Blue Jays Last Ten Days Hot Sheet

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Miguel Hiraldo mlb.com photo

Here’s a little project that has been long in the thinking process, but has only recently come into execution.

The following are the top five Blue Jays prospects based on their performance over the past week and a half.  It’s not a re-ranking of the top prospects, but just a snapshot of the hottest players in the system over that period of time, with their stats for that stretch.

1.  Ryan Noda, Lansing .500/.560/1.222

The 2017 Appy League MVP brought his on-base ways with him to full season ball as he transitioned to the OF (a position he played in college), but struggled for the first two months of the season to get his average over the Mendoza line, or tap into the power he demonstrated last season.

With the promotion of 1B Kacy Clemens to High A, Noda shifted to his spot, and seems to have found his comfort zone.  Noda hit his first HR on May 30th, and has hit 4 since then, including a pair in a 3-4 night on June 7th.

2. Patrick Murphy, Dunedin, 1-0, 0.00 ERA, .184 BAA

Murphy was promoted to New Hampshire for a spot start on May 27th, and acquitted himself well with six strong innings.  Sent back to Dunedin, Murphy has not been scored upon over his last two starts.

Murphy is not one of the higher profile arms in the system, but he has steadily put together a good body of work since reaching full season ball in 2016.

3.  Miguel Hiraldo, DSL Jays, .433/.485/.833

One of the top-ranked bats in last year’s IFA class, Hiraldo hammered DSL pitching over the course of its first week of play.  Hiraldo had a three-hit game, and a pair of four-hit games last week, knocking out his first two pro Homers in the process.

Hiraldo’s long-term future probably involves a move from SS to 3B.  His short-term one may see a move to the Gulf Coast League, which starts play next week.

4.  Tayler Saucedo, Dunedin 1-2, 2.55 ERA, 2.65 ERA, .234 BAA

Just over a month ago, Saucedo changed his arm angle, and he’s become one of the more effective starters in the system since then.

Saucedo’s latest effort was a career-high 8 inning effort, in which he allowed two runs on five hits.

Saucedo does not overpower hitters, but relies on a mix of pitches and some deception in his delivery to get them out.  He was Dunedin’s Pitcher of the Month for May.

5.  Sean Reid-Foley, Buffalo, 1-0, 2.00 ERA, .235 BAA

Reid-Foley seems to have alternated good starts with not-so-good outings since his promotion to Buffalo last month.  Knocked out in the 3rd inning in his first start, he fanned 10 over 6 in his next.  Following that, Reid-Foley lasted only two innings, which then was succeeded by one of his best starts as a pro – a career-first 7 inning complete game, a 9-hit effort in which he gave up only one earned run, and more importantly, he didn’t give up a walk.

 

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There’s Another Team to Watch in the Blue Jays System

The AA Eastern League’s New Hampshire Fisher Cats have been receiving most of the attention from Blue Jays prospects watchers so far this season, and rightly so, but there’s another team in the system that has been just as successful.

The Lansing Lugnuts took 3 of 5 games from cross-state rival West Michigan Whitecaps this past weekend, moving a game and a half ahead of the Tigers’ affiliate atop the Midwest League’s Eastern Division.  The beneficiary of an influx of players from all three of Toronto’s strong short season entries last year, the Lugs’ sit atop most team batting categories in the MWL, and their pitching staff is vastly upgraded from front to back compared to a year ago.

Some notes and thoughts from a weekend (and an early Monday morning) of watching some of the Lansing-West Michigan action this weekend:

OF Chavez Young

A native of Freeport, Bahamas, Young was an under-the-radar prospect two years ago, even though he had moved stateside to play high school ball.  The Blue Jays selected him in the 39th round, and have moved him up in the ranks as he makes up for some missed development time.

The toolsy Young has played primarily RF this year, because of the presence of Reggie Pruitt.  With Pruitt on the DL this past week, Young has taken over in CF, and has not missed a beat.  He gets good reads on balls (the wind and high, sunny sky in West Michigan this weekend was a challenge), and has a strong, accurate arm.

