Notes on Blue Jays’ IFAs from Extended

The lousy weather that hit much of the northeastern part of the continent meant that there wasn’t a lot of minor league ball to watch this weekend.  However, Jason Woodell (@JasonAtTheGame on Twitter), who scouts prospects in Florida and contributes to several sites as well as his own, took in some Blue Jays Extended Spring Training action, and posted a number of videos.

First, some video and notes about SS Miguel Hiraldo, the top-ranked hitter in last July’s International Free Agent class:

Blue Jays Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, who oversees International ops for the club, said in an interview in December that Hiraldo has, “A compact build, sneaky athletic ability, and quick hands.”  The most impressive part of his game, according to Tinnish, is his bat:  “it’s a compact swing, he hits a lot of line drives (and) uses the whole field, is a smart hitter, and there’s a lot of projection there.”

Tinnish said that Hiraldo may eventually outgrow SS and shift over to 3rd.  Woodell’s observations suggest that maybe there’s more there defensively than was originally thought.  The Blue Jays will likely keep him at short until he plays himself off of it.  Hiraldo will begin the season in the Gulf Coast League.

RHP Alejandro Melean was the 32-ranked IFA last year, and was a player Tinnish mentioned as one to watch.  A bit undersized, Melean was impressive at Instructs last fall, sitting 90-94 with his fastball, and an ability to spin a breaking ball.

Melean likely starts in the GCL as well.

C Hagen Danner was not an IFA, of course, but he was a highly regarded two-way prep player who the Blue Jays decided to have focus on Catching last year.  Danner struggled in his first pro season, hitting .160/.207/.248, with a 26.5% K rate.  The news from Florida is encouraging:

Vancouver will probably be Danner’s destination when short season play begins in June.

And finally, while he’s not a Blue Jays prospect, there’s a pretty strong connection here:

Halladay is draft eligible this June, but has committed to Penn State.

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Sean Reid-Foley Making the Transition from Thrower to Pitcher

2017 was going to be Sean Reid-Foley’s year.

Challenged with a promotion to AA after striking out almost 11 batters per 9 innings at two levels the previous year, the 2014 2nd rounder seemed to be on the fast track to the Major Leagues.

2017 proved to be a learning year for the righthander, who had reached full season ball in 2015 in only his second year as a pro.  Control problems skyrocketed his pitch counts as he admittedly tried to be too perfect, and he amassed only 15 innings over the course of his first 6 starts as a result.

Reid-Foley settled down and pitched reasonably well after that, but his 2017 did not meet up with expectations, and with youth on his side and a full rotation at Buffalo ahead of him, the Blue Jays opted to have him return to New Hampshire.

After two starts this season, he appears to be a changed Pitcher.  Reid-Foley retired the first 16 hitters he faced against the Rockies’ Hartford affiliate last night.  Going back to his last start, if not for a 6th inning error by 1B Juan Kelly, Reid-Foley had set down 28 consecutive hitters.

What’s been the difference so far for Reid-Foley?   Obviously, command has been a huge reason.  After walking three over the first three innings his first start, Reid-Foley didn’t issue another one until after allowing his first base runner last night, a one out single in the 6th.  Running out of gas, and maybe losing his focus a bit, Reid-Foley walked the next batter after that hit.  On the night, though he filled up the strike zone, throwing 67% of his pitches for strikes.

Reid-Foley’s hammer curve has been an effective pitch for him in both starts.  Sitting 93-95 with his fastball, the curve offers another look that disrupts hitters’ timing.  He also appears willing to sacrifice strikeouts for weak contact – Reid-Foley recorded 9 ground ball outs on the night.

The knock against Reid-Foley in the past that he was unable to make in-game mechanical adjustments when he fell out of his delivery and lost the strike zone.  Last year, when he fell behind in the count, he would catch too much of the plate, and gave up a lot of contact.  Through two starts, he appears to have refined his command, and those occasions when he’s fallen behind, Reid-Foley has worked on the margins on the strike zone to get hitters out.  As a result, he’s largely avoided barrels to this point.

