Jays Place Prospects on BA’s Top 20 Lists

You’ll have to go behind their pay wall to read all the details, but a combined four Blue Jays prospects have made it to Baseball America‘s Top 20 International and Eastern League Prospects lists.

To the surprise of no one, Vladimir Guerrero Jr was named the EL’s top prospect.  As BA pointed out, having top prospects on your roster doesn’t always translate to minor league success, but in the case of Guerrero’s New Hampshire Fisher Cats, it certainly did.  The bulk of the group that won a co-championship in the Florida State League swept both rounds of the playoffs to capture the Eastern League crown.  BA’s final paragraph on Vlad sums up what many evaluators have been thinking for several years:

Staying at the hot corner is not out of the question, but Guerrero will have to work hard to maintain his large frame if he wants to avoid a move to first base. No matter where he plays, there are multiple all-star games in his future.

It was a bit of a surprise in the prospect-laden EL that Bo Bichette came in at #2 on the list.  Bichette was taken to task for his over aggressiveness at the plate by Eastern League pitchers, but he worked on his pitch recognition skills to battle his way from a batting average that dipped into the .240s in June.  BA had praise for his approach:

Bichette finished as one of only 13 minor leaguers with more than 30 stolen bases and double-digit homers. Rival evaluators praised Bichette’s advanced approach and elite bat-to-ball skills, which allowed him to raise his walk rate from last season even as the second-youngest player in the league.

Cavan Biggio jumped onto the prospect radar with 26 Home Runs, checking in at #14 on BA’s list.  BA noted how he had made an adjustment with the position of his hands this season, lowering them to create more loft, something he had been working on last year, but fully committed to this season.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr started the year at New Hampshire, and finished it in Toronto with a number of trips to Buffalo in between, and wound up as the 12th ranked International League prospect:

Gurriel showed the skills that earned him a seven-year, $22 million contract in his time at Buffalo, hitting for average and power while effectively playing both spots in the middle infield. He moved to a different level eight times during the season, but impressively never seemed to lose his rhythm despite constantly moving around.

Gurriel was a different player from Opening Day on this year than he was last year.  His bat was one of the most impressive ones in the Fisher Cats lineup before he moved up.

Florida State League and Midwest League rankings are due out shortly.  Dunedin’s Kevin Smith would be a lock for the former, as well as FSL PioY Patrick Murphy, and while Lansing was one of the most successful teams in the system, they did not have a stockpile of top prospects by season’s end, so it will be interesting to see who from their roster might crack BA’s MWL list.

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Who Will the Blue Jays Send to the Arizona Fall League?o

As the minor league season approaches its conclusion, we turn our thoughts to the Arizona Fall League, a finishing school of sorts for an organization’s top prospects.

In the past, the Blue Jays have used the AFL experience to give their top prospects a taste of competition against elite talent, or to give them added reps missed due to injury.

Toronto will send six prospects to play for the Surprise Saguaros, who will be managed by former Blue Jays minor league Manager Stubby Clapp, who’s now in the Cardinals organization.  New Hampshire Position Coach Andy Fermin will join Clapp’s staff.

The Blue Jays will be sending six players – they’re allowed to send any AAA or AA player, as well as one from High A.  Projecting the first three players is fairly easy:

1.  Vlad Jr

While fans are clamoring for Guerrero’s promotion to the big club when MLB rosters expand on September 1st, the Blue Jays are still building him up to play a full season (and holding off on his service time), so a shutdown for September followed by a trip to the desert is the most likely scenario.

2.  Bo Bichette

Bichette has had his ups and downs this year as his pitch recognition skills have been put to the test, but his .839 post All Star OPS suggests he’s come through his first taste of adversity as a pro.  Word travelled quickly around the Eastern League that he’d chase, and he struggled until he stopped expanding his strike zone.

Bichette would likely get an opportunity to split time between SS and 2B, adding to his versatility.

3.  Cavan Biggio

Biggio’s prodigious power (26 HRs, .532 SLG) has been one of the bigger surprises in the organization.  Toss in 90 BBs and 128 Ks, and you have a three true outcomes triple crown threat.

Some Toronto media members have been suggesting Biggio could be in the Blue Jays lineup as early as next year, but the team still likely would to see if that power surge is for real, and what his ultimate position might be.  Biggio has played mostly 2B, but has also seen time at 1B and 3B, and the club experimented with him in RF this week.

