Time for Teoscar?

With the Blue Jays, who experts suggest have a shot for a wild card spot, having lost the first two games of the season against the Yankees, who many think have a shot at a World Series appearance, many fans are predictably suggesting President/CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins tear everything and begin an immediate rebuild with only 160 games left in the season.

And part of that rebuild, for many fans, appears to be built around OF Teoscar Hernandez, the toolsy Dominican acquired from the Astros last summer.

They point to the 8 Home Runs Hernandez hit after a September call-up last year, as well as a .358/.386/.698 line he posted this spring.  Never mind the 36 strikeouts in 94 PAs during that stretch, as part of a 37.5% K rate between the Blue Jays and Astros last year.

Hernandez’ line this year was mostly posted against lower level pitching, when you look at the Quality of Opponents as measured by Baseball Ref:

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Hernandez’ 6.6 OppQual puts much of the Pitching he faced between High A and AA.  The majority of his ABs did not come against MLB opposition.  When we view Spring Training stats of young hitters, it’s wise to keep this qualifying lens in mind.  Facing Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka, it’s hard to see Hernandez making a lot of quality contact these past two games.

I readily admit that I haven’t seen a lot of Hernandez.  My focus after the trade deadline was Pitcher Thomas Pannone, acquired from Cleveland.  Hernandez did not exactly set the International League on fire after joining the Blue Jays, hitting .222/.294/.505 in August for Buffalo before Toronto decided to promote him to see what they had when rosters expanded on September 1st.  The tools are no doubt there, but whether or not the pitch recognition skills are there to allow him to make consistent contact don’t appear to be yet.

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Don’t get me wrong:  I like Hernandez’ toolkit a lot.  He uses the whole field, has legit pop, and projects as a plus defensive player.   He’s also in danger of becoming a AAAA player – a guy who can hit minor league Pitching, but can’t quite find consistency of at the MLB level.  Truth be told, a healthy Anthony Alford had a much better chance of breaking camp with the Jays, but Atkins was already suggesting by mid-March that he neeed a bit more seasoning.  And Dalton Pompey fits in there somewhere, but he’s been so injury-prone that it’s tough to figure out just where.

Is it time for Teoscar?  Not just yet, and the Blue Jays are unlikely to push the panic button just yet.

 

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Au Revoir, Rusty

staubjarrypark.jpgAt the risk of giving a hint as to my age, I admit that my first baseball hero was Rusty Staub, who passed away in the early hours of Opening Day.

Montreal Expos RF Rusty was the first baseball hero for many Canadians.  I learned many baseball lessons through him.

After losing only 5 of their first 9 games in May of that first 1969 season, the Expos went 0-for-the-rest-of-the-month.  The losing continued on until the first week of June, stretching to 20 games in total.  Every day, I would anxiously check the linescores (they didn’t even print box scores then) in the Toronto Star to see if they had won.  I was disappointed on 20 straight occasions, setting me up for learning to deal with a youth of sporting disappointment (I was a Toronto Maple Leafs and Argonauts fan as well).

Rusty was the beginning, middle, and end of the Expos offence.  In his first three seasons with the team, he didn’t play less than 158 games, walked more than he struck out, and posted OPS+ marks of 166, 139, and 148.  He was the Expos All-Star rep every season.

Seemingly at the height of his career, the Expos did the inconceivable, and dealt Rusty to the Mets for three prospects.  I was crushed, but the experience was my Introduction to Baseball Business 101:  teams don’t intentionally try to break your heart (they can do that unintentionally easily enough), and when they can exchange what they view as a declining asset (the rumour was that Rusty’s hands were going) for three promising pieces of a future puzzle, they tend to do it.  That trio of futures (Tim Foli, Ken Singleton, and Mike Jorgensen) would have the Expos in a pennant race two years later, hanging in until the final weekend.  That pennant, of course, was won by Rusty and the Mets.