Two starts does not a season make, but Reid-Foley is moving in the right direction.  He’s commanding his fastball, and mixing in his secondaries well.  It really appears that he’s started to make the change from a thrower to a Pitcher, relying on his smarts more than his physical talents to be successful.

 

Still No Big Nate; Return “Undetermined”

Pearson
Clutchlings Photo

Blue Jays RHP Nate Pearson, the team’s 4th-ranked prospect according to Baseball America, has missed his second straight start of the young season for the Dunedin Blue Jays.

Keegan Matheson of Baseball Toronto had this update after Pearson was scratched prior to his first start:

A Blue Jays official said today that Pearson’s return is “undetermined.”   Pearson has not been put on Dunedin’s Disabled List as of this evening, suggesting that he’s day-to-day.  Still, fans are anxious to see the player who became the club’s top Pitching prospect after only 20 innings make his season debut.

Pearson fell slightly in the draft due to a concern about a screw inserted into his elbow in high school, but the Blue Jays were convinced that his medical history was clear.  Still, his pitch count was strictly monitored – he would have easily been a BA Top 20 Northwest League prospect, but didn’t have enough innings to qualify.  His performance with Vancouver, however limited, was more than enough to convince Blue Jays brass to skip him over Lansing.  With his history, it does cause one to wonder if they wanted to keep him in the warm weather, close to the team’s medical staff in Florida.

Unless he’s placed on the DL, it’s not all doom and gloom.

 

Romano Continues to Impress as a Starter

Jordan Romano has come a long way for a guy who started out as a reliever, and whom some feel would be best suited to that role.

The Markham, ON native was drafted in the 10th round of the 2014 draft after serving as Oral Roberts’ closer.  He began his career in the Blue Jays system in the bullpen, but after missing 2015 due to Tommy John surgery, he came back to the organization in a starting role.

The Blue Jays have long coveted Romano’s size, downward plane on his pitches, and his fastball-slider combo that just needed another pitch to complement it.  After striking out exactly a batter per inning over the last two seasons, the Blue Jays are content to let him continue to refine that third pitch at AA.

Last year with Dunedin, Romano was second in the Florida State League in Ks, as well as FIP.   In addition to working on his change-up, Romano has had to learn to pace himself.  Manager John Schneider, who had moved up the ladder with him the last two years, told Sportsnet:

“There’s no question he’s got a great arm,” Schneider says. “But I think he’s learning he can back off a little bit, not try to overthrow everything, and really hit his spots and have success. I think he’s learning he can pitch a little bit and not have to be as max effort as he has been in the past.”

But it’s been the need for a pitch to get left-handed hitters out that has been the biggest need for Romano.  Lefties have always hit him well, and last year was no exception, as FSL batters hit him at a .351 clip.

Last night in Trenton against he Yankees Eastern League affiliate, Romano had the change-up working for him (“I’ve been working really hard on it,” he said after the game), as he tossed 7 innings of shutout ball.  On the evening, he allowed only 3 hits, fanned 7, and didn’t walk a batter.  The Blue Jays usually don’t allow their minor league starters to work this deep into a game so early in the season, but Romano was so efficient (only 64 pitches through 6 innings), that he was allowed to continue into the 7th.

One interesting note – Romano allowed only two Homers last year in Florida.  He gave up that many in his first start this year.  Last night, he did not allow a runner past 2nd.  Given his flyball rate in the past, he may give up more longballs this year.  If he can continue to keep the walks down, that might not be a big issue.

It’s easy to see Romano as a dominant back-of-the-bullpen guy if he was limited to that fastball/slider mix.  Against right-handed hitters, his fastball has some arm side run when he gets the right arm angle, and his slider is a definite swing-and-miss pitch.  But as President/CEO Mark Shapiro said in an interview last fall, developing starting pitching is probably a GM’s hardest job.  And the change is a feel pitch, one that can take time – several seasons, even – to develop.  Besides, when a guy has missed as many bats as Romano has in his minor league career, it’s worth seeing if he can keep getting hitters out at AA.

Romano was exposed to the Rule 5 draft last fall, and went unclaimed.  That likely won’t be the case this fall, meaning the team will have to make a decision on his future this year.

