Top Blue Jays Prospect Story Lines for 2018 – Beyond the Obvious Ones

DJ Davis
DJ Davis – Clutchlings Photo

If you’ve visited this site hoping to find out if Vladimir Guerrero Jr will continue to be one of the top prospects in baseball, or if Bo Bichette will continue to hit everything in sight, or if Nate Pearson will continue to dominate with a fastball in the upper 90s, let me save you some time – the answer is yes.

Those are not exactly compelling storylines.  While there are no guarantees, all three are on track to become front-line Major Leaguers.

But there are several in the Blue Jays system that will be worth following this year:

1.  Will Justin Maese return to health this year?

Maese climbed the prospect charts in only his second pro season in 2016.  Shoulder issues lead to a six week shutdown in June/July, and an end to his season in early August.

When healthy, Maese pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a sinker that has a good downward plane, which hitters find difficult to square up.  Last year, his shoulder problems kept him from getting the extension necessary to keep his pitches down, and his flyball rate jumped from around 20 to 25%, with a corresponding drop in his ground ball rate.  Maese in 2016 was an incredibly efficient Pitcher, averaging 13 pitches per inning.  In 2017, his pitch count and BB% jumped significantly as he struggled to find the strike zone.  A healthy Maese attacked hitters, but last year he pitched from behind more often than not, or so it seemed.

Pitching from a 3/4 delivery, Maese sits 91-95 with his sinker, which is complemented by a slider which he learned a new grip for at 2015 Instructs, and a changeup.  Both of his offspeed pitches flash above average potential.

After 2016, Maese was being talked about as a potential back of the rotation arm.  He didn’t exactly fall off the radar last year, but his stock dropped considerably.

2.  Will Riley Adams continue to develop?

The 2017 3rd rounder was Vancouver’s MVP as he led the C’s back to the league championship.

Thought of as more of an offensive Catcher with a plus arm, Adams made tremendous strides defensively last year, but scouts wondered if he might eventually have to move off the position.  His hands and receiving skills were rated below average, and two months of pro ball demonstrated that he has some work to do in regard to pitch framing.

One thing is for certain from viewing Adams a number of times last year:  his bat is of the potential big league variety.  Adams worked the count well, and while he didn’t tap into his power (3 HRs for the summer), he shows raw power that should show up as he moves through the system.  His K rate was on the high side, but fatigue may have helped to slow his bat down.

Likely destined for Lansing this year, Black-Belt Adams is part of an impressive haul of athletic players the Blue Jays netted last June.  If he can continue to develop his blocking and game-calling skills, Adams could add to the depth of Catching prospects the Blue Jays have accumulated.

3.  Can Jon Harris bounce back?

The 2015 1st round pick had a solid 2016, and was rewarded with a challenging assignment to AA to start 2017.

He caught entirely too much of the plate on many occasions, and hitters made him pay accordingly.

Harris sits 90-94 with his fastball, and while his secondaries are decent, like his fastball, nothing really stands out as a go-to pitch.  A FIP almost a full run lower than his ERA last year suggests that some BABIP issues were in play for him, but Harris gave up a lot of contact, with only 45% of it being of the groundball variety.

Harris was not drafted with promises of front-of-the-rotation potential; just the same, he showed the right mix of pitchability and athleticism to suggest a mid-rotation future.  He has the frame to add some more strength, and his height creates a good downward plane on his pitches.  He did not fall off the prospect radar entirely this past season, but his performance has him down the depth chart of minor league starters.

4.  Will Maverik Buffo be able to repeat his GCL success at a higher level?

Buffo’s story was one of the best in the Blue Jays system last year.

Elbow issues scared most teams off, but the Blue Jays took a flyer on him in the 34th round, and kept him close to their medical facilities in the GCL, where hitters stood absolutely no chance against him, as he gave up only 2 earned runs in 34 innings.

Buffo suffered a UCL tear in his Sophomore year at BYU, but he avoided Tommy John with Platelet-Rich-Plasma therapy.  His Junior numbers were not great, which probably convinced most teams he was headed for surgery, but Buffo says he’s 100% recovered.

Buffo attacks hitters with a fastball that sits 92-95, and throws a sharp breaking ball that has tight shape and horizontal break.  GCL hitters were overmatched by him, but it will be interesting to see how he fares against hitters at higher levels – he should reach Lansing perhaps to begin the season, or when the weather warms up.

 

5.  Was DJ Davis’ second half for real?

The 2012 1st rounder had long lost his top prospect status after repeating both Low A and High A, but a swing adjustment that lead to a .283/.357/.369 (featuring an OPS of .830 in August) brings some hope for this athletic Outfielder.

Pitch recognition and a long swing have held Davis back.  His speed has always prophesied top of the order potential, but he seemed to be more comfortable hitting at the bottom of the lineup last year.  After begin caught stealing more times than he was successful in 2014, Davis has quietly improved his base running skills, swiping 32 in 43 attempts.

Davis still certainly has miles to go before he ever regains his former prospect lustre, but the Blue Jays have to be encouraged with the progress he displayed in the 2nd half.  Described as toolsy-but-raw when he was drafted, Davis at least gave a glimpse of tapping into some of that potential in July and August last year.

6.  Can Ryan Noda come anywhere close to repeating his Appy numbers?

Noda was a candidate to go in the top 3 rounds of the draft last June, but a mediocre college season dropped him to the 15th round.  Sent to the Appy League because Kacy Clemens had 1B locked up at Vancouver, Noda laid waste to league pitching for the summer.

The Appy MVP, Noda led the league in average, OBP, and Slugging, and drew 25 more walks than the runner-up.  He has hitting above .400 as last as August 7th.

In the Appy, Noda could be patient, and wait for Pitchers to make mistakes.  At the higher levels, there is some concern that passivity could be taken advantage of.

Noda has the skills to play the OF, but there was little need for him with Bluefield with the presence of ballhawks like Chavez Young and McGregory Contreras. Likely ticketed for Lansing this year, he should split time between 1B/DH/OF.  It was fun to watch him post video game-like numbers last year, but he will be hard pressed to repeat that in Low A.

