Blue Jays MiLB Schneider Developing Alongside his Players

Schneids
milb.com photo

Toronto Blue Jays Minor League Manager John Schneider has travelled a long road, and like many of the players on the championship teams he’s managed the past two seasons, he’s on the cusp of a Major League job.

A career Blue Jay, Schneider was originally drafted by the Tigers in the 24th round of the 2001 draft after making All Colonial Conference Association as a Catcher, Schneider opted to return to school at Delaware (where he says he, “Majored in Sociology, and minored in baseball”):

 I didn’t know if I was quite ready to leave school yet, and I was signed up to play in the Cape Cod League, which I really wanted to do.  I had two years of college eligibility left, and I felt like one more year of school would be good for me. It kind of worked out for me, and I decided to leave school the next year.

Schneider was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 13th round the following year, and soon after was off to Auburn of the New York Penn League (the Blue Jays’ short-season affiliate at the time), where he slashed .240/.381/.352 in 40 games.  Schneider moved up through the organization, until back surgery following the 2006 season and three concussions suffered the following year gave him cause to consider his post playing career:

I had back surgery in 2006, and then came back and played the next year, then – everyone reaches a point in their career where you start thinking, “maybe this isn’t going to work out for me,” and I had bounced around so much…..then it was the concussions (three in 2007) that gave me a pretty good scare, and started me thinking about my long-term future outside of baseball….you put everything together, between hitting your peak as a player, and throw in some injuries, and it was time for me to call it a career, and luckily I had a coaching gig with the Blue Jays lined up.  I went from being in the locker room at spring training to going into a coaches meeting the next day.

When asked what was the biggest adjustment he made from literally being inside the lines one day to the outside the next, Schneider said:

One of the hardest parts was seeing something that you loved and done your whole life, and your friends are still continuing to do it.  You know you could probably still do it, but it wouldn’t be realistic.

As his playing career reached its final stages, Schneider admits that staying in the dugout in a coaching or managing capacity had already entered his mind:

I had conversations with Managers and Co-ordinators – when you’re managing, you can tell which of your players might make a good Manager or Coach down the road, the way they talk, their demeanour, and how they interact with guys on the team.  Dick Scott, who was our Farm Director at the time, was very open with me, and gave me the opportunity to start coaching right then and there (spring training 2008). He even said if I wanted to keep playing, they would give me a release and we could re-visit things in a year.  I played about another week in spring training, and then realized it was time. I also wanted to get a head start on coaching while I was young, and I was told after 2007 that if I had another concussion I’d have to retire, so that made the decision a lot easier.

Schneider was assigned to the Gulf Coast League as a hitting coach for the 2008 season.  Having not played rookie ball, it was another period of adjustment for him:

I went from playing at a high level back down to rookie league, but you do forget about the mistakes that get made, and the repetitions players have to put in.  You learn patience – if you have to tell them something a thousand times, tell them a thousand and one. That took a little bit of time. I look back on it now, and when I started managing I was 29.  I thought I had made it, and I realize now when I look back on how I acted, and things like arguing calls with umpires, and then you remember the kids were so young. It’s funny to look back and realize how much you’ve changed like your demeanor and the way you go about things.

If you talk with anyone who has been around the minor leagues for a while, one thing players, coaches, and managers alike agree on is that the nature of the relationship between players and coaching staff has changed.  Minor League instructors who yelled at players to motivate them are on the way out, as patience and teaching are the keys to dealing with young players.  For his part, Schneider embraces that:

I’ve always believed in that, I believed it since I first started managing. You had managers that you love playing for and some managers not so much.  You try to take a little bit from each guy who managed you or coached you. On teams that I manage, I like the messages to come from teammates. If you have that kind of vibe and chemistry going on in your club house it just makes things so much easier. Problems tend to take care of themselves that way, although there are times when you have to step in and take charge. I tend to be one of those managers who doesn’t scream at kids, and I try to remember how hard the game is to play, And I try to relate to them the message that I probably made more errors and mistakes in my careers than they’re ever going to make. They could look at my stats and see I wasn’t very good, and say, who are you to yell at me? Unless it’s something that’s fundamentally incorrect, or something that’s in violation of what we stand for as an organization, I’m much more than kind of guy that’s going to pop them on the back and say way to go keep doing what you’re doing, rather than what are you doing? I don’t think you get a lot of results if you’re the kind of guy that just goes up there screaming.