 

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I know I tend to go on about how much I’m enjoying the Fisher Cats play this year, but they have a chance to truly be special.  Romano said this is the best team he’s ever played for.

And I’m talking about this team beyond Bo and Vlad.  Jonathan Davis, for example, is a fantastic prototypical lead off hitter.  With Bichette sitting in the on deck circle and Guerrero grabbing a bat in the dugout, opposition pitchers would rather keep Davis off base.  But he works the count, fouling off borderline pitches, and giving his teammates a chance to see what the Pitcher has on that night.  On base, his speed is a distraction for Pitchers already trying to pitch the bash twins carefully.  He’s a perfect table setter for this lineup.

The baseball IQ this team displays is also a joy to watch.  In last night’s game, they took advantage of Trenton starter Domingo Acevedo’s slow delivery to home.  They take the extra base when an outfielder misses the cutoff man, they see a lot of pitches, and generally just play an unselfish game.  In only their second game of the season, with Davis placed on 2nd to start the 11th inning under MiLB’s new extra inning rule, Guerrero laid down a perfect bunt (on his own, apparently), advancing Davis to 3rd.  Guerrero knew that because Gurriel had been hitting the ball hard, and could probably score Davis with a sac fly.

Despite a high-powered offence, the Fisher Cats lineup is not full of swing-from-the-heels, ond-dimensional players.  Guerrero’s AB in the 4th was perfectly representative of their collective approach.  Up 2-0, Guerrero was rightly expecting a fastball.  But it was a pitch on the outer half.  Rather than try to pull the pitch, Vladdy went with what the Pitcher gave him, and slapped a Double to Right Centre.  Trying to pull the ball may have resulted in a ground ball, so Guerrero shortened his swing and made contact.

There are a lot of baseball bloodlines on this team with Bichette, Guerrero, Cavan Biggio (who has been off to a strong start, and could be a valuable multi-positon player one day), as well as Gurriel, whose father likely would have been an MLBer.  They have a solid lineup (one of the most dangerous hitters over the second half of the season in the FSL last year, Conor Panas, hits 7th), and a shutdown bullpen.

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One last thought:  it will take a much larger sample size to determine Guerrero’s ultimate position, but after a week of watching him, it’s obvious that balls that he gets to are usually going to be outs.  He displays good hands, and a strong, accurate arm.  The question will be how many he’ll get to.   That’s still to be determined.

 

 

Beware of Minor League Stats, and Some Thoughts About Jon Harris

First, a disclaimer:  I love Vladimir Guerrero Jr like he’s one of my own sons.  In fact, if it were up to me, my wife and I would have another son and call him Vladito (it’s not).

Before I had seen him play a game, the reports I’d read about him led me to label him the Blue Jays top prospect, well before most anointed him with that title.

And while I think he’ll be a generational bat, and will one day join his dad in the first Father-Son Hall of Fame pairing, his line from last night shows why you shouldn’t necessarily rely on minor league stats when evaluating a player.  They are usually a good predictor of success, but they need context.

Last night, Guerrero was 3-3, with 6 RBIs, and Twitter was full of his stat line this morning, suggesting a perfect night at the plate.  Truth be told, I didn’t think it was one of his best games.

Guerrero’s first AB was a ball hit to the warning track for an out, but it was more than deep enough to score speedy Jonathan Davis from 3rd.  Kudos to Guerrero for lofting the ball to score a run, but he hardly scorched it – earlier in that plate appearance, he sent a 114 mph rocket foul down the left field line, leaving me to worry about Fisher Cats Manager John Schneider in the 3rd Base coaching box.  Because it was a sacrifice fly, Guerrero was not charged with an AB.

In his second trip to the plate, Vladdy popped a Texas Leaguer just behind 2B.  Because the Trenton OF was playing him deep, the SS had to make a twisting catch with his back to home.  Davis, on 3rd yet again, alertly tagged and scored on a ball hit maybe 150 ft.  No AB charged to Guerrero.

Guerrero’s third At Bat was a groundball to Trenton 3rd Baseman Gosuke Katoh, who was having a bit of a rough night.  It was a fairly hard hit ball, but Katoh should’ve had it – an MLB 3rd Baseman certainly would have.  Because he didn’t make contact with it, Katoh wasn’t charged with an error, giving Guerrero a hit.