Staub was highly marketable, and not just for his bat.  His trademark orange hair stood out on a ball field, earning him the nickname “Le Grand Orange des Expos.”  He was the star of the CBC’s Wednesday night Expos telecasts, the only televised baseball fans could watch aside from NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week.  My mom, who had hair of a similar hue to Rusty’s herself, bought me an Expos colouring book, and I gave the Rusty picture the flaming orangest crop of hair you could imagine.

When the Expos reacquired Rusty during their first “real” pennant race in 1979, it was like coming back to your hometown after a lengthy absence and discovering that your favourite diner had re-opened.  And his return was something of a passing of the torch to my next favourite player, a speedy young September call up by the name of Tim Raines.

I came to love baseball because of Rusty.  I learned to live with losing, and how to deal with the crush of having your favourite player traded.

Minor Leaguers and PEDs: Another Look

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“I did not knowingly take steroids.”

So said disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who woke up a slumbering nation with his fist-raised-at-the-finish-line performance one fall day in 1988, taking gold at the Seoul Olympics in the 100m, vanquishing reigning champion Carl Lewis and setting a world record in the process.

Three days later, Johnson was stripped of his medal because of a positive PED test; to a nation, it felt like a collective kick in the gut.  Never mind that six of the eight athletes who lined up with Johnson at the start of that race had positive tests and/or strong links to PEDs themselves over time.  It was a national disgrace, and in the years that have followed, Canadians have had strong reactions to the whole notion of drugs in sport.

In light of the suspension of Blue Jays prospect Thomas Pannone, as well as a number of players connected to their Dominican complex last year, a sampling of several Blue Jays Facebook groups reveals that many members (most, but not all of them Canadian) still adhere to the notion of zero tolerance when it comes to PEDs – throw the cheating bums out, in effect.

But it’s not that simple.

This is not the same situation as it was with Johnson, whose Coach, Charlie Francis, freely admitted that he had given steroids to the sprinter in the Dubbin Inquiry that followed Seoul.  Pannone gave a statement in the aftermath of his January positive test last week:

The Dominican players likely lack the wherewithal to release a statement similar to Pannone’s, but their sentiments would probably be the same.

Chemist/writer Stephanie Stringer, writing in Fangraphs, suggests that these athletes may be guilty of a lack of judgement, brought on by an impulsive desire to see results quickly:

The marketing of dietary supplements is highly dependent upon the timeframe in which a consumer expects to see results. Humans are impatient creatures, and we like to see results fast. When a product markets itself based upon its long-term health benefits, the consumer places a certain amount of uncritical trust into the manufacturer’s claims. There may be clinical research supporting the science behind the products, but long term studies take years to demonstrate long-term health benefits, such as improving heart health or cognitive function………………….There is often inconclusive evidence linking these biomarkers to actual improvements in performance, which is why many sports nutrition studies are based on evaluating any changes in activity or behavior in a subject. This can be subjective, but there are some tangible, quantifiable measures. Fatigue or endurance may be quantified by looking at the distance a subject can travel in the same time period, for example. This benefit may manifest itself as a few more minutes on the treadmill, extra weight on the dumbbell, or an extra repetition in a weight lifting set, all of which are much easier for the consumer to gauge than a general health claim. Thus, for an athlete who might benefit from any slight performance enhancement product as soon as this week’s series of games, dietary supplements are an easy sell.

MLB players receive considerable support when it comes to proper nutrition, including the use of supplements – it’s written right into the MLB Labour Agreement.  Minor Leaguers are not covered by that agreement, and while teams would argue that they do their best to educate their prospects (they’re encouraged to speak to their team’s trainer if they’re not sure about what they’re considering taking), but it’s obvious from the number of suspensions handed out – 16 already this year, 87 last year – that the education the players are receiving is substandard.  Another possibility is that many minor leaguers can’t afford supplements that are on the NSF “Certified for Sport” list, and that’s where they’re rolling the dice:

Despite all of the claims supplements may make regarding improving one’s health and well being, there is very little regulatory oversight regarding the safety or efficacy of supplements. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements for efficacy, purity, contaminants, or safety. While drugs fall within the purview of the FDA, dietary supplements are not subject to the same regulations. They are regulated under the 1994 Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act, which the dietary supplement industry had a hand in creating. The act specifically forbids the FDA from requiring that dietary supplements must be effective, or even safe. Thus, the products that you find on the shelves of your local drugstore or mass market retailer may not have been tested for contaminants or adulterants.

