Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Monday Notebook


 Here it is, folks, our last Monday Notebook of the minor league season.

This was truly a great year to be following Blue Jays prospects.  Only two affiliates made the post season, but a number of prospects, starting with Marcus Stroman, who was soon followed by Aaron Sanhcez, who in turn was followed by a bevy of prospects (featuring Daniel Norris) when major league rosters expanded on September 1st were promoted to the majors.  And the promotions were not limited to the upper level prospects, as players like Miguel Castro were aggressively elevated, which was a sharp contrast to previous seasons.
  The highlight of the past week, of course, had to be Norris' mlb debut.  All Manager John Gibbons asked of the lefthander, now pitching out of the bullpen as he has surpassed his innings limit for the year, was to get David Ortiz out in the 7th inning of a crucial game.  Here's how he fared:

 
  • Pitcher
    D. Norris
  • Batter
    D. Ortiz
SpeedPitchResult
174CurveballCalled Strike
277ChangeupBall
393Fastball (Four-seam)Ball
490Fastball (Four-seam)Ball
591Fastball (Four-seam)Foul
671CurveballCalled Strike

    After starting Papi off with his nasty hook, Norris missed with three pitches out of the strike zone, low and away.  Ortiz just managed to foul off the 5th pitch, likely with that breaking ball in the back of his mind, and then Norris put him away with another curve - not one that bent as much as the first, but it caught enough of the inside corner to catch the feared slugger looking to end the 7th.
   Norris' fellow prospect Kendall Graveman had his own challenge the next inning, pitching to Yoenis Cespedes to start the inning.  Graveman gave up a line drive base hit to Cespedes, and then was lited in favour of Aaron Loup, who allowed Cespedes to come around and score, giving Graveman an ERA of infinity until at least his next outing.

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  The gave it a great try, but in the end a four-peat just wasn't in the works for the Vancouver Canadians, but they did make it to the Northwest League Finals for the fourth successive year.
  The C's clinched a playoff spot on the next to last day of the season, and then dispatched division Spokane rival to reach the finals, where they were in tough against Arizona's affiliate, the Hillsboro Hops. Hillsboro, the oldest team in the league, led the NWL in wins during the regular season, and proved to be a formidable opponent for Vancouver.
  The first game of the best of three final was played in Vancouver, and the Canadians got off to a roaring start, scoring five runs over the first two innings.  The usually reliable C's pitching staff couldn't hang onto the lead, however, and the Hops took Game 1 by a score of 7-5.
  The series switched to Hillsboro for Game 2, with Matt Smoral taking the mound for Vancouver as they sought to even up the series.  Smoral, who has been tabbed by some as a possible breakout performer next season, had what might have been some jitters in his first post-season start.  He walked the first Hops batter, then threw the ball away on a pick off attempt.  A rattled Smoral gave up three runs to Hillsboro, and then gave up another in the second without giving up a hit, via a hit by pitch, stolen base, advancement on a groundout, and a wild pitch.
  The C's battled back, scoring single runs in the 4th, 6th, and 7th.  With two out and a pair of men on in that inning, Rowdy Tellez smashed a drive to the deepest part of the ball park for the final out.  Like Tellez's fly ball, the C's came up just a few inches short from their fourth title in a row, as the Hops' bullpen shut them down over the final two innings to preserve the win, and give Hillsboro the title.
   Still, you would have to consider the season a wildly successful one for the franchise.  For the 7th year in a row, they finished 2nd to Spokane in attendance, drawing over 180 000 fans to Nat Bailey, for an average of 4 870 a game.  

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   The Dunedin Blue Jays were the only other affiliate to reach the post-season, and unlike Vancouver, were unable to get past the first round, as they were swept in a pair of games by the Cubs powerful Daytona affiliate.
   The first half winning D-Jays were 7 games under for the second half.  Wracked by promotions, Dunedin stumbled down the stretch, losing 8 of their final 10 regular season games.  And starters Matt Boyd and Taylor Cole, who were unhittable for stretches of the first half, were clearly running on fumes as the season wound down.  Boyd gave up 8 hits and 4 earned runs against Daytona in his last regular season start, and was pounded by the Cubs again in the playoffs, touched for 8 hits and 7 earned runs after exiting the game with one out in the fourth.  Cole lasted only 1.1 innings in his start, allowing 6 hits and as many earned runs.
  Young guns Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro may have helped in the playoffs, but the latter was at his innings limit for the season, while the former likely would have started if the series had gone to a third game.  Boyd and Cole were better bets to start, at least on paper, because of their age and experience.

