Atkins Bullish on Top Prospects Not Named Vladdy or Bo

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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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Who’s the Next Blue Jays Top 100 Prospect?

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Logan Warmoth – Clutchlings Photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Pardinho

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

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

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

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

 

Logan Warmoth

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Blue Jay Prospects will be in Town Next Week

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Tim Leiper photo

Going through Customs, the different currency, and many other subtle day-to-day things are a fact of life for American and Caribbean players who venture north of the border to play for the Blue Jays.

For several years, the Blue Jays have held a January mini-camp at the Rogers Centre for their top minor league players to give them a little more exposure to life in the Great White North.  Starting on January 15th,  Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, DJ Davis, Reese McGuire,  Roemon Fields, newly-acquired Taylor Guerreri,  Lourdes Gurriel, Danny Jansen, Jason Leblebijian, Thomas Pannone, Ryan Borucki, Max Pentecost, Sean Reid-Foley, and the GTA’s own Jordan Romano will be in Toronto for a series of on-field drills and off-field seminars.   The group will be at the Blue Jays first annual Winter Fest that weekend.

When the announcement was made last week, Twitter instantly was full of rumours about Conner Greene, who was not part of this year’s contingent.  The rumours suggested Greene was being held back because he was going to be part of a package of players for Pirates star Andrew McCutchen.  As has been pointed out, Greene was part of last year’s tour, as were Rowdy Tellez, Anthony Alford, and Richie Urena.  Greene’s command issues were a concern last year, but that 100 mph fastball isn’t going anywhere just yet.

In the off-field sessions, players will receive training in dealing with the media, as well as how to deal with situations that might crop up as professional athletes.  It sounds like Romano is excited to have some of his fellow prospects to his paren’t basement:

Jansen, McGuire, Urena, Guerreri, and Pannone are all on the 40-man roster, and will be attending spring training with the big club.  The team has not announced which minor leaguers will receive an invite, but that it expected shortly.

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:

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9.  Ryan Borucki’s AA debut

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

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

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

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

10. Yennsy Diaz’ June 15th start

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some highlights to watch for:

1.  Top prospects begin to make their way to MLB

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

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

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

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

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

Vlad and Bo continue to climb

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

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

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

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

Eric Pardinho’s Pro Debut

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

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

The Next Wave

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

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

Lansing’s Lights Out Bullpen

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

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

Two Top Picks in June

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

BA Releases Blue Jays Top 10

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

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

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

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

On Vlad Jr (no surprise at #1):

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

Bo Bichette (#2):

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects – #1 Vladimir Guerrero Jr

VladJr
Clutchlings Photo

It takes an average Major League fastball about 400 milliseconds to reach home plate, give or take some variables. It takes about 100 ms for the brain to process the pitch coming out of the Pitcher’s hand, and another 175 ms for the brain to send the message to the body to swing, and for the swing to be completed.  That gives the hitter about 125 ms to process a great deal of information – where the pitch is headed, and from its spin, what type of pitch it is.  To put it into perspective, it takes about  300-400 ms to blink.  Literally, in less than the wink of an eye, elite hitters can judge whether or not to swing, where to swing, and to be able to get their bat around in time to meet the ball.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr, after only two minor league seasons, has proven that he has among the best visual acuity in all of baseball.  This is not hyperbole – unlike his soon-to-be Hall of Famer Dad, who was famous for hitting pitches in and out of every quadrant of the strike zone, Junior is a master at pitch recognition, and has better walk rates than Joey Votto posted at a similar age.  The power has really yet to manifest itself (although 13 round trippers in a pair of Pitchers’ leagues is nothing to sneer at), but that’s expected to develop.  In two minor league seasons, Guerrero has walked more than he’s struck out, and he’s never gone more than 11 at bats without a hit.  The Braves’ Ronald Acuna may be more advanced at this point, but Guerrero is arguably the best prospect in a ll of baseball.

