Short Stop Becoming A Blue Jays Position of Strength

Warmoth
Logan Warmoth – Clutchlings Photo

Last year, with the emergence of Danny Jansen, the acquisition at the previous year’s trade deadline of Reese McGuire, and the drafting of Hagen Danner and Riley Adams, Catching became the deepest position in the Blue Jays organization.

This year, the team has built on that depth at Short Stop.

Leading the way is Bo Bichette, who lead the minors in hitting last year, flirting with .400 in early June.  This year at AA, Bichette has been challenged by the higher level pitching for the first time in his pro career.  Still, he’s hit safely in 23 of the 27 games he’s appeared in, and while he’s yet to Homer this season, Bichette has started to tap into his power with 12 extra base hits.  In addition, Bichette has taken great strides to quell concerns about his defence, with most evaluators this year agreeing that he has the skills to play Major League SS.  Bichette was ranked the Midwest League’s #3 prospect, and the Florida State League’s #2 prospect after a whirlwind 2017, and shows all the tools of a future MLBer.

Behind Bichette is a growing wealth of talent.

Logan Warmoth was Toronto’s 1st round pick in last June’s draft, and he had a solid pro debut, leading Vancouver to the Northwest League title,  being named the loop’s 6th-best prospect in the process.  Skipped over Lansing to High A Dunedin this year, Warmoth had his struggles at first, but is hitting .275 over his last 10, and making a lot of hard contact according to reports.  Warmoth does not have one overwhelming tool, but does a lot of things well.  Like Bichette, there were initial concerns about his long-term prospects at SS, but he’s shown the range, footwork, and arm strength to handle the position.

Kevin Smith has been in Warmoth’s shadow since being taken in the 4th round last year.  Normally, a college draftee chosen that high would start at Vancouver, but with Warmoth there, Smith was sent to Bluefield to start his pro career.  A glove-first player for much of his college career, Smith showed glimpses of a bat that was still developing, with his power ranked ahead of his hitting ability.  Sent to Lansing this season, Smith has shown every indication that his bat has caught up to projections – Smith has posted a line of .370/.417/.639, and is hitting .459 over his last 10 games.  With the presence of Kevin Vicuna at Lansing, Smith has split time between SS and 3B, but there is little doubt about his skills on the defensive side of the ball.  Smith has plus hands and a strong arm.

Vicuna was labelled a glove-first player when the Blue Jays signed him as an IFA in 2014.  His bat had progressed enough to be sent to Dunedin to fill in for a month last spring before he was sent to Vancouver, where he was named the Northwest League’s 19th prospect.  There is no doubt about his defence, but Vicuna’s bat has shone at Lansing this year, hitting .308/.325/.375.  Vicuna goes up to the plate looking to swing, drawing only a pair of walks so far.  His glove is what will move him up in the organization, but he’s not proving to be an easy out.

Two international players also add to the team’s depth:

-Dominican Miguel Hiraldo was ranked the top bat in last year’s IFA class.  He profiles long-term at 3B, but the Blue Jays wil have him start his career at Short.

-Panamanian Leo Jimenez, who Blue Jays Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish is incredibly high on:

 (He’s) bilingual, great make up, ultra young in the class – a late May birthday – he really has lead-off or #2 hole potential….if you asked me right now who has a chance to play SS in your system, Leo would be at the top of that list.  The way the body moves, the way the arm works, the instincts, he’s a really good, future upside defender.

In addition, the Blue Jays have been strongly linked to Orelvis Martinez of the D.R. Martinez is ranked the top IFA SS in this year’s class, and may command the highest bonus.

Not all of these players will one day patrol the infield at the Rogers Centre, but the depth gives the team plenty of options and flexibility in the future.  Some could be developed into utility players, while others could be used in trades to bolster the organization’s depth at other positions.  The organization has done a good job stockpiling a supply of athletic players at Short Stop.

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

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

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

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

OF Chavez Young

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

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

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

Kevin Vicuna, SS

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

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

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

Kacy Clemens 1B

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

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

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

Kevin Smith 3B

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

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

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

Cullen Large, 2B/3B

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

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

Ryan Noda LF

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

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

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

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

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

Brock Ludquist RF

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

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

Samad Taylor 2B

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

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

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

Maximo Castillo, SP

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

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

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

Yennsy Diaz, SP

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

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

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

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

Ty Tice

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

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

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

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

Who is the Next Blue Jays Breakout Prospect?

DJNeal
DJ Neal Twitter photot

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

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

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

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

DJ Neal OF

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

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

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

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

Neal’s 2017 stats:

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

McGregory Contreras OF

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contreras’ 2017 stats:

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

 

Chavez Young OF

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

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

Young’s Bluefield Stats:

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

 

Yorman Rodriguez C/1B/DH

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

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

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

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

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

Rodriguez’ Bluefield stats:

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

Kevin Smith SS

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

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

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

Smith’s 2017 Stats

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