Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Look at Conner Greene

milb.com photo

   Blue Jays Right-Handed Pitcher Conner Greene soared through three levels of the minor leagues last year and pitched well enough in spring training in a few outings with the big club in spring training that some fans were clamouring for him to head north with the team (or at least, AAA Buffalo), and the Toronto media had already taken notice of the Californian with the movie-star looks and IMDB resume. 

  Greene cracked Baseball America's Top 100 prospects after his dazzling season, and Fangraphs ranked him as the Blue Jays 2nd prospect:
His stuff still needs tightening up, but his command and exceptional changeup give him the weapons to breeze through most minor-league lineups in the meantime.
Having added weight to his athletic frame in recent years, Greene now sits in the low- to mid-90s with good command of his fastball. He can spot it down in the zone with good movement or run it across the letters with “rise” on his four-seam. He throws a changeup that will play at least above-average because of arm speed and command, though it probably won’t be a swing-and-miss offering. 
There is still some physical projection left in his frame, lending hope for another tick or two of sustained velocity on his fastball. His curveball has plus potential if he learns to throw it with the same conviction as his changeup and fastball, perhaps also helped by expected strength gains. He’s athletic on the mound with clean actions. 
  Many were shocked when Greene, after reaching AA in August last year in his first year of full season ball, was sent back to Dunedin to begin the season.

   Greene's assignment was not surprising to others, though, given that he didn't turn 21 until Opening Day, and was just three years removed from high school.  His rapid rise in the system was at least as attributable to the flurry of deadline deals then-GM Alex Anthopoulos made, and the former regime's preference to challenge young pitchers with aggressive assignments as much as it was to Greene's own performance which, while impressive, showed some areas that he needed to work on.

  Fastball command was perhaps the biggest reason why Greene had advanced so quickly last year, but his time at AA (12BB in 25IP) showed that there was still room for improvement.  While elite hitters can get around on just about any fastball (if you've never heard the story about Julio Franco and the cranked-up batting machine, do yourself a favour and read it here), the ability to throw the fastball where he wants it remains the heart of a pitcher's tool kit.  Jason Parks, now a scout with the Cubs, wrote about the importance of it for Baseball Prospectus:
Radar gun readings can be sexy, but if velocity isn't accompanied by command and movement, velocity is exploitable by hitters at the highest levels of the game.  While it certainly affords pitchers more room for error, it is only one variable to the overall fastball equation, and very rarely is it strong enough to survive on its own.  Straight fastballs often find barrels, and hard contact isn't a desired result of any at bat......fastball command is the perfect building block for the rest of the arsenal.  It creates the opportunity for a more effective secondary arsenal before (it) is even deployed.
   Greene, with a fastball that touched 97 last year, and sat 92-94, had plenty of movement on his pitches, but still had not mastered control of them.  The incoming Blue Jays upper management team felt that High A was a better place for Greene to refine this.  And while we're here, here's something about promoting young players that few fans are aware of:  in most organizations,  prospects are only moved to the next level when there is unanimous consent among all the relevant player development staff that he's ready for it.  That means not only front office people, but also the player's current minor league manager and coaches, as well as minor league instructional staff, have to sign off on it.  This may explain as well why Greene remained in Florida to start the season - there was at least one (if not more) staffer who felt he wasn't ready for a return to New Hampshire.


  Held to an 80-pitch limit for the first month of 2016,  Greene seemed to have harnessed that fastball, until a disastrous May 10th outing in which he gave up 10 hits and 6 walks in 5.2 innings.  He continued to struggle with walks for the rest of the month, then began to turn things around in June.  His June 21st start in which he gave up no runs, three hits, and only a pair of walks over 7 innings while striking out as many likely convinced the organization that he was ready, and after his next Dunedin start he was on his way to Binghamton, where he made his 2016 AA debut for the Fisher Cats.
   While likely not thrilled with repeating Dunedin, Greene was not fazed by it, telling Alex Hall of the Manchester Union-Leader, ""Last year, I had a good year and I relied almost strictly off (my talent) . This is a big learning year. I'm not too worried about the statistics of it because I'm gaining so much information right now and I'm applying things and just taking away and going about my plan."
   Greene was re-united at New Hampshire with veteran Catcher Ryan Lavarnway, picked up by the club in late May.  Lavarnway, like Greene a Burbank, CA native, had played with Greene's older brother in high school, and had known Greene since he was 8.  He was likely brought on board to mentor young pitchers like Greene, Shane Dawson, and Jeremy Gabryzswski.
 
  Greene's most recent outing was on July 15th against the Red Sox' Portland affiliate.  The Sea Dogs may occupy the Eastern League's Eastern Division basement, 7 games back of the Fisher Cats, but they boast two to the Top 10 prospects in the game:  Futures Game MVP Yoan Moncada (#1), and 2015 draftee Andrew Benintendi (#9).  This was to be Greene's second start in a row against Portland, who roughed him up to the tune of 5 earned runs and 7 hits over 4.1 innings eight days before.

