Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects

Vladdy2
Clutchlings Photo

With a preference for acquiring and developing up-the-middle players who can slide to other defensive positions, the Blue Jays farm system continued its ascension into the upper tiers of baseball’s elite organizations in 2018.

With 15 prospects scattered among the Top 20 in Baseball America‘s rankings of each minor league this fall (tied for 3rd with Arizona, behind Tampa and San Diego), the Blue Jays system is now ranked #3 by BA, and most analysts (not named Keith Law) would agree that it’s a system on the rise.

When he took the helm of the Blue Jays organization three years ago, one of the carrots that brought Mark Shapiro over from Cleveland was the promise of a bigger budget for player development.  Since coming to Toronto, Shapiro has instituted a ground-breaking (for baseball) High Performance department, and has brought in numerous sport scientists to help the organization’s prospects learn to eat, train, and recover more efficiently.  He has also brought onboard several key executives with extensive player development experience like Ross Atkins and Ben Cherington.  This off-season, under the direction of Player Development head Gil Kim, the team brought in a number of minor league coaches and instructors with considerable teaching and coaching backgrounds, a trend that will likely continue this off season.

The Blue Jays have had reasonably successful drafts (although 2017 1st rounder Logan Warmoth took a large step back this year) over the past several seasons, and have done very well in the International market as well – it’s not a coincidence that new Manager Charlie Montoyo is bilingual, and has a strong track record of working with young players.  Minor league systems have to balance development with winning (with the former taking precedence at the lower levels), but several Blue Jays farm teams have made the post season over the past two years, with Vancouver bringing home a Northwest League title in 2017, and New Hampshire winning one this past season. The experience is always worthwhile for the organization’s young players, who, unlike college players, are not necessarily used to the pressure to win.

 

1.  Vladimir Guerrero 3B

.281/.437/.636,   9.5K%/9.3BB%,  20HR ,194 wRC+

At the moment, Guerrero is laying waste to Arizona Fall League pitching, and demonstrating that his bat is more than MLB-ready.  While Blue Jays fans were clamoring for Vladdy’s promotion for much of the season, a strained knee helped pumped the brakes on his development.  And that wasn’t a bad thing –  Shapiro had indicated a year ago that the only way we would see Guerrero in 2018 was if the team was in the middle of a pennant race, and even with the infusion of offence he would have provided, the 2018 Jays were not going to the post season.

A few extra months of minor league seasoning allowed Guerrero to continue to work on the defensive side of his game.  He has sure hands, good footwork, and a strong, accurate arm.  Vlad makes plays on balls that he gets to, but in the major leagues, where he’ll be fielding balls hit by MLB hitters (and half of them on turf),  but he’ll need to expand his range, and that was one of the reasons he remained in the minors this summer.

Even though he’ll be under intense media scrutiny when he reaches Toronto, Guerrero is more than up for the challenge.  This summer, it seemed like when he was facing a top-ranked Pitcher, Guerrero turned his game up accordingly.  If there is one knock against him, it’s that he doesn’t always do so when facing a lesser guy on the mound.  Those days will be fewer and further between in MLB.

When we finally do see Guerrero in the Blue Jays lineup, his impact will likely be immediate.  He is the best prospect the Blue Jays have ever developed.  He will anchor the middle of the Toronto order for years to come.

 

2.  Bo Bichette SS/2B

.286/.343/.453,  17K%/8.1BB% , 11 HR, 120 wRC+

Bichette grabbed more than his share of the headlines in 2017 when he led the minor leagues with a .362 average, hitting above .400 as late as mid-June.

This year was a different story.  In late May, his average tumbled to a career-low .237, before Bichette began to lay off pitches outside of the strike zone.  Maybe it was the pressure that he created himself trying to match Guerrero, or maybe it was the greater command possessed by Eastern League Pitchers, but 2018 was a tremendous learning year for Bichette, one that may ultimately serve him well in the future.

Bichette’s numbers for the year may not be awe-inspiring, but he put together a torrid final six weeks of the season, slashing .339/.402/.475 in August, and hitting .346 as New Hampshire romped to the EL title.

Bichette continued to make strides as a defender this season, but he looked most comfortable when the acquisition of Santiago Espinal in July forced him to share time at SS by moving over to 2B.  His range, reactions to ground balls, ability to make the pivot, and arm strength just seem to look better suited to the position.  One thing is for sure:  the bat will play, possibly not next season, but before a long time has elapsed.

3.  Nate Pearson SP

1.2 IP, 5.4 K/9, 0 BB/9, 10.80 FIP, 44.4% GB

Don’t be fooled at all by Pearson’s numbers.  An oblique issue kept him out of the lineup until early May, and a line drive off of his pitching arm in the second inning of his first start ended his season.  Pearson has pitched in the Arizona Fall League, but has understandably shown rust, but has dialed his velo back up to 100.

Pearson has a starter’s build and four-pitch mix.  He sits 96-98, and mixes in an effective curve, change, and slider.  He gets good spin on his breaking pitches, and throws all four from a similar arm slot.  When Pearson commands his fastball, hitters don’t have much of a chance.

Even though he’s thrown only 21 innings as a pro (his pitch count was strictly monitored in Vancouver last year after he was drafted), he will be bound for New Hampshire next year, and could move quickly.  The word “ace” is thrown around far too much, but Pearson definitely has front of the rotation potential.

 

4.  Danny Jansen C

(MiLB) .275/.390/.473,  13.6K%/12.1BB%, 12 HR, 146 wRC+

Already the hardest-working player on the field, the job of the MLB backstop has become even more complex in this day and age of framing and spin rates.  The Blue Jays unearthed a gem in the middle rounds of the 2013 draft, taking the Wisconsite with their 16th round pick.  In the 31 games he suited up for the Blue Jays this year, he showed why he’s considered one of the top receiving prospects in the game, and a potential franchise Catcher.

Jansen has always been an excellent framer, and Pitchers have long raved about working with him.  His bat came along last year, and he showcased good contact skills, and should hit the 20 HR plateau at some point.  If Reese McGuire continues to develop, the Blue Jays could employ him as more than a back up, allowing them to keep Jansen’s bat in the lineup when he needs a day off from behind the plate.

Jansen has given every indication that he will make the team out of training camp next year.

 

5.  Kevin Smith SS

.302/.328/.528, 21.1K%/ 7%BB, 25 HR, 149 wRC+

No Blue Jays prospect enhanced their status as much as the 2017 4th rounder did this year.  Stuck behind top pick Logan Warmoth last year, Smith surpassed him on both sides of the ball this year.

Smith owned Midwest League pitching before being promoted to Dunedin.  Along the way, he was named a Top 20 prospect by Baseball America in both leagues.  In naming him the FSL’s 11th top prospect, BA noted:

Evaluators who like Smith see a player who can stick at shortstop with a bat-first profile in the mold of Paul DeJong. He’s never going to be the flashiest player on the field, but his work ethic and all-around skills will help him produce impressive seasons. His bat can handle a slide to second base as well.

Smith did not make as much contact in Florida as he did in Michigan, with his K rate jumping from 16% to 24% after the promotion, with a corresponding drop in his BB rate as well.  Quite simply, Smith expanded his zone, and he may go through a dry spell similar to Bichette’s when he reaches the Eastern League next year.

Of all the up-the-middle prospects the Blue Jays have accumulated, Smith shows the most potential to stay at the position, and hit enough to become an MLBer.  An avid student of the game, he spent considerable time last off-season re-tooling his swing and refining his approach, and the payoff was significant.  He still may be a couple of seasons away, but he could provide a good complement to Guerrero on the left side of the Blue Jays infield.

 

6.  Eric Pardinho, SP

50 IP, 11.5K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 3.75 FIP, 46.3% GB

Dropped into a new country, with travel and under-the-lights play, and facing hitters that in almost every case were older than him (some by several years), all Pardinho did was produce one of the best debut seasons of any Blue Jays Starting Pitcher in recent memory.

The top-ranked 2017 IFA had his innings closely monitored in the Appy League, but he missed a lot of bats (15.4% K rate), and was very difficult to square up and loft (31% Fly Ball rate).  His four-pitch mix overmatched Appy hitters, as evidenced by a dominant mid-August outing against eventual league champs Elizabethton, a Twins affiliate.  Pardinho retired the first 19 hitters he faced before giving up a one out single in the 7th.

As might be expected of a 17-year-old, there’s still room for Pardinho to grow both physically and emotionally.  And even though he will one day be dwarfed in the rotation by Pearson, there’s a lot to like about Pardinho.  His athleticism allows him to repeat a clean, efficient delivery.  Already sitting 93-95 most nights, Pardinho should add some velo as he gets older, which will make his secondaries even more effective.

He’s still several seasons away – there’s even a good chance that Pardinho remains in Extended next spring until the Midwest League weather warms up.  But there is plenty of reason to expect to see him near the top of the Blue Jays rotation one day.

7.  Sean Reid-Foley SP

(AAA) 85.1 IP, 10.3 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 3.06 FIP, 42.7% GB

He had his struggles at the major league level, but his MiLB season was one of the most successful of Reid-Foley’s career, and gave fans a glimpse of what his potential could be.

After a dominant 8 starts at AA. SRF moved up to Buffalo, and continued to pile the whiffs, fanning 10.3/9, while walking only 3.6/9.  While in Buffalo, he came out firing, daring hitters to try to catch up with his mid 90-s fastball.  His problems at the MLB level came when he fell behind hitters, something he’ll have to fix and may come with added experience.

Starting Pitching is probably the hardest commodity to develop in all of baseball, and one look no further than the rising popularity of bullpenning and use of the Opener.  Even with a mid-rotation projection, there’s still plenty of potential value in Reid-Foley.

 

8. Jordan Groshans SS

(GCL) .331/390/.500, 18.8K%/8.2BB, 4 HR, 150 wRC+

The Jays broke out of the run of first round college picks last June when they took the Texas High Schooler, and he didn’t disappoint.  BA named him the 5th best prospect in the Gulf Coast League, with his bat the stand out tool:

Groshans has a polished hitting approach and a knack for finding the barrel. He squares up good pitching with quick bat speed and plus raw power. While Groshans has the sock in his bat to go deep from right-center over to his pull side, he mostly showed a line-drive, all-fields approach in the GCL, hammering fastballs and driving pitches on the outer half with authority to the opposite field.

Promoted to Bluefield for the Appy League playoffs, Groshans started slowly, but his bat came alive.  With a talented GCL infield this summer, Groshans split time at SS and 3B.  His arm is graded as above average, but the feeling among some evaluators seems to be that he winds up at the hot corner long-term.

 

9.  Anthony Alford OF

(AAA) .240/.312/.344,  26.9K%/7.2BB%, 5 HR, 87 wRC+

It’s hard to quit on the toolsy outfielder, even though 2018 was definitely a sideways year for him.  When he began the season on the DL, there were the usual concerns about his injury history.  Alford seemed lost at times at the plate this year, and did not barrel up balls like he did in 2017.

