Blue Jays Minor League All-Star Team

Catcher – Danny Jansen  .275/.390/.473 (MiLB numbers)

Jansen solidified his label as the Blue Jays Catcher of the Future with a good season on both sides of the plate, and earned a late season call up as a result.

Jansen has long been lauded for his leadership skills, and his ability to handle a Pitching staff.  Over the last two years, he’s added a potent bat, and vastly improved blocking skills to go along with the tools he already has behind the plate, which include being able to set a good low target, and excellent framing skills.

With Reese McGuire joining him in more than a day game after a night game role, the Blue Jays will be able to keep Jansen’s bat in the lineup on occasion while giving him a day off from Catching duties in 2019.  Barring injury, the team appears set at this position well into the next decade.

1B Ryan Noda  .256/.421/.484

After a disappointing draft year showing, Noda slipped to the Jays in the 15th round last June.  He led the Appalachian League in OPS, and continued his on-base ways in Lansing this year.

Noda led the minors in walks with 109, and his ABs continued to be a sight to see.  Eschewing batting gloves, Noda grinds out plate appearances, plain and simple.  His 20 HRs were 2nd best in the Midwest League, as were his 80 RBI.

With Kacy Clemens in the lineup for the first six weeks of the season, Noda had to split time with him at 1B, heading to LF when Clemens had a turn at First.  His defensive skills in the Outfield were a work in progress –  his numbers improved once Clemens was promoted to Dunedin, and Noda became a fulltime First Baseman.  He finished the season in a flurry, posting a 1.130 OPS in August.

Noda will no doubt continue to work the count at High A next year, but he may have to become more aggressive.  When he works the counts, he sometimes becomes vulnerable to off speed pitches on the outside edge of the plate.  Pitchers with better command at higher levels may be able to exploit that.

2B  Cavan Biggio  .252/.388/.499

Biggio increased his SwStr% and Flyball rate last year in an obvious attempt to add some loft to the ball, but the humidity and Pitcher-friendly Florida State League ballparks conspired to keep many of his long balls short of the fences.

This year, he’s broken out in a big way.  Biggio led the Eastern League in Homers, Slugging OPS.  He also led the league in walks, and just missed leading in strikeouts, almost winning the three true outcome title.

Biggio played three infield positions, finding himself most often at 2nd this year (68 games).  The Blue Jays also experimented with him in the Outfield late in the season, and will continue his trial there in the Arizona Fall League.

SS Kevin Smith  .302/.358/.528

Smith was regarded as a glove-first SS when the Blue Jays took him in the 4th round last year, and that label seemed apt after a .271/.312/.466 season with Bluefield.

Except that if there’s one thing that drives Smith, it’s proving the doubters wrong.

An ardent student of the game and diligent worker, Smith set about last off-season to eliminate a loop in his swing in an attempt to catch up to high fastballs, and to improve his two strike approach.  The changes paid off, as Smith dominated at Lansing, and earned a late May promotion to Dunedin.

Smith is probably the best defensive SS in the Blue Jays system – a clear evaluation on that is admittedly difficult.  He split time at 3B and SS at Lansing, then played in the online streaming black hole that is the FSL for the rest of the year.

One thing is certain – Smith has worked his way onto the Blue Jays top prospect list.  He is very likely to stick at SS,

3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr  .381/.437/.636

The easiest choice by far.  Not only did Guerrero have an offensive minor league season for the ages (possibly the best in Blue Jays prospect history), he made tremendous strides with his defence.  While he may not supplant Brooks Robinson one day in terms of reputation, he has built on the skills he already displayed in abundance at the hot corner:   footwork, sure hands, and a strong accurate arm.  Guerrero has been working on his first step reactions, and this play demonstrates the progress he’s made:

 

OF – Harold Ramirez  .320/.365/.471

Ramirez may have been in the shadow of more illustrious teammates this year like Gurriel, Guerrero, Bichette, and Biggio, but he was one of the most consistent hitters in New Hampshire’s lineup, winning an Eastern League batting title.  In his third go round at AA after injuries interrupted his 2017 season, Ramirez was among the league leaders in Total Bases and Slugging.

