Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Player Development Contracts and Spring Training Updates

Florida Auto Exchange Stadium - ballparkreviews.com photo

  Every two years (in even-numbered years), Player Development Contracts between MLB teams and their minor league affiliates come up for renewal in September.

   In the standard PDC, the MLB team agrees to provide players and coaching staff to the minor league team.  The MiLB team agrees to provide a small-scale MLB experience, with standard training facilities.
The agreement between the two hinges on many aspects, but from the MLB's team point of view, they want a good atmosphere for their prospects to develop in, and the MiLB team wants a good supply of  quality prospects to make the team competitive.

  AAA Buffalo has been a Blue Jays affiliate since 2013, and it has been highly successful relationship for both sides.  The Blue Jays can quickly recall a player from Buffalo, and the team has been very successful both on the field and at the gate during their partnership.  The team drew over 551 000 fans last year, and will come close to that mark again this year.  With prospects like Rowdy Tellez, Reese McGuire, Richard Urena, and Conner Greene likely to be donning Bisons colours at some point next season, Bisons fans on both sides of the border should have plenty of reason to head to Coca-Cola Field, one of the top venues in the minors. Because their affiliation has been so successful, the Blue Jays and Bisons put to rest any doubts about their collective future in early April when they extended their PDC to 2018.

  Toronto is the only MLB affiliation the AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats have known since coming into existence in 2014.  There was talk a few years ago about the Blue Jays switching affiliation in the event of a shift of an existing Eastern League team to Ottawa, and while several prospective ownership groups offered to run the team, no one (including Ottawa City Council) stepped forward to fund necessary stadium improvements.  New Hampshire has been competitive as a Blue Jays affiliate as well, wining a pair of league titles since their inception.  Both sides agreed to a four-year extension in May of 2014.

  Dunedin is owned by the Blue Jays, so there is no PDC coming up for renewal between the two sides.

  Lansing has been another highly successful partnership, dating back to 2005.  It's a little surprising that no extension has been announced (often, they aren't - they just continue) to date, but indications are that both sides are pleased with their agreement.  Lansing is fairly easy to access for Blue Jays roving instructors and front-office executives.  Cooley Law Stadium is a top-notch facility, and the team draws well.  One has to feel for Lansing fans, however, because by being on the bottom of the full season ladder in the system, they often are the first to lose players to promotion.  With the Lugs fighting for a playoff spot as the season winds down, they likely would be headed to the post-season if the still had some or all of promoted players like Jon Harris, Francisco Rios, Sean Reid-Foley, or Max Pentecost, but that is the reality of life in the minors. Toronto did airlift in high profile June draftees like Cavan Biggio, Josh Palacios, J.B. Woodman, and T.J. Zeuch to help with the playoff push, which is good, because the Lansing fans deserved it.

  Vancouver is the Blue Jays' top short season affiliate, and the pairing has been a runaway success since it started in 2011.  It's a natural match in many ways - it helps to grow the Blue Jays brand, and it gives prospects a taste of living in Canada, albeit a brief one.  The C's won the Northwest League title in their first three years as a Blue Jays farm team, and made it to the final in the 4th, but missed the playoffs last year, and are headed to one of their worst finishes of all time as a NWL franchise.  Additions to venerable Nat Bailey Stadium have allowed Vancouver to become the league's runaway attendance leader this year (setting a franchise attendance record in the process, averaging over 6 000 fans per game), but the quality of prospects the team was provided has fallen short, with starting pitching being a huge concern.  One of Mark Shapiro's first acts in 2016 was to get Canadians' ownership to agree to a PDC extension to 2018. Let's hope the team can be competitive next year, because the C's fan base is deserving of it as well.

  Bluefield is the other PDC that is up for renewal.  The town had a long relationship with the Orioles before becoming a Toronto affiliate in 2011.  The Appalachian League is a nice buffer between the complex leagues and short season play, and there have been no suggestions from either side that there are problems in their relationship.  It's reasonable to assume that it will continue.
  From a purely personal standpoint, it would be nice one day to see a Blue Jays affiliate in the New York-Penn League (which, over half a century ago, was known as the Pennsylvania Ontario New York - PONY - league).  The NY-Penn league is a short season loop on par with the Appy League, and Toronto did have a franchise there for a number of years based in St Catharines, ON, but a declining Canadian dollar saw the team move to Queens, NY for the 2000 season.
 