Still, there was some progress.  Alford began to drive the ball more in August, slashing .282/.324/.388 with 11 Doubles.  And the work he did with Coach Devon White helped him to take more efficient routes on fly balls.

The clock is starting to tick for Alford (he still has one more option year), but if he can stay in the lineup consistently, there could be a place for him in the Toronto outfield at some point next year.

 

10.  Orelvis Martinez SS

The top-ranked July 2nd bat in this year’s class did not look out of place at Instructs, from reports, as the Blue Jays added yet another up-the-middle player.  The Blue Jays spent 70% of their pool money on Martinez’ $3.5 million bonus – the second largest in club history.

We don’t know enough about his defensive skills yet, but there are a lot of indications that the bat will play.  In fact, there is word that Martinez will start his pro career stateside next year, and his bat may be advanced enough to skip the GCL.  Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, who oversees Latin America for the club, raved about Martinez’ skills at the plate:

The combination of consistency, good results, good plan at the plate, has hit good velocity, has hit breaking balls and laid off breaking balls — those things make you as comfortable as you’re going to get with a player who’s obviously a long way away from his prime.

 

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3 Jays Named to Fall Stars Game

It’s not necessarily an All Star game, but 3 Toronto prospects have been named to the annual Arizona Fall League gathering slated to take place this Saturday.

3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr has done nothing but hit since coming to the desert, was named to the West roster.  Joining him are Nate Pearson and Cavan Biggio.

Pearson has been shaking off the rust after a line drive off of his lower pitching arm ended his regular season in the second inning of his first start.  He’s had command issues in Arizona, but showed some promise in his most recent start, when he fanned 6 and walked only 1 in 4 IP.  He did give up 7 hits in that outing.

Biggio, who was sent to the southwest to play some Outfield to add to his versatility, has had his issues at the plate, hitting .212/..378/.364.  He’s been his usual patient self, drawing 9 walks, but selectivity appears to be an issue, as reports suggest he’s passed on some very hittable pitches.

In truth, the Fall Stars game is not an All Star game.  Organizations have invested a great deal in sending their top prospects to Arizona, and they determine who plays in this showcase.  If selection was truly based on merit, reliever Jackson McClelland, who has topped 100 several times and gained a lot of notice this fall, would have been on the roster.

The game will be televised on MLB.com, as well as the MLB Network.

 

Jays Sending No Prospects to Australia

We’re still waiting for a response to an email that has been sent to the Blue Jays, but a source in Canberra indicated that Toronto will be sending none of their minor league players to the Australian Baseball League, which begins play in mid-November.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this development.  The Blue Jays have not seen a great deal of return on their investment over the past couple of seasons, as the players they’ve sent have not played major roles.  IF Jason Leblebijian, who played the last two seasons at Buffalo, was the 2015-16 ABL MVP.  The season prior to that, the team sent two-way star Anthony Alford down under after he had given up on his college football commitment in September of 2014.  Football limited him to just over 100 PAs in his first three pro summers after being drafted in 2012, so the Jays sent Alford to Australia to make up for that lost development time.  Even though their ABL affiliate Canberra made it to the league finals last year, Blue Jays prospects played only a minor part.

From Canberra’s perspective, they likely wanted some more experienced players as the sport fights for atttention in Australia’s crowded sports landscape.  Toronto tended to send players from A ball who needed reps, but the competition level of the ABL is probably closer to AA.  This month, Canberra signed four players from the Yokohoma Bay Stars of the Japanese Central League, a clear indication that they wanted to upgrade the talent level on their team.

The Cavalry were born in 2009 as part of the latest version of the ABL.  The league has had its difficulties over the past few seasons, as MLB did not renew its original agreement with the league.  Teams have had to struggle to stay afloat and attract players, but most have been able to obtain local corporate support to continue to operate.  The Blue Jays have sent a number of players to Australia beginning with the 2011 season when they sent three players, including C Jack Murphy, whose status in the ABL could best be described as legendary.  New Westminster, BC native Mike Crouse, who the Blue Jays took in the 16th round of the 2008 draft, spent the 2013-14 season with the Cavs, and will be returning to their lineup again this year after spending the 2018 season in the Mexican League.

Canberra also have a partnership with the San Diego Padres, who are said to be sending four players south.   The Cavalry open their 2017-18 season against Sydney on November 10th.  The league has expanded from six to eight teams this year, adding an Australia-based Korean team who will use this experience as winter training, and a team from Auckland, NZ.  Teams play a 40 game schedule, with post-season play wrapping up by the end of January.

Update…….October 31st

A response from the Blue Jays simply stated that the team will not be sending any prospects to Australia this year.  There were no reasons given, nor was there any indication that they will be sent in the future.

This seems to give credibility to the notion that maybe both sides are ready to move on.  Canberra has been active in acquiring players to fill out their roster, rather than wait for MLB prospects to come on board a few weeks before the season started.

Fisher Cats Hitting Coach Reflects on Championship Season

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Gosportscards.com photo 

Many people who knew Hunter Mense warned him about taking the hitting coach job at AA New Hampshire.

After a season in the Padres’ organization, Mense had been recommended for the position last off-season by the Blue Jays newly hired minor league hitting co-ordinator, Guillermo Martinez.  Mense interviewed for the position, and two days later was offered the spot Player Development Director Gil Kim.  In preparing for his interview, Mense had done his homework, and saw that top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette, among others, would likely be his charges.  But some in Mense’s circle suggested he would be getting into a no-win situation if he took the job:

I talked a bunch of people and they’re like – Hunter, that’s not a good opportunity because you’ll have all the pressure in the world because the expectations that come along with coaching these guys is so high.

Nonetheless, when Kim called, Mense jumped at the opportunity.  And in the end, he took a great deal away from the experience, which included coaching the best prospect in all of minor league baseball for half a season, and an Eastern League championship:

I got so much more out of those guys than they got out of me. Everyone of them. I learned so much more about hitting and about baseball and about coaching and professional baseball and everything that goes along with it from them. Way more than they learned from me so it was such a great opportunity and there’s no way I couldn’t take it.

 

 

Born in Liberty, MO, Mense was undrafted out of high school, so he went the collegiate route, attending the University of Missouri.  Mense had a tremendous sophomore season, played for Team USA that summer, and after being named a pre-season 3rd team All American by Baseball America, he appeared to be a solid bet to be taken in the first 3-4 rounds of the 2007 MLB draft.  Such was not to be the case for the Outfielder, however, and after getting off to a slow start, he found himself in a downward spiral, and in his own words, “I was hurting myself and the people around me.”   Mense finished his junior season with a .258/.328/.390 line, and his draft stock dropped as a result.  He lasted until the Marlins selected him in the 17th round.

Despite that disappointment, there were a couple of silver linings to that disappointing season.  At this parent’s request, Mense came under the mentorship of Rick McGuire, who was Missouri’s track coach, and more importantly, was the well-regarded head of the school’s sports psychology department.  Mense initially balked at the prospect of meeting with McGuire, but after spending several hours in conversation with him, he felt a great burden had been eased as a result:

I don’t necessarily remember exactly what we talked about or things that we did, or anything like that, but I just remember walking out of his office that day and feeling like I had at a weight lifted off my shoulders.

In his next game, a more relaxed and focussed Mense had four hits, and turned his season around.  And through his exposure to McGuire, a post playing career had been laid out in front of him.  When Mense was released in his fourth season by the Marlins, he eventually returned to Missouri, and began to study for his Masters in Sports Psychology.  If there was a benefit, when all was said and done, to his draft stock dropping, it was that in his first year in the Marlins organization in the New York-Penn League in 2006, one of his teammates was a utility infielder by the name of Guillermo Martinez, who became a life-long friend.

 

After his release from the Marlins, Mense went home and played Indy ball in Kansas City for a couple of seasons, but he could see the writing on the wall, and began to prepare himself for his next career.  He decided he wanted to return to Missouri to finish his undergraduate degree, and he reached out to baseball coach Tim Jamieson, who took Mense on as an undergrad assistant coach, working with the team’s hitters.  Over the course of four years, as he moved into post-grad work, Mense served a variety of roles for the team:  undergrad and graduate volunteer assistant coach, and colour commentator on the team’s radio broadcasts.  When an opening on Jamieson’s staff became available following the 2015 season, Mense was a natural fit, and was offered the job.  Unfortunately, Jamieson had not taken the Tigers to an NCAA regional since 2012, and after he failed to do so again in 2016, he tendered his resignation.  A new head coach came in, and Mense was encouraged to explore coaching opportunities elsewhere, and after a summer off, he connected with the Padres, and was named the hitting coach at Tri-City, their Northwest League affiliate.  When the Blue Jays came calling following his first summer with the Padres last year, the organization was understandably unwilling to let him go at first.  The connection with his former teammate Martinez was integral in Mense’s getting the opportunity with Toronto:

… any time you play with somebody, or you know somebody that continues to stay in baseball like he has, you just automatically stay in touch with those people and you know you always have something to talk about  –  especially when it’s a hitting guy. So we always stayed in contact throughout the years.

 

With top prospects Guerrero and Bichette supported by the likes of Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr, New Hampshire Manager John Schneider jokingly referred to travelling with the Fisher Cats to being with a boy band.  Everywhere the team went, they were the centre of a great deal of media attention.  Underneath it all, however, everyone involved was pretty much having a blast, including newcomer Mense.

It was so much fun being around that group as a whole and then being around that group as an offence. It was it was so much fun just because I was a new one to the group. They were all a bunch of guys that had known each other, and had played with each other and that had played with Schneids last year. So I was the one that had the privilege of getting to know all of them especially through the first half. So they welcomed me with open arms and listened, and tried new things, and tried new drills, and tried new ideas and listened to new ideas from somebody that hadn’t been in the organization. So I felt really good about that just in a sense that they took me in and treated me like one of their own. I think it was like that with everybody that came up – if there was a guy that came up for a day a week a month two months whatever it was or came down it was the same sort of deal so I think when you have that and you put all those pieces together and you have some veteran pieces and better parts that are consistent, and know what they want out of a unit, then I think you’re going to have a lot of success.

With a stellar offence to work with –  the Fisher Cats led all of minor league baseball in OPS by 15 points – Mense was careful not to come in and make wholesale changes right away.  Players like Bichette and Guerrero know their swings so well that there’s little a hitting coach can do in terms of their mechanics.

If you’re a professional baseball and especially at the AA level you’ve got a bunch of guys who – one, they’re older, and they’re more established  – they’ve had success. They wouldn’t be at that level if they didn’t have success, too……  They’re going to be their best teacher, and at that point you think about all the hitting coaches and all the hitting people they’ve had around them up to that point in their lives. And if you’re a hitting guy and you come in and you start trying to tell them they need to do this you need to do this and this isn’t going to work….. You’re going to lose them really fast.