 

When asked which players in New Hampshire helped deliver the message to their teammates this year, Schneider spreads the credit around, but points out two players in particular:

There were a lot of players like that, which is one of the reasons why I think we were so good. Whether it was (Cavan) Biggio who was there all year, or Pat Cantwell who is there all year – The thing we tried to do was build a positive, winning culture.  I knew we were going to have a good team, but I also knew we were going to have a lot of fluctuation in our roster. You want the guys were there and playing every day to be able to show the new guys coming in how we do things and how we roll. The core guys who were there just made it fun, and as much as we try to make these guys better on the field, what goes hand-in-hand with that is teaching them how to win, and teaching them how to be good teammates.  So if they can take care of things and their own backyard – which they did a really good job of this year – It makes my job really easy.

Schneider prefers an environment where players can be comfortable:

Baseball’s too hard not to have fun. I wanted guys to be themselves. I’m a little bit different than other managers in the organization. I don’t have a dress code. I tell players to dress the way they want to dress I just be  who you are, because I think you get the best results when people are comfortable. From the stuff we did in the clubhouse, to the stuff we did on the field, to the stuff we did on the bus, we just had a lot of fun this year. It’s not something you should take for granted. It’s tough to do in the minor leagues Dash you get the talent together you get the personalities together, where guys really liked being around one another, it makes for a really good year.  

But Schneider doesn’t run a loose ship; the expectation of hard work is still there.  Many clubhouses across baseball have ping-pong tables – it’s an excellent distraction.  But sometimes the line between distraction and obsession is easily crossed, and when it happened in Lansing in 2015, Schneider didn’t hesitate to have it removed (temporarily, at least):

You have to do stuff like that every once in awhile if guys are spending too much time at the ping-pong table and not enough time in the cage or on the field. I took it away for a couple of weeks, but I did give it back.

 

Like the players he manages, Schneider has made his way through the system, starting in the GCL, and advancing to Vancouver, a place that he still remembers fondly:

It’s a big League City in a minor league. The people in the front office do everything first class.  The stadium is awesome, and for our guys to get that kind of experience right out of the draft was unbelievable. I’ve been to a lot of minor league Parks, but there’s no atmosphere like there is at The Nat.  I have a lot of great memories from Vancouver.

 

I put Schneider on the spot somewhat.  There has been so much written and said about Vladimir Guerrero Jr that I asked him to tell us something people might not know about the slugging prodigy.  He didn’t hesitate with his answer:

How funny he is. I’ve told numerous people that. When you watch him playing on the field you know he’s having fun. When you see him in the clubhouse, when you see him in the cage, or when you see him on the bus, He’s a funny dude, man.  He speaks way better English than anyone thinks. He and I text back and forth in English. He’s a really keen observer of things around him and he’s a bit of a jokester in the clubhouse, then he goes out onto the field and works his butt off.  His teammates really respect him and look up to him, and not just because of the player he is. His numbers speak for themselves, but I’ve really got to know him well over the past two years, and we’re talking about someone who’s as good a person as he is a player.        

When Guerrero joins the Blue Jays (likely in mid-April), there will be an enormous amount of pressure and media attention on him.  Schneider thinks he’ll be more than up to the challenge of dealing with the high expectations:

He’s been doing it for the past couple of years in the minors.  I think he responds to challenges well, whether it’s the Futures Game, or the Fall Stars Game, or whether it’s the thousands of people who came to see him play every day, he handles it well, all at 19 years of age.  He’s surrounded himself with really good people away from the field who help him that – obviously, his Dad is a huge support.

When asked if Guerrero has the skills to stick as a Major League 3rd Baseman, Schneider feels that he does, but he also has thinks Vladdy will adjust to an eventual position change:

I do.  I think with baseball it’s tough sometimes to see the long-term, and things can change quickly, but for the next handful of years, I see him at 3rd Base.  He’s better there than people think. He makes the routine plays, he has good and quick hands, and an above average arm. It’s the little things, but I’ve seen him make diving plays to his left and plays down the line, which are above average Major League plays. I think that once his athleticism, agility, quickness, and first step reads, it’s going to be really fun to watch him over there.  I think whenever you look at a hitter like that, people say, “oh, his bat’s ahead of his glove,” but Vladdy could be Adrian Beltre defensively and I think his bat would still be ahead of his glove – that’s just how good of a hitter he is. I think he’s fine at 3rd and will continue to make improvements, although he does have the athleticism to move elsewhere one day. I definitely see him as a 3rd Baseman right now.

