Atkins Bullish on Top Prospects Not Named Vladdy or Bo

IMG_9514
Homestand Sports photo

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins has been pumping up his team’s prospects beyond the obvious top two in recent appearances.

On the west coast last month for the annual Hot Stove Luncheon in Vancouver, Atkins told our friend Charlie Caskey (@CharlieCaskey on Twitter) about 1st rounder Nate Pearson:

“It’s unusual for someone to be, I don’t like the word ‘gifted’, but as talented as he is, so strong and powerful and has the tactical and technical attributes to be elite,” said Atkins. “It’s rare.”

And then last week at Pitch Talks, a Toronto-based gathering of local baseball cognoscenti, Atkins told the audience:

What are we to make of this?  Is the Blue Jays farm system even deeper than we thought?   Pearson “gifted”?  Alford “up there” with Guerrero and Bichette?  Is Atkins giving Blue Jays fans the straight goods, or is he inflating the value of his top prospects, just in case a deal comes along?

The truth is somewhere between those two extremes.

Let’s get one fact straight first:  it’s been a long time (ok, never) since the Blue Jays have had two top prospects of the calibre of Vladdy Jr and Bo.  Both profile as potential impact, first-division, all-star players.  We may not know where they’ll ultimately play, but they are legitimate elite offensive prospects.

Pearson has come a long way in just a little over a year.  Not viewed as a prospect out of high school or even after a mostly nondescript first year of college, a vastly upgraded training program helped him hit 100 in bullpen sessions in the fall of 2016, and the scouting world took notice.  Northwest League hitters were pretty much at his mercy after the Blue Jays selected him – it was a nice change to see a college draftee dominate at that level, because such has not been the case in recent years.   Hitters must be very intimidated just digging in against the mountainous Pearson – I felt uncomfortable just sitting over home plate in Vancouver’s press box watching him.

And while it’s very exciting to dream of Pearson’s high 90s heat at the front of the Blue Jays rotation one day, he has yet to play a year of full season ball, and we should be tempering out expectations just a bit.  There are secondary pitches to develop, as well as adjustments Pearson will have to make as he experiences the ups and downs of taking a regular turn in the rotation for five months.  Is Pearson “gifted”?  Is he “elite”?  Potentially, yes.  Atkins suggested that he would have gone much higher in the draft had teams known they were going to get that kind of performer, and while that’s true, much of his success this year can be attributed at least in part of the careful monitoring of his workload that the Blue Jays – 74 pitches was his highest game total for the season.  There’s every reason to believe that Pearson can fulfill Atkins’ prophecy, but there’s also likely a long way to go before he does.

How about Alford?  Does he compare to Vladdy and Bo?  At first glance, no, but that’s not a slight.  Alford’s game is different from the Slugging Twins’.  He works the count and manages the strike zone, but there is a bit more of a swing-and-miss element to Alford’s approach.  Alford gets on base less often, but his speed can be game-changing, which certainly separates him from Guerrero and Bichette (who are both smart base runners in their own right, but not in Alford’s lane when it comes to foot speed).   In terms of power, there is no comparison, either.  Home Run and/or Extra Base power is often the last tool in a player’s kit to develop, but some reports suggest a lack of loft in Alford’s swing will keep him from consistently reaching double-digit Homer totals.  Alford does use the whole field, but his heat map from 2017 doesn’t suggest a prodigious slugger in the making:

Anthony Alford_HeatMap
mlbfarm.com

 

Defensively, there is little to compare Guerrero/Bichette to Alford either.  Alford has the makings of a premier defender.  Scouts have downgraded his arm, but he gets excellent jumps and reads on balls, and his speed allows him to close quickly.  It’s easy to see him cutting off Doubles to the gap in the Rogers Centre on a regular basis.

Is Alford the potential impact player the other two could possibly one day be?  Yes, but perhaps it’s a question of magnitude.  Guerrero receives grades for his power that you just don’t see on an 18-year-old, and Bichette has the smarts and skills to be a perennial batting title contender.  Alford also has an injury history that could limit his future – his past two seasons have been interrupted for extended periods by injury.  Still, you do get the sense that Alford, who really has only been playing the game full-time for a short period of time, is still on an upward curve in terms of his development, and that maybe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg just yet.

One thing is likely:   Bichette and Guerrero may anchor the middle of the Blue Jays order for the 2020s.  Alford may be a fixture at the top of it.

So, Atkins, who is probably justifiably proud of the strides the team’s farm system has made over the past two seasons, was maybe over-inflating things, but not by a lot.  Pearson does ooze with ace potential, and Alford may in fact be an impact player one day.  Neither is a lock in the mold that Guerrero and Bichette appear to be, but there is plenty to look forward to one day.

Advertisements

Who’s the Next Blue Jays Top 100 Prospect?

Warmoth2017
Logan Warmoth – Clutchlings Photo

After some lean years in terms of elite prospects, these are heady times for Blue Jays fans.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr (4th), Bo Bichette (19th), and Anthony Alford (58th) cracked Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 list earlier today , and just a few hours ago, Fangraphs released their Top 100,  with Guerrero 3rd, Bichette 9th, Alford 36th, Danny Jansen 71st, and Nate Pearson 76th.

To be honest, this space has long been a booster of Jansen’s, and while we anointed him the Blue Jays Catcher of the Future 8 months ago, his inclusion was a bit of a surprise.  Fangraphs is all in, especially with his hit tool:

We’re buying that Jansen’s 2017, which included more walks than strikeouts across three levels of the minors, is a sign of real improvement, perhaps due to the new prescription frames he got before the season.

Earlier this month, Baseball America released what is regarded by many as the standard-bearer of prospect lists.  Guerrero was ranked 3rd, Bichette 8th, Alford 60th, and Pearson came in at 91.   MLB Pipeline had Guerrero 3rd as well, with Bichette 14th,  and Alford 47th.

