It’s Time for Danny Jansen

Let me just start by saying that I’ve always been a fan of the product of Appleton, WI.  Taken in the 16th round in 2013, Jansen epitomized the approach to that annual harvest of talent under former GM Alex Anthopoulos and Scouting Director Blake Parker.  Beyond the coveted projectable high school arm, the Blue Jays actively looked for players who were overlooked for various reasons.  Maybe injury had scared teams off (in the case of Ryan Borucki), or a college commitment (Daniel Norris), or, in the case of Jansen, the Jays weren’t afraid to take a trip off the beaten path to find players in non-traditional baseball places.  An injury his senior year of high school made Jansen even more of a low-profile prospect, but the Blue Jays felt they were getting a prospect who scored high in terms of tools and make up.  Conversations with Jansen over the past four seasons have borne that out.

After a season in which he finally managed to stay healthy, Jansen hit his way through three levels, posting a .323/.400/.484 line in the process, and is on the cusp of a big league job.

A word about how more and more MLB teams are viewing the Catching position:  teams are coming to understand that a Catcher’s value goes far beyond his batting average.  The plethora of posters on various Blue Jays Facebook pages complaining about Russell Martin’s .221 average last year miss the below sea level portion of the iceberg that is Martin’s contribution to the team.  From framing pitches, to blocking sliders thrown in the dirt intentionally in order to get a batter to chase, to working with umpires to get calls, to working with Pitchers to build a bond that can’t be found in any other sport, Catchers are the Field Generals of the action on a ball diamond.  The decisions they make have an influence on every pitch thrown in an MLB game.

 A paragraph from a SABR article takes this several steps further:

Only the catcher is positioned to see the entire field of play, including the hitter, and it is the catcher who triggers virtually every action by calling the pitches.1 The catcher makes calls based on a complex array of data that he processes in a split second. He must be aware of every aspect of the game at all times, particularly the perceived strengths and weaknesses, as well as preferences and desires, of the hitter (the opponent) and his own teammates. He must keep the score, the inning, and the number of outs in mind. He has to know what the count is2 and what the batter did the last time he was up to bat as well as in prior games. Is the pitcher’s curveball working today? Does the umpire have a loose or a tight strike zone? Does the batter dig in? Is his weight leaning forward or on his heels? Do the runners have large leads, and which way are they leaning? These perceptions, judgments, and decisions run through a catcher’s mind before he calls a pitch. Each decision is critical, because the outcome of the game could turn on any one. The complexity seems daunting. But, like a chess master — or a master of any other talent that involves an opponent and/or a team — catching relies on emotional intelligence and perspective taking, which depend on the thoughts and feelings that run through the medial prefrontal cortex hub.

That takes us far beyond whatever Martin did at the plate last year.  With other positions, teams have to weigh whether or not they can carry a glove-first, below-league-average hitter, but that’s not necessarily the case with Catching.  Certainly, the Blue Jays and Martin would have liked to have seen more offensive production from him last year, but his value to the team goes far beyond that, often in ways that are difficult to measure.

But as he enters the next-to-last-year on his contract, Martin, who turns 35 next month, is likely in his last months as a full-time backstop.  Having appeared in only 91 games last year after averaging 133 in his first two seasons in Toronto, it’s not realistic to expect him to carry a heavy load any more.  120 games might be even a stretch to expect from him.

Which brings in Jansen.

Jansen experimented with sport glasses behind the plate in the Arizona Fall League in 2016, and he found that it helped him pick up pitches better behind the plate.  As an added bonus, he was able to develop better pitch recognition, as he could detect spin much better than in his pre-glasses days.

Behind the plate, Jansen has drawn raves since his 2014 season, when he handled a Bluefield staff that included a young Borucki.  Despite his size (6’2″), Jansen presents a nice low target, which is especially important for sinker ball Pitchers working down in the zone.  Handling Pitchers, calling games, and blocking pitches have long been a strength – because of his size, lateral movement has been a minor issue, but Jansen has the athleticism and work ethic to overcome that.

Jansen is also familiar with the wave of minor league Pitchers who will soon be coming to Toronto, starting with Borucki, who told media at Winterfest this past weekend:

When you move up levels, there’s always that anxiety and you’re a little nervous. When you’ve got a guy back there, especially with Danny, having him in Double-A for my first start and Triple-A, you just have a sense of ease. You just feel comfortable.

Not only has Jansen caught Borucki throughout the minors, he’s also worked extensively with Sean Reid-Foley, T.J. Zeuch, and to a lesser extent, Thomas Pannone.  As these youngsters reach the Majors, having a familiar face behind the plate would help ease their transition.

Ordinarily, incumbent backup Luke Maile might be considered to have the inside track on winning the job again this spring.  However, his offence was beyond anemic last year (9.5% LD rate), and with the increased load Martin’s back up will have to shoulder this year, it would be hard for any team to carry that weak a bat, even at a premium defensive position.

Jansen could benefit from a season of Martin’s mentoring, and would probably learn more in a part-time role than he could in a full season of AAA.  And while he would be hard-pressed to reproduce last year’s breakthrough numbers at the plate, he would bring some offence to the position, and he could also DH on occasion.

It’s been a long road for Jansen.  Injuries ended his 2014 season prematurely, and severely curtailed his 2015 and 2016.  Healthy for the first time last year, he reached MLB Pipeline’s Top 10 Catching Prospects list this year, checking in at #8.  With Martin’s career perhaps starting to wind down, 2018 could represent an excellent chance for his potential successor to start to get some on-the-job training.  He could split the load more evenly with Martin next year, and take over the reigns in 2020, when he would just be entering his prime at the age of 25.

