Blue Jays Make Roster Moves Ahead of Rule 5

The Blue Jays made a number of roster moves yesterday ahead of next month’s Rule 5 draft.

A bunch of bullpen arms were moved in order to free up some space on the 40-man roster.  Jose Fernandez was picked up by the Tigers on a waiver claim,  Justin Shafer was outrighted to Buffalo, while Rhiner Cruz, Taylor Guerreri, and Jake Petricka cleared waivers, and are now free agents.  Troy Tulowitzki and Brandon Drury were reinstated from the 60-day DL, bringing the current 40 man to a total of 36 players.

There may be more space created before rosters are frozen on November 20th.  Dalton Pompey may be headed elsewhere after another season of injuries and inconsistency.  Getting into an argument with Buffalo Manager Bobby Meacham this summer probably means that the Mississauga native will get a much-needed fresh start with another organization.  Yangervis Solarte’s option was not picked up by the club, and with the surplus of infielders in the system, it seems likely that he will be traded or non-tendered.

 

So at the moment, there are four spaces available to protect minor league players who could be exposed to the Rule 5.  RHP Patrick Murphy would seem to have the best chance to be added, but there is a sliver of a chance that his injury history might scare off other teams.  Murphy was the Florida State League’s Pitcher of the Year, and led the league in strikeouts.  He hit 100 with his fastball late this summer, and kept his mid-90s velo deep into games.

As for position players, Harold Ramirez and Max Pentecost are the two most likely under consideration for the 40.  Ramirez had a fine bounce-back year at AA, winning the Eastern League batting crown, and can play all three OF positions.  Pentecost was healthy for the whole season, but struggled at the plate until making a mechanical adjustment in August.  He looked very worn down in the playoffs.  The Blue Jays faced a similar situation with the 2014 1st rounder last November, but placed him on the DL at the end of the Arizona Fall League.

Other Pitchers who have a chance to grab one of those 40-man openings include:

-southpaw bullpen arm Travis Bergen, who fanned 74 in 57 innings split between A+ and AA this year;

-reliever Jackson McClelland, whose command appears to be catching up to his 100+ FB in AFL play;

-Markham native Jordan Romano, who had a fine season in AA, and might be converted to a relief role;

-reliever Corey Copping, who came over in the John Axford deal;

-starter Hector Perez, acquired in the Roberto Osuna trade;

-Aaron Loup-heir apparent reliever Danny Young, a sidewinding lefty.

 

With as many as a half-dozen or more of those names (there are others in the system, but the above appear to be the most likely) under consideration for the 40, it makes sense that the Blue Jays are likely considering other roster moves before the 20th.

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Toronto Blue Jays Top 11-20 Prospects

Some evaluators will give you their Top 30, or even Top 50 prospects for a team.

Truth be told, the differences in terms of overall tools and MLB potential gets less and less the farther you go down an organization’s list of prospects, which is why it’s very tough to get past the Top 20.

Generally speaking, players in the 11-20 range are fringe MLBers, at least at this point in their careers.  Some have produced solid bodies of work, but are at a point where they’ve all but reached their projection, while others have plenty of projection remaining, but are still a long way away.  There’s always someone from this group who can make a tremendous leap forward, but the odds tend to be more with the guys in the Top 10.

As evidence of the rise in quality of the Blue Jays system over the past several years, this may be the most impressive group of prospects in this range they’ve produced in some time.  Thanks to some trade deadline deals, there are a couple of new faces, too.

 

11. Cavan Biggio UT

Biggio broke out in a big year at New Hampshire in 2018, and bears further close watching next year.

The 2016 5th rounder attempted to put more loft into his swing last season, and then lowered his hands this season.  The results were impressive – he led the Eastern League in Home Runs.  He also led the league in walks, and just missed a Three True Outcomes triple crown by finishing second in Ks.

