Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Look at Josh DeGraaf

Kyle Castle photo

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

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

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

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

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

video

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, November 20, 2016

What to Expect From Mike Ohlman

 
 

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

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

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

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



Saturday, November 19, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

     Rios:

Career Stats:
Urena
Alford
Borucki
Rios
Perdomo

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

What to Expect from Lourdes Gurriel Jr

Getty Images

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

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

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

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


Sunday, November 6, 2016

Anthony Alford Finds Redemption in the Desert



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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


 
 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Vladdy Jr: Top Prospect Poster Boy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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