Where does Ramirez fit in a now crowded Blue Jays Outfield situation?  That’s hard to say, but his versatility and bat could help him force his way into the picture sometime next year.

OF Chavez Young .285/.363/.445

From 39th round pick to near Top 10 prospect in three seasons is a remarkable journey. Young was the only player in the minors this year with 50+ extra base hits and 40+ steals, demonstrating his power-speed potential.

At the plate, Young has a solid approach, and demonstrated that this year with a career-high walk rate.  A plus defender who can play all three OF positions, Young was a solid presence at the plate and in the field for Lansing this summer.  There are still some aspects of rawness to his game, but he smoothed off a lot of the rough edges in his first year of full season ball.

OF  Cal Stevenson

Firmly entrenched at the top of Bluefield’s lineup, the 10th round pick led the Appy League in runs, walks, and OBP, and was second in Average and Stolen Bases.  He was the catalyst in a lineup that nearly reached the Appy finals.

Ut – Otto Lopez  .308/.399/.406

Easily Vancouver’s most valuable player, Lopez can play the OF, as well as 2B/SS/3B.  He runs the bases well, and is a smart, high baseball-IQ player.

RH Starter – Patrick Murphy

Finally healthy for a full season for the first time in several years, Murphy was dominant in the Florida State League, leading the loop in Ks, and a nearly 60% GB rate indicates that when FSL hitters weren’t swinging and missing at this pitches, they had trouble squaring him up.

LH Starter – Zach Logue  12-4 3.15 ERA .259 OBA

Logue started the year at Lansing, and was promoted in May to Dunedin.  Not an overpowering Pitcher, he relies on command and a four-pitch mix to keep hitters off-balance, which he did for much of the year.  He uses his fastball to get ahead, and then relies on his improving secondaries to finish batters off.

RP – Travis Bergen  4-2 0.95 ERA .200 OBA

Another Pitcher who was finally healthy for a full season, Bergen was lights out at two levels in relief.  Moved up to New Hampshire after starting the year in Dunedin, the left-hander fanned 74 hitters in 59 innings at the two levels.  Bergen does not approach triple digits, but has command of all of his pitches – he surrendered only 15 walks this season.

DH – Alejandro Kirk .354/.443/.558 

Kirk came within 3 feet of tying up what proved to be the deciding game of Bluefield’s semifinal playoff matchup with the Rays Princeton affiliate, but his game travelled a long way this season.

Coming into the season, Kirk was a C/DH (with emphasis on the latter) was a fairly unknown commodity.  A late September signing in 2016, the Mexican had all of 2 ABs in the GCL in 2017 before being assigned to Bluefield this season.  Kirk busted out in a big way, and was named the Appy All Star DH.  With starting Catcher Hagen Danner in an out of the lineup with injuries, Kirk stepped in and from all accounts handled himself well.

Kirk swings hard and seldom gets cheated at the plate.  He put up gaudy numbers at a Low Level, so he comes with the usually cautions as he moves up.  That bat holds considerable promise, however.

Advertisements

Blue Jays Minor League Awards

After a season in which five Blue Jays prospects found themselves on Baseball America‘s Top 100,  and the system itself reached #3 in BA’s rankings, the Toronto farm system is on an upward trend.  Prospects like Lourdes Gurriel Jr, Ryan Borucki, and Danny Jansen have established themselves as regulars, and Reese McGuire, Jonathan Davis, Sean Reid-Foley, and Rowdy Tellez  have all had a taste of MLB life this month.

Time to dish out some awards to recognize the strong season the organization has had at the minor league level.

Top Hitter – Vladimir Guerrero Jr

A no-brainer if there ever was one.  Guerrero was beating up on Eastern League Pitching  and hitting above .400 before being sidelined for a month with a knee injury.  Promoted to AAA Buffalo upon his return off the DL, he continued to mash before tailing off (if you could call a .333 August that) to a final line of .381/.437/.636.  That line is easily the best in Blue Jays prospect history.

Guerrero’s teammates Cavan Biggio, who led the Eastern League in HRs, and Harold Ramirez, who won a batting title in a nice turnaround season, also merit mention.  Dunedin SS Kevin Smith hit .302/.258/.528 with 25 HRs at two levels, and gets a nod for that season as well.  His teammates Rodrigo Orozco and Ivan Castillo finished one-two in the FSL batting race as well.

Other honourable mentions go to a pair of Bluefield bats:  OF Cal Stevenson led the Appalachian League in runs and walks, and  was second in average (.359), and  OPS (1.012).  Close behind him was teammate C/DH Alejandro Kirk, who bashed his way onto the prospect radar with a .354/.443/.558 line.

 

Pitcher of the Year

This is a tougher decision.  Nate Pearson would’ve been a contender for this honour, but an oblique issue and a line drive off of his pitching arm limited his season to just over an inning.  He did return to action in an exhibition game with Lansing last week, and the news was encouraging:

A couple of Pitchers did stand out.

-Ryan Borucki, who overcame a rough April (caused by some snow-outs) to reach the majors;

-Sean Reid-Foley, whose 2017 fell short of expectations, but reached MLB as well, and fanned 150 batters in 129 innings this year;

-Eric Pardinho, who skipped the GCL in his first year and more than held his own as a 17 year old adjusting to pro ball and a new country in the Appy League – Pardinho’s 31.5% K rate would have led the league if he had enough innings to qualify.

-Vancouver’s Josh Winckowski, the Northwest League’s Pitcher of the Year.

-Lefty Reliever Travis Bergen, who fanned 74 hitters in 58 IP at two levels;

-Dunedin RHP Patrick Murphy, who topped 100 with his fastball late in the season.

And the award goes to……………………

Murphy.  In his first full season as a pro, he led the Florida State League in Games Started, IP, and K’s, and was second in ERA.  Murphy posted a GB rate of almost 60%, and a 10% SwStr rate.   When he wasn’t missing bats, he was inducing a lot of weak contact.  As he progresses up the ladder and has more skilled defenders behind him, expect Murphy’s numbers to get even better.  With Murphy eligible for the Rule 5 draft this fall if he’s not placed on the 40-man, he’s a safe bet to be added.

The Meteoric Rise of Dave Stieb Award

During the Alex Anthopoulos regime, this was a reasonably easy award to dole out.  The new management team is not as quick to promote prospects rapidly over a series of levels.

Vancouver’s Otto Lopez provides a template for the Blue Jays preference for up-the-middle prospects, who offer a team versatility and flexibility.  This past season, this is how many games he started at several positions:

3B – 14

2B – 13

SS – 9

LF – 5

RF – 5

CF – 3

Lopez shows great baseball IQ, a solid approach at the plate, and smart base running skills.  He’s an exciting player to watch in the field, and on the base paths.

Bluefield’s Kirk certainly came out of nowhere this year to become one of the top hitting prospects in the lower levels of the organization, and we eagerly await his ascension to full season ball next year.  He attracted plenty of late season attention, not the least of which was from Baseball America:

While Kirk acquitted himself reasonably well behind the plate for Bluefield when starting C Hagen Danner had injury issues,  there is a question as to where his long-term future lies on the diamond.  One thing is for sure:  the bat will play.

Kirk takes this award in a close vote.

Manager of the Year

This site has long been a fan of New Hampshire John Schneider, who has steadily moved up the ranks, and has come to be regarded as a player’s Manager.  An MLB job may not be far off for him.

But the job Cesar Martin did with Lansing makes him a deserving recipient of the award.  Lansing seemed to lose its top player to promotion every ten days or so, but Martin captured a playoff spot, and took a team that had a constantly changing cast of characters to an 80-60 record.  Along the way, he helped turn promising but raw players like Chavez Young and Samad Taylor into more polished prospects.

Top Draft Pick

The team’s first choice in the draft does not always turn out to be its most successful player that year, but such was the case for 12th overall pick Jordan Groshans.

Groshans may not have been ranked as highly on other teams’ draft boards, but the Blue Jays were thrilled to take him where they did, and his presence was a heavy factor in the successful signing of his teammate Adam Kloffenstein, taken in the 3rd round.

Groshans mastered the GCL, slashing .331/.390/.500 before moving up to Bluefield in August, and after a slow start, finished the regular season with a trio of three-hit games in his final ten, hitting .333 over that span.

Groshans showed his versatility over the season, appearing in 42 games both at SS and 3B.  He will be part of what promises to be a talented Opening Day roster at Lansing next year.

TOP IFA

The Blue Jays signed the top-ranked arm and bat in the 2017 International Free Agent class, and they have to be thrilled with the results.

Pardinho had a sizzling start and finish to his season – in his  next-to-last season start, he threw 7 near-perfect innings, retiring the first 19 hitters he faced in order.

SS/3B Miguel Hiraldo’s bat boomed in the DSL, earning him a late-season promotion stateside to the complex league.  It will be interesting to see where he starts and finishes next season.

 

Kevin Smith Is This Year’s Prospect on the Rise

Smith
milb.com photo

One of the best aspects of following the Blue Jays system is watching the rise of a breakout prospect.  In 2014, we watched Dalton Pompey begin the year in High A, and finish it in the majors.  Anthony Alford was 2015’s breakout prospect after giving up his college football commitment.  In 2016, Conner Greene added velo to his curve ball, and pitched at three levels.  Last year, after an off-season visit to the optometrist, it was Danny Jansen’s turn.

This year, it’s been Kevin Smith who has been on the helium watch.

A 4th round pick last June, Smith had a reputation as a glove-first player.  Baseball America was not wild about his bat:

Offensively, Smith shows above-average bat speed and raw power. He batted .301 as a rising sophomore in the Cape Cod League last summer, giving evaluators hope that his pure batting had improved. Smith struggled early on this spring, casting further doubt on his ability to make contact and dropping him to the lower third of the Terrapins’ order. His power remains ahead of his hitting ability. In a college shortstop class devoid of players likely to stick at the position, Smith should still be a high draft pick, in spite of his shaky offensive track record.
  Most picks of his stature and background would have been updating their passport and heading off to Vancouver after the draft, but with Logan Warmoth selected ahead of Smith, his travel plans were re-routed to Bluefield of the Appalachian League.  Smith had a decent year at the plate (.271/.312/.466), but gave little indication that he was about to break out the following season.
   A dedicated student of both the game and his own skills, Smith set out to fix a mechanical flaw he had detected, telling Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi:

“I had a loop in my swing and I’m not really sure how it got there. Looking at swings, I can tell when something’s off. I was getting way under the ball, coming way up through it and I really wasn’t on plane with it for a while. The whole off-season was just trying to work on that ball up and that was what was giving me trouble, fastballs up, I’d try to cheat to it and then get exposed with breaking balls away.

The adjustments helped Smith get to the ball on time in a more consistent fashion, and allowed him to make harder contact to all fields:

 

Smith got off to a slow start after his promotion to Dunedin, going for 4-25 in his first half-dozen games.  Since that time, he’s been on fire, with six multi-hit games in his last seven, brining his line up to .351/.406/.491.

A regular observer at Dunedin games quickly became impressed with Smith.  “Plays hard, carries himself well. Dependable at SS, above average arm,” he noted.  “I watch him pre pitch, he never takes his glove off his hand, he’s always aligned properly where the catcher is set up. Is equally adept at going left or right for ground balls, rarely makes mistakes from obvious carelessness or mental lapse. Pretty even, flat swing plane.”

A relentless worker, Smith takes the game seriously, and is very prepared when he steps between the lines.  He told milb.com:

“I give a lot of everything to my routine. I want to go into every game where I’m comfortable where I’m at and what work I put in before the game, after the game, on off days and stuff like that. It’s all about trying to stay consistent with my approach and my swing. I want every day to be I don’t have to worry, just I know I put my work in and the game will sort itself out.”

We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves at this point, but if Smith can continue to hit at the higher levels, he may truly become the Short Stop of the Future.  Bo Bichette has shown adequate defensive skills, but he’s not in the same class as Smith, and there has been considerable debate as to Warmoth’s eventual position.  Splitting time between 3rd and SS at Lansing with the presence of Kevin Vicuna, Smith showed some growing pains at the hot corner, but threw himself into learning the position.  With Warmoth returning from the DL, that trend will probably continue, but Smith has already shown that he has the defensive tools to be a Major League SS.

