Rookie Ball (in the form of the Dominican Summer League) has started, Short Season is a week and a bit away, and most full minor leagues will reach the end of their first halves in seven days.
Yes, we’re almost at the mid-way point of the minor league season.
At this writing, only one of the four full season affiliates is in a playoff position. The surprising Dunedin Blue Jays lead the Florida State League’s Northern Division by 4 games, and appear headed to a post-season berth.
There have been surprises in the Blue Jays system, and there have been disappointments. Here’s a sampling of the best players by position:
C – Alejandro Kirk
This is becoming a position of some depth in the system, with Riley Adams and Gabriel Moreno getting consideration, but Kirk seems to roll out of bed and get hits. He looks like he slept in his uniform, too, but all he’s done at two levels is hit.
Despite his relative inexperience as a pro, Kirk looks like a seasoned player at the plate. He doesn’t expand his strike zone, and is content to wait for his pitch. Using a slightly open stance, Kirk gets good plate coverage, and his barrel stays in the zone a long time. He leads the Blue Jays system in many offensive categories.
The knock against Kirk is that he’s a bat-first player, and while his line at two levels (.323/.430/.503) at two levels seems to back that up, he’s made strides in his defence. Kirk is surprisingly agile behind the plate, blocks well, and has proven to be a quick learner.
1B – Jake Brodt
The 9th round pick has been a pleasant surprise in his first full season. Brodt has hit .270/.364/.481, and has been a fixture in the cleanup spot in Lansing’s batting order.
Brodt is not a one-dimensional player, though. He is superb defensively – not only does he offer a big target for his infielders, Brodt is adept at digging out throws in the dirt. While not a burner on the bases, Brodt is an intelligent base runner, and has swiped 10 bases for Lansing.
What will limit Brodt as he moves up his ability to make more consistent contact. His 35% K rate leads the system. Brodt does work the count and can draw walks, but he’ll have to learn to work the strike zone better as he faces more advanced pitching.
2B – Santiago Espinal
He may only have posted a .708 OPS, but the versatile Espinal has been one of the best position players in the system so far this year.
His dramatic 10th inning walk-off steal of home this weekend was the tip of the iceberg, and, well, if you haven’t seen it, here you go:
SS – Jordan Groshans
He hasn’t played since May 13th due to foot soreness, but after advancing to full season ball in only his second pro season, Groshans has looked every bit like a one-day MLBer you would expect a first round pick to be.
At the plate, Groshans uses the whole field, doesn’t chase, and has an approach you don’t often see in a 19 year old. Defensively, there still is some question as to his eventual position, but he has been a quick study at Short Stop, showing good reads, hands, and a strong, accurate arm. Footwork has been the skill the Blue Jays have been working on with him.
If not for his tender feet, Groshans would in all likelihood be in Dunedin right now. He may need a few games back in Lansing once he returns from the IL, but his .337/.427/.482 line suggests he doesn’t have much left to prove in the Midwest League.
Otto Lopez, who spent time at 2nd, and then replaced Groshans at short before going on the IL himself, deserves an honourable mention.
3B – Cullen Large
If not for bad luck, the 2017 5th rounder would have none at all.
A recent cold stretch for Large came to an end late last week when he reportedly (the Blue Jays aren’t big on releasing injury information) dislocated his shoulder, likely bringing a promising campaign to an end. Large missed most of 2018, and the comment most often heard about him from people in the Jays system is, “if he could only stay healthy…..”
The cool stretch brought Large’s line down to .277/.350/.475, but he’s been one of the most dangerous hitters in the Florida State League this season. Named to the Florida State League ASG, Large will be watching from the dugout, unfortunately.
This has not been a position of strength for the Blue Jays, and if anything reflects somewhat on their preference for up-the-middle players.
1. Forrest Wall
A bit of a tweener, Wall has been one of the best position player prospects in the system along with Kirk and Groshans.
A very hot (.327/.409/.515) May has pushed him into the spotlight. Wall does not have one outstanding tool, but he gets on base, and is showing an ability to turn on inside pitches that wasn’t present last year – you don’t get access to minor league advanced metrics unless you’re sitting in the press box, but his average exit velo for last month had to be high – Wall scorched a lot of pitches.
At this point in his career, you have to consider Wall a fringe-MLBer, but after a few years of wandering the wilderness in search of a position, he’s settled nicely into CF.
