Blue Jays Minor League Notes

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A couple of things came this way over the past few days.

A Blue Jays official said that the team should have their minor league staffs finalized early in the New Year.  Interviews have been taking place since November.  Last year, the Blue Jays had a signficant turnover in staff, bringing in many instructors who had extensive coaching and/or education backgrounds, with a healthy dose of sports psych thrown in.  There may not be as many new faces this year, but the team is trending toward minor league staff with teaching backgrounds.  Openings will have to be filled at New Hampshire, as Manager John Schneider has been promoted to MLB coach with the Blue Jays, as Guillermo Martinez, who moves from MiLB hitting coordinator to hitting coach with the big team.  Martinez was part of that new wave of instructors the team hired last year.  Last fall, we spoke with long time Blue Jays staffer Dennis Holmberg, who was hoping to move to a role closer to his home in Dunedin after managing in Bluefield for the past seven seasons.  We hope his wish is granted.

 

In an email, Vancouver Canadians GM Allan Bailey discussed the future of the C’s broadcasts.  The C’s announced a new partnership with Sportsnet this fall:  games will air on Sportsnet’s Vancouver radio outlet this season, and six of their home games will be televised on Sportsnet Pacific, opening the team up to a nationwide audience.

In the past, Shaw televised a half-dozen C’s games per season, but they shut the channel that aired that programming down last year.  Bailey agrees that it was disappointing that this decision was made.

At this point, the team has no plans to stream their home games on milb.com, but Bailey says that may change in the future.  From talking to Lansing GM Tyler Parsons last year, that’s a bigger logistical and technological challenge than we might expect.

At this point, no dates for the Sportsnet Pacific games have been set.

 

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Some Final Thoughts on the Rule 5 Draft

In the past few days, we’ve seen a number of blogs posit that the Blue Jays made a mistake by not adding Jordan Romano and Travis Bergen to their 40-man roster, exposing them and ultimately losing them (for now, at least).

Maybe it’s time to take a step back.  No player selected in last week’s Rule 5 is likely to become a first division player.  Even the player the Blue Jays selected, RHP Elvis Luciano, is an extremely long shot to make it past spring training next year, let alone stick and become an above-replacment-level MLBer one day.

In the case of Romano and Bergen, Tommy John surgery early in their pro careers cost them development time.  Romano missed all of 2015, and after being drafted in the 7th round that year, Bergen didn’t advance to full season ball until this year.  If not for the time they missed, it’s reasonable to assume both would have pitched at AAA this year.

Romano has had success as a minor league starter after being drafted as a reliever.  He’s struck out almost a batter per inning in that role over his MiLB career, and was the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year.  As MLB Pipeline noted, however, his success has come more against RHH:

Romano can overpower right-handers with his 92- to 96-mph fastball and hard slider, but he scuffles against left-handers, leading many scouts to project him as a reliever. He posted a 4.11 ERA with a 128/45 K/BB ratio in 142 1/3 innings, mostly in Double-A.

Why, then, did the Blue Jays not convert Romano back to relief?  They had success in converting Ryan Tepera to the bullpen while he was still in the minors.  The main reason was that unlike Tepera, Romano had some success as a starter, and the Blue Jays were likely hoping that his Change-Up would continue to progress this year.  Ultimately, it didn’t – at least to the Blue Jays’ satisfaction – and since roster space was limited, and Romano ranks behind contemporaries Ryan Borucki, Thomas Pannone,  and Sean Reid-Foley, as well as Nate Pearson and Eric Pardinho behind him,  the team decided to expose him to the Rule 5.  They likely knew full well that he would be selected.  And as much as we like to see a GTA boy make it with his hometown team, Romano has a better chance to stick with the Rangers, who have question marks at the back of their rotation and in their bullpen.  I started a dialogue with Romano when he was recovering from Tommy John.  For three years, he’s faithfully answered my questions.  Over the past two seasons, he’s earned a championship ring (he called this year’s New Hampshire club the best team he’s ever played for), and I know he’s disappointed that his career as a Blue Jay may have come to an end.  He also knows he’s going to spring training next year (which means a huge raise in pay), and has a better shot at a big league job than he would have if he was still with the Blue Jays.

I make no secret of the fact that Bergen has been one of my favourite players in the system.  He was lights out in Vancouver in 2017, and was more of the same at two levels last year, closing out games late in the season for two championship teams in as many seasons.  He’s battled injuries and overhauled his delivery since joining the organization – there’s little doubt as to his grit, a quality scouts value.  At the same time, he doesn’t fit the mold of the heat-throwing power arm so in vogue today.  Even with the deception in his delivery and his ability to sequence, the Blue Jays must have felt well-stocked in the Lefty reliever department on the 40, and that unless he added velo (unlikely at the age of 25), Bergen was not going to be able to get MLB hitters out on a regular basis.  Still, they likely rolled the dice a bit with him, gambling that his injury history might scare some teams off.  The Giants were not.

Leaving these two off the 40 was not a mistake.  It was a sign of a system that is starting to develop some quality prospects.  And when you’re in that position, you have some difficult decisions to make come November.  And there’s always the possibility (slim that it may be) that one or both are offered back to the Blue Jays next year.   I’m certainly not trying to defend the Blue Jays’ choices; rather, I’m attempting to demonstrate what I feel was the thinking behind them.  Only time will tell whether it was a mistake to leave them unprotected.

Ty Cobb’s Last Game – in Toronto

This is another post I’ve brought over from my former site, written in 2014.

On the 100th anniversary of the event in September, we wrote about Babe Ruth’s first professional Home Run, hit in Toronto.  Since that time, we’ve learned that Ty Cobb played his last game in an MLB uniform in Toronto, as well.

It was a mid-September 1928 exhibition game against the International League’s Maple Leafs franchise, in their sparkling new park, Maple Leaf Stadium, at the foot of Bathurst Street.  Cobb was wearing the uniform of the Philadelphia Athletics, who were in the middle of a pennant race –  which didn’t stop Athletics’ owner Connie Mack, who was always looking for sources of revenue in between sales of his star players, from scheduling an off day exhibition game.

