The Blue Jays Top 20 – Five Who Just Missed

In putting together a top prospects list, invariably there’s some buyer’s remorse, and more than a few tweets or comments about who was left off – rest assured that the 11-20 list went through several drafts before it was published.

As anyone who has ever coached a team can tell you, when you’re selecting players at a tryout, depending on the sport, there is a percentile of players that stand out right away.  And there are some you know just aren’t going to make it.  The biggest group of players tends to be in between those two, and often there isn’t a lot of difference between them.  Maybe their skills sets are different, but their overall potential and ability to help the team are not, on balance.

Here are five players who were fringe candidates for the Top 20.  All are on an upward trajectory, but their tools don’t project as elite.  Still, if they continue to develop at the pace they did this year, it’s reasonable to expect one or more could break through to the Top 20 next year.

1.  Chavez Young, OF

The toolsy Bahamian had a breakout summer in his first crack at full season ball with Lansing, and was the only minor leaguer to combine 50+ extra base hits with 40+ stolen bases.  Young can play all three OF positions, has a patient approach at the plate, and makes thing happen on the bases.

Despite that, Young is not considered a top prospect.  His best tool is considered to be his speed, and even though he’s a switch-hitter, his bat is not considered elite.  It’s interesting that he didn’t appear on Baseball America‘s Top 20 Midwest League prospects despite a decent .285/.363/.444 line, nor was he moved up to Dunedin during the season.  Reports suggest he’s already tapped into his power, and 8 HRs will not get you far in the long run.  Still, there is some sleeper potential with Young, but we won’t get a true read on him until he plays at a higher level.

2.  Jordan Romano, SP

We always want to see someone who grew up a short distance from the Rogers Centre do well.  Especially when it’s someone as personable and available as Romano, who Future Blue Jays has kept close tabs on for several seasons.

Romano came out like a house on fire this season, winning his first eight decisions, and was named the Eastern Division starter in the Eastern League All-Star game.  He was also named a post-season EL All-Star, and was near the top of many Pitching stats.  Over the past three seasons, he’s missed a lot of bats, totalling 338 Ks over that span.

Romano’s post ASG numbers were not as glittering as his pre ones were.  He gave up more contact, and EL hitters batted .292 against him over that span.  Romano has worked diligently to develop a change up to complement his 93-94 fastball and slider, but he hasn’t fully learned the many nuances of it yet.

Interestingly, in his one-inning All Star game outing, Romano dialled his fastball up to 98, sitting 94-97.   If he isn’t added to the Blue Jays 40-man roster this month, there’s a good chance a team will take a chance on him in the Rule 5 draft and move him to the bullpen.

3.  Alejandro Kirk, C/1B

There’s a lot to like about a guy with roughly the same dimensions as an oversized fire hydrant.  In his first year of play in the system (he was a late 2016 sign, but in his first GCL AB last year re-injured a hand he had originally hurt in an off-season car accident), he slashed a ridiculous .354/.443/.558.

The issue with Kirk is that he’s a bat-first player.  At 5’9″/220, he has no real position except behind the plate, where reports say he was at least adequate in an emergency role.

We need to see more of Kirk at higher levels, but we suspect it might be fun to watch his plate appearances.

4.  Zach Jackson, RP

Owner of a funky, over-the-top delivery, Jackson is very tough on right handed hitters, who managed only a .108 batting average against him in AA this year.

Jackson has fanned better than a batter per inning since being drafted in 2016, and struck out 10.9/9 in 2018.  Control problems have plagued him, however, as he walked 7.4/9 this past year.

Jackson has a long reach in the back during his delivery, which makes it very difficult for him to achieve a consistent release point.  His fastball sits 93-94, and is paired with a 12-6 hammer of a curve.

When he was drafted, there was some thought that Jackson could move quickly.  Command issues have dictated otherwise, but there’s a live arm there.

5.  Cal Stevenson OF

Forget for a moment Stevenson’s video game numbers (.359/.494/.518) for Bluefield in the Appy League.  He’s a guy whose tools (except for his speed) grade out as average across the board.

