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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Some Under-the-Radar Prospects


   One of the things I enjoy the most about writing this blog is keeping you, gentle readers, up to date with information about Blue Jays prospects that you could find someplace else, but would have to look fairly hard to find.
   It's fun to get in on the ground floor on a young prospect, and casually toss his name out to your more ardent Blue Jays fans friends - not the ones that ask what place the team is in, or what league the team they're playing is in while they sit in seats at the Rogers Centre that their boss wasn't using that day - but the hard core ones.
  With that in mind, I always like to keep my ear to the ground for the next wave of Blue Jays prospects.  I've followed Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Daniel Norris, Dalton Pompey, and even Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro for several seasons, and they more or less have graduated to the ranks of the high-profile, upper-level prospect - the kind the Toronto Star and Sun like to do features on.
   I still follow those guys, but now it's time to turn my attention to players toiling in relative anonymity at the other end of the system.   Like the kids playing in the Gulf Coast League in front of a small gathering of family, girlfriends, and scouts, or the ones on the next rung of the ladder in the Appalachian League - travelling and playing under the lights, but in front of maybe a few hundred fans.  Unless you follow those leagues very closely, and/or have contacts who don't mind answering a moderate volume of questions, it's hard to find anything up to date on players at this level.  This is closer to the grassroots of baseball for me, and it's always a little bit of a thrill when a diamond in the rough you've "discovered" gets promoted to the next level.

   Here are several players who have been flying (somewhat) under the radar, and could move quickly this summer:

Bryan Lizardo
    The toolsy 3rd Baseman signed out of the Dominican Republic for $200 000 in 2013, and was ranked the 21st best prospect in that year's International Free Agent class.
   Even at 15 years of age, scouts marveled at his physical and emotional maturity.  Unlike a lot of players who start at the hot corner, Lizardo is projected to stay at the position.  He has outstanding hands, and a strong, accurate arm.
   Lizardo was called one of the best pure bats on the market during his signing year.  Scouts liked his power and approach at the plate.  One scout likened him to a younger, leaner Hanley Ramirez.
   Lizardo is a switch hitter, but reports suggest that his swing is better and more powerful from the left side.  He posted a line of .263/.379/.375 in the Dominican Summer League in 2014.  Not 18 until late July, he will make his stateside debut in the Gulf Coast League this summer.  Chris King of Baseball Prospectus liked what he saw of Lizardo last week:


He has a great name, too.

Angel Perdomo
   The organization has been taking things slowly with Perdomo, a 6'6" lefthander signed out of the DR in 2011.
   He spent a pair of summers in the DSL, and made his stateside debut in the GCL in 2014.
   Missing bats with his mid-90s fastball is Perdomo's trademark.  He struck out 57 in 46 innings last year.
   As a tall southpaw, Perdomo's development may take longer than most pitchers', which is why he didn't come to the U.S. until last year.   Reports are that he has been throwing well so far in spring training.
  It wouldn't come as a surprise to see him skip a level and play with Vancouver this year.

Jesus Tinoco
   Tinoco may not be under the radar as much as the above pair, but he's still a relative unknown.  But possibly not for much longer.
   Tinoco is also proof that lower-level minor league stats really are deceiving, as a pair of rough outings les to a bloated 4.95 ERA, as well as a 1-9 record in 2014.  Count Baseball America's Clint Longenecker as one who is impressed with the 6'4" Venezuelan righty, another 2011 signee:
....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 continued 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.

   I asked Catcher Danny Jansen, who caught Tinoco at Bluefield last year, about him, and he agreed with Longenecker. "(Tinoco has) dominant stuff.  He throws hard, and when he got his sinker working,  he was really tough to hit."
   The Blue Jays may keep Tinoco in Extended Spring Training, and then start him with Vancouver when short-season play begins in June, and he may see time in Lansing before the season is finished.

Jordan Romano
   The Markham, Ontario native was the Blue Jays 10th round pick out of Oral Roberts last June.
Perfect Game had this evaluation of him in 2010, when he was still in High School:

 Tall, athletic, projectable build. Quick arm, up to 88 mph. Loose arm action, medium effort, throws on downhill plane. Good break on tight 11/5 curveball, needs to keep arm speed on changeup. High upside, bright future with minor tweaks and improved command

   Romano overmatched hitters in the GCL and Appy League last summer, striking out 11.88/9.  Reports had him hitting 95 with his fastball this spring, and he appeared on my helium watch, until he mad this announcement:



    Romano told me that a date hasn't been announced for the surgery just yet, but considering that many pitchers go through a rest and rehab routine prior to undergoing Tommy John, the UCL tear must be significant, given that surgery has already been prescribed.
   If the surgery and rehab go well, Romano should return to competition by April or May of next year.  As we have seen with  Osuna, the return to full effectiveness can take between 12 and 18 months.