Facing tough competition in the AFL will give us a good barometer of the legitimacy of his power.

It starts to get a bit unpredictable at this point.  Some possible candidates for the other three spots include:

Nate Pearson

After spending April in shut down mode with an oblique issue, Pearson’s 2018 came to a screeching halt when he took a line drive off of his pitching arm in his first start of the season.  Reports suggested an August return, but he’s yet to pitch in a game since the injury.

It’s possible we see him in short stints in the AFL, but the likelihood of that depends on how his arm has healed.  And getting that kind of information out of the Blue Jays is a herculean task.

Travis Bergen

Injuries limited the 2015 7th rounder to 28 innings over his first three pro seasons.  He was a mainstay in Vancouver’s bullpen last year, helping to lead the C’s to a league title, and has taken over the Closer’s role in New Hampshire.  With Bergen eligible for the Rule 5 draft if he’s not placed on the 40-man roster by November, the team likely would like to see how he fares against top prospects.

Zach Jackson

The righty reliever with the funky delivery has fanned 66 in 56 innings for New Hampshire, but has walked 43.  Some added reps might be in order.

Patrick Murphy 

Like Bergen, Murphy has a lengthy injury history, but he’s bumped up his velo, hitting 100 this year, and sitting 96-98 deep into games.  Murphy has also blown past his previous high in Innings Pitched, so there’s every chance he’s shut down come September, given the Blue Jays usual caution with their young arms.  With the Rule 5 a possibility for Murphy, there’s a good chance he’s added to the 40 this fall.

Jon Harris

The 2015 1st rounder had a disappointing season in his first AA campaign last year, but has added velo and some deception to his delivery in his second crack at the level in 2018.  With the Rule 5 looming for Harris, the Blue Jays might give him time in Arizona after a decent second half with New Hampshire.

Jordan Romano

Romano came out like a house on fire at AA, winning his first 8 decisions and getting the starting nod at the Eastern League All Star game.  He hasn’t missed as many bats in the second half as he did in the first, and with scouts wondering if he wasn’t better suited to a bullpen role, the Blue Jays might want to begin that transition this fall if that’s what they have in mind.

Angel Perdomo

The tall lefty with the electric fastball has been a starter since joining the organization in 2012, but the team moved him into the bullpen this year in Dunedin.

Rosters are usually released in late August.  Play in the AFL begins in early October, and wraps up in late November.

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.

 

 

 

Kevin Smith Is This Year’s Prospect on the Rise

Smith
milb.com photo

One of the best aspects of following the Blue Jays system is watching the rise of a breakout prospect.  In 2014, we watched Dalton Pompey begin the year in High A, and finish it in the majors.  Anthony Alford was 2015’s breakout prospect after giving up his college football commitment.  In 2016, Conner Greene added velo to his curve ball, and pitched at three levels.  Last year, after an off-season visit to the optometrist, it was Danny Jansen’s turn.

This year, it’s been Kevin Smith who has been on the helium watch.

A 4th round pick last June, Smith had a reputation as a glove-first player.  Baseball America was not wild about his bat:

Offensively, Smith shows above-average bat speed and raw power. He batted .301 as a rising sophomore in the Cape Cod League last summer, giving evaluators hope that his pure batting had improved. Smith struggled early on this spring, casting further doubt on his ability to make contact and dropping him to the lower third of the Terrapins’ order. His power remains ahead of his hitting ability. In a college shortstop class devoid of players likely to stick at the position, Smith should still be a high draft pick, in spite of his shaky offensive track record.
  Most picks of his stature and background would have been updating their passport and heading off to Vancouver after the draft, but with Logan Warmoth selected ahead of Smith, his travel plans were re-routed to Bluefield of the Appalachian League.  Smith had a decent year at the plate (.271/.312/.466), but gave little indication that he was about to break out the following season.
   A dedicated student of both the game and his own skills, Smith set out to fix a mechanical flaw he had detected, telling Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi:

“I had a loop in my swing and I’m not really sure how it got there. Looking at swings, I can tell when something’s off. I was getting way under the ball, coming way up through it and I really wasn’t on plane with it for a while. The whole off-season was just trying to work on that ball up and that was what was giving me trouble, fastballs up, I’d try to cheat to it and then get exposed with breaking balls away.

The adjustments helped Smith get to the ball on time in a more consistent fashion, and allowed him to make harder contact to all fields:

 

Smith got off to a slow start after his promotion to Dunedin, going for 4-25 in his first half-dozen games.  Since that time, he’s been on fire, with six multi-hit games in his last seven, brining his line up to .351/.406/.491.

