Notes From Around the System

It may be hard to believe that we’re less than Russ Martin’s Number away from Opening Day, but it’s coming like a freight train through the dead of winter, which is what those of us in Southern Ontario are in the midst of right now.  However, having spent a week in the frozen historical and gastronomical wonderland that is Quebec City, I’m not one to complain.

The Blue Jays have yet to confirm when their minor league players are to report to camp at the Bobby Mattick Complex, but it’s safe to say the dates will be somewhat similar to Oakland’s.  The Athletics’ Pitchers and Catchers report on March 3rd, Position Players on the 9th, and their first games will be on the 13th.  If you are heading to Florida to watch the Blue Jays in action in March, a little research on your part could land you at the Mattick (or any of the other complexes in the area) for some minor league action.  There are usually a pair of games going on at once, and you can sometimes catch a rehabbing MLBer in action.  Admission is free.

The Blue Jays have invited 13 non-roster players to Spring Training with the big club.  These players will not necessarily be auditioning for a major league job – the purpose of inviting them is to give them a taste of big league life, and to shorten the workdays for the regulars.  When asked who made the biggest impression on him two years ago during his first tour of a big league camp, Anthony Alford without hesitation answered Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson.  Alford was impressed with their work ethic, and how they went about their daily routine in preparing for the season.

Among the invitees this year are:

P Andrew Case – there was thought that the New Brunswick native would be added to the 40 man roster last fall after a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League, but he was left off, and was not selected in the Rule 5 draft.  Case is not a big strikeout guy, but the reliever finished the season at AAA, and it would not be a surprise to see him make his MLB debut this year.  He just seems to get guys out wherever he plays.

P Jose Fernandez – the lefty reliever has always had command issues, and struggled at AA last year, but has LOOGY potential.

P Chad Girodo – sidewinding southpaw battled injuries in 2017, and spent the bulk of the year at AAA.  Girodo appeared in 14 games for Toronto in 2016.

P Jon Harris – the 2015 1st rounder found too much of the strike zone at AA last year, and Eastern League hitters hit .292 against him.  This is a huge year for Harris, as he will be Rule 5 eligible next fall.

P Sean Reid-Foley – Last season was a learning year for the 2014 2nd rounder, who was one of the youngest players in AA.  His numbers for 2017 don’t look great at first glance, but he was a very effective Pitcher from mid-May to the end of the season.  There are some who suggest his control issues might mean an eventual move to the bullpen, but indications are the Blue Jays have every intention of continuing to use SRF in a starter’s role in Buffalo this year.

P Jordan Romano – the Markham native has long been one of our favourite Blue Jays prospects.  He was a regular correspondent during his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2015, giving insight into the process.  He’s been a K/inning guy over the last two seasons as a starter, and while some suggest that with his over-the-top delivery and still-in-development secondaries, he too might profile as a bullpen arm,  he’ll continue as a starter in AA this year.  You don’t give up on a guy that’s missed that many bats.

P Chris Rowley – was one of the most effective Pitchers in the system last year, and completed his remarkable rise from non-drafted/missed two years due to military service guy to the big leagues last year.  Rowley was DFA’d in the fall to make room for the new arrivals on the 40, but he’ll be very much in competition for a big league job this year, with AAA his likely destination.  Rowley can start or relieve, and his versatility may come in handy.

P Justin Shafer – the 2014 8th rounder has risen slowly through the system, steadily getting ground ball outs along the way.  Converted to relief at AA last year, Shafer has long relief potential.

C Max Pentecost – eyebrows were raised when the 2014 1st rounder was left off the 40-man last fall.  The Blue Jays were crossing their fingers that Pentecost’s injury history would allow him to slip through the Rule 5, and their gamble paid off.  Many have recommended that the Blue Jays turn Pentecost into an Evan Gattis-like hybrid player, but when you read between the lines of the email responses from Jays execs, the plan is continue to have him Catch on a regular (perhaps not daily) basis.

IF Jason Lebelebijian – the versatile Leb can play all four IF positions, and has spent time in the OF, although he played mostly 2nd and 3rd in Buffalo last year.

IF Tim Lopes – the 5 year MiLB vet came over from the Mariners’ organization last year, and filled a valuable utility role for New Hampshire, appearing in 128 games.

OF J.D. Davis – I have to admit:  there was a moment of excitement when a publication confused Davis with underachieving 2012 1st rounder D.J. Davis, who repeated Dunedin last year.  This was not the first time someone had made this error, however.  DJ had a remarkable 2nd half, putting balls in play in the second half at the best rate of his career, posting a .333/381/.449 August.  JD Davis, on the other hand, has risen steadily through the system, and is a get-on-base speedster who can play all three OF positions.

OF Roemon Fields – the speed merchant posted career-best numbers at Buffalo last year (.291/.351/.352), and added 43 steals.  Fields’ profile is more of a bottom-of-the-order, 2nd leadoff hitter, but he has clearly established himself as a fringe MLBer.

Add in Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire, Rowdy Tellez, and Thomas Pannone, who were added to the 40-man in November, and there will be a lot of first-timers at Spring Training this year.

RHP Nate Pearson may have been in the shadows this year due to his short season after being selected in the 1st round of June’s draft, and with the seasons Vladdy Jr and Bo had, but his rise from high school non-prospect to Baseball America‘s Top 100 is a phenomenal story.  The Blue Jays did not roll the dice on Pearson so much as they had done their homework on him, and knew what they were getting. Sam Dykstra of milb.com wrote about it here:  https://www.milb.com/milb/news/toolshed-blue-jays-nate-pearson-prepped-for-takeoff/c-265720346

 

The Blue Jays Australian Baseball League affiliate, the Canberra Cavalry, are off to the ABL final after a come-from-behind victory over Perth in their best of three semi-final.