 

 

 

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Tissenbaum Finds a Home in Quebec

maxx
RDS Photo

My wife and I were sitting in the revolving restaurant at Quebec City’s Hotel Le Concorde last month, enjoying the panoramic view of one of North America’s oldest cities.  We were in La Belle Province to fulfill a bucket-list dream of attending the city’s annual Carnaval, a two-week long celebration of the province’s rich cultural and historical heritage.

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  As our view slowly rotated from the ice floes making their way upriver with the incoming tide beyond the fabled Plains of Abraham, where the fate of a nation was decided, we were offered a different perspective of the city:  one that showed residential and commercial districts divided by a ribbon of multi-lane highway, which continued on into the snow-covered Laurentians.

  Our rotating view of the city continued, and soon the National Assembly, and the restaurants of Grand Allee came into view, with the Old-Town, surrounded by walls, and the fortress-like Chateau Frontenac looming in the distance.  But I couldn’t take my eyes off an old grandstand with a bubble dome over its playing field:  Quebec’s fabled Stade Canac, home to 8 decades of amateur, minor league, and now independent league ball.

We had driven past the old park the previous day on our drive out to Val Cartier, home of the spectacular ice hotel (we didn’t stay there; I like winter, but I don’t like sleeping in it).  We were too busy trying to navigate our way for me to pay much attention to the venerable old park.  But now, with some Quebecois cuisine and drink having taken the edge off slightly, the Stade stood out in all its glory.  The Quebec Athletics played in the storied Quebec Provincial League for two seasons after the park opened in 1939, and then the city hosted an entry affiliated with the Giants in the Class C Canadian-American League until 1949, when they switched affiliation to the Braves.

 When the league folded following the 1951 season, Quebec returned to amatuer play for two decades, until minor league baseball followed their major league cousin north after the Montreal Expos began play in 1967.  In 1971, the Eastern League fielded teams in Trois Rivieres and Quebec – at one point, there were three EL teams in the province.  The Quebec Carnavals were an Expos affiliate from 1971 to 75, and again from 1976 to 77 under the name Metros, and many future major leaguers spent time there.  There was a trickle of talent at first, as legendary scouting director Mel Didier was assembling a deep farm system.  That trickle became a stream in 1972, as future MLBers Dale Murray, Balor Moore, Barry Foote, and Jerry White donned the Carnavals’ tri-colours.  The following year, Gary Carter, Steve Rogers, and Dennis Blair all passed through Quebec City, and in 1974, Warren Cromartie, Larry Parrish, and Ellis Valentine all played for the Carnavales.  In 1976, Andre Dawson suited up for Quebec City, but with attendance dwindling and travel concerns growing, the league ended its partnership with the province following the 1977 campaign.

  In 1999, pro ball returned to the provincial capital in the form of the Northern League, which later became the Can-Am League.  The Quebec City Capitales have been the most successful franchise in the Can-Am, having won more titles (6) than any other franchise, and they’ve been among the league’s attendance leaders, averaging almost 3 000 fans per game over a 40+ home dates season.

 Between 2009 and 2013, the Caps won 5 straight Can-Am titles, but failed to make the playoffs in 2014, and were knocked out in the first round in 2015 and 2016.  They returned to the winner’s circle last year, and Toronto’s own Maxx Tissenbaum was a huge part of it.

 Originally drafted by the Blue Jays out of York Mills Collegiate and the Toronto Mets travel program in the 43rd round of the 2009 draft, Tissenbaum opted to attend Stony Brook, a Long Island school which competes in the America East Conference.  Drafted by the Padres in the 11th round of the 2012 draft after back-to-back seasons an an AEC All-Star 2nd Baseman, Tissenbaum was dealt to the Rays in 2014.  Miami selected him in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft in 2015, but then released him in June of the following year.  At a bit of a crossroads after 4+ minor league seasons, the peripatetic Torontonian (he spent a pair of off-seasons in the Australian Baseball League),  decided to give the Can-Am league a try, and headed off to Quebec to join the Capitales.  The results have been incredible for both Maxx and the Caps, as they returned to the post-season in 2016, and Tissenbaum was a Can-Am All-Star in 2017, as the league title returned to Quebec.

I caught up with Tissenbaum last week in Louisiana.  He returned to Stony Brook to finish his business management degree, and offered to help coach his alma mater.

-On being drafted by the Blue Jays, but ultimately deciding to go to school:

  I was always going to school….I got that phone call, I was actually on my lunch break at high school sitting in the car with my dad, we were just coming back from lunch…then Kevin Brand called me and said they had drafted me, and the gist of the conversation was that they had picked 7 or 8 Canadian guys in the last rounds as a nod to Baseball Canada…..they told me on that phone call unless something drastic happened over the course of the summer, it’s probably best to go to school, and develop as a player and a person, and then deal with it again in three years.

 

-On winding up with the Capitales:

 I was with the Marlins at spring training in 2016, and I got hurt about halfway through, so I didn’t break camp with any team, kind of bounced around spring training, then they sent me up to Low A, and I played there for about a month, and then the first of June I get released, and call my agent, and said, “look, I just got released and I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do now….I pack up my car in Greensboro, NC, and just drove north….my girlfriend lives in Albany, so I went up there to stop and hang out for a few days…by the time I got there, he had already called me back, and said QC wants you….great opportunity if you can do it, if you want to do it…I made a bunch of phone calls to a number of different people in baseball to ask “is this worth it, or is this me grasping at straws?”  I talked to  (Blue Jays Assistant GM) Andrew Tinnish, I’ve known him for a long time, and he gave me a really good review – he actually played in Quebec their very first year – hearing from him and some other people…it sounded like an absolutely awesome opportunity, and so I drove up to Quebec City and met the team there.

 

-On the great fans in the provincial capital:

 It was absolutely unbelievable…I couldn’t get my head around for the longest time what great baseball fans they are.  You think of Quebec City and you think of hockey, but they are such good baseball fans….they’re on top of the game, they’re passionate, they show up every night, and they pack that ballpark almost every single night…it’s amazing – even in bad weather, we still had 70 -80% capacity, they’re loud….it’s a really,  really fun atmosphere, and it’s really an incredible city to play in.

