Jays Sending No Prospects to Australia

We’re still waiting for a response to an email that has been sent to the Blue Jays, but a source in Canberra indicated that Toronto will be sending none of their minor league players to the Australian Baseball League, which begins play in mid-November.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this development.  The Blue Jays have not seen a great deal of return on their investment over the past couple of seasons, as the players they’ve sent have not played major roles.  IF Jason Leblebijian, who played the last two seasons at Buffalo, was the 2015-16 ABL MVP.  The season prior to that, the team sent two-way star Anthony Alford down under after he had given up on his college football commitment in September of 2014.  Football limited him to just over 100 PAs in his first three pro summers after being drafted in 2012, so the Jays sent Alford to Australia to make up for that lost development time.  Even though their ABL affiliate Canberra made it to the league finals last year, Blue Jays prospects played only a minor part.

From Canberra’s perspective, they likely wanted some more experienced players as the sport fights for atttention in Australia’s crowded sports landscape.  Toronto tended to send players from A ball who needed reps, but the competition level of the ABL is probably closer to AA.  This month, Canberra signed four players from the Yokohoma Bay Stars of the Japanese Central League, a clear indication that they wanted to upgrade the talent level on their team.

The Cavalry were born in 2009 as part of the latest version of the ABL.  The league has had its difficulties over the past few seasons, as MLB did not renew its original agreement with the league.  Teams have had to struggle to stay afloat and attract players, but most have been able to obtain local corporate support to continue to operate.  The Blue Jays have sent a number of players to Australia beginning with the 2011 season when they sent three players, including C Jack Murphy, whose status in the ABL could best be described as legendary.  New Westminster, BC native Mike Crouse, who the Blue Jays took in the 16th round of the 2008 draft, spent the 2013-14 season with the Cavs, and will be returning to their lineup again this year after spending the 2018 season in the Mexican League.

Canberra also have a partnership with the San Diego Padres, who are said to be sending four players south.   The Cavalry open their 2017-18 season against Sydney on November 10th.  The league has expanded from six to eight teams this year, adding an Australia-based Korean team who will use this experience as winter training, and a team from Auckland, NZ.  Teams play a 40 game schedule, with post-season play wrapping up by the end of January.

Update…….October 31st

A response from the Blue Jays simply stated that the team will not be sending any prospects to Australia this year.  There were no reasons given, nor was there any indication that they will be sent in the future.

This seems to give credibility to the notion that maybe both sides are ready to move on.  Canberra has been active in acquiring players to fill out their roster, rather than wait for MLB prospects to come on board a few weeks before the season started.

Blue Jays Land Astro Arm for Diaz

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milb.com photo

The Blue Jays cleared up the log jam of up-the-middle players somewhat today when they dealt Aledmys Diaz to Houston for minor league RHP Trent Thornton.

The move appears to open up the SS position, at least for now, to Lourdes Gurriel Jr.  The Blue Jays attempted to develop him as a super utility player last year, but he was used exclusively up the middle in 2018, playing the bulk of his games at Short.  It will be interesting to see where Gurriel plays in the long-term if Bo Bichette continues to show progress in his defensive development.

Drafted by the Astros in the 5th round of the 2015 draft out of North Carolina, Thornton is ranked the 24th prospect in a pitching-deep Astros system.  He has worked almost exclusively as a starter throughout his MiLB career, starting 22 games for AAA Fresno in 2018.  In one start in April, he gave up a leadoff single, then fanned the next 8 hitters in a row, setting a Pacific Coast League record.  In a June outing, he took a no-hitter into the 8th innings.  At the Arizona Fall League, he fanned 20 in 15.2 IP. As a player facing the Rule 5 if not placed on a 40-man roster by Tuesday, he became the victim of something of a numbers game with the Astros.

Some scouting reports…..

MLB Pipeline

Thornton has added a couple ticks of velocity to his fastball in 2018, working at 93-95 mph and topping out at 97 with riding action. He has an interesting array of secondary pitches, including a curveball with some power and depth and an improved slider that he can turn into a true cutter. He needs to refine and trust his changeup more to find success against left-handers, however.

Baseball America

His 6-foot stature and delivery have led some scouts to project him to the bullpen. His windup involves a deep plunge with both hands, followed by an exaggerated two-handed windup that ends up with a hand break above and behind his right ear and a stab in the back. While his delivery features a lot of moving parts, Thornton has shown plus control as a pro with a walk rate of 1.5 per nine innings–and he maintains the quality of his stuff through the entire outing. Thornton can touch 95 mph at his peak, but he generally sits 90-91 with a fastball that grades as average thanks in part to its riding action. His 12-to-6 curveball is an above-average offering at its best, and he mixes in a fringe-average slider and below-average changeup. Thornton projects as a back-end starter.

In a poll of PCL Managers, Thornton was picked as the starter with the best control.  Thornton has a funky delivery with some moving parts that offers a bit of deception:

 

A tweet by David Adler, who writes for mlb.com, suggests Thornton has slightly above average velo, and can spin a breaking ball:

 

Where does Thornton fit?   He’s a guy who has maxed out his projection, and while his stuff might play up in a relief role, it would appear his acquisition was made more with a minor league starting depth/major league emergency starter role in mind.  Thornton does not have a typical starter’s build, but he uses sequencing and his ability to keep hitters off-balance to miss bats or induce weak contact.  His 11.4% SwStr rate was 3rd highest in the PCL, and his 41.6% GB rate was respectable.  Blue Jays GM told Sportsnet that Thornton is a player the team sees as a starter:

“We felt that this represented a good opportunity to use an area of depth to acquire a player that can be a part of our pitching core,” GM Ross Atkins said via text. “Trent is someone that we’ve targeted for some time, and are confident that his deep repertoire and strike-throwing ability allows him to be a factor for our major-league rotation in the near term.”

Obtaining Thornton doesn’t necessarily clear up the 40-man roster questions, but it does add some clarity to the 25-man.

