Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects – #2 Anthony Alford

Alford
milb.com photo

If there is one thing to be learned from covering minor league prospects for over half a decade, it’s that teams that are patient with their top hopefuls are usually rewarded.  Progress is not always measured in a straight line.  Injuries can disrupt the timeline.  Players who have never had an extended experience with failure often need the adversity of such periods in order to reach their potential.

Teams that don’t rush prospects, or give up on them when their development stalls, are often the ones reaping the benefits of productive farm systems.  Simply put, development takes time.

And the Blue Jays are about to watch a player they’ve been patient with for five years  embark on what should be a long and successful career in the form of OF Anthony Alford.

A two-time high school football player of the year in his native Mississippi, Alford’s stock in the 2012 draft dropped due to his college football aspirations.  The Blue Jays under GM Alex Anthopoulos and Amateur Scouting Director Brian Parker were not afraid to gamble on draft day, and waved a $750K contract and an agreement to let him continue to play football at him to convince him to sign.  Baseball America gave this pre-draft assessment:

Alford, a two-sport athlete, has committed to Southern Mississippi for both baseball and football. He’s teammates in baseball with Garren Berry, son of USM baseball coach Scott Berry. And the Golden Eagles have a new football coach, Ellis Johnson, who has hired Alford’s prep football coach onto his staff. In April Alford indicated he plans to go to college and play both sports. That’s too bad, because many scouts considered Alford one of the class’ elite athletes. Big and fast at 6 feet, 200 pounds, he was the Magnolia State’s football player of the year as a quarterback and chose Southern Miss over such football powers as Louisiana State and Nebraska. He threw for more than 2,000 yards and ran for more than 1,700 as a senior, accounting for 44 touchdowns, but he’s at least as intriguing on the diamond, where he’s a 70 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale with power potential, too. He helped Patal High win back-to-back state 6-A championships before the team lost in the third round this spring, as Alford batted .483 with four homers.

By 2014, many team might have been tempted to give up on Alford.  An off-field incident cost him his scholarship to Southern Miss, and he had played all of 11 games in his first two pro seasons because of his football obligations.  But the Blue Jays were not about to cash their chips.  Anthopoulos made the drive to Lansing in mid-July, where Alford had teased in a 9-game Midwest League stint with the Lugnuts, with a contract extension in hand.  The catch was that Alford would have to give up football, but after transferring to Ole Miss and sitting out a transfer rule year, he said no, thanks.  To top things off, Alford left shortly after that meeting in order to get married before the football season started.

The Blue Jays were not thrilled with Alford’s decision, but they chose to remain patient with a player who had amassed just over 100 plate appearances in three minor league seasons, even though many of his peers had surpassed him in development.

But their patience was about to be rewarded.  Alford lost his starting position in Ole Miss’ defensive backfield (he had originally gone to Southern Miss as a Quarterback), and perhaps he had some serious second thoughts about spurning the Blue Jays’ offer.  Alford did admit later that as a football player growing up in a football-mad state, he felt incredible pressure to commit to the gridiron.  In late September of 2014, he gave up on football, and reported to the Blue Jays Instructional League camp.  A stint in the Aussie Baseball League that winter gave him a crash course in pitch recognition (“it’s like they pitch you backwards,” he said of the veteran ABL pitchers), which in turn led to a breakout 2015.

2016 was a sideways year for Alford.  A knee injury cost him a month, and shortly after he returned, an OF collision with teammate Richard Urena had him out for another.  Time in the Arizona Fall League did help restore much of his former prospect lustre, but concerns did begin to crop up about his durability (Alford tore his ACL in high school).

2017 saw Alford pick up right where he left off in the fall, and after a torrid .356/.427/.507 April at AA, he made his MLB debut in May.  A broken hamate bone a week into that debut put him on the shelf once more, and with the team all but out of pennant contention when Alford returned in July, he was sent back to New Hampshire for more seasoning.

At first glance, there is no mistaking Alford for an athlete.  Time in the weight room during his football days is evident.  More importantly, he’s one of the highest make up players in the system.  This in spite of the fact that his difficult upbringing and prodigious athletic talent from an early age might have given him ample reason to behave otherwise.  Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim found many good things to say about Alford:

   Anthony has a difference-making set of physical tools, and an even more impressive make up.  His work ethic, aptitude, and competitive drive to get better every day are strong reasons as to why he’s seen such a positive development gains in the relatively short time he’s devoted to baseball.  He was at home training when the opportunity in Mexico came up, he reported to the Mattick (Blue Jays minor league complex) for a week to step up his prep with our High Performance and Player Development personnel, and now he’s off to a great start (.457/.444/.629 over his first 8 games) with Jalisco.