At the plate, Young has a slightly open stance.  Now ensconced at the top of the Lansing batting order, he sees plenty of pitches each at bat, helping his teammates behind him see most of the opposing Pitcher’s repertoire.  He does not expand the strike zone, even when behind in the count.  There was some dismay in Blue Jays fandom after Edward Olivares was dealt to the Padres in the offseason, but Young may be his equal, although he may be a bit behind in terms of power.  Young seems to fit the profile of the get-on-base, speedy, top of the lineup guy.  He may eventually develop the power tool as well.

Kevin Vicuna, SS

The slender (6’/160) Vicuna may have to run around in the shower in order to get wet, but he’s developing into a solid two-way player.  Vicuna seems to have been around forever (he was a top 2014 IFA), but he’s only 20.

Vicuna had developed a reputation in short season as a glove-first player, but he began to make consistent contact at Vancouver last year, and earned a late-season promotion to Lansing.

Hitting behind Young, Vicuna gets on base at an impressive clip (.330/.351/.385 so far).  Utlizing a leg kick, Vicuna still makes a lot of groundball contact, but with his improved bat speed and his ability to get down the first base line quickly, he’s contributing his share to Lansing’s offence.

Kacy Clemens 1B

The son of the Hall of Famer saw his bat slow considerably as he tired toward the end of his first pro campaign last year, but he has returned to the form that led the Blue Jays to select him in the 8th round last June – Clemens is among the league leaders in a number of offensive categories.  He donned a pair of sport glasses this spring, and it seems to have helped with pitch recognition – after posting a 14% BB rate at Vancouver last year, he’s currently at 23%.

Clemens has a slightly open, crouched stance.  After mashing 3 Homers in the first two games of the series, Clemens saw a steady diet of breaking balls over the rest of the weekend, and struggled as a result.  Breaking pitches on the inner half in particular gave him some trouble, and he was tied up as he brought his lead leg across to initiate his swing.

Defensively, Clemens has already gained a strong reputation – he may already be the best defensive 1B in the system.

Kevin Smith 3B

Drafted as a SS in the 4th round last year, Smith was sent to Bluefield as top pick Logan Warmoth, who plays the same spot, was sent to Vancouver.  With Vicuna in Lansing’s lineup, Smith has seen more time at 3rd.  He made the most recent edition of Baseball America‘s prospect hot sheet after slashing .433/.471/.933 this past week.

Smith’s bat is absolutely on fire.  He leads the MWL in Doubles, Total Bases, and RBI, and like Clemens, is among the leaders in several other hitting stats.  Smith has a closed stance, and uses a slight leg kick.  His head is still as the pitch approaches the plate, giving him good pitch recognition.  He gets good extension and plate coverage on his swing as a result.  If you were to ask which hitter on the Lansing roster looks the most like an MLB prospect, it would be Smith.  He’s cut his K rate from almost 25% in Bluefield to just over 15% so far.

Smith is also an efficient base runner (he’s a perfect 6-6 this year, and has stolen 21 bases without being caught as a pro), and he’s making the adjustment to playing 3rd.  He’s had some troubles on pop ups down the LF line, as the different angle he has to take is probably taking some time to get used to.

Cullen Large, 2B/3B

After a slow start, the 2017 5th round pick came out firing last week, which included a 5-5 game against the Reds’ Dayton affiliate.

Large had his first pro season cut short by a broken hand last year.  He’s splitting time at 2nd with Samad Taylor, and at 3rd with Smith.  Large uses a slight leg kick, and will go with other way with a pitch.  He leads the MLW in runs scored.

Ryan Noda LF

This guy is quickly becoming one of the most interesting prospects in the organization.

The 2017 Appalachian League MVP saw his stock draft to the 15th round after a college season that fell short of initial expectations.  Scooping up players like this is a Blue Jays specialty, and with Clemens ahead of him on the depth chart, Noda went off to Bluefield and tore up the league’s pitching, winning an advanced triple crown, flirting with .400 as late as August 10th.

Noda is a throwback, plain and simple.  Even in the colder than usual Midwest spring, he eschews long sleeves and batting gloves, and wears his pants just below the knees, revealing 70s era length stirrups.  His uniform always seems to be dirty.