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How Doing Their Rule 5 Homework Landed the Blue Jays an MVP

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…..I wrote this several years ago at another site, and thought it was worth publishing again with the deadline for declaring 40-man rosters in advance of the Rule 5 coming up this week.

Over the course of the first three years of their existence, the Blue Jays were lovable losers, losing over 100 games each season, but managing to draw almost 5 million fans.  What many of those fans didn’t know, however, was that the club was quickly stockpiling minor league talent, and gaining a reputation throughout baseball for their scouting. That reputation was enhanced when they plucked one of the best players ever chosen in the modern era of the Rule 5 draft, an outfielder from the Phillies system named George Bell.
While their expansion cousins Seattle Mariners were loading up on fringe veterans to post a respectable record for an expansion team in 1977, the Blue Jays leaned toward young players with potential who were playing in the lower levels of the minors.  They were also scouring the US and the Caribbean for players at any level, including heavy scouting of other MLB teams’ minor leaguers. According to Kevin Kerrane in the epic Dollar Sign on the Muscle, “their staff was considered the most aggressive in the business,” at the time.
The Rule 5 draft pre-dates the Rule 4 draft, which is the well-known lottery of high school and college players baseball holds every June.  The Rule 5 dates back to bonus baby days, when teams would outbid each other for premium high school prospects, and then some organizations would stockpile those picks in the minors for years. To lessen that problem, MLB instituted the Bonus Rule in the late 1940s, forcing teams which signed a player for a bonus of over $4000 to keep that player on the major league roster for at least two seasons, or expose him to waivers if they failed to comply.  The most famous player to be claimed from that era was Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, who the Pirates claimed from the Dodgers in 1954. The Bonus rule ended with the advent of the Major League draft in 1965.
When an organization signs a player at the age of 18 or under, they have five years of development until they have to place the player on the team’s 40 man roster.  If drafted at the age of 19 or older, a team has four years to do so.
When a player reaches their expiry date and isn’t placed on their team’s 40 man, they are eligible to be drafted by any MLB team in the December Rule 5 draft.  To prevent the draft from becoming a free-for-all raiding of some teams’ minor league talent, each draftee costs $50 000, and must be kept on the 25 man major league roster for the whole season.  If the drafting team opts not to keep the player, they must offer him back to the original team for half that amount.
Bell was signed by the Phillies (who were considering the leading MLB organization in terms of scouting in the 1970s) out of San Pedro de Macoris  in the Dominican Republic in 1978.  The 19 year old Bell was sent to Helena of the Rookie Level Pioneer League in 1979, where he hit .311/.373/.387.  Promoted to Low A Spartanburg the next year, Bell took off, hitting 22 Home Runs and driving in 102, while posting a line of .305/..345/.550.
The word was probably starting to get out about Bell after that season, and the Blue Jays were no doubt among the first to know about him.  Promoted to AA the next season, Bell was off to a hot start,  but suffered a stress fracture of his right shoulder at the end of April, and was out until July.  In his first game back, he re-injured the shoulder in a home-plate collision, and his season was over.
Under the Rule 5 guidelines of that time, the Phillies had to place Bell on their 40-man roster prior to the November 1980 edition of the draft, or risk losing him.  They sent him back to the Dominican, and let him work out with Escogido, a local team the Phils had an informal working agreement with.

The Blue Jays, who had the fourth pick in the draft, had done their usual due diligence, and had assigned famed Dominican scout Epy Guerrero to keep tabs on Bell.  As the fall progressed, it was clear that Bell had fully recovered.  The nervous Phillies ordered the Escogido manager to keep Bell out of games until after the draft was over, but the horse had already left the barn.  Legendary Blue Jays scout Al LaMacchia, a veteran of four decades in the game as a player, scout, and front office man, showed up in Santo Domingo in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Bell.  After watching an early morning workout of the ballclub, LaMacchia contacted GM Pat Gillick right away, and told him Bell was sound.  The Blue Jays scooped him up with the fourth pick of the draft, and the Phillies’ plan to hide Bell in the Dominican was foiled.
The club had to keep Bell on the roster for the whole year, of course, and he played only a minor role, managing only 168 plate appearances in 1981, putting up modest .233/.256/.350 numbers.  The Jays were were still far from being a contender in those days of four or five man bullpens, so keeping the youngster was not a burden on the roster. After that season, Bell was optioned to AAA, but the Jays’ brain trust saw him as the final piece of a potential all-star outfield, along with a skinny outfielder they drafted in the middle rounds in 1977, and a former high school basketballer who they took with the 2nd overall pick the following year.
The plan was likely to re-unite Bell with Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby sometime in 1982, but a Lynn McGlothlen fastball to Bell’s jaw limited him to 37 minor league games that year, and understandably left him with a low tolerance of pitchers who tried to jam him that would crop up throughout the rest of his career, most notably when Red Sox pitcher Bruce Kison came in too close for Bell’s liking in 1985, which led to Bell charging the mound and karate-kicking Kison.
Fully recovered by 1983, Bell was recalled midway through the season, and with Moseby and Barfield, formed what many considered the best young outfield in baseball. Bell broke through in 1984, hitting .292/.326/.498, as the Blue Jays themselves broke through from perennial losers to contenders.  Then there was Bell’s monster year of 1987, when he set a club record with 47 Home Runs and 134 RBI, and became the first Toronto player to capture the AL MVP award.
1987 represented Bell’s peak, and his numbers began to fall off afterward.  Never a great defensive player, Bell feuded with Manager Jimy Williams when he was moved to full time DH in 1988. Perhaps still fuming after learning of this switch mid-way through spring training, Bell hit 3 Home Runs on Opening Day, the only player in major league history to do so. Bell also hit the last home run (a walk off) at Exhibition Stadium. His relationship with Toronto fans soured toward the end of his time in the city, and Bell finished his career with the Cubs and the White Sox, retiring in 1993.  Bell and the Blue Jays patched things up, however, and he was named to the club’s Level of Excellence in 1996. He is a guest instructor at spring training for the club now.
Bell was not the only gem the Jays plucked from the Rule 5 draft.  Shortstop Manny Lee, taken from the Astros in 1984, took over the position when starter Tony Fernandez was dealt to the Padres, and played for the 92 World Series champs.
Next to Johan Santana and Josh Hamilton, Bell was one of the best Rule 5 picks of all time.

