Thursday, April 17, 2014

Two Teams - Two Unexpected Results

   www.lansinglugnuts.com    www.dunedinbluejays.com

It's still very early in the minor league season, and the wintry weather in the north and the rainy weather in the south has wreaked havoc on pitching rotations, but at this point, the Blue Jays High A and Low A teams appear to be headed in opposite directions, which is surprising to say the least.
   The Dunedin Blue Jays roster is comprised mostly of players from last year's Lansing squad that scuffled along for most of the Midwestern League season, and finished 17 games below .500, and were at the bottom of most team pitching and hitting categories.
   The Lansing Lugnuts are stocked with many players from the organization's successful short season teams at Vancouver and Blufield, the latter of which made it to the Appy League playoffs, while the former is a three time defending Northwest League champ.
   With some of the system's most promising prospects at Lansing, the Lugnuts were considered to be one of minor league baseball's must-watch teams this year, while the D-Jays would be in a fight to reach .500.  After two weeks of the young season, however, the records of the two teams are almost complete opposites of what many thought they would be.
   Winners of 11 of their first 13 games, Dunedin sits atop the Florida State League's Northern Division standings, while the Lugnuts, who were swept in a doubleheader at Wisconsin yesterday, have lost six in a row, and 9 of their first 12 games, and sit among the bottom of most team stats.
   Dunedin's fast start can largely be attributed to their starting pitching, which has led the club to a league-low 1.83 ERA, and microscopic 0.97 WHIP.  The rotation has had multiple starts from Matt Boyd, Daniel Norris, Taylor Cole, and Ben White.  Cole and White may be a bit old for this level, but they both seem to have found themselves against more advanced hitters than they faced last year, while Norris and Boyd have picked up where they left off last season.  Boyd has yet to be scored upon in 3 starts totalling 17 innings, while Cole leads the loop in strikeouts, and Norris has a tiny 0.82 ERA.  In the bullpen, Arik Sikula has already notched 4 saves, while relievers Chad Girodo, Blake McFarland, and Efrain Nieves have made strong contributions.
  On offense, among the leaders have been Dwight Smith, Dalton Pompey, and Emilio Guerrero, all three of whom played in Lansing last year.  Pompey is among the league leaders in stolen bases, while holdover K.C. Hobson leads the FSL in RBI with 18.
   The Lugnuts have fared well offensively so far, with D.J. Davis, Matt Dean, and Mitch Nay more than holding their own at the plate in their first year of full season ball. With an OPS of .891, Davis is beginning to show some of the vast potential that led the Jays to take the Mississippi HS product with the 17th pick of the first round of the 2012 draft.  The pitching, on the other hand has been a bit of a disappointment to date.  Top prospects like Tom Robson, Jeremy Gabryszwski, Adonys Cardona, Jairo Labourt, Albert Tirado, and Chase DeJong have had issues with command and location so far, with Tirado being removed after a 33 pitch first inning in his second start of the season.
   In fairness to the this sextet of young arms, not only is this also their debut in full season play, it's also the first exposure to the chilly conditions of the Midwest League in April for several of them.  DeJong threw four scoreless innings in the first game of the Wisconsin twin bill, striking out four, and allowing only two hits and no walks, while Tirado threw 3 scoreless frams in the nightcap, giving up two hits and three walks, while striking out six.  Gabryszwkski also seemed to put things together in his last start, giving up no earned runs over 5 innings. Robson, however, has struggled in both of his starts, and Labourt had command issues in his stint  in the doubleheader, surrendering 5 earned runs in 3 innings, striking out only 1 and walking 5.  Cardona appears to be on a short leash, throwing only 2 innings in 3 of his appearances.
   This all comes under the heading of small sample size, of course, and things could look vastly different in another two weeks.  Rookie jitters might also be responsible for Lansing's slow start, with many of its players having been assigned there in order to challenge them more.
 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dr James Andrews and the Epidemic of Torn UCL's

   Dr James Andrews was a guest on Sirius XM radio's "Power Alley" yesterday, discussing the supposed glut of torn UCL elbow ligaments that major and minor league baseball has seen over the past several seasons.
   It was an interesting interview from one of the pioneers of the procedure, to say the least. You can read our summary of the conversation, or listen to the link at the end of the article.