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   The Blue Jays have known only one spring training site since their first spring almost 40 years ago.
Times have changed, and the club has looked at other sites in Florida and possibly Arizona over the past few years, as talks with the City of Dunedin have lagged.  The club would like a new facility - currently, the minor league complex and Florida Auto Exchange Stadium are about a 10-15 (depending on traffic) bus ride away. With other teams in the Tampa area having had huge sums of cash thrown at them over the past decade to remain in the region with upgraded, all-at-one-site complexes, the Blue Jays would like to have a similar one.
  The current agreement between the two sides expires in 2017, and talks have been quietly ongoing to broker a new deal.  The city, of course, would like the team to stay - reports suggest the six weeks of spring training has an economic impact of about $85 million.  The Blue Jays, for their part, would like a considerable upgrade to either FAES or the minor league complex.  Both sides seem to have reached the conclusion that a "one address" site probably is not feasible in Dunedin.  The question becomes which facility will receive upgrades, and how will they be paid for.
   FAES, originally named Grant Field, was built in 1990, and seats 5 000.  The website ballparkdigest.com calls the park, "outdated yet charming,"  but it pales in comparisons to the aesthetics and amenities of other stadiums in the area.  Its landlocked location limits parking, there is no concourse, and the facility's infrastructure is outdated.  The Florida State League Dunedin Blue Jays draw sparse crowds that number in the hundreds, and while FAES is a good place to watch a game, it does feel on the antiquated side.
   There are some quaint features to the stadium.  Located just blocks from the waterway which separates the mainland from Clearwater Beach and the Gulf of Mexico, the park is in a very picturesque setting.  Both teams have to walk down their respective base lines to get to their clubhouses, giving fans ample access for autographs.  Quite a group gathers down the right field line to see their Blue Jays heroes, and the players seem to enjoy interacting with the fans.
A block west of FAES stadium - Clutchlings photo

  The city is in the process to applying to local and state sources of funding to secure financing for the project, and a group of city officials met with the Blue Jays in Toronto in late July.  Megan Reeves of the Tampa Bay Times writes that an announcement from the city should be forthcoming sometime in the next few weeks.   It does appear that funding will be available, but as with most government processes, it takes some time to secure.
   The Blue Jays, for their part, understand the history of their team and Dunedin, and also realize how accessible the city is for Canadians.  Spring training has become an important marketing vehicle for the team, and relocating (especially to Arizona) would hamper those efforts.
   The short take on this is that the Blue Jays will not have their spring training and minor league complexes under one roof, but significant changes should be coming to one of them, meaning that the team will remain in Dunedin.  Word should be coming sometime in the next month about what those changes will look like.

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  Just before hitting the "publish" button, I noticed that Lansing RHP Jordan Romano, who threw a lights-out 10Ks over 6 IP in his last start, went on the 7-day DL.  He was removed from the 7th inning of that start for precautionary reasons, and said he felt fine and wouldn't miss his next turn in the rotation, but with Romano coming back this season from Tommy John surgery, and at a career-high 100 innings, the club opted to shut him down.  The move was retroactive to August 27th.
  Romano threw a bullpen session with no ill effects yesterday, and will likely come off the DL and pitch in a piggyback situation before the season ends.
  The club and Romano, a Markham, ON native, have to be thrilled with his first full season, and his first one as a starter to boot.  Romano missed all of 2015, and went 3-2 with a 2.17 ERA in 14 starts for the Lugnuts.  He struck out 69 in 70 IP, allowing only 48 hits.  Midwest League hitters managed only a .192 batting average against him.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Looking Ahead: Arizona Fall League and Australian League Projections


  Even though the MLB season is far from over, minor league play heads into its last week of the regular season today, and that means it's time to look ahead and see which Blue Jays prospects may further their baseball educations in either the Arizona Fall League, or the Australian Baseball League.

  The two leagues are vastly different, but both serve as a means of furthering players' development.  The AFL was founded in 1992 as a place for top prospects at the AA or AAA levels (teams are allowed two A ball players) could hone their skills against elite competition under conditions that are generally more favourable than most winter ball assignments.  This year, the Blue Jays will send a half dozen prospects to play for the Mesa Solar Sox - all teams are in the Phoenix area.  Dalton Pompey, Aaron Sanchez, Rowdy Tellez, Marcus Stroman, Andy Burns, and Dwight Smith Jr are among the more recent Blue Jays AFL alumni.
  The Aussie League has had a couple of incarnations, the most recent starting in 2010.  The Blue Jays have had a very successful partnership with the Canberra Cavalry, one of the more successful franchises in the league.  Pompey, Anthony Alford, and Jason Leblebijian have all spent time down under furthering their skills.  The ABL had its funding cut off by MLB this summer, so it faces a very uncertain future.  The schedule has been truncated (begins in mid-November, as opposed to late October, and finishes in late January), and this may be the last season the Blue Jays send prospects there.

  Choosing players for the two leagues can be a challenge.  Generally, the team wants to send players who have lost time to injury, work on a position/role change, or to give them a taste of that elite competition when selecting players to go to Arizona.  Alford certainly fits that bill, and so probably does IF Christian Lopes, who had fallen off the prospect radar, but has quietly put up a .294/.356/.404 line at New Hampshire, and has re-gained some of his former prospect lustre.  Derrick Loveless also turned his career around with New Hampshire this year, and might be a candidate.  Leblebijian likely would merit consideration, too, but after spending the season with Canberra last year has played a lot of baseball in the last 10 months.  Conner Greene certainly would benefit from the challenge, but if he does head southwest his innings will likely be extremely limited after pitching about 150 this year.  RHP Taylor Cole may be a good candidate - he lost time due to injury this year, and the team may want to think about harnessing his fastball by moving him to the bullpen. RHP John Stilson has also lost considerable time to injury over the course of the year, and it's possible a trip to Arizona could be in his plans for this fall.  Utility guy Emilio Guerrero more than held his own in AA this year, and might benefit from playing a variety of positions in Arizona this fall.  Dunedin C Danny Jansen has missed much playing time in each of his three minor league seasons so far, and may make up for lost time with Mesa.  Depending on his injury status, Sean Reid-Foley would have to be a decent bet to travel to Arizona, but he hasn't pitched since August 10th.

