Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook Vol 4 Ed 3

"I was never drafted and I've bounced around and I came out of independent league ball," Allen said. "Every time my name gets called, I know I have to pitch like it's the last time I'm ever going to throw. That's the mentality I need to take. At times, it's been successful and if not, you just have to learn from it."    Brad Allen, as told to Milb.com
L/R:  Mike Reeves, Tim Mayza, Brad Allen, Adonys Cardona
Brad Allen/Instragram

  Welcome to a wrap of activities around the Blue Jays farm system for the past week.....

Dunedin bullpen tosses a no-no
   In last week's notebook, I wrote about how the Dunedin Blue Jays bullpen had been lights out to that point in the season.  And then they threw up a bit of a hairball this week.
   The group rallied over the course of the weekend, the highlight of which was a  no-hitter by Brad Allen, Adonys Cardona, and Tim Mayza who combined to no-hit the Tigers' Florida State League affiliate Lakeland to sweep a double header.  
   Minor league doubleheader games are only seven innings in length, but it was an impressive display nonetheless.
   Allen was part of a no-hitter before in 2013, when he retired 25 in a row en route to a complete game no-no.  The former indy league hurler was let go by the Diamondbacks in 2014, and the Blue Jays signed him to help bolster Lansing's starting rotation a few weeks later.  Moved to the bullpen in High A this year, Allen was pressed into service as a starter when a Friday night rainout forced the Saturday doubleheader.
   Allen threw four scoreless frames before handing things over to righthander Cardona.  The one-time starter and Top 10 prospect has had more than his fair share of injuries, but has been very effective in the D-Jays pen so far.  Cardona surrendered a pair of walks over 1.2 innings before giving way to southpaw Mayza, who shut the door and preserved the win, as well as the no-hitter.
   Allen told Michael Leboff of Milb.com that the no-no was a team effort:
"This no-hitter is a testament to our defense," he said. "One thing [manager] Ken Huckaby has preached since the beginning of the year is that we have an excellent defense, so he wants us to go right after the hitter. I can think of a few plays that our defense made big plays. That's kind of been our MO the whole time -- these guys will make the plays for [the staff]."
  Allen posed with his fellow no-hit hurlers after the game, and included Peterborough, Ontario's own C Mike Reeves, who caught the game.  It was the first no-hitter thrown by a Blue Jays minor league team in almost a quarter century.

Conner Greene Update
   I was as surprised as anyone when Greene did not return to New Hampshire, where he finished 2015, to start this season.  He caught a heavy dose of helium last summer, and pitched at three levels in his first year of full-season ball.
   Obviously, the new administration felt that Greene still had some things to work on, like command of his fastball and the development of his secondary pitches, and his assignment to Dunedin perhaps signalled that the new regime was not as comfortable with aggressive promotions as the last one was.
   Will Haines of Baseball Prospectus took in game one of that Dunedin-Lakeland twin bill, in which the young righthander started the first game.  Haines was impressed, and thought that Greene was barely challenged:
 Greene cruised through this Saturday start, and a promotion back to Double-A couldn’t be more than a week or two away. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound righthander racked up six strikeouts and left Tigers hitters frustrated at the plate.
  Haines had Greene topping 97 with his fastball, and sitting 93-95.  Greene was able to command both sides of the plate, and Haines terms the pitch "MLB-ready"; in fact, once he adds more weight to his frame, he thinks Greene might be able to touch 99 with it.  While velocity in the hierarchy of pitcher effectiveness is no more important than movement and location, so much of a pitcher's success comes from it.  "Fastball command is the perfect building block for the rest of the arsenal," wrote Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus.  "It creates the opportunity for a more effective secondary arsenal before the secondary arsenal is even deployed."
   Greene added 10 mph to his curve last year, which was part of the reason for his ascension to AA.  Haines terms it a work-in-progress, as Greene is still unable to replicate his fastball arm speed with it, allowing hitters to pick it up.  Haines was also impressed with Greene's cutter, which he did not use all that much in this start, but feels that it will grade as a solid-average pitch, as it "kept hitters honest."
   For Greene to reach his projections, Haines says that he will have to continue to refine his secondaries, "but the strength of the fastball alone should allow him to move quickly through the system." Haines suggests that Greene may only be a week or two away from a promotion back to the Eastern League.  The Blue Jays do tend to wait until the mid-way point of the minor league season in June to do that, but perhaps the new management team may feel otherwise.

