As we reach (roughly) the mid-point in the minor league season, it was time to catch up with Blue Jays Assistant Director of Player Development Joe Sclafani about the latest developments in the farm system.
The Blue Jays have to be pleased with the progress of their minor league system this year. Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette have been having All Star campaigns, and recent grad Alek Manoah has established himself as an MLB starter in short order. Top prospects Austin Martin and Gabriel Moreno have proven that they’re not far from MLB-ready, and surprises like Samad Taylor and a resurgent Kevin Smith have popped up on the radar.
Before we began to talk about players, it was necessary to talk – hopefully one last time – about the impact of Covid-19 on the organization.
Future Blue Jays: Can you tell us about the minor league protocols? Are they starting to be lessened?
Joe Sclafani: Yeah, they’ve definitely been lessened and relaxed, but it’s all dependent on whether or not we get to the 85% (vaccination) threshold. And that’s why we’re encouraged by the fact that all our full season teams are there, and we’re really close with complex and the DSL. So they’re still there. But a lot of the stuff outside is less restrictive.
FBJ: Could we get an injury update – starting with Gabriel Moreno’s thumb?
JS: That was definitely one that hurt. I think Ross (Atkins) addressed the media on it , he’s got a small fracture of his thumb, and he actually went and had surgery on it. He’s out probably a couple months.
FBJ: What a season he’s had. I saw a lot of him in 2019, from spring training right through to the end of his season with Lansing. His defensive abilities stood out, and his approach has changed from see-the-ball/hit-the-ball to working the count more and using the whole field.
JS: He’s definitely one of those types of guys that just jumps out on a field for all the right reasons. He brings great energy and is super athletic. He just does some things that others can’t. Our main area of focus for him is definitely (plate) discipline and swing decisions. We’re super encouraged with what he’s been doing. I mean, he’s just got such an elite ability to find the barrel. It makes it a little challenging, because he can spoil pitches with two strikes that others couldn’t, or put balls in play that other guys can’t. It’s going to be a process for him to continue to refine, but we’re super encouraged with the progress we’ve made so far.
FBJ: So with Austin Martin, I got the impression that his going on the injured list was more precautionary – can you give us an update with him?
JS: It was a mild concussion, he was pretty much asymptomatic even that evening, but this was a precautionary move – just a week, we didn’t want to push anything then put him in a spot where he could get hit in the head again. I believe he should be activated, he cleared our protocols. So we’re just waiting for MLB approval (this interview took place on July 2nd; Martin was activated the following day).
FBJ: I’ve just enjoyed watching him so much. I know he had a little bit of an adjustment period like it was for so many guys. But man, he just doesn’t chase. You throw a pitch and it’s an inch off the plate. And he’s saying “no, I’m not touching it. I’m not going for it.”
JS: Austin’s feel for the zone is pretty elite… he just has a good idea of what works for him. There’s still some things that we’re working on to try to unlock. He’s an athletic kid, he’s a strong kid, we think there’s more in there. So it’s kind of finding that blend of letting him rip every once in a while, you know, some swings and misses, okay, but he’s such a competitor that he just finds a way to win at bats. And he does that very consistently. We’re thrilled with the progress he’s made on the defensive side as well. We’re very encouraged.
FBJ: (New Hampshire Manager) Cesar (Martin) put Moreno in at 3rd in the lineup one day, and I don’t know if you were aware, but Twitter just about exploded. We know Gaby was signed as a SS, but is this something we’ll see more of in the future?
JS: I wouldn’t say it’s definitely something to read into. Like you mentioned he did sign as a shortstop and with someone who’s that gifted offensively, he (Cesar) was probably just trying to get the bat in the lineup…get him more at bats with a less taxing day on the body. But he can do it – he looks good over there. I mean, there’s no downside if he could play some infield as well, if he’s going to be the offensive player we think he can be.
FBJ: Joey Murray – I understand he started a throwing program a few weeks ago, but we haven’t heard anything more. You wouldn’t believe how many people ask about him.
JS: He had gotten as far as he was throwing, and then he had a setback and he just started throwing again, pretty recently, I think he threw a 15 or 20 pitch side, yesterday, the day before that. I can’t remember which but he’s trending in the right direction. We’re just hoping to get him back so that we can maximize the last couple of months.
FBJ: We had hoped to see Eric Pardinho after his layoff from Tommy John surgery. What’s his status?
JS: Eric’s back, he has been throwing in Extended games. I think he was supposed to throw two (innings) today. He’s trending in the right direction. You know, we’re being cautious with his age and all those pieces but we’re pretty excited to get him back out there.