  The Aussie League experience is a different one than the Arizonan.  Many of the pitchers are veteran types, and as Alford discovered two years ago, they pitch you backward.  Living in a foreign country, far from home, is not for everyone, so the Blue Jays must carefully consider who they send.  Still, the experience is entirely beneficial, and the crash course in pitch recognition Alford took in Australia after giving up his football commitment was part of the reason for his breakout season in 2015.  Again, players who have missed time (but are not at AA) for one reason or another, or need to have their development accelerated are good candidates to make the long trip. We've just learned that reliever Andrew Case, who was suspended 50 games in the off season for missing a drug test.  The New Brunswick native returned to play with Lansing in early July, and has saved 8 games in 9 opportunities.  IF Dickie Joe Thon Jr, a highly regarded 2010 5th rounder, has really not shown much until this year, and his development might be furthered with time in Australia.  Lansing OF Lane Thomas missed some time this year, and could be headed down under.  Dunedin OF J.D. Davis has had a really solid season after missing time in past years, and could be under consideration as well.  If Jansen is not headed to Arizona, Australia might be a good situation for him.  As far as pitchers go, the team prefers to send relievers, so a bullpen arm or two more from Dunedin or Lansing may be making the trip.  As an added bonus, ABL games are televised, and while the broadcast quality varies, it's easy to check up on these prospects on the ABL channel on YouTube.

  What we don't know's banged up, who needs to work on some things, and who is playing winter ball, so sometimes putting these lists together is just a matter of speculation.  For the prospects who aren't under consideration for travel to Arizona or Australia, the Florida Instructional League begins in late September.
Even though the season is winding down, there's still plenty of baseball ahead for many Blue Jays prospects.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Look at Jordan Romano

Milb.com photo

  You could call Toronto Blue Jays right-handed pitching prospect Jordan Romano an "accidental pitcher"; the Markham, ON, native was a catcher for his high school team, but a broken foot forced him to switch to the mound.  Three years later, after a pair of seasons at an Oklahoma junior college, and a year closing games for Oral Roberts, he was selected in the 10th round of the 2014 draft.  After blowing out his elbow the following spring, the tall, lanky prospect had to sit out the 2015 season, and didn't make his 2016 debut until June.  Call him whatever you want, but after 6 innings of 2-hit ball, with 10 strikeouts for Lansing against Dayton in Midwest League action last night, you can also call him a Blue Jays prospect on the rise.

  It would be cliche to call Romano a typically gritty Canadian (one of five on the Lugnuts' roster, in fact), but consider this:  when he tore his UCL toward the end of spring training in 2015, he stayed in for one more pitch, and retired the hitter on a wicked slider.  His has been a long and winding road, but he has firmly placed himself on the prospect map this season.

  The 6'4", 200 Romano is an imposing presence on the mound.  Working from a simplified delivery, he parts his hands during his delivery for some scapular loading.  With his size, he does take a while to deliver the ball, but he has worked hard to vary his timing to help keep runners on.

   After an hour long rain delay, Romano took to the mound against Dayton, the Reds' Low-A affiliate. Usually, they field a competitive team, and the Dragons are one of the best-drawing teams in minor league baseball, but this year's edition is some 40 games under .500.  They proved to be giant killers against Lansing in the first two games of the series, however, storming back from a 10-3 deficit with 8 unanswered runs (in what may become known as the Rally Skunk game one day) to take the second.  With Lansing locked in a battle for the final Eastern Division playoff berth, this game had added importance to the Lugnuts.

  In the first inning, Romano perhaps showed the effects of the rain delay, as he walked the leadoff hitter, then gave up a single.  Facing Nick Senzel, the 2nd overall pick in the June draft (and a leader in most MWL offensive categories if he had enough ABs to qualify), Romano gave up a long fly ball that LF Connor Panas had to make a leaping catch against the wall on to record the first out of the inning.
   Romano quickly regained his composure, and struck out the next two hitters swinging to end the inning.  In fact, he set down 17 of the next 18 hitters he faced after Senzel's flyout, and could have easily retired 17 straight if not for RF Lane Thomas taking a circuitous route to a deep flyball by Senzel in the swirling Dayton winds in the 4th.
   Romano came back out for the 7th inning, but was removed after only 4 pitches.  With the count at 1-1 on the lead off hitter, Romano let loose with a pair of wild pitches up and out of the strike zone.  He seemed to flinch after what proved to be his final pitch, quickly bringing out Manager John Schneider, Pitching Coach Jeff Ware, and the Lansing trainer to the mound.  At that point, the Dayton feed on milb.tv put a Dragons' logo up on the screen, so it was impossible to judge from Romano's reaction the potential extent of his injury - something clearly was not right, and with one Tommy John surgery already on his medical record, Schneider immediately called to the bullpen.  Romano said this afternoon that his removal was precautionary, and he should be on track to make his next start.

