Some Final Thoughts on the Rule 5 Draft

In the past few days, we’ve seen a number of blogs posit that the Blue Jays made a mistake by not adding Jordan Romano and Travis Bergen to their 40-man roster, exposing them and ultimately losing them (for now, at least).

Maybe it’s time to take a step back.  No player selected in last week’s Rule 5 is likely to become a first division player.  Even the player the Blue Jays selected, RHP Elvis Luciano, is an extremely long shot to make it past spring training next year, let alone stick and become an above-replacment-level MLBer one day.

In the case of Romano and Bergen, Tommy John surgery early in their pro careers cost them development time.  Romano missed all of 2015, and after being drafted in the 7th round that year, Bergen didn’t advance to full season ball until this year.  If not for the time they missed, it’s reasonable to assume both would have pitched at AAA this year.

Romano has had success as a minor league starter after being drafted as a reliever.  He’s struck out almost a batter per inning in that role over his MiLB career, and was the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year.  As MLB Pipeline noted, however, his success has come more against RHH:

Romano can overpower right-handers with his 92- to 96-mph fastball and hard slider, but he scuffles against left-handers, leading many scouts to project him as a reliever. He posted a 4.11 ERA with a 128/45 K/BB ratio in 142 1/3 innings, mostly in Double-A.

Why, then, did the Blue Jays not convert Romano back to relief?  They had success in converting Ryan Tepera to the bullpen while he was still in the minors.  The main reason was that unlike Tepera, Romano had some success as a starter, and the Blue Jays were likely hoping that his Change-Up would continue to progress this year.  Ultimately, it didn’t – at least to the Blue Jays’ satisfaction – and since roster space was limited, and Romano ranks behind contemporaries Ryan Borucki, Thomas Pannone,  and Sean Reid-Foley, as well as Nate Pearson and Eric Pardinho behind him,  the team decided to expose him to the Rule 5.  They likely knew full well that he would be selected.  And as much as we like to see a GTA boy make it with his hometown team, Romano has a better chance to stick with the Rangers, who have question marks at the back of their rotation and in their bullpen.  I started a dialogue with Romano when he was recovering from Tommy John.  For three years, he’s faithfully answered my questions.  Over the past two seasons, he’s earned a championship ring (he called this year’s New Hampshire club the best team he’s ever played for), and I know he’s disappointed that his career as a Blue Jay may have come to an end.  He also knows he’s going to spring training next year (which means a huge raise in pay), and has a better shot at a big league job than he would have if he was still with the Blue Jays.

I make no secret of the fact that Bergen has been one of my favourite players in the system.  He was lights out in Vancouver in 2017, and was more of the same at two levels last year, closing out games late in the season for two championship teams in as many seasons.  He’s battled injuries and overhauled his delivery since joining the organization – there’s little doubt as to his grit, a quality scouts value.  At the same time, he doesn’t fit the mold of the heat-throwing power arm so in vogue today.  Even with the deception in his delivery and his ability to sequence, the Blue Jays must have felt well-stocked in the Lefty reliever department on the 40, and that unless he added velo (unlikely at the age of 25), Bergen was not going to be able to get MLB hitters out on a regular basis.  Still, they likely rolled the dice a bit with him, gambling that his injury history might scare some teams off.  The Giants were not.

Leaving these two off the 40 was not a mistake.  It was a sign of a system that is starting to develop some quality prospects.  And when you’re in that position, you have some difficult decisions to make come November.  And there’s always the possibility (slim that it may be) that one or both are offered back to the Blue Jays next year.   I’m certainly not trying to defend the Blue Jays’ choices; rather, I’m attempting to demonstrate what I feel was the thinking behind them.  Only time will tell whether it was a mistake to leave them unprotected.

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Blue Jays All Shook Up Over Elvis

elvis-luciano-photo

It was a bit of a throw away line, if anything.

Towards the end of a 40-minute interview with Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro fourteen months ago, I was gathering my notebook and recorder as it was becoming obvious this busy guy had places to go and people to see.

As I was packing up, we were talking about how the job of a General Manager has changed in this day and age of analytics.  Thinking back to a Baseball Prospectus essay I had read several years ago about how daunting a task it is to assemble a cost-effective bullpen these days with the volatile nature of relievers, and I opined as to how I thought piecing a bullpen together is a GM’s most challenging task.