At the plate, he has a closed stance, with a bat waggle.  He holds his elbow up, reminding a long-time observer of Joe Morgan (without the elbow pump).  Noda absolutely grinds out at bats and tires Pitchers out – no one in the Appy League saw more pitches than Noda did last yer.  He will not expand his strike zone, and it’s no surprise that he’s easily in the league lead for walks (with Clemens behind him).  He uses only a toe tap, but like Clemens he saw a steady diet of offspeed pitches over the weekend, and did have some trouble with being out front.  Noda has yet to Homer, but he hit four doubles over the weekend, showing that maybe he’s starting to tap into that power.

But Noda is not a one-dimensional, on-base-machine player.  He’s a smart baserunner with sneaky speed, and is perfect in 7 steal attemps so far.  An OF in college, Noda shows good instincts and surprising range on flyballs, although he took some circuitous routes on a couple of wind-blown balls over the course of the series.  He may not have the power for a corner infield position, so LF is looking more and more like a good fit for him.

Brock Ludquist RF

Owners of one of the best mustaches in the game, Lundquist’s ABs are a thing to watch.

The 2017 6th rounder out of Long Beach state has a crouched, slightly open stance, which produces considerable torque, and a long, violent swing.  That makes for some swing-and-miss, but it also can mean some hard contact when he connects.

Samad Taylor 2B

More than a few fans have asked about Taylor, who was acquired from Cleveland last year.

Truth be told, unless he makes some major adjustments, it’s hard to see him as the 13th-best Blue Jays prospect, where MLB Pipeline has him ranked.  There is no doubt about his fast-twitch reflexes, defensive skills,  and athleticism, but there is some about his approach at the plate.

Taylor uses a big leg kick, and has a long swing.  Pitch recognition is the issue, and he often finds himself in unfavourable counts.  As a result, he’s dropped from the top of Lansing’s order to near the bottom.  At 19, he’s still young for this level, and there is time for his performance to catch up to his abundant tools.

Maximo Castillo, SP

At 18, the Venezuelan has more than held his own through 5 outings (including 3 starts) even though he’s one of the youngest players in the MWL.

Castillo has a tall-and-fall delivery with a short arm stroke.  He pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a fastball that can touch 94, and has good sinking action to it.

Castillo’s secondaries are still developing.  He threw primarily fastballs, and showed inconsistent command of his breaking ball.  He should add velo as the summer progresses, and may turn into an arm to watch.

Yennsy Diaz, SP

Diaz doesn’t have a whole lot left to prove in the league, and should be in Dunedin by month’s end.

Diaz’ fastball can hit 97, with good movement.  Midwest League hitters have been overmatched against Diaz, managing only 6 hits in 29 innings against him.  He gave up only two hard-hit balls in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, one of which was a loud foul down the LF line.

Diaz’ only enemy so far seems to be himself.  He’s walked 13 (vs 29 Ks) so far, sometimes losing the strike zone when he rushes his delivery and falls off toward 1st.  He has a hammer curve that comes from a similar arm angle.  With left-handed hitters, he starts that pitch on the middle of the plate, and brings it in under their hands, creating a pitch that is as tough to barrel as it is to lay off.

Diaz has a fast arm action, and hitters have a very tough time picking up the ball from his hand.  He gets ahead of hitters, and is just generally hard to square up.

Ty Tice

An undersized (5’9″) reliever, Tice has a live arm, and has been lights out as a closer since being drafted in the 16th round last year (17 Saves in as many chances).

Tice brings 95-96 heat, and an 89 slider that has late break and much bite to it.  He slots in below some of the more prominent bullpen arms ahead of him in the system, but Tice could rise quickly.

Lansing’s bullpen was the club’s weak point last year, but with Tice, and Orlando Pascual, Brody Rodning, and Matt Shannon from last year’s Northwest League champs Vancouver now in tow, the Lugs should be holding on to a lot more of the leads their offence and starters hand over to the pen.

This is a fun team to watch – they grind out ABs, and Manager Cesar Martin has them very aggressive on the basepaths.  The Fisher Cats may be getting all the attention, but the Lugnuts may make some post-season noise themselves.

The Incredibly Patient Ryan Noda

Blue Jays 1B/LF/DH Ryan Noda is one selective guy at the plate.

Not only did the 2017 Appy League MVP lead the league in Average, OBP, and Slugging, he saw more pitches than any other hitter in the loop – interestingly, teammates Chavez Young and Kevin Smith were second and third, respectively.