There is so much to like about Alford’s game.  After concerns about the swing-and-miss element to his offence, he cut his K rate to a respectable 15.4% this year.  He works the count, and uses the whole field effectively, so the Blue Jays will live with the strikeouts:  Alford gets on base, where his speed becomes a weapon.  In the outfield, he can play all three positions, but perhaps is in his element in CF, where his speed and ability to read and track balls allow him to cover a tremendous amount of ground.  His speed allows him to out run many of his mistakes, but his routes have been improving in terms of consistency as he’s gained more experience. Alford’s arm has been rated as fringe-average, but he makes up for that relative weakness with his accuracy and ability to unload the ball quickly.

But let’s consult some experts, starting with Bobby DeMuro who wrote in baseballcensus.com:

Alford has everything you could want from a rangy, athletic center fielder of the future: exceptional speed combined with good instincts on the bases, good range and aggressive, hard-charging routes in the outfield, and even some sneaky power in his bat that could turn into 20 home run-level production in the big leagues if things all go in a best-case scenario. His speed is plus, he’ll thrive in center field, and he’ll wreak havoc on the base paths. He can mix it with good raw power, the product of great bat speed and an athletic swing that lets him hit the ball to all fields with authority; right-center, in particular, is a very good power alley for him let alone the pull side.

Benjamin Chase of calltothepen.com makes an interesting comp:

Physically, Alford’s build and natural athleticism make him a very difficult player to find a comp for, but in skills and general size measurements, the guy who strikes me as the upside play for Alford is Andrew McCutchen.

One critique of Alford’s swing that has cropped up in a few reports is a relative lack of loft in it, which some suggest might lead to a future as a doubles/triples hitter.  He has hit only 21 Home Runs in over 1200 minor league PAs, and while he has started to tap into his power, a 47% ground ball rate, coupled with a 33.5% flyball rate at AA suggest that the 20+ HRs projections may be hard for him to attain.  His speed certainly helps put pressure on the defence on any balls he hits on the ground or into the gaps. He shows on this stand up triple he hit in Mexico this week that maybe the loft is coming:

 

Alford will be in competition for a major league job this spring, although he may need a little more time at AAA.   If he can stay healthy, he should reach his potential ceiling of a player with a power-speed combo,  top of the order hitter who can be an occasional all-star.  It’s not at all out of the realm of possibility that he replaces Kevin Pillar in CF before long.

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Blue Jays Minor League Free Agent Tracker

34 Blue Jays minor leaguers filed for free agency after last season.

There’s not a lot for MLB teams looking to add to their 25-man rosters, but there could be some useful minor league depth pieces.

Among the notable names:   Adonys Cardona, the most heralded Pitcher in the 2010 international free agent class.  Venezuelan Cardona signed for a record $2.8 million bonus, the top amount ever offered for a prospect from that country.  His career has been marked by injury and inconsistency.  Converted to relief in 2016, he posted very good numbers for High A Dunedin, but was not able to match that performance this year.

-John Stilson dropped in the 2011 due to concerns about his shoulder, but his high 90s heat was too much for the Blue Jays to pass up in the 3rd round.  Despite considerable promise, the reliever has not been able to stay healthy, with the 38 games he appeared in last year a career high.

-Matt Dean won a batting title with Bluefield in 2013, and showed some pop with Dunedin in 2015, but has never quite hit enough for a corner infielder.

-Taylor Cole led minor league baseball in K’s in 2014, but has pitched only 99 innings over the past two years.  He was hit hard in his one and only MLB appearance in September.

This page will be updated as players sign.

Player Position Signed with date
Jeff Beliveau P Cleveland 11/22/17
Jon Berti 2B  Blue Jays  1/15/18
Mike Bolsinger P  Japan  12/13/17
Leonel Campos P Cleveland 11/22/17
Daniel Canellas P
Adonys Cardona P
George Carroll C
Darrell Ceciliani OF
Taylor Cole P
Matt Dean 1B/3B
Lucas Harrell P
T.J. House P  White Sox  1/22/18
Luis Liriano C
Christian Lopes 2B  Texas  12/5/17
Raffy Lopez C  San Diego  12/6/17
Derrick Loveless OF
Jose Mayorga C
Blake McFarland P
Alex Monsalve C
Brett Oberholtzer P
Mike Ohlman C  Rangers  1/10/18
Shane Opitz SS/2B
Gregorio Petit SS/2B  Twins  12/17/17
Luis Santos P  Blue Jays  12/6/17
Bo Schultz P  Pirates 1/5/18
Chris Smith P  Nationals  12/21/17
Murphy Smith P  Blue Jays  1/15/18
John Stilson P  Pirates  12/19/17
John Straka P
Jose Tabata OF
Nick Tepesch P
Cesar Valdez P
Kender Villegas P
Philip Walby P

Tinnish Reunites with Anthopoulos in Atlanta

Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish has left the Blue Jays to accept a promotion with Atlanta, according to a Braves’ press release.

