Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Look at Matt Boyd


    I took pen and paper in hand, and watched Blue Jays left hand pitcher Matt Boyd make a start against the Trenton Thunder last week, and came up with some observations.

   First off, a disclaimer - I am not a scout, nor do I pretend to be one.  I was watching Boyd not from behind home plate in Trenton, but on my laptop at my kitchen table somewhere north of Toronto.
My view gave me a good idea of what Boyd's command and ability to repeat his delivery was like, but not his velocity (unless the Trenton play-by-play guys happened to mention it, and they didn't very often), or the movement on his fastball.

   A few notes about Boyd.
-the Mercer Island, WA product grew up a Mariners fan, and idolized Randy Johnson.
-Boyd grew up playing both baseball and hockey; he jokingly calls himself a "defenceman enforcer,' but he was good enough to make a Team USA regional team.  Many of his teammates went on to play in college or the WHL.
-he boasts a pair of famous people in his family tree:  former First Lady Dolly Madison, and Hall of Famer pitcher Bob Feller.  Now, in the case of Feller, it was a distant connection; it's not like he grew up on Feller's knee being regaled with tales of him striking out DiMaggio and Williams.
-he pitched out of the bullpen and played 1st at Oregon State for his first three college seasons, before being converted to a starter in his senior year.  Boyd led the Beavers to the College World Series that year, tossing a complete game four-hit shutout in the second round.
-the Blue Jays took Boyd in the 6th round of the 2013 draft
-Boyd had an April and May that was the equal of Daniel Norris' and Kendall Graveman's last year, and earned a June promotion to New Hampshire.  A foot injury, and maybe being overwhelmed a bit led to his being sent back to High A, where he pitched well, but bone chips in his elbow limited his effectiveness in August.
-Boyd has reportedly been working with pitching consultant Kyle Boddy.  Boddy runs Driveline Baseball, a company which provides, according to its website, "Proven, researched training systems for developing healthy, high-velocity pitchers of any age," based near Tacoma.  Completely healthy and recovered from last year's injuries, Boyd's increase in velocity this spring may be attributable to the work he's done with Boddy.


   The start I saw was an April 20th outing.  The game time temperature was a reasonable 69F.
This was his third start of the season.  In the prior two, he had struck out 18 batters in 9.1 innings.
Here is my charting of his pitches:


   Boyd has a high leg kick, and a slight hitch in his delivery that likely can make it hard for left handed hitters to pick up the ball from.  As you can see from my scrawls, he threw all four of his pitches, mainly relying on his fastball to get ahead on the count, which he mostly did - Boyd threw first pitch strikes to 10 of 18 hitters, and was working in pitchers' counts much of the time.  He had 6 1-2 counts on hitters, and threw 54 of his 81 pitches on the night for strikes.
 
   Boyd has a reputation for being a pitcher who relies on his command of all four pitches and his feel for pitching to get hitters out.  He lives on the black of the plate, and if he is having command issues with any of his pitches, he can struggle to throw strikes.  On this occasion, he seemed to be having some trouble with his slider, leaving it well up in the zone.  As a result, hitters tended to be able to foul off borderline pitches, as evidenced by a couple of long at bats in the early going that drove up his pitch count.  He just wasn't able to put those hitters away, and he reached his pitch count by the end of the 5th as a result.
   Boyd didn't give up a hit in this outing, and the loudest contact of the night against him was a long fly ball that just landed outside of the right field foul pole in the 2nd.  His advanced feel for pitching allowed him to know what was working for him that night, and his athleticism allowed him to repeat his delivery frequently enough that he could command his fastball pretty much throughout his outing.
  Boyd is said to have an excellent pick off move, but he didn't really need to use his best one in this game.  I should also add that C A.J. Jimenez, who was activated just before this start (and now is in Buffalo) was a big help to Boyd in the early going, showing framing and blocking skills that I've admired for some time.
   Al Skorupa of Baseball Prospectus watched a recent start of Boyd's (it may have been this one), and he came away less than impressed.  Skorupa claims that Boyd's fastball isn't "big enough, his command is below average, and there's no out pitch."  At the same time, he admired how Boyd overcame some early control issues to limit the damage.  Skorupa does like Boyd's slider, calling it a future average pitch.  He did like what he saw of Boyd's change up, as did I on the night in question - he had some good movement on it.
 

   Is Boyd a potential major league pitcher?  His projection always has been back of the rotation, but he has pitched above that benchmark in three minor league seasons.  In addition to not being a scout, I'm also not a journalist, so I don't always have to be objective.  I've spoken with Boyd on Twitter a few times, and he seems like a very mature and level-headed kid.  It's hard not to pull for someone like that, and while I'm not sure what his ultimate future holds, I think he can establish himself as a major league pitcher down the road. Boyd may likely be one of those players who has to ride the options shuttle for a few seasons before he sticks, but he's a left handed pitcher who has shown an ability to miss bats - he's struck out better than a batter per inning over 180 minor league innings. While he doesn't have the power arm profile for the bullpen like the Jays prefer, with Randy Wolf, Andrew Albers, and maybe even Scott Copeland ahead of him on the depth charts (maybe even Felix Doubront, come to think of it), Boyd could help in long relief, or as a secondary lefty option to Aaron Loup.
     I like what his college coach, Pat Casey, had to say about him, and I think it neatly sums Matt Boyd up:
“When you coach young men—and it’s difficult enough, but he’s a no-maintenance guy,” Casey said of Boyd. “He takes care of everything. He goes to school, does well in school, trains. He’s the guy you never have to worry about. He’s just easy to coach; he’s just a great kid . . . And he’s just—he’s a really fun kid to coach and he’s a great man.”


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Clutchlings Notebook - Week Three


  All four Blue Jays minor league affiliates are well underway with their seasons, so I thought I would narrow my focus a bit and take a look at some players worth keeping an eye on in the system - players who, as you move down the system, may not make an appearance and/or an impact for the big league club this year, but have a chance to get there at some point.

Buffalo
   The Bisons are a veteran team, but are well worth the trip down the QEW to watch, sitting atop the International League north standings.
  At the moment, there are not a lot of players who could reasonably be called prospects - the Bisons roster is filled more with injury insurance guys.
   Of the players who fit that prospect category, C A.J. Jimenez and IF Andy Burns would be the most worth watching.  The oft-injured Jimenez had his season debut delayed by yet another stint on the DL, but after starting at New Hampshire, he's now in Buffalo.  I watched him catch Matt Boyd's start on April 20th, and there's so much to like about him as a receiver.  Jimenez is quick and athletic, and blocks balls in the dirt well.  He's already a good framer of pitches, and helped Boyd immensely on a night when he was fighting his command with his breaking pitches a bit.  The question mark, in addition to his ability to stay healthy, is his bat.  If not for his injury, however, he may have gotten the call over Josh Thole when Dioner Navarro went on the DL. Jimenez will make a fine defense-first catcher, but his bat may limit the extent of his role on a big league club one day.
   Burns is a 3B/SS who was being groomed as a super utility player, but has played mostly 3rd and 2nd this year.  He started with New Hampshire, but was promoted to the Bisons and went 4-4 in his first game.  Burns got off to a slow start at AA last year, and I had originally thought he might be a September call up at the outset of the 2014 season.  He's another one of those overlooked guys the Blue Jays have loved to draft over the last half decade.  He had to sit out his senior NCAA season after transferring from Kentucky to Arizona, but the Jays didn't forget about him, and took him in the 11th round in 2011.
   At 27, Scott Copeland can no longer be considered a prospect, but since last August, he's placed himself on the radar.  As I write this, he went 5 strong innings for Buffalo tonight, giving up 2 runs on 5 hits, walking 3 and striking out 1 - and this has been one of his poorer outings, the first one where he hasn't at least pitched into the 6th.  Copeland, of course, is not a strikeout per inning guy.  He averages over 2.5 groundouts for every fly ball out.  He just doesn't give up a lot of hard contact:


   Of course, the only way we'll likely see Copeland is if there is an injury situation, and/or a complete meltdown of the major league rotation.  And vets like Randy Wolf and maybe Andrew Albers, Jeff Francis, or possibly even Felix Doubront might get the call before him.  At the same time, what Copeland has done since arriving in Buffalo late last season is get hitters out, posting a 1.80 ERA in 7 starts over the last two seasons, and allowing just 27 hits in 45 innings.

