|Kyle Castle photo|
There are many players who are just not ready for pro ball after their senior year of high school.
Some may have physical maturing still to do, while others need to grow up more from an emotional or competitive standpoint.
In 2010, the Blue Jays took a skinny infielder from Las Vegas in the 18th round. The consensus was that the prospect was not ready for pro ball, and he turned down the Blue Jays in favour of the University of San Diego. Three years later, Kris Bryant was chosen first overall by the Cubs, on his way to Rookie of the Year Honours in 2014, and the 2016 NL MVP award, along with a World Series ring. It's not that Toronto missed out on a can't miss prospect: most teams did not consider him a prospect at that point.
In 2012, the Blue Jays took a chance on another skinny teenager, a pitcher from St Louis named Jon Harris. Harris spurned the Blue Jays, too, and attended Missouri State. Three years later, he had matured into a first round pick, and the Blue Jays selected him again. Now, he is one of the top prospects in the system.
Josh DeGraaf was a pitcher and infielder at Morris Community HS just outside of Chicago, and by his own admission, wasn't ready for pro ball when he graduated in 2011. He admitted as much to his hometown paper, the Morris Herald-News:
DeGraaf played for Taylor University, an NAIA school in Indiana. Under the guidance of Head Coach Todd Klein, who sang DeGraaf's praises to the Herald-News, DeGraaf grew considerably during his time at the school:“Since high school, I have grown an inch or two and gained about 35 pounds,” said DeGraaf, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds. “My velocity now is consistently around 90 or 91. But, for most of my career, I have stressed command over velocity since I didn’t always throw that hard. My velocity had to get up to have a chance.
“We knew that Josh would go on to good things,” Kein said. “When he was playing for us, it was evident that he wasn’t as physically mature as he was going to get. He has done a lot of hard work. He is one of the best players I have ever coached. He played shortstop for three years on the varsity level. He was a great program kid and a great leader. He is one of the few players I have ever hadl that was a captain in both his junior and senior years.
Obviously, DeGraaf needed four years of college to mature as a player, but even at that, he lasted until the 31st round in the 2015 draft, when the Blue Jays called his name. And his maturation has continued since turning pro. DeGraaf spent his first year of pro ball with Vancouver, then became a mainstay in Lansing's bullpen last season, appearing in 35 games (7 of them as a starter) for the Lugnuts. Since turning pro, he's experienced an uptick in velocity, has refined command of all of this pitches, and has developed a slider "out of nowhere" as one source put it.
DeGraaf is part of the Blue Jays contingent of prospects that made the trek to Australia to suit up for the Canberra Cavalry of the ABL. What's interesting about his inclusion is that for the first several years of the Blue Jays relationship with Canberra, only position players were sent. Last year, they finally sent a pair of pitchers (Colton Turner, who had a breakout year in 2016 before being dealt to the White Sox for Dioner Navarro, and Phil Kish). This year, DeGraaf has been joined in the Land Down Under by Lansing bullpen mates Andrew Case and Jackson Lowery. I watched his start last Saturday (November 19th) in the Cavs' opening series against Brisbane.
If DeGraaf felt any rust from a two month-plus layoff since his last outing, he didn't show it in the 1st inning. Pitching against Brisbane, last year's ABL champs, DeGraaf was facing a veteran lineup. Pounding the bottom half of the strike zone, he gave up a lead off infield single that might have been an out with a better defence behind him. Five pitches later, he gave up another groundball that was just an eyelash away from being a double play. Facing Twins' prospect Logan Wade, he picked off Rays prospect Thomas Milone, then struck out Wade swinging to end the inning.
DeGraaf was not as sharp in the 2nd. Maybe the rust was showing, and maybe he was getting squeezed a bit by the home plate umpire, but DeGraaf needed 28 pitches to get through the inning, giving up a run on a pair of walks and a line drive single up the middle to put Brisbane on the board.
De Graaf was much more composed and efficient in the 3rd, getting a flyout to right, a called K, then giving up a single before getting a swinging punchout to end the inning. At 68 pitches, he had reached his limit for his first outing, and was relieved by Case.
Here, DeGraaf flashes a deceptively-delivered change up with good depth to get Milone swigning:
On the day, DeGraaf gave up that one earned run on three hits, with a pair of walks, and 5 strikeouts. He managed first-pitch strikes on 8 of the 13 hitters he faced, including the last 6 in a row as his command sharpened. DeGraaf painted the outside corner to left-handed hitters, and like most pitchers who rely on control over velocity, he was more effective when he was ahead in the count, when his secondary pitches (change, slider) came into play. As he showed when he picked off Malone, he has a good move to first, and is quick to home. DeGraaf stands on the right side of the rubber, angled toward 3rd, and has a simplified windup that reminds me of Marco Estrada and former Lansing teammate Sean Reid-Foley. He repeats his delivery well, and does a good job of disguising his secondaries with his delivery.