By this time next year, it’s a safe bet that Bichette and Guerrero will occupy even loftier positions.  Alford will most likely graduate from the list, and Pearson will no doubt continue his ascent.  Who are the Blue Jays prospects most likely to break through can crack the Top 100, representing the next wave of talent in the system?

For your consideration, here are a pair of players – kind of a high/low scenario:

Eric Pardinho

It seems folly to get so excited about a 17-year-old (Pardinho’s birthday was shortly after New Year’s Day), and it may take a year or so before he cracks any Top 100 lists, but there is no doubt that the young Brazilian is headed there.

“A combination of athleticism, great delivery, advanced stuff and feel for pitching,” is how Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish described Pardinho in November.   “I’ve never seen a 16 year old kid with that combination of skills.”

Pardinho hit 94 as a 15 year old in a WBC Qualifier a year and a half ago, and according to Tinnish hit 97 in short outings in the Dominican prospects league this summer.  But it’s just not that fastball – it’s his mechanics, the ability to command that fastball, and complement it with secondaries and pitchability.

There is every reason to believe that Pardinho will begin his career stateside this summer, most likely starting in the GCL.  And while one should always be cautious with young International Free Agents, the Blue Jays have had a good track record with them – namely Franklin Barreto, Richie Urena, Roberto Osuna, and some guy named Vladdy Jr.

 

Logan Warmoth

While Pardinho may not make any Top 100 lists until 2020, there’s a good chance Warmoth may work his way into the back end of some a year from now.

You might walk away from watching one game’s worth of the 2017 1st rounder’s work and wonder what the fuss is.  Taking in a larger sample might change your mind.  According to Amateur Scouting Director Steve Sanders, the Blue Jays clearly got their man:

He’s a player we’ve scouted for a long time….he wasn’t a prospect out of High School, but he steadily improved at North Carolina, and that really showed this year.  He’s very steady and a well-rounded player, with a chance to stay at SS and hit for power.  His make up is off the charts, and he has the intangibles to be a top of the lineup hitter.

Warmoth does not have one overwhelming tool  – BA called him a “bucket full of 50-grade tools,” in naming him the Blue Jays 8th overall prospect this fall, but he makes consistently hard contact and has a good approach at the plate.  In the field, scouts are split as to whether he sticks at SS or moves across to 2B, but there was plenty of promise in his footwork, arm, and reactions to ground balls to suggest he can stay there.

While none of this may scream Top 100 material, there’s plenty to make one believer that Warmoth will be a productive MLBer one day.  He had to fight a tendency to be a little pull happy last year, but otherwise there are no holes in his game.  His power will likely continue to develop, and he should make huge strides this year, most likely with Dunedin.

 

Notes From Around the System

It may be hard to believe that we’re less than Russ Martin’s Number away from Opening Day, but it’s coming like a freight train through the dead of winter, which is what those of us in Southern Ontario are in the midst of right now.  However, having spent a week in the frozen historical and gastronomical wonderland that is Quebec City, I’m not one to complain.

The Blue Jays have yet to confirm when their minor league players are to report to camp at the Bobby Mattick Complex, but it’s safe to say the dates will be somewhat similar to Oakland’s.  The Athletics’ Pitchers and Catchers report on March 3rd, Position Players on the 9th, and their first games will be on the 13th.  If you are heading to Florida to watch the Blue Jays in action in March, a little research on your part could land you at the Mattick (or any of the other complexes in the area) for some minor league action.  There are usually a pair of games going on at once, and you can sometimes catch a rehabbing MLBer in action.  Admission is free.

The Blue Jays have invited 13 non-roster players to Spring Training with the big club.  These players will not necessarily be auditioning for a major league job – the purpose of inviting them is to give them a taste of big league life, and to shorten the workdays for the regulars.  When asked who made the biggest impression on him two years ago during his first tour of a big league camp, Anthony Alford without hesitation answered Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson.  Alford was impressed with their work ethic, and how they went about their daily routine in preparing for the season.

Among the invitees this year are:

P Andrew Case – there was thought that the New Brunswick native would be added to the 40 man roster last fall after a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League, but he was left off, and was not selected in the Rule 5 draft.  Case is not a big strikeout guy, but the reliever finished the season at AAA, and it would not be a surprise to see him make his MLB debut this year.  He just seems to get guys out wherever he plays.

P Jose Fernandez – the lefty reliever has always had command issues, and struggled at AA last year, but has LOOGY potential.

P Chad Girodo – sidewinding southpaw battled injuries in 2017, and spent the bulk of the year at AAA.  Girodo appeared in 14 games for Toronto in 2016.

P Jon Harris – the 2015 1st rounder found too much of the strike zone at AA last year, and Eastern League hitters hit .292 against him.  This is a huge year for Harris, as he will be Rule 5 eligible next fall.

P Sean Reid-Foley – Last season was a learning year for the 2014 2nd rounder, who was one of the youngest players in AA.  His numbers for 2017 don’t look great at first glance, but he was a very effective Pitcher from mid-May to the end of the season.  There are some who suggest his control issues might mean an eventual move to the bullpen, but indications are the Blue Jays have every intention of continuing to use SRF in a starter’s role in Buffalo this year.

P Jordan Romano – the Markham native has long been one of our favourite Blue Jays prospects.  He was a regular correspondent during his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2015, giving insight into the process.  He’s been a K/inning guy over the last two seasons as a starter, and while some suggest that with his over-the-top delivery and still-in-development secondaries, he too might profile as a bullpen arm,  he’ll continue as a starter in AA this year.  You don’t give up on a guy that’s missed that many bats.