There is some concern that his approach can be passive, and that sometimes he passes up some better pitches earlier in the count, but you have to love a guy that grinds out ABs like he did in Lansing’s game last night:

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On the night, Noda was 0-1 officially, but reached base in all 5 of his plate appearances.  Noda currently is tied for first in the minors in walks.  He’s reached base in over 50% of his trips to the plate.

 

Lansing Lugnuts Announce Roster

Lansing’s roster often is one of the more interesting ones to wait for every spring.

For the other three full-season affiliates, it’s fairly easy to project their rosters.  There may be the odd surprise, but you can generally count on players moving up to the next level if they were successful the season before.

The decisions for Lansing’s roster are more difficult, because team officials have three short season levels below Low A to consider when putting the Lugnuts’ 25-man together.2018_Opening_Day_roster-page-001

Lansing’s roster this year contains a few surprises, as much for who’s not on the roster as much as who is.  After a half season of Vlad and Bo, and with Nate Pearson, Logan Warmoth, Riley Adams, and a good chunk of Vancouver’s bullpen starting the year in Dunedin, Lugs’ fans will not have as much star power to watch this year.

Yennsy Diaz had a swinging strike rate of 13.5% as a 20-year-old when he was called up halfway through the season, and will get the ball on Opening Day.  Maximo Castillo fanned better than a batter per inning at Bluefield last year, and skips Vancouver to begin the year in the Midwest League, where at 18 he’ll be one of its youngest players.

Maverik Buffo’s draft stock fell last year due to a torn UCL, but through rehab he became healthy enough to dominate the GCL, and jumps a pair of levels to start the season.  Zach Logue and Justin Dillon piggybacked effectively at Vancouver last year.

In the pen, both Ty Tice and Orlando Pascual have closing experience.  Tice Saved 12 games in as many opportunities at Bluefield, striking out 35 in 25 innings, while Pascual recorded a half-dozen saves for Vancouver, fanning 45 in 35 IP.

As for position players, the Lugs will be led by toolsy OF Chavez Young, 1B/OF Ryan Noda, and 1B Kacy Clemens.  Young is one of the more athletic players in the system, while Noda laid waste to Appy League Pitching en route to an MVP award.  Clemens, son of the Hall-of-Famer, wore down in his first pro season last year, and will be looking to make amends at Lansing.

Cesar Martin returns for his second season as Lansing’s Manager, joined by Position Coach Dave Pano (up from Vancouver), returning Pitching Coach Antonio Caceres, and Hitting Coach Matt Young.  New to the organization, Young played with the Braves and Tigers, and operated a baseball academy in Texas prior to joining the Blue Jays.

 

Top Blue Jays Prospect Story Lines for 2018 – Beyond the Obvious Ones

DJ Davis
DJ Davis – Clutchlings Photo

If you’ve visited this site hoping to find out if Vladimir Guerrero Jr will continue to be one of the top prospects in baseball, or if Bo Bichette will continue to hit everything in sight, or if Nate Pearson will continue to dominate with a fastball in the upper 90s, let me save you some time – the answer is yes.

Those are not exactly compelling storylines.  While there are no guarantees, all three are on track to become front-line Major Leaguers.

But there are several in the Blue Jays system that will be worth following this year:

1.  Will Justin Maese return to health this year?

Maese climbed the prospect charts in only his second pro season in 2016.  Shoulder issues lead to a six week shutdown in June/July, and an end to his season in early August.

When healthy, Maese pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a sinker that has a good downward plane, which hitters find difficult to square up.  Last year, his shoulder problems kept him from getting the extension necessary to keep his pitches down, and his flyball rate jumped from around 20 to 25%, with a corresponding drop in his ground ball rate.  Maese in 2016 was an incredibly efficient Pitcher, averaging 13 pitches per inning.  In 2017, his pitch count and BB% jumped significantly as he struggled to find the strike zone.  A healthy Maese attacked hitters, but last year he pitched from behind more often than not, or so it seemed.

Pitching from a 3/4 delivery, Maese sits 91-95 with his sinker, which is complemented by a slider which he learned a new grip for at 2015 Instructs, and a changeup.  Both of his offspeed pitches flash above average potential.