FBJ: Finally, an inquiry into injury status wouldn’t be complete without an update on Nate Pearson. What’s the latest?
JS: He got multiple opinions on that injured groin. I think we’re weighing the options before making a decision. I haven’t heard anything concrete yet.
FBJ: Now that we have the injury updates out of the way, let’s get onto the fun stuff. Let’s talk about some players in the system who have really stood out. Starting with Samad Taylor – we knew the quick hands were always there, but this year he’s making a lot of consistently loud contact.
JS: Yeah, we’re extremely excited for Samad. He’s a great teammate, a great worker, everybody loves him. He shows up and he wants to be really good. And he definitely puts in the work. It’s been a process over the course of the past few years. He’s got such good hands. That bat speed is so good that he had a tendency to kind of want to go get the ball all the time. We’ve just been talking about contact points with him and he fully bought in – (New Hampshire hitting coach) Matt Hague has done a really nice job over there. We’re just starting to see the work that they’ve been putting in translate, and we’re excited to see how it continues to do so over over the rest of the year. But everybody always saw the upside on him. And he’s finally showing what he really can do.
FBJ: It’s no surprise to see Otto Lopez putting balls into play, because he has won a batting title, after all. But he’s leading the AA Northeast in hits (batting average now, too), and is among the leaders in doubles. He’s hit a couple of HRs in the past two weeks – he really seems to be developing some gap power.
JS: Otto’s got a lot of upside. Some of the hardest things to teach are feel for the zone and giving yourself a chance because you’ve got a good feel for your barrel. And Otto does that extremely well. His groundball rate is still a little high, but when things are tough, and you just find ways to get hits, and there’s something admirable about that, and you hope that all of your guys can do to help keep their statline afloat for all season, but he definitely has more more in the tank. And we know that it’s there. And we don’t want to really overhaul anything…… he’s getting more efficient, and really showing an ability to drive the ball to all fields, which is encouraging and, as you know, as guys continue to mature physically, some of those just naturally turn into home runs.
FBJ: Jordan Groshans struggled a bit through the first month of the season, but then you have to take into consideration his age and the fact that due to a 2019 injury and Covid, he hadn’t played in two years.
JS: He sets extremely high expectations for himself, and sometimes it gets frustrating if he doesn’t necessarily hit them. We had a really good conversation a couple weeks ago when I was in New Hampshire, and I was like, man, you’re 21 years old in AA, and that’s challenging to begin with. You haven’t played in almost two years, or pretty close to it. You’re jumping into this level and he admitted he doesn’t feel that great yet, but he’s in a groove, and he is still surviving and the numbers are still pretty solid so just stick with it. He controls the zone, he’s putting together more consistent at bats, and he has a plan when he’s going up to the dish and isn’t swaying from that. He’s on a good trend and we should expect him to keep improving.
FBJ: Kevin Smith is proving that he’s a guy you just can’t count out. He had that rough season at AA in 2019, and maybe expectations were lower this season, but he has just burst out on both sides of the ball.
JS: He’s been one of the more fun stories to watch this year. 2019 was definitely, definitely a rough one all year all the way around, I don’t need to tell you that. But he never stopped working. He’s a great dude. And he can really pick it on the defensive side of things. So just finding that consistency offensively was going to be the biggest piece for him. And he’s been doing great work with (hitting coach) Corey (Hart) up in Trenton. . And it’s fun to see it start to really translate because we all really knew that it was in there right? He’s just getting that consistency out of himself was going to be the biggest thing.
FBJ: Can you tell me if you guys see him as a big league shortstop or more of a multi position guy?
JS: We see him as someone who can definitely play shortstop, but where he plays could be dictated by circumstance. But he’s a good defender wherever he plays.
FBJ: Adam Kloffenstein is a guy I want to talk about, because after a good start, his numbers maybe aren’t where you thought they might be.
JS: He’s a young guy, too -was one of the youngest guys in his draft year. And he hasn’t really got the opportunity to pitch a ton. So this is his first full season and he feels good. He took a lot out of big league camp and the league he played in last year, and he’s asking a lot of questions, learning different things. Now he’s going through the first full season grind. And it’s challenging. I think he’s learning things about himself along the way, and not that we would ever want anybody to struggle, but sometimes it’s good to go through those things. Yes, you have to figure out how to get through outings when you don’t have your best stuff, like what can you rely on, start to learn those sorts of things, those techniques to be able to get through starts. But he’s been consistent with his work, because he’s engaged with everything that we’re talking through. And we just got to get him back in the zone a little bit more regularly.
