Jays Place Prospects on BA’s Top 20 Lists

You’ll have to go behind their pay wall to read all the details, but a combined four Blue Jays prospects have made it to Baseball America‘s Top 20 International and Eastern League Prospects lists.

To the surprise of no one, Vladimir Guerrero Jr was named the EL’s top prospect.  As BA pointed out, having top prospects on your roster doesn’t always translate to minor league success, but in the case of Guerrero’s New Hampshire Fisher Cats, it certainly did.  The bulk of the group that won a co-championship in the Florida State League swept both rounds of the playoffs to capture the Eastern League crown.  BA’s final paragraph on Vlad sums up what many evaluators have been thinking for several years:

Staying at the hot corner is not out of the question, but Guerrero will have to work hard to maintain his large frame if he wants to avoid a move to first base. No matter where he plays, there are multiple all-star games in his future.

It was a bit of a surprise in the prospect-laden EL that Bo Bichette came in at #2 on the list.  Bichette was taken to task for his over aggressiveness at the plate by Eastern League pitchers, but he worked on his pitch recognition skills to battle his way from a batting average that dipped into the .240s in June.  BA had praise for his approach:

Bichette finished as one of only 13 minor leaguers with more than 30 stolen bases and double-digit homers. Rival evaluators praised Bichette’s advanced approach and elite bat-to-ball skills, which allowed him to raise his walk rate from last season even as the second-youngest player in the league.

Cavan Biggio jumped onto the prospect radar with 26 Home Runs, checking in at #14 on BA’s list.  BA noted how he had made an adjustment with the position of his hands this season, lowering them to create more loft, something he had been working on last year, but fully committed to this season.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr started the year at New Hampshire, and finished it in Toronto with a number of trips to Buffalo in between, and wound up as the 12th ranked International League prospect:

Gurriel showed the skills that earned him a seven-year, $22 million contract in his time at Buffalo, hitting for average and power while effectively playing both spots in the middle infield. He moved to a different level eight times during the season, but impressively never seemed to lose his rhythm despite constantly moving around.

Gurriel was a different player from Opening Day on this year than he was last year.  His bat was one of the most impressive ones in the Fisher Cats lineup before he moved up.

Florida State League and Midwest League rankings are due out shortly.  Dunedin’s Kevin Smith would be a lock for the former, as well as FSL PioY Patrick Murphy, and while Lansing was one of the most successful teams in the system, they did not have a stockpile of top prospects by season’s end, so it will be interesting to see who from their roster might crack BA’s MWL list.

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Blue Jays Minor League All-Star Team

Catcher – Danny Jansen  .275/.390/.473 (MiLB numbers)

Jansen solidified his label as the Blue Jays Catcher of the Future with a good season on both sides of the plate, and earned a late season call up as a result.

Jansen has long been lauded for his leadership skills, and his ability to handle a Pitching staff.  Over the last two years, he’s added a potent bat, and vastly improved blocking skills to go along with the tools he already has behind the plate, which include being able to set a good low target, and excellent framing skills.

With Reese McGuire joining him in more than a day game after a night game role, the Blue Jays will be able to keep Jansen’s bat in the lineup on occasion while giving him a day off from Catching duties in 2019.  Barring injury, the team appears set at this position well into the next decade.

1B Ryan Noda  .256/.421/.484

After a disappointing draft year showing, Noda slipped to the Jays in the 15th round last June.  He led the Appalachian League in OPS, and continued his on-base ways in Lansing this year.

Noda led the minors in walks with 109, and his ABs continued to be a sight to see.  Eschewing batting gloves, Noda grinds out plate appearances, plain and simple.  His 20 HRs were 2nd best in the Midwest League, as were his 80 RBI.

With Kacy Clemens in the lineup for the first six weeks of the season, Noda had to split time with him at 1B, heading to LF when Clemens had a turn at First.  His defensive skills in the Outfield were a work in progress –  his numbers improved once Clemens was promoted to Dunedin, and Noda became a fulltime First Baseman.  He finished the season in a flurry, posting a 1.130 OPS in August.

Noda will no doubt continue to work the count at High A next year, but he may have to become more aggressive.  When he works the counts, he sometimes becomes vulnerable to off speed pitches on the outside edge of the plate.  Pitchers with better command at higher levels may be able to exploit that.

2B  Cavan Biggio  .252/.388/.499

Biggio increased his SwStr% and Flyball rate last year in an obvious attempt to add some loft to the ball, but the humidity and Pitcher-friendly Florida State League ballparks conspired to keep many of his long balls short of the fences.

This year, he’s broken out in a big way.  Biggio led the Eastern League in Homers, Slugging OPS.  He also led the league in walks, and just missed leading in strikeouts, almost winning the three true outcome title.

Biggio played three infield positions, finding himself most often at 2nd this year (68 games).  The Blue Jays also experimented with him in the Outfield late in the season, and will continue his trial there in the Arizona Fall League.

SS Kevin Smith  .302/.358/.528

Smith was regarded as a glove-first SS when the Blue Jays took him in the 4th round last year, and that label seemed apt after a .271/.312/.466 season with Bluefield.

Except that if there’s one thing that drives Smith, it’s proving the doubters wrong.

An ardent student of the game and diligent worker, Smith set about last off-season to eliminate a loop in his swing in an attempt to catch up to high fastballs, and to improve his two strike approach.  The changes paid off, as Smith dominated at Lansing, and earned a late May promotion to Dunedin.

Smith is probably the best defensive SS in the Blue Jays system – a clear evaluation on that is admittedly difficult.  He split time at 3B and SS at Lansing, then played in the online streaming black hole that is the FSL for the rest of the year.

One thing is certain – Smith has worked his way onto the Blue Jays top prospect list.  He is very likely to stick at SS,

3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr  .381/.437/.636

The easiest choice by far.  Not only did Guerrero have an offensive minor league season for the ages (possibly the best in Blue Jays prospect history), he made tremendous strides with his defence.  While he may not supplant Brooks Robinson one day in terms of reputation, he has built on the skills he already displayed in abundance at the hot corner:   footwork, sure hands, and a strong accurate arm.  Guerrero has been working on his first step reactions, and this play demonstrates the progress he’s made:

 

OF – Harold Ramirez  .320/.365/.471

Ramirez may have been in the shadow of more illustrious teammates this year like Gurriel, Guerrero, Bichette, and Biggio, but he was one of the most consistent hitters in New Hampshire’s lineup, winning an Eastern League batting title.  In his third go round at AA after injuries interrupted his 2017 season, Ramirez was among the league leaders in Total Bases and Slugging.

Where does Ramirez fit in a now crowded Blue Jays Outfield situation?  That’s hard to say, but his versatility and bat could help him force his way into the picture sometime next year.

OF Chavez Young .285/.363/.445

From 39th round pick to near Top 10 prospect in three seasons is a remarkable journey. Young was the only player in the minors this year with 50+ extra base hits and 40+ steals, demonstrating his power-speed potential.

At the plate, Young has a solid approach, and demonstrated that this year with a career-high walk rate.  A plus defender who can play all three OF positions, Young was a solid presence at the plate and in the field for Lansing this summer.  There are still some aspects of rawness to his game, but he smoothed off a lot of the rough edges in his first year of full season ball.

OF  Cal Stevenson

Firmly entrenched at the top of Bluefield’s lineup, the 10th round pick led the Appy League in runs, walks, and OBP, and was second in Average and Stolen Bases.  He was the catalyst in a lineup that nearly reached the Appy finals.

Ut – Otto Lopez  .308/.399/.406

Easily Vancouver’s most valuable player, Lopez can play the OF, as well as 2B/SS/3B.  He runs the bases well, and is a smart, high baseball-IQ player.

RH Starter – Patrick Murphy

Finally healthy for a full season for the first time in several years, Murphy was dominant in the Florida State League, leading the loop in Ks, and a nearly 60% GB rate indicates that when FSL hitters weren’t swinging and missing at this pitches, they had trouble squaring him up.

LH Starter – Zach Logue  12-4 3.15 ERA .259 OBA

Logue started the year at Lansing, and was promoted in May to Dunedin.  Not an overpowering Pitcher, he relies on command and a four-pitch mix to keep hitters off-balance, which he did for much of the year.  He uses his fastball to get ahead, and then relies on his improving secondaries to finish batters off.

RP – Travis Bergen  4-2 0.95 ERA .200 OBA

Another Pitcher who was finally healthy for a full season, Bergen was lights out at two levels in relief.  Moved up to New Hampshire after starting the year in Dunedin, the left-hander fanned 74 hitters in 59 innings at the two levels.  Bergen does not approach triple digits, but has command of all of his pitches – he surrendered only 15 walks this season.

DH – Alejandro Kirk .354/.443/.558 

Kirk came within 3 feet of tying up what proved to be the deciding game of Bluefield’s semifinal playoff matchup with the Rays Princeton affiliate, but his game travelled a long way this season.

Coming into the season, Kirk was a C/DH (with emphasis on the latter) was a fairly unknown commodity.  A late September signing in 2016, the Mexican had all of 2 ABs in the GCL in 2017 before being assigned to Bluefield this season.  Kirk busted out in a big way, and was named the Appy All Star DH.  With starting Catcher Hagen Danner in an out of the lineup with injuries, Kirk stepped in and from all accounts handled himself well.

Kirk swings hard and seldom gets cheated at the plate.  He put up gaudy numbers at a Low Level, so he comes with the usually cautions as he moves up.  That bat holds considerable promise, however.

Blue Jays Minor League Awards

After a season in which five Blue Jays prospects found themselves on Baseball America‘s Top 100,  and the system itself reached #3 in BA’s rankings, the Toronto farm system is on an upward trend.  Prospects like Lourdes Gurriel Jr, Ryan Borucki, and Danny Jansen have established themselves as regulars, and Reese McGuire, Jonathan Davis, Sean Reid-Foley, and Rowdy Tellez  have all had a taste of MLB life this month.

Time to dish out some awards to recognize the strong season the organization has had at the minor league level.

Top Hitter – Vladimir Guerrero Jr

A no-brainer if there ever was one.  Guerrero was beating up on Eastern League Pitching  and hitting above .400 before being sidelined for a month with a knee injury.  Promoted to AAA Buffalo upon his return off the DL, he continued to mash before tailing off (if you could call a .333 August that) to a final line of .381/.437/.636.  That line is easily the best in Blue Jays prospect history.

Guerrero’s teammates Cavan Biggio, who led the Eastern League in HRs, and Harold Ramirez, who won a batting title in a nice turnaround season, also merit mention.  Dunedin SS Kevin Smith hit .302/.258/.528 with 25 HRs at two levels, and gets a nod for that season as well.  His teammates Rodrigo Orozco and Ivan Castillo finished one-two in the FSL batting race as well.

Other honourable mentions go to a pair of Bluefield bats:  OF Cal Stevenson led the Appalachian League in runs and walks, and  was second in average (.359), and  OPS (1.012).  Close behind him was teammate C/DH Alejandro Kirk, who bashed his way onto the prospect radar with a .354/.443/.558 line.

 

Pitcher of the Year

This is a tougher decision.  Nate Pearson would’ve been a contender for this honour, but an oblique issue and a line drive off of his pitching arm limited his season to just over an inning.  He did return to action in an exhibition game with Lansing last week, and the news was encouraging:

A couple of Pitchers did stand out.

-Ryan Borucki, who overcame a rough April (caused by some snow-outs) to reach the majors;

-Sean Reid-Foley, whose 2017 fell short of expectations, but reached MLB as well, and fanned 150 batters in 129 innings this year;

-Eric Pardinho, who skipped the GCL in his first year and more than held his own as a 17 year old adjusting to pro ball and a new country in the Appy League – Pardinho’s 31.5% K rate would have led the league if he had enough innings to qualify.

-Vancouver’s Josh Winckowski, the Northwest League’s Pitcher of the Year.

-Lefty Reliever Travis Bergen, who fanned 74 hitters in 58 IP at two levels;

-Dunedin RHP Patrick Murphy, who topped 100 with his fastball late in the season.