  Romano ended this contest with a career-high 10 Ks.  After his 19-pitch first inning, he was very economical with his pitches, needing no more than 13 to get through any other frame.  He threw 76 pitches on the night, an incredible 58 of them for strikes.  To left-handed hitters, Romano was very efficient at painting the outside corner, and to righties, he threw a devastating fastball with good armside run to get up under their hands.  The pitch would start in the middle of the plate, then tail to the inside, and hitters could not lay off of it when he elevated it with two strikes.  Romano also had more zip on his fastball than usual last night, sitting 94-95, and touching 96 - he still had gas in that last inning, hitting 94.
  Romano also showed good command of his slider. "I've definitely had nights where my slider was sharper but I could throw it where I wanted yesterday," he said when it was pointed out how effective the pitch was.
Romano threw 15 first-pitch strikes, and was behind only one hitter - the leadoff batter - the whole night. He had an astounding 18 swings-and-misses. Only two pitches were truly squared up on him (both by Senzel). It was truly a dominant performance, but unfortunately, Lansing was unable to provide him with much run support, and relievers Jackson Lowery and Andrew Case, who have both been lights out this month, allowed the tying and winning runs to score in the 7th and 8th.

  Over the course of just over two months, Romano has firmly established himself in the top tier of the next wave of prospects in the system.  He may not have the profile of a Jon Harris or even a Francisco Rios, but he's still developing, and still learning to pitch.  With his height, he gets good extension, and creates a good downward plane with his fastball.  The Blue Jays may have uncovered yet another good arm.

  Here is that AB against Senzel in the 6th:
video

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Clutchlings Notebook - Playoff Hunt Edition


Vladimir Guerrero Jr - milb.com photo

      Minor league playoff races, in terms of excitement, don't generate a whole lot of buzz beyond the cities and leagues involved, but they hearken back somewhat to the golden age of the minors, when teams acted as independent entities, and were very much in competition with big league teams for players and the entertainment dollar.  As the season winds down, four Blue Jays affiliates are in a playoff position at the moment.

   The GCL Blue Jays, who perform in front of a small gathering of scouts, family, and girlfriends with no video scoreboards, walk-up music, or between-innings in-game entertainment, sit atop the Northwest Division standings with a league-best 36-13 record, but are separated by only percentage points from the GLC Phillies.  In the abbreviated GCL playoff format, only the four division winners qualify, pairing off in a one-game semi-final with the winners meeting in a best of three final.  The Jays have had to do without their leading hitter, 2nd round pick Bo Bichette, who had his appendix removed in late July.  The infielder was tearing apart the GCL in his pro debut, slashing .421/.440/.744.  There is no word on his return, but with 10 games left in the season, his bat would give the lineup a huge boost.  Last year, the club made it to the league final with one of the more veteran teams in the loop, but they are one of the youngest this year, and have the second-youngest pitching staff.

  If Bichette had remained healthy, he might have moved up to Bluefield of the Appalachian League, forming a potent 1-2 punch in the lineup with 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.  Bluefield currently sits in 2nd in the Appy League's East Division, a game back of Burlington, and a half game ahead of Princeton.  The top 2 teams in each division make the post-season.  The club lost leading hitter Nash Knight when he was promoted to Vancouver, but there is still plenty of pop in the lineup - Bluefield leads the league in Home Runs with 50.

   The Low A Lansing Lugnuts also occupy a playoff position at the moment, a half game ahead of both Great Lakes and 1.5 games up on Lake County for the second (and final) Eastern Division playoff spot.  Full season teams see a lot of players come and go, and such is the case with Lansing, who have seen Francisco Rios, Jon Harris, and now Max Pentecost move on to Dunedin.

  Dunedin also is in a playoff spot at the moment, sitting atop the Florida State League's North Division, thanks to a 7-game winning streak.  The D-Jays lost SS Richard Urena to New Hampshire earlier this month, but still have the organization's top prospect in rebounding OF Anthony Alford.

   Playoff participation is something of a double-edge sword for MLB farm departments.  On the one hand, the pressure is a good experience for their prospects, but with some of their younger pitchers already having exceeded their career highs in innings pitched, Managers have to have one eye on the pitch count as well as one on the scoreboard.  Already, Rios has been moved to Dunedin's pen to preserve his arm, and other starters like Ryan Borucki, who has found himself with Lansing this year, are seeing their pitch counts reduced as the season winds down.  Similarly, especially with some of the Lansing roster, many players are in their first year of full season ball, and are wearing down as well.  Still, especially for the top prospects, the organization do doubt likes having them take part in the playoffs together.

