds left to go in the regular season.  His injury left a huge hole in the Canberra lineup as they battled for that final playoff spot.  The veteran Murphy was his usual dangerous down under self, hitting .353/.413/.542, providing leadership and deft handling of the Cavalry pitching staff.  Dantzler was just starting to come around at the plate until back and hip injuries sidelined him for the final month, and he wound up hitting .267/.316/.425.

   The player most Blue Jays fans wanted to see was Alford.  The toolsy outfielder abruptly gave up college football for baseball in late September, and was sent to Australia to make up for lost playing time.  Alford has just over 100 plate appearance as a pro, spread out over three abbreviated minor league seasons, and his inexperience showed against the mostly veteran pitching in the ABL, hitting .207/.327/.319, along with 9 stolen bases in 11 attempts.

  We had a chance to speak with Alford as league play was wrapping up this weekend.   Considering that other than brief trips to Florida for extended spring training (after spring football ended), Alford probably hasn't been out of Mississippi that much, let alone travel to the other side of the world, so we asked him how he found living in a foreign country.  "It was very nice experience playing here in Australia," he observed.  "The only adjustment I really had to make was driving on the other side of the road."

   We noticed that Alford didn't get a whole lot of strikes to swing at as the season progressed.  The veteran ABL pitchers fed him a steady diet of breaking balls on the outer half of the plate, followed by fastballs on the inner half.   Alford agreed, and suggested that he was partly to blame for putting himself into bad counts:

The pitching wasn't really overpowering. You were right, I saw a lot of breaking balls and fastballs out of the zone. I put myself in a bad situation a lot of times by being too aggressive. But they did do a good job of mixing pitches up on me. Most of the guys I faced had at least 6 or 7 years of experience on me.

   With all of 25 PA's above rookie ball in his career, Alford likely had never faced pitching on a level with what he faced in Australia.  Even though many commented that the quality of pitching was down this year in the league compared to other years, most of the pitchers in the league rely on pitching smarts and their breaking stuff far more than pitchers in rookie ball do.  Still, Alford was upbeat about the experience he gained:

I really just came over here to learn and get caught up as much as I can. I wasn't really worried about the stats. I know they will come.  This experience definitely benefited me in a lot of good ways. I've learned that the pitchers over here don't pitch like the pitchers in the states. It's like they pitch you backwards here.

   When we asked him what part of his game he was most pleased with as a result of his Australian experience, he came up with the answer quickly:

 I was more pleased with my improvement on defense. It's like I'm a totally different person on defense from the time I first got here and where I am at now. But I definitely need to keep getting at bats and be consistent with my approach at the plate. 

  As the ABL season ends, Alford and his Blue Jays teammates will be heading back home.  Alford will have about a month to rest and get ready for the upcoming season, and told us that he reports for spring training on February 26th.  It will be interesting to see how this experience benefits him.  Our bet would be that it will be in the form of improved pitch recognition.  Even against the advanced competition, and despite his occasional aggressiveness, Alford had a walk rate of 12% - still not good enough for a leadoff hitter, but impressive considering his resume to this point.  It will also be interesting to see where Alford is assigned after spring training.  Our initial thoughts had him starting with Dunedin, but he may need to at least start the season in Lansing - which is good news to those of us in Southern Ontario, who were about to scrap our travel plans after Franklin Barreto was dealt.


  We also had a chance to correspond with David Polkinghorne (@Super_Couch on Twitter), who covers the Cavalry for the Canberra Times.  In light of the injuries suffered by Lopes and Dantzler, and given some of the concerns expressed by Murphy about the import rule, we have to wonder if the Blue Jays are all that thrilled about sending their prospects to Australia.  Polkinghorne's response:

