Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Another Look at Jon Harris



   The incredible long weekend weather here in Southern Ontario helped to put what was a crummy April (from a couple of perspectives, personally) firmly in the rear view mirror.  7 weeks ago, Lansing's Jon Harris made an abbreviated full season debut under Arctic conditions in Midland, MI, against the Great Lakes Loons.
   What a difference nearly two months makes.  We're wearing shorts, riding bikes, and thinking about dipping our toes into Georgian Bay, and since that two-thirds of an inning stint, Harris hasn't given up a run - a stretch of 32 innings - covering six starts.  In his last start, he threw a career-high 7 innings and 11Ks against Fort Wayne.  On Victoria Day, he may have topped that effort with another 7 shutout innings, and another 11 strikeouts in a return visit to the Loons' nest.

  Harris was just filthy and nasty in this outing - here are every one of those 11 Ks:

video


  In facing Great Lakes, Harris was going up against a team with the lowest (.209) batting average in all of minor league baseball - the Lugs are the third worst hitting team in the minors, but were a game over .500 heading into the contest, thanks to their pitching.  Loons hitters were simply overmatched against Harris.
   This was a "school day" game, with a 10:30 start, and hundreds of screaming kids in the stands.   Players, understandably, are sometimes less than thrilled with the noise, early start, and the high morning sun.
   After not getting out of the first inning as a result of hitting his pitch limit in his last visit to Midland, Harris needed only 14 to retire the side in the first this time, striking out the 2nd hitter on a 96 mph fastball.  He was even more economical in the  8-pitch 2nd, despite giving up a loud leadoff double off the left field wall on the first pitch.
   Harris gave up a single in the third, and struck out a pair.  He was using his fastball command to get ahead of hitters, and then either using his sharp slider or an elevated fastball to put the hitter away. Harris' fastball tails away from right-handed hitters, and when he got ahead two strikes on a hitter, he was completely in control.
   Harris needed only 6 pitches to retire the side in the 5th, and began mixing in curves and changes in the 6th, his longest inning of the day at 21 pitches.  By the 7th, as his pitch count began to close in on 80, he began to fatigue, and Great Lakes hitters began to make more frequent contact.  He gave up a one-out double that CF Lane Thomas may have lost in the early afternoon sun, but then retired the next two hitters on two pitches to complete his day, and extended his scoreless innings streak.  One of the truest test of a pitcher is how he handles himself when his stuff is either off or fading, and Harris passed it with flying colours.
   For the day, Harris gave up only 3 hits and walked one through 7 innings.  He threw 84 pitches, 58 for strikes.  Harris recorded 5 outs via the ground ball, and 3 by fly balls.  He had 13 swinging strikes.

   Harris was in complete command of the Great Lakes hitters, and C Justin Atkinson showed some decent framing skills behind the plate.  When Atkinson set up on the outside corner on right-handed hitters, they had no chance.  Harris blew hitters away with his fastball, mesmerized them with his slider, and kept them honest with his curve and change.  There's really little left for him to prove at this level, and you have to think the only thing keeping the organization from moving him up to Dunedin is the two starts he missed when he returned home to Missouri for a funeral.  Many

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Look at a Pair of Prospect Pitchers on the Comeback Trail

Ryan Borucki - MLB.com photo
   The Lansing Lugnuts are one of a shrinking number of minor league teams that do not stream their in-game video and play-by-play commentary over MiLB.tv, so my exposure to the Lugs so far this young season has been limited to a few games, and some observations made by eyewitnesses.
   This weekend, with Lansing travelling to Midland, MI, to take on the Great Lakes Loons, the games have been streamed, so I've been able to make up for some lost watching.
   On Friday, the Loons and Lugnuts played a twilight doubleheader - what made this game interesting was the pair of pitchers Lansing named to start the games - LHP Ryan Borucki, and RHP Patrick Murphy. The two have only recently arrived in the Midwest League, and while they came from different directions, both are trying to re-establish their baseball careers after missing significant time with injuries.

   Borucki was considered one of the top high school prospects in Illinois prior to the 2012 draft.  A growth spurt of nearly 8 inches between his sophomore and junior years put him firmly on the prospect radar, but after tearing his UCLwhile pitching a no-hitter in his senior year, his stock plummeted.  He opted to rehab his elbow, and given his athleticism, build, and 90-93 fastball with late life, the Blue Jays did not give up on Borucki, and took him in the 15th round, and signed him for third round money to talk him out of his college commitment to Iowa.
   That UCL finally did give way after 4 promising GCL outings in his draft year (10Ks in 6IP), and he missed all of 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
   2014 was a coming out party for Borucki.  Starting in Bluefield, he pitched well enough to rank as Baseball America's 12th-ranked Appy League prospect (even though he pitched only a half short season there), and capped his year off with 7 shutout innings for Vancouver in a playoff game. BA ranked him just outsider of the Blue Jays Top 10 prospects, but was quite high on him:
He has shown pitching aptitude by reducing the effort in his delivery and reducing the height of his high elbow in the back, producing more consistent plane to his heater from his loose, quick arm action. His top secondary offering is a plus changeup. He has a feel for his changeup and for throwing strikes. Borucki currently shows a below-average to fringe-average curveball and may begin using a slider that is more conducive to his three-quarters arm slot.
   Heading into 2015, I had fully expected to see him make his full season debut with Lansing.  He experienced elbow and shoulder soreness throughout spring training, however, and the club opted to keep him in the warmer confines of Extended Spring Training.  His only competition in 2015 was one outing in the GCL in early July, followed by a pair with Vancouver, before being shut down for the season.
   Finally healthy, the club opted to keep him close to the team's medical facility in Dunedin this year, rather than ship him out to Lansing.  And the results were not pretty.  Florida State League hitters feasted on Borucki, hitting him at a .421 clip, before the organization decided the time was right to send him once and for all to the Midwest League earlier this month. He had a decent outing in his first start, giving up only 3 hits and 1 run over 5 innings, walking only one batter and striking out 5.  His start against Great Lakes was his second since arriving at Lansing.

   Borucki threw a tidy 8-pitch first inning, sandwiching a swinging K around a pair of soft flyouts.
Against the heart of the Loons order in the 2nd, Borucki gave up some hard contact, allowing a run on three hits.  LF Andrew Guillotte was fooled on a line drive, and took a few steps in before realizing the ball was over his head, resulting in a double and a run scored.  Borucki gave up a run-scoring single after that, and in total needed 16 pitches to escape the inning.
   Borucki's third inning was a much better effort, a 15-pitch 3-up, 3-down frame that saw a swinging strikeout and a pair of weak groundouts.  He needed 20 pitches to finish off the fourth, issuing a one out walk, and finishing with a swinging punch out.  Lugs broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler was impressed with Borucki's change:

   Things unravelled a bit for Borucki in the 5th.  Great Lakes scored a pair of runs, but a pair of defensive miscues by 2B Aaron Attaway didn't help.  Borucki gave up a leadoff single, then the next batter hit a slow roller to Attaway, who tried to tag the advancing runner but missed, allowing the runner to move to second. Borucki then gave up back-to-back singles, allowing the runner to score.  With two out and runners on first and second and two out, Attaway booted a fairly routine groundball, allowing another run to score, and continuing the inning.  Borucki seemed to lose his composure a bit, and gave up a rocket to right field to the next hitter, bringing in the fourth run of the inning, which came to and end when RF Josh Almonte threw out the hitter who reached base on Attaway's error at 3rd base.  Borucki needed 22 pitches to get out of the inning, and while he left the ball up and gave up some hard contact, he deserved a better fate.

  At 81 pitches, Borucki was still allowed to come back out for the 6th inning.  As a player who needs to make up for lost development time, the organization seems to want to let him pitch his way back into the prospect picture.  It proved to be a good move by Manager John Schneider, as Borucki retired the first two hitters on six pitches, and after a hit batsman, got a swinging strikeout to end his night.

   While Borucki touched 95, he sat mostly 90-92 in this game, and maintained that velo throughout.  His size allows him good extension on his delivery, and there was some of that late life on his fastball. Borucki shows excellent feel for his change, which has been graded a 60 pitch on the 20-80 scale. His slider is a work in progress.  At 6'4", Borucki looks like a starting pitcher - he looks like an athlete on the mound.  The time he has missed means that he has dropped considerably behind his draft class peers,  but he's well on pace to surpass his career high of 57 innings pitched.  Given this lost development time, it's still too early to write him off as a prospect.  He has a number of things to work on, pitch economy being among the biggest, but he just needs to pitch.

   One note about the game - I was improved by the progress C Ryan Hissey has made behind the plate.  He still is a bat-first type of receiver, but his pitch-blocking skills have improved considerably.


   Like Borucki, righthander Murphy has missed significant development time due to injury.  Taken in the third round of the 2013 draft, he missed his whole senior year of high school due to a torn UCL, but the Blue Jays were prepared to wait.  His 2014 season was limited to 4 GCL innings, and he was shut down for all of 2015 after suffering from arm numbness and pain in spring training.
    The reports on Murphy from extended were good, and once the midwestern weather warmed up, his promotion to Lansing was only a matter of time.  He threw a pair of relief innings on May 14, and made his first start in 22 months this past weekend in the second game of the doubleheader.
   Murphy looks something like a right-handed Borucki on the mound, and at 6'4"/220, has a starter's build.
He gets a good downhill plane on his pitches, and consistently pounded the lower part of the strike zone in the first two innings.  Murphy needed only 7 pitches to get out of the first, but a 11-pitch AB by Great Lakes Ariel Sandoval to finish the second may have fatigued him.  In the third inning, Murphy struggled with his command, falling behind hitters, and getting to three balls to 4 of the 6 hitters he faced.  Still, Murphy battled, and was seemingly on his way out of the inning when Lansing SS J.C. Cardenas rushed this throw on a groundball, skipping it to first, where 1B Conor Panas was unable to scoop it.  Murphy loaded the bases with a pair of walks, prompting a visit from Lugnuts' pitching coach Jeff Ware.  The next batter lined Murphy's first pitch up the middle off of his shin and into foul territory along the first base line.  One run scored, but Panas alertly caught the runner rounding third too far in an inning-ending rundown.

   Murphy threw 15 pitches in the 2nd, and 32 in the 3rd.  He threw 54 pitches, 35 for strikes, and recorded 6 groundouts, against 0 flyball outs.  He walked two and struck out a pair.  He sat in the low 90s, and showed a curve that was more 11:30-5:30 than 12-6 or 11-5, but he was able to throw it for strikes, dropping it into the strike zone for his two K's - it has plus potential.  He's at least a month behind other starting pitchers at this point (truth be told, I was surprised they left him in after pitch number 30 in the 3rd, but since it was his last inning, that had to be why he was left in), and like Borucki, just needs the ball every 5th day.  One thing is for sure - the Blue Jays are growing a wealth of promising power starting arms in the system.
 

Friday, May 20, 2016

June Draft Update


   It's been a few weeks, so maybe now is a good time to take a look at the upcoming MLB June entry draft from a Blue Jays perspective.
   The consensus seems to be that this is a deep draft, especially in terms of high school arms.  The Blue Jays will be out of the running for potential impact pitchers like Florida's A.J. Puk, and high schoolers Jason Groome and Riley Pint.  There should be a decent field to choose from when Toronto's turn rolls around.

  With the 21st pick, I've tried to focus on players who have been ranked in or around that range in the draft.
   First, to update past players I've targeted:

Cal Quantrill RHP Stanford
   The Port Hope, ON native, and son of the former Major Leaguer and current Blue Jays minor league instructor would be a natural fit, and not just for his birthplace.
   Tall, lean, and athletic, he fits the profile of the type of pitcher the organization has made a habit of drafting over the past half dozen years.
   He also is 13 months removed from Tommy John surgery, of course, which has dropped him out of the top of the draft.  Quantrill has started throwing bullpen sessions, but has not faced live hitters yet, and may have to throw privately for teams prior to the draft if there's not enough time to get him into some game action, which is looking more and more like the case.  Just the same, Baseball America has suggested that he would be a good fit for the Jays.
   Quantrill comes with a huge risk factor, as well has potentially huge upside.


Kyle Funkhouser RHP Louisville
   Has dropped off the radar this year, and should no longer be viewed as a potential first round pick.

Forrest Whitley RHP Texas HS
   Whitley broke the thumb on his non-throwing hand early in the season, but that hasn't stopped him from climbing the rankings, likely into the teens.  There are signability concerns, but Whitley likely will not last until the Blue Jays turn.

William Benson, Georgia HS OF
   A so-so spring has dropped Benson's stock.  There have been more than a few Jason Heyward comps made, but despite his size and athleticism, questions have arisen about his bat.  Perfect Game had this to say about him:
Benson's lefthanded swing is almost unnaturally short and has a severe cutoff out front. That lack of extension will create issues with Benson in the future with both his power potential and his plate coverage if it can't be corrected. The bat speed and strength at contact are unmistakable, however.

  BA observed:
 Benson showed plus-plus raw power throughout the summer, though his ability to get to his power is still a question due to concerns that some scouts have about his hitting ability. Benson does not consistently use his lower half, forcing him to commit to swinging at pitches early. His bat path can be a bit steep, leading to a tendency to roll over pitches and hit them on the ground with topspin. 


And now some who have crept into the picture:

Joey Wentz, LHP Kansas HS
   Wentz played 1B on the travel team circuit last summer in order to rest his arm, but will likely be drafted as a pitcher.  The Jays have taken 8 high school pitchers with first or supplemental picks since 2010, so they have proven they are not afraid to gamble on a prep arm.  Wentz may be a tough sign, so the Jays may have to decide if their $2.3 million slot money will be enough to seal the deal with him. There is a ton of projection involved with Wentz.

video

   T.J Zuech, RHP Pittsburgh
   Zeuch missed the first month of the season, but built upon his successful Cape Cod League showing from the previous summer when he returned.  The Blue Jays were reportedly in attendance at a number of his games this spring.  He doesn't have as much projection as Wentz, but at 6'7" he checks a number of boxes Blue Jays scouts look for.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook Vol 4 Ed 5


Connie Goebel-Murphy photo

 Promotions, returns from injury, and a drug of abuse suspension mark this week's notebook.

Max Pentecost
   It seems like a long time since Max Pentecost has been in a lineup, and that's only because it has.
   The second of the Blue Jays two first round picks in 2014, his development has been curtailed by injury.
   Pentecost came back loudly this week.

   To refresh.....
   Pentecost was labelled the most athletic Catcher in the 2014 draft, and if there's one thing we've come to learn about the Blue Jays scouting department under Brian Parker, they value projection and upside above all else.
   The Cape Cod Summer League MVP in 2013, and the winner of the Johnny Bench award as the nation's top collegiate Catcher in 2014 , Pentecost spent his first pro summer with Vancouver, but we were told fatigue (and a possible knee injury) were what limited him to mostly DH duties over his final weeks with the C's, and he was shut down for the season in early August.
   A pair of shoulder surgeries ensued, costing Pentecost all of 2015.  He showed up at training camp this year ready to make up for lost time.  The organization has continued to take things slowly with Pentecost, keeping him back in extended spring training, where he appeared in his first game action two weeks ago.
   Pentecost was activated late this past week, and headed north to central Michigan to join the Lansing Lugnuts, and wasted little time, ripping the first pitch he saw into right field for an RBI single.  In his next AB, he crushed a two-run homer to right centre, his first professional round tripper.
   For the weekend, Pentecost went 8-16.  Before we get too excited, it's wise to remember that he DHd all three games, and there has been no timetable released for his return behind the plate.  The organization had indicated this spring that his bat would be ready for a return to action before his glove, but the team wanted him in a lineup so that he could get some much-needed reps.  Even though Russell Martin currently sports a .417 OPS, we should pump the brakes on Pentecost as a Catcher of the Immediate Future-type a bit.  He needs reps behind the plate.


Clinton Hollon
   I feel like I've been waiting for this electric-armed righthander for a long time, and now I'm going to have to wait some more.
   A potential first round pick in 2013, concerns about his arm and make up caused him to slip to the 2nd round, where the Blue Jays snapped him up.
   His arm woes continued as a pro, and he missed all of 2014 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
   Hollon came back with a bang last year, literally, and despite being in a car crash before short season play began last June, had a successful Northwest League debut with Vancouver, and a lights-out first start with Lansing last August, retiring 19 in a row after a shaky first inning.
   Late last August, however, his world came crashing down as a result of a 50-game suspension for testing positive for amphetamines.  Hollon claimed that he was taking both anti-inflammatories and pain killers (both prescribed by a doctor) in the aftermath of the car accident, but a mix up in the doctor's office led to amphetamines somehow inadvertently being in one of his two prescribed meds.
   Hollon did not have to report to Dunedin until April this year, and was at extended getting work in before his suspension was set to expire early this month, when word came last week that he had failed a second test for a drug of abuse, and was given another 50 game ban.
   I admit to mixed feelings about this whole situation.  There are clearly two sides to Clinton Hollon - the team guy who led his team to a high school championship (despite his arm troubles), and a young man who has a problem.  I was in touch with him and his mother regularly on Twitter before this latest suspension, but he (understandably) has not returned my messages since.
   Frankly, as much as I want to believe him, the whole prescription mix up sounds a bit like the kid caught with a bong in his knapsack who was just hanging onto if for a friend.  Given his subsequent drug of abuse suspension, it just all seems hard to believe, despite his claims.  I want to believe, but the truth has been stretched awfully thin.
   The Blue Jays, as an organization, have been less than tolerant with the latter kind of suspension.  Former supplemental first rounder Tyler Gonzales was let go in July of 2014, before being hit with a suspension in September.  His ineffective pitching may have been mostly responsible, but the club was likely not enamoured with his off-field activities.  RHP Kramer Champlin was similarly released after the 2014 season, and received a 50-game ban for a 2nd positive test a few months later.
   It mystifies me why a young athlete with so much to use would find themselves anywhere near anyone who uses recreational drugs.  But I also know that young people tend to make mistakes, and the life of an athlete doesn't necessarily give one a balanced perspective on the world, and the relationship between their actions and the resulting consequences.  Some young people need multiple second chances before they see the light, but you can't help but wonder how much patience the organization has left for Hollon.

Francisco Rios
   I felt a bit like long time New Yorker baseball essayist Roger Angell this week.
I received a tip from a fellow Tweep earlier this week that the lights-out Lansing righthander was about to receive a promotion, and took a gamble that later proved corrected and tweeted it.  Nothing official was forthcoming from the Lugnuts for a few days, but my news took off (modestly, of course) on Twitter, and I felt like Angell, who said writing a blog was like, "a bit like making a paper airplane and then watching it take wing below your window."
   Rios made his first start for Dunedin on Thursday, and after a rough start, settled in.  On Tuesday of this week, he was firmly locked in, tossing a career-high seven shutout innings for the D-Jays, giving up only a pair of hits.  Rios is the fastest-rising prospect in the system, thanks to improved command of his fastball, and improved depth and bite on his slider.  I watched his start from earlier this month and wrote about it, and I encourage you to scroll down and find it.  In return, here is a link to the wonderful article Angell wrote about aging.  It has little to do with baseball, but for anyone who has parents who are getting on in years (or fit that description themselves), the essay provides excellent insight into aging and the elderly, and helped me to see older people with greater understanding and empathy.

Anthony Alford
   We Toronto sports fan are a tortured lot, and it has come as no surprise that more than a few Tweeps have asked my what's wrong with the organization's top prospect.  It's in our nature.
   My answer?  Nothing.
   Perhaps one element of spring training the organization may review before next spring training is the length of time the top prospects like Alford spend in major league camp.  The experience is a valuable and motivating one for the youngsters (when you assemble the pieces that enabled Alford to become one of the game's rising prospects, watching how Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson went about their business last spring was one of them), but their game action tends to be limited, and comes at the end of games, when the other teams are playing their prospects.  As a result, while other minor league players and pitchers are getting more reps at minor league camp, the top prospects in the Jays organization (Rowdy Tellez and Dwight Smith Jr to name two) were behind their peers when the minor league season opened.
  Compounding things for Alford, of course, was the knee injury he suffered in Dunedin's first game of the season, which caused him to miss a month.  He's still getting his timing back, and striking out more often than we would like to see, but looking on the positive side, he's seeing plenty of pitches per at bat, and making his usual line drive, all around the field contact.  It's just a matter of time before balls start falling in for him.
   You need look no further than Tellez for evidence of this.  He hit .164 for April, but showed incredible patience, working the count and drawing 22 walks.  Over his past 10 games, Tellez is hitting .357/.419/.786 over his past 10 games.
 
 Patrick Murphy
   Blue Jays area scout Blake Crosby made numerous trips to Arizona to scout Mitch Nay, who the club would take with their sandwich round pick in 2012.  While in the southwest, Crosby couldn't help but notice a high school junior RHP named Patrick Murphy, who the Jays took in the 3rd round the following year, even though he blew out his elbow and missed his senior year.
  At 6'4, 210, Murphy has that long, lean, athletic frame that the organization covets.  The team was prepared to wait on him, but even they likely never would have imagined that entering 2016, he would have pitched all of 4 innings in three seasons.
  Following his 2013 TJ absence, he missed most of 2014 when numbness in his throwing arm and hand continued for several months after he had hit the one-year mark after his surgery.  Removal of a rib was supposed to alleviate the symptoms, but the numbness continued, so he underwent yet another procedure last year to remove a nerve from his elbow.
   Finally healthy, Murphy was able to pitch in last fall's instructional league, and was kept behind in Florida after spring training ended until the midwest weather warmed up.  He was supposed to pitch in the Cross Town Showdown, an annual exhibition game between the Lugnuts and Michigan State, but April's lousy weather scrubbed that.
   Elevated to Lansing last week, Murphy acquitted himself well in his MWL debut, throwing a pair of  relief innings against South Bend, giving up  a pair of hits, surrendering an understandable 4 walks, and striking out a pair.


    The road ahead for Murphy is probably as long as the one behind him.  A guy who hasn't pitched for most of the last three seasons faces huge hurdles.  Early in spring training, he told Sportsnet's Gare Joyce that the grind of rehabbing in Dunedin was beginning to wear on him a bit:
“It’s been a long, frustrating time in Dunedin, just going between the hotel and the training complex. There’s just nothing to do here but hang out with the guys or go to the mall and maybe see a movie or something. Guys I came here with in 2013 have moved up in the organization and I’ve been left behind each spring. I’m just hoping that they assign me somewhere other than here, even [low-A] Bluefield.

   The Murphy family traveled from their Arizona home to Michigan to catch his outing.  His mom told him that when he finally made his MWL debut, they wouldn't miss it - she had actually traveled to Lansing for the Michigan State game, only to have it cancelled.  All of which serves to remind that it's not only the athlete making this journey - his family, who are often hundreds (or more) miles away that are making it along with him.

Transactions
   RHP Conor Fisk and LHP Colton Turner were promoted to Dunedin. Turner led the MWL in
Saves before his elevation to the Florida State League.
   LHP Ryan Borucki, who has had his trouble getting hitters out, was sent from Dunedin to Lansing. He gave up only one run on 3 hits over 5 innings in his first start for the Lugs.  I had thought that being an Illinois guy, he might open the season with Lansing, because the cold midwestern April wouldn't be new to him, but given his injury history, the club opted to keep him close to the club's medical complex in Dunedin.
   C Danny Jansen headed to the 7-day DL once again.  His defensive skills are beyond question, but Jansen has had a hard time staying on the field in his time in the organization.
 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook Vol 4 Ed 5


Sean Reid-Foley

More news from around the Blue Jays minor league system.....

   First, I just received word that Lansing RHP Francisco Rios has been promoted to Dunedin.  I wrote about the 2012 IFA from Mexico just yesterday, after I charted and watched his May 1st start.  I'm very anxious to see how he fares against tougher competition.  Rios is the fastest rising pitching prospect in the system at the moment.  The Lugs and D-Jays have not confirmed the promotion, but a source close to the situation confirmed it early this evening.

Transactions for the past week, from Baseball America

Traded: C Martin Medina to Nationals for cash
Recalled: LHP Chad Girodo
Optioned to Triple-A: 3B Matt Dominguez
Placed on 7-day DL: RHP Bobby Korecky, RHP Sean Reid-Foley, RHP Tom Robson, LHP Pat McCoy, 3B Emilio Guerrero, OF Melky Mesa
Reinstated from DL: RHP Bobby Korecky, 1B L.B. Dantzler, OF Anthony Alford


  The Blue Jays had a surplus of Catchers heading into the season, and have shed some of that depth by trading Medina and releasing Humerto Quintero in April.
  Top prospect Alford showed some rust after almost a month-long layoff due to injury, striking out in 8 of his first 9 ABs as a DH.  He's back playing the outfield, but was moved to LF on Sunday, possibly to ease the strain on his right knee.
  Reid-Foley has been his usual bat-missing self with Lansing, with 20Ks in 18 IP, but still is working on his command, as his 10 walks would suggest.  He was activated today, and will start in Bowling Green tonight.
  Several sources had suggested that Robson would be a candidate to move quickly this year, and he was hitting 96 with his FB when I saw him in March.  Command problems have plagued him (22 BBs in 16 innings) so far, and when he's been around the plate, he's been hit hard.  No word on what the injury is, but the slow starts he and LHP Ryan Borucki have had are a big reason why the D-Jays, who had the best collection of talent in the system at the start of the year, are three games under .500.  Both missed most (Robson) or all (Borucki) with arm-related issues last year.  Borucki has been hit particularly hard, and has been up in the zone most of the past month - an issue the team has tried to address between starts, but with little success.

Andy Burns
   Reading Jeff Passan's excellent new release, The Arm, got me thinking, in a roundabout way, about Andy Burns.
   Passan discussed legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan, who was something of a medical marvel, hitting mid 90s with his fastball well into his 40s.  That he did this with a torn UCL, which Ryan was advised (but refused) to have Tommy John surgery on when he was 39, is nothing short of amazing.
One of the things Ryan talked to Passan about was how the Angels usually only had a 9-man pitching staff when he pitched for them in the 70s.  And that meant longer benches for position players. Today's teams typically carry 12 or 13 arms, which means 3-4 less spots for position players.  That translates to more action for regulars (the median player in the 74 Angels usual lineup had 484 PAs; for the 2015 Jays, it was 507), and an increased importance in versatility among the non-starters.
  The Super Utility player is a response to that roster change.  Ben Zobrist, of course, is the gold standard for the role, contributing with his bat while filling a multitude of positions capably.  The Blue Jays have been grooming Burns for such a role for several seasons, and he may get a chance to display some of that versatility after getting called up on Friday, as the Jays started a week of interleague play.
   Burns was a bit of an under the radar player, having to sit out during his draft year after transferring from Kentucky to Arizona.  Primarily a SS in college, Burns has played all four infield positions, as well as the corner outfield spots in the past few seasons.  After a breakout 2013, he seemed poised to move up the ladder to AAA, but he struggled a bit at the plate in 2014.
   A BA scouting report from 2013:
Burns is an above-average defender with first-step quickness, soft hands and agility. He should be an average hitter and excels at driving middle-away fastballs and stays on breaking balls well. He has bat-to-ball skills and a good idea of the strike zone. With present gap power, he has the strength for at least average power
  Burns's stay with the Blue Jays may be brief, but he will be back.  The only thing he had left to prove last year was his ability to hit AAA pitching, which he did at a .293/.351/.372 clip.  With his ability to hit, play a number of positions, and run the bases well, Burns should find himself in a larger role with the team later this year, or early next.

 
Jon Harris
  The struggles of the Jays' first round pick in 2015 have been well-documented.  Last year, fatigue was likely the culprit, and a few things beyond his control resulted in him lasting less than an inning in his first start this year.
  Harris missed a couple of weeks when he had to return home to Missouri to attend a family funeral, but he has shown in two starts since his return why the Blue Jays chose him last year.
  He hasn't given up a run in either start, and finished the fifth inning for only the second time in his short pro career, and picked up his first career Win to boot, in Lansing's 1-0 victory over the Astros' Quad City affiliate last week.
  Command has been one of his biggest issues since turning pro, but Harris walked only one batter in each of those last two starts.  His absence means that he's still on a pitch count of between 60 and 70 per game, but the shackles should come off soon, giving Lansing yet another electric arm in the starting rotation.
   

Andrew Guillotte
   I wrote about the scrappy Lansing outfielder/leadoff hitter last week.
   I admit that I didn't pay much attention to Guillotte, a 32nd round pick out of McNeese State last year.
   Guillotte's numbers were solid, but not spectacular for a Vancouver team that did not have much to watch beyond Harris (and later, Angel Perdomo) last summer.
   A fixture atop Lansing's batting order this year, Guillotte has posted a .319/.413/.436 line to start the season, and has been a sparkplug in the Lugnuts lineup.  Suffice to say, he's on my radar now.
   Guillotte works the count, gets on base, steals bases, and can play all three outfield positions.  He was not heavily scouted in college - his father Bill told me that the Jays were the only team that had talked to him seriously prior to the draft.  He had a storied college career, earning 2nd team All Southland Conference honours after his senior year, and 1st team recognition in his junior season. Guillotte was the fourth-toughest hitter to strike out in the NCAA last year, fanning only 11 times in 249 ABs.  He led the Cowboys in hits, runs, doubles, and stolen bases last year, and became their all-time leader in hits.
   At 5'8", Guillotte is long-used to hearing his name and the word "undersized" in the same sentence.
According to his dad, that's never stopped him:
.when Andrew was 8 or 9 he told me he couldn't wait to be the biggest kid in the team. Knowing that I am only 5'7", he was never going to be the biggest kid on the team. So I told him, Andrew, you will never be the biggest kid on the team, that is why you have to play with the biggest HEART!! I know I am biased, but I don't know another kid who loves the game of baseball more than Andrew Guillotte.
  The Louisiana-based Guillottes were able to see Andrew play with the C's in Everett, WA last year, and were in the stands a few weeks earlier when he hit his first pro Home Run for Bluefield,  Bill was able to capture it on his phone:


video

Matt Smoral
   Few prospects have had as rocky a road as the 2012 Comp round pick has had.
Tall southpaws tend to develop slowly, but Smoral has been plagued by myriad injuries dating back to his senior year of high school.  He hasn't topped 54 innings in his career, and that high water mark was achieved in 2014.  To his credit, Smoral left a strong impression that year, making BA's Top 20 Appy League prospects list, and just missing the Northwest League version.
  2015 was pretty much a write off for the Ohioan.  Back issues limited him to 13 innings, and his season ended in late August when he took a line drive off of his temple, just above his eye.
   Smoral faced live hitters for the first time in almost 8 months in an extended game on Saturday, and threw 30 pitches, according to Eddie Michels of Rocketsports.  Baby steps to be sure, but maybe Smoral is finally on the road to recover.

EDDIE MICHELS PHOTO
Eddie Michels/rocketsports-ent.com photo

Jackson Lowery
   Another Blue Jays minor leaguer I admit to overlooking is this righthander, signed as a free agent from Arkansas last year.  He played for a Bluefield team that similarly was bereft of high level talent for much of the summer.
  Lowery started his collegiate career as an infielder with Central Arkansas, then converting to pitching and transferring to Meridian CC, before moving to Arkansas.  He pitched most of last season in the Razorbacks' bullpen, becoming their go-to long reliever.
  I asked Lowery how he is faring with the grind of extended, where players train every morning, then play an afternoon game five to six days per week.  He's handling it well, judging from his response:
Spring has been going well, just trying to get better everyday. I am working on developing my change up and fine tuning my slider mostly and I never stop working on fastball command.  Being a member of the Blue Jays and having the opportunity to play for such an awesome organization is all the motivation I need. I love playing the game and for it to be my job is a dream come true, not a day goes by that I am not grateful to be playing the game as my job. I have the best job on the planet. Also being undrafted and proving people wrong is always motivating to me.
  Ordinarily, a free agent college bullpen arm doesn't attract much attention, but Lowery's numbers at Bluefield last year (21Ks in 16 innings between the GCL and Appy League) merit at least a second look.
  He's at extended spring training at the moment, but should head northwest to join Vancouver when their season opens in June.


 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

A Look at Francisco Rios

Kyle Castle Lansing Lunguts/MiLB photo
     The Blue Jays International Free Agent class of 2012 was a decent one.  Not as good as the 2011 class, which featured Roberto Osuna, Jairo Labourt, Dawel Lugo, Jesus Tinoco, and Alberto Tirado, but a quality one just the same.
   Led by top signing  SS Franklin Barreto, who is now Oakland's top prospect after being the centrepiece of the Josh Donaldson deal, the Jays also inked SS Richie Urena (now one of Toronto's top prospects), and LHP Jonathan Torres to six-figure signing bonuses.
   Lost in amongst the signings that year was one that took place several months later (and for far less bonus money) of RHP Francisco Rios, out of Monclova, a city of just under 200 000 in northern Mexico, not far from the border with Texas.
   Late IFA signings are the guys who didn't have enough (or show enough) to warrant signing during the Teenaged free agent frenzy that is the July 2 signing date.  They might be older, or not toolsy enough, or lacking in physical traits.  In Rios' case, at 6'1", his height most likely led to him being overlooked.
   The Blue Jays saw enough in Rios' athleticism to sign him.  While his numbers have not been spectacular, the organization saw enough physical and emotional maturity in him to skip him over the GCL in favour of the Appalachian League when he made his stateside debut in 2014,  and advanced him to Vancouver last year, where he was a regular in the C's starting rotation.
   This year has been a huge coming out party for the righthander.  Rios has been brilliant at Lansing in his first shot at full season ball, striking out 12.9 batters per 9 innings, to go along with a tiny 1.20 ERA.
   After following Rios for much of last year, I wasn't expecting a great deal this year.  After finally getting eyes on him during his May 1st start against Wisconsin, I'm now a believer.

   Rios has a polished delivery which he repeats consistently, and throws from a three-quarters arm slot.  He commands both sides of the plate with his fastball - his two seamer has good sink and some tailing action.  He throws a four seamer up in the zone with two strikes on a hitter in order to get some swings and misses, but had trouble commanding it during this start.  His slider is emerging as a potential wipeout pitch, starting out looking like a fastball, then diving for the outer half of the plate to barrel-dodging country at the last moment with good depth.  Three of his 5 strikeouts on the day came on that pitch.  Rios also throws a 12-6 curve, which is a work in progress, and threw one or two changeups on the day.  His fastball is his bread and butter, however, and while he only topped 93 with it in this start, his ability to pound the lower part of the strike zone with it sets up that slider.

   Rios breezed through the first four innings of this start against a Wisconsin team that is not loaded with top prospects, but does contain some mid-level bats like Jake Gatewood and Monte Harrison.  Rios faced only one batter over the minimum through four, needing only 45 pitches to do so.  He attacked the strike zone, consistently getting ahead of hitters over that stretch, never reaching a three-ball count.
   In the 5th, Rios gave up his first hits and hard contact on the day, but left a pair of runners stranded.
   Things came a bit undone for him in the 6th.  Facing Rios for the second time, Wisconsin hitters turned more aggressive, and were going after his first pitches with regularity.  Lansing SS JC Cardenas had to field a grounder on the second pitch of the inning on a short hop, and rushed his throw to first, where converted Catcher Juan Kelly was unable to come up with it for the out.  A Rios wild pitch put the runner into scoring position, and he came around to score on a solid line drive base hit.  Another single put runners on first and third, and Lugnuts C Ryan Hissey had a bit of a brain cramp, as he failed to check the runner on 3rd before throwing to 2nd to try to throw out the runner attempting to steal.  The runner from 3rd came in to score easily.  Rios was out of the inning a few batters later, having given up a third run.  He gave up some contact in that inning, but his defence let him down a bit - two of the runs were unearned.

  On the day, Rios threw 82 pitches, 59 for strikes.  He had 9 swinging strikes, and was ahead in the count after three pitches to 22 of the 25 hitters he faced.  Rios threw 7 ground ball and 7 fly ball outs - while he only gave up two fly balls that could be considered to be of the loud variety, he was helped by the strong Wisconsin spring wind blowing in from rightfield.

  It was not televised, but Rios had an even more dominant outing on his 21st birthday, May 6th.  Rios allowed only one hit in 5.2 innings, fanning 10.  He struck out the side swinging, and K'd 6 of the first 7 hitters he faced.   Chad Hillman, a Michigan-based prospect hunter, had him hitting 95 with his fastball.
   I haven't seen a lot of Rios' fielding skills, but his fast-twitch reflexes were on display in an earlier start against Lake County:
video



   Rios has struck out 43 batters (2nd highest total in the MWL) in 30 innings this year, and has walked only 8.  After three seasons of only moderate success in the minors, it would appear that a bit of an uptick in velocity, more bite on his slider, and improved fastball command have made things look ridiculously easy for him - MWL hitters are simply overmatched when they face Rios.  I'm as enthused as anyone about Rios' performance so far this season, but with lower level arms, you have to take a more patient approach, and see how they fare second time around the league, and after that, how well they make adjustments at the next level, where hitters can get around on a fastball better, and have improved pitch recognition.  With Rios, Angel Perdomo, Sean Reid-Foley, and a rapidly improving Jon Harris in the rotation, Lansing is a must-follow team at the moment.


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook Vol. 4 Ed 4

Angel Perdomo
Milb.com photo

 More goings on around the Blue Jays minor league system:

The New Lansing Three
   In 2012, a number of Blue Jays officials passed through Lansing in order to get a closer look at prospects Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, and Aaron Sanchez, three prized young arms who had landed in the Midwest League at the same time.  No one knows for sure where the term "The Lansing 3" came from (I suspect it was Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star, though I can't confirm), but the young trio attracted a lot of attention that year.
   Lefty Angel Perdomo, andright-handers Sean Reid-Foley and Francisco Rios may not match the projections for the 2012 threesome, but they are getting rave reviews for their performances to date.

   Perdomo was an under the radar IFA signing in late 2011.  Like many young Dominicans, his playing experience as a youngster was very limited, and he was quite raw as a result, and the Blue Jays moved him slowly.  Last year, after taking the wraps off him, Perdomo pitched at two levels, finishing at Vancouver.  This year with Lansing, he's been lights out:




    The 6'6" Perdomo stands tall on the mound, and gets plenty of extension on his fastball, giving it mid 90s velo and late life.  With his delivery, left handed hitters have difficulty getting a clean look at the ball as he releases it. With his size, he almost seems to be landing on top of them.  Perdomo is generating swings and misses on his fastball, change, and slider this year both in and out of the strike zone.  Midwest League hitters are managing just a .143 average against him.  The knock against him prior to this year was command of that fastball, but he has filled up the zone this year, and has shown an ability to turn a lineup over.  The next challenge for Perdomo is to pitch deeper into ball games - he's been held to between 75 and 80 pitches in his last two starts, but when you strike out 9 and 7 batters, it's tough to go beyond the 5th.
  Perdomo was a sleeper prospect for me two years ago.  He was likely one of the reasons former GM Alex Anthopoulos was not afraid to deal much of the organization's prospect depth last July.  AA told Baseball America:
“We feel like with some of these guys, because some of them are so young, a bunch of them are ready to take the next step. We’ve got a lefty, (Angel) Perdomo, who we like a lot and was in Vancouver this year. He’s got great stuff but when they’re at the lower levels they don’t get the notoriety. Once they start getting to the Florida State League and they get to New Hampshire then they really start emerging on the scene."
 He's mostly been off the prospect radar, but is about to start lighting things up.


   Rios was also a less than heralded IFA signing in 2012.  Unlike Perdomo, the Mexican was considered a fairly polished prospect - Mexicans tend to have more playing experience than their Dominican counterparts have, and Rios moved more quickly, and skipped the GCL after pitching in the DSL in 2014.  He pitched at Vancouver last year, and seemed to find himself after being installed in the C's starting rotation in August, striking out better than a batter an inning for the rest of the season.
  Chad Hillman is a Michigan-based, self-professed "Prospect Nut," and made this observation after watching him pitch last week:


   Not overpowering, Rios relies on his fastball command to set up his secondary pitches.  And so far, Midwest League hitters are overmatched against him, as he's fanned 33 of them in 24 innings.

  Reid-Foley is easily the most recognizable name of the three.  The 2014 2nd rounder was challenged by a promotion to full season ball last year, starting with Lansing, and even spending a few weeks in Dunedin. Sent back to Lansing to work on his fastball command, SRF has shown that he may not be long for the Midwest, limiting hitters to a .177 average in his first four starts.

   With 2015 1st rounder Jon Harris pitching well in his first start since spending a week on the Temporary Inactive list, this trio may soon turn into a quartet.

  Sticking with Lansing, we have to talk about the Lugs' bullpen, which currently sports a  36 2/3 scoreless innings streak.  Led by vets southpaw Colton Turner and righty Dusty Isaccs (who have accumulated 7 saves between them), the group also features Starlyn Suriel, who couldn't even crack the Lansing rotation even after 18 mostly decent starts last year, Josh De Graaf, a 31st round choice out of NAIA Taylor (IN) University, and Daniel Lietz,  a promising 2013  5th round draft choice who has yet to really put things together, but has pitched well (other than a couple of ERA-inflating bad outings this year).  The group has been bolstered by the addition last week of righthander Gustavo Pierre, who has one of the most interesting stories in the system.  Originally a high-profile IFA signing by the Jays in 2008, Pierre was traded to the Phillies at the end of August, 2014. Traded back to the Jays a year later, Pierre was sent back to Florida to convert to pitching.  Pitching last night against Cedar Rapids, he picked up his first career W in relief of Perdomo.
   It's true that low-level bullpen guys do not have a lot of value.  Very few of them progress all the way up the ladder to the bigs.  But with this collection of arms backing up the stars of the starting rotation, the Lugnuts appear poised to make a second consecutive playoff appearance this season.

  One more Lansing story.
I really want to start following and writing about Andrew Guillotte, the Lugnuts' sparkplug LF and leadoff hitter, and not just because his dad followed me on Twitter last week.
The 32nd round choice out of McNeese State last year began his pro career with Vancouver, and moved up to Lansing this year.  Lansing broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler perfectly described Guillotte:
Andrew “G” Guillotte is 5 feet, 8 inches tall. He leads off. He hustles, gets his uniform dirty, steals bases, draws walks, fights through tough at-bats, strikes out rarely, plays multiple positions, is awesome in the clubhouse, and is described in terms of being a “baseball rat” or a “dirtbag” or, at the very least, as someone who utterly loves the game.
   His .316 BA and .409 OBP lead the Lugnuts, and put him at around the top 10 in the MWL in those categories.  A player with maybe only one truly elite tool (speed) in his kit, Guillotte has quickly become a fan favourite in Lansing (as he did in Vancouver), grinding out at bats, getting on base, hustling at every opportunity, and doing all that he can do to help his team win.  Guillotte may not be a top prospect, but he's turned more than a few heads with his play already, and will be interesting to follow as he progresses up the ladder.

   As good as Lansing's starting rotation has been, Dunedin's has been hit hard, and is one of the reasons the D-Jays, thought to be as good a collection of talent in the system, are two games under .500 a month into the season.  Dunedin's pitching ranks dead last in the Florida State League in ERA, over half a run worse than the next-to-last place team.
   Beyond top pitching prospect Conner Greene, the rotation is a bit of a shambles.  Ryan Borucki, who has missed most of two full seasons since being drafted in 2012, is making another comeback, and has had a tough time finding the strike zone this year, and when he has, FSL hitters are hitting him at a .413 clip. Canadian Tom Robson also missed last year recovering from Tommy John surgery, and has had his own command issues, walking 22 hitters in 16.2 IP.  I saw Robson pitch against the Canadian Juniors in spring training, and the young hitters were simply no match for his 96 mph fastball.  Against tougher competition, it's been a different story.  Luis Santos was a stabilizing force along with Greene, but his promotion to New Hampshire has left a hole in the rotation.
   Luckily, the Dunedin bullpen continues to be highly effective.  LHP Tim Mayza has only given up one earned run in 15 innings over 9 outings, Adonys Cardona hasn't given up a run in 8 appearances, and Matt Dermody and Alonzo Gonzalez have also pitched solidly.
   The best news of all for Dunedin has to be the return of top prospect Anthony Alford.  Alford injured his right knee in the first game of the season, and returned to the lineup last night, DHing and batting second.

  It's still incredibly early in the minor league season, but we have enough of a sample size to start making some judgments.  And of those concerns New Hampshire's Rowdy Tellez, one of the top bats in the system.  At first glance, his current .164 batting average would suggest that Tellez is off to another one of his customary slow starts.  When you put his numbers into context, however, you see a bigger picture.
   New Hampshire currently sits at the bottom in most Eastern League offensive numbers.  The Fisher Cats .209 average is dead last in the league, and their OBP and Slugging rates are near the bottom. That, coupled with his 23% walk rate would suggest that Tellez does not have a lot of support around him in the lineup, and is not seeing a lot of hittable pitches as a result.  A Tellez AB in a recent game against the Phillies' Reading affiliate was typical of many he's had this season:

  Hitting around Tellez in the New Hampshire lineup are hitters like Dwight Smith Jr (currently hitting .148/.229/.197), Matt Dean (.179/.277/.304) and K.C Hobson (.228/.319/..354).  Hopefully, the warmer May weather will help this group collectively warm up.


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   This humble little blog recently passed a milestone of 100 000 page views.  Truth be told, some posts were for another website, and had I known several years ago about how to market content in an online world, the total would likely be much higher.
   This accomplishment would not have been possible without the support of my regular readers, as well as the sources that I've accumulated along the way.  Huge thanks to both.  I hope it doesn't take me three full seasons and part of a fourth to hit 200 000 views.