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Monday, August 24, 2015

Blue Jays Prospect Suspended 50 games for Amphetamine Use


Rocketsports.com photo

  The Blue Jays chose Kentucky HS RHP  Clinton Hollon with their 2nd pick in the 2013 draft.  Rated one of the Top 100 potential picks that year by Baseball America, their scouting report on Hollon says much of what you need to know about him:

Hollon started throwing in the mid-90s after his sophomore season, establishing himself as a potential first-round pick for 2013. Elbow tendinitis sapped his arm strength toward the end of last summer, but he has bounced back this spring to work at 90-93 mph with a peak of 95. He’s athletic and has good arm speed, but the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder also throws with some effort. That costs him command and consistency, though at his best Hollon can display a sharp slider that projects as a plus pitch and a changeup that projects as average. Questions persist about his maturity, which could knock him down to the third round. Though he has committed to Kentucky and may not get selected as early as once expected, teams consider him signable.

   Arm troubles, concerns about his delivery, a possible college commitment, and questions about his makeup - and an electric arm:  that tends to add up to the kind of high-risk, high-reward athlete the Blue Jays covet, and after failing to sign California High Schooler Phil Bickford, Hollon became the organization's top pick in 2013.

   Hollon pitched in the GCL and Appy Leagues after signing, but had some elbow issues, and after the condition flared up again in spring training the next year, he underwent Tommy John surgery.  With a new UCL and a renewed focus (Hollon became a father in the offseason), Hollon was named Vancouver's Opening Day starter when the Northwest League season began play in mid-June.

   Hollon was very effective for the C's, and earned a promotion to the Midwest League in early August.  His Lansing debut was spectacular, retiring the final 19 hitters he faced in succession, and he pitched well in two other starts.

   And then things came crashing down on Hollon.

   He was suspended for 50 games for violating Minor League Baseball;s drug prevention and treatment program, after testing positive for an amphetamine.  Hollon will not be paid during this suspension, which will carry over into next year.

   There is no word as to what the amphetamine was at this point, although it's highly likely that it came from a supplement Hollon purchased, and it may be even more likely that he was unaware that he was consuming a banned substance.  He would not be the first Blue Jays prospect to experience this - Marcus Stroman was suspended for 50 games near the end of the 2012 season for a failed test.  The substance Stroman tested positive for apparently was methylhexaneamine, a supposedly mild stimulant that was in a supplement he had purchased from a GNC store.  All Blue Jays prospects are given a list of products that are safe to use, and it would appear that like Stroman, Hollon strayed from this list, for whatever reason.  The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport warned athletes several years ago that some supplement manufacturers are less than honest about their package labelling, and some of those products can contain banned substances either deliberately, or due to contamination.

  So, the question becomes - why did Hollon do it?  What did he hope to gain from it?  Was it arrogance or naivete?
  Ok, so that's three questions.  I'll do my best to offer some answers.  First of all, for the uninitiated, it's not unusual for athletes to take supplements.  They place demands on their bodies far in excess of what you and I do (and at that, this active blogger puts a bit of protein powder in his smoothie from time to time after a long bike ride or ski).  The need to recover from today's workout is important so that they can go on to tomorrow's. And the minor league lifestyle, with long bus trips, and $20/day meal money on the road, is not exactly conducive to a healthy diet.
   You can buy these supplements just about anywhere - you don't need a GNC. Our local Loblaws offers up several huge plastic tubs of various concoctions in the health food section.  I suspect that Hollon had taken his illegal substances without knowing - I just can't see how a guy in the lower minors who makes less than what a fast-food worker makes (even one who signed for a below slot $476K bonus) would be intentionally be taking something illegal in order to enhance his performance.
   Hollon did, however, move away from that list of approved products, so the question really becomes why take that chance?  I would think maybe it was a case of bad judgement, more than thinking that he knew better than the Blue Jays medical staff.  When you live a life of dedicating yourself to a singular talent, you don't always develop the greatest perspective on the world - Hollon may have thought that whatever he was taking would still pass muster on the testing front.  And he will have to live with that choice.  The Blue Jays, for their part, have invested heavily in Hollon, both with his bonus and his surgery, and showed patience with Stroman for making the same poor decision.  One would suspect that they'll continue to be so with Hollon.

   We don't know, of course, what substance Hollon was found to have taken, but it seems a safe bet that he wasn't aware of taking it.  What we do know is that he's responsible for whatever he puts in his body.  We also know that Lansing, gearing up for the MWL playoffs after taking the first half Eastern Division title, now has a huge hole in the middle of their starting rotation.  And as for Hollon, whose development has already been set back, he will not pitch again until late May at the earliest, and those questions about his makeup will likely continue.