For the first half of the season, Mense was careful to respect those boundaries with his hitters.  He focussed on being available as a resource if he was needed, and spent time with his players in the batting cage and in the dugout, where the conversations were often more about life itself than about hitting.  The rapport that he built with them helped to lend his ideas and presence added credibility as the season progressed:

You start to build up this massive amount of trust, and through that then they start asking questions, and they start wondering different things that they have never thought about. As long as you come with an open and creative mind as a hitting coach, I think you’re going to get a lot more buy-in than a guy who’s just going to come in and just try and tell these guys what they should and shouldn’t be doing because these guys have all got to this point because they’ve had success.

With this approach, Mense feels the best job he did as a coach all year was his work with Guerrero:

(I just took) a step back and just let him do his thing,because I think I truly believe that there are a lot of a lot of coaches…… they just want to get in there and just don’t feel like they’re coaching unless they’re actually doing something mechanical with the player and to me by far the biggest wrong that you can make as a coach is doing that, because if something’s working and it’s really working for them, and you try changing it, you’re not going to get any buy-in from anything that you’re going to do with them.  

 

 

When asked to summarize his philosophy of hitting, Mense puts it down to a basic tenet:  “get a pitch early in the count that you can hit over an outfielder’s head.”  While that seems like a simple statement, it incorporates a number of elements, including being aggressive early in the count, before a pitcher with effective secondary pitches can gain an advantage.  But if you want to hit a ball over an outfielder’s head, Mense feels hitters need to be selective in their aggressiveness:

You’ve got to get the right pitch to do it with. So it’s zoning in on an area that you want to hit in and being steadfast on just dominating that area.

And when a hitter gets his pitch, he needs to get his best swing off:

You can’t hold anything back and you have to really get your A swing off, and then the last part of that is getting it over somebody’s head is not just getting your best swing off and your best swing is a line drive up the middle. Your best swing should  be able to get some air underneath the ball that’s going to make an outfielder turn and run and run back……

In today’s rapidly changing game, hitters need to put loft on the ball, because:

…..if you aren’t hitting balls out of the yard or you aren’t driving balls in gaps and you’re just a singles guy, you’re going to get left behind.

New Hampshire had a board in their locker room that listed all hitters who had hit balls over 100 mph, which really helped them buy into the best-swing/in-the-air mentality.  Perhaps the hitter who bought in the most and benefitted from it significantly as a result was Harold Ramirez.  Back in AA for a third season, Ramirez hit the ball as hard as any Fisher Cat, but in 2017 the result was primarily into the ground, leading to a disappointing season for Ramirez.  Some adjustments to his swing this year led to a batting title:

….we worked the whole year on putting his body into a different position to where he’s still hitting balls hard, but they’re just coming off the bat at an angle where it’s going up instead of going down, and then instead of hitting .267, he’s hitting .320 and leading the league in hitting, and he’s got 40+ doubles.

 

 When he does get to Toronto, likely by mid-April, Vladdy Jr will be subjected to a Mount Logan-sized amount of pressure, carrying the expectations of a country  – most of which has only heard or read about him, or maybe has seen him on grainy internet video. Mense thinks he’ll be more than up to the challenge:

The really cool thing about Vladdy is whenever the situation is challenging , whenever the situation is hard,  whenever we’re facing a guy that was really good, he would always like just rise up to a different level….I’ve never been around a guy who has wanted to be challenged and steps up and rises to a challenge more than him.

 Mense tells a story that demonstrates Guerrero’s ability to tackle challenges.  The Fisher Cats took a pitching machine on the road with them, which Mense operated.  During Guerrero’s last series with New Hampshire before his planned promotion, Mense set the machine to throw fastballs.  A few hitters took him up on it, but Vlad was content to watch curiously from the sidelines. The hitters would take turns moving closer to the machine, trying to square up balls, until they were about 15 feet away, at which point they could no longer get around on the pitches:

… there isn’t any one of the three guys who could really do it – they’re struggling, anything they hit was going straight into the ground and they were late on it. And I catch Vladdy out of the corner of my eye – he’s over in the other cage. He’s watching what’s going on and he’s seeing that this is really challenging. I can see the wheels spinning in his head and saying to himself, “OK, this is challenging.”

At that point, Guerrero decided to take a turn:

He goes up there – boom! – Takes a step up -boom! – Takes a step up -boom! – Takes a step up barreling up things and gets to about 15 feet where (the other hitters) were. Takes a couple swings doesn’t barrel it up, kind of goes straight to the ground, and he takes a step out. Two more to the back of the net. Take a step out leaves the cage. Kinda like this look on his face like yeah OK what’s next. That was it. It was like he was so intrigued and so interested in what these guys were doing because it was a challenge. He saw that it was hard for what they were doing. And that’s and that’s how he is he will take on challenges that nobody else will take on.

 Like all great players, Mense says Vladdy Jr makes everyone else around him a better player:

He’s one of those kids he makes everybody around him better when he comes in these are all such clichés that you hear about all the time, but it’s so true with him. When he comes into the clubhouse, he brings an energy to him, and when he comes in the dugout he’s got an energy to him. He’s got this aura around him, and he just makes everybody else better.

 

 Of all the players he worked with in New Hampshire, Mense is the proudest of what he and Bichette accomplished.  But it wasn’t easy.  After leading all of MiLB with a .384 average in his first year of full season ball in 2017, Bichette had his struggles against the advanced competition in AA.  Bichette’s troubles stemmed largely from being over-aggressive and expanding his strike zone, and word quickly got around the Eastern League, with Bichette seeing fewer and fewer pitches in the strike zone, and his average bottoming out at .237 in late May.  For some hitters, that might necessitate major tinkering with their swing mechanics, but Mense was prepared to stay the course with Bichette, and pointed out to him at mid-season the source of his troubles:

We were in Portland – this was right before he went to the Futures Game, and we sat down and I showed him some numbers and it was all just numbers based on his chase percentage and the percentage of pitches he was swinging that were outside of Zone, and how compared to guys in the big leagues when they were at the AA level. It was really good for him to see that, because he saw even guys chasing a lot in the big leagues when they were in AA, they weren’t chasing that much.

 To reinforce this mindset, Manager Schneider would deliberately throw pitches out of the strike zone to Bichette during batting practice, forcing him to corral his aggressiveness and improve his selectivity skills.  Once Bichette decided to focus on pitches he could barrel, his average climbed:

And that was the thing – he kind of came to the conclusion of instead of trying to cover the entire strike zone, he just had to shrink what he was trying to swing at, and get it earlier in the count. He just had to shrink that down a little bit and once he did it – once he realized that’s what he needed to do, man it was……… I mean he took off,  because the path that he has as a hitter that he takes to the baseball is an elite path.

 Bichette takes great pride in his hitting, and when he wasn’t putting the barrel on the pitches he was chasing, he knew he had to make a change in his approach:

His (struggles) had nothing to do with (lack of pitch recognition). He has bat speed, and an ability to not have to guess, and not have to start his swing early, which gives him an opportunity to be better and cover more pitches in the zone if he wants. It was just a change in mindset and in the end, he takes such pride in being aggressive….. But he also takes pride in getting a lot of hits too. And I think he realized that he had to adjust. Once he started to get exposed a little bit by pitchers – they felt like they didn’t even have to throw strikes to get him out. Once he realized that he wasn’t getting the hits, he was like, “Okay I gotta make a change because I like getting hits”

In the end, the struggles Bichette faced for the first time in his pro career will likely serve him very well in the future.  Mense thinks in many ways his 2018 season was better than 2017, because of the lessons he learned:

… in 2018 I can tell you and I can assure you was a way better year for him because he had to work through some things that are going to be going to be more sustainable for him for the rest of his career.

Cavan Biggio’s 2017 numbers didn’t stand out, but there were some inklings that big things were likely to come as a result of changes he had made in his mechanics following his rookie 2016 campaign.  In an attempt to swing harder and put more loft on the ball, Biggio’s flyball percentage jumped in 2017, as did his K% rate.  In the large Florida State League ballparks in the humid southern summer air, however, only 11 of those flyballs left the park.  This season, Biggio continued that approach, and made another mechanical adjustment.  Mense says Biggio’s experience coupled with that change allowed him to become one of the most dangerous hitters in the Eastern League, leading the loop in Home Runs, Walks, Slugging, and OPS:

(He’s a) guy that’s a year or more advanced in his career, and  advanced with what it is that he knows he can do damage with. And you couple that with he lowered his hands in the offseason, and felt like he was getting into a better spot where he could consistently get balls in the air. You put all those things together,  I think it is a recipe for doing that and hitting a bunch of home runs. I mean you look at his average exit velo from this year to last year and it went up a couple of miles per hour. So he was consistently hitting balls harder in the air. And I do think that probably has a little bit to do with him lowering his hands, and more so than anything I think it was it was just a conscious effort from him to try to do more damage and not just be a Singles hitter.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr was not with the Fisher Cats for long before his promotion to Buffalo, but he left a lasting impact on his teammates, and was a completely different player from 2017, which could be attributed to injuries, and as Mense points out, some rust:

 I think in talking to everybody and hearing him talk about it, it was just swinging at better pitches. And I think that probably had a little bit to do with the lay off that he had and not playing really competitively (for almost two years)……… So he was very meticulous with how he worked, and he was probably the best worker in the cage with what he wanted to do, and how he went about doing it, and how dead set he was on getting these things in. And that was really cool to see. I mean it was really cool for our guys to see, especially a guy like Vladdy watching him do these things every day, and then seeing the success he was having, then going up to the big leagues. He was putting in the work, and he was working his rear end off every single day that he came into the game, and he had an idea and a plan as to what he wanted to do.

Not every hitter Mense worked with was a success story from start to finish.  Max Pentecost caught a career-high 77 games, but the 2014 1st rounder struggled at the plate for the first four months of the season before making some changes and catching fire in August:

So he made a change, and I think there are a couple of parts to it. He got to a point when we were entering August, he was hitting about .195, and it got to a point where it was like, hey dude, we have to change something, because we can continue on this path, or we can change and hopefully something goes better. But if at the very worst you continue do what you’re doing. I mean what are going we to lose? So he was at a point where he was ready to make some changes, so we kind of let him mess around with it and kind of come up with his own ideas to what he wanted to do slowly, starting start having started incorporating like a little gather a little toe tap gather.

The difference in Pentecost’s hitting as a result of making those adjustments were swift and dramatic.  He started driving balls with regularity, and hit .375 for the month of August, leading the Eastern League in Slugging and OPS, garnering Player of the Month honours.  A small warning light that was flashing on Pentecost’s dashboard, however, was his .381 OBP.  As a result of being aggressive and attacking early in counts, he wasn’t drawing walks (all of 1 for the month).  In the playoffs, when he was probably feeling a bit tired at the end of a long season, Pentecost appeared to be just going up to the plate and hacking at the first pitch near the strike zone that he saw:

Towards the end of the year he kind of started getting worn down a little bit. I think that gather that he started having was a little bit quicker and so he wasn’t seeing pictures out of the guy’s hand as well as he was in that month of August. And so then he’s trying to make up for it by swinging and trying to get his best swing off and he was just trying to swing at everything and trying to do his damage with everything instead of just going back to slowing it down and just getting something in the zone.