To be honest, there hasn’t been a lot to watch from a Blue Jays perspective down under.  1B Connor Panas, fresh off a monster second half in the Florida State League, was shut down for the year at Christmas.  Relievers Tayler Saucedo and Dan Lietz have been used in a limited role on a veteran-laden Cavalry staff.  Saucedo did get a huge 8th inning double play as the Cavs battled for a playoff spot in their final series of the season.

Canberra hosts Game 1 of the best of three affair against Brisbane on Friday night, with the series switching to Brisbane for the remainder.

 

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It’s Time for Danny Jansen

Let me just start by saying that I’ve always been a fan of the product of Appleton, WI.  Taken in the 16th round in 2013, Jansen epitomized the approach to that annual harvest of talent under former GM Alex Anthopoulos and Scouting Director Blake Parker.  Beyond the coveted projectable high school arm, the Blue Jays actively looked for players who were overlooked for various reasons.  Maybe injury had scared teams off (in the case of Ryan Borucki), or a college commitment (Daniel Norris), or, in the case of Jansen, the Jays weren’t afraid to take a trip off the beaten path to find players in non-traditional baseball places.  An injury his senior year of high school made Jansen even more of a low-profile prospect, but the Blue Jays felt they were getting a prospect who scored high in terms of tools and make up.  Conversations with Jansen over the past four seasons have borne that out.

After a season in which he finally managed to stay healthy, Jansen hit his way through three levels, posting a .323/.400/.484 line in the process, and is on the cusp of a big league job.

A word about how more and more MLB teams are viewing the Catching position:  teams are coming to understand that a Catcher’s value goes far beyond his batting average.  The plethora of posters on various Blue Jays Facebook pages complaining about Russell Martin’s .221 average last year miss the below sea level portion of the iceberg that is Martin’s contribution to the team.  From framing pitches, to blocking sliders thrown in the dirt intentionally in order to get a batter to chase, to working with umpires to get calls, to working with Pitchers to build a bond that can’t be found in any other sport, Catchers are the Field Generals of the action on a ball diamond.  The decisions they make have an influence on every pitch thrown in an MLB game.

 A paragraph from a SABR article takes this several steps further:

Only the catcher is positioned to see the entire field of play, including the hitter, and it is the catcher who triggers virtually every action by calling the pitches.1 The catcher makes calls based on a complex array of data that he processes in a split second. He must be aware of every aspect of the game at all times, particularly the perceived strengths and weaknesses, as well as preferences and desires, of the hitter (the opponent) and his own teammates. He must keep the score, the inning, and the number of outs in mind. He has to know what the count is2 and what the batter did the last time he was up to bat as well as in prior games. Is the pitcher’s curveball working today? Does the umpire have a loose or a tight strike zone? Does the batter dig in? Is his weight leaning forward or on his heels? Do the runners have large leads, and which way are they leaning? These perceptions, judgments, and decisions run through a catcher’s mind before he calls a pitch. Each decision is critical, because the outcome of the game could turn on any one. The complexity seems daunting. But, like a chess master — or a master of any other talent that involves an opponent and/or a team — catching relies on emotional intelligence and perspective taking, which depend on the thoughts and feelings that run through the medial prefrontal cortex hub.

That takes us far beyond whatever Martin did at the plate last year.  With other positions, teams have to weigh whether or not they can carry a glove-first, below-league-average hitter, but that’s not necessarily the case with Catching.  Certainly, the Blue Jays and Martin would have liked to have seen more offensive production from him last year, but his value to the team goes far beyond that, often in ways that are difficult to measure.

But as he enters the next-to-last-year on his contract, Martin, who turns 35 next month, is likely in his last months as a full-time backstop.  Having appeared in only 91 games last year after averaging 133 in his first two seasons in Toronto, it’s not realistic to expect him to carry a heavy load any more.  120 games might be even a stretch to expect from him.

Which brings in Jansen.

Jansen experimented with sport glasses behind the plate in the Arizona Fall League in 2016, and he found that it helped him pick up pitches better behind the plate.  As an added bonus, he was able to develop better pitch recognition, as he could detect spin much better than in his pre-glasses days.

Behind the plate, Jansen has drawn raves since his 2014 season, when he handled a Bluefield staff that included a young Borucki.  Despite his size (6’2″), Jansen presents a nice low target, which is especially important for sinker ball Pitchers working down in the zone.  Handling Pitchers, calling games, and blocking pitches have long been a strength – because of his size, lateral movement has been a minor issue, but Jansen has the athleticism and work ethic to overcome that.

Jansen is also familiar with the wave of minor league Pitchers who will soon be coming to Toronto, starting with Borucki, who told media at Winterfest this past weekend:

When you move up levels, there’s always that anxiety and you’re a little nervous. When you’ve got a guy back there, especially with Danny, having him in Double-A for my first start and Triple-A, you just have a sense of ease. You just feel comfortable.

Not only has Jansen caught Borucki throughout the minors, he’s also worked extensively with Sean Reid-Foley, T.J. Zeuch, and to a lesser extent, Thomas Pannone.  As these youngsters reach the Majors, having a familiar face behind the plate would help ease their transition.