 

While Guerrero was flirting with .400 and getting top prospect acclaim across the continent this summer, his fellow top prospect Bo Bichette was scuffling for the first time in his pro career, his average dropping into the .230s in May.  Bichette was over-aggressive at the plate, and word quickly spread around the Eastern League that you didn’t have to throw a lot of pitches inside the zone to get him out.  Time, patience, and the help of Schneider and hitting coach Hunter Mense allowed Bichette to break out, but Schneider says the organization wanted to challenge Bichette this year:

That was part of the reason we wanted to put him in AA at 20 years old.  You have to struggle some times, right? His struggles were more like for a two or three week span, he was really grinding offensively a couple of times, but then you look up, and he’s hitting .286, with double-digit Homers, 75 RBI, 32 Stolen Bases, 43 Doubles, and made tremendous strides defensively and as a leader of the team, and he won his second championship in a row as a starting Short Stop.  I couldn’t be happier with the year that he had. I told him in April, “I’m going to purposely run you out there every day, and I want you to tell me when you’re tired,” because I knew last year he and Vlad had pretty strict schedules. I told them both this year that the training wheels were off, and to let me know when they needed a rest. Bo still played over 130 games. I think the most impressive thing this year was when he was going through a rough patch in early May, and I kept throwing him out there, but he didn’t complain, didn’t ask for a day off – I gave him a couple, because I could tell, and that’s my job as a Manager – but he expected to play every day and work his way through it.  To me, that’s invaluable.

Earlier in the season, Schneider had Lourdes Gurriel Jr in the lineup.  After a nearly two year hiatus after leaving Cuba, Gurriel looked very rusty in all aspects of his game.  He was a different player this year:

He was like that right from spring training……I saw him in Dunedin last year, and he just hadn’t played in a year and a half, he was kind of raw – you could see the talent, but you couldn’t see the results right away.  Coming into spring training this year, he was a completely different guy. Offensively, defensively, he just seemed more comfortable. It was awesome to see the start that he had, and then get called up later to Toronto.  He’s a good guy to have for his work ethic, and the other guys see that.

And no conversation about New Hampshire’s lineup this year would be complete without a discussion about Biggio, the EL MVP and HR leader.  After managing him in Dunedin last year, Schneider knew Biggio was destined for big things, but this year’s breakout was a bit of a pleasant surprise:

If you ask him, I don’t think he expected to hit 27 Homers and 99 RBIs – we tried so hard to get him to 100 – but I think this season showed what he’s capable of.  He’s so intelligent, and has such a good command of the strike zone. He made adjustments going into this year, and he’s going to have to do the same thing next year, but I think will be consistent is him playing every day and being productive, and being a solid defender.   I saw him after the got drafted, and he was a typical top-of-the-order guy: hitting everything up the middle, working the count. And then he started to become more aggressive early in the count. I think hitting behind Vladdy for part of the year helped him, because Pitchers would tend to take a deep breath after facing Vlad and maybe throw the next pitch over the plate…..then 450 feet later, you’ve got a couple of runs coming in.  

Like Guerrero, there is some question as to Biggio’s long-term position.  After starting his pro career at 2nd, he saw time at 1st and 3rd with New Hampshire, and played the corner OF spots in the Arizona Fall League.  Schneider thinks 2nd is his best position, but his versatility will be the key that drives him toward the bigs:

I think he’s going to be versatile.  He’s such a good athlete and student of the game that he can play several positions.  He looked good at 1st Base and 3rd Base and with what they did with having him play the OF in the Arizona Fall League.  He even got an inning at SS with us this year. I think 2B is where he might fall back on, though. I think he’s going to do a lot of things, with his best spot being 2nd.  

 

 

Winning or development?   The question is often asked of all farm directors and GMs.  Do organizations focus on building minor league teams that win, or let players take their lumps in an environment that sees them get reps, if not necessarily wins?  For Schneider, it’s best to try to focus on the best of both worlds:

I think you kind of want to a bit of both at every level.  I’ve always said that the minor leagues is a filtering out process, so for the guys who aren’t going to get to the major leagues, the games we play are practice games, and the post season games are higher leverage practice games.  It’s fun for me as a Manager to be in those situations, and it’s fun for the players to see how they react to those higher leverage games, but you really can’t replicate that during the regular season – when you have to get a guy from 2nd to 3rd, when you have to make a pitch with a runner on 3rd, when you have to make all the routine plays, when everyone knows you’re going to steal and you have to get a good jump.  All those things you put so much time and effort into over the course of spring training and a year, they really come into play in the playoffs, whether it’s the guy making decisions, or it’s me making decisions, everything is sped up. So I think that if you can do some of both, you’re doing a good thing. The biggest thing is you want the guys to expect to win, whether it’s the Dominican Summer League or AAA, you want them to expect to win every day.  If you can create that environment and that culture, I think you’re going to be better off than most other organizations. It’s been cool over the last 2 years to know as a manager or as a coach, your players are developing, and still be winning.