While it’s not acceptable to use PEDs, it’s understandable why most athletes would seek to gain an advantage by using supplements.  Jim Bouton wrote almost 40 years ago in his epic Ball Four, “If there was a pill that could guarantee you win 20 games, but it would take five years off your life, players would take it.”  Viewed as undersized, it’s easy to understand why Pannone wanted a few extra minutes on the treadmill, or several more reps in the weight room.  For Dominican players fighting to play stateside, trying to escape a life of poverty, it’s even easier to understand:  if someone was taking a supplement and the results were obvious, many players would be tempted to try it just to keep pace.

This is not to exonerate Pannone and the Dominican players suspended for PEDs.  They still have the responsibility for everything they put into their bodies.  It is a request that the Blue Jays take a closer look at the level of education their minor leaguers receive in this area.   No doubt they have taken the right steps – I hope to learn more from Gil Kim next month.  But this is a systemic issue that all clubs need to take a closer look at.

 

Is it Time to Think About Roemon Fields?

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Roemon Fields’ signing by Blue Jays scout Matt Bishoff at an amateur tournament in British Columbia after going undrafted is one of the great feel-good stories in the organization.  And after a solid second half at AAA Buffalo last year and a sizzling spring training this year, he has to be in the conversation for a spot on the Blue Jays 25-man roster at some point this year.

Fields was the classic speedster who couldn’t steal 1st for his first three years in the organization.  He did set a Northwest League record for stolen bases with Vancouver, but he had difficulty getting on base at a consistent clip to take advantage of his speed.  Fields bottomed out at AA New Hampshire in 2016, slashing .227/.295/.296, with a 17.6% K rate.

Fields repeated AA last year, but injuries at Buffalo earned him an early promotion.  And under the tutelage of hitting coach Devon White, he began to turn things around.  Last June, after posting a 1.020 OPS in May, he told Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi:

“I’ve been working on a consistent swing and (hitting coach) Devon White has been telling me to hit my strong points and I’ve been sticking to it,” says Fields. “I’m starting to be my old self and not be too mechanical – see the ball, hit the ball. I’m more of a middle-away guy, hit that six-hole, left field, up the middle, not really a big pull guy. So I’m trying to stay to my strong points.”

Buffalo Manager Bobby Meacham observed that Fields got back to a Blue Jays system fundamental – hunting the fastball:

“That’s everybody’s kryptonite, so to speak, they can’t hit the breaking ball but they start looking for it, then they forget what they can hit and it’s the fastball,” says Meacham. “What I’ve seen this season with Ro is right away he’s hitting the fastball well and staying on the fastball. Even with him in the midst of him swinging good, I said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to remember this, stay on the fastball and you’ll be OK, you’ve got to discipline yourself to it.’”

A fixture at the bottom of Buffalo’s lineup, where he served as a second leadoff hitter, Fields did not stop hitting as the summer progressed, even though he began to see a heavier diet of off speed pitches.  What he began to do was to use the whole field effectively:

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While at Buffalo, Fields produced a career-high 21.8% Line Drive rate.  While he’ll always be more of a ground ball hitter, Fields’ approach clearly paid off, as he put more balls in play that at any other point in his career.  And he hasn’t stopped hitting this spring, posting a line of .357/.413/.595 in 44 ABs.  Granted, spring training stats can be misleading, because they’re very much about at what point in the game they’ve mostly been compiled, but Fields has a respectable 6.2 Opponent Quality index, meaning that he’s faced some lower level Pitchers, but he’s also faced some AAA/MLB guys as well.

