More on the New Additions to the Minor League Staffs

Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim sent an addendum to an email he had originally sent with details about the backgrounds of some of the new hires on the minor league staff.

What’s interesting about these new instructors is the wealth of education and experience many of them bring to the organization.  The Blue Jays are on the cutting edge with their new High Performance Department, and these hirings reflect that.

Here’s the bulk of Kim’s email:

Guillermo (Martinez) – Nicaragua native who comes to us from the Cubs, he eats/breathes/lives hitting.  He has a creative mind, he’s resilient and he’s well-respected by players and staff around the game.

Matt Young – not drafted and made it to the big leagues, he’s a hard worker who has been a general manager at a Dallas-area baseball academy.  He’s a cage rat who connects well with people.

Mark Worrell – former big league reliever, impressive background with a PhD in Phys Ed Teacher Education.  He spent last season as the Academic Coordinator/Asst. Pitching Coach for MLB China.  He’s a very driven individual, and passionate about the holistic development of players.

One last note on staffing……… we aim to provide these players with the best resources possible, and that very much includes the people that these players will work with and learn with.  We’re a diverse and multi-cultural game.  We have players in this organization from different backgrounds and from all over the world, so it’s an advantage to also build a diverse and multi-cultural staff as well.      

 

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Blue Jays Bring in New Faces to Minor League Staffs

The Blue Jays announced their minor league instructional staffs this week, and there was a mix of old and new faces.

Tim Raines was welcomed back into the organization after having accepted an ambassadorship position with the White Sox.  Formerly a roving Base Running and Outfield coach with the Blue Jays, Raines will be serving as a Special Assistant.  Director of Player Development Gil Kim said that Raines will be on assignments during Spring Training, the regular season, and Instructs:

 While most of the focus will be on basestealing development, Rock brings a wealth of playing and teaching experience, and will be utilized in a variety of ways to help both our players and our staff.

The Blue Jays obviously don’t like to say good-bye to quality staff.  Just over a month ago, Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish appeared on his way to Atlanta, only to have a change of heart a few days later.

Bobby Meacham returns to Buffalo for a second year to Manage the Bisons:

Hart is a rising star in the system with his work as Dunedin’s Hitting Coach after joining the organization last year.  Only a couple of seasons removed from his playing days, Hart drew raves for his work in the Arizona Fall League, and seems destined for bigger things.  According to Kim, he quickly and easily builds a rapport with young hitters:

 Our hitters really connect with Corey – he loves talking hitting, knows how to teach the swing, knows how to teach approach, and stays simple and positive. 

Hart takes over from Blue Jays World Series hero White,  who will serve as Buffalo’s Outfield and Baserunning Coach.

New Hampshire will also feature a Blue Jays staffer whose stock is on the rise in Manager John Schneider.

   Schneider is a Blue Jays lifer, joining the organization after being drafted in 2002.  He began his dugout career in 2009, Managing the GCL Jays.  Schneider has worked in the lower levels of the system until last year, when he managed Dunedin to a share of the Florida State League title.  C Danny Jansen credited the former backstop for much of his success in handling Pitchers while with the D-Jays, and Ryan Borucki, who Pitched for Schneider in Dunedin as well, was pumped at the news of him moving up the ladder:

Nova Scotian Vince Horsman returns as the Fisher Cats’ Pitching Coach, and Andy Fermin will be back as Position Coach.  New to the organization is Hunter Mense, who was drafted by the Marlins, and served as the Hitting Coach with the Padres Northwest League affiliate last year.  Mense’s background is a good fit with the Blue Jays High Performance group, according to Kim:

Hunter has a background as a player and has coached at both the pro and collegiate levels.  He’s also a strong learner who has a Masters in Sports Psychology.  He has a strong work ethic, and a true passion for developing hitting.

Former MLBer Casey Candaele, who was the Mariner’s First Base Coach this year, takes over the Manager’s reigns at Dunedin:

Kim is thrilled with the depth of knowledge Candaele brings to Dunedin:

 Casey brings knowledge and experience in so many areas, having previous experience coordinating Infield and Baserunning development along with one year as a Field Coordinator.  He’s had experience as a Major League player, and as a Major League coach.  We’re excited to welcome Casey’s high energy and creativity as a leader in our department.

At Low A Lansing, Cesar Martin returns to helm the Lugnuts:

Antonio Carceres, who had served a stint as the Lugs’ Pitching Coach in 2009 and 2010, returns to Lansing after seven years with Bluefield.  Matt Young, who played with the Braves and Tigers, operated a baseball academy in Texas before joining the Jays this year, and will be Lansing’s Hitting Coach.

Short Season Vancouver will have a new man running the club this year.  Dallas McPherson, a two-time MiLB POY in the Angels system, takes over from the departed Rich Miller.  Longtime Blue Jays minor league Pitching Coach Jim Czajkowski returns, and will be joined by former Jays minor leaguer Aaron Matthews.  Matthews replaces Dave Pano, who will be joining Lansing’s staff.  Kim is high on McPherson:

Dallas McPherson comes to us from King’s Ridge Christian School in Georgia, where he served as the head varsity coach and also founded the Hard Knox travel ball program.  Dallas has a good knowledge of the game, experience as a player and strong leadership skills.  He’s open-minded and is constantly trying to improve himself

Veteran Blue Jays staffer Dennis Holmberg, who has been in the organization since 1979, returns to Manage Bluefield.  Adam Bernero, who Pitched for five teams in a 7-year MLB career, joins the team as Pitching Coach.  Bernero, who has a Masters in Sport and Performance Psychology, served as a Pitching and Mental Performance Coach with Dunedin last year.

Luis Hurtado will return as the GCL Jays Manager, along with Hitting Coach Paul Elliott.  Rafael Lazo moves up from the DSL to act as Pitching Coach, while Mark Worrell joins the team as a part-time Pitching Coach.  Former Blue Jays farmhand George Carroll, who helped rehabbing players at the Minor League complex last year, will joing the staff as a Position Coach.

John Tamargo Jr will return for a second season as the DSL Jays Manager.

Jeff Ware will return as the Roving Pitching Instructor, as will Ken Huckaby as the Catching Co-Ordinator.  Guillermo Martinez, who served as the system’s Hitting Instructor from 2011-2013, returns after three seasons with the Cubs.

After two seasons of little change among the minor league staff,  it was time to head in a new, more Sport Science-oriented direction.  Kim concluded:

 We’ve made several changes and additions in the past two years, and we’ve also seen some of our staff members take advantage of different opportunities whether that’s within or outside the organization.  We realize that at the same time that players are continuously striving to get better, we are as individual staff members and we are as a department. 

Top Blue Jay Prospects will be in Town Next Week

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Tim Leiper photo

Going through Customs, the different currency, and many other subtle day-to-day things are a fact of life for American and Caribbean players who venture north of the border to play for the Blue Jays.

For several years, the Blue Jays have held a January mini-camp at the Rogers Centre for their top minor league players to give them a little more exposure to life in the Great White North.  Starting on January 15th,  Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, DJ Davis, Reese McGuire,  Roemon Fields, newly-acquired Taylor Guerreri,  Lourdes Gurriel, Danny Jansen, Jason Leblebijian, Thomas Pannone, Ryan Borucki, Max Pentecost, Sean Reid-Foley, and the GTA’s own Jordan Romano will be in Toronto for a series of on-field drills and off-field seminars.   The group will be at the Blue Jays first annual Winter Fest that weekend.

When the announcement was made last week, Twitter instantly was full of rumours about Conner Greene, who was not part of this year’s contingent.  The rumours suggested Greene was being held back because he was going to be part of a package of players for Pirates star Andrew McCutchen.  As has been pointed out, Greene was part of last year’s tour, as were Rowdy Tellez, Anthony Alford, and Richie Urena.  Greene’s command issues were a concern last year, but that 100 mph fastball isn’t going anywhere just yet.

In the off-field sessions, players will receive training in dealing with the media, as well as how to deal with situations that might crop up as professional athletes.  It sounds like Romano is excited to have some of his fellow prospects to his paren’t basement:

Jansen, McGuire, Urena, Guerreri, and Pannone are all on the 40-man roster, and will be attending spring training with the big club.  The team has not announced which minor leaguers will receive an invite, but that it expected shortly.

Prospect Deals Evidence of Blue Jays Growing Farm System

Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro has made no secret of his distaste for mega-prospect dealing along the lines of what former GM Alex Anthopoulos conducted in his last year at the helm of the club.  Shapiro said this fall that while he’s pleased with the progress of the system, “it’s not where it needs to be.”

In what has been an otherwise quiet off-season for Toronto fans, the two deals the club has made have highlighted the progress the organization has made over the past two seasons.  Through good drafting, and a decent haul of bargain-bin international prospects (the PED scenario notwithstanding) in the wake of signing Vladimir Guerrero Jr in 2015, the system has rebounded enough to allow GM Ross Atkins to upgrade the 25-man roster without having to give up a player from the 40.

In November, the team dealt 2016 2nd rounder J.B Woodman to the Cardinals for IF Aledmys Diaz.  Despite his drop-off in performance in 2017, Diaz offers insurance to Toronto as an upgrade in a back up role, while Woodman, who flashes tools but has yet to make consistent contact in his pro career, gets time in another organization to try to refine his approach.

With Anthony Alford, Teoscar Hernandez, and Dalton Pompey above him on the depth charts, and several promising youngsters below, Woodman was likely surplus in the Blue Jays’ minds, and was a good price to pay for Diaz.  Woodman was among the Midwest League leaders in both Swinging Strike and Line Drive rates, indicating that when he did make contact, it was often of the hard variety.

On of those OFers below him (before 2017), Edward Olivares, was dealt along with reliever Jared Carkuff to San Diego for Utility Player Yangervis Solarte.  Olivares had a breakout year with Lansing in 2017, and likely raced past Woodman in the eyes of the organization.  Olivares is a potential five-tool player who can play all three outfield positions, but there are concerns about his approach.  Olivares can expand his strike zone, and his pitch recognition skills need improving.  Unless he can make adjustments, Pitchers at the higher levels could expose him.  Still, there is much to like about Olivares, and he joins a young system on the rise.  With the play this season of youngsters McGregory Contreras and Chavez Young below him, Olivares likely was valued by the Blue Jays, but was deemed surplus in order to improve the major league roster.   His 2017 stats were impressive, although he wasn’t able to duplicate that success in a smaller sample when he was promoted to Dunedin.  The best summary of Olivares suggests a toolsy-but-raw profile; for the Padres, who are not looking to contend this year, he gets time to develop in their system.

Carkuff is part of a stockpile of relief arms the Blue Jays have in the lower levels of the system.  He’s fanned a batter per inning in two years of pro ball, and while Carkuff faces long odds to reach the majors, he’s moved quickly through the Toronto system, and could do the same with Padres.

It’s a roll of the dice when teams trade prospects.  And while you can’t argue with the results from a 2015-16 Blue Jays perspective, you wonder if dealing four Starting Pitching prospects didn’t leave the organization a little thin in 2017.  Last year, the team had to comb the minor league free agent ranks to bolster their 40-man roster.  This year, they had the depth to upgrade the 25-man.  And with a 12th over all draft pick and the team linked to top-ranked 2018 IFA SS Orelvis Martinez, and 2017 IFAs like Eric Pardinho and Miguel Hiraldo making their pro debuts next year, the system will continue to get better.

B.C Product Bouchey Aims for the Big Leagues

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csplusbaseball.com/Niall O’Donohoe photo

The Blue Jay selected RHP Brayden Bouchey, a product of the Vancouver-area tourist hub of White Rock (seconds from the U.S. border), in the 33rd round of the 2016 draft from Louisiana-Monroe.

A starter for most of his two seasons at ULM, Bouchey was moved to the bullpen after the draft.  After a solid pro debut at Bluefield last year in which he fanned 33% of the hitters he faced, Bouchey had an up-and-down first half of the season pitching for Vancouver, but had a lights-out second half and playoff that bodes well for his future.

We caught up to Bouchey as he came home from a workout.  Like most minor leaguers, he has to balance getting his training in with a part-time job.

While in high school, Bouchey pitched for the Langley Blaze, a travel team that has had 34 players drafted by MLB since 2001, and whose alumni include Scott Mathieson, Tyson Gillies, and Brett Lawrie.  Playing for the Blaze exposed Bouchey to a number of U.S schools at showcase events in Arizona, and it was at one of those showcases that he got connected to Odessa, a Junior College in West Texas.  After a year at Odessa, however, Bouchey was looking for a change:

I went there for a year, but there was a coaching change, and it just wasn’t challenging enough for me, and I figured I would put some feelers out there if I could get a scholarship after just a year of JC, and I was lucky enough that I ended up talking to the pitching coach at Louisiana Monroe (a school in the Sun Belt Conference)…………it just worked out from there.

Bouchey had a successful sophomore season at Louisiana-Monroe, and an even more successful summer, where he was a Great Lakes Summer League All Star and Pitcher of the Year.  Bouchey was the ace of the Warhawks’ rotation (he threw a pair of 12-strikeout games that year), but he ran out of gas and his draft stock tumbled:

I was talking to  couple of teams….but then I started struggling mid-way through the season, and didn’t have the finish to the season that I wanted, so I think that dropped my stock….but I had continued to talk to the Blue Jays – Gerald Turner was the scout, he had seen me pitch a few times when I was in Texas, so I was talking to him throughout the draft, and I was lucky enough to get drafted by the team I grew up watching.

Bouchey knew that being drafted by the Blue Jays meant that he would likely spend some time playing in his hometown:

Going into the draft, I knew there was a slim shot I would get sent to Vancouver that first year…..going into Spring Training this year, I knew that was the most likely situation.

Pitching in Vancouver was an affair the whole Bouchey family became part of:

Bing so far away the last four years, not a whole lot of my whole extended family or friends have been able to see me pitch….it was awesome in that aspect – get to do it for the people who supported me.

Both my parents came to every home game….one of my sisters lives in London, England, and the other is going to school in Windsor, Ontario, so they both got to come back for a bit and saw me play a couple of games….I have a lot of family on Vancouver Island, and they made the ferry ride over….my dad’s side of the family is local, so they were able to get to a lot of games.

But playing in front of all of those familiar eyes, Bouchey came to learn, was something of a distraction.  He admits that he may have pressed too much in trying to impress the home fans:

This year……I didn’t have my usual mindset – I put pressure on myself, I have high expectations of myself to being with, and pitching in front of people that I know, I think I didn’t stick to my strengths on the mound….it sucks to fail, but now I know what works for me – I didn’t go through any mechanical changes, it was just pitch selection, then I started locating better, started throwing my curve for strikes more often.

But starting with a July 21st outing, Bouchey began to rely on his fastball and his curve, and NWL hitters had trouble squaring him up:  over his next 14 appearances, Bouchey gave up runs in only two of them, as he became a trusted middle relief arm in Manager Rich Miller’s bullpen.

It was great to be one of the guys out of the pen down the stretch and in the playoffs. We lost a bunch of our top guys out of the bullpen who moved up to Lansing earlier in the year, to see it work out and the bullpen guys have success was pretty cool.  

In the playoffs, Bouchey was perfect.  In three outings, he tossed 6 perfect frames, fanning 9.  His three-inning, nine-up, nine-down work in Game One of the final vs Eugene settled things down after the C’s had scored 4 in the top of the 5th to take the lead, a game they would go on to win and help them gain a split in the series before returning home.  Bouchey’s two perfect frames in the 7th and 8th in Game Four propelled Vancouver onto the league title.

As befits an accounting major, Bouchey is quite analytical, and credited the C’s coaching staff for giving the team the rest they needed to stay sharp for the final, especially after the long bus ride back to Vancouver for Game 4, played the day after Game Three in Eugene:

It wasn’t ideal to be on a bus for 10 hours, but I think the coaching staff did a good job of realizing that wasn’t an easy thing to do…we still did BP, but coming down the stretch,  there wasn’t as much mandatory early work….pitcher’s conditioning was optional in the final series….if you’ve been doing it all year, four days off at the end isn’t going to kill you…I think as a team and as a coaching staff they did a good job of managing how much work we put in before games.

And on Pitching in Nat Bailey Stadium, a Pitcher-friendly park, where the sea-level air tends to keep balls in play that might fly out of other places:

Vancouver is different from a lot of other parks in the league.  The ball doesn’t fly as well…it’s go different dimensions than most fields.  The ball doesn’t fly out to right or centre very well.  Our team did a good job of adjusting to that and learning how to play at that field early in the year.  Kacy Clemens said it pretty well, that it’s always in the back of a hitter’s mind that playing in theat park you’re not going to have power numbers as good as other guys.

At 6’6″ Bouchey gets a good downward plane on his fastball.  He pounded the bottom of the strike zone in the Game One win against Eugene – so much so that it was easy to assume that he throws a two-seamer.  Such is not the case:

I don’t throw a 2-seam….it’s just natural run and downhill plane from my release point and getting on top of the ball….my bread-and-butter is my curveball, and down the stretch I only threw those two.  At the start of the season, I was working on a slider, but it just doesn’t fit into my pitch repertoire as well, because I can throw my curve and fastball off of each other because the spin is the same….the difference on the curve is because of the top spin.  I throw a change every once in a while…it’s not as consistent as I’d like it to be, but it has taken good strides in the last year…I’m starting to get the feel for it.

With an over-the-top delivery, Bouchey gets some deception with the late release point caused by his size.  His curve is thrown from the same arm slot, and profiles as a potentially plus pitch, because it keeps hitters from sitting on that fastball.  With two strikes, he can elevate the fastball to generate swings and misses.  Bouchey’s fastball sits at 88-92, and his curve offers good separation at 78-80.  Things that stood out about his 2017 season, despite the slow start:  a 14.4% swinging strike rate, a 50% groundball rate, and a line drive rate of only 10% (a league low for Pitchers with over 30 IP).  Hitters had a difficult time elevating the ball on him.