New Hampshire
   Boyd is the obvious pick here, but he's not the only one.  I've written before that he had a better April and May than Daniel Norris or Kendall Graveman last year, before running into some injury issues that weren't enough to sideline him, but limited his effectiveness over the last half of the year.
  I have a more detailed post coming up later this week about him, but Boyd is well worth watching.  Like Copeland, he's not necessarily a power arm, although he had added velo this year.  He relies more on command and his feel for pitching.  At the same time, Boyd's 30 K's are just 3 off the minor league lead.  It's best to see him soon if you're thinking of making a trip east to see him, because he may be in Buffalo by June if he continues to pitch as well as he has.
   Dwight Smith Jr is making quite a name for himself as a hitter.  The Blue Jays tried experimenting with him at 2nd in the Arizona Fall League and in spring training, because his bat doesn't really have the power to profile as a corner outfielder.  He put up solid numbers in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, and has continued to rake in AA, hitting .324/.361/.485.  Smith has hit in the 2nd spot in New Hampshire's order, and has benefitted immensely from having vets Jake Fox and KC Hobson behind him the lineup.  If speedster Jon Berti can get on base more frequently ahead of Smith in the order, he'll see even more fastballs.  With Dalton Pompey and Kevin Pillar ahead of him, there's no spot in the majors for Smith at the moment, but he should join Boyd in Buffalo in a few weeks.

Dunedin
   The D-Jays have a young lineup, and have had trouble showing much consistency so far.
Dawel Lugo and Mitch Nay have potential impact bats, but have struggled.  Roemon Fields may be the fastest player in the organization, but he has had trouble getting on base.
    LHP Jairo Labourt has alternated good outings with not-so-good ones so far this year.  Walks have been his nemesis as they were in his abbreviated stint in the Midwest League last year.  He's been missing bats and the strike zone at almost the same rate.  RHP Alberto Tirado has been sent to the bullpen in an attempt to harness his electric stuff, and for the most part, it's been working.  There's just not a lot of projection for a bullpen guy in High A.
   Dunedin is very much a work in progress.  Almost all of the info I get on them is second hand, of course, because there's no milb.tv coverage of the Florida State League, and the D-Jays play in front of a couple thousand empy seats every night.

Lansing
   This is the must-see team in the organization, and thanks to milb.tv, you can see them a fair amount, although not at home.
   Any discussion about this team now starts with Anthony Alford, the two sport star who is as fabulous a story as he is an athlete.  I've written a few thousand words about him, so please go back through my archives and have a look.
   The Reader's Digest Alford story:  A Mississippi all-state baseball and football star, small-town Alford was one of the nation's top football recruits in 2012, and the Blue Jays took him with their 3rd round pick, even though he had a scholarship to Southern Miss in hand.  He was labelled a 3rd rounder with first round talent - a story making the rounds recently is that the Blue Jays area scout for MS gave him the highest grade of any prospect in that year's draft class.
   Alford was involved in a campus incident in which a gun was pulled (not by him) after his freshman year, and he had his scholarship lifted.  Alford then enrolled at Ole Miss, and had to sit out a year due to transfer rules. He continued to report to the Blue Jays minor league complex in Florida after spring football, but his seasons were always cut short by the need to head back to campus in August, meaning that he had amassed just over 100 PAs over his first three minor league seasons.
   The Blue Jays offered Alford much of Front Street to give up football this past summer, but he declined.
Suddenly, in late September, he left Ole Miss, and announced his intention to give up his gridiron dreams.  I talked to him via Twitter about it, and while he didn't come right out and say it, Alford suggested that he initially went with football because he felt pressured to do so.  Football is King in Mississippi, and it's completely understandable that a young, impressionable young man would feel an obligation to pursue it if he was blessed with such talent.  Somehow, someone said something this fall that lifted the world off of his shoulders, and it convinced him that it was okay for him to make the switch to his first love of baseball, and he reported to Florida for Instructional League play.
   In order to get him some more ABs, the Blue Jays sent him to play in the Australian Baseball League this winter.  The veteran ABL pitchers with their breaking pitches often tied Alford up in knots, and he admitted that he got into a lot of unfavourable hitters' counts.  The experience seems to have paid off however, as had the time he spent with the Blue Jays in spring training (he said Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson made the biggest impression on him).  He spent some time this month on Lansing's DL with a knee issue, but he's been bashing since his return this past week, hitting .364/.417/.500 in 5 games with the Lugs.  The highlight of his week had to be the night he scored on a sacrifice fly - from 2nd base.
   I asked Lansing broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler about what has impressed him the most about Alford, and he said his AB's have been a study in patience, often working into 2-2 or 3-2 counts.  Unlike in Australia, when he widened his strike zone considerably with two strikes,  Goldberg-Strassler says that Alford looks like a very comfortable two-strike hitter.  And Alford's also not trying to pull the ball - he's hitting the ball up the middle and to right field.  All of these are signs of rapidly improving pitch recognition.
   I don't want to get ahead of myself, but Alford could be the best position player in the organization very soon.
    But Alford is not the only prospect on display in the Michigan State Capital. Among the others:

-1B Rowdy Tellez -  a power-hitting first baseman who has transformed his formerly chunky body.  The Midwest League is a tough home runs hitter's loop because of its parks with high outfield walls and the April and May winds that always seem to be knocking fly balls down, but I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of power numbers Tellez produces for Lansing.

-1B/DH/OF Ryan McBroom  The 15th round pick from last year's draft has mostly hit behind Tellez in the Lugnuts order, and pretty much all he has done is hit.  The power hasn't shown up just yet, but he's posted an impressive .323/.408/.418 line.

-OF DJ Davis  Davis is repeating Low A after failing to make much contact last year, striking out in 32% of his PAs.  And his vaunted speed didn't translate into a high stolen base total, as he was thrown out more times (20) than he wasn't (19).  Davis is making betting contact so far this season, and is hitting .302/.397/.444.

-C Danny Jansen When he's healthy and finally activated, Max Pentecost may ascend to the majors faster, but Jansen may well prove to be the Blue Jays catcher of the future.  He's had a slow start at the plate, but his bat has started to come around, and word has spread around the MWL that Jansen is tough to run on.

-RHP Chase De Jong  De Jong is repeating Lansing as well, and with the exception of his last start, appears to be on track for a mid-season promotion to Dunedin.  De Jong struck out 9 in his first start, but he's more of a finesse pitcher who relies on finesse and command. Which he didn't have in his most recent outing, and gave up a pair of homers.

-RHP Sean Reid-Foley The 2014 2nd round steal is perhaps the highest-ceiling member of Lansing's rotation.  On a shorter pitch count leash than his teammates at this point, Reid-Foley has struck out 13 in only 7 innings over 3 starts.

-SS Richard Urena Jose Reyes' potential successor, the 19 year old has held his own at the plate so far, hitting .241/.274/.345, and playing stellar defence.  Some have labelled his glove major league ready.  A switch hitter, Urena's bat from the right side has always been a concern, and he's struggled against lefties so far.

-LHP Shane Dawson The soft-tossing Drayton Valley, AB (as far as I can tell, only two minor leaguers come from a more northerly location than Dawson), southpaw relies on deception to get hitters out, which he's been doing at a healthy clip.  Shoulder injuries have sidelined Dawson each of the past two years, but he is fully recovered, and should move up to Dunedin at some point this season.  MWL hitters are currently hitting a paltry .113 against him.

  Other names due to soon get an assignment to a full-season team:  2015 1st rounder Jeff Hoffman, almost a year removed from Tommy John surgery; 2014 2nd rounder Clinton Hollon, and possible lefty Matt Smoral, who I thought was a lock for Lansing, but struggled this spring and was kept behind for extended spring training.




Monday, April 20, 2015

Clutchlings Notebook - Week 2


   Here's a wrap of the week that was in the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system:

Buffalo (6-1)
   The week got off to a bizarre start for the Bisons when their Monday game with Pawtucket that was suspended by rain and moved to Tuesday to completed as part of a doubleheader.  The second game of that set, in turn, was postponed by a power failure.
   Buffalo lost that suspended game, but then ran off six wins in a row, culminating with a sweep of Lehigh Valley when the Bisons went into the botton of the 9th trailing 4-1,  to close their home stand.
   Jeff Francis pitched five innings of shut out ball in the first game of the Wednesday twin bill, and fellow Canadian Andrew Albers responded with six frames of runless ball in the night cap.  Scott Copeland followed that up with a sparkling 7 innings the next day, allowing only one run on three hits.  Randy Wolf and Chad Jenkins each had strong starts over the weekend.
   With Colt Hynes needing some rest, he was optioned to Buffalo, and Francis was recalled to take his place.  Francis' great week continued with four innings of scoreless relief for the Blue Jays on Sunday.
  Andy Burns was promoted from New Hampshire, and was a scintillating 4-4 in his International League debut on Friday.

New Hampshire (1-6)
   The Fisher Cats got off to a good start by beating Reading to start the week, but then promptly lost their next six games in a row.
   Matt Boyd struck out 9 batters over 5 innings for the second straight start.  Scoring runs has become a bit of a challenge for New Hampshire.  Leadoff hitter Jon Berti was supposed to be a table setter, but has struggled at the plate.  Dwight Smith Jr has been hitting, on the other hand, and closed the week at .317.  A.J. Jimenez was activated from the disabled list to the Fisher Cats, and was in the lineup this weekend.

Dunedin (3-4)
   The D-Jays had a win one/lose one pattern for the week.
Jairo Labourt couldn't get out of the first inning in his start on Monday, but redeemed himself with 8Ks in 4 innings on Saturday.
  Scoring runs has been an issue for Dunedin as well, having been shut out in back to back games against Bradenton.

Lansing (5-2)
  It was a great week for the Lugnuts, who we were able to see a fair amount of during their series with Great Lakes, thanks to milb.tv.
   Lansing had a six game winning streak snapped during that series, the day after winning a 16-inning marathon against the Loons.  Great Lakes, wanting to save what was left of their bullpen, sent a position player in to pitch the top of the 16th, and he served up a two run homer to Rowdy Tellez.
   Conner Greene and Sean Reid-Foley made their full season debuts this week, and pitched well.  Greene struck out 5 in as many innings while surrendering only one run, while Reid-Foley K'd 6 in 3 scoreless innings in his debut.  Greene is piggybacking with Alonzo Gonzalez for the first part of the season, while Reid-Foley is working in tandem with Justin Shafer.
   Starlyn Suriel and Shane Dawson were dominant in their piggyback start in the extra inning game.  Suriel is not a big guy, and doesn't overpower hitters, but relies on movement and location.  Dawson, who missed much of last year, seems to be getting his velocity going, as he hit 92 in his appearance.
   Dan Jansen has shown fine receiving skills, but has struggled at the plate.  He made his first MWL hit a memorable one, though, hitting one over the left field wall at Great Lakes.
   Much has been made of DJ Davis.  The first round pick from 2012 is repeating Low A, and I was concerned about his pitch selection in the at bats I saw him have this week.  He seems to take pitches in the zone, and swing at a lot of pitches outside of the zone.  At the same time, he reached base in the Lugs first 10 games.  In the outfield, his speed allows him to cover a great deal of ground, and he hauled in several drives against Great Lakes that at first looked like they were headed for extra bases.  Davis still needs to cut down on the Ks (15 in his first 45 PAs), but I still want to give him a bit more time.  Davis was one of the youngest players taken in his draft year, and that and the fact that he played his HS ball in Mississippi means that his developmental curve may be longer than most.


Notes
  I asked Lugnuts broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler when he thinks Anthony Alford will return from injury, and he thinks the speedy outfielder will be back by the end of the month.
  I also was in contact with Canadian pitcher Jordan Romano, who was reportedly hitting 95 on the gun earlier in spring training, before suffering a torn UCL.  Romano had Tommy John surgery performed by Dr James Andrew on March 30th, and while he's still wearing a brace, he has already started rehab.
  Jeff Hoffman is slowly building up his innings as he approaches the first anniversary of his Tommy John surgery.  He threw two innings in an intrasquad game at extended spring training, hitting 97 on the gun.  If all continues to go well, Hoffman should pitch in a game that counts, likely at Lansing or Dunedin, by mid-May.


Friday, April 17, 2015

A Look at Chase De Jong

    Image result for chase de jong scouting report  
The Toronto Blue Jays have become well known for drafting and developing a certain type of pitcher since Alex Anthopoulos took over as GM in 2009, and overhauled the scouting department:  tall, lean, and athletic.
  The Blue Jays are not married to that concept, and as Marcus Stroman and Roberto Osuna (although he's radically transformed his body since Tommy John surgery) have proven, they can scout outside of that box, but for every Stroman, there's an Aaron Sanchez and a Miguel Castro, and for every Osuna there's a Jeff Hoffman, Matt Smoral, and a Sean Reid-Foley.
    The reasoning for scouring the hemisphere for this type of pitcher is understandable.  The length allows them to develop a downward plane of their fastballs, which causes the hitter to have to change his focus during the ball's flight to home plate, creating a greater margin of error for a swing and miss, or weak contact.  Tall pitchers (like Castro and Sanchez, especially) can create a bit of an optical illusion because of their extension that hitters call "late life"; hitters have a fraction of a second less to track Castro's fastball, so it appears to "jump" on them because the ball is on them sooner than they realize.
   The lean body type allows the pitcher to have a lower-maintenance physique, which is less prone to injury, and more able to handle the wear and tear of a heavy workload.  One of the few negative things scouts had to say about Osuna was his formerly chunky build.  Medical science is still learning about the factors that precipitate torn ulnar collateral ligaments, but surely an untuned body has to be one.  A heavier pitcher may not necessarily have the musculature to support that weight during the course of repeating a pitching motion thousands of times during a season.
   The athleticism allows the pitcher to repeat his delivery consistently, and maintain a consistent arm slot for their deliveries, while maintaining a bit of deception for the hitters.  At times, a prospect like Daniel Norris comes into the organization with mechanics that are not optimal, but their athletic ability allows them to learn a new way to throw the ball, as well as the confidence to see them through the inevitable setbacks they will encounter as a result.  Athleticism also allows the pitcher to land in a good position to field any balls that come their way.

    I had the opportunity, thanks to milb.tv, to watch Chase De Jong's start this week against Great Lakes.  De Jong, taken in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft, fits the bill for this prototypical Toronto type of pitcher, at 6'4", 205.  Even though he's repeating the Midwest League, there's a great deal to be enthused about, given this start, and the one he threw the week before.  Here's a scouting report from prior to his draft year:

A USC commit, DeJong sits in the high 80s, topping out in low 90s. With a lot of projection left in there, Dejong looks to throw much harder as he fills out his tall, lean frame. He already possesses a hard curve with bite and feel for a changeup and he looks to be a smart pitcher who pounds the strike zone. He works downhill well, getting over his front side, and has an easy arm, remaining very balanced throughout. While not an exceptional talent at the moment, DeJong is the kind of high school arm that could be a completely different pitcher in two years thanks to more physical development and experience in the minors. He isn't the flashiest high school prospect, but has some of the higher upside in the class and shows a good balance of present skills and projectability.  He has the potential to be a solid starter, with the potential for three above average to plus pitches.
   The Blue Jays rolled the dice with De Jong, as they have with so many other picks in the Anthopoulos era.  Because of his USC pledge, De Jong was considered a tough sign - his father is a medical doctor, and his mother is a M. Ed. holder and a middle school guidance counsellor, and some teams obviously felt that education would come first, causing him to drop from a likely sandwich round pick to the 81st overall.  A $620 000 signing bonus offer helped to talk him out of his college commitment.
    De Jong made his pro debut in 2012, and after a pair of promising campaigns in rookie ball, skipped Vancouver and was sent to Lansing for full season ball last year.  And to put it mildly, he struggled.  After a rough April, De Jong seemed to be putting things together in May, but scuffled for much of the rest of the season before being shut down in early August.  Around the plate much of the time, De Jong gave up 113 hits in 97 innings, but walked only 22.
   Understandably, the Blue Jays wanted De Jong to repeat Lansing this season.  Since he barely tops 90 with his fastball and relies on his command, the organization has had him working on a two seamer to get some more movement on his fastball.  His first start of the season showcased the new pitch, as he struck out 9 Lake County hitters before leaving after reaching his pitch count with two out in the 5th on Lansing's Opening Day.
   The camera angle at Great Lakes provides an excellent view of the pitcher from center field, but isn't at a high enough angle to show movement.  De Jong, as is his custom, was around the plate for much of his five inning stint.  He had trouble commanding his curve at times, throwing it up in the zone.  His four seamer also tended to float a bit up in the strike zone, but he owned the bottom half with his two seamer, and while he wasn't as dominant as he was in his first start, De Jong still was impressive, allowing a run on three hits, while walking one and striking out five.
   De Jong has a smooth, easy delivery, and consistently repeats it.  He lands in a good fielding position.  Since he doesn't overpower, command and movement will be the keys to any hopes he has of advancing in the organization.  While velocity and missing a lot of bats advances prospects faster, Mark Buehrle proves that there's a lot to be said for changing speeds, command, and guile.

                                **********************************************

  I also got my first look at Catcher Danny Jansen, and while he's struggled with the bat like many of his young teammates have, I can understand the rave reviews he's earned for his skills behind the plate.
   A big target at 6'2", 210 lbs, Jansen is an effective framer of pitches already, and that skill will only improve as he learns his Lansing pitching staff better.  He is a good blocker of balls in the dirt, and is surprisingly agile for a kid his size.  Jansen gets out to field choppers, bunts, and slow rollers very well.  He handles pitchers well, and has been a contributor to De Jong's success, catching both of his starts so far. Jansen has yet to record his first MWL hit after 18 PA's, but he has hit everywhere he's played, so that may only be a matter of time.  And four walks are included in that total, so he's showing some good strike zone judgement. Max Pentecost may reach the majors before Jansen, but there's a lot to like with this just-turned 20 year old.



Monday, April 13, 2015

Clutchlings Notebook: Week 1


   Mother Nature had a bit of a say in things, but otherwise the first weekend of the minor league season could not have gone much better for Toronto Blue Jays affiliates.

   Dunedin's Jairo Labourt got things rolling with 5 innings of 3-hit, 1-run ball for Dunedin, and Mitch Nay, Dawel Lugo, and Matt Dean all went deep as the D-Jays opened their Florida State League season with a victory over Clearwater on Thursday.

  That set the stage for several more impressive pitching performances on Friday.  Matt Boyd, who got a taste of major league action in Montreal the weekend before, struck out 9 over 4.1 innings for New Hampshire, giving up 3 hits, no runs, and walked only one as the Fisher Cats topped New Britain to start the season.  Boyd and relievers Danny Barnes, Luis Perez, Blake McFarland combined to strike out 17 Rock Cats.  Meanwhile, in Lansing, Chase De Jong also struck out 9 over 4.2 innings in leading the Lugnuts to an Opening Day win over Lake County.
  Lansing had yet another solid start on Saturday from Starlyn Suriel, who contributed 5 innings of scoreless, 1-hit ball, along with 8 K's in a 3-2 win over Lake County in the first game of a doubleheader. Suriel retired the first 11 hitters he faced before allowing a two out walk in the 4th.  In game two, Shane Dawson, who hadn't pitched since last July, threw 5 solid innings, but took the loss as Lansing fell 2-1.  Dawson gave up a pair of hits, walked one and struck out 6, with the only blemish on an otherwise great outing a two-run homer he gave up in the 4th.  Newly acquired Jayson Aquino also tossed five solid innings for Dunedin on Saturday.  To round things out, Scott Copeland threw 7 scoreless innings for Buffalo, surrendering just one hit and one walk for the Bisons.
  Adding that up, I get six high quality starts for the organization in 24 hours.

   On Sunday, the organization went 4-5, as Buffalo, Dunedin, and Lansing all recorded victories, while New Hampshire split a twin bill.  Randy Wolf walked a bit of a tightrope early on, but spun five scoreless innings for Buffalo, and a quartet of relievers helped the Bisons shut out Rochester.
   New Hampshire lost that first game to New Britain, but a trio of pitchers led the Fisher Cats to victory in the 2nd game to shut out the Rock Cats.  Danny Barnes struck out 4 over 2 innings of relief work to earn the save.
   Dunedin's offence woke up to lead the D-Jays to victory over Clearwater, with Matt Dean, Andy Fermin, and David Harris contributing two hits each.  Harris also belted his first home run of the season.  Tiago da Silva, the well-travelled Brazilian reliever, pitched a pair of innings in relief.
And Lansing rode some timely hitting to tie their game against Fort Wayne up in the 9th, then won it in the 10th.

   Lastly, Gail Dull is a Phillies fan who lives in Dunedin.  She writes a great blog, full of photos and coverage of minor league baseball, primarily the Florida State League's Clearwater Threshers.  She lives about four blocks away from the D-Jays home Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, which makes me extremely envious, because if the Gods and Toronto drivers are willing, I'm two hours door to door from my house to the Rogers Centre.  She was kind enough to send along some samples of her work:

RHP Luis Santos, who has pitched in the Pirates and Royals organizations prior to signing with Toronto this year:

@BaseballBetsy photo

A rehabbing Michael Saunders up to bat against Clearwater:


@BaseballBetsy photo



Speedy outfielder Roemon Fields:

@BaseballBetsy photo




Fields watches pitcher Brad Allen's delivery.
@BaseballBetsy photo

Friday, April 10, 2015

Opening Day Review


   Two of the Blue Jays affiliates celebrated their home openers yesterday. Well, one did, the other  and Mother Nature had something to say about the other.

   The Buffalo Bisons hosted Rochester, and went up against the Twins' top pitching prospect, Alex Myers.  Myers battled some control issues, surrendering 6 walks, but the Red Wings pounded Bisons starter Andrew Albers for 8 hits and 4 runs, and took the contest 6-3.  Buffalo battled back with a pair of runs in the sixth to pull within a run, but Rochester scored a pair off of Bisons closer Bobby Korecky in the final frame to put the game out of reach.
   Ryan Tepara and Gregory Infante each had scoreless outings in relief of Albers. There's a good chance that one or both may see time with the Blue Jays.

  New Hampshire had their home opener against New Britain postponed by wind, snow, and rain. There was no word on who was to have started the game, but my bet was Matt Boyd.  The Fisher Cats will make up the game with the Rock Cats as part of a twin bill on Sunday.  There's no word again on today's starter as New Hampshire will try to open their season again, but it would have to be Boyd or Taylor Cole.


   Dunedin opened their season by spoiling the Phillies affiliate's home opener, topping their neighbour Clearwater Threshers, 5-2.   Jairo Labourt started the game for the D-Jays, and was lights out in the early going:



  Labourt lost a bit of velocity in the 6th, and gave up some hard contact, but the start was encouraging.  Labourt started last year with Lansing, but struggled with his command, and was snet back to extended spring training to regroup, and he rediscovered his control when he was shipped out to Vancouver in June.  In 5.1 innings, Labourt gave up 5 hits, a pair of runs, and walked one.  He struck out 3, including rehabbing Phillies outfielder Dom Brown twice.   The Blue Jays own rehabber, Michael Saunders, was 0-3, but was robbed by Clearwater OF Aaron Brown, who brought a home run back over the fence.

   Mitch Nay, Dawel Lugo, and Matt Dean all went deep for Dunedin.  The trio hit a collective total of 16 Home Runs in the tough hitter's parks of the Midwest League last year, and while the Florida State League can be tough on hitters as well, perhaps this is the year that the power that has been prophesized for all three might be realized.

   And it only took four innings for the first triple play in all of baseball to be registered when Dean grounded into a 5-4-3 triple killing.

   Lansing's home opener is tonight, but they opened the newly renovated Cooley Law Stadium with their annual Crosstown Showdown against Michigan State.  The Lugs topped the Spartans 9-4. Lansing traditionally brings in pitchers from the lower levels to pitch this game, in order to save the regular pitching staff members for league play.  Lansing broadcaster recalled a game from a couple of years ago:



   Lansing used a quintet of pitchers in this game.  2014 8th round pick Justin Shafer started the game, and after giving up 3 runs in the first inning, settled down to strike out the side in the second.  Conner Greene, a 7th round pick in 2013 who has some acting credits to his name, pitched a scoreless third and fourth inning.  Chase Wellbrock, a 33rd round pick last year, pitched the fifth and gave up a run and struck out two.  Jesus Tinoco and Sean Reid-Foley each pitched scoreless, two K innings to finish the seven-inning contest.  All pitchers should start at Vancouver this year, although there are rumblings that Greene will be staying in Michigan.
  On the offensive side of things for Lansing, 1B Ryan McBroom was 2-2 with a double and a solo shot to open the scoring in the 2nd, and SS Richard Urena hit a solo blast as well.
   The Lugnuts open their Midwest League season against Lake County tonight in Lansing, with the repeating Chase De Jong taking the mound.

   It's shaping up to be a great minor league season.  The Bisons, for now, have a mostly veteran roster, so even though I hope to see them a few times this summer, my focus will be on New Hampshire, Dunedin, and Lansing for now, then expand to the short season teams in June.  I tweet regular updates about probably pitchers and 140 character game summaries.  If you don't follow me, I'm @Clutchlings77 on Twitter.

   A late note:  today's Bisons game has been postponed due to wind.


 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Two Prospects, Two Different Paths of Development #4






Perfect Game photo

   I've written three previous articles since the spring of 2013 looking at the progress of a pair of pitching prospects selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2011 draft, righthander Tyler Beede, and lefthander Daniel Norris.

   Beede, a product of Auburn, Massachusetts, was selected with the 21st overall pick by the Blue Jays.  He had written major league teams that spring to let them know his intention was to attend Vanderbilt University, and likely would have gone higher in the draft had he not done so. Whether or not that was a bargaining ploy or a legitimate desire to play college ball remains unknown, but what is known is that Beede and the Blue Jays were reportedly a million dollars apart in their negotations, the Blue Jays reportedly offering $2.4 million.  Contract talks went right down to the wire on the then-August 15th deadline, but Beede spurned Toronto's final offer, and prepared to head off to start his collegiate career.
    Norris, from Johnson City, Tennessee, was, like Beede, one of the top ranked prep pitchers in the draft.  He fell to the second round because many teams were wary of his commitment to Clemson. The Blue Jays chose Norris with the 74th pick, and his negotiations went down to the wire as well, but he ultimately signed fifteen minutes from the deadline (likely with some savings realized by Beede's refusal), and signed for a $2 million bonus.



   Because he signed so late in the season, Norris' pro debut was put off until 2012.  Beede, meanwhile, headed off to Vandy, and made his college debut in February. There was little comparing of the two after their respective first seasons.  Beede pitched in 16 games for the Commodores, starting 11.  He was rocked in his start and spent some time in the bullpen, but righted himself as the season progressed, Beede pitched well in post season competition, and was named to the All-Tournament team at the Regional level.
   Norris, on the other hand, reported for spring training, and was kept behind with all of the other first year players after camp broke in April.  There had always been concerns about Norris' long and sweeping delivery and his curve ball, and the Blue Jays worked on both over the course of the spring. Sent to short-season Bluefield to begin his pro career that June, Norris understandably struggled, and was hit hard there and after a promotion to Vancouver.  Developmentally, Beede was ahead of Norris at the time, but it was easy to understand why.  The Blue Jays had a significant investment in Norris, and it was in their best interests to make whatever corrections to his approach that they needed. That's not to say that Vandy didn't make similar adjustments with Beede; they likely weren't as significant.

   Fast forward to the spring of 2013, and the developmental gap between the two was widening. Beede was on his way to Second Team All America status as a sophomore by several publications, while in the midst of a rough April with full season Lansing, Baseball America made this observation about Norris:

 The 19-year-old still has plenty of time to turn things around, but it’s hard to explain how a lefty who can touch 96 mph and pairs it with a breaking ball that shows flashes of being a plus pitch can get squared up outing after outing. Norris saw his career ERA jump to 8.87 after giving up 13 baserunners in only four innings over the past week. Even more inexplicably, lefties have posted a 2.300 OPS against Norris in five at-bats.

   As the summer approached, Norris was refining his command.  For Beede, who was named to Team USA, it was the opposite, as he fought his control.  Norris rode a fine second half of the season to remain near the top of most Blue Jays top prospect lists, while Beede, despite his command issues, was shaping up to be a possible top 5 draft pick after his junior year ended the following June.

   From there, many people know the story.  The pair seemed to be heading in opposite directions last year, Norris rising through three levels to get finish the year in the Majors, while Beede's stock slipped, and he was taken 14th overall - ahead of where the Blue Jays selected him, but below where the early predictions had him going.  Selected by the Giants, Beede signed for $2.6 million - more than what the Blue Jays had offered, but about $1.2 million below what the 5th overall pick, Florida HS shortstop Nick Gordon, signed for.  Beede's struggles continued in playoff play, and he didn't get the ball to start Vandy's successful College World Series run.
   While Norris was rocketing through the minors, Beede reported to the Giants minor league complex in Arizona to start his pro career.  The Giants immediately began to change Beede from a control-challenged power to a more efficient, groundball-inducing type of pitcher.  In order to make that transition, they swapped his four seamer early in the count for a sinking two seamer, and a cutter. The change appeared to work as Beede dominated hitters in the Complex and Northwest Leagues.
    And that brings us to the present day, where Norris and his van rode a lights out spring to the 5th starters' job in the Blue Jay rotation, and a start this week against the Yankees.  Beede, meanwhile, has shipped out to full season team in the California League.  Clearly, Norris is ahead of Beede on the curve at the moment.  No one could have predicted Norris' meteoric rise last year, of course, which may have reflected a change in organizational philosophy as much as it did his performance. And while Beede may be behind Norris at the moment, his first pro year went much more smoothly than Norris' did.  Both faced an overhaul of their pitching approaches, but Beede at 21 was obviously more mature and able to handle the change than the at-the-time recent high school grad Norris was.
Norris is clearly ahead financially, even though he ultimately signed for a lesser bonus.  By graduating to the bigs last September, his service time clock has started.  As well has he has pitched so far over his small sample size of a pro career, it's hard to expect Beede to duplicate those results and be in the Giants rotation a year from now.

   Beede has been relatively injury-free during his college career - despite Vandy's success, his innings were carefully monitored.  Norris was on a strict pitch count after turning pro, but was still shut down for a month in 2013 with elbow soreness, and had bone chips removed after last season.  If there's one red flag that gnaws away at the back of my mind about Norris, that's it.

   How did this draft effect the Blue Jays?  There were rumours that they were concerned about medical reports about Beede, and wouldn't budge much from their initial offer, but we'll never likely know the full story.  When Beede turned them down, Toronto turned their attention to Norris, and it's hard to argue with that strategy.  And as compensation, they were able to draft Marcus Stroman the following year, so again, things worked out for them.

   Who has the higher ceiling?   That's still hard to say, but the consensus would probably be Norris right now.  Just as we the comparison between Norris and Beede wasn't valid during Norris' first pro season and a bit, it's probably still not fair now.  Beede's performance this year will go a long way toward determining that.



 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Clutchlings Notebook


  It's been a hectic weekend of watching the Blue Jays final spring training games, and checking Twitter for news of where the club has placed its minor league prospects for the year.  Here are some observations and thoughts....


A Primer
  If you are a regular reader, you have my permission to skip this paragraph and go on to the next one.  I've picked up a fair number of new readers over the past month, and since I've been asked on more than one occasion how the different levels of the minor leagues work, here goes:

   With the exception of the Florida State and Gulf Coast League teams, the Blue Jays minor league affiliates are locally owned.  Major League teams sign two or four year Player Development Contracts with the teams, usually renewed in even years.  By the terms of the contract, the MLB team provides and plays players and coaching staff on the team, and the minor league team pays all other expenses.

AAA - one step below the majors.  These teams are generally stocked with injury insurance players, and prospects not quite ready for the big time.  Kevin Pillar spent much of last season at this level, and the thinking before spring training started was that Devon Travis needed a year of seasoning there.  We all know how that turned out.
  The Blue Jays AAA affiliate, as you likely know, is the Buffalo Bisons.  The roster to start the year will be a veteran one, full of guys who have been through several organizations, or have been career minor leaguers.
Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo is a great place to watch a ballgame.  The park is about five minutes away from the Peace Bridge, and prices are extremely reasonable.  The Bisons will accept Canadian money in denominations of $20 or under at par at the box office, concessions, and the restaurant down the right field line for April.  They'll also take our money (same denominations) at par at the box office the whole season (online credit card purchases are subject to the exchange rate).  Even though the Bisons draw well, your chances of purchasing tickets at the box office are reasonably good if you want to save the exchange.
There is ample parking around the ball park.
   Check out Washington Square Grill just a block away from the park for a cheap, hardy meal before the game.
  The Blue Jays/Bisons PDC runs through the 2016 season.

AA - a place where teams often want to assign their top nearly major-league ready prospects, so that they get a chance to play together and get to know each other.  The jump between A and AA is the biggest one in the minors, so players often skip AAA, or spend minimal time there, on their way to the majors.  Aaron Sanchez started the year in AA last year.
    The Blue Jays AA affiliate, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, is based in Manchester, about a 9 hour drive from the GTA.  There was talk a few years ago of the club moving their AA team to Ottawa, but city council was reluctant to pick up the price tag to renovate RCGT Park to bring it up to Minor League Baseball's standards.  Having a team in the nation's capital would be very convenient for fans, and would help to continue to grow the Blue Jays brand across the country, but their current partnership has been very successful, and the club is staying with New Hampshire for now.
 
   The Blue Jays/Fisher Cats PDC expires in 2018.

High A - where prospects who have played several seasons of minor league ball are sent.  Daniel Norris, starting his second year of full season ball, began the season at Dunedin of the Florida State League last year, as did Dalton Pompey.  High profile top college draft picks also often start their careers at this level.
   Dunedin plays in Florida Auto Exchange stadium, often in front of only a few hundred fans.  The D-Jays are one of the lowest-drawing teams in the FSL, and the Blue Jays are hoping to re-brand the team when their new spring training complex opens.
 
  Since the Blue Jays own the franchise, there is no PDC.

Low A - the first rung on the full season ball ladder.  The Blue Jays have a very successful partnership with the Lansing Lugnuts of the Midwest League.  Just 4 1/2 hours away from the GTA, scores of Canadian fans have made the trek across the border to catch the Lugs.
   Players at this level are still several years away from the bigs.  For all, it's their first experience playing every day on an extended basis, and learning to deal with the travelling.  For international prospects, it can be their first lengthy experience with American culture beyond the familiar weather and life of Southern Florida.

   The Jays and Lugs are signed to a PDC through 2016.

Short Season Ball
   Playing a condensed schedule that starts in June and wraps up by the end of the first weekend in September, this is where prospects get a taste of pro baseball life.  Players report to spring training in mid-March, and when camp breaks for full season prospects, these players remain in Florida for Extended Spring Training to continue to hone their skills, and play against other minor leaguers in exhibition game.  They usually head out to their assignments early in the second week of June.
   The top rung on his part of the ladder for the Blue Jays in the Northwest League, where the Blue Jays have a wildly successful partnership with Vancouver.  The C's lost in the NWL final last year, snapping their streak of 3 league titles in a row.
   Players in this league tend to be more experienced.  Rosters are full of recent college grads, and players who have a couple of pro seasons under their belts.
   Vancouver is an incredible place to spend a few days.  Outdoor opportunities abound.  In the morning, you can walk the Sea Wall at Stanley Park, or climb a mountain trail at the Grouse Grind, or drive the north shore and sea kayak at Deep Cove.  Then, you can catch a C's game at quaint Nat Bailey Stadium, situated in a nice suburban neighbourhood not far from downtown.
   At the Nat, they serve a wonderful variety of craft beers.  One word of warning:  since the Nat is an older park, there are some views behind home plate obstructed by upright girders, and they don't warn you about that when you buy tickets online.  Either try to get tickets right behind the plate, or down the baselines past the dugouts to avoid this.
   It's hard to get a handle on who will be playing for the C's this year, because many of the players who will be on their roster haven't been drafted yet.  If I had to guess, I would say Lane Thomas, who had a great pro debut last year, will man second for Vancouver this year, along with pitchers Sean Reid-Foley, Grayson Huffman, and Jesus Tinoco may start in Vancouver.

   The Blue Jays PDC with Vancouver runs through 2016, and unless things change dramatically with local ownership, it's hard to see this one expiring for a long, long time.

    The next step down (or up, depending on your perspective) for Blue Jays prospects is the Appalachian League.  This is the first experience "under the lights" for prospects, playing in front of a few hundred (sometimes more) people, and travelling.  The Blue Jays affiliate at this level is in beautiful Bluefield, WV, a 9 hour drive from Toronto.  Many Jays fans who make the trip stop along the way in Pittsburgh and catch a couple of Pirates games.  This is usually the second stop for prospects.  Again, the makeup of the Bluefield roster is a bit hard to predict at the moment, but I would think C Matt Morgan, pitchers Angel Perdomo, Nick Wells, and Jake Brentz, and intriguing OF prospect Juan Tejada will get to play under the lights in Bluefield to start the year. There was talk that the Blue Jays might look for another affiliate at this level last fall but they have re-upped with Bluefield for another two years.
   The Gulf Coast League is the entry-level for many Blue Jays prospects, including recent high school draft picks, international players getting their first taste of stateside plays, and some rehabbing minor leaguers.  GCL players work out in the morning, and then play against other teams GCL entries around noon, under the blazing Florida sun, earning the league the nickname the Gulf Roast League.  Crowds here consist of scouts, girlfriends, and parents.  The visiting parents often get adopted by the whole team, who are just grateful to have someone watching them.  The games are free of charge to watch, but only the hardiest of northerners make the trek to view them.
   Below this level is the Dominican Summer League, stocked mostly with 16 and 17 year old international prospects getting their first taste of pro ball.  Only a handful of them are deemed worthy of moving up to the GCL the next year.


Matt Boyd/Taylor Cole
   The pair figure to be mainstays in the New Hampshire rotation this year, and they both got a taste of big league action in the Olympic Stadium games this past weekend.
   Boyd followed Daniel Norris in the first game, and struggled a bit with his command, and was obviously a victim of the jitters.  Veteran Russell Martin came out to calm him down, and he got the final out.  Here's a look at his performance:



  While I've followed Boyd closely for the past year, this is the first time I've seen him pitch live.  I like his leg kick, which apparently has been brought down a bit, because it helps create some deception.  When he missed during this outing, he missed down, and his change up showed good movement.  The starters in Buffalo will get the first recall if one goes down with the big club, but there's an outside chance Boyd could be in the majors by the end of the year.  If not for a foot injury and some bone chips that needed removing at the end of the season, Boyd could have followed fellow prospects Daniel Norris and Kendall Graveman to Toronto.  His season up until the mid-way point was that good.
   
   Cole is a good story.  He missed two years of pitching when he spent two years on a Mormon mission (in Toronto, of all places), and at 25 has been labelled old for most of the levels he's pitched at .  Fangraphs' Carson Cistulli has been following Cole, and likes what he sees:
Strikeout- and walk-rate differential is among the most quickly stabilizing of pitcher metrics that’s also predictive of future run prevention. Daniel Norris, who sits atop this list, produced the best such mark (23.9 points) last year among all qualified starters at High-A or above. The right-handed Cole finished second (22.6 points) by that same critera. The two were actually teammates at High-A Dunedin until mid-June. While Norris eventually earned a series of promotions that brought him to the majors, however, Cole was relegated to a pair of Double-A starts in early August before returning to the Florida State League
    
    Cole was even named Fangraphs Fringe Prospect of the Year in 2014.  Given his age, he's a long shot to make the majors, but he should succeed at AA.  He came into the 9th inning of the second game, and gave up a run, but finished the game well.
 
 
Milb.tv
   If you can't quite get enough baseball to watch, and/or can watch more than one game at a time, a subscription to the minor leagues' streaming service is for you.
   This year, home games for all 30 AAA teams will be carried, meaning that you can catch a fair amount of the Bisons.  All 30 AA teams will be covered as well, and it appears that the Fisher Cats home games will be televised.  You can watch on any device.
  Beyond that, it gets a little dicey.  There is no Florida State League coverage, and only a half dozen Midwest League teams do, meaning that you can only catch the Lugnuts on the road.  The quality of the telecasts have improved, but it can be a buyer beware scenario below AA.  Having said that, I saw Miguel Castro's start at West Michigan when he pitched for Lansing last year, and while the coverage obviously lacks the cameras and technology that MLB telecasts do, it was adequate for me to get a really good look at him.
  The subscription price is $12.99/month, or $49.99 for the season.  You can go month-by-month, but your subscription will automatically be renewed each month unless you specify otherwise.
   All of the Blue Jays affiliates' (other than the GCL and DSL teams)  games can be listened to on your device via the teams' websites.  The Fan 590 will even feature 15 Bisons games this year.

The Rosters
   There are some surprises on the four full season team rosters, but they tend to be at the lower levels.

Buffalo
 To the surprise of few, the Bisons roster is a veteran one, but if any of the top prospects like Sanchez, Norris, Pompey, Travis,  or Pillar falter at the big league level, that could change.
 Buffalo will be going with a veteran pitching rotation, which included Chad Jenkins being stretched out into a starting role.  If there's a red flag with the big club, it's the lack of starting pitching depth.  Randy Wolf and, eventually, Johan Santana will be part of the starting rotation, at least for the first part of the season.
   Ryan Goins' demotion was a tough thing to see, but there's a strong possibility he will be back with the Blue Jays before long, especially when Michael Saunders is healthy.  John Stilson is injured at the moment, and probably not back until June.
  If I had to wager who a couple of outside the box promotions might be if other plans go awry, I would point to starter Scott Copeland and reliever Ryan Tepara.  Copeland has been an org guy during his minor league days, but learned to pound the strike zone down low last year, and pitched well for the Bisons.  Tepara, a converted starter, could be a power arm out of the pen.

New Hampshire
  With Boyd and Cole anchoring the starting rotation, and veteran Casey Lawrence joining them, have the makings of a solid starting corps.  Reliever John Anderson has been converted to starting, and will be joined by late-season pickup Mike Lee to round out the corps.
   With Devon Travis making the big club, some (including me) thought that Jon Berti would be playing second for Buffalo, but he's back for a second season with the Fisher Cats.
   Outfielder and sometime second baseman Dwight Smith, who apparently has added a bit of a leg kick in order to boost his power, will make his AA debut.
  If Miguel Castro or Roberto Osuna falter at the big league level, it would make sense for one or both of them to be sent to New Hampshire.

Dunedin
   Jairo Labourt headlines the D-Jays rotation, and will be joined by off season addition Jayson Aquino.  The Dunedin bullpen could be interesting, with holdover Chad Girodo, converted starter Alberto Tirado, flamethrowing Jimmy Cordero, and international signing veteran Tiago Da Silva, who we thought would be heading to New Hampshire.
   Matt Dean and Dawel Lugo move up from Lansing to join former Lugnut teammate Matt Nay.  Christian Lopes tore up the Australian League over the second half before injuring his hamstring, and I thought he might merit a promotion to AA, but is back along with Aussie and Dunedin teammate LB Dantzler.
   Roemon Fields is skipping Lansing, and promises to be a player to watch.  An elite defender and possibly the fastest player in the organization, Fields impressed many this spring, and the former US Postal worker may move quickly this year.

Lansing
   This was what we thought would be a team to watch last year, but their young pitching staff (including Labourt and Tirado) struggled.
  There are a few names we thought might be there that I wrote about in my last post like pitchers Ryan Borucki and Matt Smoral, but they are being kept back in Extended.  Borucki apparently had bone chips removed from his elbow, so he is a while from returning to competition.
  There's still a lot to like on this roster.  Pitcher Chase De Jong is repeating, but there are indications that he could recapture his former top prospect status.  The surprising Starlyn Suriel and Alberta's own Shane Dawson will join him in the rotation.
  As far as position players go, there are four that could make the trip to Lansing worthwhile for Blue Jays fans travelling from Southern Ontario.  Shortstop Richard Urena was labelled major-league ready on defence last year, and while he's always profiled more as a glove first player, his bat is coming along.  Last fall, we envisioned a Urena-Franklin Barreto keystone combination, but the Blue Jays felt confident enough in Urena's development to deal Barreto to Oakland as part of the Josh Donaldson deal.  Many of Urena's throws across the diamond to first will be to Rowdy Tellez, the top first base prospect in the system.  Tellez came to camp in excellent shape, and even though the Lugnuts home Cooley Law Stadium is a canyon of a park, Tellez may bust out this year.
   The Lugnuts outfield will resemble a track team, featuring Anthony Alford, DJ Davis, and Jonathan Davis.  Alford committed full time to baseball last fall, foregoing his college football dream, and went to spring training with the big club.  DJ Davis was the club's first round pick in 2012, but struggled mightily last year with the Lugs.  He played his best ball of the season when his friend and fellow Mississippian Alford was in town.  Jon Davis was hurt much of last season, and is looking to make up for lost time.
   Danny Jansen may well be the catcher of the future, despite being behind the convalescing Max Pentecost on the depth chart.  Scouts rave about his receiving skills and bat.

Around the Nest
   Every Friday,  Lugnuts' excellent broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler hosts this online look at the Jays system, featuring reports from the play-by-play guys of the Toronto affiliates.  It's a great source of information for those who like to follow prospects - news you can't get anywhere else.
    Here's a link to the first podcast of the season.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Spring Training Prospect Update #3



   The trickle of news coming out of spring training is turning into an April torrent.
With the Blue Jays making what's becoming their annual end-of-spring-training trip to Montreal for a pair of final exhibition games, the season opener is fast approaching.  We should know what the full season minor league rosters should look like by the end of the weekend.

Here's what's in the news:

2014 first round pick Jeff Hoffman has been making steady progress in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, and threw in his first spring training game yesterday.  I think it went ok:



   Before we get too excited, Hoffman is still at least a month away from when-it-counts game action.  And if there's one thing we've learned about the recovery, it's that most players take closer to 18 months to fully recover their velocity and command, Roberto Osuna being a case in point.  Still, it was welcome news.

   If you don't follow our Left Coast friend Charlie Caskey (@CharlieCaskey) on Twitter, you should.  Caskey follows the Vancouver Canadians, and blogs about them for the Vancouver Sun.  Charlie also likes his barley and hops beverages, and is a dedicated dad, so he's all right in my books.
   Caskey has a source who let him in on some developments with several Blue Jays minor leaguers, and he shared some of that information in a pair of posts today.  The first involves news about the possible makeup of Lansing's pitching staff this year.  It's always interesting to see who the club sends to Lansing, the lowest of the full season teams in the organization.  Some pitchers move up the ladder from the GCL to the Appy League to the NWL one step at a time before hitting full season play in the Midwest League, while others skip one or more of those rungs and are fast-tracked to Lansing.
   And the news about Lansing isn't good.  Ryan Borucki, who made a comeback from TJ last year and pitched well at Bluefield and Vancouver, has been shut down with a sore elbow.  Maybe it's just the regular spring soreness, but it takes on added urgency when a player is throwing with a replacement ligament.  Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the success rate for a second Tommy John is considerably less than that of the first. This could be precautionary, of course, but he likely will be staying in Florida next week.
  Fellow southpaw Matt Smoral followed the same route as Borucki last year, and word from Caskey is that he's not had the best of springs, and he may be on the bubble.  It could just be a hiccup, or it could be he needs time in Extended Spring Training.  The Blue Jays 2nd round pick in 2012 has been brought along very slowly, but made excellent progress last year.
   Finally, yet another lefty, Jairo Labourt, seems to be having an electric spring, and may find himself in Dunedin next week.  Labourt was challenged with an assignment to Lansing last year, but had trouble with his command, and was sent back to Extended.  Sent to Vancouver to join the C's for short season play, he was one of the NWL's top prospects, and restored much luster to his reputation.
  As well, we had learned earlier in the month that Alberto Tirado will remain in the bullpen this year, and if I had to guess, he'll start with Dunedin.  Tirado struggled with the cool Midwest weather last year, and while all Blue Jays prospects raised in warm weather climates have to deal with it eventually, if he's been pitching as well as we hear he has, High A will be the better placement for him.
   Last year's 2nd rounder, Sean Reid-Foley, appears to be poised to skip both Bluefield and Vancouver for Lansing.  He's definitely on the fast track.
   On the position player side, Caskey reports that Lansing's outfield may resemble a track team, with speedsters Roemon Fields, Anthony Alford, and DJ Davis possibly getting assignments there.
   Davis, the club's first round pick in 2012, was a disappointment last year at Lansing, but was one of the youngest players in the league, and is still learning the game.  I've written extensively about Alford, the two-sport star who suddenly gave up on college football last September to focus on baseball, and while he proved during his time in Australia this winter and with the big club earlier this month that he still is raw, his ceiling is quite high.  Then there's Fields, who two springs ago was out of baseball, and working for the US Postal Service. Here he is, hitting a routine stand-up triple against the Orioles:


video


   According to Caskey, a Florida-based scout puts Alford ahead of Davis in terms of development.  At the same time, Davis played some of his best baseball last summer in the brief time fellow Mississippian Alford was in the lineup.  Pairing them up at least to start the season could be beneficial for both, although it's hard to see Alford spending the whole season in Lansing.  Blue Jays fans may be just as excited about Alford next spring as they have been about Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro this spring.  As for Fields, there is talk that he could start at Lansing or Dunedin.  Veteran superscout Mel Didier said that he is the best defensive outfielder in the organization, major and minor leagues.

    Caskey also reports that Catchers AJ Jimenez and Derrick Chung are out with injuries - no word on the extent with the oft-injured Jimenez, and Chung's sounds like an oblique, which isn't serious, but can be if it's not treated properly.

   Jeff Moore of Baseball Prospectus had a few observations about Blue Jays prospects at Spring Training today.
   About Dwight Smith, who has been playing some second base this spring, he offers:
 ..an intriguing player last year in the FSL, but one likely to end up as a fourth outfielder thanks to his “tweener” profile (not enough power for a corner, not enough defense for center). Perhaps in an attempt to remedy that, he has added a rather extreme leg kick in his stance. It might cost him some contact, but if it moves his power up a tick on the scale it could be enough to make him an everyday player. Stay tuned.

    On Emilio Guerrero, who the Jays have been attempting to convert to an outfielder, Moore observed:

 The overall product doesn’t add up to the sum of the parts for Emilio Guerrero (Blue Jays), who continues to look the part but baffles scouts with below-average baseball IQ and poor execution at the plate. The frame, at 6-4 and thin, is ideal, and he handles it well enough to handle shortstop for the time being, but the lack of approach at the plate continues to hold him back.  
 

Speaking of Osuna and Castro, I won't be surprised to find one of them back in the minors before the end of April, and if I had to wager, it would be Osuna.  Both were almost unhittable earlier in the month, but now that rosters have been pared and hitters are getting their timing back, both have given up some contact and been touched for some runs in their last few outings.  Castro may be groomed to be a multiple innings guy, but Osuna needs to pitch, and if he has a few rocky outings, I could see him making his way back, probably to AA, where he should be stretched out as a starter again.

   Spring Training is a time of renewal, and for some players, it's a chance at redemption - another shot at the big time.  At the same time, we tend to forget that for every player who makes it to the majors, there are dozens who don't, and the end of March for some can be the-writing-on-the-wall time.  Such was the case for righthander Ben White, who announced his retirement on Twitter:


   White hails from Parksburg, PA, about an hour outside of Philadelphia, and played college ball at Temple.  White signed with the Blue Jays as an undrafted free agent following his senior year in 2011, and had advanced from Vancouver to New Hampshire, where he started a pair of games last year.  White has been a solid, if unspectacular performer for the team, pitching to contact.  If I had to speculate, there may not have been room for him in New Hampshire's rotation this year, with John Anderson converted to starting, and Taylor Cole, Matt Boyd, Casey Lawrence, and Jayson Aquino (acquired before spring training for reliever Tyler Ybarra) ahead of him, White may have felt at 26 that it was time to move on with this life.  He exited from the game in a classy manner.


One last note:
  Caskey and I compared notes about pitchers in minor league camp who have impressed, and we had one in common:  lefty Matt Boyd, who Caskey's source said has been "throwing fuel" this month.
  Boyd is another player I've written a fair amount about, and have gotten to know a little bit through our interactions on Twitter.  There's no cheering in the press box, but since I'm not a beat writer (or a journalist, really, although I try to produce quality content), I can pull a bit for this guy, who was matching Daniel Norris and Kendall Graveman strike for strike last spring, until foot and elbow (bone chips) issues limited his effectiveness.

    I write a regular Monday notebook, the first issue of which should be out early next week (maybe even Monday) - I'm holding out for the announcement of those minor league rosters.


Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Some More Under the Radar Prospects

  Since the response to my first post about less-hyped Blue Jays prospects was well received (and I was given a few more names that might fit the profile), I thought I would look into some more under-the-radar prospects who Blue Jays fans may become a lot more familiar with a year from now.

   The criteria for inclusion on this list are pretty straightforward:
1. The player has only played short-season ball to this point, usually not past the Appalachian League
2.  In their relatively small sample size, they have provided reason from a scouting and/or statistical point of view to be termed "one to watch."
3.  They were not necessarily a high draft pick, or a huge bonus-signing international player.

   The caveat that comes with these players, of course, is that with that small sample size, coupled with the fact that they have only toiled in the lowest rungs of the minor league ladder to this point,  the odds of them advancing to the majors is considerably less than mortal lock status.  Just the same, they have shown enough during their short pro careers to warrant closer and further observation.

Juan Tejada
   One day, we may look back on the Blue Jays 2011 international free agent class as the best in club history. This group includes Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro, who appear at this writing to have secured Opening Day spots in the Blue Jays bullpen, as well as promising prospect pitchers Alberto Tirado and Jairo Labourt, and shortstop Dawel Lugo.  Outfielder Tejada was one of the lesser-known members of this group.
   An investigation prevented him from making his pro debut in the Dominican Summer League until  2012, and the Blue Jays have taken it very slow with him, having him repeat the level in 2013.  Baseball America compared him to a young Carlos Gomez, without the 80-grade speed.  At 6'4" 205, BA said he has plus speed, plus power from the right side, and the Blue Jays were projecting him early on to be a centrefielder.
His bat was labelled raw, and he showed that through his first two pro summers in the DSL.
   2014 was a bit of a coming out party for Tejada.  Chris King, who covers Florida for Baseball Prospectus, was impressed:




 


And one more, for good measure:

   If Tejada has thunder in his bat, though, he's shown a lot of wind, too, striking out in 32% of his plate appearances last year en route to posting a .241/.293./420 line.  The speed is there, as he's stolen 45 bases in 63 attempts over the past three summers.  Tejada split time between centre field and right last summer.
   Tejada will be playing under the lights this summer at either Bluefield or Vancouver.



Grayson Huffman
   Sometimes, players get overlooked in a draft, or their stock drops, because of college commitment. The left-handed Texan apparently re-thought his pledge to attend Texas A & M, and went to Grayson Community College in his home state, presumably because of a top flight ju-co baseball program which has produced the likes of John Lackey, Andy LaRoche, and former Blue Jay Danny Darwin, and not because he shared a name with it.
   Unlike prospects who attend university and aren't draft-eligible until after their junior year, junior college players can be drafted after their first year.  Such was the case with Huffman, who the Jays took in the 6th round last year, and signed him for slightly less than the allotted $256 800 for that slot.
   Huffman started his pro career in the GCL last summer, and the complex league hitters were overmatched against him, managing a paltry .086 average over 27 innings.  Sent to Bluefield late in the season, he continued his mastery of Appy League hitters in 3 starts covering 11 innings.
    Huffman comes with the small sample size warning, but there's a lot to like after his first pro season.

Jake Brentz
   And sometimes good players get overlooked because of other issues.  In the case of Brentz, a hard-throwing lefty, it was because he converted to pitching in his last year of high school, and that coupled with sign ability concerns dropped him to the 11th round of the 2013 draft, where the Blue Jays scooped the Missouri product up with a $700K bonus.
   Brentz's progress has been slow, having spent both of his pro seasons in the GCL.  The club has been overhauling his mechanics, and Brentz has been learning to pitch. With a fastball that touches 97 and a still developing pitching resume, Brentz is due for a breakout season.


Gunnar Heidt
   A broken hand in April, and one year of college eligibility remaining after 2014 likely caused most teams to pass on the middle infielder from the College of Charleston.  Scouts covering college ball in South Carolina were divided among who was the better infield prospect - Heidt, or Joey Pankake, who was drafted by the Tigers.
 The club moved him quickly from the GCL to the Northwest League after he signed.  A shortstop in college, Heidt will alternate between second and third this year.
   Heidt doesn't have one outstanding tool, but does a lot of things well.  His bat speed is superior to most middle infielders, and he can steal a base.  With the glove, Heidt showed good range and a strong arm.  He could easily play the corner outfield positions and develop into one of those valued super utility players.


Yeltsin Gudino

   The Blue Jays signed the slender (6'. 150 lbs) Venezuelan short stop, the 11th ranked IFA in 2013, to a $1.29 million bonus.
   Based on his 2014 season, the club didn't get much return on that investment.
   A closer look reveals that the Blue Jays were quite aggressive with the youngster, skipping him over the DSL (which is the usual procedure with Caribbean players), and at 17 he was one of the youngest players in the GCL, and it showed.  Gudino managed a miniscule line of .145/.219/.167.  Obviously, Gudino was overmatched, and has to get stronger.
   Scouts laud his footwork, range, and arm at shortstop, and he hit well as a celebrated national youth player in Venezuela.  Patience is the key word here.

Deiferson Barreto
   No relation to top prospect Franklin, who was dealt to Oakland in the Josh Donaldson deal this off-season, the other Barreto has hit wherever he has played.
  Primarily a second baseman, Barreto hit .288/.309/.412 in the GCL last summer, his first season stateside.
He should be playing under the lights in Bluefield or Vancouver this summer.