Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook Vol 4 Ed 3

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

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


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

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

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

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

video

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

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

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Look at Jeremy Gabryszwski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook Vol 4 Ed 2


Tim Mayza - Clutchlings photo


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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Shane Dawson Shines in AA Debut

"Hitting is timing.  Pitching is upsetting timing."     
Hall of Famer Warren Spahn


Clutchlings Photo



   Rain delayed the start of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats with the Hartford Yard Goats game today.  The newly-minted Yard Goats were forced to become this year's peripatetic minor league team, as their home park (Dunkin' Donuts Park) will not be ready for another two months.
   As a result, the game played at the Fisher Cats home field was to be a home game for Hartford.  As the Yard Goats came off the field after the top of the 1st inning, leadoff hitter Ramel Tapia was tardy in getting into the batter's box.  As a result, under rules implemented by MiLB to speed up the pace of play, he was assessed an automatic strike.
   Fisher Cats' starter, LHP Shane Dawson of Drayton Valley, AB,  who threw 51 of 71 pitches for strikes over 5 shutout innings on a strike-zone filling afternoon in his AA debut, hardly needed the help.

   The Albertan was selected in the 17th round by the Blue Jays in the 2012 draft.  Although he moved slowly through the Jays minor league system, he got hitters out wherever he pitched through a combination of location, movement, and pitch sequencing.  In 2013, however, with the Blue Jays short-season affiliate Vancouver, Dawson experienced considerable elbow soreness, and was sent to the club's facilities in Dunedin, where doctors discovered that he was missing one of the four core muscles that make up the rotator cuff in that throwing arm.  The absence of the muscle did not mean surgery or the end of his career, but it did necessitate a program to strengthen the remaining muscles.  The new routine was to take some time - Dawson was shut down in July of 2014 with more shoulder and elbow soreness.
   Fast forward to 2015, and the new regimen was taking effect.  Dawson was lights out at Lansing, limiting Midwestern League hitters to a .242 average.  Promoted to Dunedin in August, he experienced continued success, and won a combined 15 games between the two levels.
   It was thought that Dawson would return to Dunedin for at least the first half of this year, which is a fairly common Blue Jays practice, but his spring training performance convinced management that he could get hitters out at the next level.

   Getting ahead of the hitters was the key to Dawson's success in the past, and such was the case today.  He threw first strikes to 10 of the 18 hitters he faced, and threw no more than two balls to any hitter.  After falling behind 2-0 to David Dahl, the Colorado Rockies' 2nd-ranked prospect, he came back with three straight strikes to get Dahl on a foul tip to end the inning - this was one of only three times he fell behind Hartford hitters on the day.
   An 18-pitch 2nd inning was Dawson's longest on the day, but his cutter and slider confounded Yard Goat batters for his second straight 3-up, 3-down frame.  He needed only 5 pitches to get out of the 4th, but was bailed out by an outstanding throw by LF Melky Mesa to nail a hitter trying to stretch a single into a double, and a gem of a sliding grab by CF Roemon Fields.  Dawson works quickly and throws strikes, which tends to keep his defence alert and on their toes.
  Dawson gave up a pair of infield singles in the 5th.  Both were tough plays for New Hampshire 3rd Baseman Matt Dean, who was moved to the hot corner due to some thinness at that spot in the system (Dean has played only a handful of games at 3rd over the past three seasons).  His afternoon was over after the 5th, having surrendered only 3 hits and no walks on the day.  Dawson struck out four, and recorded 5 groundball outs, compared to 2 by the flyball.

   Dawson does not overpower, with his fastball topping out at 91.  He proves that of the three pillars of pitching (location, movement, and velocity), if you have the first two, the third doesn't always matter. Dawson threw all of his pitches for strikes today, and commanded both sides of the plate.  His cutter was working extremely well, starting outside and then coming back to the outside corner to right-handed hitters. Dawson spent much of the day on the black, and Hartford hitters could only square up two balls by my count.
   Dawson has never been ranked a top prospect - the top draft choices and guys who can light up a radar gun get the attention.  By the time a pitcher gets to AA, however, he needs to have a plan to get hitters out that relies on more than just the speed of his fastball.  Dawson certainly appears to know what he's doing on the mound, and while he throws harder than former Blue Jays starter Mark Buehrle did in his final years, it's easy to compare the two.  

                                                                             

                   

Monday, April 11, 2016

Minor League Notebook Vol.4 Ed.1

Phil Kish
Phil Kish/ABL.com photo
   The crummy April weather that has had most Southern Ontarians (especially the ones in my household) grumbling this past week also wreaked havoc on the minor league baseball in much of the northeastern section of the U.S.
   Buffalo, New Hampshire, and Lansing all had their season openers postponed by weather more conducive to cross country skiing than baseball.

Notes from Dunedin

   Dunedin did get their season underway, of course, and there was news to report right from the hop on Opening Day.  Conner Greene, who has popped up on the Toronto media's radar, started for the D-Jays, and while he struggled with his command through the early innings, he pitched well over 5 innings.  
  He did catch too much of the strike zone on a 2nd inning Home Run, but overall impressed:

   I did utter a curse when my good internet friend @BaseballBetsy DM'd me to say that Anthony Alford was taken out of the game after a home plate collision, but later we learned that he was only spiked, but was placed on the 7-day DL on Sunday. Word is that the injury is not that serious, but Alford will need a little time to recover.