 

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Position Prospects

“There are no shortcuts.”

Of all the correspondence this blog has had with Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro over the past year, that aphorism stands out the most.  It underscores the approach this management group takes to organization building, a methodology that eschews the quick fix.  Players will be challenged, but they won’t be rushed.  Benchmarks will be established at each level, and a player doesn’t move on until he’s reached them.  With the Blue Jays already double-digit games behind the last Wild Card spot, there are those who are grumbling about the lack of accomplishments since Shapiro took over the reigns of the team 32 months ago (although a 2016 post season appearance seems to be forgotten).  But Shapiro and Co won’t be deterred.  Throughout the system, there is a growing collection of athletes who are receiving instruction from some of the most qualified staff in the game, as well as nutrition and training support from one of baseball’s leading high performance departments.  Building a winner takes time, and while Rogers has not necessarily shown an appetite for a full on rebuild, one is surely coming.  Until they prove themselves at the MLB level, prospects are just that, but a growing stable of them gives teams the best shot at a contending future.

1.  Vladimir Guerrero Jr

There’s little to be said here that can add to the utterly dominant offensive performance Vladdy has put together over the past two months.  One of the youngest players in AA, he has laid waste to Eastern League Pitching.

Despite the gaudy numbers, there are nights when Guerrero plays like a 19-year-old.  Veteran pitchers can have him chasing, and he sometimes short-arms throws to 1st.  While those occasions are few and far between, there have been enough to convince the team to stick to the timetable, despite the clamouring of fans who look up his stats.

With the Blue Jays free-falling from contention for a wild card spot, there’s little need to waste service time and bring him up to the majors.  Shapiro hinted last October that if the Blue Jays were in a playoff race in July, and if the club needed a 3rd Baseman, then there was a good chance we would see him in 2018.  That’s looking less and less like a possibility, now that he’s on the DL for at least a month with a knee strain.

2.  Bo Bichette, SS

With 11 hits in his first 6 AA games, Bichette looked like he had picked up right where he left off last year when he led the minors in hitting.

Bichette soon began seeing a heavy diet of off speed pitches away, and for the first time in his young pro career, he struggled at the plate, and his average dipped to as low as .244 on May 23rd, as he chased a lot of pitches, and seemed to abandoned his excellent two-strike approach.

With a .361 average, including four multi-hit performances over his last 10 games, Bichette appears to have adjusted.  And with every game, he appears to be solidifying his prospects as an everyday SS.  Bichette makes both the routine and the spectacular play, and there is no question as to his focus on the field.

3.  Danny Jansen

Jansen had a breakout 2017, the first time head had been healthy for a full campaign since being drafted in 2013.  After posting a line of .323/.400/.484 last year, he’s almost matched those numbers with this year’s .313/.414/488.

Jansen has excellent pitch recognition, with more walks than strikeouts, and often puts himself in favourable counts, which he takes full advantage of.  On the defensive side, Jansen still had work to do in terms of his blocking skills, but he’s made tremendous strides.  Jansen has an excellent report with his Pitchers, and calls a good game behind the plate.

A couple of factors have led to Jansen’s breakout at the plate.  Corrective lenses, which he started wearing in the Arizona Fall League in 2016 to help him track pitches better while behind the plate have allowed him to improve his pitch recognition greatly.  Being healthy for a prolonged period has helped, too – three of his first four pro seasons prior to 2017 were interrupted by injury.  And working with Buffalo Hitting Coach Corey Hart, who he had at Dunedin last year, Jansen has tweaked his mechanics to keep his weight back (using a slight turn with his leg kick), allowing him to make harder contact.

The development time for Catchers often takes longer than it does for most players.  Jansen has caught just over 300 games as a minor leaguer, and is reaching the time when he’s ready to graduate to MLB.

4.  Anthony Alford, OF

Alford last played a full season in 2015, and it does cause one to wonder if he’ll ever be able to stay healthy.  His last three seasons have been interrupted by injury, and the inconsistency in obtaining reps has hampered his development.  A pro since 2012, Alford has really only been a full-time player since 2015, and still needs seasoning.