Ordinarily, incumbent backup Luke Maile might be considered to have the inside track on winning the job again this spring.  However, his offence was beyond anemic last year (9.5% LD rate), and with the increased load Martin’s back up will have to shoulder this year, it would be hard for any team to carry that weak a bat, even at a premium defensive position.

Jansen could benefit from a season of Martin’s mentoring, and would probably learn more in a part-time role than he could in a full season of AAA.  And while he would be hard-pressed to reproduce last year’s breakthrough numbers at the plate, he would bring some offence to the position, and he could also DH on occasion.

It’s been a long road for Jansen.  Injuries ended his 2014 season prematurely, and severely curtailed his 2015 and 2016.  Healthy for the first time last year, he reached MLB Pipeline’s Top 10 Catching Prospects list this year, checking in at #8.  With Martin’s career perhaps starting to wind down, 2018 could represent an excellent chance for his potential successor to start to get some on-the-job training.  He could split the load more evenly with Martin next year, and take over the reigns in 2020, when he would just be entering his prime at the age of 25.

 

Top Blue Jay Prospects will be in Town Next Week

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Tim Leiper photo

Going through Customs, the different currency, and many other subtle day-to-day things are a fact of life for American and Caribbean players who venture north of the border to play for the Blue Jays.

For several years, the Blue Jays have held a January mini-camp at the Rogers Centre for their top minor league players to give them a little more exposure to life in the Great White North.  Starting on January 15th,  Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, DJ Davis, Reese McGuire,  Roemon Fields, newly-acquired Taylor Guerreri,  Lourdes Gurriel, Danny Jansen, Jason Leblebijian, Thomas Pannone, Ryan Borucki, Max Pentecost, Sean Reid-Foley, and the GTA’s own Jordan Romano will be in Toronto for a series of on-field drills and off-field seminars.   The group will be at the Blue Jays first annual Winter Fest that weekend.

When the announcement was made last week, Twitter instantly was full of rumours about Conner Greene, who was not part of this year’s contingent.  The rumours suggested Greene was being held back because he was going to be part of a package of players for Pirates star Andrew McCutchen.  As has been pointed out, Greene was part of last year’s tour, as were Rowdy Tellez, Anthony Alford, and Richie Urena.  Greene’s command issues were a concern last year, but that 100 mph fastball isn’t going anywhere just yet.

In the off-field sessions, players will receive training in dealing with the media, as well as how to deal with situations that might crop up as professional athletes.  It sounds like Romano is excited to have some of his fellow prospects to his paren’t basement:

Jansen, McGuire, Urena, Guerreri, and Pannone are all on the 40-man roster, and will be attending spring training with the big club.  The team has not announced which minor leaguers will receive an invite, but that it expected shortly.

Toronto Blue Jays Minor League System Top 10 Moments of 2017

It was a memorable season for a guy who follows the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system.  Three of the four short season teams made the post season, as did one full season team, bringing home a championship and a co-championship to the organization.  I had a first-hand look at Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette opening weekend in Lansing, and finished the campaign with a press box view of Nate Pearson’s start in Vancouver’s final regular season home game.  In between, there were plenty of highlights:

1.  Vladdy Jr’s Rise to Prominence

  One has to go back to the days of Sil Campusano* to find a Blue Jay ranked as high as Vladdy Jr (*Baseball America didn’t start their Top 100 list until 1990 – Campusano was a multiple-times cover boy of the publication in the mid-80s).

Those of us in the know were not surprised that Guerrero is either the top or 2nd-ranked prospect in the game after only two pro seasons.  His advanced approach, pitch recognition, and lethal bat speed have the makings of a generational bat.

Guerrero dominated the Midwest League as an 18-year-old, and after a bit of a dip following his promotion to High A Dunedin, he was back to his productive self, leading the D-Jays to the post season.

Vladdy was such a model of consistency this year that it’s hard to pick out one highlight.  Was it going 2-4 with a Homer in his first game of Low A?  Leading the minors in OBP? Hitting .385/.483/.646 in August? Homering in three straight games that month?  Not going more than 3 games without a hit (twice) all season?

Thoughts of Guerrero continuing to climb the minor league ladder have helped to warm up the current record cold Southern Ontario winter.

2.  Bo Bichette Flirts with .400

Advanced stats have taken over with serious baseball fans, but who doesn’t like a good run at baseball’s hallowed .400 mark?

After tearing up the Gulf Coast League the year before, the 2016 2nd rounder picked up exactly where he left off in Lansing.  He hit .371 for April, and .388 in May, but not even in a prospect hunter’s wildest dreams did we expect what happened next.

In the first half of June, his average steadily creeped up into the .380s, and then an incredible 7-8 performance in a doubleheader on the 15th put Bichette over the top:

At Bat #1
   Facing Cubs’ RHP Duncan Robinson, who stood 3rd in the MWL in ERA entering the night, he took an 0-1 fastball on the outer edge of the plate to right field for his first hit of the game in Lansing’s top of the 1st.

At Bat #2
   Robinson clearly wanted no part of Bichette, offering up a steady diet of breaking balls in the top of the 3rd.  With the count 2-1, Robinson tried to get a fastball in on Bichette, but missed badly.  Bichette hammered it into the gap in Left Centre, driving in a run.

At Bat #3
  Bichette led off the top of the sixth, and Robinson continued to avoid giving him fastballs anywhere near the plate.  He hung a 2-2 change, and Bichette hammered it into the LF bleachers for his 7th Home Run, touching off a 5-run frame for Lansing.