   Chris King also had some nice things to say about C Danny Jansen, who I've lauded for his defensive skills for some time now:

   For a big kid (6'2", 230), Jansen moves well behind the plate, and can set up a nice target low in the strike zone.  He's already a good pitch framer, and his handling of pitchers has been praised since rookie ball.
    Many eyebrows were raised when both Greene and Alford were sent to High A; both had impressed at big league camp, and while Greene had finished at AA, Alford was outstanding in half a season at High A.  But last year was their first in full season ball, as Blue Jays MiLB field co-ordinator Doug Davis pointed out in the link above, and the pair still need reps.  Just the same, unless they take drastic steps backward in their development, the pair should be in New Hampshire by June.

Jon Harris: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
   The Blue Jays 1st round pick in 2015 is the only 1st rounder in Lansing's lineup at the moment.
He struggled at times last year with Vancouver in his pro debut, although there were some shining moments.  Harris was fatigued after a lengthy college season, and all indications were that he was good to go this spring.

The Good
   Harris did not make it out of the first inning on this cold, windy April day in Midland, MI.  The Lugnuts had their home opener postponed by rain and snow, as well as the game the next day, so this proved to be their first game of the season.
   So, it might not be easy to find anything good to say about his 37-pitch, 2/3 of an inning performance, but there were some positives.  Harris hit 94 with his fastball on a day that would have been tough to get loose, and his breaking ball showed considerable depth.  He struck out the first batter on a breaking ball that dove sharply for the outer part of the plate, and struck out another batter later in the inning with a similar pitch.

The Bad
  Harris lasted 8 batters before having hit his pitch limit.  He walked the last four batters he faced before being pulled.

The Ugly
   Harris, at 6'6", has a lot of moving parts to his delivery, and can lose the strike zone when he rushes his windup, which he did often in this outing.  When he did so, he tended to land on his front foot too early, and did a bit of a stutter step fall off to the 1st Base side of the mound.  He had considerable difficulty repeating the delivery that featured a longer step, as the walks and 18 strikes he threw on the day demonstrated, but when he did, he was more successful in keeping the ball down and hitting his spots.

   Despite not getting out of the first inning, there's not a great deal to be concerned about Harris just yet.  He was squeezed a bit on two of the walks, and a bloop opposite-field double on what looked like it was about to be a lovely outside corner strike three changed the complexion of the inning. There was only one ball hit hard off of Harris, and the cold weather no doubt made things difficult for him, and made it difficult for him to make adjustments.
   Surprisingly, these were not the chilliest conditions he had ever pitched in:

Three Returning Arms
   Three Blue Jays minor league pitchers made their return to action with Dunedin over the past few days.
   Adonys Cardona signed for a $2.8 million bonus as an international free agent in 2010, but has had difficulties both staying healthy and finding the strike zone.  Promoted to Lansing in 2014, Cardona felt something snap in a game, and was diagnosed afterward to have broken the olecranon bone, which is the bony point on the elbow.
   Fully recovered, reports from Florida this spring said that Cardona was throwing an "easy 95, with the heaviest fastball you'll see."  100 weeks after his injury, he was back in action, throwing a scoreless inning for Dunedin on Friday.

   After allowing only an unearned run on 4 hits over 6 innings to the Pirates GCL entry on August 13th, 2013, Chris Rowley got into a trainer's car and headed to the airport, off to fulfill his commitment to the US Military. The undrafted free agent spent the next couple of years serving his country, which included a deployment to Eastern Europe.  He did not give up on his baseball dreams, however, even keeping up a regular throwing program with the company medic.  Rowley applied for an exemption to the remainder of his five-year obligation last May, and received it in October.
   Rowley returned to baseball action with Dunedin this weekend as well, 32 months since his last professional pitch.  He's had a pair of scoreless outings for the D-Jays, the most recent being a 2.1 inning stint.  He's yet to give up a run.

 LHP Ryan Borucki was taken in the 15th round of the 2012 draft.  He was one of those rolls of the dice by Toronto, overlooked because of concerns about his pitching arm.
   He pitched in the GCL in his draft year, but underwent Tommy John surgery in March of 2013.  A year later, he pitched very well in short season ball, ranking as the Appalachian League's 12th Top Prospect in Baseball America's ratings despite spending only half a season there:
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 organization has long been a fan of his makeup and advanced feel for pitching.  Coming into 2015, he seemed destined for full season ball, but tendinitis in his throwing arm caused him to be shut down, He was limited to an early July inning in the GCL last year, and 5 in the Northwest League before his season ended in late July.
   The Blue Jays opted to keep Borucki in Florida and assigned him to Dunedin so that the medical staff could closely monitor him.  In his first competition in almost 9 months, Borucki was hammered by Clearwater on Saturday, surrendering 8 runs on 9 hits before reaching his pitch limit with one out in the 5th.  An observer at the game said that he was hit hard.  A silver lining would have to be the 7 groundouts Borucki recorded.
     It's only one start, but the road ahead for Borucki is long.

Saying Good-bye
   Phil Kish played mostly short stop in high school for New Smyrna Beach (FL) High, and headed off to play for Daytona State College as a pitcher.  After a year, he transferred to West Florida, but saw limited action due to inflammation in his throwing arm.  Kish then got in touch with the coach at Southeastern University, an NAIA school in Lakeland, who had recruited him in high school.  The coach told Kish that his starting rotation was full, but he did have need of bullpen arms.  Kish went on to set the NAIA all-time saves record with 44 in his four years with Southeastern, and graduated with a finance and accounting degree.
   Because he was from an NAIA school, Kish was lightly scouted, and wasn't drafted when he graduated in 2013; his age (24) deterred scouts as well.  The Blue Jays have proven adept over the last number of years at unearthing that kind of hidden talent, and signed Kish after the draft, and sent him to the GCL, where the younger hitters were no match for him.
   Kish skipped the rest of the short season levels and was assigned to Lansing to start 2014.  He pitched well in the back end of the bullpen on a young Lugnuts team that didn't provide a lot of save opportunities.  Kish was shipped to Vancouver in August of that year to help the C's in their pursuit of a fourth consecutive NWL title, and saved 9 games in as many opportunities as Vancouver's title dreams just fell short.
   Kish's 2015 did not go as well as he had hoped.  Opening the season with Lansing, he spent some time in Dunedin before finishing the season with the Lugnuts.  A pair of stints on the 7-Day minor league DL, as well as some inconsistency with his mechanics caused Kish to be hit fairly hard in 2015.  By October, he was ready to put the season behind him and resume his internship with the accounting firm Ernst and Young, where he started in the auditing department the previous off season. "They have been working with me by being flexible with my start date," he said last fall. Much to Kish's surprise, he received a call from the Blue Jays, inviting him to spend a winter with Canberra of the Australian Baseball League.
   Kish jumped at the chance, and after a few rough outings at the start of his Aussie career, pitched well over the rest of the season, which concluded at the end of January.  Reporting to the Jays minor league camp at the beginning of March, the clock was ticking loudly for Kish, who will turn 27 in August.  The Blue Jays gave him his unconditional release at the end of the month, which is not surprising - top draft picks, who the organization lavished huge signing bonuses upon, tend to get far more chances and time to prove themselves than non-drafted free agents.
   Picking a highlight of his time in the Jays organization was tough, but Kish listed playoff runs and spending some time living in Vancouver as times he'll always remember.
   Phil likely considered giving independent ball a try after his release, but with an offer waiting for him from Ernst and Young, he decided to hang up his cleats.  Unlike a lot of other minor league ball players who reach the end of the line, Kish had a good backup plan, and had already started laying the groundwork for his life beyond baseball during his playing days.
   We wish him all the best with his new career.

Random Scouting Reports
   When you scan your Tweetdeck timeline as regularly as I do, you come across some good scouting nuggets.  CJ Wittman, who has filed scouting reports for Baseball Prospectus and 2080baseball.com, tweeted some notes from spring training:

   Lizardo had received positive reviews in 2014, but struggled in his first season of stateside ball last year.  Wittman also praised Lizardo's baseball IQ and approach at the plate. He will start in Vancouver or Bluefield, but is worth keeping tabs on. Only 19, there's plenty of development time ahead of him.

  A 6th round pick from Puerto Rico last year, Espada pitched well in the GCL, and should reach Vancouver this year.

  In the "if he ever finds the plate" department, you will find reliever Jose.  The July, 2013 IFA has hit triple digits with his fastball in the past.  He has struck out over a batter per inning so far in his young career.  Bluefield should be where he starts, Vancouver where he finishes.




   The 18-year-old Venezuelan was the 30th-ranked IFA by BA two years ago.  He played in the DSL this year, and will most likely start in the GCL once short season play begins.


   Meza was the 10th-ranked IFA in 2014.  He pitched in the DSL last summer, and made a brief appearance at the end of the GCL season.  Will likely repeat the GCL to start, but could move quickly.  The velocity may seem to be a bit low, but Wittmann pointed out in a subsequent tweet that it was still relatively early in spring training.


The Gabe Noyalis Story Continues
  I wrote about Noyalis last fall.  He walked away from college ball several years ago, but found an outlet in weightlifting.  The lifting resulted in new life on his fastball, which he discovered when he was asked to pitch batting practice for his former high school team before an upcoming playoff game.
  Encouraged by the uptick in velo, Noyalis began throwing in his gym's basement. He was scouted by the Braves and Phillies before being signed by Blue Jays scout Matt Anderson, his 7th Grade basketball coach.  Noyalis was up to 95 last fall.
  I caught up to him this spring, and he reported that he was working on his change and slider.  I asked him if the club had given him any indication where he would start the season, and he responded:
Not too sure yet, they haven't really said anything besides I have to make a club and they just started working on me on tweaks and things like that after watching me for a while and seeing what I have so I think it'll depend on how fast I can progress with the tweaks and everything they make with my.. Also I'd like to get my arm stretched out more I was 90-93 first outing 92-95 2nd outing and today 90-93 again I'd like to see those numbers creep up a little more and sit around 94 eventually.. Definitely feeling confident in the change up and slider at the moment and as a 1 inning guy I'll only need those 3 pitches and just bag the curve
   A week later, he reported that he would be kept in Florida for extended spring training:  "Yeah I'm not upset about it I figured they'd keep me in extended since I haven't played since 2012 so it makes sense and I just want to get better."   When asked what he was working on, he said, " mechanical things, throwing a slider, only going from the stretch.. Things like that, plus just getting my body adjusted to the grind of playing everyday."

   Noyalis should start in the GCL this year.


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

  This is a labour of love for me, reflective of my long involvement in the grassroots level of the game.  As I stood behind the backstop of one of the minor league fields at the Phillies spring training complex last month, watching as they played the Jays High A and AA teams, I was taken back to my youth.  Growing up in Midland, Ontario, a small town on Georgian Bay 90 minutes north of Toronto, I spent many a summer night in the same position as our town's local senior men's team, the Indians, took to the field.  On game nights, the crowd would slowly file in. Seniors with lawn chairs would occupy spots behind the home plate screen along the 1st base (Home) side, and the bleachers behind would slowly fill up with fans.  The 3rd base stands behind the Visitor's bench would be sparsely populated.  The sportscaster for the local radio station, 1230 CKMP, would set up his equipment on a little swing-up shelf on the screen directly behind home plate. The smell of hand cut french fries from a little kiosk behind the backstop run by John Deakos, who operated a larger chip stand in nearby Little Lake Park, wafted through the pre-game warmups.  I would stand with my friends somewhere between there and the radio man, watching the game, and dreaming of the day I could patrol center field for my hometown nine one day.
   The team, unfortunately, folded the year I graduated from Midland's minor baseball system, because the field was left unplayable when our ancient arena beside it burned to the ground one summer night.
   Because this is a labour of love, if you were to follow me on Twitter (@Clutchlings77), like my Facebook page, or click on some ads when you read this blog, that would help, in small part, fund my writing and research efforts.





Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Jays Pitching Prospects Murphy, Nova, and Rodriguez Take to the Mound for Lansing


Hansel Rodriguez - Rocketsports.com photo

 The Blue Jays Low A affiliate Lansing Lugnuts play an annual exhibition called the Crosstown Showdown against the Michigan State Spartans on the eve of their Midwest League season opener.
   The Lugs traditionally bring up several pitching prospects to play in the game, in order to save the arms on the Lansing pitching staff.
   This year, they will feature prospects Patrick Murphy, Jose Nova, and Hansel Rodriguez for their first taste of life in the chilly midwest.
    Murphy was the Jays 3rd round pick in 2013, but his pro debut was delayed a year due to Tommy John surgery in high school.  Since then, Murphy has been beset by several injury issues, and has been limited to all of 4 IP since turning pro. Here's a scouting report from Baseball America from his draft year:
The Blue Jays signed third baseman Mitch Nay out of Hamilton in 2012, so area scout Blake Crosby got a good look at Murphy and had some history with him before he had to have Tommy John surgery last summer. He didn't pitch at all during the high school season, but has been throwing some rehabilitation bullpen sessions, as he is nearly a year removed from the operation. Murphy has a big, strong build at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds. At his best last year, his fastball sat in the 89-93 mph range and he mixes in a solid curveball and changeup. Murphy is committed to Oregon.
 He's apparently healthy now, and being kept back in Extended for the time being.
   Lefty Nova and righty Rodriguez were 2014 IFAs.  Rodriguez signed for $300K, and has a fastball that hits the mid-90s.  Both pitched stateside in the GCL last year.  Chris King had this observation:

   Murphy should be starting in he GCL this year, but will likely move quickly if he's healthy and successful.
Nova and H-Rod should start at Bluefield.

   With the mix of rain and snow currently hitting Southern Ontario also hanging around Lansing, the game may be a challenge to get in.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Blue Jays Announce Full Season Minor League Rosters

DJ Davis - Clutchlings Photo

   Thanks to the talented John Lott, late of the cost-cutting National Post, and now with several online publications, we have rosters for the Blue Jays full-season minor league teams.
   One thing is quickly apparent:  the new management team may not have been comfortable with the aggressive promotions the previous regime favoured over the past two seasons.  While I'm not one to try to predict minor league rosters because there are sometimes just too many variables, I was surprised by some of the assignments.  That is not to say, of course, that some of these players below won't wind up where we thought they'd be very quickly, but it's s surprise just the same.
  We can really only guess at when a player is ready for the next rung on the ladder - we can watch their performance on the field, but only the organization knows if a player is ready maturity-wise.

  Here's a look at the rosters, with some comments about players to watch if you're interested in journeying to watch them:

BUFFALO (AAA)
SP: Drew Hutchison, Scott Copeland, Scott Diamond, Wade LeBlanc
RP: Ben Rowen, David Aardsma, Chad Girodo, Pat McCoy, Dustin Antolin, Chad Jenkins, Pat Venditte, Ryan Tepera
C: Tony Sanchez, Humberto Quintero
INF: Casey Kotchman, Andy Burns, Jio Mier, Matt Dominguez, David Adams, Alexi Casilla
OF: Darrell Ceciliani, Dalton Pompey, Domonic Brown, Junior Lake
DH: Jesus Montero
DL: Blake McFarland, Bobby Korecky

Comments/Players to Watch
     To the surprise of no one, this is a roster laden with MLB experience.  Just about anyone on this roster could step in and fill a 25-man spot in an emergency.  Girodo, Burns, and Pompey all impressed at spring training.  This is a pretty deep club, and as long as its roster stays relatively intact should be an International League playoff contender.  Beyond the above trio, there isn't a lot to see prospect-wise.


NEW HAMPSHIRE (AA)
SP: John Anderson, Jeremy Gabryszwski, Jason Berken, Casey Lawrence, Shane Dawson
RP: Wil Browning, Danny Barnes, Brady Dragmire, John Stilson, Chris Smith, Murphy Smith, Daniel Schlereth, Colt Hynes
C: Wilkin Castillo, Jorge Saez
INF: Rowdy Tellez, Jon Berti, Jorge Flores, Matt Dean, K.C. Hobson, Shane Opitz
OF: Dwight Smith Jr., Roemon Fields, Melky Mesa, Ian Parmley
DL: Derrick Chung, Taylor Cole, Martin Medina

Comments/Players to Watch
   What's a little surprising about this roster is not who's on it, but who's not.  Conner Greene and Anthony Alford are the top two prospects in the system, and Greene finished up with New Hampshire last year, while Alford was impressive in a half season with Dunedin.  Given the organization's penchant in the past two seasons for challenging their top young players with rapid movement to the next level, it was reasonable to assume both would begin in AA - although there's every chance they'll end there.
   Tellez, like Alford, finished in High A last year, but you have to wonder if his better approach at the plate, like this pitch he took the other way in Montreal, earned him a trip to New England:

video

  Dean's inclusion on the roster is a bit surprising, but there were good reports on him in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, where he tied for the league in Home Runs.  After playing primarily 1st/DH the last couple of seasons, he's been moved back to 3rd, where I watched him playing with the Dunedin guys a few weeks ago.  
   Stilson is one of the most interesting names on the roster.  A fixture with Buffalo the last few seasons, he was on his way to being a bullpen power arm at the major league level, but his last two seasons have been severely curtailed (34 IP in 2014, 1 last year) by shoulder issues.  Reports from Florida suggest that his velo is back, but obviously the team is taking things slowly with him.
   Fields would likely be with Buffalo if not for the talent ahead of him.  Smith battled injuries in his first go at AA last year, but hit well over the final month.
   Dawson pitched well at Lansing and Dunedin last year.  The soft-tossing Albertan gets hitters out with a combination of location and pitch sequencing.  It will be very interesting to see how he fares at this level, and after only a half season at High A, it's a bit of a surprise to see him here at first glance.


DUNEDIN (High-A)
SP: Conner Greene, Tom Robson, Ryan Borucki, Justin Shafer, Luis Santos
RP: Adonys Cardona, Chris Rowley, Tim Mayza, Jose Fernandez, Matt Dermody, Carlos Ramirez, Alonzo Gonzalez, Brad Allen
C: Dan Jansen, Mike Reeves
INF: Ryan McBroom, Christian Lopes, Richard Urena, Jason Leblebijian, Dickie Thon
OF: D.J. Davis, Anthony Alford, Jonathan Davis, Derrick Loveless, David Harris
DL: Mitch Nay, Emilio Guerrero, L.B. Dantzler

   Easily the largest assemblage of talent in the system.  The starting rotation alone, if left untouched for a season, would be enough to get this team to the FSL post-season.
   Robson came back from Tommy John surgery last season, and had the usual command issues.  The Britsh Columbian hit 97 this spring, and has much of that command back.  I have pegged him as a potential fast riser this spring, although that Buffalo rotation will be tough for anyone to crack.
   Borucki has had his problems with shoulder issues, and keeping him in Dunedin will allow the team's re-vamped minor league complex training staff to monitor him.
   Cardona has an electric arm,  but missed all of last year and most of 2014 with a broken bone in his elbow.  Here's an encouraging report:

  Like Borucki, the former Venezuelan bonus baby is being kept in Florida to be watched by the training staff.
   Rowley is a feel-good story who I wrote about a few weeks ago.  Released from his military commitment, the 2013 undrafted free agent last pitched in the GCL that year.  After that, he served as a grad assistant coach at West Point, then was stationed at Ft Still, OK, then Fort Stewart, GA, before being deployed in Eastern Europe.  Last October, he learned that his request for an exemption from the mandatory five-year hitch had been approved.  He may not be a top prospect, but it's hard not to be pulling for this guy.
   Urena sandwiched a stint at Dunedin with a pair at Lansing last year, and is one of the organization's top prospects.  Florida in the summer would not be at the top of most places I would like to visit, but there would be a lot of talent on display in Dunedin to make the trek worthwhile.



LANSING (Low-A)
SP: Sean Reid-Foley, Jon Harris, Tayler Saucedo, Francisco Rios, Ryan Cook, Conor Fisk, Angel Perdomo
RP: Travis Bergen, Dusty Isaacs, Josh DeGraaf, Dan Lietz, Colton Tyrner, Starlyn Suriel
C: Justin Atkinson, Ryan Hissey
INF: Juan Kelly, Gunnar Heidt, J.C. Cardenas, Carl Wise, Connor Panas, Aaron Attaway
OF: Jacob Anderson, Lane Thomas, Josh Almonte, Andrew Guillotte
DL: Max Pentecost, Jon Wandling, Austin Davis

   Many have asked me already today what's up with Pentecost, the team's 2nd 1st rounder in 2014.  Pentecost has undergone three shoulder procedures since then, and was not expected to be ready to begin the season - he was just starting soft tossing as spring training began.
   The highlight of this club has to be its starting rotation, with 2014 2nd rounder Reid-Foley, and 2015 1st rounder Harris at the front of it.  Reid-Foley was shut down early last August, but looked dominant when I saw him in Florida last month, and reports have confirmed that.  His delivery looks more compact, and he was pounding the lower part of the strike zone with mid-90s heat.
   Harris had his struggles with Vancouver after a long college season last year, but by all reports is fully recovered, and should be a different pitcher this year.  This rotation is so good at the moment that one of its mainstays last year, Suriel, couldn't crack it.
   Bergen is a lefty who may move quickly, and I've long since had my eye on Perdomo, a tall southpaw who can reach the upper 90s.
   Anderson has had one of the lengthiest injury histories in the minors since being selected in the compensation round (34th overall) in 2011.  The tools are there, but his development has taken a serious hit - 73 PAs in the last two years at Bluefield. Thomas, once a fast riser, saw his development stall last year, and has been moved back to the outfield.  There are some legit bats in this lineup with the likes of Kelly, Wise, and GTA product Panas.
  One name I thought we would see would be that of LHP Matt Smoral.  The 2012 comp pick struggled through back issues last year, and had his season ended in August by a line drive off his temple.  From all reports, Smoral is healthy, so he may just be being kept back in Extended Spring Training until the weather up north warms up.
    This looks like another first half championship team in the making under the Midwest League's split season format, although like last year, it may not stay together for a full season.

