Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects

Vladdy2
Clutchlings Photo

With a preference for acquiring and developing up-the-middle players who can slide to other defensive positions, the Blue Jays farm system continued its ascension into the upper tiers of baseball’s elite organizations in 2018.

With 15 prospects scattered among the Top 20 in Baseball America‘s rankings of each minor league this fall (tied for 3rd with Arizona, behind Tampa and San Diego), the Blue Jays system is now ranked #3 by BA, and most analysts (not named Keith Law) would agree that it’s a system on the rise.

When he took the helm of the Blue Jays organization three years ago, one of the carrots that brought Mark Shapiro over from Cleveland was the promise of a bigger budget for player development.  Since coming to Toronto, Shapiro has instituted a ground-breaking (for baseball) High Performance department, and has brought in numerous sport scientists to help the organization’s prospects learn to eat, train, and recover more efficiently.  He has also brought onboard several key executives with extensive player development experience like Ross Atkins and Ben Cherington.  This off-season, under the direction of Player Development head Gil Kim, the team brought in a number of minor league coaches and instructors with considerable teaching and coaching backgrounds, a trend that will likely continue this off season.

The Blue Jays have had reasonably successful drafts (although 2017 1st rounder Logan Warmoth took a large step back this year) over the past several seasons, and have done very well in the International market as well – it’s not a coincidence that new Manager Charlie Montoyo is bilingual, and has a strong track record of working with young players.  Minor league systems have to balance development with winning (with the former taking precedence at the lower levels), but several Blue Jays farm teams have made the post season over the past two years, with Vancouver bringing home a Northwest League title in 2017, and New Hampshire winning one this past season. The experience is always worthwhile for the organization’s young players, who, unlike college players, are not necessarily used to the pressure to win.

 

1.  Vladimir Guerrero 3B

.281/.437/.636,   9.5K%/9.3BB%,  20HR ,194 wRC+

At the moment, Guerrero is laying waste to Arizona Fall League pitching, and demonstrating that his bat is more than MLB-ready.  While Blue Jays fans were clamoring for Vladdy’s promotion for much of the season, a strained knee helped pumped the brakes on his development.  And that wasn’t a bad thing –  Shapiro had indicated a year ago that the only way we would see Guerrero in 2018 was if the team was in the middle of a pennant race, and even with the infusion of offence he would have provided, the 2018 Jays were not going to the post season.

A few extra months of minor league seasoning allowed Guerrero to continue to work on the defensive side of his game.  He has sure hands, good footwork, and a strong, accurate arm.  Vlad makes plays on balls that he gets to, but in the major leagues, where he’ll be fielding balls hit by MLB hitters (and half of them on turf),  but he’ll need to expand his range, and that was one of the reasons he remained in the minors this summer.

Even though he’ll be under intense media scrutiny when he reaches Toronto, Guerrero is more than up for the challenge.  This summer, it seemed like when he was facing a top-ranked Pitcher, Guerrero turned his game up accordingly.  If there is one knock against him, it’s that he doesn’t always do so when facing a lesser guy on the mound.  Those days will be fewer and further between in MLB.

When we finally do see Guerrero in the Blue Jays lineup, his impact will likely be immediate.  He is the best prospect the Blue Jays have ever developed.  He will anchor the middle of the Toronto order for years to come.

 

2.  Bo Bichette SS/2B

.286/.343/.453,  17K%/8.1BB% , 11 HR, 120 wRC+

Bichette grabbed more than his share of the headlines in 2017 when he led the minor leagues with a .362 average, hitting above .400 as late as mid-June.

This year was a different story.  In late May, his average tumbled to a career-low .237, before Bichette began to lay off pitches outside of the strike zone.  Maybe it was the pressure that he created himself trying to match Guerrero, or maybe it was the greater command possessed by Eastern League Pitchers, but 2018 was a tremendous learning year for Bichette, one that may ultimately serve him well in the future.

Bichette’s numbers for the year may not be awe-inspiring, but he put together a torrid final six weeks of the season, slashing .339/.402/.475 in August, and hitting .346 as New Hampshire romped to the EL title.