Guerrero’s fourth plate appearance was an intentional walk – no problem there,

Vladdy’s next two ABs were legit – a HR off the batter’s eye against Jose Mesa Jr, who does have a good track record, but has been hit hard so far this season.  In the 9th, he doubled down the LF line.

So, for the night, he was 3-3, and drove in 6 runs.  Impressive totals, and his first multi-hit game in AA, but in 6 plate appearances, the hardest ball he hit on the night may have been that foul down the 3rd base line.  He was fortunate to have Davis on 3rd twice, and a 3rd Baseman who did a matador routine on a ground ball.  But in the boxscore, it’s 3-3.

Of course, maybe these things even out over the course of a season.  And this is in no way a criticism of Guerrero, and you can just as easily hit the ball hard all four times up in a game and go 0-4.  It does show that minor league stats taken out of context can be misleading.  You have to be good to be lucky, and sometimes it’s the other way around, like it was to some extent for Guerrero last night.  He still did have two no-doubt hits, but change the circumstances of the game, and he’s 2-5, or even 2-6.

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One observation about both Guerrero and Bo Bichette:  both hunt the fastball early in the count, and they showed a little bit of vulnerability on offspeed pitches in fastball counts.

Of course, this is kind of like saying the Mona Lisa is great, but it’s too bad she didn’t smile a bit more.

Guerrero and Bichette have such excellent pitch recognition and strike zone judgement that they tend to get the benefit of the doubt from minor league umpires when they take a borderline pitch.  And unlike average hitters, they rarely expand their strike zones, even when behind in the count.  It’s early in the AA season, but both look to be in complete control at the plate.

 

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Jon Harris has come in for more than his fair share of criticism for his performance last year.  After a decent 2016, the 2015 first rounder gave up a lot of contact last year, with Eastern League hitters batting .287 against him.

Harris does not have one overwhelming pitch.  He relies on a combination of sequencing and command in order to get hitters out.  If one of those two components is off, he tends to get hit.  If they’re working together, his secondary pitches become much more effective.

Harris got into trouble in last night’s start by falling behind the first three hitters he faced, and ended up in a bases loaded/no out jam in the bottom of the 1st.  Harris regrouped, and limited the damage by giving up a sac fly, then got a swinging K and a groundout to escape the inning.

Harris’ command sharpened in the 2nd inning, when he retired the side in order.  He got into trouble again the 3rd, giving up back-to-back singles to start the inning, but he kept the ball down, and used ground balls to get out of the inning unscathed.

Harris then set down Trenton in order in the 4th and 5th before reaching his pitch limit.

Harris does not overpower hitters.  He pitches to contact, and needs to stay ahead of hitters in order to get them out.  When he’s locating and pitching in favourable counts, he’s a much better Pitcher.

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Two seasons ago, the Blue Jays employed a veteran minor league Catcher in Ryan Lavarnway in order to work with their young Pitchers, Conner Greene in particular. Lavarnway had known Greene since he was a youngster, and played with his older brother.

This year, Toronto is using journeyman minor league backstop Patrick Cantwell in tandem with Max Pentecost.  Cantwell, a 2012 3rd round pick of Texas, has bounced around the minors, reaching AAA in 2015.  With Pentecost unable to catch every day, and with young Pitchers like Sean Reid-Foley on the roster (Pentecost caught his first start), Cantwell fills an important role for the Fisher Cats, serving in a Crash Davis-like role.  When Harris got into that first inning jam, a visit from Cantwell seem to help re-focus him and helped him turn the frame around.

 

 

Blue Jays Farm System Notes – April 5 – 8

The abbreviated week that was around the Blue Jays organization:

Buffalo

The Bisons visited cross-state rival Rochester for a scheduled three game series this weekend, all three of which were postponed due to winter’s late rally.

Buffalo travels to Pawtucket to take on the Red Sox affiliate for a trio of games before heading back to Western New York for a 7-game home stand.

New Hampshire

The Fisher Cats went into Hartford for a four-game set with the Rockies’ Yard Goat AAA farm team, and walked away with a sweep, leading to the best start in franchise history.