Without hesitating, Shapiro responded, “I think developing starting pitching is.”

With that in mind, the Blue Jays’ drafting of RHP Elvis Luciano, the Royals’ 9th ranked prospect, despite Luciano not having pitched above Rookie ball, is easy to understand.  Even in this era of multiple reliever bullpens and the Opener, the Blue Jays are still laser-focused on the group of pitchers who give them the bulk of their innings every year.

Alex Duvall at Royals Farm Report gave us a glowing report on the 18-year-old Dominican:

You guys, I am in love with this kid. His arm action is smooth, his fastball is electric with room to grow, and that slider…oh my gosh. I’m not actually going to go there, but I watched two minutes of this kid pitch and thought to myself: “This kid has the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the Royals system.”

Royals Assistant GM JJ Picollo on Luciano:

“He’s a power arm that keeps getting better. He’s been up to 97 recently and competes really well. We feel like we have a young starter with a big ceiling. Seems to keep getting better and heading in the right direction.”

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said the team had done their homework on Luciano, and when he was still available when it came their turn to pick, it was a no-doubter.  He told reporters, including the Toronto Sun‘s Rob Longley:

“We wouldn’t have taken him if we didn’t think he had the stuff to do that,” Atkins said of what seems an unlikely prospect. “Elvis is an exciting young arm that we’ve done a lot of work on and we feel that any time you can acquire someone that has a significant chance to be a major league pitcher based on our projections and scout looks, these types of attributes are hard to acquire.”

 

 

So, the Blue Jays have landed themselves an 18 year old who already throws in the mid-90s, commands (to varying extents) three pitches, and has a boatload of projection remaning.  You do not find these arms available every day, and even though he’ll have to stay on the 25-man roster for a year (unless, of course, the Blue Jays can work out an arrangement with Kansas City), when you’re not likely to compete this season or next, you have room.  Luciano turns 19 in February – he’s a year older than Eric Pardinho, who pitched in the Appy League as Luciano did this year.

Luciano has a clean, athletic delivery, with a consistent arm slot.  His slider has some late bite to it, while he’s still developing a feel for his change.  Baseball America‘s report on him after 2017:

The D-backs saw Luciano throw just twice before snapping him up for $85,000 in the fall of 2016. They liked his heavy fastball, the spin on his breaking ball and his feel for a change-up. Luciano pitched in 2017 at the tender age of 17, but he is advanced beyond his years. He has an athletic delivery, a loose arm, a good feel for pitching and an unfazed demeanor on the mound.

At the same time, in their draft preview, BA felt that selecting Luciano probably represents too much of a risk:

Luciano is in no way ready for a big league job and the lost development time would hurt him. But he is one of the more promising prospects available because a renegotiated contract has made him eligible as an 18-year-old with no experience above short-season ball.

 

For many, the question is why would the Blue Jays gamble on a player who hasn’t even pitched at full season yet?  The answer is likely to be found in the fact that with Rogers finally having given their blessing to a full-on rebuild, the team can afford to carry Luciano on the 25-man for a full season.  The team will no doubt not use him in a regular role, likely relying on the QEW shuffle to bring in arms from Buffalo as needed.  Luciano is a roll of the dice:  his upside is as big as his risk.  But that upside might have been the biggest one in the whole Rule 5 draft.  This wasn’t a guy whose development clock ran out; a voided contract in his rookie year made him eligible this year.

Luciano has a pitcher’s build at 6’2″/184.  He’s struck out almost a batter per inning over three minor league seasons, and his 13.3% whiff rate was second best in the Appy League.  As BA noted, the chances of him sticking with the Blue Jays are very low, and that’s a realistic assessment – the last time a team selected a player out of rookie ball was in 2013, when the Brewers took Wei-Chung Wang, who didn’t stick.  Still, if there’s a time for the Blue Jays to make this type of gamble, 2019 would be it.

 

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The Blue Jays lost lefty reliever Travis Bergen, taken by the Giants with the pick before Luciano, and Markham’s Jordan Romano, taken by the White Sox with the third pick and then traded to the Rangers.