Bouchey is looking forward to full season ball next year, and is hopeful of skipping a level to Dunedin – with the arms ahead of him, and with decent fellow Vancouver relievers like Travis Bergen, Orlando Pascual, and William Ouellette in camp, that may be a tall order.  But he is developing into an OTTO – a once-through-the-order guy who can give a team multiple innings before turning things over to the back of the pen.   If he can carry the success from 2017 over to next season, even if he starts at Lansing, he doesn’t promise to be there long.  The traditional track for relievers has been along the failed-starter path, but there seems to be a new trend – some teams are beginning to stockpile guys who fit the relief model, and allowing them to further develop their stuff in the low minors.  The Blue Jays are one of those teams, and Bouchey may be part of a wave that hits Toronto in 2019 or 2020.

Blue Jays Minor League Staffs to be Announced Next Week

 

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Corey Hart – TSN photo

The Blue Jays will release the names of their minor league coaching and instructional staffs next week, a sign that spring may not be just around the corner here in Southern Ontario, but it’s coming down the hall.

After last season, the Blue Jays let several minor league staffers go:  Rich Miller, who led Vancouver to a Northwest League title in his return to Managing; New Hampshire Manager Gary Allenson, and Willie Collazo, who served as Lansing’s Pitching Coach last year.  In addition, long time Toronto minor league instructor and newly-minted Hall of Famer Tim Raines left the organization to become a goodwill ambassador with the White Sox, who he both played and coached for.

In December, it was announced that Bobby Meacham would be returning to Manage Buffalo again this year.  Devon White, who served as the Bisons Hitting Coach last year, will stay with the team, but with a change in portfolio to Outfield and Base Running Coach.

Gazing into the crystal ball, in addition to the vacancies that will need to be filled, it would be reasonable to expect some changes may be made with the DSL Blue Jays in the wake of the PED suspensions that have occured since September.  That’s not to say that Manager John Tamargo Jr and his staff were responsible, but it’s likely that a change of scenery might be wise.

Ken Huckaby (Roving Catching Instructor) and Jeff Ware (Pitching Instructor) were new to their roles last year, and from many accounts did a fantastic job.   Corey Hart, who earned raves for his work with hitters in the Arizona Fall League after serving as Dunedin’s Hitting Coach last year,  and Cesar Martin, who Managed Lansing, would be deserving candidates for a move up the ladder.

Expect an announcement sometime by the middle of next week.

 

Toronto Blue Jays Minor League System Top 10 Moments of 2017

It was a memorable season for a guy who follows the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system.  Three of the four short season teams made the post season, as did one full season team, bringing home a championship and a co-championship to the organization.  I had a first-hand look at Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette opening weekend in Lansing, and finished the campaign with a press box view of Nate Pearson’s start in Vancouver’s final regular season home game.  In between, there were plenty of highlights:

1.  Vladdy Jr’s Rise to Prominence

  One has to go back to the days of Sil Campusano* to find a Blue Jay ranked as high as Vladdy Jr (*Baseball America didn’t start their Top 100 list until 1990 – Campusano was a multiple-times cover boy of the publication in the mid-80s).

Those of us in the know were not surprised that Guerrero is either the top or 2nd-ranked prospect in the game after only two pro seasons.  His advanced approach, pitch recognition, and lethal bat speed have the makings of a generational bat.

Guerrero dominated the Midwest League as an 18-year-old, and after a bit of a dip following his promotion to High A Dunedin, he was back to his productive self, leading the D-Jays to the post season.

Vladdy was such a model of consistency this year that it’s hard to pick out one highlight.  Was it going 2-4 with a Homer in his first game of Low A?  Leading the minors in OBP? Hitting .385/.483/.646 in August? Homering in three straight games that month?  Not going more than 3 games without a hit (twice) all season?

Thoughts of Guerrero continuing to climb the minor league ladder have helped to warm up the current record cold Southern Ontario winter.

2.  Bo Bichette Flirts with .400

Advanced stats have taken over with serious baseball fans, but who doesn’t like a good run at baseball’s hallowed .400 mark?

After tearing up the Gulf Coast League the year before, the 2016 2nd rounder picked up exactly where he left off in Lansing.  He hit .371 for April, and .388 in May, but not even in a prospect hunter’s wildest dreams did we expect what happened next.

In the first half of June, his average steadily creeped up into the .380s, and then an incredible 7-8 performance in a doubleheader on the 15th put Bichette over the top:

At Bat #1
   Facing Cubs’ RHP Duncan Robinson, who stood 3rd in the MWL in ERA entering the night, he took an 0-1 fastball on the outer edge of the plate to right field for his first hit of the game in Lansing’s top of the 1st.

At Bat #2
   Robinson clearly wanted no part of Bichette, offering up a steady diet of breaking balls in the top of the 3rd.  With the count 2-1, Robinson tried to get a fastball in on Bichette, but missed badly.  Bichette hammered it into the gap in Left Centre, driving in a run.

At Bat #3
  Bichette led off the top of the sixth, and Robinson continued to avoid giving him fastballs anywhere near the plate.  He hung a 2-2 change, and Bichette hammered it into the LF bleachers for his 7th Home Run, touching off a 5-run frame for Lansing.

At Bat #4
After sending 9 men to the plate the previous inning, Bichette led off the top of the 7th, the final frame of Game 1 against reliever Jared Cheek.
This 9 pitch AB may have been his best of the night.
Down 0-2, Bichette fouled off a number of borderline pitches, before Cheek caught too much of the plate with a breaking ball, which Bichette lined into CF for a base hit.  His average now stood at .394.

Game 2
At Bat #1
   Facing Cubs RHP Erling Moreno, Bichette hit a 2-1 pitch into the hole at short, and beat the off-line throw to first for an infield single.

At Bat #2
   Moreno continued the breaking ball regimen.  Bichette hammered a mistake fastball all the way to the wall in Right Centre field, raising his average to .399.

At Bat #3
   Facing soft-tossing reliever Tyson Miller, Bichette showed some rare impatience, chasing a breaking ball out of the zone, and foul-tipping a low fastball into the Catcher’s mitt for a swinging strikeout.  .400 would have to wait.

At Bat #4
   In his final at bat of the night, Bichette looped a fastball on the outer half to right field for a base hit, and his average finally reached .400.

A 3-5 night at the plate the following day kept his average at .400, but a slight dip after that saw his average go as “low” as .392, before another hot streak nudged him to .402 on June 28th.

It’s hard to remember such an individual performance in five years of following the Toronto farm system.