   Tampa's Matt Moore is the latest pitcher facing the prospect of Tommy John surgery to repair the damaged ligament.  In the last month, the Braves lost starters Kris Medlin and Brandon Beachy and reliever Cory Gearrin to the procedure.  Oakland ace Jarrod Parker, Arizona's Patrick Corbin, and Detroit's Bruce Rondon have also undergone the surgery in the past year.
   19 pitchers had the surgery last season, including All Star game starter Matt Harvey of the Mets, who also just lost closer Bobby Parnell to it as well. Top prospect Dylan Bundy of the Orioles is in rehab after having surgery last year, and the Pirates just lost their top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon to a torn UCL last week.
   On the Blue Jays front, top prospect Roberto Osuna is currently rehabbing from the operation, and is expected back late in August at the earliest. In 2012, Kyle Drabek (for the second time), Drew Hutchison, and Luis Perez all blew out their elbows and had the surgery, as did minor league catcher A.J. Jimenez.  Other minor league pitchers in the organization who have had a TJ performed recently include Johnny Anderson, Scott Copeland (twice), and Danny Barnes.
 
   So, what does Andrews attribute this rash of injuries to?
  He doesn't consider this rash of injuries an anomaly, but as part of a larger trend.
In the interview, he claimed that the most frequent visitors to his office of late are high school players, especially those who top 85 on the radar gun.  The developing ligaments and tendons of a young pitcher just can't stand up to that kind of stress.  On top of that, with more and more American high schoolers playing ball year round and in multiple leagues, there isn't sufficient time for rest and recovery from pitching, which, as we detailed in an eariler post, is an unnatural act.  He also cites poor mechanics among young pitchers (the risk of UCL injury drops starting at about age 23, depending on the individual) as another factor.
   Andrews also says that he doesn't believe that there is a miracle cure for the injury,  but he feels that it can be limited by having high school pitchers throw less, and by developing more effective treatments for the injury.  Andrews has started adding stem cell therapy during the procedure, which helps enhance the pitcher's healing.  Trouble is, it's hard to study its effectiveness, because most pitchers who undergo TJ want it, and no one wants to be in the control group.
   Andrews did acknowledge that there is some hope for Platelet-Rich Plasma therapy, which we also researched and wrote about here,  as a means of rehabbing the injury and avoiding surgery, but not enough study has been done to determine its efficacy.
   Interestingly the Sirius XM hosts didn't ask Andrews his opinion about the weighted ball program, which many teams, including the Blue Jays, have implemented throughout their organizations.  Thus far, the program, which was originally developed to strengthen the shoulder, lessening stress on the UCL, has had good reviews, but it tends to be lauded more for its velocity increasing than for its injury prevention.  Clearly, more research and study are needed - if researchers can find a sizeable enough control group.
   Our belief is similar to Andrews: given the stakes involved for highly touted high school pitchers, UCL injuries almost seem inevitable. The young arm can't take the abuse that pitching year round with a radar gun in mind involves.  It's a matter of human physiology.  Thus, major league teams are often drafting damaged goods without knowing it.  About all a club can do with a high school draftee is to minor his pitch counts religiously, and refine a prospect's mechanics to minimize the risk to the elbow.  Pitchers need to have strong core and lower body musculature in order to further reduce the exposure of that elbow joint, as well as good flexibility, and the athleticism to consistently repeat a proper delivery.  It's not just the arm that throws the ball - it's the lower body and core that create the buildup of potential energy that allows the body to propel the arm forward.  Some think that a certain body type creates the ideal pitcher - the long, lean, athletic type.  The Rays and the Jays have focussed on drafting and developing those type of pitchers, although the Rays top pitching prospect,  Taylor Guerrieri had TJ surgery last July.  And when you think of successful pitchers from the past, Roger Clemens doesn't fit the lean part, and Pedro Martinez wasn't exactly long.
   As we have discussed before, if we ran a minor league system, we would make core and lower body work part of a daily regimen for all pitchers at all levels, as well as work to strengthen the shoulders. Come draft day, we would try to factor in the workload pitchers we were considering have undergone. We would also adhere to guidelines like the Cubs', who won't allow a pitcher who has thrown at least 25 pitches in an outing to throw again for the following 24 hours, with longer enforced rest periods for higher pitch counts.  The Blue Jays, wisely, removed Alberto Tirado from his last start after throwing 33 pitches in the first inning, likely to protect his arm.
   This doesn't address the fact that UCL damage is cumulative, and much of it seems to be done before a young pitcher even graduates from high school.  MLB needs to research this issue further, and educate kids, parents, and youth baseball organizations that more has to be done to protect these developing athletes.  Maybe radar guns only get used for high school seniors, and leagues need to co-ordinate and share information about their athletes, as more and more are doing in the case of concussions in other sports. Parents should be warned about the risks of high pitch counts, the radar gun, and the need for adequate rest for their kids. Granted, as long as pro contracts and college scholarships are at stake, this will be hard to do, but in the case of MLB, it should be viewed as protecting a long term investment.

