Jordan Romano has come a long way for a guy who started out as a reliever, and whom some feel would be best suited to that role.
The Markham, ON native was drafted in the 10th round of the 2014 draft after serving as Oral Roberts’ closer. He began his career in the Blue Jays system in the bullpen, but after missing 2015 due to Tommy John surgery, he came back to the organization in a starting role.
The Blue Jays have long coveted Romano’s size, downward plane on his pitches, and his fastball-slider combo that just needed another pitch to complement it. After striking out exactly a batter per inning over the last two seasons, the Blue Jays are content to let him continue to refine that third pitch at AA.
Last year with Dunedin, Romano was second in the Florida State League in Ks, as well as FIP. In addition to working on his change-up, Romano has had to learn to pace himself. Manager John Schneider, who had moved up the ladder with him the last two years, told Sportsnet:
“There’s no question he’s got a great arm,” Schneider says. “But I think he’s learning he can back off a little bit, not try to overthrow everything, and really hit his spots and have success. I think he’s learning he can pitch a little bit and not have to be as max effort as he has been in the past.”
But it’s been the need for a pitch to get left-handed hitters out that has been the biggest need for Romano. Lefties have always hit him well, and last year was no exception, as FSL batters hit him at a .351 clip.
Last night in Trenton against he Yankees Eastern League affiliate, Romano had the change-up working for him (“I’ve been working really hard on it,” he said after the game), as he tossed 7 innings of shutout ball. On the evening, he allowed only 3 hits, fanned 7, and didn’t walk a batter. The Blue Jays usually don’t allow their minor league starters to work this deep into a game so early in the season, but Romano was so efficient (only 64 pitches through 6 innings), that he was allowed to continue into the 7th.
One interesting note – Romano allowed only two Homers last year in Florida. He gave up that many in his first start this year. Last night, he did not allow a runner past 2nd. Given his flyball rate in the past, he may give up more longballs this year. If he can continue to keep the walks down, that might not be a big issue.
It’s easy to see Romano as a dominant back-of-the-bullpen guy if he was limited to that fastball/slider mix. Against right-handed hitters, his fastball has some arm side run when he gets the right arm angle, and his slider is a definite swing-and-miss pitch. But as President/CEO Mark Shapiro said in an interview last fall, developing starting pitching is probably a GM’s hardest job. And the change is a feel pitch, one that can take time – several seasons, even – to develop. Besides, when a guy has missed as many bats as Romano has in his minor league career, it’s worth seeing if he can keep getting hitters out at AA.
Romano was exposed to the Rule 5 draft last fall, and went unclaimed. That likely won’t be the case this fall, meaning the team will have to make a decision on his future this year.
I know I tend to go on about how much I’m enjoying the Fisher Cats play this year, but they have a chance to truly be special. Romano said this is the best team he’s ever played for.
And I’m talking about this team beyond Bo and Vlad. Jonathan Davis, for example, is a fantastic prototypical lead off hitter. With Bichette sitting in the on deck circle and Guerrero grabbing a bat in the dugout, opposition pitchers would rather keep Davis off base. But he works the count, fouling off borderline pitches, and giving his teammates a chance to see what the Pitcher has on that night. On base, his speed is a distraction for Pitchers already trying to pitch the bash twins carefully. He’s a perfect table setter for this lineup.
The baseball IQ this team displays is also a joy to watch. In last night’s game, they took advantage of Trenton starter Domingo Acevedo’s slow delivery to home. They take the extra base when an outfielder misses the cutoff man, they see a lot of pitches, and generally just play an unselfish game. In only their second game of the season, with Davis placed on 2nd to start the 11th inning under MiLB’s new extra inning rule, Guerrero laid down a perfect bunt (on his own, apparently), advancing Davis to 3rd. Guerrero knew that because Gurriel had been hitting the ball hard, and could probably score Davis with a sac fly.
Despite a high-powered offence, the Fisher Cats lineup is not full of swing-from-the-heels, ond-dimensional players. Guerrero’s AB in the 4th was perfectly representative of their collective approach. Up 2-0, Guerrero was rightly expecting a fastball. But it was a pitch on the outer half. Rather than try to pull the pitch, Vladdy went with what the Pitcher gave him, and slapped a Double to Right Centre. Trying to pull the ball may have resulted in a ground ball, so Guerrero shortened his swing and made contact.
There are a lot of baseball bloodlines on this team with Bichette, Guerrero, Cavan Biggio (who has been off to a strong start, and could be a valuable multi-positon player one day), as well as Gurriel, whose father likely would have been an MLBer. They have a solid lineup (one of the most dangerous hitters over the second half of the season in the FSL last year, Conor Panas, hits 7th), and a shutdown bullpen.
One last thought: it will take a much larger sample size to determine Guerrero’s ultimate position, but after a week of watching him, it’s obvious that balls that he gets to are usually going to be outs. He displays good hands, and a strong, accurate arm. The question will be how many he’ll get to. That’s still to be determined.
First, a disclaimer: I love Vladimir Guerrero Jr like he’s one of my own sons. In fact, if it were up to me, my wife and I would have another son and call him Vladito (it’s not).
Before I had seen him play a game, the reports I’d read about him led me to label him the Blue Jays top prospect, well before most anointed him with that title.
And while I think he’ll be a generational bat, and will one day join his dad in the first Father-Son Hall of Fame pairing, his line from last night shows why you shouldn’t necessarily rely on minor league stats when evaluating a player. They are usually a good predictor of success, but they need context.
Last night, Guerrero was 3-3, with 6 RBIs, and Twitter was full of his stat line this morning, suggesting a perfect night at the plate. Truth be told, I didn’t think it was one of his best games.
Guerrero’s first AB was a ball hit to the warning track for an out, but it was more than deep enough to score speedy Jonathan Davis from 3rd. Kudos to Guerrero for lofting the ball to score a run, but he hardly scorched it – earlier in that plate appearance, he sent a 114 mph rocket foul down the left field line, leaving me to worry about Fisher Cats Manager John Schneider in the 3rd Base coaching box. Because it was a sacrifice fly, Guerrero was not charged with an AB.
In his second trip to the plate, Vladdy popped a Texas Leaguer just behind 2B. Because the Trenton OF was playing him deep, the SS had to make a twisting catch with his back to home. Davis, on 3rd yet again, alertly tagged and scored on a ball hit maybe 150 ft. No AB charged to Guerrero.