Vladdy’s first Midwest League Home Run showed both his bat speed and his opposite field pop:

There are so many scouting reports to choose from, it’s hard to settle on a few, but here are the best we’ve seen:

From Matt Powers of minorleagueball.com:

When he swings he’s aggressive, showing the big bat speed you hear about and looking to hit it hard. He’s got a great feel for contact and situations- he’s not afraid to shorten his swing when he’s got two strikes against him and will look to put the ball in play. He’s got big power, but it’s still coming in games- to be expected as an 18 year old going up against grown men. I saw enough bat speed, pitch recognition, plate coverage, and bat to ball ability to easily project a 60 hit tool on him, if not a 65.

Vince Lara-Cinisomo of Baseball America:

Guerrero’s bat-to-ball skills are without peer. He doesn’t have his father’s gangly physique and long arms but still shows the ability to cover the plate. Thanks to his plus bat speed and the strength from his stocky build, Guerrero has at least plus power, with some scouts not shying from plus-plus grades on that tool. His hit tool is a plus weapon, at least the equal of his power. He has been compared with Edwin Encarnacion for his potential offensive impact.

Benjamin Chase of calltothepen.com:

The muscle build in the lower half of Guerrero is incredible, and it shines through in his power. He absolutely tattoos balls, even those he hits on the ground. One ball in one of the games I watched nearly took off the glove of the shortstop in the hole.

While it’s a present 60 power, I could absolutely see a legit 70-75 future grade on Guerrero’s power with his build and easy access to that power in his swing. I’m placing a 65 currently for a “hedge” on present vs. future.

Blue Jays Assistant General Manager Andrew Tinnish, who runs the club’s international operations, and headed up the negotiations that landed the prize of the 2015 IFA crop, was asked what impresses him the most about Guerrero:

   (It’s) the overall plate discipline…..not only does he control the strike zone, but to control it and do damage at his age…..that’s really hard to find.

On the bases, Guerrero will not be confused with Lou Brock.  At the same time, he gets out of the box well, and shows his high baseball IQ on the basepaths, seeming to know when and how to get an extra base.  His speed will not improve with age, of course, but it’s hard to see him becoming a base clogger until later in his career.

The question, of course, is Jr’s ultimate position.  At 3rd Base, he shows great instincts on batted balls and a plus arm, but his range is suspect.  He seems to get to a fair number of balls, but on ones toward the outer edges of his range, Guerrero often appears to be just a step late.  While he’s made huge strides with refining his physique and improving his agility with the High Performance group, it seems likely that he moves across the diamond one day, likely the year after next.  But that scarcely will matter because of that bat.   Vladdy Jr profiles as a middle-of-the-order, impact – dare we say generational? – bat.

In his first full season (at an age where stateside kids are either beginning their pro careers in rookie ball, or getting ready to head off to college), Guerrero did tire a bit as the season progressed, but hit .385/.483/.646 in August, and led Dunedin to a Florida State League co-championship.  He’s come such a long way that many forget that he won’t turn 19 until next spring training.  And while Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro said this fall that if the team found itself in need of a corner IF bat and in the midst of a pennant race next summer, Guerrero could be placed on the 40-man roster and summoned to the big leagues, that seems like a remote possibility.  His performance this spring will determine if he begins the year in New Hampshire or spends another half season with Dunedin, but one thing is certain:  Guerrero’s major league debut is getting closer and closer.  He will be worth the wait.

 

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.

Will a New Team Change Alex Anthopoulos’ ways?

I have to admit to mixed feelings about former Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos, who landed with Atlanta yesterday.

When fans almost everywhere were tweeting #FireAA in the early 2-teens, I was a steadfast AA defender, even as his attempted overhaul of the team in the fall of 2012 ultimately proved unsuccessful.  He was a Canadian kid who had made good with two Canadian teams.  He went to the same school (McMaster), and was in the same program (Economics) as my oldest son.