Biggio is a patient hitter, as evidenced by the number of walks.  What keeps him from the upper echelon of prospects is that at 23, he’s probably hit his ceiling, and he doesn’t have the lengthy track record that other top prospects have.  His defensive skills are also a consideration, as he has been described as a fringy defensive player – the Blue Jays have had him playing RF in Arizona in an attempt to build his versatility.  Biggio’s swing can also be long, and Pitchers with sharper secondaries may take advantage of it at AAA or even MLB.

12.  Patrick Murphy SP

The 2018 Florida State League Pitcher of the Year had a truly dominant year at High A, and will likely earn a spot on the 40-man roster next month.  What seems to be keeping him off the prospect lists is a lengthy injury history, although he made 27 starts for Dunedin this year.

Murphy has upped his velo, hitting 100 mph with his fastball in August, the culmination of a steady increase all season.  He pairs that FB with a hammer curve, but needs to develop a 3rd pitch.

Murphy gets lost a little bit in comparison to the other high-profile Starters in the system, but he should make for an interesting follow at AA next year.

13.  David Paulino SP

A one-time top 100 prospect, Paulino has a starter’s mix of pitches, and has fanned better than a batter per inning in his MiLB career.  Despite his injury history (13 starts over the past two seasons),  Paulino still projects as a starter.

A stretch of good health at AAA would be the best case scenario for Paulino.

14.  Hector Perez SP

Perez, like Paulino, came over in the Roberto Osuna deal from the Astros.  He throws four pitches, all of them with some movement.  Harnessing that movement has been a challenge for him, as his walk rate has consistently been in the double digits throughout his minor league career.

Perez’ future may lie in relief, where his mid to upper 90s fastball will play up, but the Blue Jays will likely give him an extended opportunity to pitch in a starting role.

15.  Rowdy Tellez 1B

Tellez helped to put a season and a half of AAA disappointment behind him with a post All Star line of .306/.360/.497 that was hard to ignore, and resulted in a September promotion.

Tellez hit 9 Doubles in only 70 ABs during his September audition, but walked only twice.  With Justin Smoak firmly ensconced at 1B for the time being, Tellez appears headed for another tour of the International League come next April, but he gives the Blue Jays some roster flexibility.  With the team not likely to contend for a couple of seasons, Smoak could be dealt to upgrade other areas of the roster at some point, and Tellez could step into his role.

16.  TJ Zeuch, SP

The 2016 1st rounder’s main weapon is a bowling ball sinker, which gets good downward plane due to his 6’7″ height.  Zeuch can command all four of his pitches, but what seems to limit his projection to back-end starter is the fact that none of them grade as plus.

Zeuch rarely puts himself into difficult situations with walks, and he generates ground balls at about a 55-60% rate – he led the Eastern League with a 55.2%, and his 16.5 Line Drive rate was 3rd-lowest among qualifiers.  Because he tends to pitch to contact, Zeuch will always need a solid defence behind him.

While he might not profile as an Ace, Zeuch has been an important part of some championship teams of late – New Hampshire this year, Dunedin last year, and an Arizona Fall League title (where he was the starting Pitcher of the final game) sandwiched in between.

17.  Miguel Hiraldo SS

One of the top bats in the 2017 J2 class, Hiraldo slashed .313/.381/.453 in the Dominican Summer League – interestingly, the Blue Jays didn’t think he was ready for stateside play until August.

Baseball America‘s scouting report focuses on his bat:

Hiraldo has a knack for hitting and driving the ball with impact from a direct, compact swing. He doesn’t generate much separation with his hands to load his swing, but he has explosive hand speed that generates plus bat speed. He’s an aggressive hitter who mashes fastballs, with strong forearms and legs that he incorporates to generate average power. He’s a pull-heavy hitter who’s still improving his pitch recognition and selectivity.

Most reports suggest that while Hiraldo has the hands and arm for SS, his stocky build profiles better at 3B.