I guess injuries are injuries and could happen anywhere. The import rule doesn't really take away playing time from the Jays players as they're given preference in selection, it's unaffiliated guys like (Canberra IF Marcus) Lemon who miss out on playing time. So the ABL is no longer a way for American guys to get back into the MLB system. Lots of people feel it has lowered the standard of play this season though which might make MLB clubs hesitant about sending guys down under. The Cavs are a lot weaker this season but that is partly recruiting on their behalf as well.
   All in all, the ABL was entertaining to watch this winter.  Listening to commentary from the Aussie television guys was fun - they don't take things too seriously, and make observations like, "I reckon that pitch was about 75."  The live stream was much more reliable this year, and the highlights on the ABL YouTube channel were updated regularly.  It's interesting to see the variance in stadium facilities from one city to another - some are obviously makeshift diamonds on cricket grounds, while others are not that far removed from parks in the low minors in the U.S.


Friday, January 23, 2015

Hoffman for Duquette? Uh, No, Thanks.

   The Toronto Blue Jays as a franchise are at a bit of a cross roads.  With a stadium badly in need of upgrading or replacement, and with long time President and CEO Paul Beeston being nudged or pushed (depending on what you believe) out the door, there is a need for a high profile name to come in to become the new face of the franchise, at least from an executive point of view.

   Dan Duquette would appear to fit the bill perfectly.  He has helped to rebuild the Orioles, put together the core of a team that won the Red Sox their first World Series in roughly a millenia, and has run a team in Canada before, at a time when the Canadian dollar was trading at values it has stumbled down to again.

  Word is from various columnists south of the border that Orioles owner Peter Angelos insisted that Duquette serve out the remaineder (until 2018) of his contract.  Angelos himself will only relinquish leadership of the franchise upon his death, and he would prefer that it stay within the family after he is gone.  Angelos, by the way, is a very complex man - this article by Bruce Schoenfeld of Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal paints a thorough picture of a workaholic lawyer who trusts no one, least of all his GMs. 

   So, for Duquette, he is bumping his head against the O's glass ceiling. And this isn't the first time he's wanted out.   Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star believes that he was interested in the Blue Jays top job before Paul Beeston undertook an exhaustive search for a new CEO for the club, only to find himself the most qualified candidate.  Asking for to get out of his contract is nothing new for baseball executives, and the tradition usually has been for ownership to allow the exec to leave as a courtesy if the position they are leaving for is a promotion, with some minor compensation in return as a consideration.

  When you're dealing with Peter Angelos, there is no courtesy in his black and white world.
Angelos has always marched to the beat of his own drummer, and this case is no exception.  Angelos has made a fortune as a personal injury lawyer, which allowed him to buy his beloved hometown club (after a failed attempt at municipal politics) at a bargain when the franchise was at its rock-bottom value in 1992 in a bankruptcy court action.  Angelos went through a succession of GMs and Managers before landing Duquette and Buck Showalter, who led the O's to their first post season birth in 14 years in 2011.

   That it is rumoured that the Orioles are demanding P Jeff Hoffman, the Blue Jays top pick in last June's draft and a projected front of the rotation starter, and possibly another top prospect goes against traditional compensation in these cases.  Granted, there have been few cases where an executive has gone to work for a division rival, and even fewer where the exec in question has more than three years remaining on his contract, but in the legal world, precedent is just that.  If the Blue Jays agree to the Orioles' excessive demands, that sets the cause of mobility for MLB executives back considerably, because it's hard to believe that other organizations would agree to the new bar for compensation this deal would set.

   And it's hard to see the Blue Jays baseball operations people agreeing to this deal.  The club followed Hoffman extensively prior to the draft, and had done sufficient homework on him to feel that he had the physical and emotional capacity to recover from Tommy John surgery last spring to become the front of the rotation starter he was projected to be.  At the same time, there are no guarantees, and because of MLB rules preventing the trading of draft picks, Hoffman could not join the O's until mid-June.
  Hoffman was projected as a top 3 pick before injuring his elbow last spring, but fell to the Blue Jays at 9th because up to 8 other teams picking before them were scared off by his injury.  Most teams would be frightened off further by the fact that they couldn't get Hoffman under the supervision of their medical and rehab people until part way through the season. Despite Hoffman's projected ceiling, he would still be a huge risk for another organization.