So, why is he even in a top prospect conversation?

Maybe it’s his ability to work the count and get on base.  Or perhaps it’s because he’s one of those heart and soul guys whose approach and work ethic might help him to outperform his projections.  Or maybe even it’s because of his high baseball IQ, which is evident in just about every aspect of his game.

The odds against Stevenson are long, but it will be fun to watch him in full season next year.

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Blue Jays Minor League All-Star Team

Catcher – Danny Jansen  .275/.390/.473 (MiLB numbers)

Jansen solidified his label as the Blue Jays Catcher of the Future with a good season on both sides of the plate, and earned a late season call up as a result.

Jansen has long been lauded for his leadership skills, and his ability to handle a Pitching staff.  Over the last two years, he’s added a potent bat, and vastly improved blocking skills to go along with the tools he already has behind the plate, which include being able to set a good low target, and excellent framing skills.

With Reese McGuire joining him in more than a day game after a night game role, the Blue Jays will be able to keep Jansen’s bat in the lineup on occasion while giving him a day off from Catching duties in 2019.  Barring injury, the team appears set at this position well into the next decade.

1B Ryan Noda  .256/.421/.484

After a disappointing draft year showing, Noda slipped to the Jays in the 15th round last June.  He led the Appalachian League in OPS, and continued his on-base ways in Lansing this year.

Noda led the minors in walks with 109, and his ABs continued to be a sight to see.  Eschewing batting gloves, Noda grinds out plate appearances, plain and simple.  His 20 HRs were 2nd best in the Midwest League, as were his 80 RBI.

With Kacy Clemens in the lineup for the first six weeks of the season, Noda had to split time with him at 1B, heading to LF when Clemens had a turn at First.  His defensive skills in the Outfield were a work in progress –  his numbers improved once Clemens was promoted to Dunedin, and Noda became a fulltime First Baseman.  He finished the season in a flurry, posting a 1.130 OPS in August.

Noda will no doubt continue to work the count at High A next year, but he may have to become more aggressive.  When he works the counts, he sometimes becomes vulnerable to off speed pitches on the outside edge of the plate.  Pitchers with better command at higher levels may be able to exploit that.

2B  Cavan Biggio  .252/.388/.499

Biggio increased his SwStr% and Flyball rate last year in an obvious attempt to add some loft to the ball, but the humidity and Pitcher-friendly Florida State League ballparks conspired to keep many of his long balls short of the fences.

This year, he’s broken out in a big way.  Biggio led the Eastern League in Homers, Slugging OPS.  He also led the league in walks, and just missed leading in strikeouts, almost winning the three true outcome title.

Biggio played three infield positions, finding himself most often at 2nd this year (68 games).  The Blue Jays also experimented with him in the Outfield late in the season, and will continue his trial there in the Arizona Fall League.

SS Kevin Smith  .302/.358/.528

Smith was regarded as a glove-first SS when the Blue Jays took him in the 4th round last year, and that label seemed apt after a .271/.312/.466 season with Bluefield.

Except that if there’s one thing that drives Smith, it’s proving the doubters wrong.

An ardent student of the game and diligent worker, Smith set about last off-season to eliminate a loop in his swing in an attempt to catch up to high fastballs, and to improve his two strike approach.  The changes paid off, as Smith dominated at Lansing, and earned a late May promotion to Dunedin.

Smith is probably the best defensive SS in the Blue Jays system – a clear evaluation on that is admittedly difficult.  He split time at 3B and SS at Lansing, then played in the online streaming black hole that is the FSL for the rest of the year.