18.  Travis Bergen RP

At the end of a conversation with Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro last fall, he was asked what a General Manager’s most difficult job was.  “Developing Starting Pitching,” was his response, but with all due respect, given budget considerations and the volatile nature of relievers, building a bullpen may be a GM’s most daunting task.

The Blue Jays farm system has already made a solid contribution to the big club’s bullpen with relievers such as Ryan Tepara, Danny Barnes, and Tim Mayza.   Another wave is coming, led by southpaw Bergen.  Despite missing the better part of three seasons since being drafted in 2015, Bergen has been lights out at every stop over the past two seasons, most recently with New Hampshire.

Bergen tops out at 94 with his fastball, sitting 91-92.  He commands both sides of the plate with it, along with his slider.  Even though he fanned 74 in 56 innings at two levels this year, his best tool is his ability to avoid barrels.  He keeps hitters off-balance with his sequencing, and is very tough to square up.

19. Yennsy Diaz SP

Diaz burst onto the radar last year with a scintillating debut in full season ball at Lansing, where he fanned 82 in 77 innings, mainly off the strength of a 96-97 FB that Midwest League hitters could not catch up with.

Sent back to Lansing to begin 2018, he fanned 10 hitters on Opening Day in 5.2 innings.  Diaz was promoted to Dunedin after 9 starts, and while he continued to miss bats (11.6% SwStr rate), he didn’t notch as many Ks.  He was holding his velo later into games this year, but was pitching more to contact.

Diaz often gets ahead of hitters by establishing a fastball down in the zone, then elevates when he gets two strikes.  His best secondary pitch at the moment is his curve, which has progressed from a show me pitch to a true barrel dodger.  His change-up is a pitch that pairs well with his fastball, but can be a little firm.  How fast and far Diaz progresses (New Hampshire is his likely destination next April) will depend on how those secondaries continue to develop.

20.  Jackson McClelland RP

You don’t tend to see many relievers on top prospect lists due to their volatility.  When you have one who consistently hits triple digits, it’s worth a second look.  Such is the case with McClelland, a 2015 draftee who has consistently added velo as he’s moved through the system.

McClelland has a deceptive delivery, and combined with his length, it makes it tough for hitters to pick up the ball coming out of his hand.  He pairs his fastball with a slider and an ever-improving change-up.  McClelland is still working on it, but he’s shown improved command this fall in Arizona.

 

 

 

 

 

Jackson McClelland: The Best Blue Jays Relief Prospect You’ve Never Heard Of

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Tim McClelland photo

One of the the best potential power arms in the Blue Jays system lives in an RV.

No, we’re not talking about Daniel Norris, whose travels in his Westfalia van throughout the Toronto minor league organization a few seasons ago became well known.  Dunedin Closer Jackson McClelland has hit 100 with his fastball, which sits in the high 90s, and has a wipeout slider.  He leads the Florida State League with an 18.9% swinging strike rate.

Originally drafted by the Pirates in the 35th round of the 2012 draft, the Cherry Hill, CA native (where he threw for Redlands East Valley High, a Pitching factory that has churned our numerous MLB draftees, including Tyler Chatwood) opted to attend Pepperdine, where he started in his sophomore and junior seasons.  At Pepperdine, he pitched well, but at least one evaluator (MLB Draft Report) felt that McClelland had more to give:

 His stuff is more than enough to get college hitters out (90-95 FB, breaking ball with upside, usable change) and he’s a really good athlete throwing from a 6-5, 220 pound body, but he’s never consistently missed bats. Teams with a more forgivng view of underachieving college talent who might consider him a talented ball of clay to mold rather than a near-finished product seem more likely to give him a call this June than otherwise.