   Greene wanted no part of leadoff hitter Moncada, walking him on 5 pitches.  He gave up a single to the next hitter, and appeared to be having some issues with the mound at that point, prompting the first of what turned out to be a half dozen visits from Lavarnway over the course to the game to get him back on track. He retired the next three hitters, but gave up a one-out sac fly, allowing Moncada to cross the plate with the first run of the game.  Greene needed 23 pitches to get through the inning.
  In the second, he seemed to become more comfortable on the mound, hitting 95 with his fastball.  After giving up a leadoff single, Greene settled down, and after Lavarnway gunned out that runner trying to steal 2nd, he appeared to be out of the inning when 3B Emilio Guerrero threw a short-armed sinker that 1B Rowdy Tellez was unable to scoop out of the dirt.  Greene painted the outside corner with a 94 mph fasball to a right-handed hitter to retire the side.
  Greene was at his most economical in the 3rd, needing only 8 pitches to retire the side.  Moncada hit a second-pitch shot that was looking like a triple to the left-centrefield gap that CF Roemon Fields made a twisting, desperation grab of. The final out came on a nifty diving play by Tellez, who robbed Benintendi of extra bases with a grab of a shot down the line, throwing to a covering Greene just in time.
  Trouble reared its head in the 4th, when Greene gave up a screaming single to leadoff hitter Nate Fryman off the "Maine Monster" in left on his first pitch.  One out later, a walk and another single had loaded the bases for Portland, when Guerrero started a nifty 5-4-3 double play to end the threat.
   Greene needed only 8 pitches to retire the side in the 5th, getting the second out by catching the left-handed hitting Moncada looking on a fastball on the outside corner.  Greene started using that pitch more to lefties in that inning, starting it inside under the hands, and having it cut in on the inside corner at the last minute. When he commanded it, it was a very effective pitch.
   The sixth proved to be his final frame.  He didn't help his cause by dropping the throw from 2B Christian Lopes while covering the bat at 1st against the leadoff hitter. A tiring Greene loaded the bases once again, but gave up a two-run, two-out single before recording the final out on a flyball to right.

   For the game, Greene threw 91 pitches, 56 for strikes.  He gave up 3 runs, only 1 earned, and 6 hits.  Greene walked 3 and struck out 3.  He had trouble staying ahead of hitters for much of the game, throwing first-pitch strikes to 15 of hit 26 hitters.  He recorded 8 outs by groundballs, 5 by flyballs. By a rough count, he thew about a dozen pitches in the dirt, all deftly fielded by Lavarnway - this may have been an attempt to generate swings and misses on pitches out of the zone, or it may have been a result of losing the bottom of the strike zone.   This was not a dominant outing by Greene - he gave up some hard contact, and struggled to find the strike zone at times.  Just the same, he breezed through a couple of innings, offering a good foundation to build upon.
   Much has been made of Greene's slender frame.  When he was drafted, he was all of 165 lbs.  That's not the profile of an innings eater, but he's bulked up considerably since then to about 180, from what a visitor to spring training who chatted with him briefly in spring training observed.  Still, as a long, lean, and athletic pitcher, he checks all the boxes in what the Blue Jays like in a starter.  Having just turned 21, there's still some projection remaining, and no need to rush him.
 


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Tellez Emerges as Blue Jays Top Hitting Prospect

Kevin Pataky/milb.com photo
   Ryan John (Rowdy) Tellez has become the best Blue Jays top hitting prospect, and likely the best one they've developed since Aaron Hill. In his fourth pro season, he has grown into one of the most advanced hitters in the minor leagues, all at the tender age of 21.

   Some eyebrows were raised when Tellez was assigned to AA New Hampshire to start this season after only half a year at High A Dunedin, but Tellez' maturity and approach at the plate convinced the organization to start him there.  His 2015 season ended in August with a broken hamate bone, but his performance against top competition in the Arizona Fall League left little doubt that he was ready for an aggressive promotion.

   Tellez got off to a slow start (as did many of his teammates), showing patience, and as the New Hampshire bats awoke and Tellez started to see more strikes, his numbers have grown steadily since, as evidenced by his growing slash line:

April: .164/.345/.361
May:  .288/.364/.490
June:  .320/.427/.493
July:   .472/.525/.806

   Here's Baseball Prospectus' report on Tellez from last year:

Tellez has taken significant steps forward both in terms of his physical development and his baseball skills, turning himself into a potential everyday first baseman at the big league level. He uses his size well, and while it limits him defensively and on the bases to a profile that is completely reliant on his bat, it also gives that potential to provide enough value to get away with that profile. 
Because of his size, he doesn't have to sell out for power, allowing his hit tool to play up. He shows strong bat control for a player of his size, and while there will always be some swing and miss because of the natural length in his swing, he maneuvers the barrel well within the strike zone and shows a propensity for using the whole field. He has plus raw power, and the progress of his hit tool will give that power a chance to reach its ceiling in the big leagues. Even if it falls just short, it should be enough to warrant regular playing time.