3.  NWL title returns to Vancouver

Minor league playoffs are a bit of an afterthought to fans, and a bit of a double-edged sword for MLB executives.  Kids are back in school, the weather has cooled, and some teams struggle to draw the crowds they had in warmer days.  For the front-office types, they certainly want their prospects to learn to win together on their way up the minor league rungs, but they certainly must hold their breath and hope injuries don’t take place in games that don’t matter much in the larger scheme of things.

Canadians fans couldn’t be blamed for being spoiled; titles in the first three seasons as a Blue Jays affiliate, and a trip to the finals in the fourth meant that fans in the Lower Mainland could reasonably expect competitive teams every year.

Except that 2015 and 2016 were lean years, and the team missed the post-season.  Despite that, C’s fans continued to pass through the turnstiles at venerable old Nat Bailey Stadium in record numbers, giving Blue Jays prospects an incredible atmosphere to play their home games in.

That loyalty was rewarded in 2017, as top draft picks Logan Warmoth, Nate Pearson, and Riley Adams led the team back to the playoffs.  And the 2017 post-season proved to be beyond memorable.  The C’s semi-final with Spokane was set to open in Washington State, but a season of wildfires had made the air quality unacceptable, and the series was moved to Vancouver.  The Canadians took the first game of the best-of-three behind an outstanding performance by Pearson (see below), and clinched a berth in the finals behind some standout relief pitching from Justin Dillon and Orlando Pascual.

The C’s travelled to Eugene to take on the defending champion Cubs’ affiliate in the final.  The teams split the first two games in Oregon, making the 10 hour bus ride to Vancouver after the 2nd game for Game 3, which was slated for the following day.  The C’s once again rode their brilliant bullpen (3 ER over 27 IP in the series) to victory in Games 3 and 4.

4.  Dunedin Wins FSL Co-Championship

Dunedin made the playoffs by virtue of finishing with the Florida State League North Division’s 2nd best record, a distant 14.5 games back of the Tampa Yankees.

With Hurricane Irma bearing down on the Sunshine State, the league decided to declare the winners of the two divisions co-champions, while everyone packed up and got ready to get out of Dodge.

Dunedin hosted Game 1 of the best of three affair, and dropped a heartbreaking, extra-innings loss to Tampa after scoring 5 runs in the bottom of the 1st.

The D-Jays’ backs were clearly up against the wall for Game 2, which was played in Tampa, where Dunedin had lost 7 of 10 on the season to the Yankees.  And if they prevailed in Game 2, the 3rd and deciding game would take place minutes after – so, if they wanted to win the series and a share of the league title, the D-Jays would have to sweep a doubleheader in Tampa.

Dunedin easily took Game 1 by a score of 4-1, behind 6+ innings of solid work by Markham, ON native Jordan Romano.  Romano, who finished 2nd in the FSL in Ks, failed to fan a batter on the night, but he pitched well enough to turn a lead over to Kirby Snead, who pitched 2.1 scoreless innings to preserve the win.

In the final game, TJ Zeuch took to the mound for Dunedin.  Zeuch had spent much of the summer on the DL, and was making only his second start since his return.  Pitching on three days’ rest, Zeuch gave up only one hit over four innings.  Dunedin had given Zeuch a one-run lead in the 2nd, but Tampa tied it in the 4th, and took the lead in the 5th.  Dunedin tied the game up in the 7th on a Home Run by Toronto’s own Connor Panas.

Fast forward to Dunedin’s top of the 9th.  With a runner on and two outs, OF Edward Olivares singled, followed by a single to left by Jake Thomas, scoring the go-ahead run.  A bloop Double down the LF line by DJ Davis brought home both Olivares and Thomas, providing insurance for the D-Jays.  Tampa scored a run in the bottom of the 9th, but Dunedin held on to win their first FSL Championship.

5.  Nate Pearson Fans 10 in Playoff Game

NWL hitters were simply overwhelmed by the Blue Jays 1st round choice this summer.  The earned runs he gave up in his last regular season start were the first he had given up since he joined Vancouver in July – he had yet to even allow a runner past 2nd prior to that.

Pearson came back in the playoffs with a vengeance, tossing a dominant 10 strikeout effort in 4 innings against Spokane in Game 1 of the C’s semi-final series.  After an error allowed the leadoff hitter to reach in the 1st, Pearson set the side down on 9 pitches.  Pearson fanned the side in the 2nd, working around an error of his own, as well as the 3rd, sandwiching the Ks around a walk and a single.  Pearson lost the strike zone in the 4th, issuing three straight 4-ball walks after getting two quick outs.  He regrouped and fanned the final batter of the inning to end his night.

Pearson’s performance reminded C’s fans of a similarly dominant effort by a 17-year-old Roberto Osuna in 2012.  Osuna fanned 13 over 5 innings in his NWL debut.

6.  Danny Jansen’s Big Night

Jansen burst onto the prospect radar in 2017.  A season of good health, and new eyewear obtained in the Arizona Fall League allowed Jansen to post a .323/.400/.484 line at three levels.

Jansen went a career-best 4-4 for Buffalo in late August. After hitting a Single, Home Run, and Triple in his previous three ABs, Jansen came up in the 9th needing a Double to complete the cycle.  Jansen cranked his 2nd longball of the night, falling short of the cycle, but sparking the Bisons to a four-run 9th, and a come from behind W.

7.  Anthony Alford’s Sizzling Start

Alford had a breakthrough season in 2015 after abandoning his pro football dreams in order to focus on baseball.  A knee injury and a concussion suffered in an extra-inning OF collision upon his return set him back further, and whispers about his injury history began to surface.

Alford rode a successful Arizona Fall League campaign into 2017, and he got off to a scorching start, hitting .356/.427/.507 in April at AA.  Maintaining that hot start proved difficult, and Alford cooled off in May, but still got on base at almost a 40% clip.  Alford made his MLB debut that month, but broke his wrist, sending him back to the DL for six weeks.

Alford will very much be in contention for an MLB job this spring.  That hot April last year gave a glimpse into his work-the-count, use the whole field, game-changing speed on the base paths potential.