At Bat #4
After sending 9 men to the plate the previous inning, Bichette led off the top of the 7th, the final frame of Game 1 against reliever Jared Cheek.
This 9 pitch AB may have been his best of the night.
Down 0-2, Bichette fouled off a number of borderline pitches, before Cheek caught too much of the plate with a breaking ball, which Bichette lined into CF for a base hit.  His average now stood at .394.

Game 2
At Bat #1
   Facing Cubs RHP Erling Moreno, Bichette hit a 2-1 pitch into the hole at short, and beat the off-line throw to first for an infield single.

At Bat #2
   Moreno continued the breaking ball regimen.  Bichette hammered a mistake fastball all the way to the wall in Right Centre field, raising his average to .399.

At Bat #3
   Facing soft-tossing reliever Tyson Miller, Bichette showed some rare impatience, chasing a breaking ball out of the zone, and foul-tipping a low fastball into the Catcher’s mitt for a swinging strikeout.  .400 would have to wait.

At Bat #4
   In his final at bat of the night, Bichette looped a fastball on the outer half to right field for a base hit, and his average finally reached .400.

A 3-5 night at the plate the following day kept his average at .400, but a slight dip after that saw his average go as “low” as .392, before another hot streak nudged him to .402 on June 28th.

It’s hard to remember such an individual performance in five years of following the Toronto farm system.

3.  NWL title returns to Vancouver

Minor league playoffs are a bit of an afterthought to fans, and a bit of a double-edged sword for MLB executives.  Kids are back in school, the weather has cooled, and some teams struggle to draw the crowds they had in warmer days.  For the front-office types, they certainly want their prospects to learn to win together on their way up the minor league rungs, but they certainly must hold their breath and hope injuries don’t take place in games that don’t matter much in the larger scheme of things.

Canadians fans couldn’t be blamed for being spoiled; titles in the first three seasons as a Blue Jays affiliate, and a trip to the finals in the fourth meant that fans in the Lower Mainland could reasonably expect competitive teams every year.

Except that 2015 and 2016 were lean years, and the team missed the post-season.  Despite that, C’s fans continued to pass through the turnstiles at venerable old Nat Bailey Stadium in record numbers, giving Blue Jays prospects an incredible atmosphere to play their home games in.

That loyalty was rewarded in 2017, as top draft picks Logan Warmoth, Nate Pearson, and Riley Adams led the team back to the playoffs.  And the 2017 post-season proved to be beyond memorable.  The C’s semi-final with Spokane was set to open in Washington State, but a season of wildfires had made the air quality unacceptable, and the series was moved to Vancouver.  The Canadians took the first game of the best-of-three behind an outstanding performance by Pearson (see below), and clinched a berth in the finals behind some standout relief pitching from Justin Dillon and Orlando Pascual.

The C’s travelled to Eugene to take on the defending champion Cubs’ affiliate in the final.  The teams split the first two games in Oregon, making the 10 hour bus ride to Vancouver after the 2nd game for Game 3, which was slated for the following day.  The C’s once again rode their brilliant bullpen (3 ER over 27 IP in the series) to victory in Games 3 and 4.

4.  Dunedin Wins FSL Co-Championship

Dunedin made the playoffs by virtue of finishing with the Florida State League North Division’s 2nd best record, a distant 14.5 games back of the Tampa Yankees.

With Hurricane Irma bearing down on the Sunshine State, the league decided to declare the winners of the two divisions co-champions, while everyone packed up and got ready to get out of Dodge.

Dunedin hosted Game 1 of the best of three affair, and dropped a heartbreaking, extra-innings loss to Tampa after scoring 5 runs in the bottom of the 1st.

The D-Jays’ backs were clearly up against the wall for Game 2, which was played in Tampa, where Dunedin had lost 7 of 10 on the season to the Yankees.  And if they prevailed in Game 2, the 3rd and deciding game would take place minutes after – so, if they wanted to win the series and a share of the league title, the D-Jays would have to sweep a doubleheader in Tampa.

Dunedin easily took Game 1 by a score of 4-1, behind 6+ innings of solid work by Markham, ON native Jordan Romano.  Romano, who finished 2nd in the FSL in Ks, failed to fan a batter on the night, but he pitched well enough to turn a lead over to Kirby Snead, who pitched 2.1 scoreless innings to preserve the win.

In the final game, TJ Zeuch took to the mound for Dunedin.  Zeuch had spent much of the summer on the DL, and was making only his second start since his return.  Pitching on three days’ rest, Zeuch gave up only one hit over four innings.  Dunedin had given Zeuch a one-run lead in the 2nd, but Tampa tied it in the 4th, and took the lead in the 5th.  Dunedin tied the game up in the 7th on a Home Run by Toronto’s own Connor Panas.

Fast forward to Dunedin’s top of the 9th.  With a runner on and two outs, OF Edward Olivares singled, followed by a single to left by Jake Thomas, scoring the go-ahead run.  A bloop Double down the LF line by DJ Davis brought home both Olivares and Thomas, providing insurance for the D-Jays.  Tampa scored a run in the bottom of the 9th, but Dunedin held on to win their first FSL Championship.

5.  Nate Pearson Fans 10 in Playoff Game

NWL hitters were simply overwhelmed by the Blue Jays 1st round choice this summer.  The earned runs he gave up in his last regular season start were the first he had given up since he joined Vancouver in July – he had yet to even allow a runner past 2nd prior to that.

