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.
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:
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.