Blue Jays fans received bad news about Pitching prospects Thomas Pannone and Justin Maese yesterday.
Southpaw Pannone, acquired in the Joe Smith deal with Cleveland last July, was handed an 80-game suspension for a positive PED test, while Maese, who missed half of last season with shoulder issues, underwent shoulder surgery this week, and is out for the season.
Pannone tested positive for DHCMT, a steroid that dates back to the 70s, and was used by East German swimmers. He was very upset and shocked by the positive result, even going as far as to take a lie detector test with a former FBI agent to verify that he had not knowingly ingested a banned substance. A subsequent press release by Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins, who goes back a long way with Pannone to his days as a Cleveland minor leaguer, vouches for his character.
Blue Jays Facebook was full of knee-jerk reactions last night calling for the Blue Jays to get rid of Pannone. Luckily, the team doesn’t use that counsel when making decisions about its players.
Pro athletes put tremendous demands on their bodies, and baseball players are no exception. Supplements are a fact of life, as they help players put or keep weight on, and recover faster from workouts. In every minor league clubhouse, there are posters listing products that have received NSF approval, but the list can be daunting. There’s even an app to help players determine the safety of what they’re taking, and they’re encouraged to go to the team’s trainer when they’re unsure. Just the same, it’s likely that Pannone was using a product that somehow had been contaminated, forcing the positive result. It doesn’t change the fact that he ingested a banned substance, and will miss at least half the season. When the Blue Jays have to reach into the minors for a starter, Pannone probably would have been the next man up after Ryan Borucki.
This has to be a bit of an embarrassment to the Blue Jays organization. Despite having a state-of-the-art sport science department overseeing the training, nutrition, and development of their minor league players, Pannone becomes the 8th Blue Jays prospect to receive a PED ban since last summer. 7 players connected to the Dominican complex received suspensions last September. Despite what fans think, there likely is no unscrupulous pusher providing steroids – it’s more like uneducated players making uninformed decisions. Players are not taking more PEDs than they have before – the testing process has come a long way. The World Anti-Doping Agency has praised MLB for the rigidity and extensiveness of its testing program.
Pannone’s suspension ends in late June. He’ll need some time to get his pitch count back up, but he should return to action with Buffalo in July. The Blue Jays are as bewildered as Pannone is about this result, but they also understand it’s a first-time offence, and will stick by their player.
Maese came to spring training raring to go, and was looking forward to getting back into action, most likely with High A Dunedin this year.
Maese reached full season ball in just his second pro season after being taken in the 3rd round out of and El Paso, TX, high school. Pegged as a potential mid-rotation starter, Maese looked uncomfortable early in the season last year with Lansing, and was shut down in June with shoulder soreness. He had some uncharacteristic wildness for a Pitcher known for pounding the bottom half of the zone with his sinker. Maese came back in mid-July, but was shut down for the season after five starts.
Maese’s name may not be as familiar to Blue Jays fans as Pannone’s, but the athletic right-hander is well-known to prospect watchers. In some ways, his loss is even bigger, as he’s out for the season, and loses a year of development in the process after an injury-shortened 2017.
What is a Player Development Contract? Essentially, an agreement between the affiliate and the MLB team in which the former runs the team on a day-to-day basis, and the latter makes decisions in regard to player and coaching personnel. From milb.com’s website:
The Player Development Contract creates an affiliation between a Major League organization and the ownership of a Minor League franchise. Though many stadiums are built, owned and managed by local municipalities — often to attract or retain a Minor League team — most MiLB franchise owners are private individuals or ownership groups. Some Major League organizations may own one or more of their Minor League teams, but this is not necessarily widespread. The decision to begin the relocation process is made by the franchise owner of the Minor League Baseball club. It is often — but not necessarily — connected to signing a new PDC. Some factors affecting a team’s decision to relocate might be: attendance, stadium conditions and leases, geographical proximity to other clubs in the same league or to its Major League parent, climate conditions, economic landscape of its local market, etc.
At all levels, the Player Development Contract creates an affiliation between a Major League organization and the ownership of a Minor League franchise. The franchise ownership is responsible for assembling a front office and staff to manage all business aspects, including gameday activities such as ticket sales, promotions, broadcasting, etc. The MLB organization makes all decisions related to player development, including selecting the coaching staff and deciding which players to assign to the team.
PDCs typically expire in even years, and are usually renewed at the conclusion of that season. Earlier this off-season, the Blue Jays and the Short-Season Vancouver Canadians of the Northwest League extended their PDC until 2022, demonstrating how successful the partnership has been for both sides, and the attractiveness of Vancouver as a minor league baseball market.
The High A Florida State League’s Dunedin Blue Jays are owned by Toronto, as are their entries in the Gulf Coast and Dominican Leagues. The only two teams in the system still to renew are the Rookie-Level Bluefield Blue Jays of the Appalachian League, and the AAA International League Buffalo Bisons. Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro indicated last fall that the team was quite happy with all of their minor league affiliations, and did not foresee a change in the near future. Buffalo’s proximity is important for both marketing and roster reasons.