Pearson came back in the playoffs with a vengeance, tossing a dominant 10 strikeout effort in 4 innings against Spokane in Game 1 of the C’s semi-final series.  After an error allowed the leadoff hitter to reach in the 1st, Pearson set the side down on 9 pitches.  Pearson fanned the side in the 2nd, working around an error of his own, as well as the 3rd, sandwiching the Ks around a walk and a single.  Pearson lost the strike zone in the 4th, issuing three straight 4-ball walks after getting two quick outs.  He regrouped and fanned the final batter of the inning to end his night.

Pearson’s performance reminded C’s fans of a similarly dominant effort by a 17-year-old Roberto Osuna in 2012.  Osuna fanned 13 over 5 innings in his NWL debut.

6.  Danny Jansen’s Big Night

Jansen burst onto the prospect radar in 2017.  A season of good health, and new eyewear obtained in the Arizona Fall League allowed Jansen to post a .323/.400/.484 line at three levels.

Jansen went a career-best 4-4 for Buffalo in late August. After hitting a Single, Home Run, and Triple in his previous three ABs, Jansen came up in the 9th needing a Double to complete the cycle.  Jansen cranked his 2nd longball of the night, falling short of the cycle, but sparking the Bisons to a four-run 9th, and a come from behind W.

7.  Anthony Alford’s Sizzling Start

Alford had a breakthrough season in 2015 after abandoning his pro football dreams in order to focus on baseball.  A knee injury and a concussion suffered in an extra-inning OF collision upon his return set him back further, and whispers about his injury history began to surface.

Alford rode a successful Arizona Fall League campaign into 2017, and he got off to a scorching start, hitting .356/.427/.507 in April at AA.  Maintaining that hot start proved difficult, and Alford cooled off in May, but still got on base at almost a 40% clip.  Alford made his MLB debut that month, but broke his wrist, sending him back to the DL for six weeks.

Alford will very much be in contention for an MLB job this spring.  That hot April last year gave a glimpse into his work-the-count, use the whole field, game-changing speed on the base paths potential.

8.  Ryan Noda’s July

The 15th round draft pick saw his stock slip after a mediocre college season.  Noda laid waste to Appalachian League Pitching on his way to an MVP season, the highlight of which was a video game number-like July, in which he bashed his way to a .444/.580/.689 line.

Noda cooled off after that stretch, but his other-worldly July was enough for him to lead the Appy in Runs, Total Bases, Average, OBP, and Slugging.  Noda won’t be able to duplicate those numbers in full season ball, but it was fun checking Bluefield’s box scores every night for a month – here’s a brief sample:

Screenshot 2018-01-01 at 10.32.10 PM

9.  Ryan Borucki’s AA debut

It’s hard to believe that 15 months earlier, the southpaw was sent down to Lansing from Dunedin because Florida State League hitters had been hitting him hard and often.

But Borucki, who knows a thing or two about battling back from adversity (injuries cost him most of two of his first three pro seasons), refined his command, added some deception to his delivery, and came to rely on a change-up that’s already Major League-ready.

After repeating Dunedin to begin 2017, he earned a late July promotion to New Hampshire, and was masterful in his Eastern League debut, keeping hitters off-balance while tossing 7 shutout innings, allowing only two hits and a pair of walks.  Two starts later, he fired another 7 scoreless frames, fanning 7.

Barring some roster moves before spring training, Borucki and New Hampshire teammate Thomas Pannone will be among the candidates vying for the fifth starter’s role in the rotation.

10. Yennsy Diaz’ June 15th start

Diaz was just another hard-throwing righthander with control problems when he pitched in Bluefield in 2016.  He learned to harness his fastball last spring, and by June had been promoted from Extended to Lansing.

It was in the nightcap of Bichette’s pursuit of .400 doubleheader that Diaz made his second MWL start.  And South Bend hitters were all but defenceless against his 98 mph heat.  While Bichette was racking up base hits, Diaz was piling up the Ks, recording 8 in 4.2 innings.

While the rest of his season was full of ups and downs, Diaz had several outings where everything was working, and hitters were overmatched against his fastball.  Command of his secondaries is still an area requiring improvement, but there’s few things to compare with a Pitcher throwing easy 97 gas.

Blue Jays GM Atkins on the 40-man Roster Additions

The Blue Jays added 5 prospects among some additions and subtractions on Monday to get their 40-man roster to 39 players in advance of the deadline to freeze rosters in advance of next month’s Rule 5 draft.

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins admitted that setting a 40-man in advance of the Rule 5 is what he calls a “challenging process.”:

 We want to protect and retain all of our talented players, but we need to balance that desire with the need to manage 40-man roster space in the context of other offseason acquisitions and additions

The team elected to promote Catchers Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire, 1B Rowdy Tellez, and Pitchers Conner Greene and Thomas Pannone.  “We think very highly of all these players,” he added, “both with respect to their long-term upside, as well as possible near-term ability to impact our major league team.”

On Jansen, who had a breakout offensive season at three levels:

 Dan Jansen really impressed us and many around the industry this year, opening the season in A ball and advancing all the way to AAA. Danny had struggled with injuries in past years, but took the initiative to make two key changes following the 2016 season- he addressed some vision issues with an optometrist, and adapted his offensive approach. In a full season this year, he had a .323 average and .884 OPS across 3 levels, and performed particularly well in his late-season promotion to Buffalo. Our field staff and his pitchers have always thought highly of his defensive abilities, and Dan deserves all the credit for accepting the challenge of improving his offensive game and making the strides that he did.