I asked Tissenbaum, who played in the Northwest League, how the atmosphere in Quebec compared to Vancouver’s Nat Bailey Stadium, but ironically visa issues forced the Padres Eugene affiliate to leave him behind when they crossed the border to play the C’s.  He did say his teammates could not say enough about playing in front of the full houses of the Nat.

-Tissenbaum on aged but charming Stade Canac, home of the Caps:

 It’s been around forever….the stadium at TR (Trois Rivieres, up the St Lawrence from Quebec) is the exact same – designed by the same person, built in the same year….they’re almost identical except for where the playing field sits in comparison to the first row of seats….ours is almost even with the first row, where there seats are elevated.  It’s a really cool ballpark…you look at it from the outside, and it’s not that impressive, but once you get inside, the fans are right on top of the field…you can kind of feel that historic sense..it’s kind of like it wraps you up, and you feel like you’re right in the middle of something…probably a lot bigger than it actually is, it sort of has this huge sort of feeling.

 The adjustment of going to Quebec  would be difficult for any player, even someone who had grown up in Toronto.  The huge Canadian element on the 2016 Caps roster helped with that:

 Both years, that was part of what made me so comfortable getting up there…make a 15 hr drive from NC, and show up and meet the team that’s already been playing for two weeks, and I walked in…and I played with Marcus Knecht when I was 7 or 8 years old, and all the way up…Jasvir Rakkar was there my first year, and we played together at Stony Brook and against each other growing up…John Fitzsimmons….there was a ton of guys who I had played with or against…either at home or in college, so it was nice to have all those familiar faces going in…and then there’s a ton of west coast guys…Jordan Lennerton, Lachlan Fontaine are both BC guys…so it’s a lot of names that I recognized from the BC website too…I’d never played with that many Canadians so far….I played with Mark Hardy at one point with the Padres…he came through for a couple of weeks….and I think there may have been maybe one or two others over the course of five years…having 7 or 8 of us on a team was definitely an experience.

Being the only Canadian, it’s easy to get the, “Oh, you’re Canadian, do you say oot and aboot?” kind of deal, but being more in the majority it was a really cool dynamic….obviously a lot of the guys had never been up to Quebec, or to a french-speaking part of the country, never mind Canada in general….for a lot of guys going to Ottawa, it was the first time seeing the parliament buildings and all that ….it was cool to get to be the tour guide as opposed to being the guy trying to find his way around whatever place I’m in. 

 

Tissenbaum easily took to Quebec City, one of North America’s most underrated cities in the summertime:

 Everywhere in Quebec is just gorgeous…we spend a lot of time in Old Quebec just walking around…there’s a whole bunch of restaurants and bars on Grand Allee that we would go out to dinner after games…..it’s such a lively city, that really anywhere you go, you’re going to be able to have something great to eat, have a really good time, ….you’re not going that far out of the way.

They have a giant music festival at the end of July, beginning of August, probably 10-12 days of major headline acts, and it’s all set up on the Plains of Abraham…it’s just masses of people out there at concerts pretty much all night…there were guys that had bands that they liked that were playing at 10:30 at night…and so they’d end…..you’d finish the game, then drive up and listen to the concert, and then head home..it’s a fantastic city, there’s so much to do there. 

 

Originally drafted as a 2B, Tissenbaum evolved into a super-utility player as a minor leaguer, a role he was willing to continue in if it meant playing time in Quebec:

 I was a Middle Infielder all throughout high school, and in 2014, when I got traded to Tampa Bay, they converted me to a Catcher.  When I got up to Quebec, (Manager) Pat Scalabrini brought me into the office and said, “You’ve played everywhere, assuming that you’re ready to go every day, do you care if we bounce you around the lineup?” and my answer was, the last couple of years in the minors, I haven’t played more than 85 or 90 games (in a season), so as long as I’m in the lineup, I don’t care if you put me in LF, I just love playing and I want to be in the lineup.  So the first year, it was more C/3B with a few DH days, and then in 2017, because we had two Cuban National Team players at SS and 3B, I moved over to 2B and played there when I wasn’t Catching.

 

 The Cuban element of the Caps played a strong role in their success last year.  Quebec City has been a pioneer in bringing Cuban players to the Can-Am, starting with Yuniesky Gourriel in 2014.  Tissenbaum says they were an integral part of the team, both on and off the field:

 Every year, the Caps have had 3 or 5 Cubans….so (Yurisbel) Graciel was our 3rd Basemen, big, strong, power hitting guy.  They speak no English, but they have a translator from Quebec City who’s tri-lingual, so he’s in there teaching and helping them out with the French, and then some of us speak a little bit of Spanish from our time in the minor leagues, so we’ve kind of helped them out with the odd thing in English….they’re really fun guys to be around, even having to use the translator, they’re in the conversation in the dugout, they’re active in the team group – they’re not outsiders by any stretch of the imagination.  And they’re just phenomenal baseball players.  

It’s a huge advantage to us, Scal and Michel LaPlante and the Caps’ front office have done a really good job going down to Cuba every year on a scouting and outreach trip…it seems like we’ve had first pick on who we want…TR and Ottawa have had guys, but they haven’t had anywhere near the kind of impact they guys we’ve had have been able to produce for us.  The first year I was there, our CF Rowell Santos, he was a leadoff guy…he had a really good year, and when to the NPB in Japan last summer, and Graciel had a huge year, and a huge World Baseball Classic, and now he’s actually signed to play there too.   We’ve had some major Cuban stars come through, which has been absolutely awesome.  