 

Advertisements

Blue Jays Winterfest a Hit with Fans

DT_hMWfWsAEHUj1
Jay Blue/ @JaysFromAway photo

The Blue Jays first attempt at a winter festival in over two decades was a hit for the fans in attendance; for media who were trying to provide coverage, it was not so much.

Over 15 000 fans came (and, one suspects, they could have sold twice that many tickets) to get their photos taken with Jays stars, have their kids play ping-pong with a prospect, or watch Buck and Pat attempt a talk show.  Access to players for anything beyond that was very tightly controlled, however.

To be fair, this was not really a media event, which Blue Jays new VP of Communications, Sebastian Gatica, made clear in an email earlier in the week  The Comms department, of course, has undergone a drastic makeover since last fall, and getting a timely response from the short-staffed group was a challenge.

Arriving at the event, a blogger had to vouch for a long time Toronto media member, who still covers the team in retirement.  The young PR staffer handing out credentials, who was probably not even alive when this gentleman was covering the team during its World Series years, clearly had no clue who he was, but handled the situation gracefully.

Those media who were hopeful of getting to speak to some of the team’s prospects, who are often half a continent (or more) away were limited to one group interview with Ryan Borucki and Danny Jansen, which was not finalized until late in the week.  There seemed to be the possibility of speaking to some of the minor league hopefuls earlier in the week, but that did not materialize.

On the playing field, however, it was a much different story.  Fans lined up for tours of the Dome’s roof, the clubhouse, and the press box.  The tours were all full by early in the afternoon, however.  But the club had to be pleased with the positive PR that was generated, as well as by the jerseys that were flying off the shelves, and the food consumed at the concessions.

To be honest, I didn’t spend much time at Winterfest – I’m not one for lineups.  The baseball fates had their revenge, however, as late-night construction on the 400 north of Vaughan created a huge traffic tie up that stretched for miles.

All in all, it was a great event for the team, and for baseball-starved, winter-weary fans.

 

 

 

Early – Very – Look at the 2018 MLB Draft

NC State vs. Kentucky Lexington Regional
Cameron Mills Radio photo by Hunter Mitchell

Amateur scouts representing all MLB teams have been involved in meetings for the past few weeks in preparation for the June draft, and the Blue Jays are no exception.

With the 12th overall pick, the Blue Jays have a chance to land a player who could have an impact on the team in three to five years.

There is a Blue Jays connection with the player ranked the top draft prospect in RHP

Brady Singer, who the team took in the 2nd round of 2015.  The Florida high schooler opted to go the collegiate route, and as a consolation prize, they landed Bo Bichette with the comp pick the following year.

RHP Ethan Hankins had a strong showing with Team USA in the World U18s at Thunder Bay last year, and is a solid #2 – he may even become the first prep righty ever taken first overall.

Between now and June, of course, players will move up and down the Blue Jays draft board, but here are some names that are ranked in the neighbourhood of Toronto’s first round pick:

  1. OF Tristan Pompey Kentucky 

   The younger brother of the Blue Jays’ own Dalton has seen his stock rise considerably since first suiting up for the Wildcats three seasons ago.  The Mississauga native is currently ranked 21st by Baseball America.  And a report by veteran scout Ted Lekas of 2080baseball. com offered a glowing, toolsy assessment after watching Pompey in the Cape Cod League last summer:

Well-proportioned, athletic body with width to his shoulder and hips; five-tool player; open stance that closes at contact; quick bat; plus bat speed with a good trigger, gets bat through the hitting zone with quick hands and wrists; feel for the barrel; strength, loft and leverage to his swing; plus power potential; above-average runner out of the box and double-plus runner underway with good running stride; plus defensive actions seen in right field with good routes, jumps, and reads; plus range, glides to the ball; above-average arm with good carry; potential first-round tools for the 2018 MLB Draft who should hold down center field for the Wildcats; should be one of the top players in the SEC.

Given his current ranking, it would be a bit of a reach for the Blue Jays take him, but he does fit the profile of a high makeup, athletic, polished college player that they have shown a preference for in the early rounds.  A pre-season All -American, a good spring could raise his profile considerably.

2.  LHP Ryan Rolison Mississippi

If Pompey fits the Blue Jays’ bill for a first round pick, Rolison matches up with it even better.  A draft-eligible sophomore, Rollison was ranked the 3rd-best prospect in the Cape League last summer (Pompey was 6th).  Teddy Cahill of BA gave this evaluation:

Rolison combines good size–a listed 6-foot-3, 200 pounds–with premium stuff from the left side. His fastball sits 91-94 mph, and he pairs it with a wipeout curveball. Both pitches generate swings and misses, and he also mixes in a useful changeup and slider. He fills up the strike zone and had success pitching inside to righthanded batters. Rolison will be a draft-eligible sophomore in next year’s draft and is on track to be the first first-rounder from Ole Miss since Drew Pomeranz was picked fifth overall in 2010.

3.  RHP Logan Gilbert, Stetson

Gilbert was the Cape’s 4th best prospect, who features premium velocity from a loose, easy delivery.  At 6’5″/195, he gets good downward movement on his pitches, and has considerable projection remaining.  MLB Pipeline’s report:

Gilbert is coming into his own, with room to grow into his prototypical pitcher’s body. He’ll throw his fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s, touching 97 mph. He has the chance to have at least three above-average to plus pitches, as his newer slider and changeup both have the chance to be outstanding offerings, while the curve might be a touch behind. A position player in high school, Gilbert is a solid athlete who fields his position and repeats his delivery well, which should lead to solid command.