Alford is currently hitting only .196/.237/.257 for Buffalo, a reflection of the fact that he’s been in the Bisons’ lineup for only 25 games.  He is hitting .333 over his past 10 games, an indication that he may be turning things around, and more evidence that he just needs to stay healthy for a prolonged stretch.

5.  Cavan Biggio, 1B/2B/3B

Biggio’s K% and Flyball% were career highs last year, an indication of his attempt to put loft on the ball.  The humid Florida air and large Florida State League ballparks conspired to keep many of those flyballs in the park, and Biggio’s numbers were very pedestrian as a result.

This year has been a different story.  Biggio’s 13 Homers to date are good for 2nd in the Eastern League, and outside of Guerrero, he’s become the most dangerous hitter in New Hampshire’s lineup.

There is little doubt about Biggio’s bat, but his glove is a different story.  Labelled a fringe defender in his draft year, the Blue Jays have added duties at 1st and 3rd in an attempt to boost Biggio’s versatility.  His range and arm strength are modest, however, and despite calls from those stats-loving fans for his ascension to Toronto, Biggio isn’t going far until he’s made more progress as a defender.

6. Logan Warmoth, SS

The 2017 1st rounder hasn’t been a pro full calendar year, yet there is already debate as to his long-term future.

Some scouts suggest that Warmoth, who doesn’t have one overwhelming tool, but does an incredible amount of little things well that add up over time.  Others suggest the potential for MLB success just isn’t there, and the Blue Jays may have missed with this pick.

Currently on the 7-day DL, Warmoth has not set the Florida State League on fire on either side of the ball, but his bat was showing some signs of progress before we was injured.  He made a lot of loud contact with Vancouver this year, but has not had a similar impact so far in Florida.  The jury is out on Warmoth at the moment.

7.  Kevin Smith, SS

Warmoth’s replacement was leading the Midwest League in a number of offensive categories before he got the call to Dunedin.  After a slow start with the D-Jays, he’s had 1six straigth multi-hit games, and is playing peerless defence.

A 4th round pick last year, there were concerns about Smith’s bat.  So far this year, he’s gone a long way to start to erase them.  Smith has a good approach at the plate, and barreled up a lot of balls enroute to a .355/.407/.639 line with Lansing.

Smith is a student of the game, and a very hard worker.  His defence has always been his calling card, but now it appears that his bat is catching up.  With a glut of SS at the lower levels, Smith split time at SS/3B at Lansing, but depending on the length of Warmoth’s absence, he has some time to settle in for a long stretch at Short.

8. Chavez Young, OF

You wouldn’t ordinarily expect much from a 39th round pick, but Young is truly proving to be a diamond in the rough.  The Bahamian may have been behind his peers in terms of development when he made his pro debut two years ago, but he’s more than made up for that.

Young has been a fixture atop Lansing’s order, although he’s now slid to 3rd with the promotion of Smith.  Young has a simple set up at the plate, gets good plate coverage, and seldom chases.  He can play all three outfield spots, and has been set loose on the basepaths this year, stealing 13 in 19 attempts.

Outside of Alford, there is perhaps no toolsier player in the system.

9.  Richard Urena, SS

It’s becoming harder to see Urena as a top prospect, although one suspects he’d have some value if he was in the right situation.

April was a write off because of time on the DL, and he was on the QEW shuffle for May.  All of that has transpired to limit his season to 20 games at AAA.  And the results reflect the lack of reps.

Maybe it’s focus, maybe it’s that he’s more of a AAAA player, but one gets the feeling that the Blue Jays don’t see a lengthy future for Urena.  The best thing for him now is to contineu to play every day at Buffalo.

 

10.  Miguel Hiraldo, SS

Hiraldo was one of the top-ranked bats in last year’s IFA class, and with a line of .395/.452/.737 in his first 9 games in the DSL – it’s a bit of a surprise the Hiraldo started there, but he likely won’t be there for long if he continues to hit at that clip.

The consensus is that Hiraldo, who is built more like a Catcher, will evenutally move over to 3B, but the Blue Jays are in no rush to move him.

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.

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 %