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Friday, February 27, 2015

Why the Blue Jays (Might Have) Signed Santana

  The signing of Johan Santana to a minor league deal by the Blue Jays was derided by many, understandably so.
 Santana has not thrown a pitch in an MLB game since 2012.  He attempted a comeback with the Orioles last year, but a torn achilles tendon put an end to that..
  The two-time Cy Young Award winner was pitching in his native Venezuela this winter, and according to reports was pitching well, if not at his former velocity, before being shut down with shoulder tightness in January.

  What’s the point in bringing Santana aboard, a reasonable person might well ask?
After all, the guy hasn’t pitched in almost three years, and he seemed for all intents and purposes to be finished after a 134 pitch no-hitter in 2012.  He won’t be ready for Opening Day, and may not be ready until May, at the earliest. And he has a lengthy history of injuries and resulting surgeries, so at the age of 35, isn’t it time to look elsewhere for starting pitching support?

  It’s hard to explain the Blue Jays thinking, but here goes….

  We all know that the first four spots in the Blue Jays starting rotation are all but sewn up by Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, Drew Hutchison, and Marcus Stroman (and not necessarily in that order). The fifth spot is up for grabs, with Daniel Norris, Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada the leading candidates, and Todd Redmond and Chad Jenkins on the furthest margins for the job.

  Sanchez has a history of struggling with the command of his full repertoire of pitches, although he was lights out when limited to his fastball/sinker in a half season of relief last year.  Brett Cecil would appear to have the edge for the closer’s job at the moment, but if he struggles, or if the club has trouble filling out their bullpen with suitable arms, Sanchez could find himself in an 8th or 9th inning role fairly quickly.  As much as it makes sense to try to give him an opportunity to establish himself as a starter, if he scuffles, that may have to take place in Buffalo.

 Norris rode an incredible wave of helium to rise from High A ball to the Majors last year, and has firmly established himself as one the game’s top prospects.  His mid-90s fastball and secondary pitches allowed him to miss a lot of bats last year.  At the same time, economizing his pitch count was an issue in 2014.  Norris was on a strict 90 pitch count for much of the season, but he worked his way beyond the sixth inning in only 2 out of 25 starts.  The next step in his development as a pitcher is to learn to induce more weak contact from hitters.  Strikeouts are great, and decrease reliance on the defence, but groundball outs are more efficient.  Pitchers who can get some outs in the seventh innings save wear and tear on their bullpens. Stroman has already proven that he has learned this lesson.  Norris may need more time at AAA in order to learn it himself.

  So, in the best and rosiest of scenarios, Santana gets himself back into shape in spring training, then gets his feet underneath him four 3-4 starts at Buffalo. With off days on the 7th and 20th of April, the team may only need 3 starts from the fifth man in the rotation for the month.  Estrada, if the two youngsters falter, could hold down that spot, and then help bolster the bullpen when Santana is ready. With his flyball tendency, it's better for Estrada to have his pitches cut back, and have him throw out of the bullpen in the long term.
 A medium-case scenario would have Santana pitching until mid-season, by which time Norris has proven he’s ready for the big time.  Or Santana has a prolonged stay in Buffalo, and provides some insurance. Since he can opt out of his deal if he's not on the 25-man by April 28th, that's not likely. And if he's not on the 25-man by then, his already slim chances of helping the team will have become eye of the needle-like.

 Worst case scenario:  Santana has nothing left, and proves that he’s finished once and for all.  It cost very little, and it’s not like there’s a hole in the rotation left by his absence.  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Saunders Injury Points Out Weakness in Jays' System

 And there it is.
One misstep on the field has left the Blue Jays scrambling for a replacement for the injured Michael Saunders, who is now out until the All Star break with a torn meniscus.
This certainly opens the door wider for Kevin Pillar and Dalton Pompey to earn jobs with the big club this spring, but with the trade of Anthony Gose for Devon Travis, it points out how thin the Blue Jays are at that position, and may force an earlier than anticipated dealing of surplus catcher Dioner Navarro.