 


There are several high school players ranked around the 12 spot – Wisconsin high school OF Jarred Kelenic gets the nod on MLB Pipeline, while BA has Florida prep SS Nander De Sedas.  It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Blue Jays could select one of these two, but recent history (a total of 3 prep picks in the first 10 rounds over the past two years) suggests a college player is more likely.

More on the New Additions to the Minor League Staffs

Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim sent an addendum to an email he had originally sent with details about the backgrounds of some of the new hires on the minor league staff.

What’s interesting about these new instructors is the wealth of education and experience many of them bring to the organization.  The Blue Jays are on the cutting edge with their new High Performance Department, and these hirings reflect that.

Here’s the bulk of Kim’s email:

Guillermo (Martinez) – Nicaragua native who comes to us from the Cubs, he eats/breathes/lives hitting.  He has a creative mind, he’s resilient and he’s well-respected by players and staff around the game.

Matt Young – not drafted and made it to the big leagues, he’s a hard worker who has been a general manager at a Dallas-area baseball academy.  He’s a cage rat who connects well with people.

Mark Worrell – former big league reliever, impressive background with a PhD in Phys Ed Teacher Education.  He spent last season as the Academic Coordinator/Asst. Pitching Coach for MLB China.  He’s a very driven individual, and passionate about the holistic development of players.

One last note on staffing……… we aim to provide these players with the best resources possible, and that very much includes the people that these players will work with and learn with.  We’re a diverse and multi-cultural game.  We have players in this organization from different backgrounds and from all over the world, so it’s an advantage to also build a diverse and multi-cultural staff as well.      

 

Blue Jays Bring in New Faces to Minor League Staffs

The Blue Jays announced their minor league instructional staffs this week, and there was a mix of old and new faces.

Tim Raines was welcomed back into the organization after having accepted an ambassadorship position with the White Sox.  Formerly a roving Base Running and Outfield coach with the Blue Jays, Raines will be serving as a Special Assistant.  Director of Player Development Gil Kim said that Raines will be on assignments during Spring Training, the regular season, and Instructs:

 While most of the focus will be on basestealing development, Rock brings a wealth of playing and teaching experience, and will be utilized in a variety of ways to help both our players and our staff.

The Blue Jays obviously don’t like to say good-bye to quality staff.  Just over a month ago, Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish appeared on his way to Atlanta, only to have a change of heart a few days later.

Bobby Meacham returns to Buffalo for a second year to Manage the Bisons:

Hart is a rising star in the system with his work as Dunedin’s Hitting Coach after joining the organization last year.  Only a couple of seasons removed from his playing days, Hart drew raves for his work in the Arizona Fall League, and seems destined for bigger things.  According to Kim, he quickly and easily builds a rapport with young hitters:

 Our hitters really connect with Corey – he loves talking hitting, knows how to teach the swing, knows how to teach approach, and stays simple and positive. 

Hart takes over from Blue Jays World Series hero White,  who will serve as Buffalo’s Outfield and Baserunning Coach.

New Hampshire will also feature a Blue Jays staffer whose stock is on the rise in Manager John Schneider.

   Schneider is a Blue Jays lifer, joining the organization after being drafted in 2002.  He began his dugout career in 2009, Managing the GCL Jays.  Schneider has worked in the lower levels of the system until last year, when he managed Dunedin to a share of the Florida State League title.  C Danny Jansen credited the former backstop for much of his success in handling Pitchers while with the D-Jays, and Ryan Borucki, who Pitched for Schneider in Dunedin as well, was pumped at the news of him moving up the ladder:

Nova Scotian Vince Horsman returns as the Fisher Cats’ Pitching Coach, and Andy Fermin will be back as Position Coach.  New to the organization is Hunter Mense, who was drafted by the Marlins, and served as the Hitting Coach with the Padres Northwest League affiliate last year.  Mense’s background is a good fit with the Blue Jays High Performance group, according to Kim:

Hunter has a background as a player and has coached at both the pro and collegiate levels.  He’s also a strong learner who has a Masters in Sports Psychology.  He has a strong work ethic, and a true passion for developing hitting.

Former MLBer Casey Candaele, who was the Mariner’s First Base Coach this year, takes over the Manager’s reigns at Dunedin:

Kim is thrilled with the depth of knowledge Candaele brings to Dunedin:

 Casey brings knowledge and experience in so many areas, having previous experience coordinating Infield and Baserunning development along with one year as a Field Coordinator.  He’s had experience as a Major League player, and as a Major League coach.  We’re excited to welcome Casey’s high energy and creativity as a leader in our department.

At Low A Lansing, Cesar Martin returns to helm the Lugnuts:

Antonio Carceres, who had served a stint as the Lugs’ Pitching Coach in 2009 and 2010, returns to Lansing after seven years with Bluefield.  Matt Young, who played with the Braves and Tigers, operated a baseball academy in Texas before joining the Jays this year, and will be Lansing’s Hitting Coach.

Short Season Vancouver will have a new man running the club this year.  Dallas McPherson, a two-time MiLB POY in the Angels system, takes over from the departed Rich Miller.  Longtime Blue Jays minor league Pitching Coach Jim Czajkowski returns, and will be joined by former Jays minor leaguer Aaron Matthews.  Matthews replaces Dave Pano, who will be joining Lansing’s staff.  Kim is high on McPherson:

Dallas McPherson comes to us from King’s Ridge Christian School in Georgia, where he served as the head varsity coach and also founded the Hard Knox travel ball program.  Dallas has a good knowledge of the game, experience as a player and strong leadership skills.  He’s open-minded and is constantly trying to improve himself

Veteran Blue Jays staffer Dennis Holmberg, who has been in the organization since 1979, returns to Manage Bluefield.  Adam Bernero, who Pitched for five teams in a 7-year MLB career, joins the team as Pitching Coach.  Bernero, who has a Masters in Sport and Performance Psychology, served as a Pitching and Mental Performance Coach with Dunedin last year.