Should the Blue Jays Re-Sign Harold Ramirez?

Our good internet friend Clayton Richer over at Jays Journal suggested that the Blue Jays should re-sign OF Harold Ramirez, who was granted free agency as a six year minor league veteran earlier this month.

On the surface, it makes a lot of sense.  After a disappointing 2017, Ramirez made some adjustments this season to put the ball in the air more, and won an Eastern League batting title as a result.

The question is – would Ramirez accept the Jays’ offer?   Probably not.

Ramirez and his agent have no doubt looked at the Blue Jays 40 man roster, and while one could make a case that the futures of Kevin Pillar and Dalton Pompey with the organization are uncertain, Ramirez is buried behind at least 8 other Outfielders in the system.  The team has had Cavan Biggio take reps as a corner OF in Arizona, so he probably has passed Ramirez on the depth charts as well.  And there are players behind him who range from serviceable to prospect, including Rodrigo Orozco, Chavez Young, and Griffin Conine.  Playing time at Buffalo is not even a guarantee for him despite his successful 2018, and Ramirez understandably is not interested in a fourth crack at AA.

Both sides probably are well aware of this.  If the organization valued Ramirez and felt there was a spot for him, they likely would have offered him a salary above minor league minimum to stay a Blue Jay.  Such likley was not the case, and both sides agreed that Ramirez is better off looking for an opportunity elsewhere.

 

Angel Perdomo Signs With Brewers

LHP Angel Perdomo, who long teased Blue Jays prospect watchers with an electric fastball, signed a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training with Milwaukee yesterday.

The tall, angular southpaw was a six year minor league free agent, and decdided to test the often uncertain minor league free agent market at the end of October.

Perdomo rose as high as #18 on the Blue Jays prospect rankings after a career year in 2016, when he fanned 156 hitters in 127 for Low A Lansing.  He struggled with injury issues in 2017 and 2018, and was moved to the bullpen mid-season this year,  where it’s long been suggested that his mid 90s fastball would play up.  Perdomo fanned 30 in 19 relief innings, but his old nemesis – command – followed him to the pen, as he walked 16.  At the end of the season, the Blue Jays must have felt they had enough LH bullpen depth in the system, and let him walk as a free agent.

It’s curious to see how Perdomo’s development was handled.  He truly was a one step at a time player, and at no point was he challenged with an agressive promotion.  Perdomo has always had trouble repeating his delivery and harnessing his stuff,  and in six years with the organization, had not pitched past High A. The club gave him every chance to succeed as a starter, but it was not to be.

29 teams could have taken a chance with Perdomo when he was left off the Blue Jays 40 man roster, but he would have been the longest of long shots.  The Brewers have little to lose with Perdomo – there’s the tiniest of chances that he could be a revelation in spring training, but if not, he becomes decent minor league depth.  Eric Logenhagen of Fangraphs still feels there’s a chance he develops as a reliever:

Twenty-four-year-olds repeating A-ball typically don’t find their way into our consciousness, but lefties that touch 96 must. Perdomo’s command has taken a significant step forward this year as he has nearly halved his walk rate (12.6% down to 7.6%) and is showing especially improved command of his fastball and fringey slider to his glove side. He creates a tough angle in on the hands of righties and sits 90-95 throughout his starts. He’s made enough progress that you can project him as an eventual lefty reliever.

 

A Look Back at the Blue Jays 2017 IFA Signings

Vladimir Guerrero headlined the Blue Jays 2015 International Free Agent class, and the bonus pool penalty the team experienced the following year, but their 2017 group may be the best the Blue Jays have ever assembled.

And that’s saying something.  The Blue Jays have been active in the International market for some time.  The 2011 class netted them Roberto Osuna and Jairo Labourt, while the 2012 group included Dawel Lugo and Franklin Barreto.

The issue with IFAs not named after their Hall of Fame fathers is that given their age (for most, 16 at the time of their signing), it can be half a decade or more (if ever) for them to reach their projections.  If a team can manage to get one big leaguer out of their bonus pool, that’s an accomplishment.  The 2017 class has a way to go, but five potential MLBers jump out.

Top-ranked RHP Eric Pardinho dominated the Appalachian League as a 17-year-old experiencing his first taste of life in America, travel and under the lights play, and pro ball itself.  The 4th ranked talent in a prospect-laden Appy,  Pardinho already possess three pitches which grade as plus, and room to bump his velo up to the mid-90s.  He passed the test this year with flying colours, and should pitch in Lansing by late next spring.

SS Miguel Hiraldo was the top bat in last year’s IFA class, and he didn’t disappoint, slashing .313/.381/.453 in 54 DSL games before earning a promotion to the GCL.  Built more like a Catcher than a SS, Hiraldo is projected to be a better fit at 3B down the road.

SS/2B Leo Jimenez was a player Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, who heads up International Ops for the team, could barely contain his excitement about last fall.  Tinnish raved about his maturity and defensive skills.  With 2018 draftees Jordan Groshans and Addison Barger on the GCL Jays roster this summer, Jimenez had to split time between 2B (20 games) and SS (19), but his range and actions at the latter suggest that he might become one of the best defensive players at that position in the organization.  A top of the order-type hitter, Jimenez was ranked the 20th best GCL prospect, and adds to the stockpile of up-the-middle depth in the system.