As a guy who follows the minor leagues closely, I was dismayed with the quantity of prospects he dealt from November, 2014 to the the trade deadline the following July, even though it brought the team back to the post season for the first time since that son was a toddler.  It was as if six years of also-ran status was erased in the space of just over two months.  When Anthopoulos left the club shortly after the team was defeated in the ALCS, his image rehabilitation was complete, and he became something of a deity in the eyes of fans (many of whom had clambered aboard the bandwagon weeks earlier).  The FireAA fans were too impatient, while the halo-effect crowd seemed to have forgotten about a half dozen mediocre years prior.  And it’s not like the guys he dealt that July have set the world on fire just yet.

Along with amateur scouting director Blake Parker, Blue Jays drafts were a thing to marvel at, and it still is an interesting exercise to look back on them today.  They found some clever work arounds of the new slotting system, and they weren’t afraid to roll the dice on draft day, often gambling on that most risky draft commodity of all, the high school Pitcher.  And they weren’t afraid to punt a pick – whether it be a Tyler Beede, who turned into Marcus Stroman a year later (not signing Beede also freed up cash to convince Daniel Norris to forego his Clemson commitment) , or Phil Bickford, who begat Max Pentecost.  During the period 2010-14, Anthopoulos and Parker drafted and signed 9 Pitchers who made 20 starts from 2016-17,  but only 2 of them are currently with the Blue Jays.  That fact, as much as anything, might summarize the Anthopoulos philosophy on roster construction.  Just the same, there is a solid legacy in place in Toronto from his years at the helm:  Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Danny Barnes, Ryan Tepera, and Roberto Osuna were all drafted/signed and developed during his tenure, along with Anthony Alford, Sean Reid-Foley, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr, among others.

And now in Atlanta, AA takes over a team with the number one-ranked farm system in the game, a new stadium, and hope for the future.  He also inherits an organization that likely will face some harsh sanctions for their international dealings under disgraced former GM John Coppolella – the Braves may have many of their IFA signings declared free agents, including prized prospect Kevin Maitan.  With the Braves heading into year three of a rebuild, he may be under some pressure to make moves to put more fans in the stands – despite a new park, the Braves last year were middle-of-the-pack in terms of attendance, and their local television deal has been called well-below market value.

What will his approach to building his 25-man be?  Will he deal from this wealth of prospects to upgrade it, or will he allow his young players to grow into it?  The Braves have what Baseball America calls the deepest group of pitching prospects in the game, as well as Ronald Acuna, the best prospect in the minors with the possible exception of one Vladdy Jr.

Certainly, his time in Los Angeles has reinforced to Anthopoulos the importance of building from within.  In Toronto, he did have to take something of a riverboat gambler’s approach:  knowing that most free agents were reluctant to come north of the border, he had to deal from his prospect base in order to fill gaping holes in the MLB roster.  We may never know how the behind the scenes events of 2015 played out.  Did President Paul Beeston, who was on the way out the door himself, give his blessing to AA’s deadline moves in an attempt to go out in a mutual blaze of glory?  Had he known he was staying, would Anthopoulos have pumped the brakes on his dealing, or will his philosophy of “Flags fly forever/Prospects are good, parades are better,” always be part and parcel of how he attempts to put together a winner?

Anthopoulos takes over a team in transition and in some turmoil.  His previous experience dealing with Rogers in Toronto should serve him well in Georgia – the Braves are baseball’s only other corporate-owned team.  On the whole, I’m happy for AA.  For whatever reasons, it’s a shame that he either was forced out, or left Toronto of his own accord.  It would have been nice to see where he would have gone with this club.  A cynic might observe that he left the team with an aging core and little farm system depth with which to use in some way or another to upgrade it, while an optimist might say that a guy who dealt Adam Lind for Marco Estrada would find creative ways to improve it.

I wish him well, and will follow Atlanta more closely than I have in the past now that he’s running the show.