Guerrero’s third At Bat was a groundball to Trenton 3rd Baseman Gosuke Katoh, who was having a bit of a rough night. It was a fairly hard hit ball, but Katoh should’ve had it – an MLB 3rd Baseman certainly would have. Because he didn’t make contact with it, Katoh wasn’t charged with an error, giving Guerrero a hit.
Guerrero’s fourth plate appearance was an intentional walk – no problem there,
Vladdy’s next two ABs were legit – a HR off the batter’s eye against Jose Mesa Jr, who does have a good track record, but has been hit hard so far this season. In the 9th, he doubled down the LF line.
So, for the night, he was 3-3, and drove in 6 runs. Impressive totals, and his first multi-hit game in AA, but in 6 plate appearances, the hardest ball he hit on the night may have been that foul down the 3rd base line. He was fortunate to have Davis on 3rd twice, and a 3rd Baseman who did a matador routine on a ground ball. But in the boxscore, it’s 3-3.
Of course, maybe these things even out over the course of a season. And this is in no way a criticism of Guerrero, and you can just as easily hit the ball hard all four times up in a game and go 0-4. It does show that minor league stats taken out of context can be misleading. You have to be good to be lucky, and sometimes it’s the other way around, like it was to some extent for Guerrero last night. He still did have two no-doubt hits, but change the circumstances of the game, and he’s 2-5, or even 2-6.
One observation about both Guerrero and Bo Bichette: both hunt the fastball early in the count, and they showed a little bit of vulnerability on offspeed pitches in fastball counts.
Of course, this is kind of like saying the Mona Lisa is great, but it’s too bad she didn’t smile a bit more.
Guerrero and Bichette have such excellent pitch recognition and strike zone judgement that they tend to get the benefit of the doubt from minor league umpires when they take a borderline pitch. And unlike average hitters, they rarely expand their strike zones, even when behind in the count. It’s early in the AA season, but both look to be in complete control at the plate.
Jon Harris has come in for more than his fair share of criticism for his performance last year. After a decent 2016, the 2015 first rounder gave up a lot of contact last year, with Eastern League hitters batting .287 against him.
Harris does not have one overwhelming pitch. He relies on a combination of sequencing and command in order to get hitters out. If one of those two components is off, he tends to get hit. If they’re working together, his secondary pitches become much more effective.
Harris got into trouble in last night’s start by falling behind the first three hitters he faced, and ended up in a bases loaded/no out jam in the bottom of the 1st. Harris regrouped, and limited the damage by giving up a sac fly, then got a swinging K and a groundout to escape the inning.
Harris’ command sharpened in the 2nd inning, when he retired the side in order. He got into trouble again the 3rd, giving up back-to-back singles to start the inning, but he kept the ball down, and used ground balls to get out of the inning unscathed.
Harris then set down Trenton in order in the 4th and 5th before reaching his pitch limit.
Harris does not overpower hitters. He pitches to contact, and needs to stay ahead of hitters in order to get them out. When he’s locating and pitching in favourable counts, he’s a much better Pitcher.
Two seasons ago, the Blue Jays employed a veteran minor league Catcher in Ryan Lavarnway in order to work with their young Pitchers, Conner Greene in particular. Lavarnway had known Greene since he was a youngster, and played with his older brother.
This year, Toronto is using journeyman minor league backstop Patrick Cantwell in tandem with Max Pentecost. Cantwell, a 2012 3rd round pick of Texas, has bounced around the minors, reaching AAA in 2015. With Pentecost unable to catch every day, and with young Pitchers like Sean Reid-Foley on the roster (Pentecost caught his first start), Cantwell fills an important role for the Fisher Cats, serving in a Crash Davis-like role. When Harris got into that first inning jam, a visit from Cantwell seem to help re-focus him and helped him turn the frame around.
The abbreviated week that was around the Blue Jays organization:
The Bisons visited cross-state rival Rochester for a scheduled three game series this weekend, all three of which were postponed due to winter’s late rally.
Buffalo travels to Pawtucket to take on the Red Sox affiliate for a trio of games before heading back to Western New York for a 7-game home stand.
The Fisher Cats went into Hartford for a four-game set with the Rockies’ Yard Goat AAA farm team, and walked away with a sweep, leading to the best start in franchise history.
New Hampshire’s vaunted offence pounded out 14 extra base hits over the four games, and their pitching staff posted a sparkling 1.18 ERA. In the opener, five New Hampshire hurlers combined on a 6-hit shutout.
New Hampshire’s offence revolves around phenoms Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Bichette knocked 6 hits in his first 18 AA ABs, and stole a pair of bases. Hartford pitchers wanted little to do with Guerrero, walking him three times and not giving him a whole lot to hit. He hit his first AA Homer on Sunday, and it was a no doubter:
Bichette and Guerrero were actually outshined on the weekend by Lourdes Gurriel Jr and Cavan Biggio. Gurriel went 7-16 on the series, and seemed to hit everything hard. Biggio, alternating between 1B and 2B, went 6-17, and hit his first AA Home Run in the series finale as well.
Righthander Sean Reid-Foley showed good fastball command, as well as an effective change up in throwing six scoreless innings in the Sunday contest. He had a little trouble in the first few innings, falling behind and giving up a pair of walks in the 2nd and one in the 3rd. He hung a pair of breaking balls, but was bailed out by the strong winds blowing in from CF, and a nice reaching grab by LF Harold Ramirez. Reid-Foley found his groove, however, striking out the side in the 4th, and not giving up a hit after the first. He fanned 7 over 6 innings, and the Blue Jays have to be very pleased with his performance.
New Hampshire is off to Trenton for three games with the Yankees’ affiliate this week, before returning home for a three game series with Hartford.
The D-Jays took 3 of 4 from cross-town rival Clearwater, the Phillies’ High A affiliate.
Of Josh Palacios went 8-15 with a pair of steals in the series to lead Dunedin. With the trade of Edward Olivares, Palacios becomes the top OF prospect in the lower levels of the system.
1B Nash Knight went 5-14, and hit a pair of Home Runs.
RHP Nate Pearson was set to make his Florida State League debut in Dunedin’s second game, but back issues had him scratched. He is expected to make his next start.
The D-Jays play four games in Palm Beach this week, followed by a three-game set with St. Lucie.
As is tradition, the Lugnuts begin their Midwest League schedule with a pair of games in Midland, MI against the Dodgers’ Great Lakes affiliate. The Loons return the favour traditionally with a pair of games in Lansing.
The Lugs pounded out 13 hits and 12 runs in the opener, topping Great Lakes 12-1 behind Yennsy Diaz’ masterful 5.2 inning, 10K performance.
The second game of the series was postponed by winter’s return, and Lansing triumphed in their home opener the following day.
Great Lakes took a pair of games on Sunday from Lansing to square the Lugs’ record at .500.
Chavez Young began the season hitting in the 9th spot, but batted leadoff in both ends of the double header, going 4-11 for the series. Kacy Clemens sported the same 4-11 line, but with 6 walks on top of that.
Lansing heads to Fort Wayne for three games beginning Monday, before returning home to face West Michigan. Lansing GM Tyler Parsons said Friday that he hopes the team will have their video feed ready for milb.tv for the West Michigan series.
There were some ups and downs last year, but the Blue Jays farm system continues to be one on the rise.
The amateur scouting department has added some top-flight talent in the past several drafts, the international scouts continue to come up with top prospects, and the high performance staff is expanding its reach throughout the system. Director of Player Development Gil Kim has added some top-notch minor league staff, many of whom have extensive coaching and teaching backgrounds.
President/CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins have a well-known preference for scouting, drafting, and development. With new Amateur Scouting Director Steve Sanders added to the mix, the Blue Jays have quickly re-stocked their system by adding college players with proven track records on day one of the MLB draft, and those whose draft stock fell, as well as toolsy-but-raw high schoolers on the following two days.
That approach has landed them likely future MLBers like T.J. Zeuch and Bo Bichette in 2016, as well as Nate Pearson, Logan Warmoth, and Riley Adams last year. In addition, promising players like Josh Palacios, Kevin Smith, Ryan Noda, and Chavez Young (who has reached full season ball this year after being selected in the 39th round in 2016) have been added.
International Free Agents
Shapiro and Atkins were indeed fortunate to have inherited Vladimir Guerrero Jr, whose $3.9 million signing bonus may become one of the greatest bargains in baseball history since the Red Sox all but donated Babe Ruth to the Yankees.
The team was limited in the bonuses it could offer in 2016 in the wake of going over their limit after signing Guerrero, but they picked up where they left off last July 2nd, signing the top-ranked IFA Pitcher (Eric Pardinho), and the top-ranked bat (Miguel Hiraldo), landing 5 of the top 40 ranked prospects in all. And they’re linked to Dominican SS Orelvis Martinez, who is expected to be one of the highest-paid IFAs this year.
The High Performance Department
He has not said so publicly, but having the resources to put together this group must have been a huge factor in persuading Shapiro to move to Toronto.
Long a staple in Olympic and European club sports, the HP group oversees every aspect of the team’s player’s nutrition, conditioning, and sleep. They have added diet specialists to each minor league affiliate, and are very involved in evaluating draft candidates. Concepts such as mindfulness have been introduced to prospects, as well as the importance of recovery. Other clubs may be getting on board, but the Blue Jays are still very much at the forefront of this development, and may have the best-staffed department in the game.
The impact of the HP department won’t be seen overnight, but if the success in other sports are any example (Britain went from one gold at the 1996 Olympics to 2nd overall in the standings in 20 years thanks largely to a sport science-based approach to training and development), the Blue Jays may have a competitive advantage in this area, which should manifest in better developed prospects by 2020.
Today’s players don’t necessarily respond well to yesterday’s coaching. As veteran minor leaguer Maxx Tissenbaum said in an interview with us earlier this year:
….it’s no longer good enough as an instructor to go in there and teach stuff and scream and yell. You really have to be a manager of people, especially with the younger guys. You can’t connect with 17-18-and 19 year olds if you’re constantly raining down, “This is what you have to do.”
With that in mind, the Blue Jays revamped their minor league staff last spring, bringing on board a number of coaches with extensive coaching and teaching experience, particularly at the college level. Director of Minor League Operations Gil Kim has also indicated that the club has built its staff with the diversity of its players in mind:
We aim to provide these players with the best resources possible, and that very much includes the people that these players will work with and learn with. We’re a diverse and multi-cultural game. We have players in this organization from different backgrounds and from all over the world, so it’s an advantage to also build a diverse and multi-cultural staff as well.
Baseball America ranks the Blue Jays farm system 7th in the game, while MLB Pipeline has it 9th. ESPN’s Keith Law is not as high on the organization, however, ranking the Blue Jays 17th. In Law’s view, Guerrero and Bichette (who Law says, “plays as if his hair is one fire,”) skew the rankings, and cover up concerns like Anthony Alford’s injury history, and the struggles of the AA rotation last year – his suggestion is that once you get past the top guys, things get a little thin.
The struggling Fisher Cats starters
Sean Reid-Foley, Conner Greene, and Jon Harris all entered 2017 with high rankings. SRF and Harris gave up a fair amount of hard contact, while Greene failed to miss many bats for a guy with his heat. Entering this season, Reid-Foley and Harris are repeating AA, while Greene was shipped to the Cardinals in the Randall Grichuk trade.
Zeuch missed much of 2017 with injury issues, but did redeem himself with a fine Arizona Fall League showing. He will repeat Dunedin this year, at least until the northeastern weather warms up.
As a result, Pearson has become the top Pitching prospect in the organization – in fairness, he probably would be the top one in most other systems, but his ascent after a rather limited pro debut (20 IP) does point to the struggles of the other arms.
The Blue Jays have quietly been at the forefront in implementing technology to help protect the arms of their young pitchers. After 5 Blue Jays prospects underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 (not counting 1st rounder Jeff Hoffman, who had it before he was drafted), the team has had relative success in that area, with only three Pitchers requiring it since them.
2018 has not been as kind. Eliesier Medrano fanned 26 in 23 innings for the GCL Jays last season, before being shut down at the end of July. He had Tommy John in the off-season. Southpaw Grayson Huffman had elbow issues all spring training, and was saying as April approached that he was headed for the operating room. And as spring training closed, word came out that Canadian Tom Robson, who had a successful season after being converted to a relief role at New Hampshire, has torn his UCL again, and will need a second Tommy John.
Justin Maese became a Pitching prospect on the rise after a standout 2016 season, but struggled with his command at Lansing last year, and spent time on the DL. Shortly afer spring training began, he had surgery to correct a shoulder impingement, and is likely done for the year.
7 prospects connected with the Blue Jays Dominican complex tested positive for PEDs in 2017. In March, we learned that LHP Thomas Pannone, acquired in the Joe Smith deal with Cleveland, had a positive test as well. Say what you will about the judgement (or lack thereof) of their players, this does not reflect well on the Blue Jays as an organization. The players may have taken the substances, whether they were aware of what was in them or not, but it’s up to the team to provide the education to make informed choices.
In Guerrero and Bichette, the Blue Jays have two of the top 10 prospects in the game. Toss in Alford and Pearson, and you have 4 of the top 100. Danny Jansen, Richie Urena, and Ryan Borucki all appear to be destined to join the team at some point this season. Warmoth and Pearson are on the way, with Pardinho behind them, and a decent draft pick (12th overall) awaiting the team this June.
“We’ve made progress, but we need to have waves of talent. Not just good talent, but impact talent. We need to not just talk about [Vladimir Guerrero Jr.] and Bo Bichette, but we need to be able to reel off [several] names. [It’s] a really risky proposition [to] pin your hopes on two guys.”
The Blue Jays have pursued a different drafting and development philosophy than they did under former GM Alex Anthopoulos, but for those who are critical of AA, keep in mind that Guerrero, Alford, Borucki, Jansen, and Urena were all signed during his tenure. With those players are on the brink of MLB jobs, and a growing supply of players behind them, strong minor league instructors, and a staff of sport scientists devoted to their training and development, the Blue Jays are poised to reap the benefits of a strong farm system.
Much of the Florida State League co-champion Dunedin Blue Jays roster moves up to New Hampshire, giving fans potentially one of their most competitive clubs in several seasons.
The inclusion of Lourdes Gurriel Jr on the roster was something of a surprise, as he seemed ticketed for AAA after spending half a season with New Hampshire last year. His play this spring had been described as lackluster, but whatever the case is, Gurriel still needs plenty of reps, after missing a good chunk of last year and all of the two season prior to that.
New Hampshire should have decent starting pitching, led by (in no particular order) Jordan Romano, Nick Tepesch, Sean Reid-Foley, Francisco Rios, and Jon Harris. The latter three are repeating AA, and there were hopes that SRF might reach AAA, but a disappointing spring has him headed back to New Hampshire. There likely was no room for him in Buffalo’s rotation anyway, and after reaching AA at 21 last year, there’s still room for development. Andrew Case, Dusty Isaacs, and Danny Young should form the core of an effective back-end of the bullpen, along with Zach Jackson, who was promoted from Dunedin. Veteran reliever Craig Breslow signed a minor league deal with the Jays and had an opt out on March 22nd, but decided to stick with the organization.
Max Pentecost slipped through the Rule 5 draft last fall after being shut down late in the Arizona Fall League. Veteran MiLB Patrick Cantwell joined the organization late last year, and appears to be splitting the Catching duties with Pentecost. To be honest, it’s surprising there isn’t a 3rd Catcher on the roster, as Pentecost’s duties behind the plate have been limited.
The infield appears to be Guerrero at 3rd, Bichette at SS, Gurriel at 2nd (spelling Bichette on occasion), and Juan Kelly at 1st. Cavan Biggio has played 2nd since being drafted two years ago, but was working out at 1st this spring. Gunnar Heidt can play several infield positions.
The New Hampshire OF has returning CF Jonathan Davis, who had strong Arizona Fall League and Spring Training campaigns, anchoring it. He’ll be joined by returnees Harold Ramirez, who did not hit as well has had been hoped last year, and the multi-talented Andrew Guillotte. Connor Panas, along with Romano, represents the Canadian content on the roster. Panas has mostly played 1st or DH’d since joining the Blue Jays in 2015, but he can play the corner OF spots.
Ladner, BC native Tom Robson starts the year on New Hampshire’s Disabled List. Robson, who was converted to full-time relief last year after returning from Tommy John surgery in 2016, appears to be headed for surgery again. Another Canadian, Lefty Shane Dawson, was a member of the Fisher Cats’ rotation the past two years, but was released this past week.
John Schneider moves up from Dunedin to helm the Fisher Cats. Schneider played for 7 years in the system after being drafted by the Blue Jays in 2002, and is entering his 10th season as a Manager. Huner Mense joins him as Hitting Coach. Mense played in the Padres system for five seasons before returning to school and receiving his Masters in Sports Psychology. He served as the hitting coach for the Padres Northwest League affiliate before joining the Blue Jays this off-season. Nova Scotian Vince Horsman returns as Pitching Coach. Horsman originally signed with the Jays in 1984, and has been a coach in the organization since 2009. Andy Fermin, who turned to coaching last year after 7 years as a player in the system, returns as Position Coach.
TSN’s Scott Mitchell suggests that top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette will face challenges at AA this year, after President/CEO Mark Shapiro confirmed the pair will begin their 2018 season there.
The rise of the bash twins is quite remarkable. Both are entering only their third year of pro ball, but are on the cusp of major league stardom. Guerrero, the top-ranked international free agent bat in 2015, acquitted himself well in rookie ball the following year, then burst out in 2017, along with 2016 2nd rounder Bichette, who followed the same meteoric rise.
Both had spent only a half season at High A after mashing their way from Lansing last year, and there was some thought that they might begin the season back with the Florida State League’s Dunedin Blue Jays for at least another half before moving up. The Blue Jays have proven to be conservative in the advancement of their prospects, having them spend a full year (whether it be over one or two calendar years) at each full-season level. In reality, both have little left to prove at High A, and their ascension to AA makes considerable sense.
TSN’s Scott Mitchell suggests AA will be a challenge for the duo because:
That’s where the Pitching becomes more advanced….a lot of top prospects come straight up to the majors from AA.
Mitchell may be simplifying things a bit. The jump from A ball to AA has been described as the biggest transition in the minors. Minor league baseball is like a giant colander, and players who get by on the basis of their physical talents alone tend not to pass through it to the higher levels. In AA, players tend to have a plan – for Pitchers, it’s in the form of advanced secondary pitches, for example, or for hitters, it’s the ability to have make adjustments with their approach. Below AA, rosters tend to have a lot of “org players” – roster fillers with 86 mph fastballs, or good field/no hit position players. AA is where weaknesses are exposed – Pitchers with inconsistent command, and hitters with holes in their swing. All teams have two affiliates in A ball, but only one at AA – rosters at that level have been culled considerably, and players who do well there have a shot at MLB.
Why will Bichette and Guerrero be successful at that level? 3 reasons
Both have approaches that should allow them to continue to hit; Bichette uses the whole field and cuts his swing down with two strikes, while Guerrero doesn’t just control the strike zone as much as he manages it, choosing pitches to barrel almost at will.
The “windshield” effect: Ross Atkins spoke about this in the off-season, when discussing how blood lines are something the Blue Jays consider when scouting an amateur player. Because both players grew up in an MLB environment, they don’t tend to get intimidated as easily as other players do. Judging by their performance this spring training, not much fazes either of them.
Their record vs top prospects: Bichette has hit .345/.382/.558 vs Top 20 Pitching prospects from other organizations, Guerrero .279/.388/.471. Both have had over 100 PAs against elite competition, and their numbers suggest future success.
This is not necessarily to say that Bichette and Guerrero will post numbers similar to what they did at Lansing and Dunedin this year, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they will continue to square up pitches on a consistent basis. And if they go through a bit of adversity, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because almost every MLBer has gone through it in their minor league career at some point. Learning to deal with it is part of a player’s development.
Both players may still have some work to do defensively, but it’s looking more and more that one or both will be in the majors almost before we know it.
Thanks to the excellent resources that are available (beyond this one, of course), many Blue Jays fans are now keeping closer tabs on the team’s minor league players.
For someone who loves the minors just as much as the majors, that’s great.
There are many ways to keep track of your favourite minor league prospects. At milb.com, minor league baseball’s website, you can check out box scores as games progress (something Mark Shapiro admits he does), or listen to live play-by-play. Most of Buffalo and New Hampshire’s games are streamed live (subscription required), and word from Lansing’s GM is that select Lugnuts home games will be streamed as well. Of course, depending on where you are, you can make the drive to Lansing or Buffalo to catch games lives. I would heartily recommend a week in Vancouver to see the sights and catch a few C’s games – there’s a Sky Train station (Vancouver’s version of the TTC) a fifteen minute walk away from Nat Bailey Stadium.
There are no guarantees, but here’s where the Top 30 Blue Jays prospects (according to MLB.com) will likely begin the season:
1. Vladimir Guerrero Jr
2. Bo Bichette
Typically, the Blue Jays prefer to have their players spend a full season at one level. Whether that happens over one season or two halves depends on the player, but that’s the usual trend.
Having said that, the pair of sluggers, who each spent half a season at Low A Lansing, and the other half at High A Dunedin, have little left to prove in A ball. There are still wrinkles in their respective games to work out on the defensive side of the ball, but it would be highly unlikely you will see them in April anywhere other than the Eastern League.
Is it possible we see one or both in the majors by the end of the season? Shapiro himself said last fall that if Vladdy continued to hit, and if the team was in need of a bat in the midst of a pennant race this summer, we could see him in Toronto, but that seems a tall (but not necessarily impossible) order.
Both players should spend the bulk of the season in New Hampshire, with late-season promotions to Buffalo a possibility. Much will depend on playoff races – while minor league playoffs don’t mean a lot in the long run, teams do like to have their top players in that kind of environment for the experience.
3. Anthony Alford
At the moment, Alford is putting forth a serious effort to head north with the Blue Jays when training camp breaks.
Failing that, he will make the trip down the QEW to Buffalo. When an opening comes up in Toronto, Alford will be gone. He’s that close to being MLB-ready.
4. Nate Pearson
The 2nd of the Blue Jays two first round picks last June toyed with Northwest League hitters last summer. His pitches and innings were limited, but he didn’t allow a runner past 2nd until his last start of the regular season, and fanned 10 in a crucial playoff start. With a fastball that sits 95-97 and can top 100, Pearson is likely headed to Dunedin to start the season. 2016 1st rounder T.J. Zeuch followed that skip-Lansing path last year.
The Florida State League, unfortunately, is a bit of a black hole as far as streaming video is concerned. The Pirates Bradenton affiliate had their home games online last year, giving us a couple of games’ worth of Blue Jays prospects.
5. Logan Warmoth
With Kevin Smith behind him and in need of playing every day, Warmoth likely will skip Lansing in favour of Dunedin as well. And that’s a shame for those of us who caught a few of his games last year.
Warmoth does not have one overwhelming tool, but he has to be seen to be appreciated. He does a lot of things very well, and his bat looks legit. He squared up a lot of pitches in Vancouver last summer.
6. Danny Jansen
Perhaps no Blue Jays prospect improved their status in 2017 as much as the Wisconsin native. New eyewear helped Jansen pick up the spin on pitches better, and he hit his way from Dunedin to New Hampshire to Buffalo by season’s end.
Jansen has an outside shot at backing up Russ Martin, particularly if the Blue Jays plan on cutting back on Martin’s workload. Still, he probably could benefit by playing every day – injuries have limited his development somewhat. Prior to last year, Jansen’s highest total of games caught in a season was 57.
By the way, credit has to go to the Blue Jays scouting director Blake Parker and GM Alex Anthopoulos for drafting Jansen in 2013. The Blue Jays of that era made a practice of looking for players in non-traditional markets, or players whose stock had fallen due to injury or college commitments. Jansen was a potential top-three rounds pick in his senior season of high school, but a broken wrist, coupled with the short Wisconsin prep season, kept most teams from getting a good look at him. One team – Toronto – prevailed, and five years later, they have a player on the cusp of the bigs.
7. Eric Pardinho
Those hoping to see last year’s top-ranked international free agent Pitcher will have to buy a plane ticket to Florida to watch the 16-year-old Brazilian sensation in the outdoor sauna that is the Gulf Coast League (luckily, the games are free).
Pardinho faces an adjustment to the competition and culture that is stateside play, and Blue Jays Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish (who oversees international ops for the team) suggested that Pardinho will spend the summer in Dunedin.