New Hampshire’s vaunted offence pounded out 14 extra base hits over the four games, and their pitching staff posted a sparkling 1.18 ERA.  In the opener, five New Hampshire hurlers combined on a 6-hit shutout.

New Hampshire’s offence revolves around phenoms Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.  Bichette knocked 6 hits in his first 18 AA ABs, and stole a pair of bases.  Hartford pitchers wanted little to do with Guerrero, walking him three times and not giving him a whole lot to hit.  He hit his first AA Homer on Sunday, and it was a no doubter:

Bichette and Guerrero were actually outshined on the weekend by Lourdes Gurriel Jr and Cavan Biggio.  Gurriel went 7-16 on the series, and seemed to hit everything hard.  Biggio, alternating between 1B and 2B, went 6-17, and hit his first AA Home Run in the series finale as well.

Righthander Sean Reid-Foley showed good fastball command, as well as an effective change up in throwing six scoreless innings in the Sunday contest.  He had a little trouble in the first few innings, falling behind and giving up a pair of walks in the 2nd and one in the 3rd.  He hung a pair of breaking balls, but was bailed out by the strong winds blowing in from CF, and a nice reaching grab by LF Harold Ramirez.  Reid-Foley found his groove, however, striking out the side in the 4th, and not giving up a hit after the first.  He fanned 7 over 6 innings, and the Blue Jays have to be very pleased with his performance.

New Hampshire is off to Trenton for three games with the Yankees’ affiliate this week, before returning home for a three game series with Hartford.

Dunedin

The D-Jays took 3 of 4 from cross-town rival Clearwater, the Phillies’ High A affiliate.

Of Josh Palacios went 8-15 with a pair of steals in the series to lead Dunedin.  With the trade of Edward Olivares, Palacios becomes the top OF prospect in the lower levels of the system.

1B Nash Knight went 5-14, and hit a pair of Home Runs.

RHP Nate Pearson was set to make his Florida State League debut in Dunedin’s second game, but back issues had him scratched.  He is expected to make his next start.

The D-Jays play four games in Palm Beach this week, followed by a three-game set with St. Lucie.

Lansing

As is tradition, the Lugnuts begin their Midwest League schedule with a pair of games in Midland, MI against the Dodgers’ Great Lakes affiliate.  The Loons return the favour traditionally with a pair of games in Lansing.

The Lugs pounded out 13 hits and 12 runs in the opener, topping Great Lakes 12-1 behind Yennsy Diaz’ masterful 5.2 inning, 10K performance.

The second game of the series was postponed by winter’s return, and Lansing triumphed in their home opener the following day.

Great Lakes took a pair of games on Sunday from Lansing to square the Lugs’ record at .500.

Chavez Young began the season hitting in the 9th spot, but batted leadoff in both ends of the double header, going 4-11 for the series.  Kacy Clemens sported the same 4-11 line, but with 6 walks on top of that.

Lansing heads to Fort Wayne for three games beginning Monday, before returning home to face West Michigan.  Lansing GM Tyler Parsons said Friday that he hopes the team will have their video feed ready for milb.tv for the West Michigan series.

A Look at Maximo Castillo

One of the the Blue Jays prospects we’ve been looking forward to seeing is Venezuelan RHP Maximo Castillo.  Lansing Lunguts Manager Cesar Martin obliged, sending Castillo to the mound in the 7th inning of the Lugs Opening Day win against Great Lakes last night.

A 2015 IFA, Castillo is listed at 6’2″/256, although he looks 5-10 pounds lighther than that.  At 18, he’s one of two teenagers on the Lansing roster (2B Samad Taylor is the other), and pitched very well as a 17 year old in the Appy League last year.  Castillo did give up some contact (54 hits in 47 IP) because he’s usually around the strike zone, although he fanned 52, and walked only 7.

Castillo has a tall and fall, over the top delivery, which gives him a good downward plane on his sinker, allowing him to live in the bottom half of the zone.  He has good command to either side of the plate.

