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.

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Trade Bo Bichette?

BoB
Clutchlings Photo

Blue Jays prospect Frankie Barreto was on top of the world in 2014.  Ranked one of the top international prospects in 2012, he was fresh off an MVP season in the Northwest League at the tender age of 18, playing against players 3 and 4 years older.  He was still several years away, but the sky seemed to be the limit.

Barreto was one of the major pieces of the deal with Oakland that brought Josh Donaldson to Toronto that November.  Admittedly, while I was thrilled to be getting a player like Donaldson, Barreto seemed a stiff price to pay.

With all due respect to Barreto, who was ranked Oakland’s top prospect entering this season (but slipped a bit in two strikeout-prone stints with the Athletics), boy, was I wrong.   Donaldson, a late bloomer, was coming off his first All Star season, and was just entering his prime.  The Blue Jays have enjoyed 21 WAR from Donaldson since then, while Barreto has yet to prove himself on the big league level.  It was Alex Anthopoulos’ best deal, one that he would no doubt make 100 times out of 100 if given the opportunity to make it again.

And today we’ve seen rumours that the fire-saleing Miami Marlins are in talks with the Blue Jays to send one of their top prospects in SS Bo Bichette for Marlins’ OF Christian Yelich.

Bichette may not be the Blue Jays top prospect, but there are many similarities between him and Barreto.  Both have advanced hit tools, some speed, and outstanding baseball IQ’s.  While both started out as Shortstops, the long-range plan for both seems to be across the bag at 2nd – Barreto already made the move last year.  At this point in his career, Bichette may be a bit more advanced as a prospect, but he’s also two years older than Barreto was at a similar juncture.

Yelich has averaged 120 OPS+ for Miami during his five seasons with the team.  He signed a contract extension near the end of spring training of 2015 – a 7 year, $49.570 million guaranteed deal.  The deal will see Yelich bring in $7 million this year, rising to $14 million by 2021.  There is a club option of $15 million for 2022, with a $1.25 million buyout.  The money may be guaranteed, but it’s a relatively team-friendly deal.

If the two teams are in fact talking, Bichette won’t be the sole return for Yelich, but he would be the centrepiece.  Other prospects will likely be included, but with the Marlins not getting a BA Top 100 for either Giancarlo Stanton or Marcell Ozuna, it’s hard to see much beyond the mid-prospect range.  Derek Jeter is obviously strapping on the tool belt for a full-on rebuild.

Do the Blue Jays make this deal?  Do they trade away a prospect who led the minor leagues in hitting (flirting with .400 until late June) , has great bloodlines, and profiles as an impact bat at the MLB level one day?

In a word – yes.

Why?

  1.  In acquiring Yelich, you are getting a proven MLB-er who is a borderline All Star.  Without having to give up anyone on your 25-man roster.
  2. There is no doubt that Bichette has huge upside.  And the Blue Jays have been burned before – Noah Syndergaard was at a similar point in his career when he was dealt.  That Barreto and Daniel Norris have yet to set MLB afire demonstrates that prospects are just that – there is not guarantee.  Barreto has been exposed a bit this year, and the same could happen to Bichette as he moves up the ladder.
  3. In dealing a prospect, the Blue Jays are dealing from a position of strength.  Vladdy Jr and Anthony Alford are on their way, and they have a decent SS prospect in Logan Warmoth.  There is depth in the system to withstand the trade of one of its more promising members.
  4. There certainly is an opening in the Blue Jays Outfield.  Kevin Pillar may have had a higher DRS total, but the drop off in CF would not be significant with Yelich.  Or he could nicely fit in a corner spot.
  5. There is contract certainty and at least four years of control with Yelich – at 26, he should just be coming into his prime.
  6. With the Yankees having acquired Stanton, the Blue Jays need to upgrade their 25-man ASAP if they hope to contend in 2018.
  7. Yelich certainly fits GM Ross Atkins expressed desire for team to get younger and more athletic.

There is no guarantee this deal happens, of course.  It will all depend on the Marlins’ demands.  Of course, with most teams, once you get past the first half-dozen or so in the rankings, you are looking less and less at potential impact players – and the Blue Jays are no exception.  Even if the additional cost was one or more of, say,  Ryan Borucki, Hagen Danner, or Riley Adams, the aquisition of a player of Yelich’s calibre would be more than worth it.