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 In our post about the 100th anniversary of Babe Ruth's one and only minor league home run in Toronto last week, we neglected to mention the inspiration for the post.
   Gift of the Bambino, by Toronto author Jerry Amernic, is a heart-warming tale about a young boy's relationship with the game and his grandfather, with Babe Ruth skillfully woven into the plot several times over the course of twenty years.  Amernic devoted a chapter to Ruth's home run game at Hanlan's Point, and did a masterful job of painting a picture of the young city in the early years of the last century, and baseball's place in it.  We thoroughly recommend the book, which we found on Amazon. Amernic also painted a detailed portrait of Ruth's last game, which was a performance for the ages that we seldom hear about.  Well worth a read.
   We tried to paint a smaller portrait of Toronto that Labour Day weekend 100 years ago, in a young nation about to take its place on the international stage for the first time, as the world went to war. There were scant newspaper mentions of the game, so thanks to the box score and Amernic's narrative, we tried to connect the dots and give you an outline of the landmark day.
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  We will dial things back a bit in the off-season, but we will endeavour to keep the posts coming.  We'll watch with interest and post about any Blue Jays prospects that capture end of season awards, and we will also scour Baseball America's top prospects by league lists, due later this month.
  We will come up with our own end of season awards for players in the system this month, and post our top prospect lists in October, or maybe November.  We'll report on the performances of the Jays prospects playing the Arizona Fall League, post an essay or two, and before you know it, it will be time for spring training.
  Thanks to many people who have put up with this obsession of ours, including my wife Sherry, my dogs, Olive and Daphne, and Twitter friends Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, Trey Wilson, Charlie Caskey, Kevin Fitzgerald, and Chris King.  Thanks for answering my many questions, guys.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Babe Ruth's First (and Only) Minor League Home Run


   It was a sunny first Saturday in Spetember, in the bustling city of Toronto.  The year was 1914.  Across the ocean, Gavrilo Princip had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in late July.  Tensions had been building across Europe for months, and when Britain entered World War 1 a week later, there was little doubt that Canada would join her.  Said Prime Minister Robert Borden:

   "It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country."

   As the fledgling nation was hastily assembling an ill-prepared expeditionary force to fight the Axis powers overseas, crowds were gathering at the ferry docks at the foot of Bay Street to head over to Toronto Islands, long a place of relaxation and amusement for citizens of the young city. Generations of Torontonians had escaped the city for the peace and tranquility of the Islands, first by horse and buggy when they were connected to the mainland by a narrow spit of land, and then by ferry for over 50 years after a storm had washed the spit away.  The Islands housed summer homes for the well-to-do, resorts, yacht clubs, and amusement parks.  In the late 1800s, as baseball and lacrosse became popular spectator sports in the city, playing fields were built on Hanlan's Point, roughly about where planes take off and land at Billy Bishop Airport today.
   The first baseball stadium, home to the International League's Toronto Maple Leafs, was built in 1897, but was destroyed by fire a few years later, as was a second stadium.  A concrete structure was opened in 1910, and with a capacity of 17000, was one of the largest parks in the minor leagues.
   The minor leagues by 1914 did not resemble the minors of today.  All teams acted and operated as independent entities, but by a series of events over 40 years had assembled themselves into something of a hierarchy, with the International League at the top, hosting the larger cities that did not have a team in the National or American Leagues.  Minor League teams were in direct competition with the big league teams for players, as well as fans.  The "major league" teams, for their part, had loose and often informal agreements with minor league teams on the sale and loan of players.  Over the next three decades, the minors became increasingly dependent on the majors for their continued existence, and lost their independence by a series of steps as major league teams assembled the "farm systems" that we know today.
   One of the stronger International League franchises was located in Baltimore.  Under Manager Jack Dunn, the Orioles would hold their own in exhibition games against major league teams in the 1920s.
1914 was a difficult year for the Orioles, however.  The Federal League had been established the year before in an attempt to become a third major league, and had awarded Baltimore a franchise, the Terrapins.  The Terps played in a more spacious and modern stadium than the O's, who saw their box office revenues quickly decline in the face of this new competition.  Dunn was forced to sell his most popular and valuable player, a local lad signed out of a Baltimore Reform School earlier that spring by the name of George Ruth.  A fireballing lefthanded pitcher, Ruth was only 19 years old (one of Dunn's "Young Babes," according to local media), but more than held his own against the older and more advanced competition.  With the Orioles locked in a battle for survival, however Dunn had no choice but to sell Ruth to the Red Sox, for whom he made his big league debut on July 11th.

.

   The Red Sox had a loaded roster.  With pitchers like Smokey Joe Wood, Rube Foster, Dutch Leonard, and Ernie Shore ahead of Ruth on the Sox depth chart, there wasn't a great deal of playing time for Ruth (in a day and age when most pitchers finished what they started, bullpens did not have the importance-or size- they have today).  The Red Sox loaned Ruth to the Orioles rival  Providence Grays, likely much the the Orioles' chagrin.
   Ruth teamed up with Carl Mays (who would go on to infamy several years later after his fatal beaning of the Indians Ray Chapman) to give the Grays a potent rotation, and heading into the league's final weekend, the Grays held a 3 game lead over both Rochester and Buffalo for first place in the eight team league.  Toronto was 16 games back, and out of playoff contention, but had a respectable three games above .500 record.
   Hanlan's Point was also the site of Toronto's first amusement park, and the crowds departing the ferry that day were probably headed there in a number equal to those going to the ball park for a double header between the Grays and the Maple Leafs.  A wooden roller coaster, called "The Big Scream," ringed the ballpark and lacrosse grounds.