   Baseball execs know that ultimately they serve their corporate masters at the ownership level, but if I am anyone in the Blue Jays front office, I would be beyond angered if the club gave up Hoffman at this point.  Surrendering a  top prospect like Franklin Barreto in a trade to improve the on-field product is one thing, agreeing to give up a front of the rotation starter (a projected one, granted) who could anchor the starting staff for years is completely another.  And with R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle not likely to be Blue Jays in the long run, agreeing to give up a pitcher who could step in as early as next season to take one of those spots doesn't make a lot of sense, especially when you factor in the $3 million signing bonus they invested in him.

   The Orioles are likely very displeased with Duquette, who wasn't having the greatest off season in baseball anyway, with the O's losing free agents Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Andrew Miller, and missing out on Blue Jays free agent OF Colby Rasmus.  That they are insisting he honour his contract while at the same time supposedly demanding excessive (by current standards) compensation.  It's hard to understand Angelos' stubbornness in this situation.  He has a pair of highly competent baseball men in Showalter and VP Brady Anderson who could assume Duquette's duties without the organization missing a beat.  As a self-made man, Angelos follows his own rules.

   Obviously, the pursuit of Duquette from the Blue Jays is coming from the ownership level, and we're looking at you, Edward Rogers.  With Paul Beeston under contract for another year, it makes no sense for the Blue Jays to push the envelope on this.  The price on Duquette will likely come down as time progresses.  As Griffin says, it may be time for the Jays to walk away from this and end the speculation, at least for now.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Minor League Notebook

   It's that time of year.  There is snow on the ground, and a bitter chill in the air.
But the days are starting to get just a little bit longer, and the warmth of the sun can sometimes be felt through the biting wind.  Baseball can't be far away.

  We have gathered a fair number of tidbits of information about the Blue Jays farm system that, so we thought we would resurrect the old Notebook and share them with you.

Lopes  is a major reason the Cavs are still in play-off contention, despite some up-and-down form in recent series.
Christian Lopes wielding a hot bat
Canberra Times photo

   Christian Lopes took a few weeks  to adjust to the veteran pitching in the Australian Baseball League, but he caught fire, as the above photo shows, and has been a mainstay in the Canberra lineup.
   Through January 9th, Lopes was hitting .371/.421/.581 for the Cavalry, mashing at a .450 clip over his last 10 games, and with fellow Jays farmhand C Jack Murphy, was the main reason Canberra was still in the playoff picture as the Australian Baseball League season winds down.
  Rainy weather invaded the Cavalry's homestand last weekend, and may have been responsible for ending Lopes' season.  Lopes was rounding third when he heard a pop in his left hamstring as he slipped on muddy ground on the baseline.  He was shut down for the remainder of the weekend (which was washed out by the rain, anyway), and according to our source in Australia, is done for the season, and has likely headed back to the U.S.
   Lopes has had a mostly nondescript minor league career.  Once a prominent prep prospect, Lopes' stock slipped to the 7th round in 2011, and he has put up pedestrian numbers in four minor league seasons.
   We've learned, via the Canberra Times, that Lopes is tri-lingual.  He has a Brazilian background, and his mother is from the Philippines, and he speaks English, Portuguese and Tagalog.
   According to Manager Michael Collins, Lopes' performance this year has been a result of increased patience at the plate.  He told the Times:
  "The big thing I've noticed is when he gets a good pitch to hit, he's not missing it at this point," he said.
"If you miss those good pitches to hit, or swing at bad pitches, you put yourself in a hole.
    "In the last couple of weeks, each time he's got a good pitch, he's put a good swing on it and had success."
   A hamstring injury can be a tricky thing.  It can take a few weeks or months to recover from, depending on the severity of the injury.  The Blue Jays likely wanted him shut down immediately after the injury, and he likely is rehabbing in Florida at the moment.  He may not be ready for the start of spring training, again depending on the extent of the strain.
   Lopes should start the season with AA New Hampshire, unless he misses time in the spring, which might see him return to Dunedin.  His success down under should set him up well at AA, where he will face the same type of pitchers he faced in Australia, although with higher FB velocities and better command of their secondary pitches.