Cobb, of course, is best known for his days as a Detroit Tiger.  He served as player-manager for the Tigers from 1921-26, but never finished higher than 3rd place.  Cobb, supposedly worn out and tired of baseball, retired following the 1926 season.  Earlier in the season, Cobb and fellow future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker were both alleged to have thrown a game several years earlier, which came to light just after the season ended. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis declared the pair innocent after a lengthy investigation.  Eager to restore his name, Cobb looked for an opportunity to resume his playing career, and Mack gave him 50 000 reasons to become an Athletic.  At the age of 40, Cobb hit .357/.440/.482 for Philadelphia in 1927.
Cobb was one of the most reviled players in the history of baseball.  The Georgia product made his MLB debut in August of 1905 with the Tigers, just three weeks after his mother, mistaking his father for an intruder, shot and killed him.  During her trial, it was revealed that Cobb’s father suspected her of infidelity, and was sneaking past her window, supposedly on a business trip, trying to catch her in the act.  Cobb’s mother was acquitted, but he admitted his daring, brusque, and downright dangerous playing style was in memory of his late father, who Cobb worshiped.
Cobb quarreled throughout his career with teammates, fans, and team owners.  He went into the stands in a 1912 game in New York to go after a fan who had been heckling him, and beat him senseless.  Turns out the man only had one arm.  An avowed racist, Cobb was involved in many ugly incidents with racial overtones.
Cobb also knew the value of a dollar.  He was one of the first investors in a fledgling company called Coca-Cola, and early in his playing day befriended a young, unknown auto maker named Olds.

Cobb got off to a good start in 1928, and was hitting .340/.382/.476 by mid-May, but three doubleheaders late in the month dropped his average (Cobb hit .206 in 6 doubleheader Game 2’s for the month) perilously close to the .300 mark.

The 1928 A’s were one of the greatest teams of all time.  With Cobb, Speaker (who had joined the club with Cobb the year before), and Eddie Collins on the roster,  Philadelphia had 3 players with over 3 000 career hits, the only time in MLB history this has happened.  Along with pitcher Lefty Grove (who some would argue was the greatest hurler in baseball history), catcher Mickey Cochrane, outfielder Al Simmons, and a young corner infielder named Jimmy Foxx, the Athletics featured seven future hall of famers, in addition to legendary Manager Mack.

Maple Leaf Stadium

Despite this collection of talent, the Athletics finished 19 games behind the Yankees’ famous Murderers Row team the year before.  In 1928, however, they stayed neck and neck with New York for the American League lead for most of the season.

Cobb continued to hit as the spring turned into summer, but playing right field every day was beginning to take its toll.  The A’s played 8 doubleheaders in July, and he was clearly running out of gas.  Mack was notorious for scheduling exhibition games on off days in those pre-player’s union days.  And the road trips, because travel was done by rail, tended to be long and gruelling.  Philadelphia spent almost the month of June on the road, on a 6-city, 23 game trip.  We couldn’t find record of it, but it’s highly likely that Mack had scheduled some games on the five days off the club had during the trip.  By the end of July, Cobb’s legs could no longer stand the stress of playing every day, and he made his last-ever MLB start on the 26th against the White Sox, going 2-5.  The next day, Cobb was replaced in the Athletic’s lineup by 24 year old Mule Haas, while Cobb was relegated to pinch hitting duties.

The A’s and Yankees continued their pennant race into September.  When they beat the Red Sox on September 8th, they were a half game ahead in the standings.  Philadelphia travelled to New York to take on the Yankees the next day, and fell out of first by losing three of four to the Bronx Bombers.  A week earlier, Cobb recorded his 4191st and final hit against Washington, and grounded out in his final at bat, a pinch hit appearance against New York, on September 11th.

A dispirited group of Philadelphia ballplayers likely boarded the train in New York, destined for their final road trip of the season, a three week venture to Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and St Louis to close out the season.  Mack, of course, had scheduled exhibition games against Albany and Toronto along the way.

Cobb started the game despite not having started in over a month and a half, likely to give the regulars a bit of rest, and maybe also because shrewd businessman that he was, he probably had negotiated a cut of the gate with Mack.  We’ve found no proof of this, but we can’t really see a reason for him sticking with the club and getting only 9 ABs since the end of July otherwise.

 

   In fairness to Cobb, he was a very complex man who was obviously traumatized by the death of his father.  There has been a movement of late to rehabilitate his character, and publicize some of his forgotten good works.  

Blue Jays All Shook Up Over Elvis

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It was a bit of a throw away line, if anything.

Towards the end of a 40-minute interview with Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro fourteen months ago, I was gathering my notebook and recorder as it was becoming obvious this busy guy had places to go and people to see.

As I was packing up, we were talking about how the job of a General Manager has changed in this day and age of analytics.  Thinking back to a Baseball Prospectus essay I had read several years ago about how daunting a task it is to assemble a cost-effective bullpen these days with the volatile nature of relievers, and I opined as to how I thought piecing a bullpen together is a GM’s most challenging task.

Without hesitating, Shapiro responded, “I think developing starting pitching is.”

With that in mind, the Blue Jays’ drafting of RHP Elvis Luciano, the Royals’ 9th ranked prospect, despite Luciano not having pitched above Rookie ball, is easy to understand.  Even in this era of multiple reliever bullpens and the Opener, the Blue Jays are still laser-focused on the group of pitchers who give them the bulk of their innings every year.

Alex Duvall at Royals Farm Report gave us a glowing report on the 18-year-old Dominican:

You guys, I am in love with this kid. His arm action is smooth, his fastball is electric with room to grow, and that slider…oh my gosh. I’m not actually going to go there, but I watched two minutes of this kid pitch and thought to myself: “This kid has the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the Royals system.”

Royals Assistant GM JJ Picollo on Luciano:

“He’s a power arm that keeps getting better. He’s been up to 97 recently and competes really well. We feel like we have a young starter with a big ceiling. Seems to keep getting better and heading in the right direction.”