Max Pentecost Sighting
  Like the Yeti, Loch Ness Monster, or Ogopogo, appearances by the 2014 first round pick have been few and far between, but intrepid reporter Eddie Michels of rocketsports.com snapped photos of the rehabbing backstop in extended spring training.
Eddie Michels photo
 Pentecost, whose injury history has been well-documented, DH'd in a pair of games this past weekend.  He came to training camp in early March mostly to continue to rehab his shoulder after his most recent surgery, but his appearance may have led some to believe that he was close to game-ready.  Similarly, because the club had talked about getting Pentecost at-bats at another position until he was ready for the rigours of receiving, there were some who thought a position switch may be in the offing. The truth is that the club wants to take things slowly with the 2014 Johnny Bench Award winner as the nation's top college Catcher.  Moving him to another position for now at least allows him some reps at the plate.  With Russell Martin under contract for three more seasons after this, the club can afford to take their time with Pentecost, and will likely give him every opportunity to return to his Catching duties when he's ready.

The long and winding road of Jake Anderson
   Taken in the compensation round, 34th overall out of Chino (CA) HS in 2011, Anderson gained plenty attention when he won the Under Armour All-America Home Run Derby at Wrigley Field in 2010.  Baseball America gave this assessment of him heading into the draft:
Tall and projectable at 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, he is a long strider with solid-average speed under way, and he profiles either in center or right, where he should have adequate arm strength. Anderson is a physical specimen with plenty of leverage and solid-average to plus raw power potential in his slightly uphill swing. 
    Anderson's road to full season ball has been significantly derailed by injuries.  After his second year of pro ball at short-season Bluefield, he headed to Florida for Instructional League play.  When diving in the outfield for a fly ball one day, Anderson landed awkwardly, Afterwards, he had chest pain, and tingling and numbness in his right arm left him unable to throw.  After an attempt at rest and rehab, the young prospect was discovered to have thoracic outlet syndrome, where the blood vessels and nerves in the space between the first rib (the thoracic outlet) become compressed. Surgery to remove the first rib to alleviate the symptoms was eventually performed, costing Anderson all of 2013.  A knee injury limited him to 10 at bats in 2014, and he did not return to full-time duty until last summer, returning again to Bluefield.
   Healthy for the first time in several years, Anderson was assigned to full season ball at Lansing this year.  In his first game with the Lugnuts, he went 1-4 with a double.  On Friday night at home against Lake County, he did something he hasn't done since August 12, 2012:


Anthony Alford Injury Update....
   In this space last week, I wrote about one of the frustrations of minor league ball being the lack of information about injuries to prospects.  Teams don't tend to get pressed for details by the mainstream media, so there is an air of secrecy about it.  I said that given the club's past history, rest and rehab is the club's preferred route when a player suffers something less than a full, surgery-requiring tear of a ligament. Given this photo of Toronto's' top-ranked prospects I came across from Eddie Michels as I was closing tabs prior to publishing this post, I think the knee brace Alford is wearing provides ample evidence of that:
Anthony Alford Takes BP with No Problems (EDDIE MICHELS PHOTO)
"Anthony Alford Takes BP with No
Eddie Michels photo

Saying Goodbye To.....
RHP Scott Copeland, who was sold to LG Twins of the Korean League.  A long-time Blue Jays farmhand, Copeland made his MLB debut last year, and pitched well in one start, and not so well in another, along with a couple of relief appearances.
C Humberto Quintero, signed as a free agent in the off season. An injury to Detroit C James McCann had the Tigers scrambling for some minor league depth, and they scooped up Quintero late last week.