 

There was a Blue Jays connection with former Blue Jays reliever Arik Sikula, and Knecht. Converted to starting, Sikula tied for the league lead in strikeouts, and helped form a starting rotation that Tissenbaum identified as a cornerstone for the team’s success:

 We had really good starting pitching last year, which was a huge change from my first year…..we could score runs with the best of them, but we couldn’t keep them off the scoreboard, so this year with Arik at the front of the rotation, Karl Gelinas who was our Pitching Coach/top of the rotation starter – they were more like 1 and 1A…Rosario Blanco, who was another Cuban guy, Brett Lee (who was a former Twins minor leaguer) – our pitching was fantastic….it was a pleasure to Catch those guys.  Sikula was absolutely on another level – I don’t remember him being that dominant when I faced him in the minors, but he had three-four pitches, threw everything for strikes, mixed his timing – he was very Marcus Stroman like, with the pauses and the quick pitches – guys on the other teams absolutely hated facing him.  July was ridiculous – every time he took the ball, we knew he was going to give us 7 innings, and give us a chance to win.

 

Adding to the former Blue Jays flavour was the return of Balbino Fuenmayor, a fan favourite and former Can-Am MVP, late in the season:

Balbino was down in Mexico for most of the season, and then when his team was eliminated down there, we brought him up for the last couple of weeks and the playoffs – he’s a legend in Quebec City, there were two or three seasons where he was a top of the league power hitter.  It took him a couple of games to get his feet underneath him, but then in the playoffs, he just went off, and hit 3 or 4 Home Runs and drove in 15…he was a machine in the playoffs.

In many ways, the Can-Am is a second chance league; most players are hoping for a second shot at affiliated ball, and the Caps have one of the strongest records in that regard:

 Our closer, Nolan Becker, signed with the Royals, that’s a testament that Scal and the front office does in bringing guys in.  There are friends of mine who’ve played in other independent leagues, and I’ve heard that some Managers can make it difficult on guys to get their contracts sold, so I think the fact that he’s done such a good job getting guys back into affiliated ball so quickly – word of mouth travels quickly, so when guys are asking me if they should go to Quebec, I say, “Yes – it’s an awesome city, it’s an unbelievable ballpark, and you’re going to have the best fans in probably all of minor league baseball, and Scal’s going to do everything in his power to get you out of there as fast as he can.”  It’s a really good opportunity.  It’s a good-sized city, but you’re never bored, or stuck with a lack of places to go for food or entertainment.  

Tissenbaum has played at a number of stops in his baseball career, but says Quebec City tops them all:

 I’ve played in four or five different leagues, and it’s easily the best city I’ve ever played in.  Never mind the fans, never mind the team, it’s just the city itself, there’s so much there that can make the summer so much more enjoyable than just sitting in your apartment, and wait for 2:00 for BP.

They have two sets of apartments for the players to live in.  One is about five minutes away, just at the foot of downtown, and then the other set is about thirty minutes north of the city at the foot of the mountains at Stoneham Ski Resort – that’s where I stayed both years.  The first year I kind of got put there because I was late coming up, and then the second year, I made sure to request that, because it was just such a peaceful place to live – you’re sitting at the bottom of these beautiful mountains…you could just sit on the balcony and eat breakfast.  It’s quiet, and very slow paced, and whenever you’re ready for the city, you just drive back down there.  

 

Despite his team and personal success and the enjoyment he’s had playing in Quebec, at 27, Tissenbaum is unsure about his future.  Despite his success in the Can-Am, a return to affiliated ball is seeming less and less likely, and while his heart longs to return to the city overlooking the St Lawrence, he knows life will soon be calling:

I keep saying to Pat a number of times, “there will never be a day where I wake up and don’t want to play,” it’s just a matter of figuring out – my girlfriend is with me in the Stony Brook area now, so we’ve got a place there – it’s just a matter of making sure that I’ve got everything organized in my personal life before I make that decision.  She and I have to talk, Pat and I have to talk – I’m hoping that we can make it work, because I would love to go back again.  

Tissenbaum isn’t sure where his post-baseball life will take him, but he’s caught the instructing bug with his return to his alma mater:

I’m doing it this year back with my college team – that’s why I’m down in Louisiana – I’m getting a first-hand trial run at that, which is really nice.  It’s a no commitment way to try it out, get my foot in the door, and have a little bit of experience.  I’ve enjoyed it so far – I’m a little worried this weekend that I’m going to have trouble staying in the dugout and not grabbing a bat and running up to take an AB or two with runners on base.  

I think that there’s a lot to the sport science side of the game…it’s no longer good enough as an instructor to go in there and teach stuff and scream and yell.  You really have to be a manager of people, especially with the younger guys.  You can’t connect with 17-18-and 19 year olds if you’re constantly raining down, “This is what you have to do.”  So there is an element of learning how to manage people and personalities, and understanding what makes people go.  That’s something I’ve found with some of the coaches that I’ve played for in the minors that are either college degrees or former college coaches – it’s such a different way that they approach things.  

 

Ultimately, Tissenbaum is unsure of what his next move will be, but it’s pretty obvious that the game still has a solid grip on him:

 I’ve thought about it, but – that stupid baseball cliche, “I’m just trying to take it one day at a time,” so I’m trying to figure out where I get to at the end of the year whether I get to go back and play or not, whether I go back to school or not, whether I get a job in baseball as a coach or scout or not.  There’s so much in terms of opportunity in the game and out of the game.  I want to get the degree done, I want to go through this whole run of coaching here and see what my feelings are at the end of it, and try to make a clear-headed decision from there.  

Manager Scalabrini had words of praise for Tissenbaum, and is no doubt that he puts off his post-career plans for another year:

Maxx was a very rare kind of super utility player. Maxx played (very well) at mostly catcher and second base (which are not exactly complementary positions) but also played other positions when needed. All of that while being one of the best and most complete hitters in the league.

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I have no doubt that someone will ask after reading this article if minor league baseball could return to Quebec City.  On the heels of the success of their affiliation with Vancouver, the Blue Jays kicked the tires on a relocation of an Eastern League franchise in 2014, and when the subject came up in a conversation with Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro last fall, he took noticeable interest.   Ottawa city council, faced with an upcoming election, didn’t have the appetite for funding necessary stadium improvements to bring their park up to MiLB standards at that time, however, and Quebec politicians would probably face the same request.  Quebec does feature a beautiful new arena just a stone’s throw from Stade Canac, but public money can be tight in a high tax environment.