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said the team had done their homework on Luciano, and when he was still available when it came their turn to pick, it was a no-doubter.  He told reporters, including the Toronto Sun‘s Rob Longley:

“We wouldn’t have taken him if we didn’t think he had the stuff to do that,” Atkins said of what seems an unlikely prospect. “Elvis is an exciting young arm that we’ve done a lot of work on and we feel that any time you can acquire someone that has a significant chance to be a major league pitcher based on our projections and scout looks, these types of attributes are hard to acquire.”

 

 

So, the Blue Jays have landed themselves an 18 year old who already throws in the mid-90s, commands (to varying extents) three pitches, and has a boatload of projection remaning.  You do not find these arms available every day, and even though he’ll have to stay on the 25-man roster for a year (unless, of course, the Blue Jays can work out an arrangement with Kansas City), when you’re not likely to compete this season or next, you have room.  Luciano turns 19 in February – he’s a year older than Eric Pardinho, who pitched in the Appy League as Luciano did this year.

Luciano has a clean, athletic delivery, with a consistent arm slot.  His slider has some late bite to it, while he’s still developing a feel for his change.  Baseball America‘s report on him after 2017:

The D-backs saw Luciano throw just twice before snapping him up for $85,000 in the fall of 2016. They liked his heavy fastball, the spin on his breaking ball and his feel for a change-up. Luciano pitched in 2017 at the tender age of 17, but he is advanced beyond his years. He has an athletic delivery, a loose arm, a good feel for pitching and an unfazed demeanor on the mound.

At the same time, in their draft preview, BA felt that selecting Luciano probably represents too much of a risk:

Luciano is in no way ready for a big league job and the lost development time would hurt him. But he is one of the more promising prospects available because a renegotiated contract has made him eligible as an 18-year-old with no experience above short-season ball.

 

For many, the question is why would the Blue Jays gamble on a player who hasn’t even pitched at full season yet?  The answer is likely to be found in the fact that with Rogers finally having given their blessing to a full-on rebuild, the team can afford to carry Luciano on the 25-man for a full season.  The team will no doubt not use him in a regular role, likely relying on the QEW shuffle to bring in arms from Buffalo as needed.  Luciano is a roll of the dice:  his upside is as big as his risk.  But that upside might have been the biggest one in the whole Rule 5 draft.  This wasn’t a guy whose development clock ran out; a voided contract in his rookie year made him eligible this year.

Luciano has a pitcher’s build at 6’2″/184.  He’s struck out almost a batter per inning over three minor league seasons, and his 13.3% whiff rate was second best in the Appy League.  As BA noted, the chances of him sticking with the Blue Jays are very low, and that’s a realistic assessment – the last time a team selected a player out of rookie ball was in 2013, when the Brewers took Wei-Chung Wang, who didn’t stick.  Still, if there’s a time for the Blue Jays to make this type of gamble, 2019 would be it.

 

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The Blue Jays lost lefty reliever Travis Bergen, taken by the Giants with the pick before Luciano, and Markham’s Jordan Romano, taken by the White Sox with the third pick and then traded to the Rangers.

Bergen has been one of the best relief arms in the system the past two years, closing out W’s for championship teams in Vancouver and New Hampshire.  He also has a lengthy injury history, which the Blue Jays were probably hoping would dissuade teams from taking him.  Bergen throws in the low 90s, but his command and ability to sequence are his strength.  Few pitchers in the organization could throw a back foot slider to a RHH like he did.  A 7th round pick in 2015, Bergen pitched only 28 innings over his first pro seasons.  More than anything, the injuries meant he ran out of time as a prospect.

Romano has been a great fan of this site and its predecessor since he missed the 2015 season due to Tommy John surgery.  Since that time, he’s steadily moved up the ladder, as the Blue Jays transitioned him from reliever to starter.  He won his first 8 decisions with New Hampshire, and was the starting pitcher for the East in the Eastern League All Start Game.  Armed with a heavy mid 90s fastball and nasty slider, Romano’s change-up made great strides this season, but obviously not enough to convince the Blue Jays to put him on the 40-man roster.  If he’s moved to a multiple-innings relief role, Romano could be successful with his two primary pitches.

Best of luck to them both.  I’ve seen a lot of them over the years.

A Suggestion for Charlie Montoyo

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Dear Charlie:

It feels like a brand new world.

Out from under the anchor that had become Troy Tulowitzki’s contract, the Blue Jays now are free to fully commit to a rebuild.  You must be excited to inherit what pretty much is a blank canvas, with a productive farm system bubbling up.

And we learned yesterday that you bring an extensive minor league background, and an appreciation for analytics and new strategies:

With all due respect, if you’re  looking to employ an opener, I suggest that you look no further than fireballing minor league reliever Jackson McClelland.  For an inning or two, he could be a right-handed hitter’s nightmare:

McClelland could pitch the first inning (or maybe two), then be followed by Ryan Borucki, who would present a different look, and his change-up could really mess with hitters’ timing after McClelland’s high 90s/touching 100 heat.  Hopefully, Borucki could last until the 7th or 8th, potentially pitching in high leverage situations before turning things over to the back of the bullpen.

Of course, a couple of things would happen for this to be a reality:

-McClelland would have to go unclaimed in this week’s Rule 5 draft.  He’s on Buffalo’s reserve roster, meaning that he’s not eligible for the minor league phase.

-he would have to be built up in order to go multiple innings:  he pitched more than one inning only 12 times in 39 appearances last year.

-McClelland would also need to improve his command; when he’s on, he’s almost unhittable, but that needs to happen more often than it doesn’t.

-he would have to be added to the 40-man roster, which now has an extra space.

Just a thought, Charlie.  All the best this year.  It might be a long one, but the future looks bright.

A Look at Some Vancouver Canadians

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Cobi Johnson – Vancouver Province photo

A couple of days spent watching video of Vancouver’s series at Hillsboro and Eugene from this past summer have revealed some insights, first of which is that it would be nice if the C’s games were streamed on milb.com as well.  Vancouver had an agreement With Shaw, a western cable giant, to telecast several live games for Canadian viewers west of Sault Ste Marie, ON (and on YouTube for the rest of us) over the past few years, but that partnership appears to have dissolved – Sportsnet bought the rights this fall, and six C’s games will air on their Pacific channel next year.  Lansing came on board last year, joining the other Blue Jays full season affiliates.  It’s your turn, Vancouver.