P Chris Rowley – was one of the most effective Pitchers in the system last year, and completed his remarkable rise from non-drafted/missed two years due to military service guy to the big leagues last year.  Rowley was DFA’d in the fall to make room for the new arrivals on the 40, but he’ll be very much in competition for a big league job this year, with AAA his likely destination.  Rowley can start or relieve, and his versatility may come in handy.

P Justin Shafer – the 2014 8th rounder has risen slowly through the system, steadily getting ground ball outs along the way.  Converted to relief at AA last year, Shafer has long relief potential.

C Max Pentecost – eyebrows were raised when the 2014 1st rounder was left off the 40-man last fall.  The Blue Jays were crossing their fingers that Pentecost’s injury history would allow him to slip through the Rule 5, and their gamble paid off.  Many have recommended that the Blue Jays turn Pentecost into an Evan Gattis-like hybrid player, but when you read between the lines of the email responses from Jays execs, the plan is continue to have him Catch on a regular (perhaps not daily) basis.

IF Jason Lebelebijian – the versatile Leb can play all four IF positions, and has spent time in the OF, although he played mostly 2nd and 3rd in Buffalo last year.

IF Tim Lopes – the 5 year MiLB vet came over from the Mariners’ organization last year, and filled a valuable utility role for New Hampshire, appearing in 128 games.

OF J.D. Davis – I have to admit:  there was a moment of excitement when a publication confused Davis with underachieving 2012 1st rounder D.J. Davis, who repeated Dunedin last year.  This was not the first time someone had made this error, however.  DJ had a remarkable 2nd half, putting balls in play in the second half at the best rate of his career, posting a .333/381/.449 August.  JD Davis, on the other hand, has risen steadily through the system, and is a get-on-base speedster who can play all three OF positions.

OF Roemon Fields – the speed merchant posted career-best numbers at Buffalo last year (.291/.351/.352), and added 43 steals.  Fields’ profile is more of a bottom-of-the-order, 2nd leadoff hitter, but he has clearly established himself as a fringe MLBer.

Add in Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire, Rowdy Tellez, and Thomas Pannone, who were added to the 40-man in November, and there will be a lot of first-timers at Spring Training this year.

RHP Nate Pearson may have been in the shadows this year due to his short season after being selected in the 1st round of June’s draft, and with the seasons Vladdy Jr and Bo had, but his rise from high school non-prospect to Baseball America‘s Top 100 is a phenomenal story.  The Blue Jays did not roll the dice on Pearson so much as they had done their homework on him, and knew what they were getting. Sam Dykstra of milb.com wrote about it here:  https://www.milb.com/milb/news/toolshed-blue-jays-nate-pearson-prepped-for-takeoff/c-265720346

 

The Blue Jays Australian Baseball League affiliate, the Canberra Cavalry, are off to the ABL final after a come-from-behind victory over Perth in their best of three semi-final.

To be honest, there hasn’t been a lot to watch from a Blue Jays perspective down under.  1B Connor Panas, fresh off a monster second half in the Florida State League, was shut down for the year at Christmas.  Relievers Tayler Saucedo and Dan Lietz have been used in a limited role on a veteran-laden Cavalry staff.  Saucedo did get a huge 8th inning double play as the Cavs battled for a playoff spot in their final series of the season.

Canberra hosts Game 1 of the best of three affair against Brisbane on Friday night, with the series switching to Brisbane for the remainder.

 

Guerrero Jr, Bichette Head Up Jays on BA’s Top 100

VladdyBo

To the surprise of very few, Blue Jays prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr (3), and Bo Bichette (8) have climbed to the Top 10 of Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list.

Braves prospect Ronald Acuna headed up the rankings, while the Angels Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Otani nudged Guerrero to #3.  BA staffers admit that it’s been some time since three players have caused such internal debate about who is first overall.

Anthony Alford (60) and Nate Pearson (91) joined Guerrero and Bichette in the Top 100.  For Pearson, inclusion in the Top 100 capped off a remarkable year for the 2017 draftee.  His fastball garnered a 70 ranking on the 20-80 scouting scale.  Jason Parks, now of the Cubs, gave this primer on FB grades for Baseball Prospectus a few years ago:

IMG_0736

While Pearson only received slightly below or above average grades for the rest of his repertoire (Curve 45; Slider 55; Change 50; Control 45), that 70 stands out, and buys him time to develop his other pitches.  When you consider that Pearson was considered a risky late first round to early second round pick less than a year ago, he’s leapfrogged a considerable number of other prospects.  Pearson feels quite justified in going the JuCo route:

The Blue Jays limited Pearson’s workload this summer, but he was utterly dominant in Vancouver.  He didn’t allow a run until his 6th innings-limited start – he didn’t even allow a runner past 2nd until that outing.  His final start of the season was a lights out effort in Game 1 of Vancouver’s semi-final vs Spokane.  Pearson allowed 1 hit over 4 innings, fanning 10.

Before we get to Guerrero, Bichette, and Alford, here’s Parks on Power Grades:

IMG_0737

 

The Grades for Guerrero included 80 for his hit tool, 70 for power, 40 for speed, 40 for his fielding, and 55 for his arm.  This would seem to lend support to the idea that he’s safe at 3rd Base for now, but a move across the diamond will be in his long-term future.  As someone who saw him in person and online last year, I’ve always liked his reactions to balls hit in his direction; he has excellent hands and footwork, but not necessarily the quickness to get to balls at the edge of his range in a timely manner.

Bichette received a 70 for his bat, 60 power, 50 for speed, 45 for fielding, and a 60 for his arm.  The arm and fielding grades are a bit of a surprise:  I found that Bichette showed sure hands, turned the double play well, and demonstrated increasing range as the season progressed, but the arm strength seemed to be lacking a bit. Bichette may not be possessed of blazing speed, but he’s a smart and aggressive base runner.