   I leave the last word on the subject to Hollon himself, who was quoting Kid Rock, and may not have realized he was being prophetic at the time:



Monday, August 17, 2015

A Look at a Trio of Promising Arms


  I've written a great deal about the approach to the June draft that the Toronto Blue Jays have taken in the tenure of GM Alex Anthopoulos.  It has been flexible, and changed in response to new draft rules, and fluctuating draft crop quality, but one thing has held firm:  this is an organization that is not afraid to roll the dice.  Not afraid to look for players in non-traditional markets (Anthony Alford), concerns about height (Marcus Stroman), players with college commitments (Daniel Norris), and senior season role changes (Matt Boyd).
   Two elements unify almost all of their draft choices: projection and athleticism.  They will take a player that other teams might pass on if they see those two qualities in abundance.

   Projection is the ability to visualize a player not as what he is now, but what he might be in three to four years time, with a transformed body and, in the case of pitchers, streamlined mechanics.
  Athleticism is the ability of that player to make the changes necessary to make that projection a reality.

   This would explain, of course, the Blue Jays preference for drafting high school players.  For one, scouting a pitcher is relatively easier than scouting a hitter.  Scouts can quantify a pitcher's performance:  delivery, velocity of pitches, plane on his breaking ball, etc.  The unevenness of pitching, especially at the high school level, can make evaluating hitters more of a subjective process.

   Secondly, while some teams aren't afraid of letting colleges develop their talent, and there are some highly-regarded programs in terms of pitcher development, the Blue Jays are part of a group of teams that prefers to get their pitchers as soon as possible, getting them into pro ball and refining (or in some cases, re-making) their mechanics before they learn bad habits in college.

   Over the past few days, thanks to milb.tv, I was able to watch three pitchers who took different routes to pro ball, but all have that athleticism and projection in common:   2013 7th rounder out of Santa Monica HS, Conner Greene, 1st round pick Jon Harris from Missouri State (the Jays had drafted him out of high school in the 33rd round in 2012), and 2011 International Free Agent Angel Perdomo.

  Greene was 6'3", and all of 165 pounds when the Blue Jays drafted him.  He's added about 20 lbs to his frame since that time, and has been on a rapid ascent in the system this year.  Beginning the year with Lansing, striking out 65 hitters in 67 innings, Greene was getting stronger with every start in his first year of full season ball.  Promoted to Dunedin at the beginning of July, he burst onto the prospect radar with a 7-inning, 10 strikeout effort a month later, that earned him a promotion to AA New Hampshire.  A bump in curveball velocity was responsible for much of that:

 
  Heading into his New Hampshire debut, the 20-year old Greene had not given up an earned run in his last three starts, a stretch of 18 innings.  He survived a rocky first inning, in which his first five pitches were balls, aided by a 4-6-3 double play.  In the second, he needed only 7 pitches to exit the inning, helped again by a 6-4-3 twin killing.  After a tidy nine-pitch third, Greene ran into a bit of trouble in the 4th, hitting 96 on the gun to strike out Cleveland's top pick from last year, Kyle Zimmer, and then inducing his third double play of the night to escape the inning unscathed.
   Greene cruised through the 5th and 6th, attacking the strike zone better than he had earlier in the game, his confidence obviously growing.  He left after 6 shutout innings, giving up only 3 hits, walking 3, and striking out 1.  Greene threw 70 pitches on the night, 43 for strikes.  He induced 9 ground ball outs, while giving up only 3 flyball outs.  He had only two swinging strikes on the night, but did not give up much hard contact - the video quality tailed off late in the game, but I counted only two hard hit balls on the night against him.
   With the vacancies created by the Blue Jays trade deadline deals, there is now room for up-and-comers like Greene.  His fastball/sinker/curve combination plays well, and with runners on, there is always the threat of the double play ball.
  Here's the inning-ending ground ball that Greene finished his start with:

video


   I didn't chart the piggyback start of Harris and Perdomo, in order to get a general impression of them first.  I have to add that the video quality from Hillsboro was excellent - good camera angles, picture quality, and even replays.  Kudos to that organization, and let's hope Lansing and Vancouver can eventually come up with video as well.