  Still, there are some points in Quebec’s favour.  With teams spread out from the western end of Lake Erie, to south of Washington and up to Maine, travel would not be a huge concern.  The Quebec players would be spending a lot of their season on a bus, but the travel would not be significantly more than it would be for any other team.  Stade Canac, in addition to upgrades, would likely need some added seating, but Quebec fans have proven their baseball love, and one look no further than Vancouver for a successful blending of old and new stadium architecture.  

 At the same time, the question has to be asked:  are the Blue Jays as popular in the province of Quebec as they are in the rest of the country?  Vancouver’s affiliation has worked well because of that, but is Quebec as good a fit for the Blue Jay brand?  And would the city have an affinity for minor league ball?  The partnership with the Expos did not fill the stadium as one might have expected.  Perhaps the ownership of the Caps has found the right mix between homegrown players (many of whom return), and top Cubans to make the team highly competitive.  Minor league ball, of course, would see  frequent player turnover, and while the system’s top prospects would pass through the city, their time in comparison to players on the Caps’ roster would be brief.

  Perhaps Quebecers are perfectly happy with the way things are.  The Can-Am is a small stage, but the Capitales are consistently the stars of the show.  

Lugnuts’ Goldberg-Strassler the Man for Blue Jays Radio Job

mi_baseball_hof_jesse_goldberg-strassler  In 1981, a seasoned 35 year-old minor league play by play announcer joined the Toronto Blue Jays to become part of their radio team with veteran Tom Cheek, and outgoing Hall of Famer Early Wynn.

Howarth became the voice of the franchise after the untimely passing of Cheek in 2005, and became a vital part of the Toronto media landscape.  Health issues forced him to hang up his microphone last week, and while there’s been no news of a search for his replacement, one is likely taking place with the start of the regular season six weeks away.

The Blue Jays are likely considering several candidates, including Mike Wilner, who has gradually taken over some of Howarth’s duties, as well as hosted the contentious Jays Talk call-in show after Jays games.  Elliott Price, who filled in on Expos broadcasts and is a long-time Canadian radio voice, has also been mentioned.

This corner would like to add a name who would make an excellent addition to the Blue Jays radio team:  Lansing Lugnuts’ broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler.  There are many parallels between Goldberg-Strassler and Howarth.  Jesse is the same age that Jerry was when he came to Toronto.  Both have impressive minor league resumes – Howarth had seven years of experience as a Pacific Coast League announcer, while Goldberg-Strassler has been Lansing’s play by play voice since 2009, with stops in AA and Indy ball before that.   Both are thorough and professional in their preparation and delivery – having been to a number of minor league parks, no one puts together a pre-game media package like Jesse.  Both are knowledgeable about the game on and off the field, and transmit that understanding of it in a clear, succinct way.  And both have calm, even personalities, which comes across during the game, with voices rising with the excitement of the game, but coming back down and serving as moderating influences after the action has reached its peak.  

Having listened to Jesse for half a dozen seasons, I’ve found that he brings other strengths to his broadcasts.  He’s a great interviewer, easily building a rapport with the prospects he speaks to, and giving those of us who follow them from hundreds of miles away an understanding of where they came from, and what their make-up is like.  One of my favourites is this interview Jesse did with Southpaw Angel Perdomo in 2016.  Perdomo had a beginner’s grasp of English, and he probably had to summon a great deal of courage for him to agree to an interview.  Jesse handled him with aplomb, helping Perdomo with some of his answers, and handling the interview generally with great sensitivity.  Poised and articulate, Jesse fills the air with just the right amount of conversation, whether he’s doing the game by himself or with a broadcast partner. An accomplished author, Jesse has written a Baseball Thesaurus, a tome of baseball terms and their origins that makes for enjoyable reading for anyone who follows the game.

Goldberg-Strassler brings the same affability to his weekly look around the Blue Jays system, Around the Nest, where he talks to the radio voices of the other Toronto minor league affiliates on a weekly basis during the season.  Again, for someone covering the system from afar, he delivers a number of valuable nuggets of information in the half hour podcast.

Jesse is an avid student of the history of the game.  He’s served as Curator of the Michigan Baseball Hall of Fame since 2014, and is widely known throughout baseball for his annual re-creation of a Lugnuts game.  Goldberg-Strassler takes listeners back to the early days of baseball radio (where announcers often “called” games in a studio hundreds of miles away from the game by following a ticker-tape summary of it)  by using a baseball, ball glove, broken bats, and canned crowd noises to simulate an actual game that’s taking place (Jesse broadcasts from the team front office, while play by play details are relayed to him by computer).

Having been the Lugnuts’ voice since 2009, Goldberg-Strassler knows the workings of the Toronto minor league system very well.  That would put him in good stead as a major league broadcaster, as he would already have a very good knowledge of most players called up to the major leagues by the Blue Jays.  He would easily be able to share that knowledge with his listeners.

Jerry Howarth is a legend in this country, and deservedly so.  His voice became part of the fabric of most Canadians’ summertime, be it at the beach, on a campsite, on the deck with a cold beverage, mowing the lawn with a set of headphones on, or behind the wheel on a long drive through a Canadian summer night.  His shoes will indeed be large ones to fill.  Just five hours down the 401, across the border, is a worthy successor in Jesse Goldberg-Strassler.

Blue Jays 2017 MLB Reviews: Brock Lundquist

Lundquist
One of the best mustaches in all of Organized Baseball -milb.com photo

 

A few eyebrows among Blue Jays prospect watchers were raised this off-season when the team dealt two of their more highly regarded lower level farm hands in separate deals designed to bolster the 25-man roster.

Edward Olivares had a breakout year at Lansing and Dunedin.   J.B Woodman, who struggled in Lansing, was still seen as having plenty of upside as a 2016 2nd round pick.  But with good outfield depth at the upper levels of the system, the front office obviously felt there was a wealth of talent below that pair to make dealing them a reasonable gamble.  Young, athletic players like D.J. Neal, Chavez Young, Reggie Pruitt, and Tanner Kirwer gave the team optimism to deal those players.  Add to that group the team’s 6th round choice last year, Brock Lundquist.

Lundquist was a Top 10 Northwoods League prospect after his Freshman year at Long Beach State.  A report from Baseball America at the time observed:

While he’s listed at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds and doesn’t have the massive lift and leverage of a Joey Gallo type, he’s strong all over and has the quick hands to access that strength and give him pop all over the ballpark.

Lundquist has plenty of power potential, but he had trouble accessing that power in his sophomore and junior seasons, as well as in his first year as a pro with Vancouver.  He takes a good path to the ball with his swing, and his bat is quick, but his swing can be long, and he tends to leak on his front side.

 

 

What has kept Lundquist from reaching his power?  Probably the length of his swing, coupled with some issues with pitch recognition.  He makes contact, but last season it was often (50.4%) of the groundball variety.  Improving his ability to pick up off speed pitches would allow him to make more contact, and adding some loft to his swing would help make more of that contact be of a line drive nature.  The Blue Jays do not like to tinker with a player’s mechanics, but you can’t help but wonder if they might suggest he cut down on the leg lift – it seems like it creates some head movement, which can impair his ability to see and track pitches.

Lundquist sees a lot of pitches per at bat, which bodes well for the future.  He has a compact, athletic build, and projects as at least an average corner outfield defender, with enough of an arm to handle Right Field, where he played most of last summer.  The Blue Jays are likely hoping that athleticism coupled with an improved approach at the plate will help him tap into more of that power.

 

Blue Jays 2017 MiLB Reviews: Jon Harris

Jon-Harris-2016
Baseball America photo

2017 was a learning year for RHP Jon Harris.

The 2015 1st round pick had put himself firmly on the prospect radar after a solid 2016 split between Lansing and Dunedin.  The Blue Jays rewarded him with a challenging assignment to AA New Hampshire to begin 2017, and his season stats reflected the struggles he had.

Eastern League hitters batted .292 against Harris, and he was among the league leaders in hits and runs allowed.  By his own admission, Harris was in the middle of the strike zone too much, and hitters made him pay the price.  He also apparently had some mechanical issues – as he raised his hands over his head during his windup, hitters were able to get a good glimpse of his change up grip, and pounded that pitch accordingly.  Harris made an adjustment to hide the pitch better, and his 2nd half results were better.

Harris doesn’t blow hitters away, and relies on pounding the bottom half of the strike zone with his two seamer, complementing it with his change, curve, and slider.  For much of the season, he was getting the two seamer up in the zone.  But there were some good take-aways from his 2017 season:  a 9.9% whiff rate, and only an 18.4% line drive rate.  He didn’t generate the amount of ground ball contact that one would expect, but he still garnered it at about a 45% clip.

Where does Harris go from here?  Does he repeat AA, or do the Blue Jays move him to Buffalo, putting him a rung away from the big leagues?  You certainly could make a case for sending him back to New Hampshire for at least a half season, but his second half results probably are sufficiently encouraging for the club to send him to AAA, where he’ll be a back of the rotation starter.  He will never be a frontline starter, but there’s plenty to like about Harris:  a solid four pitch mix that can turn a lineup over, a good downward plane on his fastball, and a frame that looks like it with a bit more on it could eat up innings.

Atkins Bullish on Top Prospects Not Named Vladdy or Bo

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Homestand Sports photo

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins has been pumping up his team’s prospects beyond the obvious top two in recent appearances.

On the west coast last month for the annual Hot Stove Luncheon in Vancouver, Atkins told our friend Charlie Caskey (@CharlieCaskey on Twitter) about 1st rounder Nate Pearson:

“It’s unusual for someone to be, I don’t like the word ‘gifted’, but as talented as he is, so strong and powerful and has the tactical and technical attributes to be elite,” said Atkins. “It’s rare.”

And then last week at Pitch Talks, a Toronto-based gathering of local baseball cognoscenti, Atkins told the audience:

What are we to make of this?  Is the Blue Jays farm system even deeper than we thought?   Pearson “gifted”?  Alford “up there” with Guerrero and Bichette?  Is Atkins giving Blue Jays fans the straight goods, or is he inflating the value of his top prospects, just in case a deal comes along?

The truth is somewhere between those two extremes.

Let’s get one fact straight first:  it’s been a long time (ok, never) since the Blue Jays have had two top prospects of the calibre of Vladdy Jr and Bo.  Both profile as potential impact, first-division, all-star players.  We may not know where they’ll ultimately play, but they are legitimate elite offensive prospects.

Pearson has come a long way in just a little over a year.  Not viewed as a prospect out of high school or even after a mostly nondescript first year of college, a vastly upgraded training program helped him hit 100 in bullpen sessions in the fall of 2016, and the scouting world took notice.  Northwest League hitters were pretty much at his mercy after the Blue Jays selected him – it was a nice change to see a college draftee dominate at that level, because such has not been the case in recent years.   Hitters must be very intimidated just digging in against the mountainous Pearson – I felt uncomfortable just sitting over home plate in Vancouver’s press box watching him.

And while it’s very exciting to dream of Pearson’s high 90s heat at the front of the Blue Jays rotation one day, he has yet to play a year of full season ball, and we should be tempering out expectations just a bit.  There are secondary pitches to develop, as well as adjustments Pearson will have to make as he experiences the ups and downs of taking a regular turn in the rotation for five months.  Is Pearson “gifted”?  Is he “elite”?  Potentially, yes.  Atkins suggested that he would have gone much higher in the draft had teams known they were going to get that kind of performer, and while that’s true, much of his success this year can be attributed at least in part of the careful monitoring of his workload that the Blue Jays – 74 pitches was his highest game total for the season.  There’s every reason to believe that Pearson can fulfill Atkins’ prophecy, but there’s also likely a long way to go before he does.

How about Alford?  Does he compare to Vladdy and Bo?  At first glance, no, but that’s not a slight.  Alford’s game is different from the Slugging Twins’.  He works the count and manages the strike zone, but there is a bit more of a swing-and-miss element to Alford’s approach.  Alford gets on base less often, but his speed can be game-changing, which certainly separates him from Guerrero and Bichette (who are both smart base runners in their own right, but not in Alford’s lane when it comes to foot speed).   In terms of power, there is no comparison, either.  Home Run and/or Extra Base power is often the last tool in a player’s kit to develop, but some reports suggest a lack of loft in Alford’s swing will keep him from consistently reaching double-digit Homer totals.  Alford does use the whole field, but his heat map from 2017 doesn’t suggest a prodigious slugger in the making:

Anthony Alford_HeatMap
mlbfarm.com

 

Defensively, there is little to compare Guerrero/Bichette to Alford either.  Alford has the makings of a premier defender.  Scouts have downgraded his arm, but he gets excellent jumps and reads on balls, and his speed allows him to close quickly.  It’s easy to see him cutting off Doubles to the gap in the Rogers Centre on a regular basis.

Is Alford the potential impact player the other two could possibly one day be?  Yes, but perhaps it’s a question of magnitude.  Guerrero receives grades for his power that you just don’t see on an 18-year-old, and Bichette has the smarts and skills to be a perennial batting title contender.  Alford also has an injury history that could limit his future – his past two seasons have been interrupted for extended periods by injury.  Still, you do get the sense that Alford, who really has only been playing the game full-time for a short period of time, is still on an upward curve in terms of his development, and that maybe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg just yet.

One thing is likely:   Bichette and Guerrero may anchor the middle of the Blue Jays order for the 2020s.  Alford may be a fixture at the top of it.

So, Atkins, who is probably justifiably proud of the strides the team’s farm system has made over the past two seasons, was maybe over-inflating things, but not by a lot.  Pearson does ooze with ace potential, and Alford may in fact be an impact player one day.  Neither is a lock in the mold that Guerrero and Bichette appear to be, but there is plenty to look forward to one day.

Who’s the Next Blue Jays Top 100 Prospect?

Warmoth2017
Logan Warmoth – Clutchlings Photo

After some lean years in terms of elite prospects, these are heady times for Blue Jays fans.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr (4th), Bo Bichette (19th), and Anthony Alford (58th) cracked Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 list earlier today , and just a few hours ago, Fangraphs released their Top 100,  with Guerrero 3rd, Bichette 9th, Alford 36th, Danny Jansen 71st, and Nate Pearson 76th.

To be honest, this space has long been a booster of Jansen’s, and while we anointed him the Blue Jays Catcher of the Future 8 months ago, his inclusion was a bit of a surprise.  Fangraphs is all in, especially with his hit tool:

We’re buying that Jansen’s 2017, which included more walks than strikeouts across three levels of the minors, is a sign of real improvement, perhaps due to the new prescription frames he got before the season.

Earlier this month, Baseball America released what is regarded by many as the standard-bearer of prospect lists.  Guerrero was ranked 3rd, Bichette 8th, Alford 60th, and Pearson came in at 91.   MLB Pipeline had Guerrero 3rd as well, with Bichette 14th,  and Alford 47th.

By this time next year, it’s a safe bet that Bichette and Guerrero will occupy even loftier positions.  Alford will most likely graduate from the list, and Pearson will no doubt continue his ascent.  Who are the Blue Jays prospects most likely to break through can crack the Top 100, representing the next wave of talent in the system?

For your consideration, here are a pair of players – kind of a high/low scenario:

Eric Pardinho

It seems folly to get so excited about a 17-year-old (Pardinho’s birthday was shortly after New Year’s Day), and it may take a year or so before he cracks any Top 100 lists, but there is no doubt that the young Brazilian is headed there.

“A combination of athleticism, great delivery, advanced stuff and feel for pitching,” is how Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish described Pardinho in November.   “I’ve never seen a 16 year old kid with that combination of skills.”

Pardinho hit 94 as a 15 year old in a WBC Qualifier a year and a half ago, and according to Tinnish hit 97 in short outings in the Dominican prospects league this summer.  But it’s just not that fastball – it’s his mechanics, the ability to command that fastball, and complement it with secondaries and pitchability.

There is every reason to believe that Pardinho will begin his career stateside this summer, most likely starting in the GCL.  And while one should always be cautious with young International Free Agents, the Blue Jays have had a good track record with them – namely Franklin Barreto, Richie Urena, Roberto Osuna, and some guy named Vladdy Jr.

 

Logan Warmoth

While Pardinho may not make any Top 100 lists until 2020, there’s a good chance Warmoth may work his way into the back end of some a year from now.

You might walk away from watching one game’s worth of the 2017 1st rounder’s work and wonder what the fuss is.  Taking in a larger sample might change your mind.  According to Amateur Scouting Director Steve Sanders, the Blue Jays clearly got their man:

He’s a player we’ve scouted for a long time….he wasn’t a prospect out of High School, but he steadily improved at North Carolina, and that really showed this year.  He’s very steady and a well-rounded player, with a chance to stay at SS and hit for power.  His make up is off the charts, and he has the intangibles to be a top of the lineup hitter.

Warmoth does not have one overwhelming tool  – BA called him a “bucket full of 50-grade tools,” in naming him the Blue Jays 8th overall prospect this fall, but he makes consistently hard contact and has a good approach at the plate.  In the field, scouts are split as to whether he sticks at SS or moves across to 2B, but there was plenty of promise in his footwork, arm, and reactions to ground balls to suggest he can stay there.

While none of this may scream Top 100 material, there’s plenty to make one believer that Warmoth will be a productive MLBer one day.  He had to fight a tendency to be a little pull happy last year, but otherwise there are no holes in his game.  His power will likely continue to develop, and he should make huge strides this year, most likely with Dunedin.

 

Notes From Around the System

It may be hard to believe that we’re less than Russ Martin’s Number away from Opening Day, but it’s coming like a freight train through the dead of winter, which is what those of us in Southern Ontario are in the midst of right now.  However, having spent a week in the frozen historical and gastronomical wonderland that is Quebec City, I’m not one to complain.