  While the Blue Jays must be pleased with the relationship they've had with the ABL over the past several years, we can't help but wonder if they are still as content after the events of the past few weeks.  LB Dantzler has been out of the Canberra lineup for several weeks with back and hip issues, while Anthony Alford had to come out of the game yesterday after injuring his jaw while trying to make a diving catch in the outfield.  You can't necessarily blame the playing conditions for Alford's injury, but we've noticed that some of the fields in the league are not nearly of the same quality as those stateside.  We don't know about Dantzler, but those conditions may have played a factor in Lopes' injury.

   We thought we would include some action between Lopes and lefthander Matt Boyd.  We've been in touch with Boyd to see how he has been doing this offseason.  Here's our interview with him:

Clutchlings:  How much are you able to train in the off-season ?  Do you have to get a job?

Boyd:   I am able to train as much as I want to. I do have a job giving lessons and camps as well as some odd jobs here and there but you can always find time to get your work in, sometimes that means getting up a little earlier.

Clutchlings: What is the focus of your training? Cardio/strength/flexibility/agility, or some cross-training?

Boyd:   The focus of my training shifts throughout the off-season. Early on this year it was recovering from the surgery I had after the season.  It flared up during the last month of the year. It was a clean up…I had a big chip taken out of my elbow.  In the beginning it was just rehab, getting my body healthy and cardio.  So winter ball wasn't an option. After I was able to work out fully again my focus has been to just get stronger, especially in my lower body. The main focus for it all is to stay athletic and do all that you mentioned.  I feel better than I have in the last three seasons now...I am excited for this upcoming season.

Clutchlings:   What type of training do you do? Has your attitude toward nutrition changed since turning pro ?

Boyd:  You know it hasn't much. I was very fortunate to have a great strength and nutrition coach at OSU that helped me build good habits that carried into pro ball. But it is hard to always eat healthy when you are on the road. And as for training its a combination of agility/ cardio work and just in the gym with weights.

   Boyd, who was married a few weeks ago, had a better April than Daniel Norris and Kendall Graveman, posting a 4-0 0.29 record with Dunedin.  Florida State League hitters were overmatched against the lefthander, who fanned 37 in his first 31 innings.   Boyd was promoted to AA in May, but hurt his foot in his first start for New Hampshire, and he had trouble getting his mechanics back. Sent back to Dunedin, he pitched well and earned another shot at AA, but was sent back to the D-Jays to help with their playoff push in August.  Obviously, the bone chip must have been affecting him in his August return, as he did not pitch as effectively in the Florida State League playoffs.
   A 6th round pick out of Oregon State in 2013, Boyd pitched out of the bullpen until his senior year of college, when he led the Beavers to the College World Series semi-final.  Boyd has pitched almost exclusively as a starter since joining the Toronto organization.  His FB sits between 90-92, and touches 94 on occasion.  He does not have one outstanding pitch in his arsenal, but commands all four of his pitches well.  We have wondered if Boyd might not be converted to relief, but he lacks that power fastball, so the club appears to be content to let him continue as a starter.  Boyd profiles as a back of the rotation starter, but we're encouraged that he feels healthy, and are eager to see how he fares this year.
   Boyd should get a chance to try things again at AA this year.  We have to admit that he's one of our favourite prospects.  He responds quickly to questions we've asked, and he seems like a level headed young man.  We hope he earns a promotion to Buffalo this season, so that we can watch him pitch in person.