It’s a delicate dance that both sides walk in a PDC. The affiliate must provide a good environment for their players and staff to train and play in, while the MLB partner must try to make sure that an adequate supply of decent prospects passes through the affiliate on their way to the higher levels. The Blue Jays and their partners are justifiably proud of their affilations – the Fisher Cats and the Jays go back to 2004, the Lugs 2005. Vancouver joined the Blue Jays organization in 2011, and won Northwest League titles in their first three seasons, and captured the title again last year.
In all, the Blue Jays will have eight minor league affiliates this year. Play in the full-season leagues (AAA down to Low A) begins in early April, while the rookie and short season loops begin around June 20th. Players not assigned to a full-season team remain behind at the team’s minor league complex in Dunedin, where they train and play against teams from other complexes in the area.
After experimenting with the international extra-inning tie breaker rule last year in the Complex Leagues, MiLB announced today that the rule will take effect across all of Minor League Baseball this season:
The change came about as part of a wider set of procedures designed to speed up the game. The extra-innings rule will see the last out (or a substitute) from the 9th inning begin the 10th inning on 2nd Base. If that runner scores, it will not be charged as an Earned Run to the Pitcher.
The rule is designed to protect minor league pitching staffs. Minor league teams do not have the luxury of calling up a player from a lower level as easily as MLB teams do, which means in the event of an extra inning game in the past, teams were short pitchers in the days after games that went past 9, or they had to put a position player in to Pitch.
Reaction across baseball has been mixed:
Stupid for so many reasons. If they want to shorten extra-inning games and/or worry about the stress on arms in the Minors, just declare them ties after the 10th or 11th inning. Don’t do gimmicky BS stuff that isn’t baseball. What percentage of games go past 11 innings anyway? https://t.co/YXOTh7dA5m
MILB will face a lot of push back on the new extra-inning rules. As a fan, it does make the game less interesting. Less chance of a wild, insane game you remember for your lifetime. Farm directors/organizations will love this as it keeps pitching staffs from being taxed.
While the extra-innings rule really isn’t about pace of play, it does make sense this day and age of carefully monitored pitch and innings limits. If the Blue Jays need a fresh bulllpen arm or two after a marathon game, help is available 90 minutes down the QEW. If Lansing needs the same help, it has to come from Vancouver, Or Bluefield, WV. It is somewhat gimmicky, however, akin to the shootout in Olympic hockey games. The good news for fans is that with 40-man rosters, the rule is not coming to MLB anytime soon. If you needed a reminder that minor league baseball is about development over winning, this was a friendly reminder.
I like this Tweet best of all as a way to wrap this post up:
I’m not at all against change. You want change? Take better care of minor league players by paying them more and making sure they eat properly. You want change? Allow fans to enter the ball park early to see batting practice. You want change? Make ticket prices more affordable.
As someone who has followed Vladimir Guerrero Jr since he signed with the Blue Jays in July of 2015, I’ve been on board his bandwagon since Day One. He was my #10 Blue Jays prospect before he had ever played a game, and a year later, he was at the top of the list.
And after a stellar 2017, where he dominated Pitchers at Low and High A as an 18-year-old, he’s solidly cemented that status.
Guerrero is the most impressive hitter to come through the Blue Jays system since Carlos Delgado. Blue Jays Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, who oversees the signing and initial development of international prospects, says Guerrero shows incredible strike zone judgement for someone his age:
(It’s) the overall plate discipline…..not only does he control the strike zone, but to control it and do damage at his age…..that’s really hard to find.
The stocky Guerrero has the ability to recognize pitches that is uncanny:
Ben, the word from his teammates is that he recognizes right out of the pitcher’s hand what the pitch is and where it will end up. (He would shout “No” immediately if he knew it was a ball.)
Couple that with a lightning-quick swing and a huge lower half that allows him to generate tremendous torque, and you have the makings of a generational impact bat. Minor league stats can be so misleading, but there are so many to choose from in Guerrero’s case that they bear repeating:
-a MiLB-leading .425 OBP in 2017;
-a .944 OPS at High A;
-107 BBs vs 97 KS over his minor league career
….and a spray chart that shows an incredible ability to use the whole field:
And after a 4-5 spring training debut performance, the obvious question is where does Guerrero go from here?
The likely answer: Manchester, NH, by way of Montreal – his birthplace, and where the Jays wrap up their spring training schedule with a pair of games against the Cards.