Fields has been lost in the shuffle this spring.  Curtis Granderson, Steve Pearce, Kevin Pillar, and Randall Grichuk will head north for Opening Day, while Anthony Alford or Teoscar Hernandez may be the first call ups from Buffalo.  And even the Bisons’ outfield will be crowded, if you throw in a healthy Dalton Pompey, Dwight Smith Jr, and Fields on top of Hernandez and Alford – some even suggest Fields will start in AA.  Fields’ value lies more in the fact that his skills seem suited to a reserve role.  An outstanding defensive player, Fields can play all three OF spots.  He can also come off the bench late in the game in pinch-running situations.  A return to Buffalo will give him a chance to work with new Hitting Coach Corey Hart, who is a rising star in the organization.

Blue Jays radio voice Mike Wilner mentioned on the broadcast today that he and another Sportsnet member had lunch with the late Mel Didier, a legendary scout with decades of experience two springs ago.  When asked which Blue Jays off-the-radar prospect Didier thought might break through, he replied with Fields’ name.

At 27, Fields is just entering his prime.  A player of his build (5’11″/180) will age fairly well, so his speed should continue to be an asset into his early 30s.  He wouldn’t necessarily, say, supplant Pillar in CF, but he could fill a valuable role for the team off the bench.

MLB Draft Preview: Logan Gilbert

Stetson RHP Logan Gilbert has that long, lanky frame (6’6″/210) that teams covet in a Pitcher.

With a bowling ball sinking fastball that sits at 95, a curve that’s projectable, and a change that shows promise, Gilbert was talked about as one of the top college righties before the season started.  Toss in five double-digit strikeout games already this season, and you’re riding a rocket to the Top 10, or maybe just outside of it – like to #12, where the Blue Jays will select.

With a loose, easy delivery, Gilbert fills the strike zone.  His size allows him good extension, and some late life on that fastball.  A 3rd Baseman for much of his high school playing career, he’s still relatively new to Pitching.  Gilbert was the Atlantic Sun Conference Pitcher of the Year last year, and was ranked the 5th best prospect in the Cape Cod League last summer.  He was also a pre-season All-American.

2080baseball.com’s evalutation:

Tall, lanky frame with long arms and room for growth; no windup, minimal step-in to motion; long-armer through a 3/4’s slot; loose, live arm and he throws free and easy; ball explodes out of his hand; double-plus fastball (93-to-97 mph), comfortably sitting 95 mph with plus movement, explosive late life; heavy sink action with hard run and tail; true swing-and-miss pitch; projectable, plus curveball (74-to-76 mph) with two-plane action and solid depth; must stay on top of curveball more consistently; seldom used changeup (84-to-85 mph) with solid fade; plus performance seen on July 18, where he worked five innings giving up two hits, one walk and eight strikeouts. Will be one of the premier right-handed college pitchers for the 2018 Draft.

After fanning 10 over 8 innings in his most recent start last night, and taking a no-hitter into the 7th the start before that, Gilbert is climbing many draft boards.  Jeff Ellis of scout.com loves Gilbert, and sees him continuing to rise:

Gilbert is one of the half a dozen or so arms that are in the top ten discussion. He needs to continue to rack up performances like this if he wants to stay in the upper tier of arms. I see a potential front of the rotation arm. I still have him as my number two college right-hander in this class and think he is likely going to be a steal when the draft occurs.

Gilbert checks many boxes with the Blue Jays with his size, college background, velocity, and remaining projection.  If he continues this ascent, he may not be around when it comes their time to select, but he would be a very nice fit.

Vlad and Bo Will be All Right in AA

TSN’s Scott Mitchell suggests that top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette will face challenges at AA this year, after President/CEO Mark Shapiro confirmed the pair will begin their 2018 season there.

The rise of the bash twins is quite remarkable.  Both are entering only their third year of pro ball, but are on the cusp of major league stardom.  Guerrero, the top-ranked international free agent bat in 2015, acquitted himself well in rookie ball the following year, then burst out in 2017, along with 2016 2nd rounder Bichette, who followed the same meteoric rise.