Mense thinks that it’s still reasonable to be optimistic about Pentecost’s future due to his makeup and athleticism:

I like when he started doing that little gather – the old toe tap – it literally took him one day and then the next day he implemented it and it was like Home Run here, and Double here, and it was like it changed that fast. So he has the ability to make adjustments and change really fast. He did it from the Catching side of it too……. He’s he’s such a good athlete and has such good feel that he was able to make those changes.

 

Mense’s season started in Florida in Spring Training.  After five-plus months with New Hampshire, it was back to Florida for Instructs, and then off to the Dominican to work with hitters at the team’s complex there.  Among the hitters at this last two stops who impressed him were:

-2018 1st round pick Jordan Groshans:

I watched a couple of inter squad games, watched him hit a double off the wall in right field, it’s just like he’s got some Bo-ish type of athleticism to him in the box. He’s  a free and easy mover in the box and he’s always had success. And so it’s one of those things to work just let the guy go, and let him have that big leg kick, let him have this big hand pump. And if it continues to work don’t change it and just keep letting him do his thing and refine some things.

-2018 10th rounder Cal Stevenson, who led the Appalachian League in Runs, Walks, and OBP, and always seem to make things happen on the basepaths for Bluefield:

 I really liked watching him here. I really liked being around Cal Stevenson. The kid that was in Bluefield, just talking to him and his approach to his ABs. I mean they were so advanced with what he was trying to do. I mean gosh you look at his numbers with the amount of walks compared to strikeouts, and just the year that he had was unbelievable. 

OF Steward Berroa’s name may only be known to the most hardcore of Blue Jays prospect watchers, but he had a decent year in his first stateside season with the GCL Jas in 2018.

He’s the kind of kid that just epitomizes everything that the organization wants that a player just plays really hard, does everything that you ask, and he’s going to do it 110 percent and run. And he’s starting to learn how to hit a little bit. He’s got a little bit of juice, and he’s a plus Centrefielder, and when you throw all those things together and I think he’s a kid that. I think he’s going to win. I thought this when I first saw him when I  was down here last year, but he’s just like an explosive kid. When you have that quick twitch if you can figure out how to use that quick twitch in the right way you have a chance to be pretty good.

 

Mense’s profile was raised this summer along that of his hitters, and it’s understandable that people ask him what his future goals are.  Although having listened to him for almost an hour, it’s obvious that he’s a player development guy through and through.  He enjoys the process, and doesn’t necessarily have a burning ambition to be an MLB hitting coach as soon as possible:

   I just know that what I see myself doing in five years or whatever it may be,I just know that I really enjoy helping. I really enjoy working with players, and I really enjoy being with players and around players and watching them develop and watching them grow. I just know that I’ll be doing that in some sort of capacity or if I feel like I can do it at a big league level great, if I do like I’m doing at AAA or AA or whatever. If they create a role for me that’s different….. I get the most satisfaction out of that and I feel like  watching guys develop and helping guys make it accomplish and their life long goal.

 

After his time in the Dominican, Mense was off to Madison, NJ.  His fiance is a dietitian with the NFL’s New York Jets, and a guy used to the cold (but not the snow) of a Missouri off-season is now in search of a winter sport to keep him occupied until spring training.  Wherever he lands in the Blue Jays organization next year, their minor league prospects will have a patient and insightful mentor to guide them.

Blue Jays Place Six on Rookie Ball Top Prospects Lists

Blue Jays CEO/President Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins spoke several times this summer about the need to develop waves of prospects.  With Danny Jansen, Lourdes Gurriel Jr, and Ryan Borucki having established themselves after making their MLB debuts this summer, the next wave, featuring Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, and Nate Pearson are not far behind them.  Deeper into the system, another wave appears to be gathering momentum, as three Blue Jays prospects made Baseball America‘s Top 20 Appalachian and Gulf Coast League lists.

Toronto was all but shut out on BA’s Top Prospects by league after placing 3 (Guerrero, Bichette, and Cavan Biggio) on the Eastern League Top 20, only Kevin Smith appeared on the A ball rankings, placing 15th on BA’s Top 20 Midwest League prospects list, and 11th on their Florida State League rankings.  For Smith, it was truly deserved, as possibly no Toronto farm hand did more to improve their stock than the 2017 4th rounder.  BA sees Smith as a potential solid, if not outstanding MLBer.

-from the MWL Top 20 report:

Although not seen as a flashy player, Smith’s profile features a lot to like. He has demonstrated a much-improved hit tool, and he has average power as well. Smith has a blue collar feel to the way he plays and features the intangibles that scouts love to see.

-the FSL Top 20:

Evaluators who like Smith see a player who can stick at shortstop with a bat-first profile in the mold of Paul DeJong. He’s never going to be the flashiest player on the field, but his work ethic and all-around skills will help him produce impressive seasons. His bat can handle a slide to second base as well.

 

After being shut out in the Northwest League Top 20, three Bluefield Blue Jays could be found in BA’s Appalachian League Top 20, starting with P Eric Pardinho.  The cream of last July’s IFA Pitching class, Pardinho skipped the complex league, and despite adjusting to a new culture and language on top of the travel and daily grind that comes with under the lights play, he was the top-ranked prospect Pitcher in the league, checking in at #4 overall:

Pardinho ranked third in the Appy League with 64 strikeouts and showed precocious control for his age, walking 16 batters in 11 starts. But what’s most impressive is his command and feel for changing speeds and locations for such a young pitcher.

Pardinho was joined on the list by his battery mate for the last half of the season, Alejandro Kirk.  Kirk burst onto the scene this year after being a late 2016 sign.  He injured his hand in an off-season car accident after signing, then reinjured the hand in his first pro AB in the GCL in 2017.  A bat-first player, Kirk was forced into regular Catching duties at Bluefield this year after injuries limited Hagen Danner to DHing.  Kirk managed to continue to mash despite the rigours of Catching, but there is some question as to his ultimate position:

Kirk has a solid approach at the plate and a smooth stroke, but he faces skepticism about his future defensive home because of his frame. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 220 pounds, Kirk has well below-average athleticism and speed and will need to clean up his body to stick behind the plate.

And despite some inconsistency and injury issues through his first two seasons of pro ball, 2017 2nd round choice Danner showed enough to crack BA’s list at #16:

After walking just five times in 136 plate appearances (3.7 BB%) in 2017, Danner walked 20 times in 137 plate appearances (14.6 BB%) this summer, while improving his average and slugging significantly as well. He’s got strength and bat speed that should allow him to become an average hitter with average power.

 

2018 first round pick Jordan Groshans did not disappoint in his first season, and he made the transition from high school to pro ball seamlessly, finishing the season with Bluefield after starting in the GCL.  With an impressive crop of Short Stops ahead of him, Groshans still showed enough on both sides of the ball to rank 5th on BA’s list:

 Groshans has a polished hitting approach and a knack for finding the barrel. He squares up good pitching with quick bat speed and plus raw power. While Groshans has the sock in his bat to go deep from right-center over to his pull side, he mostly showed a line-drive, all-fields approach in the GCL, hammering fastballs and driving pitches on the outer half with authority to the opposite field.

The question is where Groshan’s ultimate position will be.  He has an above average arm and has good hands, but some scouts suggest he lacks the quick-twitch reactions to allow him to stay at the position.  New Hampshire hitting coach Hunter Mense, who worked with hitters at Instructs this fall, said Groshans was among the most impressive players he saw during his time there.

C Gabriel Moreno burst onto the radar this year.  After a solid but not dominant performance in the Dominican Summer League last year, the 2016 IFA from Venezuela raked in the GCL this year, earning a late season promotion with Groshans to the Appy League.  All indications are that Moreno has the tools behind the plate to stay there, although he has work to do on his blocking and receiving.  At the plate, he’ll have to refine his approach as he works his way up the ladder:

Moreno has an aggressive approach and seldom walks, but he also rarely strikes out because his hand-eye coordination and barrel control is outstanding. He has a knack for finding the sweet spot, making consistent hard contact with enough power potential to hit 15-20 home runs.

Finally, 2B/SS Leo Jimenez made in onto the back end of the list at #19.  Jimenez received the top bonus for a Panamanian player in July of 2017, and Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish singled him out as an IFA who could move in a hurry:

(He’s) bilingual, great make up, ultra young in the class – a late May birthday – he really has lead-off or #2 hole potential….if you asked me right now who has a chance to play SS in your system, Leo would be at the top of that list.  The way the body moves, the way the arm works, the instincts, he’s a really good, future upside defender.”

BA may not agree that his long-term future lies at SS, but they like Jimenez’ all-around game:

Jimenez is a smart, instinctive player in all phases of the game, helping make up for the lack of typical quick-twitch athleticism scouts like to see from a shortstop. A fringe-average runner, Jimenez’s defensive range is a question mark but he reads the ball well off the bat, has soft hands, good body control and a knack for slowing the game down. At the plate he consistently puts together quality at-bats, staying within the strike zone and spraying line drives around the field.

Blue Jays Fans: Is Your Love Big Enough?

We all know someone like this……

IMG_1266.jpg

 

In 2015, as Alex Anthopoulos emptied the larder in a riverboat gambler series of moves to strengthen the 25-man roster as he read the tea leaves in the form of the imminent hiring of Mark Shapiro, long-dormant Blue Jays fans woke from their baseball slumber and took notice.  You know the type:  the people you’d run into at the grocery store, or at a dinner party, who said, “Wow, the Jays are good again.  It’s been a long time since I’ve watched a game.”

A few days or weeks later, said fan would post pictures of themselves on Facebook in field level seats at the Dome, their newly revived fandom captured for posterity.

Rogers loved the sound of the turnstiles spinning as the team brought post-season baseball back to the city for the first time in a generation.  TV ratings were through the roof, and the less than 1.5 million fans who had watched the team just a half decade before  – the lowest total since the bad old days at early 80s Exhibition Stadium – was seemingly a thing of the past.

In 2016, hopes were high, although the Blue Jays management and long-time fans watched nervously as the core of the roster became one year older.  Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins were ready to begin the process of deconstructing the team in the initial phases of a rebuild for 2017, but Rogers had visions of a half-empty stadium (between 2000 and 2015, the highest the team finished in AL attendance was 6th), and nixed the plan at least for one more season.

Expectations were high for 2018, but in reality, they shouldn’t have been.  With Tulowitzki out for the season, Donaldson showing the effects of averaging 157 games for four straight seasons after an age when most players peak, and Russell Martin demonstrating that he’s in the twilight of a fine career, the Blue Jays never were seriously in contention.