The Blue Jays, of course, have a pretty decent incumbent 3rd Baseman – for now – in the form of Josh Donaldson, so there is no need to rush Guerrero, who probably starts the season with AA New Hampshire of the Eastern League. But as Mark Shapiro said one sunny late October afternoon in his office at the Rogers Centre, with the indian summer sunlight dancing off the waves of Lake Ontario, if the Blue Jays were in the middle of a pennant race this summer, and if the team was in need of a bat, and if Guerrero had continued to mash at AA………..well, that’s a lot of ifs, but it could indicate that we see Guerrero sooner rather than later. But the stars and planets of the Blue Jays season would need to line up perfectly.
And if contract talks with Donaldson reach an impasse, and he’s dealt at the deadline, it likely means the Blue Jays are out of a pennant race – which would mean there’s little point in starting Guerrero’s service time clock early. So again, the chances of seeing him this year seem remote.
What does Guerrero need to work on before he reaches the Major Leagues, then? Not a lot, on the offensive side of the ball. On the defensive side, there is still work to be done. Guerrero has always showed decent instincts and a good arm at 3rd, but there is still a question about his range. When he joined the Blue Jays, Guerrero had a physique that could be modestly described as well-rounded. The thought was that with proper conditioning and nutrition, Guerrero could shed a few pounds, and experience an increase in mobility as a result. And while he’s obviously slimmed down a bit in the 20 months since he signed, Guerrero’s transformation has not been on the scale of Roberto Osuna, who changed from portly to chiseled after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Players slow down with age, and that will definitely happen in his case. No one is really talking about it, but Vladdy Jr hasn’t slimmed down as much as some thought he might. This will have implications for his ultimate defensive position.
But it will be his bat, not his glove, that propels Guerrero to the majors. At the same time, the Blue Jays will no doubt be carefully monitoring and measuring his defensive progress this season, with an eye toward his ultimate defensive destination.
There is so much to Guerrero’s game to look forward to seeing on a daily basis one day. He may not be a five-tool player like his Hall of Fame Dad, but he has better pitch recogntion, and does a number of things on the ball diamond well. Case in point – he’s stolen 23 bases in two minor league seasons. That may not speak to blazing foot speed, but it does highlight Guerrero’s impressive Baseball IQ. He knows how to pick his spots, and take advantage of a Pitcher not paying enough attention to him on the basepaths.
What does the future hold for Vladimir Guerrero Jr? Major League stardom. As for his ETA, there are several moving parts. Much will depend on what happens with the Blue Jays themselves, as well as his progress on both sides of the ball this season. Guerrero, who turns 19 later this week, has said that he wants to be in the majors by the time he’s 20. He’s pretty much on schedule.
We’ve learned several things about the early round draft preferences of the Mark Shapiro/Ross Atkins regime over the course of the last two years:
-this is a group that values production – numbers matter, particularly those with some strong context.
-character matters; the Blue Jays scouts spend a lot of time (years, in some cases) getting to know potential draftees and their make-up.
-track record is important: players who have had sustained success at high levels of the game are easier to project into the future. Under Shapiro, Cleveland was a very risk-averse team in the early rounds, and that trend has carried over. To be fair, the Blue Jays haven’t drafted a high schooler in the 1st round since 2012. Still, the Blue Jays took only 5 prep players (and only 1 Pitcher) with their first 25 picks. So, track record translates to collegiate players.
And there’s one more component that the Blue Jays value – genetics. On the excellent At the Letters podcast, GM Atkins told hosts Nicholson-Smith and Zwelling that the Blue Jays place a lot of importance on players with “windshields” – players who were passengers on their Dads’ trip through the Major Leagues.
When you watch a person (ie. your Dad) become star right in front of you, you realize they’re not much different from you, and it makes it more real. It’s one of the reasons why pedigree has value in the game – if you watch your Dad, and learn what it takes to become a great player…..it’s not intimidating. Often times players that are extremely talented that haven’t had that exposure come into an environment where all of a sudden (a player thinks) everyone’s as good as me or better…..can quickly demotivate (a player).
With that in mind, and given the success that prospects named Guerrero and Bichette have had, a very logical pick for the Blue Jays in the 12th spot is Duke OF Griffin Conine, son of former MLBer Jeff, also known as Mr Marlin.
Conine certainly checks the boxes for Toronto. After a slow to start to his career at Duke, he had a breakout season last year, posting a .971 OPS. Conine didn’t stop hitting when the college season ended, as he was named the Cape Cod League’s top pro prospect. Conine was named a preseason NCAA D-1 All American prior to the 2018 campaign. Not considered a top prospect as a high school senior, Conine’s work ethic has no doubt helped his prospect status climb to the point where he has to be considered one of the top three college OF prospects heading into June’s draft. And then there’s his Dad, a 17-year Major Leaguer who has a pair of World Series rings. In retirement, Jeff started taking part in triathlons, and had been serving as a Special Assistant to Marlins President David Samson before leaving the organization last fall, after incoming head honcho Derek Jeter offered him a less role with the team.
Conine shares a birthday with Ryan Rolison, making him one of the younger juniors in this class. He has a long track record of performance and bloodlines that will make him move up boards. He is unlikely to be a star, but I see a player who should be worth 3 to 4 wins for many years. He is a complete player and the youth and relative safety make him a perfect fit for the Jays.
Maybe that’s not a ringing endorsement or a prediction of future first division stardom, but Conine would indeed be a very good fit with the Jays. He can play all three Outfield positions, although his speed is not his greatest asset, and RF appears to be the best spot for him. Because of his high OBP skills, Conine led off for his Cape Cod team last summer. Conine works the count well, but he does tend to have some swing-and-miss because of his power – he had a 25% K rate last year. Conine gets significant torque and loft with his swing, but he gets good plate coverage, and uses the whole field. I did not come across this in any reports, but his bloodlines probably suggest a high Baseball IQ.
Veteran scout Ted Lekas of 2080baseball.com gave this analysis after seeing Conine last summer:
Athletic right fielder with plus bat and power potential; good, sound approach at the plate from a slight open stance; good balance; plus bat speed with quick hands and quick wrists; plus barrel control, barrels up balls and projects as a plus hitter; present strength; loft and leverage to all fields, projects to plus power; below-average run; did not produce home-to-first run time; above-average arm strength (55) with good carry; average defensive actions; tools to be above-average major league regular contributor.
The reports all seem to project Conine as Logan Warmoth with more power potential. If the Blue Jays select him, the fans in Vancouver are in for a treat this summer. Of the players I’ve seen so far this college season (a small sample, admittedly), he’s the most impressive.
The Blue Jays have taken a college Pitcher with their first round choice in each of the past three seasons, and could take another this June.
Missouri State RHP Jon Harris was selected with the 28th overall pick in 2015. A year later, Pitt righty T.J. Zeuch was chosen 21st, and last year’s pick, Nate Pearson, was chosen 28th, the 2nd of two 1st rounders the Blue Jays had in 2017.
Ole Miss LHP Ryan Rolison, a draft-eligible sophomore, may become the fourth successive first round collegiate arm taken by the team if he’s still on the board at #12.
Rolison does not light up the radar guns, sitting 91-94, but he demonstrates a four-pitch mix with plenty of movement and pitchability that generates a lot of swings and misses. As a freshman, he averaged better than a K per inning in the tough Southeastern Conference, and he’s ahead of that pace so far this year. His curve is the pitch most often noted in scouting reports.
Rolison was a 2nd Team High School All-American in 2016, and was ranked as the top Pitching prospect in the Cape Cod League by Baseball America last summer. He started in the bullpen as a freshman, but quickly worked his way into Ole Miss’ rotation.
Working from the 1st Base side of the rubber, Rolison has a clean arm action, and a slight hesitation in his wind up. Rolison has a three-quarters delivery, but he varies his arm slot on some pitches. His front foot lands directly in line with home plate. Rolison’s fastball has good movement to both sides of the plate, but his command of it is described as fringy at the moment. He throws an 81-82 slider with good tilt and depth, and his curve has been described as a wipeout pitch. His change is a work in progress, and probably will be a focus in his first year of pro ball.
Rolison has the frame (6’3″/200) and mix of pitches to fit a starter’s profile. He’s worked his way up many draft boards, and there’s a possibility he won’t be available when it comes time for the Blue Jays to pick. As Jeff Ellis of Scout.com pointed out earlier, Rolison’s July birthday makes him one of the younger players in his draft class, and the Blue Jays are one of a growing number of clubs who use that as part of their criteria in evaluating an amateur player. If hasn’t been selected, he would be the top college arm available, and could be a likely Blue Jays first round pick.
The Blue Jays have quietly assembled a group of toolsy, athletic Outfielders, and may add another this June if local product Tristan Pompey is available with the 12th pick.
Pompey may seem like a reach at that point in the draft; many publications have him lower (Baseball America has him at 20th in their most recent rankings), but there are several reasons why he could be a fit for Toronto.
An ankle injury has limited Pompey’s playing time with Kentucky so far this spring to five starts and several pinch-hitting appearances, but he’s still managed to reach base in 44 straight games in a streak dating back to last year. Currently slotted behind fellow collegians Travis Swaggerty and Griffin Conine by BA, his lack of playing time has seen him fall behind his peers this spring.
Pompey was an All-American after an impressive sophomore year. He was drafted by the Twins in 2015 in the 31st round, but opted to go the collegiate route. A switch-hitter like his brother Dalton, the 6’4″ Pompey offers a speed and power mix that’s enticing to scouts. He has the bloodlines, but he may offer more pop with his bat.