Some observations on several players:

Otto Lopez

If you like three true outcomes guys, then Lopez is not for you.  If you do have a preference, however, for a guy who can play multiple positions, get on base, and show a high baseball IQ on both sides of the ball, the Dominican 2016 late sign is for you.

Scroll down to read more in a previous post.  He needs to get stronger and add some loft to his swing, but he does a lot of little things really well.

Jake Brodt

Don’t judge college players by their first year in pro ball; for most it’s a grind.

And for this 9th round pick out of Santa Clara, that’s incredibly true.  He hit .154 over his last ten games, and fanned in almost half of his ABs.  Even though the Blue Jays are very conscious about their prospect’s workloads at the lower levels, Brodt was clearly gassed by season’s end.

Brodt fanned on pitches at a rate at(18.6%) which one would expect from a player of his bat-first (.338/.375/.532) profile in his final college season (as a 4th year Senior with little bargaining power, Brodt signed for a $5K bonus), but he did not show an ability to work the count.  Brodt posted a 35% K rate, and walked only at a 2% clip.

Those numbers would not be good indicators of future success, but there are some silver linings to the Brodt cloud.  He collected 15 Doubles despite playing in only 47 games – his swing appeared a little flat (a 40% FB rate would back that up), and it’s easy to project some increased power with some adjustments, because the bat speed is definitely there.  Brodt hunts the fastball, and is vulnerable at this point to off speed pitches.  Brodt is not the lumbering type of 1st Basemen – he runs reasonably well for his 6’4″/220 size, and is a decent fielder.

Lansing will be his destination next year.  With several players of his type (Ryan Noda, Chad Spanberger, Kacy Clemens) ahead of him, he likely will spend the season there.

McGregory Contreras

The toolsy-but-raw label has stuck with Contreras since he signed with the Blue Jays in 2015.  The team has brought him along slowly for his first three pro seasons, although Baseball America saw enough of him to rank Contreras their 19th top prospect, citing what Managers in the Appy League called “sneaky power.”

His numbers at Vancouver were not as eye-popping (he did lead the C’s with 8 Home Runs), as the pitching at the higher level exposed him somewhat.   Contreras uses a toe gather as his timing mechanism, but then descends into a swing that can get long, with his bat getting into prime barrel zone late. His pitch recognition (9 walks vs 69 strikeouts) has to improve for him to advance. Described as a fringy outfielder, he showed good range and reactions to flyballs in a limited sample of viewing.

We’ll see Contreras at Lansing next year, where playing every day in full season may help accelerate his development.

Jose Espada

Much has been expected of the RHP, who the Blue Jays took in the 6th round of the 2015 out of Puerto Rico.  A solid pro debut in the GCL seemed to prophesize a quick trip up the ladder for Espada.

Such has not been the case.  Espada repeated Vancouver this year, and despite some promising signs (a 10.7 K/9, which led all NWL Pitchers, and a 14% whiff rate), Espada fell short of expectations in his third pro season.

On the surface, it’s hard to understand why.  Espada has a smooth, clean delivery, and is usually around the strike zone.  In one of the streamed starts I saw, he may have shown his issues in the first inning.  After giving up three successive walks to start the game (missing the strike zone badly), C’s Pitching Coach Jim Czajkowski came out to calm Espada down.  Big Jim’s pep talk appeared to walk, as Espada induced a weak one-hopper to the next hitter, which he promptly jumped on and threw home to force the runner from 3rd, then C Yorman Rodriguez fired to 1st to complete the DP (on which Brodt made a nice scoop).  With Espada an out away from getting out of the jam, he threw the next pitch down the middle to a hitter who swung and missed at a 23.5% rate – Hillsboro 1B Francis Martinez – who smacked it into RF for a two-run Double.  Yes, this was only one inning, but it suggests maybe some focus issues, and the fact that when Espada misses, it was usually in the strike zone (a 45% FB rate adds to this possibility).  Espada does get tremendous movement on his two-seamer, but perhaps he’s yet to command it.

It’s possible to see Espada being next year in Lansing, but he may be passed by one of the Pitchers from the lower levels next spring, and start the year in Extended.

Tanner Kirwer

It’s always great to see a Canadian moving up the ladder in the Jays system.

A 20th round pick last year, Kirwer’s pro debut season ended after 25 games when he was hit in the face with a pitch, breaking three bones.

Kirwer has plus speed, which shows in the field and on the bases.  He tied for the NWL lead in steals with 28, was a mid-season All- Star, and he may be one of the fastest players in the organization.  Kirwer also has a swing-and-miss (14.1%) element to his game, and has more of a ground ball swing.  And a 6.5% walk rate doesn’t allow Kirwer to take advantage of that speed.  Working the count (Kirwer saw 3.5 pitchers per AB last year), along with making harder and more consistent contact will be what he needs to focus on to continue to progress.

On defence, Kirwer covers a great deal of territory.  It should be fun watching him cover the CF expanse in Lansing next year.

Griffin Conine

Conine injured himself crashing into the RF fence at Hillsboro in the first game, and didn’t appear the rest of the series.  He missed 8 games, and struggled for the rest of the month of August (.211/.265/.342).

His bona fides are clear:  son of a Major Leaguer, former Cape Cod League top prospect.  So we’re not going to read too much into a first pro season that was underwhelming.  His .873 OPS July is probably a closer approximation of his ultimate value.

The dark cloud on Conine’s horizon is the 50 game suspension he will have to serve as a result of testing positive for Ritalin, a banned substance under MLB protocols.  To his credit, Conine owned this ban, and pledged to make amends for it.

His 2019 season will begin in late May, likely in Dunedin.  We will have a better estimation of his future by this time next year.  2018 has been a write-off for him.

Nick Podkul

His numbers (.222/.347/.364) may not have told an impressive story, but there are some parallels that could be drawn between this 7th round pick from Notre Dame and a guy from the same school who went in the 5th round in 2016 by the name of Cavan Biggio.

Podkul hit .323 over his last ten games, and showed some bat speed in the process.  Like Biggio, it may be a matter of adjusting the swing to produce some more loft.  Podkul can get on base, and he can play 2nd and 3rd.  It’s a stretch to put Podkul in the same class as Biggio, but he hit some rockets in the Hillsboro series.