P Ronald Govea was not a highly ranked signing last year, but he was someone Tinnish singled out last fall as a guy with, “sneaky upside.”  Not a hard thrower although there’s some room for projection, Tinnish said Govea knows how to spin a breaking ball, and throws, “a ton of strikes.”  While Govea fanned only 6.4/9 for the DSL Jays, he started 13 games, and once his pitch count was up, consistently pitched into the fifth inning, walking only 13 in 58 innings.  He will no doubt need to add some velo to progress, but it sounds like he already has a good grasp of command and sequencing.

P Alejandro Melean can dial his Fastball up to 94, and although his command is not where the team would like it (22 walks in 32 GCL innings), Baseball America said Melean has, “The delivery, repertoire and feel for pitching to project as a starter.”  His best pitch is said to be his curve, and his change made progress.

 

All of the above players should advance through the system this year at least as high as Vancouver or Lansing.

 

 

How Toronto Rode a Cannonball to an 1887 International Association Title

Ed_Crane

First in a series……..

While the Blue Jays have been part of the Toronto sporting landscape for over forty years, the city has a history of minor league baseball dating backwell over a century.

The first championship team was the 1887 squad, labelled the “Canucks” by Baseball Reference, and the “Torontos” by local newspapers of the time.  The 87 team was led by Ed (Cannonball) Crane, who at 5’10/200 had a physique worthy of his nickname.

In many ways, both base ball (as it was termed then, the one-word version not becoming commonplace until the turn of the century) and Toronto in the 1880s were undergoing similar transformations,  from primitive versions of themselves to something vaguely recognizable to modern viewers.  The game had undergone yearly rule changes throughout the decade, to the point where it changed from something resembling fast-pitch softball to a game somewhat similar to today’s.  Meanwhile, the city of Toronto was rapidly developing from a former backwoods colonial capital to a growing, bustling modern city.

One of the biggest rule changes impacting base ball took place at the beginning of the decade:  a batter could no longer be called out on a third strike if the Catcher caught the ball on a bounce.  This meant that the Catcher now had to encroach more on the batter, and given the hazards that involved, the evolution of a glove to help cushion the force of the oncoming ball became commonplace for backstops.  Shortly after that, players at other positions began to adopt gloves as well – not that they bore much resemblance to the gloves of today, but they offered players some protection, and the game’s defence on the whole improved dramatically.  Errors were significantly reduced, and games no longer involved frequent double-digit scores.

Modifications to the Pitcher’s method of delivering the ball included allowing him to use any form of windup (rather than the former, stiff-wristed, underhand delivery), and eliminating the several running steps they were allowed to take prior to throwing the ball – the Pitcher now had to have one foot on the back end of the Pitcher’s box (the rubber was still several years away) prior to starting his windup.  The number of balls for a walk gradually reduced from 9 at the beginning of the decade to 5 by 1887, a hit batter was now allowed a base, and players could no longer call for high or low pitches.  There were other rule changes to come, but by the late 1880s, a modern-day visitor time transported to that era would probably easily recognize the game they were watching.

At the beginning of the decade, Toronto was a small city with a population of about 80 000, most of it nestled south of Bloor St, and in between the Don and Humber Rivers.  With the railway boom fully underway in Ontario, Toronto was a major hub for several railway lines.  Manufacturing flourished in Toronto during the decade, as the rail lines helped easily distribute goods to much of Western Canada and the USA.  With a demand for factory workers, Toronto’s population more than doubled over the decade.  In the 1880s, Toronto saw its first electric lights, telephone poles, and asphalt-paved streets.  Streetcars, pulled on tracks by horses, arrived in the city in the early part of the decade, and were even allowed to take fares on Sundays by the end of it.  Neighbouring villages such as Parkdale, Brockton, and Yorkdale were annexed as the young city’s population began to surge. With a growing economy, the city skyline began to take shape, and while the Great Fire of 1904 changed it drastically, you can still see glimpes of church spires in photos from the 80s that are still in existence today.

Baseball may be America’s past time, but its roots stretch back a long way in Canada, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering the close geographic and economic ties between the two nations.  Historians generally accept that the first recorded game took place in Hoboken, NJ in 1845, but many Canadian fans know that documentation exists to show that a game took place in Beachville, about a two-hour drive southwest of Toronto, in June of 1838.

The growth in pockets around the country paralleled that of the game south of the border.  As early as 1859, the Toronto Globe made mention of a team practising on the University of Toronto grounds.  But in the hearts of the sporting populace at that time, base ball ranked behind lacrosse and cricket in terms of popularity.  Lou Cauz, who wrote the definitive Toronto baseball history, “Baseball’s Back in Town,” to coincide with the birth of the Blue Jays, quoted one sportsman’s views of the time:

   Cricket is for elders, lacrosse is for young socialites; but base ball is just a sandlot sport, usually played by undesirables.

As Toronto grew, that sentiment would shift, and while lacrosse retained its popularity among athletes and spectators alike well into the next century, the game played by undesirables continued to grow in the city.  A team called the Toronto Clippers was well established, and in 1876 joined the Canadian Professional Baseball League,  a loop completely contained within Southern Ontario.  The league folded after only one season; the London and Guelph teams went on to join the newly formed International Association.  Toronto decided to sit on the sidelines, but when the Clippers defeated the storied Guelph Maple Leafs in an exhibition game in 1883, the city was eager to rejoin the ranks of professional base ball.  One other development helped fuel the demand:  gamblers found baseball easy and enjoyable to bet on, and it was widely believed that there would be intense interest in a Toronto team from that perspective, which would likely translate to good box office numbers.

A group of prominent Toronto citizens met in the fall of 1885 to enlist financial support for a new ball team, one that would play in the newest version of the Canadian League (once again based in Southern Ontario).  But this would be a different one from others which represented Toronto.  The network of railways between Canada and the United States had facilitated the free flow of goods and passengers; now it was about to bring in a roster comprised almost exclusively of Americans, so intent on fielding a winning team were the new owners.  A beautiful, brand new park overlooking the Don Valley was being constructed to replace the makeshift playing field at the Jarvis Street Lacrosse Grounds. Toronto was fast becoming Canada’s leading city, and second best just wouldn’t cut it.