Alford’s grades slipped a bit, as did his ranking.  He was given a 60 for his bat, speed, and fielding, 50 for power, and a surprising 40 for his arm.  Alford may not be Amos Otis in CF, but he reads balls well, chases down hits to the gap effectively, and gets rid of the ball quickly.  There has been a little concern that his power has yet to develop, as his swing does not have a lot of loft to it.  Alford does work the count very well, and barrels a number of balls just the same.  His 60 grade speed seems a little on the low side; Alford does have what can be considered game-changing speed on the base paths, but it hasn’t translated into high stolen base totals (19/22 last year).  Then again, given his injury history, the team may not want Alford stealing all that often.

This is a good body of work for the Toronto farm system.  There are clearly three levels of talent represented –  almost ready (Alford),  maybe a year away (Bichette/Guerrero), and a few years away (Pearson).  Perhaps next year we may see Eric Pardinho or Logan Warmoth sneak onto the back end of this list.

Toronto Blue Jays Minor League System Top 10 Moments of 2017

It was a memorable season for a guy who follows the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system.  Three of the four short season teams made the post season, as did one full season team, bringing home a championship and a co-championship to the organization.  I had a first-hand look at Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette opening weekend in Lansing, and finished the campaign with a press box view of Nate Pearson’s start in Vancouver’s final regular season home game.  In between, there were plenty of highlights:

1.  Vladdy Jr’s Rise to Prominence

  One has to go back to the days of Sil Campusano* to find a Blue Jay ranked as high as Vladdy Jr (*Baseball America didn’t start their Top 100 list until 1990 – Campusano was a multiple-times cover boy of the publication in the mid-80s).

Those of us in the know were not surprised that Guerrero is either the top or 2nd-ranked prospect in the game after only two pro seasons.  His advanced approach, pitch recognition, and lethal bat speed have the makings of a generational bat.

Guerrero dominated the Midwest League as an 18-year-old, and after a bit of a dip following his promotion to High A Dunedin, he was back to his productive self, leading the D-Jays to the post season.

Vladdy was such a model of consistency this year that it’s hard to pick out one highlight.  Was it going 2-4 with a Homer in his first game of Low A?  Leading the minors in OBP? Hitting .385/.483/.646 in August? Homering in three straight games that month?  Not going more than 3 games without a hit (twice) all season?

Thoughts of Guerrero continuing to climb the minor league ladder have helped to warm up the current record cold Southern Ontario winter.

2.  Bo Bichette Flirts with .400

Advanced stats have taken over with serious baseball fans, but who doesn’t like a good run at baseball’s hallowed .400 mark?

After tearing up the Gulf Coast League the year before, the 2016 2nd rounder picked up exactly where he left off in Lansing.  He hit .371 for April, and .388 in May, but not even in a prospect hunter’s wildest dreams did we expect what happened next.

In the first half of June, his average steadily creeped up into the .380s, and then an incredible 7-8 performance in a doubleheader on the 15th put Bichette over the top:

At Bat #1
   Facing Cubs’ RHP Duncan Robinson, who stood 3rd in the MWL in ERA entering the night, he took an 0-1 fastball on the outer edge of the plate to right field for his first hit of the game in Lansing’s top of the 1st.

At Bat #2
   Robinson clearly wanted no part of Bichette, offering up a steady diet of breaking balls in the top of the 3rd.  With the count 2-1, Robinson tried to get a fastball in on Bichette, but missed badly.  Bichette hammered it into the gap in Left Centre, driving in a run.

At Bat #3
  Bichette led off the top of the sixth, and Robinson continued to avoid giving him fastballs anywhere near the plate.  He hung a 2-2 change, and Bichette hammered it into the LF bleachers for his 7th Home Run, touching off a 5-run frame for Lansing.

At Bat #4
After sending 9 men to the plate the previous inning, Bichette led off the top of the 7th, the final frame of Game 1 against reliever Jared Cheek.
This 9 pitch AB may have been his best of the night.
Down 0-2, Bichette fouled off a number of borderline pitches, before Cheek caught too much of the plate with a breaking ball, which Bichette lined into CF for a base hit.  His average now stood at .394.

Game 2
At Bat #1
   Facing Cubs RHP Erling Moreno, Bichette hit a 2-1 pitch into the hole at short, and beat the off-line throw to first for an infield single.

At Bat #2
   Moreno continued the breaking ball regimen.  Bichette hammered a mistake fastball all the way to the wall in Right Centre field, raising his average to .399.

At Bat #3
   Facing soft-tossing reliever Tyson Miller, Bichette showed some rare impatience, chasing a breaking ball out of the zone, and foul-tipping a low fastball into the Catcher’s mitt for a swinging strikeout.  .400 would have to wait.

At Bat #4
   In his final at bat of the night, Bichette looped a fastball on the outer half to right field for a base hit, and his average finally reached .400.

A 3-5 night at the plate the following day kept his average at .400, but a slight dip after that saw his average go as “low” as .392, before another hot streak nudged him to .402 on June 28th.

It’s hard to remember such an individual performance in five years of following the Toronto farm system.

3.  NWL title returns to Vancouver

Minor league playoffs are a bit of an afterthought to fans, and a bit of a double-edged sword for MLB executives.  Kids are back in school, the weather has cooled, and some teams struggle to draw the crowds they had in warmer days.  For the front-office types, they certainly want their prospects to learn to win together on their way up the minor league rungs, but they certainly must hold their breath and hope injuries don’t take place in games that don’t matter much in the larger scheme of things.

Canadians fans couldn’t be blamed for being spoiled; titles in the first three seasons as a Blue Jays affiliate, and a trip to the finals in the fourth meant that fans in the Lower Mainland could reasonably expect competitive teams every year.

Except that 2015 and 2016 were lean years, and the team missed the post-season.  Despite that, C’s fans continued to pass through the turnstiles at venerable old Nat Bailey Stadium in record numbers, giving Blue Jays prospects an incredible atmosphere to play their home games in.

That loyalty was rewarded in 2017, as top draft picks Logan Warmoth, Nate Pearson, and Riley Adams led the team back to the playoffs.  And the 2017 post-season proved to be beyond memorable.  The C’s semi-final with Spokane was set to open in Washington State, but a season of wildfires had made the air quality unacceptable, and the series was moved to Vancouver.  The Canadians took the first game of the best-of-three behind an outstanding performance by Pearson (see below), and clinched a berth in the finals behind some standout relief pitching from Justin Dillon and Orlando Pascual.

The C’s travelled to Eugene to take on the defending champion Cubs’ affiliate in the final.  The teams split the first two games in Oregon, making the 10 hour bus ride to Vancouver after the 2nd game for Game 3, which was slated for the following day.  The C’s once again rode their brilliant bullpen (3 ER over 27 IP in the series) to victory in Games 3 and 4.

4.  Dunedin Wins FSL Co-Championship

Dunedin made the playoffs by virtue of finishing with the Florida State League North Division’s 2nd best record, a distant 14.5 games back of the Tampa Yankees.

With Hurricane Irma bearing down on the Sunshine State, the league decided to declare the winners of the two divisions co-champions, while everyone packed up and got ready to get out of Dodge.

Dunedin hosted Game 1 of the best of three affair, and dropped a heartbreaking, extra-innings loss to Tampa after scoring 5 runs in the bottom of the 1st.

The D-Jays’ backs were clearly up against the wall for Game 2, which was played in Tampa, where Dunedin had lost 7 of 10 on the season to the Yankees.  And if they prevailed in Game 2, the 3rd and deciding game would take place minutes after – so, if they wanted to win the series and a share of the league title, the D-Jays would have to sweep a doubleheader in Tampa.

Dunedin easily took Game 1 by a score of 4-1, behind 6+ innings of solid work by Markham, ON native Jordan Romano.  Romano, who finished 2nd in the FSL in Ks, failed to fan a batter on the night, but he pitched well enough to turn a lead over to Kirby Snead, who pitched 2.1 scoreless innings to preserve the win.

In the final game, TJ Zeuch took to the mound for Dunedin.  Zeuch had spent much of the summer on the DL, and was making only his second start since his return.  Pitching on three days’ rest, Zeuch gave up only one hit over four innings.  Dunedin had given Zeuch a one-run lead in the 2nd, but Tampa tied it in the 4th, and took the lead in the 5th.  Dunedin tied the game up in the 7th on a Home Run by Toronto’s own Connor Panas.

Fast forward to Dunedin’s top of the 9th.  With a runner on and two outs, OF Edward Olivares singled, followed by a single to left by Jake Thomas, scoring the go-ahead run.  A bloop Double down the LF line by DJ Davis brought home both Olivares and Thomas, providing insurance for the D-Jays.  Tampa scored a run in the bottom of the 9th, but Dunedin held on to win their first FSL Championship.

5.  Nate Pearson Fans 10 in Playoff Game

NWL hitters were simply overwhelmed by the Blue Jays 1st round choice this summer.  The earned runs he gave up in his last regular season start were the first he had given up since he joined Vancouver in July – he had yet to even allow a runner past 2nd prior to that.

Pearson came back in the playoffs with a vengeance, tossing a dominant 10 strikeout effort in 4 innings against Spokane in Game 1 of the C’s semi-final series.  After an error allowed the leadoff hitter to reach in the 1st, Pearson set the side down on 9 pitches.  Pearson fanned the side in the 2nd, working around an error of his own, as well as the 3rd, sandwiching the Ks around a walk and a single.  Pearson lost the strike zone in the 4th, issuing three straight 4-ball walks after getting two quick outs.  He regrouped and fanned the final batter of the inning to end his night.

Pearson’s performance reminded C’s fans of a similarly dominant effort by a 17-year-old Roberto Osuna in 2012.  Osuna fanned 13 over 5 innings in his NWL debut.

6.  Danny Jansen’s Big Night

Jansen burst onto the prospect radar in 2017.  A season of good health, and new eyewear obtained in the Arizona Fall League allowed Jansen to post a .323/.400/.484 line at three levels.

Jansen went a career-best 4-4 for Buffalo in late August. After hitting a Single, Home Run, and Triple in his previous three ABs, Jansen came up in the 9th needing a Double to complete the cycle.  Jansen cranked his 2nd longball of the night, falling short of the cycle, but sparking the Bisons to a four-run 9th, and a come from behind W.

7.  Anthony Alford’s Sizzling Start

Alford had a breakthrough season in 2015 after abandoning his pro football dreams in order to focus on baseball.  A knee injury and a concussion suffered in an extra-inning OF collision upon his return set him back further, and whispers about his injury history began to surface.

Alford rode a successful Arizona Fall League campaign into 2017, and he got off to a scorching start, hitting .356/.427/.507 in April at AA.  Maintaining that hot start proved difficult, and Alford cooled off in May, but still got on base at almost a 40% clip.  Alford made his MLB debut that month, but broke his wrist, sending him back to the DL for six weeks.

Alford will very much be in contention for an MLB job this spring.  That hot April last year gave a glimpse into his work-the-count, use the whole field, game-changing speed on the base paths potential.

8.  Ryan Noda’s July

The 15th round draft pick saw his stock slip after a mediocre college season.  Noda laid waste to Appalachian League Pitching on his way to an MVP season, the highlight of which was a video game number-like July, in which he bashed his way to a .444/.580/.689 line.