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   One team that is conspicuous by its absence from the post-season for the second straight year is Vancouver.  The C's won the Northwest League title in their first three seasons as a Jays affiliate, and made it to the final in their fourth.  The partnership with the Jays has been wildly successful, and the C's lead the NWL in attendance by almost an average of 1 000 fans a game.
   For the second straight year, however, the C's are mostly devoid of top prospects.  Roberto Osuna, Kevin Pillar, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, and the departed Franklin Barreto have all spent time in YVR, but the only high profile prospect to adorn the lineup this year was P Justin Maese, who was promoted to Lansing a month ago.
   The C's are next to last in the league in batting average and ERA.  Thanks to the Shaw Cable network, select Saturday night home games are televised - the quality is decent, and you have to love the high camera angle on plays at 1st Base.  After watching a few Shaw games, as well as some at Hillsboro, which provides an milb.tv feed, it's been possible for Eastern Canadians to catch a glimpse of the C's, and get a read on some of their players.
   Three players that have stood out are outfielders Josh Palacios and J.B. Woodman, and SS Yeltsin Gudino.  Palacios, a 4th round pick in June, looks like a 110m hurdler, and his athleticism will no doubt translate well as he gains experience.  Woodman, the team's 2nd round pick, has bat speed but a bit of a long swing, and has struck out in 31% of his ABs.  Gudino, a prized IFA signing from 2013, is slick at shortstop, with good hands and a quick release.  The question has always been about his bat, and while his .214/.328/.244 line has done nothing to quell that, he shows quick hands and makes contact.  At 19, he's fared reasonably well against higher competition after failing to crack the Mendoza line in his previous two minor league stops. C Javier Hernandez is probably another name worth mentioning.  He has already drawn praise for his defensive work from previous seasons, but he's not produced a great deal offensively.
   Fielding a competitive NWL team can be difficult.  The league is filled with recent college grads, most of whom were mid-level draftees.  These players tend to produce well in short season ball, but have low ceilings.  In order to stock an NWL team, an organization has to risk some of its picks on this type of player. Ryan McBroom was among the most successful of these, but this year, the organization has opted to place younger players, like Gudino, Hernanedez, and 3B Bryan Lizardo in Vancouver, and while they ultimately may have higher ceilings, they've mostly struggled against the advanced NWL pitching.
   Still the fans in Vancouver deserve more.  The Blue Jays in the past have liked sending their top prospects there, to give them a taste of life in Canada.  With strong entries in Bluefield and the GCL this year, hopefully that will translate into a more successful C's team next year.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Blue Jays, Scouting Director Part Ways


Parker (r), with Assistan GM Andrew Tinnish - Canadian Baseball photo

     Toronto Blue Jays amateur scouting director Brian Parker, according to an article in Baseball America.  National cross checker Blake Davis was also let go, according to BA.

  Parker joined the Jays as a pro scout in 2009, and took charge of the draft in 2012.  In the wake of deals with the Mets and Marlins prior to 2013 which dealt away much of the farm system's upper level depth, Parker and his staff quickly rebuilt the minor league organization, selecting players like Marcus Stroman, Matt Boyd, Kendall Graveman, and Jeff Hoffman.  Last season, with then-GM Alex Anthopoulos dealing 18 prospects over 6 months, Parker deftly re-stocked the system again.  Other players drafted by Parker and still toiling in the Blue Jays farm system included Anthony Alford, Conner Greene, Max Pentecost, Rowdy Tellez, Justin Maese, Sean Reid-FoleyJon Harris, and 2016 draftee T.J. Zeuch.

   The Indiana State Business Management grad has spent his whole career in professional sports, starting with an internship with the Colorado Rockies in 1997.  He spent time with the NFL's Buffalo Bills in media relations, before moving to the Southwest to help eventually head up the Arizona Fall League's operations. Parker joined the Montreal Expos in the player development department in 2003, and moved with the Expos to Washington, where he rose to Director of Baseball Operations before joining the Blue Jays, where he joined his friend and former fellow Expos staffer Anthopoulos.  Under Parker, the Blue Jays were at the leading edge of amateur scouting, opting for high-risk, high-reward prospects like Alford and Stroman, players from non-traditional baseball markets like Maese, and they exploited new draft rules regarding signing bonuses to draft low-leverage college seniors like Boyd and Graveman in 2013, and used savings from those picks to persuade Tellez to forego his college commitment after most clubs felt he wouldn't sign.

   When Mark Shapiro took over the Blue Jays operations side last year, changes were expected.  He brought Ross Atkins from Cleveland with him to take over the GM job, hired Gil Kim from the Rangers to head minor league operations, and persuaded Angus Mugford to leave the IMG Academy in Florida to head up the club's new high performance department.  In addition to Anthopoulos, long-time International scouting director Ismael Cruz left the club last fall for a similar position with the Dodgers.