After a pedestrian freshman campaign at Kentucky, Pompey broke out in a big way last year, posting a 1.005 OPS. A less than impressive summer in the Cape League may have taken away from that somewhat (although he was still the loop’s 6th-best prospect), but Pompey had elevated himself into the first round, according to veteran scout Ted Lekas, writing for 2080baseball.com:
Well-proportioned, athletic body with width to his shoulder and hips; five-tool player; open stance that closes at contact; quick bat; plus bat speed with a good trigger, gets bat through the hitting zone with quick hands and wrists; feel for the barrel; strength, loft and leverage to his swing; plus power potential; above-average runner out of the box and double-plus runner underway with good running stride; plus defensive actions seen in right field with good routes, jumps, and reads; plus range, glides to the ball; above-average arm with good carry; potential first-round tools for the 2018 MLB Draft who should hold down center field for the Wildcats; should be one of the top players in the SEC.
Jeff Ellis of Scout.com, who we spoke to regarding the draft from a Blue Jays perspective, is higher on Pompey than many other analysts. Ellis points out that Pompey plays in the SEC, which is the best conference in college baseball:
When you compare his stats against a Travis Swaggerty who’s not facing the same level of competition, you wonder if you put Pompey in that conference what his numbers would be like.
Ellis saw a considerable amount of Pompey and teammate Evan White, who was a first-round selection of the Mariners last year, and said that Pompey was far and away the more impressive prospect. Pompey works the count well, and while he’s played LF/RF primarily for the Wildcats, Ellis feels that he runs and reacts to batted balls well enough to become a serviceable CF.
At the plate, Pompey has an upright, slightly open stance. There’s some movement in his bat prior to starting his load, and his swing can be long, but his hands are quick, and he takes a very fast, direct path to the ball. He shows great feel for the barrel, and gets out of the box in a hurry:
There is some swing-and-miss to Pompey’s game: a 27% K rate his freshman year, and a 23% clip so far this year. But he has a proven track record, and as Ellis reminds, Toronto “values production.” If he misses more time due to his ankle, Pompey may slide in the draft rankings, but there are many reasons to believe that he won’t move down the Blue Jays board.
The Blue Jays are in a “sweet position” to grab a premium college Pitcher or Outfielder with the 12th pick in June’s draft, according to a noted amateur talent evaluator.
Jeff Ellis, the lead MLB draft analyst at Scout.com (you can read his most recent mock draft here), feels that given the preferences shown by the Blue Jays over the past two drafts, it’s more than likely that their top choice will come from the draft’s deep pool of arms or Outfielders. After last year’s draft, Blue Jays Director of Amateur Scouting Steve Sanders did agree that the longer track records of college players fits their draft preferences better than high schoolers, at least when it comes to their top picks.
Ellis feels this year’s draft may top the previous several years when it comes to depth:
I think we’re seeing more depth than in the past few years, which is surprising, because with the pool system I think we’re seeing less elite talent make it to the college ranks but I think college coaching on the whole has improved significantly, so we’re seeing more players get developed properly
The players that seem to fit the Blue Jays and their past history, according to Ellis, are Travis Swaggerty of South Alabama, Griffin Conine of Duke, and the Greater Toronto Area’s own Tristan Pompey of Kentucky in the Outfield, while Pitchers Ryan Rolison of Mississippi, Jackson Kowar of Florida, and Logan Gilbert of Stetson appear to have the right mix of skills and potential availability for the Blue Jays to consider. Over the next week, we’ll profile each one of these players in more detail.
Baseball America released their Top 300 draft prospects last week, and had Florida HS Pitcher/Catcher Mason Denaburg ranked #12. BA’s list, however, is not a mock, and it would be unlikely that the Blue Jays would select Denaburg, both given their aversion to prep players at the top of the draft, and the depth of Catching prospects they currently have in their system.
Ellis liked the Blue Jays draft last year, for the most part:
They took more players from my big board than any other team. They would often take guys one or two spots ahead of where I had them, so I like the players they took, but I didn’t love where they took them.
One thing that’s interesting about Conine, Rolison, and Swaggerty is that they’re young compared to the rest of their class. The former pair doesn’t turn 20 until July 11th, while Swaggerty doesn’t until August. More and more teams, according to Ellis, are using age relative to draft class:
When you look at a lot of guys in the minor this probably no better indicator of when a player is significantly younger than the level he’s at and he’s finding success there – you have that extra time for development, and some teams just really buy into this.
Ellis feels that there’s enough depth in this draft that the Blue Jays will probably be able to land a premium talent in the second round (with the 52nd pick). With their second pick last year, Toronto stepped out of their college-player mode, and picked California two-way player Hagen Danner. Danner was not that much of a reach, though as Ellis pointed out, “Danner fits with their approach because he was a Little League World Series hero and he’s been on their track record forever.”
As the draft progresses, Ellis suggests that the Blue Jays will be on the lookout for players with good track records whose stock has fallen this year. Ryan Noda was thought to be at least a 3rd round pick last year, but a mediocre college season dropped him to the 15th round. Noda, of course, tore up the Appalachian League, flirting with .400 until the final weeks of the season.