   The Blue Jays were thrilled to get Harris with the 29th pick of the first round.  Here's Baseball America's scouting report on the tall right hander:
 He stepped into the Bears' weekend rotation as a freshman and had immediate success, but he's now a significantly more physical pitcher and the fastball that quickly dipped to the mid-80s when he was in high school now sits at 91-93 mph all day and he will touch 95. Harris mixes in a pair of breaking balls, a 12-to-6 curveball that flashes plus and a solid-average slider that he is able to throw for strikes. His changeup is a potentially average pitch as well, and some scouts have seen each secondary pitch flash plus. Harris missed two starts with an ankle injury but pitched a complete-game shutout in his return from injury, answering any questions about his health. Harris has pitched deep into games consistently this year. He's worked into the eighth inning of eight of his last nine starts and was averaging 110 pitches an outing this year. Harris' control is still shaky at times--he's walked 3.2 batters per nine innings but he also generates lots of swings and misses (10.8 strikeouts per nine innings).
  Harris has had only modest success with Vancouver this year, but not much was expected from him after throwing over 100 college innings.  His pitch count has been limited, but his most recent start against Hillsboro showed much of what BA reported about him.  He struggled a bit in the first two innings, and needed both a nifty 4-6-3 double play on a slow roller, and a pair of sparkling defensive plays by 3rd Baseman Justin Atkinson to get out of trouble, but he began pounding the bottom of the strike zone in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th, and while he gave up 4 hits in this outing, only 2 were balls that were hit hard, and one was an opposite field, down the line double.  His fastball peaked at 93.
   Harris can get out of synch with his windup, and he loses the strike zone for a few pitches as a result.  He was able to make adjustments to his delivery, and came up with his best pro outing, shutting Hillsboro out on over 5 innings, walking a pair, and striking out 4.  We have not seen the best from Harris in his first pro season, but this was a glimpse of may be what to come next year.
   Video of the final out of Harris' outing:

video


   As good as Harris was on this occasion, he was outshone by newly promoted lefty Angel Perdomo.  The 6'6" Dominican has been on my radar for a little over a year.  The 2011 International Free Agent was not a huge bonus signing, and he pitched in this game like he had something to prove.  Brought along slowly by the Jays, he didn't make his stateside debut in the GCL until last year, and after demonstrating good command at Bluefield, he got the call to the Pacific Northwest.
   Perdomo has a nice, loose, and easy delivery, somewhat reminiscent of Aaron Sanchez - but with far more control.  Coming into the game in relief of Harris in the 6th, Perdomo allowed only a walk through four innings, and was threw first-pitch strikes to 12 of the 13 hitters he faced.  His length allows him great extension on his pitches, and gives his fastball some late life.  The Hillsboro play-by-play man gave no indication as to Perdomo's velocity, but the Hops' hitters were overmatched against the 21 year old, who retired 7 of his 12 outs via the strikeout.
   This was an impressive outing.  It was only one game, but Perdomo already shows superb command of his fastball.  Time will tell with his secondaries, but this is one live arm.  It's unfortunate that there's no video clip to share, because of the these three strong performances by Blue Jays prospect pitchers, this was the one that stood out the most.





Saturday, August 1, 2015

Post Trade Frenzy Thoughts from a Prospect Perspective


   In the past year, the Blue Jays have traded a huge number of prospects in various deals that have brought back Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki,  David Price, Mark Lowe, and Ben Revere.

 Let's just review for a moment:
For Donaldson:   Frankie Barreto, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin.
For Tulo:  Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro, Jesus Tinoco.
For Price:  Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Jairo Labourt.
For Lowe:  Nick Wells, Jake Brentz,  Rob Rasmussen
For Revere: Alberto TiradoJimmy Cordero

And for international bonus money to sign Vladimir Guerrero Jr, the Blue Jays traded Chase De Jong and Tim LoCastro.
   So let's make that 15 prospects - Rasmussen is the only one among that group who wouldn't be considered one.

   No one wants to trade away the next Noah Syndergaard, but the Blue Jays have strengthened themselves considerably in these deals, giving up only a single player from the major league roster.
  As someone who follows prospects extensively, watching them on Milb.tv, and talking with someone about them or even to some of them (or their parents) on Twitter (Matt Boyd will always be one of my favourites), it's easy to create a halo effect with these kids, and think that they have few, if any, faults. The truth is, when prospects are traded, it's generally for one or more of four reasons:

1.  The organization sees a window of opportunity, and feels that there is enough depth in the system
     to eventually replenish what was lost.
2.  The organization felt that said prospect had reached his ceiling, and perhaps did not fit into their
     long range plans.
3.  The prospect's future is so far off that the gamble of dealing them for help now is worth the risk.
4.  The trading partner insisted said prospect be included in the deal.