Bichette continued to make strides as a defender this season, but he looked most comfortable when the acquisition of Santiago Espinal in July forced him to share time at SS by moving over to 2B.  His range, reactions to ground balls, ability to make the pivot, and arm strength just seem to look better suited to the position.  One thing is for sure:  the bat will play, possibly not next season, but before a long time has elapsed.

3.  Nate Pearson SP

1.2 IP, 5.4 K/9, 0 BB/9, 10.80 FIP, 44.4% GB

Don’t be fooled at all by Pearson’s numbers.  An oblique issue kept him out of the lineup until early May, and a line drive off of his pitching arm in the second inning of his first start ended his season.  Pearson has pitched in the Arizona Fall League, but has understandably shown rust, but has dialed his velo back up to 100.

Pearson has a starter’s build and four-pitch mix.  He sits 96-98, and mixes in an effective curve, change, and slider.  He gets good spin on his breaking pitches, and throws all four from a similar arm slot.  When Pearson commands his fastball, hitters don’t have much of a chance.

Even though he’s thrown only 21 innings as a pro (his pitch count was strictly monitored in Vancouver last year after he was drafted), he will be bound for New Hampshire next year, and could move quickly.  The word “ace” is thrown around far too much, but Pearson definitely has front of the rotation potential.

 

4.  Danny Jansen C

(MiLB) .275/.390/.473,  13.6K%/12.1BB%, 12 HR, 146 wRC+

Already the hardest-working player on the field, the job of the MLB backstop has become even more complex in this day and age of framing and spin rates.  The Blue Jays unearthed a gem in the middle rounds of the 2013 draft, taking the Wisconsite with their 16th round pick.  In the 31 games he suited up for the Blue Jays this year, he showed why he’s considered one of the top receiving prospects in the game, and a potential franchise Catcher.

Jansen has always been an excellent framer, and Pitchers have long raved about working with him.  His bat came along last year, and he showcased good contact skills, and should hit the 20 HR plateau at some point.  If Reese McGuire continues to develop, the Blue Jays could employ him as more than a back up, allowing them to keep Jansen’s bat in the lineup when he needs a day off from behind the plate.

Jansen has given every indication that he will make the team out of training camp next year.

 

5.  Kevin Smith SS

.302/.328/.528, 21.1K%/ 7%BB, 25 HR, 149 wRC+

No Blue Jays prospect enhanced their status as much as the 2017 4th rounder did this year.  Stuck behind top pick Logan Warmoth last year, Smith surpassed him on both sides of the ball this year.

Smith owned Midwest League pitching before being promoted to Dunedin.  Along the way, he was named a Top 20 prospect by Baseball America in both leagues.  In naming him the FSL’s 11th top prospect, BA noted:

Evaluators who like Smith see a player who can stick at shortstop with a bat-first profile in the mold of Paul DeJong. He’s never going to be the flashiest player on the field, but his work ethic and all-around skills will help him produce impressive seasons. His bat can handle a slide to second base as well.

Smith did not make as much contact in Florida as he did in Michigan, with his K rate jumping from 16% to 24% after the promotion, with a corresponding drop in his BB rate as well.  Quite simply, Smith expanded his zone, and he may go through a dry spell similar to Bichette’s when he reaches the Eastern League next year.

Of all the up-the-middle prospects the Blue Jays have accumulated, Smith shows the most potential to stay at the position, and hit enough to become an MLBer.  An avid student of the game, he spent considerable time last off-season re-tooling his swing and refining his approach, and the payoff was significant.  He still may be a couple of seasons away, but he could provide a good complement to Guerrero on the left side of the Blue Jays infield.

 

6.  Eric Pardinho, SP

50 IP, 11.5K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 3.75 FIP, 46.3% GB

Dropped into a new country, with travel and under-the-lights play, and facing hitters that in almost every case were older than him (some by several years), all Pardinho did was produce one of the best debut seasons of any Blue Jays Starting Pitcher in recent memory.

The top-ranked 2017 IFA had his innings closely monitored in the Appy League, but he missed a lot of bats (15.4% K rate), and was very difficult to square up and loft (31% Fly Ball rate).  His four-pitch mix overmatched Appy hitters, as evidenced by a dominant mid-August outing against eventual league champs Elizabethton, a Twins affiliate.  Pardinho retired the first 19 hitters he faced before giving up a one out single in the 7th.