Here's a sampling of Outfielders the Blue Jays have drafted since Alex Anthopoulos took over as GM:

Player                                                                 Year/Round
Dalton Pompey                                                    2010/16
Jacob Anderson                                                   2011/1st supp.
Dwight Smith                                                      2011/1st supp.
Derrick Loveless                                                 2011/27
Kevin Pillar                                                         2011/32
D.J. Davis                                                            2012/1st
Anthony Alford                                                   2012/3rd
Ian Parmley                                                          2012/7th
D.J. Jones                                                             2012/20th
Josh Almonte                                                       2012/22nd
Jonathan Davis                                                     2013/15th
Chaz Frank                                                           2013/20th
Brendan Kalfus                                                    2013/23rd
Lane Thomas                                                       2014/5th

 On the one hand, this list should not be a surprise.  The Blue Jays have loaded up on pitching with many of their top picks over the last 4 drafts - again, no surprise, because "grow the arms, buy the bats" is a time-honoured and accepted practice in the industry.  Scouting pitchers is more quantifiable than hitters, because there are more common benchmarks (velocity, break on the curve ball, repeating the delivery, etc) to use when evaluating a pitching prospect.
  Many players drafted at one position also tend to outgrow that spot, sometime necessitating a move to the outfield, so the relative lack of drafted outfielders the Jays have drafted isn't a huge concern.
  At the same time, of the players on the above list, only Pompey and Pillar have played above High A ball.  Anderson has had 10 AB in the past three seasons, Davis was a disappointment after his first year of full season ball, and Alford has shown that despite his impressive toolkit, he still is several years away.
   Anthopolous has several options here, including dealing Navarro and/or some of that minor league pitching depth, but either way, his hand has been forced, and outside of Dwight Smith (who has been auditioned at second), there's no one in the system who is remotely close.
  Another option might be to try Travis in the outfield.  The Tigers were planning on giving him a trial in the Arizona Fall League there, until he was sidelined by an injury.  Learning a new position at the major league level is not optimal, however.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Maxed Pentecost?

      Word came down from Sportsnet's Ben Nicholson-Smith that Max Pentecost, the club's second first round pick last June, had a second procedure performed on his throwing shoulder this week.
He referred to the procedure as a "clean out" of the shoulder joint, performed by arthroscopic surgery.
Nicholson-Smith says the same operation was performed in October,

   I have to admit to being a little confused about the whole situation.  According to multiple reports last fall, Pentecost had surgery to repair a torn labrum, which is a much more extensive, invasive and delicate procedure.  With an arthroscope, the scope is inserted through an incision to examine the affected area, and make any necessary repairs.  Recovery from a torn labrum can take up to a year, depending on the extent of the tear.  The recovery time for a scope is much shorter - Pentecost can start throwing in May.  Reliever John Stilson underwent labrum surgery last August (his second such operation), and likely won't be ready to start throwing until the end of spring training at the earliest.

   Which one was it?   Nicholson-Smith claims the October surgery was a scope.  The always-excellent Alexis Brudnicki of the Canadian Baseball Network, Baseball America, and several other places, reported that it was a partial tear shortly after the first surgery. To me, it's not clear.

   Either way, there's really no reason to panic.  With the acquisition of Russell Martin, Pentecost's development has been pushed back anyway, and even though he was hurting in his short audition with Vancouver behind the plate last year, sources indicate that his defensive skills need some work.
Scouts have generally regarded him as having good pop time, but he needs further tutoring and refinement of his footwork, pitch blocking, and game-calling skills. His bat and base-running ability will always be his most prominent tools, but his work behind the plate needs upgrading before he's ready for prime time.  In a way, this injury buys him more development time.

   It's not unusual for baseball players to need their elbows and/or shoulders cleaned up.  The violent and unnatural action that is throwing a baseball is bound to lead to fibre and bone detritus floating around in those joints.  Daniel Norris had bone chips removed from his throwing elbow after last season, as did prospect Matt Boyd.  I don't want to say that it's routine, but the success rate is pretty high.

  There are some who are already calling Pentecost damaged goods.  He did wear down after a long college season last summer, and had a number of dings, including his shoulder, that necessitated an early shutdown and return to Florida.  His timetable for making the major leagues, to me, was always 2-3 years away in the best of scenarios.  It's hard for any prospect to make the leap from college ball to the majors right away, and catching may be one of the biggest leaps of all.  The Blue Jays aren't planning on having Pentecost in the lineup this year, nor the next.  If this procedure was a scope, as Nicholson-Smith says, there's not a lot to worry about.  Pentecost may be able to DH early this year, although his recovery time will probably cut into how many plate appearances he can accumulate.
The most likely path for him this year is to stay in Florida for extended spring training for some or all of April, and then be assigned to Dunedin of the Florida State League.

  Lastly, as I am not a medical doctor (although I have a fair amount of first-hand surgical experience, which, unfortunately, I was not awake for), my medical advice and knowledge is suspect, so here is a good resource on all things related to shoulder injuries and their treatment.