A regular observer at Dunedin games quickly became impressed with Smith.  “Plays hard, carries himself well. Dependable at SS, above average arm,” he noted.  “I watch him pre pitch, he never takes his glove off his hand, he’s always aligned properly where the catcher is set up. Is equally adept at going left or right for ground balls, rarely makes mistakes from obvious carelessness or mental lapse. Pretty even, flat swing plane.”

A relentless worker, Smith takes the game seriously, and is very prepared when he steps between the lines.  He told milb.com:

“I give a lot of everything to my routine. I want to go into every game where I’m comfortable where I’m at and what work I put in before the game, after the game, on off days and stuff like that. It’s all about trying to stay consistent with my approach and my swing. I want every day to be I don’t have to worry, just I know I put my work in and the game will sort itself out.”

We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves at this point, but if Smith can continue to hit at the higher levels, he may truly become the Short Stop of the Future.  Bo Bichette has shown adequate defensive skills, but he’s not in the same class as Smith, and there has been considerable debate as to Warmoth’s eventual position.  Splitting time between 3rd and SS at Lansing with the presence of Kevin Vicuna, Smith showed some growing pains at the hot corner, but threw himself into learning the position.  With Warmoth returning from the DL, that trend will probably continue, but Smith has already shown that he has the defensive tools to be a Major League SS.

 

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.

Is It Time to Be Concerned About Bo?

An 0-4 in the first game of New Hampshire’s doubleheader with the Nationals’ Harrisburg affiliate yesterday dropped Bo Bichette’s average for the season to .264.  He struck out 3 times (fanning 6 times in 14 ABs in the series against the Senators), and is hitting .194 over his last 10 games.

After leading the minor leagues in hitting last summer as he rocketed his way up the top prospect rankings, this is the first prolonged slump of his young career.  Scouts were lukewarm about his brother Dante’s long-term prospects even though he too tore up short season ball when he first turned pro, and his career stalled at AA, and he’s now playing independent ball.  Bo may not plateau at that level, but is it time to be a little bit concerned after he struck out three times yesterday?

From a stats perspective, there are some reasons to be concerned.  Bichette’s 20.6% K rate is the highest of his career, as his GB rate of 45.2%, which suggests some swing-and-miss, as well as some weak contact.

From a scouting viewpoint, Bichette seems to be more aggressive this year than he was last.  He’s swinging at a lot of pitches early in the count, and is finding himself in pitcher’s counts more often than not.  Few hitters will produce sparkling numbers in that situation, and Bo is no exception, producing a .193/.193/.333 line.  What’s more concerning is that he’s been in behind-the-count situations almost twice as often as he’s been ahead, although it bears pointing out that his 11% walk rate is above his career average.

When he swings, Bichette seems to be just missing the barrel lately.  His 3rd AB yesterday was a microcosm of his past 10 games.  Hunting a first pitch fastball, Bichette took a mighty hack at an elevated pitch and fouled it back to the screen.  The next pitch was a hanging breaking ball on the outer half, with the same result.  The 3rd pitch in the sequence as a fastball down and in that resulted in another foul, while he laid off the 4th, a breaking pitch in the dirt. Another breaking ball up in the zone had him out in front, and he took a huge rip but missed – somewhat surprising, because Bichette is well-known for his ability to cut down on his swing with two strikes.

Should we be concerned, or is this just a dry spell that he’ll eventually break out of?  History suggests the latter – he did put together a 9 and a 10 game hitting streak in April, a month in which Bichette hit .292/.364/.427.  Evaluators passing through the northeast have all commented on his vastly upgraded defence.  Bichette is showing the requisite footwork, hands, arm strength, and ability to make the double play pivot of a Major League Short Stop.  With fellow prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr receiving national attention, is Bichette maybe pressing a bit much?  That’s a tough question to answer, but it does appear from his approach that he’s not as patient at the plate as he has been in the past.  This may just be a stretch of adversity that it seems like most minor leaguers go through – the successful ones learn how to adjust.  Past performance suggests that Bichette will.

Short Stop Becoming A Blue Jays Position of Strength

Warmoth
Logan Warmoth – Clutchlings Photo

Last year, with the emergence of Danny Jansen, the acquisition at the previous year’s trade deadline of Reese McGuire, and the drafting of Hagen Danner and Riley Adams, Catching became the deepest position in the Blue Jays organization.