On Greene and Tellez, both of whom had sideways 2017 seasons, but still are held in high regard:

We are highly confident in their abilities on the field, and I know both players well; there is no doubt in my mind that they will use the adversity they faced in 2017 to move forward and improve themselves in 2018.

Pannone was something of a sleeper, acquired in the Joe Smith deadline deal.  Even though he had only pitched for the organzation for a month, he made quite an impression:

The reports and information we had on him prior to his acquisition was very exciting, and since he’s joined our club we’ve only been more impressed with him, both on and off the field. We felt that a player with his skills and track record (sub-3.00 ERA in AA) as a left-handed starter would rightly draw a lot of attention in the Rule 5 draft, and we look forward to having him in camp this spring.

McGuire missed much of the season with a knee injury, but his premium receiving skills might have made him an inviting Rule 5 target, even in a back up role:

  He had a great offensive year with some strong improvement over his 2016 season, and we feel that his ability to defend behind the plate and interact with our staff gives him a high ceiling. We’re excited to see him build off his 2017 season as he moves into 2018.

The team does risk losing C/1B/DH Max Pentecost, who might be attractive to a team that could use him in a utility role.  Just the same, his injury history, in addition to his weak Arizona Fall League showing and the fact that he can’t Catch on back-to-back days led the Blue Jays to roll the dice and leave him off the 40, hoping to sneak him through.  Atkins did not refer specifically to Pentecost, but did acknowledge that the club faced some tough decisions when it came time to decide who to protect:

 While we may have been able to add another player or two to our roster, doing so would have impacted our ability to make other decisions and moves later in the offseason. Hopefully we don’t lose any of our un-protected players in the upcoming Rule 5 draft, but if we do, it is a testament to the talent level and depth of our organization.

The Rule 5 draft has undergone a signficant metamorphosis over the years.  Once an afterthought at the end of the December Winter Meetings, some teams (like the Blue Jays with Joe Biagini) have been able to find value in baseball’s bargain bin.  The draft was originally meant to keep teams from stockpiling young players in the minors.  Roberto Clemente, Josh Hamilton, and Johan Santana  are three of the most successful picks ever, but the trend until recently has been for only a small amount of players to be selected, with most returned to their original clubs.  The Blue Jays, for their part, were regular players in the Rule 5 during the Pat Gillick era, mining the Rule 5 for 1987 MVP George Bell. 

Atkins did not indicate if the Blue Jays will be active participants this year.  Hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again last year, they selected Pitcher Glenn Sparkman from the Royals.  Sparkman broke his thumb in spring training, and was shipped back to the Royals after getting hammered in his only Blue Jays appearance.

This year’s Rule 5 draft takes place on December 10th.  JJ Cooper of Baseball America wrote an excellent piece about the actual draft day process last year.  

Blue Jays Add Prospects at 40-Man Deadline

The Blue Jays added 5 prospects to their 40 man roster today to prevent the possibility of losing them at next month’s Rule 5 draft.

Catchers Reese McGuire and Danny Jansen, 1B Rowdy Tellez, and Pitchers Thomas Pannone and Conner Greene were added.  Left unprotect included C/1B/DH Max Pentecost, OF Jonathan Davis, and Ps Andrew Case, Jordan Romano, Francisco Rios, and Angel Perdomo.

The team began clearing space earlier this month by outrighting Bo Schultz, Cesar Valdez, and Darren Ceciliani from the 40.  Last week, Leonel Campos, Taylor Cole, Luis Santos, and Raffy Lopez met the same fate.  Letting Rob Refsnyder go on waivers today and designating Harold Ramirez and Chris Rowley cleared additional space.  In between, Deck McGuire was signed as an MiLB free agent, and Taylor Guerreri was claimed on waivers from the Rays.  Acquiring SS Gift Ngoepe from the Pirates for futures brought the roster to 34 as the day progressed.

The 5 who were protected were not much of a surprise.  Jansen had a breakout year at three levels, and while McGuire missed a good chunk of the season due to knee surgery, could likely fit into any MLB roster as at least a back up, and showed promise with the bat upon his return.  Neither may be quite ready for an MLB job, but both would have likely been claimed.

Greene had his struggles at AA this year, but topped 100 with his fastball on multiple occasions.  It will be interesting if the team continues to let him develop as a starter, or if he moves to the bullpen.  Pannone, acquired in the Joe Smith deadline deal, was among the league leaders in many Eastern League pitching categories.

Tellez struggled mightily at the plate in AAA this year, and given his bat-first profile, he may have gone through the Rule 5 draft unclaimed.  The Blue Jays, obviously, did not want to take that risk, and the promotion of the 40-man has to be seen as a reward to Tellez, as well as a vote of confidence.

If there was a player who may have been protected, it might have been New Brunswick native Case.  After capping off as strong season by providing excellent set-up relief for Peoria en route to their Arizona Fall League title, there was talk that he might be protected.  Case does not profile as a big strikeout guy, which probably is why he was left off the 40.  Similarly, Davis had a strong fall for Peoria, and boosted his stock as a speedy, versatile fourth outfielder.  He might be a good fit for a team in need of that commodity.  Pentecost did not do much to show that he would be worth stashing on a 25-man for a year.  At this point, he has yet to prove he can Catch every day, and he struggled against AFL pitching.  It would be a surprise to see him selected.

With the roster now at 39, the Blue Jays have a chance to add a player at the Rule 5.

 

 

 

 

 

Blue Jays Make Moves in Advance of the 40-man Deadline

The Blue Jays made some roster moves ahead of next Saturday’s deadline to set 40-man rosters before December’s Rule 5 draft.