Castillo struck out three of the four hitters he faced in his one inning of work, showcasing a curve with late break and good bite.  He had so much action on one of his two strike breaking balls that Catcher Ridge Smith had absolutely no chance to get down to block it, allowing the runner to reach 1st after whiffing on the pitch.  Castillo retired the other hitter on a 6-3 ground out.

Castillo does not light up the radar gun, sitting 90-92 on this night, and probably would work a little higher in warmer weather.  Because he commands his fastball so well, and gets ahead of hitters, his curve becomes an even more effective secondary pitch.

At 18, there’s some room for projection on Castillo’s fastball.  More importantly, he has a polished delivery, and shows a good feel for pitching.  We look forward to seeing longer outings from him as the season progresses.

Kudos to Smith, he showed some good agility and blocking skills behind the plate during this game.

Diaz Brilliant in 2018 Debut

yennsydiaz
Twitter photo

He may be an under-the-radar prospect, and he was definitely overshadowed by the AA debuts of Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr, but Lansing Lugnuts RHP Yennsy Diaz was lights out in his first start of the year.

To be honest, it was a mild surprise that Diaz repeated Low A.  Diaz came up to Lansing from Extended part way through the 2017 season, and he dazzled, posting a 9.6% K rate in 16 starts.  He missed a lot of bats, as his 13.5% whiff rate suggests.

Because of the depth of starters ahead of him, and maybe because of his 4.8 walk rate, however, Diaz was sent back to the Midwest League.  He may not be there for long if he repeats the type of performance he had tonight.

Diaz has an electric fastball that when he’s on is commanded to both sides of the plate.  He has hit 98, but sits 95-97.  Diaz has a curve that is an effective secondary pitch; it will be the development of a third or fourth pitch that dictates how far he advances.

After his offence spotted him a 2-run lead in the top of the 1st, Diaz struck out the side in the bottom half, getting all three batters looking on fastballs on the edge of the plate.

After getting a groundball out to start the home half of the 2nd, Diaz got an additional pair of Ks, again both of them looking.

Diaz retired the first two batters he faced in the 3rd, picking up his 6th strikeout, before hitting the #9 hitter with an inside fastball. A flyout to CF ended the inning.

In the 4th, Diaz struck out the side swinging, getting the final hitter on a biting 12-6 curve.

Even though Lansing’s top of the 5th was a long affair, with 7 hitters sent to the plate and a pitching change, Diaz was sharp, and retired the side in order again in the 5th.  LF Ryan Noda made a nice diving catch on a sinking liner, then Diaz got a pop out and a swinging K.

With his pitch count still relatively low, Diaz was back out for the 6th.    Diaz gave up a double to RF, the first hit he allowed on the night.  A pop out and a swinging strikeout later,  Diaz was at his pitch count, and was done for the night.

Lansing Catcher Ridge Smith did a good job handling Diaz.  On the odd occasion when Diaz missed his spot, Smith had to move quickly to nab the errant pitch.

Diaz’ line:

5.2IP   1H  0R/ER  0BB  1HBP  10K

3 GB outs: 1 FB out

81 pitches/58 strikes

By my count, at least a dozen swings and misses.

Where the Affiliates Start

****Update*********

Lansing GM Tyler Parsons confirmed this morning that the Lugs’ games will be streamed on milb.tv this season.  They are just finalizing things, and will probably be up and running starting with Lansing’s second homestand of the season, which begins April 13th.

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Minor League baseball play begins tomorrow night, and three of the four Blue Jays affiliates will be in action.

The Low A Lansing Lugnuts of the Midwest League kick things off with a pair of games Thursday and Friday against their cross state rivals Great Lakes Loons in Midland, MI.  Game one gets under way Thursday at 6:05 pm.  Game time temperature will be around 3C.  Lansing fireballer Yennsy Diaz gets the start. Both games will be streamed on milb.tv (subscription required).

Great Lakes travels to Lansing to return the favour for a pair of weekend games with the Lugnuts

At 7:00, the High A Florida State League Dunedin Blue Jays visit the neighbouring Clearwater Threshers for the first of two games.  T.J. Zeuch takes to the mound for the D-Jays.  Clearwater makes the short trip to Dunedin for a pair of weekend matches.