  What does this mean for the Blue Jays?  Likely a slight shift in philosophy, but nothing fans would notice right away.  The club has been a solid drafter and developer of prospects, and with Shapiro's past emphasis on development, not much is like to change in that regard.  Picks like J.B. Woodman and Josh Palacios this June shows that this is still an organization that covets upside.

   As for Parker, he has a solid resume, and accomplished a great deal in his four years of running the amateur scouting side.  He should land another job fairly quickly.  Shapiro garnered considerable scorn from some Blue Jays fans on social media after taking over and making a fair number of changes prior to this season, but much of that was to be expected in the wake of a regime change, and with the team in first place and the next wave of prospects ready to make an impact at the MLB level in 2017 or 2018, it's hard to argue with the results.  Sportsnet suggests that a rumour is making the rounds that Oakland assistant scouting director Michael Holmes, who was  a teammate of Atkins' in college, may be tapped to replace Parker.
 
 

Monday, August 15, 2016

A Look at Justin Maese

Foxsports.com photo

   When former GM Alex Anthopoulos went on his shopping spree over a year ago prior to the trade deadline, he was able to hang onto much of the club's upper level talent depth.  He did, however, deal much of its middle level talent base in order to put deals together that resulted in a division title.  The top level prospects, like Anthony Alford, Conner Greene, Sean Reid-Foley, Richard Urena, and Rowdy Tellez, remained intact, and now the next wave of prospects is just starting to get established in Low A ball. RHP Justin Maese is at the forefront of that group.
   Maese (say "My-EH-zee) grew up in the football hotbed of El Paso, TX, which is off the beaten path for baseball scouts.  A high school QB and punter, he was headed the college football route, but began to attract minor attention when he hit 96 on the gun in the spring of 2015.  Credit goes to the Blue Jays, who developed a knack for unearthing talent in non-traditional baseball markets under Anthopoulos, and Blue Texas scout Gerald Murray, who talked Maese out of his football commitment, and  he signed with Toronto after being selected in the 3rd round last June.
   Baseball America's scouting report on Maese before the draft:
Maese climbed this spring from off of draft boards into consideration for the top 10 rounds because scouts who saw him at his best saw an above-average fastball and a slider that flashed above-average. But scouts who stuck around for a few more starts saw the stuff often drop back from the 93-96 mph he showed at his best to 88-92 mph. Maese's feel for the breaking ball comes and goes and his delivery involves effort and is somewhat mechanical. But Maese has lots of arm speed and potential if he can smooth out the rough edges. He is committed to Texas Tech.
Their tune changed a bit after an impressive rookie season:
 Athletic and live-armed, Maese delivers from a low three-quarters delivery that helps him impart excellent sink to his fastball. His velocity came and went during the spring, which led to his draft stock rising and falling, but when he stays on top of the ball in his delivery, he can push 96 mph with plus sinking life. He'll sit 89-93 mph most of the time but could fill out and hold higher velocity longer down the line. He has work to do to polish his changeup and slider, which at times flashes pus with mid-80s power. Maese had an exceptional groundball rate in his debut (2.58 grounds per airout) and profiles as a power sinkerballer if it all works out. 
   Maese has been on an upward arc in terms of his career trajectory ever since, and in only his second pro season was promoted to Lansing a few weeks ago.  Last year, he was dominant in the GCL,  being named the league's MVP, and threw a 6-inning, one run, four hit, 10 strikeout game in the playoffs.  This year, Maese began the season with Vancouver, as the organization opted to pump the brakes a bit on his development, but after posting an 0.80 WHIP for the C's in 26 innings over 5 starts, he was on his way to the Midwest League.
   I charted Maese's August 13th start at West Michigan.  At 6"3"/180, Maese fits the mold of the prototypical Blue Jays pitching prospect.  Maese doesn't turn 20 until late October, and as one of the youngest players in the MWL, he certainly looks like it.  Maese has made huge strides in his delivery, repeating it well, throwing from a consistent arm slot, and landing in a good position to field comebackers:
video
 