Pitchers Leonel Campos, Luis Santos, and Taylor Cole, along with C Raffy Lopez, were outrighted, taking the roster down to 35.  RHP Taylor Guerrieri was claimed after being left off of Tampa’s roster, bringing the number up to 36 for the moment.

The acquisition of Guerreri was an interesting one.  The former 1st round pick had been a perennial top prospect, but Tommy John surgery and a 50 game suspension for a drug of abuse derailed his career.  His 2016 report from Baseball America:

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Guerrieri was limited to only two AAA starts in April before being shut down with elbow soreness, but indications are that he’s healthy and will be ready for spring training.  With his velo drop, he doesn’t seem to fit the profile for a conversion to the bullpen, so he likely will serve as AAA starting depth if he’s unable to crack the back of the Blue Jays rotation.

Cole has always been one of our favourite MiLBers.  Cole led the minors in strikeouts while pitching for AA New Hampshire in 2014, and was labelled one of baseball’s top fringe prospects by Fangraphs.  Injuries and inconsistency have slowed his progress since then, and the 28 year old BYU grad (who did his mission work in Toronto) became an odd man out after making his MLB debut in September.

A Blue Jays source today indicated that pending further roster moves, the team will be adding between 3 to 6 minor league players to the 40 in order to protect them from the rule 5 draft.  The cutting of three pitchers would seem to bode well for Conner Greene, Thomas Pannone, Jordan Romano, Andrew Case, and Angel Perdomo.  Likewise,  outrighting Lopez would appear to be opening up a spot for one (or more) of Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire, and Max Pentecost.

Expect more deals to be announced by the Blue Jays over the next week and a half before the roster is finalized.

Blue Jays Face Decisions Ahead of Rule 5 Draft

The Blue Jays have some heavy thinking to do as they prepare to finalize their 40-man roster later this month in advance of next month’s Rule 5 draft.

Senior executives and scouts from the organization converged on Toronto last week for meetings to plot the club’s future, with the deadline for finalizing their 40 man coming on November 18th.  Players with qualifying years of minor league service who are not placed on the 40 by that date can be claimed by any other MLB team in the Rule 5 on December 14th.

This coming Monday is the deadline for players on the 60-day DL to be reinstated to the 40 man if the team plans to keep them.  Bo Schultz, Cesar Valdez, and Darren Ceciliani had been on the 60-day, but were outrighted on Wednesday.  Aaron Sanchez, Dalton Pompey, Troy Tulowitzki, and Devon Travis will likely be added before that deadline, which means that the club will be up to 39 players.

There is a large group of minor leaguers who have hit the magic number in terms of years of minor league service that the club will have to decide on:

C – Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire

C/1B – Max Pentecost

1B – Rowdy Tellez

RHP – Conner Greene, Jordan Romano, Francisco Rios, Andrew Case

LHP – Angel Perdomo, Thomas Pannone

And with almost every name on this list, there are question marks.  Jansen had a breakout year offensively, and played at three levels, although some of his defensive deficiencies were exposed the higher he moved.  McGuire missed a good chunk of the season with a knee injury, and while he’s a quality receiver, there are concerns about his bat.

Pentecost’s health has always been an issue, and while he made a solid return to Catching on a limited basis this season, there is significant doubt as to his ability to play every day at that position.  Easily the best athlete in this group, the Blue Jays may have to consider turning him into a hybrid player in order to keep his bat in the lineup.

Of the above three, Pentecost would be the most coveted Rule 5 pick, but he would come with a high degree of uncertaintly.  Both Jansen and McGuire could probably step into MLB back up roles right away, but the Rule 5 market for players of their type has not been brisk over the past several seasons.

Tellez had success at every level of his career prior to this one, but he was overhwhelmed by AAA pitching this season.  His bat is his primary tool, and when he struggles at the plate with pitch selection like he did this year, it tends to emphasize the relative inadequacies of his other tools.  And the Blue Jays, as a result, have a major decision to make about Tellez.  At this time last year, this would have been a no-brainer, but coming off a down season and with spaces on the 40 at a premium, will they consider leaving Tellez, who was being talked about as a potential middle-of-the-order bat before this season unprotected?

Greene topped 100 with his fastball multiple times this season, but had an incredibly hard time finding the plate.  His BB rate (13.9%) was far and away the highest in the Eastern League, and while there’s room for optimism with the amount of weak contact he generated, he did not miss a lot of bats (8% swinging strike rate) for someone with his heat.  The talk about moving Greene to the bullpen is growing, but as Mark Shapiro said in conversation recently, “Most people don’t realize how hard it is to develop Starting Pitchers.”  That likely means that Greene will still be given a chance to start.  Despite a bit of a sideways 2017, he would be snapped up quickly as a conversion project if he was exposed to the Rule 5.

Greene’s rotation mate at New Hampshire, Thomas Pannone, turned a lot of heads this year prior to and after his acquisition from Cleveland in the Joe Smith deal.  Certainly, his stats look better than Greene’s, but the southpaw’s ceiling is not as high.

New Brunswick native Case pitched at three levels this year, ending the season at AAA.  He is not a high strikeout guy, but he was very effective in AA, limited Eastern League hitters to a .209 average.  He’s pitched well in the Arizona Fall League, too.  The Blue Jays surely would not want to part with him, but there are other priorities ahead of him.