8.  Ryan Noda’s July

The 15th round draft pick saw his stock slip after a mediocre college season.  Noda laid waste to Appalachian League Pitching on his way to an MVP season, the highlight of which was a video game number-like July, in which he bashed his way to a .444/.580/.689 line.

Noda cooled off after that stretch, but his other-worldly July was enough for him to lead the Appy in Runs, Total Bases, Average, OBP, and Slugging.  Noda won’t be able to duplicate those numbers in full season ball, but it was fun checking Bluefield’s box scores every night for a month – here’s a brief sample:

Screenshot 2018-01-01 at 10.32.10 PM

9.  Ryan Borucki’s AA debut

It’s hard to believe that 15 months earlier, the southpaw was sent down to Lansing from Dunedin because Florida State League hitters had been hitting him hard and often.

But Borucki, who knows a thing or two about battling back from adversity (injuries cost him most of two of his first three pro seasons), refined his command, added some deception to his delivery, and came to rely on a change-up that’s already Major League-ready.

After repeating Dunedin to begin 2017, he earned a late July promotion to New Hampshire, and was masterful in his Eastern League debut, keeping hitters off-balance while tossing 7 shutout innings, allowing only two hits and a pair of walks.  Two starts later, he fired another 7 scoreless frames, fanning 7.

Barring some roster moves before spring training, Borucki and New Hampshire teammate Thomas Pannone will be among the candidates vying for the fifth starter’s role in the rotation.

10. Yennsy Diaz’ June 15th start

Diaz was just another hard-throwing righthander with control problems when he pitched in Bluefield in 2016.  He learned to harness his fastball last spring, and by June had been promoted from Extended to Lansing.

It was in the nightcap of Bichette’s pursuit of .400 doubleheader that Diaz made his second MWL start.  And South Bend hitters were all but defenceless against his 98 mph heat.  While Bichette was racking up base hits, Diaz was piling up the Ks, recording 8 in 4.2 innings.

While the rest of his season was full of ups and downs, Diaz had several outings where everything was working, and hitters were overmatched against his fastball.  Command of his secondaries is still an area requiring improvement, but there’s few things to compare with a Pitcher throwing easy 97 gas.

What’s Up with the Blue Jays Farm System in 2018?

The Toronto Blue Jays have quickly re-stocked their farm system to the point where it has to be considered at least a Top 10 system.  The organization features twoo of the top hopefuls in all of MiLB in the form of Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette,  but the depth of the organization is more at the lower levels, and the system as a whole is at the point where its bolstering of the 25-man roster should begin at some point this year.  Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro has spoken about the need for waves up prospects to continue to come up to challenge for big league jobs.  We’re on the verge of seeing that start to happen.

Here are some highlights to watch for:

1.  Top prospects begin to make their way to MLB

Anthony Alford had a brief taste of the bigs last May, until a broken wrist put him on the shelf.  Fully healed and fresh off a dominant stint in the Mexican Winter League, Alford will be in competition for a big league job this spring.  Roster moves between now and spring training may mean that Alford begins the season at AAA, but his ascension to an MLB job is just a matter of time.

Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire both have a chance to land the job of backing up incumbent Catcher Russell Martin.  Jansen had a breakout year at the plate at three levels last year, while McGuire has perhaps a better skill set for a back up.

Reliever Carlos Ramirez rode a dominant minor league season and an upper 90s fastball in only his third season since converting to Pitching.  A good September showing in the majors has put Ramirez on the cusp of breaking camp with the team this April.  He may be a victim of a numbers game and start the year in AAA, but he doesn’t figure to be there long.

Starters Thomas Pannone and Ryan Borucki will be in competition for a fifth starter’s job come spring training as well, barring any roster additions.  Buffalo is a more likely destination, but when starting rotation help is needed, one of these two will get the first call.

And while his stateside pro debut season was uneven, Lourdes Gurriel can potentially provide some value at several positions, and he likely will reach the majors at some point this season.

Vlad and Bo continue to climb

It will be interesting to see where the golden duo begin their seasons.  The club has typically preferred to have prospects spend a season at each full season level, which could see one or both return to Dunedin until June.

Both players have slugged their way through the minors, but AA is where the wheat truly gets separated from the chaff.  Both have the mindset and approach to handle the higher level Pitching.

Will both players continue at their present positions?  It’s hard to see moves for either player at this point, at least on a full-time basis, but this may be the season that one or both makes a case for staying at their current infield spots.

Some bold evaluators have said that Vladdy Jr will be in the big leagues this summer, but that scenario seems unlikely.  The future of the team and Josh Donaldson will have a lot to say about that.  The more likely path for both is a starring Arizona Fall League role after the season, which should propel them into competition for a big league job in 2019.

Eric Pardinho’s Pro Debut

While no one should get too excited about a 16-year-old prospect, Pardinho is no ordinary 16 year old.  Blue Jays Assistant GM could barely contain his enthusiasm over landing the top-ranked International Pitching prospect last July.

Pardinho has clean mechanics, elite stuff, and an advanced feel for Pitching that’s uncommon for someone of his age.  We’ll have to wait until June for his debut (in the GCL, in all likelihood), but he should be well worth the wait.

The Next Wave

There is a solid group of prospects beyond Guerrero and Bichette, and a solid group of them should be at Dunedin to start the season.

Logan Warmoth, Nate Pearson, Yennsy Diaz,  Joshua Palacios, Justin Maese, and Edward Olivares should make for a strong core for the co-defending Florida State League champs.  This is a group that is still several years away, but there is big league potential in each and every one of them.

Lansing’s Lights Out Bullpen

Lugnuts fans deserve a contender.  While development always trumps winning at the minor league level, Lansing has supported this Blue Jays affiliate in the heart of Tigers country well, even when the parent club hasn’t provided a great incentive to watch the team.

Success at the short season level with Vancouver has rarely translated into winning at Lansing, but this year may be the exception.  Lansing’s 5.32 team ERA was last in the Midwest League by a considerable margin, but with arms like William Oullette, Brayden Bouchey, Travis Bergen, and Orlando Pascual likely to suit up for the Lugnuts in April, the bullpen should be one of the team’s strengths.  C’s Manager Rich Miller leaned on his bullpen heavily during the Northwest League playoffs, and they responded, giving up only 3 earned runs over a cumulative 27 innings in bringing the title back to Vancouver.