This year, the team has built on that depth at Short Stop.

Leading the way is Bo Bichette, who lead the minors in hitting last year, flirting with .400 in early June.  This year at AA, Bichette has been challenged by the higher level pitching for the first time in his pro career.  Still, he’s hit safely in 23 of the 27 games he’s appeared in, and while he’s yet to Homer this season, Bichette has started to tap into his power with 12 extra base hits.  In addition, Bichette has taken great strides to quell concerns about his defence, with most evaluators this year agreeing that he has the skills to play Major League SS.  Bichette was ranked the Midwest League’s #3 prospect, and the Florida State League’s #2 prospect after a whirlwind 2017, and shows all the tools of a future MLBer.

Behind Bichette is a growing wealth of talent.

Logan Warmoth was Toronto’s 1st round pick in last June’s draft, and he had a solid pro debut, leading Vancouver to the Northwest League title,  being named the loop’s 6th-best prospect in the process.  Skipped over Lansing to High A Dunedin this year, Warmoth had his struggles at first, but is hitting .275 over his last 10, and making a lot of hard contact according to reports.  Warmoth does not have one overwhelming tool, but does a lot of things well.  Like Bichette, there were initial concerns about his long-term prospects at SS, but he’s shown the range, footwork, and arm strength to handle the position.

Kevin Smith has been in Warmoth’s shadow since being taken in the 4th round last year.  Normally, a college draftee chosen that high would start at Vancouver, but with Warmoth there, Smith was sent to Bluefield to start his pro career.  A glove-first player for much of his college career, Smith showed glimpses of a bat that was still developing, with his power ranked ahead of his hitting ability.  Sent to Lansing this season, Smith has shown every indication that his bat has caught up to projections – Smith has posted a line of .370/.417/.639, and is hitting .459 over his last 10 games.  With the presence of Kevin Vicuna at Lansing, Smith has split time between SS and 3B, but there is little doubt about his skills on the defensive side of the ball.  Smith has plus hands and a strong arm.

Vicuna was labelled a glove-first player when the Blue Jays signed him as an IFA in 2014.  His bat had progressed enough to be sent to Dunedin to fill in for a month last spring before he was sent to Vancouver, where he was named the Northwest League’s 19th prospect.  There is no doubt about his defence, but Vicuna’s bat has shone at Lansing this year, hitting .308/.325/.375.  Vicuna goes up to the plate looking to swing, drawing only a pair of walks so far.  His glove is what will move him up in the organization, but he’s not proving to be an easy out.

Two international players also add to the team’s depth:

-Dominican Miguel Hiraldo was ranked the top bat in last year’s IFA class.  He profiles long-term at 3B, but the Blue Jays wil have him start his career at Short.

-Panamanian Leo Jimenez, who Blue Jays Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish is incredibly high on:

 (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 your 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.

In addition, the Blue Jays have been strongly linked to Orelvis Martinez of the D.R. Martinez is ranked the top IFA SS in this year’s class, and may command the highest bonus.

Not all of these players will one day patrol the infield at the Rogers Centre, but the depth gives the team plenty of options and flexibility in the future.  Some could be developed into utility players, while others could be used in trades to bolster the organization’s depth at other positions.  The organization has done a good job stockpiling a supply of athletic players at Short Stop.

Romano Continues to Impress as a Starter

Jordan Romano has come a long way for a guy who started out as a reliever, and whom some feel would be best suited to that role.

The Markham, ON native was drafted in the 10th round of the 2014 draft after serving as Oral Roberts’ closer.  He began his career in the Blue Jays system in the bullpen, but after missing 2015 due to Tommy John surgery, he came back to the organization in a starting role.

The Blue Jays have long coveted Romano’s size, downward plane on his pitches, and his fastball-slider combo that just needed another pitch to complement it.  After striking out exactly a batter per inning over the last two seasons, the Blue Jays are content to let him continue to refine that third pitch at AA.

Last year with Dunedin, Romano was second in the Florida State League in Ks, as well as FIP.   In addition to working on his change-up, Romano has had to learn to pace himself.  Manager John Schneider, who had moved up the ladder with him the last two years, told Sportsnet:

“There’s no question he’s got a great arm,” Schneider says. “But I think he’s learning he can back off a little bit, not try to overthrow everything, and really hit his spots and have success. I think he’s learning he can pitch a little bit and not have to be as max effort as he has been in the past.”