As might be expected of a 17-year-old, there’s still room for Pardinho to grow both physically and emotionally.  And even though he will one day be dwarfed in the rotation by Pearson, there’s a lot to like about Pardinho.  His athleticism allows him to repeat a clean, efficient delivery.  Already sitting 93-95 most nights, Pardinho should add some velo as he gets older, which will make his secondaries even more effective.

He’s still several seasons away – there’s even a good chance that Pardinho remains in Extended next spring until the Midwest League weather warms up.  But there is plenty of reason to expect to see him near the top of the Blue Jays rotation one day.

7.  Sean Reid-Foley SP

(AAA) 85.1 IP, 10.3 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 3.06 FIP, 42.7% GB

He had his struggles at the major league level, but his MiLB season was one of the most successful of Reid-Foley’s career, and gave fans a glimpse of what his potential could be.

After a dominant 8 starts at AA. SRF moved up to Buffalo, and continued to pile the whiffs, fanning 10.3/9, while walking only 3.6/9.  While in Buffalo, he came out firing, daring hitters to try to catch up with his mid 90-s fastball.  His problems at the MLB level came when he fell behind hitters, something he’ll have to fix and may come with added experience.

Starting Pitching is probably the hardest commodity to develop in all of baseball, and one look no further than the rising popularity of bullpenning and use of the Opener.  Even with a mid-rotation projection, there’s still plenty of potential value in Reid-Foley.

 

8. Jordan Groshans SS

(GCL) .331/390/.500, 18.8K%/8.2BB, 4 HR, 150 wRC+

The Jays broke out of the run of first round college picks last June when they took the Texas High Schooler, and he didn’t disappoint.  BA named him the 5th best prospect in the Gulf Coast League, with his bat the stand out tool:

Groshans has a polished hitting approach and a knack for finding the barrel. He squares up good pitching with quick bat speed and plus raw power. While Groshans has the sock in his bat to go deep from right-center over to his pull side, he mostly showed a line-drive, all-fields approach in the GCL, hammering fastballs and driving pitches on the outer half with authority to the opposite field.

Promoted to Bluefield for the Appy League playoffs, Groshans started slowly, but his bat came alive.  With a talented GCL infield this summer, Groshans split time at SS and 3B.  His arm is graded as above average, but the feeling among some evaluators seems to be that he winds up at the hot corner long-term.

 

9.  Anthony Alford OF

(AAA) .240/.312/.344,  26.9K%/7.2BB%, 5 HR, 87 wRC+

It’s hard to quit on the toolsy outfielder, even though 2018 was definitely a sideways year for him.  When he began the season on the DL, there were the usual concerns about his injury history.  Alford seemed lost at times at the plate this year, and did not barrel up balls like he did in 2017.

Still, there was some progress.  Alford began to drive the ball more in August, slashing .282/.324/.388 with 11 Doubles.  And the work he did with Coach Devon White helped him to take more efficient routes on fly balls.

The clock is starting to tick for Alford (he still has one more option year), but if he can stay in the lineup consistently, there could be a place for him in the Toronto outfield at some point next year.

 

10.  Orelvis Martinez SS

The top-ranked July 2nd bat in this year’s class did not look out of place at Instructs, from reports, as the Blue Jays added yet another up-the-middle player.  The Blue Jays spent 70% of their pool money on Martinez’ $3.5 million bonus – the second largest in club history.

We don’t know enough about his defensive skills yet, but there are a lot of indications that the bat will play.  In fact, there is word that Martinez will start his pro career stateside next year, and his bat may be advanced enough to skip the GCL.  Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, who oversees Latin America for the club, raved about Martinez’ skills at the plate:

The combination of consistency, good results, good plan at the plate, has hit good velocity, has hit breaking balls and laid off breaking balls — those things make you as comfortable as you’re going to get with a player who’s obviously a long way away from his prime.

 

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Don’t Count Your Prospects Before They’re Hatched

I’m not normally one to single someone out like this, but here goes:

Look, I love prospects more than anyone.  Over the course of a season, I watch about twice as many MiLB games as I do the Major League version.  I like evaluating players, and talking to contacts around the continent about their strengths and weaknesses.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from a half-dozen years of writing about them, and a much longer span of observing them in general, it’s this:  until they prove themselves at the MLB level, prospects are just that.  They are players with plenty of promise, but have yet to realize it.