After 2016, Maese was being talked about as a potential back of the rotation arm.  He didn’t exactly fall off the radar last year, but his stock dropped considerably.

2.  Will Riley Adams continue to develop?

The 2017 3rd rounder was Vancouver’s MVP as he led the C’s back to the league championship.

Thought of as more of an offensive Catcher with a plus arm, Adams made tremendous strides defensively last year, but scouts wondered if he might eventually have to move off the position.  His hands and receiving skills were rated below average, and two months of pro ball demonstrated that he has some work to do in regard to pitch framing.

One thing is for certain from viewing Adams a number of times last year:  his bat is of the potential big league variety.  Adams worked the count well, and while he didn’t tap into his power (3 HRs for the summer), he shows raw power that should show up as he moves through the system.  His K rate was on the high side, but fatigue may have helped to slow his bat down.

Likely destined for Lansing this year, Black-Belt Adams is part of an impressive haul of athletic players the Blue Jays netted last June.  If he can continue to develop his blocking and game-calling skills, Adams could add to the depth of Catching prospects the Blue Jays have accumulated.

3.  Can Jon Harris bounce back?

The 2015 1st round pick had a solid 2016, and was rewarded with a challenging assignment to AA to start 2017.

He caught entirely too much of the plate on many occasions, and hitters made him pay accordingly.

Harris sits 90-94 with his fastball, and while his secondaries are decent, like his fastball, nothing really stands out as a go-to pitch.  A FIP almost a full run lower than his ERA last year suggests that some BABIP issues were in play for him, but Harris gave up a lot of contact, with only 45% of it being of the groundball variety.

Harris was not drafted with promises of front-of-the-rotation potential; just the same, he showed the right mix of pitchability and athleticism to suggest a mid-rotation future.  He has the frame to add some more strength, and his height creates a good downward plane on his pitches.  He did not fall off the prospect radar entirely this past season, but his performance has him down the depth chart of minor league starters.

4.  Will Maverik Buffo be able to repeat his GCL success at a higher level?

Buffo’s story was one of the best in the Blue Jays system last year.

Elbow issues scared most teams off, but the Blue Jays took a flyer on him in the 34th round, and kept him close to their medical facilities in the GCL, where hitters stood absolutely no chance against him, as he gave up only 2 earned runs in 34 innings.

Buffo suffered a UCL tear in his Sophomore year at BYU, but he avoided Tommy John with Platelet-Rich-Plasma therapy.  His Junior numbers were not great, which probably convinced most teams he was headed for surgery, but Buffo says he’s 100% recovered.

Buffo attacks hitters with a fastball that sits 92-95, and throws a sharp breaking ball that has tight shape and horizontal break.  GCL hitters were overmatched by him, but it will be interesting to see how he fares against hitters at higher levels – he should reach Lansing perhaps to begin the season, or when the weather warms up.

 

5.  Was DJ Davis’ second half for real?

The 2012 1st rounder had long lost his top prospect status after repeating both Low A and High A, but a swing adjustment that lead to a .283/.357/.369 (featuring an OPS of .830 in August) brings some hope for this athletic Outfielder.

Pitch recognition and a long swing have held Davis back.  His speed has always prophesied top of the order potential, but he seemed to be more comfortable hitting at the bottom of the lineup last year.  After begin caught stealing more times than he was successful in 2014, Davis has quietly improved his base running skills, swiping 32 in 43 attempts.

Davis still certainly has miles to go before he ever regains his former prospect lustre, but the Blue Jays have to be encouraged with the progress he displayed in the 2nd half.  Described as toolsy-but-raw when he was drafted, Davis at least gave a glimpse of tapping into some of that potential in July and August last year.

6.  Can Ryan Noda come anywhere close to repeating his Appy numbers?

Noda was a candidate to go in the top 3 rounds of the draft last June, but a mediocre college season dropped him to the 15th round.  Sent to the Appy League because Kacy Clemens had 1B locked up at Vancouver, Noda laid waste to league pitching for the summer.

The Appy MVP, Noda led the league in average, OBP, and Slugging, and drew 25 more walks than the runner-up.  He has hitting above .400 as last as August 7th.

In the Appy, Noda could be patient, and wait for Pitchers to make mistakes.  At the higher levels, there is some concern that passivity could be taken advantage of.