Dr Andrews interview can be heard here
Our earlier post about minor league pitcher abuse points can be found here.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Daniel Norris Picking Up Where He Left Off

   Dunedin Blue Jays' lefthander Daniel Norris has shown no rust early this season in Florida State League action.  The 2nd round pick from the 2011 draft, who is ranked the club's 3rd best prospect by both ourselves and MLB.com, spent most of last year with Lansing in the Low A Midwestern League, and was promoted to High A Dunedin in late August.
   After a disastrous pro debut in rookie ball in 2012, Norris got off to a slow start in full season ball last season, causing some publications like Baseball America to wonder how a prospect with such electric stuff could be hit so often and so hard.
   Norris turned things around in early May, and after sporting a 9.56 ERA through April, he posted a 3.97 ERA the rest of the way, striking out 100 batters in 85 innings.  He made one late regular season start for the D-Jays, giving up just one hit and two walks in 5 innings.
   And Norris has picked up where he left off last August, winning both of his starts so far, even though he admittedly didn't have his best stuff in his last start.  "My fastball really wasn't where I wanted it to be," he told milb.com's Kelsie Heneghan after throwing six scoreless innings against Brevard County on Saturday.  "It was not where it needed to be, command-wise, so it was nice to have three other pitches to rely on."
   Norris allowed the leadoff batter to reach in four of his six innings, but battled and made the necessary adjustments to get out of jams.  Norris has already matched his win total (two) from his 23 starts last year. striking out six and walking only one yesterday.  He has allowed only one earned run in 11 FSL innings pitched so far, striking out 11 and walking the one batter.
   We have written about Norris before - he's an interesting follow on Twitter.  Definitely not the stereoptypical myopic athlete,  he has a laid-back outlook on life, backed by a strong faith.  In the off season, Norris likes to find big waves to surf, and John Lott wrote a great article about Norris living his dream in a Westfalia van this spring.
   It's still early in the minor league season, and this is still the smallest of sample sizes, but if Norris continues to dominate FSL hitters, a promotion to AA could be in the offing for the pitcher some called the best prep lefthander in the 2011 draft.
 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Blue Jays Minor League Probable Pitchers & Milb.tv Schedule

  We've cobbled together a rough idea of the probable starters for the Blue Jays four full season affiliates for the month of April, and have included which of those games will be shown on milb.tv.
Buffalo's rotation appears to be a little unsettled to this point, so we'll fill it in once we can figure it out.
  As with all minor league teams, this forecasted schedule can change with little or no notice.  We'll do our best to update it when this happens. With the northeastern US experiencing typical April weather, we anticipate more updates to this schedule will be coming.
  Enjoy !


Blue Jays Organization Probable Pitchers
April 2014


date
Buffalo
New Hampshire
Dunedin
Lansing
4/3
Stroman
Sanchez
Boyd

4/4
rain out
McGuire
Cole
Labourt*
4/5
rain out
Bibens-Dirx
Happ
DeJong*
Gabryszwski +
4/6
Drabek
Copeland
Norris
Graveman
4/7
rain out
rain out
off
off
4/8
Nolin
Sanchez
Boyd
Robson
4/9
Romero (gm 1)
Stroman (gm 2)
McGuire
Cole
Tirado*
4/10
Happ
Bibens-Dirx
White
Gabryszwski
4/11
Drabek
Copeland
Herndandez
Cardona*
4/12
Hendriks
Lawrence
Norris
Graveman
4/13
Nolin
Sanchez
Champlin
Robson
4/14
Stroman
McGuire
Boyd
Labourt*
4/15
Romero
Bibens-Dirx
Cole
Gabryszwski
4/16
Drabek
Copeland
White
Tirado
4/17

