Blue Jays fans received bad news about Pitching prospects Thomas Pannone and Justin Maese yesterday.
Southpaw Pannone, acquired in the Joe Smith deal with Cleveland last July, was handed an 80-game suspension for a positive PED test, while Maese, who missed half of last season with shoulder issues, underwent shoulder surgery this week, and is out for the season.
Pannone tested positive for DHCMT, a steroid that dates back to the 70s, and was used by East German swimmers. He was very upset and shocked by the positive result, even going as far as to take a lie detector test with a former FBI agent to verify that he had not knowingly ingested a banned substance. A subsequent press release by Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins, who goes back a long way with Pannone to his days as a Cleveland minor leaguer, vouches for his character.
Blue Jays Facebook was full of knee-jerk reactions last night calling for the Blue Jays to get rid of Pannone. Luckily, the team doesn’t use that counsel when making decisions about its players.
Pro athletes put tremendous demands on their bodies, and baseball players are no exception. Supplements are a fact of life, as they help players put or keep weight on, and recover faster from workouts. In every minor league clubhouse, there are posters listing products that have received NSF approval, but the list can be daunting. There’s even an app to help players determine the safety of what they’re taking, and they’re encouraged to go to the team’s trainer when they’re unsure. Just the same, it’s likely that Pannone was using a product that somehow had been contaminated, forcing the positive result. It doesn’t change the fact that he ingested a banned substance, and will miss at least half the season. When the Blue Jays have to reach into the minors for a starter, Pannone probably would have been the next man up after Ryan Borucki.
This has to be a bit of an embarrassment to the Blue Jays organization. Despite having a state-of-the-art sport science department overseeing the training, nutrition, and development of their minor league players, Pannone becomes the 8th Blue Jays prospect to receive a PED ban since last summer. 7 players connected to the Dominican complex received suspensions last September. Despite what fans think, there likely is no unscrupulous pusher providing steroids – it’s more like uneducated players making uninformed decisions. Players are not taking more PEDs than they have before – the testing process has come a long way. The World Anti-Doping Agency has praised MLB for the rigidity and extensiveness of its testing program.
Pannone’s suspension ends in late June. He’ll need some time to get his pitch count back up, but he should return to action with Buffalo in July. The Blue Jays are as bewildered as Pannone is about this result, but they also understand it’s a first-time offence, and will stick by their player.
Maese came to spring training raring to go, and was looking forward to getting back into action, most likely with High A Dunedin this year.
Maese reached full season ball in just his second pro season after being taken in the 3rd round out of and El Paso, TX, high school. Pegged as a potential mid-rotation starter, Maese looked uncomfortable early in the season last year with Lansing, and was shut down in June with shoulder soreness. He had some uncharacteristic wildness for a Pitcher known for pounding the bottom half of the zone with his sinker. Maese came back in mid-July, but was shut down for the season after five starts.
Maese’s name may not be as familiar to Blue Jays fans as Pannone’s, but the athletic right-hander is well-known to prospect watchers. In some ways, his loss is even bigger, as he’s out for the season, and loses a year of development in the process after an injury-shortened 2017.
If you’ve visited this site hoping to find out if Vladimir Guerrero Jr will continue to be one of the top prospects in baseball, or if Bo Bichette will continue to hit everything in sight, or if Nate Pearson will continue to dominate with a fastball in the upper 90s, let me save you some time – the answer is yes.
Those are not exactly compelling storylines. While there are no guarantees, all three are on track to become front-line Major Leaguers.
But there are several in the Blue Jays system that will be worth following this year:
1. Will Justin Maese return to health this year?
Maese climbed the prospect charts in only his second pro season in 2016. Shoulder issues lead to a six week shutdown in June/July, and an end to his season in early August.
When healthy, Maese pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a sinker that has a good downward plane, which hitters find difficult to square up. Last year, his shoulder problems kept him from getting the extension necessary to keep his pitches down, and his flyball rate jumped from around 20 to 25%, with a corresponding drop in his ground ball rate. Maese in 2016 was an incredibly efficient Pitcher, averaging 13 pitches per inning. In 2017, his pitch count and BB% jumped significantly as he struggled to find the strike zone. A healthy Maese attacked hitters, but last year he pitched from behind more often than not, or so it seemed.
Pitching from a 3/4 delivery, Maese sits 91-95 with his sinker, which is complemented by a slider which he learned a new grip for at 2015 Instructs, and a changeup. Both of his offspeed pitches flash above average potential.
After 2016, Maese was being talked about as a potential back of the rotation arm. He didn’t exactly fall off the radar last year, but his stock dropped considerably.
2. Will Riley Adams continue to develop?
The 2017 3rd rounder was Vancouver’s MVP as he led the C’s back to the league championship.
Thought of as more of an offensive Catcher with a plus arm, Adams made tremendous strides defensively last year, but scouts wondered if he might eventually have to move off the position. His hands and receiving skills were rated below average, and two months of pro ball demonstrated that he has some work to do in regard to pitch framing.
One thing is for certain from viewing Adams a number of times last year: his bat is of the potential big league variety. Adams worked the count well, and while he didn’t tap into his power (3 HRs for the summer), he shows raw power that should show up as he moves through the system. His K rate was on the high side, but fatigue may have helped to slow his bat down.
Likely destined for Lansing this year, Black-Belt Adams is part of an impressive haul of athletic players the Blue Jays netted last June. If he can continue to develop his blocking and game-calling skills, Adams could add to the depth of Catching prospects the Blue Jays have accumulated.
3. Can Jon Harris bounce back?
The 2015 1st round pick had a solid 2016, and was rewarded with a challenging assignment to AA to start 2017.
He caught entirely too much of the plate on many occasions, and hitters made him pay accordingly.
Harris sits 90-94 with his fastball, and while his secondaries are decent, like his fastball, nothing really stands out as a go-to pitch. A FIP almost a full run lower than his ERA last year suggests that some BABIP issues were in play for him, but Harris gave up a lot of contact, with only 45% of it being of the groundball variety.
Harris was not drafted with promises of front-of-the-rotation potential; just the same, he showed the right mix of pitchability and athleticism to suggest a mid-rotation future. He has the frame to add some more strength, and his height creates a good downward plane on his pitches. He did not fall off the prospect radar entirely this past season, but his performance has him down the depth chart of minor league starters.
4. Will Maverik Buffo be able to repeat his GCL success at a higher level?
Buffo’s story was one of the best in the Blue Jays system last year.
Elbow issues scared most teams off, but the Blue Jays took a flyer on him in the 34th round, and kept him close to their medical facilities in the GCL, where hitters stood absolutely no chance against him, as he gave up only 2 earned runs in 34 innings.
Buffo suffered a UCL tear in his Sophomore year at BYU, but he avoided Tommy John with Platelet-Rich-Plasma therapy. His Junior numbers were not great, which probably convinced most teams he was headed for surgery, but Buffo says he’s 100% recovered.
Buffo attacks hitters with a fastball that sits 92-95, and throws a sharp breaking ball that has tight shape and horizontal break. GCL hitters were overmatched by him, but it will be interesting to see how he fares against hitters at higher levels – he should reach Lansing perhaps to begin the season, or when the weather warms up.
5. Was DJ Davis’ second half for real?
The 2012 1st rounder had long lost his top prospect status after repeating both Low A and High A, but a swing adjustment that lead to a .283/.357/.369 (featuring an OPS of .830 in August) brings some hope for this athletic Outfielder.
Pitch recognition and a long swing have held Davis back. His speed has always prophesied top of the order potential, but he seemed to be more comfortable hitting at the bottom of the lineup last year. After begin caught stealing more times than he was successful in 2014, Davis has quietly improved his base running skills, swiping 32 in 43 attempts.
Davis still certainly has miles to go before he ever regains his former prospect lustre, but the Blue Jays have to be encouraged with the progress he displayed in the 2nd half. Described as toolsy-but-raw when he was drafted, Davis at least gave a glimpse of tapping into some of that potential in July and August last year.
6. Can Ryan Noda come anywhere close to repeating his Appy numbers?
Noda was a candidate to go in the top 3 rounds of the draft last June, but a mediocre college season dropped him to the 15th round. Sent to the Appy League because Kacy Clemens had 1B locked up at Vancouver, Noda laid waste to league pitching for the summer.
The Appy MVP, Noda led the league in average, OBP, and Slugging, and drew 25 more walks than the runner-up. He has hitting above .400 as last as August 7th.
In the Appy, Noda could be patient, and wait for Pitchers to make mistakes. At the higher levels, there is some concern that passivity could be taken advantage of.
Noda has the skills to play the OF, but there was little need for him with Bluefield with the presence of ballhawks like Chavez Young and McGregory Contreras. Likely ticketed for Lansing this year, he should split time between 1B/DH/OF. It was fun to watch him post video game-like numbers last year, but he will be hard pressed to repeat that in Low A.
Trying to determine which Pitching prospects in the organization might have a breakout season in 2018 is more difficult than it is for position players.
This administration has proven that they’re not afraid of promoting relievers to multiple levels over the course of the season, but with pitch limits a factor, they’re more conservative with starters. A season like Kendall Graveman’s (5) or Daniel Norris’ (4) in 2014, when both pitched at a number of levels, just doesn’t seem likely with this management group.
There are several Pitchers who could break through this season, however:
RHP T.J. Zeuch
Zeuch is an obvious candidate to have a break out season. Shut down in May with shoulder soreness, he injured a hamstring during rehab, and didn’t return until August.
He rebounded nicely during Arizona Fall League play, getting the start in the championship game. Zeuch’s featured pitch is a bowling ball sinker, which he gets a great downward plane on. When he is locating that pitch, hitters have an extremely difficult time squaring him up.
Zeuch will start the season in AA, and if he stays healthy, could move up fairly quickly. He could even find himself in the back of the Blue Jays rotation later in the season.
Emerson Jimenez RHP
Originally signed as an IF by the Rockies, he reached AA in his sixth year in the organization this year. After posting a .238/.267/.305 line in his career, the Rockies released him in mid-May. He decided to give Pitching a try, and the Blue Jays signed him a month later.
Sent to the Gulf Coast League, Jimenez regularly hit 99 with his fastball, and the complex league hitters were no match for him, as he fanned 15 in 9 innings. Exposed to the Rule 5 draft, there was even speculation that a team might take him earlier this month.
While that would have been a huge leap for a team, it shows how valued Jimenez’ arm is, and the Blue Jays will likely challenge him this season. Improving his command and developing a second pitch will be necessary for Jimenez to get hitters out at higher levels. While he may start the season in Extended, it’s not hard to see Jimenez move quickly through the system, and the Blue Jay may have another difficult 40-man decision to make with him next fall.
Justin Maese RHP
Maese reached full season ball in only his second pro season in 2016, but a shoulder problem and command issues led to a sideways 2017.
When he’s healthy, Maese pounds the bottom of the strike zone, and keeps hitters off-balance with a three pitch mix. He experienced an uptick in velocity this year, touching 97. An excellent athlete, Maese repeats his delivery and fields his position well.
Maese missed all of June and July, and was shut down for the season after his second start in August. He will likely begin the season under the watchful eyes of the team’s medical staff at Dunedin. A return to health, finding his command again, and maintaining that increase in velo would allow Maese to move up in a hurry.
Travis Bergen LHP/Brayden Bouchey RHP
Bergen missed most of his first two pro seasons after being drafted in 2015, and didn’t begin his 2017 season until late July. He was a mainstay in Manager Rich Miller’s bullpen down the stretch and in the playoffs, and both he and White Rock, BC native Bouchey were lights out in relief.
Bergen formerly had a cross-fire delivery, but his mechanics are now more conventional. He throws 92-94, with a slider that shows great depth. The 6’6″ Bouchey throws from an over-the-top delivery, giving him a good downward plane on all of his pitches. His size gives him some late life on his fastball – Bouchey has fanned over 30% of the hitters he’s faced in two minor league seasons.
Both should begin the season in Lansing’s bullpen. If they pitched like they did over the last month of the season, neither will be there for long.
Ranking prospects can be a little like trying to choose a team in just about any sport: the top players clearly separate themselves from the pack, and are easy to identify. Once you get down the list, the distinctions become less clear. The difference, of course, is that all of these players can play. The differences between them sometimes are more psychological than physiological.
As I mentioned with the #11-20 post, the Blue Jays have rebounded as a system extremely well from 2015. There is depth at a number of positions, and the team has developed waves of prospects, the first of which is about a year and a half away.
These are the players who just missed the Top 20. Injuries, inconsistency, and inexperience are often what have kept players like the following out of that tier – and there are others who I could’ve mentioned, but let’s keep it at 5 for now.
Maese firmly placed himself on the prospect radar with a breakout season at two levels last year. The two-sport athlete from non-baseball hotbed of El Paso, TX, reached full season ball in only his second year as a pro.
Returning to Lansing for what was likely going to be a half season this year, Maese struggled in April, giving up more contact and walks than was usual for him. By May, he appeared to have straightened himself around, until shoulder soreness landed him on the DL at the end of the month. Likely shut down for precautionary reasons, Maese did not return to action until late July in a GCL rehab stint. After two August starts with Lansing, he was shut down for the rest of the season.
With a fastball that is described as heavy and sits in the low 90s but can touch 96, a slider that could profile as a plus pitch, along with a change in the 83-85 range, Maese has a starter’s arsenal. His delivery has been described as a little unorthodox, but he throws with intent. But there were troubling signs with his command this year. After posting a 5% walk rate in 2016, he was over 8% this year. Maese wasn’t able to command the lower part of the strike zone as well as he had the previous year, and his groundball rate dropped by over 10%. He profiles as a back-end of the rotation sinker ball pitcher, but as he demonstrated this year, hitters can square him up when he can’t locate.
Maese should start the year in Dunedin, where the medical staff can monitor his shoulder. He has the athleticsm to get himself back on the prospect radar.
For someone monitoring the Blue Jays affiliates’ box scores on a daily basis, Noda’s numbers were video game-esque. He had multi-hit games in his first four Appy League contests, and he was hitting above .400 as late as August 9th. He was an Advanced Stat (Average/OBP/SLG) Triple Crown Winner, and was ranked the loop’s 12th top prospect.
From first glance, it looked like the Blue Jays might have uncovered a gem in the middle rounds of the June draft. Noda had been ranked to go somewhere in the top three rounds prior to his junior college campaign, but a lacklustre season at the plate caused his stock to fall. Noda is a 1B/LF type, but is much more suited to the infield, where he has decent defensive skills. Normally, a player in his draft position would be headed to Vancouver and the Northwest League to start his pro career, but the Blue Jays had taken Texas’ Kacy Clemens in the 8th round, so Noda was off to West Virginia, where he feasted on the lower level pitching.
Noda has a unique set up, with some bat movement prior to his load. He is extremely patient (a source said he bordered on passive). One concern may be the difficulty he had getting consistent loft in his swing – his 18.8% flyball rate was the second lowest among qualifiers in the league, although his 37.5% line drive rate was the highest. It brings to mind a picture of a guy who makes a lot of hard contact, but much of it in the gaps or down the lines, which a player of Noda’s build would have trouble taking advantage of.
Noda should skip Vancouver and head to Lansing for full season ball next year, where he’ll likely have to split time at 1B/DH/LF in order to get his bat in the lineup. It will be interesting to see how his approach works with the more advanced pitching in Low A.
Maverik Buffo was poised to easily go in the top half of the draft last June, until a torn UCL sidelined him in his sophomore year. He opted for therapy, and an stem cell injection followed by PRP theraphy, and returned for his junior year. His velocity came back, but as is often the case, his command didn’t return as quickly, and his stock dropped.
Buffo lasted until the 34th round, when the Blue Jays called his name. They opted to keep him in the GCL in order to monitor that elbow, and the outmatched Complex hitters wished they hadn’t. Buffo was utterly dominant, throwing a 92-95 fastball with good movement, and more importantly, he was able to command the lower part of the strike zone with it. Limited to relief appearances in July, the wraps came off a little bit in August, and Buffo threw pitch count shortened shutouts in 4 of his 5 starts.
Clearly, he was capable of pitching at a higher level, but with a bevy of arms ahead of him in short season ball, the Blue Jays were conservative with him. If there are concerns about his elbow, Buffo may stay in Extended once spring training camp breaks, but he should be in Lansing before long. This is a competitor with a smooth and repeatable delivery, who wil be out to prove a lot of teams that passed on him wrong.
Riley Adams is one of the more athletic players in the organization. He can hit, he can catch, and he’s a 2nd degree black belt in karate. Watching him with Vancouver this summer, he looked like a major leaguer at the plate. It’s behind the plate that he has some work to do, and he demonstrates why developing Catchers can take so long. Adams split his work the C’s this summer about 2/3 of the time behind the plate, with the other third coming at DH so that Manager Rich Miller could keep his bat in the lineup. Adams has decent pitch recognition skills, and he’s consistently on time with his swing.
On the defensive side, Blue Jays Catching instructor Ken Huckaby has some work to do. Adams needs to develop better footwork to help improve his blocking skills, as well as his transfer. Pitch framing is probably not a skill that was of great importance in college, but will be in pro ball, and Adams needs to upgrade that skill. He tends to stab at pitches on the corners, rather than finesse them through positioning. Given his athleticism, it’s at least an even bet that he can develop those skills in full season ball next year. There is no question about his bat.
Josh Palacios is possibly the best athlete in the organization outside of Anthony Alford. In all seriousness, the guy looks like he could be a world-class hurdler.
An April wrist injury in his draft year in 2016 dropped him to the 4th round, but he posted solid numbers at Vancouver. An undisclosed ailment forced him to the DL to start 2017, and when he returned in late April, his performance at the plate was inconsistent at best (he was hitting .197 at the end of May).
As the weather warmed up, so did Palacios’ game. He had a torrid summer, hitting .348/.422/.438 for July and August. He played about half of his 87 games in Centrefield, where he probably profiles the best – Palacios has yet to show the pop of a corner outfielder.
It’s hard to say what his long term prospects are, but his athleticism and performance this year (along with that of Edward Olivares, who shared time in Lansing’s OF with him) likely were what helped convinced the organization to part with J.B. Woodman, who was drafted two round ahead of Palacios in 2016, in the Almedys Diaz deal with St Louis.
Carlos Ramirez was one of the best feel-good stories of the system last year. Originally signed as an IFA in 2009, he spent five seasons as an Outfielder in the organization with little success. In early 2014, the Blue Jays sent him back to Extended and then Rookie ball as he converted to Pitching. He was part of Dunedin’s lights-out bullpen in 2016, and then overwhelmed hitters at two levels this year, fanning 45 in 38 innings before earning a September call up. A fastball/slider Pitcher, Ramirez gets great extension on his delivery, and can dial it up to the mid-90s. He also fared well in a dozen big league games, and was not scored upon in his first 7 outings.
Ramirez will definitely be in the mix for a big league job this spring. So, why am I not higher on him? It probably is because of the volatile nature of relievers, and the fact that at 26, there’s not a whole lot of room for projection for him, despite the fact that he’s still fairly new to Pitching. Just the same, it’s easy to picture him and the Jays bullpen as one of their strengths next year.