Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Look at Jordan Romano

Milb.com photo

  You could call Toronto Blue Jays right-handed pitching prospect Jordan Romano an "accidental pitcher"; the Markham, ON, native was a catcher for his high school team, but a broken foot forced him to switch to the mound.  Three years later, after a pair of seasons at an Oklahoma junior college, and a year closing games for Oral Roberts, he was selected in the 10th round of the 2014 draft.  After blowing out his elbow the following spring, the tall, lanky prospect had to sit out the 2015 season, and didn't make his 2016 debut until June.  Call him whatever you want, but after 6 innings of 2-hit ball, with 10 strikeouts for Lansing against Dayton in Midwest League action last night, you can also call him a Blue Jays prospect on the rise.

  It would be cliche to call Romano a typically gritty Canadian (one of five on the Lugnuts' roster, in fact), but consider this:  when he tore his UCL toward the end of spring training in 2015, he stayed in for one more pitch, and retired the hitter on a wicked slider.  His has been a long and winding road, but he has firmly placed himself on the prospect map this season.

  The 6'4", 200 Romano is an imposing presence on the mound.  Working from a simplified delivery, he parts his hands during his delivery for some scapular loading.  With his size, he does take a while to deliver the ball, but he has worked hard to vary his timing to help keep runners on.

   After an hour long rain delay, Romano took to the mound against Dayton, the Reds' Low-A affiliate. Usually, they field a competitive team, and the Dragons are one of the best-drawing teams in minor league baseball, but this year's edition is some 40 games under .500.  They proved to be giant killers against Lansing in the first two games of the series, however, storming back from a 10-3 deficit with 8 unanswered runs (in what may become known as the Rally Skunk game one day) to take the second.  With Lansing locked in a battle for the final Eastern Division playoff berth, this game had added importance to the Lugnuts.

  In the first inning, Romano perhaps showed the effects of the rain delay, as he walked the leadoff hitter, then gave up a single.  Facing Nick Senzel, the 2nd overall pick in the June draft (and a leader in most MWL offensive categories if he had enough ABs to qualify), Romano gave up a long fly ball that LF Connor Panas had to make a leaping catch against the wall on to record the first out of the inning.
   Romano quickly regained his composure, and struck out the next two hitters swinging to end the inning.  In fact, he set down 17 of the next 18 hitters he faced after Senzel's flyout, and could have easily retired 17 straight if not for RF Lane Thomas taking a circuitous route to a deep flyball by Senzel in the swirling Dayton winds in the 4th.
   Romano came back out for the 7th inning, but was removed after only 4 pitches.  With the count at 1-1 on the lead off hitter, Romano let loose with a pair of wild pitches up and out of the strike zone.  He seemed to flinch after what proved to be his final pitch, quickly bringing out Manager John Schneider, Pitching Coach Jeff Ware, and the Lansing trainer to the mound.  At that point, the Dayton feed on milb.tv put a Dragons' logo up on the screen, so it was impossible to judge from Romano's reaction the potential extent of his injury - something clearly was not right, and with one Tommy John surgery already on his medical record, Schneider immediately called to the bullpen.  Romano said this afternoon that his removal was precautionary, and he should be on track to make his next start.

  Romano ended this contest with a career-high 10 Ks.  After his 19-pitch first inning, he was very economical with his pitches, needing no more than 13 to get through any other frame.  He threw 76 pitches on the night, an incredible 58 of them for strikes.  To left-handed hitters, Romano was very efficient at painting the outside corner, and to righties, he threw a devastating fastball with good armside run to get up under their hands.  The pitch would start in the middle of the plate, then tail to the inside, and hitters could not lay off of it when he elevated it with two strikes.  Romano also had more zip on his fastball than usual last night, sitting 94-95, and touching 96 - he still had gas in that last inning, hitting 94.
  Romano also showed good command of his slider. "I've definitely had nights where my slider was sharper but I could throw it where I wanted yesterday," he said when it was pointed out how effective the pitch was.
Romano threw 15 first-pitch strikes, and was behind only one hitter - the leadoff batter - the whole night. He had an astounding 18 swings-and-misses. Only two pitches were truly squared up on him (both by Senzel). It was truly a dominant performance, but unfortunately, Lansing was unable to provide him with much run support, and relievers Jackson Lowery and Andrew Case, who have both been lights out this month, allowed the tying and winning runs to score in the 7th and 8th.

