Among prospect evaluators, the consensus top Blue Jays pitching prospects would include Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Daniel Norris, and Roberto Osuna, a group that received about a combined $6 million in signing bonuses. It could be argued that Kendall Graveman, who signed for $5 000 as an 8th round pick out of Mississippi State last year, has worked his way into the conversation about that group.
The paltry bonus Graveman received was not necessarily an indication of how the Blue Jays felt about his talent. Given that he had little negotiating leverage as a college senior, and also given the new rules around the slotting system and limits on bonuses MLB had implemented, Graveman had little choice but to accept the offer (the assigned value for the pick was $150 000). He was not alone, as the Jays used this strategy with all of their picks from rounds 4 to 10 in 2013, and saved up the allotted bonus money from those choices to convince Rowdy Tellez to forego his college commitment after selecting him in the 30th round.
Perhaps as an acknowledgment to Graveman both for accepting their low offer, and the work he has done in the off-season, the Jays have advanced him through four levels this season, and is on the verge of a promotion to the 40-man roster (although there is no rush - they don't have to place him on the 40 man for another two years). Graveman has rocketed through the Jays system this year, and has posted a record of 14-6, with a 1.83 ERA in 27 starts, with a WHIP just over 1, and a ground ball to fly ball ratio of almost 2-1.
The knock against Graveman is that he wasn't a strikeout pitcher in college, and he has not proven to be a strikeout per inning guy in the minors. What some miss, however, is the improvements John Lott of the National Post mentioned in a recent article. Graveman eschewed the heavy ball routine that is popular among Jays pitchers right now, and opted for a Trevor Bauer-like regimen of long toss in the off season, in order to build up arm strength. The result was an increase in velocity from the high 80s to the low 90s. Graveman also began to experiment (by accident) with a four seam fastball in early June, and began to learn how to cut it. Minor league hitters have been swinging and missing at the pitch in greater frequency.
We had our first opportunity to see Graveman pitch on milb.tv this week. Technical difficulties (at Milb's end) prevented us from watching and tweeting about it live, but we watched closely the following day. There were no radar readings available, and the Scranton-Wilkes Barre tv commentator didn't mention Graveman's speed at all, so we focussed on his delivery and the movement on his pitches, which was actually a nice change. Often, when we're watching a pitcher live, I find myself looking from the pitcher to the scoreboard to my pitch chart, and I find I often miss some subtle things about a pitcher that can tell you a lot about him.
Graveman showed a nice, smooth delivery, and while it's not as effortless as Aaron Sanchez's, he has nice loose mechanics, repeats his delivery and release point, and fields his position well - which is good for someone who generates so many ground ball outs. The SWB tv guy mentioned early in the game that Graveman had thrown 6 DP balls in his last 56 hitters, after he athletically raced to cover first to get the back end of a 3-6-1 twin killing.
Graveman also showed good command of his four seamer, especially to right handed hitters. He started it over the plate, and it would come in on their hands and tie them up, or he could start it outside, and have it back door over the outside corner. We suspect he was aided by the work of AJ Jimenez, who we were getting our first look at in a while. Jimenez is quick and athletic behind the plate, and appears to be a good framer of pitches.
For a guy who a guy who doesn't miss many bats, Graveman struck out the side in the bottom of the first, the first two swinging and the third on a called strike. He gave up a run on three hits in the 3rd, with only one ball hit hard. Graveman found himself in trouble after giving up three straight singles (one of the soft variety, the other one a 'tweener, one a legit line drive), before another double play ball and a groundout limited the damage to one run.
Graveman left with one out and a runner on first in the sixth, and the runner came around to score off of reliever Colt Hynes. Graveman was consistently ahead of the hitters through the first four innings, but pitched behind often in the fifth and sixth. When Graveman missed, he tended to miss up in the strike zone, but off of the plate.
For the game, Graveman gave up 7 hits, 3 runs (all earned), and a pair of walks in 5.1 innings, with 7 strikeouts. He threw 97 pitches, 60 of them for strikes. Graveman got 5 ground ball outs, and 2 via the fly ball. Thanks to the 11 run cushion the Bisons gave him after the top of the 3rd, Graveman picked up his 3rd International League victory.
Will we see Graveman in September? We think it's unlikely, but not highly so. The parent club, at this writing, is all but out of contention for a wild card playoff spot, so the urgency to put him on the 40 man and call him up is lessened. He doesn't profile as a bullpen guy, either, so that diminishes the need for him even further. Graveman has also pitched a great deal the last two years: 152 innings (26 of them pro) between college and minor league ball last year, and 167 so far this year. It truly might be time for the Blue Jays to shut him down, although a trip to the Arizona Fall League, which starts play in October, might give the club a look at what he can do at a high level of competition.