Minor league performance history is as good a predictor of success as anything, but the jump from AAA to MLB is the biggest one in baseball – maybe even in all of sports.  If you have a flaw in your game that your physical talents allowed you to conceal in the minors, you will be quickly and effectively exposed.

This is why teams have three option years on their players.  I’m not aware of any recent studies, but this one from 7 years ago found that it took, on average, between two and three seasons for Top Prospects to have their first 2-Win season.  It stands to reason that it would take players who are not necessarily near the top of the rankings even longer to attain a 2 WAR year (if they ever do).

The problem, I think, that because many fans’ knowledge of prospects doesn’t extend beyond what they’ve read, or the stats lines they’ve looked up, is that prospects can be enveloped in something of a halo effect.  Because they haven’t failed, or maybe because their faults have not been exposed on a prime-time stage, many people think that prospects can come in and take over for an MLB regular.

And more often than not, that’s not the case.

You don’t have to look much farther than the Blue Jays current 25-man roster for proof that prospects still need time to develop once they reach the majors.  Josh Donaldson was dealt by the team that drafted him (the Cubs), and after a brief audition with his new team (the Athletics), spent two and a half seasons at AAA before he became an everyday player. J.A Happ, easily the team’s most consistent starter this year, was up and down with the Phillies for three seasons before being dealt to Houston.  For every Mike Trout or Kris Bryant who comes up and reaches stardom right away, there are countless players who are sent back to AAA more seasoning.

We know that Bo Bichette lead the minors in hitting last year; what some may not know that he struggled earlier this season (his average bottoming out at .244), mainly because he was chasing too many pitches out of the strike zone.  And while his defence appears to be of MLB-quality, he isn’t the best defensive SS in the system – he may not even be #3 at a position where the team is now rich with prospects. This is Bo’s second year of full season ball, and only his third pro campaign.  Expecting him to step in and play every day next year is probably unrealistic.

Cavan Biggio has found the Eastern League air and pitching very much to his liking this year, and leads the loop in Home Runs.  His defence, at this point, could charitably be described as fringy.  He lacks the arm strength and range to play the position in the majors at the moment, which may explain why the team has employed him at several infield spots this season.  His bat holds some Rogers Centre promise, but his glove is not ready.

And Lord knows I’m a huge Anthony Alford booster since he took the time to answer a blogger’s questions somewhere over the Pacific, as he was coming home from Australia and a crash course in pitch recognition after giving up his college football commitment several years ago.  But his injury history is somewhat concerning, not just because of the frequency, but also because of the time it appears to take him to get back into form after time on the DL.  As of this writing, he’s hitting .215/.285/.307 in 45 games with Buffalo.

About the only name  (other than Vlad Jr) I might be in agreement with on the above list is Danny Jansen.  Even though he’s tailed off a bit, his average dipping just below .300, Jansen is an International League All Star, and the heir apparent to the everyday Catching job once Toronto figures out what to do with Russell Martin and his contract.  Still, it’s worth remembering that Jansen has missed some development time due to injury in his minor league career in one of the sport’s lengthier apprenticeships, and he still likely has some learning to do at the MLB level.  His initial trial in the bigs may not be successful.

Last fall, Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro indicated in an interview that the Blue Jays’ brain trust had the tool belts strapped on, and were ready to start a rebuild, but the corporate bosses at Rogers were not comfortable with the drop in attendance and ratings it would likely entail.  And the front office knows that progress is not always measured in a straight line, and that their prospects may need several cracks at becoming an MLB regular.  Shapiro has also talked about developing waves of prospects who will be ready to go if any of the group ahead of them don’t make the grade.  Development takes time, and doesn’t stop once a player is promoted to the 25-man.

The Blue Jays farm system holds as much promise as it has had in some time.  To the above list, you could add the recently graduated Ryan Borucki, as well approaching-readiness players like Sean Reid-Foley and TJ Zeuch, and not-far-away prospects like Nate Pearson, Kevin Smith, and Logan Warmoth.  With four prospects in Baseball America‘s Top 100, the system is becoming one of the top ones in the game.  But that’s not a guarantee of success – it depends on how well those players handle the transition from the minors to the majors.  And that’s why teams lacking a key piece will often pay a heavy price in prospects to acquire a player at the trade deadline.  A top player with a proven track record has more value – prospects are good, parades are better.