Both had spent only a half season at High A after mashing their way from Lansing last year, and there was some thought that they might begin the season back with the Florida State League’s Dunedin Blue Jays for at least another half before moving up.  The Blue Jays have proven to be conservative in the advancement of their prospects, having them spend a full year (whether it be over one or two calendar years) at each full-season level.  In reality, both have little left to prove at High A, and their ascension to AA makes considerable sense.

TSN’s Scott Mitchell suggests AA will be a challenge for the duo because:

That’s where the Pitching becomes more advanced….a lot of top prospects come straight up to the majors from AA.

Mitchell may be simplifying things a bit.  The jump from A ball to AA has been described as the biggest transition in the minors.  Minor league baseball is like a giant colander, and players who get by on the basis of their physical talents alone tend not to pass through it to the higher levels.  In AA, players tend to have a plan – for Pitchers, it’s in the form of advanced secondary pitches, for example, or for hitters, it’s the ability to have make adjustments with their approach.  Below AA, rosters tend to have a lot of “org players” – roster fillers with 86 mph fastballs, or good field/no hit position players.  AA is where weaknesses are exposed – Pitchers with inconsistent command, and hitters with holes in their swing.  All teams have two affiliates in A ball, but only one at AA – rosters at that level have been culled considerably, and players who do well there have a shot at MLB.

Why will Bichette and Guerrero be successful at that level?  3 reasons

  1.  Both have approaches that should allow them to continue to hit; Bichette uses the whole field and cuts his swing down with two strikes, while Guerrero doesn’t just control the strike zone as much as he manages it, choosing pitches to barrel almost at will.
  2.  The “windshield” effect:  Ross Atkins spoke about this in the off-season, when discussing how blood lines are something the Blue Jays consider when scouting an amateur player.  Because both players grew up in an MLB environment, they don’t tend to get intimidated as easily as other players do.  Judging by their performance this spring training, not much fazes either of them.
  3. Their record vs top prospects:   Bichette has hit .345/.382/.558 vs Top 20 Pitching prospects from other organizations, Guerrero .279/.388/.471.  Both have had over 100 PAs against elite competition, and their numbers suggest future success.

This is not necessarily to say that Bichette and Guerrero will post numbers similar to what they did at Lansing and Dunedin this year, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they will continue to square up pitches on a consistent basis.  And if they go through a bit of adversity, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because almost every MLBer has gone through it in their minor league career at some point.  Learning to deal with it is part of a player’s development.

Both players may still have some work to do defensively, but it’s looking more and more that one or both will be in the majors almost before we know it.

MLB Expects its Minor Leaguers to Work for Peanuts

 

As had been expected since last weekend, Congress passed a $1.3 Trillion spending bill in order to keep the U.S. government running.  Snuck into that bill like a late-night burglary was a provision to exempt minor league baseball players from legislation concerning minimum wage and overtime requirements.

MiLB has been intensely lobbying Washington for the past several years for such legislation in light of a lawsuit filed by several former minor league players.  MiLB President Pat O’Conner predicted a loss in that legal action would be the death knell of minor league baseball:

“If the cost of that talent is doubled or tripled, which could happen under an FLSA basis, MLB is not going to pay that much money for the talent,” he said. “They’re not going to pay. They’re going to do one of two things: They’re going to say, ‘If 160 (minor league) teams is going to cost (this much), we’re just going to cut down on the number of teams. We’re not going to pay for 160. We’ll pay for 80. We’ll pay for 100.’

 

O’Conner told the Washington Post he’s in favour of salaries going up.  But he’s not, really, when he uses a rationale like this:

“We’re not saying that it shouldn’t go up,” he said. “We’re just saying that the formula of minimum wage and overtime is so incalculable. I would hate to think that a prospect is told, ‘You got to go home because you’re out of hours, you can’t have any extra batting practice.’ It’s those kinds of things. It’s not like factory work. It’s not like work where you can punch a time clock and management can project how many hours they’re going to have to pay for.”