   Ruth was scheduled to start the first game of the double header.  He limited the Maple Leafs to one hit in tossing a complete game shutout, and in the sixth inning hit a prodigious blast which cleared the right field wall, and landed in the waters of Lake Ontario just a few feet beyond.  It was his first- and last - minor league home run. Providence took the second game in a contest that was shortened to 7 innings in order to allow the Grays to catch the last train out of Toronto.
   The International League season ended two days later, and the Grays ultimately won the league title.  Ruth returned to the Red Sox rotation the next year, and the rest, as they say, is history.
  His one and only minor league home run ball sat at the bottom of the Lake's murky waters, apparently, until the 1920s, when it was supposedly found, and many years later was put on display at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, which at the time was housed at Ontario Place.  In 1987, the display was broken into by two youths, Chased by security, the youths allegedly left the museum, and tossed the ball back into the Lake.  Frogmen searched, but found no ball, which also apparently had been signed by Ruth in 1925.
  We have great difficulty believing that the ball on display was actually Ruth's, but we do like a good story, and don't want to spoil it.
   A plaque marks the spot near where the stadium once stood:


thepracticaldreamer.wordpress.com photo
   

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Monday Notebook


  

One next-to-last edition of the Monday Notebook is here for you, Blue Jays Prospect Fans..

.
 As the minor league season entered its final weekend, three Blue Jays affiliates were in contention for a playoff spot.
   The Vancouver Canadians clinched the second half Northern Division title in the Northwest League by virtue of a victory over Spokane, the first half champs.
  Vancouver played some inconsistent ball over the second half, but made what is becoming for them a patented run in the last week of the season, and clinched a playoff birth against Spokane on Sunday.  They open their first round series against - you guessed it - Spokane today.
   Buffalo was well back of a playoff spot over a month ago.  Bolstered by the additions of Dalton Pompey, Daniel Norris, and Kendall Graveman from AA, and the return of Cole Gillespie and acquisition of Matt Hague, the Bisons went 24-9 in one stretch, and even briefly overtook Pawtucket for the final playoff spot.  The Bisons entered the final weekend of play needing to sweep playoff-bound Syracuse for the wild card spot, but fell short on Sunday.  Despite a perfect game through 5 and a no-hitter through six by the newly promoted Paolo Espino, the Bisons scored runs in the 7th, 8th, and 9th to tie the contest, only to lose on a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 9th.
   Lansing entered the weekend with a shot at a wild card spot, but failed to make the Midwest League playoffs.
  Dunedin already clinched a spot in the post-season by winning their first half Florida State League division title.  Even though they stumbled a bit down the stretch, the D-Jays are anchored by a rotation of Matt Boyd, Taylor Cole, and Roberto Osuna/Miguel Castro, and have a decent shot at a title.


********************************************************************************

   Late last night, our Twitter feed was exploding with news of Blue Jays promotions.  Pompey, Graveman, and Norris were promoted, according to Sportsnet's Shi Davidi, along with Sean Nolin, George Kottaras, Ryan Goins, Dan Johnson, Anthony Gose, and a rehabbing Brendan Morrow.  There has been no confirmation yet from the Blue Jays, and we admit that we're surprised that AJ Jimenez was not part of that group.  Stay tuned....

********************************************************************************

   We've been meaning to look into this for a while, but we give a tip of the hat to fellow Blue Jays prospect follower Minor Leaguer for pointing out the the Blue Jays Player Development Contracts with two of their minor league affiliates expire at the end of this season.
 
   The vast majority of minor league teams are owned by private or community interests.  Toronto owns only one of its minor league clubs outright, its Dunedin club in the Advanced A Florida State League.  PDCs usually come up for renewal every other September in even years.

   The Blue Jays PDCs with the Low A Lansing Lugnuts and the Rookie Level Bluefield Blue Jays come up for renewal next month.  A number of minor league teams have already renewed or switched affiliations, but the Blue Jays have yet to give any indication about their plans. The Jays have been affiliated with Bluefield since 2010, and Lansing since 2005.

   In case you're wondering, the Blue Jays have a PDC with Buffalo through 2016.  Even though there was a glimmer of hope they might switch affiliates if Ottawa's city council had voted if favour of stadium improvements in order to house an Eastern League team, the Jays re-upped with New Hampshire until 2016 as well.  The Jays also have a PDC with Vancouver, their short season affiliate, until 2016.  All three have solid local ownership, and draw well.  The 90 minute drive from Buffalo to Toronto is a huge benefit. The partnership with Vancouver has been wildly successful, and has helped to grow the Blue Jays brand in B.C.