All signs point to that rebuild finally coming next year.  Prospects Danny Jansen and Ryan Borucki are here (likely to stay), Vlad Jr will be on board by next mid-April, and Bo Bichette, Sean Reid-Foley, and perhaps Cavan Biggio will be on their way to becoming MLB regulars at some point next year or in early 2021.  Behind them, there are promising prospects such as Nate Pearson, Kevin Smith, Eric Pardinho, Jordan Groshans, Miguel Hiraldo, and even Orelvis Martinez, who has turned heads at Instructs this fall. The club has stockpiled middle infielders, which Atkins admitted earlier this week could one day be used as a means of improving the 25-man roster via trades.

So, Blue Jays fans should jump back on the bandwagon, and get ready for the kids to compete with Red Sox and Yankees, right?

Not so fast.

Until they’ve proven themselves at the major league level, prospects are just that.  MiLB stats are a good predictor of success, but the jump between AAA and MLB is the biggest one of all.  For every Mike Trout or Ronald Acuna who comes up and stars right away, there are literally dozens of players who appear ready for the challenge, but are unable to make the traditional “once through the league” adjustments that all need to make.  Which is one of the reasons why players have options – some need more seasoning in the minors, or they need to make the necessary corrections to their game in a less pressure-filled environment.  And even though the Blue Jays have the 3rd ranked farm system in the game (according to Baseball America), that type of accolade does not usually translate into immediate success at the big league level.  The smarter and more dedicated players understand that their development never really stops, and those that are determined to continue to improve their game and fight through adversity usually fulfill the success that their tools prophesize.

The question is – will the marginal Blue Jays fan, the Facebook fan, be able to hang in for the three to four years (two seems wildly optimistic) it will take for what is becoming known as a state-of-the-art farm system to bear fruit?  Will they come out to see a team likely headed for 90 losses next year, or will they sell their 200 level tickets for $8 on StubHub next September?  If you have the answer to that, Rogers would like to know…..

Maybe the fan quoted above is an outlier, or perhaps he represents a sizeable chunk of Blue Jays nation – it’s well known around baseball that Toronto fans are Blue Jays fans first, and baseball fans second.  And maybe those of us who watch a lot of minor league games, read scouting reports, and write about prospects feel much more strongly about their presence on an major league roster because we’ve been following them for several years. But it would appear on the surface at least, that the casual fan really won’t be buying in to the rebuild until it’s near completion.

Buffalo Bisons Season Re-cap

For long-suffering Buffalo Bisons fans, 2018 was full of promise and potential.

With an Opening Day roster that featured more prospects than previous editions of the Bisons, it looked like the team’s playoff drought, which stretched back a dozen years, would be coming to an end.

Such was not to be the case, however.

Buffalo opened the season with Danny Jansen, Ryan Borucki, and the returning Rowdy Tellez.  But SS Richie Urena and OF Anthony Alford opened the season on the Disabled List, and despite the addition of Sean Reid-Foley in June and Vladimir Guerrero Jr in late July, the Bisons never really hit their stride, and finished a disappointing 61-77 on an 11 game losing streak.

The snowy northeastern April weather didn’t help.  The Bisons had their opening series in Rochester snowed out, then rainouts in the middle of the month forced the cancellation of games for five straight days, and the doubleheaders began to pile up as a result.

Buffalo pitchers didn’t miss a lot of bats, finishing last in the league in strikeouts, and an offence that ranked toward the bottom in most team categories couldn’t bail them out.

Making out a lineup was a daily problem for Manager Bobby Meacham.  The Bisons used 73 different players, and made a total of 257 roster moves, the most since the club became a Blue Jays affiliate in 2013.   

In terms of prospects, Jansen was easily the team MVP, and earned an August promotion to Toronto.  It’s unlikely he’ll be back, and the same case could be made for Borucki. Reid-Foley continued his strong start at New Hampshire over to Buffalo, and while he’ll make a strong bid for a starting job next spring, he could return to AAA for more seasoning before he sticks for good.  After starting the season on the DL, Urena rode the QEW shuttle most of the season, never really settling in at the plate with Buffalo. For Alford, it was a similar story.  After a rehab stint in Dunedin, he did not produce at a level similar to last year. Jonathan Davis rode a strong Arizona Fall League showing into a hot start with New Hampshire, and earned a promotion to the 40-man after a strong performance at Buffalo. Guerrero was all but on his way to Buffalo when he was sidelined for a month by a knee injury in July, but showed why he was the Minor League Player of the Year when he returned.

Although they’ve seen this story before, Buffalo fans should take heart in the fact that the core of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, a group that has won two titles over as many seasons, should arrive in Buffalo early next April.  Guerrero should be part of that group, but his presence on the Niagara Frontier will likely be brief. Rumours suggest that Manager John Schneider will move up with this group, and Meacham will likely be assigned somewhere else in the organization.

Buffalo Stats

Advanced Hitting

Name Age PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
Alberto Mineo 23 15 13.3 % 0.0 % 0.462 0.533 0.692 1.226 0.231 0.417 0.536 250
Steve Pearce 35 15 20.0 % 6.7 % 0.364 0.533 0.636 1.170 0.273 0.333 0.512 233
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 19 128 11.7 % 7.8 % 0.336 0.414 0.564 0.978 0.227 0.323 0.428 175
Teoscar Hernandez 25 18 0.0 % 38.9 % 0.278 0.278 0.667 0.944 0.389 0.333 0.408 161
Danny Jansen 23 360 12.2 % 13.6 % 0.275 0.390 0.473 0.863 0.198 0.292 0.386 146
Randal Grichuk 26 9 11.1 % 33.3 % 0.250 0.333 0.625 0.958 0.375 0.250 0.378 141
Gunnar Heidt 25 70 10.0 % 38.6 % 0.286 0.357 0.460 0.817 0.175 0.471 0.365 132
Dwight Smith Jr. 25 361 12.2 % 14.7 % 0.268 0.358 0.413 0.771 0.145 0.302 0.348 120
Rowdy Tellez 23 444 9.0 % 16.7 % 0.270 0.340 0.425 0.765 0.155 0.298 0.341 115
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. 24 156 2.6 % 21.8 % 0.293 0.321 0.449 0.769 0.156 0.345 0.340 115
Billy McKinney 23 72 11.1 % 22.2 % 0.203 0.292 0.453 0.745 0.250 0.222 0.329 107
Dalton Pompey 25 168 8.3 % 24.4 % 0.255 0.325 0.393 0.718 0.138 0.317 0.322 102
Darnell Sweeney 27 332 9.3 % 34.0 % 0.236 0.311 0.411 0.722 0.175 0.339 0.322 102
Jonathan Davis 26 202 5.9 % 20.3 % 0.249 0.308 0.389 0.698 0.141 0.295 0.315 97
Tim Lopes 24 385 6.8 % 15.1 % 0.277 0.325 0.364 0.689 0.088 0.322 0.311 94
Jason Leblebijian 27 324 11.1 % 30.2 % 0.220 0.315 0.362 0.677 0.142 0.295 0.310 94
Anthony Alford 23 417 7.2 % 26.9 % 0.240 0.312 0.344 0.656 0.104 0.327 0.300 87
Reese McGuire 23 369 8.9 % 20.9 % 0.233 0.312 0.339 0.651 0.106 0.281 0.298 86
Michael De La Cruz 25 50 12.0 % 34.0 % 0.186 0.286 0.349 0.635 0.163 0.308 0.288 79
Roemon Fields 27 367 7.9 % 21.8 % 0.238 0.307 0.305 0.612 0.067 0.305 0.281 74
Ian Parmley 28 124 3.2 % 24.2 % 0.263 0.293 0.339 0.632 0.076 0.352 0.281 74
Gift Ngoepe 28 159 15.7 % 39.6 % 0.168 0.304 0.252 0.556 0.084 0.299 0.269 66
Richard Urena 22 268 4.5 % 17.9 % 0.216 0.250 0.344 0.594 0.128 0.246 0.263 61
Gio Urshela 26 91 4.4 % 9.9 % 0.244 0.275 0.279 0.554 0.035 0.269 0.252 54
Danny Espinosa 31 60 5.0 % 25.0 % 0.232 0.271 0.286 0.557 0.054 0.317 0.247 50
Devon Travis 27 64 3.1 % 10.9 % 0.210 0.234 0.274 0.509 0.065 0.222 0.231 39
Jon Berti 28 8 0.0 % 37.5 % 0.250 0.250 0.250 0.500 0.000 0.400 0.226 36
Andrew Guillotte 25 11 0.0 % 36.4 % 0.091 0.091 0.091 0.182 0.000 0.143 0.082 -63

Batted Ball

Name GB/FB LD% GB% FB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo% SwStr%
Teoscar Hernandez 1.00 20.0 % 40.0 % 40.0 % 50.0 % 63.6 % 27.3 % 9.1 % 17.7 %
Randal Grichuk 0.25 0.0 % 20.0 % 80.0 % 25.0 % 60.0 % 20.0 % 20.0 % 15.2 %
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 1.96 29.0 % 47.0 % 24.0 % 25.0 % 44.1 % 23.5 % 32.4 % 7.2 %
Steve Pearce 0.20 40.0 % 10.0 % 50.0 % 20.0 % 50.0 % 20.0 % 30.0 % 6.2 %
Alberto Mineo 1.00 23.1 % 38.5 % 38.5 % 20.0 % 53.9 % 15.4 % 30.8 % 5.9 %
Gunnar Heidt 1.17 27.8 % 38.9 % 33.3 % 16.7 % 52.8 % 19.4 % 27.8 % 18.1 %
Jason Leblebijian 1.04 23.5 % 39.1 % 37.4 % 14.9 % 48.4 % 24.2 % 27.4 % 15.7 %
Darnell Sweeney 0.77 29.5 % 30.6 % 39.9 % 13.7 % 38.5 % 25.1 % 36.4 % 15.4 %
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. 1.32 23.9 % 43.4 % 32.7 % 13.5 % 50.4 % 25.2 % 24.4 % 12.3 %
Dalton Pompey 1.65 15.1 % 52.8 % 32.1 % 11.8 % 26.6 % 34.9 % 38.5 % 9.5 %
Danny Jansen 0.81 24.2 % 33.9 % 41.9 % 11.5 % 53.8 % 23.3 % 22.9 % 4.4 %
Billy McKinney 0.46 12.8 % 27.7 % 59.6 % 10.7 % 37.5 % 31.3 % 31.3 % 12.0 %
Rowdy Tellez 1.03 19.9 % 40.7 % 39.4 % 10.2 % 36.5 % 29.1 % 34.4 % 9.2 %
Jonathan Davis 1.35 19.6 % 46.2 % 34.3 % 10.2 % 45.5 % 24.1 % 30.3 % 8.5 %
Reese McGuire 1.39 21.7 % 45.5 % 32.8 % 8.8 % 38.7 % 21.3 % 39.9 % 9.0 %
Gift Ngoepe 1.08 23.5 % 39.7 % 36.8 % 8.0 % 40.9 % 23.9 % 35.2 % 14.9 %
Dwight Smith Jr. 1.81 18.5 % 52.5 % 29.0 % 8.0 % 41.8 % 21.8 % 36.4 % 8.9 %
Richard Urena 1.09 19.3 % 42.1 % 38.6 % 6.4 % 42.8 % 23.6 % 33.7 % 12.0 %
Anthony Alford 1.38 21.4 % 45.5 % 33.1 % 5.9 % 43.6 % 23.3 % 33.1 % 12.4 %
Devon Travis 1.05 25.5 % 38.2 % 36.4 % 5.0 % 43.6 % 18.2 % 38.2 % 3.6 %
Roemon Fields 2.03 19.5 % 53.9 % 26.6 % 3.1 % 35.2 % 28.9 % 36.0 % 9.8 %
Tim Lopes 1.37 19.1 % 46.8 % 34.1 % 2.0 % 39.7 % 25.7 % 34.7 % 8.0 %
Gio Urshela 1.50 27.6 % 43.4 % 28.9 % 0.0 % 39.7 % 23.1 % 37.2 % 10.9 %
Jon Berti 2.00 60.0 % 40.0 % 0.0 % 0.0 % 60.0 % 20.0 % 20.0 % 16.2 %
Ian Parmley 1.73 18.4 % 51.7 % 29.9 % 0.0 % 34.1 % 19.3 % 46.6 % 15.6 %
Tyler Ladendorf 1.00 20.0 % 40.0 % 40.0 % 0.0 % 20.0 % 40.0 % 40.0 % 0.0 %
Danny Espinosa 1.67 20.0 % 50.0 % 30.0 % 0.0 % 40.5 % 28.6 % 31.0 % 20.2 %
Michael De La Cruz 1.00 15.4 % 42.3 % 42.3 % 0.0 % 48.2 % 25.9 % 25.9 % 14.7 %
Andrew Guillotte 0.20 14.3 % 14.3 % 71.4 % 0.0 % 57.1 % 0.0 % 42.9 % 12.8 %