Markham, ON native Jordan Romano had a successful season at High A.  He began to wear down as the season progressed, but that wasn’t a surprise given that it was the 2015 Tommy John surgery survivor’s first full season.  Reports from Florida suggest that Romano had trouble turning a lineup over as the year went on, and might be better suited to a bullpen role.  His fastball, which sits 91-95, would no doubt tick up higher, and he could focus on his curve, and drop his fringy change.  Romano would be a reach, but he too could be a bullpen conversion project, and might give a team some decent innings in long relief.

6’8″ lefty Angel Perdomo has long teased with the extension and late life he gets on his fastball, complemented by developing secondaries.  Perdomo struggled with his command before having his season end in early July.  He has long been called a bullpen arm in waiting, and while he could one day be an effective situational reliever, he would be an enormous risk for a team right now.

RHP Francisco Rios had a breakout half season in Lansing last year, but couldn’t duplicate his success a High A or, this year, at AA.  Patrick Murphy showed promise and earned a promotion from Lansing to Dunedin this year, but he has a lengthy injury history that has slowed his development.

Unless there are some dramatic moves, the Blue Jays aren’t going be able to protect all of these players from being exposed to the Rule 5 draft.  It becomes a question of how much risk they want to take, and how much risk other teams are willing to take.  Each draftee costs $100 000, and it the player fails to stay on the drafting team’s 25-man roster for the entire season, he must be offered back to his original team for half that price.  That’s not a huge risk for teams – the trend of late has been to draft a player, then give him a spring training to see if he can fill a role.  San Diego manouvered their way into acquiring the top three picks in last year’s draft, and while the trio of players selected stayed on the 25-man, they had minimal impact.  The rebuilding Padres could afford to live with those players for a year, and can now send them back to the minors for further seasoning.

The Blue Jays struck pay dirt with Joe Biagini two years ago.  The former Giants’ farmhand was a revelation in 2016, but had difficulty when pressed into a Starting role this year.  Toronto had high hopes for last year’s pick, Glenn Sparkman, but he broke his thumb early in spring training.  He was hit hard in his one and only MLB appearance this year before being returned to the Royals.

Gazing into the Blue Jays 40-man crystal ball, it’s hard to say exactly who they will protect.  Much will depend on how much space the Blue Jays want to create over the next two weeks.  Pentecost and Greene appear to be safe bets this year, but the rest is open to speculation.

 

 

 

Alford Sole Fisher Cat to Crack EL Top 20

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cbc.ca photo

New Hampshire Fisher Cats’ OF Anthony Alford had a season to write home about.

After a sideways 2016 which was interrupted by injury, the 2012 3rd rounder did not break out this year like he did in 2015, when he burst onto the prospect scene after three seasons to abbreviated action while he pursued his college football dreams, but he had a fantastic  2017 campaign just the same.  After making his MLB debut in May, he returned to AA in August after breaking his wrist, and was named the Eastern League’s 9th Top Prospect by Baseball America.

Alford blitzed Eastern League pitching, and was hitting .325/.411/.455 when he was called up to the Blue Jays.  He broke his wrist after only 8 ABs, and was out of action for six weeks.  When Alford returned, the Blue Jays wisely decided to sent him back to AA after a rehab stint at Dunedin.

That Alford was ranked only the 9th-best Eastern League prospect is not an issue; the loop was full of premium prospects this year.  But he did show a combination of speed, reactions to fly balls, and power potential that led several EL Managers to compare him to former MLBer Rondell White.  One Manager went as far as to say:

His breaks on balls were so good…….that it looked like he got going before the ball was hit.

Alford had a great deal of development time to make up for after committing to baseball in 2015.  His baseball education is almost complete, and it’s time for him to compete for a major league job at spring training.

Conspicuous by their absence on the list were Pitchers Sean Reid-Foley and Conner Greene.  Both had their struggles this season, to put it mildly.  Reid-Foley’s command issues early in the season had him running into pitch limit troubles early in starts.  He did improve as 2017 progressed, but his numbers were inflated by those April and May difficulties.  Greene hit 100+ on his fastball numerous times, and wowed the hometown crowd at the Eastern League All Star game,  but command issues plagued him for much of the season.  No other starter in the Blue Jays organization had a higher  pitches per inning average than Greene.  BA stated:

He had the best fastball in the league and his curveball was in the conversation for best breaking ball, but he was more of a thrower than a pitcher, in managers/scouts eyes. He lived up in the zone a lot, for example, and could get hit. If he irons out the finer points of pitching and keeps the same stuff, the ceiling is very high. He wasn’t far off the list.

This season may just have been a speed bump for both, but it did bring about mumblings that we’ve heard before that one or both of them profile in the long run as power bullpen arms.

C Danny Jansen played at 3 levels this year, and had a breakthrough year at the plate.  Jansen hit career highs in most offensive categories, putting up a combined line of .323/.400/.484, with 10 Home Runs.  The EL list was the only one he qualified for, but BA’s Josh Norris felt he profiles more of a bat-first Catcher:

 Scouts who I talked to saw him more as an offensive-minded backup type of catcher with work still to be done defensively. Particularly, needed work on his lateral agility as a blocker.

Prior to this season, Jansen had a reputation as a solid defensive Catcher.  I have to admit that this was not the first time his skills had been questioned this summer.  Jansen is a big guy, and he did seem challenged on some pitches in the dirt off the plate this year.  Still, he is an excellent pitch framer, and presents a nice low target for his size.  It will be interesting to see where his development goes from here.  You have to think that he has an excellent shot at landing a position as Russ Martin’s understudy next spring.