   Would the Jays consider moving one or both of their expiring affiliations?  We can't see it in the case of Lansing.  The Lugnuts play in a great stadium, draw well despite fielding losing teams the past several seasons, and is only a 4 1/2 - 5 hour drive away from Toronto, making it the closest of the 8 other teams in the Midwest League which  have PDCs coming up for renewal.   One drawback of Lansing's northern location is that prospects who were raised in temperate climates sometimes struggle in the cold temperatures of the season's opening weeks.
   As for Bluefield, they don't draw as well, but they have been relatively successful in the Blue Jays short time there, after being an Orioles affiliate for decades.
    Other factors, such as quality of facilities, proximity to airports and interstates for roving instructors and front office personnel, likely come into play when deciding whether or not to extend a PDC, as does the affiliates' level of satisfaction with the major league club.  Only one other Appy League team has a PDC expiring this year, and only three Pioneer League (the other short season rookie level league) have ones due for renewal.
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   One last note:  we had said in our last post that we thought that if Osuna pitched anywhere this off-season, it would be in Mexico.  We were working off some information we were given that he was a protected player, but obviously that information was false, as the righthander tweeted himself that he was going to the Arizona Fall League.  And we're thrilled, both to see what he can do against some tough competition, and so that we can follow his progress more closely than we likely could if we was pitching in his homeland.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Look at Kendall Graveman


milb.com photo


   Among prospect evaluators, the consensus top Blue Jays pitching prospects would include Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Daniel Norris, and Roberto Osuna, a group that received about a combined $6 million in signing bonuses.  It could be argued that Kendall Graveman, who signed for $5 000 as an 8th round pick out of Mississippi State last year, has worked his way into the conversation about that group.

   The paltry bonus Graveman received was not necessarily an indication of how the Blue Jays felt about his talent.  Given that he had little negotiating leverage as a college senior, and also given the new rules around the slotting system and limits on bonuses MLB had implemented, Graveman had little choice but to accept the offer (the assigned value for the pick was $150 000).  He was not alone, as the Jays used this strategy with all of their picks from rounds 4 to 10 in 2013, and saved up the allotted bonus money from those choices to convince Rowdy Tellez to forego his college commitment after selecting him in the 30th round.
   Perhaps as an acknowledgment to Graveman both for accepting their low offer, and the work he has done in the off-season, the Jays have advanced him through four levels this season, and is on the verge of a promotion to the 40-man roster (although there is no rush - they don't have to place him on the 40 man for another two years).  Graveman has rocketed through the Jays system this year, and has posted a record of 14-6, with a 1.83 ERA in 27 starts, with a WHIP just over 1, and a ground ball to fly ball ratio of almost 2-1.
   The knock against Graveman is that he wasn't a strikeout pitcher in college, and he has not proven to be a strikeout per inning guy in the minors.  What some miss, however, is the improvements John Lott of the National Post mentioned in a recent article.  Graveman eschewed the heavy ball routine that is popular among Jays pitchers right now, and opted for a Trevor Bauer-like regimen of long toss in the off season, in order to build up arm strength.  The result was an increase in velocity from the high 80s to the low 90s. Graveman also began to experiment (by accident) with a four seam fastball in early June, and began to learn how to cut it.  Minor league hitters have been swinging and missing at the pitch in greater frequency.

   We had our first opportunity to see Graveman pitch on milb.tv this week.  Technical difficulties (at Milb's end) prevented us from watching and tweeting about it live, but we watched closely the following day.  There were no radar readings available, and the Scranton-Wilkes Barre tv commentator didn't mention Graveman's speed at all, so we focussed on his delivery and the movement on his pitches, which was actually a nice change.  Often, when we're watching a pitcher live, I find myself looking from the pitcher to the scoreboard to my pitch chart, and I find I often miss some subtle things about a pitcher that can tell you a lot about him.

   Graveman showed a nice, smooth delivery, and while it's not as effortless as Aaron Sanchez's, he has nice loose mechanics, repeats his delivery and release point, and fields his position well - which is good for someone who generates so many ground ball outs.  The SWB tv guy mentioned early in the game that Graveman had thrown 6 DP balls in his last 56 hitters, after he athletically raced to cover first to get the back end of a 3-6-1 twin killing.
   Graveman also showed good command of his four seamer, especially to right handed hitters.  He started it over the plate, and it would come in on their hands and tie them up, or he could start it outside, and have it back door over the outside corner.  We suspect he was aided by the work of AJ Jimenez, who we were getting our first look at in a while.  Jimenez is quick and athletic behind the plate, and appears to be a good framer of pitches.
   For a guy who a guy who doesn't miss many bats, Graveman struck out the side in the bottom of the first, the first two swinging and the third on a called strike.  He gave up a run on three hits in the 3rd, with only one ball hit hard.  Graveman found himself in trouble after giving up three straight singles (one of the soft variety, the other one a 'tweener, one a legit line drive), before another double play ball and a groundout limited the damage to one run.
   Graveman left with one out and a runner on first in the sixth, and the runner came around to score off of reliever Colt Hynes.  Graveman was consistently ahead of the hitters through the first four innings, but pitched behind often in the fifth and sixth.  When Graveman missed, he tended to miss up in the strike zone, but off of the plate.
  For the game, Graveman gave up 7 hits, 3 runs (all earned), and a pair of walks in 5.1 innings, with 7 strikeouts.  He threw 97 pitches, 60 of them for strikes.  Graveman got 5 ground ball outs, and 2 via the fly ball.  Thanks to the 11 run cushion the Bisons gave him after the top of the 3rd, Graveman picked up his 3rd International League victory.

   Will we see Graveman in September?  We think it's unlikely, but not highly so.  The parent club, at this writing, is all but out of contention for a wild card playoff spot, so the urgency to put him on the 40 man and call him up is lessened.  He doesn't profile as a bullpen guy, either, so that diminishes the need for him even further.  Graveman has also pitched a great deal the last two years:  152 innings (26 of them pro) between college and minor league ball last year, and 167 so far this year.  It truly might be time for the Blue Jays to shut him down, although a trip to the Arizona Fall League, which starts play in October, might give the club a look at what he can do at a high level of competition.



 
 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Blue Jays Name Players to Arizona Fall League


   The Arizona Fall League announced the names of three Blue Jays prospects who will be heading to the American Southwest to play for the Mesa Solar Sox this week.
   The AFL was founded by MLB in 1992, and is meant to serve as "grad school" for the top prospects of each organization.  Rather than send these players off to winter ball, where they could not be closely monitored, or treated according to team guidelines in the event of an injury, MLB opted to start a league where the players could be properly monitored.
  Each MLB team sends six prospects, most of whom played at AAA or AA that year.  One player below AA is allowed, as is one foreign player, as long as there is no winter ball in his country (and he's not on that nation's protected list). The six AFL teams play in MLB spring training sites in the Phoenix area.  Play begins in early October, and wraps up by mid-November.
   Last year, the Blue Jays used the AFL to help accelerate the development of Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, and the rehabilitation of Drew Hutchison.
   This year, the club has named Buffalo OF Dalton Pompey, New Hampshire 2B Jon Berti, and Dunedin OF Dwight Smith.  The three pitching prospects have yet to be named, and likely won't be until after the minor league playoff are over.
   Pompey's inclusion is not much of a surprise.  He has played at three levels this year, and has caught the eye of many evaluators and scouts.  Smith, Pompey's teammate in the Florida State League this year, is not a huge surprise, either.  Even though he has not produced overwhelming numbers in the pitching-friendly FSL, the 2011 sandwich round pick is still well thought of by the organization.  Berti's presence on the Mesa roster caught us a bit by surprise, although a look at his numbers at New Hampshire suggests that he has had a solid season.  The 2011 18th rounder has moved up the Blue Jays minor league ladder one step at a time, and even though he's a bit of a longshot to reach the minors, has to be considered one of the top 2B prospects in the system.  This year, he is among the Eastern League leaders in games played, and has been a consistent presence at the top of the Fisher Cats batting order, hitting ..273/.326/.379, and has stolen 39 bases.
   It's a toss-up as to which pitchers the club will send to Arizona.  Daniel Norris might be an obvious pick, but he may be shut down for the season after getting shelled in his final start this week.  There has also been talk of moving him to the bullpen to prepared him for a promotion to Toronto in September.  Either way, we can't see the organization asking him to pitch more innings after next month.
   Roberto Osuna could use some fall innings to help speed up his rehab, but if he pitches at all this off-season, it will be in Mexico.  Miguel Castro might be tapped - there is winter ball in the Dominican, but he may not be on that country's protected list.
   Matt Boyd and Taylor Cole of Dunedin have both logged a lot of innings this season, and seem to be wearing down as the minor league season draws to a close.  We can see an off-season shut down in the works for the pair.
   The other prospects who we might have projected earlier in the season as possible Solar Sox are either injured, or are pitching in short season ball.
   Kendall Graveman, Norris' teammate at Buffalo, has pitched at four levels this season, and might be a logical candidate to play in Mesa.
  If we were to look for other possibilities, we might look at players who the Blue Jays must place on their 40-man roster by the end of November, or risk losing them in the Rule 5 draft.  Falling into that category are converted infielder Justin Jackson, who pitched in relief at AA this year, Kramer Champlin, who has been injured for much of the year, but has worked his way back to Dunedin, or Ben White, who recently was promoted from Dunedin to New Hampshire.

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  We were somewhat remiss last week, when we discussed which affiliates were involved in playoff races, and we failed to include the Lansing Lugnuts, who this morning sit one game out of a wild card spot in the Midwest League's East Division.
   It's been a long season for the Michigan club, which held much promise at the outset of the season, but saw its young pitching staff beset by injuries and inconsistency.  Just the same, a pair of wins this week over Dayton, holders of the last playoff spot in the division, have Lugnuts fans excited.
   Is it fair that a team that is 8 games under .500 this half, and 13 games under for the season, has a shot at a playoff spot ?   Not really, but this is minor league baseball, after all.  There has to be some incentive for both the fans and players as the season drags on.  Minor league teams and their followers are completely at the mercy of their major league affiliates, of course.  Development trumps competitiveness, as the Lugnuts fans can attest to, having seen two of their top players promoted to Dunedin last week to bolster their roster for the playoffs.  If one of their farm teams makes the playoffs, that's a bonus for MLB teams, but they won't let it stand in the way of the progress of their prospects.  The extra playoff spots are maybe something of a carrot for players and fans at the end of a long season.  And Lansing fans haven't had all that much to cheer about this year. Or last.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Marquee Match Up That Wasn't



tripletonline.com photo 
  It promised to be one of the top pitching match ups of the minor league season between two of the minors' top pitching prospects:  The Red Sox Henry Owens up against the Blue Jays Daniel Norris, as Pawtucket took on Buffalo, two teams locked in a battle for the International League's wild card playoff spot.
   In the end, it proved to be anything but for a guy and his dad who drove for 2 1/2 hours to watch the game, Buffalo's final regular season home contest of the year.

   Norris' ascendancy through the Jays minor league system has been well-documented.  He was dominant in two months of High A action in the Florida State League, which prompted a promotion to AA New Hampshire in early June.  His results at AA were a bit mixed, but he has been dominant in three AAA starts since his early August promotion.  Norris had struck out 157 hitters in 117 innings prior to last night's start.
    Owens is the top pitching prospect in a deep Red Sox system.  He was named Best Pitching Prospect in the AA Eastern League by Baseball America earlier this month, and also was labelled as having the best change up and best breaking ball in the loop.  The 2011 sandwich pick was promoted to AAA at the end of July, after posting a 14-4, 2.60 record with Portland, striking out 126 batters in 120 innings, while allowing only 89 hits, and walking 47.
   Owens was the starting pitcher for the US team in the Futures Game, and was relieved by Norris in the 2nd.  The two may have their careers intertwined if they continue to pitch for their current organizations.

  Norris, making his last start of the season, had a tidy 1-2-3 inning, while the Bisons barrelled up several balls hard off of Owen in the game's first inning.  Dalton Pompey led off Buffalo's half of the first with a perfect push bunt on the first base side past Owens (the Bisons pushed a couple of bunts past him in the game; Owens falls off toward 3rd with his delivery, and had great difficulty getting his 6'6" frame over toward first), and Buffalo sent 7 men to the plate as they scored three runs, although Owens only thew 17 pitches in the inning.
   Back out for the 2nd, Norris simply wasn't the same pitcher that he was in the first.  He struggled greatly with his command, missing high in the strike zone several times, a likely indicator of fatigue, which isn't all that surprising given how much he has pitched this year.  Ahead of every hitter in the first inning, Norris was consistently behind almost every batter in the second, working several 3 ball counts. It was the Paw Sox turn to barrel up Norris, as he gave up a pair of ground rule doubles and a hard-hit double down the 3rd base line as Pawtucket evened the score.  We don't know if the Coca-Cola Field gun is accurate or not, but Norris' velocity peaked at 93 in this inning - down from the 96 he had touched in previous starts.  He also had difficulty commanding his slider, and the Red Sox hitters sat back and waited for his fastball.
   Norris struggled again in the third, but seemed to put things back together in the fourth, but was still having trouble getting ahead in the count.  Owens, after his rocky first, settled down.  He did allow base runners in every inning for the rest of his outing, was able to get critical outs when he needed them, with his fastball sitting between 90 and 92.  He snuffed out a mini Buffalo rally in the 5th when he picked off a leaning Anthony Gose at first.
   By the fifth, Norris was clearly on the ropes, with his fastball down to 89.  He lasted only three batters, and got none of them out.  The telling blast was a laser beam of a home run by Bryce Brentz, which would have skipped the left field wall and bounced out onto the interstate and may have rolled all the way across the Peace Bridge to Fort Erie, if not for the protective netting behind the left field fence.  Outfielders Mastroianni and Pompey barely moved after the ball left Brentz's bat.
   Pawtucket added three more in the 7th to take the game 9-3, giving them a 1.5 game lead in the wild card race.  Owens lasted into the seventh, giving up 8 hits and 3 runs (all earned), walking four and striking out 8.  Not a dominant performance, but enough to get the Win on a night when Norris had nowhere near the kind of command and velocity he had in his three previous starts.  Norris officially lasted 4 innings, giving up 8 hits, 6 runs (all earned), walked three and struck out as many.  Owens threw 105 pitches, 61 for strikes, while Norris threw 91-52.

*****************************************************************************

  It was painful to watch a pair of struggling former big leaguers scuffle in relief for Buffalo.  Steve Delabar started the 6th inning, and had great difficulty commanding the strike zone.  Milb.com says he threw 20 of his 30 pitches for strikes - our scorecard had him at 17-13.  The former MLB all star really seemed to struggle with his release point; he really had no clue where any of his pitchers were going. Delabar missed high, he missed outside, and his breaking pitches were mostly in the dirt.  One promising sign was that his velocity was consistently 92-93.
   Delabar was followed by Kyle Drabek, back from a recent brief stint with the big club.  Drabek actually got a pair of  quick outs by getting ahead in the count, but then started falling behind hitters, and gave up five straight line drive hits as he caught too much of the plate.  For his inning, Drabek gave up three runs.

*******************************************************************************

   The evening was made complete on the drive home, as we listened to the Blue Jays tie the Red Sox on Jose Bautista's home run, only to have Sergio Santos meltdown in extra innings.  Driving on Highway 407, we think we may have seen Mike Napoil's fifth-deck shot in and amongst the arriving and departing aircraft at Pearson.

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  Coca-Cola Field has been called a gem of a minor league field, and except for the Interstate just beyond the outfield, it is.  It was packed (18 025) on Fan Appreciation Night, and the concourses were very full and difficult to move around in - obviously, the park is not this full most nights.  Reaching the park from Canada is quite easy.  Fearing a border crossing line up, we crossed the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls before the game, and it was actually a bit of a drive after that.  We took I-190 to the Peace Bridge and crossed at Fort Erie on the way home, and it was a much quicker and easier drive.
   The park itself is easy to find, literally right off of I-190, and there is ample parking around it.  Parking rates vary, but we found a lot that was charging only $5 a block away.  There are many restaurants and bars in the area.  We were a little pressed for time, so we ate at Washington Square, a bar and grill steps from Coca-Cola Field's entrance.  The food was standard fare, but it was cheap and filling.  Our waitress was a rookie, but she was enthusiastic and polite, so we left her a good tip, which paid off moments later, when she chased us down near the park gates to return my favourite hoodie which I had left behind.

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   I would not want to be a border crossing guard.  I would imagine that the work is pressure filled, and it's not exactly the most stimulating of careers.  Just the same, I can't understand why US border officials almost all seem to have anger management and customer service issues.  Our guard was curt, to be polite, and was very condescending to my senior citizen dad, who is becoming hard of hearing.  Sitting in the passenger seat, he was unable to hear the guard, who sat up at a high angle on his stool in his booth.  Dad took a second to respond when he was asked his country of citizenship, whereupon the guard asked in a sarcastic tone, "You speak English, sir?".  One look at the names on the passports would have confirmed this, but he really didn't need to ask in that manner.  When he asked if we had anything to declare, I garbled my reply, with the season's first sore throat making its growing presence known in my mouth.  "Answer YES or NO, SIR!!" was the guard's response.  Not necessary.  I would imagine that they have difficult jobs, but two white men, one middle aged-ish and another a senior in a new compact Ford with Ontario plates couldn't possibly be all that high on the list of  national security threats.
   The Canadian border guard on the way home just looked bored.

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   Maybe most of the fans in the attendance on this evening were Bisons fans, as opposed to baseball fans, but we couldn't believe the steady up-and-down parade of people to the concessions during the game.
Having sat in every section of the Rogers Centre many times over the past quarter century, we know that each section has its quirks:  the field level chairs tend to be a mix of dedicated season ticket holders, who make maybe one trip up the concourse during the game, and people who received their tickets from a friend.  The latter type are up and down multiple times, rarely waiting until the end of an inning to make their trip.
The 200s tend to have a lot of families, who are understandably up and down like yo-yos, and we rarely sit in that level, except for the outfield seats.  The 500s seem to have the truest fans - people who can only afford to sit there, but like to watch the game.  The angle is steeper, so shorter fans don't have to spend the game craning for views of the action around taller ones seated in front of them.
   After this game, we won't complain about field level fans at Blue Jays games again.  There was a steady procession of fans from our section, just past first base down the right field line, to the concessions.  Maybe the prices were cheaper than the Rogers Centre (we didn't buy anything), but fans seem to be purchasing huge meals on multiple occasions. We felt like we didn't get to see a whole lot of the game.

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   This was our first live look at Dalton Pompey, and we came away impressed.  He wasn't that busy in the outfield, expect for trying to track down some rockets that he had no chance on.  His speed was what caught us by surprise.  His push bunt past Owens was a thing of beauty.  Several pitches later, he easily went from first to third on a base hit to right by Gose.
  If Pompey was to match up against Gose in a sprint across the outfield, it's hard to say who would win, but Pompey is definitely faster around the bases.  That Gose was caught leaning by Owens, who is very deliberate and does not have a good move to first, shows that he still has plenty to learn about reading pitchers and stealing bases.  Gose did uncork a beautiful throw to home to nail a runner in the 2nd.  Pompey appears to have gap power that will only improve as he matures, and he looked like he may become a true table-setting leadoff hitter in the future.
   We think Pompey still needs more development time, but we are starting to think that he projects as an everyday centrefielder.

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  At 122 innings for the year, Norris is just beyond the recommended limit for the season, which for young pitchers is no more than 30 IP than the season before.  Having struck out 32 batters in his previous three starts, Norris has thrown a lot of maximum effort pitches this month, and he likely was running on fumes in this one.  His previous start was supposed to be his last before being sent to the bullpen in what was possibly an effort to groom him for a relief role with the big club in September, but the organization decided to give him one more.  His lower velocity was troubling, but he has pitched more this year than he ever has, and he's bound to be fatigued.  Watching Norris warm up in the right field bullpen just below our seats before the game, I reflected on just how far he has come in about 15 months.  After a rough pro debut season in 2012, he was getting lit up through his first several starts last year, and there were some who were calling the 2nd round pick from 2011 a bust.  He has been lights out since that time, and has rocketed through the minors.

   This start shows that he still may some distance away, but at the same time, we think that Norris' progress shows that the development of prospects, especially pitchers, takes time, and is not always an even, linear process.  The same could be said for Pompey, who started to break through toward the end of his fourth minor league season, and has broken through this year in his fifth.  There might also be more scrutiny on a prospect who was labelled the best prep southpaw in his draft year, and a 16th round pick from a Canadian high school.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Monday Notebook



   We all got more than a little excited last week when it was announced that Daniel Norris would make his last start for Buffalo last week.  Norris is very close (as in 2 IP away) from his "year after effect" limit, a guideline which loosely recommends that young pitchers do not throw more than 30 innings above what they threw the year before.  Pitch counts, of course, are a more exact measure of when a pitcher reaches his fatigue point, the point at which their mechanics become undone and the risk of arm and/or shoulder injury increases significantly, but innings pitched helps monitor when a young (under 23) pitcher needs to be shut down for the season.
  Fans and media flocked to Norris' start for Buffalo last week, and didn't walk away disappointed.  Norris allowed only a home run and a walk through 5 innings, striking out 9, and missing striking out double digit batters for the third straight start.   And just as Blue Jays fans in the aftermath of Norris' start were rubbing their hands with the thought of seeing the young lefthander in the big league bullpen when major league rosters expand on September 1st, the pitcher/surfer/photographer/magic bus driver told Amy Moritz of the Buffalo News that he will make one last start tomorrow.  We scurried to the Bisons' website to buy tickets.
  Norris has been dominant at two of the three levels he has pitched at this year.  That he had only moderate success at AA may be due to some adjustments he had to make as he made the huge jump from A ball.
  Here are his totals for the year from milb.com:

Daniel Norris Stats Summary

TEAM
LG
LEVEL
W
L
ERA
G
GS
CG
SHO
SV
SVO
IP
H
R
ER
HR
HB
BB
IBB
SO
AVG
WHIP
Buffalo
AAA
3
0
1.08
3
3
0
0
0
0
16.2
6
2
2
1
0
4
0
32
.115
0.60
New Hampshire
AA
3
1
4.54
8
8
0
0
0
0
35.2
32
18
18
5
2
17
0
49
.235
1.37
Dunedin
A(Adv)
6
0
1.22
13
13
0
0
0
0
66.1
50
11
9
0
0
18
0
76
.209
1.03


   So, does the recent promotions of Norris, Mitch Nay, Miguel Castro, Rowdy Tellez, Richard Urena, and even Gustavo Pierre signal a change in philosophy for the organization?  The answer has to be yes.
   The club has been known to slowly move prospects, especially high school-drafted pitchers, letting them spend a season at each level before moving them up.  There were suggestions in the media during the off-season that there was some debate in the organization about the merits of that.  The case of Aaron Sanchez clearly shows the shift in thinking.  Brought along slowly and methodically since being drafted in the 1st round in 2010, there were some who said that his development stalled in High A last year.  Results were good, but still likely less than had been hoped for at AA this year, before Sanchez was suddenly promoted to Buffalo, and less than a few weeks later, he was pitching in relief in Yankee Stadium, picking up his first big league W.
   Now, we see that approach has been applied to Norris, Kendall Graveman, Dalton Pompey, and Castro.  They even skipped a level with Tellez's promotion.  The message, especially to pitchers, seems to be pitch well, and we'll move you up.
   At the same time, however, we can point out examples of aggressive promotions that didn't work:  Matt Boyd, Taylor Cole, and most of Lansing's pitching staff.
   Certainly, playoff implications figured into some of these moves.  Pompey's promotion was obviously meant to bolster Buffalo's outfield, while Urena's was meant to help shore up Vancouver's infield defense.  And sometimes these moves can work in the opposite direction:  Vancouver received closer Phil Kish from Lansing to help boost their sagging relief corps.  

   There's hot, and then there's Buffalo Bisons hot.
A month ago, the Bisons were at .500, and a playoff spot was rapidly vanishing. Since then, they have gone 24-9, and with a wild extra-inning, walk off grand slam by Brett Wallace (his third home run of the day) over the Pawtucket Red Sox, Buffalo leaped over Pawtucket and into the International League's wild card spot.
   In addition to the solid starting pitching the club has received from Norris, Graveman, and even call up (since returned to AA) Scott Copeland, the offence has been sparked by Kevin Pillar, who has hit .371/.394/.663.  Pillar's 39 doubles lead the International League.  Anchored by Pillar, Pompey, and their returning Anthony Gose, the Bisons have one of the best outfields in all of minor leauge ball.