Minor league players currently make between $1150 and $2150 per month, depending on the level.  They are paid only for the actual season, and not spring training.   Their salaries have been stagnant for decades.

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The money, of course, is there to pay them more. Minor League teams may operate on thin margins (players are paid by their MLB parent club), but  MLB revenues exceeded $10 Billion last year, and all 30 teams ran into some found money when each club received a $50 Million share for the sale of MLB’s digital and media arm, MLB Advanced Media, last year.   It’s just that the will is not there – MLB doesn’t pay their minor leaguers more because they don’t have to.  For their part, teams likely would point the finger at the MLB Players Association, which has not shown a willingness to include MiLB pay levels in negotiations.  MiLBers are not part of their union, and in fact, they’re the competition.  There doesn’t not appear to be much incentive for MLBPA to improve these salary conditions.

The bottom line is that a $10 Billion industry doesn’t have to adhere to the same wage regulations that McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and 7-11 do.  And their employees tend to make more, on average.

Some will point to the fact that a team like the Blue Jays had $8 million in bonus money to spend on their draft picks last year, and close to $5 million for international free agents.  Much of that money, of course, is consumed by the top half-dozen or so picks, or the top-ranked IFA.  In a system with about 150 players, close to 4 out of every 5 got a much smaller bonus, ranging from $10 to $100K.  While none of us would turn a cheque like that down, it’s certainly not enough to live on for very long.  Many international players are sending most of their pay home, while the other players in their situations have to budget their money wisely.  That means eating cheaply if not well (teams are doing a better job of feeding their players at home; at $25/day for three meals on the road, not so much), and doubling or tripling up on accommodations.  One Blue Jays farm hand told a story of sleeping on a mattress found at the curbside – his bedroom was behind the furnace in the small house he was renting with six other players.

The Blue Jays have invested heavily in their minor league system since Mark Shapiro took over as President/CEO.  He instituted a highly regarded sport science department, which oversees all aspects of training and nutrition for their prospects.  The team had a fairly significant turnover in its minor league staff this winter, bringing in a number of instructors with extensive college teaching and coaching experience.  And funding was finalized this week for the spring training upgrades – three levels of Florida government will cover aout 75% of the expected $80 million cost to overhaul the stadium and minor league complex.  That investment does not appear to extend to minor league salaries, however.

Emma Baccellieri, in a piece at Deadspin this week, argued that minor league salaries might be the next great competitive advantage:

There are all sorts of ethical and moral arguments to be made for paying players a fair wage, but let’s ignore those for a moment. (God knows MLB has.) There’s a baseball argument here, too. Say that a club decides to invest here and pay their 200 minor-leaguers a monthly average of $3,000, which would come out to a yearly total of $7.2 million. Not $7.2 million more than what the club is currently paying, but $7.2 million total. Say that this helps just one minor-leaguer tap into his potential a little bit more—the ability to pay for more nutritious food when he’s eating on his own, to work out more during the offseason without trying to make extra cash on the side, to be generally less stressed and focus more on his play. Say that all amounts to one extra win of major-league production once he’s called up.  The estimated price of a win above replacement is $10 million. This is a market inefficiency to be exploited, if only baseball weren’t so steadfast in their commitment to exploiting the minor-league players themselves instead.

   Sadly, this likely is not about to happen.  Minor league players are not out to get rich, but they would like to be able to live a little bit more comfortably.  The cash appears to be there…….
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  ….but, sadly, the will is not.  In fact, MLB spent nearly $3 Million over the past two years to fight attempts to increase minor leaguers’ salaries.
   The truth is, of course, that on any given minor league team, there are only 4 or 5 players that have a shot at even a brief MLB career.  The other 20 players are roster fillers who are present so that the prospects have someone to play and develop with.  And their pay seems to reflect the fact that they’re mostly cannon fodder.
   Baseball has won the battle for now.  The only hope for players in the next round of collective bargaining in 2020, but their financial plight will likely rank far down on both sides’ list of priorities.

Blue Jays Get Bad News About Pannone, Maese

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Blue Jays fans received bad news about Pitching prospects Thomas Pannone and Justin Maese yesterday.

Southpaw Pannone, acquired in the Joe Smith deal with Cleveland last July, was handed an 80-game suspension for a positive PED test, while Maese, who missed half of last season with shoulder issues, underwent shoulder surgery this week, and is out for the season.

Pannone tested positive for DHCMT, a steroid that dates back to the 70s, and was used by East German swimmers.  He was very upset and shocked by the positive result, even going as far as to take a lie detector test with a former FBI agent to verify that he had not knowingly ingested a banned substance.  A subsequent press release by Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins, who goes back a long way with Pannone to his days as a Cleveland minor leaguer, vouches for his character.

Blue Jays Facebook was full of knee-jerk reactions last night calling for the Blue Jays to get rid of Pannone.  Luckily, the team doesn’t use that counsel when making decisions about its players.

Pro athletes put tremendous demands on their bodies, and baseball players are no exception.  Supplements are a fact of life, as they help players put or keep weight on, and recover faster from workouts.  In every minor league clubhouse, there are posters listing products that have received NSF approval, but the list can be daunting.  There’s even an app to help players determine the safety of what they’re taking, and they’re encouraged to go to the team’s trainer when they’re unsure.  Just the same, it’s likely that Pannone was using a product that somehow had been contaminated, forcing the positive result.  It doesn’t change the fact that he ingested a banned substance, and will miss at least half the season.  When the Blue Jays have to reach into the minors for a starter, Pannone probably would have been the next man up after Ryan Borucki.

This has to be a bit of an embarrassment to the Blue Jays organization.  Despite having a state-of-the-art sport science department overseeing the training, nutrition, and development of their minor league players, Pannone becomes the 8th Blue Jays prospect to receive a PED ban since last summer.  7 players connected to the Dominican complex received suspensions last September.  Despite what fans think, there likely is no unscrupulous pusher providing steroids – it’s more like uneducated players making uninformed decisions.  Players are not taking more PEDs than they have before – the testing process has come a long way.  The World Anti-Doping Agency has praised MLB for the rigidity and extensiveness of its testing program.

Pannone’s suspension ends in late June.  He’ll need some time to get his pitch count back up, but he should return to action with Buffalo in July.  The Blue Jays are as bewildered as Pannone is about this result, but they also understand it’s a first-time offence, and will stick by their player.

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Maese came to spring training raring to go, and was looking forward to getting back into action, most likely with High A Dunedin this year.

Maese reached full season ball in just his second pro season after being taken in the 3rd round out of and El Paso, TX, high school.  Pegged as a potential mid-rotation starter, Maese looked uncomfortable early in the season last year with Lansing, and was shut down in June with shoulder soreness.  He had some uncharacteristic wildness for a Pitcher known for pounding the bottom half of the zone with his sinker.  Maese came back in mid-July, but was shut down for the season after five starts.

Maese’s name may not be as familiar to Blue Jays fans as Pannone’s, but the athletic right-hander is well-known to prospect watchers.  In some ways, his loss is even bigger, as he’s out for the season, and loses a year of development in the process after an injury-shortened 2017.

 

Lugnuts, Fisher Cats Renew Affiliation with Blue Jays

t499_main_logoThe Lansing Lugnuts of the Low A Midwest League announced this week that they have renewed their Player Development Contract with the Blue Jays, extending it to 2020.

Earlier this month, the AA Eastern League’s New Hampshire Fisher Cats also extended their PDC with the Jays for another two years.