    My next post will look at some scouting reports from secondary sources.  With the minor league season opening later this week, I will have ample video to assess in the coming weeks.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Blue Jays Farm System 2016 Overview

Sean Reid-Foley/Clutchlings Photo

     As spring training winds down, I begin to gear up for another season of minor league baseball.
As someone who grew up playing, coaching, umpiring, and watching the game, I find my heart is still more at the grassroots level; don't get me wrong - I will take your unwanted Blue Jays tickets if you don't want them, but on many summer evenings, you will find me with my laptop open as I watch our beloved Torontos on tv, scrolling through minor league boxscores, or watching Jays affiliates on milb.com ($49/yr - the video quality varies).  When the Jays were not competitive  for what seemed an eternity before last season, I was usually far more interested in what was going on in the farm system - with sometimes all seven teams in action on summer nights, there was usually a more interesting story going on than the one that was on tv.
   The minors, to me, bring back memories of the baseball of my youth.  The fans are closer to the action, and generally speaking, the players are much more accessible, be it at the park, or on social media.  When I visited the Phillies minor league contest to watch some games between the Phils and Jays prospects, I had the greatest view in the world - right behind home plate, a place I've never been at a major league game. When spring training games are on Sportsnet or my computer, I'm the guy who waits to watch until the late innings, when all the regulars are out of the game, to watch the minor leaguers I don't get to see a whole lot of.
   I've been following the progress of Blue Jays prospects since the early part of the century, when the internet began to make it increasingly easier.  I've been writing about them since 2013. I'm not a scout or a journalist - I fit somewhere in between.  I do like to evaluate players, and I think my skill in that area continues to be refined from season to season.  My sources of information are my own eyes, whether it be watching live, or (more likely) on my milb.tv subscription, as well as secondary sources from social media and online sources such as Baseball America.  I will look at a player's stats, but in the lower minors, sample size and context can be an issue, and a player's line can be impacted by things which he has little control over (in the case of pitcher's the defence behind them), so I look at secondary stats walk and strikeout rates, groundball rates, etc.


   The minors are a hierarchy.  Like any such organization, there are plenty of members at the bottom, and progressively fewer as you reach the top.  At any given time, a Major League team will have as many as 150 (or more) players in their minor league systems, but only a fraction of those will ever reach MLB.  Of the 900 players drafted every June, BA found that only about 1 in 6 (17%) of them will make it.  It's said that baseball is a game of failure, and the minors prove that - about no more 5 on any mnor league team, on average, will play even one game in the bigs.  For many, this is their first extended taste of adversity. Some respond to the challenge and up their game, while others don't, and wash out quickly.  Most were stars on their Little League, high school, or college teams.  Even the lowest picks can use the experience of 62nd rounder Mike Piazza, or closer to home,. 32nd round pick Kevin Pillar for motivation.  For those that are released by the Blue Jays, there's the hope that another organization will pick them up - Balbino Fuenmayor was signed with much hype as a 16-year-old in 2006, but was released 7 years later without having played above Low A. Fuenmayor resuscitated his career in independent ball after that, and now is on the verge of making the major leagues with the Royals.  Very few achieve such heights however.

   No other sport has an extensive a system of development as baseball's.  Because MLB players play every day, their skill level is exponentially higher than an amateur's, and it can take 4 or more years for even the highest rated prospects to make it.  As a result, most teams have 6 or 7 minor league teams, as well as an entry in the Dominican Summer League (a similar league existed in Venezuela, until political and economic turmoil there caused MLB teams to pull up stakes last fall).  The minors can be broken up into three distinct levels:  Short Season, Full Season, and the High Minors.  I will explain:

Short Season
   At the end of spring training, more advanced prospects head off to play for one of the four full season teams.  The rest stay behind in Florida for Extended Spring Training, in order to further their baseball educations before Short Season play begins.
   Playing a compressed schedule of about 60 games, Short Season play starts just past mid June, and wraps up by Labour Day, followed by a brief playoff.
   The Dominican Summer League houses prospects from across the Caribbean, most of whom were signed the previous year.  Players are housed in the team's complex, and take English classes, and get proper nutrition and training under one roof.  The schedule runs from late June til late August, with a brief playoff.  With the shuttering of the Venezuelan League, many top players from there will be sent to the Dominican, which may cause problems for teams without adequate space.  It's expected that most teams will have more than one entry in the DSL this summer. Predicting which top prospects will play there is always difficult, especially so for the Blue Jays, who spent most of their bonus pool allotment last year on Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who will probably skip the DSL (this just in.....there's a chance that he even skips the GCL).  Among the names expected to gather some attention are 17 year old Venezuelan OF McGergory Contreras, described as having "ability to hit and show power from the right side from his 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame," Dominican RHP Orlando Pascual, who touched 96 after signing, and Venezuelan RHP Maximo Castillo, who reportedly had a deal in place with the Yankees, but fell through because of an elbow problem, will likely make their pro debuts in the DSL this summer.

  Courtesy of my friends Baseball Betsy and Ross, is some video of Vladdy Jr hitting one out last fall:

...and some video from Chris King from a few weeks ago:



   The lowest level of Short Season play is the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, often known as the Gulf Roast League.  The Blue Jays entry is based out of their minor league complex in Dunedin, and they play other teams similarly based at their team's spring training bases.  Players take to the field at about 10 am for drills and instruction, then play a game under the hot Florida sun at about noon.  The "crowd" in attendance is limited to a few parents, girlfriends, and a handful of locals.  No admission is charged.  This is the first stop on the pro ball train for most players, or the first stop on the stateside line for Dominican and Venezuelan players.  Recent high school draftees and roster-filling free agents help fill out the roster.  Teams are not named for the towns or cities they play in, but for their MLB affiliation - some teams enter more than one team.  A sister league operates in Arizona at the same time.  Both may have an inflated number of teams this year, as many teams will not be able to house all of their Venezuelan players at their Dominican complexes, so many teams may have multiple entries in the GCL.

   The Blue Jays have traditionally not had stronger entries in this league - after all, winning takes a back seat in most minor leagues to development, perhaps most of all in the GCL - but last year was the most successful season in club history, as the team advanced to the championship series. June draftees like Pitchers Justin Maese and Jose Espada, and OF Reggie Pruitt made substantial contributions to the team, which was more of a veteran team than in the past.  SS Kevin Vicuna, OF Noberto Obeso, and Pitchers Jonathon Torres, Juan Meza  and Jairo Rosario may begin 2016 at this level.  For many Caribbean players, this is their first exposure to "Stateside" play, and can be a huge jump competitively and culturally for them.  When many rehabbing Blue Jays are ready to come off the Disabled List and return to action, they begin their return to action under the watchful eyes of team medical staff in the GCL.  Jason Parks, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, wrote an excellent article about the hurdles Caribbean prospects face when they come to America in an essay called, "From the Buscones to the Bus Leagues," and is well worth the read if you come across it.

   The next level of Short Season play is the "under the lights" Advanced Rookie leagues.  The Blue Jays have an entry in Bluefield, WV, in the Appalachian League.  For many players (except those from major college programs, who usually start at a higher level), this is their first extended experience with travel baseball, and playing night games in front of paying spectators.  The crowds are not huge (the Bluefield Jays attracted an average of just over 800 fans per game), but it's the next step in their baseball education. Top prospects don't tend to spend a lot of time in Bluefield, but the team made the 2014 Appy League playoffs. Bluefield is managed by legendary Blue Jays lifer Dennis Holmberg, who has been with the organization since 1979.  It seems like an assignment to Bluefield is entirely dependent on how a prospect fares in Extended Spring Training;  a successful spring seems to result in a skip from the GCL to Vancouver, while a struggling player often only moves up the one rung from the GCL to the Appy League.

  The highest rung on the Short Season ladder is Short Season Class A.  These leagues still play compressed schedules (70 games), and are populated mostly by recent college draftees, and players who have a year or two of pro experience.  The Blue Jays have had a wildly successful affiliation with the Vancouver Canadians of the Northwest League.  The C's captured the Northwest League title in the first three years of their partnership with the Jays, and reached the final in their fourth.  The team missed the playoffs last year for a variety of reasons - some of the prospects who were sent to the Lower Mainland did not fare as expected, and many of the other players sent to Vancouver were more organization guy-types than top prospects.  Again, with development being the focus of minor league teams, the C's run was the exception, not the rule.

   The Blue Jays are quite happy with their affiliation with Vancouver.  Playing in BC gives the players a sample of what life is like in Canada, with our metric system, multi-coloured currency, and other differences from life in America, as well as the experience of going through Customs to play other teams in the League.  Plus, the C's help grow the Blue Jays brand.  After finishing 2nd to Spokane in attendance for the last number of years, after installing a new set of left field bleachers, Vancouver led the NWL last year, averaging almost 6000 fans a game, and setting a new league mark.  If you find yourself on the West Coast, be sure to take in a C's game, and have a craft beer for me.
  It's very hard to put a handle on which prospects will be sent to each level.  Some go one step at a time, while others get skipped if the organization feels they're up to the challenge.  Vancouver should see prospects like Maese, Espada, and Pruitt at some point this summer, and maybe even Pitchers like Guadalupe Chavez.

Full Season
Class A
   Full season leagues are just that - ones that play a schedule similar to a major league team's.  Full season ball starts just a few days after MLB, and ends on Labour Day.  To help keep fan interest up, most leagues have a split season format, which means that the winner of the first half of each division usually meets a second half winner in the first round of an expanded playoff format.  Class A is divided into Low and Advanced A - the Low-A players are often getting their first shot at playing every day, while Advanced A is for players in need of a greater challenge.  Both levels give players a chance to experience extended road trips, and whereas many Short Season players live with a host family, players in Class A are on their own, which brings with it a whole other set of challenges.

  The Blue Jays Low-A affiliate is based in Lansing, MI, in the Midwest League.  It's only a five-hour trip from Toronto, and many Southern Ontario fans make the trek to catch the Lugnuts.  Blue Jays front office exces also make the trip from time-to-time to check up on prospects.  Lansing is also a convenient place for a rehabbing MLBer like a Marcus Stroman or Brett Lawrie to spend a few days in.  Top prospects possibly headed to Lansing include last year's first round pick RHP Jon Harris,,  LHP Angel Perdomo, LHP Evan Smith, IF Lane Thomas and possibly the oft-injured but talented LHP Ryan Borucki, and Toronto native IF Connor Panas.


Connor Panas/Clutchlings Photo


  Toronto's High A affiliate plays at their spring training base in Dunedin, in the Florida State League. Unlike their other minor league teams (save for the GCL Jays), the Blue Jays own the Dunedin Blue Jays.  The Florida State League is a very pitcher-friendly league, as the humid Florida air and the MLB-sized spring training parks the other FSL teams play in help to turn many long balls into warning track outs.  2015 Midwest League MVP Ryan McBroom, C Danny Jansen, RHP Sean Reid-Foley, and Canadian RHP Tom Robson, who came back from Tommy John surgery late last summer, and just hit 97 on the gun in Florida - Robson may be a fast mover this season.
Tom Robson/Clutchlings Photo
AA
   The jump from A to AA can be one of the biggest transitions in the minors.  Up until that point, players can sometimes get by on physical talent alone, but players at this level tend to have a plan.
  Pitchers who could get by on the velocity of their fastball in the lower levels now need some deception, as the hitters at this level can get around on premium velo.  AA pitchers need to have command of their secondary pitches to be able to succeed at this level.
   The Blue Jays have been quite happy with their affiliation with the Eastern League's New Hampshire Fisher Cats, even though their home of Manchester, NH, is in the heart of Red Sox country, as their website would suggest:


  For several years, it was rumoured that several groups were trying to relocate an existing Eastern League franchise to Ottawa.  The nation's capital would be a great fit for the Blue Jays, but city council balked at the price tag to bring RCGT Park up to MiLB standards.  For now, the issue is mostly dead, and the Blue Jays and Fisher Cats have an agreement until 2018, so it's likely to remain so for some time.  
   CF Anthony Alford, 1B Rowdy Tellez, and P Conner Greene will likely be heading to New Hampshire to begin the season.

AAA
   More and more, this level has become a holding pen for minor and major league veterans who are only a phone call away in the event of an injury.  Teams now tend to use their Major League and AAA bullpens almost interchangeably - an MLB team's pen is now limited not to the 7 relievers on the 25-man roster, but 4 or 5 arms in AAA as well.  AAA also serves as a sort of finishing school for a few top prospects like Dalton Pompey. The Jays have had a great relationship with Buffalo since 2013.  Its proximity to the GTA means that bullpen help can be summoned in the morning, and arrive in time for a game that night with plenty of time to spare.  The Bisons also benefit from the association with the Blue Jays brand, as many Ontario licence plates can be seen at border crossings prior to a Bisons game.  Many restaurants dot the area around Coca-Cola Field, just a short hop over the Peace Bridge.  At Washington Sqaure Grill, a Cheers-like establishment, dinner and a beverage for two goes for about $20 US.  The Anchor Bar, birthplace of the Buffalo chicken wing, is nearby. The Bisons will be accepting the Canadian dollar at par for tickets and concessions through May 8th. They also will have a cool new alternate cap this year:

   

  The Bisons will be stocked with veterans this year, but one or more of Alford, Greene, and Tellez may arrive there this summer.  Regardless of who is on the roster, Buffalo is well worth making the trip down the QEW.  Beautiful downtown ballpark, and great value for the money is what it offers.


     How the Minor Leagues Work
   The minor leagues were one time wholly independent entities. They depended on gate receipts ahd the sale of players to make a profit. Babe Ruth became a Red Sox in 1914 because the owner of the team that signed him, the (then) minor league Baltimore Orioles, was in dire straits because of a new Federal League franchise in town.  Branch Rickey was one of the first baseball executives to realize that the minors could be a steady source of players in an MLB team was to find a way to take control of minor league teams, giving birth to the first farm system. As Bill James said:
"The minor leagues did not start out as what they are.  By a long series of actions and agreements, inducements, and rewards, the minor leagues were reduced in tiny degrees from entirely independent sovereignties into vassal states, existing only to serve the needs of major league baseball."
   The minors and majors continued an uneasy alliance for the first half of the last century.  On the one hand, after World War Two, they were prospering, with 448 teams spread over 59 leagues drawing just under 40 million fans.  On the other, MLB teams were gobbling up their minor league brethren at an alarming rate, with fewer and fewer independent teams existing each season.  With the advent of radio (the St Louis Cardinals flagship station, clear-channel KMOX began broadcasting games throught the south and west in the 1950s; many cite this as a major death blow to minor leage ball), the minors began to rapidly shrink in popularity.  Expansion, televsion, and the growth of other sports all spelled the end of the minors as was known for over eight decades.  A renaissance of sorts has occurred over the past two decades, as minor league baseball has seen a re-birth thanks to a spate of new stadiums, and a fun, fan-friendly environment.
  The minors are dependent on the major league club for financial support (the MLB teams pay the salaries of all their affiliated players), while the MLB team needs the minor club to provide an atmosphere that is conducive to player development.
   Minor league players are paid on a scale according to their experience and the level they're at. - they don't make much.  Certainly, players who signed for a bonus aren't hurting financially, but most MiLBers are pretty strapped - they earn less than minimum wage, do not get paid during spring training, and get only a $20/day meal allowance when they're not at home.
   The lifeline between MLB and MiLB teams is the Player Development Contract.  They are renewed in September of even years. A minor league team may opt out on the expiry date if they're not happy with the quality of players they've received; a major league team may do the same if they feel it's not an appropriate environment for their prospects.  The Jays' PDC with all of their teams other than New Hampshire and Dunedin are up for renewal this fall; it's hard to see them making any changes at this point.

   When a player is signed or drafted, the major league team has four or five years (depending on their age) to place them on the team's 40-man roster, or they risk losing them in the Rule 5 draft, which was designed to prevent teams from hoarding minor league talent.  The Rule 5 is a gamble, because the team selecting a player in that draft has to keep him on the major league roster for a full season, or offer him back to his original team for half the $50 000 draft price.  Teams have become adept at finding niche players in this draft, with the Blue Jays Joe Biagini being one.  Biagini had a limited future as a starter, but the Blue Jays felt that putting him in the bullpen and paring his pitch arsenal down would result in more velo and better command.
  In order for a player to be eligible to be called up to the major leagues, he must be placed on the team's 40-man roster first - this often results in other roster moves to make room for him.  Once placed on the 40, a team can option a player to the minors an unlimited number of times for three seasons.  After that, if a team wishes to send a 40-man player to the minors, he must pass through waivers, or a team can designate him for assignment, which gives them 10 days to release, trade, be put on waivers, or outrighted to the minors (if he clears waivers), removing him from the 40-man.


    I regularly write about the goings on in the Blue Jays minor league system.  Often, I know I'm writing about players only a few of us care about, but if you want to know who the next Blue Jays rising star is before your friends, please fill in the box at the top of this page, and weekly (or more often) update emails will show up in your inbox.