FBJ: A guy not on the prospect radar but somebody I think highly of is Luis Quinones. He has that short arm stroke, lots of movement on his pitches, and the ball just seems to explode out of his hand, but he tends to lose his mechanics and the strike zone, and then just as quickly gets it back.
JS: Luis worked his tail off during the shutdown, with everything going on, showed up in great, great shape and was ready to throw five innings when he got off the suspension. He checks a lot of those boxes: he’s a good competitor, he’s got really good stuff. And you can tell by all the swings and misses people’s inability to square him up. It’s just reining them in a little bit, and he’ll learn….. he’s another guy that just hasn’t thrown that much. But you know, the stuff is there because nobody ever really consistently squares him up. So we’re just trying to refine those things and get him in the zone a bit more consistently, so we can get in deeper in outings.
FBJ: You raised a point there, and I just want to circle back to it if you don’t mind. Mark Shapiro himself mentioned when he was on the radio, just kind of suggesting that during the shutdown last year, that there was a kind of uneven access to workout facilities and instruction and that kind of thing. And even you know, weight training and cardio, that kind of thing. Is that something you guys found with the minor league players as much? Was there kind of an uneven access to, to workout materials, I guess, so to speak, or were you guys able to I know you, you kept some guys around, you’ve got supplies to a lot of guys. Were you able to overcome that?
JS: It was definitely one of the more challenging pieces of what we were going through last year, and we tried to set up a system where we could have consistent check-ins with guys and try to work through what the action plans would be for their development work based on what resources they had available. There were different gyms and facilities, some guys couldn’t even go outside. We sent different equipment or whatever we can think of those guys, regardless of what their situation was. So as you can imagine it was definitely one of the challenges that we had, but we did our best to take care of guys, regardless of what they had available.
FBJ: So, when it’s not raining, we can see Buffalo and/or New Hampshire every night, and Vancouver on occasion. We won’t be able to see Dunedin online until late July, but there’s a host of prospects there that we’d love to have an update on.
JS: And then we extended going on, kind of splitting time here. But they’re an exciting group. I mean, they’ve really battled, we’ve struggled a little bit on the mound there, but they’ve never quit. They’ve been blown out a few times, but most of the time, they’re battling every step of the way. And that’s a pretty special thing for a group of guys. Especially, I want to say we’re like the fifth youngest team (in Low A), or something like that…. And the strides that guys have made, a lot of those guys have never participated in full season…. the typical names you’d expect like an Orelvis (Martinez), Leo (Jimenez), Miggy (Hiraldo), (Addison) Barger has been solid, Zach Britton’s done a nice job… Roither (Hernandez) , starting to put things together, that was pretty cool. He definitely earned his promotion (to Vancouver). There were a lot of good things going on and just can’t can’t commend the guys enough for the attitude and the work, and their everyday preparation.
FBJ: Sem Robberse was electric in his last outing, and Naswell Paulino is another guy who is starting to put things together on the mound.
JS: You know our group is very high on Sem, and he’s just such a mature dude, he takes care of his routine. On top of everything he’s the consummate professional. We’ve run into a little bit of adversity at times with some less than ideal outings. But it’s all part of the learning process and what comes out of those is asking questions on where you could have done differently etc. Seeing him put together probably his best outing of the year last night was exciting. And then Nasy is exciting too, he is an outstanding kid…the pitching group has put in a lot of work with him and he’s taken full ownership of that, and ran with it, and now the velo has ticked up and he’s always been able to throw strikes, but now his stuff has improved a little bit and it’s cool to see him start putting together.
FBJ: Finally, with the end of Covid at least on the horizon, where does the Player Development Group go from here? I’m sure you’re already planning for the off season – will there be a FL Development League, Arizona Fall League, maybe even some players going for added reps to Australia?
JS: Yeah, we’re actually just getting to those points now. So we’ll have draft camp – it will obviously look different than it has been, because there will be no short season. So working through that, we feel like we have a pretty good plan in place there. And then the next step is to start working through the off-season camps. We’re going to figure out exactly how we want to roll those out similar to what we did in the past. We’ll most likely do an FDL, along with a pitching development camp and a swing development camp. Because of injuries that have gone on everywhere, like there’s really lots of opportunities for guys to maximise those camps, and then we’ll start working through winter ball opportunities – there’s plenty upcoming on our end.
Shortly after our conversation, Joe was bound for Oregon to watch the next C’s homestand in Hillsboro.