What is a Player Development Contract?  Essentially, an agreement between the affiliate and the MLB team in which the former runs the team on a day-to-day basis, and the latter makes decisions in regard to player and coaching personnel.  From milb.com’s website:

The Player Development Contract creates an affiliation between a Major League organization and the ownership of a Minor League franchise. Though many stadiums are built, owned and managed by local municipalities — often to attract or retain a Minor League team — most MiLB franchise owners are private individuals or ownership groups. Some Major League organizations may own one or more of their Minor League teams, but this is not necessarily widespread. The decision to begin the relocation process is made by the franchise owner of the Minor League Baseball club. It is often — but not necessarily — connected to signing a new PDC. Some factors affecting a team’s decision to relocate might be: attendance, stadium conditions and leases, geographical proximity to other clubs in the same league or to its Major League parent, climate conditions, economic landscape of its local market, etc.

At all levels, the Player Development Contract creates an affiliation between a Major League organization and the ownership of a Minor League franchise. The franchise ownership is responsible for assembling a front office and staff to manage all business aspects, including gameday activities such as ticket sales, promotions, broadcasting, etc. The MLB organization makes all decisions related to player development, including selecting the coaching staff and deciding which players to assign to the team.

PDCs typically expire in even years, and are usually renewed at the conclusion of that season.  Earlier this off-season, the Blue Jays and the Short-Season Vancouver Canadians of the Northwest League extended their PDC until 2022, demonstrating how successful the partnership has been for both sides, and the attractiveness of Vancouver as a minor league baseball market.

The High A Florida State League’s Dunedin Blue Jays are owned by Toronto, as are their entries in the Gulf Coast and Dominican Leagues.  The only two teams in the system still to renew are the Rookie-Level Bluefield Blue Jays of the Appalachian League, and the AAA International League Buffalo Bisons.  Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro indicated last fall that the team was quite happy with all of their minor league affiliations, and did not foresee a change in the near future.  Buffalo’s proximity is important for both marketing and roster reasons.

It’s a delicate dance that both sides walk in a PDC.  The affiliate must provide a good environment for their players and staff to train and play in, while the MLB partner must try to make sure that an adequate supply of decent prospects passes through the affiliate on their way to the higher levels.  The Blue Jays and their partners are justifiably proud of their affilations – the Fisher Cats and the Jays go back to 2004, the Lugs 2005.  Vancouver joined the Blue Jays organization in 2011, and won Northwest League titles in their first three seasons, and captured the title again last year.

In all, the Blue Jays will have eight minor league affiliates this year.  Play in the full-season leagues (AAA down to Low A) begins in early April, while the rookie and short season loops begin around June 20th.  Players not assigned to a full-season team remain behind at the team’s minor league complex in Dunedin, where they train and play against teams from other complexes in the area.

Minor League Baseball Implements New Extra-Innings Rule

After experimenting with the international extra-inning tie breaker rule last year in the Complex Leagues, MiLB announced today that the rule will take effect across all of Minor League Baseball this season:

The change came about as part of a wider set of procedures designed to speed up the game.  The extra-innings rule will see the last out (or a substitute) from the 9th inning begin the 10th inning on 2nd Base.  If that runner scores, it will not be charged as an Earned Run to the Pitcher.

The rule is designed to protect minor league pitching staffs.  Minor league teams do not have the luxury of calling up a player from a lower level as easily as MLB teams do, which means in the event of an extra inning game in the past,  teams were short pitchers in the days after games that went past 9, or they had to put a position player in to Pitch.

Reaction across baseball has been mixed:

While the extra-innings rule really isn’t about pace of play, it does make sense this day and age of carefully monitored pitch and innings limits.  If the Blue Jays need a fresh bulllpen arm or two after a marathon game, help is available 90 minutes down the QEW.  If Lansing needs the same help, it has to come from Vancouver, Or Bluefield, WV. It is somewhat gimmicky, however, akin to the shootout in Olympic hockey games.  The good news for fans is that with 40-man rosters, the rule is not coming to MLB anytime soon.  If you needed a reminder that minor league baseball is about development over winning, this was a friendly reminder.

I like this Tweet best of all as a way to wrap this post up: