An Open Letter to Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins

Dear Mark and Ross:

Hi Guys.  Loved Jaysfest this winter.

Look, you both know it, I know it, and even the bandwagon fans on Facebook know it.  This season had considerable promise and started well, but with the starting rotation in shambles and the bullpen already showing the signs of overuse and this season about to become as disappointing as grocery store sushi, it’s time.

Time to make plans to break up the American League’s oldest roster, a group you knew last year was getting past the point of being able to realistically compete for a post-season berth.  But the higher-ups at Rogers wouldn’t let you take a wrecking ball to it, because they liked the sounds of the cash register ringing.

Even though you both have been on the job for only a couple of years, you’ve built an organization that is poised to become a leader in analytics, scouting, sport science, and minor league instruction.  You quickly understood that the key to long-term competitiveness for this franchise lay in its ability to unearth diamonds in the rough in the form of amateur players both through the draft and IFA markets, and use your system to give them the polish they need.

Mark, you spoke in the off-season about developing waves of prospects to come in an compete for MLB jobs.  The first of them is almost ready.  The best prospect in baseball, Vladimir Guerrero Jr, is part of that group, which includes Danny Jansen, Ryan Borucki, and Anthony Alford.  You certainly could make the argument that more development time is warranted for all four, but you could counter that by suggesting that if the roster is torn down to make room for them, that development could continue at the MLB level. We know all about the risk of failure that can come with accelerating players too quickly, but the Nationals decided to move top prospect Juan Soto (who is all of six months older than Vladdy) to AAA after (check that – he’s been promoted to the bigs) only 32 AA At Bats.  Granted, Jr has some more defensive development to complete before he graduates, and top pitching prospects still give him a bit of trouble, but move him up to Buffalo already.  If he succeeds there an and opening on the big league roster becomes available by, say, July 31st, bring him on up.  Who knows where any of us will be in six years – and it’s hard to see you sticking around that long if you have to keep banging heads with the suits upstairs.

After the first wave has established itself in a year or so, the next wave, with talent like Bo Bichette (who’s struggling for the first time in his pro career this year, but that’s ok – better to learn to deal with it in AA), Sean Reid-Foley,  and Cavan Biggio might be ready, and you could throw in Jordan Romano, too.  Behind them, you’ve got a collection that includes Nate Pearson, Logan Warmoth, Yennsy Diaz, and Kevin Smith, and farther down the road, Eric Pardinho, Miguel Hiraldo, and this year’s top draft choice -hopefully, another arm –  (and a possibly even better one next year) and IFAs.  Players dealt to make room on the MLB roster should be exchanged for more prospect depth.

It’s time to put a bow on this season and write it off, rather than continuing to apply duct tape to your broken roster.  The execs at Rogers are no doubt worried that time in baseball’s wilderness will plunge the team back into the bottom third of AL attendance figures, and that is a concern.  It’s bad enough that they seem to keep putting off badly needed renos to the Rogers Centre, but they should give you both a broad brush to undertake the makeover of the 25-man roster.  Yes, attendance will dip, but if/when Vlad is added to the 40 (part of a bigger set of roster decisions) and promoted, that should help stem the slide at the gates.  Yes, this team spent almost two decades wandering through the baseball wilderness before 2015, but you guys are putting together an organization that is becoming one of the top ones in baseball in terms of development.  Your time in the basement shouldn’t be long.

You have some decisions to make (although some of them are pretty obvious), but space needs to be made.  It won’t be easy, but it’s time.    And has they proved three years ago, the fans will come back.

Advertisements

Where Will the Top Prospects Play?

Cooley
Cooley Law School Stadium – Home of the Lugnuts

Thanks to the excellent resources that are available (beyond this one, of course), many Blue Jays fans are now keeping closer tabs on the team’s minor league players.

For someone who loves the minors just as much as the majors, that’s great.

There are many ways to keep track of your favourite minor league prospects.  At milb.com, minor league baseball’s website, you can check out box scores as games progress (something Mark Shapiro admits he does), or listen to live play-by-play.  Most of Buffalo and New Hampshire’s games are streamed live (subscription required), and word from Lansing’s GM is that select Lugnuts home games will be streamed as well.  Of course, depending on where you are, you can make the drive to Lansing or Buffalo to catch games lives.  I would heartily recommend a week in Vancouver to see the sights and catch a few C’s games – there’s a Sky Train station (Vancouver’s version of the TTC) a fifteen minute walk away from Nat Bailey Stadium.

There are no guarantees, but here’s where the Top 30 Blue Jays prospects (according to MLB.com) will likely begin the season:

 

1.  Vladimir Guerrero Jr

2.  Bo Bichette

Typically, the Blue Jays prefer to have their players spend a full season at one level.  Whether that happens over one season or two halves depends on the player, but that’s the usual trend.

Having said that, the pair of sluggers, who each spent half a season at Low A Lansing, and the other half at High A Dunedin, have little left to prove in A ball.  There are still wrinkles in their respective games to work out on the defensive side of the ball, but it would be highly unlikely you will see them in April anywhere other than the Eastern League.

Is it possible we see one or both in the majors by the end of the season?  Shapiro himself said last fall that if Vladdy continued to hit, and if the team was in need of a bat in the midst of a pennant race this summer, we could see him in Toronto, but that seems a tall (but not necessarily impossible) order.

Both players should spend the bulk of the season in New Hampshire, with late-season promotions to Buffalo a possibility.  Much will depend on playoff races – while minor league playoffs don’t mean a lot in the long run, teams do like to have their top players in that kind of environment for the experience.

3.  Anthony Alford

At the moment, Alford is putting forth a serious effort to head north with the Blue Jays when training camp breaks.

Failing that, he will make the trip down the QEW to Buffalo.  When an opening comes up in Toronto, Alford will be gone.  He’s that close to being MLB-ready.

4.  Nate Pearson

The 2nd of the Blue Jays two first round picks last June toyed with Northwest League hitters last summer.  His pitches and innings were limited, but he didn’t allow a runner past 2nd until his last start of the regular season, and fanned 10 in a crucial playoff start.  With a fastball that sits 95-97 and can top 100, Pearson is likely headed to Dunedin to start the season. 2016 1st rounder T.J. Zeuch followed that skip-Lansing path last year.

The Florida State League, unfortunately, is a bit of a black hole as far as streaming video is concerned.  The Pirates Bradenton affiliate had their home games online last year, giving us a couple of games’ worth of Blue Jays prospects.

5.  Logan Warmoth

With Kevin Smith behind him and in need of playing every day, Warmoth likely will skip Lansing in favour of Dunedin as well.  And that’s a shame for those of us who caught a few of his games last year.

Warmoth does not have one overwhelming tool, but he has to be seen to be appreciated.  He does a lot of things very well, and his bat looks legit.  He squared up a lot of pitches in Vancouver last summer.

6.  Danny Jansen

Perhaps no Blue Jays prospect improved their status in 2017 as much as the Wisconsin native.  New eyewear helped Jansen pick up the spin on pitches better, and he hit his way from Dunedin to New Hampshire to Buffalo by season’s end.

Jansen has an outside shot at backing up Russ Martin, particularly if the Blue Jays plan on cutting back on Martin’s workload.  Still, he probably could benefit by playing every day – injuries have limited his development somewhat.  Prior to last year, Jansen’s highest total of games caught in a season was 57.

By the way, credit has to go to the Blue Jays scouting director Blake Parker and GM Alex Anthopoulos for drafting Jansen in 2013.  The Blue Jays of that era made a practice of looking for players in non-traditional markets, or players whose stock had fallen due to injury or college commitments.  Jansen was a potential top-three rounds pick in his senior season of high school, but a broken wrist, coupled with the short Wisconsin prep season, kept most teams from getting a good look at him.  One team – Toronto – prevailed, and five years later, they have a player on the cusp of the bigs.

7.  Eric Pardinho

Those hoping to see last year’s top-ranked international free agent Pitcher will have to buy a plane ticket to Florida to watch the 16-year-old Brazilian sensation in the outdoor sauna that is the Gulf Coast League (luckily, the games are free).

Pardinho faces an adjustment to the competition and culture that is stateside play, and Blue Jays Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish (who oversees international ops for the team) suggested that Pardinho will spend the summer in Dunedin.

8.  Ryan Borucki

Two years ago next month, Borucki was getting hit hard and often in the Florida State League.  A demotion to Lansing and some mechanical adjustments helped to turn him into a guy who should make his MLB debut sometime this year.

The owner of the best change-up this side of Marco Estrada, Borucki will start the season in Buffalo.  His ascent to the bigs will be dictated by the health and consistency of the big league rotation.  Borucki ranks high for his pitchability and grit; it may take some time for him to stick, but he should be a solid mid-rotation Pitcher for some time.

9.  T.J. Zeuch

After a 2017 season with Dunedin that was interrupted by injury, Zeuch restored his growing reputation with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League, getting the start in the Championship game.

If there are any lingering injury concerns, Zeuch might stay in Dunedin until May, but he should be joining New Hampshire early in the season.

10. Sean Reid-Foley

The numbers don’t show it, but SRF pitched well at AA for the last half of the season.  He’s been roughed up a bit by catching too much of the strike zone in a couple of spring training appearances for the Blue Jays so far.

Reid-Foley may repeat New Hampshire to start the season, depending on rotation space in Buffalo, but he should reach AAA this season.

11. Richie Urena

Urena acquitted himself well in 20 games with the big team in September.  With the acquisition of Aledmys Diaz, Urena will begin the season in Buffalo.

12.  Miguel Hiraldo

One of the top bats in last year’s IFA class, Tinnish indicated that Hiraldo will most likely be in the lineup of the GCL Jays when their season opens in June.

13.  Samad Taylor

Taylor, along with LHP Thomas Pannone, was acquired from Cleveland in the Joe Smith deal.  Taylor fit in nicely with the Northwest League champs Vancouver Canadians after 2B Cullen Large broke his hand trying to break up a double play.

With Large healthy, Taylor may bypass Lansing and head to Dunedin this year.

14.  Reese McGuire

A knee injury cost McGuire much of his 2017 campaign, but he is still viewed as a skilled receiver, and his bat showed signs of promise.

With Jansen likely ahead of him on the depth charts, McGuire may return to New Hampshire.  With his defensive skill set, he also could be considered to have an outside shot as Martin’s back up.

15.  Rowdy Tellez

2017 was a bit of a lost year for Tellez.  He entered the season as a candidate to make his MLB debut if Justin Smoak struggled.

He hit a pair of Homers for Buffalo, then hit only 4 the rest of the year.  Tellez had some off-field issues, including his Mom’s battle with cancer (he left camp this week to be with her).

Tellez scuffled all season long at the plate.  Tellez usually works the count and sees a lot of pitches, but he rarely looked comfortable last year, and did not have the volume of quality ABs he usually has.

Tellez will return to Buffalo this year.

16. Riley Adams

One of the best athletes in an organization stocked with them,  Adams was the leader of the title-winning Vancouver squad after being selected in the 3rd round of the 2017 draft.

A bat-first player, Adams won some raves for his pitch calling and handling of Pitchers.  He does have a plus arm and good pop time, but his framing and blocking skills still need developing.

Adams will head to Lansing to begin 2018.

17.  Carlos Ramirez

The converted OF was lights out in relief at two levels before making his MLB debut last September.  Ramirez was not scored upon until his 8th appearance, putting him solidly in the mix for a bullpen job this spring.

If Ramirez doesn’t earn a spot on the 25-man, he’ll head to Buffalo.  Ramirez will no doubt become familiar with landmarks like the Burlington Skyway Bridge, and that rusting old ship near St Catharines this summer as he makes the trip up the QEW multiple times.

18. Ryan Noda

Noda’s draft stock dipped after a mediocre college season last year, but he tore a swath through Appalachian League pitching in 2017, leading the league in Average, OBP, and Slugging.

Noda was sent to the Appy because of the presence of Kacy Clemens, taken several rounds ahead of him.  The pair should share time at 1B and DH at Lansing this year – Noda can play the corner OF spots as well.

19.  Kevin Smith

Like Noda, Smith was sent to Bluefield last summer because Warmoth was ahead of him.

Smith has excellent defensive skills, and his bat proved adequate last year.  Like most players in his position, Smith needs to play every day, and will do so at Lansing this year.

20.  Hagen Danner

Danner was a storied prep player as both a Catcher and a Pitcher, and was the Blue Jays 2nd round pick in June.

The Blue Jays had him focus on Catching last year, and he struggled at the bat in the GCL as he adjusted to pro pitching.

Danner’s is an interesting situation.  His development would be accelerated by playing every day, but it’s uncertain as to whether he’s ready for that role.  As a result, he could open the season in Lansing come April, or stay in Florida for Extended Spring Training, and head to Vancouver once their season opens in June. The latter option seems the most likely.

21.  McGregory Contreras

A $10K IFA in 2015, Contreras has defied the odds by reaching the Appy League, where he was ranked the 19th best prospect by Baseball America.

Contreras has what one Appy Manager called, “sneaky power,” which has yet to translate into game action, but his BP sessions suggest future pop.

A toolsy OF who has some pitch recognition issues, Contreras probably showed enough last year to skip Vancouver in favour of Lansing this year.

22. Leonardo Jimenez

Assistant GM Tinnish heaped praise on the Panamanian in a conversation last fall:

  A really, really great kid…(He’s) bilingual, great make up, ultra young in the class – a late May birthday – he really has lead-off or #2 hole potential….if you asked me right now who has a chance to play SS in our system, Leo would be at the top of that list.  The way the body moves, the way the arm works, the instincts, he’s a really good, future upside defender.

Jimenez likely starts in the GCL, but could move quickly.

23.  Kevin Vicuna

A prized 2014 IFA, the skinny (6’/140) Vicuna might have to run around in the shower in order to get wet, but he put up decent numbers at Vancouver last year, earning a late season promotion to Lansing.

It may be hard to find playing time for Vicuna, but he’s a useful middle infielder.  A return to Lansing is likely.

24.  Maximo Castillo

Castillo more than held his own as an 18-year-old in under the lights play in the Appy League last year.

He has a three-pitch mix that fits a starter’s profile, but fastball command has been an issue.  Castillo may be held back in Extended, but probably reaches Lansing by May.

25.  Justin Maese, RHP

Shoulder issues caused Maese’s prospect stock to slip after a breakout 2016.  If he’s healthy, there’s no reason why he can’t pitch his way back into the prospect picture.

Maese’s calling card is a fastball with heavy sink that tends to produce a lot of groundball outs.  Despite his off-year in 2017, he’s still very much in the Blue Jays long-range plans.

Dunedin will likely be his destination once spring training ends.

26.  Thomas Pannone, LHP

Acquired in the Smith deal from Cleveland, Pannone does not overpower, but the dude just knows how to pitch.  He commands all three of his pitches, and has some deception to his delivery.

He impressed in New Hampshire last year, and will head to Buffalo to start this year.  Like Borucki, he may make his MLB debut at some point this season.

27.  Jordan Romano, RHP

A personal favourite, I’ve followed Romano and kept in touch with him since his return from Tommy John surgery in 2015.

The GTA native has struck out exactly a batter per inning since making his return in May of 2016.  He has a fastball/slider combo that’s capable of missing bats, and he can be very tough on right-handed hitters.  The missing piece has been said to be his change-up.  If he can develop it, his future as a starter may be secured.  If not, Romano could become an effective bullpen arm.

Romano will be in a starter’s role in New Hampshire this year.

28.  Jonathan Davis OF

Davis is a versatile, get on base speedster who can play all three OF positions.

He’ll begin the season in Buffalo.  With the depth of  prospects in the system, he may have trouble getting playing time at the major league level, but he could fill an important role as a versatile fourth Outfielder for some team.

29.  Max Pentecost, C/1B/DH

The 2014 1st rounder has had a lengthy injury history, but has shown MLB-level tools when he’s been in the lineup.

Shoulder concerns kept him from being placed on the 40-man last fall, and it was a mild surprise that no team took a flyer on him in the Rule 5.

Pentecost’s development has been impacted by the time he’s missed, but a stretch of good health could see him in Toronto before we know it.  He should begin 2018 in New Hampshire, splitting time between three spots in the lineup.

30.  Jon Harris, RHP

Harris’ stock tumbled last year when Eastern League hitters squared him up as he caught too much of the strike zone on a regular basis.

The 2015 1st rounder  may not have one go-to pitch, but Harris commands all four of his pitches, gets a good downward plane on his fastball, and has proven his durability (76 starts over the past 3 seasons).

Like Reid-Foley, the depth of starters at the top of the system may see Harris repeat New Hampshire to start the season.

 

Atkins Bullish on Top Prospects Not Named Vladdy or Bo

IMG_9514
Homestand Sports photo

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins has been pumping up his team’s prospects beyond the obvious top two in recent appearances.

On the west coast last month for the annual Hot Stove Luncheon in Vancouver, Atkins told our friend Charlie Caskey (@CharlieCaskey on Twitter) about 1st rounder Nate Pearson:

“It’s unusual for someone to be, I don’t like the word ‘gifted’, but as talented as he is, so strong and powerful and has the tactical and technical attributes to be elite,” said Atkins. “It’s rare.”

And then last week at Pitch Talks, a Toronto-based gathering of local baseball cognoscenti, Atkins told the audience:

What are we to make of this?  Is the Blue Jays farm system even deeper than we thought?   Pearson “gifted”?  Alford “up there” with Guerrero and Bichette?  Is Atkins giving Blue Jays fans the straight goods, or is he inflating the value of his top prospects, just in case a deal comes along?

The truth is somewhere between those two extremes.

Let’s get one fact straight first:  it’s been a long time (ok, never) since the Blue Jays have had two top prospects of the calibre of Vladdy Jr and Bo.  Both profile as potential impact, first-division, all-star players.  We may not know where they’ll ultimately play, but they are legitimate elite offensive prospects.

Pearson has come a long way in just a little over a year.  Not viewed as a prospect out of high school or even after a mostly nondescript first year of college, a vastly upgraded training program helped him hit 100 in bullpen sessions in the fall of 2016, and the scouting world took notice.  Northwest League hitters were pretty much at his mercy after the Blue Jays selected him – it was a nice change to see a college draftee dominate at that level, because such has not been the case in recent years.   Hitters must be very intimidated just digging in against the mountainous Pearson – I felt uncomfortable just sitting over home plate in Vancouver’s press box watching him.

And while it’s very exciting to dream of Pearson’s high 90s heat at the front of the Blue Jays rotation one day, he has yet to play a year of full season ball, and we should be tempering out expectations just a bit.  There are secondary pitches to develop, as well as adjustments Pearson will have to make as he experiences the ups and downs of taking a regular turn in the rotation for five months.  Is Pearson “gifted”?  Is he “elite”?  Potentially, yes.  Atkins suggested that he would have gone much higher in the draft had teams known they were going to get that kind of performer, and while that’s true, much of his success this year can be attributed at least in part of the careful monitoring of his workload that the Blue Jays – 74 pitches was his highest game total for the season.  There’s every reason to believe that Pearson can fulfill Atkins’ prophecy, but there’s also likely a long way to go before he does.

How about Alford?  Does he compare to Vladdy and Bo?  At first glance, no, but that’s not a slight.  Alford’s game is different from the Slugging Twins’.  He works the count and manages the strike zone, but there is a bit more of a swing-and-miss element to Alford’s approach.  Alford gets on base less often, but his speed can be game-changing, which certainly separates him from Guerrero and Bichette (who are both smart base runners in their own right, but not in Alford’s lane when it comes to foot speed).   In terms of power, there is no comparison, either.  Home Run and/or Extra Base power is often the last tool in a player’s kit to develop, but some reports suggest a lack of loft in Alford’s swing will keep him from consistently reaching double-digit Homer totals.  Alford does use the whole field, but his heat map from 2017 doesn’t suggest a prodigious slugger in the making:

Anthony Alford_HeatMap
mlbfarm.com

 

Defensively, there is little to compare Guerrero/Bichette to Alford either.  Alford has the makings of a premier defender.  Scouts have downgraded his arm, but he gets excellent jumps and reads on balls, and his speed allows him to close quickly.  It’s easy to see him cutting off Doubles to the gap in the Rogers Centre on a regular basis.

Is Alford the potential impact player the other two could possibly one day be?  Yes, but perhaps it’s a question of magnitude.  Guerrero receives grades for his power that you just don’t see on an 18-year-old, and Bichette has the smarts and skills to be a perennial batting title contender.  Alford also has an injury history that could limit his future – his past two seasons have been interrupted for extended periods by injury.  Still, you do get the sense that Alford, who really has only been playing the game full-time for a short period of time, is still on an upward curve in terms of his development, and that maybe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg just yet.

One thing is likely:   Bichette and Guerrero may anchor the middle of the Blue Jays order for the 2020s.  Alford may be a fixture at the top of it.

So, Atkins, who is probably justifiably proud of the strides the team’s farm system has made over the past two seasons, was maybe over-inflating things, but not by a lot.  Pearson does ooze with ace potential, and Alford may in fact be an impact player one day.  Neither is a lock in the mold that Guerrero and Bichette appear to be, but there is plenty to look forward to one day.

Who’s the Next Blue Jays Top 100 Prospect?

Warmoth2017
Logan Warmoth – Clutchlings Photo

After some lean years in terms of elite prospects, these are heady times for Blue Jays fans.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr (4th), Bo Bichette (19th), and Anthony Alford (58th) cracked Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 list earlier today , and just a few hours ago, Fangraphs released their Top 100,  with Guerrero 3rd, Bichette 9th, Alford 36th, Danny Jansen 71st, and Nate Pearson 76th.

To be honest, this space has long been a booster of Jansen’s, and while we anointed him the Blue Jays Catcher of the Future 8 months ago, his inclusion was a bit of a surprise.  Fangraphs is all in, especially with his hit tool:

We’re buying that Jansen’s 2017, which included more walks than strikeouts across three levels of the minors, is a sign of real improvement, perhaps due to the new prescription frames he got before the season.

Earlier this month, Baseball America released what is regarded by many as the standard-bearer of prospect lists.  Guerrero was ranked 3rd, Bichette 8th, Alford 60th, and Pearson came in at 91.   MLB Pipeline had Guerrero 3rd as well, with Bichette 14th,  and Alford 47th.

By this time next year, it’s a safe bet that Bichette and Guerrero will occupy even loftier positions.  Alford will most likely graduate from the list, and Pearson will no doubt continue his ascent.  Who are the Blue Jays prospects most likely to break through can crack the Top 100, representing the next wave of talent in the system?

For your consideration, here are a pair of players – kind of a high/low scenario:

Eric Pardinho

It seems folly to get so excited about a 17-year-old (Pardinho’s birthday was shortly after New Year’s Day), and it may take a year or so before he cracks any Top 100 lists, but there is no doubt that the young Brazilian is headed there.

“A combination of athleticism, great delivery, advanced stuff and feel for pitching,” is how Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish described Pardinho in November.   “I’ve never seen a 16 year old kid with that combination of skills.”

Pardinho hit 94 as a 15 year old in a WBC Qualifier a year and a half ago, and according to Tinnish hit 97 in short outings in the Dominican prospects league this summer.  But it’s just not that fastball – it’s his mechanics, the ability to command that fastball, and complement it with secondaries and pitchability.

There is every reason to believe that Pardinho will begin his career stateside this summer, most likely starting in the GCL.  And while one should always be cautious with young International Free Agents, the Blue Jays have had a good track record with them – namely Franklin Barreto, Richie Urena, Roberto Osuna, and some guy named Vladdy Jr.

 

Logan Warmoth

While Pardinho may not make any Top 100 lists until 2020, there’s a good chance Warmoth may work his way into the back end of some a year from now.

You might walk away from watching one game’s worth of the 2017 1st rounder’s work and wonder what the fuss is.  Taking in a larger sample might change your mind.  According to Amateur Scouting Director Steve Sanders, the Blue Jays clearly got their man:

He’s a player we’ve scouted for a long time….he wasn’t a prospect out of High School, but he steadily improved at North Carolina, and that really showed this year.  He’s very steady and a well-rounded player, with a chance to stay at SS and hit for power.  His make up is off the charts, and he has the intangibles to be a top of the lineup hitter.

Warmoth does not have one overwhelming tool  – BA called him a “bucket full of 50-grade tools,” in naming him the Blue Jays 8th overall prospect this fall, but he makes consistently hard contact and has a good approach at the plate.  In the field, scouts are split as to whether he sticks at SS or moves across to 2B, but there was plenty of promise in his footwork, arm, and reactions to ground balls to suggest he can stay there.

While none of this may scream Top 100 material, there’s plenty to make one believer that Warmoth will be a productive MLBer one day.  He had to fight a tendency to be a little pull happy last year, but otherwise there are no holes in his game.  His power will likely continue to develop, and he should make huge strides this year, most likely with Dunedin.

 

Guerrero Jr, Bichette Head Up Jays on BA’s Top 100

VladdyBo

To the surprise of very few, Blue Jays prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr (3), and Bo Bichette (8) have climbed to the Top 10 of Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list.

Braves prospect Ronald Acuna headed up the rankings, while the Angels Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Otani nudged Guerrero to #3.  BA staffers admit that it’s been some time since three players have caused such internal debate about who is first overall.

Anthony Alford (60) and Nate Pearson (91) joined Guerrero and Bichette in the Top 100.  For Pearson, inclusion in the Top 100 capped off a remarkable year for the 2017 draftee.  His fastball garnered a 70 ranking on the 20-80 scouting scale.  Jason Parks, now of the Cubs, gave this primer on FB grades for Baseball Prospectus a few years ago:

IMG_0736

While Pearson only received slightly below or above average grades for the rest of his repertoire (Curve 45; Slider 55; Change 50; Control 45), that 70 stands out, and buys him time to develop his other pitches.  When you consider that Pearson was considered a risky late first round to early second round pick less than a year ago, he’s leapfrogged a considerable number of other prospects.  Pearson feels quite justified in going the JuCo route:

The Blue Jays limited Pearson’s workload this summer, but he was utterly dominant in Vancouver.  He didn’t allow a run until his 6th innings-limited start – he didn’t even allow a runner past 2nd until that outing.  His final start of the season was a lights out effort in Game 1 of Vancouver’s semi-final vs Spokane.  Pearson allowed 1 hit over 4 innings, fanning 10.

Before we get to Guerrero, Bichette, and Alford, here’s Parks on Power Grades:

IMG_0737

 

The Grades for Guerrero included 80 for his hit tool, 70 for power, 40 for speed, 40 for his fielding, and 55 for his arm.  This would seem to lend support to the idea that he’s safe at 3rd Base for now, but a move across the diamond will be in his long-term future.  As someone who saw him in person and online last year, I’ve always liked his reactions to balls hit in his direction; he has excellent hands and footwork, but not necessarily the quickness to get to balls at the edge of his range in a timely manner.

Bichette received a 70 for his bat, 60 power, 50 for speed, 45 for fielding, and a 60 for his arm.  The arm and fielding grades are a bit of a surprise:  I found that Bichette showed sure hands, turned the double play well, and demonstrated increasing range as the season progressed, but the arm strength seemed to be lacking a bit. Bichette may not be possessed of blazing speed, but he’s a smart and aggressive base runner.

Alford’s grades slipped a bit, as did his ranking.  He was given a 60 for his bat, speed, and fielding, 50 for power, and a surprising 40 for his arm.  Alford may not be Amos Otis in CF, but he reads balls well, chases down hits to the gap effectively, and gets rid of the ball quickly.  There has been a little concern that his power has yet to develop, as his swing does not have a lot of loft to it.  Alford does work the count very well, and barrels a number of balls just the same.  His 60 grade speed seems a little on the low side; Alford does have what can be considered game-changing speed on the base paths, but it hasn’t translated into high stolen base totals (19/22 last year).  Then again, given his injury history, the team may not want Alford stealing all that often.

This is a good body of work for the Toronto farm system.  There are clearly three levels of talent represented –  almost ready (Alford),  maybe a year away (Bichette/Guerrero), and a few years away (Pearson).  Perhaps next year we may see Eric Pardinho or Logan Warmoth sneak onto the back end of this list.

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.

What’s Up with the Blue Jays Farm System in 2018?

The Toronto Blue Jays have quickly re-stocked their farm system to the point where it has to be considered at least a Top 10 system.  The organization features twoo of the top hopefuls in all of MiLB in the form of Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette,  but the depth of the organization is more at the lower levels, and the system as a whole is at the point where its bolstering of the 25-man roster should begin at some point this year.  Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro has spoken about the need for waves up prospects to continue to come up to challenge for big league jobs.  We’re on the verge of seeing that start to happen.

Here are some highlights to watch for:

1.  Top prospects begin to make their way to MLB

Anthony Alford had a brief taste of the bigs last May, until a broken wrist put him on the shelf.  Fully healed and fresh off a dominant stint in the Mexican Winter League, Alford will be in competition for a big league job this spring.  Roster moves between now and spring training may mean that Alford begins the season at AAA, but his ascension to an MLB job is just a matter of time.

Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire both have a chance to land the job of backing up incumbent Catcher Russell Martin.  Jansen had a breakout year at the plate at three levels last year, while McGuire has perhaps a better skill set for a back up.

Reliever Carlos Ramirez rode a dominant minor league season and an upper 90s fastball in only his third season since converting to Pitching.  A good September showing in the majors has put Ramirez on the cusp of breaking camp with the team this April.  He may be a victim of a numbers game and start the year in AAA, but he doesn’t figure to be there long.

Starters Thomas Pannone and Ryan Borucki will be in competition for a fifth starter’s job come spring training as well, barring any roster additions.  Buffalo is a more likely destination, but when starting rotation help is needed, one of these two will get the first call.

And while his stateside pro debut season was uneven, Lourdes Gurriel can potentially provide some value at several positions, and he likely will reach the majors at some point this season.

Vlad and Bo continue to climb

It will be interesting to see where the golden duo begin their seasons.  The club has typically preferred to have prospects spend a season at each full season level, which could see one or both return to Dunedin until June.

Both players have slugged their way through the minors, but AA is where the wheat truly gets separated from the chaff.  Both have the mindset and approach to handle the higher level Pitching.

Will both players continue at their present positions?  It’s hard to see moves for either player at this point, at least on a full-time basis, but this may be the season that one or both makes a case for staying at their current infield spots.

Some bold evaluators have said that Vladdy Jr will be in the big leagues this summer, but that scenario seems unlikely.  The future of the team and Josh Donaldson will have a lot to say about that.  The more likely path for both is a starring Arizona Fall League role after the season, which should propel them into competition for a big league job in 2019.

Eric Pardinho’s Pro Debut

While no one should get too excited about a 16-year-old prospect, Pardinho is no ordinary 16 year old.  Blue Jays Assistant GM could barely contain his enthusiasm over landing the top-ranked International Pitching prospect last July.

Pardinho has clean mechanics, elite stuff, and an advanced feel for Pitching that’s uncommon for someone of his age.  We’ll have to wait until June for his debut (in the GCL, in all likelihood), but he should be well worth the wait.

The Next Wave

There is a solid group of prospects beyond Guerrero and Bichette, and a solid group of them should be at Dunedin to start the season.

Logan Warmoth, Nate Pearson, Yennsy Diaz,  Joshua Palacios, Justin Maese, and Edward Olivares should make for a strong core for the co-defending Florida State League champs.  This is a group that is still several years away, but there is big league potential in each and every one of them.

Lansing’s Lights Out Bullpen

Lugnuts fans deserve a contender.  While development always trumps winning at the minor league level, Lansing has supported this Blue Jays affiliate in the heart of Tigers country well, even when the parent club hasn’t provided a great incentive to watch the team.

Success at the short season level with Vancouver has rarely translated into winning at Lansing, but this year may be the exception.  Lansing’s 5.32 team ERA was last in the Midwest League by a considerable margin, but with arms like William Oullette, Brayden Bouchey, Travis Bergen, and Orlando Pascual likely to suit up for the Lugnuts in April, the bullpen should be one of the team’s strengths.  C’s Manager Rich Miller leaned on his bullpen heavily during the Northwest League playoffs, and they responded, giving up only 3 earned runs over a cumulative 27 innings in bringing the title back to Vancouver.

Two Top Picks in June

The Blue Jays have two selections among the first 51 picks in next June’s draft.  Given how quickly they’ve rebuilt the system in a short period of time, there is a good chance that another high-level player or two will be added.  And with the Blue Jays linked to this year’s top IFA, Dominican SS Orelvis Martinez, the system will get even deeper in 2019.

Blue Jays 2012 Draft Recap

DJDavis
Clutchlings photo

It takes, on average, 4-5 years to develop a Major Leaguer.  Some, of course, race through the minors and beat that timeline by a considerable margin, while others need longer to figure things out.  Because of that, I like to wait five years before evaluating an MLB team’s draft results.

When Alex Anthopoulos took over the GM’s chair from J.P. Ricciardi in 2009, one of the first areas he upgraded was the amateur scouting department.  A year later, no one in the game had more scouts scouring North America for talent at the pro and amateur levels than the Blue Jays.

It was in the 2011 draft that Anthopoulos and Amateur Scouting Director Blake Parker began to hone their roll-the-dice approach to the annual talent shopping spree.  With 7 of the first 78 picks, they selected the most risky of draft commodities, the high school Pitcher, with all but one of them.  One of their strategies was to take a flyer on a player whose stock had fallen due to the perceived strength of their college commitment.  It backfired when Massachussetts prep righty Tyler Beede, who had maintained all along that he was headed for Vanderbilt, was taken with the 21st pick, but refused to sign.  But the Blue Jays were able to convince their next pick, Tennessee HS southpaw Daniel Norris, to forego his pledge to Clemson.

2012 saw Anthopoulos and Parker at their swashbuckling best.  With the sheer size of their scouting numbers, they were able to probe areas that were not considered to be baseball hot beds.  They gambled on toosly Mississippi high school OF D.J Davis (whose father played in the Jays organization – give the pair credit:  they were ahead of the curve, because many teams now covet kids whose dads had played pro ball).  Davis has struggled mightily in six pro seasons, striking out about 27% of the time.  The tools are there, but an ability to get on base consistently has not.  After ranking in the Blue Jays Top 10 prospects for the first several years of his career, Davis has dropped off the radar, although a .333/.381/.449 August for High A Dunedin may be an indication he’s finally turning things around.

The next Blue Jays pick turned out to be the best (or perhaps second best) of the AA-Parker era:  with the compensation choice they were granted as a result of failing to reach terms with Beede, Toronto drafted Duke RHP Marcus Stroman.  There was no denying his talent and athleticism, but given his small stature, many teams viewed him as a Tom Gordon-type reliever in the long term.   Baseball America‘s scouting report suggested as much:

An 18th-round pick out of a New York high school in 2009, Stroman’s commitment to Duke and his size scared teams off. He was a two-way player in high school, but scouts always preferred him on the mound because of his low-90s fastball and compared him to Tom Gordon. After three years at Duke, Stroman has become one of the most electric arms in the country despite being 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds. He was 5-4, 2.36 with 119 strikeouts and 22 walks in 84 innings this spring for a bad Duke team. He is athletic and now sits at 92-94 mph as a starter and can touch 95-96. His best secondary offering is a nasty slider with depth. He has also mixed in a good changeup and a cutter that sits 88-90 mph. He can hold his velocity deep into games, but most scouts say he could be the first 2012 draftee to reach the big leagues if he goes to the bullpen. He worked as the closer for Team USA last summer and was 93-96 mph consistently, pitching 8 1/3 innings without giving up a hit while striking out 17 and walking one.

The Blue Jays, of course, saw that four pitch mix as part of a starter’s makeup, and sent him to Vancouver to begin his pro career.  Stroman made his MLB debut in May of 2014l, and has produced 10.8 WAR, a total which undoubtedly would be higher if a positive PED suspension in 2013 and a knee injury in 2015 had not interrupted his career.

After Stroman, the Blue Jays reached for the dice and took Ohio HS LHP Matt Smoral with the 50th pick (a supplemental pick for the loss of reliever Frank Francisco).  Smoral had fallen that far after a foot injury cost him his senior year.  They were willing to be patient with the 6’8″ southpaw, but after injuries limited him to 53 games over 4 years, the Blue Jays lost him to Texas in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft.  Arizona 3B Mitch Nay was their next selection at 58 (another supplemental, this one for the los of Jon Rauch), but injuries have derailed his career, as well.  While playing for High A Dunedin, Nay woke up one August morning with a sore knee.  The pain worsened, and Nay was eventually diagnosed with a staph infection, which took three surgeries to remove.  The infection cost him all of 2016, and he in essence started all over with Lansing this year.

With the last of their supplemental picks (compensation for the loss of Jose Molina), the Blue Jays took Texas HS RHP Tyler Gonzales, who some thought could become an elite closer.  After having pitched poorly in his first two pro seasons in the Gulf Coast League, Gonzales was released in July, 2014.  Two months later, he was suspended for 50 games by MiLB for a second positive test of a drug of abuse.  With the last of their Top 100 picks, Toronto selected California HS RHP Chase DeJong.   DeJong had a breakout 2015 for Lansing, before being dealt to the Dodgers in August for international bonus pool money in the wake of the Jays signing Vladimir Guerrero Jr.  DeJong made his MLB debut for the Mariners this year.

The biggest gamble of the draft, and perhaps the one that will eventually have the biggest payoff, was the drafting of Mississippi two-sport athlete Anthony Alford in the 3rd round.  Alford was a highly regarded, first-round level talent, but as one of the top football recruits in the country, most teams backed off.  The Blue Jays allowed him to pursue both sports, and their patience was rewarded when he fully committed to baseball in the fall of 2014.  After making his MLB debut this season, Alford should be in contention for a 25-man roster spot this spring.

The only other draftees to make much of a minor league impact beyond that were OF Ian Parmley (7th round), Illinios LHP Ryan Borucki (15th), and SS Jason Leblebijian.  Borucki did not pitch beyond March in his draft year due to elbow injuries, but after being promoted to the 40 last fall, is on the cusp of a big league job himself.  Leblebijian can play a variety of positions, and while he’s down on the depth charts, he will serve a useful role for Buffalo this year.

Beyond those choices, there was no one who “got away.”  Missouri HS RHP Jon Harris was taken in the 33rd round, but opted to go to college.  Three years later, he was one of the top Pitchers in the nation, and the Blue Jays selected him again, this time in the 1st round (29th overall).  Harris had a disappointing season with AA New Hampshire in 2017.

The 2012 Blue Jays draft has produced 10.6 WAR, almost all of that by Stroman (De Jong accounts for -0.3, Alford for 0.1).  The 2011 draft was more productive in terms of WAR, producing 24.8 Wins, almost half of them by 32nd rounder Kevin Pillar.  The rest have mostly been compiled by players no longer with the organization like Daniel Norris, Joe Musgrove, and Anthony DeSclafani, as well as Aaron Nola, who was chosen in the 22nd round, but opted to go the collegiate route.  The 2010 draft has produced 42.9 Wins, but that total was inflated by another player who didn’t sign, Kris Bryant.

How does the 2012 draft compare to the previous two, then?  If Stroman becomes a long-term Blue Jay, and Alford reaches his ceiling, it could turn out to be the best of the Anthopoulos-Parker regime in terms of quality, if not quantity.  We can certainly play the “what if?” game in the case of Davis.  The Dodgers took Corey Seager with the next pick, while the Cardinals took Michael Wacha after that.  With a second first round pick, however, the Blue Jays were inclined to gamble on the toolsy-but-raw Davis, taking a safer bet like Stroman with the second choice.  But you certainly can’t argue with the haul of prospects they acquired in 2010 and 2011.   One thing is certain with these first three drafts:  the Blue Jays took advantage of the rules of the day, letting free agents go in order to hoard those picks – they had 17 top 100 selections over those three years.

 

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects – #2 Anthony Alford

Alford
milb.com photo

If there is one thing to be learned from covering minor league prospects for over half a decade, it’s that teams that are patient with their top hopefuls are usually rewarded.  Progress is not always measured in a straight line.  Injuries can disrupt the timeline.  Players who have never had an extended experience with failure often need the adversity of such periods in order to reach their potential.

Teams that don’t rush prospects, or give up on them when their development stalls, are often the ones reaping the benefits of productive farm systems.  Simply put, development takes time.

And the Blue Jays are about to watch a player they’ve been patient with for five years  embark on what should be a long and successful career in the form of OF Anthony Alford.

A two-time high school football player of the year in his native Mississippi, Alford’s stock in the 2012 draft dropped due to his college football aspirations.  The Blue Jays under GM Alex Anthopoulos and Amateur Scouting Director Brian Parker were not afraid to gamble on draft day, and waved a $750K contract and an agreement to let him continue to play football at him to convince him to sign.  Baseball America gave this pre-draft assessment:

Alford, a two-sport athlete, has committed to Southern Mississippi for both baseball and football. He’s teammates in baseball with Garren Berry, son of USM baseball coach Scott Berry. And the Golden Eagles have a new football coach, Ellis Johnson, who has hired Alford’s prep football coach onto his staff. In April Alford indicated he plans to go to college and play both sports. That’s too bad, because many scouts considered Alford one of the class’ elite athletes. Big and fast at 6 feet, 200 pounds, he was the Magnolia State’s football player of the year as a quarterback and chose Southern Miss over such football powers as Louisiana State and Nebraska. He threw for more than 2,000 yards and ran for more than 1,700 as a senior, accounting for 44 touchdowns, but he’s at least as intriguing on the diamond, where he’s a 70 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale with power potential, too. He helped Patal High win back-to-back state 6-A championships before the team lost in the third round this spring, as Alford batted .483 with four homers.

By 2014, many team might have been tempted to give up on Alford.  An off-field incident cost him his scholarship to Southern Miss, and he had played all of 11 games in his first two pro seasons because of his football obligations.  But the Blue Jays were not about to cash their chips.  Anthopoulos made the drive to Lansing in mid-July, where Alford had teased in a 9-game Midwest League stint with the Lugnuts, with a contract extension in hand.  The catch was that Alford would have to give up football, but after transferring to Ole Miss and sitting out a transfer rule year, he said no, thanks.  To top things off, Alford left shortly after that meeting in order to get married before the football season started.

The Blue Jays were not thrilled with Alford’s decision, but they chose to remain patient with a player who had amassed just over 100 plate appearances in three minor league seasons, even though many of his peers had surpassed him in development.

But their patience was about to be rewarded.  Alford lost his starting position in Ole Miss’ defensive backfield (he had originally gone to Southern Miss as a Quarterback), and perhaps he had some serious second thoughts about spurning the Blue Jays’ offer.  Alford did admit later that as a football player growing up in a football-mad state, he felt incredible pressure to commit to the gridiron.  In late September of 2014, he gave up on football, and reported to the Blue Jays Instructional League camp.  A stint in the Aussie Baseball League that winter gave him a crash course in pitch recognition (“it’s like they pitch you backwards,” he said of the veteran ABL pitchers), which in turn led to a breakout 2015.

2016 was a sideways year for Alford.  A knee injury cost him a month, and shortly after he returned, an OF collision with teammate Richard Urena had him out for another.  Time in the Arizona Fall League did help restore much of his former prospect lustre, but concerns did begin to crop up about his durability (Alford tore his ACL in high school).

2017 saw Alford pick up right where he left off in the fall, and after a torrid .356/.427/.507 April at AA, he made his MLB debut in May.  A broken hamate bone a week into that debut put him on the shelf once more, and with the team all but out of pennant contention when Alford returned in July, he was sent back to New Hampshire for more seasoning.

At first glance, there is no mistaking Alford for an athlete.  Time in the weight room during his football days is evident.  More importantly, he’s one of the highest make up players in the system.  This in spite of the fact that his difficult upbringing and prodigious athletic talent from an early age might have given him ample reason to behave otherwise.  Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim found many good things to say about Alford:

   Anthony has a difference-making set of physical tools, and an even more impressive make up.  His work ethic, aptitude, and competitive drive to get better every day are strong reasons as to why he’s seen such a positive development gains in the relatively short time he’s devoted to baseball.  He was at home training when the opportunity in Mexico came up, he reported to the Mattick (Blue Jays minor league complex) for a week to step up his prep with our High Performance and Player Development personnel, and now he’s off to a great start (.457/.444/.629 over his first 8 games) with Jalisco.

There is so much to like about Alford’s game.  After concerns about the swing-and-miss element to his offence, he cut his K rate to a respectable 15.4% this year.  He works the count, and uses the whole field effectively, so the Blue Jays will live with the strikeouts:  Alford gets on base, where his speed becomes a weapon.  In the outfield, he can play all three positions, but perhaps is in his element in CF, where his speed and ability to read and track balls allow him to cover a tremendous amount of ground.  His speed allows him to out run many of his mistakes, but his routes have been improving in terms of consistency as he’s gained more experience. Alford’s arm has been rated as fringe-average, but he makes up for that relative weakness with his accuracy and ability to unload the ball quickly.

But let’s consult some experts, starting with Bobby DeMuro who wrote in baseballcensus.com:

Alford has everything you could want from a rangy, athletic center fielder of the future: exceptional speed combined with good instincts on the bases, good range and aggressive, hard-charging routes in the outfield, and even some sneaky power in his bat that could turn into 20 home run-level production in the big leagues if things all go in a best-case scenario. His speed is plus, he’ll thrive in center field, and he’ll wreak havoc on the base paths. He can mix it with good raw power, the product of great bat speed and an athletic swing that lets him hit the ball to all fields with authority; right-center, in particular, is a very good power alley for him let alone the pull side.

Benjamin Chase of calltothepen.com makes an interesting comp:

Physically, Alford’s build and natural athleticism make him a very difficult player to find a comp for, but in skills and general size measurements, the guy who strikes me as the upside play for Alford is Andrew McCutchen.

One critique of Alford’s swing that has cropped up in a few reports is a relative lack of loft in it, which some suggest might lead to a future as a doubles/triples hitter.  He has hit only 21 Home Runs in over 1200 minor league PAs, and while he has started to tap into his power, a 47% ground ball rate, coupled with a 33.5% flyball rate at AA suggest that the 20+ HRs projections may be hard for him to attain.  His speed certainly helps put pressure on the defence on any balls he hits on the ground or into the gaps. He shows on this stand up triple he hit in Mexico this week that maybe the loft is coming:

 

Alford will be in competition for a major league job this spring, although he may need a little more time at AAA.   If he can stay healthy, he should reach his potential ceiling of a player with a power-speed combo,  top of the order hitter who can be an occasional all-star.  It’s not at all out of the realm of possibility that he replaces Kevin Pillar in CF before long.

Alford Sole Fisher Cat to Crack EL Top 20

alford-anthony-051917
cbc.ca photo

New Hampshire Fisher Cats’ OF Anthony Alford had a season to write home about.

After a sideways 2016 which was interrupted by injury, the 2012 3rd rounder did not break out this year like he did in 2015, when he burst onto the prospect scene after three seasons to abbreviated action while he pursued his college football dreams, but he had a fantastic  2017 campaign just the same.  After making his MLB debut in May, he returned to AA in August after breaking his wrist, and was named the Eastern League’s 9th Top Prospect by Baseball America.

Alford blitzed Eastern League pitching, and was hitting .325/.411/.455 when he was called up to the Blue Jays.  He broke his wrist after only 8 ABs, and was out of action for six weeks.  When Alford returned, the Blue Jays wisely decided to sent him back to AA after a rehab stint at Dunedin.

That Alford was ranked only the 9th-best Eastern League prospect is not an issue; the loop was full of premium prospects this year.  But he did show a combination of speed, reactions to fly balls, and power potential that led several EL Managers to compare him to former MLBer Rondell White.  One Manager went as far as to say:

His breaks on balls were so good…….that it looked like he got going before the ball was hit.

Alford had a great deal of development time to make up for after committing to baseball in 2015.  His baseball education is almost complete, and it’s time for him to compete for a major league job at spring training.

Conspicuous by their absence on the list were Pitchers Sean Reid-Foley and Conner Greene.  Both had their struggles this season, to put it mildly.  Reid-Foley’s command issues early in the season had him running into pitch limit troubles early in starts.  He did improve as 2017 progressed, but his numbers were inflated by those April and May difficulties.  Greene hit 100+ on his fastball numerous times, and wowed the hometown crowd at the Eastern League All Star game,  but command issues plagued him for much of the season.  No other starter in the Blue Jays organization had a higher  pitches per inning average than Greene.  BA stated:

He had the best fastball in the league and his curveball was in the conversation for best breaking ball, but he was more of a thrower than a pitcher, in managers/scouts eyes. He lived up in the zone a lot, for example, and could get hit. If he irons out the finer points of pitching and keeps the same stuff, the ceiling is very high. He wasn’t far off the list.

This season may just have been a speed bump for both, but it did bring about mumblings that we’ve heard before that one or both of them profile in the long run as power bullpen arms.

C Danny Jansen played at 3 levels this year, and had a breakthrough year at the plate.  Jansen hit career highs in most offensive categories, putting up a combined line of .323/.400/.484, with 10 Home Runs.  The EL list was the only one he qualified for, but BA’s Josh Norris felt he profiles more of a bat-first Catcher:

 Scouts who I talked to saw him more as an offensive-minded backup type of catcher with work still to be done defensively. Particularly, needed work on his lateral agility as a blocker.

Prior to this season, Jansen had a reputation as a solid defensive Catcher.  I have to admit that this was not the first time his skills had been questioned this summer.  Jansen is a big guy, and he did seem challenged on some pitches in the dirt off the plate this year.  Still, he is an excellent pitch framer, and presents a nice low target for his size.  It will be interesting to see where his development goes from here.  You have to think that he has an excellent shot at landing a position as Russ Martin’s understudy next spring.