  We'll never know for certain, of course, but media reports suggest that the inclusion of Barreto and Hoffman were at the other club's insistence.  I can't say for certain where the other prospects fit, but I think it's safe to say that the Blue Jays may not have been as reluctant to part with them.
   What were some of the possible blemishes?
With Barreto, who is currently on the 7-Day DL, it continues to be his play at short.  After a very slow start, his bat has rallied, and he's hitting .298/.329/.492 for Oakland's Advanced A club, and he was named Baseball America's 23rd Top Prospect in their mid-season rankings, but his lack of quickness, footwork, and arm strength will likely mean a position switch soon.
  Graveman has pitched very well of late for Oakland after a rough start,  but his flyball rate and 4.76 FIP may not have played in the Rogers Centre as well as it has in cavernous O.Co Coliseum.
  Nolin's career has been marked by an inability to stay healthy, and while he's pitched well for Oakland's AAA affiliate, he's on the DL, and has thrown only 33 innings for them this season.
   Hoffman drew raves earlier this season, but has not missed bats at the rate the Blue Jays likely had hope for.  He is only 15 months removed from Tommy John surgery, and his command has been slow to return. He has generated a great deal of ground ball outs, which will be essential for a Coors Field starter.
   Castro went from Short Season ball to Blue Jays closer (albeit only briefly) in the space of 9 months, and while he's worked his way back to a relief role in AAA, his lack of secondary pitches may keep him there for the time being, and he still has a way to go in commanding both sides of the plate.  If he can keep the ball down in the zone better, he could be a dominant MLB reliever.
   Tinoco is young, and was right around the Midwestern League averages in strikeout rate.  Blue Jays minor league catcher Danny Jansen told me last year that Tinoco's two-seam fastball has incredible sink when it's on.  He has a live arm, but he's still a long distance from the major leagues.
   Norris started the season with the Blue Jays, but found himself back in Buffalo after a month.  Norris seems to cruise along for most of his starts, and then loses the strike zone completely for an inning.  Whispers about his delivery concerns and possible elbow issues have grown louder as the season has progressed.  He has brilliant last year, and his 2014 season was one of the best a Blue Jays minor league pitcher has ever had.  He immediately takes over Price's spot in the rotation - welcome back to the big leagues, kid.
   Boyd has been one of the best pitchers in all of minor league baseball this year.  His first big league start was a huge success, and then he was rocked by the Red Sox in his second start, leaving the game in the first without having recorded an out.  Like most successful athletes, Boyd quickly put that behind him, and has pitched effectively in Buffalo ever since.  There was no room for him in Toronto's rotation, however.
   Labourt is yet another electric arm, but has had command issues over the past two seasons.  Again, like Tinoco, it's very hard to project someone who is still so far away from the bigs.
  Wells, a southpaw 3rd round California HS pick last year, had a decent pro debut, but has struggled a bit in Bluefield this year.  Brentz did not pitch until his senior year of High School,  and in his third year of pro ball is still a bit of a project - we've been waiting for the results to match his potential.
   Tirado was called a "beast in the making" by Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus two seasons ago; he struggled in his first shot at full season ball with Lansing last year, and finished the season in Vancouver's bullpen.  Pitching again in relief for Dunedin this year, he has fared much better, and may be an arm that will rise to the majors quickly.  Cordero can light up the radar gun, but without a lot of movement, and sometimes not a great idea as to where his fastball is going.
  De Jong repeated Lansing this year, with much better results, and had just been promoted to Dunedin at the time of his trade.  He, along with Boyd, former Jays prospect Joe Musgrove, and current Jay farmhand Dalton Pompey all made Baseball America's Prospect Hot Sheet this week, making it a pretty good week for the Toronto scouting department. Lo Castro is a modern-day Ron Hunt, willing to do anything to get on base, including being hit by a pitch.  Lo Castro's makeup is off the charts.

   After having written glowingly about that group for some time, I may have seemed overly negative about them in the above paragraphs, but sometimes you have to take a step back and look at prospects from a more critical standpoint.  And while you have to give something in order to get something, I've always felt that for many prospects, there must have been something in their physical or mental makeup that made them expendable from the club's perspective.  It's easy to overvalue your prospects, and sometimes you need to look at their weaknesses as well as their strengths.  The Blue Jays gave up a ton of potential to improve their major league roster, but this was a calculated risk.  This was not a toss at a dart board - despite some criticism on social media about their analytics department, the Blue Jays, who make such deals by a consensus of front office staff, have crunched the numbers, and could likely recite each prospect's scouting reports in their sleep.  And at the end of the day, prospects are just that - players who have a chance.  Outside of Norris, Graveman, and perhaps Boyd, they gave up no one who could stick on a major league roster tomorrow.