Bergen has been one of the best relief arms in the system the past two years, closing out W’s for championship teams in Vancouver and New Hampshire.  He also has a lengthy injury history, which the Blue Jays were probably hoping would dissuade teams from taking him.  Bergen throws in the low 90s, but his command and ability to sequence are his strength.  Few pitchers in the organization could throw a back foot slider to a RHH like he did.  A 7th round pick in 2015, Bergen pitched only 28 innings over his first pro seasons.  More than anything, the injuries meant he ran out of time as a prospect.

Romano has been a great fan of this site and its predecessor since he missed the 2015 season due to Tommy John surgery.  Since that time, he’s steadily moved up the ladder, as the Blue Jays transitioned him from reliever to starter.  He won his first 8 decisions with New Hampshire, and was the starting pitcher for the East in the Eastern League All Start Game.  Armed with a heavy mid 90s fastball and nasty slider, Romano’s change-up made great strides this season, but obviously not enough to convince the Blue Jays to put him on the 40-man roster.  If he’s moved to a multiple-innings relief role, Romano could be successful with his two primary pitches.

Best of luck to them both.  I’ve seen a lot of them over the years.

Will the Blue Jays Be Rule 5 Players?

JacksonMcClelland
Jackson McClelland – Clutchlings photo

With the team fully having hit the button on a rebuild, will the Blue Jays select a player with the 10th pick?  Will they lose a player?

The latter seems a much more likely scenario.

Increasingly, the Rule 5 has become a place to add a puzzle piece.  Teams have been much more conservative in their 40-man promotions, adding players who may be some time away from the bigs, but whose upside is too large to ignore.  Case in point:  Anthony Alford, who was added after the 2016 season, despite having only played two full seasons, none of them above High A.

An astute Twitter follower has pointed out that Carson Cistulli, formerly of Fangraphs, is a huge fan of the Cardinals’ 2B Max Schrock, who is Rule 5 eligible.  Cistulli, whose position with the Blue Jays is one that he said that he’s not at liberty to disclose the details of  (probably a hybrid analyst/scout role), has written extensively about Schrock, who has hit (.304 career average) at every level he’s played.  However, he’s coming off his worst season as a pro, and with the Blue Jays already deep in middle infielders, it seems unlikely that they will select him.  Add to the fact that he can’t play SS, and it seems even more doubtful.

What’s more likely is that the Blue Jays lose a Pitcher among at least one of Jordan Romano, Corey Copping, Travis Bergen, and Jackson McClelland, probably in that order.  Romano would appear to be at the top of the list because of the ever-changing use of bullpen arms, according to JJ Cooper of Baseball America

With every team shuffling relievers day-to-day, it is harder nowadays for a power reliever under Rule 5 requirements (which means they can’t be optioned to the minors) to stick on a roster. He’s simply not as valuable roster-wise as a similar player with options. But teams are looking for relievers who can give them multiple innings, so a starter with a little more polish (who could slide into that role and serve as a fill-in starter) is more appealing than fireballers with little control.

Copping has fanned better than a batter per inning in a minor league career spent entirely in the bullpen.  Bergen may not throw as hard as other relievers, but his career numbers are hard to ignore.  And while McClelland and his 100+ mph fastball may have the highest upside, his command may represent an equal amount of risk.  The Blue Jays may be gambling that all three make it through the Rule 5.  With Romano’s starter profile, it’s not unlikely that a team might try to convert him into a reliever, where his fastball may play up a bit, and he can give them those multiple innings.

 

All Quiet on the Blue Jays 40 Man Front

In a little bit less than 24 hours from now, MLB 40 man rosters must be finalized and frozen in advance of the Rule 5 draft next month.

The Blue Jays currently sit at 36 players on their 40, with the possibility of a couple of spots being opened tomorrow.

Among the players the team is likely considering promoting to the 40 are Pitchers Hector Perez, Patrick Murphy, Yennsy Diaz, and Travis Bergen.  Jordan Romano, Max Pentecost, and Jackson McClelland are players on the bubble.   The decisions the Blue Jays have to make are not easy.   McClelland smashed the 100 mph barrier regularly this year, and averaged 97 with his fastball.  With a similar build, it’s easy to see Romano experience a big uptick in velo in a relief role.  Maybe they’re marginal MLBers, or maybe one or both could be one who got away.