Podkul should start next season in Lansing.

Randy Pondler 

The gangly southpaw from Nicaragua was the Appy Pitcher of the Year in 2017.   Moving up to Vancouver this year, though, his lack of one outstanding pitch became apparent.  He still posted decent numbers (2.90 ERA, 47% GB rate), but he pitched to contact, and did not miss a lot of bats.

Pondler does not light up the radar gun, but he commands the strike zone.  In the start he made against Hillsboro, hitters seemed to know he was going to throw strikes, and were aggressive early in the count, racking up some hard contact.  He pairs his fastball with a curve with decent shape, but it’s a pitch he seemed to leave up in the zone.  His change-up is somewhere between dependable and show-me.  At 22, there’s not a lot of room left for projecting that fastball.

Pondler shoud start next season in Lansing.

Cobi Johnson

Low level minor league relievers are truly the forgotten men of baseball.  Only a handful progress to the bigs, and that’s why I’ll save writing about some of the decent bullpen arms Vancouver had like Joeys Pulido and Murray until another time.

The C’s did feature a Closer who very much profiles like a back of the pen power arm in the future in Cobi Johnson, son of the now former Blue Jays Coach.

Johnson was lights out for Vancouver, going a perfect 10-10 in Saves, fanning 35 in 26 innings.  The only question about Johnson would seem to be how he lasted until the 30th round of the draft last June.  Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of 2017, and a shutdown for the final three weeks of his final college season may have been the culprit.

Johnson sits 93-94 with his fastball, and has a 12-6 hammer of a curve.  He also adds a mid-80s slider and decent change to go with it.  At 6’4″/230, he has the build of a fireballing reliever.  NWL hitters really didn’t much of a chance against him.

Johnson should skip Lansing for Dunedin next season.

2018 Vancouver Canadians Pitches Per Plate Appearance

PA Pitches Pitches/PA
Brett Wright 83 367 4.42
Vinny Capra 163 660 4.05
Griffin Conine 230 924 4.02
Hunter Steinmetz 93 368 3.96
Nick Podkul 197 773 3.92
Brandon Polizzi 157 608 3.87
Christopher Bec 191 736 3.85
Jake Brodt 176 674 3.83
Reilly Johnson 61 229 3.75
Sterling Guzman 190 694 3.65
Otto Lopez 206 748 3.63
Mc Gregory Contreras 233 829 3.56
Bryan Lizardo 144 500 3.47
Tanner Kirwer 247 843 3.41
Jesus Navarro 30 102 3.40
Jesus Severino 161 521 3.24
Yorman Rodriguez 184 567 3.08
Freddy Rodriguez 28 86 3.07
Owen Spiwak 13 36 2.77

Will the Blue Jays Be Rule 5 Players?

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Jackson McClelland – Clutchlings photo

With the team fully having hit the button on a rebuild, will the Blue Jays select a player with the 10th pick?  Will they lose a player?

The latter seems a much more likely scenario.

Increasingly, the Rule 5 has become a place to add a puzzle piece.  Teams have been much more conservative in their 40-man promotions, adding players who may be some time away from the bigs, but whose upside is too large to ignore.  Case in point:  Anthony Alford, who was added after the 2016 season, despite having only played two full seasons, none of them above High A.

An astute Twitter follower has pointed out that Carson Cistulli, formerly of Fangraphs, is a huge fan of the Cardinals’ 2B Max Schrock, who is Rule 5 eligible.  Cistulli, whose position with the Blue Jays is one that he said that he’s not at liberty to disclose the details of  (probably a hybrid analyst/scout role), has written extensively about Schrock, who has hit (.304 career average) at every level he’s played.  However, he’s coming off his worst season as a pro, and with the Blue Jays already deep in middle infielders, it seems unlikely that they will select him.  Add to the fact that he can’t play SS, and it seems even more doubtful.

What’s more likely is that the Blue Jays lose a Pitcher among at least one of Jordan Romano, Corey Copping, Travis Bergen, and Jackson McClelland, probably in that order.  Romano would appear to be at the top of the list because of the ever-changing use of bullpen arms, according to JJ Cooper of Baseball America

With every team shuffling relievers day-to-day, it is harder nowadays for a power reliever under Rule 5 requirements (which means they can’t be optioned to the minors) to stick on a roster. He’s simply not as valuable roster-wise as a similar player with options. But teams are looking for relievers who can give them multiple innings, so a starter with a little more polish (who could slide into that role and serve as a fill-in starter) is more appealing than fireballers with little control.

Copping has fanned better than a batter per inning in a minor league career spent entirely in the bullpen.  Bergen may not throw as hard as other relievers, but his career numbers are hard to ignore.  And while McClelland and his 100+ mph fastball may have the highest upside, his command may represent an equal amount of risk.  The Blue Jays may be gambling that all three make it through the Rule 5.  With Romano’s starter profile, it’s not unlikely that a team might try to convert him into a reliever, where his fastball may play up a bit, and he can give them those multiple innings.

 

A Look at Otto Lopez


As a result of breaking the bank on Vladimir Guerrero Jr, the Blue Jays were limited in the bonus money they could offer during the 2016 signing period.  While they could not offer a bonus of more than $300K, they actually found some value in the international free agent pool in the form of Pitchers Elixon Caballero, Eliezer Medrano, Naswell Paulino, and Jeison Contreras.  The jury is still out on top signings Joseph Reyes and Hugo Cardona, but they may have found a position player gem in the form of Dominican SS Otto Lopez.

A late sign at 18 in 2016, Lopez did not make his pro debut until 2017, but he broke out in a big way this season in short season play.

Sent to Bluefield to start the season this year, Lopez fell a Homer short of the cycle in a five-hit night ten days into the season.  Two days later, Lopez was on a plane to Vancouver.  The Blue Jays continued to transition to Lopez to a utility player, giving him time at all three Outfield spots, 2nd Base, Short Stop, and 3rd Base.  Lopez faded over the last ten games of the season, falling just below .300, and posting a line of .297/.390/.434 for Vancouver.