But it’s been the need for a pitch to get left-handed hitters out that has been the biggest need for Romano.  Lefties have always hit him well, and last year was no exception, as FSL batters hit him at a .351 clip.

Last night in Trenton against he Yankees Eastern League affiliate, Romano had the change-up working for him (“I’ve been working really hard on it,” he said after the game), as he tossed 7 innings of shutout ball.  On the evening, he allowed only 3 hits, fanned 7, and didn’t walk a batter.  The Blue Jays usually don’t allow their minor league starters to work this deep into a game so early in the season, but Romano was so efficient (only 64 pitches through 6 innings), that he was allowed to continue into the 7th.

One interesting note – Romano allowed only two Homers last year in Florida.  He gave up that many in his first start this year.  Last night, he did not allow a runner past 2nd.  Given his flyball rate in the past, he may give up more longballs this year.  If he can continue to keep the walks down, that might not be a big issue.

It’s easy to see Romano as a dominant back-of-the-bullpen guy if he was limited to that fastball/slider mix.  Against right-handed hitters, his fastball has some arm side run when he gets the right arm angle, and his slider is a definite swing-and-miss pitch.  But as President/CEO Mark Shapiro said in an interview last fall, developing starting pitching is probably a GM’s hardest job.  And the change is a feel pitch, one that can take time – several seasons, even – to develop.  Besides, when a guy has missed as many bats as Romano has in his minor league career, it’s worth seeing if he can keep getting hitters out at AA.

Romano was exposed to the Rule 5 draft last fall, and went unclaimed.  That likely won’t be the case this fall, meaning the team will have to make a decision on his future this year.

 

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I know I tend to go on about how much I’m enjoying the Fisher Cats play this year, but they have a chance to truly be special.  Romano said this is the best team he’s ever played for.

And I’m talking about this team beyond Bo and Vlad.  Jonathan Davis, for example, is a fantastic prototypical lead off hitter.  With Bichette sitting in the on deck circle and Guerrero grabbing a bat in the dugout, opposition pitchers would rather keep Davis off base.  But he works the count, fouling off borderline pitches, and giving his teammates a chance to see what the Pitcher has on that night.  On base, his speed is a distraction for Pitchers already trying to pitch the bash twins carefully.  He’s a perfect table setter for this lineup.

The baseball IQ this team displays is also a joy to watch.  In last night’s game, they took advantage of Trenton starter Domingo Acevedo’s slow delivery to home.  They take the extra base when an outfielder misses the cutoff man, they see a lot of pitches, and generally just play an unselfish game.  In only their second game of the season, with Davis placed on 2nd to start the 11th inning under MiLB’s new extra inning rule, Guerrero laid down a perfect bunt (on his own, apparently), advancing Davis to 3rd.  Guerrero knew that because Gurriel had been hitting the ball hard, and could probably score Davis with a sac fly.

Despite a high-powered offence, the Fisher Cats lineup is not full of swing-from-the-heels, ond-dimensional players.  Guerrero’s AB in the 4th was perfectly representative of their collective approach.  Up 2-0, Guerrero was rightly expecting a fastball.  But it was a pitch on the outer half.  Rather than try to pull the pitch, Vladdy went with what the Pitcher gave him, and slapped a Double to Right Centre.  Trying to pull the ball may have resulted in a ground ball, so Guerrero shortened his swing and made contact.

There are a lot of baseball bloodlines on this team with Bichette, Guerrero, Cavan Biggio (who has been off to a strong start, and could be a valuable multi-positon player one day), as well as Gurriel, whose father likely would have been an MLBer.  They have a solid lineup (one of the most dangerous hitters over the second half of the season in the FSL last year, Conor Panas, hits 7th), and a shutdown bullpen.

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One last thought:  it will take a much larger sample size to determine Guerrero’s ultimate position, but after a week of watching him, it’s obvious that balls that he gets to are usually going to be outs.  He displays good hands, and a strong, accurate arm.  The question will be how many he’ll get to.   That’s still to be determined.

 

 

Beware of Minor League Stats, and Some Thoughts About Jon Harris

First, a disclaimer:  I love Vladimir Guerrero Jr like he’s one of my own sons.  In fact, if it were up to me, my wife and I would have another son and call him Vladito (it’s not).