Buffalo Pitching

Advanced

Name Age IP HR/9 K% BB% AVG WHIP BABIP ERA FIP
Ian Parmley 28 1 0 33.3 % 0.0 % 0.000 0.00 0.000 0.00 1.33
Jake Fishman 23 1.1 0 25.0 % 0.0 % 0.000 0.00 0.000 0.00 1.83
Roberto Osuna 23 3 0 33.3 % 13.3 % 0.385 2.33 0.625 0.00 2.00
Danny Barnes 28 8.2 1.04 30.6 % 2.8 % 0.257 1.15 0.348 5.19 2.64
Andrew Case 25 3 0 9.1 % 0.0 % 0.182 0.67 0.200 3.00 2.67
Claudio Custodio 27 10 0 18.6 % 9.3 % 0.231 1.30 0.290 4.50 2.93
Tim Mayza 26 25.2 0.7 32.7 % 10.0 % 0.265 1.44 0.400 4.56 2.94
Jose Fernandez 25 29.1 0.61 26.7 % 6.7 % 0.207 1.06 0.273 2.45 2.96
Sam Moll 26 18.2 0.48 21.6 % 5.7 % 0.293 1.55 0.371 5.30 2.96
Sean Reid-Foley 22 85.1 0.53 27.1 % 8.3 % 0.233 1.24 0.318 3.90 3.06
Justin Shafer 25 38.1 0 20.4 % 10.2 % 0.194 1.12 0.252 1.41 3.07
Luis Santos 27 42.2 0.42 21.4 % 7.0 % 0.238 1.27 0.300 2.74 3.12
Jon Harris 24 12 0.75 18.8 % 2.1 % 0.298 1.25 0.351 3.00 3.17
Justin Dillon 24 22.2 0.79 23.8 % 2.5 % 0.130 0.53 0.143 0.79 3.20
Matt Dermody 27 5 0 24.0 % 16.0 % 0.333 2.20 0.467 7.20 3.33
Matt Tracy 29 48.2 0 15.8 % 9.9 % 0.233 1.27 0.284 2.40 3.37
Jake Petricka 30 23 0.39 15.9 % 5.7 % 0.244 1.09 0.284 0.78 3.46
Jacob Waguespack 24 39.1 0.69 19.0 % 5.8 % 0.288 1.45 0.347 5.03 3.49
Sam Gaviglio 28 29 1.24 26.9 % 3.7 % 0.204 0.86 0.243 1.86 3.64
Al Alburquerque 32 28.2 0.94 22.0 % 6.5 % 0.296 1.47 0.365 3.77 3.65
Conor Fisk 26 57.2 0.62 18.9 % 7.4 % 0.251 1.28 0.301 2.81 3.68
Deck McGuire 29 44.2 0.6 22.2 % 10.6 % 0.208 1.16 0.259 3.22 3.83
Joe Biagini 28 21.2 0.42 14.0 % 8.6 % 0.226 1.25 0.257 4.57 3.98
Ryan Borucki 24 77 0.7 18.4 % 8.9 % 0.218 1.17 0.253 3.27 4.05
Carlos Ramirez 27 8.1 0 26.3 % 21.1 % 0.069 1.20 0.105 5.40 4.17
Darnell Sweeney 27 1 0 25.0 % 0.0 % 0.000 0.00 0.000 0.00 4.33
Rhiner Cruz 31 8.2 1.04 25.0 % 13.9 % 0.194 1.27 0.238 1.04 4.49
Zach Stewart 31 34.1 0.79 12.0 % 7.6 % 0.315 1.69 0.347 4.98 4.50
Jordan Romano 25 5 0 13.6 % 18.2 % 0.222 1.60 0.267 3.60 4.53
Thomas Pannone 24 36.2 1.96 26.0 % 4.6 % 0.274 1.28 0.327 4.91 4.64
Murphy Smith 30 62.2 1.01 15.5 % 9.2 % 0.250 1.37 0.277 3.59 4.74
Dusty Isaacs 26 10 0.9 16.0 % 10.0 % 0.341 2.00 0.400 6.30 4.83
Chris Rowley 27 101 0.98 14.5 % 9.6 % 0.252 1.39 0.276 3.30 4.90
Juliandry Higuera 23 2.1 0 10.0 % 20.0 % 0.125 1.29 0.143 7.71 5.05
Taylor Guerrieri 25 57.1 1.26 15.8 % 8.5 % 0.292 1.57 0.326 5.18 5.08
Brandon Cumpton 29 52.2 1.54 13.6 % 6.6 % 0.293 1.46 0.308 6.15 5.29
Mike Hauschild 28 21.2 1.25 10.8 % 8.6 % 0.271 1.43 0.278 4.98 5.32
Connor Eller 24 1.1 0 0.0 % 10.0 % 0.556 4.50 0.556 33.75 5.58
Craig Breslow 37 19.1 1.4 20.2 % 14.4 % 0.330 2.28 0.406 5.59 5.66
Shawn Morimando 25 20 2.25 13.3 % 2.4 % 0.259 1.15 0.246 4.50 5.78
Nick Tepesch 29 41 2.63 10.2 % 6.6 % 0.322 1.73 0.311 7.90 7.33
Josh DeGraaf 25 3.2 2.45 11.8 % 11.8 % 0.267 1.64 0.250 7.36 7.42
Preston Guilmet 30 4.2 3.86 9.5 % 4.8 % 0.350 1.71 0.313 5.79 8.69
Dalton Rodriguez 21 1.2 5.4 33.3 % 22.2 % 0.286 2.40 0.333 16.20 11.13
Marco Estrada 34 3.1 5.4 21.4 % 14.3 % 0.250 1.50 0.143 8.10 11.13
Chad Girodo 27 3.2 7.36 16.7 % 0.0 % 0.389 1.91 0.333 12.27 12.33

Batted Ball

Name LD% GB% FB% Pull% Cent% Oppo% SwStr%
Chad Girodo 26.7 % 33.3 % 40.0 % 33.3 % 40.0 % 26.7 % 10.5 %
Dalton Rodriguez 0.0 % 50.0 % 50.0 % 50.0 % 0.0 % 50.0 % 13.2 %
Marco Estrada 11.1 % 33.3 % 55.6 % 33.3 % 33.3 % 33.3 % 11.6 %
Nick Tepesch 21.4 % 47.4 % 31.2 % 57.9 % 20.8 % 21.4 % 6.6 %
Preston Guilmet 11.1 % 44.4 % 44.4 % 50.0 % 16.7 % 33.3 % 8.6 %
Jake Petricka 13.4 % 79.1 % 7.5 % 42.7 % 10.3 % 47.1 % 9.7 %
Jon Harris 28.9 % 57.9 % 13.2 % 55.3 % 21.1 % 23.7 % 10.6 %
Brandon Cumpton 23.8 % 47.5 % 28.7 % 42.0 % 24.3 % 33.7 % 6.4 %
Josh DeGraaf 15.4 % 38.5 % 46.2 % 38.5 % 15.4 % 46.2 % 0.0 %
Taylor Guerrieri 19.0 % 55.0 % 25.9 % 45.1 % 23.3 % 31.6 % 7.6 %
Mike Hauschild 16.2 % 56.8 % 27.0 % 44.0 % 25.3 % 30.7 % 8.1 %
Sam Gaviglio 16.2 % 45.9 % 37.8 % 46.0 % 24.3 % 29.7 % 10.6 %
Thomas Pannone 22.3 % 22.3 % 55.3 % 42.5 % 33.0 % 24.5 % 12.5 %
Shawn Morimando 11.6 % 36.2 % 52.2 % 48.6 % 21.4 % 30.0 % 6.4 %
Al Alburquerque 24.1 % 50.6 % 25.3 % 47.7 % 19.3 % 33.0 % 9.6 %
Craig Breslow 15.6 % 46.9 % 37.5 % 43.3 % 28.4 % 28.4 % 9.7 %
Rhiner Cruz 28.6 % 33.3 % 38.1 % 23.8 % 33.3 % 42.9 % 10.1 %
Murphy Smith 25.1 % 37.4 % 37.4 % 45.3 % 23.4 % 31.3 % 8.6 %
Tim Mayza 22.6 % 41.9 % 35.5 % 41.3 % 23.8 % 34.9 % 12.1 %
Dusty Isaacs 38.9 % 30.6 % 30.6 % 52.8 % 16.7 % 30.6 % 14.4 %
Jacob Waguespack 18.3 % 52.4 % 29.4 % 42.6 % 22.5 % 34.9 % 9.4 %
Chris Rowley 21.6 % 35.0 % 43.4 % 54.3 % 23.0 % 22.7 % 8.5 %
Ryan Borucki 14.3 % 51.6 % 34.1 % 44.9 % 25.6 % 29.5 % 8.0 %
Danny Barnes 21.7 % 21.7 % 56.5 % 41.7 % 33.3 % 25.0 % 11.5 %
Deck McGuire 24.1 % 39.7 % 36.2 % 51.3 % 21.0 % 27.7 % 10.8 %
Jose Fernandez 15.4 % 47.4 % 37.2 % 45.6 % 25.3 % 29.1 % 13.2 %
Justin Dillon 16.1 % 32.1 % 51.8 % 48.3 % 19.0 % 32.8 % 8.2 %
Sean Reid-Foley 22.7 % 42.7 % 34.7 % 38.4 % 26.2 % 35.4 % 13.1 %
Zach Stewart 20.2 % 38.7 % 41.1 % 48.4 % 27.0 % 24.6 % 6.6 %
Conor Fisk 24.7 % 34.5 % 40.8 % 41.2 % 23.2 % 35.6 % 11.0 %
Joe Biagini 27.9 % 42.6 % 29.4 % 47.9 % 23.9 % 28.2 % 6.9 %
Sam Moll 21.3 % 44.3 % 34.4 % 46.0 % 20.6 % 33.3 % 10.4 %
Luis Santos 29.9 % 30.7 % 39.4 % 39.4 % 30.3 % 30.3 % 10.8 %
Carlos Ramirez 11.8 % 35.3 % 52.9 % 47.4 % 31.6 % 21.1 % 8.5 %
Matt Tracy 20.8 % 50.7 % 28.5 % 41.8 % 17.1 % 41.1 % 6.9 %
Darnell Sweeney 0.0 % 50.0 % 50.0 % 50.0 % 0.0 % 50.0 % 15.0 %
Roberto Osuna 37.5 % 37.5 % 25.0 % 25.0 % 50.0 % 25.0 % 15.1 %
Ian Parmley 50.0 % 50.0 % 0.0 % 100.0 % 0.0 % 0.0 % 25.0 %
Matt Dermody 20.0 % 66.7 % 13.3 % 60.0 % 6.7 % 33.3 % 17.3 %
Justin Shafer 16.5 % 42.7 % 40.8 % 45.3 % 18.9 % 35.9 % 9.4 %
Claudio Custodio 19.4 % 41.9 % 38.7 % 41.9 % 38.7 % 19.4 % 9.3 %
Juliandry Higuera 14.3 % 71.4 % 14.3 % 42.9 % 14.3 % 42.9 % 7.7 %
Jordan Romano 33.3 % 40.0 % 26.7 % 33.3 % 20.0 % 46.7 % 5.2 %
Andrew Case 33.3 % 44.4 % 22.2 % 20.0 % 40.0 % 40.0 % 6.9 %
Connor Eller 33.3 % 33.3 % 33.3 % 55.6 % 33.3 % 11.1 % 2.9 %
Jake Fishman 0.0 % 66.7 % 33.3 % 100.0 % 0.0 % 0.0 % 14.3 %