  And Baseball America's view:
 Tellez combines feel for hitting and power potential in a burly body that he'll have to continually monitor, as he's prone to get big. He works at it, though, and club officials like that Tellez derives motivation from the criticism and plays with an edge. He has a feel for the barrel and using the whole field, with natural strength to drive the ball to the opposite field and not just pull power. He's aggressive but not to a fault, starting to trust his hands and hang in better against lefthanders.
   Tellez has worked tremendously to improve his agility and footwork around 1st base, but he will always be a bat-first player.  He was clocked a 4.76 to 1st (4.2 for a LHH is considered average), and that time will only tick upwards as he ages.  BA has called his defence fringy, and that, coupled with his lack of speed, often seems to keep him off of most Top 100 prospect lists.  But there are other aspects of his game that help to compensate.  Tellez is not a one-dimensional slugger - not only is he in the top 5 in the Eastern League in slugging and on base percentage, he's also third in the league in walks.  Despite his above-average bat speed, Tellez is not pull-happy, using the whole field:
MLBFarm.com



   For a guy with an Milb.tv subscription, there have been ample opportunities to watch Tellez play this year, and his AB's make for must-see viewing.  He has a plan at the plate, and there is always the threat of him taking the ball out of the park.  Even with the uneven quality of the milb.tv feeds, there is a distinct sound when he makes contact that you hear with few other players, and the ball often appears to jump off of his bat.  Even though slow starts appear to be something of a trademark (he started under-the-lights play with Bluefield two years ago with an 0-33 streak), Tellez' patience and ability to use the whole field makes him less prone to streakiness as a hitter.  Because of his size and long swing, there sometimes is a swing-and-miss element to his game, but he doesn't strike out as much (18.9%) as a power hitter of his stature would - Tellez puts the ball in play, and his swing generates considerable backspin.

   There is a temptation to elevate Tellez to AAA Buffalo, and many fans have asked when it will happen, and while he's showing a growing mastery of Eastern League pitching (despite being one of the loop's youngest players, and - let's not forget this - being in only his second year of full season ball), but the organization is clearly in no rush.  Tellez does not have to be placed on the 40-man roster until after next season, and the playing time might not be there for him in Buffalo: Jesus Montero, Matt Dominguez, and even Casey Kotchman need the PT to stay sharp in case of an injury to someone on the 25-man.  The leap from A-ball to AA is considered to be one of the largest in the minors, while the gap between AA and AAA is not as great, so for the time being, leaving Tellez right where he is, where he can continue to work on all aspects of his game, is the best move.  With New Hampshire currently sitting 14 games out of a playoff spot with 51 games left to play, Tellez might see some time with the Bisons (who are 2 games out of a wild card spot) in August to help with their playoff push.  Again, at this stage of his career, Tellez needs to play more than anything else, so the organization will have to balance that with giving him pennant-pursuing experience.

   He may not remind anyone of Keith Hernandez at 1st Base, but Tellez has a bat that will play, and while the Blue Jays lineup may look very different a year or more from now when he's ready, it's easy to project him somewhere in the middle of that order, launching drives in the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre.  I've followed him since his rookie year in 2013, and watched his transformation into a more complete player than he was when the Blue Jays drafted him.  He will always have to watch his weight, but Tellez has worked incredibly hard to transform his body, and develop more of an all-around game.  

  Even though there's a community-access cable tv channel quality to these videos, they offer an excellent look at Tellez' smooth, easy swing and bat speed:
video
video



     

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Impressive Trio Atop GCL Jays Order

Kevin Vicuna
    
   It's still ridiculously early (12 games) in the already short Gulf Coast League season, but a trio of young prospects at the top of the GCL Blue Jays batting order is already gaining some attention.
   2B Kevin Vicuna, OF Norberto Obeso, and SS Bo Bichette may all be several years away from prime time, but they have been impressive so far under the scorching Florida mid-day sun, and may have a chance to grow up together and progress through the system.