Before I had seen him play a game, the reports I’d read about him led me to label him the Blue Jays top prospect, well before most anointed him with that title.

And while I think he’ll be a generational bat, and will one day join his dad in the first Father-Son Hall of Fame pairing, his line from last night shows why you shouldn’t necessarily rely on minor league stats when evaluating a player.  They are usually a good predictor of success, but they need context.

Last night, Guerrero was 3-3, with 6 RBIs, and Twitter was full of his stat line this morning, suggesting a perfect night at the plate.  Truth be told, I didn’t think it was one of his best games.

Guerrero’s first AB was a ball hit to the warning track for an out, but it was more than deep enough to score speedy Jonathan Davis from 3rd.  Kudos to Guerrero for lofting the ball to score a run, but he hardly scorched it – earlier in that plate appearance, he sent a 114 mph rocket foul down the left field line, leaving me to worry about Fisher Cats Manager John Schneider in the 3rd Base coaching box.  Because it was a sacrifice fly, Guerrero was not charged with an AB.

In his second trip to the plate, Vladdy popped a Texas Leaguer just behind 2B.  Because the Trenton OF was playing him deep, the SS had to make a twisting catch with his back to home.  Davis, on 3rd yet again, alertly tagged and scored on a ball hit maybe 150 ft.  No AB charged to Guerrero.

Guerrero’s third At Bat was a groundball to Trenton 3rd Baseman Gosuke Katoh, who was having a bit of a rough night.  It was a fairly hard hit ball, but Katoh should’ve had it – an MLB 3rd Baseman certainly would have.  Because he didn’t make contact with it, Katoh wasn’t charged with an error, giving Guerrero a hit.

Guerrero’s fourth plate appearance was an intentional walk – no problem there,

Vladdy’s next two ABs were legit – a HR off the batter’s eye against Jose Mesa Jr, who does have a good track record, but has been hit hard so far this season.  In the 9th, he doubled down the LF line.

So, for the night, he was 3-3, and drove in 6 runs.  Impressive totals, and his first multi-hit game in AA, but in 6 plate appearances, the hardest ball he hit on the night may have been that foul down the 3rd base line.  He was fortunate to have Davis on 3rd twice, and a 3rd Baseman who did a matador routine on a ground ball.  But in the boxscore, it’s 3-3.

Of course, maybe these things even out over the course of a season.  And this is in no way a criticism of Guerrero, and you can just as easily hit the ball hard all four times up in a game and go 0-4.  It does show that minor league stats taken out of context can be misleading.  You have to be good to be lucky, and sometimes it’s the other way around, like it was to some extent for Guerrero last night.  He still did have two no-doubt hits, but change the circumstances of the game, and he’s 2-5, or even 2-6.

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One observation about both Guerrero and Bo Bichette:  both hunt the fastball early in the count, and they showed a little bit of vulnerability on offspeed pitches in fastball counts.

Of course, this is kind of like saying the Mona Lisa is great, but it’s too bad she didn’t smile a bit more.

Guerrero and Bichette have such excellent pitch recognition and strike zone judgement that they tend to get the benefit of the doubt from minor league umpires when they take a borderline pitch.  And unlike average hitters, they rarely expand their strike zones, even when behind in the count.  It’s early in the AA season, but both look to be in complete control at the plate.

 

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Jon Harris has come in for more than his fair share of criticism for his performance last year.  After a decent 2016, the 2015 first rounder gave up a lot of contact last year, with Eastern League hitters batting .287 against him.

Harris does not have one overwhelming pitch.  He relies on a combination of sequencing and command in order to get hitters out.  If one of those two components is off, he tends to get hit.  If they’re working together, his secondary pitches become much more effective.

Harris got into trouble in last night’s start by falling behind the first three hitters he faced, and ended up in a bases loaded/no out jam in the bottom of the 1st.  Harris regrouped, and limited the damage by giving up a sac fly, then got a swinging K and a groundout to escape the inning.

Harris’ command sharpened in the 2nd inning, when he retired the side in order.  He got into trouble again the 3rd, giving up back-to-back singles to start the inning, but he kept the ball down, and used ground balls to get out of the inning unscathed.

Harris then set down Trenton in order in the 4th and 5th before reaching his pitch limit.

Harris does not overpower hitters.  He pitches to contact, and needs to stay ahead of hitters in order to get them out.  When he’s locating and pitching in favourable counts, he’s a much better Pitcher.