Blue Jays Face Many Decisions Ahead of Rule 5

The Blue Jays face more 40-man roster decisions than they have in some time ahead of the roster freeze that comes in late November prior to December’s Rule 5 draft.

The Rule 5 has been in the spotlight for the past several years, and truth be told, probably gets more attention than it deserves; few teams are adding crucial pieces to World Series-contending puzzles at the draft, but it does force teams to make some hard decisions about players they’ve been developing.

The Blue Jays’ potential dilemma this year comes from several angles.  At the moment, there are only two pending openings on the 40, depending on what happens with free-agents-to-be Marco Estrada and Tyler Clippard, but those two vacancies may be quickly swallowed up by the addition of P Julian Mayweather, slated to come to Toronto from Cleveland in the Josh Donaldson deal, and (if and when) SS Troy Tulowitzki comes off the 60-Day DL.  In addition, several players who have been added to the 40 this fall (Dwight Smith Jr, Jose Fernandez, Justin Shafer, and Jonathan Davis) were given auditions in September in an attempt to determine their long-term futures with the club.  On top of that, there is a wealth of talent bubbling up from the minors that the club will have to factor in when determining their final 40-man.

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins admitted this week that the club may lose a player or two to the Rule 5.  He may have to be creative in opening up roster space – the club has only two options they could decline, one being Justin Smoak (not going to happen) and Yangervis Solarte (could very well happen).  Another route is non-tendering arbitration-eligible players – we’re looking at you, Kevin Pillar.  Atkins may have to consider packaging several players currently on the 40 to teams with roster space to help alleviate the crunch the Blue Jays are facing.

 A very quick primer for those new to the Rule 5

Baseball has had rules in place for over 70 years to keep teams from hoarding minor league talent.  The Rule 5 draft forces teams to make decisions about players who have been in their system for several seasons.  Player signed at 19 or older (typically college players) and who have played four or more seasons are eligible for the Rule 5 if not placed on the team’s 40 by the November deadline, and players signed at 18 or younger (high schoolers, international free agents) who have played five years are eligible as well.

Teams that draft a player must pay $100K for his rights; if they fail to keep him on their 25-man roster for the entire following season, they must offer him back to his original team for half that price.  Many teams use spring training as a tire-kicking exercise on these players.  The Blue Jays have a lengthy history in the Rule 5, drafting players like George Bell, Kelly Gruber, Jim Acker, and Manny Lee.  With the change in roster composition over the past several decades, teams rarely can afford to stash a young player at the end of their bench, and the Blue Jays have not often been Rule 5 players as a result.  One of the exceptions, of course, was Joe Biagini, who was a revelation in the Toronto bullpen two years ago.

Prospects On the Bubble

Again, for the newbies – don’t worry about Vlad and Bo.  Neither has to be placed on the 40 until a year from now, by which time both will have long since likely been added.  The tough decisions the Blue Jays face are on players who are not necessarily top prospects, but have potential value just the same.

 2017 Eligibles

These are players who actually were eligible a year ago, but were deemed too risky either due to injuries or the fact that they were too far away.  That may not be the case this year with:

RHP Patrick Murphy –  Murphy has a lengthy injury history, but has been healthy for the past two seasons.  He led the Florida State League in strikeouts, and hit 100 on the radar gun this year.  Scouts suggests he needs to refine his change-up to go with his fastball and hammer curve, but he’s unlikely to make it through the Rule 5 if he’s not added to the 40.

C Max Pentecost – the Blue Jays faced a huge decision with Pentecost last fall, but placed him on the DL after the Arizona Fall League ended, and that was enough to scare teams off.  Pentecost had a strong second half, but more importantly, he was healthy enough to be behind the plate for 90 games this year.  He hasn’t necessarily proved he can be an everyday MLB player, but he has shown enough to tantalize. His future may be one of the Blue Jays’ toughest decisions.

P Jordan Romano – the GTA native started the Eastern League All Star Game, and got the ball in the final game of New Hampshire’s title-winning game.  Romano’s change-up grew by leaps and bounds this year, but still has some room to grow.  If left off the 40 this year, some teams may be tempted to do a Biagini-like conversion with him.

2018 Eligibles

P Travis Bergen – the lefty reliever was lights out for Vancouver in their run to a league title in 2017, and filled the same role for New Hampshire this season.  Bergen has an injury history himself, but he will be quickly scooped up if he’s exposed to the Rule 5.

P Hector Perez – acquired in the Roberto Osuna deal, Perez has an electric arm, but inconsistent arm.  His stuff would likely play up in a bullpen role.

P Jon Harris – the 2015 1st rounder had a remarkable second-half turnaround, adding some velo and deception to his delivery.  The jury is still out on his ability to turn an MLB lineup over one day, but scouts no doubt took notice of the velo uptick. He’s a longshot at this point.

P Yennsy Diaz – armed with a mid 90s fastball, Diaz has one of the most exciting arms in the system.  He’s also only pitched one full season, splitting this year between Lansing and Dunedin, so teams may give him a pass if he’s left off the 40.

P Corey Copping – Copping came over in the deal with the Dodgers for John Axford, and fanned 20 hitters in 14 innings for New Hampshire, then another 6 in the 3 playoff IP. Copping fills the strike zone, and probably won’t make it through the Rule 5.

OF Harold Ramirez – the Eastern League batting champ can play all three OF positions.  He could add some offence and versatility to a team, but he’s also played three years at AA.  He’s a low risk of being selected in the Rule 5, but he’s worked his way into the discussion this year.

P Danny Young – Young could become next year’s Aaron Loup.  A side-winding southpaw, Young doesn’t light up the radar gun, but he held Eastern League left-handed hitters to a .217 average.

P Jackson McClelland – after helping to lead Dunedin to a FSL co-championship last year, McClelland could well have expected to head north with the core of that club to New Hampshire.  He didn’t, and spent some time on the DL early in the season.  By June, McClelland was hitting his stride, and by the summer was routinely hitting 100.  His fastball can be a little straight, and his command off at times, but it looked more and more like the Blue Jays were stashing him in High A with the Rule 5 in mind until a late-season promotion to New Hampshire.  He may be a longshot to make the Blue Jays’ 40 at the moment, but a strong Arizona showing might change the team’s mind, or with teams always looking for bullpen help, make him a potential Rule 5 sleeper.  This tweet by scout.com’s Jeff Ellis, one of our favourite evaluators, sums up McClelland perfectly:

 

And no discussion about the Blue Jays 40 man roster can be complete without a few words about Dalton Pompey.  The Mississauga had another sideways season in 2018, and was not added to the active roster in September, which probably gives broad hints about his future.  Pompey will be out of options next spring, and given the roster crunch the team currently faces, he likely won’t be a Blue Jay for much longer.

Veteran Blue Jays Manager Holmberg Looks to the Future

5a5ad35fc39ae.imageThink of your favourite High School teacher –  the one whose steady, calm demeanor and knowledge of his subject made you realize years later the impression he made upon you.  Veteran Blue Jays minor league Manager Dennis Holmberg (who, interestingly enough, was a substitute teacher in the off-season for many years) fits that image to a ‘T’.

A Manager in the Blue Jays system since their second season of existence, Holmberg has managed a respectable roster of future big leaguers, including Mark Eichhorn, Tony Fernandez, Jimmy Key, Pat Borders, Jose Mesa, Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Roy Halladay, Aaron Hill, J.P. Arencibia, Brett Cecil, Aaron Sanchez, and Kevin Pillar to name just a few.  His 1500 wins (a plateau he reached the day after his 67th birthday in August) puts him just outside the top 25 winningest MiLB Managers of all time – none of whom spent the better part of two decades in short season ball.

Reached at his home in Dunedin after the Bluefield Jays were eliminated in the Appalachian League playoffs in early September, Holmberg offered plenty of insight and memories to an Ontario caller.   A theme that he came back to several times are the upcoming changes that will be happening in the Blue Jays organization as the result of letting Manager John Gibbons go. He also enthused the impressive crop of prospects who are making their way through the system:

Over the last 3 years, the organization has been going through an internal process if trying to collaborate with proper language, and having players work on specific goals – every player should have 1-3 goals…we try to encourage players to master their goals….it can be anything from making a backhand play or a better swing path, or it could be a nutritional goal or a weight room goal.  ….something that they need to lock into, something that they and the organization agree they need to work on in their 1st and even 2nd and 3rd years of pro ball.