Noda cooled off after that stretch, but his other-worldly July was enough for him to lead the Appy in Runs, Total Bases, Average, OBP, and Slugging.  Noda won’t be able to duplicate those numbers in full season ball, but it was fun checking Bluefield’s box scores every night for a month – here’s a brief sample:

Screenshot 2018-01-01 at 10.32.10 PM

9.  Ryan Borucki’s AA debut

It’s hard to believe that 15 months earlier, the southpaw was sent down to Lansing from Dunedin because Florida State League hitters had been hitting him hard and often.

But Borucki, who knows a thing or two about battling back from adversity (injuries cost him most of two of his first three pro seasons), refined his command, added some deception to his delivery, and came to rely on a change-up that’s already Major League-ready.

After repeating Dunedin to begin 2017, he earned a late July promotion to New Hampshire, and was masterful in his Eastern League debut, keeping hitters off-balance while tossing 7 shutout innings, allowing only two hits and a pair of walks.  Two starts later, he fired another 7 scoreless frames, fanning 7.

Barring some roster moves before spring training, Borucki and New Hampshire teammate Thomas Pannone will be among the candidates vying for the fifth starter’s role in the rotation.

10. Yennsy Diaz’ June 15th start

Diaz was just another hard-throwing righthander with control problems when he pitched in Bluefield in 2016.  He learned to harness his fastball last spring, and by June had been promoted from Extended to Lansing.

It was in the nightcap of Bichette’s pursuit of .400 doubleheader that Diaz made his second MWL start.  And South Bend hitters were all but defenceless against his 98 mph heat.  While Bichette was racking up base hits, Diaz was piling up the Ks, recording 8 in 4.2 innings.

While the rest of his season was full of ups and downs, Diaz had several outings where everything was working, and hitters were overmatched against his fastball.  Command of his secondaries is still an area requiring improvement, but there’s few things to compare with a Pitcher throwing easy 97 gas.

What’s Up with the Blue Jays Farm System in 2018?

The Toronto Blue Jays have quickly re-stocked their farm system to the point where it has to be considered at least a Top 10 system.  The organization features twoo of the top hopefuls in all of MiLB in the form of Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette,  but the depth of the organization is more at the lower levels, and the system as a whole is at the point where its bolstering of the 25-man roster should begin at some point this year.  Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro has spoken about the need for waves up prospects to continue to come up to challenge for big league jobs.  We’re on the verge of seeing that start to happen.

Here are some highlights to watch for:

1.  Top prospects begin to make their way to MLB

Anthony Alford had a brief taste of the bigs last May, until a broken wrist put him on the shelf.  Fully healed and fresh off a dominant stint in the Mexican Winter League, Alford will be in competition for a big league job this spring.  Roster moves between now and spring training may mean that Alford begins the season at AAA, but his ascension to an MLB job is just a matter of time.

Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire both have a chance to land the job of backing up incumbent Catcher Russell Martin.  Jansen had a breakout year at the plate at three levels last year, while McGuire has perhaps a better skill set for a back up.

Reliever Carlos Ramirez rode a dominant minor league season and an upper 90s fastball in only his third season since converting to Pitching.  A good September showing in the majors has put Ramirez on the cusp of breaking camp with the team this April.  He may be a victim of a numbers game and start the year in AAA, but he doesn’t figure to be there long.

Starters Thomas Pannone and Ryan Borucki will be in competition for a fifth starter’s job come spring training as well, barring any roster additions.  Buffalo is a more likely destination, but when starting rotation help is needed, one of these two will get the first call.

And while his stateside pro debut season was uneven, Lourdes Gurriel can potentially provide some value at several positions, and he likely will reach the majors at some point this season.

Vlad and Bo continue to climb

It will be interesting to see where the golden duo begin their seasons.  The club has typically preferred to have prospects spend a season at each full season level, which could see one or both return to Dunedin until June.

Both players have slugged their way through the minors, but AA is where the wheat truly gets separated from the chaff.  Both have the mindset and approach to handle the higher level Pitching.

Will both players continue at their present positions?  It’s hard to see moves for either player at this point, at least on a full-time basis, but this may be the season that one or both makes a case for staying at their current infield spots.

Some bold evaluators have said that Vladdy Jr will be in the big leagues this summer, but that scenario seems unlikely.  The future of the team and Josh Donaldson will have a lot to say about that.  The more likely path for both is a starring Arizona Fall League role after the season, which should propel them into competition for a big league job in 2019.

Eric Pardinho’s Pro Debut

While no one should get too excited about a 16-year-old prospect, Pardinho is no ordinary 16 year old.  Blue Jays Assistant GM could barely contain his enthusiasm over landing the top-ranked International Pitching prospect last July.

Pardinho has clean mechanics, elite stuff, and an advanced feel for Pitching that’s uncommon for someone of his age.  We’ll have to wait until June for his debut (in the GCL, in all likelihood), but he should be well worth the wait.

The Next Wave

There is a solid group of prospects beyond Guerrero and Bichette, and a solid group of them should be at Dunedin to start the season.

Logan Warmoth, Nate Pearson, Yennsy Diaz,  Joshua Palacios, Justin Maese, and Edward Olivares should make for a strong core for the co-defending Florida State League champs.  This is a group that is still several years away, but there is big league potential in each and every one of them.

Lansing’s Lights Out Bullpen

Lugnuts fans deserve a contender.  While development always trumps winning at the minor league level, Lansing has supported this Blue Jays affiliate in the heart of Tigers country well, even when the parent club hasn’t provided a great incentive to watch the team.

Success at the short season level with Vancouver has rarely translated into winning at Lansing, but this year may be the exception.  Lansing’s 5.32 team ERA was last in the Midwest League by a considerable margin, but with arms like William Oullette, Brayden Bouchey, Travis Bergen, and Orlando Pascual likely to suit up for the Lugnuts in April, the bullpen should be one of the team’s strengths.  C’s Manager Rich Miller leaned on his bullpen heavily during the Northwest League playoffs, and they responded, giving up only 3 earned runs over a cumulative 27 innings in bringing the title back to Vancouver.

Two Top Picks in June

The Blue Jays have two selections among the first 51 picks in next June’s draft.  Given how quickly they’ve rebuilt the system in a short period of time, there is a good chance that another high-level player or two will be added.  And with the Blue Jays linked to this year’s top IFA, Dominican SS Orelvis Martinez, the system will get even deeper in 2019.

BA Releases Blue Jays Top 10

Vladimir-Guerrero-Jr-2017-Paul-Gierhart_featured-640x480
BA/Paul Gierhart Photo

Baseball America published their Top 10 Blue Jays prospects today, and the results are similar to many other versions, including FBJ’s.

There were some minor variations – BA included Lourdes Gurriel and Danny Jansen, but left Conner Greene, Sean Reid-Foley, and T.J. Zeuch off of their Top 10.

The detailed reports are behind BA’s paywall, and while I won’t list them all here, I will feature some highlights:

On Vlad Jr (no surprise at #1):

Guerrero is a prodigious offensive talent, with the combination of hitting ability, plate discipline and power in the mold of Manny Ramirez.

Bo Bichette (#2):

Bichette has the potential to be one of the most talented offensive players in baseball. Double-A New Hampshire is his next step.

Bichette and Guerrero, according to BA, form the best 1-2 prospect punch in all of baseball.  While we can argue that Anthony Alford may have an all-around higher ceiling, it’s hard to quibble with that.

After viewing Big Nate Pearson from the Vancouver pressbox, I can vouch for this assessment:

Pearson gives hitters an uncomfortable at-bat. He attacks them with downhill angle from his 6-foot-6 frame and pitches with a lively, heavy fastball that parked at 92-94 mph and touched 98 regularly in his college starts.

Having seen a fair amount (for a guy based east of Manitoba) of #8 Logan Warmoth, this is an apt description:

Warmoth is a bucket full of 50-grade tools on the 20-80 scouting scale, with no one true calling card but a high overall baseball IQ and no glaring holes either.

 

We’ll run a summary of BA’s accompanying Blue Jays Top 10 chat.

This is a decent list, and having seen a fair amount both live and online of all of the members of this group outside of Eric Pardinho (#6), I think the reports are accurate. It will be interesting when we eventually get a glimpse of the Brazilian youngster.  Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish could not say enough about him when we spoke a few weeks ago.

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects – #4 Nate Pearson

The crowd at Vancouver’s Nat Bailey Stadium buzzed with excitement.

A hot, hazy, late August afternoon saw the Vancouver Canadians’ last home game of the season.  The wildly successful Northwest League affiliate of the Blue Jays had smashed another attendance record, and with a return to the playoffs in the offing at the end of regular season play Labour Day weekend, over 6 000 fans jammed the venerable old park minutes from Vancouver’s downtown for a “nooner,” a popular afternoon game on getaway day for both the C’s and the visiting Boise Hawks.  The team received a thundering ovation when they gathered at home plate to sing, “O Canada,” prior to the game.

Adding to the excitement was the fact that RHP Nate Pearson, one of two first round picks the club had that June, was about to take the mound.   Big Nate had caught a heavy dose of helium since he hit 100 in a fall showcase last year, and was riding that wave late in his first pro season toward top prospect land.

Pearson struggled a bit with his command (and to be honest, he was squeezed a bit by the home plate ump and his Catcher Riley Adams, who both in fairness have probably not seen that kind of velo consistently around the plate), and gave up his first runs of his short NWL season – heck, he allowed his first runner past 2nd since joining the team in mid-July.

There was pre-draft talk that Pearson could move quickly through the minors as a reliever, but the Blue Jays considered his size (6’6″/240), mechanics (consistent release point and delivery), and mix of pitches to be perfectly suited to a starting role.

On this afternoon, we were joined by veteran C’s watcher and fellow prospect blogger Charlie Caskey (@CharlieCaskey on Twitter).  Caskey had spoken at length with Canadians’ Pitching Coach Jim Czajkowski, who has seen a fair number of Blue Jays prospects pass through the Lower Mainland.   Pearson gave up some contact on his change up during this start, and as Big Jim noted, a change up can look mighty juicy to the average NWL hitter:

“These young kids are trying to gear up for a 100 mph fastball and you give them 91/92 and that’s something they can hit. It’ll be easier to get big league hitters out with the change when they’re gearing up for 100, as the differential will mean something, so he has to keep throwing it.”

With his size, Pearson generates good downward plane on his fastball.  His is also an intimidating presence on the mound.  He sat 96-97 during this game, spotting it to both sides of the plate.  He had some trouble finding the strike zone early with his slider, but was able to command it better as the game wore on.  His change has decent movement, and profiles as a potential plus pitch.

Some teams backed away from Pearson a bit because of the screw he had inserted into his pitching elbow during high school.  The Blue Jays were not deterred by it, but kept him on a strict pitch count until this start of 73 pitches.  Pearson put an exclamation point on his debut season by striking out 10 in his final start of the season, a 4-inning outing that led to a Game One triumph for the C’s over Spokane in their semi-final.

Pearson may likely skip Lansing next season and head to High A Dunedin.  There is every indication that he is a top-of-the-rotation starter in the making.  Czajkowski compares him very favourably to Aaron Sanchez, who he had when both were in New Hampshire.  We’ll take that comp.

**********************************************************************

A shout out for the video goes to another fellow blogger, Niall O’Donohoe, whose CsPlusBaseball.ca blog gives excellent into and coverage of our favourite west coast Blue Jays affiliate.

 

Vancouver Places 4 in BA’s Northwest League Top 20

Warmoth
Logan Warmoth – MLB Pipelin

You can forgive Vancouver Canadians’ fans for being a bit spoiled.

The team won three consecutive Northwest League titles after they swtiched affiliation to the Blue Jays in 2011, and just missed a fourth in 2014.

2015 and 2016 were lean, sub .500 seasons for the short-season club, and there were some grumblings that the Blue Jays were not sending top prospects to the Lower Mainland despite setting Northwest League attendance records both seasons.

2017 saw the team smash their own gate record once again, drawing an incredible average of over 6300 fans per game as the team returned to the post season, and won their fifth NWL crown in front of a boisterous home crowd.  More importantly for fans of the big club, according to Baseball America, five top prospects played at The Nat this season.

SS Logan Warmoth led the group, placing 6th on BA’s list.  The first of two first round picks the Blue Jays had last June, the 22nd overall pick did not disappoint, looking very much like a future big leaguer, despite some initial concerns about his eventual position:

Most believe Warmoth has the range and athleticism to stick at shortstop, with more than enough arm strength to handle the position, while others view him as more of an offensive second baseman. At the plate, Warmoth often looks to pull the ball, as most of his power is to his pull-side. But Vancouver manager Rich Miller said Warmoth did a better job of covering the outside part of the plate and hitting the ball to all fields as the season progressed. He’s smart hitter with a quick bat and has shown the aptitude to make adjustments.

Warmoth does not have one outstanding tool; you need to watch a larger body of his work to truly appreciate his skills.  In viewing him over a half dozen games this year, he showed that he makes a lot of solid contact.  His reactions to batted balls are good, although he seemed to lack that explosive first step to allow him to get to balls faster.  He may not profile as a first division player, but it’s easy to envision Warmoth as a big leaguer one day, and he adds to the Blue Jays’ depth at Short Stop.

The next Canadian to appear on the list was C Riley Adams at #11.  The June 2017 3rd rounder is an intriguing prospect.  Compared to Matt Wieters because of his 6’4″ frame, Adams is an athletic prospect who can be termed raw behind the plate.  His blocking and receiving skills are still a work in progress, but he made progress this summer.  His work with 1st rounder Nate Pearson in the C’s final home game showed an observer that his pitch framing is a part of his skill set most in need of work, although in fairness to Adams, he did not work with many Pitchers with Pearson’s velo as a collegian.

At the plate, Adams has some holes in his swing that make for some swing-and-miss, but BA feels he’s a potential middle-of-the-order bat.  Adams is rawer than Warmoth, and may not move through the system as quickly, but he too has the look of a future MLBer.

Two C’s checked in at the bottom of the list.  SS Kevin Vicuna, a 2014 IFA who was more noted for his glove, hit reasonably well at Vancouver (.280/.333/.307) and in a late-season promotion to Lansing , was ranked at 19.  At 20th was OF Reggie Pruitt, a 2015 24th rounder whose draft stock had fallen to his commitment to Vanderbilt.  Pruitt has struggled at the plate through his first three minor league seasons, but began to make more consistent contact in the second half.  A burner on the bases and a ballhawk in the Outfield, Pruitt led the NWL in steals.  His ability to make more contact (26% K rate this year) will determine his future.

One name was absent from the list, and that was RHP Pearson, who did not have enough innings to qualify.  Pearson and his triple digit fastball were no match for NWL hitters, and had he qualified,  he may have been one of the top three prospects.  Pearson is a legit top-of-the-rotation arm, depending on the development of his secondary pitches to complement his overwhelming heat.

*****************************************************************************

While we’re talking about the C’s, here are a couple of final thoughts…

much was made in the aftermath of the C’s final game about the Blue Jays letting Manager Rich Miller go.  Miller has been a loyal employee, stepping in to take over the reigns when Manager John Schneider had to take a leave of absence during the C’s first championship run in 2011.  Miller, a baseball lifer who has been in the game for 44 years, did not see the firing coming.  I made several attempts to reach Rich (I wanted to talk about his time managing a young Catcher by the name of John Gibbons in the Sally League in the early 80s as well as the title this year), and he was willing to speak, but after several missed emails/calls, it was obvious that he was done with the matter and ready to move on.  Turnover is a fact of life in minor league baseball, and the Blue Jays are no exception, frequently turning over some or all of their staffs at each affiliate from one year to the next.  Miller seems to have done a favour to the organization by stepping in during the 2011 season, and he really enjoyed his role as a senior adviser between Managing gigs.  It’s not so much a shame that he would not be returning after winning a title; it’s more unfortunate that he was let go by the organization after doing so.  Miller is a savvy baseball man, and he still wants to work – it’s highly likely another organization will pick him up.

-Blue Jays fans have gained quite a bit of notoriety for taking over Safeco Field when their team pays their annual visit to the Mariners.  While it’s quite a site to see, I would suggest that for any Jays’ fan’s bucket list, a trip to Nat Bailey to see the C’s should be on it.  The Nat is a quaint old ballpark, and while it pales to some other state-of-the-art facilities elsewhere in the Blue Jays system, there is no other atmosphere that compares to it.  And unlike Toronto, Vancouver is a relative urban oasis.  A short drive in just about any direction puts you in the wilderness.  Stanley Park, the Sea-to-Sky Highway, Capilano Suspension Bridge, Grouse Mountain (the Grouse Grind climb is a must for Mrs C and I every time we visit, but is not for the faint of heat) all beckon.