  Maese worked a tidy, 10-pitch first inning, retiring the side in order, CF Lane Thomas making a nice running catch of a sinking liner for the final out.  A deliberate worker on the mound, West Michigan hitters started stepping out of the box on Maese in the 2nd.  Maese gave up a one-out double off the LF wall, which later came around to score on a two-out single that had some eyes, and found a hole between third and short.  As a sinkerball pitcher who works down in the zone, Maese will give up some contact like that. Hitting 95, Maese struck out the final hitter swinging to end his 16-pitch 2nd.
  Maese struggled a bit with his command in the 3rd, but still retired the side in order on 13 pitches, inducing a pair of groundball outs after striking out the leadoff hitter.  He also gave up a leadoff single in the 4th, but C Ryan Hissery, who continues to improve his skills behind the plate, gunned down the runner attempting to steal 2nd.  While Maese did not show a great move to 1st in this game, his short stride to home no doubt helped Hissey throw the runner out.  He retired the next two hitters, needing only 8 pitches to get out of the inning.
  The 5th proved to be Maese's longest of the day.  After giving up another leadoff base hit, Hissey's throw hit the runner on the helmet as he attempted to steal second, putting a runner on 3rd with no outs.  A one-out singled brought home West Michigan's second run of the game.  Maese retired the next two hitters, and still maintained his velocity, hitting 95 once again, but he did continue to struggle with his command.  He required 22 pitches to get through the inning.
  Maese's cleanest inning of the night was the 6th, when he needed only 5 pitches to retire the side in order.  Back out for the 7th, Maese gave up a pair of soft grounders to start the inning, but his infield D let him down a bit.  SS JC Cardenas ranged to his right to scoop up a groundball from the leadoff hitter, but didn't have time to set up properly for the throw, and skipped it to first, allowing the hitter to beat it by a hair.  Two pitches later, 2B Ryan Metzler bobbled a routine groundball which most likely would have resulted in a double play had he not dropped it, leaving runners on first and second with no outs. The next hitter whiffed on a pair of bunt attempts, and swung and missed at Maese's third pitch for the first out of the inning, and with a left-handed hitter due next, and Maese at 80 pitches for the night, his outing was over.
   For the game, Maese threw 6.1 innings, gave up a pair of earned runs on six hits, allowed a walk, and fanned six.  He threw 80 pitches, 55 for strikes, and threw first strikes to 11 of the 26 hitters he faced. Maese had 8 swings-and-misses on the night, and recorded 8 ground ball outs, as opposed to 4 by fly balls. He worked consistently down in the zone for much of the night, relying mostly on his sinker, which showed good movement.  He pairs his sinker with an 89 mph slider, as well as his change, but stuck mostly with the fastball on this night.
   Maese is still a considerable distance away from MLB, and given his age and experience, there's no need to rush.  There was concern that he wouldn't be able to refine his mechanics or keep his velo up well into games, but he appears to have all but conquered those aspects.  His change is coming along nicely, but is still a work in progress.  Maese profiles as a weak-contact inducing pounder of the lower part of the strike zone. Promoting him to Lansing was a challenge, and while he's alternated some good outings with some in which he's struggled, Maese is making good progress.  At 19, there is projection remaining.   There may be more room for an extra mile or two per hour of velocity, and his fastball command and secondary pitches should continue to improve.  Expect to see him back at Lansing to start the year next season, but his development could really take off in 2017.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Look at Richard Urena

Clutchlings photo

   He (Urena) has the requisite middle-infield tools with smooth actions, soft hands and easy plus arm strength.  Baseball America 

   The Blue Jays had one of the best July international free agent signing periods in club history, bringing a pair of Caribbean shortstops into the fold.
   Venezuelan Franklin Baretto, signed on July 2nd (the opening day of IFA signing) was viewed by many as the top IFA that year, and Dominican Richard Urena, signed a day later, was not considered to be far behind Barreto.
   The pair progressed through the system, with the more advanced Barreto usually playing a level ahead of Urena.  The thinking was that Barreto lacked the footwork and arm to stick at the position, and despite being named the Northwest League's MVP at the tender age of 18, he became the centrepiece in the deal that brought the Blue Jays their own MVP in the the form of 3B Josh Donaldson.
   Overlooked in that deal was the fact that the organizaton had deemed Urena their shortstop of the future.
With a surprising 15 Home Runs in a little over a half season in his first year of full season ball last year, and a .308/.354/.453 line at Dunedin this year, fuelled by a .390 stretch over his final 10 games with the D-Jays, the 20 year old Urena was promoted to New Hampshire yesterday.
  And Urena wasted no time making an impact with the Fisher Cats, fielding a pair of ground balls from the first two hitters of the game in a home contest against Akron, throwing across the field to future Blue Jays teammate Rowdy Tellez.  For good measure, Urena alertly raced to second when the Arkon shortstop booted the grounder from his first bat into short left field, then banged out three hits in his next four ABs, including a triple to the wall in left centre.

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  Urena has steadily climbed up the top prospects ladder, cracking most Top 10 lists by 2014, and was ranked Toronto's top prospect in a mid-season ranking by MLB.com.    He may sit a little lower in some other lists (#5 in BA's), but he, along with Tellez, Anthony Alford, Sean Reid-Foley, and Conner Greene were considered untouchables by management at this year's trade deadline.


   Here's what MLB.com had to say about Urena:
Urena is an excellent athlete with a wiry-strong frame and room to grow. He shows loose wrists and a quick bat from the left side of the plate, and it was from that side that he hit 15 of his home runs in 2015. His right-handed swing continues to be a work in progress, though that was to be expected considering the last year was just his second as a full-time switch-hitter. As he moves up the ladder, Urena will need to tighten his approach and do a better job controlling the strike zone.

   And BA:
Urena isn’t flashy but has continue to polish his skills that will allow his best tools—his power potential and feel for hitting—to shine. He has an aggressive approach but good power for a shortstop, and he ranked second in the pitcher-centric Florida State League in hits. He’s a steady shortstop with a plus arm who still adding polish on both sides of the ball.
 Urena checks many boxes for a toolsy player.  He's athletic, fields and throws extremely well, has shown both some pop and a feel for hitting, and even though he's not stolen base fast, he's agile and quick in the field, and aggressive and smart on the base paths.  The knock against him has been his seeming lack of focus on routine plays, and his ability to hit from the right side.  His .258/.321/.320 against LHP suggests that he's making progress with his switch-hitting, and lacking advanced defensive metrics, his 23 errors similarly suggest about his defence.  His 6% walk rate means that he tends to expand his strike zone too often, but he doesn't post high strikeout totals, putting the ball in play.  Urena was aggressive in his New Hampshire debut, seeing no more than 3 pitches in every AB.  As he gets more experience (Urena is only in his second year of full season ball), there is still room for improved strike zone judgement.  It will be interesting to see how he fares in AA, where pitchers have a plan.  Despite his strong debut, he may struggle for a bit as Eastern League pitchers learn not to catch too much of the strike zone early in the count against him.
 
  There may be some temptation to rush Urena, and while he will have to be placed on the 40-man roster this fall to avoid exposing him to the Rule 5 draft, Troy Tulowitzki seems to have at least another season or two in him at short.  His promotion to New Hampshire makes him the youngest player in the Eastern League, and given the Blue Jays' preference to have prospects play at one level for a full season (even if it's split over two years), it's likely that Urena will return to Manchester for at least half of 2017.  That would put him on track to make his MLB debut perhaps in 2018, with being a regular a possibility late that year, or early 2019.  By then, he may form a formidable core with Reid-Foley, Tellez, Alford, Greene, and possibly Max Pentecost and maybe even Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 
   Injuries at the big league level might push up that timetable, but Urena is clearly the Blue Jays short stop of the future.
 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Blue Jays Add to Prospect Depth with McGuire, Ramirez

Pittsburgh Herald-Tribune

  With this year's trade deadline having come and gone, the Blue Jays have managed to both add to their major league roster and minor league depth in the aftermath,
   Toronto acquired C Reese McGuire and OF Harold Ramirez in the Francisco Liriano-Drew Hutchison deal at the deadline.  The addition of McGuire and Ramirez, who both played at Altoona of the AA Eastern League, gives the organization some much needed upper level help.

  Baseball America's evaluation of McGuire prior to the 2013 draft (when the Pirates made him their first pick, 14th over all):
 His receiving, blocking and arm strength are all above-average, and he has been calling his own games since he was 10 years old. He has a high baseball IQ and game awareness. The question will be how much McGuire will hit. He has a smooth lefthanded swing with strength and bat speed and shows the tools to be an above-average pure hitter with average power. 
  That report is essentially still pretty much the same.  Craig Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus offers a similar assessment:
  The contact ability is there to make him an average (or perhaps slightly above) hitter, but he’s yet to show the kind of power that would stop pitchers from challenging him, and more than his fair share of at-bats end in weak contact. He works deep counts and shows an advanced approach at the plate, and will flash average raw power in BP, so there’s something to latch onto for the dreamers out there..
   Lansing broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, in response to a fellow prospects blogger tweeted:

    There was hope for his bat after a .294/.379/.412 performance against top competition in the Arizona Fall League last year, but he remains a defence-first prospect.  McGuire has hit all of 4 Home Runs in over 1400 minor league plate appearances, and the line he has posted in AA this year of .259/.337/.346 is right around his career average.
   McGuire is a premium athlete, is faster than the average Catcher (and combines that with great base running smarts), and his skills alone behind the plate should translate into a career as at least an MLB back up.  At 21, there's a tiny little window of projection remaining, and the tools are there for improved offensive performance, and with Russell Martin signed for three years beyond this season, there's no need to rush him. With Max Pentecost still limited to DH duties with Lansing, McGuire becomes the top receiving prospect in the organization, and provides some much-needed insurance should Martin be felled by a serious injury. McGuire will move to New Hampshire, where he will get to work with prospects Conner Greene and Shane Dawson.


   At first glance, Ramirez looked like a throw-in to consummate the deal.  But the stocky, muscular outfielder who can play all three OF spots (but will likely end up in LF as an MLBer) has hit (.304/.362/.409 for his career) everywhere he has played.  A seven-figure signing out of Colombia in 2011, Ramirez is not spectacular, has not shown much power or a willingness to draw walks, but he puts the ball in play, and with the Pirates as deep in Outfielders at the major and minor league levels as any club in the majors, Ramirez was deemed expendable in order to obtain Hutchison.  Ramirez will also head to New Hampshire, and should help bolster their lineup considerably.
   Here's a display of his gap power:
video

  While neither player can be considered blue-chippers, both are on several Top 100 lists, and they would slot into the middle of the Blue Jays rankings.  More importantly, they help build the club's stockpile of mid-tier prospects - ones that can be used as currency in further dealings, or one day help the club either as 40-man or end of the 25-man roster players.  J.J. Cooper, Managing Editor of BA, loved the deal: