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.

 

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Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Position Prospects

“There are no shortcuts.”

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

1.  Vladimir Guerrero Jr

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

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

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

2.  Bo Bichette, SS

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

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

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

3.  Danny Jansen

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

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

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

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

4.  Anthony Alford, OF

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

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

5.  Cavan Biggio, 1B/2B/3B

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

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

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

6. Logan Warmoth, SS

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

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

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

7.  Kevin Smith, SS

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

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

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

8. Chavez Young, OF

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

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

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

9.  Richard Urena, SS

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

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

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

 

10.  Miguel Hiraldo, SS

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

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

Is It Time to Be Concerned About Bo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Stop Becoming A Blue Jays Position of Strength

Warmoth
Logan Warmoth – Clutchlings Photo

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

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

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

Behind Bichette is a growing wealth of talent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romano Continues to Impress as a Starter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Blue Jays Farm System Notes – April 5 – 8

The abbreviated week that was around the Blue Jays organization:

Buffalo

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

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

New Hampshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunedin

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

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

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

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

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

Lansing

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

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

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

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

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

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

The State of the Blue Jays Farm System

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.

On the negative side, several pitching prospects stumbled last season, a number of prospects (an MLB-leading 7 in all) tested positive for banned substances, and after several seasons of relative health among their minor league Pitchers, four underwent (or are about to undergo) season-ending throwing arm surgeries this spring.

The Draft

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.

Coaching Staff

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.      

The Downside

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.

Injury Woes

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.

Banned Substances

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.

The Outlook

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.

The goal of the Blue Jays front office is to build a farm system that continually produces waves of prospects to challenge and supplement the 25-man roster.  Shapiro told Sportsnet’s Jeff Blair that it was a point of pride that the team did not sign a minor league free agent position player this off-season, such was the depth in the organization, and that overall, he’s pleased with the direction the system is headed, but there’s room for improvement:

 

“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.

Fisher Cats Release Roster

Fans in Manchester, NH, home of the Blue Jays AA Eastern League affiliate, have reasons to be excited.

Not only did the club extend its Player Development Contract with the Blue Jays for another two seasons last month, their roster released today includes two of the top prospects in all of baseball in the form of Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette:

2018_Fisher_Cats_Tentative_Opening_Day_Roster-page-001

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.

 

Vlad and Bo Will be All Right in AA

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

  1.  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.
  2.  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.
  3. 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.