Lawrence
Hernandez
Cardona
4/18
Hendriks
Sanchez
Norris
Robson
4/19
Nolin (gm 1)
  (gm 2)
McGuire
Champlin
Labourt*
4/20
         
off
off
off
4/21

Bibens-Dirx
Boyd
DeJong*
4/22

Copeland
Cole
Gabryszwski
4/23

Lawrence
White
Graveman
4/24

Sanchez
Hernandez
Robson
4/25

McGuire
Norris
Labourt*
4/26

Bibens-Dirx
Champlin
DeJong**
4/27

Copeland
Boyd
Gabryszwski
4/28

Lawrence
Cole
Graveman
4/29

Sanchez
White
Robson
4/30

McGuire
Hernandez
Labourt*
 All probables are subject to change   *part of a piggyback with Tirado
  **part of a piggyback with Cardona   + game two of a doubleheader

Milb.tv

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Another Great Night on the Mound for Several Jays Prospects

    Dustin McGowan may have been tipping his pitches and his teammates were having trouble laying off Masahiro Tanaka's splitter as the big club had their home opener, but for the second straight night, several Blue Jays pitching prospects shone for their minor league clubs.
   AAA Buffalo was rained out, and will make up their game with Rochester as part of a doubleheader on June 21st.
   At AA, Deck McGuire, who is three-peating for New Hampshire, led the Fisher Cats to their second win in a row at Trenton.  McGuire, who now holds the Fisher Cats record for most starts, has been viewed mostly as a disappointment since being selected in the 1st round of the 2010 draft, showed signs of putting things together last summer, and was added to the club's 40 man roster last fall.  He was likely sent back to AA because of the depth of starters at Buffalo, but that, of course, can change quickly and drastically over the course of a season.
   McGuire allowed three hits and an unearned run before leaving the game with one out in the sixth inning.  He walked one and struck out three.  A.J. Jimenez paced New Hampshire's attack with a 3-4 night, doubling twice and driving in a pair.  The well-traveled Yusuf Carter, nephew of of Blue Jays World Series hero Joe, who the Jays signed in the off season, went 2 for 5.
   At High A, Taylor Cole gave up one run over 6 innings, allowing only one hit and two walks, striking out 7, as the D-Jays dropped an extra innings decision to Clearwater.
   And in Low A, the much-anticipated full season debut of Jairo Labourt and Alberto Tirado took place, as Labout and Tirado joined Brady Dragmire in a piggyback start on a windy and rainy Ohio night as the Lansing Lugnuts topped Lake County.  Labourt started the game, and overcame a bit of wildness to pitch into the fourth inning, surrendering one run on two hits, walking and striking out four.  Dragmire relieved Labourt and picked up the victory with 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.  Tirado, who has been called "a beast in the making," by Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks, finished the game with four innings of five-hit ball, giving up one run while walking one and striking out seven. It must have been a fun introduction to a midwestern spring for the pair of young Dominicans.
   While things weren't looking all that great with the parent club last night, there's lots of promise on the farm.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Great Night For Blue Jays Prospect Starters

    The parent club may have lost their chance for their first series win at the Trop in what seems like decades last night, but there was good news aplenty for high profile Blue Jays prospect pitchers as Minor League Baseball opened its season yesterday.
   In the afternoon, Marcus Stroman pitched 4 reasonably good innings in chilly conditions in Buffalo's home opener. Stroman struck out the first two batters he faced, and then struck out the side after giving up a hit and an error.  A leadoff walk in the second came around to score against him as part of a two-run inning.  Overall, Stroman pitched 4 innings, giving up four hits to go along with those two runs, striking out four and walking the lone batter.
  Stroman was on an 80 pitch count limit, and came out of the game having thrown 73 pitches, 47 for strikes. Bisons manager Gary Allenson told the Buffalo News' Amy Moritz that while he loves Stroman's stuff,  "He has a tendency to fiddle around with hitters a little bit too much. … I would like to see Marcus get more outs where he does it in three pitches or less. A nice little ground ball early in the count. He has a tendency to go deep in the count with hitters too much."  
   In AA, top prospect Aaron Sanchez was dealing against the Yankees Eastern League affiliate Trenton.
Love this tweet from Chris King, who was following Sanchez' performance while watching High A Dunedin's Matt Boyd himself:


 Sanchez, who some were clamoring for to fill the fifth spot in the parent club's rotation (despite not having pitched above High A prior to this year), came on strong as the spring progressed, and had a lights out inning against the Mets in the Montreal exhibition series.  The righthander allowed only one hit over 5 innings, and struck out 5.  His control wavered a bit in the third, but overall he was dominating, missing a lot of bats, and inducing plenty of weak ground ball outs. We missed his final two innings thanks to a techical glitch with Milb tv, but batters appeared to be having a difficult time squaring him up.
   The above-metioned CJ Wittman gained plenty of new followers on Twitter last night.  He kept up a steady narrative about Sanchez' outing:




   Sanchez threw 67 pitches, 38 for strikes.  The bump in the command road came when rain hit. The folks in New Hampshire should enjoy Sanchez while they can if he keeps up this kind of level of performance.

   The good news continued with the performance of lefthander Matt Boyd of High A Dunedin.
King  Boyd threw 7 scoreless innings, surrendering 5 hits, no walks, and striking out 5.  King reported that Boyd sat at 89-91 with his fastball, with his command of that pitch and his curve ball sharpening as the game progressed.  He also threw in some changeups which kept the opposition off stride.  King figures only 2 balls were hit hard against him, and lefthanded hitters in general were having a tough time with him.
  Boyd has progressed rapidly since being selected in the 6th round out of Oregon State last year, starting with Lansing after signing, then was quickly promoted to Dunedin.  Of a small amount of concern is that Daniel Norris, who one would think would be the ace of the D-Jays staff, was not scheduled to start, although it seems that he will start on Sunday.  No reason was given.


   And the Low A Lansing Lugnuts played their annual cross-town match against Michigan State, and while the organization has brought in pitchers from extended spring training in the past to take the mound, Canadian Tom Robson, who figures to be a mainstay of the Lugnuts' rotation, got the start, and the righthander gave up only 1 run in three innings, allowing 2 hits, walking none (he hit a batter), and striking out 5.  Among the crew of young pitchers who finished up for Robson was 18 year old Jesus Tinoco, who surrendered a run in 2 2/3 innings, allowing 3 hits, walking none and striking out 3. 


   It's going to be a long minor league season with its share of ups and downs, but it's hard to imagine a better opening day of the season.






Tuesday, April 1, 2014

MLB Draft Update #3

 

As the major league season starts, and the college season closes in on the half way point, there have been a few interesting developments in the June draft.
   ESPN's Keith Law no longer considers NC State lefthander Carlos Rodon to be a lock as the first overall pick.  His first six starts haven't lived up to the lofty expectations many had for Rodon, and Law observed that there were a number of area scouts and cross-checkers at his last home start for teams drafting outside of the top five, indicating perhaps that his stock has fallen slightly.
   Law attributes some minor delivery flaws as a reason for Rodon's decrease in velocity, although he still acknowledges Rodon's wipe out slider.  Law has also never been impressed with the command he has of his fastball.
   Leaping ahead of Rodon in Law's rankings are California prep lefty Brady Aiken, and Texas HS right-hander Tyler Kolek.  In our last update, we had grouped Kolek with a package of players who had separated themselves from the rest of the class, and Aiken appears to have joined them.  Initial reports placed Aiken more in the 10-15 range of the first round, putting the Blue Jays in prime position to select the long and lean hurler.  Sounds like he may be off the board when it comes time for the Blue Jays, who hold the 9th and the 11th (compensation for failing to sign their first pick last year) picks of the first round.
   A name that has been linked to the Blue Jays is East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman. Hoffman was originally part of the elite group at the top of the draft, but his stock has dipped slightly since the beginning of the collegiate season.  Christopher Crawford of ESPN claims that Hoffman hasn't been missing many bats this spring, and while he has logged a high number of groundouts, his mediocre breaking ball has been the culprit behind the low strikeout totals.
   Crawford has also suggested that U of San Francisco outfielder Bradley Zimmer may be a player the Jays are taking a long look at. The younger brother of Kansas City 2012 first round pick Kyle,  Bradley has been described by one scout as one of the few five-tool players in this year's draft class.  While his tools may not be overwhelming, some think that he will put up above-average offensive numbers.  At 6'5", Zimmer may not last at his current position of centrefield, and may move to a corner outfield spot.
  Florida HS shortstop Nick Gordon was linked to the Jays in our last update, but the emphasis on the moment seems to be on the scouting of collegiate players.  While things can change greatly in the upcoming weeks, we'll keep tabs on Hoffman, Zimmer, and Gordon, and whoever else gets linked to the Blue Jays.