For the players, promotion to the 40 isn’t just a step closer to the big time.  For the guys who did not break the slot bank, the pay raise is a huge bonus – AAA players start at $2150/month (for a six month season), while AA players start at $1700.  Once promoted to the 40, players receive a $41400 salary (plus membership in the MLB Health and Welfare and MLB Insurance plans), which doubles in their second year on the 40.  Those numbers may not seem like a lot in the face of MLB salaries (the minimum is $545K) and high bonuses paid to top draftees and international players, but the Blue Jays spent almost 75% of their close to $10 million draft bonus pool this year on three players.  In addition, players on the 40 get an invite to spring training (which can trigger a bonus).

This will be one of the most interesting final pre-roster freeze 24 hours for the Blue Jays in recent memory.

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.

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.

Who Will the Blue Jays Send to the Arizona Fall League?o

As the minor league season approaches its conclusion, we turn our thoughts to the Arizona Fall League, a finishing school of sorts for an organization’s top prospects.

In the past, the Blue Jays have used the AFL experience to give their top prospects a taste of competition against elite talent, or to give them added reps missed due to injury.

Toronto will send six prospects to play for the Surprise Saguaros, who will be managed by former Blue Jays minor league Manager Stubby Clapp, who’s now in the Cardinals organization.  New Hampshire Position Coach Andy Fermin will join Clapp’s staff.

The Blue Jays will be sending six players – they’re allowed to send any AAA or AA player, as well as one from High A.  Projecting the first three players is fairly easy:

1.  Vlad Jr

While fans are clamoring for Guerrero’s promotion to the big club when MLB rosters expand on September 1st, the Blue Jays are still building him up to play a full season (and holding off on his service time), so a shutdown for September followed by a trip to the desert is the most likely scenario.

2.  Bo Bichette

Bichette has had his ups and downs this year as his pitch recognition skills have been put to the test, but his .839 post All Star OPS suggests he’s come through his first taste of adversity as a pro.  Word travelled quickly around the Eastern League that he’d chase, and he struggled until he stopped expanding his strike zone.

Bichette would likely get an opportunity to split time between SS and 2B, adding to his versatility.

3.  Cavan Biggio

Biggio’s prodigious power (26 HRs, .532 SLG) has been one of the bigger surprises in the organization.  Toss in 90 BBs and 128 Ks, and you have a three true outcomes triple crown threat.

Some Toronto media members have been suggesting Biggio could be in the Blue Jays lineup as early as next year, but the team still likely would to see if that power surge is for real, and what his ultimate position might be.  Biggio has played mostly 2B, but has also seen time at 1B and 3B, and the club experimented with him in RF this week.

Facing tough competition in the AFL will give us a good barometer of the legitimacy of his power.

It starts to get a bit unpredictable at this point.  Some possible candidates for the other three spots include:

Nate Pearson

After spending April in shut down mode with an oblique issue, Pearson’s 2018 came to a screeching halt when he took a line drive off of his pitching arm in his first start of the season.  Reports suggested an August return, but he’s yet to pitch in a game since the injury.

It’s possible we see him in short stints in the AFL, but the likelihood of that depends on how his arm has healed.  And getting that kind of information out of the Blue Jays is a herculean task.

Travis Bergen

Injuries limited the 2015 7th rounder to 28 innings over his first three pro seasons.  He was a mainstay in Vancouver’s bullpen last year, helping to lead the C’s to a league title, and has taken over the Closer’s role in New Hampshire.  With Bergen eligible for the Rule 5 draft if he’s not placed on the 40-man roster by November, the team likely would like to see how he fares against top prospects.

Zach Jackson

The righty reliever with the funky delivery has fanned 66 in 56 innings for New Hampshire, but has walked 43.  Some added reps might be in order.

Patrick Murphy 

Like Bergen, Murphy has a lengthy injury history, but he’s bumped up his velo, hitting 100 this year, and sitting 96-98 deep into games.  Murphy has also blown past his previous high in Innings Pitched, so there’s every chance he’s shut down come September, given the Blue Jays usual caution with their young arms.  With the Rule 5 a possibility for Murphy, there’s a good chance he’s added to the 40 this fall.