  And having said all that, let's remember one thing.  The Blue Jays acquired David Cone, then one of the top pitchers in baseball and a free agent-to-be at the trade deadline in 1992 for prospects Ryan Thompson and Jeff Kent.  Thompson turned into not much more than a marginal MLB player, while Kent amassed over 2400 hits, hit more Home Runs than any MLB 2nd baseman, drove in 90 runs every year from 1997 to 2005, and is a borderline Hall of Famer.  Cone led the Blue Jays to their first ever World Series that year, and even though he left the team after the 92 season, is there anyone who has ever said, "gee, I wish we had kept Kent?"   In 1993, the Blue Jays made another deadline deal, picking up Rickey Henderson for prospects Steve Karsay (a 1990 1st rounder) and Jose Herrera.  Karsay had a couple of decent seasons in a 9-team, 11 year career as a reliever, and Herrera played in parts of two big league seasons.  Both trades go to show that with prospects, in most cases, you never know how they will turn out, and even if they do go on to have successful MLB careers, a ring for the player obtained for them is more than enough to counter-balance that.  Farm systems serve several functions for MLB teams; the main one, of course, is to supply a steady stream of new talent to the parent club.  It also serves as a holding tank for injury replacement players.  And even going back to the time of Branch Rickey, who pioneered the modern-day farm system, it serves as means of strengthening the major league club.
 
It's not all doom and gloom for the Blue Jays minor league system, either.  Yes, they gave up some depth, but through this trading frenzy, they still managed to hang onto some top prospects.  Anthony Alford and Rowdy Tellez remain Blue Jays, and we all should be happy about that, because while both are still a couple of seasons away, both project as impact players one day.  They also kept RHP Sean Reid-Foley, who surely was a coveted target, and even though he's had some control issues this year, is pitching at High A at the age of 19 in only his second pro season.  And I haven't even written about Vladimir Guerrero, Jr yet. Flags do indeed fly forever, but laying waste to a farm system is truly a short-sighted move, and the Blue Jays certainly factored in the remaining depth of talent when they made these deals.
  Who are some other names who move up several slots in the Top Prospect pecking order?  Here are notes about a few:
Conner Greene - RHP, 7th rounder in 2013, just keeps getting better and better; started with Lansing, promoted to Dunedin, hasn't given up a run in his last two starts.
Jon Harris - this year's 1st rounder has not had the success with Vancouver that we thought he might have, but still profiles as a mid-rotation starter, and should fare better next year.
Angel Perdomo - the Jays have taking things slowly with the 6'6" Dominican lefty, but he's missed a lot of bats through his brief minor league career.
Juliandry Higuera - in his first stateside season, the 20 yr old Venezuelan has been Bluefield's best pitcher.
Lupe Chavez  - 17 yr old Mexican RHP was a top-ranked IFA last year; pitching in the Dominican Summer League, has gotten better with every start.
Matt Smoral - the 6'8" LHP was a comp pick in 2012, and has teased us with brief glimpses of dominance in a career slowed by injuries.  I had fully expected him to start with Lansing, but back issues have limited him to 8 innings between Dunedin and Bluefield.  If he ever puts it all together...
Jose Espada - the 5th rounder from this year's draft has impressed in the GCL.
Reggie Pruitt  - I was pretty sure the 24th round Georgia HS would go the college route; he signed for $500K and has had a solid debut in the GCL
Rodrigo Orozco - some of my fellow prospect bloggers were stumped by his name; the 20 year old Panamanian played the last two season in the DSL, and according to Brian Woodfield, who covers the Appy League for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph:
Orozco has been their best player in my opinion. Good leadoff batter, gets on base. High average and speed. Good range




 There are other names, to be sure, and I have my work cut out for me when I compile my Top 10 and Next 10 lists after the fall.  Even putting together my daily list of Blue Jays starters was a bit of a tough task today:

  What the acquisition of the five players who cost that bundle does for the above remaining prospects is that it has bought them some time.  It's also removed some names above them that could help accelerate their development.  I've only been doing this prospect thing for a few years, but I can't recall a deadline day quite like this past one.  My Twitter timeline was blowing up, and I had to silence my phone in order to satisfy my wife, who is otherwise quite patient with my obsession.  To summarize - the Blue Jays did give up quite a bit of depth in their minor league system in order to significantly upgrade their roster.  This represents a huge risk, but the system is still in reasonably good shape in terms of prospects (if not in terms of MLB-ready ones).  And at the end of the day, as Lansing broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler said:
  I leave the final word to New Hampshire southpaw Johnny Anderson: