Thursday, December 29, 2016

Is it Time for Rowdy?

MiLB.com photo

   One of the joys of writing about baseball prospects takes place when the team you follow lands a player in the late rounds of the June amateur draft that even though he was highly ranked, fell in the draft because of a college commitment.
    Rowdy Tellez, for me, was perhaps the ultimate late-round choice by the Jays.
    A batting-practice legend on the Showcase Circuit as a high schooler, Tellez was thought to be headed to USC after his senior season.  Taking advantage of new rules regarding slot values in the 2013 draft, GM Alex Anthopoulos and his Amateur Scouting Director Blake Parker found a way around the slots, drafting low-leverage college seniors in rounds 4 through 10  (except for California HS P Conner Greene) , and offering them slim bonuses (Matt Boyd, traded to the Tigers as part of the David Price deal, received a $75 000 bonus as a 6th rounder: Chad Girodo, taken in the 9th round, signed for a $5 000 bonus.  The Blue Jays used those savings to sign Tellez, who they took with their 30th round pick,  at a bonus of $750 000.


   The Blue Jays have taken Tellez' development slowly and steadily, giving him two years in short season ball before starting him in full season at Lansing in 2015.  The knock against him prior to the draft was that he was a base-clogging, one dimensional slugger, but Tellez has worked hard at many aspects of his game to become more of an all-around player, and his time in short season allowed him to sand off the rough edges.
   Tellez checked in at about 275 lbs when he left high school, but through a dedicated regimen of nutrition and conditioning, he now weighs 245.  Tellez admitted that he knew little about how to eat properly, or even prepare his own food until recently, but has come a long way in that regard.
   As for improving his defence, Tellez has worked on his agility, and infield coordinator Mike Mordecai worked extensively with him on his footwork and positioning around 1st base over the past two seasons. Tellez may not remind anyone of Wes Parker, but he has upgraded his skills tremendously.  "Everybody is confident in throwing the ball over to me and pitchers don’t worry about ground balls hit to me," he told Fangraphs' David Laurila. "Defense is what I’ve worked on the most. I’ve worked on it day in, day out."
   At the plate is where Tellez excels.  His strike zone management was what convinced the organization that he could handle the jump to AA this year after only one season of A ball.  And he has modelled himself after major leaguers like Adrian Gonzalez and Anthony Rizzo when it comes to his approach with two strikes.  He told Laurila:
 I look at how easy Gonzalez swings and I’ve adopted a little bit of what Rizzo does with two strikes. He takes out his leg kick and works on driving the ball the other way. He knows he can hit home runs to all fields, even with a two-strike approach and not having the leg kick. That’s what I’m doing now. If you can eliminate strikeouts… it’s a huge game-changer.
 Tellez' spray chart from 2016 would seem to bear that out.  Half of his doubles were to the opposite field (while only 1 Home Run was):


   Tellez got off to a rocky start with New Hampshire in 2016, and was hitting only .164 at the end of April. Some of that could be attributed to the fact that he saw very few pitches to hit over that opening month, with ABs like these being fairly typical:


   
   
       Despite seeing few strikes and even fewer fastballs, Tellez still posted a .345 OBP for April.  As the weather heated up, so did Tellez and his Fisher Cats teammates, with his OPS climbing every month, culminating in a 1.046 mark for August.  In his first year of AA ball, where he was one of the youngest players in the league, Tellez managed 54 extra-base hits, and posted an impressive 12.4% walk rate.

   With Edwin Encarnacion gone, and Jose Bautista seemingly set to follow, there may be a looming power shortage in the Blue Jays lineup.  Kendrys Morales' approach and swing may be far more suited to the Rogers Centre than many fans would realize, and Steve Pearce's value and versatility can't be understated, but barring a move in the New Year to bolster the starting lineup, it appears that maybe the Blue Jays are leaning toward Tellez earning a 25-man roster spot this spring.  The ideal plan would be fore him to receive at least a half season of AAA experience, but it's not unusual for a player to bypass that level once he's proven himself in AA, either.
   Tellez is what he is:  a bat-first player, who will not get any faster or more agile as he ages.  But just as Encarnacion worked hard to become at least an adequate 1st Baseman, so has Tellez, and he has shown the work ethic that makes one think that he could continue to improve his defensive skills.  He profiles as a put-the-ball-in-play, make the pitcher work (I've been charting his ABs for the first few weeks of the 2016 season, and have him at just over 5 pitches/PA), use the whole field, and change the approach with two strikes kind of hitter that this lineup proved to be sorely lacking down the stretch last year and into the ALCS.  There is some thought that the slight hitch in his swing might be exploited by MLB pitchers, but this is a player that has made adjustments throughout his career (despite a 1-37 stretch in 2014 with Bluefield, he still finished with a .293/.358/.424 line), and considering his strike zone judgement, will likely continue to do so.  Whether or not it happens this April, at mid-season, or in 2018, Tellez should be a fixture in the middle of the Blue Jays lineup for years to come.

   Tellez' swing has remained largely the same since this BP session in high school:


Monday, December 12, 2016

A Look at Glenn Sparkman

   
Brad Glazer/Milb.com photo
   The Blue Jays surprised a number of people (myself included) when they selected RHP Glenn Sparkman from Kansas City in last week's Rule 5 draft.
  Coming off Tommy John surgery last year, Sparkman, a 20th round choice by the Royals in 2013 out of Wharton County (TX) JC, was very much an under-the-radar Rule 5 candidate after pitching 60 innings at 4 levels this year, the highest of which was AA.  Sparkman's 2015 was limited to 4 AA starts.
   "The arrows were pointing right at him," GM Ross Atkins told the media after the draft.  "It was clear he was the guy that we'd like to select if he was still available.  We feel like there might be some upside to his stuff as well."
    Much of the information that we've received about Sparkman since he was drafted is stats-based.  I like to go deeper than that, so I've conducted some research, asked people some questions, pored over his secondary numbers, and watched a number of his 2016 outings online.  Here's a summary of my efforts:

   Sparkman grew up in Ganado, TX, a town of 2 000 about two hours southwest of Houston.  He was not heavily recruited as a high school shortstop, so he walked on at nearby Wharton County CC, where he was converted to pitching.  He struck out less than a batter per inning in his two years there, but he also showed a feel for the strike zone, walking only 8 batters over 78 innings in his final season.
 Sparkman moved quickly through the Royals system, missing bats along the way.  He averaged 11.5K/9 in his first pro season in rookie ball in 2013, and he skipped Low A to start his second season, which he attributes partially to learning how to pitch.  When he arrived at Wharton, he didn't really know how to throw off of a mound, but under the tutelage of his college and then his pro coaches, he made up for lost time in a hurry.
   In his final start in 2014, he felt a strain in his forearm in his final inning of the year, but his elbow felt fine. He woke up the next morning with severe pain in the elbow, but an MRI revealed only a 10% UCL tear, and he was ordered to rest and rehab his arm.  The regimen did not work, however, and he underwent Tommy John in June of 2015.
   Even though minor league back-of-the-baseball-card stats can be incredibly misleading, Sparkman did post the second-lowest ERA in all of minor league baseball in 2014 (and was named Carolina League Pitcher of the Year), and even though he posted an inflated 5.22 ERA this year, take two outings out of that record and you have a 3.93 ERA.  More impressively, despite a 4.58 ERA at his last stop in AA, he had a 3.24 FIP.
   But let's go behind the numbers

   Sparkman showed some obvious signs of rust this year.  His command began to improve as the summer progressed, but his velocity didn't make a full return.  Prior to the surgery, he touched 96, and sat anywhere from 89-94 with his fastball.  Reports this year had him sitting at 90-92.
   Standing on the 3rd base side of the pitching rubber, Sparkman has a smooth, drop and drive delivery, which can be deceptive, both from the angle it presents to right-handed hitters, and the slow-fast tempo of his windup, making him tough on hitters from both sides to time.  He can command his fastball to both sides of the plate, as well as his curve and slider.  His change up has good depth and some glove-side run:

video



   If the best pitch in baseball is strike one, Sparkman has one of the better ones in minor league baseball. He often gets ahead of hitters (despite his command issues in his comeback this year, he allowed only 10 walks), when his secondary pitches become more effective.  He can also use his fastball in pitchers' counts to induce whiffs, as hitters are often sitting on his secondaries.

video

 Because he is around the plate so much, Sparkman does give up some contact, but it's not often of the hard variety.  He was victimized by less-than-stellar defence in his AA outings this year, which inflated his numbers.

   A preview of this year's Rule 5 draft by Baseball America made no mention of Sparkman, who was the Royals' 17th-ranked prospect after the 2014 season.  And to tell the truth, given the success of Joe Biagini in his conversion from middling MiLB starter to MLB bullpen stalwart, it was easy to overlook Sparkman in favour of more projectable arms (with far less control, however) that could be more reasonably expected to add velocity in a relief role. This is a guy who knows how to pitch - how to set up hitters, and how to command the strike zone.  With a catcher who can frame pitches effectively, and a sound defence behind him, Sparkman could one day become a mid to back of the rotation pitcher.
  Perhaps limited to his fastball and one of his offspeed pitches, Sparkman's fastball could return to its former velocity, and he could become 2017's Biagini.  He has experienced more success than Biagini as a minor league starter (and please, please don't throw Biagini's 2.42 ERA at AA in 2015 at me, or I will bury you with secondary stats and scouting reports), so he is an interesting choice, because he appears to profile better in that role in the long run.  Just the same, you can never have enough good arms in spring training, and even if Toronto feels Sparkman won't fit into their plans, he only will have cost $50 000 if the Royals take him back.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Blue Jays Add/Subtract Prospects in Rule 5 Draft


  The Blue Jays went outside of the box in today's Rule 5 draft, selecting RHP Glenn Sparkman from the Royals.
   Sparkman, a 20th round pick in 2013, was called the surprise star of the Royals' system after a stellar 2014 in which (aided by a pitcher-friendly home ballpark) he posted the second-lowest ERA in the minors.  In rating him as the Royals' 17th-best prospect after that season, BA noted:
Sparkman's success was based on a combination of his deceptive delivery and his ability to throw to all four quadrants of the strike zone. He leads with his elbow, then brings his hand and the ball forward with a quick over-the-top release. Sparkman gets more swings and misses than one would expect from a 90-93 mph fastball. He mixes in a potentially average changeup with a little late fade and a potentially average hard slider at 83-84 mph. The pitch doesn't have much depth but cuts enough to swerve away from the sweet spot of opponents' bats. His curveball is generally below-average and loopy. Sparkman's four pitches all play up because he has present above-average control and average command
  Sparkman's 2015 was limited to 4 starts before he succumbed to Tommy John surgery.  He returned this summer, accumulating almost 60 innings over 16 starts at 4 levels, striking out 10.19/K.  While it's reasonable to assume that the Blue Jays likely selected Sparkman with an eye toward turning him into a bullpen arm as they did with Joe Biagini last year, there's not a lot in his profile that would suggest that there would be a spike in velocity.  Still, there is the fact that Sparkman is known for his command (his 2.55 BB/9 rate was on the high side for him, but he was coming back from Tommy John), and his ability to generate weak contact, and perhaps there is something to that deceptive delivery:

  Even though he's facing a LHH in this video, it's easy to see how right-handed hitters would have difficulty picking up the ball from Sparkman.

   Under the terms of the new CBA, the cost for drafting Sparkman was $100 000.  He must stay on the 25-man roster for the whole 2017 season, or be offered back to the Royals for half that price. With the Blue Jays rotation likely set for next year, it's hard to see Sparkman auditioning in a starting role. The idea likely will be to see what he can do in long relief.  Its's a longshot, but the combination of his command and delivery, coupled with the Blue Jays defence, could mean that the team has another bullpen revelation on their hands.

   The Padres dominated the Rule 5 draft, making deals with the Twins and Reds, who owned the picks ahead of them, to select the first three players in the Rule 5, making them the first team in the 50 year history of the draft to do so.

*********************************************************************************
   The Blue Jays also lost three players in the AAA phase of the Rule 5.  Unlike the MLB portion, players selected in the AAA phase do not have to be kept on the 25-man roster for the season.
   Toronto lost LHP Matt Smoral to the Rangers, C Jorge Saez to the Yankees, and SS Jorge Flores to the Phillies.
   Saez and Flores, who spent last season at AA, are likely minor league depth guys.  Smoral, a 2012 compensation round pick who could never stay healthy, may one day go on to bigger and better things.  His draft stock fell due to a foot injury during his senior year of high school, delaying his pro debut until late in the 2013 season.  2014 was a bit of a breakout year for Smoral, when he fanned 70 hitters in 53 innings at two short season stops, and BA was bullish on him:
Smoral was viewed as one of the top prep lefthanders in the 2012 draft heading into the spring, when he made only one start because of a stress fracture in his right foot. That allowed the Jays to grab him at pick No. 50 and sign him for $2 million. After not pitching in 2012 and being limited to 26 innings in 2013 because of a cracked fingernail, Smoral had his first healthy season in 2014, striking out nearly onethird of batters at Rookie-level Bluefield. His body, fastball and slider give him a foundation to be at least a mid-rotation starter, but the development of his control and changeup will dictate whether he stays in the rotation. His fastball sits at 90-93 mph, touching 95 with above-average life when down. Smoral's slider is a wipeout offering with plus potential and is a weapon against both lefthanders and righthanders. His mid-80s changeup improved in 2014 and flashed average but will need continued development. Smoral has an extra-large frame and lost weight over the 2014 season, gaining athleticism and flexibility while improving his delivery. He'll likely get his first taste of full-season ball at low Class A Lansing in 2015
 However, injuries and a nasty line drive he took just above his eye last year have limited Smoral to 40 innings over the past two seasons.  A new delivery this year was supposed to help with his command issues and put him in a better position to field balls hit back at him, but the velocity never came back.  For the Rangers, taking a guy who has pitched all of 3 innings since 2012 above short season ball is a risk, but it comes at a much lower price than the MLB phase.  Tall (Smoral is 6'8") southpaws seem to take longer to develop, and at 22, there is still time for him to put things together.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Who (if anyone) Will the Blue Jays Select in the Rule 5 Draft?


   Baseball's Rule 5 draft takes place at the Winter Meetings in Maryland tomorrow, and many teams will try to shore up a specific need like the Blue Jays did with Joe Biagini, and the Cardinals did with Matt Bowman last year.
   The new CBA has upped the price for selecting a player from $50 000 to $100 000.  A player has to be kept on the drafting team's 25-man roster, or has to be offered back to his original team for half the draft price.
   Of the 16 players selected in last year's Rule 5 draft, 10 saw at least some time with the team that drafted them, and 7 were not returned.  The Blue Jays, picking 24th, were able to nab Biagini, the 10th player selected, because 7 teams had full 40-man rosters and could not pick, while 9 others teams passed on the draft.  This year, the Jays again select 24th, and 6 teams picking ahead of them have full rosters.
   Trying to determine who Toronto might be considering, then, becomes a little easier.  If they are interested, they should once again pick anywhere from 10th to 15th in terms of players selected.  Given the success they had with Biagini last year, and the shoring up their bullpen still could use this year, they likely would take a chance on a long relief arm if the right one became available.
   Two pitchers who likely won't be around when it comes the Blue Jays turn to pick are RHP Yimmi Brasoban of the Padres, and RHP Yonny Chirinos of the Rays.  Tyler Webb of the Yankees, a potential lefty specialist, throws 90-92, with a decent slider and change, might be still available..  International League Left-handed hitters managed only a .559 OPS against him last year.
  Other names that Toronto may be considering include:

  -RHP Zack Weiss of the Reds did not pitch in 2016 due to elbow issues, and that's a huge red flag, despite his 11.9K/9 in High A in 2015.  Given the price, however, he might be worth kicking the tires on in spring training.
  -Arizona RHP Joey Krehbiel can hit 97 in a relief role, and even though control problems have plagued him throughout his minor league career (3.72 BB/9 this year), he pitched reasonably well in relief in AA this year, and had a good showing in the Arizona Fall League.  Another Diamondbacks' righty, Joel Payamps, has not pitched above A ball, but sat 92-94 mostly in a starting role this year, and like Biagini should experience a bump in velocity in a bullpen role.  Baseball America says that Payamps has big league stuff, but has hurt his chances by not pitching well in the Dominican winter league.

    Minnesota has the first pick in the draft.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Look at Ryan Borucki

Kyle Castle/Lansing Lugnuts/MiLB photo

  Last month, the Blue Jays had some 40-man roster decisions to make in advance of this month's Rule 5 draft.
  Specifically, they had to decide which of three pitchers who have not competed above A ball, but might make attractive bullpen options at the MLB level, to protect.
   This could not have been an easy decision. The trio included:
-Francisco Rios, a 2012 free agent signing from Mexico, began 2016 with Lansing, but after a month of dominating Midwest League hitters, was promoted to Dunedin;
-LHP Angel Perdomo, a 6"6" 2011 late IFA signing from the Dominican, who led the MWL in strikeouts this year, averaging just over 11K/9;
-Southpaw Ryan Borucki, a 2012 15th round pick who has had trouble staying healthy, and just finished his first full season with the organization.


   This could not have been an easy decision.  Rios and Borucki rely on command and secondary pitches, while Perdomo's main weapon is his 95 mph fastball - Fangraphs' Chris Mitchell suggests that some MLB team may try to stash him in their bullpen as a 3rd lefty/longman.  Ultimately, they chose Borucki, whose grit, advanced feel for pitching, and command of his whole repertoire of pitches led the Blue Jays to believe both that he was a better long-term prospect, and that he might be too tempting an arm to pass through the draft.

  Borucki was considered one of the top prep lefties in Illinois in his draft year, until a torn UCL caused his stock to fall.  The Blue Jays were not put off by his medicals, and took him in the 15th round, signing him for 3rd round money (Borucki had committed to Iowa).  Borucki tried to continue to rehabilitate his elbow, but was shut down that year after only four outings with Rookie-Level Bluefield.  He ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery the following spring, wiping out his 2013 season.
  Borucki came back with a vengeance in 2014, pitching at both Bluefield (where he was named the Appalachian League's 12th best prospect, despite only pitching a month there) and Vancouver.  Baseball America was high on him:
He projects for at least average control with a chance to be plus. His delivery has improved significantly, and he throws with significantly less effort from his loose, quick arm, while working over the ball more and not leaking with his hips. Borucki's fastball was 90-94 early in the season and sat 88-92, touching 94 later in the season. He relies on his two-seamer that has at least average sink and arm-side run. Borucki demonstrates advanced feel for a changeup with plus potential. His curveball is a below-average to fringe-average offering, and Borucki could begin throwing a slider this offseason. He has a starter's build at a lanky 6-foot-4 with a high waist and significant projection remaining.
   The brakes were applied to his development again in 2015, however, when shoulder, elbow, and back issues limited his season to 6 innings.  Borucki was ticketed for Lansing this season, but was held back in Dunedin for April while the weather in the Midwest warmed up, and to be close to the Blue Jays medical facilities.  Pitching against the more advanced FSL hitters, Borucki was still shaking off the rust from a year's inactivity off, giving up 40 hits in 20 innings.  His career seemed to be in jeopardy when he finally reached Lansing in mid-May.
   His turnaround could not have been more sudden or dramatic.
   In his MWL debut, Borucki gave up only one earned run in 5 innings.  Two starts later, he threw 6 scoreless frames, and in June, threw a pair of back-to-back games that were easily the best of his career: an 8 inning, 5-hit/1ER, 0BB, 8K effort, followed by 7 innings of 4-hit, shutout ball, with 6 strikeouts and (again) no walks.  Here's his 6th K from that 2nd start:

video

   Borucki finished 2nd in the league in ERA, 4th in WHIP, and fanned almost a batter an inning while tossing a career-high 115 frames.  His August 8th start gave some insight into why the Blue Jays ultimately decided to protect him on the 40-man.

   Borucki struggled slightly with his fastball command in the 1st inning of this start against West Michigan, but received a nice 5-4-3 double play after issuing a one out walk to finish his 11-pitch inning.  In the 2nd, he began to use his change up, which has excellent depth to it.  That pitch may prove one day to be the most effective in his arsenal, and may already be the best in the organization outside of Marco Estrada.  After falling behind 2-0 to the leadoff hitter, he fanned that man on a full-count change, then got ahead of the next two hitters, allowing him to use his secondaries to get a 6-3 groundout and a called 3rd strike to end an inning in which he threw 15 pitches.
  Borucki gave up his only solid contact on the day, a 1-out single, in the 3rd,  and began to spot his fastball and slider more effectively after giving up a walk following that base hit.  His concentration wavered a bit with runners on 1st and 2nd, giving up a double steal after failing to look back at the runner on 2nd who had taken a big walking lead the previous pitch.  He needed 18 pitches to retire the side in the 3rd.  He did not show a great move to first in this outing, and may have to work more at holding runners closer.
   The 4th inning saw Borcuki really settle into a groove, retiring the side in order on 9 pitches with a pair of Ks, and 4 whiffs.  His fastball sat at 92, and he had improved command of his slider to LHH, and his change to RHH.  He was able to locate the ball seemingly at will, setting up hitters by locating to either side of the plate.
  The only blemish on Borcuki's 5th inning of work was a two-out, four-pitch walk, with CF Lane Thomas making a sliding catch on a sinking liner to finish the inning.  At 67 pitches, Borucki, whose pitch count had been reduced as he blew by his previous career innings high, was finished for the night.  He threw 44 strikes, gave up only one hit, while walking three and fanning five.  He recorded five outs via groundballs, and two by flyouts.  He threw 12 first-pitch strikes to 18 of the hitters he faced, and recorded 9 swings-and-misses on the night.  Working from the first base side of the rubber, Borucki's arm angle makes him extremely tough on left-handed hitters, while his change keeps the righties off balance.

  Borucki is a student of the game, and watches his teammates' bullpen sessions between starts.  His delivery has undergone considerable change over the past year.  When he arrived at Lansing, he worked with Lugnuts' pitching coach Jeff Ware and minor league instructor Sal Fasano at adding more deception to his delivery - the thinking was that hitters in the Florida State League were getting too good a look at his pitches. Borucki learned his change from his father, who pitched in the Phillies organization.  Dad wouldn't allow him to throw a curve until his senior year of high school, so Borucki learned to change speeds and master one of the more difficult pitches to throw.  When his fastball or slider location is off, he always seems to have command of that change.
   At 22, there is little projection remaining for Borucki, but we've seen so little of him that it's hard to get a true handle on his ceiling just yet.  Of the trio, he probably projects the highest in terms on long-term potential as a starter.  He has a solid pitcher's frame, is athletic, and gets a good downward plane on his pitches.  He has a four-pitch mix that can turn a lineup over.  If he can stay healthy, he can begin to move quickly through the system, now that his option clock will start ticking next year.

 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Look at Josh DeGraaf

Kyle Castle photo

    There are many players who are just not ready for pro ball after their senior year of high school.
Some may have physical maturing still to do, while others need to grow up more from an emotional or competitive standpoint.
   In 2010, the Blue Jays took a skinny infielder from Las Vegas in the 18th round.  The consensus was that the prospect was not ready for pro ball, and he turned down the Blue Jays in favour of the University of San Diego.  Three years later, Kris Bryant was chosen first overall by the Cubs, on his way to Rookie of the Year Honours in 2014, and the 2016 NL MVP award, along with a World Series ring. It's not that Toronto missed out on a can't miss prospect:  most teams did not consider him a prospect at that point.
   In 2012, the Blue Jays took a chance on another skinny teenager, a pitcher from St Louis named Jon Harris.  Harris spurned the Blue Jays, too, and attended Missouri State.  Three years later, he had matured into a first round pick, and the Blue Jays selected him again.  Now, he is one of the top prospects in the system.
   Josh DeGraaf was a pitcher and infielder at Morris Community HS just outside of Chicago, and by his own admission,  wasn't ready for pro ball when he graduated in 2011.  He admitted as much to his hometown paper, the Morris Herald-News:
“Since high school, I have grown an inch or two and gained about 35 pounds,” said DeGraaf, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds. “My velocity now is consistently around 90 or 91. But, for most of my career, I have stressed command over velocity since I didn’t always throw that hard. My velocity had to get up to have a chance.

 DeGraaf played for Taylor University, an NAIA school in Indiana.  Under the guidance of Head Coach Todd Klein, who sang DeGraaf's praises to the Herald-News, DeGraaf grew considerably during his time at the school:
“We knew that Josh would go on to good things,” Kein said. “When he was playing for us, it was evident that he wasn’t as physically mature as he was going to get. He has done a lot of hard work. He is one of the best players I have ever coached. He played shortstop for three years on the varsity level. He was a great program kid and a great leader. He is one of the few players I have ever hadl that was a captain in both his junior and senior years.

  Obviously, DeGraaf needed four years of college to mature as a player, but even at that, he lasted until the 31st round in the 2015 draft, when the Blue Jays called his name.  And his maturation has continued since turning pro.  DeGraaf spent his first year of pro ball with Vancouver, then became a mainstay in Lansing's bullpen last season, appearing in 35 games (7 of them as a starter) for the Lugnuts.  Since turning pro, he's experienced an uptick in velocity, has refined command of all of this pitches, and has developed a slider "out of nowhere" as one source put it.

   DeGraaf is part of the Blue Jays contingent of prospects that made the trek to Australia to suit up for the Canberra Cavalry of the ABL.  What's interesting about his inclusion is that for the first several years of the Blue Jays relationship with Canberra, only position players were sent.  Last year, they finally sent a pair of pitchers (Colton Turner, who had a breakout year in 2016 before being dealt to the White Sox for Dioner Navarro, and Phil Kish).  This year, DeGraaf has been joined in the Land Down Under by Lansing bullpen mates Andrew Case and Jackson Lowery.  I watched his start last Saturday (November 19th) in the Cavs' opening series against Brisbane.

   If DeGraaf felt any rust from a two month-plus layoff since his last outing, he didn't show it in the 1st inning. Pitching against Brisbane, last year's ABL champs, DeGraaf was facing a veteran lineup.  Pounding the bottom half of the strike zone, he gave up a lead off infield single that might have been an out with a better defence behind him.  Five pitches later, he gave up another groundball that was just an eyelash away from being a double play.  Facing Twins' prospect Logan Wade, he picked off Rays prospect Thomas Milone, then struck out Wade swinging to end the inning.
   DeGraaf was not as sharp in the 2nd.  Maybe the rust was showing, and maybe he was getting squeezed a bit by the home plate umpire, but DeGraaf needed 28 pitches to get through the inning, giving up a run on a pair of walks and a line drive single up the middle to put Brisbane on the board.
   De Graaf was much more composed and efficient in the 3rd, getting a flyout to right, a called K, then giving up a single before getting a swinging punchout to end the inning.  At 68 pitches, he had reached his limit for his first outing, and was relieved by Case.
   Here, DeGraaf flashes a deceptively-delivered change up with good depth to get Milone swigning:

video

   On the day, DeGraaf gave up that one earned run on three hits, with a pair of walks, and 5 strikeouts.  He managed first-pitch strikes on 8 of the 13 hitters he faced, including the last 6 in a row as his command sharpened.  DeGraaf painted the outside corner to left-handed hitters, and like most pitchers who rely on control over velocity, he was more effective when he was ahead in the count, when his secondary pitches (change, slider) came into play.  As he showed when he picked off Malone, he has a good move to first, and is quick to home.  DeGraaf stands on the right side of the rubber, angled toward 3rd, and has a simplified windup that reminds me of Marco Estrada and former Lansing teammate Sean Reid-Foley.  He repeats his delivery well, and does a good job of disguising his secondaries with his delivery.
   DeGraaf started again today (November 26th), and pitched 6 innings, allowing only one earned run on 1 hit, walking four and striking out 5.  He threw 86 pitches, 51 for strikes, and recorded 8 ground ball outs.With the reduced ABL schedule this season, DeGraaf appears to be settling as Canberra's 3rd starter, pitching every 6 or 7 days.  It's interesting that after spending most of the season in a relief role, the Blue Jays want to stretch him out as a starter to see what results they get.  DeGraaf throws that sinking fastball with good command, which is complemented by his change and slider.  He may pitch to contact and not miss a lot of bats (7, by my count), but even in this brief outing that came after not having pitched in 10 weeks, DeGraaf can be difficult to square up because of his ability to control the strike zone.  He has the tall, athletic build (6"4"/180) that the Blue Jays covet, and he gets a good downward plane on his sinker.  It has taken some time, but DeGraaf at the very least has built himself into a fringe prospect.
   At 23, DeGraaf has no projection remaining.  At the same time, he shows what can happen when a late bloomer adds some velo, and reaps the benefits of professional instruction.  He may have started more than 7 games for Lansing this season if not for the presence of a half dozen or so higher profile arms ahead of him. Stretching him out in Australia makes sense - with the truncated schedule, he only pitches once a week, so added innings likely won't be a concern.  According to Blue Jays Farm Director Gil Kim, DeGraaf's versatility is his greatest strength:
   Josh had a successful season, and he’s a versatile pitcher with good feel for throwing strikes. With his work ethic and makeup, we feel comfortable that Josh can adapt to any role, whether starter or reliever, and think that going forward a strength of his will be the ability to swing.

   Taylor Coach Klein had a fitting tribute for the graduating DeGraaf after his selection by the Blue Jays:
“It was his intelligence that put him head and shoulders above others. He is a very smart player. He knew our system inside and out and the game in general. He was a great teacher to the younger kids.”

*******************************************************************************
   Kudos should also go to DeGraaf's battery mate, Peterborough, ON's own Mike Reeves.  Reeves has not progressed above High A in four seasons since joining the organization, but he kept the game from getting out of hand in the 2nd inning with some excellent blocks of DeGraaf sliders in the dirt, keeping runners from advancing.  Reeves is very agile and athletic behind the plate, and he no doubt was a calming influence on the young pitcher throughout that start.
   The Blue Jays are building a stable full of strong defensive Catchers like Reeves.  AJ Jimenez, whose career has been stalled by injury, may have had his inconsistencies at the plate, but has always been a top notch defender, and with Josh Thole no longer in the picture, has a real shot at becoming Russell Martin's back up in 2017. Reese McGuire, who joined the system at the trade deadline in the Francisco Liriano-Drew Hutchison trade, is probably close to MLB ready in terms of his skills behind the plate.  Danny Jansen, who likely will play a step below McGuire at New Hampshire, has long been lauded for his receiving and pitcher-handling skills.  Max Pentecost has spent little time behind the plate in his pro career because of injuries, but the team sees enough in his athleticism to allow him to continue to Catch next year.  Below Reeves, who caught 53 games for Dunedin in 2016 is Ryan Hissey, who was mostly thought to be a bat-first player, but made tremendous strides defensively this year at Lansing, as well as Javier Hernandez (who may become the best receiver in the organization, if he isn't already), who played at Vancouver last year.  Even Ryan Gold, a 27th round choice out of North Carolina HS ball last June, has drawn raves for his work behind the plate.
  With more and more teams realizing the value strong defensive Catchers can bring to a team, the Blue Jays are building a wealth of players at this position.

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   DeGraaf combined with Markham, ON native Jordan Romano on a six-inning no-hitter in July - a game Romano actually took the loss in.  You can read about it here.

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   After streaming almost all of its games last year, most ABL teams have had to cut back to one game per series.  MLB, which had provided 75% of the loop's funding since 2010, pulled out of its sponsorship of the ABL this year, and the league has had to cut back both its schedule and it's televised games.
   Still, if you need a baseball fix, the ABL does offer archived games on its YouTube channel, and you can visit the league's website to find out when games will be streamed live.  Canberra is 15 hours ahead of Toronto, so you may be getting up early to watch.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

What to Expect From Mike Ohlman

 
 

  The Blue Jays came to terms with free agent minor league C Mike Ohlman last week.
The lanky (6'5", 240) North Carolinian played travel ball with Will Myers, and was a highly regarded prep player.  The Orioles drafted him in the 11th round in 2009 (he had committed to Miami), and signed him to above slot ($995K) money.  There were concerns about his long term future behind the plate, however, as Baseball America noted in their draft report:
 He's tall for a catcher at 6-foot-4, and his slender 200-pound body doesn't seem suited to the position for the long-term, scouts worry. But he has shown excellent athletic ability, and he should be able to remain a catcher at least through college. He has excellent arm strength, but his receiving skills are less advanced than his Florida prep rivals. He has improved his skills behind the plate but has a long way to go in terms of blocking, framing pitches and learning other nuances behind the plate.
video
   Still, Baltimore added him to their 40-man roster, and he was the O's 15th-ranked prospect after his first pro season, seeming to be headed toward bigger things.  His career took a step backward in 2012, when he missed time due to a spring training car accident, and a second positive test for a recreational drug.  While his receiving skills were still in question, his bat was developing, and he led the Carolina League in hitting in 2013.  Baltimore reportedly like his game-calling skills, but there were still huge concerns about his blocking skills, and by 2014 he was spending time at 1st Base, bringing comparisons to another O's draft pick who was selected as a Catcher, but was eventually moved off the position by the name of Jayson Werth.
   When Ohlman struggled in his first year of AA, the Orioles soured on him as a long-term prospect, and he was DFA'd in January of 2015.  Picked up by the Cardinals, he showed some improvement behind the plate under the tutelage of Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny, a former Gold Glove-winning tall Catcher himself, but his projection had changed to MLB backup.
   In his 8th pro season, he began the year at AA, and finished with AAA, establishing himself as Memphis' everyday Catcher over the last month of the season.  His work with the bat was decent (.280/.333/.464 in 54 games) with Memphis, so I thought I would take a look at some of his body of work this summer.
   Admittedly, watching several innings spread over four games does not give the whole picture, but some aspects of Ohlman's game behind the plate became evident:
    -he is a decent blocker of pitches in the dirt, but his sheer size means that unfolding his large frame costs him some agility, and he takes a split second longer to get to balls that bounce off to the side;
    -his larger size means that pitch framing can be something of a challenge:  while he can get to low pitches in front of him, he has trouble positioning himself in a manner than can help him get extra strikes with just a slight bit of movement.  This is not illusory - Hardball Times has looked into the matter.
   -he does appear to be a good pitch caller and handler of pitchers.  Working with one of the youngest pitching staffs in the Pacific Coast League, he seemed to have a calming influence on struggling starters.
   -pop ups around home plate can be a bit of an adventure for Ohlman.  He had trouble tracking several of them.
   -despite an above average arm, he struggled throwing out base stealers in AAA.  This could be owing to his pitchers' inability to keep runners close, but he skipped throws to 2nd, and generally had trouble controlling the running game.

   At the plate, his swing can be a bit long, but Ohlman offers above average potential power.  His bat has been ahead of his glove for some time, and probably always will be.  There is thought that once he incorporates his lower body into his swing more consistently, he will fulfill that power possibility.

    The acquisition of Ohlman gives the Blue Jays added depth both behind the plate and at 1st.  With A.J. Jimenez now the current favourite to win the back up job to Russell Martin barring any moves by the organization before spring training, that should mean Reese McGuire should get the majority of the reps at Buffalo, with Danny Jansen likely moving up to New Hampshire (after a solid fall campaign in the Arizona Fall League), in order to give Max Pentecost much-needed time at the position with Dunedin.

   Ohlman has made progress with his receiving skills, but it's hard to see him challenging for an MLB job, even as a back up, at spring training this year.  The Blue Jays may look to get him out from behind the plate more often in order to take advantage of his offensive skills.



Saturday, November 19, 2016

Alford, Urena, and Borucki Added to Blue Jays 40 man


  OF Anthony Alford and SS Richard Urena were added to the Blue Jays 40-man roster yesterday, along with LHP Ryan Borucki.   Teams had until Friday's deadline to add players who met the qualifying minor league service time, or risk losing them in next month's Rule 5 draft.

   Alford and Urena were no surprise.  Urena finished the season at AA New Hampshire after an August promotion, and will likely begin the 2017 season there, before finishing up with AAA Buffalo.  Alford struggled through an injury-plagued 2016 with High A Dunedin, but turned heads in the Arizona Fall League. He will start next season with New Hampshire.  While both are not MLB-ready (Urena would be the closest of the pair; Alford has the higher ceiling), the Blue Jays could not risk losing them, even though the team selecting them would have to keep them on their 25-man roster for the season, or offer them back to the Blue Jays for half the $50 000 draft fee.  Both are premium athletes, and should be a major part of the Blue Jays roster by 2018, 2019 at the latest.

  Borucki was the biggest surprise.  With limited room available, the club had to decide between him, fellow southpaw Angel Perdomo, and RHP Francisco Rios.  Borucki's road to the 40-man was easily the longest. Considered one of the top prospects in Illinois in 2012, a torn UCL prior to the draft caused his stock to tumble. The Blue Jays, always ones to roll the dice under Amateur Scouting Director Blake Parker during the Alex Anthopoulos era, were not convinced that Borucki's medical reports would necessitate Tommy John, and took him in the 15th round, signing him for 3rd round money. After four outings with Bluefield after turning pro, his elbow had not fully responded, and further rehab was unsuccessful.  Borucki went under the knife at the end of spring training the following year, and missed all of 2013.  He came back with a vengeance in 2014, pitching at two levels, while being named the Appy League's 12th-best prospect. Baseball America was high on Borucki after that season:
Borucki showed polish and strike-throwing ability, producing the lowest walk rate (1.6 per nine) and highest strikeout-walk rate (5.0) of any lefthander in the league, starter or reliever. He projects for at least average control with a chance to be plus. His delivery has improved significantly, and he throws with significantly less effort from his loose, quick arm, while working over the ball more and not leaking with his hips. Borucki's fastball was 90-94 early in the season and sat 88-92, touching 94 later in the season. He relies on his two-seamer that has at least average sink and arm-side run. Borucki demonstrates advanced feel for a changeup with plus potential. His curveball is a below-average to fringe-average offering, and Borucki could begin throwing a slider this offseason. He has a starter's build at a lanky 6-foot-4 with a high waist and significant projection remaining.
   2015 promised to be a breakout season for Borucki.  After finishing 2014 with Vancouver, he seemed destined to return to the midwest to start the season with Low A Lansing.  Elbow soreness kept him in Florida after spring training camp broke, however, and then shoulder soreness limited him to all of 6 innings before he was shut down in July.  Borucki broke camp with Dunedin this year, likely to be close to the team medical facilities and the warm Florida weather, but he struggled with his command, and was hit hard by Florida State League hitters.  Finally reaching Lansing in mid-May, he became a mainstay in the Lugnuts' rotation, finishing 2nd in the Midwest League in ERA, 4th in WHIP,  fanning just under a batter per inning while tossing a career-high 115 innings.
  Despite his success in Low A, Borucki's inclusion on the 40-man came as a surprise to many Blue Jays fans, most of whom had never heard of him before.  But this is a guy with great competitiveness, an advanced feel for pitching, pinpoint control, and perhaps the best change up in the organization this side of Marco Estrada.  Perdomo the MLW strikeout leader, is a 6'7" fireballer who has battled control problems as a starter, and even though he's a potential power arm out of the bullpen (his fastball can touch 96, and can be very difficult on left-handed hitters), a team who takes him may have to live with that.  As Miguel Castro demonstrated in his brief time with the Blue Jays, a four seam fastball is not enough to get MLB hitters out. Rios is intriguing as well, but did not miss as many bats in the FSL after a dominating first month of the season with Lansing. Still, with a fastball sitting 92-94, an above average curve and a slider that made huge strides this year, some team may want to take a chance on the Mexican.  If there was one player the Blue Jays left unprotected who may be scooped up in the Rule 5 next month, it may be Rios.  If he's moved to the pen, his curve would pair nicely with his fastball, which will likely experience an uptick in velocity.  Just the same, having not pitched above High A, Rios would be a huge risk.  All 3 pitchers have upside and a possible MLB future.  The club obviously felt that Borucki's command would make him a likely target for a team looking for bullpen help.

   It's always good to throw in some video.  Here's a look at Borucki:
video
...and Perdomo:

     Rios:

Career Stats:
Urena
Alford
Borucki
Rios
Perdomo

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What to Expect from Lourdes Gurriel Jr

Getty Images

   The Blue Jays made a splash in the international free agent market last week with the signing of Cuban IF/Or Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
   The 5th-ranked Cuban prospect last season by Baseball America, Gurriel is the younger brother of Yuliesky Gourriel, who made his MLB debut with the Astros last year.  The pair defected last February when they were playing in a tournament in the Dominican Republic.  The younger Gurriel, who turned pro in Cuba's Serie Nacional when he was 16, waited until he turned 23 a few weeks ago to sign with an MLB team in order to bypass international bonus pool rules.  The Blue Jays have reportedly signed Gurriel to a 7-year, $22 million contract.  He has not played in almost a year since defecting.
   Gurriel has excellent baseball bloodlines.  In addition to brother Yuliesky, oldest sibling Yuniesky played in the Serie Nacional, and his father Lourdes Sr is something of a baseball icon in Cuba, having starred in the Serie, and served as a coach on the Cuban national team.  With dad a member of Cuba's Communist party, the younger brothers were considered to be unlikely signs until their defections.
 
   BA staffer Ben Badler has written extensively about top Cuban prospects, and last year ranked the younger Gurriel as the 4th-top island hopeful.  Badler gave Gurriel a Category 5 (out of 5), indicating that he's quite confident Gurriel has a future in the bigs.  He's impressed with Gurriel's hit tool:
Gourriel is a smart hitter with a chance to get on base at a high clip and drive the ball for power. He improved his balance at the plate this past season, keeping his hands inside the ball well for someone with his long arms with a fluid swing. Gourriel has plenty of bat speed to catch up to good fastballs and the plate coverage to make frequent contact. He can have trouble at times against slow breaking balls, but he has good strike-zone discipline and a patient approach, giving him a chance to be a plus hitter with a high OBP. Gourriel flashes above-average raw power with the swing path to generate backspin and leverage the ball for loft in games, making him a 20-homer threat.

   Eric Longerhans of Fangraphs says the reports he's had from international scouts on Gurriel profile a solid, if unspectacular, player.  There is some question about his bat, largely due to his lengthy layoff:
Offensively, it’s been a while since scouts have seen Gurriel in an in-game setting and his timing against live pitching has come into question. Timing is going to be especially important for Gurriel, whose swing can get long due to lever length and features more of a ground-ball plane than it does the sort of loft typically associated with corner-worthy power. He has above-average raw pop but scouts are concerned that he might not tap into it due to contact issues and the bat path. Gurriel’s measurables indicate that the body has more to give and that he might grow into more power as he ages, but he’s already 23 and his older brother Yulieski has remained lean into his 30s, so most scouts think the cement on the body is dry.
   
   Gurriel can play three infield positions, and the corner outfield spots, although he played mostly left field when he last played in 2015 (his brother played 3rd).  At 6'4", he may have outgrown Short Stop; Badler describes his range as fringy, and with his plus arm and bat, profiles more as a 3rd Baseman. Badler also mentioned Gurriel's long levers, and the difficulty he can have on inside pitches to Toronto's The Fan 590.  Badler did tell The Fan that he's impressed with the improved quickness he has seen from Gurriel of late.

   Despite his Cuban and international experience, Gurriel would have to be considered raw in stateside baseball terms.  Where he begins 2017 will largely be a matter of how he performs in spring training.  AA seems to be the consensus in the media, but how he responds to big league instruction and fares against more advanced pitching in the spring will determine his ultimate landing spot come next April. Given his lack of experience with cold weather, it might even be reasonable to expect him to spend the first several weeks of the season with High A Dunedin. He could blow past all expectations and start at Buffalo, but that seems unlikely. Some have suggested that Gurriel could supplant Richie Urena as the top SS prospect in the organization, and Troy Tulowitzki's successor, but the scouting reports would seem to indicate that his best bet for an MLB future is at a corner position.

   BA compares Gurriel to Washington 3B Ryan Zimmerman, while Fangraphs suggests a Sean Rodriguez comp.  Either way, the Blue Jays have landed a top international prospect - one who would not have been available to them, after they had gone over their bonus pool to sign Vladimir Guerrero Jr in 2015.  Unlike some top IFAs who sign at 16 but top out at Low A,  Gurriel appears to be almost a lock to be a major leaguer.
   Whatever his ultimate position will be, the signing of Gurriel adds to the depth of the minor league organization.  It's hard to put a timetable on him given his lack of minor league experience, but 2018 seems to be a safe bet for his MLB debut.  Blue Jays fans should expect a player who's capable of hitting 20+ Home Runs, playing some sound defence, and demonstrating baserunning smarts.  He's not Yoan Moncada, but he should be a serviceable, solid major league player.


Sunday, November 6, 2016

Anthony Alford Finds Redemption in the Desert



  Professional baseball players are not like the rest of us.  Since about 3rd Grade until the time they enter pro ball, almost all of them have been wildly successful at the sport - they've been the best player on just about every team they've played on.  Many have had to work hard at it, but the game just came naturally to them from a young age.

  Playing in the minor leagues can be their first extended experience with failure in the game.  Playing far from home, experiencing the rigours of playing every day, and having to take care of their own daily living tasks can compound matters.

  For Toronto Blue Jays top prospect Anthony Alford, 2016 was a trying time - his own first lengthy taste of adversity in the game.  Healthy and getting consistent reps, he's regained much of his former prospect lustre in the Arizona Fall League.


   The only athlete to ever be named both Mr Baseball and Mr Football in the state of Mississippi in the same year, Alford's pro baseball experience was very limited prior to last year, when he rocketed up the top prospect lists.
   Drafted in the 3rd round in 2012, he was labelled a first round talent, but most teams backed away due to his college football commitment.
   The Blue Jays, always one to roll the dice on a high risk, high reward athlete during the Alex Anthopoulos/Blake Parker days, took a gamble on Alford, signing him to a $750 000 bonus,  agreeing to allow him to play a modified baseball schedule while he chased his football dreams.
    For his part, Alford maintains that baseball was his first love all along, but the pressure to play college football as one of the nation's top Quarterback recruits was impossible to overcome.
    For his first two pro baseball seasons, Alford would report to Florida once the school year and spring football practice ended, catching the last few weeks of extended spring training, then suiting up for a month of Gulf Coast League action before heading back to college in early August.
    The Blue Jays patiently sat by, hoping that Alford would one day commit to baseball.  In the summer of 2015, they quickly promoted him to Lansing, and he left a huge impression after only a week with the Lugnuts.  Toronto waived a pile of cash at him in order to convince him to finally give up on football, and Alford admitted that while it was tough to turn down, he still wanted to pursue his goal of a pro football career.
   The two sides were at something of a crossroads.  The Blue Jays, for their part, were having their patience tested.  One of their top hopefuls, a three quarters of a million dollars investment,  had amassed all of just over 100 plate appearances to show for three minor league seasons.  Alford's draft class peers were speeding past him in terms of development.  Alford was going through a transitional period himself - after transferring from Southern Miss to Ole Miss after his freshman year, he had to sit out a year, and was readying himself for a new team and a new position (Defensive Back, with some kick returning duties) with the Rebels.
   The gifted Alford, who teammates good naturedly call The Freak due to his off the charts athleticism, had turned a lot of heads in his short time with Ole Miss.  His talents were obvious, but due to his relative collegiate football inexperience, his game skills were raw.  After starting the first few games of the year with the Rebels, he found himself in a reserve role, and was beginning to question his devotion to football.
   In late September, Alford shocked both the baseball and college football worlds by leaving Ole Miss for the Blue Jays.  After a three year courtship, Toronto finally had their man.  Alford quickly left Oxford for Florida for a few weeks of play in the the Instructional League, then packed his bags with his young bride (Alford had left Lansing in mid-July in order to get married before football season started; the Blue Jays brass was reportedly less than thrilled) for Australia, where he suited up for the Canberra Cavalry of the ABL.
   Alford was over matched against the veteran Aussie league pitchers.  He expanded his strike zone, and saw fewer strikes as the season progressed as a result.  "It's like they pitch you backwards," he said after facing a lot of breaking pitches early in the count.  "I saw a lot of breaking balls and fast balls out of the zone. I put myself in a bad situation a lot of the time by being too aggressive."  Still, he was undeterred, reflecting after the experience, "I really came over here to learn as much as I can.  I wasn't really worried about the stats.  I know they will come."  The crash course in pitch recognition he received Down Under served him well when he returned stateside.  Sent back to Lansing to resume his baseball education, Alford hit .293/.418/.394 in 50 games for the Lugnuts before being promoted to High A Dunedin.  Against tougher Florida State League pitching, Alford didn't skip a beat, posting a line of .302/.380/.444 for the D-Jays.
   His 2015 season put Alford firmly on the radar, establishing him as the Blue Jays top prospect, and a Baseball America Top 100 prospect on the basis of his strong showing.  The sky appeared to be the limit for Alford, and at 21, he had resurrected his baseball career, and seemed to be on an expressway to the major leagues.

    Alford repeated Dunedin to start the year, which raised some eyebrows who thought he was bound for AA New Hampshire, with maybe a cameo at AAA Buffalo before the year was out (a visitor to the Phillies Minor League complex in March for a spring training game against the Blue Jays saw Alford in New Hampshire's lineup).  There was a new administration running the farm department, and they felt it was best that Alford spend at least another half season at High A, giving him one full year at that level, while he continued to work on his strike zone management, and developing his power more.
    Alford's season began in a promising way - he drew a lead off walk in his first at bat, stole second, and later scored on an RBI groundout.  The ability to get on base and game-changing speed - Alford's two biggest calling cards - were already on display.  In his third plate appearance, Alford reached on an error, and two batters later, rounded 3rd and headed for home on a single to left.  The throw came in high, and the Catcher leaped to snare it, and came down right on top of a sliding Alford.  He got up and walked off the field on his own, but it didn't look good:

   The club was mum on the extent of the injury, but Alford, who had ACL surgery on his right knee as a junior in high school, missed a month, and returned with a brace on that knee:
Eddie Michels/Rocketsports photo


  The combined effects of the brace and rust from the month-long layoff caused him to struggle at the plate, and he didn't get his batting average over the Mendoza Line until later in the month.  He was in the midst of an 11-game hitting streak when he raced in for a pop up just over the head of Dunedin SS Richie Urena in an extra inning game on June 10th. Alford and Urena collided, and Alford was carried off on a stretcher and spent the night in hospital.  A CT scan revealed no fracture, but he was diagnosed with a concussion.  Alford had not been formally diagnosed with one before, but as a football player, had absorbed his share of hits over the years, and the Blue Jays were rightly concerned.
   Alford missed only a dozen games, but the compounding effects of his injuries and missed time caused him to struggle for the rest of June and the first half of July.  It wasn't until August that he began to feel comfortable at the plate, and it showed in the .280/.352/.452 line he put up - most encouraging to the front office was the 7 Home Runs he hit in July and August, evidence of his growing power. One redeeming aspect of the season was that Alford was sharing the outfield on his birthday with a rehabbing Jose Bautista on July 20th - both homered in that game.  He did admit that it was an up-and-down year, though: "Most definitely, it's been an emotional roller coaster for me this year. On and off the field. I've learned a lot though.  But it does suck being injured a lot."


   So, Alford had some time to make up for, and the Arizona Fall League was the place to do it.  Created by MLB in the 90s, the AFL has served as a sort of finishing school for top prospects, where they can get some extra reps against elite competition on MLB fields, with team medical staff nearby if needed.  Teams used to send these players to various Caribbean Leagues for this added experience, but playing time and adequate medical facilities in the event of an injury were not guaranteed.
   Assigned to the Mesa Solar Sox with fellow Blue Jays prospects Conner Greene, Danny Jansen, Justin Shafer, Tim Mayza, and John Stilson, Alford started slowly, but his game has taken off, and he's drawn considerable attention.
   One source I wanted to share is the venerable Bernie Pleskoff, a former MLB scout who now writes for several publications.  Pleskoff is covering the AFL, and is impressed by Alford's toolkit, especially his speed:
He has exceptional speed for such a big man. Looking bigger and stronger than his listed height and weight, he has a very strong and powerful upper body and a very well proportioned frame that can help him drive through the ball at the plate. Power will continue to develop.
  He's also been impressed with Alford's play in the outfield:
Defensively, Alford has looked very capable as a center fielder with very good instincts and a strong, accurate arm. He looks natural in the outfield as he closes quickly on balls hit to the outfield. He has shown no signs of being intimidated by the difficult-to-play high, sunny skies in the Arizona desert.
  On the downside, Pleskoff is not certain that Alford's power will develop:
 In the time I have scouted Alford in the Arizona Fall League I have noticed that his swing lacks loft. He is rather flat through the ball, relying on pure bat speed to hit the gaps. He can start running and keep on running. He may be more of a doubles and triples hitter than one that hits a large number of home runs. If he gets a bit more uppercut in his swing, the loft might increase. For now, however, his swing is fine and the results will come.
   Pleskoff is also concerned about Alford's knee and injury history.  Just the same, he acknowledges, " His speed, defensive prowess and his projected hitting ability and potential power are especially exciting for a center fielder."  He gives Alford a grade of 55 (out of 80) on the scouting scale - a solid, potential everyday MLBer who is still raw, and learning about the game.

