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
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A Look at Otto Lopez


As a result of breaking the bank on Vladimir Guerrero Jr, the Blue Jays were limited in the bonus money they could offer during the 2016 signing period.  While they could not offer a bonus of more than $300K, they actually found some value in the international free agent pool in the form of Pitchers Elixon Caballero, Eliezer Medrano, Naswell Paulino, and Jeison Contreras.  The jury is still out on top signings Joseph Reyes and Hugo Cardona, but they may have found a position player gem in the form of Dominican SS Otto Lopez.

A late sign at 18 in 2016, Lopez did not make his pro debut until 2017, but he broke out in a big way this season in short season play.

Sent to Bluefield to start the season this year, Lopez fell a Homer short of the cycle in a five-hit night ten days into the season.  Two days later, Lopez was on a plane to Vancouver.  The Blue Jays continued to transition to Lopez to a utility player, giving him time at all three Outfield spots, 2nd Base, Short Stop, and 3rd Base.  Lopez faded over the last ten games of the season, falling just below .300, and posting a line of .297/.390/.434 for Vancouver.

Lopez is a prototypical scrappy, put the ball in play (5.5% whiff rate) type of hitter.  He mostly hit 2nd for Vancouver, leading off when OF Tanner Kirwer needed a rest day.  The right-handed hitting Lopez works the count well, walking (12.6%) more than he struck out (10.2%).  On the base paths, Lopez is not a burner (14 out of 20 in stolen base attempts for Vancouver), but he has plus speed and is a smart runner, often taking the extra base, and taking advantage of opposition defensive mistakes.  In the field, while he may not necessarily be a plus defender, he has the quick-twitch athleticism and baseball IQ to play a multiple of positions.

Despite this breakout, Lopez was nowhere to be found on Baseball America‘s Top 20 Northwest League prospects list.  Why?

Good question.  While not as prospect-laden as other short season leagues, this year the NWL had a fairly deep pool.  And as a league that is stocked with numerous college players from the June draft, the talent level tends to be advanced.  At 19, Lopez was a full two years younger than the league’s average age.  His versatility, in a way, may have also limited Lopez’ prospect stock.  The players on the Top 20 were almost exclusively one-position guys; the Managers who were polled may not have seen enough of Lopez at one spot to rank him ahead of someone else.  At 5’10″/160, there’s not a lot of projection left on Lopez’ frame, and he will definitely have to get stronger in order to deal with the higher velos in full season ball.  Given the depth of middle infield talent in the Blue Jays system, he may have been a bit lost in the shuffle, too.  He was superior offensively to the players who received the bulk of the time at SS/2B, but not necessarily defensively. Finally, while Lopez gets on base, he has more of a line drive/ground ball swing, and the game is headed more towards players who put the ball in the air – the Blue Jays are no exception.  Lopez has a bit of pop in his bat with 3 round trippers at Vancouver, but his power is his lowest-graded tool.

Lopez will begin his 2019 season with Lansing.  It will be interesting to see if the Blue Jays continue to move him around the diamond, how his game plays at a higher level, and if he can adjust his swing to add some loft.

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.