8. Ryan Borucki
Two years ago next month, Borucki was getting hit hard and often in the Florida State League. A demotion to Lansing and some mechanical adjustments helped to turn him into a guy who should make his MLB debut sometime this year.
The owner of the best change-up this side of Marco Estrada, Borucki will start the season in Buffalo. His ascent to the bigs will be dictated by the health and consistency of the big league rotation. Borucki ranks high for his pitchability and grit; it may take some time for him to stick, but he should be a solid mid-rotation Pitcher for some time.
9. T.J. Zeuch
After a 2017 season with Dunedin that was interrupted by injury, Zeuch restored his growing reputation with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League, getting the start in the Championship game.
If there are any lingering injury concerns, Zeuch might stay in Dunedin until May, but he should be joining New Hampshire early in the season.
10. Sean Reid-Foley
The numbers don’t show it, but SRF pitched well at AA for the last half of the season. He’s been roughed up a bit by catching too much of the strike zone in a couple of spring training appearances for the Blue Jays so far.
Reid-Foley may repeat New Hampshire to start the season, depending on rotation space in Buffalo, but he should reach AAA this season.
11. Richie Urena
Urena acquitted himself well in 20 games with the big team in September. With the acquisition of Aledmys Diaz, Urena will begin the season in Buffalo.
12. Miguel Hiraldo
One of the top bats in last year’s IFA class, Tinnish indicated that Hiraldo will most likely be in the lineup of the GCL Jays when their season opens in June.
13. Samad Taylor
Taylor, along with LHP Thomas Pannone, was acquired from Cleveland in the Joe Smith deal. Taylor fit in nicely with the Northwest League champs Vancouver Canadians after 2B Cullen Large broke his hand trying to break up a double play.
With Large healthy, Taylor may bypass Lansing and head to Dunedin this year.
14. Reese McGuire
A knee injury cost McGuire much of his 2017 campaign, but he is still viewed as a skilled receiver, and his bat showed signs of promise.
With Jansen likely ahead of him on the depth charts, McGuire may return to New Hampshire. With his defensive skill set, he also could be considered to have an outside shot as Martin’s back up.
15. Rowdy Tellez
2017 was a bit of a lost year for Tellez. He entered the season as a candidate to make his MLB debut if Justin Smoak struggled.
He hit a pair of Homers for Buffalo, then hit only 4 the rest of the year. Tellez had some off-field issues, including his Mom’s battle with cancer (he left camp this week to be with her).
Tellez scuffled all season long at the plate. Tellez usually works the count and sees a lot of pitches, but he rarely looked comfortable last year, and did not have the volume of quality ABs he usually has.
Tellez will return to Buffalo this year.
16. Riley Adams
One of the best athletes in an organization stocked with them, Adams was the leader of the title-winning Vancouver squad after being selected in the 3rd round of the 2017 draft.
A bat-first player, Adams won some raves for his pitch calling and handling of Pitchers. He does have a plus arm and good pop time, but his framing and blocking skills still need developing.
Adams will head to Lansing to begin 2018.
17. Carlos Ramirez
The converted OF was lights out in relief at two levels before making his MLB debut last September. Ramirez was not scored upon until his 8th appearance, putting him solidly in the mix for a bullpen job this spring.
If Ramirez doesn’t earn a spot on the 25-man, he’ll head to Buffalo. Ramirez will no doubt become familiar with landmarks like the Burlington Skyway Bridge, and that rusting old ship near St Catharines this summer as he makes the trip up the QEW multiple times.
18. Ryan Noda
Noda’s draft stock dipped after a mediocre college season last year, but he tore a swath through Appalachian League pitching in 2017, leading the league in Average, OBP, and Slugging.
Noda was sent to the Appy because of the presence of Kacy Clemens, taken several rounds ahead of him. The pair should share time at 1B and DH at Lansing this year – Noda can play the corner OF spots as well.
19. Kevin Smith
Like Noda, Smith was sent to Bluefield last summer because Warmoth was ahead of him.
Smith has excellent defensive skills, and his bat proved adequate last year. Like most players in his position, Smith needs to play every day, and will do so at Lansing this year.
20. Hagen Danner
Danner was a storied prep player as both a Catcher and a Pitcher, and was the Blue Jays 2nd round pick in June.
The Blue Jays had him focus on Catching last year, and he struggled at the bat in the GCL as he adjusted to pro pitching.
Danner’s is an interesting situation. His development would be accelerated by playing every day, but it’s uncertain as to whether he’s ready for that role. As a result, he could open the season in Lansing come April, or stay in Florida for Extended Spring Training, and head to Vancouver once their season opens in June. The latter option seems the most likely.
21. McGregory Contreras
A $10K IFA in 2015, Contreras has defied the odds by reaching the Appy League, where he was ranked the 19th best prospect by Baseball America.
Contreras has what one Appy Manager called, “sneaky power,” which has yet to translate into game action, but his BP sessions suggest future pop.
A toolsy OF who has some pitch recognition issues, Contreras probably showed enough last year to skip Vancouver in favour of Lansing this year.
22. Leonardo Jimenez
Assistant GM Tinnish heaped praise on the Panamanian in a conversation last fall:
A really, really great kid…(He’s) bilingual, great make up, ultra young in the class – a late May birthday – he really has lead-off or #2 hole potential….if you asked me right now who has a chance to play SS in our system, Leo would be at the top of that list. The way the body moves, the way the arm works, the instincts, he’s a really good, future upside defender.
Jimenez likely starts in the GCL, but could move quickly.
23. Kevin Vicuna
A prized 2014 IFA, the skinny (6’/140) Vicuna might have to run around in the shower in order to get wet, but he put up decent numbers at Vancouver last year, earning a late season promotion to Lansing.
It may be hard to find playing time for Vicuna, but he’s a useful middle infielder. A return to Lansing is likely.
24. Maximo Castillo
Castillo more than held his own as an 18-year-old in under the lights play in the Appy League last year.
He has a three-pitch mix that fits a starter’s profile, but fastball command has been an issue. Castillo may be held back in Extended, but probably reaches Lansing by May.
25. Justin Maese, RHP
Shoulder issues caused Maese’s prospect stock to slip after a breakout 2016. If he’s healthy, there’s no reason why he can’t pitch his way back into the prospect picture.
Maese’s calling card is a fastball with heavy sink that tends to produce a lot of groundball outs. Despite his off-year in 2017, he’s still very much in the Blue Jays long-range plans.
Dunedin will likely be his destination once spring training ends.
26. Thomas Pannone, LHP
Acquired in the Smith deal from Cleveland, Pannone does not overpower, but the dude just knows how to pitch. He commands all three of his pitches, and has some deception to his delivery.
He impressed in New Hampshire last year, and will head to Buffalo to start this year. Like Borucki, he may make his MLB debut at some point this season.
27. Jordan Romano, RHP
A personal favourite, I’ve followed Romano and kept in touch with him since his return from Tommy John surgery in 2015.
The GTA native has struck out exactly a batter per inning since making his return in May of 2016. He has a fastball/slider combo that’s capable of missing bats, and he can be very tough on right-handed hitters. The missing piece has been said to be his change-up. If he can develop it, his future as a starter may be secured. If not, Romano could become an effective bullpen arm.
Romano will be in a starter’s role in New Hampshire this year.
28. Jonathan Davis OF
Davis is a versatile, get on base speedster who can play all three OF positions.
He’ll begin the season in Buffalo. With the depth of prospects in the system, he may have trouble getting playing time at the major league level, but he could fill an important role as a versatile fourth Outfielder for some team.
29. Max Pentecost, C/1B/DH
The 2014 1st rounder has had a lengthy injury history, but has shown MLB-level tools when he’s been in the lineup.
Shoulder concerns kept him from being placed on the 40-man last fall, and it was a mild surprise that no team took a flyer on him in the Rule 5.
Pentecost’s development has been impacted by the time he’s missed, but a stretch of good health could see him in Toronto before we know it. He should begin 2018 in New Hampshire, splitting time between three spots in the lineup.
30. Jon Harris, RHP
Harris’ stock tumbled last year when Eastern League hitters squared him up as he caught too much of the strike zone on a regular basis.
The 2015 1st rounder may not have one go-to pitch, but Harris commands all four of his pitches, gets a good downward plane on his fastball, and has proven his durability (76 starts over the past 3 seasons).
Like Reid-Foley, the depth of starters at the top of the system may see Harris repeat New Hampshire to start the season.
What are we to make of this? Is the Blue Jays farm system even deeper than we thought? Pearson “gifted”? Alford “up there” with Guerrero and Bichette? Is Atkins giving Blue Jays fans the straight goods, or is he inflating the value of his top prospects, just in case a deal comes along?
The truth is somewhere between those two extremes.
Let’s get one fact straight first: it’s been a long time (ok, never) since the Blue Jays have had two top prospects of the calibre of Vladdy Jr and Bo. Both profile as potential impact, first-division, all-star players. We may not know where they’ll ultimately play, but they are legitimate elite offensive prospects.
Pearson has come a long way in just a little over a year. Not viewed as a prospect out of high school or even after a mostly nondescript first year of college, a vastly upgraded training program helped him hit 100 in bullpen sessions in the fall of 2016, and the scouting world took notice. Northwest League hitters were pretty much at his mercy after the Blue Jays selected him – it was a nice change to see a college draftee dominate at that level, because such has not been the case in recent years. Hitters must be very intimidated just digging in against the mountainous Pearson – I felt uncomfortable just sitting over home plate in Vancouver’s press box watching him.
And while it’s very exciting to dream of Pearson’s high 90s heat at the front of the Blue Jays rotation one day, he has yet to play a year of full season ball, and we should be tempering out expectations just a bit. There are secondary pitches to develop, as well as adjustments Pearson will have to make as he experiences the ups and downs of taking a regular turn in the rotation for five months. Is Pearson “gifted”? Is he “elite”? Potentially, yes. Atkins suggested that he would have gone much higher in the draft had teams known they were going to get that kind of performer, and while that’s true, much of his success this year can be attributed at least in part of the careful monitoring of his workload that the Blue Jays – 74 pitches was his highest game total for the season. There’s every reason to believe that Pearson can fulfill Atkins’ prophecy, but there’s also likely a long way to go before he does.
How about Alford? Does he compare to Vladdy and Bo? At first glance, no, but that’s not a slight. Alford’s game is different from the Slugging Twins’. He works the count and manages the strike zone, but there is a bit more of a swing-and-miss element to Alford’s approach. Alford gets on base less often, but his speed can be game-changing, which certainly separates him from Guerrero and Bichette (who are both smart base runners in their own right, but not in Alford’s lane when it comes to foot speed). In terms of power, there is no comparison, either. Home Run and/or Extra Base power is often the last tool in a player’s kit to develop, but some reports suggest a lack of loft in Alford’s swing will keep him from consistently reaching double-digit Homer totals. Alford does use the whole field, but his heat map from 2017 doesn’t suggest a prodigious slugger in the making:
Defensively, there is little to compare Guerrero/Bichette to Alford either. Alford has the makings of a premier defender. Scouts have downgraded his arm, but he gets excellent jumps and reads on balls, and his speed allows him to close quickly. It’s easy to see him cutting off Doubles to the gap in the Rogers Centre on a regular basis.
Is Alford the potential impact player the other two could possibly one day be? Yes, but perhaps it’s a question of magnitude. Guerrero receives grades for his power that you just don’t see on an 18-year-old, and Bichette has the smarts and skills to be a perennial batting title contender. Alford also has an injury history that could limit his future – his past two seasons have been interrupted for extended periods by injury. Still, you do get the sense that Alford, who really has only been playing the game full-time for a short period of time, is still on an upward curve in terms of his development, and that maybe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg just yet.
One thing is likely: Bichette and Guerrero may anchor the middle of the Blue Jays order for the 2020s. Alford may be a fixture at the top of it.
So, Atkins, who is probably justifiably proud of the strides the team’s farm system has made over the past two seasons, was maybe over-inflating things, but not by a lot. Pearson does ooze with ace potential, and Alford may in fact be an impact player one day. Neither is a lock in the mold that Guerrero and Bichette appear to be, but there is plenty to look forward to one day.
We’re buying that Jansen’s 2017, which included more walks than strikeouts across three levels of the minors, is a sign of real improvement, perhaps due to the new prescription frames he got before the season.
Earlier this month, Baseball America released what is regarded by many as the standard-bearer of prospect lists. Guerrero was ranked 3rd, Bichette 8th, Alford 60th, and Pearson came in at 91. MLB Pipeline had Guerrero 3rd as well, with Bichette 14th, and Alford 47th.
By this time next year, it’s a safe bet that Bichette and Guerrero will occupy even loftier positions. Alford will most likely graduate from the list, and Pearson will no doubt continue his ascent. Who are the Blue Jays prospects most likely to break through can crack the Top 100, representing the next wave of talent in the system?
For your consideration, here are a pair of players – kind of a high/low scenario:
It seems folly to get so excited about a 17-year-old (Pardinho’s birthday was shortly after New Year’s Day), and it may take a year or so before he cracks any Top 100 lists, but there is no doubt that the young Brazilian is headed there.
“A combination of athleticism, great delivery, advanced stuff and feel for pitching,” is how Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish described Pardinho in November. “I’ve never seen a 16 year old kid with that combination of skills.”
Pardinho hit 94 as a 15 year old in a WBC Qualifier a year and a half ago, and according to Tinnish hit 97 in short outings in the Dominican prospects league this summer. But it’s just not that fastball – it’s his mechanics, the ability to command that fastball, and complement it with secondaries and pitchability.
There is every reason to believe that Pardinho will begin his career stateside this summer, most likely starting in the GCL. And while one should always be cautious with young International Free Agents, the Blue Jays have had a good track record with them – namely Franklin Barreto, Richie Urena, Roberto Osuna, and some guy named Vladdy Jr.
While Pardinho may not make any Top 100 lists until 2020, there’s a good chance Warmoth may work his way into the back end of some a year from now.
You might walk away from watching one game’s worth of the 2017 1st rounder’s work and wonder what the fuss is. Taking in a larger sample might change your mind. According to Amateur Scouting Director Steve Sanders, the Blue Jays clearly got their man:
He’s a player we’ve scouted for a long time….he wasn’t a prospect out of High School, but he steadily improved at North Carolina, and that really showed this year. He’s very steady and a well-rounded player, with a chance to stay at SS and hit for power. His make up is off the charts, and he has the intangibles to be a top of the lineup hitter.
Warmoth does not have one overwhelming tool – BA called him a “bucket full of 50-grade tools,” in naming him the Blue Jays 8th overall prospect this fall, but he makes consistently hard contact and has a good approach at the plate. In the field, scouts are split as to whether he sticks at SS or moves across to 2B, but there was plenty of promise in his footwork, arm, and reactions to ground balls to suggest he can stay there.
While none of this may scream Top 100 material, there’s plenty to make one believer that Warmoth will be a productive MLBer one day. He had to fight a tendency to be a little pull happy last year, but otherwise there are no holes in his game. His power will likely continue to develop, and he should make huge strides this year, most likely with Dunedin.
To the surprise of very few, Blue Jays prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr (3), and Bo Bichette (8) have climbed to the Top 10 of Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list.
Braves prospect Ronald Acuna headed up the rankings, while the Angels Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Otani nudged Guerrero to #3. BA staffers admit that it’s been some time since three players have caused such internal debate about who is first overall.
Anthony Alford (60) and Nate Pearson (91) joined Guerrero and Bichette in the Top 100. For Pearson, inclusion in the Top 100 capped off a remarkable year for the 2017 draftee. His fastball garnered a 70 ranking on the 20-80 scouting scale. Jason Parks, now of the Cubs, gave this primer on FB grades for Baseball Prospectus a few years ago:
While Pearson only received slightly below or above average grades for the rest of his repertoire (Curve 45; Slider 55; Change 50; Control 45), that 70 stands out, and buys him time to develop his other pitches. When you consider that Pearson was considered a risky late first round to early second round pick less than a year ago, he’s leapfrogged a considerable number of other prospects. Pearson feels quite justified in going the JuCo route:
Everyone told me going juco was a big risk even my Dad. Only you can tell your self what you can and can’t do. My Dad and I joke about it now. The coaches at CF helped tremendously. #betonyourselfhttps://t.co/3zD8sLNuZN
The Blue Jays limited Pearson’s workload this summer, but he was utterly dominant in Vancouver. He didn’t allow a run until his 6th innings-limited start – he didn’t even allow a runner past 2nd until that outing. His final start of the season was a lights out effort in Game 1 of Vancouver’s semi-final vs Spokane. Pearson allowed 1 hit over 4 innings, fanning 10.
Before we get to Guerrero, Bichette, and Alford, here’s Parks on Power Grades:
The Grades for Guerrero included 80 for his hit tool, 70 for power, 40 for speed, 40 for his fielding, and 55 for his arm. This would seem to lend support to the idea that he’s safe at 3rd Base for now, but a move across the diamond will be in his long-term future. As someone who saw him in person and online last year, I’ve always liked his reactions to balls hit in his direction; he has excellent hands and footwork, but not necessarily the quickness to get to balls at the edge of his range in a timely manner.
Bichette received a 70 for his bat, 60 power, 50 for speed, 45 for fielding, and a 60 for his arm. The arm and fielding grades are a bit of a surprise: I found that Bichette showed sure hands, turned the double play well, and demonstrated increasing range as the season progressed, but the arm strength seemed to be lacking a bit. Bichette may not be possessed of blazing speed, but he’s a smart and aggressive base runner.
Alford’s grades slipped a bit, as did his ranking. He was given a 60 for his bat, speed, and fielding, 50 for power, and a surprising 40 for his arm. Alford may not be Amos Otis in CF, but he reads balls well, chases down hits to the gap effectively, and gets rid of the ball quickly. There has been a little concern that his power has yet to develop, as his swing does not have a lot of loft to it. Alford does work the count very well, and barrels a number of balls just the same. His 60 grade speed seems a little on the low side; Alford does have what can be considered game-changing speed on the base paths, but it hasn’t translated into high stolen base totals (19/22 last year). Then again, given his injury history, the team may not want Alford stealing all that often.
This is a good body of work for the Toronto farm system. There are clearly three levels of talent represented – almost ready (Alford), maybe a year away (Bichette/Guerrero), and a few years away (Pearson). Perhaps next year we may see Eric Pardinho or Logan Warmoth sneak onto the back end of this list.