Two Top Picks in June

The Blue Jays have two selections among the first 51 picks in next June’s draft.  Given how quickly they’ve rebuilt the system in a short period of time, there is a good chance that another high-level player or two will be added.  And with the Blue Jays linked to this year’s top IFA, Dominican SS Orelvis Martinez, the system will get even deeper in 2019.

Blue Jays Breakout Pitching Prospect Candidates

Trying to determine which Pitching prospects in the organization might have a breakout season in 2018 is more difficult than it is for position players.

This administration has proven that they’re not afraid of promoting relievers to multiple levels over the course of the season, but with pitch limits a factor, they’re more conservative with starters.  A season like Kendall Graveman’s  (5) or Daniel Norris’  (4) in 2014, when both pitched at a number of levels, just doesn’t seem likely with this management group.

There are several Pitchers who could break through this season, however:

RHP T.J. Zeuch

Zeuch is an obvious candidate to have a break out season.  Shut down in May with shoulder soreness, he injured a hamstring during rehab, and didn’t return until August.

He rebounded nicely during Arizona Fall League play, getting the start in the championship game.  Zeuch’s featured pitch is a bowling ball sinker, which he gets a great downward plane on.  When he is locating that pitch, hitters have an extremely difficult time squaring him up.

Zeuch will start the season in AA, and if he stays healthy, could move up fairly quickly.  He could even find himself in the back of the Blue Jays rotation later in the season.

Emerson Jimenez RHP

   Originally signed as an IF by the Rockies, he reached AA in his sixth year in the organization this year.  After posting a .238/.267/.305 line in his career, the Rockies released him in mid-May.   He decided to give Pitching a try, and the Blue Jays signed him a month later.

Sent to the Gulf Coast League, Jimenez regularly hit 99 with his fastball, and the complex league hitters were no match for him, as he fanned 15 in 9 innings.  Exposed to the Rule 5 draft, there was even speculation that a team might take him earlier this month.

While that would have been a huge leap for a team, it shows how valued Jimenez’ arm is, and the Blue Jays will likely challenge him this season.  Improving his command and developing a second pitch will be necessary for Jimenez to get hitters out at higher levels.  While he may start the season in Extended, it’s not hard to see Jimenez move quickly through the system, and the Blue Jay may have another difficult 40-man decision to make with him next fall.

Justin Maese RHP

Maese reached full season ball in only his second pro season in 2016, but a shoulder problem and command issues led to a sideways 2017.

When he’s healthy, Maese pounds the bottom of the strike zone, and keeps hitters off-balance with a three pitch mix.  He experienced an uptick in velocity this year, touching 97.   An excellent athlete, Maese repeats his delivery and fields his position well.

Maese missed all of June and July, and was shut down for the season after his second start in August.  He will likely begin the season under the watchful eyes of the team’s medical staff at Dunedin.  A return to health, finding his command again, and maintaining that increase in velo would allow Maese to move up in a hurry.

Bouchey
Brayden Bouchey Twitter photo

Travis Bergen LHP/Brayden Bouchey RHP

Bergen missed most of his first two pro seasons after being drafted in 2015, and didn’t begin his 2017 season until late July.  He was a mainstay in Manager Rich Miller’s bullpen down the stretch and in the playoffs, and both he and White Rock, BC native Bouchey were  lights out in relief.

Bergen formerly had a cross-fire delivery, but his mechanics are now more conventional.  He throws 92-94, with a slider that shows great depth.  The 6’6″ Bouchey throws from an over-the-top delivery, giving him a good downward plane on all of his pitches.  His size gives him some late life on his fastball – Bouchey has fanned over 30% of the hitters he’s faced in two minor league seasons.

Both should begin the season in Lansing’s bullpen.  If they pitched like they did over the last month of the season, neither will be there for long.

Who is the Next Blue Jays Breakout Prospect?

DJNeal
DJ Neal Twitter photot

In may be cold and snowy in Southern Ontario, but with the days getting incrementally longer, spring training inches closer every week.  And for most serious baseball prospects, they have been putting in long days since the end of the last minor league season working on their conditioning, and honing their skills on the playing fields and batting cages.

The Blue Jays have several prospects whose hard work may pay off this year, when they emerge from under-the-radar to achieve breakout status.  Last year, it was Edward Olivares, who put himself firmly into long-term prospect status with an excellent all-around year at Lansing.  The year before, Ryan Borucki returned to action after missing much of the previous season due to shoulder and back issues.  He was hit hard in the Florida State League, and was sent down to Lansing to get himself straightened out.  Borucki added some deception to his delivery, becoming a much more effective Pitcher in the process, and he crowned his season with a promotion to the 40-man roster in November. In 2015, it was Anthony Alford who broke out, after undergoing a crash course in pitch recognition in the Aussie Winter League after giving up his college football commitment.  In 2014, Daniel Norris began the season in Dunedin, and finished it in the Major Leagues after finally learning to repeat his delivery and command his fastball.

A prospect tends to break out for any one of a number of reasons (or a combination thereof).  Sometimes, it’s an adjustment made to their batting or pitching mechanics.  Norris’ delivery was overhauled in his first pro season, which probably at least partially  explains his 8.44 ERA at two levels.  Other times, it’s an adjustment to pro ball and playing every day.  For some, pro ball is their first extended experience with failure in the sport;  some adapt and begin to move forward again, while others don’t get past it. Some players just need the reps:  Alford had shown promise in three brief pro seasons, but his experience in Australia helped him channel his aggressiveness at the plate.

The Blue Jays have a fairly good stock of lean, athletic players in their system.  The odds against them having even a brief MLB career are long, but the foundation is there for future success.  Here a four players who are all intriguing, potential break out prospects:

DJ Neal OF

If the 6’3″/200 Neal looks like a wide receiver, it’s because he was.  Drafted by the Braves in 2015 out of high school, the Georgian instead joined Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, but after a year he transferred to USC-Sumter to get back on the ball field.

Drafted in the 26th round, Neal began to make up for some lost development time with a .297/.341/.426 season in the GCL, stealing 8 bases in 10 tries.  Neal has a strong, athletic frame, with quick-twitch reflexes and plus speed.   He has what’s described as a smooth right-handed swing, and scouts project him to have enough power to play a corner OF spot.  He has great range and a plus arm.