Jon Harris

The 2015 1st rounder had a disappointing season in his first AA campaign last year, but has added velo and some deception to his delivery in his second crack at the level in 2018.  With the Rule 5 looming for Harris, the Blue Jays might give him time in Arizona after a decent second half with New Hampshire.

Jordan Romano

Romano came out like a house on fire at AA, winning his first 8 decisions and getting the starting nod at the Eastern League All Star game.  He hasn’t missed as many bats in the second half as he did in the first, and with scouts wondering if he wasn’t better suited to a bullpen role, the Blue Jays might want to begin that transition this fall if that’s what they have in mind.

Angel Perdomo

The tall lefty with the electric fastball has been a starter since joining the organization in 2012, but the team moved him into the bullpen this year in Dunedin.

Rosters are usually released in late August.  Play in the AFL begins in early October, and wraps up in late November.

Blue Jays Last 10 Prospect Hot Sheet

Hey, folks – time to see who the hottest 5 players were in the Blue Jays farm system over the past week and a half.  This does not necessarily replace the usual Top 10 rankings.

1.  Sean Reid-Foley, RHP, Buffalo

Once an enigma wrapped in a riddle shrouded in mystery, Reid-Foley has had a serious coming out party in 2018, and continued his helium ways with two gems over the past week, and was named International League Pitcher of the Week.

On July 17th, SRF allowed one run and as many hits over 6 innings, fanning 5, and followed that up with six scoreless frames on the 22nd, allowing only a pair of hits while striking out 7.  Just as impressive was his (for him) low walk total – 3 – over those two starts.

There are many that suggest that if/when JA Happ is dealt, Reid-Foley will step right into his place on the 40-man and in the rotation.

Not so fast, we say.  Pitch economy still is an issue for Reid-Foley, who has pitched into the 7th inning only 4 times over 20 starts this year.  Yes, you say that pitch counts probably are a factor, and they most assuredly are, and we think that since Thomas Pannone is already on the 40, he may be a suitable replacement for Happ at least in the short term, if the team deems him ready after his return from a PED suspension.  Reid-Foley doesn’t have to be put on the 40 until after the season to avoid the Rule 5, and with this team all but out of a playoff race, it wouldn’t hurt to keep SRF at AAA for the rest of the season.

2.  Jordan Groshans 3B/SS, GCL Jays

The 1st round pick has not disappointed in his pro debut, posting a line of .500/.542/.800 over his last ten, boosting him to an impressive .370/.442/.580 so far in the Gulf Coast League.

With Vancouver and Bluefield both looming as playoff contenders later this summer, it’s highly likely that Groshans will be joining one of those teams.  We look forward to speaking to Scouting Director Steve Sanders about him later this week.

3.  Jordan Romano, RHP, New Hampshire

Romano was named Eastern League Pitcher of the Week after tossing a pair of gems for the Fisher Cats.

The Markham, ON native was the Eastern Division Starter at the EL All Star game, after a 9-0, 2.04 first half.  He’s hit a bit of a wall since then, but after giving up only two Earned Runs over his last two starts over 14.2 IP, he may have found a higher gear.

His second start of the week, facing the Senators’ Harrisburg affiliate, was a thing of beauty.  Romano tossed a career-high 8 innings, giving up no runs, three hits, and fanning a season-high 8.  He retired the final 12 hitters he faced.

Left off the 40 man last fall, the Blue Jays will have a decision to make with Romano this November.  Some teams may be interested in taking a chance on him and converting him to relief if he is exposed to the Rule 5.

4.  Rowdy Tellez, 1B, Buffalo

Once the heir-apparent to the 1B job in Toronto, Tellez’ off and on field difficulties last year led to a disappointing season, and he fell off the prospect radar.

A .370/.400/.889 week and a half, with 4 HRs may not have restored all of Tellez’ former prospect lustre, but surely it’s a step in the right direction.  A current line of .260/.335/.432 still is short of expectations set at the lower levels of this system.

5.  Rodrigo Orozco, OF, Dunedin

He may have been overshadowed by more toolsier players in his six years in the Blue Jays system, but all the Panamanian (.281 career average, .371 OBP)  has done is hit and get on base.

With 10 hits over his past 5 games, including a 4-4 night on July 21st, Orozco slashed .500/.552/.654 over his last 10 games.  With that outburst, Orozco has pushed his average on the season to .303, and has added 14 stolen bases.

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Pitching Prospects

It may be only early June, but we’re rapidly reaching the half way point in the minor league baseball season.  Players have had their ups and downs, which is to be expected, because the minors are one big learning process.  No other sport has a developmental system as elaborate as baseball’s, and it’s inevitable that for some players, progress will be made in a steps forward/steps back manner.

After a spring of watching a great deal of the four full season Blue Jays affiliates (well, three of them, but I have a good set of eyes in Dunedin), here’s how the team’s Pitching prospects shape up in this observer’s eyes:

1.  Ryan Borucki, LHP

Few players breeze through the minors free of injury and/or inconsistency woes, and Borucki is no exception.  With the possible exception of RHP Patrick Murphy, there is not a grittier prospect in the organization.  Borucki has fought his way back from Tommy John, back issues, and a demotion two years ago to become the brightest light in the system from a starting perspective.

The execrable April northeastern weather wreaked havoc with Buffalo’s rotation, but Borucki has now settled in nicely, pitching into the 6th inning in 6 of his last 7 starts.  His mix of pitches has kept hitters off-balance, and when he gets ahead in the count, his change-up becomes an absolute weapon.  He’s held International League hitters to a .239 average, and lefty hitters have been limited to .172.

Given the issues with the major league rotation, that we haven’t seen Borucki in Toronto yet may be a combination of readiness (or slight lack thereof) and his turn in the rotation not matching up with the Blue Jays’.  Nonetheless, it would be a shock if he did not make his MLB debut this summer.  At the moment, he’s the most polished and most MLB-ready arm in the system.

2.  Nate Pearson, RHP

Pearson dazzled in his pro debut last year, overmatching Northwest League hitters, and becoming the Blue Jays top Pitching prospect after only 20 Innings Pitched.

Speaking of a step backward…..

Pearson’s 2018 debut was derailed for a month due to oblique issues.  The Blue Jays at first thought he would only miss his first start, but that stretched into May.  Pearson was rocked in the first inning of his first Florida State League start, and appeared to be settling down in the following frame when he took a line drive off of his Pitching arm.  Pearson suffered a non-displaced fracture of his ulna, and was shelved for at least ten weeks.

Pearson is expected to make a full recovery, and will be reevaluated this week, with a probable return later this summer.  Still, it’s a setback in the fireballer’s development.  He has the highest ceiling of any Blue Jays Pitching prospect, but his timetable has been set back at least a year.

3.  Sean Reid-Foley, RHP

No Blue Jays Pitching prospect has had as jagged a line of progression as Reid-Foley has.  Sent back to AA to begin the season to work on his command and pitch economy, SRF has been dominant, fanning 52 Eastern League hitters in 44 IP, and holding them to a .174 average.

Promoted to Buffalo in late May, he found too much of the strike zone in his AAA debut and was touched for 8 Earned Runs in just over 2 innings.  Reid-Foley’s second start was a thing of beauty, though, missing bats en route to a 6 inning/10 strikeout outing.  Just as impressive, he walked only 1.

Reid-Foley needs more seasoning, and it’s not reasonable to expect to see him this year, barring either a major breakout, or a significant meltdown in the Blue Jays’ rotation.  But after talk of converting him to a back of the bullpen power arm in years past, his future as a starter seems more than secure.  He has learned to correct the mid-game inconsistencies in his delivery that led him to lose the strike zone and drive up his pitch counts.

4.  Thomas Pannone, LHP

Pannone is the forgotten man in the Blue Jays system for some, but he is still very much a part of the organization’s plans.  Suspended prior to the season for a positive PED test, Pannone is still over a month away from returning to action.

Pannone has a mix of pitches and feel for Pitching that, combined with Borucki, would have given Buffalo a solid 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation.  His debut with Buffalo probably will not happen until late July/early August.  If Borucki and Reid-Foley are still there, the addition of Pannone makes the Bisons legitimate post-season threats.

5.  Jordan Romano, RHP

Romano has been one of the most pleasant surprises from a Pitching standpoint.  Romano tied for the Florida State League in K’s last season, but there was a concern about how many bats he would miss when he made the jump to AA, particularly against left-handed hitters.

Romano has been lights out this season, and his newfound effectiveness against lefties is a big part of that.  His change-up, a pitch which takes time to develop a feel for, has helped him limit left-handed hitters to a .163 average, and when Buffalo needed a starter last week, Romano deservedly got the call before returning to New Hampshire.  His 0.87 WHIP for the Fisher Cats leads the Eastern League, and is evidence of his ability to hang out on the margins of the strike zone.  Romano is giving up more flyball contact this year, but not a lot of it has been of the hard-hit variety.

Like Reid-Foley, Romano is not quite ready for the bigs.  But after being left off of the 40-man roster in advance of the Rule 5 draft, he appears to be a lock to being added to it this offseason.  On Jeff Blair’s show on The FAN590 this week, Romano admits that the development of his change has what has helped him break through this year,  and is helping him as the opposition batting order turns over a third time.

6.  T.J. Zeuch, RHP

The 2016 1st round pick made up for an injury-interrupted 2017 with a fine Arizona Fall League showing.  Sent back to Dunedin to start 2018,  Zeuch has continued to pound the bottom half of the strike zone, generating a 62% groundball rate.

Promoted to New Hampshire, he’s giving up better than a hit per inning over his first 5 starts.  Zeuch will always pitch to contact (he gave up a couple against the shift in his last start), and will need to refine his pitches in order to continue his upward progression.

Zeuch profiles as an inning-eating, mid-rotation starter (he’s failed to pitch into the 6th in only one of his 11 starts so far), who will need a solid infield defence behind him.

7.  Yennsy Diaz, RHP

Outside of Pearson, no Blue Jays Pitching prospect has boosted their stock over the past calendar year as much as the hard-throwing Diaz.

Diaz made his full-season debut for Lansing last June 10th, and he’s allowed only 55 hits in 106 innings over 20 starts since then.

Diaz’ main offering is a 96 mph fastball that he can command to both sides of the plate, and a curve that is shaping up as a decent complement to it.  He gets that velo from a nice, easy delivery.  After a 10 K performance over 5.2 innings in his first start of the season, his whiffs have tailed off somewhat.  In his last start for Lansing before his recent promotion to Dunedin, Diaz was leaving his fastball up, and hitters were not chasing it as much as they were a month ago.

The challenge for Diaz at Dunedin will be for him to continue to develop his secondaries, and refine his mechanics.

8.  Angel Perdomo, LHP

The enigmatic Perdomo teases with a mid-90s fastball with late life, but injuries and inconsistency have set his development back.

Shut down for the final two months last year, Perdomo returned to Dunedin for 2018, and the Blue Jays have continued to bring him along slowly, limiting him to around 80 pitches per start.

Still, Perdomo has been effective, fanning just over a batter per inning over his first 7 starts, and limiting FSL hitters to a .191 average.  Still, when the call has come from the higher levels for spot starters, Perdomo has not been sent to answer the call, indicating that the Blue Jays are not quite ready to take the reins off just yet.

9.  Eric Pardinho, RHP

He has yet to throw a professional pitch, but it’s hard to keep the Brazilian off this list.  The top-ranked IFA Pitcher last year, Pardinho received raves from Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, saying he’s never seen a combination of stuff, command, velocity, and feel for pitching in a 16-year-old.

Pardinho hit 97 after signing last fall, and will no doubt be the focus for a lot of eyes when he makes his debut in the GCL in a few weeks.

10. Zach Logue, LHP

A mainstay in the rotation of NWL Champs Vancouver last year, Logue continues to use a combination of location, movement, and sequencing to get hitters out.   He began the year with Lansing, and used his command and ability to pound the bottom of the strike zone to advance to Dunedin this past week.   In 10 starts for Lansing, he pitched into or beyond the 6th in 8 of them, tossing a career-high 8 innings in his last start.

Logue does not overpower hitters, but keeps them off-balance.  It’s always interesting to see how college Pitchers who dominated at Low A fare once they move up.

 

Romano Continues to Impress as a Starter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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