Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Pitching Prospects

It may be only early June, but we’re rapidly reaching the half way point in the minor league baseball season.  Players have had their ups and downs, which is to be expected, because the minors are one big learning process.  No other sport has a developmental system as elaborate as baseball’s, and it’s inevitable that for some players, progress will be made in a steps forward/steps back manner.

After a spring of watching a great deal of the four full season Blue Jays affiliates (well, three of them, but I have a good set of eyes in Dunedin), here’s how the team’s Pitching prospects shape up in this observer’s eyes:

1.  Ryan Borucki, LHP

Few players breeze through the minors free of injury and/or inconsistency woes, and Borucki is no exception.  With the possible exception of RHP Patrick Murphy, there is not a grittier prospect in the organization.  Borucki has fought his way back from Tommy John, back issues, and a demotion two years ago to become the brightest light in the system from a starting perspective.

The execrable April northeastern weather wreaked havoc with Buffalo’s rotation, but Borucki has now settled in nicely, pitching into the 6th inning in 6 of his last 7 starts.  His mix of pitches has kept hitters off-balance, and when he gets ahead in the count, his change-up becomes an absolute weapon.  He’s held International League hitters to a .239 average, and lefty hitters have been limited to .172.

Given the issues with the major league rotation, that we haven’t seen Borucki in Toronto yet may be a combination of readiness (or slight lack thereof) and his turn in the rotation not matching up with the Blue Jays’.  Nonetheless, it would be a shock if he did not make his MLB debut this summer.  At the moment, he’s the most polished and most MLB-ready arm in the system.

2.  Nate Pearson, RHP

Pearson dazzled in his pro debut last year, overmatching Northwest League hitters, and becoming the Blue Jays top Pitching prospect after only 20 Innings Pitched.

Speaking of a step backward…..

Pearson’s 2018 debut was derailed for a month due to oblique issues.  The Blue Jays at first thought he would only miss his first start, but that stretched into May.  Pearson was rocked in the first inning of his first Florida State League start, and appeared to be settling down in the following frame when he took a line drive off of his Pitching arm.  Pearson suffered a non-displaced fracture of his ulna, and was shelved for at least ten weeks.

Pearson is expected to make a full recovery, and will be reevaluated this week, with a probable return later this summer.  Still, it’s a setback in the fireballer’s development.  He has the highest ceiling of any Blue Jays Pitching prospect, but his timetable has been set back at least a year.

3.  Sean Reid-Foley, RHP

No Blue Jays Pitching prospect has had as jagged a line of progression as Reid-Foley has.  Sent back to AA to begin the season to work on his command and pitch economy, SRF has been dominant, fanning 52 Eastern League hitters in 44 IP, and holding them to a .174 average.

Promoted to Buffalo in late May, he found too much of the strike zone in his AAA debut and was touched for 8 Earned Runs in just over 2 innings.  Reid-Foley’s second start was a thing of beauty, though, missing bats en route to a 6 inning/10 strikeout outing.  Just as impressive, he walked only 1.

Reid-Foley needs more seasoning, and it’s not reasonable to expect to see him this year, barring either a major breakout, or a significant meltdown in the Blue Jays’ rotation.  But after talk of converting him to a back of the bullpen power arm in years past, his future as a starter seems more than secure.  He has learned to correct the mid-game inconsistencies in his delivery that led him to lose the strike zone and drive up his pitch counts.

4.  Thomas Pannone, LHP

Pannone is the forgotten man in the Blue Jays system for some, but he is still very much a part of the organization’s plans.  Suspended prior to the season for a positive PED test, Pannone is still over a month away from returning to action.

Pannone has a mix of pitches and feel for Pitching that, combined with Borucki, would have given Buffalo a solid 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation.  His debut with Buffalo probably will not happen until late July/early August.  If Borucki and Reid-Foley are still there, the addition of Pannone makes the Bisons legitimate post-season threats.

5.  Jordan Romano, RHP

Romano has been one of the most pleasant surprises from a Pitching standpoint.  Romano tied for the Florida State League in K’s last season, but there was a concern about how many bats he would miss when he made the jump to AA, particularly against left-handed hitters.

Romano has been lights out this season, and his newfound effectiveness against lefties is a big part of that.  His change-up, a pitch which takes time to develop a feel for, has helped him limit left-handed hitters to a .163 average, and when Buffalo needed a starter last week, Romano deservedly got the call before returning to New Hampshire.  His 0.87 WHIP for the Fisher Cats leads the Eastern League, and is evidence of his ability to hang out on the margins of the strike zone.  Romano is giving up more flyball contact this year, but not a lot of it has been of the hard-hit variety.

Like Reid-Foley, Romano is not quite ready for the bigs.  But after being left off of the 40-man roster in advance of the Rule 5 draft, he appears to be a lock to being added to it this offseason.  On Jeff Blair’s show on The FAN590 this week, Romano admits that the development of his change has what has helped him break through this year,  and is helping him as the opposition batting order turns over a third time.

6.  T.J. Zeuch, RHP

The 2016 1st round pick made up for an injury-interrupted 2017 with a fine Arizona Fall League showing.  Sent back to Dunedin to start 2018,  Zeuch has continued to pound the bottom half of the strike zone, generating a 62% groundball rate.

Promoted to New Hampshire, he’s giving up better than a hit per inning over his first 5 starts.  Zeuch will always pitch to contact (he gave up a couple against the shift in his last start), and will need to refine his pitches in order to continue his upward progression.

Zeuch profiles as an inning-eating, mid-rotation starter (he’s failed to pitch into the 6th in only one of his 11 starts so far), who will need a solid infield defence behind him.

7.  Yennsy Diaz, RHP

Outside of Pearson, no Blue Jays Pitching prospect has boosted their stock over the past calendar year as much as the hard-throwing Diaz.

Diaz made his full-season debut for Lansing last June 10th, and he’s allowed only 55 hits in 106 innings over 20 starts since then.

Diaz’ main offering is a 96 mph fastball that he can command to both sides of the plate, and a curve that is shaping up as a decent complement to it.  He gets that velo from a nice, easy delivery.  After a 10 K performance over 5.2 innings in his first start of the season, his whiffs have tailed off somewhat.  In his last start for Lansing before his recent promotion to Dunedin, Diaz was leaving his fastball up, and hitters were not chasing it as much as they were a month ago.

The challenge for Diaz at Dunedin will be for him to continue to develop his secondaries, and refine his mechanics.

8.  Angel Perdomo, LHP

The enigmatic Perdomo teases with a mid-90s fastball with late life, but injuries and inconsistency have set his development back.

Shut down for the final two months last year, Perdomo returned to Dunedin for 2018, and the Blue Jays have continued to bring him along slowly, limiting him to around 80 pitches per start.

Still, Perdomo has been effective, fanning just over a batter per inning over his first 7 starts, and limiting FSL hitters to a .191 average.  Still, when the call has come from the higher levels for spot starters, Perdomo has not been sent to answer the call, indicating that the Blue Jays are not quite ready to take the reins off just yet.

9.  Eric Pardinho, RHP

He has yet to throw a professional pitch, but it’s hard to keep the Brazilian off this list.  The top-ranked IFA Pitcher last year, Pardinho received raves from Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, saying he’s never seen a combination of stuff, command, velocity, and feel for pitching in a 16-year-old.

Pardinho hit 97 after signing last fall, and will no doubt be the focus for a lot of eyes when he makes his debut in the GCL in a few weeks.

10. Zach Logue, LHP

A mainstay in the rotation of NWL Champs Vancouver last year, Logue continues to use a combination of location, movement, and sequencing to get hitters out.   He began the year with Lansing, and used his command and ability to pound the bottom of the strike zone to advance to Dunedin this past week.   In 10 starts for Lansing, he pitched into or beyond the 6th in 8 of them, tossing a career-high 8 innings in his last start.

Logue does not overpower hitters, but keeps them off-balance.  It’s always interesting to see how college Pitchers who dominated at Low A fare once they move up.

 

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Perdomo Returns to Action

LHP Angel Perdomo returned to action with Dunedin for the first time since last July, and looked like he hadn’t missed a start.

The tall lefty struck out 7 Lakeland hitters over 5 innings in a Florida State League game yesterday.  Perdomo had been shut down with back issues last July.

Perdomo has long teased with the late life on his fastball, which has touched 97.  Command of that fastball and the effectiveness of his secondaries has limited his development since signing with Toronto prior to the 2012 season.

Yesterday, he appeared to have a two-pitch mix going for him:

Understandably, he began to fatigue as the game progressed:

Perdomo left after the 5th having not given up a run, and walking only one.  He threw 78 pitches, 48 for strikes, which was probably due to the rust of having not started a game in almost 10 months.  Still, for a first time on the mound in a long time, there were a lot of positive takeaways from yesterday’s outing.

 

Blue Jays Face Decisions Ahead of Rule 5 Draft

The Blue Jays have some heavy thinking to do as they prepare to finalize their 40-man roster later this month in advance of next month’s Rule 5 draft.

Senior executives and scouts from the organization converged on Toronto last week for meetings to plot the club’s future, with the deadline for finalizing their 40 man coming on November 18th.  Players with qualifying years of minor league service who are not placed on the 40 by that date can be claimed by any other MLB team in the Rule 5 on December 14th.

This coming Monday is the deadline for players on the 60-day DL to be reinstated to the 40 man if the team plans to keep them.  Bo Schultz, Cesar Valdez, and Darren Ceciliani had been on the 60-day, but were outrighted on Wednesday.  Aaron Sanchez, Dalton Pompey, Troy Tulowitzki, and Devon Travis will likely be added before that deadline, which means that the club will be up to 39 players.

There is a large group of minor leaguers who have hit the magic number in terms of years of minor league service that the club will have to decide on:

C – Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire

C/1B – Max Pentecost

1B – Rowdy Tellez

RHP – Conner Greene, Jordan Romano, Francisco Rios, Andrew Case

LHP – Angel Perdomo, Thomas Pannone

And with almost every name on this list, there are question marks.  Jansen had a breakout year offensively, and played at three levels, although some of his defensive deficiencies were exposed the higher he moved.  McGuire missed a good chunk of the season with a knee injury, and while he’s a quality receiver, there are concerns about his bat.

Pentecost’s health has always been an issue, and while he made a solid return to Catching on a limited basis this season, there is significant doubt as to his ability to play every day at that position.  Easily the best athlete in this group, the Blue Jays may have to consider turning him into a hybrid player in order to keep his bat in the lineup.

Of the above three, Pentecost would be the most coveted Rule 5 pick, but he would come with a high degree of uncertaintly.  Both Jansen and McGuire could probably step into MLB back up roles right away, but the Rule 5 market for players of their type has not been brisk over the past several seasons.

Tellez had success at every level of his career prior to this one, but he was overhwhelmed by AAA pitching this season.  His bat is his primary tool, and when he struggles at the plate with pitch selection like he did this year, it tends to emphasize the relative inadequacies of his other tools.  And the Blue Jays, as a result, have a major decision to make about Tellez.  At this time last year, this would have been a no-brainer, but coming off a down season and with spaces on the 40 at a premium, will they consider leaving Tellez, who was being talked about as a potential middle-of-the-order bat before this season unprotected?

Greene topped 100 with his fastball multiple times this season, but had an incredibly hard time finding the plate.  His BB rate (13.9%) was far and away the highest in the Eastern League, and while there’s room for optimism with the amount of weak contact he generated, he did not miss a lot of bats (8% swinging strike rate) for someone with his heat.  The talk about moving Greene to the bullpen is growing, but as Mark Shapiro said in conversation recently, “Most people don’t realize how hard it is to develop Starting Pitchers.”  That likely means that Greene will still be given a chance to start.  Despite a bit of a sideways 2017, he would be snapped up quickly as a conversion project if he was exposed to the Rule 5.

Greene’s rotation mate at New Hampshire, Thomas Pannone, turned a lot of heads this year prior to and after his acquisition from Cleveland in the Joe Smith deal.  Certainly, his stats look better than Greene’s, but the southpaw’s ceiling is not as high.

New Brunswick native Case pitched at three levels this year, ending the season at AAA.  He is not a high strikeout guy, but he was very effective in AA, limited Eastern League hitters to a .209 average.  He’s pitched well in the Arizona Fall League, too.  The Blue Jays surely would not want to part with him, but there are other priorities ahead of him.

Markham, ON native Jordan Romano had a successful season at High A.  He began to wear down as the season progressed, but that wasn’t a surprise given that it was the 2015 Tommy John surgery survivor’s first full season.  Reports from Florida suggest that Romano had trouble turning a lineup over as the year went on, and might be better suited to a bullpen role.  His fastball, which sits 91-95, would no doubt tick up higher, and he could focus on his curve, and drop his fringy change.  Romano would be a reach, but he too could be a bullpen conversion project, and might give a team some decent innings in long relief.

6’8″ lefty Angel Perdomo has long teased with the extension and late life he gets on his fastball, complemented by developing secondaries.  Perdomo struggled with his command before having his season end in early July.  He has long been called a bullpen arm in waiting, and while he could one day be an effective situational reliever, he would be an enormous risk for a team right now.

RHP Francisco Rios had a breakout half season in Lansing last year, but couldn’t duplicate his success a High A or, this year, at AA.  Patrick Murphy showed promise and earned a promotion from Lansing to Dunedin this year, but he has a lengthy injury history that has slowed his development.

Unless there are some dramatic moves, the Blue Jays aren’t going be able to protect all of these players from being exposed to the Rule 5 draft.  It becomes a question of how much risk they want to take, and how much risk other teams are willing to take.  Each draftee costs $100 000, and it the player fails to stay on the drafting team’s 25-man roster for the entire season, he must be offered back to his original team for half that price.  That’s not a huge risk for teams – the trend of late has been to draft a player, then give him a spring training to see if he can fill a role.  San Diego manouvered their way into acquiring the top three picks in last year’s draft, and while the trio of players selected stayed on the 25-man, they had minimal impact.  The rebuilding Padres could afford to live with those players for a year, and can now send them back to the minors for further seasoning.

The Blue Jays struck pay dirt with Joe Biagini two years ago.  The former Giants’ farmhand was a revelation in 2016, but had difficulty when pressed into a Starting role this year.  Toronto had high hopes for last year’s pick, Glenn Sparkman, but he broke his thumb early in spring training.  He was hit hard in his one and only MLB appearance this year before being returned to the Royals.

Gazing into the Blue Jays 40-man crystal ball, it’s hard to say exactly who they will protect.  Much will depend on how much space the Blue Jays want to create over the next two weeks.  Pentecost and Greene appear to be safe bets this year, but the rest is open to speculation.