Noda has the skills to play the OF, but there was little need for him with Bluefield with the presence of ballhawks like Chavez Young and McGregory Contreras. Likely ticketed for Lansing this year, he should split time between 1B/DH/OF.  It was fun to watch him post video game-like numbers last year, but he will be hard pressed to repeat that in Low A.

 

 

 

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.

Toronto Blue Jays Top Prospects: The Fringe 5

Justin-Maese
Justin Maese

Ranking prospects can be a little like trying to choose a team in just about any sport:  the top players clearly separate themselves from the pack, and are easy to identify.  Once you get down the list, the distinctions become less clear.  The difference, of course, is that all of these players can play.  The differences between them sometimes are more psychological than physiological.

As I mentioned with the #11-20 post, the Blue Jays have rebounded as a system extremely well from 2015.  There is depth at a number of positions, and the team has developed waves of prospects, the first of which is about a year and a half away.

These are the players who just missed the Top 20.  Injuries, inconsistency, and inexperience are often what have kept players like the following out of that tier – and there are others who I could’ve mentioned, but let’s keep it at 5 for now.

Justin Maese

Maese firmly placed himself on the prospect radar with a breakout season at two levels last year.  The two-sport athlete from non-baseball hotbed of El Paso, TX, reached full season ball in only his second year as a pro.

Returning to Lansing for what was likely going to be a half season this year,  Maese struggled in April, giving up more contact and walks than was usual for him.  By May, he appeared to have straightened himself around, until shoulder soreness landed him on the DL at the end of the month.  Likely shut down for precautionary reasons, Maese did not return to action until late July in a GCL rehab stint.  After two August starts with Lansing, he was shut down for the rest of the season.

With a fastball that is described as heavy and sits in the low 90s but can touch 96,  a slider that could profile as a plus pitch, along with a change in the 83-85 range, Maese has a starter’s arsenal.  His delivery has been described as a little unorthodox, but he throws with intent.  But there were troubling signs with his command this year.  After posting a 5% walk rate in 2016, he was over 8% this year.  Maese wasn’t able to command the lower part of the strike zone as well as he had the previous year, and his groundball rate dropped by over 10%.  He profiles as a back-end of the rotation sinker ball pitcher, but as he demonstrated this year, hitters can square him up when he can’t locate.

Maese should start the year in Dunedin, where the medical staff can monitor his shoulder.  He has the athleticsm to get himself back on the prospect radar.

Ryan Noda

For someone monitoring the Blue Jays affiliates’ box scores on a daily basis, Noda’s numbers were video game-esque.  He had multi-hit games in his first four Appy League contests, and he was hitting above .400 as late as August 9th.  He was an Advanced Stat (Average/OBP/SLG) Triple Crown Winner, and was ranked the loop’s 12th top prospect.

From first glance, it looked like the Blue Jays might have uncovered a gem in the middle rounds of the June draft.  Noda had been ranked to go somewhere in the top three rounds prior to his junior college campaign, but a lacklustre season at the plate caused his stock to fall.  Noda is a 1B/LF type, but is much more suited to the infield, where he has decent defensive skills.  Normally, a player in his draft position would be headed to Vancouver and the Northwest League to start his pro career, but the Blue Jays had taken Texas’ Kacy Clemens in the 8th round, so Noda was off to West Virginia, where he feasted on the lower level pitching.

Noda has a unique set up, with some bat movement prior to his load.  He is extremely patient (a source said he bordered on passive).  One concern may be the difficulty he had getting consistent loft in his swing – his 18.8% flyball rate was the second lowest among qualifiers in the league, although his 37.5% line drive rate was the highest.  It brings to mind a picture of a guy who makes a lot of hard contact, but much of it in the gaps or down the lines, which a player of Noda’s build would have trouble taking advantage of.

Ryan Noda

Noda should skip Vancouver and head to Lansing for full season ball next year, where he’ll likely have to split time at 1B/DH/LF in order to get his bat in the lineup.  It will be interesting to see how his approach works with the more advanced pitching in Low A.

Maverik Buffo was poised to easily go in the top half of the draft last June, until a torn UCL sidelined him in his sophomore year.  He opted for therapy, and an stem cell injection followed by PRP theraphy, and returned for his junior year.  His velocity came back, but as is often the case, his command didn’t return as quickly, and his stock dropped.

Buffo lasted until the 34th round, when the Blue Jays called his name.  They opted to keep him in the GCL in order to monitor that elbow, and the outmatched Complex hitters wished they hadn’t.  Buffo was utterly dominant, throwing a 92-95 fastball with good movement, and more importantly, he was able to command the lower part of the strike zone with it.  Limited to relief appearances in July, the wraps came off a little bit in August, and Buffo threw pitch count shortened shutouts in 4 of his 5 starts.

Clearly, he was capable of pitching at a higher level, but with a bevy of arms ahead of him in short season ball, the Blue Jays were conservative with him.  If there are concerns about his elbow, Buffo may stay in Extended once spring training camp breaks, but he should be in Lansing before long.  This is a competitor with a smooth and repeatable delivery, who wil be out to prove a lot of teams that passed on him wrong.

Riley Adams is one of the more athletic players in the organization.  He can hit, he can catch, and he’s a 2nd degree black belt in karate.  Watching him with Vancouver this summer, he looked like a major leaguer at the plate.  It’s behind the plate that he has some work to do, and he demonstrates why developing Catchers can take so long.  Adams split his work the C’s this summer about 2/3 of the time behind the plate, with the other third coming at DH so that Manager Rich Miller could keep his bat in the lineup.  Adams has decent pitch recognition skills, and he’s consistently on time with his swing.

On the defensive side,  Blue Jays Catching instructor Ken Huckaby has some work to do.  Adams needs to develop better footwork to help improve his blocking skills, as well as his transfer.  Pitch framing is probably not a skill that was of great importance in college, but will be in pro ball, and Adams needs to upgrade that skill.  He tends to stab at pitches on the corners, rather than finesse them through positioning.  Given his athleticism, it’s at least an even bet that he can develop those skills in full season ball next year.  There is no question about his bat.

Josh Palacios is possibly the best athlete in the organization outside of Anthony Alford.  In all seriousness, the guy looks like he could be a world-class hurdler.

An April wrist injury in his draft year in 2016 dropped him to the 4th round, but he posted solid numbers at Vancouver.  An undisclosed ailment forced him to the DL to start 2017, and when he returned in late April, his performance at the plate was inconsistent at best (he was hitting .197 at the end of May).

As the weather warmed up, so did Palacios’ game.  He had a torrid summer, hitting .348/.422/.438 for July and August.  He played about half of his 87 games in Centrefield, where he probably profiles the best – Palacios has yet to show the pop of a corner outfielder.

It’s hard to say what his long term prospects are, but his athleticism and performance this year (along with that of Edward Olivares, who shared time in Lansing’s OF with him) likely were what helped convinced the organization to part with J.B. Woodman, who was drafted two round ahead of Palacios in 2016, in the Almedys Diaz deal with St Louis.

Carlos Ramirez was one of the best feel-good stories of the system last year.  Originally signed as an IFA in 2009, he spent five seasons as an Outfielder in the organization with little success.  In early 2014, the Blue Jays sent him back to Extended and then Rookie ball as he converted to Pitching.  He was part of Dunedin’s lights-out bullpen in 2016, and then overwhelmed hitters at two levels this year, fanning 45 in 38 innings before earning a September call up.  A fastball/slider Pitcher, Ramirez gets great extension on his delivery, and can dial it up to the mid-90s.  He also fared well in a dozen big league games, and was not scored upon in his first 7 outings.

Ramirez will definitely be in the mix for a big league job this spring.  So, why am I not higher on him?  It probably is because of the volatile nature of relievers, and the fact that at 26, there’s not a whole lot of room for projection for him, despite the fact that he’s still fairly new to Pitching.  Just the same, it’s easy to picture him and the Jays bullpen as one of their strengths next year.

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

Noda
Bluefield Daily Telegraph Photo

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

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

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

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

Contreras has what many coaches in baseball would call “sneaky power”. It doesn’t stand out in games just yet and you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at him, but he lets it fly during batting practice. His lean, athletic body and swift bat speed entail future average power. He has strong wrists that work well to catch up to inside fastballs. Contreras’ bat-to-ball ability is hindered right now by pitch recognition issues, but that should grow to be average as well.

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

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