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Two seasons ago, the Blue Jays employed a veteran minor league Catcher in Ryan Lavarnway in order to work with their young Pitchers, Conner Greene in particular. Lavarnway had known Greene since he was a youngster, and played with his older brother.

This year, Toronto is using journeyman minor league backstop Patrick Cantwell in tandem with Max Pentecost.  Cantwell, a 2012 3rd round pick of Texas, has bounced around the minors, reaching AAA in 2015.  With Pentecost unable to catch every day, and with young Pitchers like Sean Reid-Foley on the roster (Pentecost caught his first start), Cantwell fills an important role for the Fisher Cats, serving in a Crash Davis-like role.  When Harris got into that first inning jam, a visit from Cantwell seem to help re-focus him and helped him turn the frame around.

 

 

Blue Jays Farm System Notes – April 5 – 8

The abbreviated week that was around the Blue Jays organization:

Buffalo

The Bisons visited cross-state rival Rochester for a scheduled three game series this weekend, all three of which were postponed due to winter’s late rally.

Buffalo travels to Pawtucket to take on the Red Sox affiliate for a trio of games before heading back to Western New York for a 7-game home stand.

New Hampshire

The Fisher Cats went into Hartford for a four-game set with the Rockies’ Yard Goat AAA farm team, and walked away with a sweep, leading to the best start in franchise history.

New Hampshire’s vaunted offence pounded out 14 extra base hits over the four games, and their pitching staff posted a sparkling 1.18 ERA.  In the opener, five New Hampshire hurlers combined on a 6-hit shutout.

New Hampshire’s offence revolves around phenoms Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.  Bichette knocked 6 hits in his first 18 AA ABs, and stole a pair of bases.  Hartford pitchers wanted little to do with Guerrero, walking him three times and not giving him a whole lot to hit.  He hit his first AA Homer on Sunday, and it was a no doubter:

Bichette and Guerrero were actually outshined on the weekend by Lourdes Gurriel Jr and Cavan Biggio.  Gurriel went 7-16 on the series, and seemed to hit everything hard.  Biggio, alternating between 1B and 2B, went 6-17, and hit his first AA Home Run in the series finale as well.

Righthander Sean Reid-Foley showed good fastball command, as well as an effective change up in throwing six scoreless innings in the Sunday contest.  He had a little trouble in the first few innings, falling behind and giving up a pair of walks in the 2nd and one in the 3rd.  He hung a pair of breaking balls, but was bailed out by the strong winds blowing in from CF, and a nice reaching grab by LF Harold Ramirez.  Reid-Foley found his groove, however, striking out the side in the 4th, and not giving up a hit after the first.  He fanned 7 over 6 innings, and the Blue Jays have to be very pleased with his performance.

New Hampshire is off to Trenton for three games with the Yankees’ affiliate this week, before returning home for a three game series with Hartford.

Dunedin

The D-Jays took 3 of 4 from cross-town rival Clearwater, the Phillies’ High A affiliate.

Of Josh Palacios went 8-15 with a pair of steals in the series to lead Dunedin.  With the trade of Edward Olivares, Palacios becomes the top OF prospect in the lower levels of the system.

1B Nash Knight went 5-14, and hit a pair of Home Runs.

RHP Nate Pearson was set to make his Florida State League debut in Dunedin’s second game, but back issues had him scratched.  He is expected to make his next start.

The D-Jays play four games in Palm Beach this week, followed by a three-game set with St. Lucie.

Lansing

As is tradition, the Lugnuts begin their Midwest League schedule with a pair of games in Midland, MI against the Dodgers’ Great Lakes affiliate.  The Loons return the favour traditionally with a pair of games in Lansing.

The Lugs pounded out 13 hits and 12 runs in the opener, topping Great Lakes 12-1 behind Yennsy Diaz’ masterful 5.2 inning, 10K performance.

The second game of the series was postponed by winter’s return, and Lansing triumphed in their home opener the following day.

Great Lakes took a pair of games on Sunday from Lansing to square the Lugs’ record at .500.

Chavez Young began the season hitting in the 9th spot, but batted leadoff in both ends of the double header, going 4-11 for the series.  Kacy Clemens sported the same 4-11 line, but with 6 walks on top of that.

Lansing heads to Fort Wayne for three games beginning Monday, before returning home to face West Michigan.  Lansing GM Tyler Parsons said Friday that he hopes the team will have their video feed ready for milb.tv for the West Michigan series.