   Bobby DeMuro pitched in college and for a season in independent ball, and now writes for several media outlets, including (like Pleskoff), Today's Knuckleball.  He also filed a report (with plenty of video) on Alford.
   Like Pleskoff, DeMuro is impressed with Alford's size, which he terms a testament to his years of football.
DeMuro is fully on board with Alford's top prospect status:
Despite now transitioning to baseball full-time, he’s never lost his overall strength and athleticism, and he’s really put it to good use during his adjustment process of becoming more sport-specific for baseball. No longer a two-sport athlete, Alford is here full time trying to break through with Toronto, and his physical tools, including his exceptional speed, are on full display.
   DeMuro breaks down Alford's hit tool first:


   DeMuro is concerned somewhat about the movement in Alford's set up:
At the plate, Alford is a sight to see with an approach more advanced than his football-dominated past might suggest, and a very athletic swing that finds him making hard, consistent line drive contact. Granted, a big leg kick and considerable hand movement at load leave some holes in his swing, and Alford is susceptible to getting beat with hard stuff on his inner half considering how many moving parts he must get in line along the way. Further, he often finds himself leaking out in front of off-speed offerings simply by virtue of the momentum from his elongated leg kick and load, and the challenge in consistently timing his swing mechanics to each pitch and pitcher. That all results in some swing-and-miss in his game, and he’ll likely always strike out at a decent rate.

   At the same time, he acknowledges Alford's ability to make adjustments, and his "mature understanding" of how and when to hit the ball to right field that helps to compensate.  He admits that Alford is "one of those guys you stop and watch every time he comes to the plate, because he swings hard, hits the ball hard, and has the speed to make things interesting on the bases."  Alford's athleticism will allow him to hammer mistakes, and while there will always be that swing-and-miss element (a 29% K rate this year), Alford sees a lot of pitches in most of his at bats, walks at a decent rate, and uses the whole field.
   Like Pleskoff, DeMuro terms Alford as still relatively young in baseball terms, but thinks the sky is the limit for the toolsy prospect:
There is still work to be done here, and yet Alford’s physical tools have never been in question, and his mature approach to the game is encouraging considering his relative lack of high level experience to this point. To me, there’s little question this equation will produce an exciting big league outfielder one day soon.

 
   
   It's no secret that I have been a huge fan of Alford's for some time.  I've followed him since his freshman year at Southern Miss, where an off-field incident caused him to leave the school and transfer to Ole Miss. He has overcome a difficult upbringing to find himself as a player and a person - Alford is not a one-dimensional jock.  He faithfully responds to correspondence, and helps to run a mentoring program back home in the off season.  He is the real deal, and even though his baseball education is not complete, and there may always be some rough edges to his game as a result, he has the skills to become a fixture atop the Blue Jays batting order, and patrol centrefield at the Rogers Centre for years to come.


 
 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Vladdy Jr: Top Prospect Poster Boy


   Baseball America, minor league baseball's premier publication, named Vladimir Guerrero Jr their top Toronto Blue Jays prospect. To the surprise of few (myself included).

  After naming him the Blue Jays' 10th prospect last year, I was going solely by reputation.  This year, after getting glowing reports on him and watching a great deal of video of his plate appearances, I am all in.

   It's quite an accomplishment for a 17 year old with one season of short season experience to make the kind of leap Vladdy Jr has made, but his pitch recognition and bat speed make for a lethal combination of eye-to-barrel skills.  His baseball instincts and the strides he made on defence this year are just icing on the cake.  The biggest concern heading into his first year of pro ball was what his ultimate position will be, but he made such drastic strides in his footwork and release that scouts now profile him as an adequate corner sacker at least - the Edwin Encarnacion comps are becoming more and more numerous (although he's a better base runner than Edwin).  Even if Guerrero does eventually cross the diamond, his skills at 3rd now at least give the Blue Jays potentially more roster flexibility one day.

  The well-respected John Manuel of BA compiled the Blue Jays Top 10, and here are some highlights from his evaluation of Vladdy Jr:
Guerrero does just about everything evaluators want to see in a teenage hitter. He has tremendous hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball skills, to the point he seems to have been born to hit. His special hands allow him to manipulate the barrel and square up pitches of all types. He has excellent strike-zone judgment for a 17-year-old, walking nearly as often as he struck out and showing an ability to lay off breaking balls that will be further tested at higher levels. He has tremendous raw power and showed the ability to drive the ball to all fields at an advanced rate for his age. Guerrero covers the plate well and should be an above-average hitter with 30-plus homer potential down the line

   Manuel on his defence:
Defense was rarely a focus of his as an amateur, and moving to third base from outfield has prompted Guerrero to work harder on all aspects of that side of the ball. He has improved his short-area quickness and arm strength the most. If he keeps working on his defense, he should have average range. Once owner of a below-average arm, he now flirts with a plus tool. His footwork has improved as well, and he made the routine play with some reliability in his debut
  On this note, I can't help but be impressed.  Unless the Rogers Centre undergoes a massive renovation that moves the outfield walls back, this will be a team that will always need starting pitchers that induce groundballs, and they can't always afford to carry a strictly bat-first infielder if they continue to assemble that kind of rotation.

     Manuel on Guerrero's future:
His potential may not match his father’s, but he won’t shame his dad’s name as a ballplayer. He figures to reach low Class A Lansing in 2017, and he could make it hard for the Jays to keep him from getting to the big leagues by the time he’s 20.

  The biggest concern about Vladdy Jr is his body, and while he's shed some baby fat, there's still room to grow.  Still, this is an organization that transformed Roberto Osuna and Rowdy Tellez from soft-bodied types to more svelte, athletic versions of themselves.  It doesn't hurt that Mark Shapiro is putting together a state-of-the-art high performance division that will help enhance the nutrition and conditioning of the organization's players.  It will take some time, but it's easy to see Guerrero making considerable progress in his fitness and agility with the regimen the team has put him on.  Video from Lansing in early September shows that he's already shed some pounds.

   Here, for your off season viewing pleasure, is a montage of four Guerrero ABs at Bluefield's beautiful Bowen Field from this summer:


  Even in this relatively small sample size, Guerrero's strike zone judgement is readily apparent.  Even though he will be fed a steady diet of breaking balls at the higher levels of the minors, this series of ABs show that he's already seen quite a few, and is skilled at laying off of the ones outside of the strike zone.

   The loudmouth in the background, by the way, is a Bluefield institution by the name of Henry Belcher, and while his dedication is admirable, a Bluefield staffer charitably described trying to watch a game with Henry in the crowd as "incredibly annoying."

   About the only things Vladdy Jr shares with his hall-of-fame bound father is a number and exceptional bat speed.  Sr was a true five tool athlete, but one wonders what his career offensive totals may have been had he had his son's gift for pitch recognition.  

   For those who are hopeful of catching Guerrero and his Lansing Lugnuts online next year, Lansing GM Nick Grueder says that while the team is in the process of putting the infrastructure in place for live streaming Lugs' games, if may not be ready for next season. I, for one, can't wait to sit in the stands in chilly Lansing in April to get my first live glimpse at this major leaguer to be.