Luis Hurtado will return as the GCL Jays Manager, along with Hitting Coach Paul Elliott.  Rafael Lazo moves up from the DSL to act as Pitching Coach, while Mark Worrell joins the team as a part-time Pitching Coach.  Former Blue Jays farmhand George Carroll, who helped rehabbing players at the Minor League complex last year, will joing the staff as a Position Coach.

John Tamargo Jr will return for a second season as the DSL Jays Manager.

Jeff Ware will return as the Roving Pitching Instructor, as will Ken Huckaby as the Catching Co-Ordinator.  Guillermo Martinez, who served as the system’s Hitting Instructor from 2011-2013, returns after three seasons with the Cubs.

After two seasons of little change among the minor league staff,  it was time to head in a new, more Sport Science-oriented direction.  Kim concluded:

 We’ve made several changes and additions in the past two years, and we’ve also seen some of our staff members take advantage of different opportunities whether that’s within or outside the organization.  We realize that at the same time that players are continuously striving to get better, we are as individual staff members and we are as a department. 

Top Blue Jay Prospects will be in Town Next Week

18589026_1835308556733470_4147045149317068317_o
Tim Leiper photo

Going through Customs, the different currency, and many other subtle day-to-day things are a fact of life for American and Caribbean players who venture north of the border to play for the Blue Jays.

For several years, the Blue Jays have held a January mini-camp at the Rogers Centre for their top minor league players to give them a little more exposure to life in the Great White North.  Starting on January 15th,  Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, DJ Davis, Reese McGuire,  Roemon Fields, newly-acquired Taylor Guerreri,  Lourdes Gurriel, Danny Jansen, Jason Leblebijian, Thomas Pannone, Ryan Borucki, Max Pentecost, Sean Reid-Foley, and the GTA’s own Jordan Romano will be in Toronto for a series of on-field drills and off-field seminars.   The group will be at the Blue Jays first annual Winter Fest that weekend.

When the announcement was made last week, Twitter instantly was full of rumours about Conner Greene, who was not part of this year’s contingent.  The rumours suggested Greene was being held back because he was going to be part of a package of players for Pirates star Andrew McCutchen.  As has been pointed out, Greene was part of last year’s tour, as were Rowdy Tellez, Anthony Alford, and Richie Urena.  Greene’s command issues were a concern last year, but that 100 mph fastball isn’t going anywhere just yet.

In the off-field sessions, players will receive training in dealing with the media, as well as how to deal with situations that might crop up as professional athletes.  It sounds like Romano is excited to have some of his fellow prospects to his paren’t basement:

Jansen, McGuire, Urena, Guerreri, and Pannone are all on the 40-man roster, and will be attending spring training with the big club.  The team has not announced which minor leaguers will receive an invite, but that it expected shortly.

Prospect Deals Evidence of Blue Jays Growing Farm System

Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro has made no secret of his distaste for mega-prospect dealing along the lines of what former GM Alex Anthopoulos conducted in his last year at the helm of the club.  Shapiro said this fall that while he’s pleased with the progress of the system, “it’s not where it needs to be.”

In what has been an otherwise quiet off-season for Toronto fans, the two deals the club has made have highlighted the progress the organization has made over the past two seasons.  Through good drafting, and a decent haul of bargain-bin international prospects (the PED scenario notwithstanding) in the wake of signing Vladimir Guerrero Jr in 2015, the system has rebounded enough to allow GM Ross Atkins to upgrade the 25-man roster without having to give up a player from the 40.

In November, the team dealt 2016 2nd rounder J.B Woodman to the Cardinals for IF Aledmys Diaz.  Despite his drop-off in performance in 2017, Diaz offers insurance to Toronto as an upgrade in a back up role, while Woodman, who flashes tools but has yet to make consistent contact in his pro career, gets time in another organization to try to refine his approach.

With Anthony Alford, Teoscar Hernandez, and Dalton Pompey above him on the depth charts, and several promising youngsters below, Woodman was likely surplus in the Blue Jays’ minds, and was a good price to pay for Diaz.  Woodman was among the Midwest League leaders in both Swinging Strike and Line Drive rates, indicating that when he did make contact, it was often of the hard variety.

On of those OFers below him (before 2017), Edward Olivares, was dealt along with reliever Jared Carkuff to San Diego for Utility Player Yangervis Solarte.  Olivares had a breakout year with Lansing in 2017, and likely raced past Woodman in the eyes of the organization.  Olivares is a potential five-tool player who can play all three outfield positions, but there are concerns about his approach.  Olivares can expand his strike zone, and his pitch recognition skills need improving.  Unless he can make adjustments, Pitchers at the higher levels could expose him.  Still, there is much to like about Olivares, and he joins a young system on the rise.  With the play this season of youngsters McGregory Contreras and Chavez Young below him, Olivares likely was valued by the Blue Jays, but was deemed surplus in order to improve the major league roster.   His 2017 stats were impressive, although he wasn’t able to duplicate that success in a smaller sample when he was promoted to Dunedin.  The best summary of Olivares suggests a toolsy-but-raw profile; for the Padres, who are not looking to contend this year, he gets time to develop in their system.

Carkuff is part of a stockpile of relief arms the Blue Jays have in the lower levels of the system.  He’s fanned a batter per inning in two years of pro ball, and while Carkuff faces long odds to reach the majors, he’s moved quickly through the Toronto system, and could do the same with Padres.

It’s a roll of the dice when teams trade prospects.  And while you can’t argue with the results from a 2015-16 Blue Jays perspective, you wonder if dealing four Starting Pitching prospects didn’t leave the organization a little thin in 2017.  Last year, the team had to comb the minor league free agent ranks to bolster their 40-man roster.  This year, they had the depth to upgrade the 25-man.  And with a 12th over all draft pick and the team linked to top-ranked 2018 IFA SS Orelvis Martinez, and 2017 IFAs like Eric Pardinho and Miguel Hiraldo making their pro debuts next year, the system will continue to get better.

B.C Product Bouchey Aims for the Big Leagues

brayden_bouchey_june_20_nbd
csplusbaseball.com/Niall O’Donohoe photo

The Blue Jay selected RHP Brayden Bouchey, a product of the Vancouver-area tourist hub of White Rock (seconds from the U.S. border), in the 33rd round of the 2016 draft from Louisiana-Monroe.

A starter for most of his two seasons at ULM, Bouchey was moved to the bullpen after the draft.  After a solid pro debut at Bluefield last year in which he fanned 33% of the hitters he faced, Bouchey had an up-and-down first half of the season pitching for Vancouver, but had a lights-out second half and playoff that bodes well for his future.

We caught up to Bouchey as he came home from a workout.  Like most minor leaguers, he has to balance getting his training in with a part-time job.

While in high school, Bouchey pitched for the Langley Blaze, a travel team that has had 34 players drafted by MLB since 2001, and whose alumni include Scott Mathieson, Tyson Gillies, and Brett Lawrie.  Playing for the Blaze exposed Bouchey to a number of U.S schools at showcase events in Arizona, and it was at one of those showcases that he got connected to Odessa, a Junior College in West Texas.  After a year at Odessa, however, Bouchey was looking for a change:

I went there for a year, but there was a coaching change, and it just wasn’t challenging enough for me, and I figured I would put some feelers out there if I could get a scholarship after just a year of JC, and I was lucky enough that I ended up talking to the pitching coach at Louisiana Monroe (a school in the Sun Belt Conference)…………it just worked out from there.

Bouchey had a successful sophomore season at Louisiana-Monroe, and an even more successful summer, where he was a Great Lakes Summer League All Star and Pitcher of the Year.  Bouchey was the ace of the Warhawks’ rotation (he threw a pair of 12-strikeout games that year), but he ran out of gas and his draft stock tumbled:

I was talking to  couple of teams….but then I started struggling mid-way through the season, and didn’t have the finish to the season that I wanted, so I think that dropped my stock….but I had continued to talk to the Blue Jays – Gerald Turner was the scout, he had seen me pitch a few times when I was in Texas, so I was talking to him throughout the draft, and I was lucky enough to get drafted by the team I grew up watching.

Bouchey knew that being drafted by the Blue Jays meant that he would likely spend some time playing in his hometown:

Going into the draft, I knew there was a slim shot I would get sent to Vancouver that first year…..going into Spring Training this year, I knew that was the most likely situation.

Pitching in Vancouver was an affair the whole Bouchey family became part of:

Bing so far away the last four years, not a whole lot of my whole extended family or friends have been able to see me pitch….it was awesome in that aspect – get to do it for the people who supported me.

Both my parents came to every home game….one of my sisters lives in London, England, and the other is going to school in Windsor, Ontario, so they both got to come back for a bit and saw me play a couple of games….I have a lot of family on Vancouver Island, and they made the ferry ride over….my dad’s side of the family is local, so they were able to get to a lot of games.

But playing in front of all of those familiar eyes, Bouchey came to learn, was something of a distraction.  He admits that he may have pressed too much in trying to impress the home fans:

This year……I didn’t have my usual mindset – I put pressure on myself, I have high expectations of myself to being with, and pitching in front of people that I know, I think I didn’t stick to my strengths on the mound….it sucks to fail, but now I know what works for me – I didn’t go through any mechanical changes, it was just pitch selection, then I started locating better, started throwing my curve for strikes more often.

But starting with a July 21st outing, Bouchey began to rely on his fastball and his curve, and NWL hitters had trouble squaring him up:  over his next 14 appearances, Bouchey gave up runs in only two of them, as he became a trusted middle relief arm in Manager Rich Miller’s bullpen.

It was great to be one of the guys out of the pen down the stretch and in the playoffs. We lost a bunch of our top guys out of the bullpen who moved up to Lansing earlier in the year, to see it work out and the bullpen guys have success was pretty cool.  

In the playoffs, Bouchey was perfect.  In three outings, he tossed 6 perfect frames, fanning 9.  His three-inning, nine-up, nine-down work in Game One of the final vs Eugene settled things down after the C’s had scored 4 in the top of the 5th to take the lead, a game they would go on to win and help them gain a split in the series before returning home.  Bouchey’s two perfect frames in the 7th and 8th in Game Four propelled Vancouver onto the league title.

As befits an accounting major, Bouchey is quite analytical, and credited the C’s coaching staff for giving the team the rest they needed to stay sharp for the final, especially after the long bus ride back to Vancouver for Game 4, played the day after Game Three in Eugene:

It wasn’t ideal to be on a bus for 10 hours, but I think the coaching staff did a good job of realizing that wasn’t an easy thing to do…we still did BP, but coming down the stretch,  there wasn’t as much mandatory early work….pitcher’s conditioning was optional in the final series….if you’ve been doing it all year, four days off at the end isn’t going to kill you…I think as a team and as a coaching staff they did a good job of managing how much work we put in before games.

And on Pitching in Nat Bailey Stadium, a Pitcher-friendly park, where the sea-level air tends to keep balls in play that might fly out of other places:

Vancouver is different from a lot of other parks in the league.  The ball doesn’t fly as well…it’s go different dimensions than most fields.  The ball doesn’t fly out to right or centre very well.  Our team did a good job of adjusting to that and learning how to play at that field early in the year.  Kacy Clemens said it pretty well, that it’s always in the back of a hitter’s mind that playing in theat park you’re not going to have power numbers as good as other guys.

At 6’6″ Bouchey gets a good downward plane on his fastball.  He pounded the bottom of the strike zone in the Game One win against Eugene – so much so that it was easy to assume that he throws a two-seamer.  Such is not the case:

I don’t throw a 2-seam….it’s just natural run and downhill plane from my release point and getting on top of the ball….my bread-and-butter is my curveball, and down the stretch I only threw those two.  At the start of the season, I was working on a slider, but it just doesn’t fit into my pitch repertoire as well, because I can throw my curve and fastball off of each other because the spin is the same….the difference on the curve is because of the top spin.  I throw a change every once in a while…it’s not as consistent as I’d like it to be, but it has taken good strides in the last year…I’m starting to get the feel for it.

With an over-the-top delivery, Bouchey gets some deception with the late release point caused by his size.  His curve is thrown from the same arm slot, and profiles as a potentially plus pitch, because it keeps hitters from sitting on that fastball.  With two strikes, he can elevate the fastball to generate swings and misses.  Bouchey’s fastball sits at 88-92, and his curve offers good separation at 78-80.  Things that stood out about his 2017 season, despite the slow start:  a 14.4% swinging strike rate, a 50% groundball rate, and a line drive rate of only 10% (a league low for Pitchers with over 30 IP).  Hitters had a difficult time elevating the ball on him.

Bouchey is looking forward to full season ball next year, and is hopeful of skipping a level to Dunedin – with the arms ahead of him, and with decent fellow Vancouver relievers like Travis Bergen, Orlando Pascual, and William Ouellette in camp, that may be a tall order.  But he is developing into an OTTO – a once-through-the-order guy who can give a team multiple innings before turning things over to the back of the pen.   If he can carry the success from 2017 over to next season, even if he starts at Lansing, he doesn’t promise to be there long.  The traditional track for relievers has been along the failed-starter path, but there seems to be a new trend – some teams are beginning to stockpile guys who fit the relief model, and allowing them to further develop their stuff in the low minors.  The Blue Jays are one of those teams, and Bouchey may be part of a wave that hits Toronto in 2019 or 2020.

Blue Jays Minor League Staffs to be Announced Next Week

 

dunedin-blue-jays-hitting-coach-corey-hart
Corey Hart – TSN photo

The Blue Jays will release the names of their minor league coaching and instructional staffs next week, a sign that spring may not be just around the corner here in Southern Ontario, but it’s coming down the hall.

After last season, the Blue Jays let several minor league staffers go:  Rich Miller, who led Vancouver to a Northwest League title in his return to Managing; New Hampshire Manager Gary Allenson, and Willie Collazo, who served as Lansing’s Pitching Coach last year.  In addition, long time Toronto minor league instructor and newly-minted Hall of Famer Tim Raines left the organization to become a goodwill ambassador with the White Sox, who he both played and coached for.

In December, it was announced that Bobby Meacham would be returning to Manage Buffalo again this year.  Devon White, who served as the Bisons Hitting Coach last year, will stay with the team, but with a change in portfolio to Outfield and Base Running Coach.

Gazing into the crystal ball, in addition to the vacancies that will need to be filled, it would be reasonable to expect some changes may be made with the DSL Blue Jays in the wake of the PED suspensions that have occured since September.  That’s not to say that Manager John Tamargo Jr and his staff were responsible, but it’s likely that a change of scenery might be wise.

Ken Huckaby (Roving Catching Instructor) and Jeff Ware (Pitching Instructor) were new to their roles last year, and from many accounts did a fantastic job.   Corey Hart, who earned raves for his work with hitters in the Arizona Fall League after serving as Dunedin’s Hitting Coach last year,  and Cesar Martin, who Managed Lansing, would be deserving candidates for a move up the ladder.

Expect an announcement sometime by the middle of next week.

 

Toronto Blue Jays Minor League System Top 10 Moments of 2017

It was a memorable season for a guy who follows the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system.  Three of the four short season teams made the post season, as did one full season team, bringing home a championship and a co-championship to the organization.  I had a first-hand look at Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette opening weekend in Lansing, and finished the campaign with a press box view of Nate Pearson’s start in Vancouver’s final regular season home game.  In between, there were plenty of highlights:

1.  Vladdy Jr’s Rise to Prominence

  One has to go back to the days of Sil Campusano* to find a Blue Jay ranked as high as Vladdy Jr (*Baseball America didn’t start their Top 100 list until 1990 – Campusano was a multiple-times cover boy of the publication in the mid-80s).

Those of us in the know were not surprised that Guerrero is either the top or 2nd-ranked prospect in the game after only two pro seasons.  His advanced approach, pitch recognition, and lethal bat speed have the makings of a generational bat.

Guerrero dominated the Midwest League as an 18-year-old, and after a bit of a dip following his promotion to High A Dunedin, he was back to his productive self, leading the D-Jays to the post season.

Vladdy was such a model of consistency this year that it’s hard to pick out one highlight.  Was it going 2-4 with a Homer in his first game of Low A?  Leading the minors in OBP? Hitting .385/.483/.646 in August? Homering in three straight games that month?  Not going more than 3 games without a hit (twice) all season?

Thoughts of Guerrero continuing to climb the minor league ladder have helped to warm up the current record cold Southern Ontario winter.

2.  Bo Bichette Flirts with .400

Advanced stats have taken over with serious baseball fans, but who doesn’t like a good run at baseball’s hallowed .400 mark?

After tearing up the Gulf Coast League the year before, the 2016 2nd rounder picked up exactly where he left off in Lansing.  He hit .371 for April, and .388 in May, but not even in a prospect hunter’s wildest dreams did we expect what happened next.

In the first half of June, his average steadily creeped up into the .380s, and then an incredible 7-8 performance in a doubleheader on the 15th put Bichette over the top:

At Bat #1
   Facing Cubs’ RHP Duncan Robinson, who stood 3rd in the MWL in ERA entering the night, he took an 0-1 fastball on the outer edge of the plate to right field for his first hit of the game in Lansing’s top of the 1st.

At Bat #2
   Robinson clearly wanted no part of Bichette, offering up a steady diet of breaking balls in the top of the 3rd.  With the count 2-1, Robinson tried to get a fastball in on Bichette, but missed badly.  Bichette hammered it into the gap in Left Centre, driving in a run.

At Bat #3
  Bichette led off the top of the sixth, and Robinson continued to avoid giving him fastballs anywhere near the plate.  He hung a 2-2 change, and Bichette hammered it into the LF bleachers for his 7th Home Run, touching off a 5-run frame for Lansing.

At Bat #4
After sending 9 men to the plate the previous inning, Bichette led off the top of the 7th, the final frame of Game 1 against reliever Jared Cheek.
This 9 pitch AB may have been his best of the night.
Down 0-2, Bichette fouled off a number of borderline pitches, before Cheek caught too much of the plate with a breaking ball, which Bichette lined into CF for a base hit.  His average now stood at .394.

Game 2
At Bat #1
   Facing Cubs RHP Erling Moreno, Bichette hit a 2-1 pitch into the hole at short, and beat the off-line throw to first for an infield single.

At Bat #2
   Moreno continued the breaking ball regimen.  Bichette hammered a mistake fastball all the way to the wall in Right Centre field, raising his average to .399.

At Bat #3
   Facing soft-tossing reliever Tyson Miller, Bichette showed some rare impatience, chasing a breaking ball out of the zone, and foul-tipping a low fastball into the Catcher’s mitt for a swinging strikeout.  .400 would have to wait.

At Bat #4
   In his final at bat of the night, Bichette looped a fastball on the outer half to right field for a base hit, and his average finally reached .400.

A 3-5 night at the plate the following day kept his average at .400, but a slight dip after that saw his average go as “low” as .392, before another hot streak nudged him to .402 on June 28th.

It’s hard to remember such an individual performance in five years of following the Toronto farm system.

3.  NWL title returns to Vancouver

Minor league playoffs are a bit of an afterthought to fans, and a bit of a double-edged sword for MLB executives.  Kids are back in school, the weather has cooled, and some teams struggle to draw the crowds they had in warmer days.  For the front-office types, they certainly want their prospects to learn to win together on their way up the minor league rungs, but they certainly must hold their breath and hope injuries don’t take place in games that don’t matter much in the larger scheme of things.

Canadians fans couldn’t be blamed for being spoiled; titles in the first three seasons as a Blue Jays affiliate, and a trip to the finals in the fourth meant that fans in the Lower Mainland could reasonably expect competitive teams every year.

Except that 2015 and 2016 were lean years, and the team missed the post-season.  Despite that, C’s fans continued to pass through the turnstiles at venerable old Nat Bailey Stadium in record numbers, giving Blue Jays prospects an incredible atmosphere to play their home games in.

That loyalty was rewarded in 2017, as top draft picks Logan Warmoth, Nate Pearson, and Riley Adams led the team back to the playoffs.  And the 2017 post-season proved to be beyond memorable.  The C’s semi-final with Spokane was set to open in Washington State, but a season of wildfires had made the air quality unacceptable, and the series was moved to Vancouver.  The Canadians took the first game of the best-of-three behind an outstanding performance by Pearson (see below), and clinched a berth in the finals behind some standout relief pitching from Justin Dillon and Orlando Pascual.

The C’s travelled to Eugene to take on the defending champion Cubs’ affiliate in the final.  The teams split the first two games in Oregon, making the 10 hour bus ride to Vancouver after the 2nd game for Game 3, which was slated for the following day.  The C’s once again rode their brilliant bullpen (3 ER over 27 IP in the series) to victory in Games 3 and 4.

4.  Dunedin Wins FSL Co-Championship

Dunedin made the playoffs by virtue of finishing with the Florida State League North Division’s 2nd best record, a distant 14.5 games back of the Tampa Yankees.

With Hurricane Irma bearing down on the Sunshine State, the league decided to declare the winners of the two divisions co-champions, while everyone packed up and got ready to get out of Dodge.

Dunedin hosted Game 1 of the best of three affair, and dropped a heartbreaking, extra-innings loss to Tampa after scoring 5 runs in the bottom of the 1st.

The D-Jays’ backs were clearly up against the wall for Game 2, which was played in Tampa, where Dunedin had lost 7 of 10 on the season to the Yankees.  And if they prevailed in Game 2, the 3rd and deciding game would take place minutes after – so, if they wanted to win the series and a share of the league title, the D-Jays would have to sweep a doubleheader in Tampa.

Dunedin easily took Game 1 by a score of 4-1, behind 6+ innings of solid work by Markham, ON native Jordan Romano.  Romano, who finished 2nd in the FSL in Ks, failed to fan a batter on the night, but he pitched well enough to turn a lead over to Kirby Snead, who pitched 2.1 scoreless innings to preserve the win.

In the final game, TJ Zeuch took to the mound for Dunedin.  Zeuch had spent much of the summer on the DL, and was making only his second start since his return.  Pitching on three days’ rest, Zeuch gave up only one hit over four innings.  Dunedin had given Zeuch a one-run lead in the 2nd, but Tampa tied it in the 4th, and took the lead in the 5th.  Dunedin tied the game up in the 7th on a Home Run by Toronto’s own Connor Panas.

Fast forward to Dunedin’s top of the 9th.  With a runner on and two outs, OF Edward Olivares singled, followed by a single to left by Jake Thomas, scoring the go-ahead run.  A bloop Double down the LF line by DJ Davis brought home both Olivares and Thomas, providing insurance for the D-Jays.  Tampa scored a run in the bottom of the 9th, but Dunedin held on to win their first FSL Championship.

5.  Nate Pearson Fans 10 in Playoff Game

NWL hitters were simply overwhelmed by the Blue Jays 1st round choice this summer.  The earned runs he gave up in his last regular season start were the first he had given up since he joined Vancouver in July – he had yet to even allow a runner past 2nd prior to that.

Pearson came back in the playoffs with a vengeance, tossing a dominant 10 strikeout effort in 4 innings against Spokane in Game 1 of the C’s semi-final series.  After an error allowed the leadoff hitter to reach in the 1st, Pearson set the side down on 9 pitches.  Pearson fanned the side in the 2nd, working around an error of his own, as well as the 3rd, sandwiching the Ks around a walk and a single.  Pearson lost the strike zone in the 4th, issuing three straight 4-ball walks after getting two quick outs.  He regrouped and fanned the final batter of the inning to end his night.

Pearson’s performance reminded C’s fans of a similarly dominant effort by a 17-year-old Roberto Osuna in 2012.  Osuna fanned 13 over 5 innings in his NWL debut.

6.  Danny Jansen’s Big Night

Jansen burst onto the prospect radar in 2017.  A season of good health, and new eyewear obtained in the Arizona Fall League allowed Jansen to post a .323/.400/.484 line at three levels.

Jansen went a career-best 4-4 for Buffalo in late August. After hitting a Single, Home Run, and Triple in his previous three ABs, Jansen came up in the 9th needing a Double to complete the cycle.  Jansen cranked his 2nd longball of the night, falling short of the cycle, but sparking the Bisons to a four-run 9th, and a come from behind W.

7.  Anthony Alford’s Sizzling Start

Alford had a breakthrough season in 2015 after abandoning his pro football dreams in order to focus on baseball.  A knee injury and a concussion suffered in an extra-inning OF collision upon his return set him back further, and whispers about his injury history began to surface.

Alford rode a successful Arizona Fall League campaign into 2017, and he got off to a scorching start, hitting .356/.427/.507 in April at AA.  Maintaining that hot start proved difficult, and Alford cooled off in May, but still got on base at almost a 40% clip.  Alford made his MLB debut that month, but broke his wrist, sending him back to the DL for six weeks.

Alford will very much be in contention for an MLB job this spring.  That hot April last year gave a glimpse into his work-the-count, use the whole field, game-changing speed on the base paths potential.

8.  Ryan Noda’s July

The 15th round draft pick saw his stock slip after a mediocre college season.  Noda laid waste to Appalachian League Pitching on his way to an MVP season, the highlight of which was a video game number-like July, in which he bashed his way to a .444/.580/.689 line.

Noda cooled off after that stretch, but his other-worldly July was enough for him to lead the Appy in Runs, Total Bases, Average, OBP, and Slugging.  Noda won’t be able to duplicate those numbers in full season ball, but it was fun checking Bluefield’s box scores every night for a month – here’s a brief sample:

Screenshot 2018-01-01 at 10.32.10 PM

9.  Ryan Borucki’s AA debut

It’s hard to believe that 15 months earlier, the southpaw was sent down to Lansing from Dunedin because Florida State League hitters had been hitting him hard and often.

But Borucki, who knows a thing or two about battling back from adversity (injuries cost him most of two of his first three pro seasons), refined his command, added some deception to his delivery, and came to rely on a change-up that’s already Major League-ready.

After repeating Dunedin to begin 2017, he earned a late July promotion to New Hampshire, and was masterful in his Eastern League debut, keeping hitters off-balance while tossing 7 shutout innings, allowing only two hits and a pair of walks.  Two starts later, he fired another 7 scoreless frames, fanning 7.

Barring some roster moves before spring training, Borucki and New Hampshire teammate Thomas Pannone will be among the candidates vying for the fifth starter’s role in the rotation.

10. Yennsy Diaz’ June 15th start

Diaz was just another hard-throwing righthander with control problems when he pitched in Bluefield in 2016.  He learned to harness his fastball last spring, and by June had been promoted from Extended to Lansing.

It was in the nightcap of Bichette’s pursuit of .400 doubleheader that Diaz made his second MWL start.  And South Bend hitters were all but defenceless against his 98 mph heat.  While Bichette was racking up base hits, Diaz was piling up the Ks, recording 8 in 4.2 innings.

While the rest of his season was full of ups and downs, Diaz had several outings where everything was working, and hitters were overmatched against his fastball.  Command of his secondaries is still an area requiring improvement, but there’s few things to compare with a Pitcher throwing easy 97 gas.