Those of us who follow prospects closely tend to live and die with these kids.  It’s hard to see them go, but I feel foolish for even briefly lamenting the loss of Barreto.  As they say, prospects are good, but parades or better.  Christian Yelich does not bring the possibility of a World Series victory with him, but he would be a substantial roster upgrade.

 

Blue Jays Trying to Sneak Pentecost Through Rule 5

Pentecost
John Lott/VICE sports photo

A few eyebrows were raised last week when Toronto left Max Pentecost, one of their two 2014 first round picks, off of their 40-man roster in advance of next month’s Rule 5 draft.

Shi Davidi of Sportsnet reported on Friday that the club ordered Pentecost shut down with a week left in the Arizona Fall League season.  Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins told Davidi:

“Ultimately we have to decide what we feel is the best chance for us to keep the most talent in our organization. We’ll have plenty of time for (Pentecost) to become that person for us.”

Pentecost’s injury history could reasonably be termed lengthy.  In his draft year, assorted ailments limited him to 10 games behind the plate in short season ball.  The most serious of those maladies was a torn labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder.  A pair of surgeries cost him all of 2015, and when he returned to action with Low A Lansing in May of last year, he was limited to DH duties.  Pentecost returned to Catching with High A Dunedin this year, but not on back-to-back days.

Sent to the Arizona Fall League for some added reps (and perhaps for the team to see how he fared against the advanced competition there prior to making their final 40 decisions), Pentecost was behind the plate 8 times from the AFL season opener on October 11th til the end of the month, the most sustained stretch of Catching since he turned pro.

The Blue Jays are gambling that given his injury history, teams will shy away from selecting him in the Rule 5 in light of this announcement.  Pentecost’s future probably lies as something of a hybrid player, splitting time between C/1B/DH.  A rebuilding team could easily use a healthy Pentecost in that kind of role on a reserve basis, which is why the Blue Jays made it known that he had been shut down.  Our man Jason Woodell, who follows Florida State League prospects for prospects1500.com, saw a fit with the Braves prior to the shoulder news:

It is interesting that during Pentecost’s previous absences, there was little communication about his status from the club.  At the same time, his throws to 2nd during the AFL’s Future Stars game looked weak, and it’s not a huge surprise that he was shut down with shoulder pain.  He would not be the first prospect to be exposed to the 40-man whose team is crossing their fingers his injury history will allow him to sneak through.

Pentecost is a premium athlete, but it’s becoming obvious that he’s no longer the Blue Jays’ Catcher of the Future.  Playing him in a multiple of roles would keep his bat in the lineup, and help give the team some roster flexibility.  There was talk at one time of the Blue Jays giving him some time as a corner Outfielder to help add to his versatility.  A cynic would say that the team shut him down to help them avoid a 40-man squeeze.  What’s more likely is that the Blue Jays were protecting their investment.  Whether or not he recovers in time is unknown, of course, but the team is hopeful that he’ll be ready for spring training.  As far as his destination for 2018 is concerned, if past history is any indication, he may stay close to the team’s rehab and medical people in Dunedin, and then move north to AA New Hampshire once the Northeastern weather warms up.

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects #3 Bo Bichette

Bo
Clutchlings/Future Blue Jays photo

 “Windshield'” is a term Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins likes to use to describe someone who has insight into a baseball situation as a result of past experience.

    When it comes to Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr, both future stars have had “windshields,” into what it takes to be a First Division player as a result of watching their famous Fathers playing the game.  Speaking on Sportsnet’s At the Letters Podcast, he expanded on the value of that experience:

  When you watch your Dad and what it took to become a major league star, and then you come into the game and it’s not real or something that’s a dream – it’s something I watched my Dad did that I can follow in those footsteps….I can do that, it’s not intimidating to me….often times players that are extremely talented that haven’t had that exposure come into an environment where all of a sudden everyone is as good as me….but the guys who have had that windshield make it something that is very attainable.