The Nepean, ON native, and Brock University Grad joined the Jays in 2001.  He worked his way up the scouting ranks from Assistant Scouting Director in 2006 to Director of Amateur Scouting in 2009.  In 2012, Tinnish was named Assistant General Manager, with responsibility for the club’s international scouting and development programs.

During his time with the team, he oversaw the drafting of players such as Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, Kevin Pillar, Marcus Stroman, Daniel Norris, Joe Musgrove, and Anthony DeSclafani.  He also was involved in the recruitment and signing of Franklin Barreto, Richard Urena,  and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.   Tinnish was a major part of the Blue Jays’ efforts to sign Japanese star Shohei Otani, and travelled to Japan several times to scout him.

The Blue Jays Dominican complex has been under a cloud of controversy, as three more players based there tested positive for PEDs, bringing the total to an MLB-leading 7 since September.

Tinnish reunites with Anthopoulos, who served as the Blue Jays GM from 2009-15, and was most recently with the Dodgers.  Montreal native Anthopoulos has hired last week to be the Braves’ new GM and Executive VP.  Anthopoulos worked for the Expos prior to joining the Blue Jays in 2003 as their Scouting Director.  Tinnish takes on the title of VP of Amateur and International Scouting with the Braves, meaning that his role will likely be similar to what it was with the Jays.  Atlanta, of course, is under a cloud of its own in the wake of sanctions by MLB for improprieties in the signing of international players, which cost the Braves 12 of their top IFAs from last year.

There is no word yet from the Blue Jays as to Tinnish’s replacement.

Blue Jays Trying to Sneak Pentecost Through Rule 5

Pentecost
John Lott/VICE sports photo

A few eyebrows were raised last week when Toronto left Max Pentecost, one of their two 2014 first round picks, off of their 40-man roster in advance of next month’s Rule 5 draft.

Shi Davidi of Sportsnet reported on Friday that the club ordered Pentecost shut down with a week left in the Arizona Fall League season.  Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins told Davidi:

“Ultimately we have to decide what we feel is the best chance for us to keep the most talent in our organization. We’ll have plenty of time for (Pentecost) to become that person for us.”

Pentecost’s injury history could reasonably be termed lengthy.  In his draft year, assorted ailments limited him to 10 games behind the plate in short season ball.  The most serious of those maladies was a torn labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder.  A pair of surgeries cost him all of 2015, and when he returned to action with Low A Lansing in May of last year, he was limited to DH duties.  Pentecost returned to Catching with High A Dunedin this year, but not on back-to-back days.

Sent to the Arizona Fall League for some added reps (and perhaps for the team to see how he fared against the advanced competition there prior to making their final 40 decisions), Pentecost was behind the plate 8 times from the AFL season opener on October 11th til the end of the month, the most sustained stretch of Catching since he turned pro.

The Blue Jays are gambling that given his injury history, teams will shy away from selecting him in the Rule 5 in light of this announcement.  Pentecost’s future probably lies as something of a hybrid player, splitting time between C/1B/DH.  A rebuilding team could easily use a healthy Pentecost in that kind of role on a reserve basis, which is why the Blue Jays made it known that he had been shut down.  Our man Jason Woodell, who follows Florida State League prospects for prospects1500.com, saw a fit with the Braves prior to the shoulder news:

It is interesting that during Pentecost’s previous absences, there was little communication about his status from the club.  At the same time, his throws to 2nd during the AFL’s Future Stars game looked weak, and it’s not a huge surprise that he was shut down with shoulder pain.  He would not be the first prospect to be exposed to the 40-man whose team is crossing their fingers his injury history will allow him to sneak through.

Pentecost is a premium athlete, but it’s becoming obvious that he’s no longer the Blue Jays’ Catcher of the Future.  Playing him in a multiple of roles would keep his bat in the lineup, and help give the team some roster flexibility.  There was talk at one time of the Blue Jays giving him some time as a corner Outfielder to help add to his versatility.  A cynic would say that the team shut him down to help them avoid a 40-man squeeze.  What’s more likely is that the Blue Jays were protecting their investment.  Whether or not he recovers in time is unknown, of course, but the team is hopeful that he’ll be ready for spring training.  As far as his destination for 2018 is concerned, if past history is any indication, he may stay close to the team’s rehab and medical people in Dunedin, and then move north to AA New Hampshire once the Northeastern weather warms up.

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects #3 Bo Bichette

Bo
Clutchlings/Future Blue Jays photo

 “Windshield'” is a term Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins likes to use to describe someone who has insight into a baseball situation as a result of past experience.

    When it comes to Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr, both future stars have had “windshields,” into what it takes to be a First Division player as a result of watching their famous Fathers playing the game.  Speaking on Sportsnet’s At the Letters Podcast, he expanded on the value of that experience:

  When you watch your Dad and what it took to become a major league star, and then you come into the game and it’s not real or something that’s a dream – it’s something I watched my Dad did that I can follow in those footsteps….I can do that, it’s not intimidating to me….often times players that are extremely talented that haven’t had that exposure come into an environment where all of a sudden everyone is as good as me….but the guys who have had that windshield make it something that is very attainable.