 

Watching New Hampshire play this summer was a lot of fun, and not just because of the prospect depth the team featured.  Schneider managed aggressively, and had the team always looking to run on the base paths.  The Fisher Cats led the Eastern League in stolen bases, with five players in double figures of steals.  The team went from 1st to 3rd probably more than any other team.  This was all part of Schneider’s plan:

I love it. You do have to adapt to your personnel, but I’ve always said if you can run, keep going and force the issue.  I told the guys everyone on the team has the green light to steal, and we came up with the term running in the outfielder’s face.  In spring training, I said, if it’s a ground ball to left field on you’re on first, I want you to keep going on to third, just run right in the left fielder’s face.  Now, you can’t go crazy, and you can’t run yourselves into outs, but the more aggressive you are, and the other team knows you’re going to be that way – you’re going to ,steal, hit and run, go first to third, go for extra bases – they’re going to play on their heels a bit.  I take pride as a Manager knowing when other teams talk about us, and they say these guys are going to be really aggressive on the bases.

 

After managing two teams at two levels to successive league titles,  he knows the core group that forms the next wave of Blue Jays better than anyone else in the organization.  And he can’t say enough about their collective work ethic:

This group that’s coming up, they’re really good, but they’re also really hard workers.  I can’t say enough about how hard they work and what kind of guys they are….it’s a special core, and I think to have them on the same team for a period of time will do wonders for them.  They’ve learned how to work, they’ve learned how to win.

 

 

Like his players, Schneider’s ultimate goal is to be in the majors one day, although he’s not one to rush the schedule.  He’s content to trust the process, and continuing to develop alongside his players:

It’s definitely a goal of mine. It’s nice to hear my name out there a little bit, and hopefully I can be one step closer (next year).  Much like players, coaches and managers want to get better every year, be around challenging situations and good people, and to be open to different ways that things are done.  To me that was very fulfilling last year to hear different views about hitting or pitching, and I just always want to continue to evolve with the game. I love the core group that I’ve been able to spend the last couple of seasons with, and hopefully I’ll be able to be around them in the big leagues in some capacity.  I’m thrilled with the addition of Charlie (Montoyo) in Toronto – I think it’s a good blend of what we’re trying to do up there.

 

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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.

 

Fisher Cats Hitting Coach Reflects on Championship Season

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Gosportscards.com photo 

Many people who knew Hunter Mense warned him about taking the hitting coach job at AA New Hampshire.

After a season in the Padres’ organization, Mense had been recommended for the position last off-season by the Blue Jays newly hired minor league hitting co-ordinator, Guillermo Martinez.  Mense interviewed for the position, and two days later was offered the spot Player Development Director Gil Kim.  In preparing for his interview, Mense had done his homework, and saw that top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette, among others, would likely be his charges.  But some in Mense’s circle suggested he would be getting into a no-win situation if he took the job:

I talked a bunch of people and they’re like – Hunter, that’s not a good opportunity because you’ll have all the pressure in the world because the expectations that come along with coaching these guys is so high.

Nonetheless, when Kim called, Mense jumped at the opportunity.  And in the end, he took a great deal away from the experience, which included coaching the best prospect in all of minor league baseball for half a season, and an Eastern League championship:

I got so much more out of those guys than they got out of me. Everyone of them. I learned so much more about hitting and about baseball and about coaching and professional baseball and everything that goes along with it from them. Way more than they learned from me so it was such a great opportunity and there’s no way I couldn’t take it.

 

 

Born in Liberty, MO, Mense was undrafted out of high school, so he went the collegiate route, attending the University of Missouri.  Mense had a tremendous sophomore season, played for Team USA that summer, and after being named a pre-season 3rd team All American by Baseball America, he appeared to be a solid bet to be taken in the first 3-4 rounds of the 2007 MLB draft.  Such was not to be the case for the Outfielder, however, and after getting off to a slow start, he found himself in a downward spiral, and in his own words, “I was hurting myself and the people around me.”   Mense finished his junior season with a .258/.328/.390 line, and his draft stock dropped as a result.  He lasted until the Marlins selected him in the 17th round.

Despite that disappointment, there were a couple of silver linings to that disappointing season.  At this parent’s request, Mense came under the mentorship of Rick McGuire, who was Missouri’s track coach, and more importantly, was the well-regarded head of the school’s sports psychology department.  Mense initially balked at the prospect of meeting with McGuire, but after spending several hours in conversation with him, he felt a great burden had been eased as a result:

I don’t necessarily remember exactly what we talked about or things that we did, or anything like that, but I just remember walking out of his office that day and feeling like I had at a weight lifted off my shoulders.