 Just before Christmas, the Blue Jays announced the coaching staffs for their minor league affiliate.
The Buffalo staff will remain intact.  Gary Allenson returns for a second season, along with hitting coach Richie Hebner, and pitching coach Randy St. Claire. Bobby Meacham returns for a second season at the helm with New Hampshire, and will be joined by Canada's own Stubby Clapp, who served as hitting coach for a pair of seasons with Dunedin, and Bob Stanley, who was the bullpen coach with the big club in 2014.  
  Omar Malave, the 2014 FSL Manager of the Year, returns to pilot the Dunedin Jays, and will be joined by hitting coach John Tamargo Jr, who managed Lansing for the past three seasons, and another Canadian, pitching coach Vince Horsman, who moves up from Lansing as well.  Former Blue Jays C Ken Huckaby moves from hitting coach to manager at Lansing, with pitching coach Jeff Ware moving up from Vancouver to join him, along with Kenny Graham, who managed the GCL Jays last year, and is tutoring Jays prospects in the Australian Baseball League at the moment.
   John Schneider will return for a second season as Vancouver's manager, and will be joined by holdover hitting coach Dave Pano, and Jim Czajkowski, who was at New Hampshire last year.
  Dennis Holmberg will be back to manage Bluefield again this year, while Jose Mateo takes over the complex league team.
   On the administration side, Dane Johnson moves from minor league pitching co-ordinator to bullpen coach in Toronto, with Sal Fasano moving from roving catching instructor to assume Johnson's duties.  Darold Knowles, who was Dunedin's pitching coach, takes over the role of rehab pitching coach (working with Clinton Hollon and Jeff Hoffman, among others), and Rick Langford becomes senior pitching advisor.
   We also learned last week that Clayton McCullough, who led the Vancouver Canadians to back to back titles before being promoted to Co-ordinator of Minor League Instruction for the system last year, has left to become the Dodgers new Minor League Field Co-ordinator.


   Numerous sources are reporting that a 20-second pitch clock will be implemented at AA and AAA in 2015, but not the majors just yet, thanks very much.
    There can be little doubt that the pace of play in MLB has slowed considerably:


   Where does this slowdown come from?    From numerous sources.   With today's hitters taught to be discerning at the plate, pitchers are throwing more pitches:

     Which leads to more pitching changes per game:

    If the average pitching change, from the moment the manager calls time to stroll out and remove him, to the time the incoming relief pitcher throws his first pitch to a batter, takes ten minutes, times two teams, that's a game that is a minimum of 20 minutes longer than it was less than 20 years ago.
  Factor that with the increasing number of pitches thrown in a game, and you have one that's about a half an hour longer, on average, than it was prior to 1990.
   We do like the idea of a pitch clock.  It forces batters, pitchers, and catchers to work faster.  We don't expect every pitcher to work as quickly as Mark Buehrle, who takes an MLB-low 17.3 seconds, on average, to deliver a pitch, does, nor do we expect every hitter to be a human rain delay, like David Ortiz, who has three of the top 10 slowest home run trots of all time. 
   The Arizona Fall League implemented several measures to speed up game times, including a pitch clock of 20 seconds.  Realizing that was only one part of the problem, other time-saving measures were introduced:

• Hitters had to keep one foot in the batter's box throughout each at-bat, except in the case of a foul ball, wild pitch, inside pitch that made a hitter sprawl out of the box, passed ball or a handful of other minor disruptions.
• On intentional walks, the catcher showed four fingers and the hitter immediately jogged to first base.
• Teams allowed a total of three mound conferences per game. 
• A maximum 2:05 break was in effect between innings; hitters were required to be in the box by the 1:45 mark.
• A 2:30 break applied during pitching changes. Like the 2:05 stoppage between innings, that's the same guideline used in MLB regular-season games.  Umpires tried harder to enforce it in Arizona.

   The results of the experiment were mixed.  Teams would often find a way around the rules: did a visit to the mound by a catcher to go over signals with the pitcher count as a conference?  Just the same, baseball was encouraged by the outcome of the games to implement the pitch clock in the minors this season, meaning that it likely is on its way to MLB in the future.