The Blue Jays have yet to confirm when their minor league players are to report to camp at the Bobby Mattick Complex, but it’s safe to say the dates will be somewhat similar to Oakland’s.  The Athletics’ Pitchers and Catchers report on March 3rd, Position Players on the 9th, and their first games will be on the 13th.  If you are heading to Florida to watch the Blue Jays in action in March, a little research on your part could land you at the Mattick (or any of the other complexes in the area) for some minor league action.  There are usually a pair of games going on at once, and you can sometimes catch a rehabbing MLBer in action.  Admission is free.

The Blue Jays have invited 13 non-roster players to Spring Training with the big club.  These players will not necessarily be auditioning for a major league job – the purpose of inviting them is to give them a taste of big league life, and to shorten the workdays for the regulars.  When asked who made the biggest impression on him two years ago during his first tour of a big league camp, Anthony Alford without hesitation answered Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson.  Alford was impressed with their work ethic, and how they went about their daily routine in preparing for the season.

Among the invitees this year are:

P Andrew Case – there was thought that the New Brunswick native would be added to the 40 man roster last fall after a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League, but he was left off, and was not selected in the Rule 5 draft.  Case is not a big strikeout guy, but the reliever finished the season at AAA, and it would not be a surprise to see him make his MLB debut this year.  He just seems to get guys out wherever he plays.

P Jose Fernandez – the lefty reliever has always had command issues, and struggled at AA last year, but has LOOGY potential.

P Chad Girodo – sidewinding southpaw battled injuries in 2017, and spent the bulk of the year at AAA.  Girodo appeared in 14 games for Toronto in 2016.

P Jon Harris – the 2015 1st rounder found too much of the strike zone at AA last year, and Eastern League hitters hit .292 against him.  This is a huge year for Harris, as he will be Rule 5 eligible next fall.

P Sean Reid-Foley – Last season was a learning year for the 2014 2nd rounder, who was one of the youngest players in AA.  His numbers for 2017 don’t look great at first glance, but he was a very effective Pitcher from mid-May to the end of the season.  There are some who suggest his control issues might mean an eventual move to the bullpen, but indications are the Blue Jays have every intention of continuing to use SRF in a starter’s role in Buffalo this year.

P Jordan Romano – the Markham native has long been one of our favourite Blue Jays prospects.  He was a regular correspondent during his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2015, giving insight into the process.  He’s been a K/inning guy over the last two seasons as a starter, and while some suggest that with his over-the-top delivery and still-in-development secondaries, he too might profile as a bullpen arm,  he’ll continue as a starter in AA this year.  You don’t give up on a guy that’s missed that many bats.

P Chris Rowley – was one of the most effective Pitchers in the system last year, and completed his remarkable rise from non-drafted/missed two years due to military service guy to the big leagues last year.  Rowley was DFA’d in the fall to make room for the new arrivals on the 40, but he’ll be very much in competition for a big league job this year, with AAA his likely destination.  Rowley can start or relieve, and his versatility may come in handy.

P Justin Shafer – the 2014 8th rounder has risen slowly through the system, steadily getting ground ball outs along the way.  Converted to relief at AA last year, Shafer has long relief potential.

C Max Pentecost – eyebrows were raised when the 2014 1st rounder was left off the 40-man last fall.  The Blue Jays were crossing their fingers that Pentecost’s injury history would allow him to slip through the Rule 5, and their gamble paid off.  Many have recommended that the Blue Jays turn Pentecost into an Evan Gattis-like hybrid player, but when you read between the lines of the email responses from Jays execs, the plan is continue to have him Catch on a regular (perhaps not daily) basis.

IF Jason Lebelebijian – the versatile Leb can play all four IF positions, and has spent time in the OF, although he played mostly 2nd and 3rd in Buffalo last year.

IF Tim Lopes – the 5 year MiLB vet came over from the Mariners’ organization last year, and filled a valuable utility role for New Hampshire, appearing in 128 games.

OF J.D. Davis – I have to admit:  there was a moment of excitement when a publication confused Davis with underachieving 2012 1st rounder D.J. Davis, who repeated Dunedin last year.  This was not the first time someone had made this error, however.  DJ had a remarkable 2nd half, putting balls in play in the second half at the best rate of his career, posting a .333/381/.449 August.  JD Davis, on the other hand, has risen steadily through the system, and is a get-on-base speedster who can play all three OF positions.

OF Roemon Fields – the speed merchant posted career-best numbers at Buffalo last year (.291/.351/.352), and added 43 steals.  Fields’ profile is more of a bottom-of-the-order, 2nd leadoff hitter, but he has clearly established himself as a fringe MLBer.

Add in Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire, Rowdy Tellez, and Thomas Pannone, who were added to the 40-man in November, and there will be a lot of first-timers at Spring Training this year.

RHP Nate Pearson may have been in the shadows this year due to his short season after being selected in the 1st round of June’s draft, and with the seasons Vladdy Jr and Bo had, but his rise from high school non-prospect to Baseball America‘s Top 100 is a phenomenal story.  The Blue Jays did not roll the dice on Pearson so much as they had done their homework on him, and knew what they were getting. Sam Dykstra of milb.com wrote about it here:  https://www.milb.com/milb/news/toolshed-blue-jays-nate-pearson-prepped-for-takeoff/c-265720346

 

The Blue Jays Australian Baseball League affiliate, the Canberra Cavalry, are off to the ABL final after a come-from-behind victory over Perth in their best of three semi-final.

To be honest, there hasn’t been a lot to watch from a Blue Jays perspective down under.  1B Connor Panas, fresh off a monster second half in the Florida State League, was shut down for the year at Christmas.  Relievers Tayler Saucedo and Dan Lietz have been used in a limited role on a veteran-laden Cavalry staff.  Saucedo did get a huge 8th inning double play as the Cavs battled for a playoff spot in their final series of the season.

Canberra hosts Game 1 of the best of three affair against Brisbane on Friday night, with the series switching to Brisbane for the remainder.