2. Reggie Pruitt
Pruitt is repeating Low A this year, but has showcased his elite speed, leading the Midwest League in steals with 28. With a .336 OBP, he is getting on base more often, where that speed becomes a weapon, but he’s still striking out at a 24% clip (which is actually an improvement). Forget the notion of strike outs for a leadoff hitter for a second; Pruitt just doesn’t put enough balls in play (12.2% SwStr rate), and there’s some weak contact (46% GB rate) when he does.
Just the same, Pruitt does an excellent job patrolling the vast expanse that is Cooley Law School Stadium, and the Blue Jays have to be pleased with the progress he’s made at the plate.
3. Anthony Alford
If there’s one thing the Ross Atkins and Alex Anthopoulos regimes have had in common, it’s unrelenting patience for this raw but supremely talented player.
Alford’s line is only .237/.316/.384 at the moment, but he’s hit .296 since the start of May to sneak onto this list ahead of Brock Lundquist. Griffin Conine’s 1.437 OPS in 10 games since his return from a PED ban merits consideration, too, but you have to respect Alford’s body of work.
Look, I’ve been on the Alford train since he broke onto the scene with a spectacular week (.800 OPS) with Lansing in 2014, and in many ways the locomotive is getting ready to leave the station with or without him. His production has yet to really match his physical talents for a prolonged stretch, and with Alford out of options after this season, he may be looking at his last opportunity to catch on with the big club. He’s made the most of it over the last six weeks.
Starting Pitcher – Josh Winckowski
This was a tough one, with Joey Murray, Patrick Murphy, and even a truncated Nate Pearson getting strong consideration. Winckowski has been consistently strong this season, and while he might not have Murphy or Pearson’s K numbers, he’s been tough to square up – he was close to a 70% GB rate earlier in the season, and is now around 54%, but he just doesn’t give up a lot of hard contact.
Winckowski has brought his velo up to the point where he can touch 96, and his change had grown by leaps and bounds. He already shows advanced command of his curveball.
So the obvious question is: why is the 2018 Northwest League Pitcher of the Year still in Low A? His rotation mate – Murray – was moved up in May, why not Wincky?
No one outside of the Jays organization knows for sure, but the club has always moved slowly with Winckowski. An emotional sort who does his best to keep things under wraps on the mound, you would have to think that’s the last box for him to check before he moves up to bolster an already strong rotation in Dunedin.
Relief Pitcher – Jackson Rees
Moved up to Dunedin last week, Rees was the best reliever in the Midwest League. With a mid 90s fastball and a wipeout slider that’s as tough to lay off of as a tray of Nanaimo Bars, Rees has struck out almost half (46.6%) of the hitters he’s faced.
Having moved up to High A, Rees now faces the challenge of refining his pitches as he encounters hitters with better pitch recognition. An undrafted free agent, Rees’ is one of the great stories in the system this year, and his development has been interesting to watch.
He may not project to be a big leaguer, but you have to admire what Vinny Capra has one in just under twelve months.
Capra has gone from a 20th round pick to a regular in AA in that span. Maybe it has more to due with his versatility than any one outstanding tool, but that’s quite an accomplishment.
Let’s throw Gaby Moreno in there as well. Moreno moved from Extended to Lansing when Kirk was promoted, and he hasn’t missed a beat, posting an 1.021 OPS. And then there’s his defence – he may be the next best defender after Reese McGuire in the system. In any other organization, Moreno would likely be playing at a higher level by now. Just prior to spring training, Player Devo Director Gil Kim said Moreno had impressed him as much as anyone in the system over the off season, and his words seem prophetic now.
Biggest Disappointment – Kevin Smith
No one climbed the prospect ranks in the system as much as Smith did last year, and he drew raves for his work ethic and leadership. The sky seemed the limit.
Smith broke out in a big way last year, leaping past fellow draftee Logan Warmoth with a .302/.328/.528 season at two levels. But there were some warning signs on the horizon – one had to be his K rate, which took a 7% leap between Low and High A. At both levels, he could afford to sit back at wait to hammer mistakes with his long swing plane.
This year, AA Pitchers have exploited both Smith’s approach and his swing, and he sits at .176/.250/.322 at the moment. At the plate, he has shown quite a tendency to chase, and is also swinging and missing at average velocity. His K rate is hovering just under 30%. To put it bluntly, there have been some encouraging moments, but he’s been a mess with the bat.
There is still time for Smith to get back on track, but the Blue Jays have to be very concerned with his progress at the plate this year. The jump to AA can be the biggest one in the minors, and for Smith it’s been cavernous.