Some additional bonus pool money, a Pitcher from a non-traditional market, and following an under-the-radar prospect closely for over a year prior to signing him were the highlights of the Blue Jays 2019 IFA class, according to Vice President, International Scouting Andrew Tinnish.
In a recent conversation with FBJ, Tinnish singled out Dutch RHP Sem Robberse and Venezuelan righty Dahlian Santos as two players who stood out among the 2019 class. He says Robberse, in particular, has a “plethora of projection indicators pointing up.”
Robberse, along with fellow RHP Jiorgeny Casimiri were actually late signs from the 2018 class, acquired with bonus pool money the Blue Jays received in April deals with the Orioles and Athletics. Robberse, who has been pitching in the Honkbal Hoofdklasse, the Netherlands’ top league, since 2018 at the tender age of 17, stands out to Tinnish, who saw him in action in the Netherlands, in addition to looks the team’s scouting staff had at him at the European Championships. Despite the Blue Jays obvious interest, no other MLB teams had made Robberse a contract offer. Tinnish compared the Hoofdklass to D-2 competition, and said Robberse dominated hitters many years his senior there. In terms of Robberse’s delivery, Tinnish said….
….”it’s a top 10 in terms of Pitchers I’ve scouted. He has excellent rhythm and movement, great hip and shoulder tilt and separation, has a firm front side, and pitches in a good line to the plate. He has a good landing, and clean arm action.
Robberse recorded an 0.87 ERA in 10.1 GCL innings over 5 outings last summer, including 3 starts, walking none while fanning 9. At 6’1″/160, he’s added 20 lbs since signing, and has dialled his FB up to 93. Robberse will be 18 for all of the 2020 season. A year ago, Tinnish was telling all who would listen in the Blue Jays front office about a breakout prospect he’d tabbed named Gabriel Moreno. He gives Robberse a similar honour this year, such is the progress he made in a short period of time. If the Blue Jays are knocking on doors around MLB looking to upgrade the MLB roster, it’s very likely that other teams (one would think the Pirates, in particular, given their two new recent front office additions) would be inquiring about the young Dutch righthander. Reports suggest with his athleticism and makeup, he could compete in the Midwest League next year, but the Blue Jays will likely take their time with Robberse and start him at Vancouver.
Another IFA RHP Tinnish was very high on was Santos. A little undersized at 5″11″/160, Santos has added almost 8 mph to his FB in about 18 months. Ben Badler of Baseball America said that the Venezuelan has a lean, wiry build, an athletic delivery and quick arm speed. He touches 94, throws 3 pitches for strikes, and generally shows a feel for pitching that projects him as a starter. Tinnish first had eyes on Santos in April of 2018, and even though he was only sitting 83-86, “everything he threw had movement.” Tinnish said Santos checked a lot of boxes for him with his delivery, command, and athletic ability. Like Robberse, Santos was not pursued by a lot of teams – likely because of his size – and he did not have a high-profile agent. Tinnish calls him “our steal, an absolute robbery.” Some people might think it folly to sign players at the age of 16; Santos is a case study of the benefits of that, to MLB teams. Getting into a proper routine of nutrition, time in the gym working on strength, flexibility, and cardio, all under the supervision of professional trainers and coaches has been a tremendous boost to Santos.
The Blue Jays top IFA signing was Dominican SS Rikelvin de Castro, who signed for a $1.3 million bonus. Badler describes de Castro as a glove-first player, with fast-twitch reflexes, clean energy, smooth footwork, and a “nose for the ball.” Tinnish goes one step further and calls de Castro a spectacular, acrobatic defender:
“he has the ability to make a play that makes you scratch your head and ask, ‘how did he do that?'”
De Castro has a simple, contact-oriented stroke from the right side, and makes consistent line drive contact to all fields. When we suggested to Tinnish that a good comp might be Leonardo Jimenez, who he raved about in a conversation two years ago, he agreed, but said that while Jimenez is maybe a more consistent defender, de Castro has greater range, and makes more tough plays. As teams learn more about defensive metrics, he added, de Castro may make more mistakes in the field than the average SS, he’ll get to far more balls, and create more value in the process.
What stood out to the Blue Jays while scouting de Castro was his energy. Even in BP sessions, he was diving for balls, and trying to make the highlight reel play. The biggest question mark, going forward, is how much strength the 6’/150 de Castro can add. He has a looseness and quick-twitch athleticism that is undeniable. For now, Tinnish said, he agrees with the glove first label, but only because it is so good.
Given that other high profile IFA signings of the past few years like Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Miguel Hiraldo, and Orelvis Martinez began their pro careers stateside, it might be logical to assume that de Castro starts in the GCL. But Tinnish cautions that de Castro’s bat may not be quite ready for that level of competition just yet, and given the depth up the middle in the organization right now, a place to play every day would be the priority for de Castro – and that place may be in the Dominican League next summer.
Estiven Machado, a 17 year old SS from Venezuela, according to Badler has explosive athleticism, tools, and advanced game sense. He has a direct, compact swing from both sides of the plate with a good approach. In comparison to de Castro, Tinnish says Machado has a stronger arm, and his swing reminds him of Jose Reyes. Machado made a strong impression on Tinnish in one of his first looks at him:
…we were in Colombia, and one day I’m sitting down the 3rd Base line while he’s taking groundballs at SS. He fields the ball, and what really stood out is in the blink of an eye, he’s about 6/7/8 feet closer to the base when he’s making the throw. His ability to gain ground quickly like that was impressive.
Keeping with the up-the-middle guys theme, the Blue Jays signed Robert Robertis from Venezuela, a 6’/170 ballhawk CF. Robertis is not a burner, but has advanced reactions in picking up balls off the bat, and a combination of first steps quickness and route efficiency that allows him to cover a lot of ground. At the plate, he has a long, loose swing that can sometimes cause some timing issues, but Tinnish feels he has potential big time power, and is a big fan of the bat. In his mind, Robertis has an excellent chance to stay in CF.
Victor Mesia, a stocky (5’10″/180) Venezuelan Catcher, reminds Tinnish of a slightly lesser version of Francisco Alvarez of the Mets, a 2018 sign who is on the verge of the Top 100 already. Badler calls Mesia an “arrow up” player over the past year; Tinnish calls him a “power Catcher.” Mesia has a strong arm, coupled with a loud bat, and tools that Tinnish claims absolutely stand out in a workout session.
3B Peniel Brito from the DR may be (at 6’2″/180) the most physically advanced player the Blue Jays signed. He has a thick lower half, but has athleticism and the potential to be an impact bat. He has an unusual set up at the plate, but his bat path is flat, and his barrel stays in the strike zone a long time. Tinnish saw him square up a lot of balls in Tricky League play after Brito’s signing, and feels he could be a potential plus power/plate discipline combination.
I saw a ton of Brito’s PA’s in the Tricky League, and I think he had something like 11 walks, only 3 strikeouts, a bunch of doubles, and a whole lot of hard-hit balls. He wasn’t overmatched at all, and I saw him do a lot of things at the plate that were quite advanced.
Brito, likely destined to start in the DSL, could move quickly through the system.
One of the more intriguing players is Dominican OF Christian Feliz. His glove profiles as a corner, but his bat has huge upside, if he can tap into his power. Tinnish says Feliz has 80 raw power, but his swing can be long: “when he gets things done on time, it’s pretty special.” With the dearth of LH bats in the Blue Jays system, Feliz may be a welcome addition. He has work to do on his defence, so that combined with his bat makes for a Griffin Conine comp.
Endri Garcia is another UTM guy, a 17 year old Venezuelan SS who Badler labels as “hitterish.” When asked if the Blue Jays deliberately target up-the-middle players, Tinnish responded:
….down there (in the Caribbean), what stands out mostly are guys up the middle and big bats. We’re looking for guys who play premium positions, and have a chance to hit.
RHP Cesar Ayala is a 6’2″/180 Venezuelan who has an easy delivery, a loose arm, and offers plenty of room for projection. At 88-89, the velo may not be there yet, but the feeling is that once he accesses his athleticism that a bump will take place.
Cuban RHP Yosver Zulueta signed for $1 million, even though the Blue Jays knew he was headed for Tommy John, and will miss all of 2020. Tinnish reports that he has a loose, quick arm, and hit 98 before his UCL injury. He has a power curve which he spins well from a 3/4 slot, and has plus make up. This is a guy who may be well worth the wait, and may move quickly once healthy.
Christopher Castro was an unheralded signing, but the LHP was a name Tinnish mentioned as we neared the end of our conversation as a guy to watch. He touches 95, and Tinnish feels he’s right there with Santos and Ayala in terms of projection.
A conversation about player acquisition with Tinnish, a Brock grad, would not be complete without discussing Alex Nolan, a fellow Badger who went from the OUA to pro ball with the Vancouver Canadians this summer.
An overlooked commodity in the lower minors are guys who can give a team multiple innings. With many college Pitchers on reduced pitch counts after a long collegiate season, teams are sometimes challenged to find enough innings out of their roster. Nolan certainly helped with that, and then some:
I felt like Alex’s experience with Brock and in the Northwoods League two summers ago would allow him to compete (in pro ball) – but he certainly pitched better that what we had expected.
Nolan may not have missed a lot of bats, but he didn’t give up a lot of barrels, either, and 7 of his 12 outings for the C’s were of 5 innings or more. More importantly, Nolan may have helped open the scouting community’s eyes to the calibre of play in Ontario University ball. Tinnish acknowledges as much, saying that he’s watched a couple of OUA hurlers throw indoors recently.