Five minutes after Dunedin’s season begins, the AA Eastern League New Hampshire Fisher Cats visit the Hartford Yard Goats in a game streamed on milb.tv.  Francisco Rios gets the start for New Hampshire, who play four games in Hartford before heading to Trenton for three games early next week.

The AAA Buffalo Bisons of the International League begin their season Friday night in Rochester, with Joe Biagini on the hill in another milb.tv game.  The Bisons play 3 against the Red Wings, then travel to Pawtucket for a three-game series beginning Monday.

All of Buffalo and New Hampshire’s games will be streamed this year.  Bradenton is the only Florida State League team with a live online presence.  The D-Jays visit at the beginning of May, and at the end of August.  Lansing will not be streaming their home games, but a number of other MWL teams do.  For Shaw Cable subscribers in Western Canada, select Saturday night Vancouver Canadians games can be viewed live.  For the rest of us, you can watch archived games on their YouTube channel.

 

The State of the Blue Jays Farm System

There were some ups and downs last year, but the Blue Jays farm system continues to be one on the rise.

The amateur scouting department has added some top-flight talent in the past several drafts, the international scouts continue to come up with top prospects, and the high performance staff is expanding its reach throughout the system.  Director of Player Development Gil Kim has added some top-notch minor league staff, many of whom have extensive coaching and teaching backgrounds.

On the negative side, several pitching prospects stumbled last season, a number of prospects (an MLB-leading 7 in all) tested positive for banned substances, and after several seasons of relative health among their minor league Pitchers, four underwent (or are about to undergo) season-ending throwing arm surgeries this spring.

The Draft

President/CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins have a well-known preference for scouting, drafting, and development.  With new Amateur Scouting Director Steve Sanders added to the mix, the Blue Jays have quickly re-stocked their system by adding college players with proven track records on day one of the MLB draft, and those whose draft stock fell, as well as toolsy-but-raw high schoolers on the following two days.

That approach has landed them likely future MLBers like T.J. Zeuch and Bo Bichette in 2016, as well as Nate Pearson, Logan Warmoth, and Riley Adams last year.  In addition, promising players like Josh Palacios, Kevin Smith, Ryan Noda, and Chavez Young (who has reached full season ball this year after being selected in the 39th round in 2016) have been added.

International Free Agents

Shapiro and Atkins were indeed fortunate to have inherited Vladimir Guerrero Jr, whose $3.9 million signing bonus may become one of the greatest bargains in baseball history since the Red Sox all but donated Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

The team was limited in the bonuses it could offer in 2016 in the wake of going over their limit after signing Guerrero, but they picked up where they left off last July 2nd, signing the top-ranked IFA Pitcher (Eric Pardinho), and the top-ranked bat (Miguel Hiraldo), landing 5 of the top 40 ranked prospects in all.  And they’re linked to Dominican SS Orelvis Martinez, who is expected to be one of the highest-paid IFAs this year.

The High Performance Department

He has not said so publicly, but having the resources to put together this group must have been a huge factor in persuading Shapiro to move to Toronto.

Long a staple in Olympic and European club sports, the HP group oversees every aspect of the team’s player’s nutrition, conditioning, and sleep.  They have added diet specialists to each minor league affiliate, and are very involved in evaluating draft candidates.  Concepts such as mindfulness have been introduced to prospects, as well as the importance of recovery.  Other clubs may be getting on board, but the Blue Jays are still very much at the forefront of this development, and may have the best-staffed department in the game.

The impact of the HP department won’t be seen overnight, but if the success in other sports are any example (Britain went from one gold at the 1996 Olympics to 2nd overall in the standings in 20 years thanks largely to a sport science-based approach to training and development), the Blue Jays may have a competitive advantage in this area, which should manifest in better developed prospects by 2020.

Coaching Staff

Today’s players don’t necessarily respond well to yesterday’s coaching.  As veteran minor leaguer Maxx Tissenbaum said in an interview with us earlier this year:

….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.”