Lopez is a prototypical scrappy, put the ball in play (5.5% whiff rate) type of hitter.  He mostly hit 2nd for Vancouver, leading off when OF Tanner Kirwer needed a rest day.  The right-handed hitting Lopez works the count well, walking (12.6%) more than he struck out (10.2%).  On the base paths, Lopez is not a burner (14 out of 20 in stolen base attempts for Vancouver), but he has plus speed and is a smart runner, often taking the extra base, and taking advantage of opposition defensive mistakes.  In the field, while he may not necessarily be a plus defender, he has the quick-twitch athleticism and baseball IQ to play a multiple of positions.

Despite this breakout, Lopez was nowhere to be found on Baseball America‘s Top 20 Northwest League prospects list.  Why?

Good question.  While not as prospect-laden as other short season leagues, this year the NWL had a fairly deep pool.  And as a league that is stocked with numerous college players from the June draft, the talent level tends to be advanced.  At 19, Lopez was a full two years younger than the league’s average age.  His versatility, in a way, may have also limited Lopez’ prospect stock.  The players on the Top 20 were almost exclusively one-position guys; the Managers who were polled may not have seen enough of Lopez at one spot to rank him ahead of someone else.  At 5’10″/160, there’s not a lot of projection left on Lopez’ frame, and he will definitely have to get stronger in order to deal with the higher velos in full season ball.  Given the depth of middle infield talent in the Blue Jays system, he may have been a bit lost in the shuffle, too.  He was superior offensively to the players who received the bulk of the time at SS/2B, but not necessarily defensively. Finally, while Lopez gets on base, he has more of a line drive/ground ball swing, and the game is headed more towards players who put the ball in the air – the Blue Jays are no exception.  Lopez has a bit of pop in his bat with 3 round trippers at Vancouver, but his power is his lowest-graded tool.

Lopez will begin his 2019 season with Lansing.  It will be interesting to see if the Blue Jays continue to move him around the diamond, how his game plays at a higher level, and if he can adjust his swing to add some loft.

A Look at Josh Winckowski

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Photo Credit: Mark Steffens

“(I’m) still not on any top prospects lists.”  -Josh Winckowski

Lost in the shadow of Nate Pearson and Eric Pardinho this year was the performance of Vancvouer’s Josh Winckowski.  Lightly recruited out of high school, Winckowski turned down an offer from Southwest State Florida to sign for a $125K bonus after the Blue Jays drafted him in the 15th round in 2016.  The Northwest League Pitcher of the Year did not draw a lot of attention from publications like Baseball America this year, other than a passing comment in their Northwest League top prospects chat:

Winckowski drew interest from one of the opposing managers I talked to; what he liked about him was his competitiveness on the mound.

The 2016 15th rounder from Estero FL High School was simply dominant this season, his third in pro ball, particularly in the 2nd half.  Over the course of his last six starts, Winckowski allowed just 7 earned runs, totalling 35.1 innings, fanning 40, while walking only 5.  For the season, Winckowski led NWL qualifiers in FIP (2.77), GB rate (54.4%), K-BB rate (19.4%), and had the lowest FB rate (26.9%).  He posted the 2nd-lowest ERA (2.78), and next-to-highest whiff rate (12.6%).  Winckowski allowed only 2 Home Runs on the year, and all of the above suggests he’s a Pitcher who’s very tough to barrel up.  By his own admission, he was not at his sharpest during his only milb.tv streamed start this year at Hillsboro on August 4th, but he demonstrated that bat-dodging ability.

Staked to a 1-0 lead before he took the mound in the bottom of the first, Winckowski retired the side in order on 12 pitches, sandwiching a backwards K between a pair of ground outs.  The strikeout came on a 93 mph two-seamer that had some arm-side run and broke back in over the inside corner for the called third strike.

Winckowsk’s command faltered a bit in the 2nd inning, a frame that required 17 pitches to get out of.  He had trouble with his usually dependable slider (and may have been squeezed a bit with it), recording a flyout and a swinging K before giving up a two-out walk.  Winckowski retired the side on a comebacker.

In the third, Winckowski gave up what appeared to be a single up the middle on the second pitch of the inning.  Truth be told, I had it marked as a hit in my notebook, but Vancouver SS Jesus Severino made a fantastic play, taking the ball on one hop and firing from the outfield grass behind 2nd base to get the out at first.  It sounded like a hit; Severino took it away.  Winckowski got his 3rd K on another called strike three before giving up a single.  He finished the inning with another caught looking, needing 14 pitches to get Hillsboro out.

Winckowski’s longest inning proved to be the 4th.  He gave up another base hit, and struggled to throw first pitch strikes.  Still, he recorded yet another backward K to start the inning.  He needed 16 pitches to retire the side.

The 5th was easily Winckowski’s best frame of the night, a tidy 10-pitch, three up/three down inning that featured a pair of flyball outs to LF, and a popout to SS.

At 69 pitches, Winckowski was tiring a bit in the 7th, another 16-pitch inning.  After recording his 7th K on a lovely FB that broke in over the inside corner to Hillsboro leadoff hitter Jake McCarthy, Winckowski gave up a bloop single to RF.  Catcher Chris Bec made a great play a few pitches later.  Blocking a Winckowski pitch in the dirt, Bec kept the pitch in front of him, pounced on the ball, and threw out the runner on 1st who broke late for 2nd.  Winckowski followed that with a four-pitch walk, which drew a visit from C’s Pitching Coach Jim Czajkowski.  He retired the side with no further damage with a swinging punch out, his 7th of the night, before giving way to the bullpen to start the 7th.

Even without his best command, Winckowski tossed six innings of three-hit, shutout ball, giving the C’s a chance to get their offence together.  He threw 86 pitches, 49 for strikes – 7 of those were of the swing-and-miss variety.  5 of his 7 Ks were called 3rd strikes, and he recorded 5 ground ball vs 3 fly ball outs.  Winckowski threw first-pitch strikes to 11 of the 22 hitters he faced.

The key to Winckowski’s success was his ability to miss off the plate – his mistakes don’t tend to be in barrel country.  Even with this command issues, he was consistently around the strike zone.  He did try on several occasions to get a hitter to chase by elevating with two strikes, but he missed by a fair amount, causing Bec to leap out of his crouch to snag the wayward fastball.