But, unfortunately, for a couple of years it would have to.  Toronto finished a respectable 3rd in the league, and then joined the new International Association for 1886, where they again finished 3rd. Next year would be a different story.

Management brought in Charlie Cushman, a former minor league umpire, to Manage the club.  They also brought in a pair of young Catchers, one named Harry Decker (who patented several Catcher’s mitts, which still bear his name today), and George Stallings, who decided to forego medical school for professional baseball.  Stallings’ career as a player didn’t amount to much, but he Managed for over 30 years (8 of them in MLB), and helmed the “Miracle” Boston Braves to a 1914 World Series title, and he has been credited as a pioneer of platooning.  Speedy Outfielder Mike Slattery was brought in to improve the defence and be a catalyst at the top of the order. Much of the rest of the roster from the previous disappointing season had been replaced with young players on their way up, or ones that had a brief taste of life in the National League, and were thirsty for more.

The star attraction was Crane.  Born in Tennessee, but raised in the base ball hotbed of Boston, it has been said that Amos Rusie was the only 19th Century player who threw harder than Crane.  He made his debut with the then-Major League Union League’s Boston Reds in 1884.  Starting that year, he was a frequent participant in many long distance throwing records, establishing what was called a world record 405 ft, 7 inches, a mark which stood for many years.

Crane’s career was marked by considerable wildness, but IA hitters were no match for him.  After splitting time between Pitching, Catcher, and Right Field for the first years of his career, his signing with Toronto in January of 1887 (he was the highest-paid player in the League at the time) gave him a chance to take a regular turn in a rotation.  Crane’s bat was so valued that on the days he didn’t pitch, Manager Cushman played him at Second Base.

Toronto was easily the class of the league, but couldn’t shake a pesky Buffalo team who stayed on their heels until the final weekend.  Coming down to the next to last day of the season on September 30th (there were no playoffs), Toronto needed to sweep a doubleheader against Newark to win the pennant.  Crane took to the mound and won the first game, and to the surprise of a full house of well over the park’s capacity of 2000 fans, he was given the ball to start the second.  Crane pitched into the 11th inning, and hit a walk off Homer in the bottom of the inning to secure the title for Toronto, which finished with a 65-36 record.  Crane led the league with a .428 average (although walks were counted as hits at the time), and the fleet Slattery set a record with 112 stolen bases – though it should be noted as well that runners taking an extra base on a hit were credited with a steal that year.

Toronto had their title, and a fancy new ball park.  The future seemed bright, but players were very transient and prone to taking the offer of the highest bidder in those days, and an exodus of talent led by Slattery and Crane meant that even though they finished with a 75-35 record the following season, Toronto was 2nd to a vastly improved Syracuse team.  After a 3rd place result in 1889, Toronto dropped out of the league after the 1890 season, when player salaries jumped due to the formation of the Players League.  Baseball would not return to Toronto until 1895.

Crane signed with the New York Giants after that winning 87 season, but pitched sparingly behind Hall of Famers Tim Keefe and Mickey Welch, although he did throw a late season no-hitter.  By this time, his appetite for food and good times was becoming legendary.  A teammate noted Crane’s favourite meal was a half-dozen eggs followed by two dozen clams.  Invited on a world barnstorming tour by Cap Anson and Albert Spalding after the 1888 season, he was exposed to liquor for the first time in his life, and things did not go well from there.  Crane missed much of the tour due to drunkenness or hangovers, although he pitched reasonably well for the Giants in his return.  Drinking and revelry continued to be the central focus of Crane’s life, and when he returned to Toronto in 1895, he had all but drank and eaten himself out of the game – the following year, he was found dead in his Rochester hotel room from what a local coroner called, “accidental death from taking a chloral prescription for nervousness.”

Crane led the Torontos to victory in that magical 1887 year, but it would be twenty years before the city had a team flying a championship banner.

For more reading……..

an illustrated history of Toronto baseball from the Toronto Dreams Project;

-the Dreams project bio of Crane, as well as SABR’s version of his career;

what Toronto looked like in the 1880s;

Not really for further reading, but kind of fun anyway….

-Left Field Brewery is a craft brewery located a couple of line drives away from Toronto’s first ball park.  They have named one of their Lagers after Crane.

The Cannonball is a coffee-house and bar in a heritage building just across the Don Valley from where Crane used to star.

The Blue Jays Top 20 – Five Who Just Missed

In putting together a top prospects list, invariably there’s some buyer’s remorse, and more than a few tweets or comments about who was left off – rest assured that the 11-20 list went through several drafts before it was published.

As anyone who has ever coached a team can tell you, when you’re selecting players at a tryout, depending on the sport, there is a percentile of players that stand out right away.  And there are some you know just aren’t going to make it.  The biggest group of players tends to be in between those two, and often there isn’t a lot of difference between them.  Maybe their skills sets are different, but their overall potential and ability to help the team are not, on balance.

Here are five players who were fringe candidates for the Top 20.  All are on an upward trajectory, but their tools don’t project as elite.  Still, if they continue to develop at the pace they did this year, it’s reasonable to expect one or more could break through to the Top 20 next year.

1.  Chavez Young, OF

The toolsy Bahamian had a breakout summer in his first crack at full season ball with Lansing, and was the only minor leaguer to combine 50+ extra base hits with 40+ stolen bases.  Young can play all three OF positions, has a patient approach at the plate, and makes thing happen on the bases.

Despite that, Young is not considered a top prospect.  His best tool is considered to be his speed, and even though he’s a switch-hitter, his bat is not considered elite.  It’s interesting that he didn’t appear on Baseball America‘s Top 20 Midwest League prospects despite a decent .285/.363/.444 line, nor was he moved up to Dunedin during the season.  Reports suggest he’s already tapped into his power, and 8 HRs will not get you far in the long run.  Still, there is some sleeper potential with Young, but we won’t get a true read on him until he plays at a higher level.