With that in mind, the Blue Jays revamped their minor league staff last spring, bringing on board a number of coaches with extensive coaching and teaching experience, particularly at the college level.  Director of Minor League Operations Gil Kim has also indicated that the club has built its staff with the diversity of its players in mind:

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

The Downside

Baseball America ranks the Blue Jays farm system 7th in the game, while MLB Pipeline has it 9th.  ESPN’s Keith Law is not as high on the organization, however, ranking the Blue Jays 17th.  In Law’s view, Guerrero and Bichette (who Law says, “plays as if his hair is one fire,”) skew the rankings, and cover up concerns like Anthony Alford’s injury history, and the struggles of the AA rotation last year – his suggestion is that once you get past the top guys, things get a little thin.

The struggling Fisher Cats starters

Sean Reid-Foley, Conner Greene, and Jon Harris all entered 2017 with high rankings.  SRF and Harris gave up a fair amount of hard contact, while Greene failed to miss many bats for a guy with his heat. Entering this season, Reid-Foley and Harris are repeating AA, while Greene was shipped to the Cardinals in the Randall Grichuk trade.

Zeuch missed much of 2017 with injury issues, but did redeem himself with a fine Arizona Fall League showing.  He will repeat Dunedin this year, at least until the northeastern weather warms up.

As a result, Pearson has become the top Pitching prospect in the organization – in fairness, he probably would be the top one in most other systems, but his ascent after a rather limited pro debut (20 IP) does point to the struggles of the other arms.

Injury Woes

The Blue Jays have quietly been at the forefront in implementing technology to help protect the arms of their young pitchers.  After 5 Blue Jays prospects underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 (not counting 1st rounder Jeff Hoffman, who had it before he was drafted), the team has had relative success in that area, with only three Pitchers requiring it since them.

2018 has not been as kind.  Eliesier Medrano fanned 26 in 23 innings for the GCL Jays last season, before being shut down at the end of July.  He had Tommy John in the off-season.  Southpaw Grayson Huffman had elbow issues all spring training, and was saying as April approached that he was headed for the operating room.  And as spring training closed, word came out that Canadian Tom Robson, who had a successful season after being converted to a relief role at New Hampshire, has torn his UCL again, and will need a second Tommy John.

Justin Maese became a Pitching prospect on the rise after a standout 2016 season, but struggled with his command at Lansing last year, and spent time on the DL.  Shortly afer spring training began, he had surgery to correct a shoulder impingement, and is likely done for the year.

Banned Substances

7 prospects connected with the Blue Jays Dominican complex tested positive for PEDs in 2017.  In March, we learned that LHP Thomas Pannone, acquired in the Joe Smith deal with Cleveland, had a positive test as well.  Say what you will about the judgement (or lack thereof) of their players, this does not reflect well on the Blue Jays as an organization.  The players may have taken the substances, whether they were aware of what was in them or not, but it’s up to the team to provide the education to make informed choices.

The Outlook

In Guerrero and Bichette, the Blue Jays have two of the top 10 prospects in the game.  Toss in Alford and Pearson, and you have 4 of the top 100.  Danny Jansen, Richie Urena, and Ryan Borucki all appear to be destined to join the team at some point this season.  Warmoth and Pearson are on the way, with Pardinho behind them, and a decent draft pick (12th overall) awaiting the team this June.

The goal of the Blue Jays front office is to build a farm system that continually produces waves of prospects to challenge and supplement the 25-man roster.  Shapiro told Sportsnet’s Jeff Blair that it was a point of pride that the team did not sign a minor league free agent position player this off-season, such was the depth in the organization, and that overall, he’s pleased with the direction the system is headed, but there’s room for improvement:

 

“We’ve made progress, but we need to have waves of talent. Not just good talent, but impact talent. We need to not just talk about [Vladimir Guerrero Jr.] and Bo Bichette, but we need to be able to reel off [several] names. [It’s] a really risky proposition [to] pin your hopes on two guys.”

The Blue Jays have pursued a different drafting and development philosophy than they did under former GM Alex Anthopoulos, but for those who are critical of AA, keep in mind that Guerrero, Alford, Borucki, Jansen, and Urena were all signed during his tenure.  With those players are on the brink of MLB jobs, and a growing supply of players behind them, strong minor league instructors, and a staff of sport scientists devoted to their training and development, the Blue Jays are poised to reap the benefits of a strong farm system.