Roemon Fields
   Like Tinoco, Fields has shown up on some radar screens after a sizzling pro debut in the Northwest League.
  Fields' story is a great one.  Undrafted and unsigned after graduating from a tiny Kansas College, Fields was working for the US Postal Service in Seattle when his former junior college coach called him and asked him to help fill out his roster for a Showcase tournament in British Columbia.  Blue Jays amateur scouting co-coordinator Matt Bishoff liked what he saw from the speedy outfielder, and signed him to a contract in the fall of 2013.
   Sent to Vancouver, Fields smashed the C's single-season stolen base record with 48 in 57 attempts, led the league in steals, and was second to teammate Frankie Barreto with 64 runs scored en route to a .269/.338/.350 line.  At 24, there were some whispers that he was a bit old for that level.
   Fields has picked up where he left off this spring, and has appeared in a couple of games with the big club.  Senior scout Mel Didier has suggested that he's the best defensive outfielder in the organization, and with Dalton Pompey, DJ Davis and Anthony Alford ahead of him in the system, that's saying something.
  Fields spent a lot of time in the batting cage last season, and worked with minor league instructor Tim Raines on his bunting.  If the Blue Jays find themselves in a pennant race after MLB rosters expand on September 1st, we could see Fields brought up as a pinch runner, much like Raines was over 30 years ago with the Expos.
  Fields is still a long way off, and he may have already hit his ceiling, but he's an example of how even the best area scouts, who are the true unsung heroes of the business, miss the odd player.  He should see time in Lansing's outfield this year.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Spring Training Prospect Update #2

    One of the great ironies of spring training is that while fans who can't make the journey to Florida or Arizona can still keep close tabs on their teams thanks to the plethora of reporters and media outlets, it's hard to find out what's going on in Minor League camp unless you have some sources on the "inside," - or at least something close to it.

   Nonetheless, there still is some news coming out of Minor League camp.
Today, we learned that Anthony Alford and Jack Murphy had been reassigned from the big club's camp, joining Dwight Smith, Jr, and Mitch Nay, who had been sent down earlier.

Through the magic of live streaming, I was able to watch Alford's debut against the Orioles:


  Speaking of Alford, there was a good article about him on ESPN.com.  While it didn't provide much that we didn't already know, there were some good insights into Alford's reaction to having to go to Ole Miss Head Coach Hugh Frazee to tell him he was giving up football for baseball.  And we hadn't thought about the Bo Jackson comparison the article made, but it kind of makes sense.  He was overmatched at times against the higher level pitching he faced this spring, but he wasn't sent to big league camp to earn a job, but to soak up the atmosphere, and learn from major leaguers like Jose Bautista.  Those of us diehard fans who stayed tuned to the Blue Jays games earlier this month after the regulars had been removed from the lineup got a glimpse of his athleticism and speed.  When asked about who impressed him the most at major league camp, he replied without hesitation, "Bautista and Donaldson."

Some other news and tidbits:

-Matt Boyd tested out his surgically cleaned-out elbow earlier this week, and pronounced it fully healed.
-Clinton Hollon, who had Tommy John surgery a month ago, was throwing well in bullpen sessions, and is scheduled to return to competition in late April or early May.  The 2013 2nd rounder hit 95 with his fastball prior to the surgery. If you're looking for a sleeper breakout candidate this year, he may be the one.
-Canadian Justin Atkinson is being converted to catcher.  The 2011 26th rounder hit well in Lansing last year, and it will be interesting to see where he's assigned to start the year.
-Lane Thomas, a steal of a 5th round pick last year who opened a lot of eyes, has been taking reps at second base so far in minor league camp.
-the Buffalo Bisons began minor league spring training today, and have a slate of games against Dunedin/Clearwater teams.
-via Chis King of Baseball Prospectus (@StatsKing on Twitter), who watched the Blue Jays minor leaguers play against Puerto Rico yesterday, we had good reports on Catcher Matt Morgan's footwork, and Sean Reid-Foley's nasty slider.  Angel Perdomo started the game for the Blue Jays, and was squared up a bit in the first, but straightened things out in the second.
-there are some nice prospect profiles (mostly Blue Jays) coming out of Dunedin, via the Toronto Observer, by students at Toronto's Centennial College J-School that make for good reading.  The trip to spring training is part of the course of study for their fast-track journalism program - many Ontario colleges now offer similar courses. The program is open to college or university grads.