Drafted by the Expos in 1969, Holmberg opted to go to college, and was drafted and signed by the Brewers the following year.  He joined the Blue Jays in 1978, and has been employed as a minor league Manager or Coach in the system since then, a span of 40 years.  The last three years of his career may have been among the most rewarding of that near half-century of instructing, as he had Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Eric Pardinho at Bluefield, his last two teams reached the post season, and in addition to his 1500th W this year, he was inducted into the Florida State League Hall of Game.

This year was a very special year in my career….every year is a highlight of sorts…..but the 1500 wins – Pardinho won that game, we won 5-0 in the first game of a DH.  That’s 1500 wins, but that’s not counting the losses.   I am above .500 as a Manager…..when you add it up, that’s over 3000 games, and that doesn’t count the number of lineups that were put together and torn up, and I said, “I don’t like that lineup, and I’m going to go this way with this lineup.”  That was a special day, it was like you reached a point of longevity and consistency – and all of it but one year was with the Toronto Blue Jays.

When asked the difference between players of his early Managerial career and today, Holmberg doesn’t hesitate to mention the impact of technology and social media:

  So many kids are coming out of high school and college so unfocussed….their heads are rattled with so many things going on in their lives: social media, cell phones,  etc…20/40/60 years ago, if you were a ballplayer, you had one goal – get signed, go out, and play baseball.  So many kids now are being bombarded by outside influences.  I think every org should take a look at the personal development of each player…..you can walk into a clubhouse – even any big league clubhouse – so much is going on….the first thing you see is 25 guys at their lockers with their heads down, looking at their cell phones.  Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, or texting back and forth. I remember when I played in the 70s, there was one pay phone in the clubhouse.  When you stopped on the road, there would be 5 to 7 guys lined up at the pay phone just to call back home.  The world itself is changing, and the game has to change along with the players, and I’ve tried to join the madding crowd this year…a quick text message to a player or a video clip to players.  

Holmberg may have managed for longer than some of his young charges’ parents have been alive, but he sees himself as far more than their skipper:

After managing at short season for the last 17-18 seasons, I find myself as more of a father figure than a manager, and more of a teacher than a coach.  The last three years at Bluefield, we’ve had some good prospects….now I turn on the TV and I see Jansen Catching, and Borucki Pitching, or watching Rowdy Tellez make his major league debut, or Richie Urena at SS, Dwight Smith…….it’s not just me, it’s the result of the collaboration of many people in the organization.  I’ve tried to make it fun, and I’ve encouraged the players to be more than just a baseball player, but a better person…

No conversation with Holmberg would be complete without asking him about Guerrero and Pardinho, and not surprisingly he had some insights to offer:

 Vlad Jr……. this kid coming out at 16 – he turned 17 coming to Bluefield.  You look at a 17-year-old kid like Vladdy, and you know his heritage and bloodlines…you still have to go out and do it yourself….when I had him three years ago, he would’ve been a junior in high school, and he’s out playing against advanced players a couple of years older than him, but he more than held his own in all areas of development, whether it was hitting – which will be his stamp of approval – his power, his defence…..for his size, he’s a very athletic guy……he has enough tools – his hands are good enough, although he might be a half step short on his range, when he gets to the ball, he’s going to make the plays.  He’s a very hungry kid, a competitive kid – there’s a lot of things you can’t teach – that desire and self-motivation that he has counts for a whole lot.  I can’t imagine the pressure that’s on him, and will be on him next year at spring training, but I’m sure that he’ll be able to avoid any and all obstacles.  He’s going to be a special player, there’s no doubt about that.  He has his own routine, he does his own thing, and he does what works for him.  He’s just a natural.

On Pardinho, the Winning Pitcher in Holmberg’s 1500th victory:

Eric is somewhat like Vlad in that he’s light years ahead of his age, and that’s just because of his stuff.  Eric is a very intense competitor, he’s a strike thrower, and he can manage 3 or 4 pitches, he throws anywhere between the low 90s and the mid 90s.  He had a little bit of a workload this year – obviously, as a 17-year-old, we had to keep an eye on him coming out and pitching every 5th day.  He had a throwing program every day, you’ve got sidelines and bullpens in between starts, and you’re always concerned about wear and tear at an early age.  The Blue Jays are very conscientious about innings pitched and number of pitches thrown….Eric is very mature for a 17 year old, but at the same time, you can see where he’s still a young kid.  He’s a very silent, quiet competitor, he’s intense on the mound – he does get a little frustrated sometimes, whether it’s because a pitch wasn’t called a strike that looked like one.  Sometimes a play might not be made here or there, but that’s him being a perfectionist, and I think if I had to sum him up in one word, that’s what he would be, and the one thing he needs to learn is that nobody is perfect in this game.  I think with age, growth, and maturity, he’ll grow into understanding the game itself.

Holmberg said that he can’t speak for the organization, but he thinks a logical path for Pardinho next season is to keep him at Extended until the midwest weather warms up, then send him to Lansing.  He’ll need to continue to have his workload monitored, but Holmberg feels he has the tools to be successful at that level.

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When Bluefield switched short season affiliation to the Blue Jays in 2011, Holmberg was tapped to take over the Manager’s job.  He was offered the position for their new Vancouver affiliate that year, but felt that Bluefield was a better fit.  After 51 years of partnership with the Orioles, Holmberg wasn’t sure at first about the long-term success of the new relationship – “there was orange and black everywhere.”

Over time, he came to appreciate the town and its environment more and more.  With a forested mountain rising up beyond the outfield, Bowen Field is said to have the best batter’s eye in all of Minor League Baseball.  As for the town itself, it’s the perfect enviroment for Minor Leaguers, according to Holmberg:

For us, Bluefield is the absolute greatest place to go and play – we don’t draw 3 or 4 thousand fans every night (no teams in the Appy League do), they’re playing in a bit of a closed environment. Players just have to think about one thing, and that’s playing baseball.  There’s no big downtown city or  college life in and around Bluefield, there’s no beaches to go to.  There are great people there, and great people running the club.

In late August, with their Player Development Contract up for renewal at the end of September,  Toronto and Bluefield renewed their partnership for another two seasons.

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Holmberg played in the Brewers system for seven years, and says that while he wasn’t a five-tool player, he played with plenty of heart and desire.  “I hustled and ran everything out, and that’s probably why they kept me around,” he admits.  He continued with his education, with the Brewers paying his tuition as part of his signing bonus.  Holmberg felt that continuing with his studies was a worthwhile endeavour, and it helped keep him out of the draft.  The supply teaching his college degree allowed was an added bonus.

But even though he knew it was coming, it was tough to see himself fall short of his big league dreams as his playing career stalled at AA:

It’s tough when someone in the organization says, “we don’t think you’re going to be a big league ballplayer,” but I think I saw the writing on the wall.  They had asked me to go into Managing….I was 25 years old, and not that far removed from the guys I was playing with.  I’m glad I accepted their request, because I’m not sure where I would be today otherwise……So, I went to Holyoke, MA as a player-coach, then I was off the next year to Newark of the NY-Penn League to Manage.

Holmberg bought a bottle of champagne to keep on ice prior to his first game with Holyoke, hoping to celebrate his first Win after that game.  But Newark lost that opener, and the next five games after that.  Holmberg’s first Win as a Manager came in the next game, the opener of a double-header after a rainout,  and he says that he never enjoyed a colder bottle of champagne more.  He also learned from the 1-8 record his club started out with – Newark finished with a 43-25 record, and missed the playoffs by percentage points – “I learned to be patient and stay the course that season, and not to be swayed.”

Holmberg made some eventual Toronto connections during his time with the Brewers that helped him land employment when Milwaukee underwent a front office shakeup after his first year as a Manager.  Al Widmar had coached and scouted for the Brewers before taking a job with the newly hatched Blue Jays.  Bobby Mattick had scouted Holmberg as a college player while Mattick served as a cross checker for the Brewers as well.  Mattick was the first call Holmberg made when he began his job search, figuring that there would be openings as Toronto had operated only one farm team of their own the season before.  That led to an interview with Pat Gillick in Atlanta, and soon Holmberg was on his way to Florida, where after some scouting he served on Dennis Menke’s staff as a Coach of the new Blue Jays Florida State League entry.  And so began a career of four decades of working at various levels (including two stops with the Pioneer League’s Medicine Hat Blue Jays).

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Holmberg may have fallen short of the Majors in his playing career, but after bullpen coach John Sullivan retired following the Blue Jays back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, Manager Cito Gaston had an opening on his staff, and Holmberg was summoned to fill it.

Holmberg loved the experience:

There’s nothing like being in the big leagues, the cities, the travel, the locker rooms, the ball parks – everything is magnified ten times a hundred. 

Of course, this was not the best time to be a Toronto baseball fan.  The 1994 Blue Jays couldn’t find the three-peat magic, and were 5 games under .500 when the season came to a crashing halt in early August.  The 95 Jays finished 32 games below that mark, and behind the scenes, original owner Labbat’s was about to be taken over by Belgian giant Interbrew, who really had no interest in owning a baseball team.  For Holmberg, it was still a magical time, and those two years were a highlight.

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Extended Spring Training is where MLB teams house the players who aren’t quite ready for full season ball.  Talk to anyone who’s been through it, and they’ll tell you it’s a grind:  on the field for 9 am workouts, lunch at 11, then a game either at the minor league complex or on a bus to one of the other complexes in the afternoon, all under the increasingly hot Florida sun.  The training and experience are important, but the games don’t count for a whole lot, and everyone involved is chomping at the bit for the start of rookie or short season ball, usually around June 20th.  And having endured this routine for almost 20 years, it’s understandable that Holmberg is starting to tire of it, and he’s hopeful for a change:

The sun and the travel and the wear and tear (of Extended) get to you…..I live here in Dunedin, and maybe if there is something closer by in the FSL or the GCL – I don’t want to say I’ve paid my dues, and I don’t want to use the ‘R” word – but I can still throw BP, still hit fungoes, and still have an impact on player devo…….the ball is in their court……….the toughest thing about getting to Bluefield is getting through Extended.  It’s a grind.

Changes are indeed coming at the Major League level with the Blue Jays, as the John Gibbons farewell tour wraps up this weekend.  A new Manager will likely bring with him a new coaching staff.  Meanwhile, the Blue Jays hired a number of minor league coaches and instructors last off-season, and will likely bring on more before 2019.  Rumours have begun to circulate about which current staff will not be back.  Despite all those transitions, long time Blue Jays fans have to hope that there’s room for a certain organization lifer somewhere in the system, maybe with the FSL or GCL teams the Blue Jays operate.

Holmberg is very excited about the direction the organization is heading:

The players that are coming to Toronto in the next year or two will be ones that will create a very good identity for the city, the fans, and the country, and they’re just going to have to stay the course for the next two or three yeas as these kids learn and develop on the job.

Having Managed many of them, Holmberg should know.