Thursday, October 23, 2014

What's In the System: Catchers

  This is the first of a number of surveys of the depth (or lack thereof) of prospects at several positions in the Blue Jays system.

   A year ago, we concluded that catching is probably one of the thinnest positions in the Blue Jays system.  The situation has improved slightly a year later, but outside of AJ Jimenez, there is no one on the immediate horizon who could fill a spot on a major league roster, Sean Ochinko's hot Arizona Fall League start notwithstanding.

     And with R.A. Dickey back for at least one more year, it seems likely that the athletic Jimenez will continue to be blocked at the major league level by Josh Thole.
    Jimenez battled arm and shoulder woes in his first full season after Tommy John surgery two years ago, and he was limited to 83 games between New Hampshire and Buffalo.  We've seen a fair bit of him in action behind the plate, and we like what we've seen.  He is quick to deftly block balls in the dirt, and is a good handler of pitches.  The question has always been if his bat will play in the majors.
    The Blue Jays drafted Kennesaw State catcher Max Pentecost with their second first round pick this year.  The bat-first, defence-second Pentecost had his own injury woes in his pro debut after a lengthy collegiate season, and was shut down in early August for rest and rehab in Florida after only 105 pro at bats.  It turns out Pentecost had a partially torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, and underwent surgery in early October. Recovery from full tear surgery takes 9 months, on average, putting Pentecost's return to the tools of ignorance somewhere in late spring, although like Jimenez last year, he may DH for a spell prior to that.
   There were concerns about Pentecost's defence in his limited run at Vancouver, but injuries and fatigue may have been a factor.  He loomed as a back end of our top 10 list prospect, but this certainly slows down his timetable and puts him back a bit.
   Derrick Chung was part of a strong core that propelled Dunedin to one of the best won-loss records in all of Organized Baseball at the start of June.  Finally settled in at catcher after playing a variety of positions in his first two years in the organization, Chung was lauded for his play on both sides of the ball in the Florida State League.  At 26, he was a bit old for the league even though he was learning a new position, and was promoted to AA at mid-season.  Chung's numbers with New Hampshire fell far short of the ones he posted at A+, although he finished strong.  Given his age, Chung has to be considered a borderline prospect at this point.
  Santiago Nessy at one point was considered a potential catcher of the future.  Injuries and inconsistency have marked his past two seasons, and he appeared in only 69 games between Lansing and Dunedin.  At 21 (he doesn't turn 22 until December), time is still somewhat on his side.
   Danny Jansen was having a solid second pro season at Bluefield when a knee injury ended his season in early August.  The 16th round 2013 pick was considered a steal by some, and should make his full season debut in 2015 if he's healthy.
   Matt Morgan was a well-regarded 4th round pick in June, but had monumental struggles at the plate in the GCL.
   Mike Reeves started the year sharing the catching duties with Chung at Dunedin, and was sent down to Lansing to get more playing time, and finished the year at Vancouver, taking over duties behind the plate for Pentecost.
  Jorge Saez has been praised for his leadership skills, but after a promotion from Lansing to Dunedin, showed that he may have reached his ceiling.
  Michael De La Cruz caught 43 games for Vancouver before the arrival of Pentecost, and at 21 has time to develop.
   Kevin Garcia posted some decent numbers after filling in for Jansen, but it's a small sample size for the June draftee.
   Ochinko, Jack Murphy, Pierce Rankin, and Aaron Munoz are org guys at this point.

Our ranking of the Blue Jays catchers:

1.  Jimenez
2.  Pentecost
3.  Jansen
4.  Nessy
5.  Chung
6.  Reeves
7.  Morgan
8.  Garcia 
9. Saez
10.  De La Cruz


Friday, October 17, 2014

Anthony Alford: Anatomy of a Decision

   We've written at length about now former two-sport star Anthony Alford, who shocked many with his decision to leave the highly-ranked Ole Miss football program, in favour of reviving his career as an outfielder with the Blue Jays.  To be honest, after listening to his comments about the move earlier this week and comparing them with what he told reporters in August, we're left with more questions than answers.

   We're not down on Alford at all.  Drafted by the Jays in 2012, he fell to the third round, after a storied high school career on both the gridiron and the diamond, due to his college football commitment.  He was, in the eyes of many, a first round pick in terms of talent.  Even though his pro baseball experience has been limited to a few weeks between football seasons every year, Alford has displayed his premium athleticism, and is easily the top athlete in the Jays organization.  Not to give anything away, but he's gone from being a marginal Top 10 Blue Jays prospect to a minimum of right in the middle of that prospect picture.

   Alford was involved in a campus incident in which a gun was drawn after a largely disappointing freshman season at Southern Mississippi, and he transferred to Ole Miss for the second semester.  He had to sit out his sophomore season due to NCAA transfer rules, and appeared set on picking up his football career where it left off when he turned down a contract extension from the Jays in early July.

   Watching this video from August, though,  it's hard to think that Alford was anything but committed to football (fast forward to the 2:21 mark):


   When someone says. "Football is my first love," and, "even if I made $100 million from baseball, I'd still regret not giving football a shot," it's a bit of a shock to see them give up on that dream about a month later.

   On the excellent YourVanCs podcast, hosts Greg Balloch and Charlie Caskey asked Alford about the sudden change of heart.  Alford said that he "really considered playing baseball full time," but he had "a lot going on at the time (he turned down Anthopolous' July offer)."  Alford admitted that "football just wasn't working out," for him, and that he wanted to give football one last shot after his redshirt year, and that he didn't want to have any regrets about not giving football a try.  He realizes now, though, "that baseball is my future."

  So, why did Alford give up so quickly and so easily on his football dreams ?
It's hard to say, but here's a list of possible factors:

-Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous came back to Alford with a deal that he simply could not turn down.  Was this, maybe, a bit of a negotiating ploy by Alford and his agent ?  Was Ole Miss being used as leverage ?  Maybe not, but there's no doubt that whatever terms AA presented his similarly-monogrammed counterpart were enhanced whenever the next offer was submitted, likely in terms of dollars, and probably with some guarantees about the timeline of his ascension to the 40-man roster.

-Things went south for Alford at Ole Miss in a hurry.  In early August, Head Coach Hugh Freeze said that although his prize recruit was learning a new position in the Rebs' defensive backfield, he wanted the athletic Alford on the field as much as possible.  To that end, he had Alford take snaps at quarterback in practice, and gave him time as a punt returner.  After convincing triumphs over lesser competition in the first two games of the season,  Alford saw less playing time against tougher opponents, and no longer spent time at QB in practices, and was replaced on the punt return team. Disgruntled, Alford perhaps  had his agent contact the Blue Jays to see if they could make a better offer.  With a slew of tough games coming up against SEC opposition, Alford decided the wiser move was to accept the Blue Jays' apparently upgraded terms.

-Because of violations that happened before Freeze's tenure, Ole Miss has come under the scrutiny of the NCAA for a number of possible violations.  If sanctions were imposed, Ole Miss would miss out on any bowl games, and Rebel players would not have a chance to showcase their talents before a national audience.  Admittedly, may have factored little in Alford's decision, but it likely didn't help. Seeing the writing possibly being on the wall, Alford decided to take the safe money.

-Having turned 20 (and about to get married) when he initially rebuffed the Jays, Alford may have been overwhelmed and made a bad decision.  We have written previously about his difficult upbringing, and that he may not have been surrounded by people who could offer him proper guidance during his formative years.  In the space of just a couple of weeks this summer, he went from the GCL to Bluefield to Lansing, where Anthopolous "made it difficult," for Alford to say no. Far from home, and maybe lacking counsel, Alford acted on impulse, and turned the Jays down.

-Maybe, just maybe baseball was his first love all along.  When you grow up in Mississippi and you are the 2nd ranked senior QB recruit in the nation, the pressure to continue with football must be immense, to say the least.  Despite his relative rawness as a ballplayer, Alford does demonstrate some outstanding skills and instinct for the game, especially on the bases.  We thought Dalton Pompey was fast when he rocketed past us down the first base line at Buffalo in late August, but Alford may be faster.  He told Balloch and Caskey that his goal next summer is to break fellow Mississippian Billy Hamilton's minor league stolen base record.  Perhaps the diamond is where his heart was all along.

  In the end, it may have been a combination of all of the above factors that weighed into his ultimate decision.  It might be fair to ask if he will stick with it if his baseball career doesn't develop as quickly as he would like.  Of course, that door may not be shut, but his window for returning to football has all but closed.
   Then again, maybe Alford was feeling on the fence about football to begin with, and when things didn't work out for him, suddenly the grass was greener on the other side of that fence.  We asked Hugh Kellenberger, who covers Ole Miss football for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, if there were any indications that Alford might be contemplating a switch:

                    Not right before it happened, but you certainly got the impression in training
                    camp (when he talked to us about the Blue Jays) that they were going to make
                    it tough on him  to stay at Ole Miss.  Money talks, and the Blue Jays have it.

   Alford reported to the Jays Florida base in Dunedin to catch the last week of Instructs, and will be heading down under to play for the Canberra Cavalry in the Australian Winter League, which should be a good opportunity for him to get some extra ABs and further refine his skills.  Alford said on the podcast that the caliber of competition there is about High A or AA, but we're a little doubtful about that - no disrespect to Jack Murphy, but if he can dominate that league and be an MVP, that estimate is a little on the high side.
   Next spring, Alford will likely be invited to the big league camp, and should either start at Lansing with a mid-season promotion to Dunedin, or he may start the season with the D-Jays.  Playing every day should rapidly accelerate his development and smooth the rough edges (pitch recognition, especially) in his game.
   Does this saga end here ?  Likely.  We're elated to see this premium athlete make the decision to switch full-time to baseball.  And once the Rogers Centre installs grass on the playing field, his knees will be thankful, too.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Jays Prospects in Arizona

   Play begins today in the Arizona Fall League, a "finishing school" of sorts where top prospects can show their organizations how they stack up against top competition.
   The Blue Jays have sent 8 players to play in the league, which takes place at MLB spring training sites in the Phoenix area.  Tickets, by the way, are a bargain - for $115, you can purchase a family pass, which includes admission for 6 to regular season games.  Play wraps up in mid-November.
   4 pitchers were sent to Arizona by the Jays to play for the Mesa Solar Sox.  Starter Roberto Osuna, who came back from Tommy John surgery in August, and showed his former velocity, but struggled with his command, leads the way.  With his advanced feel for pitching, this could be a huge opportunity for the righthander - the additional innings may be what he needs to refine his control, and could pay huge dividends for him next season.
   Joining Osuna in the Sox rotation will be lefthander Sean Noin, the forgotten man of the Blue Jays top 10 prospects.  Nolin matched Marcus Stroman strikeout for strikeout in 2013 at New Hampshire, but injuries limited him to 20 starts this year.  Nolin is in the southwest to make up for those missed innings.
   Blake McFarland and Arik Sikula will pitch out of Mesa's bullpen.  Both are power arms who must be placed on the 40 man roster this fall, or risk being lost in the Rule 5 draft.  In reality, there's little chance that will happen, but at 25, both players are facing closing windows of MLB opportunity.  Sikula was lights out in Dunedin's bullpen this year, with 34 saves, and 60 Ks in 43 innings.  McFarland pitched at both A+ and AA this year, and finished strong at New Hampshire, with 37 Ks in 35 innings.  As mid-minors bullpen guys, they don't have a lot of value, but with bullpen arms being more and more of a disposable nature at the big league level, it wouldn't be a shock to see one of them reach the majors.

    On the position side, the Toronto contingent will be led by OF Dalton Pompey, who started the year in Dunedin, and ended it in spectacular fashion in Toronto, with stops in New Hampshire and Buffalo along the way.  The GTA native blossomed in his fifth year of pro ball, and is a testament to both the acumen and patience of the Blue Jays player development department.  Pompey doesn't have a great deal to prove, but it will still be beneficial for him to face some high level pitching.  He will be leading off for Mesa today in their season opener.

   Joining Pompey are Catcher Sean Ochinko, and outfielder Dwight Smith, Jr.   Smith played in the shadow of his more illustrious teammates Pompey and Daniel Norris at Dunedin, and he put up respectable numbers in a pitcher's league without much support behind him in the lineup.  2B Jon Berti, who had a decent year at New Hampshire, rounds out the Blue Jay contingent.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Blue Jays Dominate BA's Short Season Top Prospects List

    There quite simply is no publication that does a better job of keeping readers up to date about prospects and trends across college and minor league baseball than Baseball America.
   Even though the minor league season has drawn to a close, BA still keeps fans interested by publishing their Top 20 Prospects for every minor league, starting about mid-September.
   Since information for lower level prospects can be hard to find unless you're willing to go behind a pay wall, these lists are gold for a prospect hound.  We've mined some Blue Jays-related nuggets from the chats BA held after publishing their Top 20 Gulf Coast, Appalachian, and Northwest Leagues lists, featuring BA staffers Ben Badler, Clint Longenecker, and John Manuel, who are three of the best in the business.
  Some might think it's a bit lazy of us to just list these conversation snippets, but we would rather present them in full and then offer our comments about them.  And it saves you, dear reader, from having to go to BA's website and look them up for yourself.  Which you're more than welcome to do, of course.

Josh (Windsor, ONT): Beyond the four players that made the top 20, are there any sleeper prospects from the Bluefield club? Further, do the Jays have anything with Jesus Tinoco?
Clint Longenecker: Yes, the Blue Jays lower minor league teams always have talent, a tribute to their international and domestic scouting departments. Jesus Tinoco has a real chance to emerge with continue development, both physically and mentally. He has youth (19), a great body, the fastball (velo and life) as a foundation for his prospect status. He can really sink the baseball. His combination of fastball velocity and heavy sink reminded some of former Blue Jay farmhand Henderson Alvarez, who has the 7th highest GB rate among MLB starters. His changeup is presently his best secondary offering and his curveball shows 12-6 tilt at its best, though it is inconsistent. Tinoco will need to improve his lower half in his delivery because he often collapses his front leg and falls off to the first base side, causing him to not get on top of his pitches. But he has the raw materials to emerge. Keep your eye on Tinoco.

   We feel the same way about Tinoco.  He did not pitch as badly as his numbers would suggest this year.  We asked Bluefield Catcher Danny Jansen about Tinoco, who said he had, "Dominant stuff. He throws hard and when he got his sinker working, he was really hard to hit."
   His numbers (4.95 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, .270 BA) were obviously influenced by the times when he didn't have that sinker working.  Tinoco pitched 6 innings in 4 of his starts, which is a lengthy outing by lower minors standards, and gave up a total of only four earned runs over those starts, adding more credence to the notion that when he was on, he was really on.

   We should also point out that Jansen, who was having a great season (.283/.390/.484) before being sidelined with a knee injury in early August, was named the Appy's 16th best prospect, and may have been ranked higher if not for the injury.

   We admit to having overlooked Josh Almonte and his success at Bluefield this year,  mainly because it was his third season of rookie ball.  The organization may need to accelerate him next year to get a truer sense of what they have.
Gerry (Toronto): Josh Almonte had a breakout season, hitting over 300. Was he close to the list?
Clint Longenecker: Almonte absolutely had a case from a tools-based perspective. A late-round Northeast prep player, Almonte really blossomed this year after struggling to make contact in the GCL for 2 years. He has tools with his plus speed and arm, as well as above-average raw power he shows in batting practice. Although he hit .300 this year, Almonte’s line was propped up by an unsustainable BABIP (.413) that was among the highest in the league and unlikely to continue going forward. His breaking ball recognition will need to continue to improve. His upward trajectory is very encouraging and he will be one to monitor going forward.

Here are some thoughts about Lane Thomas, a 5th round pick in June, who was promoted from the GCL to the Appy League:
Ben (DC): How close did Lane Thomas come to making the list? Seems like he had a good yr in GCL for Blue Jays. Thanks.
Ben Badler: Another close call. He’s an explosive athlete with plus speed and squared up a lot of balls for hard contact, although the over-the-fence pop didn’t show up this year. He’s intriguing, and I still like Yeltsin Gudino and Freddy Rodriguez, even if their numbers didn’t do much to inspire confidence next year. They can’t all be Franklin Barreto.
Ben (DC): Any feedback on Lane Thomas from his brief time in Bluefield? Seems like he was a very interesting pick this year who did well this year. Did Rowdy Tellez come close? Thanks.
Clint Longenecker: Lane Thomas is an exciting player that the Bluefield staff praised. He got time at third base this summer, an interesting development because he has an above-average arm. He ran well but was not a true burner in center field, where he played most as an amateur. He plays the game hard and has natural aptitude for the game. He will likely see some time at Bluefield or Vancouver next summer, given the Blue Jays history with recent high school draftees, and will absolutely be someone who could factor onto the list.
   So, Thomas is a long way away, but there's a lot to be optimistic about.  Interesting how Badler said he has plus speed, but not enough to play CF, according to Longenecker.

 Tommy G (Milwaukee): I really liked Matt Smoral coming out of H.S. seemed to put it together this year for the first time. What kind of ceiling does he have if he puts it all together?
Clint Longenecker: He did. It was a strong year and he got innings, which is what he needed most this year. He could be a No. 2 starter if everything clicks because of his fastball-slider combo (because he can get out RHH with his slider) and very high strikeout rates. Like most prospects, however, the odds of him reaching that ceiling are low, so lets revise expectations because his control is unlikely to ever be good enough to be a No. 2. He would have to exceed expectations to do throw that many strikes, but old baseball adages are that lefties and tall pitchers develop late. He is a rarity who fits both of those descriptors. The key for him next year will be getting innings, again, and seeing how he holds up in full season ball.
   This is something we've been saying about Smoral for over a year.  We can't really close the book on his ability to reach his ceiling just yet for the reasons Longenecker outlined, and because he missed his senior year of high school, and may still be a bit behind on the developmental curve relative to his peers.
  About Smoral and Ryan Borucki, who were also rotation-mates in Vancouver, Jansen told us:
     Smoral and Borucki are both outstanding pitchers, they both have dominant stuff and can both control their pitches. They always bring confidence and compete everyday, which is the biggest reason I love catching them

   And things would not be complete with a Rowdy Tellez update:

  Feng (New York): I was wondering what the feedbacks were on Rowdy Tellez and Josh Almonte. Was a little surprised that Tellez didn't make the top 20.
Clint Longenecker: Almonte was covered. Tellez was a strong consideration for the list. He made strides with his hitting approach this year and its tough not be be intrigued by a potential power bat. Scouts wanted to see Tellez hit for more power in games this year (.131 ISO) but his long-term power projection is still there. He is capable of putting on a show in BP. He controlled the zone well in the Appy League. It was a good developmental season for Tellez, whose body looked good because of the hard work he put in.
   That, to us, is a surprisingly lukewarm assessment of Tellez.  The Blue Jays saw more, apparently, and skipped him over Vancouver for a few weeks of play at Lansing, where he demonstrated some of that power, putting up a .949 OPS in 49 PA's.  His excruciatingly slow start (he went through a 0-26 dry spell - although was hitting the ball hard, according to reports - and was hitting .103/.191/.121 in early July) likely didn't help him. 