Blue Jays SS prospect Bo Bichette led the minor leagues in hitting over two levels, and captured a lot of attention as he flirted with .400 in late June.  Over his first two seasons of pro ball, he’s hit .372/.427/.591.  After entering pro ball with concerns among a number of scouts about his unorthodox mechanics, the Blue Jays have left him relatively untouched in terms of adjustments, which he has demonstrated he can capably do.  The pre-load bat waggle has calmed a little bit, but Bichette still creates bat speed that is borderline violent, and unlike a lot of modern bashers, he’s content to cut down on his swing with two strikes and put the ball in play.

This sample of ABs shows both that swing, and the modified two-strike approach:

 

At the plate, Bichette has pitch recognition skills that are probably second only to Guerrero’s in the system.  Despite that swing, he uses the whole field; his spray chart is a thing of beauty:

Bo Spray Chart
MLBfarm.com

 

A sampling of scouting reports:

Matt Powers covers the Braves’ minor league system, and came away impressed after watching Bichette at Dunedin:

   Bichette has an aggressive approach for sure. He comes up swinging, and swinging aggressively. While he’s aggressive, I wouldn’t say he’s a free swinger. Bichette has an idea of the strike zone and a plan at the plate. When he gets two strikes on him he becomes less aggressive in his swings and more contact oriented.

Jason Woodell follows players in the Florida State League, and wrote an extensive essay about Bichette’s swing.    His summary:

It is my opinion that Bichette’s bat is so quick through the zone that his increased load allows him to remain on his back leg long enough to recognize the pitch and then use his hips and hands to attack.

A knock against Bichette in the field is that he plays “with his hair on fire”; that is, he tends to rush plays and make forced errors.  Steve Givarz of Baseball Prospectus gave him a 50 grade for his glove:

   Has quality footwork and hands but can rush throws and make poor decisions. I worry about his side-to-side range as he matures, but he has quick reactions and a quality first step. Has the arm to make all the necessary plays for SS. Has played some second base in the past, could be a plus defender at either second or third.

Bichette is not a burner on the basepaths, but because of his slightly above average speed and well above average baseball IQ, he is a huge asset on the bases.  He can steal a base (22 for 29 at two levels this year), and his smarts on the bases allow him to recognize trajectories and other factors to take an extra base when necessary.

The concern about Bichette, of course, is his ultimate position.  A SS through high school and his first two pro seasons, his range and arm strength suggest a potential move across the bag to 2nd.  He’s working with the High Performance group on making his first step more explosive, but having seen him attempt to make several throws from the hole this season, the concerns about his arm may be legit.  Another concern may be the fact that his numbers at High A, well still above average, dropped off from his Lansing stats.  A sprained ankle, adjusting to a new league, and fatigue as he neared the end of his first full pro season may have been responsible, but he hit a very pedestrian .263/.329/.421 in August.

Detractors have said that Bichette’s mechanics will be exploited by Pitchers at higher levels.  He’s heard that kind of talk since high school, as he told Sportsnet:

“I don’t know if I’ll ever shut everybody up,” the 19-year-old says late this August in Dunedin. “That’s the thing. I still hear like, ‘Oh, well, he’s hitting in A-ball but what about high-A? Oh, he’s hitting in high-A but what about double-A?’ I don’t know — I don’t really care. I just continue to be myself. Whether I prove people right or wrong, I’m not really into that. I just don’t really care about their input.”

Bichette has consistently proven the nay-sayers wrong through his first two seasons.  The Blue Jays will more than likely be content to let him stay at SS until he proves that he needs to be moved.  If it’s over to 2nd, Bichette profiles as a top-of-the-order, impact bat in the mold of an Ian Kinsler or a Dustin Pedroia.  He will return to Dunedin to start the season, but should be in New Hampshire by the time summer arrives.

The Blue Jays Have a Problem…..

Paulino
Naswell Paulino – Twitter

“Corruption exists in every pore of commerce, and the Latin-American market just happens to have really oily skin.”

Jason Parks, “From the Buscones to the Big Leagues,”

   When we talk about the lower levels of the Toronto Blue Jays farm system, President/CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins would like to have us mention about how 3 of their 4 short-season teams made the post-season (one of them winning a league championship), and how their High A club won a league shared title.  It’s evidence of an ample wave of talent that’s working its way up through the system.  Failing that, they would prefer we talk about the team’s High Performance Department, which Shapiro believes will give the club a competitive advantage in years to come.

Unfortunately, given the latest PED suspensions of players connected to their Dominican complex, such is not the case.  In addition to the three players suspended last week, three more received suspensions this week, and we also learned that a seventh player was found to have tested positive in September.

