A Look at Some Vancouver Canadians

cobi johnson.jpeg
Cobi Johnson – Vancouver Province photo

A couple of days spent watching video of Vancouver’s series at Hillsboro and Eugene from this past summer have revealed some insights, first of which is that it would be nice if the C’s games were streamed on milb.com as well.  Vancouver had an agreement With Shaw, a western cable giant, to telecast several live games for Canadian viewers west of Sault Ste Marie, ON (and on YouTube for the rest of us) over the past few years, but that partnership appears to have dissolved – Sportsnet bought the rights this fall, and six C’s games will air on their Pacific channel next year.  Lansing came on board last year, joining the other Blue Jays full season affiliates.  It’s your turn, Vancouver.

Some observations on several players:

Otto Lopez

If you like three true outcomes guys, then Lopez is not for you.  If you do have a preference, however, for a guy who can play multiple positions, get on base, and show a high baseball IQ on both sides of the ball, the Dominican 2016 late sign is for you.

Scroll down to read more in a previous post.  He needs to get stronger and add some loft to his swing, but he does a lot of little things really well.

Jake Brodt

Don’t judge college players by their first year in pro ball; for most it’s a grind.

And for this 9th round pick out of Santa Clara, that’s incredibly true.  He hit .154 over his last ten games, and fanned in almost half of his ABs.  Even though the Blue Jays are very conscious about their prospect’s workloads at the lower levels, Brodt was clearly gassed by season’s end.

Brodt fanned on pitches at a rate at(18.6%) which one would expect from a player of his bat-first (.338/.375/.532) profile in his final college season (as a 4th year Senior with little bargaining power, Brodt signed for a $5K bonus), but he did not show an ability to work the count.  Brodt posted a 35% K rate, and walked only at a 2% clip.

Those numbers would not be good indicators of future success, but there are some silver linings to the Brodt cloud.  He collected 15 Doubles despite playing in only 47 games – his swing appeared a little flat (a 40% FB rate would back that up), and it’s easy to project some increased power with some adjustments, because the bat speed is definitely there.  Brodt hunts the fastball, and is vulnerable at this point to off speed pitches.  Brodt is not the lumbering type of 1st Basemen – he runs reasonably well for his 6’4″/220 size, and is a decent fielder.

Lansing will be his destination next year.  With several players of his type (Ryan Noda, Chad Spanberger, Kacy Clemens) ahead of him, he likely will spend the season there.

McGregory Contreras

The toolsy-but-raw label has stuck with Contreras since he signed with the Blue Jays in 2015.  The team has brought him along slowly for his first three pro seasons, although Baseball America saw enough of him to rank Contreras their 19th top prospect, citing what Managers in the Appy League called “sneaky power.”

His numbers at Vancouver were not as eye-popping (he did lead the C’s with 8 Home Runs), as the pitching at the higher level exposed him somewhat.   Contreras uses a toe gather as his timing mechanism, but then descends into a swing that can get long, with his bat getting into prime barrel zone late. His pitch recognition (9 walks vs 69 strikeouts) has to improve for him to advance. Described as a fringy outfielder, he showed good range and reactions to flyballs in a limited sample of viewing.

We’ll see Contreras at Lansing next year, where playing every day in full season may help accelerate his development.

Jose Espada

Much has been expected of the RHP, who the Blue Jays took in the 6th round of the 2015 out of Puerto Rico.  A solid pro debut in the GCL seemed to prophesize a quick trip up the ladder for Espada.

Such has not been the case.  Espada repeated Vancouver this year, and despite some promising signs (a 10.7 K/9, which led all NWL Pitchers, and a 14% whiff rate), Espada fell short of expectations in his third pro season.

On the surface, it’s hard to understand why.  Espada has a smooth, clean delivery, and is usually around the strike zone.  In one of the streamed starts I saw, he may have shown his issues in the first inning.  After giving up three successive walks to start the game (missing the strike zone badly), C’s Pitching Coach Jim Czajkowski came out to calm Espada down.  Big Jim’s pep talk appeared to walk, as Espada induced a weak one-hopper to the next hitter, which he promptly jumped on and threw home to force the runner from 3rd, then C Yorman Rodriguez fired to 1st to complete the DP (on which Brodt made a nice scoop).  With Espada an out away from getting out of the jam, he threw the next pitch down the middle to a hitter who swung and missed at a 23.5% rate – Hillsboro 1B Francis Martinez – who smacked it into RF for a two-run Double.  Yes, this was only one inning, but it suggests maybe some focus issues, and the fact that when Espada misses, it was usually in the strike zone (a 45% FB rate adds to this possibility).  Espada does get tremendous movement on his two-seamer, but perhaps he’s yet to command it.

It’s possible to see Espada being next year in Lansing, but he may be passed by one of the Pitchers from the lower levels next spring, and start the year in Extended.

Tanner Kirwer

It’s always great to see a Canadian moving up the ladder in the Jays system.

A 20th round pick last year, Kirwer’s pro debut season ended after 25 games when he was hit in the face with a pitch, breaking three bones.

Kirwer has plus speed, which shows in the field and on the bases.  He tied for the NWL lead in steals with 28, was a mid-season All- Star, and he may be one of the fastest players in the organization.  Kirwer also has a swing-and-miss (14.1%) element to his game, and has more of a ground ball swing.  And a 6.5% walk rate doesn’t allow Kirwer to take advantage of that speed.  Working the count (Kirwer saw 3.5 pitchers per AB last year), along with making harder and more consistent contact will be what he needs to focus on to continue to progress.

On defence, Kirwer covers a great deal of territory.  It should be fun watching him cover the CF expanse in Lansing next year.

Griffin Conine

Conine injured himself crashing into the RF fence at Hillsboro in the first game, and didn’t appear the rest of the series.  He missed 8 games, and struggled for the rest of the month of August (.211/.265/.342).

His bona fides are clear:  son of a Major Leaguer, former Cape Cod League top prospect.  So we’re not going to read too much into a first pro season that was underwhelming.  His .873 OPS July is probably a closer approximation of his ultimate value.

The dark cloud on Conine’s horizon is the 50 game suspension he will have to serve as a result of testing positive for Ritalin, a banned substance under MLB protocols.  To his credit, Conine owned this ban, and pledged to make amends for it.

His 2019 season will begin in late May, likely in Dunedin.  We will have a better estimation of his future by this time next year.  2018 has been a write-off for him.

Nick Podkul

His numbers (.222/.347/.364) may not have told an impressive story, but there are some parallels that could be drawn between this 7th round pick from Notre Dame and a guy from the same school who went in the 5th round in 2016 by the name of Cavan Biggio.

Podkul hit .323 over his last ten games, and showed some bat speed in the process.  Like Biggio, it may be a matter of adjusting the swing to produce some more loft.  Podkul can get on base, and he can play 2nd and 3rd.  It’s a stretch to put Podkul in the same class as Biggio, but he hit some rockets in the Hillsboro series.

Podkul should start next season in Lansing.

Randy Pondler 

The gangly southpaw from Nicaragua was the Appy Pitcher of the Year in 2017.   Moving up to Vancouver this year, though, his lack of one outstanding pitch became apparent.  He still posted decent numbers (2.90 ERA, 47% GB rate), but he pitched to contact, and did not miss a lot of bats.

Pondler does not light up the radar gun, but he commands the strike zone.  In the start he made against Hillsboro, hitters seemed to know he was going to throw strikes, and were aggressive early in the count, racking up some hard contact.  He pairs his fastball with a curve with decent shape, but it’s a pitch he seemed to leave up in the zone.  His change-up is somewhere between dependable and show-me.  At 22, there’s not a lot of room left for projecting that fastball.

Pondler shoud start next season in Lansing.

Cobi Johnson

Low level minor league relievers are truly the forgotten men of baseball.  Only a handful progress to the bigs, and that’s why I’ll save writing about some of the decent bullpen arms Vancouver had like Joeys Pulido and Murray until another time.

The C’s did feature a Closer who very much profiles like a back of the pen power arm in the future in Cobi Johnson, son of the now former Blue Jays Coach.

Johnson was lights out for Vancouver, going a perfect 10-10 in Saves, fanning 35 in 26 innings.  The only question about Johnson would seem to be how he lasted until the 30th round of the draft last June.  Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of 2017, and a shutdown for the final three weeks of his final college season may have been the culprit.