   By now, you all are familiar with the lights-out springs Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna have had.  Neither has been scored upon yet, and both were featured in the Blue Jays win over the Yankees on Tuesday night. Castro was all but unhittable, retiring 8 straight Yankees in his outing, while Osuna was hit hard on a couple of occasions, but escaped a pair of threats unscathed.  Castro has shown a vastly improved change up, which would be a devastating weapon paired with his electric fastball - in relief.
  I've made my feelings known about both.  Castro is only 20, pitched 80 innings last year, and has thrown all of 8 innings above Low A.  Osuna is the same age, is 20 months removed from Tommy John surgery, and has thrown 23 innings at High A.  Both would benefit from more time in the minors, in order to build up arm strength and develop their secondary pitches.  Castro, in particular, has pitched even better than he did last year, but the second half of spring training is where it counts, as teams pare down their rosters, and hitters begin to get their timing down.
  I would prefer both return to the minors, starting at Dunedin until the weather warms up, and then on to New Hampshire, and who knows?  Castro would be pitching in almost exclusively high leverage situations if he pitched out of the Blue Jays bullpen, and Osuna still needs to be treated with care - he's almost out of the woods, but not quite.  Just look at Kyle Drabek, who is in a life and death struggle to make this team, almost three years after this second Tommy John.  And for those who have forgotten, Drabek was the Blue Jays top prospect two years running prior to 2012.  They paid a heavy price in acquiring him, and they paid a similarly high one in the form of the $1.5 million signing bonus they gave Osuna.
  But I'm not facing an expiring contract, and the spectre of a new boss, and the longest playoff drought in baseball like Alex Anthopoulos is.  Castro is looking more and more like the one who will stick - most of the hitters Osuna faced won't likely be playing in the majors next month.  If they do take Castro north with them, the Blue Jays will have to treat his young arm very carefully.  And is that worth the risk?  We all know the importance of the bullpen, but the top-ranked bullpen in the game last year was beaten by the 28th-ranked team.  And the teams with the 24th, 26th, and 27th ranked bullpens made it to the playoffs as well.  The top 10 bullpens produced the same number of playoff teams.  The reason for this, of course, is simple: there are other aspects, like a strong starting rotation, or a run-producing offence, that are just as important - if not moreso - than a bullpen.  Will Castro make that much of a difference?  Would we rather not have him pitch about 140 innings as a starter next year, as opposed to maybe 80-90 as a reliever this year?  The top-ranked reliever, in terms of WAR (Baseball-Reference's model) ranked 28th overall among MLB pitchers last year, and there was a grand total of 5 relief pitchers in the top 50.
   Only the Blue Jays brain trust knows for sure.

Friday, March 13, 2015

What Does Marcus Stroman's Injury Mean for Blue Jays Prospects?


   The build up of Marcus Stroman this off season has been intense.  He morphed from a power pitcher to a groundball-inducing sinker pitcher last season, and there were many who projected him as the Blue Jays Opening Day starter and Ace, all rolled into one.
   While that was a great load to be placed on a pitcher who hasn't completed a full season in the majors, Toronto was counting on him to be a significant contributor to a pennant-contending lineup this year.
  And after ripping up his ACL in fielding drills yesterday morning, he's out for the entire season, and the Blue Jays suddenly have to find a way to produce the 10-15 wins he was likely to generate.
   The obvious candidates to step up and take his turn, if not his place, in the rotation are Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, and Daniel Norris, who were battling it out for the 5th and final spot in the rotation.  GM Alex Anthopoulos, who does have a trade nugget in Dioner Navarro, has stated his preference for filling the spot with one of those candidates.

   Who would make the best candidate?  And are there are any minor league starters who are available as insurance?