 

 

 

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Position Prospects

“There are no shortcuts.”

Of all the correspondence this blog has had with Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro over the past year, that aphorism stands out the most.  It underscores the approach this management group takes to organization building, a methodology that eschews the quick fix.  Players will be challenged, but they won’t be rushed.  Benchmarks will be established at each level, and a player doesn’t move on until he’s reached them.  With the Blue Jays already double-digit games behind the last Wild Card spot, there are those who are grumbling about the lack of accomplishments since Shapiro took over the reigns of the team 32 months ago (although a 2016 post season appearance seems to be forgotten).  But Shapiro and Co won’t be deterred.  Throughout the system, there is a growing collection of athletes who are receiving instruction from some of the most qualified staff in the game, as well as nutrition and training support from one of baseball’s leading high performance departments.  Building a winner takes time, and while Rogers has not necessarily shown an appetite for a full on rebuild, one is surely coming.  Until they prove themselves at the MLB level, prospects are just that, but a growing stable of them gives teams the best shot at a contending future.

1.  Vladimir Guerrero Jr

There’s little to be said here that can add to the utterly dominant offensive performance Vladdy has put together over the past two months.  One of the youngest players in AA, he has laid waste to Eastern League Pitching.

Despite the gaudy numbers, there are nights when Guerrero plays like a 19-year-old.  Veteran pitchers can have him chasing, and he sometimes short-arms throws to 1st.  While those occasions are few and far between, there have been enough to convince the team to stick to the timetable, despite the clamouring of fans who look up his stats.

With the Blue Jays free-falling from contention for a wild card spot, there’s little need to waste service time and bring him up to the majors.  Shapiro hinted last October that if the Blue Jays were in a playoff race in July, and if the club needed a 3rd Baseman, then there was a good chance we would see him in 2018.  That’s looking less and less like a possibility, now that he’s on the DL for at least a month with a knee strain.

2.  Bo Bichette, SS

With 11 hits in his first 6 AA games, Bichette looked like he had picked up right where he left off last year when he led the minors in hitting.

Bichette soon began seeing a heavy diet of off speed pitches away, and for the first time in his young pro career, he struggled at the plate, and his average dipped to as low as .244 on May 23rd, as he chased a lot of pitches, and seemed to abandoned his excellent two-strike approach.

With a .361 average, including four multi-hit performances over his last 10 games, Bichette appears to have adjusted.  And with every game, he appears to be solidifying his prospects as an everyday SS.  Bichette makes both the routine and the spectacular play, and there is no question as to his focus on the field.

3.  Danny Jansen

Jansen had a breakout 2017, the first time head had been healthy for a full campaign since being drafted in 2013.  After posting a line of .323/.400/.484 last year, he’s almost matched those numbers with this year’s .313/.414/488.

Jansen has excellent pitch recognition, with more walks than strikeouts, and often puts himself in favourable counts, which he takes full advantage of.  On the defensive side, Jansen still had work to do in terms of his blocking skills, but he’s made tremendous strides.  Jansen has an excellent report with his Pitchers, and calls a good game behind the plate.

A couple of factors have led to Jansen’s breakout at the plate.  Corrective lenses, which he started wearing in the Arizona Fall League in 2016 to help him track pitches better while behind the plate have allowed him to improve his pitch recognition greatly.  Being healthy for a prolonged period has helped, too – three of his first four pro seasons prior to 2017 were interrupted by injury.  And working with Buffalo Hitting Coach Corey Hart, who he had at Dunedin last year, Jansen has tweaked his mechanics to keep his weight back (using a slight turn with his leg kick), allowing him to make harder contact.

The development time for Catchers often takes longer than it does for most players.  Jansen has caught just over 300 games as a minor leaguer, and is reaching the time when he’s ready to graduate to MLB.

4.  Anthony Alford, OF

Alford last played a full season in 2015, and it does cause one to wonder if he’ll ever be able to stay healthy.  His last three seasons have been interrupted by injury, and the inconsistency in obtaining reps has hampered his development.  A pro since 2012, Alford has really only been a full-time player since 2015, and still needs seasoning.