  The crowning jewel to these lower level reports for Blue Jays fans had to be the Northwest League list and chat, featuring 5 Vancouver Canadians, led by Frankie Barreto, who BA earlier had named Short Season Player of the Year. Barreto followed that up by being named the best NWL prospect. 

@Jaypers413 (IL): Thanks for the chat, John. Is it a safe assumption that Schwarber would have topped this list had he qualified? In addition, what was the consensus opinion of his skillset during his limited time in Boise?
John Manuel: He hit 4 HR in 5 games. One league manager Brian talked to said he was “Mickey Mantle against us,” and another said, “You will live with the passed balls if he hits like I think he’ll hit.” Weighing that against Barreto would have been a fun exercise. I can see arguments for both of them.

  Barreto no doubt benefited from having Ryan McBroom hit behind him in the C's lineup.  McBroom was one of those middle round picks that may not have high ceilings, but are a perfect fit for the Northwest League:

Jon (Florida): Do you have any info on Ryan Mcbroom 1b with Vancouver? Is he a prospect for the bluejays?
John Manuel: McBroom definitely had his supporters. He has present power, with a pretty aggressive approach that allowed him to succeed in his debut. He hit some long home runs that impressed managers as well as fans. He needs to shorten his swing some, and his bats-right, throws-left profile is worth mentioning because it’s fairly rare. He might have had a chance to try third base is he threw righthanded. Some managers knocked him as a below-average defender at first. L.B. Dantzler put up similar numbers in the league last year and wasn’t able to follow up this year. McBroom will see if he’s up to the challenge.

  We all know the position change is coming for Barreto, but everything he has shown this season suggests the bat will play:

Brian (Denver): Which #1 league prospect has a higher ceiling as a SS, Northwest league Franklin Barretto or Appalachian league Ozhaino Albies?
John Manuel: Albies sounds super exciting and more likely to be a shortstop, but Barretto for me because of the bat. He may not be a shortstop long-term, but that dude can hit. Barretto’s defense gets knocked by the managers we talked to, who obviously value reliability and making the routine play, but we have good reports on Barretto’s infield actions. He has a shot to stay in the infield if not at shortstop, so I’d go with him. Albies is 5-foot-7 and we have mixed reports on just how much offensive upside he has in terms of how much he’ll impact the baseball. No such questions exist for Barretto. Both exciting players though.
Feng (New York): Hi, I was wondering if Barreto is a top 100 player? And if he is, would anyone else from this league make it on the top 100 list?
John Manuel: I think he probably is, and he’s likely the only person from this Top 20 to merit such consideration. The other possibility may be Miguel Castro, who has the big arm and athleticism but whose secondary stuff is probably too raw for top 100 right now. He could have been No. 2 or No. 3. I thought Barretto was a clear No. 1, but 2-3-4 were tough for me and Brian to rank. They could have gone in any order really.
  Max Pentecost also fell off of our radar a little bit due to his abbreviated season.  And it looks like BA didn't get the greatest read on him, either:
Zach (San Diego): Why did Max Pentecost rank #8 in the paper thin Northwest League Top 20? And if you can tell us what's a reasonable ceiling and/or comp for this kid?
John Manuel: Managers and scouts in the league saw Pentecost catch all of six games. We were asking them to weigh in essentially on a DH. So we dinged him a bit for that, ranking him behind two potential starting corner bats who are younger than him. Baez and Cordero are much riskier bets for sure, so we could have ranked him higher. I thought the top 12 guys were a fairly clear top 12; after that, there was not much differentiation.

 Baseball Prospectus is one of BA's biggest competitors, at least on the web side of the publishing business.  BP has produced a couple of print compilations of their writers' best work, including an essay by Jason Parks entitled, "From the Buscones to the Big Leagues,"  in Extra Innings. For anyone who follows prospects, this treatise on the pros and cons of the international market, as well as the ups and downs international players often go through when they play stateside is must reading.
   In this piece, Parks takes us through the highs and lows of a fictional Dominican pitching prospect named Jose, who pitches for the equally fictional Greens over his first five pro seasons, and makes for really entertaining and informative reading.  We sometimes forget that the transition to a new country, culture, climate, and language can be huge for some players, and they understandably can take a step backwards in their development, especially in their first full season.  Such seems to be the case for Tirado, who started the year at Lansing, but was sent back to Extended Spring Training after he had difficulties repeating his delivery and finding the strike zone.
Steve (Vancouver): How come Alberto Tirado didn't make the list?
John Manuel: He just did not throw enough strikes. Managers knocked both his command and lack of secondary stuff, but he was one of the livelier arms in the league and is just 19. More than likely 2014 will be a bump in the road for him because the arm can be electric. But he’s clearly behind Labourt and Castro, who throw more strikes, have big arms and are bigger-bodied guys.
   And we finish with a question that we ourselves had after our first glance at the list:
Roy (Indiana): Why is Labourt ranked ahead of Castro? From what I've seen of both Castro seems more a finished pitcher but with more or less equally high ceilings.
John Manuel: Lefty vs. a righty, but I had those guys flipped several times. Just having a lefthander who can dominate often older competition essentially with one pitch, plus the fact that Labourt’s arm is pretty clean and works easy enough to believe he’ll command the ball better down the line, gave him the edge. Both those guys are exciting for having easy gas as starting pitchers, which separated them from the pack. Looking at the league overall, pitching prospects were probably the weakest spot. I’m not sure how many future big league rotation members will come from the NWL. If someone were taking odds, I would take zero and let you have the field, and I’d like my chances. Castro and Labourt obviously were the exceptions, as the only pitchers in the top 10.
   Catcher Mike Reeves, who played at three levels this year (but in reverse) caught both this year, and he acknowledged on the excellent "Your Van C's" podcast with Greg Balloch and Charlie Caskey that while Castro is the better prospect at this point, Labourt was the C's best pitcher this year.  That he didn't follow Castro up the ladder may be due to his earlier struggles at Lansing, and the organization may have wanted to let him stay where he was having some success.  