Blue Jays SS prospect Bo Bichette led the minor leagues in hitting over two levels, and captured a lot of attention as he flirted with .400 in late June.  Over his first two seasons of pro ball, he’s hit .372/.427/.591.  After entering pro ball with concerns among a number of scouts about his unorthodox mechanics, the Blue Jays have left him relatively untouched in terms of adjustments, which he has demonstrated he can capably do.  The pre-load bat waggle has calmed a little bit, but Bichette still creates bat speed that is borderline violent, and unlike a lot of modern bashers, he’s content to cut down on his swing with two strikes and put the ball in play.

This sample of ABs shows both that swing, and the modified two-strike approach:

 

At the plate, Bichette has pitch recognition skills that are probably second only to Guerrero’s in the system.  Despite that swing, he uses the whole field; his spray chart is a thing of beauty:

Bo Spray Chart
MLBfarm.com

 

A sampling of scouting reports:

Matt Powers covers the Braves’ minor league system, and came away impressed after watching Bichette at Dunedin:

   Bichette has an aggressive approach for sure. He comes up swinging, and swinging aggressively. While he’s aggressive, I wouldn’t say he’s a free swinger. Bichette has an idea of the strike zone and a plan at the plate. When he gets two strikes on him he becomes less aggressive in his swings and more contact oriented.

Jason Woodell follows players in the Florida State League, and wrote an extensive essay about Bichette’s swing.    His summary:

It is my opinion that Bichette’s bat is so quick through the zone that his increased load allows him to remain on his back leg long enough to recognize the pitch and then use his hips and hands to attack.

A knock against Bichette in the field is that he plays “with his hair on fire”; that is, he tends to rush plays and make forced errors.  Steve Givarz of Baseball Prospectus gave him a 50 grade for his glove:

   Has quality footwork and hands but can rush throws and make poor decisions. I worry about his side-to-side range as he matures, but he has quick reactions and a quality first step. Has the arm to make all the necessary plays for SS. Has played some second base in the past, could be a plus defender at either second or third.

Bichette is not a burner on the basepaths, but because of his slightly above average speed and well above average baseball IQ, he is a huge asset on the bases.  He can steal a base (22 for 29 at two levels this year), and his smarts on the bases allow him to recognize trajectories and other factors to take an extra base when necessary.

The concern about Bichette, of course, is his ultimate position.  A SS through high school and his first two pro seasons, his range and arm strength suggest a potential move across the bag to 2nd.  He’s working with the High Performance group on making his first step more explosive, but having seen him attempt to make several throws from the hole this season, the concerns about his arm may be legit.  Another concern may be the fact that his numbers at High A, well still above average, dropped off from his Lansing stats.  A sprained ankle, adjusting to a new league, and fatigue as he neared the end of his first full pro season may have been responsible, but he hit a very pedestrian .263/.329/.421 in August.

Detractors have said that Bichette’s mechanics will be exploited by Pitchers at higher levels.  He’s heard that kind of talk since high school, as he told Sportsnet:

“I don’t know if I’ll ever shut everybody up,” the 19-year-old says late this August in Dunedin. “That’s the thing. I still hear like, ‘Oh, well, he’s hitting in A-ball but what about high-A? Oh, he’s hitting in high-A but what about double-A?’ I don’t know — I don’t really care. I just continue to be myself. Whether I prove people right or wrong, I’m not really into that. I just don’t really care about their input.”

Bichette has consistently proven the nay-sayers wrong through his first two seasons.  The Blue Jays will more than likely be content to let him stay at SS until he proves that he needs to be moved.  If it’s over to 2nd, Bichette profiles as a top-of-the-order, impact bat in the mold of an Ian Kinsler or a Dustin Pedroia.  He will return to Dunedin to start the season, but should be in New Hampshire by the time summer arrives.

The Blue Jays Have a Problem…..

Paulino
Naswell Paulino – Twitter

“Corruption exists in every pore of commerce, and the Latin-American market just happens to have really oily skin.”

Jason Parks, “From the Buscones to the Big Leagues,”

   When we talk about the lower levels of the Toronto Blue Jays farm system, President/CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins would like to have us mention about how 3 of their 4 short-season teams made the post-season (one of them winning a league championship), and how their High A club won a league shared title.  It’s evidence of an ample wave of talent that’s working its way up through the system.  Failing that, they would prefer we talk about the team’s High Performance Department, which Shapiro believes will give the club a competitive advantage in years to come.

Unfortunately, given the latest PED suspensions of players connected to their Dominican complex, such is not the case.  In addition to the three players suspended last week, three more received suspensions this week, and we also learned that a seventh player was found to have tested positive in September.

17-year old Southpaw Naswell Paulino, a converted OF who struck out almost a batter per inning in the DSL, 19 year old RHP Jol Concepcion, who also fanned nearly 9/9 at two levels, and 20-year old Righty Juan Jimenez were suspended in this latest round.  Paulino and Jimenez received 72 game bans, Concepcion 60.  All three, like the trio suspended last week, were found to have used Boldenone.  After the season, RHP Luis Silva was found to have tested positive for Stanozolol.

In an email, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins stated that this had been a lengthy process:

 A little while ago, MLB informed us that a group of our Latin American prospects had failed drug tests. Due to the large group of impacted players within our program, MLB launched our investigation that we and our Player Development staff fully complied with. MLB’s suspension decisions were recently announced at the conclusion of their investigation.

Atkins was choosing his words carefully (he said much the same to several media outlets yesterday), but his concern was obvious:

 This situation is very disappointing and disturbing to the organization; disappointing that the players made these choices, but more so disturbing that some failure of our environment allowed this to happen. It is our responsibility to create an environment and culture where our players know that PED use is not condoned, and to give them resources and education to ensure that they do not make these decisions. As we seek to determine both how and why this happened, an internal investigation into the situation remains ongoing, and we will double down on ensuring that all our staff is properly equipped to help our players make the right choices. Aside from this specific situation, we fully support the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, and will continue to collaborate with MLB on all matters relating to PED abuse.

To be honest, none of the seven prospects named are familiar to most Blue Jays fans; given the club’s sanctions for going past their pool allotment to sign Vladdy Jr, they could sign no picks for more than $300K – SS Hugo Cardona, part of last week’s group, was the only one who signed for that amount.  The club had high hopes for him, as well as Paulino and Concepcion.

When it comes to determining why these 7 young men took the risk of taking a banned substance, several factors come into play.  The first of these is probably the knowledge that they are marginal prospects, desirous of gaining an edge over the competition and eventually making their way off the island to play.  In an interview last year, High Performance Director Angus Mugford said that the marginal players stateside were the ones most receptive to the new methods of training and nutrition that the club was introducing for much the same reason:  to seek that edge.

Education is likely also a factor.  Kids growing up stateside know that there’s risk involved with taking any kind of supplement.  Dominican kids are not necessarily exposed to that kind of knowledge.  Teams do their best to educate their international players, but sometimes it takes a while for their message to sink in.

And then there are the unscrupulous types that can be found at or near some MLB complexes.  Perhaps they are connected to a buscone, the all-powerful scout/agent/coach/trainer types that wield an enormous amount of influence over young players.  Not all buscones are corrupt, but it only takes a few to upset the system.  As Parks wrote in his essay, “(some) buscones smell money like reality show celebrities smell fame.”  This is usually the case in regard to bonus money, but it’s likely that can spill over into the development of players.  The pressure must have come from somewhere for these kids to get bigger faster – they didn’t come up with the idea on their own. Were they aware that what they were taking was against the rules?  There’s a slight possibility they were, but what’s more likely is that they ingested those supplements after someone told them that they were fine.

This has to be an embarrassment for the Blue Jays.  Certainly, other teams were caught in this dragnet, but the 7 suspended Blue Jays tops MLB, something they certainly are not proud to be part of.  The Blue Jays had 5 players suspended for PED use last year (including MLBer Chris Colabello), but only 1 was a complex leaguer.   There is great irony that the team is generating this sort of headline when they’ve invested so heavily in the High Performance group, and earlier this month received approval to vastly upgrade their training and rehab facility in Dunedin.  Whether or not the investigation results in wholesale changes to their Dominican complex remains to be seen, but this is something the club is surely hopeful of putting behind them.

With the Braves having been dealt a harsh sentence in the wake of their own international scandal, Parks’ opening words in his Buscones tome ring true:

Hunting talent in Latin America is 80-grade complicated, and no one authority, no matter how experienced, can supply a definitive perspective, so varied are the possible outcomes.