In his next game, a more relaxed and focussed Mense had four hits, and turned his season around.  And through his exposure to McGuire, a post playing career had been laid out in front of him.  When Mense was released in his fourth season by the Marlins, he eventually returned to Missouri, and began to study for his Masters in Sports Psychology.  If there was a benefit, when all was said and done, to his draft stock dropping, it was that in his first year in the Marlins organization in the New York-Penn League in 2006, one of his teammates was a utility infielder by the name of Guillermo Martinez, who became a life-long friend.

 

After his release from the Marlins, Mense went home and played Indy ball in Kansas City for a couple of seasons, but he could see the writing on the wall, and began to prepare himself for his next career.  He decided he wanted to return to Missouri to finish his undergraduate degree, and he reached out to baseball coach Tim Jamieson, who took Mense on as an undergrad assistant coach, working with the team’s hitters.  Over the course of four years, as he moved into post-grad work, Mense served a variety of roles for the team:  undergrad and graduate volunteer assistant coach, and colour commentator on the team’s radio broadcasts.  When an opening on Jamieson’s staff became available following the 2015 season, Mense was a natural fit, and was offered the job.  Unfortunately, Jamieson had not taken the Tigers to an NCAA regional since 2012, and after he failed to do so again in 2016, he tendered his resignation.  A new head coach came in, and Mense was encouraged to explore coaching opportunities elsewhere, and after a summer off, he connected with the Padres, and was named the hitting coach at Tri-City, their Northwest League affiliate.  When the Blue Jays came calling following his first summer with the Padres last year, the organization was understandably unwilling to let him go at first.  The connection with his former teammate Martinez was integral in Mense’s getting the opportunity with Toronto:

… any time you play with somebody, or you know somebody that continues to stay in baseball like he has, you just automatically stay in touch with those people and you know you always have something to talk about  –  especially when it’s a hitting guy. So we always stayed in contact throughout the years.

 

With top prospects Guerrero and Bichette supported by the likes of Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr, New Hampshire Manager John Schneider jokingly referred to travelling with the Fisher Cats to being with a boy band.  Everywhere the team went, they were the centre of a great deal of media attention.  Underneath it all, however, everyone involved was pretty much having a blast, including newcomer Mense.

It was so much fun being around that group as a whole and then being around that group as an offence. It was it was so much fun just because I was a new one to the group. They were all a bunch of guys that had known each other, and had played with each other and that had played with Schneids last year. So I was the one that had the privilege of getting to know all of them especially through the first half. So they welcomed me with open arms and listened, and tried new things, and tried new drills, and tried new ideas and listened to new ideas from somebody that hadn’t been in the organization. So I felt really good about that just in a sense that they took me in and treated me like one of their own. I think it was like that with everybody that came up – if there was a guy that came up for a day a week a month two months whatever it was or came down it was the same sort of deal so I think when you have that and you put all those pieces together and you have some veteran pieces and better parts that are consistent, and know what they want out of a unit, then I think you’re going to have a lot of success.

With a stellar offence to work with –  the Fisher Cats led all of minor league baseball in OPS by 15 points – Mense was careful not to come in and make wholesale changes right away.  Players like Bichette and Guerrero know their swings so well that there’s little a hitting coach can do in terms of their mechanics.

If you’re a professional baseball and especially at the AA level you’ve got a bunch of guys who – one, they’re older, and they’re more established  – they’ve had success. They wouldn’t be at that level if they didn’t have success, too……  They’re going to be their best teacher, and at that point you think about all the hitting coaches and all the hitting people they’ve had around them up to that point in their lives. And if you’re a hitting guy and you come in and you start trying to tell them they need to do this you need to do this and this isn’t going to work….. You’re going to lose them really fast.

For the first half of the season, Mense was careful to respect those boundaries with his hitters.  He focussed on being available as a resource if he was needed, and spent time with his players in the batting cage and in the dugout, where the conversations were often more about life itself than about hitting.  The rapport that he built with them helped to lend his ideas and presence added credibility as the season progressed:

You start to build up this massive amount of trust, and through that then they start asking questions, and they start wondering different things that they have never thought about. As long as you come with an open and creative mind as a hitting coach, I think you’re going to get a lot more buy-in than a guy who’s just going to come in and just try and tell these guys what they should and shouldn’t be doing because these guys have all got to this point because they’ve had success.

With this approach, Mense feels the best job he did as a coach all year was his work with Guerrero:

(I just took) a step back and just let him do his thing,because I think I truly believe that there are a lot of a lot of coaches…… they just want to get in there and just don’t feel like they’re coaching unless they’re actually doing something mechanical with the player and to me by far the biggest wrong that you can make as a coach is doing that, because if something’s working and it’s really working for them, and you try changing it, you’re not going to get any buy-in from anything that you’re going to do with them.  

 

 

When asked to summarize his philosophy of hitting, Mense puts it down to a basic tenet:  “get a pitch early in the count that you can hit over an outfielder’s head.”  While that seems like a simple statement, it incorporates a number of elements, including being aggressive early in the count, before a pitcher with effective secondary pitches can gain an advantage.  But if you want to hit a ball over an outfielder’s head, Mense feels hitters need to be selective in their aggressiveness:

You’ve got to get the right pitch to do it with. So it’s zoning in on an area that you want to hit in and being steadfast on just dominating that area.

And when a hitter gets his pitch, he needs to get his best swing off:

You can’t hold anything back and you have to really get your A swing off, and then the last part of that is getting it over somebody’s head is not just getting your best swing off and your best swing is a line drive up the middle. Your best swing should  be able to get some air underneath the ball that’s going to make an outfielder turn and run and run back……

In today’s rapidly changing game, hitters need to put loft on the ball, because:

…..if you aren’t hitting balls out of the yard or you aren’t driving balls in gaps and you’re just a singles guy, you’re going to get left behind.

New Hampshire had a board in their locker room that listed all hitters who had hit balls over 100 mph, which really helped them buy into the best-swing/in-the-air mentality.  Perhaps the hitter who bought in the most and benefitted from it significantly as a result was Harold Ramirez.  Back in AA for a third season, Ramirez hit the ball as hard as any Fisher Cat, but in 2017 the result was primarily into the ground, leading to a disappointing season for Ramirez.  Some adjustments to his swing this year led to a batting title:

….we worked the whole year on putting his body into a different position to where he’s still hitting balls hard, but they’re just coming off the bat at an angle where it’s going up instead of going down, and then instead of hitting .267, he’s hitting .320 and leading the league in hitting, and he’s got 40+ doubles.

 

 When he does get to Toronto, likely by mid-April, Vladdy Jr will be subjected to a Mount Logan-sized amount of pressure, carrying the expectations of a country  – most of which has only heard or read about him, or maybe has seen him on grainy internet video. Mense thinks he’ll be more than up to the challenge:

The really cool thing about Vladdy is whenever the situation is challenging , whenever the situation is hard,  whenever we’re facing a guy that was really good, he would always like just rise up to a different level….I’ve never been around a guy who has wanted to be challenged and steps up and rises to a challenge more than him.

 Mense tells a story that demonstrates Guerrero’s ability to tackle challenges.  The Fisher Cats took a pitching machine on the road with them, which Mense operated.  During Guerrero’s last series with New Hampshire before his planned promotion, Mense set the machine to throw fastballs.  A few hitters took him up on it, but Vlad was content to watch curiously from the sidelines. The hitters would take turns moving closer to the machine, trying to square up balls, until they were about 15 feet away, at which point they could no longer get around on the pitches:

… there isn’t any one of the three guys who could really do it – they’re struggling, anything they hit was going straight into the ground and they were late on it. And I catch Vladdy out of the corner of my eye – he’s over in the other cage. He’s watching what’s going on and he’s seeing that this is really challenging. I can see the wheels spinning in his head and saying to himself, “OK, this is challenging.”

At that point, Guerrero decided to take a turn:

He goes up there – boom! – Takes a step up -boom! – Takes a step up -boom! – Takes a step up barreling up things and gets to about 15 feet where (the other hitters) were. Takes a couple swings doesn’t barrel it up, kind of goes straight to the ground, and he takes a step out. Two more to the back of the net. Take a step out leaves the cage. Kinda like this look on his face like yeah OK what’s next. That was it. It was like he was so intrigued and so interested in what these guys were doing because it was a challenge. He saw that it was hard for what they were doing. And that’s and that’s how he is he will take on challenges that nobody else will take on.

 Like all great players, Mense says Vladdy Jr makes everyone else around him a better player:

He’s one of those kids he makes everybody around him better when he comes in these are all such clichés that you hear about all the time, but it’s so true with him. When he comes into the clubhouse, he brings an energy to him, and when he comes in the dugout he’s got an energy to him. He’s got this aura around him, and he just makes everybody else better.

 

 Of all the players he worked with in New Hampshire, Mense is the proudest of what he and Bichette accomplished.  But it wasn’t easy.  After leading all of MiLB with a .384 average in his first year of full season ball in 2017, Bichette had his struggles against the advanced competition in AA.  Bichette’s troubles stemmed largely from being over-aggressive and expanding his strike zone, and word quickly got around the Eastern League, with Bichette seeing fewer and fewer pitches in the strike zone, and his average bottoming out at .237 in late May.  For some hitters, that might necessitate major tinkering with their swing mechanics, but Mense was prepared to stay the course with Bichette, and pointed out to him at mid-season the source of his troubles:

We were in Portland – this was right before he went to the Futures Game, and we sat down and I showed him some numbers and it was all just numbers based on his chase percentage and the percentage of pitches he was swinging that were outside of Zone, and how compared to guys in the big leagues when they were at the AA level. It was really good for him to see that, because he saw even guys chasing a lot in the big leagues when they were in AA, they weren’t chasing that much.

 To reinforce this mindset, Manager Schneider would deliberately throw pitches out of the strike zone to Bichette during batting practice, forcing him to corral his aggressiveness and improve his selectivity skills.  Once Bichette decided to focus on pitches he could barrel, his average climbed:

And that was the thing – he kind of came to the conclusion of instead of trying to cover the entire strike zone, he just had to shrink what he was trying to swing at, and get it earlier in the count. He just had to shrink that down a little bit and once he did it – once he realized that’s what he needed to do, man it was……… I mean he took off,  because the path that he has as a hitter that he takes to the baseball is an elite path.

 Bichette takes great pride in his hitting, and when he wasn’t putting the barrel on the pitches he was chasing, he knew he had to make a change in his approach:

His (struggles) had nothing to do with (lack of pitch recognition). He has bat speed, and an ability to not have to guess, and not have to start his swing early, which gives him an opportunity to be better and cover more pitches in the zone if he wants. It was just a change in mindset and in the end, he takes such pride in being aggressive….. But he also takes pride in getting a lot of hits too. And I think he realized that he had to adjust. Once he started to get exposed a little bit by pitchers – they felt like they didn’t even have to throw strikes to get him out. Once he realized that he wasn’t getting the hits, he was like, “Okay I gotta make a change because I like getting hits”

In the end, the struggles Bichette faced for the first time in his pro career will likely serve him very well in the future.  Mense thinks in many ways his 2018 season was better than 2017, because of the lessons he learned:

… in 2018 I can tell you and I can assure you was a way better year for him because he had to work through some things that are going to be going to be more sustainable for him for the rest of his career.

Cavan Biggio’s 2017 numbers didn’t stand out, but there were some inklings that big things were likely to come as a result of changes he had made in his mechanics following his rookie 2016 campaign.  In an attempt to swing harder and put more loft on the ball, Biggio’s flyball percentage jumped in 2017, as did his K% rate.  In the large Florida State League ballparks in the humid southern summer air, however, only 11 of those flyballs left the park.  This season, Biggio continued that approach, and made another mechanical adjustment.  Mense says Biggio’s experience coupled with that change allowed him to become one of the most dangerous hitters in the Eastern League, leading the loop in Home Runs, Walks, Slugging, and OPS:

(He’s a) guy that’s a year or more advanced in his career, and  advanced with what it is that he knows he can do damage with. And you couple that with he lowered his hands in the offseason, and felt like he was getting into a better spot where he could consistently get balls in the air. You put all those things together,  I think it is a recipe for doing that and hitting a bunch of home runs. I mean you look at his average exit velo from this year to last year and it went up a couple of miles per hour. So he was consistently hitting balls harder in the air. And I do think that probably has a little bit to do with him lowering his hands, and more so than anything I think it was it was just a conscious effort from him to try to do more damage and not just be a Singles hitter.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr was not with the Fisher Cats for long before his promotion to Buffalo, but he left a lasting impact on his teammates, and was a completely different player from 2017, which could be attributed to injuries, and as Mense points out, some rust:

 I think in talking to everybody and hearing him talk about it, it was just swinging at better pitches. And I think that probably had a little bit to do with the lay off that he had and not playing really competitively (for almost two years)……… So he was very meticulous with how he worked, and he was probably the best worker in the cage with what he wanted to do, and how he went about doing it, and how dead set he was on getting these things in. And that was really cool to see. I mean it was really cool for our guys to see, especially a guy like Vladdy watching him do these things every day, and then seeing the success he was having, then going up to the big leagues. He was putting in the work, and he was working his rear end off every single day that he came into the game, and he had an idea and a plan as to what he wanted to do.

Not every hitter Mense worked with was a success story from start to finish.  Max Pentecost caught a career-high 77 games, but the 2014 1st rounder struggled at the plate for the first four months of the season before making some changes and catching fire in August:

So he made a change, and I think there are a couple of parts to it. He got to a point when we were entering August, he was hitting about .195, and it got to a point where it was like, hey dude, we have to change something, because we can continue on this path, or we can change and hopefully something goes better. But if at the very worst you continue do what you’re doing. I mean what are going we to lose? So he was at a point where he was ready to make some changes, so we kind of let him mess around with it and kind of come up with his own ideas to what he wanted to do slowly, starting start having started incorporating like a little gather a little toe tap gather.

The difference in Pentecost’s hitting as a result of making those adjustments were swift and dramatic.  He started driving balls with regularity, and hit .375 for the month of August, leading the Eastern League in Slugging and OPS, garnering Player of the Month honours.  A small warning light that was flashing on Pentecost’s dashboard, however, was his .381 OBP.  As a result of being aggressive and attacking early in counts, he wasn’t drawing walks (all of 1 for the month).  In the playoffs, when he was probably feeling a bit tired at the end of a long season, Pentecost appeared to be just going up to the plate and hacking at the first pitch near the strike zone that he saw:

Towards the end of the year he kind of started getting worn down a little bit. I think that gather that he started having was a little bit quicker and so he wasn’t seeing pictures out of the guy’s hand as well as he was in that month of August. And so then he’s trying to make up for it by swinging and trying to get his best swing off and he was just trying to swing at everything and trying to do his damage with everything instead of just going back to slowing it down and just getting something in the zone.

Mense thinks that it’s still reasonable to be optimistic about Pentecost’s future due to his makeup and athleticism:

I like when he started doing that little gather – the old toe tap – it literally took him one day and then the next day he implemented it and it was like Home Run here, and Double here, and it was like it changed that fast. So he has the ability to make adjustments and change really fast. He did it from the Catching side of it too……. He’s he’s such a good athlete and has such good feel that he was able to make those changes.

 

Mense’s season started in Florida in Spring Training.  After five-plus months with New Hampshire, it was back to Florida for Instructs, and then off to the Dominican to work with hitters at the team’s complex there.  Among the hitters at this last two stops who impressed him were:

-2018 1st round pick Jordan Groshans:

I watched a couple of inter squad games, watched him hit a double off the wall in right field, it’s just like he’s got some Bo-ish type of athleticism to him in the box. He’s  a free and easy mover in the box and he’s always had success. And so it’s one of those things to work just let the guy go, and let him have that big leg kick, let him have this big hand pump. And if it continues to work don’t change it and just keep letting him do his thing and refine some things.

-2018 10th rounder Cal Stevenson, who led the Appalachian League in Runs, Walks, and OBP, and always seem to make things happen on the basepaths for Bluefield:

 I really liked watching him here. I really liked being around Cal Stevenson. The kid that was in Bluefield, just talking to him and his approach to his ABs. I mean they were so advanced with what he was trying to do. I mean gosh you look at his numbers with the amount of walks compared to strikeouts, and just the year that he had was unbelievable. 

OF Steward Berroa’s name may only be known to the most hardcore of Blue Jays prospect watchers, but he had a decent year in his first stateside season with the GCL Jas in 2018.

He’s the kind of kid that just epitomizes everything that the organization wants that a player just plays really hard, does everything that you ask, and he’s going to do it 110 percent and run. And he’s starting to learn how to hit a little bit. He’s got a little bit of juice, and he’s a plus Centrefielder, and when you throw all those things together and I think he’s a kid that. I think he’s going to win. I thought this when I first saw him when I  was down here last year, but he’s just like an explosive kid. When you have that quick twitch if you can figure out how to use that quick twitch in the right way you have a chance to be pretty good.

 

Mense’s profile was raised this summer along that of his hitters, and it’s understandable that people ask him what his future goals are.  Although having listened to him for almost an hour, it’s obvious that he’s a player development guy through and through.  He enjoys the process, and doesn’t necessarily have a burning ambition to be an MLB hitting coach as soon as possible:

   I just know that what I see myself doing in five years or whatever it may be,I just know that I really enjoy helping. I really enjoy working with players, and I really enjoy being with players and around players and watching them develop and watching them grow. I just know that I’ll be doing that in some sort of capacity or if I feel like I can do it at a big league level great, if I do like I’m doing at AAA or AA or whatever. If they create a role for me that’s different….. I get the most satisfaction out of that and I feel like  watching guys develop and helping guys make it accomplish and their life long goal.

 

After his time in the Dominican, Mense was off to Madison, NJ.  His fiance is a dietitian with the NFL’s New York Jets, and a guy used to the cold (but not the snow) of a Missouri off-season is now in search of a winter sport to keep him occupied until spring training.  Wherever he lands in the Blue Jays organization next year, their minor league prospects will have a patient and insightful mentor to guide them.

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.

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.