The Blue Jays obviously saw material that they could work with, and after a brief trial in the Northwest League in 2015 (3 appearances, 2 starts), the Blue Jays converted McClelland to relief, and sent him back to Vancouver the following year.  2017 was truly a breakout season for him, as he added velo to his fastball, and recorded 15 Saves between Lansing and Dunedin.  Although he missed a month due to injury, McClelland has picked up where he left off in his return to High A and the D-Jays this year, notching 7 Saves, and fanning 40 batters in 30 Innings Pitched.

For every high bonus draftee or international free agent, there are countless players who toil for wages less than a 7-11 employee – there are enough to stock a couple of leagues on their own.  In the Blue Jays system, players are housed by the team at the GCL and Appy League levels, and use host families (some of whom have trouble putting enough food on the table for 6’5″/230 players) at Vancouver – Lansing has a host family program as well, but hosting young men with varying schedules and big appetites for five months of the year has led to some difficulties.  For players above that level, day-to-day life during the season can be tough – having a comfortable place to sleep, and getting a decent meal away from the park are considerable challenges.

McClelland’s dad Tim had recently retired from his job as a California Fire Chief the year before he was drafted, and when his mom Michelle learned that players above Lansing had to sometimes resort to sleeping in the clubhouse and smuggling or stealing food in order to survive, they sold their house and bought a 31 ft RV “toy hauler,” complete with generator for cross country travel, and headed for Michigan.  After living in an RV Park in Leslie, MI, a small town about 20 minutes south of Lansing, Tim and Michelle packed up and made the drive south to Florida when Jackson was promoted to Dunedin early last season.  They found an RV Park in Clearwater, about 15-20 minutes from Dunedin.

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The McClelland Family Home (during the season) Tim McClelland photo

Tim agrees that having a home-away-from-home environment has been a part of Jackson’s success:

He’s very appreciative and has told us he knows his success the past 2 seasons is a direct result of having a familiar, stable living accommodation. He really struggled with his host home placement in Vancouver and even in the Cape Cod League in 2014. I retired that year so we flew out to Mass and rented a house and car on Cape Cod for the summer…..He enjoys living in an environment where he’s comfortable and doesn’t have to worry about offending people with how much he eats etc.

As for living in a trailer, it’s part of a retirement dream for Jackson’s parents.  Tim says that one of the couple’s goals was to travel and see the U.S.A.  Jackson’s situation, in Tim’s words, caused them to gladly alter their plans in order to support him.

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Clutchlings photo

Jackson’s 2017 season started with a bang – a two scoreless/hitless innings, three strikeout save in Lansing’s home opener, in which he sat 93-95 with his fastball.  He Saved 7 more games in 8 chances for the Lugnuts before being promoted to Dunedin in early June.  McClelland Saved another 7 (in as many chances) as the D-Jays, bolstered in the second half by the promotions of Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette, captured the Florida State League’s 2nd half North Division title.  Jackson’s velo soldily sat in the mid-90s as the season progressed,  and  he was consistenly the last man up in Dunedin’s bullpen. Working with Dunedin Pitching Coach Mark Riggins, McClelland was encouraged to use his two-seam fastball, which he had been discouraged from using previously.  With this pitch back in his arsenal, Jackson gave up only one Earned Run in the month of August as the D-Jays headed for a playoff match up with the Yankees Tampa affiliate.

Unfortunately for Jackson’s parents, they had to give the Florida State League playoffs a miss, which turned into a shortened affair due to the impending arrival of bad weather:

 As Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida, we got everything packed and literally rolled north when Jackson returned from Tampa right after the (final regular season) game. We were well ahead of Irma and the fuel crunch and stayed up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama for about 3 weeks which allowed Irma to pass and then hit the road west for the AFL (Arizona Fall League, where Jackson was assigned after the season).

When 2018 opened, you could understand if Jackson thought he was headed northeast, to the AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats of the Eastern League. But one of the unheralded aspects of the Blue Jays now highly ranked farm system is that they have quietly been building an impressive depth of relief prospects, a necessity in this day and age of almost disposable bullpen arms.  And perhaps it was just as well, because Michelle, who scours the area around Blue Jays affiliates (as well as Toronto) for RV parks couldn’t find one in New Hampshire that opened before May 1st.