And the award goes to……………………

Murphy.  In his first full season as a pro, he led the Florida State League in Games Started, IP, and K’s, and was second in ERA.  Murphy posted a GB rate of almost 60%, and a 10% SwStr rate.   When he wasn’t missing bats, he was inducing a lot of weak contact.  As he progresses up the ladder and has more skilled defenders behind him, expect Murphy’s numbers to get even better.  With Murphy eligible for the Rule 5 draft this fall if he’s not placed on the 40-man, he’s a safe bet to be added.

The Meteoric Rise of Dave Stieb Award

During the Alex Anthopoulos regime, this was a reasonably easy award to dole out.  The new management team is not as quick to promote prospects rapidly over a series of levels.

Vancouver’s Otto Lopez provides a template for the Blue Jays preference for up-the-middle prospects, who offer a team versatility and flexibility.  This past season, this is how many games he started at several positions:

3B – 14

2B – 13

SS – 9

LF – 5

RF – 5

CF – 3

Lopez shows great baseball IQ, a solid approach at the plate, and smart base running skills.  He’s an exciting player to watch in the field, and on the base paths.

Bluefield’s Kirk certainly came out of nowhere this year to become one of the top hitting prospects in the lower levels of the organization, and we eagerly await his ascension to full season ball next year.  He attracted plenty of late season attention, not the least of which was from Baseball America:

While Kirk acquitted himself reasonably well behind the plate for Bluefield when starting C Hagen Danner had injury issues,  there is a question as to where his long-term future lies on the diamond.  One thing is for sure:  the bat will play.

Kirk takes this award in a close vote.

Manager of the Year

This site has long been a fan of New Hampshire John Schneider, who has steadily moved up the ranks, and has come to be regarded as a player’s Manager.  An MLB job may not be far off for him.

But the job Cesar Martin did with Lansing makes him a deserving recipient of the award.  Lansing seemed to lose its top player to promotion every ten days or so, but Martin captured a playoff spot, and took a team that had a constantly changing cast of characters to an 80-60 record.  Along the way, he helped turn promising but raw players like Chavez Young and Samad Taylor into more polished prospects.

Top Draft Pick

The team’s first choice in the draft does not always turn out to be its most successful player that year, but such was the case for 12th overall pick Jordan Groshans.

Groshans may not have been ranked as highly on other teams’ draft boards, but the Blue Jays were thrilled to take him where they did, and his presence was a heavy factor in the successful signing of his teammate Adam Kloffenstein, taken in the 3rd round.

Groshans mastered the GCL, slashing .331/.390/.500 before moving up to Bluefield in August, and after a slow start, finished the regular season with a trio of three-hit games in his final ten, hitting .333 over that span.

Groshans showed his versatility over the season, appearing in 42 games both at SS and 3B.  He will be part of what promises to be a talented Opening Day roster at Lansing next year.

TOP IFA

The Blue Jays signed the top-ranked arm and bat in the 2017 International Free Agent class, and they have to be thrilled with the results.

Pardinho had a sizzling start and finish to his season – in his  next-to-last season start, he threw 7 near-perfect innings, retiring the first 19 hitters he faced in order.

SS/3B Miguel Hiraldo’s bat boomed in the DSL, earning him a late-season promotion stateside to the complex league.  It will be interesting to see where he starts and finishes next season.

 

Who Will the Blue Jays Send to the Arizona Fall League?o

As the minor league season approaches its conclusion, we turn our thoughts to the Arizona Fall League, a finishing school of sorts for an organization’s top prospects.

In the past, the Blue Jays have used the AFL experience to give their top prospects a taste of competition against elite talent, or to give them added reps missed due to injury.

Toronto will send six prospects to play for the Surprise Saguaros, who will be managed by former Blue Jays minor league Manager Stubby Clapp, who’s now in the Cardinals organization.  New Hampshire Position Coach Andy Fermin will join Clapp’s staff.

The Blue Jays will be sending six players – they’re allowed to send any AAA or AA player, as well as one from High A.  Projecting the first three players is fairly easy:

1.  Vlad Jr

While fans are clamoring for Guerrero’s promotion to the big club when MLB rosters expand on September 1st, the Blue Jays are still building him up to play a full season (and holding off on his service time), so a shutdown for September followed by a trip to the desert is the most likely scenario.

2.  Bo Bichette

Bichette has had his ups and downs this year as his pitch recognition skills have been put to the test, but his .839 post All Star OPS suggests he’s come through his first taste of adversity as a pro.  Word travelled quickly around the Eastern League that he’d chase, and he struggled until he stopped expanding his strike zone.

Bichette would likely get an opportunity to split time between SS and 2B, adding to his versatility.

3.  Cavan Biggio

Biggio’s prodigious power (26 HRs, .532 SLG) has been one of the bigger surprises in the organization.  Toss in 90 BBs and 128 Ks, and you have a three true outcomes triple crown threat.

Some Toronto media members have been suggesting Biggio could be in the Blue Jays lineup as early as next year, but the team still likely would to see if that power surge is for real, and what his ultimate position might be.  Biggio has played mostly 2B, but has also seen time at 1B and 3B, and the club experimented with him in RF this week.

Facing tough competition in the AFL will give us a good barometer of the legitimacy of his power.

It starts to get a bit unpredictable at this point.  Some possible candidates for the other three spots include:

Nate Pearson

After spending April in shut down mode with an oblique issue, Pearson’s 2018 came to a screeching halt when he took a line drive off of his pitching arm in his first start of the season.  Reports suggested an August return, but he’s yet to pitch in a game since the injury.

It’s possible we see him in short stints in the AFL, but the likelihood of that depends on how his arm has healed.  And getting that kind of information out of the Blue Jays is a herculean task.

Travis Bergen

Injuries limited the 2015 7th rounder to 28 innings over his first three pro seasons.  He was a mainstay in Vancouver’s bullpen last year, helping to lead the C’s to a league title, and has taken over the Closer’s role in New Hampshire.  With Bergen eligible for the Rule 5 draft if he’s not placed on the 40-man roster by November, the team likely would like to see how he fares against top prospects.