Johnson sits 93-94 with his fastball, and has a 12-6 hammer of a curve.  He also adds a mid-80s slider and decent change to go with it.  At 6’4″/230, he has the build of a fireballing reliever.  NWL hitters really didn’t much of a chance against him.

Johnson should skip Lansing for Dunedin next season.

2018 Vancouver Canadians Pitches Per Plate Appearance

PA Pitches Pitches/PA
Brett Wright 83 367 4.42
Vinny Capra 163 660 4.05
Griffin Conine 230 924 4.02
Hunter Steinmetz 93 368 3.96
Nick Podkul 197 773 3.92
Brandon Polizzi 157 608 3.87
Christopher Bec 191 736 3.85
Jake Brodt 176 674 3.83
Reilly Johnson 61 229 3.75
Sterling Guzman 190 694 3.65
Otto Lopez 206 748 3.63
Mc Gregory Contreras 233 829 3.56
Bryan Lizardo 144 500 3.47
Tanner Kirwer 247 843 3.41
Jesus Navarro 30 102 3.40
Jesus Severino 161 521 3.24
Yorman Rodriguez 184 567 3.08
Freddy Rodriguez 28 86 3.07
Owen Spiwak 13 36 2.77

Who is the Next Blue Jays Breakout Prospect?

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

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 %


2 Bluefield Jays Named to BA’s Top 20 Appy League Prospects

Bluefield Daily Telegraph Photo

The Blue Jays fielded one of their strongest teams at their Appalachian League affiliate Bluefield since the West Virgina town joined the organization in 2011.  Bluefield won 46 games and took the Eastern Division title, but dropped their semi-final to the Yankees’ Pulaski affiliate.

With a good mix of 2017 draftees and international free agents from previous seasons, Bluefield finished 2nd in both team batting average and ERA.  Ryan Noda won the batting title,  and led the league in runs, hits, bases on balls (by a considerable margin),  and in OBP, Slugging, and OPS as well.

One might think that such a season might land Noda at or near the top of Baseball America‘s Top 20 prospects.  But on a list geared to projection (and hence, youth), Noda came in a respectable 12th.  The League MVP was termed a steal by BA, falling from a top three rounds projection to the 15th  after a mediocre college season.  Noda has plus bat speed, and a patient approach that allows him to be selective and wait for his pitch.  The downside of that is a K rate (21.7%) slightly higher than his BB rate.  Noda played 1B this year, but played both 1B and the corner outfield in college.  He will likely share time at First with Kacy Clemens at Lansing next year, and will see time in the Outfield in order to get his bat in the lineup.

A second Bluefield Jay to hit BA’s Top 20 was OF McGregory Contreras at 19.  Since the Blue Jays broke the bank to pay Vladimir Guerrero Jr’s bonus in 2015, only $10K was available to sign the toolsy-but-raw Contreras.  Contreras played all three OF positions for Bluefield, and would have mostly played CF if not for the presence of premium defender Chavez Young.  BA had this evaulation:

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’ bat-to-ball ability is hindered right now by pitch recognition issues, but that should grow to be average as well.

Bluefield was Contreras’ first stateside experience, as the Blue Jays felt he had showed enough to skip the GCL. Not having seen him play, but considering his size, tools, and experience, I think Edward Oliveras, who had a breakthrough year with Lansing in 2017, is a good comp for Contreras.

Bluefield had several other players who merited consideration for BA’s Top 20 list.  C/1B Yorman Rodriguez hit a sizzling .346/.374/.429, and was probably the league’s best hitter not named Ryan Noda, but his defence was a concern.  Originally a Catcher, Rodriguez played more 1B this season, and he was termed raw behind the plate as a result.  BA named LHP Randy Pondler the league’s Most Valuable Pitcher, but his 6.6K/9 probably kept him off the list.  Pondler led the loop in ERA and GB rate (59.1%), indicating that he pitches to contact, but his command and secondaries likely overmatched hitters in the pitch recognition-challenged league.  Along with RHP Maximo Castillo, he should compete for a job at Lansing next year.