DeGraaf started again today (November 26th), and pitched 6 innings, allowing only one earned run on 1 hit, walking four and striking out 5. He threw 86 pitches, 51 for strikes, and recorded 8 ground ball outs.With the reduced ABL schedule this season, DeGraaf appears to be settling as Canberra's 3rd starter, pitching every 6 or 7 days. It's interesting that after spending most of the season in a relief role, the Blue Jays want to stretch him out as a starter to see what results they get. DeGraaf throws that sinking fastball with good command, which is complemented by his change and slider. He may pitch to contact and not miss a lot of bats (7, by my count), but even in this brief outing that came after not having pitched in 10 weeks, DeGraaf can be difficult to square up because of his ability to control the strike zone. He has the tall, athletic build (6"4"/180) that the Blue Jays covet, and he gets a good downward plane on his sinker. It has taken some time, but DeGraaf at the very least has built himself into a fringe prospect.
At 23, DeGraaf has no projection remaining. At the same time, he shows what can happen when a late bloomer adds some velo, and reaps the benefits of professional instruction. He may have started more than 7 games for Lansing this season if not for the presence of a half dozen or so higher profile arms ahead of him. Stretching him out in Australia makes sense - with the truncated schedule, he only pitches once a week, so added innings likely won't be a concern. According to Blue Jays Farm Director Gil Kim, DeGraaf's versatility is his greatest strength:
Josh had a successful season, and he’s a versatile pitcher with good feel for throwing strikes. With his work ethic and makeup, we feel comfortable that Josh can adapt to any role, whether starter or reliever, and think that going forward a strength of his will be the ability to swing.
Taylor Coach Klein had a fitting tribute for the graduating DeGraaf after his selection by the Blue Jays:
“It was his intelligence that put him head and shoulders above others. He is a very smart player. He knew our system inside and out and the game in general. He was a great teacher to the younger kids.”
Kudos should also go to DeGraaf's battery mate, Peterborough, ON's own Mike Reeves. Reeves has not progressed above High A in four seasons since joining the organization, but he kept the game from getting out of hand in the 2nd inning with some excellent blocks of DeGraaf sliders in the dirt, keeping runners from advancing. Reeves is very agile and athletic behind the plate, and he no doubt was a calming influence on the young pitcher throughout that start.
The Blue Jays are building a stable full of strong defensive Catchers like Reeves. AJ Jimenez, whose career has been stalled by injury, may have had his inconsistencies at the plate, but has always been a top notch defender, and with Josh Thole no longer in the picture, has a real shot at becoming Russell Martin's back up in 2017. Reese McGuire, who joined the system at the trade deadline in the Francisco Liriano-Drew Hutchison trade, is probably close to MLB ready in terms of his skills behind the plate. Danny Jansen, who likely will play a step below McGuire at New Hampshire, has long been lauded for his receiving and pitcher-handling skills. Max Pentecost has spent little time behind the plate in his pro career because of injuries, but the team sees enough in his athleticism to allow him to continue to Catch next year. Below Reeves, who caught 53 games for Dunedin in 2016 is Ryan Hissey, who was mostly thought to be a bat-first player, but made tremendous strides defensively this year at Lansing, as well as Javier Hernandez (who may become the best receiver in the organization, if he isn't already), who played at Vancouver last year. Even Ryan Gold, a 27th round choice out of North Carolina HS ball last June, has drawn raves for his work behind the plate.
With more and more teams realizing the value strong defensive Catchers can bring to a team, the Blue Jays are building a wealth of players at this position.
DeGraaf combined with Markham, ON native Jordan Romano on a six-inning no-hitter in July - a game Romano actually took the loss in. You can read about it here.
After streaming almost all of its games last year, most ABL teams have had to cut back to one game per series. MLB, which had provided 75% of the loop's funding since 2010, pulled out of its sponsorship of the ABL this year, and the league has had to cut back both its schedule and it's televised games.
Still, if you need a baseball fix, the ABL does offer archived games on its YouTube channel, and you can visit the league's website to find out when games will be streamed live. Canberra is 15 hours ahead of Toronto, so you may be getting up early to watch.