17-year old Southpaw Naswell Paulino, a converted OF who struck out almost a batter per inning in the DSL, 19 year old RHP Jol Concepcion, who also fanned nearly 9/9 at two levels, and 20-year old Righty Juan Jimenez were suspended in this latest round.  Paulino and Jimenez received 72 game bans, Concepcion 60.  All three, like the trio suspended last week, were found to have used Boldenone.  After the season, RHP Luis Silva was found to have tested positive for Stanozolol.

In an email, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins stated that this had been a lengthy process:

 A little while ago, MLB informed us that a group of our Latin American prospects had failed drug tests. Due to the large group of impacted players within our program, MLB launched our investigation that we and our Player Development staff fully complied with. MLB’s suspension decisions were recently announced at the conclusion of their investigation.

Atkins was choosing his words carefully (he said much the same to several media outlets yesterday), but his concern was obvious:

 This situation is very disappointing and disturbing to the organization; disappointing that the players made these choices, but more so disturbing that some failure of our environment allowed this to happen. It is our responsibility to create an environment and culture where our players know that PED use is not condoned, and to give them resources and education to ensure that they do not make these decisions. As we seek to determine both how and why this happened, an internal investigation into the situation remains ongoing, and we will double down on ensuring that all our staff is properly equipped to help our players make the right choices. Aside from this specific situation, we fully support the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, and will continue to collaborate with MLB on all matters relating to PED abuse.

To be honest, none of the seven prospects named are familiar to most Blue Jays fans; given the club’s sanctions for going past their pool allotment to sign Vladdy Jr, they could sign no picks for more than $300K – SS Hugo Cardona, part of last week’s group, was the only one who signed for that amount.  The club had high hopes for him, as well as Paulino and Concepcion.

When it comes to determining why these 7 young men took the risk of taking a banned substance, several factors come into play.  The first of these is probably the knowledge that they are marginal prospects, desirous of gaining an edge over the competition and eventually making their way off the island to play.  In an interview last year, High Performance Director Angus Mugford said that the marginal players stateside were the ones most receptive to the new methods of training and nutrition that the club was introducing for much the same reason:  to seek that edge.

Education is likely also a factor.  Kids growing up stateside know that there’s risk involved with taking any kind of supplement.  Dominican kids are not necessarily exposed to that kind of knowledge.  Teams do their best to educate their international players, but sometimes it takes a while for their message to sink in.

And then there are the unscrupulous types that can be found at or near some MLB complexes.  Perhaps they are connected to a buscone, the all-powerful scout/agent/coach/trainer types that wield an enormous amount of influence over young players.  Not all buscones are corrupt, but it only takes a few to upset the system.  As Parks wrote in his essay, “(some) buscones smell money like reality show celebrities smell fame.”  This is usually the case in regard to bonus money, but it’s likely that can spill over into the development of players.  The pressure must have come from somewhere for these kids to get bigger faster – they didn’t come up with the idea on their own. Were they aware that what they were taking was against the rules?  There’s a slight possibility they were, but what’s more likely is that they ingested those supplements after someone told them that they were fine.

This has to be an embarrassment for the Blue Jays.  Certainly, other teams were caught in this dragnet, but the 7 suspended Blue Jays tops MLB, something they certainly are not proud to be part of.  The Blue Jays had 5 players suspended for PED use last year (including MLBer Chris Colabello), but only 1 was a complex leaguer.   There is great irony that the team is generating this sort of headline when they’ve invested so heavily in the High Performance group, and earlier this month received approval to vastly upgrade their training and rehab facility in Dunedin.  Whether or not the investigation results in wholesale changes to their Dominican complex remains to be seen, but this is something the club is surely hopeful of putting behind them.

With the Braves having been dealt a harsh sentence in the wake of their own international scandal, Parks’ opening words in his Buscones tome ring true:

Hunting talent in Latin America is 80-grade complicated, and no one authority, no matter how experienced, can supply a definitive perspective, so varied are the possible outcomes.

Blue Jays GM Atkins on the 40-man Roster Additions

The Blue Jays added 5 prospects among some additions and subtractions on Monday to get their 40-man roster to 39 players in advance of the deadline to freeze rosters in advance of next month’s Rule 5 draft.

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins admitted that setting a 40-man in advance of the Rule 5 is what he calls a “challenging process.”:

 We want to protect and retain all of our talented players, but we need to balance that desire with the need to manage 40-man roster space in the context of other offseason acquisitions and additions

The team elected to promote Catchers Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire, 1B Rowdy Tellez, and Pitchers Conner Greene and Thomas Pannone.  “We think very highly of all these players,” he added, “both with respect to their long-term upside, as well as possible near-term ability to impact our major league team.”

On Jansen, who had a breakout offensive season at three levels:

 Dan Jansen really impressed us and many around the industry this year, opening the season in A ball and advancing all the way to AAA. Danny had struggled with injuries in past years, but took the initiative to make two key changes following the 2016 season- he addressed some vision issues with an optometrist, and adapted his offensive approach. In a full season this year, he had a .323 average and .884 OPS across 3 levels, and performed particularly well in his late-season promotion to Buffalo. Our field staff and his pitchers have always thought highly of his defensive abilities, and Dan deserves all the credit for accepting the challenge of improving his offensive game and making the strides that he did.

On Greene and Tellez, both of whom had sideways 2017 seasons, but still are held in high regard:

We are highly confident in their abilities on the field, and I know both players well; there is no doubt in my mind that they will use the adversity they faced in 2017 to move forward and improve themselves in 2018.

Pannone was something of a sleeper, acquired in the Joe Smith deadline deal.  Even though he had only pitched for the organzation for a month, he made quite an impression:

The reports and information we had on him prior to his acquisition was very exciting, and since he’s joined our club we’ve only been more impressed with him, both on and off the field. We felt that a player with his skills and track record (sub-3.00 ERA in AA) as a left-handed starter would rightly draw a lot of attention in the Rule 5 draft, and we look forward to having him in camp this spring.

McGuire missed much of the season with a knee injury, but his premium receiving skills might have made him an inviting Rule 5 target, even in a back up role:

  He had a great offensive year with some strong improvement over his 2016 season, and we feel that his ability to defend behind the plate and interact with our staff gives him a high ceiling. We’re excited to see him build off his 2017 season as he moves into 2018.

The team does risk losing C/1B/DH Max Pentecost, who might be attractive to a team that could use him in a utility role.  Just the same, his injury history, in addition to his weak Arizona Fall League showing and the fact that he can’t Catch on back-to-back days led the Blue Jays to roll the dice and leave him off the 40, hoping to sneak him through.  Atkins did not refer specifically to Pentecost, but did acknowledge that the club faced some tough decisions when it came time to decide who to protect:

 While we may have been able to add another player or two to our roster, doing so would have impacted our ability to make other decisions and moves later in the offseason. Hopefully we don’t lose any of our un-protected players in the upcoming Rule 5 draft, but if we do, it is a testament to the talent level and depth of our organization.

The Rule 5 draft has undergone a signficant metamorphosis over the years.  Once an afterthought at the end of the December Winter Meetings, some teams (like the Blue Jays with Joe Biagini) have been able to find value in baseball’s bargain bin.  The draft was originally meant to keep teams from stockpiling young players in the minors.  Roberto Clemente, Josh Hamilton, and Johan Santana  are three of the most successful picks ever, but the trend until recently has been for only a small amount of players to be selected, with most returned to their original clubs.  The Blue Jays, for their part, were regular players in the Rule 5 during the Pat Gillick era, mining the Rule 5 for 1987 MVP George Bell. 

Atkins did not indicate if the Blue Jays will be active participants this year.  Hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again last year, they selected Pitcher Glenn Sparkman from the Royals.  Sparkman broke his thumb in spring training, and was shipped back to the Royals after getting hammered in his only Blue Jays appearance.

This year’s Rule 5 draft takes place on December 10th.  JJ Cooper of Baseball America wrote an excellent piece about the actual draft day process last year.  

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects – #4 Nate Pearson

The crowd at Vancouver’s Nat Bailey Stadium buzzed with excitement.

A hot, hazy, late August afternoon saw the Vancouver Canadians’ last home game of the season.  The wildly successful Northwest League affiliate of the Blue Jays had smashed another attendance record, and with a return to the playoffs in the offing at the end of regular season play Labour Day weekend, over 6 000 fans jammed the venerable old park minutes from Vancouver’s downtown for a “nooner,” a popular afternoon game on getaway day for both the C’s and the visiting Boise Hawks.  The team received a thundering ovation when they gathered at home plate to sing, “O Canada,” prior to the game.

Adding to the excitement was the fact that RHP Nate Pearson, one of two first round picks the club had that June, was about to take the mound.   Big Nate had caught a heavy dose of helium since he hit 100 in a fall showcase last year, and was riding that wave late in his first pro season toward top prospect land.

Pearson struggled a bit with his command (and to be honest, he was squeezed a bit by the home plate ump and his Catcher Riley Adams, who both in fairness have probably not seen that kind of velo consistently around the plate), and gave up his first runs of his short NWL season – heck, he allowed his first runner past 2nd since joining the team in mid-July.

There was pre-draft talk that Pearson could move quickly through the minors as a reliever, but the Blue Jays considered his size (6’6″/240), mechanics (consistent release point and delivery), and mix of pitches to be perfectly suited to a starting role.