Zach Jackson

The righty reliever with the funky delivery has fanned 66 in 56 innings for New Hampshire, but has walked 43.  Some added reps might be in order.

Patrick Murphy 

Like Bergen, Murphy has a lengthy injury history, but he’s bumped up his velo, hitting 100 this year, and sitting 96-98 deep into games.  Murphy has also blown past his previous high in Innings Pitched, so there’s every chance he’s shut down come September, given the Blue Jays usual caution with their young arms.  With the Rule 5 a possibility for Murphy, there’s a good chance he’s added to the 40 this fall.

Jon Harris

The 2015 1st rounder had a disappointing season in his first AA campaign last year, but has added velo and some deception to his delivery in his second crack at the level in 2018.  With the Rule 5 looming for Harris, the Blue Jays might give him time in Arizona after a decent second half with New Hampshire.

Jordan Romano

Romano came out like a house on fire at AA, winning his first 8 decisions and getting the starting nod at the Eastern League All Star game.  He hasn’t missed as many bats in the second half as he did in the first, and with scouts wondering if he wasn’t better suited to a bullpen role, the Blue Jays might want to begin that transition this fall if that’s what they have in mind.

Angel Perdomo

The tall lefty with the electric fastball has been a starter since joining the organization in 2012, but the team moved him into the bullpen this year in Dunedin.

Rosters are usually released in late August.  Play in the AFL begins in early October, and wraps up in late November.

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Position Prospects

“There are no shortcuts.”

Of all the correspondence this blog has had with Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro over the past year, that aphorism stands out the most.  It underscores the approach this management group takes to organization building, a methodology that eschews the quick fix.  Players will be challenged, but they won’t be rushed.  Benchmarks will be established at each level, and a player doesn’t move on until he’s reached them.  With the Blue Jays already double-digit games behind the last Wild Card spot, there are those who are grumbling about the lack of accomplishments since Shapiro took over the reigns of the team 32 months ago (although a 2016 post season appearance seems to be forgotten).  But Shapiro and Co won’t be deterred.  Throughout the system, there is a growing collection of athletes who are receiving instruction from some of the most qualified staff in the game, as well as nutrition and training support from one of baseball’s leading high performance departments.  Building a winner takes time, and while Rogers has not necessarily shown an appetite for a full on rebuild, one is surely coming.  Until they prove themselves at the MLB level, prospects are just that, but a growing stable of them gives teams the best shot at a contending future.

1.  Vladimir Guerrero Jr

There’s little to be said here that can add to the utterly dominant offensive performance Vladdy has put together over the past two months.  One of the youngest players in AA, he has laid waste to Eastern League Pitching.

Despite the gaudy numbers, there are nights when Guerrero plays like a 19-year-old.  Veteran pitchers can have him chasing, and he sometimes short-arms throws to 1st.  While those occasions are few and far between, there have been enough to convince the team to stick to the timetable, despite the clamouring of fans who look up his stats.

With the Blue Jays free-falling from contention for a wild card spot, there’s little need to waste service time and bring him up to the majors.  Shapiro hinted last October that if the Blue Jays were in a playoff race in July, and if the club needed a 3rd Baseman, then there was a good chance we would see him in 2018.  That’s looking less and less like a possibility, now that he’s on the DL for at least a month with a knee strain.

2.  Bo Bichette, SS

With 11 hits in his first 6 AA games, Bichette looked like he had picked up right where he left off last year when he led the minors in hitting.

Bichette soon began seeing a heavy diet of off speed pitches away, and for the first time in his young pro career, he struggled at the plate, and his average dipped to as low as .244 on May 23rd, as he chased a lot of pitches, and seemed to abandoned his excellent two-strike approach.

With a .361 average, including four multi-hit performances over his last 10 games, Bichette appears to have adjusted.  And with every game, he appears to be solidifying his prospects as an everyday SS.  Bichette makes both the routine and the spectacular play, and there is no question as to his focus on the field.

3.  Danny Jansen

Jansen had a breakout 2017, the first time head had been healthy for a full campaign since being drafted in 2013.  After posting a line of .323/.400/.484 last year, he’s almost matched those numbers with this year’s .313/.414/488.

Jansen has excellent pitch recognition, with more walks than strikeouts, and often puts himself in favourable counts, which he takes full advantage of.  On the defensive side, Jansen still had work to do in terms of his blocking skills, but he’s made tremendous strides.  Jansen has an excellent report with his Pitchers, and calls a good game behind the plate.

A couple of factors have led to Jansen’s breakout at the plate.  Corrective lenses, which he started wearing in the Arizona Fall League in 2016 to help him track pitches better while behind the plate have allowed him to improve his pitch recognition greatly.  Being healthy for a prolonged period has helped, too – three of his first four pro seasons prior to 2017 were interrupted by injury.  And working with Buffalo Hitting Coach Corey Hart, who he had at Dunedin last year, Jansen has tweaked his mechanics to keep his weight back (using a slight turn with his leg kick), allowing him to make harder contact.

The development time for Catchers often takes longer than it does for most players.  Jansen has caught just over 300 games as a minor leaguer, and is reaching the time when he’s ready to graduate to MLB.

4.  Anthony Alford, OF

Alford last played a full season in 2015, and it does cause one to wonder if he’ll ever be able to stay healthy.  His last three seasons have been interrupted by injury, and the inconsistency in obtaining reps has hampered his development.  A pro since 2012, Alford has really only been a full-time player since 2015, and still needs seasoning.

Alford is currently hitting only .196/.237/.257 for Buffalo, a reflection of the fact that he’s been in the Bisons’ lineup for only 25 games.  He is hitting .333 over his past 10 games, an indication that he may be turning things around, and more evidence that he just needs to stay healthy for a prolonged stretch.

5.  Cavan Biggio, 1B/2B/3B

Biggio’s K% and Flyball% were career highs last year, an indication of his attempt to put loft on the ball.  The humid Florida air and large Florida State League ballparks conspired to keep many of those flyballs in the park, and Biggio’s numbers were very pedestrian as a result.