The Blue Jays value production, and the above names have proven histories in that regard. After doing a decent job of restocking their system over the past two drafts, the Blue Jays have a chance to add some potential impact talent to their prospect base this year.
Thanks to the excellent resources that are available (beyond this one, of course), many Blue Jays fans are now keeping closer tabs on the team’s minor league players.
For someone who loves the minors just as much as the majors, that’s great.
There are many ways to keep track of your favourite minor league prospects. At milb.com, minor league baseball’s website, you can check out box scores as games progress (something Mark Shapiro admits he does), or listen to live play-by-play. Most of Buffalo and New Hampshire’s games are streamed live (subscription required), and word from Lansing’s GM is that select Lugnuts home games will be streamed as well. Of course, depending on where you are, you can make the drive to Lansing or Buffalo to catch games lives. I would heartily recommend a week in Vancouver to see the sights and catch a few C’s games – there’s a Sky Train station (Vancouver’s version of the TTC) a fifteen minute walk away from Nat Bailey Stadium.
There are no guarantees, but here’s where the Top 30 Blue Jays prospects (according to MLB.com) will likely begin the season:
1. Vladimir Guerrero Jr
2. Bo Bichette
Typically, the Blue Jays prefer to have their players spend a full season at one level. Whether that happens over one season or two halves depends on the player, but that’s the usual trend.
Having said that, the pair of sluggers, who each spent half a season at Low A Lansing, and the other half at High A Dunedin, have little left to prove in A ball. There are still wrinkles in their respective games to work out on the defensive side of the ball, but it would be highly unlikely you will see them in April anywhere other than the Eastern League.
Is it possible we see one or both in the majors by the end of the season? Shapiro himself said last fall that if Vladdy continued to hit, and if the team was in need of a bat in the midst of a pennant race this summer, we could see him in Toronto, but that seems a tall (but not necessarily impossible) order.
Both players should spend the bulk of the season in New Hampshire, with late-season promotions to Buffalo a possibility. Much will depend on playoff races – while minor league playoffs don’t mean a lot in the long run, teams do like to have their top players in that kind of environment for the experience.
3. Anthony Alford
At the moment, Alford is putting forth a serious effort to head north with the Blue Jays when training camp breaks.
Failing that, he will make the trip down the QEW to Buffalo. When an opening comes up in Toronto, Alford will be gone. He’s that close to being MLB-ready.
4. Nate Pearson
The 2nd of the Blue Jays two first round picks last June toyed with Northwest League hitters last summer. His pitches and innings were limited, but he didn’t allow a runner past 2nd until his last start of the regular season, and fanned 10 in a crucial playoff start. With a fastball that sits 95-97 and can top 100, Pearson is likely headed to Dunedin to start the season. 2016 1st rounder T.J. Zeuch followed that skip-Lansing path last year.
The Florida State League, unfortunately, is a bit of a black hole as far as streaming video is concerned. The Pirates Bradenton affiliate had their home games online last year, giving us a couple of games’ worth of Blue Jays prospects.
5. Logan Warmoth
With Kevin Smith behind him and in need of playing every day, Warmoth likely will skip Lansing in favour of Dunedin as well. And that’s a shame for those of us who caught a few of his games last year.
Warmoth does not have one overwhelming tool, but he has to be seen to be appreciated. He does a lot of things very well, and his bat looks legit. He squared up a lot of pitches in Vancouver last summer.
6. Danny Jansen
Perhaps no Blue Jays prospect improved their status in 2017 as much as the Wisconsin native. New eyewear helped Jansen pick up the spin on pitches better, and he hit his way from Dunedin to New Hampshire to Buffalo by season’s end.
Jansen has an outside shot at backing up Russ Martin, particularly if the Blue Jays plan on cutting back on Martin’s workload. Still, he probably could benefit by playing every day – injuries have limited his development somewhat. Prior to last year, Jansen’s highest total of games caught in a season was 57.
By the way, credit has to go to the Blue Jays scouting director Blake Parker and GM Alex Anthopoulos for drafting Jansen in 2013. The Blue Jays of that era made a practice of looking for players in non-traditional markets, or players whose stock had fallen due to injury or college commitments. Jansen was a potential top-three rounds pick in his senior season of high school, but a broken wrist, coupled with the short Wisconsin prep season, kept most teams from getting a good look at him. One team – Toronto – prevailed, and five years later, they have a player on the cusp of the bigs.
7. Eric Pardinho
Those hoping to see last year’s top-ranked international free agent Pitcher will have to buy a plane ticket to Florida to watch the 16-year-old Brazilian sensation in the outdoor sauna that is the Gulf Coast League (luckily, the games are free).
Pardinho faces an adjustment to the competition and culture that is stateside play, and Blue Jays Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish (who oversees international ops for the team) suggested that Pardinho will spend the summer in Dunedin.
8. Ryan Borucki
Two years ago next month, Borucki was getting hit hard and often in the Florida State League. A demotion to Lansing and some mechanical adjustments helped to turn him into a guy who should make his MLB debut sometime this year.
The owner of the best change-up this side of Marco Estrada, Borucki will start the season in Buffalo. His ascent to the bigs will be dictated by the health and consistency of the big league rotation. Borucki ranks high for his pitchability and grit; it may take some time for him to stick, but he should be a solid mid-rotation Pitcher for some time.
9. T.J. Zeuch
After a 2017 season with Dunedin that was interrupted by injury, Zeuch restored his growing reputation with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League, getting the start in the Championship game.
If there are any lingering injury concerns, Zeuch might stay in Dunedin until May, but he should be joining New Hampshire early in the season.
10. Sean Reid-Foley
The numbers don’t show it, but SRF pitched well at AA for the last half of the season. He’s been roughed up a bit by catching too much of the strike zone in a couple of spring training appearances for the Blue Jays so far.
Reid-Foley may repeat New Hampshire to start the season, depending on rotation space in Buffalo, but he should reach AAA this season.
11. Richie Urena
Urena acquitted himself well in 20 games with the big team in September. With the acquisition of Aledmys Diaz, Urena will begin the season in Buffalo.
12. Miguel Hiraldo
One of the top bats in last year’s IFA class, Tinnish indicated that Hiraldo will most likely be in the lineup of the GCL Jays when their season opens in June.
13. Samad Taylor
Taylor, along with LHP Thomas Pannone, was acquired from Cleveland in the Joe Smith deal. Taylor fit in nicely with the Northwest League champs Vancouver Canadians after 2B Cullen Large broke his hand trying to break up a double play.
With Large healthy, Taylor may bypass Lansing and head to Dunedin this year.
14. Reese McGuire
A knee injury cost McGuire much of his 2017 campaign, but he is still viewed as a skilled receiver, and his bat showed signs of promise.
With Jansen likely ahead of him on the depth charts, McGuire may return to New Hampshire. With his defensive skill set, he also could be considered to have an outside shot as Martin’s back up.
15. Rowdy Tellez
2017 was a bit of a lost year for Tellez. He entered the season as a candidate to make his MLB debut if Justin Smoak struggled.
He hit a pair of Homers for Buffalo, then hit only 4 the rest of the year. Tellez had some off-field issues, including his Mom’s battle with cancer (he left camp this week to be with her).
Tellez scuffled all season long at the plate. Tellez usually works the count and sees a lot of pitches, but he rarely looked comfortable last year, and did not have the volume of quality ABs he usually has.
Tellez will return to Buffalo this year.
16. Riley Adams
One of the best athletes in an organization stocked with them, Adams was the leader of the title-winning Vancouver squad after being selected in the 3rd round of the 2017 draft.
A bat-first player, Adams won some raves for his pitch calling and handling of Pitchers. He does have a plus arm and good pop time, but his framing and blocking skills still need developing.
Adams will head to Lansing to begin 2018.
17. Carlos Ramirez
The converted OF was lights out in relief at two levels before making his MLB debut last September. Ramirez was not scored upon until his 8th appearance, putting him solidly in the mix for a bullpen job this spring.
If Ramirez doesn’t earn a spot on the 25-man, he’ll head to Buffalo. Ramirez will no doubt become familiar with landmarks like the Burlington Skyway Bridge, and that rusting old ship near St Catharines this summer as he makes the trip up the QEW multiple times.
18. Ryan Noda
Noda’s draft stock dipped after a mediocre college season last year, but he tore a swath through Appalachian League pitching in 2017, leading the league in Average, OBP, and Slugging.
Noda was sent to the Appy because of the presence of Kacy Clemens, taken several rounds ahead of him. The pair should share time at 1B and DH at Lansing this year – Noda can play the corner OF spots as well.
19. Kevin Smith
Like Noda, Smith was sent to Bluefield last summer because Warmoth was ahead of him.
Smith has excellent defensive skills, and his bat proved adequate last year. Like most players in his position, Smith needs to play every day, and will do so at Lansing this year.
20. Hagen Danner
Danner was a storied prep player as both a Catcher and a Pitcher, and was the Blue Jays 2nd round pick in June.
The Blue Jays had him focus on Catching last year, and he struggled at the bat in the GCL as he adjusted to pro pitching.
Danner’s is an interesting situation. His development would be accelerated by playing every day, but it’s uncertain as to whether he’s ready for that role. As a result, he could open the season in Lansing come April, or stay in Florida for Extended Spring Training, and head to Vancouver once their season opens in June. The latter option seems the most likely.
21. McGregory Contreras
A $10K IFA in 2015, Contreras has defied the odds by reaching the Appy League, where he was ranked the 19th best prospect by Baseball America.
Contreras has what one Appy Manager called, “sneaky power,” which has yet to translate into game action, but his BP sessions suggest future pop.
A toolsy OF who has some pitch recognition issues, Contreras probably showed enough last year to skip Vancouver in favour of Lansing this year.
22. Leonardo Jimenez
Assistant GM Tinnish heaped praise on the Panamanian in a conversation last fall:
A really, really great kid…(He’s) bilingual, great make up, ultra young in the class – a late May birthday – he really has lead-off or #2 hole potential….if you asked me right now who has a chance to play SS in our system, Leo would be at the top of that list. The way the body moves, the way the arm works, the instincts, he’s a really good, future upside defender.
Jimenez likely starts in the GCL, but could move quickly.
23. Kevin Vicuna
A prized 2014 IFA, the skinny (6’/140) Vicuna might have to run around in the shower in order to get wet, but he put up decent numbers at Vancouver last year, earning a late season promotion to Lansing.
It may be hard to find playing time for Vicuna, but he’s a useful middle infielder. A return to Lansing is likely.
24. Maximo Castillo
Castillo more than held his own as an 18-year-old in under the lights play in the Appy League last year.
He has a three-pitch mix that fits a starter’s profile, but fastball command has been an issue. Castillo may be held back in Extended, but probably reaches Lansing by May.
25. Justin Maese, RHP
Shoulder issues caused Maese’s prospect stock to slip after a breakout 2016. If he’s healthy, there’s no reason why he can’t pitch his way back into the prospect picture.
Maese’s calling card is a fastball with heavy sink that tends to produce a lot of groundball outs. Despite his off-year in 2017, he’s still very much in the Blue Jays long-range plans.
Dunedin will likely be his destination once spring training ends.
26. Thomas Pannone, LHP
Acquired in the Smith deal from Cleveland, Pannone does not overpower, but the dude just knows how to pitch. He commands all three of his pitches, and has some deception to his delivery.
He impressed in New Hampshire last year, and will head to Buffalo to start this year. Like Borucki, he may make his MLB debut at some point this season.
27. Jordan Romano, RHP
A personal favourite, I’ve followed Romano and kept in touch with him since his return from Tommy John surgery in 2015.
The GTA native has struck out exactly a batter per inning since making his return in May of 2016. He has a fastball/slider combo that’s capable of missing bats, and he can be very tough on right-handed hitters. The missing piece has been said to be his change-up. If he can develop it, his future as a starter may be secured. If not, Romano could become an effective bullpen arm.
Romano will be in a starter’s role in New Hampshire this year.
28. Jonathan Davis OF
Davis is a versatile, get on base speedster who can play all three OF positions.
He’ll begin the season in Buffalo. With the depth of prospects in the system, he may have trouble getting playing time at the major league level, but he could fill an important role as a versatile fourth Outfielder for some team.
29. Max Pentecost, C/1B/DH
The 2014 1st rounder has had a lengthy injury history, but has shown MLB-level tools when he’s been in the lineup.
Shoulder concerns kept him from being placed on the 40-man last fall, and it was a mild surprise that no team took a flyer on him in the Rule 5.
Pentecost’s development has been impacted by the time he’s missed, but a stretch of good health could see him in Toronto before we know it. He should begin 2018 in New Hampshire, splitting time between three spots in the lineup.
30. Jon Harris, RHP
Harris’ stock tumbled last year when Eastern League hitters squared him up as he caught too much of the strike zone on a regular basis.
The 2015 1st rounder may not have one go-to pitch, but Harris commands all four of his pitches, gets a good downward plane on his fastball, and has proven his durability (76 starts over the past 3 seasons).
Like Reid-Foley, the depth of starters at the top of the system may see Harris repeat New Hampshire to start the season.
The Blue Jays are said to be the front-runners in the Orelvis Martinez sweepstakes, the Dominican SS who will likely receive the highest bonus on the July 2nd opening of the international free agent signing period.
Martinez will likely command a bonus of more than $3 million, soaking up much of the Blue Jays’ $4.75 million bonus pool allotment. This is the first year of new rules regarding exceeding pool limits. In the past, teams could blow past their limit, and pay a penalty, and have their bonuses limited the following season (as the Jays did when they signed Vladimir Guerrero Jr). A hard cap is now in place. Teams can increase their pool through trades, or by competitive balance means.
Ben Badler of Baseball America was in the Domincian Republic this week to catch MLB’s Showcase of top international talent, who notes Martinez:
Has fast hands and a calm, easy swing that generates power and loft from right-center over to his pull side.
At 5’11″/180, the 16 year old still has plenty of room for growth, and is not projected to stay at SS in the long term. His bat and body seem to indicate an ultimate landing at 3B.
The Blue Jays have shown a preference over the past two years for toolsy, athletic players, with make up being a key component – “the 6th tool” as Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim has termed it.
Martinez’ 6.98 time in the 60 isn’t exactly slow, but it’s not a time you would expect from a natural SS, again lending support to the idea that he’s moved off of the position eventually. His bat will likely be his calling card, anyway.