Neal is behind his draft peers in terms of baseball experience, having combined baseball and football throughout high school.  His tools are raw, but they will continue to develop as he gains experience.  There is tremendous upside here – the obvious comp right now is Alford.

Where Neal begins 2018 is difficult to project.  Ordinarily, a team might want to challenge a player with Neal’s profile with an April assignment to full season ball.  With a crowded OF situation in the lower levels of the Jays system, he may begin in Extended, with a plane ticket for Vancouver in hand come mid June.

Neal’s 2017 stats:

G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% AVG OBP SLG
42 167 3 23 20 8 4.8 % 15.6 % 0.297 0.341 0.426
GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo%
2.06 17.6 % 55.5 % 26.9 % 21.9 % 9.4 % 52.4 % 21.4 % 26.2

McGregory Contreras OF

When the Blue Jays blew their IFA budget to sign Vladdy Jr in 2015, they had to go bargain hunting for other prospects – those signed for $10K or under did not count against their bonus pools.

One of those signings was Contreras, whom Baseball America described as a “sleeper”:

 (Contreras) showed good hitting and running ability when he signed on July 2, but his tools have ticked up since then. His speed and arm strength are both above-average to play center field and he has impressed the Blue Jays with his ability to hit and show power from the right side from his 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame.

After making his pro debut in the DSL in 2016, the Blue Jays felt Contreras was ready to skip the GCL, and sent him to Bluefield in 2017.  Contreras responded with a good season, ranking as the 19th-best prospect in the loop, according to BA:

Contreras has what many coaches in baseball would call “sneaky power”. It doesn’t stand out in games just yet and you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at him, but he lets it fly during batting practice. His lean, athletic body and swift bat speed entail future average power. He has strong wrists that work well to catch up to inside fastballs.

Contreras played all three Outfield positions in his pro career.  He played primarily the corners for Bluefield due to the presence of Chavez Young.  Pitch recognition will be the area requiring the most improvement if he is to continue moving up the ladder.  At 6’1″/170,  he compares to Olivares at a similar point in his career.

Contreras’ 2017 stats:

PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG
207 5 36 33 4 5.8 % 26.6 % 0.142 0.369 0.279 0.335 0.421
GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo%
2.09 21.4 % 53.2 % 25.4 % 21.9 % 15.6 % 49.3 % 27.2 % 23.5 %

 

Chavez Young OF

It’s rare that you can get a high schooler drafted late to sign.  Their prospects are usually improved by playing college ball, and if nothing else, they have some or all of an education to fall back on.  2016 39th-round pick Young, who grew up in the Bahamas, and moved to Florida for his senior year of high school, was generally thought to be raw and headed off to college, but the Blue Jays offered him a $200K bonus (twice the slot value) to sign.

Young has solid athleticism, outstanding range in CF, a plus arm, and while his approach is a work-in-progress (a small viewing sample of his time with Vancouver after his promotion to the NWL playoffs showed an expanded strike zone), there is enough to his offensive game to suggest success at the higher levels.  That the organization thought he would bolster Vancouver’s lineup for the post season speaks of what they think of Young.

Young’s Bluefield Stats:

G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG
62 281 4 52 25 4 4.6 % 20.6 % 0.159 0.345 0.282 0.332 0.440
GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo%
1.77 17.7 % 52.6 % 29.7 % 26.3 % 7.0 % 45.5 % 28.7 % 25.7 %

 

Yorman Rodriguez C/1B/DH

Finding a place to play for Rodriguez was something of a challenge this year, but his bat ultimately dictated  considerable PT for the 2014 IFA.  Originally signed as a Catcher, he was primarily a DH for Bluefield this year.  His bat will always be his calling card, and he’s never played beyond short season ball, but a career line of .333/.362/.414 makes it worth wondering how Rodriguez would fare at the higher levels.

Hitting in front of Appy League MVP Ryan Noda, Rodriguez led the league in hits, and was second in batting average.  John Calvagno covers South Atlantic League prospects for his site notesfromthesally.com.  He liked what he saw from Rodriguez:

The ball explodes off of his barrel. An aggressive hitter with a fast bat, he put the 1st pitch in play every at bat. And every hit was a rocket, line drive or sharp grounder. An all field approach with a level swing. Potential plus hit with 25 HR potential if he finds lift.

The 7 walks Rodriguez drew this year might be cause for concern.  At the higher levels, he will have to learn to work the count more, and not sit back waiting for a mistake to hammer.  His size and bat-first profile compare him favourably to Juan Kelly, who had a similar role as Rodriguez’ with High-A Dunedin this year.

Rodriguez started the year with Vancouver, but was sent to Bluefield after five games.

Rodriguez’ Bluefield stats:

G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA
57 257 3 36 36 2 2.7 % 9.7 % 0.083 0.37 0.346 0.374 0.429 0.369
GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo%
1.67 24.9 % 46.9 % 28.2 % 28.3 % 5.0 % 44.0 % 19.7 % 36.2

Kevin Smith SS

1st round pick Logan Warmoth drew much of the attention among Blue Jays draftees this season, and deservedly so.  Smith’s pro debut with Bluefield was a smash, as he showed some pop (2nd to Noda in Total Bases), and showcased his slick defensive skills.

As the college season started last year, there was talk that Smith might be the first Shortstop drafted.  A mediocre season at the plate dropped him to the 4th round, where the Blue Jays scooped him up.  Smith’s swing can be long, and there was a fair amount of swing-and-miss to his game (25%K rate), but his footwork, range, hands, and arm are unquestioned.

With Warmoth likely headed to Dunedin for 2018, Smith should become Lansing’s starting SS.  Some scouts doubt about Warmoth’s long-term future at the position, so Smith could close the gap between them or even move ahead with a decent year at the plate.

Smith’s 2017 Stats

G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG
61 283 8 43 43 9 5.7 % 24.7 % 0.195 0.337 0.271 0.312 0.466
GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo%
0.91 22.0 % 37.2 % 40.8 % 17.9 % 10.3 % 46.4 % 28.1 % 25.5 %