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Look at Jeremy Gabryszwski

MiLB.com photo
   The Blue Jays had 7 of the first 78 picks in the 2011 draft, and used them all on high schoolers.
The first of those picks was Massachusetts high school RHP Tyler Beede, who spurned the Jays offer, and headed off to Vanderbilt.  The pick the team received as compensation the following year, as is well known, was used to select Duke RHP Marcus Stroman.
   With their first of two second round picks, Toronto chose Texas RHP Jeremy Gabryszwski.  With their second, part of the compensation for the loss of free agent Scott Downs, the Blue Jays selected Tennessee LHP Daniel Norris.
   Baseball America's draft profile of Gabryszwski:
   Jeremy Gabryszwski excited scouts when he touched 94 mph with his fastball in his first scrimmage. He sat at 92-93 for three innings, and also showed a plus slider and an average changeup. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound righthander didn't maintain that stuff throughout the season, often working in the high 80s. He had surgery to repair a displaced bone in his elbow in 2008, with doctors placing a screw in his elbow. He's a Lamar recruit.
    Both second rounders fit what would become the Blue Jays typical choice for a high school pitching draftee:  long, lean, and athletic.  But while Norris, who after struggling in his first year of pro ball, rocketed through the system in 2014 before being dealt to Detroit last summer, Gabryszwski was brought along much more gradually, progressing one step at a time, posting consistent numbers along the way.
   Never a fireballer, Gaby give up well over a hit an inning at Lansing and Dunedin last year, and it was a bit of a surprise that he was named to the Blue Jays contingent of prospects who headed southwest to play in the Arizona Fall League, and an even larger one when he was named to New Hampshire's Opening Day roster.
   After three starts with the Fisher Cats this young season, it's becoming apparent why the team thought he was up for the challenge of an assignment to AA.
   Gabryszwski does not light up a radar gun, sitting between 88 and 91.  In his April 18th start against Colorado's affiliate Hartford, it was obvious that a huge improvement in his slider has been responsible for his strong start.

   Gaby breezed through the first three innings, needing only 34 pitches, and helping out his own cause by snaring a line drive at knee height, and alertly doubling the runner on first.  He gave up no hard contact until the 4th, when he surrendered a run on two hits, and needed a pick off of the runner on 2nd by his Catcher Wilkin Castillo to end the inning.

  In the 5th, Gabryszwski began to lose the strike zone a bit, and gave up some more hard contact, needing 16 pitches to get out of the inning in which he gave up another run on a pair of hits.  The 6th saw a return to form, as he regained some of the bite on his slider, and struck out highly-ranked Rockies prospect David Dahl to end the frame on three pitches.

  In the 7th, facing the heart of the Yard Goats' order for the third time, Gaby had trouble staying ahead of hitters, and with a pair of runners aboard via a walk and a single, he had reached his pitch limit.

   Gabryszwski effectively commands both sides of the plate.  His fastball has good sinking action which can make it difficult for hitters to square him up, as evidenced by the number of foul balls in the early innings.  His slider has great depth and late breaking action, and was very effective as a swing-and-miss pitch to lefthanders, looking like a fastball on the inner half of the plate, until darting to bat-dodging country on the inside corner at the last second.  As he tired, Gaby threw a few 58-foot versions of the pitch.  Sitting 91-92 with his fastball, he does not overpower hitters, but relies on command and that slider to keep hitters off balance.  He was able to throw his change for strikes on occasion as well.

   On the day, Gabyrszwski threw 90 pitches, 61 for strikes.  He pitched 6.1 innings, giving up 6 hits, 3 runs (1 unearned), walked a pair, and struck out 6.  He threw 4 groundball outs, against 3 fly ball outs.  Gaby threw 1st pitch strikes to 14 of the 24 hitters he faced, and had 13 swing-and-misses on the day.

   With Castillo, Jon Berti, Jorge Flores, and Roemon Fields supplying the Fisher Cats up-the-middle defence on this day, it's easy to see why Gabryszwski may be more successful at the higher levels than he was at the lower ones.  As a groundball pitcher who pitches to contact, Gaby will always need strong defensive play behind him.   One concern was how hitters began to start squaring him up as he fatigued and lost both some zip on his fastball and the strike zone, but this was only his third start of the season, and he no doubt will get stronger as the season progresses.  A young pitcher throwing into the 7th inning of only his third start at AA is no mean feat.
   At 6'4" and a listed 195 (he looks a bit more solid than that), Gabryszwski profiles as a pitch-economizing innings eater.  He has clean mechanics, and repeats his delivery consistently, and disguises his slider very well.  Never considered a top prospect, it may be time to reconsider where he fits in the Blue Jays long range plans.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook Vol 4 Ed 2

Tim Mayza - Clutchlings photo

 Another wrap of the goings on in the Blue Jays minor league system for the past week.

Is he or isn't he hurt?
   I wrote last week that top prospect Anthony Alford was injured in a home-plate collision in Dunedin's first game, and that to eyewitnesses the injury did not appear to be all that serious.
   Our first clue that something wasn't right with the prized outfielder came a few days after, when he was placed on the 7-day Disabled List.  Word started to leak out through social media that the injury was more serious than had been first reported.
   D-Jays broadcaster Spence Siegel (@SpenceSiegel) reported on Jesse Goldberg-Strassler's weekly review of the Blue Jays organization "Around the Nest" that the club was seeking a "second opinion," on Alford.  Shi Davidi of Sportsnet divulged a few days later that Alford had undergone ACL surgery in high school, and that the home plate injury may have been knee-related.
   The incident illustrates one of the frustrations of writing about minor league baseball. Injuries are treated like state secrets by teams, and it's hard to fathom just why that is.  Certainly, prospects are always under consideration as currency for trades to upgrade the major league team, so perhaps there's some need to keep that information under wraps, although it's hard in this day and age to think that a team could successfully keep that from the public for any length of time.  Those of us who follow the progress of prospects from afar find it frustrating when a player we've watched for several years basically disappears from the radar, with nary a word about it.
   Emails to several club officials when unanswered, and an inquiry to the D-Jays led to a vague response.  Some of my Twitter followers said that they contacted Alford through social media - this is a route I prefer not to take, because sometimes the prospects are the lowest links on the food chain in these situations, and I would rather not get them into difficulties with the organization.
   Davidi went on to say in his article that the club prefers that Alford rehab his knee, rather than opt for surgery, which is not uncommon for the team in situations where the tear of the ligament in question is not complete.  When Roberto Osuna had a slight tear of his UCL early in 2013, they opted for an ultimately unsuccessful regimen of rest, rehab, and PRP therapy to try to mend the injury.
   So, reading between the lines, we can surmise that the injury to Alford is serious enough to keep him out of the lineup, but not sufficient to undergo surgery (at least in the club's medical staff's opinion).  Either way, it's looking more and more like a lengthy absence for the speedy Mississippian.

The Dunedin Bullpen
   The D-Jays are off to a great start, thanks to a bullpen that gave up only 5 runs over 43 innings through their first 8 games.  It truly is one of the deepest pens in the system, featuring arms lik Adonys Cardona, converted OF Carlos Ramirez, Matt Dermody, Tim Mayza, Jose Fernandez, Alonzo Gonzalez, and Chris Rowley.  There's a good balance between left and right handers in this mix, and if Dunedin starters can make it to the 5th inning with a lead, there's a good chance that this group will preserve the win.   There may not be a lot of value in relievers at the lower levels of the minors, but this could prove to be one of the better groups this team has had in the bullpen at High A in some time.
    Command may be an issue from time to time, as the bullpen issued 14 walks over 5 innings on Sunday.