   Leadoff hitter Vicuna was ranked the 30th top international free agent in 2014 by Baseball America.  BA was high on his glove, his bat not so much:
Vicuna is slightly built, so he doesn’t have any loud tools, but scouts are drawn to the way he moves at shortstop. He is light on his feet, bouncing around the position with a nose for the ball and vacuum hands. He’s a smooth fielder with a quick transfer. Vicuna has the range for shortstop with more quickness than speed, as he’s a slightly below-average runner. Any team that signs him will be banking on his speed and below-average arm getting better with more strength so he can stay at shortstop. Vicuna’s glove is ahead of his hitting. While his bat speed has improved, he lacks strength to do much damage. He has a leg kick and an uppercut approach that he will have to simplify.

  Compared to 2013 top signing Yeltsin Gudino, Vicuna fared well in his first year of pro ball in the DSL, posting a line of .268/.354/.304.  Unlike Gudino, who has struggled to put on weight as much as he has at the plate (assigned to Vancouver this year, Gudino owns a .168 average over three minor league short seasons), Vicuna has shown an ability to barrel up balls.  Only 18, the Venezuelan has caught the eye of Chris King (@StatsKing), a Tampa-based evaluator, who says, "once he gets stronger, he's gonna be a beast."  Vicuna already shows a line drive swing, and when he does put more weight on (he's listed at 140 lbs), it's easy to see that turn into gap power.
   Vicuna played short in the DSL last year, but has split time with Bichette at the keystone positions this year. A fixture atop the GCL Jays batting order, he has hit safely in 9 of 11 games so far, and has 6 multi-hit games.

Norberto Obeso - Twitter image
   At 20, Obeso is the oldest of the trio.  The native of Hermosillo, Mexico, was a fall, 2013 signing, and didn't make his Blue Jays debut until 2015 in the Dominican Summer League.   But what a debut it was, as Obeso showed a highly advanced approach at the plate, walking 58 times in 332 plate appearances, to post an eye-popping .469 OBP, to go along with a .351 batting average.
   Promoted stateside to play in the GCL this year, Obeso continues to show that patient, pitch-hunting approach at the plate.  King has been impressed with Obeso, even though he's been outshone by his two batting order running mates when he's watched the GCL Jays:
He's got some good strength and controls the bat. He also has a good idea of the zone and rarely expands. Very intriguing guy.  The thing that stands out about him is his plate discipline. When he gets his pitch, he just unloads.
  Part of Nobeso's success at the plate so far in his career could likely be attributed to his playing experience in Mexico.  Listed at 5"11", he's not the biggest guy in the world, and he does not have one outstanding tool, which may explain why he was not a heralded signing, but the .387/.535/.548 line he's posted (albeit in only 9 games) in the GCL so far makes him one worth watching further.  At 20, he may be a little old for this level, and once the club feels he's able to handle the transition, he may be off to Bluefield.

   Bichette is the highest profile of the three.  The son of the former big leaguer was named Florida's Mr Baseball, as well as Gatorade's Florida high school player of the year.  He had been pegged as a first round talent prior to the draft, but slid to the 2nd round.  Money often being more of a deciding factor than talent when it comes to draft order, Bichette said that he turned down at least four other MLB teams before being chosen by the Jays.  MLB Pipeline noted the diversity of opinions about him prior to the draft:
Over the summer, Bichette showed the ability to square up quality pitching and his raw power was on display when he won the Under Armour All-American Game Home Run Derby in Chicago. This spring, he was still hitting the long ball, but also was getting tied up on mid-range fastballs inside. While he doesn't have the same exact leg kick setup as his father and brother, there are a lot of moving parts to his swing which concerns some scouts. He does have more bat speed than his brother did coming out of high school. A below-average runner, he's probably best suited for second base defensively, or perhaps left field.
Bichette has been a bit of a polarizing prospect this spring, with some unsure his unorthodox setup will work at the next level. But the bloodlines and the power potential could still have the Arizona State commit off the board in the early stages of the Draft.
   Bichette's bat speed is on display in this video:

video

  The youngest of the trio (by two months), Bichette has already shown that bat speed in the GCL, slashing .381/.417/.619 over his first 11 games.  King says that he's hitting a lot of balls hard, and using the whole field, which may be evidence of some of the work the organization has put in with the former pull-happy hitter since the draft.  Even though he's splitting time with Vicuna at SS and 2B, his long-term prospects are better as a second or third baseman.  Like Obeso, it's easy to envision him moving on to Bluefield before the summer is over.

   Players in the GCL are among the rawest in terms of development, and often the most successful prospects at that level are the ones with the loudest tools.  Once players move up levels, the players with the more rounded games tend to move on, while those with holes in theirs tend to be shunted aside.  And even those this trio has dominated thus far in league play, there are areas of their skill sets that need further development.  For Vicuna, it's the need to become stronger, while for Obeso the power has yet to manifest itself, and for Bichette, it may be the matter of where he plays.  Just the same, it's exciting to watch how these three have fared so far in the young GCL season, and it's easy to envision them growing up together as they progress through the Blue Jays sytem.