First things first.
Here's the pros and cons for Sanchez:
Pros
An impressive three-inning performance in his last outing
Cons
See above.
Despite his impressive work out of the bullpen with a paired-down arsenal last season, Sanchez's work as a minor league starter has never quite measured up to the performance his physical gifts would seem to prophesize.
And much of the talk about Sanchez this spring is how he would be better suited to a relief role, possibly as a closer, although he was stretched out in his last start.  He goes again today, so it would appear that he is very much in the mix.

Norris:
Pros
An incredible body of work as a minor leaguer last year, and a decent major league debut in September.
Cons
Economizing his pitch counts remains a work in progress.
A likely innings pitched limit of 150.

Estrada:
Pros
A solid pair of years of work in 2012 and 2013, when he was an above-average starter.
Cons
A 2014 in which he surrendered 29 Home Runs in only 150 innings.
He will pitch in the Rogers Centre.


  It's hard to say at this point who has the upper hand, but it would appear to be Sanchez and Estrada.  Unless the bullpen picture remains cloudy, in which case Sanchez may make the move.  Steve Delabar may be a key figure in that scenario.  And, of course, there's Johan Sanata lurking somewhere in the wings.

   As far as minor league backup starting pitching is concerned, the picture is much less clear. The team traded two potential emergency starters in Kendall Graveman (who is making a strong bid for a spot in the A's rotation) and Sean Nolin (who is injured, again) in the Josh Donaldson deal.  The Buffalo pitching staff at this point appears to be staffed by veterans, led by Liam Hendriks, who was brilliant in AAA last year, but shaky in the majors.  Beyond that, it gets very thin.  Here are the options:

1.  Hendriks, largely by default.
2.  Scott Copeland - mostly an org guy to this point, Copeland was called up to Buffalo and pitched extremely well in four starts.  A groundball pitcher, Copeland needs a solid defence behind him.
3.  Andrew Albers - the North Battleford, SK, native pitched for the Twins in 2013, and spent last season in Korea.  Does not miss a lot of bats.
4.  Matt Boyd - A 2013 draftee, Boyd had little leverage as a college senior, and signed for $75 000, well below slot value, as the Blue Jays took advantage of newly implemented draft rules to sign middle rounders like Boyd relatively cheaply, and then used the savings to sign later picks whose stock had fallen (like Rowdy Tellez).  Boyd had an April/May/June stretch that was every bit the equal of Norris and Graveman, but a foot injury when he was promoted to AA, and bone chips late in the season kept him from reaching that stratosphere.  Boyd is a four-pitch pitcher who relies on command, and as a southpaw, is tough on left-handed hitters with his release point. Healthy now, Boyd is looking to pick up where he left off in June, and if Blue Jays fans were looking for one off-the-radar name that could leap up the ladder and pitch in the majors this year, it could be his.
5.  Roberto Osuna - the Blue Jays are making all the right noises about him being a part of the future, but at 20 months post-Tommy John surgery, Osuna still needs to have his pitches and innings closely monitored.  He has pitched well this spring, hitting 95 on the gun, and demonstrating that advanced feel for pitching that scouts have raved about since he was 17.  Osuna had some command issues when he returned to action in August of last year, but he appears to have mostly overcome them in his outings so far.  Osuna will be on the scene, but he can't be heavily counted upon as a major league starter for a bit.
6.  Miguel Castro - I've been adamant that the plan for Castro should be to send him to High A to further develop his secondary pitches while continuing to build up his innings and arm strength.  His performance in relief so far this spring is making it very difficult for management to stick with that plan.  There has been little talk of stretching him out, so the bullpen plan is looking more and more likely.  Which satisfies a short term need, but may set his eventual arrival in the rotation back.

  Should we talk about Ricky Romero?
The lefthander was not invited to major league camp after a disastrous 2014 season that was derailed by knee surgery in June.  Romero is owed $7.5 million for this season, and has an option for next year at nearly twice that, or the club can buy him out for $600 000.   To his credit, Romero has not used injuries as an excuse, but he clearly has not been healthy for the past several seasons, nor has he been able to make necessary adjustments and battle command issues that exacerbated his loss of fastball velocity. We all love a great comeback story, but it would be a Herculean feat for him to return to even a semblance of his 2011 form.
  There are some arms in the low minors, like Ryan Borucki, Matt Smoral, Jesus Tinoco, Jairo Labourt, Sean Reid-Foley, and even Alberto Tirado, who could make quantum leaps this year, but they can't be considered serious contenders for a rotation spot for at least another year.