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Anthony Alford Leaves Ole Miss

   In a stunning development, Blue Jays outfield prospect Anthony Alford has left Ole Miss, where he was attempting to resurrect his collegiate football career, and accepted a presumably enhanced contract offer from the Jays that he initially rejected in July.

   The 2012 third round pick has, in the words of Keith Law, "first round talent," but his original commitment to play Quarterback at Southern Mississippi dropped his draft stock.  He has accumulated all of 97 pro at bats since that time, but that has been more than enough to leave scouts drooling.  The premium athlete began to give glimpses to his vast potential at Lansing this year, before spurning Toronto's contract extension and heading back to Mississippi.

   Alford is a premium athlete who was learning a new position and was a backup in Ole Miss' defensive backfield this season.  He initially was returning punts as well, but that trial ended a few games into the season.  According to Hugh Kellenberger of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Alford was not on scholarship after sitting out a redshirt season as a result of his transferring from Southern Miss, where he had dropped out after a campus incident following a frustrating freshman season .  He had recorded six tackles in four games, and had returned a pair of punts for 8 yards. Alford had taken snaps at QB before the season, but had seen no action at the pivot after training camp ended.  Coach Hugh Frazee had spoken many times of trying to find ways to get Alford on the field.

   We're still looking into why this happened so suddenly.  Someone on Twitter suggested that the Blue Jays may have wanted to protect their investment, and had pressured Alford to leave Ole Miss before an upcoming slew of games against tough SEC opponents.  He may have been unhappy about a reduced role with the Rebels after being one of the nation's top high school recruits in his senior year of high school.  Alford is headed to Florida, likely to report to Instructional League.

   We're a bit puzzled by this, and by other things Alford has done in the past.  We have discussed how he may not have had the strongest and most positive influences growing up (his father is currently incarcerated on drug-related charges, and his mother has done time for drug offences as well).  At only 20 years of age, he has made what appears to be several hasty decisions in the past 24 months.  He played pro ball for only two weeks this year, and left early to get married, which we have heard the Jays brass was understandably less than thrilled about. We think that this last decision, though, abrupt as it was, is the best for his future.

   It's hard to predict exactly what the future holds for Alford the ball player.  We could see him starting next season at Lansing, but he likely will be promoted quickly if he is successful.  He still is a good distance away from the majors, but with the experience he will gain by playing every day, his learning curve is bound to rapidly accelerate.

  To us, Alford was a borderline Top 10 Blue Jays prospect even with his football commitment.  He leaps solidly into that group with today's news.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Blue Jays Instructional League Roster & Some Random Thoughts

    We're a little late on this one for a variety of reasons, life being chief among them, but here is the list of prospects the Blue Jays have sent to Florida for Instructional League:

   A note to those unfamiliar with Instructs - it's based at the spring training sites of the parent Major League clubs.  It's a teaching league, where prospects can have their skills tweaked or refined and tested in game situations where the scores and standings don't really count.  Typically, an organization invites 40 to 50 of their top prospects from the lower levels of the system.  The players are instructed by the best teachers in the system, in the hopes that their play will make significant strides forward the following year.  Sometimes, players who missed significant time due to injury are invited.  Players who are learning a new position also at times get an invitation.  The invite is a sign that the team believes in the upside of the young player, and that they are willing to invest added time into their development.  Players work on skills six days a week from 9 am to noon, followed most days by a 1 pm game.  The schedule is very compact, starting in mid-September, and wrapping up by the end of the first week of October.

    The pitching staff the Blue Jays have assembled speaks to the depth the orgnaization has at this position.  Labourt and Tirado, even though they took a bit of a step backward from Lansing to Vancouver, are still among the top mound prospects in the system.  Castro pitched at three levels, and has to be thought of as the top hopeful on this staff.  Reid-Foley was considered by many to be the steal of the draft, and was listed by Baseball America as the GCL's 8th-ranked prospect.  Smoral and Borucki were ranked the 7th and 12th Appy League prospects, respectively, even though they spent only a half (short) season there. Smith, Greene, and Huffman pitched at both the GCL and Appy, while Tinoco pitched better than his numbers would indicate at Bluefield.  Ramirez is a converted outfielder who pitched well,  while Wells, the club's 3rd round pick in June, struggled at the GCL.  Perdomo was lights out at times in the GCL, and is an intriguing prospect.  Brentz, who is still relatively new to pitching, showed signs at putting things together in the GCL, while Cordero is a fireballing reliever who has hit 100 on the radar gun, but is likely at Instructs to refine his command and secondary pitches, as his numbers haven't reflected his potentially dominating heat.

   Catcher Matt Morgan was a well-regarded 4th round pick in June, but struggled mightily in the GCL, posting an anemic line of .092/.188/.134, with 56 strikeouts in 119 at bats.

   The depth of infielders is second only to the pitchers among this group.  Barreto, who at 18 led the Northwest League in runs, hits, doubles, total bases and RBI, and was in the top five in several other categories, is the leading prospect in this group.  With a position switch from shortstop having long been predicted for him, we can't help but wonder if this is where and when it's happening, or at least the groundwork is being laid for it.  If Daniel Norris and Dalton Pompey stick with the big club coming out of spring training, it's hard not to think of Barreto as the system's best prospect.
   Joining Barreto is Rowdy Tellez, who skipped from Bluefield to Lansing, going back to Vancouver to help the C's with their playoff run.  Tellez hit .305/.375/.438 in 259 PA's this year, and is looking more and more like a middle of the order bat.  Also on the roster is shortstop Richard Urena, who is arguably the organization's top defensive shortstop (including the MLB club), who was named the #3 Appy prospect by BA.  Shortstop Dawel Lugo, who struggled near the end of his first full season, is also on the roster, along with Mitch Nay, who many considered the top position player in the system prior to the season, and multi-position player Lane Thomas, a June draftee who played at two levels.  Yeltsin Gudino, who struggled with the bat in his first stateside season still has plenty of upside at only 17.

   Outside of Pompey, the system is thin on outfielders.  DJ Davis, who struggled in his first year of full season ball,  is on the roster.  As we have pointed out, Pompey really didn't take off until the last month of his fourth season of pro ball, so there is still considerable hope and time for Davis.  Joining him will be Derrick Loveless, who skipped a level to play at Lansing and didn't look out of place, Josh Almonte, who hit .307/.343/.398 at Bluefield, and Jonathan Davis, who missed much of the season with injury, and Juan Tejada, who turned a lot of heads in the GCL.

   The biggest drawback to this talent pool is that they are all several years away (at best) from the majors, and only a fraction of them will even get a sniff of the big time.  Just the same,  it's an impressive array.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Clutchlings Blue Jays Minor League Awards

   This year has been a year for Blue Jays prospects watchers like no other.

  Possibly stung by criticism that the organization babied their top prospects, pitchers in particular, the club rocketed several players through multiple levels this season.

   The first to get the call was 2012 draftee Marcus Stroman, who some thought was major league ready last year.  Promoted to help the big club's beleaguered bullpen in April, Stroman struggled in relief, and was sent back to down AAA Buffalo.  When he was stretched back out as a starter, Stroman was recalled and inserted into the starting rotation, where he quickly has become a stalwart.

   Stroman proved to be the first, but not the last player to be challenged with a promotion.  Kendall Graveman, who started the year with Low A Lansing, pitched at four minor league levels before getting a September promotion to the big leagues.
   Daniel Norris, who began a remarkable turnaround in May of 2013, captured plenty of attention as he dominated at High A, before being promoted up the ladder all the way to the majors himself, along with teammate Dalton Pompey, who gained plenty of notice of his own this year.
   And it just wasn't the upper level players who made significant progress.  Miguel Castro started at short season Vancouver, and finished the year as a mainstay in High A Dunedin's rotation.  Second year pro Matt Smoral started at advanced rookie Bluefield, was promoted to Vancouver, and has been tabbed by some as a possible breakout candidate in the mold of Norris and Graveman next year.  Rowdy Tellez, after a slow start, bashed at Bluefield, and skipped to Lansing before going down a level to Vancouver to help with their playoff run.  Top pitching prospect Roberto Osuna came back from Tommy John surgery in July with Dunedin, and showed his old velocity and the advanced feel for pitching that scouts rave about, but his control was rusty.  The club's high-risk, high-reward approach to the 2011 and 2012 drafts is starting to manifest itself in prospects filtering upwards into the system.

  The message to all prospects this year from the organization was succeed, and you will advance.

  Not all prospects made upward movements, however.  The pitching staff at Lansing, which we were really looking forward to, was something of a bust.  Alberto Tirado and Jairo Labourt had great difficulty finding the strike zone, and were sent back to extended spring training before resuming their seasons when Vancouver started play in June.  Adonys Cardona and Tom Robson were sidelined by injury, while Chase DeJong never really found his stride, and was shut down in August. Shane Dawson was hampered by injuries and inconsistency. Lugnuts outfielder D.J. Davis, the club's first round pick in 2012,  appeared to take a step back as well, although it's likely that the young, raw prospect was bound to struggle in his first year of full season ball.
  Lefthander Sean Nolin, who matched Stroman almost pitch for pitch and strikeout for strikeout last year at AA, had groin and leg issues and missed large chunks of the season.
   After making huge strides last year, Andy Burns got off to a slow start with New Hampshire, and stayed there for the year.  Before the season, we thought there might be a chance that he could have been a roster expansion call-up this month.
   John Stilson, a power arm who had a shot at a promotion to the Blue Jays bullpen in our eyes this year was shut down after experiencing shoulder soreness, and underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in August.
   Outfielder Jake Anderson, who missed all of last season after surgery for a rib injury, had all of ten at bats with Bluefield before being sidelined again.
  Catcher Max Pentecost, the club's 2nd first round draft choice, struggled defensively at Vancouver, and was shut down in August with a wrist injury, and was likely fatigued after a season that started in February.  Catcher Dan Jansen, who appeared on the rise in the system, was sidelined after a great start with Bluefield by a knee injury.  2013 2nd round pick Clinton Hollon joined Robson in the ranks of re-habbing from Tommy John surgery after undergoing the procedure in May.  First round pick Jeff Hoffman, of course, also underwent TJ prior to the draft.  Righthander Patrick Murphy, who the club rolled the dice on and made a 3rd round pick last year after missing his senior year of high school due to TJ, underwent a second TJ in August. Shortstop Yeltsin Gudino, who at 17 was one of the youngest players in complex ball, struggled with the bat in his stateside debut.

   There is still plenty of upside to the Toronto system.  The upper ranks have become a bit thin in terms of prospects, but there were several notables in the lower reaches, starting with shortstop Franklin Barreto, who at 18 consistently barreled up pitchers three and four years older than him with Vancouver.  Smoral and Ryan Borucki were the aces of the Vancouver pitching staff, shortstop Richard Urena, who some have tabbed as major league ready defensively hit very well at Bluefield and Vancouver, and 2014 draftee Lane Thomas opened eyes with his bat and versatility.  The issue, of course, is that all of these players are several years away, and much could go wrong in terms of their development.  Outside of Barreto, none could be considered a lock for the big leagues just yet.

   While the on-field performance of their affiliates is secondary to the development of prospects, a pair of clubs (Vancouver and Dunedin) made the playoffs, while Buffalo and Lansing were in the playoff hunt until the final weekend.

   Here's how the system's winning percentage compared to the rest of MLB: chart

   Attendance figures for each team (GCL does not charge admission):

       Team                               Level                        Average Attendance            Rank in League
8 110
New Hampshire
5 156
High A
Low A
4 832
Short Season
4 870
Adv Rookie

    Toronto's Player Development Contracts with Lansing and Bluefield expired at the end of the 2014 season, but were extended for another two years. The PDC with each of their affiliates comes up for renewal after the 2016 season.  After talk of Ottawa being home to a new AA affiliate died when city council couldn't stomach the idea of a huge cash outlay for ballpark renovations in an election year, the Jays have established a nice relationship with New Hampshire.  The club has been actively looking for a new home for their High A club, but were rebuffed by voters in Palm Beach County when the club put forward plans for a development with Houston.  Word reached us yesterday that the city of Dunedin has found new land that might not be large enough to house a full spring training site, but would accommodate a facility  to replace inadequate Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

On with the awards.....

Most Surprising Club
   No one club stood out this year in this category.  With their blazing start, Dunedin takes the award, easily winning the first half Florida State League crown for their division. At one point, Dunedin had the best won-loss record in all of Organized Baseball.
  With the promotions of Norris and Pompey, Derrick Chung, and  Matt Boyd, the D-Jays struggled in the second half.  Boyd came back, but he and Taylor Cole had logged a lot of innings, and Dunedin was no match for eventual league champs Daytona in the first round of the playoffs.

Most Disappointing Club
   For the second year in a row, we have to award this to Lansing.
We expected big things from the Lugnuts, and perhaps in hindsight that wasn't fair.  Many players were making their full season ball debut, and the unusually cold midwestern spring didn't help those who were used to more temperate climates.
 The additions of journeymen pitchers Brad Allen and Brent Powers stabilized the starting rotation after the young guns faltered, and the club was in the playoff race until losing their final three games of the season.
   The success the organization has had in Vancouver has yet to really translate into more of the same at Lansing.  The affiliation has been very successful, with more and more Ontario fans pouring across the border to make the trek to the state capital.

Biggest Steps Forward
   Without a doubt, Pompey.
Heading into his fifth year with the organization, Pompey had really yet to fulfill the potential the Blue Jays saw when they drafted him in the 16th round out of Mississauga's John Fraser SS in 2010.
  Behind his peers in development as a result of his birth certificate, Pompey put up pedestrian numbers in his first two pro seasons, and was injured for much of his third.  Sent to full season ball at Lansing last year, Pompey's performance was less than overwhelming, but he caught fire over the final few weeks of the season, hitting .345/479/.618.
   Promoted to High A Dunedin to start 2014, Pompey raised his game to an altogether higher level, putting up a line of .319/.397/.471 and playing highlight-reel centre field defense for the D-Jays over 70 games, earning an elevation to AA.  After going hitless in his first 13 at bats, Pompey picked up the torrid pace with his bat, hitting .295/.378/.473  in 31 games for New Hampshire, which in turned earned him a promotion to AAA, where he slashed .358/.393/.453 in a dozen games hitting leadoff for the Bisons.  For the minor league season, Pompey hit .317/.392/.469, with 9 home runs and 51 RBI, and was 43-50 in stolen bases.
   Along the way, Pompey earned a trip to the Futures Game, and we began to see his name in trade rumours at the trade deadline.  Clearly, the Blue Jays are intrigued by Pompey, and want to see what they have in the blossoming young local product.   Scouts have said that Pompey's ceiling is more of a fourth outfielder, but we're not convinced of that, but at the same time, we think that he's nowhere near a finished product.  While we respect the opinions of scouts, we can't but help but wonder that they weren't able to get a long and good enough look at him in his amateur days to truly assess his potential.
   Pompey's speed has to be seen to be believed.  We didn't get a chance to time him down the first base line when we saw him play in Buffalo, but he gets out of the box incredibly quickly.  He's a smart base runner, and appears to have a high baseball IQ.
  In only his second season of full season play, Pompey has opened a lot of eyes.  It's easy to see him patrolling centrefield and leading off for the Blue Jays in the near future.

Biggest Steps Backward
   There are a few candidates, but we give the nod to Alberto Tirado.
Labelled a "beast in the making" by now former Baseball Prospectus writer Jason Parks (who has landed a scouting gig with the Cubs), Tirado walked 40 batters in as many innings for Lansing, and had a 2.10 WHIP.
Sent back to extended and then to Vancouver, his struggles continued, until he was moved to the C's bullpen.  Relief pitchers in short season ball do not rank among the game's highest prospects.
   At the same time, Tirado is young (doesn't turn 20 until December), and he would not be the first Caribbean prospect to struggle in his first year of full season baseball.  And he did have 76 strikeouts in 75 innings this year, to go along with 67 walks. Just the same, based on his performance last year, we had expected bigger things from him.

Pitcher of the Year
   It was close, but we'll take Norris over Graveman.
Norris was dominant in High A, going 6-0 with a 1.22 ERA in 66 innings over 13 starts, striking out 76, with a sparkling 1.03 WHIP.'s pitcher of the month for May was sent to AA in June, and struggled slightly, before an August promotion to AAA, where he was brilliant in his first three starts, striking out 32 batters in his first 3 starts.
  We saw Norris' last start against Pawtucket, and he was hit hard, but at 124 innings for the season was far past his previous minor league high.  In his first bullpen outing a few days later for the Bisons, no hitter was able to even put a pitch in play against him in his first relief inning.
  Promoted to the Blue Jays, Norris struck out David Ortiz in his debut, freezing Big Papi with a nasty curve for strike three.
   Regarded by many as the top high school southpaw in the 2011 draft, Norris overcame difficulties at the beginning of his pro career to become one of the top prospects in all of baseball.  A dedicated surfer, Westfalia van owner, and photographer, Norris in not your typical athlete, and we think he has the mindset to deal with the ups and downs of major league baseball.  He still may need a half a season in the minors to further refine his pitches, but Norris is the real deal, and should be part of a revamped rotation before long.

Player of the Year
  This was a close call, coming down to Pompey and Vancouver's Franklin Barreto.
In the end, we took Barreto by a nose.
   The 18 year old was one of the youngest players in the Northwest League, but was named the league's player of the year by Baseball America, which also selected Barreto as the short season player of the year.
   A 70 game schedule hardly shows how dominant Barreto was, particularly at the plate.  A fixture in the three-hole in the Canadians' batting order, Barreto was near the top of most of the league's offensive categories.
   Fatigue likely played a factor in a late season dip, but Barreto put together a solid line of .311/.384/.481 over 315 plate appearances, with 23 doubles and 29 stolen bases on top of that.  Reports we received all summer mentioned how Barreto rarely got cheated in an at bat, and when he made contact, he barreled up the ball hard somewhere.
  ESPN's Chirs Crawford had this end of season observation about Barreto:

At the plate, Barreto has a compact swing, but his strong wrists and solid plane allow him to hit line drives to all parts of the field, and despite his small size, he has enough strength to project solid-average power at the position. The approach is still a work in progress, but he has shown he's not allergic to walks nor working counts into his favor, and scouts tell me his pitch recognition has improved considerably as well. He's also a plus runner, and seasons of 20-30 steals aren't out of the question.

   The question is, of course, where Barreto ultimately winds up on the playing field, because all indications are that it won't be shortstop, not with Richard Urena behind him in the system.  Barreto has speed, athleticism, but his footwork at short verges on clumsy at times.  A move to second or even third, or centrefield likely are in the works for Barreto when he reaches full season ball next year.
   There has been no need to push him because of his young age, but Barreto is a candidate for multiple promotions in our mind next year, at least once he has been moved to and learns his new position.  As they say, the bat will play. 

The Dave Stieb Meteoric Rise Award
   An 8th round pick out of Mississippi State last year, Graveman signed for a low ($5000) bonus, and was sent to Lansing ostensibly to fill out the full season's club starting rotation.  His 10 starts with the Lugnuts were nothing to write home about, and Graveman went home with plans to work on a long toss routine to build arm strength in the off-season.
   The result was that he added at least 3-4 mph on his fastball, and the added arm strength gave more sink to it.  Repeating at Lansing to start the year, Midwest League hitters were no match for Graveman, who took a no-hitter into the 9th inning against Beloit, and was promoted to Dunedin after his next start.
   Against the more advanced High A hitters, Graveman did not dominate as he had at Low A, until he discovered a four seamer by accident that he could cut and command at will.  His ERA began a steady descent after that, until he was elevated to New Hampshire in July, and promoted to Buffalo after only one start.  Graveman continued his mastery over International League hitters, and pitched at his fifth level when the Blue Jays recalled him on September 1st, and he was sent in to face Yoenis Cespedes.
   Graveman can throw his cutter equally against left and right handed hitters.  He back doors it against righties, and brings it in on the hands of lefties when he has it working.   Graveman routinely throws more than 60% of his pitches for strikes, and fields his position very well. For the season, his record was 14-6, and while wins don't tell the whole story, especially for a minor league starter, it speaks to how Graveman routinely pitched into the 7th and 8th inning in his starts, often turning things over to the back of the bullpen.  His 1.83 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and only 31 walks in 167 innings are tough to ignore.
   There are some who suggest that Graveman has far exceeded his ceiling, and profiles more as a back of the rotation guy.  We say that he still likely needs more time in the minors, but we think he will continue to develop his arm strength and his command, and we see a mid-rotation starter.

Manager of the Year
   A large part of a minor league manager's job is doing the best that you can with what you have at the moment.  With players coming down from one level and up from another, balancing a lineup and satisfying the parent club with playing time for prospects who don't always deserve it can take a considerable amount of skill.  Which is why Buffalo manager Gary Allenson is this year's winner.
   The Bisons made a Triple A record 238 roster moves, and used a total of 72 players this year.  Somehow, Allenson kept this team in contention amidst all this shuffling, even though he lost his most valuable player, Kevin Pillar, with six days left in the season.
    A minor league manager for 20 years, the former major league catcher came aboard with the organization in 2013 and managed New Hampshire, and was promoted to Buffalo to replace the popular Marty Brown. Despite the revolving door of players, he kept his collection of prospects and minor league veterans in a playoff race right until the season's final weekend.

Sleeper Award
   Two candidates emerge for us:  Smoral, who made a successful jump from advanced rookie to short season ball this season, and while he some ups and downs, the tall lefthander seems to be putting things together.  Unlike some of the Lansing pitchers who had trouble with the April and May temperatures of the Midwest League, Smoral, an Ohio native, should be more comfortable with them, and as he gets to take a turn in the Lansing rotation every fifth day next year, we can see him becoming increasingly consistent with this mechanics and his command, with a resulting multiple level jump a possibility.
  Castro has to be another favourite, but having already pitched at High A, he's not starting from as far back as Smoral.  We watched his last Lansing start before he was promoted and came away understanding what the hype has been all about.  At 19, there's really not a need to rush him, which may limit how high he reaches in the organization next year, but like Graveman and Norris, he may leave the club little choice but to move him.

Power Arm Award
   Gregory Infante, who spent most of the season with New Hampshire, gets the nod, having been clocked at 101 mph.
  Originally signed by the White Sox, for whom he pitched in 5 games during the 2010 season, Infante unfortunately has little else other than his heater going for him.  When you can't throw your secondary pitches for strikes, your fastball becomes a little bit slower, because hitters know you're likely going to throw it in a crucial situation.
   The Blue Jays actually have a wealth of minor league reliever depth (not all of them power arms, however), but such players are literally a dime a dozen.  Sometimes these players can fly under the prospect radar, though, and we might one day see a Griffin Murphy, Arik Sikula, or Phil Kish in a big league bullpen.

   It's interesting to see how the Blue Jays approach to the June draft has morphed over the years, changing according to new slot rules and from varying levels of depth from year to year.
   The club has gone with the projectable picks (Aaron Sanchez), the scared off by college commitment picks (Norris), the high-risk, high-reward choices (Stroman and Anthony Alford), the under-the-radar because of injury picks (Smoral), and the raw but toolsy types (Davis).
   The club altered their strategy in 2013 with the new bonus rules, taking a flyer on college seniors with no leverage (Graveman), and turning the accrued savings into high risk, high reward, maybe college-bound player in a lower round (Tellez), all the while honing in on top international players (Barreto, Osuna, Labourt, Castro).  The club has not been afraid to punt a top pick, be it Tyler Beede (who turned into Stroman), or Phil Bickford, who the club turned into Max Pentecost, to go along with another roll of the dice, TJ patient Jeff Hoffman.
   For that, and many other reasons, we can't wait until next year.