  Over the course of just over two months, Romano has firmly established himself in the top tier of the next wave of prospects in the system.  He may not have the profile of a Jon Harris or even a Francisco Rios, but he's still developing, and still learning to pitch.  With his height, he gets good extension, and creates a good downward plane with his fastball.  The Blue Jays may have uncovered yet another good arm.

  Here is that AB against Senzel in the 6th:
video

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook - Playoff Hunt Edition


Vladimir Guerrero Jr - milb.com photo

      Minor league playoff races, in terms of excitement, don't generate a whole lot of buzz beyond the cities and leagues involved, but they hearken back somewhat to the golden age of the minors, when teams acted as independent entities, and were very much in competition with big league teams for players and the entertainment dollar.  As the season winds down, four Blue Jays affiliates are in a playoff position at the moment.

   The GCL Blue Jays, who perform in front of a small gathering of scouts, family, and girlfriends with no video scoreboards, walk-up music, or between-innings in-game entertainment, sit atop the Northwest Division standings with a league-best 36-13 record, but are separated by only percentage points from the GLC Phillies.  In the abbreviated GCL playoff format, only the four division winners qualify, pairing off in a one-game semi-final with the winners meeting in a best of three final.  The Jays have had to do without their leading hitter, 2nd round pick Bo Bichette, who had his appendix removed in late July.  The infielder was tearing apart the GCL in his pro debut, slashing .421/.440/.744.  There is no word on his return, but with 10 games left in the season, his bat would give the lineup a huge boost.  Last year, the club made it to the league final with one of the more veteran teams in the loop, but they are one of the youngest this year, and have the second-youngest pitching staff.

  If Bichette had remained healthy, he might have moved up to Bluefield of the Appalachian League, forming a potent 1-2 punch in the lineup with 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.  Bluefield currently sits in 2nd in the Appy League's East Division, a game back of Burlington, and a half game ahead of Princeton.  The top 2 teams in each division make the post-season.  The club lost leading hitter Nash Knight when he was promoted to Vancouver, but there is still plenty of pop in the lineup - Bluefield leads the league in Home Runs with 50.

   The Low A Lansing Lugnuts also occupy a playoff position at the moment, a half game ahead of both Great Lakes and 1.5 games up on Lake County for the second (and final) Eastern Division playoff spot.  Full season teams see a lot of players come and go, and such is the case with Lansing, who have seen Francisco Rios, Jon Harris, and now Max Pentecost move on to Dunedin.

  Dunedin also is in a playoff spot at the moment, sitting atop the Florida State League's North Division, thanks to a 7-game winning streak.  The D-Jays lost SS Richard Urena to New Hampshire earlier this month, but still have the organization's top prospect in rebounding OF Anthony Alford.

   Playoff participation is something of a double-edge sword for MLB farm departments.  On the one hand, the pressure is a good experience for their prospects, but with some of their younger pitchers already having exceeded their career highs in innings pitched, Managers have to have one eye on the pitch count as well as one on the scoreboard.  Already, Rios has been moved to Dunedin's pen to preserve his arm, and other starters like Ryan Borucki, who has found himself with Lansing this year, are seeing their pitch counts reduced as the season winds down.  Similarly, especially with some of the Lansing roster, many players are in their first year of full season ball, and are wearing down as well.  Still, especially for the top prospects, the organization do doubt likes having them take part in the playoffs together.

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   One team that is conspicuous by its absence from the post-season for the second straight year is Vancouver.  The C's won the Northwest League title in their first three seasons as a Jays affiliate, and made it to the final in their fourth.  The partnership with the Jays has been wildly successful, and the C's lead the NWL in attendance by almost an average of 1 000 fans a game.
   For the second straight year, however, the C's are mostly devoid of top prospects.  Roberto Osuna, Kevin Pillar, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, and the departed Franklin Barreto have all spent time in YVR, but the only high profile prospect to adorn the lineup this year was P Justin Maese, who was promoted to Lansing a month ago.
   The C's are next to last in the league in batting average and ERA.  Thanks to the Shaw Cable network, select Saturday night home games are televised - the quality is decent, and you have to love the high camera angle on plays at 1st Base.  After watching a few Shaw games, as well as some at Hillsboro, which provides an milb.tv feed, it's been possible for Eastern Canadians to catch a glimpse of the C's, and get a read on some of their players.
   Three players that have stood out are outfielders Josh Palacios and J.B. Woodman, and SS Yeltsin Gudino.  Palacios, a 4th round pick in June, looks like a 110m hurdler, and his athleticism will no doubt translate well as he gains experience.  Woodman, the team's 2nd round pick, has bat speed but a bit of a long swing, and has struck out in 31% of his ABs.  Gudino, a prized IFA signing from 2013, is slick at shortstop, with good hands and a quick release.  The question has always been about his bat, and while his .214/.328/.244 line has done nothing to quell that, he shows quick hands and makes contact.  At 19, he's fared reasonably well against higher competition after failing to crack the Mendoza line in his previous two minor league stops. C Javier Hernandez is probably another name worth mentioning.  He has already drawn praise for his defensive work from previous seasons, but he's not produced a great deal offensively.
   Fielding a competitive NWL team can be difficult.  The league is filled with recent college grads, most of whom were mid-level draftees.  These players tend to produce well in short season ball, but have low ceilings.  In order to stock an NWL team, an organization has to risk some of its picks on this type of player. Ryan McBroom was among the most successful of these, but this year, the organization has opted to place younger players, like Gudino, Hernanedez, and 3B Bryan Lizardo in Vancouver, and while they ultimately may have higher ceilings, they've mostly struggled against the advanced NWL pitching.
   Still the fans in Vancouver deserve more.  The Blue Jays in the past have liked sending their top prospects there, to give them a taste of life in Canada.  With strong entries in Bluefield and the GCL this year, hopefully that will translate into a more successful C's team next year.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Blue Jays, Scouting Director Part Ways


Parker (r), with Assistan GM Andrew Tinnish - Canadian Baseball photo

     Toronto Blue Jays amateur scouting director Brian Parker, according to an article in Baseball America.  National cross checker Blake Davis was also let go, according to BA.

  Parker joined the Jays as a pro scout in 2009, and took charge of the draft in 2012.  In the wake of deals with the Mets and Marlins prior to 2013 which dealt away much of the farm system's upper level depth, Parker and his staff quickly rebuilt the minor league organization, selecting players like Marcus Stroman, Matt Boyd, Kendall Graveman, and Jeff Hoffman.  Last season, with then-GM Alex Anthopoulos dealing 18 prospects over 6 months, Parker deftly re-stocked the system again.  Other players drafted by Parker and still toiling in the Blue Jays farm system included Anthony Alford, Conner Greene, Max Pentecost, Rowdy Tellez, Justin Maese, Sean Reid-FoleyJon Harris, and 2016 draftee T.J. Zeuch.

   The Indiana State Business Management grad has spent his whole career in professional sports, starting with an internship with the Colorado Rockies in 1997.  He spent time with the NFL's Buffalo Bills in media relations, before moving to the Southwest to help eventually head up the Arizona Fall League's operations. Parker joined the Montreal Expos in the player development department in 2003, and moved with the Expos to Washington, where he rose to Director of Baseball Operations before joining the Blue Jays, where he joined his friend and former fellow Expos staffer Anthopoulos.  Under Parker, the Blue Jays were at the leading edge of amateur scouting, opting for high-risk, high-reward prospects like Alford and Stroman, players from non-traditional baseball markets like Maese, and they exploited new draft rules regarding signing bonuses to draft low-leverage college seniors like Boyd and Graveman in 2013, and used savings from those picks to persuade Tellez to forego his college commitment after most clubs felt he wouldn't sign.

   When Mark Shapiro took over the Blue Jays operations side last year, changes were expected.  He brought Ross Atkins from Cleveland with him to take over the GM job, hired Gil Kim from the Rangers to head minor league operations, and persuaded Angus Mugford to leave the IMG Academy in Florida to head up the club's new high performance department.  In addition to Anthopoulos, long-time International scouting director Ismael Cruz left the club last fall for a similar position with the Dodgers.

  What does this mean for the Blue Jays?  Likely a slight shift in philosophy, but nothing fans would notice right away.  The club has been a solid drafter and developer of prospects, and with Shapiro's past emphasis on development, not much is like to change in that regard.  Picks like J.B. Woodman and Josh Palacios this June shows that this is still an organization that covets upside.

   As for Parker, he has a solid resume, and accomplished a great deal in his four years of running the amateur scouting side.  He should land another job fairly quickly.  Shapiro garnered considerable scorn from some Blue Jays fans on social media after taking over and making a fair number of changes prior to this season, but much of that was to be expected in the wake of a regime change, and with the team in first place and the next wave of prospects ready to make an impact at the MLB level in 2017 or 2018, it's hard to argue with the results.  Sportsnet suggests that a rumour is making the rounds that Oakland assistant scouting director Michael Holmes, who was  a teammate of Atkins' in college, may be tapped to replace Parker.