Thursday, December 29, 2016

Is it Time for Rowdy?

MiLB.com photo

   One of the joys of writing about baseball prospects takes place when the team you follow lands a player in the late rounds of the June amateur draft that even though he was highly ranked, fell in the draft because of a college commitment.
    Rowdy Tellez, for me, was perhaps the ultimate late-round choice by the Jays.
    A batting-practice legend on the Showcase Circuit as a high schooler, Tellez was thought to be headed to USC after his senior season.  Taking advantage of new rules regarding slot values in the 2013 draft, GM Alex Anthopoulos and his Amateur Scouting Director Blake Parker found a way around the slots, drafting low-leverage college seniors in rounds 4 through 10  (except for California HS P Conner Greene) , and offering them slim bonuses (Matt Boyd, traded to the Tigers as part of the David Price deal, received a $75 000 bonus as a 6th rounder: Chad Girodo, taken in the 9th round, signed for a $5 000 bonus.  The Blue Jays used those savings to sign Tellez, who they took with their 30th round pick,  at a bonus of $750 000.


   The Blue Jays have taken Tellez' development slowly and steadily, giving him two years in short season ball before starting him in full season at Lansing in 2015.  The knock against him prior to the draft was that he was a base-clogging, one dimensional slugger, but Tellez has worked hard at many aspects of his game to become more of an all-around player, and his time in short season allowed him to sand off the rough edges.
   Tellez checked in at about 275 lbs when he left high school, but through a dedicated regimen of nutrition and conditioning, he now weighs 245.  Tellez admitted that he knew little about how to eat properly, or even prepare his own food until recently, but has come a long way in that regard.
   As for improving his defence, Tellez has worked on his agility, and infield coordinator Mike Mordecai worked extensively with him on his footwork and positioning around 1st base over the past two seasons. Tellez may not remind anyone of Wes Parker, but he has upgraded his skills tremendously.  "Everybody is confident in throwing the ball over to me and pitchers don’t worry about ground balls hit to me," he told Fangraphs' David Laurila. "Defense is what I’ve worked on the most. I’ve worked on it day in, day out."
   At the plate is where Tellez excels.  His strike zone management was what convinced the organization that he could handle the jump to AA this year after only one season of A ball.  And he has modelled himself after major leaguers like Adrian Gonzalez and Anthony Rizzo when it comes to his approach with two strikes.  He told Laurila:
 I look at how easy Gonzalez swings and I’ve adopted a little bit of what Rizzo does with two strikes. He takes out his leg kick and works on driving the ball the other way. He knows he can hit home runs to all fields, even with a two-strike approach and not having the leg kick. That’s what I’m doing now. If you can eliminate strikeouts… it’s a huge game-changer.
 Tellez' spray chart from 2016 would seem to bear that out.  Half of his doubles were to the opposite field (while only 1 Home Run was):


   Tellez got off to a rocky start with New Hampshire in 2016, and was hitting only .164 at the end of April. Some of that could be attributed to the fact that he saw very few pitches to hit over that opening month, with ABs like these being fairly typical:


   
   
       Despite seeing few strikes and even fewer fastballs, Tellez still posted a .345 OBP for April.  As the weather heated up, so did Tellez and his Fisher Cats teammates, with his OPS climbing every month, culminating in a 1.046 mark for August.  In his first year of AA ball, where he was one of the youngest players in the league, Tellez managed 54 extra-base hits, and posted an impressive 12.4% walk rate.

   With Edwin Encarnacion gone, and Jose Bautista seemingly set to follow, there may be a looming power shortage in the Blue Jays lineup.  Kendrys Morales' approach and swing may be far more suited to the Rogers Centre than many fans would realize, and Steve Pearce's value and versatility can't be understated, but barring a move in the New Year to bolster the starting lineup, it appears that maybe the Blue Jays are leaning toward Tellez earning a 25-man roster spot this spring.  The ideal plan would be fore him to receive at least a half season of AAA experience, but it's not unusual for a player to bypass that level once he's proven himself in AA, either.
   Tellez is what he is:  a bat-first player, who will not get any faster or more agile as he ages.  But just as Encarnacion worked hard to become at least an adequate 1st Baseman, so has Tellez, and he has shown the work ethic that makes one think that he could continue to improve his defensive skills.  He profiles as a put-the-ball-in-play, make the pitcher work (I've been charting his ABs for the first few weeks of the 2016 season, and have him at just over 5 pitches/PA), use the whole field, and change the approach with two strikes kind of hitter that this lineup proved to be sorely lacking down the stretch last year and into the ALCS.  There is some thought that the slight hitch in his swing might be exploited by MLB pitchers, but this is a player that has made adjustments throughout his career (despite a 1-37 stretch in 2014 with Bluefield, he still finished with a .293/.358/.424 line), and considering his strike zone judgement, will likely continue to do so.  Whether or not it happens this April, at mid-season, or in 2018, Tellez should be a fixture in the middle of the Blue Jays lineup for years to come.

   Tellez' swing has remained largely the same since this BP session in high school:


Monday, December 12, 2016

A Look at Glenn Sparkman

   
Brad Glazer/Milb.com photo
   The Blue Jays surprised a number of people (myself included) when they selected RHP Glenn Sparkman from Kansas City in last week's Rule 5 draft.
  Coming off Tommy John surgery last year, Sparkman, a 20th round choice by the Royals in 2013 out of Wharton County (TX) JC, was very much an under-the-radar Rule 5 candidate after pitching 60 innings at 4 levels this year, the highest of which was AA.  Sparkman's 2015 was limited to 4 AA starts.
   "The arrows were pointing right at him," GM Ross Atkins told the media after the draft.  "It was clear he was the guy that we'd like to select if he was still available.  We feel like there might be some upside to his stuff as well."
    Much of the information that we've received about Sparkman since he was drafted is stats-based.  I like to go deeper than that, so I've conducted some research, asked people some questions, pored over his secondary numbers, and watched a number of his 2016 outings online.  Here's a summary of my efforts:

   Sparkman grew up in Ganado, TX, a town of 2 000 about two hours southwest of Houston.  He was not heavily recruited as a high school shortstop, so he walked on at nearby Wharton County CC, where he was converted to pitching.  He struck out less than a batter per inning in his two years there, but he also showed a feel for the strike zone, walking only 8 batters over 78 innings in his final season.
 Sparkman moved quickly through the Royals system, missing bats along the way.  He averaged 11.5K/9 in his first pro season in rookie ball in 2013, and he skipped Low A to start his second season, which he attributes partially to learning how to pitch.  When he arrived at Wharton, he didn't really know how to throw off of a mound, but under the tutelage of his college and then his pro coaches, he made up for lost time in a hurry.
   In his final start in 2014, he felt a strain in his forearm in his final inning of the year, but his elbow felt fine. He woke up the next morning with severe pain in the elbow, but an MRI revealed only a 10% UCL tear, and he was ordered to rest and rehab his arm.  The regimen did not work, however, and he underwent Tommy John in June of 2015.
   Even though minor league back-of-the-baseball-card stats can be incredibly misleading, Sparkman did post the second-lowest ERA in all of minor league baseball in 2014 (and was named Carolina League Pitcher of the Year), and even though he posted an inflated 5.22 ERA this year, take two outings out of that record and you have a 3.93 ERA.  More impressively, despite a 4.58 ERA at his last stop in AA, he had a 3.24 FIP.
   But let's go behind the numbers

   Sparkman showed some obvious signs of rust this year.  His command began to improve as the summer progressed, but his velocity didn't make a full return.  Prior to the surgery, he touched 96, and sat anywhere from 89-94 with his fastball.  Reports this year had him sitting at 90-92.
   Standing on the 3rd base side of the pitching rubber, Sparkman has a smooth, drop and drive delivery, which can be deceptive, both from the angle it presents to right-handed hitters, and the slow-fast tempo of his windup, making him tough on hitters from both sides to time.  He can command his fastball to both sides of the plate, as well as his curve and slider.  His change up has good depth and some glove-side run:

video



   If the best pitch in baseball is strike one, Sparkman has one of the better ones in minor league baseball. He often gets ahead of hitters (despite his command issues in his comeback this year, he allowed only 10 walks), when his secondary pitches become more effective.  He can also use his fastball in pitchers' counts to induce whiffs, as hitters are often sitting on his secondaries.

video

 Because he is around the plate so much, Sparkman does give up some contact, but it's not often of the hard variety.  He was victimized by less-than-stellar defence in his AA outings this year, which inflated his numbers.

   A preview of this year's Rule 5 draft by Baseball America made no mention of Sparkman, who was the Royals' 17th-ranked prospect after the 2014 season.  And to tell the truth, given the success of Joe Biagini in his conversion from middling MiLB starter to MLB bullpen stalwart, it was easy to overlook Sparkman in favour of more projectable arms (with far less control, however) that could be more reasonably expected to add velocity in a relief role. This is a guy who knows how to pitch - how to set up hitters, and how to command the strike zone.  With a catcher who can frame pitches effectively, and a sound defence behind him, Sparkman could one day become a mid to back of the rotation pitcher.
  Perhaps limited to his fastball and one of his offspeed pitches, Sparkman's fastball could return to its former velocity, and he could become 2017's Biagini.  He has experienced more success than Biagini as a minor league starter (and please, please don't throw Biagini's 2.42 ERA at AA in 2015 at me, or I will bury you with secondary stats and scouting reports), so he is an interesting choice, because he appears to profile better in that role in the long run.  Just the same, you can never have enough good arms in spring training, and even if Toronto feels Sparkman won't fit into their plans, he only will have cost $50 000 if the Royals take him back.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Blue Jays Add/Subtract Prospects in Rule 5 Draft


  The Blue Jays went outside of the box in today's Rule 5 draft, selecting RHP Glenn Sparkman from the Royals.
   Sparkman, a 20th round pick in 2013, was called the surprise star of the Royals' system after a stellar 2014 in which (aided by a pitcher-friendly home ballpark) he posted the second-lowest ERA in the minors.  In rating him as the Royals' 17th-best prospect after that season, BA noted:
Sparkman's success was based on a combination of his deceptive delivery and his ability to throw to all four quadrants of the strike zone. He leads with his elbow, then brings his hand and the ball forward with a quick over-the-top release. Sparkman gets more swings and misses than one would expect from a 90-93 mph fastball. He mixes in a potentially average changeup with a little late fade and a potentially average hard slider at 83-84 mph. The pitch doesn't have much depth but cuts enough to swerve away from the sweet spot of opponents' bats. His curveball is generally below-average and loopy. Sparkman's four pitches all play up because he has present above-average control and average command
  Sparkman's 2015 was limited to 4 starts before he succumbed to Tommy John surgery.  He returned this summer, accumulating almost 60 innings over 16 starts at 4 levels, striking out 10.19/K.  While it's reasonable to assume that the Blue Jays likely selected Sparkman with an eye toward turning him into a bullpen arm as they did with Joe Biagini last year, there's not a lot in his profile that would suggest that there would be a spike in velocity.  Still, there is the fact that Sparkman is known for his command (his 2.55 BB/9 rate was on the high side for him, but he was coming back from Tommy John), and his ability to generate weak contact, and perhaps there is something to that deceptive delivery:

  Even though he's facing a LHH in this video, it's easy to see how right-handed hitters would have difficulty picking up the ball from Sparkman.

   Under the terms of the new CBA, the cost for drafting Sparkman was $100 000.  He must stay on the 25-man roster for the whole 2017 season, or be offered back to the Royals for half that price. With the Blue Jays rotation likely set for next year, it's hard to see Sparkman auditioning in a starting role. The idea likely will be to see what he can do in long relief.  Its's a longshot, but the combination of his command and delivery, coupled with the Blue Jays defence, could mean that the team has another bullpen revelation on their hands.

   The Padres dominated the Rule 5 draft, making deals with the Twins and Reds, who owned the picks ahead of them, to select the first three players in the Rule 5, making them the first team in the 50 year history of the draft to do so.

*********************************************************************************
   The Blue Jays also lost three players in the AAA phase of the Rule 5.  Unlike the MLB portion, players selected in the AAA phase do not have to be kept on the 25-man roster for the season.
   Toronto lost LHP Matt Smoral to the Rangers, C Jorge Saez to the Yankees, and SS Jorge Flores to the Phillies.
   Saez and Flores, who spent last season at AA, are likely minor league depth guys.  Smoral, a 2012 compensation round pick who could never stay healthy, may one day go on to bigger and better things.  His draft stock fell due to a foot injury during his senior year of high school, delaying his pro debut until late in the 2013 season.  2014 was a bit of a breakout year for Smoral, when he fanned 70 hitters in 53 innings at two short season stops, and BA was bullish on him:
Smoral was viewed as one of the top prep lefthanders in the 2012 draft heading into the spring, when he made only one start because of a stress fracture in his right foot. That allowed the Jays to grab him at pick No. 50 and sign him for $2 million. After not pitching in 2012 and being limited to 26 innings in 2013 because of a cracked fingernail, Smoral had his first healthy season in 2014, striking out nearly onethird of batters at Rookie-level Bluefield. His body, fastball and slider give him a foundation to be at least a mid-rotation starter, but the development of his control and changeup will dictate whether he stays in the rotation. His fastball sits at 90-93 mph, touching 95 with above-average life when down. Smoral's slider is a wipeout offering with plus potential and is a weapon against both lefthanders and righthanders. His mid-80s changeup improved in 2014 and flashed average but will need continued development. Smoral has an extra-large frame and lost weight over the 2014 season, gaining athleticism and flexibility while improving his delivery. He'll likely get his first taste of full-season ball at low Class A Lansing in 2015
 However, injuries and a nasty line drive he took just above his eye last year have limited Smoral to 40 innings over the past two seasons.  A new delivery this year was supposed to help with his command issues and put him in a better position to field balls hit back at him, but the velocity never came back.  For the Rangers, taking a guy who has pitched all of 3 innings since 2012 above short season ball is a risk, but it comes at a much lower price than the MLB phase.  Tall (Smoral is 6'8") southpaws seem to take longer to develop, and at 22, there is still time for him to put things together.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Who (if anyone) Will the Blue Jays Select in the Rule 5 Draft?


   Baseball's Rule 5 draft takes place at the Winter Meetings in Maryland tomorrow, and many teams will try to shore up a specific need like the Blue Jays did with Joe Biagini, and the Cardinals did with Matt Bowman last year.
   The new CBA has upped the price for selecting a player from $50 000 to $100 000.  A player has to be kept on the drafting team's 25-man roster, or has to be offered back to his original team for half the draft price.
   Of the 16 players selected in last year's Rule 5 draft, 10 saw at least some time with the team that drafted them, and 7 were not returned.  The Blue Jays, picking 24th, were able to nab Biagini, the 10th player selected, because 7 teams had full 40-man rosters and could not pick, while 9 others teams passed on the draft.  This year, the Jays again select 24th, and 6 teams picking ahead of them have full rosters.
   Trying to determine who Toronto might be considering, then, becomes a little easier.  If they are interested, they should once again pick anywhere from 10th to 15th in terms of players selected.  Given the success they had with Biagini last year, and the shoring up their bullpen still could use this year, they likely would take a chance on a long relief arm if the right one became available.
   Two pitchers who likely won't be around when it comes the Blue Jays turn to pick are RHP Yimmi Brasoban of the Padres, and RHP Yonny Chirinos of the Rays.  Tyler Webb of the Yankees, a potential lefty specialist, throws 90-92, with a decent slider and change, might be still available..  International League Left-handed hitters managed only a .559 OPS against him last year.
  Other names that Toronto may be considering include:

  -RHP Zack Weiss of the Reds did not pitch in 2016 due to elbow issues, and that's a huge red flag, despite his 11.9K/9 in High A in 2015.  Given the price, however, he might be worth kicking the tires on in spring training.
  -Arizona RHP Joey Krehbiel can hit 97 in a relief role, and even though control problems have plagued him throughout his minor league career (3.72 BB/9 this year), he pitched reasonably well in relief in AA this year, and had a good showing in the Arizona Fall League.  Another Diamondbacks' righty, Joel Payamps, has not pitched above A ball, but sat 92-94 mostly in a starting role this year, and like Biagini should experience a bump in velocity in a bullpen role.  Baseball America says that Payamps has big league stuff, but has hurt his chances by not pitching well in the Dominican winter league.

    Minnesota has the first pick in the draft.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Look at Ryan Borucki

Kyle Castle/Lansing Lugnuts/MiLB photo

  Last month, the Blue Jays had some 40-man roster decisions to make in advance of this month's Rule 5 draft.
  Specifically, they had to decide which of three pitchers who have not competed above A ball, but might make attractive bullpen options at the MLB level, to protect.
   This could not have been an easy decision. The trio included:
-Francisco Rios, a 2012 free agent signing from Mexico, began 2016 with Lansing, but after a month of dominating Midwest League hitters, was promoted to Dunedin;
-LHP Angel Perdomo, a 6"6" 2011 late IFA signing from the Dominican, who led the MWL in strikeouts this year, averaging just over 11K/9;
-Southpaw Ryan Borucki, a 2012 15th round pick who has had trouble staying healthy, and just finished his first full season with the organization.


   This could not have been an easy decision.  Rios and Borucki rely on command and secondary pitches, while Perdomo's main weapon is his 95 mph fastball - Fangraphs' Chris Mitchell suggests that some MLB team may try to stash him in their bullpen as a 3rd lefty/longman.  Ultimately, they chose Borucki, whose grit, advanced feel for pitching, and command of his whole repertoire of pitches led the Blue Jays to believe both that he was a better long-term prospect, and that he might be too tempting an arm to pass through the draft.