After a difficult year at Bluefield last year, Winckowski found success at Vancouver this year.  He told the Naples FL Daily News, this year was different:

“My first half of the season was decent, I flashed having my good slider at times and my good change-up at times while locating my fastball, but I didn’t have as many games where I had all three working at once,” Winckowski said. “I don’t know if it was coming back from the all-star break and re-focusing or something physically, but during the second half I had all three pitches working most games.”

  What made the difference for Winckowski this year?  For starters, consistency and confidence in all three of his pitches:
I think I finally threw my slider how I knew I could for more than a few batters like in Bluefield. And felt like I never gave the hitter something to hit, I always missed off the plate never in the middle. My change-up can be as good as any of my pitches just a matter of consistency.
   In addition, Winckowski made an adjustment in his approach to pitching.  The Blue Jays have worked extensively with their prospects on mindfulness and the ability to re-focus during stressful situations.  Known in the past for having trouble controlling his emotions on the mound, he credits a pre-season talk with Czajkowski for helping change his perspective:

“We talked about having a better mental approach and staying relaxed on the mound,” he said. “Even during games where I was struggling, I was able to stay calm. And during that second half, I went on a really good run. My fastball command was good and I kept my slider and change-up down. I wasn’t giving the hitters anything good to hit.”

Finally, Winckowski worked on getting more extension in his delivery in an attempt to add some deception to his delivery and late life to his fastball.  He has spent time in the weight room trying to add lower body strength.  “Maybe it’s all in the hips,” he joked to the Daily News.  

 

Despite his success this year, you won’t find any Winckowski on any top prospects list just yet.  At 6’3″/185, he has a starter’s frame, one that suggests he can handle a good-sized workload.  At 20, he had the fifth-highest innings total in a league dominated by college players.  With his size, Winckowski gets a good downward plane on his pitches, and works consistently in the bottom half with his two-seamer, which touched 97 this year, and sits 93-94.  With its movement and Winckowski’s delivery, it’s a pitch with some potential.

What does Winckowski still have to work on?  Consistency and command for starters, but he made huge strides in his development with the former this year.  Left handed hitters hit .322 against him this year, suggesting his change-up may still need some refinement.  Continuing to get stronger will be a challenge for him, as well.  Winckowski told the Daily News that his eyes were open in Extended when injured players came from Lansing for rehab:

“We were two or three weeks into our season (which started in late June), and guys from Lansing were coming down with injuries and you begin to realize these guys have been playing since early April,” Winckowski said. “We were playing games in extended spring training, but it’s not the same. I know I need to make sure my arm is ready for a full season.”

The Blue Jays have been very conservative in their promotion of Winckowski, moving him up one step at a time.  He should start next season in Lansing, but it’s reasonable to see them challenging him with a bump to Dunedin if he continues to dominate hitters in Low A.  Originally from Ohio, Winckowski moved to Florida to attend high school, and may need to re-familiarize himself with the cool midwestern springs.

While Winckowski is a little disappointed that his name has not made it onto any top prospect lists, but he knows he’s still under the radar just yet:

I do get it. I wasn’t a big name out of high school, and didn’t pitch well in Bluefield.

If he pitches at Lansing like he did in Vancouver, that will change fairly quickly.  He’s a legitimate breakout prospect.

My Favourite Minor Leaguer

This post originally appeared at Clutchlings, the predecessor to this blog. 

Sometimes, your life can change in an instant – if you can recognize the signs.
In the case of Gord Dyment, it was a sign that someone else saw, but it changed his life just the same.

Dyment was born in Toronto in 1931.  He grew up playing in the sand lots of the city, and gained a reputation as a hard-throwing righthander. A number of major league teams showed some interest in Dyment, and he signed with the Phillies, and headed off to Bradford, PA, to play in the PONY (now New York-Penn League – the O was for Ontario) League in the late spring of 1950.

   Dyment pitched reasonably well in the then-Class D league, posting a 2-5 4.84 record, but the Phils let him go at the end of the season. The minors were at their absolute peak in terms of teams and leagues in those heady post-war years. Philadelphia had 12 affiliates, spread across 5 levels. And while Dyment’s numbers were respectable, there was so much competition for roster spots at even the lowest levels of the minors, mediocre didn’t cut it. There was someone else to take your job if you didn’t measure up. Minor leagues were less about development, and more about culling in those days.
   So Dyment prepared himself to start a life out of baseball, and took a job with Canadian Pacific as a railway policeman in the spring of 1951.

   At the same time, Jack Beauchamp was on vacation with his family in Florida.  The 19-year-old lefthander from Midland, Ontario, was travelling in the family car in the Sunshine State when he noticed a sign advertising a New York Giants open tryout camp. Beauchamp’s father Herb, who played ball as youngster growing up in Michigan, had coached a number of hockey and baseball teams in the Midland area, and was on the executive of the Midland Indians, an entry in the Ontario Baseball Association Intermediate ranks since the 1920s. Jack begged his dad to take the next interchange in order to try out for the Giants.  The defending World Series champs, as it turned out, had their quota of recruits for the day.  Undeterred, Beauchamp Sr talked the Giants into giving his son a look.  Not only did they relent and let Jack show his stuff, they offered him a contract, and sent him off to their Class D team at Hickory, NC.  On top of that, not wanting to miss out on any sources of talent, the Giants made Herb a bird dog scout for all of Southern Ontario.

So, while the younger Beauchamp was heading to North Carolina as spring training broke that year, Dyment was heading to his first assignment at Port McNicoll, a village just outside of Midland.  Dyment didn’t even know that Midland had a ball team as he set out for the Southern Georgian Bay area, but Indians officials knew all about Dyment.

  Herb Beauchamp convinced Dyment to play for the Indians.  There was a lot of competition for his services, however.  In the Sudbury region, there was a highly competitive league sponsored by the mining companies, and the Copper Cliff team had offered the “amateur” Dyment considerable “expense” money to come north and pitch for them. The clincher for Midland was Beauchamp’s New York connections.  As part of his offer to lure Dyment’s services, he had a pair of Giants scouts come to Midland, and Dyment threw for them at the Town Park in 1954.  They offered him a contract on the spot, and Dyment was off to Olean of the PONY league for another shot at pro ball.  His job with the railway would be waiting for him when he came home, and so would a spot with the Indians.
  Dyment came under the tutelage of the legendary Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell during his stint with the Giants. Dyment rose as far as the Class B Carolina League before deciding to give up his major league dream in 1956.  He returned to Ontario, and pitched for Copper Cliff  for several seasons, before returning to Midland in 1958.  The southern Georgian Bay town had a lengthy sporting history (the original Midland Arena, built in 1932, was the only artificial ice surface between Toronto and Winnipeg at the time), and it was now home to Dyment.
  He may have fallen short of the major leagues, but Dyment got a rare second shot at pro ball – all because Jack Beauchamp saw that sign on that fateful Florida day.
   Dyment’s return to Midland helped to bring about a dynasty in Ontario Intermediate A Ball play for the Indians.  In the next 12 years, the Indians appeared in the provincial final 10 times, bringing home the title on six of those occasions.

    In the final game of the 1958 OBA championship against Simcoe, Dyment tossed a 10-inning, two-hit shutout, fanning 17. It was the first title for Midland in three decades.  The jubilant players piled into convertibles, and held an impromptu victory parade down the town’s main street.

1958 Midland Indians’ Impromptu Victory Parade

Dyment continued to be a dominant pitcher for more than a decade.  In 1969, in his late 30s, he struck out 12 in the deciding OBA Finals game against Thorold, and knocked in both Midland runs in a 2-1 Indians victory.

   My memories of Dyment started at about this time. My family had moved to Midland in 1967, when my dad was hired by RCA to work in the accounting department of their new picture tube manufacturing facility on the eastern edge of town.
In the late 60s, there was only one televised major league game per week.  When the Montreal Expos were born in 1969, there was an added Wednesday night game.  And that was it.  No sports networks, and little in the way of televised highlights.  The Indians home games on Thursday nights were a huge event in town.  Showing some great foresight, the town fathers of Midland had set aside a huge area of parkland in the centre of town.  The jewel of the park was Little Lake, which became a mecca for campers, boaters, and fishermen from the 20s to the 60s.  Little Lake Park was also home of the Midland Arena, Curling Club, and ball park, in the east end of the park, just off the main street.  Towering mature oaks and maples ringed the sports facilities, giving the ball park in particular a stadium-like feel.  There was a small, octagaonal-shaped concession stand behind home plate, and John Deakos, who ran a successful hamburger stand down near Little Lake, would lug his pails of home-cut fries to fry up during the games.  The aroma of the fries cooking was irresistible.  John charged 5 cents for packages of ketchup, so those of us who only had a quarter for a medium-sized box of fries would go without. And the crisp, salty fries were good enough to stand on their own.
As game time approached, a steady crowd of seniors set up their lawn chairs behind the home plate screen.  Younger fans filled the first base bleachers behind the Indians bench, while the third base stands were sparsely populated mostly by a handful of fans of the visiting team.  Some fans parked their cars just beyond the centerfield fence to watch. Tom Shields of CKMP, the low-wattage radio station in town, would set up his broadcasting equipment on a swing-up shelf attached to the screen directly behind home plate.
   So, by the time I started attending Indians games, Dyment was in his late 30s.  He had a sizable belly, but was still the Indians’ ace.  A big (6’3″) man, he cut an imposing figure on the mound, with long, frizzy sideburns poking out from under his cap.  By the third or fourth inning, he would be drenched in sweat.  When he threw his curveball, he was able to put so much spin on the ball that you could hear it all over the park. In those rare games when he got into some trouble, neither his catcher nor his manager would come out to visit him.  There wasn’t much point – he knew what he was doing.
We all knew that he had spent time in the Giants organization.  We didn’t know many details about his minor league career, but it lent him an almost mythical status. Gord spent a fair amount of time helping out at the practices of the Midland minor baseball teams, including mine, and he mentored most of the young pitchers in the organization, like my older brother. When he told you how to grip the ball or swing the bat, you listened.  It didn’t dawn on me until I was older, but I had a guy pitching BP to me who was coached by the guy who struck out five future Hall of Famers (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin) with his nasty screwball in the 1934 All Star game.
By the 1970s, most of the core of the Indians dynasty from the 60s had retired, but Gord kept on pitching.  He was even loaned to cross-county rival Orillia Majors for the national championships in 1972, where Dyment threw a no-hitter at the age of 40. Gord hung on with the Indians as younger players (including my brother) filled the roster, but while they were competitive, the Indians were no longer a powerhouse.  He retired from the game in 1975, the year his son Bob, a hard-throwing righthander like his Dad, was signed by the Mets.  A fire at the Arena, which was directly behind the left field fence, spelled the end of the Indians in 1976.  The subsequent demolition of the old building and construction of the new one meant the field was unplayable, and truth be told, the team was having trouble attracting players.  Sadly, I was only about a year or two away from being old enough to patrol the outfield for the Indians, but never got the chance.  The field was reconfigured for fastball, which was gaining in popularity in the area, the following year, and renamed Herb Beuachamp Field, in honour of the man behind the Indians glory years.

Herb Beauchamp

Jack Beauchamp played for the Indians himself after a couple of years in the Giants minor league system, then retired to focus on the family’s TV and Radio business.  The Beauchamp family was a musical one, and Jack played in many jazz bands for almost a half a century.  A scholarship in his name and memory now helps to further the education of promising young musicians in the Midland area.

   When passenger rail service to Midland ended in the early 70s, Gord found employment with Ogilvie Flour Mills, which received prairie grain via lake freighter.  He retired in 1992, and continued to play in a seniors slow-pitch leagues.  Gord passed away from cancer in 2003.  With Herb Beauchamp field closed by the expansion of the new Rec Centre in 2004, the town redeveloped the baseball field on the east side of town, overlooking Georgian Bay, and renamed it Gord Dyment Field.  The Midland Mariners of the North Dufferin Baseball League continue the tradition of amateur men’s baseball in the town.