This year has been a different story.  Biggio’s 13 Homers to date are good for 2nd in the Eastern League, and outside of Guerrero, he’s become the most dangerous hitter in New Hampshire’s lineup.

There is little doubt about Biggio’s bat, but his glove is a different story.  Labelled a fringe defender in his draft year, the Blue Jays have added duties at 1st and 3rd in an attempt to boost Biggio’s versatility.  His range and arm strength are modest, however, and despite calls from those stats-loving fans for his ascension to Toronto, Biggio isn’t going far until he’s made more progress as a defender.

6. Logan Warmoth, SS

The 2017 1st rounder hasn’t been a pro full calendar year, yet there is already debate as to his long-term future.

Some scouts suggest that Warmoth, who doesn’t have one overwhelming tool, but does an incredible amount of little things well that add up over time.  Others suggest the potential for MLB success just isn’t there, and the Blue Jays may have missed with this pick.

Currently on the 7-day DL, Warmoth has not set the Florida State League on fire on either side of the ball, but his bat was showing some signs of progress before we was injured.  He made a lot of loud contact with Vancouver this year, but has not had a similar impact so far in Florida.  The jury is out on Warmoth at the moment.

7.  Kevin Smith, SS

Warmoth’s replacement was leading the Midwest League in a number of offensive categories before he got the call to Dunedin.  After a slow start with the D-Jays, he’s had 1six straigth multi-hit games, and is playing peerless defence.

A 4th round pick last year, there were concerns about Smith’s bat.  So far this year, he’s gone a long way to start to erase them.  Smith has a good approach at the plate, and barreled up a lot of balls enroute to a .355/.407/.639 line with Lansing.

Smith is a student of the game, and a very hard worker.  His defence has always been his calling card, but now it appears that his bat is catching up.  With a glut of SS at the lower levels, Smith split time at SS/3B at Lansing, but depending on the length of Warmoth’s absence, he has some time to settle in for a long stretch at Short.

8. Chavez Young, OF

You wouldn’t ordinarily expect much from a 39th round pick, but Young is truly proving to be a diamond in the rough.  The Bahamian may have been behind his peers in terms of development when he made his pro debut two years ago, but he’s more than made up for that.

Young has been a fixture atop Lansing’s order, although he’s now slid to 3rd with the promotion of Smith.  Young has a simple set up at the plate, gets good plate coverage, and seldom chases.  He can play all three outfield spots, and has been set loose on the basepaths this year, stealing 13 in 19 attempts.

Outside of Alford, there is perhaps no toolsier player in the system.

9.  Richard Urena, SS

It’s becoming harder to see Urena as a top prospect, although one suspects he’d have some value if he was in the right situation.

April was a write off because of time on the DL, and he was on the QEW shuffle for May.  All of that has transpired to limit his season to 20 games at AAA.  And the results reflect the lack of reps.

Maybe it’s focus, maybe it’s that he’s more of a AAAA player, but one gets the feeling that the Blue Jays don’t see a lengthy future for Urena.  The best thing for him now is to contineu to play every day at Buffalo.

 

10.  Miguel Hiraldo, SS

Hiraldo was one of the top-ranked bats in last year’s IFA class, and with a line of .395/.452/.737 in his first 9 games in the DSL – it’s a bit of a surprise the Hiraldo started there, but he likely won’t be there for long if he continues to hit at that clip.

The consensus is that Hiraldo, who is built more like a Catcher, will evenutally move over to 3B, but the Blue Jays are in no rush to move him.

When and How Do Teams Decide to Promote Prospects?

After having dealt with several members of the Blue Jays front office in a series of email responses over the past few years, and having walked through the maze of workspaces that comprises the nerve centre of the organization at the Rogers Centre, one thing is obvious:  this is a highly literate group.  Stacks of books relating to organizational effectiveness and human relations can be found on almost every desk.  This is a collection of voracious readers who look to implement what they’ve read into methods for building a winner.

Contrary to what many fans might think, the process of deciding when a player is ready for a promotion to the next level is complex, and involves many facets.  It’s not just a process of looking up a player’s stats on milb.com and determining that he’s ready.

One of the books that guides the team in the player development process was written by Florida State Psychology Professor Anders Ericsson that looks at how one reaches the level of expert in any field of endeavour, “Peak:  Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.”  Author Malcolm Gladwell brought Ericsson’s “10 000 hour rule,” into prominence in his book, “Outliers.”  Although Gladwell simplified Ericsson’s rule, somewhat, the principle of the 10 000 hour rule is that is the volume of practice that is needed to become highly proficient in a discipline.

In a sport sense, the 10 000 hour rule doesn’t mean, for example, that a baseball player take 10 000 hours of batting practice when he’s already a good hitter.  Ericsson says that repeating the same activity over and over isn’t enough to allow someone to reach the top of their field.  Ericsson claims that “deliberate practice,” working on skills outside of a player’s comfort zone, is what develops expertise.  And it’s not necessarily skills that the player feels he needs to work on that leads to high performance.  Another factor Ericsson cites is the influence of a highly skilled coach or teacher that dictates the skill(s) that need to be worked on.  Blue Jays Vice President of Baseball Operations Ben Cherington describes the how the team has developed this process:

One of the learnings from that book is about how practice must be adjusted continuously to keep challenging the skill.  In that sense, we believe competition level ought to be adjusted continuously to challenge the skill, though if we go too fast the skill development can get sidetracked so it’s really about hitting that sweet spot.

Reading between the lines, it’s apparent that the Blue Jays have a list of skills for each player to master before they’re ready for the next step.  And it’s not just the skill itself, but the component parts that comprise it.  For an infielder, that may mean working on pre-pitch setup, reads, first-step reactions, footwork, transfer, and arm accuracy and strength.  The team may not necessarily have a stopwatch timing the amount of practice a player has put in, but they do recognize that those skills take time to develop.  The amount of skills a Catcher needs to learn would be lengthy, which might help to explain their collective lengthy developmental process.

So, a considerable amount of time and effort must be expended on the player’s part to get to the next level.  And while this is going on, he’s being watched by many in the organization:  scouts, minor league instructors, analysts, and high performance and front office staff.  Cherington adds:

We’d get input from coaches, high performance, analytics, and front office.  More specifically, we’d be looking for how they are progressing on priority goals, how strong are their routines/work ethic/teammate behaviors, what their underlying performance measures say about whether they are appropriately challenged by the level they are at (that is we’d like players to be challenged but not overwhelmed by the level they are at), and finally we’d look at roster/secondary implications of the move, re who loses out on playing time, who gains it, etc..

 Consensus is an important factor in this process:  a player doesn’t move up unless all of the decision makers feel he’s ready.  Organization solidarity is important in all phases of a player’s development.  As Jason Parks, in an essay titled, “How Are Players Scouted, Acquired, and Developed?” observed:

 You can’t teach a baseball player to play baseball (your brand of baseball) with a chorus of voices singing different songs at different times for different reasons.  The developmental hierarchy has to communicate in order to develop the best possible plan for the player in question.  It’s a team effort and when it loses that consensus, the player suffers.

The player almost all fans are clamoring to be promoted, of course, is New Hampshire 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who is currently laying waste to Eastern League pitching.  But as we’ve known all along, Guerrero’s bat is not the issue, and he likely will only marginally improve his offensive skills at AAA, because the jump between the two levels tends not to be significant.  Prior to this season, Guerrero had played less that 200 games at Third, a position the team switched him to after signing him.  The high performance staff has instituted a program to improve his first-step quickness, and the instructional staff has developed a regimen of drills to improve the other aspects of his defensive game.  And all of those take time – it takes months to see the results from full-time training.  Throw in playing 5-6 games per week, and the time frame expands.  When will Vlad move to AAA?  When he’s checked the boxes on the developmental list.  He must be close to doing so, but obviously the Blue Jays feel he still has some benchmarks to hit.

Teams do want to challenge their players, and the fear of leaving a player too long at one spot and letting him stagnate is probably always present.  And the landscape is littered with players pushed too far too soon.  Travis Snider was promoted to the bigs with just over 300 games of minor league experience.  Dalton Pompey and Daniel Norris made their debuts in 2015 after whirlwind minor league seasons; all have struggled to establish themselves as Major League regulars since that time – Snider is playing Indy ball this year.

At this point, the process of promoting a player is more art than science, although the balance is moving toward the latter.  There still is a highly intuitive aspect to it in the form of the opinions of the people involved.  It’s a process that is constantly developing Cherington admits, when he says, “We’re not perfect at it and continue to learn.”

An Open Letter to Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins

Dear Mark and Ross:

Hi Guys.  Loved Jaysfest this winter.

Look, you both know it, I know it, and even the bandwagon fans on Facebook know it.  This season had considerable promise and started well, but with the starting rotation in shambles and the bullpen already showing the signs of overuse and this season about to become as disappointing as grocery store sushi, it’s time.

Time to make plans to break up the American League’s oldest roster, a group you knew last year was getting past the point of being able to realistically compete for a post-season berth.  But the higher-ups at Rogers wouldn’t let you take a wrecking ball to it, because they liked the sounds of the cash register ringing.

Even though you both have been on the job for only a couple of years, you’ve built an organization that is poised to become a leader in analytics, scouting, sport science, and minor league instruction.  You quickly understood that the key to long-term competitiveness for this franchise lay in its ability to unearth diamonds in the rough in the form of amateur players both through the draft and IFA markets, and use your system to give them the polish they need.

Mark, you spoke in the off-season about developing waves of prospects to come in an compete for MLB jobs.  The first of them is almost ready.  The best prospect in baseball, Vladimir Guerrero Jr, is part of that group, which includes Danny Jansen, Ryan Borucki, and Anthony Alford.  You certainly could make the argument that more development time is warranted for all four, but you could counter that by suggesting that if the roster is torn down to make room for them, that development could continue at the MLB level. We know all about the risk of failure that can come with accelerating players too quickly, but the Nationals decided to move top prospect Juan Soto (who is all of six months older than Vladdy) to AAA after (check that – he’s been promoted to the bigs) only 32 AA At Bats.  Granted, Jr has some more defensive development to complete before he graduates, and top pitching prospects still give him a bit of trouble, but move him up to Buffalo already.  If he succeeds there an and opening on the big league roster becomes available by, say, July 31st, bring him on up.  Who knows where any of us will be in six years – and it’s hard to see you sticking around that long if you have to keep banging heads with the suits upstairs.

After the first wave has established itself in a year or so, the next wave, with talent like Bo Bichette (who’s struggling for the first time in his pro career this year, but that’s ok – better to learn to deal with it in AA), Sean Reid-Foley,  and Cavan Biggio might be ready, and you could throw in Jordan Romano, too.  Behind them, you’ve got a collection that includes Nate Pearson, Logan Warmoth, Yennsy Diaz, and Kevin Smith, and farther down the road, Eric Pardinho, Miguel Hiraldo, and this year’s top draft choice -hopefully, another arm –  (and a possibly even better one next year) and IFAs.  Players dealt to make room on the MLB roster should be exchanged for more prospect depth.

It’s time to put a bow on this season and write it off, rather than continuing to apply duct tape to your broken roster.  The execs at Rogers are no doubt worried that time in baseball’s wilderness will plunge the team back into the bottom third of AL attendance figures, and that is a concern.  It’s bad enough that they seem to keep putting off badly needed renos to the Rogers Centre, but they should give you both a broad brush to undertake the makeover of the 25-man roster.  Yes, attendance will dip, but if/when Vlad is added to the 40 (part of a bigger set of roster decisions) and promoted, that should help stem the slide at the gates.  Yes, this team spent almost two decades wandering through the baseball wilderness before 2015, but you guys are putting together an organization that is becoming one of the top ones in baseball in terms of development.  Your time in the basement shouldn’t be long.

You have some decisions to make (although some of them are pretty obvious), but space needs to be made.  It won’t be easy, but it’s time.    And has they proved three years ago, the fans will come back.

Is It Time to Be Concerned About Bo?

An 0-4 in the first game of New Hampshire’s doubleheader with the Nationals’ Harrisburg affiliate yesterday dropped Bo Bichette’s average for the season to .264.  He struck out 3 times (fanning 6 times in 14 ABs in the series against the Senators), and is hitting .194 over his last 10 games.

After leading the minor leagues in hitting last summer as he rocketed his way up the top prospect rankings, this is the first prolonged slump of his young career.  Scouts were lukewarm about his brother Dante’s long-term prospects even though he too tore up short season ball when he first turned pro, and his career stalled at AA, and he’s now playing independent ball.  Bo may not plateau at that level, but is it time to be a little bit concerned after he struck out three times yesterday?

From a stats perspective, there are some reasons to be concerned.  Bichette’s 20.6% K rate is the highest of his career, as his GB rate of 45.2%, which suggests some swing-and-miss, as well as some weak contact.

From a scouting viewpoint, Bichette seems to be more aggressive this year than he was last.  He’s swinging at a lot of pitches early in the count, and is finding himself in pitcher’s counts more often than not.  Few hitters will produce sparkling numbers in that situation, and Bo is no exception, producing a .193/.193/.333 line.  What’s more concerning is that he’s been in behind-the-count situations almost twice as often as he’s been ahead, although it bears pointing out that his 11% walk rate is above his career average.

When he swings, Bichette seems to be just missing the barrel lately.  His 3rd AB yesterday was a microcosm of his past 10 games.  Hunting a first pitch fastball, Bichette took a mighty hack at an elevated pitch and fouled it back to the screen.  The next pitch was a hanging breaking ball on the outer half, with the same result.  The 3rd pitch in the sequence as a fastball down and in that resulted in another foul, while he laid off the 4th, a breaking pitch in the dirt. Another breaking ball up in the zone had him out in front, and he took a huge rip but missed – somewhat surprising, because Bichette is well-known for his ability to cut down on his swing with two strikes.

Should we be concerned, or is this just a dry spell that he’ll eventually break out of?  History suggests the latter – he did put together a 9 and a 10 game hitting streak in April, a month in which Bichette hit .292/.364/.427.  Evaluators passing through the northeast have all commented on his vastly upgraded defence.  Bichette is showing the requisite footwork, hands, arm strength, and ability to make the double play pivot of a Major League Short Stop.  With fellow prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr receiving national attention, is Bichette maybe pressing a bit much?  That’s a tough question to answer, but it does appear from his approach that he’s not as patient at the plate as he has been in the past.  This may just be a stretch of adversity that it seems like most minor leaguers go through – the successful ones learn how to adjust.  Past performance suggests that Bichette will.

When is it time to Promote a Prospect?

You can’t see it unless you’re there, but there is a wide array of data being collected at each and every minor league game.  Behind home plate sit scouts with notebooks and radar guns, as well as last night’s Pitcher, who is charting pitches.  Further up, somewhere in the press box level is a Trackman sensor that can capture upwards of 27 different and unique measurements grouped by release point, pitch movement, plate location, and batted ball.  In the dugout, the Manager and coaching staff are taking mental notes to include in the post game report they file for the affiliate’s MLB parent.  In addition, there are the observations from the club’s roving instructors, training staff, and front office staff that are compiled on a regular basis.  Depending on the time of year, front office staff may be in attendance, taking notes. As fans, we don’t get to see this, but there is a mountain of information collected every game.

For fans whose actual exposure to a minor league prospect consists of looking up their stats on milb.com while clamoring for the promotion of that player, they’re looking at the tip of the developmental iceberg, missing the bulk of that player’s characteristics which lies below the surface.

Promoting a player to the big leagues is a process that can be fraught with hazards.  In the words of Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus,

Grant promotions too early or too often, and they risk jeopardizing his future by burying him on the bench or subjecting him to the mental and physical rigors of major-league life before he’s equipped to handle them. Delay advancement too long, and they threaten to sabotage his development in a different way, blunting his talents against inferior competition while more expensive players with shorter shelf lives take up space on the big-league roster.

We could be talking about any minor leaguer, but of course, we’re mainly discussing Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who is shredding AA pitching at the tender age of 19.  The media has been full of suggestions that it’s time to promote the youngster, and Blue Jays-related social media has been circling the bases multiple times with that idea.

But as GM Ross Atkins told Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi, there’s more to promoting a player than his numbers:

“That’s just offence, right, when you say statistically,” the Blue Jays GM says in an interview. “There are so many more aspects of the game. And it’s only a month of performance above A-ball, as well. Look, man, we’re elated that he’s having this type of performance and it doesn’t look like this performance is going away, the way he’s doing it.

Atkins did not come out and say that Guerrero, who has played less than 200 games at 3B, needs more reps, but he certainly did suggest it:

“It’s really two things,” Atkins said of the developmental priorities for Guerrero, “it’s first-step quickness and how that impacts his defence, and best possible teammate, because he has the potential to be a leader.”

When it comes down to evaluating whether a prospect is ready for a promotion, teams go far beyond their stats (although minor league numbers, of course, tend to be a good indicator of future MLB success).  Everyone involved with the team’s minor league system has a say in whether a player is ready from a competitive and emotional standpoint for the next level.  For the Blue Jays, that line starts with VP of Baseball Ops Ben Cherington, whose focus with the team is on player development and their minor league system, through Atkins,  and includes Director of Player Personnel Gil Kim,  Director or Minor League Ops Charlie Wilson, High Performance Director Angus Mugford, Analytics Staff, Roving Instructors, Minor League team staff, and likely Special Assistant Tim Raines.  Gathering consensus from such a large group is probably quite difficult, but all have a say, and a player generally doesn’t move forward until it’s reached.  Atkins confirmed that process:

(W)e work through a very detailed process to understand all of the risk factors, all of the objective and subjective information in and around what’s best for a player’s development,” said Atkins. “That’s thinking about the complete player, factoring in environment, factoring in competition level, factoring in resources such as coaches, who he’ll be playing alongside of and what that means for putting the best possible challenge in front of our players in the best possible environment. It’s not about the right time. We’re constantly doing that. We’re constantly factoring in all of those factors.”

The biggest pitfall in promoting a player is that he proves not to be ready for that level, and many teams tend to err on the side of caution in that regard.  The Blue Jays have proven that they don’t mind being aggressive with their prospect promotions, but they have developed a one-step-at-a-time template that they widely adhere to.  Each level of the minors has its own developmental challenges for players, and the Blue Jays see value in spending time at each one – including AAA –  as Cherington told Sportsnet:

“We do feel like it’s important for players to play at the triple-A level. It’s an important development challenge to be here,” Cherington said. “We’ve got players here right now who we really believe in and believe are going to be good major-league players. They are being challenged by this level. This is an important level to be at for some period of time.

“It’s a different level of competition than double-A is,” he added. “Different kind of players you’re facing, different matchups, different game-planning strategies — it’s just a different level of play.”

Is it Time for Vladdy Jr?

Last fall, in the aftermath of a disappointing 2017 season, Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro was asked if he could envision a scenario in 2018 similar to what the Red Sox found themselves in when they promoted top prospect Rafael Devers to the major league club a few months earlier.

Shapiro felt at the time that it was unlikely, pointing out that there was an opening for Devers on the Boston roster, but he wouldn’t close the door entirely:

If we find ourselves in the middle of a pennant race next summer, and Vladdy had been successful in the minors up to that point, there’s always a possibility that we could promote him.

Vlad3
Clutchlings Photo

Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports feels that the time is right for the Blue Jays to move up the younger Guerrero’s timeline.  And he makes some compelling points in doing so:

-his numbers posted at AA New Hampshire would indicate that he’s ready to hit big league Pitching:

After another two-hit game Monday, Guerrero was hitting .380/.442/.582. He had just 10 strikeouts in 79 at-bats, matched by 10 walks

-baseball observers feel that he’s ready:

 (A) pair of longtime scouts who have seen him in recent weeks agreed when asked about Guerrero in a Blue Jays uniform.

“He’s ready,” one said.

“He’d hit in the big leagues today,” the other said.

-with Guerrero probably to be used primarily in a DH role if he was called up, he would fill what has become a black hole in the Blue Jays lineup:

Morales is 34 these days, and as much as the Blue Jays love him in the clubhouse, a DH with a sub-.700 OPS, let alone the sub-.500 that Morales currently carries, is a nonstarter. Even if Morales is owed the rest of his $11 million salary this year and $12 million next year, that is sunk cost, and keeping him in the lineup simply because he’s making good money is anathema to winning.

With the Blue Jays off to a very good start, Passan’s logic is hard to argue with.  After watching Guerrero a great deal over the past month, his pitch recognition, strike zone management, bat speed, and ability to use the whole field are elite.  While his high profile teammate Bo Bichette has struggled a bit (comparatively speaking) at AA this year, Vlad Jr gives every indication that he will be a dangerous MLB hitter before long.

So, why not take the bold move and promote him right now, so as to take advantage of having his bat in the lineup for the rest of the year?  A couple of reasons come to mind:

-playing 3rd Base is still relatively new to Guerrero.  He’s had the equivalent of less than two full seasons playing the position.  And while he displays good hands, footwork, and a strong arm on balls that he gets to, his range is still developing.  This is probably a combination of repetition, which gives him better reactions to balls hit his way, as well as the stength/flexibility/conditioning program the team has him on, which is designed to improve his range.  So far in his young career, Guerrero has proved to be an adequate defender, but not an elite one.  This comment from Baseball America sums up his defensive skills:

A gifted offensive player, Guerrero did not inherit his father’s speed or athleticism. He trained as an outfielder when he was an amateur and figured to be a left fielder at best, but after the Blue Jays signed him they put him at third base. He has surprised scouts with his play there, improving his arm strength to above-average and showing the hands to be a playable defender. However, Guerrero is already so big and stocky as a teenager that it’s going to be a challenge for him to maintain his weight.

  Of course, his bat will be his path to stardom.  Passan suggests a scenario where Guerrero DHs 4-5 times per week, then plays 3rd Base to give Josh Donaldson a chance to keep his bat in the lineup by taking a turn at the DH spot.  While that will no doubt boost the Blue Jays offence, it won’t do a lot to further Guerrero’s defensive development, and if Donaldson leaves as a free agent at the end of the year, the team will be weaker defensively as a result.  And for a team with groundball-inducing Starting Pitchers (with several others coming up in the system), that could spell danger.

Then there is the looming aspect of Guerrero’s free agency.  It may be six years away, but given how most free agents have shunned Toronto, it will take a great deal to keep him beyond that timeline.  Passan says that timelines shouldn’t matter: “Teams that aspire to win baseball games should field their best nine players every day. ”   Still, the Blue Jays would not be the first team to hold a player back in order to slow his countdown clock.  And it certainly wouldn’t be Shapiro’s style – in that same conversation, he stated that when it came to building a winner, “There are no shortcuts.”

Even though everything about Guerrero suggests that he’ll be a generational hitter, possibly even following his famous Dad into the Hall of Fame one day, there are no guarantees.  If he does get promoted, and struggles at the plate, Passan says that they can always just send him back down.  Which of course they can, but at the cost of service time.  You could also make the argument that the greater need for this team right now despite their good start is the stabilization of their rotation.  If Guerrero comes up and hits like his past production says he will, it may be for naught if the starters continue to falter, and their bullpen turns to dust.

Vlad Jr is easily the best position prospect the Blue Jays have ever developed.  He will likely become a first division, all-star caliber player, and after seeing him play in person in Lansing last year, I can’t wait to see him again.  If he is promoted, it will be worth celebrating, and would no doubt be a boon to Blue Jays attendance.  If the Blue Jays opt to stay the course and stick to his development timeline, that won’t be a problem either.  If he was called up, Guerrero would be younger than Adrian Beltre, Andruw Jones, Ken Griffey Jr, or Mike Trout were when they made their big league debuts.  We will see him in the Majors soon either way.  Keeping him back a bit as Bichette, Anthony Alford, Nate Pearson, Borucki, Logan Warmoth, and several other prospects in the system approach MLB-readiness will only help the team in the long run.