  Borucki was considered one of the top prep lefties in Illinois in his draft year, until a torn UCL caused his stock to fall.  The Blue Jays were not put off by his medicals, and took him in the 15th round, signing him for 3rd round money (Borucki had committed to Iowa).  Borucki tried to continue to rehabilitate his elbow, but was shut down that year after only four outings with Rookie-Level Bluefield.  He ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery the following spring, wiping out his 2013 season.
  Borucki came back with a vengeance in 2014, pitching at both Bluefield (where he was named the Appalachian League's 12th best prospect, despite only pitching a month there) and Vancouver.  Baseball America was high on him:
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.
   The brakes were applied to his development again in 2015, however, when shoulder, elbow, and back issues limited his season to 6 innings.  Borucki was ticketed for Lansing this season, but was held back in Dunedin for April while the weather in the Midwest warmed up, and to be close to the Blue Jays medical facilities.  Pitching against the more advanced FSL hitters, Borucki was still shaking off the rust from a year's inactivity off, giving up 40 hits in 20 innings.  His career seemed to be in jeopardy when he finally reached Lansing in mid-May.
   His turnaround could not have been more sudden or dramatic.
   In his MWL debut, Borucki gave up only one earned run in 5 innings.  Two starts later, he threw 6 scoreless frames, and in June, threw a pair of back-to-back games that were easily the best of his career: an 8 inning, 5-hit/1ER, 0BB, 8K effort, followed by 7 innings of 4-hit, shutout ball, with 6 strikeouts and (again) no walks.  Here's his 6th K from that 2nd start:

video

   Borucki finished 2nd in the league in ERA, 4th in WHIP, and fanned almost a batter an inning while tossing a career-high 115 frames.  His August 8th start gave some insight into why the Blue Jays ultimately decided to protect him on the 40-man.

   Borucki struggled slightly with his fastball command in the 1st inning of this start against West Michigan, but received a nice 5-4-3 double play after issuing a one out walk to finish his 11-pitch inning.  In the 2nd, he began to use his change up, which has excellent depth to it.  That pitch may prove one day to be the most effective in his arsenal, and may already be the best in the organization outside of Marco Estrada.  After falling behind 2-0 to the leadoff hitter, he fanned that man on a full-count change, then got ahead of the next two hitters, allowing him to use his secondaries to get a 6-3 groundout and a called 3rd strike to end an inning in which he threw 15 pitches.
  Borucki gave up his only solid contact on the day, a 1-out single, in the 3rd,  and began to spot his fastball and slider more effectively after giving up a walk following that base hit.  His concentration wavered a bit with runners on 1st and 2nd, giving up a double steal after failing to look back at the runner on 2nd who had taken a big walking lead the previous pitch.  He needed 18 pitches to retire the side in the 3rd.  He did not show a great move to first in this outing, and may have to work more at holding runners closer.
   The 4th inning saw Borcuki really settle into a groove, retiring the side in order on 9 pitches with a pair of Ks, and 4 whiffs.  His fastball sat at 92, and he had improved command of his slider to LHH, and his change to RHH.  He was able to locate the ball seemingly at will, setting up hitters by locating to either side of the plate.
  The only blemish on Borcuki's 5th inning of work was a two-out, four-pitch walk, with CF Lane Thomas making a sliding catch on a sinking liner to finish the inning.  At 67 pitches, Borucki, whose pitch count had been reduced as he blew by his previous career innings high, was finished for the night.  He threw 44 strikes, gave up only one hit, while walking three and fanning five.  He recorded five outs via groundballs, and two by flyouts.  He threw 12 first-pitch strikes to 18 of the hitters he faced, and recorded 9 swings-and-misses on the night.  Working from the first base side of the rubber, Borucki's arm angle makes him extremely tough on left-handed hitters, while his change keeps the righties off balance.

  Borucki is a student of the game, and watches his teammates' bullpen sessions between starts.  His delivery has undergone considerable change over the past year.  When he arrived at Lansing, he worked with Lugnuts' pitching coach Jeff Ware and minor league instructor Sal Fasano at adding more deception to his delivery - the thinking was that hitters in the Florida State League were getting too good a look at his pitches. Borucki learned his change from his father, who pitched in the Phillies organization.  Dad wouldn't allow him to throw a curve until his senior year of high school, so Borucki learned to change speeds and master one of the more difficult pitches to throw.  When his fastball or slider location is off, he always seems to have command of that change.
   At 22, there is little projection remaining for Borucki, but we've seen so little of him that it's hard to get a true handle on his ceiling just yet.  Of the trio, he probably projects the highest in terms on long-term potential as a starter.  He has a solid pitcher's frame, is athletic, and gets a good downward plane on his pitches.  He has a four-pitch mix that can turn a lineup over.  If he can stay healthy, he can begin to move quickly through the system, now that his option clock will start ticking next year.