As it turned out, Jackson was on the DL for most of May with back issues, and it took him a few outings to get back into the swing of things.  By July, his velo and command were fully back, and he reeled off six scoreless outings in a row, fanning 12.  He had a hiccup five days ago when he entered a game and left after walking four straight, but McClelland has been one of the organization’s most consistent relief Pitchers since his return from the DL – last night, he threw a scoreless inning.  He typically sits 97-99 with his four seamer, 95-96 with the two-seamer (with movement), 89-91 with his slider, and 84-85 with a circle change.  A source who covers the Florida State League suggests that his four seamer is a little straight, and would be best used as an elevated eye-level changing pitch with two strikes.  Another report suggests that his change up is becoming one of the best in the Florida State League.

Most millenials would be less than thrilled with moving in with their parents, but for Jackson, living in Tim and Michelle’s home on wheels has provided him with an off field environment that allows him to focus full time on his career:

   It’s been a really good experience for me, and a chance every night to step away from baseball and reset mentally for the next day.  It’s a real simple, easy way to live.

For their part, Jackson’s parents are happy to be able to both provide support for their son, and follow his progress closely as he chases his dream.  Tim cites a night last year at St Lucie as a highlight.  They were able to park their RV just beyond the outfield for the series, and watched as Jackson struck out Tim Tebow on a 98 fastball.  Still, there are things they miss:

I’d say there’s a couple things we miss most – being away from our young (3 and 4) and only grand children being number one. Secondly a couple things like taking long, hot showers in our own home (5 gallon water heater in the trailer so it’s military style showering) and having to load up all the laundry weekly to go to a laundromat

Complicating matters was the health of their newest grandchild, Tristin, was born earlier this year in California with an enlarged heart.  He received a heart transplant on May 12th, but the strain of living with heart failure for the first four months of his life had taken an enormous toll on Tristin’s fragile body, and he died on July 2nd.  It was incredibly tough for Tim and Michelle to be so far away, doubly so for Michelle, who was “emotionally torn,” in Tim’s words, about where to be:  with her ailing grandson in California, or with her son and a husband with health issues (Tim is a retired firefighter, many of whom have had job-related health complications).

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Jackson and his Great Dane Grizzly enjoy some quality post-game time together. Tim McClelland photo

Where does Jackson McClelland go from here?  He doesn’t have a lot left to prove after over a full calendar year in High A.  To be sure, the Blue Jays would like to see him continue to develop his pitches, but why isn’t McCloser pitching at a higher level?  There are a couple of possible explanations.  For starters, there is a fair amount of depth ahead of him in the New Hampshire pen, including  Zach Jackson, Travis Bergen, and Danny Young, who have all performed solidly for the Fisher Cats.  There are a couple of right handed relievers above McClelland who have not pitched as well this season, but for now, it appears that he’s trapped in a bit of a numbers game.  A cynic might suggest that with McClelland eligible for the Rule 5 draft this fall if he’s not placed on the 40-man roster, the Blue Jays might be content to keep him in High A, as teams may be less inclined to take a Pitcher who hasn’t played above his level.  That’s a strategy the team has used in the past with Starters, but they haven’t done so in recent memory with a Reliever.  Or perhaps the team just wants McClelland to continue to pitch in a place where he’ll get consistent reps.  Since they sent him to the Arizona Fall League last year, you would have to think that they consider him a prospect, and he fits into their future plans.

Not many minor league players get a chance to live in accommodations that allow them not to worry about adequate food or a comfortable place to sleep.  And even fewer parents get an opportunity to watch their sons work their way up an organization’s ladder.  Whether Jackson McClelland’s next stop is in New Hampshire or in some other organization, one thing is certain:  mom and dad will be packing up the RV and following him, all the way to the majors.