One thing is certain – Smith has worked his way onto the Blue Jays top prospect list.  He is very likely to stick at SS,

3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr  .381/.437/.636

The easiest choice by far.  Not only did Guerrero have an offensive minor league season for the ages (possibly the best in Blue Jays prospect history), he made tremendous strides with his defence.  While he may not supplant Brooks Robinson one day in terms of reputation, he has built on the skills he already displayed in abundance at the hot corner:   footwork, sure hands, and a strong accurate arm.  Guerrero has been working on his first step reactions, and this play demonstrates the progress he’s made:

 

OF – Harold Ramirez  .320/.365/.471

Ramirez may have been in the shadow of more illustrious teammates this year like Gurriel, Guerrero, Bichette, and Biggio, but he was one of the most consistent hitters in New Hampshire’s lineup, winning an Eastern League batting title.  In his third go round at AA after injuries interrupted his 2017 season, Ramirez was among the league leaders in Total Bases and Slugging.

Where does Ramirez fit in a now crowded Blue Jays Outfield situation?  That’s hard to say, but his versatility and bat could help him force his way into the picture sometime next year.

OF Chavez Young .285/.363/.445

From 39th round pick to near Top 10 prospect in three seasons is a remarkable journey. Young was the only player in the minors this year with 50+ extra base hits and 40+ steals, demonstrating his power-speed potential.

At the plate, Young has a solid approach, and demonstrated that this year with a career-high walk rate.  A plus defender who can play all three OF positions, Young was a solid presence at the plate and in the field for Lansing this summer.  There are still some aspects of rawness to his game, but he smoothed off a lot of the rough edges in his first year of full season ball.

OF  Cal Stevenson

Firmly entrenched at the top of Bluefield’s lineup, the 10th round pick led the Appy League in runs, walks, and OBP, and was second in Average and Stolen Bases.  He was the catalyst in a lineup that nearly reached the Appy finals.

Ut – Otto Lopez  .308/.399/.406

Easily Vancouver’s most valuable player, Lopez can play the OF, as well as 2B/SS/3B.  He runs the bases well, and is a smart, high baseball-IQ player.

RH Starter – Patrick Murphy

Finally healthy for a full season for the first time in several years, Murphy was dominant in the Florida State League, leading the loop in Ks, and a nearly 60% GB rate indicates that when FSL hitters weren’t swinging and missing at this pitches, they had trouble squaring him up.

LH Starter – Zach Logue  12-4 3.15 ERA .259 OBA

Logue started the year at Lansing, and was promoted in May to Dunedin.  Not an overpowering Pitcher, he relies on command and a four-pitch mix to keep hitters off-balance, which he did for much of the year.  He uses his fastball to get ahead, and then relies on his improving secondaries to finish batters off.

RP – Travis Bergen  4-2 0.95 ERA .200 OBA

Another Pitcher who was finally healthy for a full season, Bergen was lights out at two levels in relief.  Moved up to New Hampshire after starting the year in Dunedin, the left-hander fanned 74 hitters in 59 innings at the two levels.  Bergen does not approach triple digits, but has command of all of his pitches – he surrendered only 15 walks this season.

DH – Alejandro Kirk .354/.443/.558 

Kirk came within 3 feet of tying up what proved to be the deciding game of Bluefield’s semifinal playoff matchup with the Rays Princeton affiliate, but his game travelled a long way this season.

Coming into the season, Kirk was a C/DH (with emphasis on the latter) was a fairly unknown commodity.  A late September signing in 2016, the Mexican had all of 2 ABs in the GCL in 2017 before being assigned to Bluefield this season.  Kirk busted out in a big way, and was named the Appy All Star DH.  With starting Catcher Hagen Danner in an out of the lineup with injuries, Kirk stepped in and from all accounts handled himself well.

Kirk swings hard and seldom gets cheated at the plate.  He put up gaudy numbers at a Low Level, so he comes with the usually cautions as he moves up.  That bat holds considerable promise, however.

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.

There’s Another Team to Watch in the Blue Jays System

The AA Eastern League’s New Hampshire Fisher Cats have been receiving most of the attention from Blue Jays prospects watchers so far this season, and rightly so, but there’s another team in the system that has been just as successful.

The Lansing Lugnuts took 3 of 5 games from cross-state rival West Michigan Whitecaps this past weekend, moving a game and a half ahead of the Tigers’ affiliate atop the Midwest League’s Eastern Division.  The beneficiary of an influx of players from all three of Toronto’s strong short season entries last year, the Lugs’ sit atop most team batting categories in the MWL, and their pitching staff is vastly upgraded from front to back compared to a year ago.

Some notes and thoughts from a weekend (and an early Monday morning) of watching some of the Lansing-West Michigan action this weekend:

OF Chavez Young

A native of Freeport, Bahamas, Young was an under-the-radar prospect two years ago, even though he had moved stateside to play high school ball.  The Blue Jays selected him in the 39th round, and have moved him up in the ranks as he makes up for some missed development time.

The toolsy Young has played primarily RF this year, because of the presence of Reggie Pruitt.  With Pruitt on the DL this past week, Young has taken over in CF, and has not missed a beat.  He gets good reads on balls (the wind and high, sunny sky in West Michigan this weekend was a challenge), and has a strong, accurate arm.

At the plate, Young has a slightly open stance.  Now ensconced at the top of the Lansing batting order, he sees plenty of pitches each at bat, helping his teammates behind him see most of the opposing Pitcher’s repertoire.  He does not expand the strike zone, even when behind in the count.  There was some dismay in Blue Jays fandom after Edward Olivares was dealt to the Padres in the offseason, but Young may be his equal, although he may be a bit behind in terms of power.  Young seems to fit the profile of the get-on-base, speedy, top of the lineup guy.  He may eventually develop the power tool as well.

Kevin Vicuna, SS

The slender (6’/160) Vicuna may have to run around in the shower in order to get wet, but he’s developing into a solid two-way player.  Vicuna seems to have been around forever (he was a top 2014 IFA), but he’s only 20.

Vicuna had developed a reputation in short season as a glove-first player, but he began to make consistent contact at Vancouver last year, and earned a late-season promotion to Lansing.

Hitting behind Young, Vicuna gets on base at an impressive clip (.330/.351/.385 so far).  Utlizing a leg kick, Vicuna still makes a lot of groundball contact, but with his improved bat speed and his ability to get down the first base line quickly, he’s contributing his share to Lansing’s offence.

Kacy Clemens 1B

The son of the Hall of Famer saw his bat slow considerably as he tired toward the end of his first pro campaign last year, but he has returned to the form that led the Blue Jays to select him in the 8th round last June – Clemens is among the league leaders in a number of offensive categories.  He donned a pair of sport glasses this spring, and it seems to have helped with pitch recognition – after posting a 14% BB rate at Vancouver last year, he’s currently at 23%.

Clemens has a slightly open, crouched stance.  After mashing 3 Homers in the first two games of the series, Clemens saw a steady diet of breaking balls over the rest of the weekend, and struggled as a result.  Breaking pitches on the inner half in particular gave him some trouble, and he was tied up as he brought his lead leg across to initiate his swing.

Defensively, Clemens has already gained a strong reputation – he may already be the best defensive 1B in the system.

Kevin Smith 3B

Drafted as a SS in the 4th round last year, Smith was sent to Bluefield as top pick Logan Warmoth, who plays the same spot, was sent to Vancouver.  With Vicuna in Lansing’s lineup, Smith has seen more time at 3rd.  He made the most recent edition of Baseball America‘s prospect hot sheet after slashing .433/.471/.933 this past week.

Smith’s bat is absolutely on fire.  He leads the MWL in Doubles, Total Bases, and RBI, and like Clemens, is among the leaders in several other hitting stats.  Smith has a closed stance, and uses a slight leg kick.  His head is still as the pitch approaches the plate, giving him good pitch recognition.  He gets good extension and plate coverage on his swing as a result.  If you were to ask which hitter on the Lansing roster looks the most like an MLB prospect, it would be Smith.  He’s cut his K rate from almost 25% in Bluefield to just over 15% so far.

Smith is also an efficient base runner (he’s a perfect 6-6 this year, and has stolen 21 bases without being caught as a pro), and he’s making the adjustment to playing 3rd.  He’s had some troubles on pop ups down the LF line, as the different angle he has to take is probably taking some time to get used to.

Cullen Large, 2B/3B

After a slow start, the 2017 5th round pick came out firing last week, which included a 5-5 game against the Reds’ Dayton affiliate.

Large had his first pro season cut short by a broken hand last year.  He’s splitting time at 2nd with Samad Taylor, and at 3rd with Smith.  Large uses a slight leg kick, and will go with other way with a pitch.  He leads the MLW in runs scored.

Ryan Noda LF

This guy is quickly becoming one of the most interesting prospects in the organization.

The 2017 Appalachian League MVP saw his stock draft to the 15th round after a college season that fell short of initial expectations.  Scooping up players like this is a Blue Jays specialty, and with Clemens ahead of him on the depth chart, Noda went off to Bluefield and tore up the league’s pitching, winning an advanced triple crown, flirting with .400 as late as August 10th.

Noda is a throwback, plain and simple.  Even in the colder than usual Midwest spring, he eschews long sleeves and batting gloves, and wears his pants just below the knees, revealing 70s era length stirrups.  His uniform always seems to be dirty.

At the plate, he has a closed stance, with a bat waggle.  He holds his elbow up, reminding a long-time observer of Joe Morgan (without the elbow pump).  Noda absolutely grinds out at bats and tires Pitchers out – no one in the Appy League saw more pitches than Noda did last yer.  He will not expand his strike zone, and it’s no surprise that he’s easily in the league lead for walks (with Clemens behind him).  He uses only a toe tap, but like Clemens he saw a steady diet of offspeed pitches over the weekend, and did have some trouble with being out front.  Noda has yet to Homer, but he hit four doubles over the weekend, showing that maybe he’s starting to tap into that power.

But Noda is not a one-dimensional, on-base-machine player.  He’s a smart baserunner with sneaky speed, and is perfect in 7 steal attemps so far.  An OF in college, Noda shows good instincts and surprising range on flyballs, although he took some circuitous routes on a couple of wind-blown balls over the course of the series.  He may not have the power for a corner infield position, so LF is looking more and more like a good fit for him.

Brock Ludquist RF

Owners of one of the best mustaches in the game, Lundquist’s ABs are a thing to watch.

The 2017 6th rounder out of Long Beach state has a crouched, slightly open stance, which produces considerable torque, and a long, violent swing.  That makes for some swing-and-miss, but it also can mean some hard contact when he connects.

Samad Taylor 2B

More than a few fans have asked about Taylor, who was acquired from Cleveland last year.

Truth be told, unless he makes some major adjustments, it’s hard to see him as the 13th-best Blue Jays prospect, where MLB Pipeline has him ranked.  There is no doubt about his fast-twitch reflexes, defensive skills,  and athleticism, but there is some about his approach at the plate.

Taylor uses a big leg kick, and has a long swing.  Pitch recognition is the issue, and he often finds himself in unfavourable counts.  As a result, he’s dropped from the top of Lansing’s order to near the bottom.  At 19, he’s still young for this level, and there is time for his performance to catch up to his abundant tools.

Maximo Castillo, SP

At 18, the Venezuelan has more than held his own through 5 outings (including 3 starts) even though he’s one of the youngest players in the MWL.

Castillo has a tall-and-fall delivery with a short arm stroke.  He pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a fastball that can touch 94, and has good sinking action to it.

Castillo’s secondaries are still developing.  He threw primarily fastballs, and showed inconsistent command of his breaking ball.  He should add velo as the summer progresses, and may turn into an arm to watch.

Yennsy Diaz, SP

Diaz doesn’t have a whole lot left to prove in the league, and should be in Dunedin by month’s end.

Diaz’ fastball can hit 97, with good movement.  Midwest League hitters have been overmatched against Diaz, managing only 6 hits in 29 innings against him.  He gave up only two hard-hit balls in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, one of which was a loud foul down the LF line.

Diaz’ only enemy so far seems to be himself.  He’s walked 13 (vs 29 Ks) so far, sometimes losing the strike zone when he rushes his delivery and falls off toward 1st.  He has a hammer curve that comes from a similar arm angle.  With left-handed hitters, he starts that pitch on the middle of the plate, and brings it in under their hands, creating a pitch that is as tough to barrel as it is to lay off.

Diaz has a fast arm action, and hitters have a very tough time picking up the ball from his hand.  He gets ahead of hitters, and is just generally hard to square up.

Ty Tice

An undersized (5’9″) reliever, Tice has a live arm, and has been lights out as a closer since being drafted in the 16th round last year (17 Saves in as many chances).

Tice brings 95-96 heat, and an 89 slider that has late break and much bite to it.  He slots in below some of the more prominent bullpen arms ahead of him in the system, but Tice could rise quickly.

Lansing’s bullpen was the club’s weak point last year, but with Tice, and Orlando Pascual, Brody Rodning, and Matt Shannon from last year’s Northwest League champs Vancouver now in tow, the Lugs should be holding on to a lot more of the leads their offence and starters hand over to the pen.

This is a fun team to watch – they grind out ABs, and Manager Cesar Martin has them very aggressive on the basepaths.  The Fisher Cats may be getting all the attention, but the Lugnuts may make some post-season noise themselves.

Lansing Lugnuts Announce Roster

Lansing’s roster often is one of the more interesting ones to wait for every spring.

For the other three full-season affiliates, it’s fairly easy to project their rosters.  There may be the odd surprise, but you can generally count on players moving up to the next level if they were successful the season before.

The decisions for Lansing’s roster are more difficult, because team officials have three short season levels below Low A to consider when putting the Lugnuts’ 25-man together.2018_Opening_Day_roster-page-001

Lansing’s roster this year contains a few surprises, as much for who’s not on the roster as much as who is.  After a half season of Vlad and Bo, and with Nate Pearson, Logan Warmoth, Riley Adams, and a good chunk of Vancouver’s bullpen starting the year in Dunedin, Lugs’ fans will not have as much star power to watch this year.

Yennsy Diaz had a swinging strike rate of 13.5% as a 20-year-old when he was called up halfway through the season, and will get the ball on Opening Day.  Maximo Castillo fanned better than a batter per inning at Bluefield last year, and skips Vancouver to begin the year in the Midwest League, where at 18 he’ll be one of its youngest players.

Maverik Buffo’s draft stock fell last year due to a torn UCL, but through rehab he became healthy enough to dominate the GCL, and jumps a pair of levels to start the season.  Zach Logue and Justin Dillon piggybacked effectively at Vancouver last year.

In the pen, both Ty Tice and Orlando Pascual have closing experience.  Tice Saved 12 games in as many opportunities at Bluefield, striking out 35 in 25 innings, while Pascual recorded a half-dozen saves for Vancouver, fanning 45 in 35 IP.

As for position players, the Lugs will be led by toolsy OF Chavez Young, 1B/OF Ryan Noda, and 1B Kacy Clemens.  Young is one of the more athletic players in the system, while Noda laid waste to Appy League Pitching en route to an MVP award.  Clemens, son of the Hall-of-Famer, wore down in his first pro season last year, and will be looking to make amends at Lansing.

Cesar Martin returns for his second season as Lansing’s Manager, joined by Position Coach Dave Pano (up from Vancouver), returning Pitching Coach Antonio Caceres, and Hitting Coach Matt Young.  New to the organization, Young played with the Braves and Tigers, and operated a baseball academy in Texas prior to joining the Blue Jays.

 

Who is the Next Blue Jays Breakout Prospect?

DJNeal
DJ Neal Twitter photot

In may be cold and snowy in Southern Ontario, but with the days getting incrementally longer, spring training inches closer every week.  And for most serious baseball prospects, they have been putting in long days since the end of the last minor league season working on their conditioning, and honing their skills on the playing fields and batting cages.

The Blue Jays have several prospects whose hard work may pay off this year, when they emerge from under-the-radar to achieve breakout status.  Last year, it was Edward Olivares, who put himself firmly into long-term prospect status with an excellent all-around year at Lansing.  The year before, Ryan Borucki returned to action after missing much of the previous season due to shoulder and back issues.  He was hit hard in the Florida State League, and was sent down to Lansing to get himself straightened out.  Borucki added some deception to his delivery, becoming a much more effective Pitcher in the process, and he crowned his season with a promotion to the 40-man roster in November. In 2015, it was Anthony Alford who broke out, after undergoing a crash course in pitch recognition in the Aussie Winter League after giving up his college football commitment.  In 2014, Daniel Norris began the season in Dunedin, and finished it in the Major Leagues after finally learning to repeat his delivery and command his fastball.

A prospect tends to break out for any one of a number of reasons (or a combination thereof).  Sometimes, it’s an adjustment made to their batting or pitching mechanics.  Norris’ delivery was overhauled in his first pro season, which probably at least partially  explains his 8.44 ERA at two levels.  Other times, it’s an adjustment to pro ball and playing every day.  For some, pro ball is their first extended experience with failure in the sport;  some adapt and begin to move forward again, while others don’t get past it. Some players just need the reps:  Alford had shown promise in three brief pro seasons, but his experience in Australia helped him channel his aggressiveness at the plate.

The Blue Jays have a fairly good stock of lean, athletic players in their system.  The odds against them having even a brief MLB career are long, but the foundation is there for future success.  Here are four players who are all intriguing, potential break out prospects:

DJ Neal OF

If the 6’3″/200 Neal looks like a wide receiver, it’s because he was.  Drafted by the Braves in 2015 out of high school, the Georgian instead joined Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, but after a year he transferred to USC-Sumter to get back on the ball diamond.

Drafted in the 26th round, Neal began to make up for some lost development time with a .297/.341/.426 season in the GCL, stealing 8 bases in 10 tries.  Neal has a strong, athletic frame, with quick-twitch reflexes and plus speed.   He has what’s described as a smooth right-handed swing, and scouts project him to have enough power to play a corner OF spot.  He has great range and a plus arm.

Neal is behind his draft peers in terms of baseball experience, having combined baseball and football throughout high school.  His tools are raw, but they will continue to develop as he gains experience.  There is tremendous upside here – the obvious comp right now is Alford.

Where Neal begins 2018 is difficult to project.  Ordinarily, a team might want to challenge a player with Neal’s profile with an April assignment to full season ball.  With a crowded OF situation in the lower levels of the Jays system, he may begin in Extended, with a plane ticket for Vancouver in hand come mid June.

Neal’s 2017 stats:

G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% AVG OBP SLG
42 167 3 23 20 8 4.8 % 15.6 % 0.297 0.341 0.426
GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo%
2.06 17.6 % 55.5 % 26.9 % 21.9 % 9.4 % 52.4 % 21.4 % 26.2

McGregory Contreras OF

When the Blue Jays blew their IFA budget to sign Vladdy Jr in 2015, they had to go bargain hunting for other prospects – those signed for $10K or under did not count against their bonus pools.

One of those signings was Contreras, whom Baseball America described as a “sleeper”:

 (Contreras) showed good hitting and running ability when he signed on July 2, but his tools have ticked up since then. His speed and arm strength are both above-average to play center field and he has impressed the Blue Jays with his ability to hit and show power from the right side from his 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame.

After making his pro debut in the DSL in 2016, the Blue Jays felt Contreras was ready to skip the GCL, and sent him to Bluefield in 2017.  Contreras responded with a good season, ranking as the 19th-best prospect in the loop, according to BA:

Contreras has what many coaches in baseball would call “sneaky power”. It doesn’t stand out in games just yet and you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at him, but he lets it fly during batting practice. His lean, athletic body and swift bat speed entail future average power. He has strong wrists that work well to catch up to inside fastballs.

Contreras played all three Outfield positions in his pro career.  He played primarily the corners for Bluefield due to the presence of Chavez Young.  Pitch recognition will be the area requiring the most improvement if he is to continue moving up the ladder.  At 6’1″/170,  he compares to Olivares at a similar point in his career.

Contreras’ 2017 stats:

PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG
207 5 36 33 4 5.8 % 26.6 % 0.142 0.369 0.279 0.335 0.421
GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo%
2.09 21.4 % 53.2 % 25.4 % 21.9 % 15.6 % 49.3 % 27.2 % 23.5 %

 

Chavez Young OF

It’s rare that you can get a high schooler drafted late to sign.  Their prospects are usually improved by playing college ball, and if nothing else, they have some or all of an education to fall back on.  2016 39th-round pick Young, who grew up in the Bahamas, and moved to Florida for his senior year of high school, was generally thought to be raw and headed off to college, but the Blue Jays offered him a $200K bonus (twice the slot value) to sign.

Young has solid athleticism, outstanding range in CF, a plus arm, and while his approach is a work-in-progress (a small viewing sample of his time with Vancouver after his promotion to the NWL playoffs showed an expanded strike zone), there is enough to his offensive game to suggest success at the higher levels.  That the organization thought he would bolster Vancouver’s lineup for the post season speaks of what they think of Young.

Young’s Bluefield Stats:

G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG
62 281 4 52 25 4 4.6 % 20.6 % 0.159 0.345 0.282 0.332 0.440
GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo%
1.77 17.7 % 52.6 % 29.7 % 26.3 % 7.0 % 45.5 % 28.7 % 25.7 %

 

Yorman Rodriguez C/1B/DH

Finding a place to play for Rodriguez was something of a challenge this year, but his bat ultimately dictated  considerable PT for the 2014 IFA.  Originally signed as a Catcher, he was primarily a DH for Bluefield this year.  His bat will always be his calling card, and he’s never played beyond short season ball, but a career line of .333/.362/.414 makes it worth wondering how Rodriguez would fare at the higher levels.

Hitting in front of Appy League MVP Ryan Noda, Rodriguez led the league in hits, and was second in batting average.  John Calvagno covers South Atlantic League prospects for his site notesfromthesally.com.  He liked what he saw from Rodriguez:

The ball explodes off of his barrel. An aggressive hitter with a fast bat, he put the 1st pitch in play every at bat. And every hit was a rocket, line drive or sharp grounder. An all field approach with a level swing. Potential plus hit with 25 HR potential if he finds lift.

The 7 walks Rodriguez drew this year might be cause for concern.  At the higher levels, he will have to learn to work the count more, and not sit back waiting for a mistake to hammer.  His size and bat-first profile compare him favourably to Juan Kelly, who had a similar role as Rodriguez’ with High-A Dunedin this year.

Rodriguez started the year with Vancouver, but was sent to Bluefield after five games.

Rodriguez’ Bluefield stats:

G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA
57 257 3 36 36 2 2.7 % 9.7 % 0.083 0.37 0.346 0.374 0.429 0.369
GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo%
1.67 24.9 % 46.9 % 28.2 % 28.3 % 5.0 % 44.0 % 19.7 % 36.2

Kevin Smith SS

1st round pick Logan Warmoth drew much of the attention among Blue Jays draftees this season, and deservedly so.  Smith’s pro debut with Bluefield was a smash, as he showed some pop (2nd to Noda in Total Bases), and showcased his slick defensive skills.

As the college season started last year, there was talk that Smith might be the first Shortstop drafted.  A mediocre season at the plate dropped him to the 4th round, where the Blue Jays scooped him up.  Smith’s swing can be long, and there was a fair amount of swing-and-miss to his game (25%K rate), but his footwork, range, hands, and arm are unquestioned.

With Warmoth likely headed to Dunedin for 2018, Smith should become Lansing’s starting SS.  Some scouts doubt about Warmoth’s long-term future at the position, so Smith could close the gap between them or even move ahead with a decent year at the plate.

Smith’s 2017 Stats

G PA HR R RBI SB BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG
61 283 8 43 43 9 5.7 % 24.7 % 0.195 0.337 0.271 0.312 0.466
GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo%
0.91 22.0 % 37.2 % 40.8 % 17.9 % 10.3 % 46.4 % 28.1 % 25.5 %