2.  Jordan Romano, SP

We always want to see someone who grew up a short distance from the Rogers Centre do well.  Especially when it’s someone as personable and available as Romano, who Future Blue Jays has kept close tabs on for several seasons.

Romano came out like a house on fire this season, winning his first eight decisions, and was named the Eastern Division starter in the Eastern League All-Star game.  He was also named a post-season EL All-Star, and was near the top of many Pitching stats.  Over the past three seasons, he’s missed a lot of bats, totalling 338 Ks over that span.

Romano’s post ASG numbers were not as glittering as his pre ones were.  He gave up more contact, and EL hitters batted .292 against him over that span.  Romano has worked diligently to develop a change up to complement his 93-94 fastball and slider, but he hasn’t fully learned the many nuances of it yet.

Interestingly, in his one-inning All Star game outing, Romano dialled his fastball up to 98, sitting 94-97.   If he isn’t added to the Blue Jays 40-man roster this month, there’s a good chance a team will take a chance on him in the Rule 5 draft and move him to the bullpen.

3.  Alejandro Kirk, C/1B

There’s a lot to like about a guy with roughly the same dimensions as an oversized fire hydrant.  In his first year of play in the system (he was a late 2016 sign, but in his first GCL AB last year re-injured a hand he had originally hurt in an off-season car accident), he slashed a ridiculous .354/.443/.558.

The issue with Kirk is that he’s a bat-first player.  At 5’9″/220, he has no real position except behind the plate, where reports say he was at least adequate in an emergency role.

We need to see more of Kirk at higher levels, but we suspect it might be fun to watch his plate appearances.

4.  Zach Jackson, RP

Owner of a funky, over-the-top delivery, Jackson is very tough on right handed hitters, who managed only a .108 batting average against him in AA this year.

Jackson has fanned better than a batter per inning since being drafted in 2016, and struck out 10.9/9 in 2018.  Control problems have plagued him, however, as he walked 7.4/9 this past year.

Jackson has a long reach in the back during his delivery, which makes it very difficult for him to achieve a consistent release point.  His fastball sits 93-94, and is paired with a 12-6 hammer of a curve.

When he was drafted, there was some thought that Jackson could move quickly.  Command issues have dictated otherwise, but there’s a live arm there.

5.  Cal Stevenson OF

Forget for a moment Stevenson’s video game numbers (.359/.494/.518) for Bluefield in the Appy League.  He’s a guy whose tools (except for his speed) grade out as average across the board.

So, why is he even in a top prospect conversation?

Maybe it’s his ability to work the count and get on base.  Or perhaps it’s because he’s one of those heart and soul guys whose approach and work ethic might help him to outperform his projections.  Or maybe even it’s because of his high baseball IQ, which is evident in just about every aspect of his game.

The odds against Stevenson are long, but it will be fun to watch him in full season next year.

More Blue Jays Minor Leaguers Opt for Free Agency

Friday was a busy day in the Blue Jays front office.

Five days after the World Series ends, players with six years of minor league experience have their contracts expire.  The Blue Jays announced on Friday that Pitchers Taylor Guerreri, Jake Petricka, and Rhiner Cruz had opted for free agency.  That list grew considerably larger by the end of the day.

Declared Free Agency Buffalo RHP Taylor Guerrieri
Declared Free Agency Buffalo 3B Jon Berti
Declared Free Agency Buffalo LHP Craig Breslow
Declared Free Agency Buffalo RHP Rhiner Cruz
Declared Free Agency Buffalo 3B Jason Leblebijian
Declared Free Agency Buffalo 2B Tim Lopes
Declared Free Agency Buffalo C Jose Mayorga
Declared Free Agency Buffalo RHP Jake Petricka
Declared Free Agency Buffalo RHP Murphy Smith
Declared Free Agency Buffalo RHP Zach Stewart
Declared Free Agency Buffalo LHP Matt Tracy
Declared Free Agency New Hampshire RF Harold Ramirez
Declared Free Agency New Hampshire C Patrick Cantwell
Declared Free Agency New Hampshire 1B Juan Kelly
Declared Free Agency New Hampshire C Alex Monsalve
Declared Free Agency New Hampshire LF Eduard Pinto
Declared Free Agency Dunedin RHP Emilio Guerrero
Declared Free Agency Dunedin LHP Angel Perdomo
Declared Free Agency Dunedin 2B Ivan Castillo
Declared Free Agency Dunedin RHP Claudio Custodio
Declared Free Agency Lansing C Andres Sotillo
Declared Free Agency Bluefield RHP Josh Almonte
Declared Free Agency DSL C Brayan Rodriguez
Declared Free Agency DSL 1B Anthony Rodriguez
Declared Free Agency DSL SS Pedro Ventura
Declared Free Agency DSL RHP Sergio Leon

(thanks to the comments section of battersbox.ca for the list – MiLB.com’s transactions page was down last night)

Some of the more notable names……

Jon Berti was one of the feel good stories of 2018.  A Blue Jay since 2011, Berti was a non-roster invitee to spring training with in 2016 and 2017.  An injury-filled 2018 stalled his career, and he opted for free agency a year ago, but decided to re-sign with Toronto.  As spring training camp broke, Berti was caught in a playing time squeeze, and was dealt to Cleveland in April.  When Vladimir Guerrero Jr went down with a knee injury in June, Berti was re-acquired, and eventually helped lead New Hampshire to the Eastern League title.  At the end of the minor league playoffs, Berti thought he was headed home, when he got the call to join the Blue Jays.  He picked up his first MLB hit in his first game, Toronto’s final home game, then had a hit in each of the next three games he played.

Harold Ramirez made a lot of hard contact last year, his second at AA, but much of it was of the groundball variety.  This year, he made an adjustment to produce more loft, and it paid off, as Ramirez led the EL in hitting.  Ramirez can play all three Outfield positions, but has slipped on a crowded Blue Jays depth chart.