Alford is currently hitting only .196/.237/.257 for Buffalo, a reflection of the fact that he’s been in the Bisons’ lineup for only 25 games.  He is hitting .333 over his past 10 games, an indication that he may be turning things around, and more evidence that he just needs to stay healthy for a prolonged stretch.

5.  Cavan Biggio, 1B/2B/3B

Biggio’s K% and Flyball% were career highs last year, an indication of his attempt to put loft on the ball.  The humid Florida air and large Florida State League ballparks conspired to keep many of those flyballs in the park, and Biggio’s numbers were very pedestrian as a result.

This year has been a different story.  Biggio’s 13 Homers to date are good for 2nd in the Eastern League, and outside of Guerrero, he’s become the most dangerous hitter in New Hampshire’s lineup.

There is little doubt about Biggio’s bat, but his glove is a different story.  Labelled a fringe defender in his draft year, the Blue Jays have added duties at 1st and 3rd in an attempt to boost Biggio’s versatility.  His range and arm strength are modest, however, and despite calls from those stats-loving fans for his ascension to Toronto, Biggio isn’t going far until he’s made more progress as a defender.

6. Logan Warmoth, SS

The 2017 1st rounder hasn’t been a pro full calendar year, yet there is already debate as to his long-term future.

Some scouts suggest that Warmoth, who doesn’t have one overwhelming tool, but does an incredible amount of little things well that add up over time.  Others suggest the potential for MLB success just isn’t there, and the Blue Jays may have missed with this pick.

Currently on the 7-day DL, Warmoth has not set the Florida State League on fire on either side of the ball, but his bat was showing some signs of progress before we was injured.  He made a lot of loud contact with Vancouver this year, but has not had a similar impact so far in Florida.  The jury is out on Warmoth at the moment.

7.  Kevin Smith, SS

Warmoth’s replacement was leading the Midwest League in a number of offensive categories before he got the call to Dunedin.  After a slow start with the D-Jays, he’s had 1six straigth multi-hit games, and is playing peerless defence.

A 4th round pick last year, there were concerns about Smith’s bat.  So far this year, he’s gone a long way to start to erase them.  Smith has a good approach at the plate, and barreled up a lot of balls enroute to a .355/.407/.639 line with Lansing.

Smith is a student of the game, and a very hard worker.  His defence has always been his calling card, but now it appears that his bat is catching up.  With a glut of SS at the lower levels, Smith split time at SS/3B at Lansing, but depending on the length of Warmoth’s absence, he has some time to settle in for a long stretch at Short.

8. Chavez Young, OF

You wouldn’t ordinarily expect much from a 39th round pick, but Young is truly proving to be a diamond in the rough.  The Bahamian may have been behind his peers in terms of development when he made his pro debut two years ago, but he’s more than made up for that.

Young has been a fixture atop Lansing’s order, although he’s now slid to 3rd with the promotion of Smith.  Young has a simple set up at the plate, gets good plate coverage, and seldom chases.  He can play all three outfield spots, and has been set loose on the basepaths this year, stealing 13 in 19 attempts.

Outside of Alford, there is perhaps no toolsier player in the system.

9.  Richard Urena, SS

It’s becoming harder to see Urena as a top prospect, although one suspects he’d have some value if he was in the right situation.

April was a write off because of time on the DL, and he was on the QEW shuffle for May.  All of that has transpired to limit his season to 20 games at AAA.  And the results reflect the lack of reps.

Maybe it’s focus, maybe it’s that he’s more of a AAAA player, but one gets the feeling that the Blue Jays don’t see a lengthy future for Urena.  The best thing for him now is to contineu to play every day at Buffalo.

 

10.  Miguel Hiraldo, SS

Hiraldo was one of the top-ranked bats in last year’s IFA class, and with a line of .395/.452/.737 in his first 9 games in the DSL – it’s a bit of a surprise the Hiraldo started there, but he likely won’t be there for long if he continues to hit at that clip.

The consensus is that Hiraldo, who is built more like a Catcher, will evenutally move over to 3B, but the Blue Jays are in no rush to move him.

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.

Where Will the Top Prospects Play?

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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

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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?

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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:

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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:

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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.