Jordan Romano Update
   The Markham native missed all of last year as a result of Tommy John surgery.  The 10th round pick out of Oral Roberts in 2014 has been pitching in extended spring training, and reports that he's hit 95 with his fastball, and is sitting 92-94 in his return.  He was pleasantly surprised by his command, as well, noting, "Honestly everything is back to normal. Thrown 4 innings, and issued 1 walk."
   Romano struck out almost 12 batters per 9 innings pitching out of Bluefield's pen in 2014, limiting Appy League hitters to a .209 average.  He is getting closer to returning to game action, but it will be interesting to see where he lands this season.  The organization's preference is to keep rehabbing prospects in Dunedin, but there may not be space for him.  Romano may start in the GCL, then quickly move to Vancouver.
   Another good arm for an organization that is stockpiling them at the lower levels.

Kevin Pillar and Pitch Recognition
   I'm straying from my usual focus in writing about a Major Leaguer, but I've always been a huge fan of Pillar's.
    Lightly recruited in high school, Pillar attended Division 2 Cal State Dominguez, where his high school baseball coach had landed as job as an assistant coach.  The gritty Pillar knew only one way to play the game, according to an article in the L.A. Daily News - full out:
“We had a saying: ‘Game Speed,’ ” said Murphy Su’a, then the Toros’ baseball coach. “That’s the way we wanted to do everything. Kevin was at the forefront of that.” 
   Pillar broke his foot in his sophomore year.  In batting practice, when he collided with the centerfield wall.  And he didn't leave the field.

   Much of the rest of Pillar's history is well known:  an NCAA record 54-game hitting streak in his junior year still didn't garner much attention, and he lasted until the 32nd round of the 2011 draft.
Sent to Bluefield to start his pro career,  Pillar won the Appalachian League batting title in 2011.  Just wait until he gets to the next level, some said - his limitations will be exposed.  Skipping Vancouver, Pillar spent only a half season with Lansing in 2012, but observers there saw enough to name him the Midwest League's MVP.  Still, the best projection most evaluators could bestow on him was, "overachieving, Reed Johnson-type fourth outfielder."

   Despite the detractors, Pillar made his MLB debut in 2013, and played a vital role in the ending the Blue Jays' 22-year playoff drought in 2015.  He got to the majors to stay through a combination of athleticism, high baseball IQ, and a never-say-die attitude.
   That aggressiveness, of course, can be a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, it allows Pillar to make incredible, highlight-reel catches.  On the other, perhaps because he's had to fight for pretty much everything he's accomplished in baseball, Pillar is not content to be a patient pitch hunter.  As a result, he tends to put himself in pitcher's counts.  His average exit velocity ranked 715th among all MLB players last year, and only 5 players swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone last year.  Those two facts don't add up to being in a hitter's count much of the time.
   Pillar's walk rates have consistently hovered at around 5% throughout his time in the minors and the majors.  He's a volume hitter, however - he could post higher OBP and batting averages in minor league baseball, because the pitchers there lacked command, and Pillar could sit back and wait to hammer the occasional cookie delivered into his wheelhouse.  At the major league level, where pitchers can command their arsenal of pitches better, Pillar's aggressiveness at the plate has been something of an impediment.
   Manager John Gibbons showed great faith in placing Pillar atop the Blue Jays batting order this season, but that faith was not rewarded.  Pillar suggested to the Toronto media that his pitch selection might be improved in the leadoff role, but such has proven not to be the case over the first half month of the season.  And maybe it wasn't fair to put him in that role - not just because analytics suggest that a player with his skill set would be better suited to the bottom of the order, where his speed could be more of a factor in putting him in scoring position ahead of a singles hitter like Ryan Goins, but also because for years, Pillar has known only one approach at the plate:  see the ball, hit the ball - put the ball in play, and make the defence get him out.   It may be too late for him to drastically change that.  Just as a generation of Dominican prospects grew up with the mantra, "you can\t walk your way off the island," the same may have held true for Pillar's generation of D2 players.

   If you felt so obliged, you can enter your email address near the top of this page to receive these and other Blue Jays prospect updates without having to search for them.  Later this week, I'll be posting about RHP Jeremy Gabryszwski, who is pitching for New Hampshire this year.  Never considered a top prospect, he gives up contact, but has managed to get hitters out at every level.  For daily updates about all things Blue Jays prospects, follow me on Twitter:  @Clutchlings77.