On this afternoon, we were joined by veteran C’s watcher and fellow prospect blogger Charlie Caskey (@CharlieCaskey on Twitter).  Caskey had spoken at length with Canadians’ Pitching Coach Jim Czajkowski, who has seen a fair number of Blue Jays prospects pass through the Lower Mainland.   Pearson gave up some contact on his change up during this start, and as Big Jim noted, a change up can look mighty juicy to the average NWL hitter:

“These young kids are trying to gear up for a 100 mph fastball and you give them 91/92 and that’s something they can hit. It’ll be easier to get big league hitters out with the change when they’re gearing up for 100, as the differential will mean something, so he has to keep throwing it.”

With his size, Pearson generates good downward plane on his fastball.  His is also an intimidating presence on the mound.  He sat 96-97 during this game, spotting it to both sides of the plate.  He had some trouble finding the strike zone early with his slider, but was able to command it better as the game wore on.  His change has decent movement, and profiles as a potential plus pitch.

Some teams backed away from Pearson a bit because of the screw he had inserted into his pitching elbow during high school.  The Blue Jays were not deterred by it, but kept him on a strict pitch count until this start of 73 pitches.  Pearson put an exclamation point on his debut season by striking out 10 in his final start of the season, a 4-inning outing that led to a Game One triumph for the C’s over Spokane in their semi-final.

Pearson may likely skip Lansing next season and head to High A Dunedin.  There is every indication that he is a top-of-the-rotation starter in the making.  Czajkowski compares him very favourably to Aaron Sanchez, who he had when both were in New Hampshire.  We’ll take that comp.

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A shout out for the video goes to another fellow blogger, Niall O’Donohoe, whose CsPlusBaseball.ca blog gives excellent into and coverage of our favourite west coast Blue Jays affiliate.

 

Blue Jays Add Prospects at 40-Man Deadline

The Blue Jays added 5 prospects to their 40 man roster today to prevent the possibility of losing them at next month’s Rule 5 draft.

Catchers Reese McGuire and Danny Jansen, 1B Rowdy Tellez, and Pitchers Thomas Pannone and Conner Greene were added.  Left unprotect included C/1B/DH Max Pentecost, OF Jonathan Davis, and Ps Andrew Case, Jordan Romano, Francisco Rios, and Angel Perdomo.

The team began clearing space earlier this month by outrighting Bo Schultz, Cesar Valdez, and Darren Ceciliani from the 40.  Last week, Leonel Campos, Taylor Cole, Luis Santos, and Raffy Lopez met the same fate.  Letting Rob Refsnyder go on waivers today and designating Harold Ramirez and Chris Rowley cleared additional space.  In between, Deck McGuire was signed as an MiLB free agent, and Taylor Guerreri was claimed on waivers from the Rays.  Acquiring SS Gift Ngoepe from the Pirates for futures brought the roster to 34 as the day progressed.

The 5 who were protected were not much of a surprise.  Jansen had a breakout year at three levels, and while McGuire missed a good chunk of the season due to knee surgery, could likely fit into any MLB roster as at least a back up, and showed promise with the bat upon his return.  Neither may be quite ready for an MLB job, but both would have likely been claimed.

Greene had his struggles at AA this year, but topped 100 with his fastball on multiple occasions.  It will be interesting if the team continues to let him develop as a starter, or if he moves to the bullpen.  Pannone, acquired in the Joe Smith deadline deal, was among the league leaders in many Eastern League pitching categories.

Tellez struggled mightily at the plate in AAA this year, and given his bat-first profile, he may have gone through the Rule 5 draft unclaimed.  The Blue Jays, obviously, did not want to take that risk, and the promotion of the 40-man has to be seen as a reward to Tellez, as well as a vote of confidence.

If there was a player who may have been protected, it might have been New Brunswick native Case.  After capping off as strong season by providing excellent set-up relief for Peoria en route to their Arizona Fall League title, there was talk that he might be protected.  Case does not profile as a big strikeout guy, which probably is why he was left off the 40.  Similarly, Davis had a strong fall for Peoria, and boosted his stock as a speedy, versatile fourth outfielder.  He might be a good fit for a team in need of that commodity.  Pentecost did not do much to show that he would be worth stashing on a 25-man for a year.  At this point, he has yet to prove he can Catch every day, and he struggled against AFL pitching.  It would be a surprise to see him selected.

With the roster now at 39, the Blue Jays have a chance to add a player at the Rule 5.

 

 

 

 

 

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects – #5 Sean Reid-Foley/Richard Urena

pjimageFor the first time since I started ranking Blue Jays in 2013, I honestly can’t make my mind up about a pair of prospects.

RHP Sean Reid-Foley and SS Richard Urena had their struggles at AA this year, but there’s still tremendous updside to both.  Perhaps the biggest challenge this year was condensing what’s becoming a system with some decent depth into a Top 10 list, and I just could not fathom ranking either player any lower (or higher) for that matter.  Neither deserved to be at the top of the list, nor did they merit being left off altogether.  #5 is a suitable, mid prospect-range place to put them.

For someone pressed for time this spring, watching SRF’s first half-dozen starts was a Godsend.  Wildness drove up his pitch count early, and he failed to last beyond the 3rd inning in five of those.  By his own admission, Reid-Foley was trying to blow his fastball by hitters in his first go at AA (where he was one of the youngest starting pitchers in the league).  He tended to rush his delivery, and threw his four-seamer up and out of the strike zone.  Hitters at the lower levels often chased that pitch, but the more disciplined Eastern League hitters refuse to offer, putting him behind in the count often.  Hitters then sat on that fastball when he caught too much of the strike zone.

Early in the season, with his pitch count up quickly, he found himself pulled.  It wasn’t until he hit rock bottom on a May 2nd start, when he couldn’t get out of the first inning (lifted with two outs, having given up four runs, three walks, needing 37 pitches to do so), that SRF began to turn things around.  In his next 16 starts, Reid-Foley pitched into the 6th inning 9 times, and began to look more like the mid-rotation starter that he was projected to be.

The knock against him has long been that he lacked the experience to make mechanical adjustments on the fly, resulting in long innings and early hooks.  After a 2016 split between Lansing and Dunedin, in which he fanned 130 batters in 115 innings, Reid-Foley had appeared to learn how to make those in-game changes.  He had moved up to #4 in Baseball America‘s Top 10 Blue Jays rankings, and had even cracked their Top 100, coming in at #75.

When Reid-Foley rushes his delivery in attempt to bump his fastball (which already sits 93-95), he opens up early, and his command is very inconsistent.  As the season progressed, he repeated his delivery with greater frequency.  He could still dial it up to 97, with what was termed “effective wildness.”   SRF had one of the highest (10.6%) swinging strike rates in the Eastern League, and his line drive rate of 18.5% was reasonably low.  Only two pitchers had a higher K/9 rate than SRF’s 8.28.  There’s still plenty of reason for optimism with those numbers.

The bread and butter of Reid-Foley’s arsenal is that fastball.  His slider is probably his best secondary pitch, but both that pitch and his curve have plus potential.  His inability to command that fastball at times this year, of course, limited the effectiveness of his secondaries.  One scouting report from May suggested that his mechanics have been an issue:

Reid-Foley works from an abbreviated delivery that appears as being from the stretch, with a side-step delivery and compact arm action and above-average arm strength. His trouble repeating seems rooted in what’s appears be some limited athleticism in keeping the moving parts of his large frame working together through to an online finish. He had trouble working down in the strike zone and getting over his front side in this viewing.

Given his struggles this year, there was more talk that like rotation mate Conner Greene, who had his issues as well this year, Reid-Foley would be better suited to a back-of-the-bullpen role, where his fastball would play up.  The club will more than likely continue to give him every chance to succeed as a starter, however.  He has the build and three-pitch mix to turn a lineup over and give the team a lot of innings.  SRF was sent back to Lansing in 2016 after finishing in Dunedin in 2015.  One wonders if he may repeat AA to start 2018, before moving up to Buffalo’s rotation.

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Urena, of course, finished the season as Troy Tulowitzki’s injury replacement at SS.  He’s been almost a perennial Top 10 guy since his first pro season in 2013, but as Urena has moved up the ladder, his flaws have been exposed. He acquitted himself well in September, however.

All of Urena’s tools except for his speed show glimpses of above average potential, but consistency and a lack of polish at the plate and with the glove seem to relegate him to average status.

A swtich hitter, we observed earlier this year that he has different swings from each side:

Ureña hits from both sides, but he has shown markedly different mechanics and approach with each.  From the left side (his natural one), he utlizes a leg kick, and has a long, looping swing that can leave him susceptible to off-speed pitches, and can result in weak contact.  From the right side, Ureña uses only a toe tap and a much more compact swing, which allows him to drive the ball to the opposite field.

Urena got off to a very slow start this year, flirting with the Mendoza Line for much of the first two months.  His approach can best be described as aggressive; he can hammer mistakes, especially from the left side, but he gives away a lot of ABs going after pitcher’s pitches.  He has slowly demonstrated improving strike zone judgement over the course of his minor league career, but he struck out a whopping 37.5% of the time against MLB pitching.  Urena has quick wrists and good bat speed, but he does not make a lot of hard contact.

In the field, Urena has a plus arm, good reactions, and decent footwork, but he often makes careless throwing errors when he doesn’t plant his feet, and he has been known to boot the odd routine groundball.  His reactions help to make up for his relative lack of speed when it comes to his range.

Urena could profile as an above average offensive player, and a generally average defensive one.  The performance this year makes one question whether he’ll ever reach that ceiling.  At the same time, there are those tools, which just can’t be ignored, and the fact that he’s only 21.  Given his age and Tulowitzki’s contract, Urena should be headed to Buffalo for more seasoning come April.