-Angel Perdomo has always teased with easy, mid-90s velo from a deceptive left-handed delivery.  He’s also had trouble staying healthy, as well as finding the strike zone on occasion.  Perdomo has always held the promise of being an effective bullpen arm, but up until this year the Blue Jays have been insistent on developing him as a starter.  He did spend the second half of the year, but in 7 seasons with the organization, he’s yet to advance above High A.

Jason Leblebijian  has steadily moved up the organization ladder.  The versatile infielder can play three positions, but despite being named an International League All Stars the last two seasons, has become lost in the shuffle.  He was limited to 84 games this summer, thanks to a couple of stints on the DL.

Emilio Guerrero and Josh Almonte are both veterans in the system who underwent a transformation from position player to Pitcher this season.  Guerrero missed all of 2018 while on the DL, but was invited to Instructs.  Almonte showed some promise with high 90s velo at Bluefield, fanning 24 in 26 innings.  He also walked 23.

-two players came to the Blue Jays from other organizations and had solid seasons.  Ivan Castillo tied with teammate Rodrigo Orozco for the Florida State League batting title, while Eduard Pinto was one of the toughest players to strike out in all of minor league baseball.

P Claudio Custido was pitching in Ontario’s Intercounty League in 2017.  Almost a year to the day later, the converted OF was pitching in AAA.

-have glove, will travel C Andres Sotillo has been in the system since 2012, mostly as a back up.  He is a solid org guy with good defensive skills.

Just because this group of players has become free agents doesn’t mean that they won’t be back in the Blue Jays system next year.  But after six years in the system, most are eager to look to other organizations, hoping for a clearer path to the majors.  Players who have MLB and/or AAA experience tend to attract more interest.  Those below that level, or those who have filled more of an organizational role often get few, if any, offers.  Returning to their original system, if a spot is available, tends to be their only viable option.

 

Blue Jays Make Roster Moves Ahead of Rule 5

The Blue Jays made a number of roster moves yesterday ahead of next month’s Rule 5 draft.

A bunch of bullpen arms were moved in order to free up some space on the 40-man roster.  Jose Fernandez was picked up by the Tigers on a waiver claim,  Justin Shafer was outrighted to Buffalo, while Rhiner Cruz, Taylor Guerreri, and Jake Petricka cleared waivers, and are now free agents.  Troy Tulowitzki and Brandon Drury were reinstated from the 60-day DL, bringing the current 40 man to a total of 36 players.

There may be more space created before rosters are frozen on November 20th.  Dalton Pompey may be headed elsewhere after another season of injuries and inconsistency.  Getting into an argument with Buffalo Manager Bobby Meacham this summer probably means that the Mississauga native will get a much-needed fresh start with another organization.  Yangervis Solarte’s option was not picked up by the club, and with the surplus of infielders in the system, it seems likely that he will be traded or non-tendered.

 

So at the moment, there are four spaces available to protect minor league players who could be exposed to the Rule 5.  RHP Patrick Murphy would seem to have the best chance to be added, but there is a sliver of a chance that his injury history might scare off other teams.  Murphy was the Florida State League’s Pitcher of the Year, and led the league in strikeouts.  He hit 100 with his fastball late this summer, and kept his mid-90s velo deep into games.

As for position players, Harold Ramirez and Max Pentecost are the two most likely under consideration for the 40.  Ramirez had a fine bounce-back year at AA, winning the Eastern League batting crown, and can play all three OF positions.  Pentecost was healthy for the whole season, but struggled at the plate until making a mechanical adjustment in August.  He looked very worn down in the playoffs.  The Blue Jays faced a similar situation with the 2014 1st rounder last November, but placed him on the DL at the end of the Arizona Fall League.

Other Pitchers who have a chance to grab one of those 40-man openings include:

-southpaw bullpen arm Travis Bergen, who fanned 74 in 57 innings split between A+ and AA this year;

-reliever Jackson McClelland, whose command appears to be catching up to his 100+ FB in AFL play;

-Markham native Jordan Romano, who had a fine season in AA, and might be converted to a relief role;

-reliever Corey Copping, who came over in the John Axford deal;

-starter Hector Perez, acquired in the Roberto Osuna trade;

-Aaron Loup-heir apparent reliever Danny Young, a sidewinding lefty.

 

With as many as a half-dozen or more of those names (there are others in the system, but the above appear to be the most likely) under consideration for the 40, it makes sense that the Blue Jays are likely considering other roster moves before the 20th.

Toronto Blue Jays Top 11-20 Prospects

Some evaluators will give you their Top 30, or even Top 50 prospects for a team.

Truth be told, the differences in terms of overall tools and MLB potential gets less and less the farther you go down an organization’s list of prospects, which is why it’s very tough to get past the Top 20.

Generally speaking, players in the 11-20 range are fringe MLBers, at least at this point in their careers.  Some have produced solid bodies of work, but are at a point where they’ve all but reached their projection, while others have plenty of projection remaining, but are still a long way away.  There’s always someone from this group who can make a tremendous leap forward, but the odds tend to be more with the guys in the Top 10.

As evidence of the rise in quality of the Blue Jays system over the past several years, this may be the most impressive group of prospects in this range they’ve produced in some time.  Thanks to some trade deadline deals, there are a couple of new faces, too.

 

11. Cavan Biggio UT

Biggio broke out in a big year at New Hampshire in 2018, and bears further close watching next year.

The 2016 5th rounder attempted to put more loft into his swing last season, and then lowered his hands this season.  The results were impressive – he led the Eastern League in Home Runs.  He also led the league in walks, and just missed a Three True Outcomes triple crown by finishing second in Ks.

Biggio is a patient hitter, as evidenced by the number of walks.  What keeps him from the upper echelon of prospects is that at 23, he’s probably hit his ceiling, and he doesn’t have the lengthy track record that other top prospects have.  His defensive skills are also a consideration, as he has been described as a fringy defensive player – the Blue Jays have had him playing RF in Arizona in an attempt to build his versatility.  Biggio’s swing can also be long, and Pitchers with sharper secondaries may take advantage of it at AAA or even MLB.

12.  Patrick Murphy SP

The 2018 Florida State League Pitcher of the Year had a truly dominant year at High A, and will likely earn a spot on the 40-man roster next month.  What seems to be keeping him off the prospect lists is a lengthy injury history, although he made 27 starts for Dunedin this year.

Murphy has upped his velo, hitting 100 mph with his fastball in August, the culmination of a steady increase all season.  He pairs that FB with a hammer curve, but needs to develop a 3rd pitch.

Murphy gets lost a little bit in comparison to the other high-profile Starters in the system, but he should make for an interesting follow at AA next year.

13.  David Paulino SP

A one-time top 100 prospect, Paulino has a starter’s mix of pitches, and has fanned better than a batter per inning in his MiLB career.  Despite his injury history (13 starts over the past two seasons),  Paulino still projects as a starter.

A stretch of good health at AAA would be the best case scenario for Paulino.

14.  Hector Perez SP

Perez, like Paulino, came over in the Roberto Osuna deal from the Astros.  He throws four pitches, all of them with some movement.  Harnessing that movement has been a challenge for him, as his walk rate has consistently been in the double digits throughout his minor league career.

Perez’ future may lie in relief, where his mid to upper 90s fastball will play up, but the Blue Jays will likely give him an extended opportunity to pitch in a starting role.

15.  Rowdy Tellez 1B

Tellez helped to put a season and a half of AAA disappointment behind him with a post All Star line of .306/.360/.497 that was hard to ignore, and resulted in a September promotion.

Tellez hit 9 Doubles in only 70 ABs during his September audition, but walked only twice.  With Justin Smoak firmly ensconced at 1B for the time being, Tellez appears headed for another tour of the International League come next April, but he gives the Blue Jays some roster flexibility.  With the team not likely to contend for a couple of seasons, Smoak could be dealt to upgrade other areas of the roster at some point, and Tellez could step into his role.

16.  TJ Zeuch, SP

The 2016 1st rounder’s main weapon is a bowling ball sinker, which gets good downward plane due to his 6’7″ height.  Zeuch can command all four of his pitches, but what seems to limit his projection to back-end starter is the fact that none of them grade as plus.

Zeuch rarely puts himself into difficult situations with walks, and he generates ground balls at about a 55-60% rate – he led the Eastern League with a 55.2%, and his 16.5 Line Drive rate was 3rd-lowest among qualifiers.  Because he tends to pitch to contact, Zeuch will always need a solid defence behind him.

While he might not profile as an Ace, Zeuch has been an important part of some championship teams of late – New Hampshire this year, Dunedin last year, and an Arizona Fall League title (where he was the starting Pitcher of the final game) sandwiched in between.

17.  Miguel Hiraldo SS

One of the top bats in the 2017 J2 class, Hiraldo slashed .313/.381/.453 in the Dominican Summer League – interestingly, the Blue Jays didn’t think he was ready for stateside play until August.

Baseball America‘s scouting report focuses on his bat:

Hiraldo has a knack for hitting and driving the ball with impact from a direct, compact swing. He doesn’t generate much separation with his hands to load his swing, but he has explosive hand speed that generates plus bat speed. He’s an aggressive hitter who mashes fastballs, with strong forearms and legs that he incorporates to generate average power. He’s a pull-heavy hitter who’s still improving his pitch recognition and selectivity.

Most reports suggest that while Hiraldo has the hands and arm for SS, his stocky build profiles better at 3B.

18.  Travis Bergen RP

At the end of a conversation with Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro last fall, he was asked what a General Manager’s most difficult job was.  “Developing Starting Pitching,” was his response, but with all due respect, given budget considerations and the volatile nature of relievers, building a bullpen may be a GM’s most daunting task.

The Blue Jays farm system has already made a solid contribution to the big club’s bullpen with relievers such as Ryan Tepara, Danny Barnes, and Tim Mayza.   Another wave is coming, led by southpaw Bergen.  Despite missing the better part of three seasons since being drafted in 2015, Bergen has been lights out at every stop over the past two seasons, most recently with New Hampshire.

Bergen tops out at 94 with his fastball, sitting 91-92.  He commands both sides of the plate with it, along with his slider.  Even though he fanned 74 in 56 innings at two levels this year, his best tool is his ability to avoid barrels.  He keeps hitters off-balance with his sequencing, and is very tough to square up.

19. Yennsy Diaz SP

Diaz burst onto the radar last year with a scintillating debut in full season ball at Lansing, where he fanned 82 in 77 innings, mainly off the strength of a 96-97 FB that Midwest League hitters could not catch up with.

Sent back to Lansing to begin 2018, he fanned 10 hitters on Opening Day in 5.2 innings.  Diaz was promoted to Dunedin after 9 starts, and while he continued to miss bats (11.6% SwStr rate), he didn’t notch as many Ks.  He was holding his velo later into games this year, but was pitching more to contact.

Diaz often gets ahead of hitters by establishing a fastball down in the zone, then elevates when he gets two strikes.  His best secondary pitch at the moment is his curve, which has progressed from a show me pitch to a true barrel dodger.  His change-up is a pitch that pairs well with his fastball, but can be a little firm.  How fast and far Diaz progresses (New Hampshire is his likely destination next April) will depend on how those secondaries continue to develop.

20.  Jackson McClelland RP

You don’t tend to see many relievers on top prospect lists due to their volatility.  When you have one who consistently hits triple digits, it’s worth a second look.  Such is the case with McClelland, a 2015 draftee who has consistently added velo as he’s moved through the system.

McClelland has a deceptive delivery, and combined with his length, it makes it tough for hitters to pick up the ball coming out of his hand.  He pairs his fastball with a slider and an ever-improving change-up.  McClelland is still working on it, but he’s shown improved command this fall in Arizona.