Blue Jays 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr – Elite hands and elite plate discipline. 0-0 takes are borderline insulting. No fear. Excellent balance in swing. Hands, hips, lower half work in unison. Still 19, man-child 🔥💪💪 pic.twitter.com/6rDzcyJprI
To the absolute surprise of no one, Vladimir Guerrero Jr was named the top prospect in the Arizona Fall League by former MLB scout Jason Pennini, who now writes for Prospects Live. After a long season, Guerrero was less than thrilled to head to the desert to play for another six weeks, and he didn’t see a whole lot of strikes as the league wound down, but he showed more than enough for Pennini to give him an 80 grade for his future MLB role. Let’s think about that for a second. 80 is the top of the scale. The Blue Jays have never had an 80-grade prospect in any tool category; not Roy Halladay, Carlos Delgado, or Tony Fernandez. As Pennini himself says:
Eighty grades should not be thrown around lightly. I am not even sure that there should be an 80 given to a prospect every season. Only .3% or 3/1000 data points in a normal distribution fall beyond three standards deviations of the mean. An 80 on the scouting scale describes a position player who is a franchise cornerstone or potential hall of famer.
There is absolutely no doubt about Guerrero’s bat. There might not be a player in all of baseball who manages it better or covers more of it. His power comes from such a loose, fluid swing. His defense is the tool which causes the most concern, but as newly appointed Blue Jays coach John Schneider, who managed Vlad the last two season said, Guerrero could be Adrian Beltre defensively, but his bat would still be ahead of his glove. Get ready for some fun, Blue Jays fans. There’s no reason to believe that Guerrero won’t continue to mash in the bigs. Nate Pearson’s 2018 season never really got started. Sidelined to begin the season with an oblique issue, a line drive off his lower pitching arm in the second inning of his first start ended his year. He got some innings in Instructs, and more in Arizona, and while there were definite signs of rust, Pearson showed enough to be named the 8th best Arizona prospect. His fastball was hard to command some times, and caught too much of the plate at other times, but he made a definite impression:
Physically, Pearson’s massive frame looks capable of bearing the brunt of a 200 inning season. While his track record in the minors is limited, I think he has among the best stuff of any pitching prospect and mostly needs time to prove himself.
For Blue Jays fans who have not been through a true rebuild (we’re not counting the J.P Ricciardi years) should be encouraged about these reports. Until they’ve proven themselves at the MLB level, they’re just that, but there is plenty to be optimistic about. Ryan Borucki, Lourdes Gurriel Jr, and Danny Jansen gave every indication that they will be big leaguers to stay, with Guerrero, Pearson, and Bo Bichette (who was banged up and stayed home, but likely would’ve been a top AFL prospect had he journeyed southwest to play) soon to follow. The challenge for Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins is to surround them with complementary players, and to keep developing (or using depth to acquire) pitching. A 90-loss season may be upcoming, but this team could improve in a hurry if their top prospects continue on their development arcs.
Toronto Blue Jays Minor League Manager John Schneider has travelled a long road, and like many of the players on the championship teams he’s managed the past two seasons, he’s on the cusp of a Major League job.
A career Blue Jay, Schneider was originally drafted by the Tigers in the 24th round of the 2001 draft after making All Colonial Conference Association as a Catcher, Schneider opted to return to school at Delaware (where he says he, “Majored in Sociology, and minored in baseball”):
I didn’t know if I was quite ready to leave school yet, and I was signed up to play in the Cape Cod League, which I really wanted to do. I had two years of college eligibility left, and I felt like one more year of school would be good for me. It kind of worked out for me, and I decided to leave school the next year.
Schneider was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 13th round the following year, and soon after was off to Auburn of the New York Penn League (the Blue Jays’ short-season affiliate at the time), where he slashed .240/.381/.352 in 40 games. Schneider moved up through the organization, until back surgery following the 2006 season and three concussions suffered the following year gave him cause to consider his post playing career:
I had back surgery in 2006, and then came back and played the next year, then – everyone reaches a point in their career where you start thinking, “maybe this isn’t going to work out for me,” and I had bounced around so much…..then it was the concussions (three in 2007) that gave me a pretty good scare, and started me thinking about my long-term future outside of baseball….you put everything together, between hitting your peak as a player, and throw in some injuries, and it was time for me to call it a career, and luckily I had a coaching gig with the Blue Jays lined up. I went from being in the locker room at spring training to going into a coaches meeting the next day.
When asked what was the biggest adjustment he made from literally being inside the lines one day to the outside the next, Schneider said:
One of the hardest parts was seeing something that you loved and done your whole life, and your friends are still continuing to do it. You know you could probably still do it, but it wouldn’t be realistic.
As his playing career reached its final stages, Schneider admits that staying in the dugout in a coaching or managing capacity had already entered his mind:
I had conversations with Managers and Co-ordinators – when you’re managing, you can tell which of your players might make a good Manager or Coach down the road, the way they talk, their demeanour, and how they interact with guys on the team. Dick Scott, who was our Farm Director at the time, was very open with me, and gave me the opportunity to start coaching right then and there (spring training 2008). He even said if I wanted to keep playing, they would give me a release and we could re-visit things in a year. I played about another week in spring training, and then realized it was time. I also wanted to get a head start on coaching while I was young, and I was told after 2007 that if I had another concussion I’d have to retire, so that made the decision a lot easier.
Schneider was assigned to the Gulf Coast League as a hitting coach for the 2008 season. Having not played rookie ball, it was another period of adjustment for him:
I went from playing at a high level back down to rookie league, but you do forget about the mistakes that get made, and the repetitions players have to put in. You learn patience – if you have to tell them something a thousand times, tell them a thousand and one. That took a little bit of time. I look back on it now, and when I started managing I was 29. I thought I had made it, and I realize now when I look back on how I acted, and things like arguing calls with umpires, and then you remember the kids were so young. It’s funny to look back and realize how much you’ve changed like your demeanor and the way you go about things.
If you talk with anyone who has been around the minor leagues for a while, one thing players, coaches, and managers alike agree on is that the nature of the relationship between players and coaching staff has changed. Minor League instructors who yelled at players to motivate them are on the way out, as patience and teaching are the keys to dealing with young players. For his part, Schneider embraces that:
I’ve always believed in that, I believed it since I first started managing. You had managers that you love playing for and some managers not so much. You try to take a little bit from each guy who managed you or coached you. On teams that I manage, I like the messages to come from teammates. If you have that kind of vibe and chemistry going on in your club house it just makes things so much easier. Problems tend to take care of themselves that way, although there are times when you have to step in and take charge. I tend to be one of those managers who doesn’t scream at kids, and I try to remember how hard the game is to play, And I try to relate to them the message that I probably made more errors and mistakes in my careers than they’re ever going to make. They could look at my stats and see I wasn’t very good, and say, who are you to yell at me? Unless it’s something that’s fundamentally incorrect, or something that’s in violation of what we stand for as an organization, I’m much more than kind of guy that’s going to pop them on the back and say way to go keep doing what you’re doing, rather than what are you doing? I don’t think you get a lot of results if you’re the kind of guy that just goes up there screaming.
When asked which players in New Hampshire helped deliver the message to their teammates this year, Schneider spreads the credit around, but points out two players in particular:
There were a lot of players like that, which is one of the reasons why I think we were so good. Whether it was (Cavan) Biggio who was there all year, or Pat Cantwell who is there all year – The thing we tried to do was build a positive, winning culture. I knew we were going to have a good team, but I also knew we were going to have a lot of fluctuation in our roster. You want the guys were there and playing every day to be able to show the new guys coming in how we do things and how we roll. The core guys who were there just made it fun, and as much as we try to make these guys better on the field, what goes hand-in-hand with that is teaching them how to win, and teaching them how to be good teammates. So if they can take care of things and their own backyard – which they did a really good job of this year – It makes my job really easy.
Schneider prefers an environment where players can be comfortable:
Baseball’s too hard not to have fun. I wanted guys to be themselves. I’m a little bit different than other managers in the organization. I don’t have a dress code. I tell players to dress the way they want to dress I just be who you are, because I think you get the best results when people are comfortable. From the stuff we did in the clubhouse, to the stuff we did on the field, to the stuff we did on the bus, we just had a lot of fun this year. It’s not something you should take for granted. It’s tough to do in the minor leagues Dash you get the talent together you get the personalities together, where guys really liked being around one another, it makes for a really good year.
But Schneider doesn’t run a loose ship; the expectation of hard work is still there. Many clubhouses across baseball have ping-pong tables – it’s an excellent distraction. But sometimes the line between distraction and obsession is easily crossed, and when it happened in Lansing in 2015, Schneider didn’t hesitate to have it removed (temporarily, at least):
You have to do stuff like that every once in awhile if guys are spending too much time at the ping-pong table and not enough time in the cage or on the field. I took it away for a couple of weeks, but I did give it back.
Like the players he manages, Schneider has made his way through the system, starting in the GCL, and advancing to Vancouver, a place that he still remembers fondly:
It’s a big League City in a minor league. The people in the front office do everything first class. The stadium is awesome, and for our guys to get that kind of experience right out of the draft was unbelievable. I’ve been to a lot of minor league Parks, but there’s no atmosphere like there is at The Nat. I have a lot of great memories from Vancouver.
I put Schneider on the spot somewhat. There has been so much written and said about Vladimir Guerrero Jr that I asked him to tell us something people might not know about the slugging prodigy. He didn’t hesitate with his answer:
How funny he is. I’ve told numerous people that. When you watch him playing on the field you know he’s having fun. When you see him in the clubhouse, when you see him in the cage, or when you see him on the bus, He’s a funny dude, man. He speaks way better English than anyone thinks. He and I text back and forth in English. He’s a really keen observer of things around him and he’s a bit of a jokester in the clubhouse, then he goes out onto the field and works his butt off. His teammates really respect him and look up to him, and not just because of the player he is. His numbers speak for themselves, but I’ve really got to know him well over the past two years, and we’re talking about someone who’s as good a person as he is a player.
When Guerrero joins the Blue Jays (likely in mid-April), there will be an enormous amount of pressure and media attention on him. Schneider thinks he’ll be more than up to the challenge of dealing with the high expectations:
He’s been doing it for the past couple of years in the minors. I think he responds to challenges well, whether it’s the Futures Game, or the Fall Stars Game, or whether it’s the thousands of people who came to see him play every day, he handles it well, all at 19 years of age. He’s surrounded himself with really good people away from the field who help him that – obviously, his Dad is a huge support.
When asked if Guerrero has the skills to stick as a Major League 3rd Baseman, Schneider feels that he does, but he also has thinks Vladdy will adjust to an eventual position change:
I do. I think with baseball it’s tough sometimes to see the long-term, and things can change quickly, but for the next handful of years, I see him at 3rd Base. He’s better there than people think. He makes the routine plays, he has good and quick hands, and an above average arm. It’s the little things, but I’ve seen him make diving plays to his left and plays down the line, which are above average Major League plays. I think that once his athleticism, agility, quickness, and first step reads, it’s going to be really fun to watch him over there. I think whenever you look at a hitter like that, people say, “oh, his bat’s ahead of his glove,” but Vladdy could be Adrian Beltre defensively and I think his bat would still be ahead of his glove – that’s just how good of a hitter he is. I think he’s fine at 3rd and will continue to make improvements, although he does have the athleticism to move elsewhere one day. I definitely see him as a 3rd Baseman right now.
While Guerrero was flirting with .400 and getting top prospect acclaim across the continent this summer, his fellow top prospect Bo Bichette was scuffling for the first time in his pro career, his average dropping into the .230s in May. Bichette was over-aggressive at the plate, and word quickly spread around the Eastern League that you didn’t have to throw a lot of pitches inside the zone to get him out. Time, patience, and the help of Schneider and hitting coach Hunter Mense allowed Bichette to break out, but Schneider says the organization wanted to challenge Bichette this year:
That was part of the reason we wanted to put him in AA at 20 years old. You have to struggle some times, right? His struggles were more like for a two or three week span, he was really grinding offensively a couple of times, but then you look up, and he’s hitting .286, with double-digit Homers, 75 RBI, 32 Stolen Bases, 43 Doubles, and made tremendous strides defensively and as a leader of the team, and he won his second championship in a row as a starting Short Stop. I couldn’t be happier with the year that he had. I told him in April, “I’m going to purposely run you out there every day, and I want you to tell me when you’re tired,” because I knew last year he and Vlad had pretty strict schedules. I told them both this year that the training wheels were off, and to let me know when they needed a rest. Bo still played over 130 games. I think the most impressive thing this year was when he was going through a rough patch in early May, and I kept throwing him out there, but he didn’t complain, didn’t ask for a day off – I gave him a couple, because I could tell, and that’s my job as a Manager – but he expected to play every day and work his way through it. To me, that’s invaluable.
Earlier in the season, Schneider had Lourdes Gurriel Jr in the lineup. After a nearly two year hiatus after leaving Cuba, Gurriel looked very rusty in all aspects of his game. He was a different player this year:
He was like that right from spring training……I saw him in Dunedin last year, and he just hadn’t played in a year and a half, he was kind of raw – you could see the talent, but you couldn’t see the results right away. Coming into spring training this year, he was a completely different guy. Offensively, defensively, he just seemed more comfortable. It was awesome to see the start that he had, and then get called up later to Toronto. He’s a good guy to have for his work ethic, and the other guys see that.
And no conversation about New Hampshire’s lineup this year would be complete without a discussion about Biggio, the EL MVP and HR leader. After managing him in Dunedin last year, Schneider knew Biggio was destined for big things, but this year’s breakout was a bit of a pleasant surprise:
If you ask him, I don’t think he expected to hit 27 Homers and 99 RBIs – we tried so hard to get him to 100 – but I think this season showed what he’s capable of. He’s so intelligent, and has such a good command of the strike zone. He made adjustments going into this year, and he’s going to have to do the same thing next year, but I think will be consistent is him playing every day and being productive, and being a solid defender. I saw him after the got drafted, and he was a typical top-of-the-order guy: hitting everything up the middle, working the count. And then he started to become more aggressive early in the count. I think hitting behind Vladdy for part of the year helped him, because Pitchers would tend to take a deep breath after facing Vlad and maybe throw the next pitch over the plate…..then 450 feet later, you’ve got a couple of runs coming in.
Like Guerrero, there is some question as to Biggio’s long-term position. After starting his pro career at 2nd, he saw time at 1st and 3rd with New Hampshire, and played the corner OF spots in the Arizona Fall League. Schneider thinks 2nd is his best position, but his versatility will be the key that drives him toward the bigs:
I think he’s going to be versatile. He’s such a good athlete and student of the game that he can play several positions. He looked good at 1st Base and 3rd Base and with what they did with having him play the OF in the Arizona Fall League. He even got an inning at SS with us this year. I think 2B is where he might fall back on, though. I think he’s going to do a lot of things, with his best spot being 2nd.
Winning or development? The question is often asked of all farm directors and GMs. Do organizations focus on building minor league teams that win, or let players take their lumps in an environment that sees them get reps, if not necessarily wins? For Schneider, it’s best to try to focus on the best of both worlds:
I think you kind of want to a bit of both at every level. I’ve always said that the minor leagues is a filtering out process, so for the guys who aren’t going to get to the major leagues, the games we play are practice games, and the post season games are higher leverage practice games. It’s fun for me as a Manager to be in those situations, and it’s fun for the players to see how they react to those higher leverage games, but you really can’t replicate that during the regular season – when you have to get a guy from 2nd to 3rd, when you have to make a pitch with a runner on 3rd, when you have to make all the routine plays, when everyone knows you’re going to steal and you have to get a good jump. All those things you put so much time and effort into over the course of spring training and a year, they really come into play in the playoffs, whether it’s the guy making decisions, or it’s me making decisions, everything is sped up. So I think that if you can do some of both, you’re doing a good thing. The biggest thing is you want the guys to expect to win, whether it’s the Dominican Summer League or AAA, you want them to expect to win every day. If you can create that environment and that culture, I think you’re going to be better off than most other organizations. It’s been cool over the last 2 years to know as a manager or as a coach, your players are developing, and still be winning.
Watching New Hampshire play this summer was a lot of fun, and not just because of the prospect depth the team featured. Schneider managed aggressively, and had the team always looking to run on the base paths. The Fisher Cats led the Eastern League in stolen bases, with five players in double figures of steals. The team went from 1st to 3rd probably more than any other team. This was all part of Schneider’s plan:
I love it. You do have to adapt to your personnel, but I’ve always said if you can run, keep going and force the issue. I told the guys everyone on the team has the green light to steal, and we came up with the term running in the outfielder’s face. In spring training, I said, if it’s a ground ball to left field on you’re on first, I want you to keep going on to third, just run right in the left fielder’s face. Now, you can’t go crazy, and you can’t run yourselves into outs, but the more aggressive you are, and the other team knows you’re going to be that way – you’re going to ,steal, hit and run, go first to third, go for extra bases – they’re going to play on their heels a bit. I take pride as a Manager knowing when other teams talk about us, and they say these guys are going to be really aggressive on the bases.
After managing two teams at two levels to successive league titles, he knows the core group that forms the next wave of Blue Jays better than anyone else in the organization. And he can’t say enough about their collective work ethic:
This group that’s coming up, they’re really good, but they’re also really hard workers. I can’t say enough about how hard they work and what kind of guys they are….it’s a special core, and I think to have them on the same team for a period of time will do wonders for them. They’ve learned how to work, they’ve learned how to win.
Like his players, Schneider’s ultimate goal is to be in the majors one day, although he’s not one to rush the schedule. He’s content to trust the process, and continuing to develop alongside his players:
It’s definitely a goal of mine. It’s nice to hear my name out there a little bit, and hopefully I can be one step closer (next year). Much like players, coaches and managers want to get better every year, be around challenging situations and good people, and to be open to different ways that things are done. To me that was very fulfilling last year to hear different views about hitting or pitching, and I just always want to continue to evolve with the game. I love the core group that I’ve been able to spend the last couple of seasons with, and hopefully I’ll be able to be around them in the big leagues in some capacity. I’m thrilled with the addition of Charlie (Montoyo) in Toronto – I think it’s a good blend of what we’re trying to do up there.
With a preference for acquiring and developing up-the-middle players who can slide to other defensive positions, the Blue Jays farm system continued its ascension into the upper tiers of baseball’s elite organizations in 2018.
With 15 prospects scattered among the Top 20 in Baseball America‘s rankings of each minor league this fall (tied for 3rd with Arizona, behind Tampa and San Diego), the Blue Jays system is now ranked #3 by BA, and most analysts (not named Keith Law) would agree that it’s a system on the rise.
When he took the helm of the Blue Jays organization three years ago, one of the carrots that brought Mark Shapiro over from Cleveland was the promise of a bigger budget for player development. Since coming to Toronto, Shapiro has instituted a ground-breaking (for baseball) High Performance department, and has brought in numerous sport scientists to help the organization’s prospects learn to eat, train, and recover more efficiently. He has also brought onboard several key executives with extensive player development experience like Ross Atkins and Ben Cherington. This off-season, under the direction of Player Development head Gil Kim, the team brought in a number of minor league coaches and instructors with considerable teaching and coaching backgrounds, a trend that will likely continue this off season.
The Blue Jays have had reasonably successful drafts (although 2017 1st rounder Logan Warmoth took a large step back this year) over the past several seasons, and have done very well in the International market as well – it’s not a coincidence that new Manager Charlie Montoyo is bilingual, and has a strong track record of working with young players. Minor league systems have to balance development with winning (with the former taking precedence at the lower levels), but several Blue Jays farm teams have made the post season over the past two years, with Vancouver bringing home a Northwest League title in 2017, and New Hampshire winning one this past season. The experience is always worthwhile for the organization’s young players, who, unlike college players, are not necessarily used to the pressure to win.
1. Vladimir Guerrero 3B
.281/.437/.636, 9.5K%/9.3BB%, 20HR ,194 wRC+
At the moment, Guerrero is laying waste to Arizona Fall League pitching, and demonstrating that his bat is more than MLB-ready. While Blue Jays fans were clamoring for Vladdy’s promotion for much of the season, a strained knee helped pumped the brakes on his development. And that wasn’t a bad thing – Shapiro had indicated a year ago that the only way we would see Guerrero in 2018 was if the team was in the middle of a pennant race, and even with the infusion of offence he would have provided, the 2018 Jays were not going to the post season.
A few extra months of minor league seasoning allowed Guerrero to continue to work on the defensive side of his game. He has sure hands, good footwork, and a strong, accurate arm. Vlad makes plays on balls that he gets to, but in the major leagues, where he’ll be fielding balls hit by MLB hitters (and half of them on turf), but he’ll need to expand his range, and that was one of the reasons he remained in the minors this summer.
Even though he’ll be under intense media scrutiny when he reaches Toronto, Guerrero is more than up for the challenge. This summer, it seemed like when he was facing a top-ranked Pitcher, Guerrero turned his game up accordingly. If there is one knock against him, it’s that he doesn’t always do so when facing a lesser guy on the mound. Those days will be fewer and further between in MLB.
When we finally do see Guerrero in the Blue Jays lineup, his impact will likely be immediate. He is the best prospect the Blue Jays have ever developed. He will anchor the middle of the Toronto order for years to come.
2. Bo Bichette SS/2B
.286/.343/.453, 17K%/8.1BB% , 11 HR, 120 wRC+
Bichette grabbed more than his share of the headlines in 2017 when he led the minor leagues with a .362 average, hitting above .400 as late as mid-June.
This year was a different story. In late May, his average tumbled to a career-low .237, before Bichette began to lay off pitches outside of the strike zone. Maybe it was the pressure that he created himself trying to match Guerrero, or maybe it was the greater command possessed by Eastern League Pitchers, but 2018 was a tremendous learning year for Bichette, one that may ultimately serve him well in the future.
Bichette’s numbers for the year may not be awe-inspiring, but he put together a torrid final six weeks of the season, slashing .339/.402/.475 in August, and hitting .346 as New Hampshire romped to the EL title.
Bichette continued to make strides as a defender this season, but he looked most comfortable when the acquisition of Santiago Espinal in July forced him to share time at SS by moving over to 2B. His range, reactions to ground balls, ability to make the pivot, and arm strength just seem to look better suited to the position. One thing is for sure: the bat will play, possibly not next season, but before a long time has elapsed.
3. Nate Pearson SP
1.2 IP, 5.4 K/9, 0 BB/9, 10.80 FIP, 44.4% GB
Don’t be fooled at all by Pearson’s numbers. An oblique issue kept him out of the lineup until early May, and a line drive off of his pitching arm in the second inning of his first start ended his season. Pearson has pitched in the Arizona Fall League, but has understandably shown rust, but has dialed his velo back up to 100.
Pearson has a starter’s build and four-pitch mix. He sits 96-98, and mixes in an effective curve, change, and slider. He gets good spin on his breaking pitches, and throws all four from a similar arm slot. When Pearson commands his fastball, hitters don’t have much of a chance.
Even though he’s thrown only 21 innings as a pro (his pitch count was strictly monitored in Vancouver last year after he was drafted), he will be bound for New Hampshire next year, and could move quickly. The word “ace” is thrown around far too much, but Pearson definitely has front of the rotation potential.
Already the hardest-working player on the field, the job of the MLB backstop has become even more complex in this day and age of framing and spin rates. The Blue Jays unearthed a gem in the middle rounds of the 2013 draft, taking the Wisconsite with their 16th round pick. In the 31 games he suited up for the Blue Jays this year, he showed why he’s considered one of the top receiving prospects in the game, and a potential franchise Catcher.
Jansen has always been an excellent framer, and Pitchers have long raved about working with him. His bat came along last year, and he showcased good contact skills, and should hit the 20 HR plateau at some point. If Reese McGuire continues to develop, the Blue Jays could employ him as more than a back up, allowing them to keep Jansen’s bat in the lineup when he needs a day off from behind the plate.
Jansen has given every indication that he will make the team out of training camp next year.
5. Kevin Smith SS
.302/.328/.528, 21.1K%/ 7%BB, 25 HR, 149 wRC+
No Blue Jays prospect enhanced their status as much as the 2017 4th rounder did this year. Stuck behind top pick Logan Warmoth last year, Smith surpassed him on both sides of the ball this year.
Smith owned Midwest League pitching before being promoted to Dunedin. Along the way, he was named a Top 20 prospect by Baseball America in both leagues. In naming him the FSL’s 11th top prospect, BA noted:
Evaluators who like Smith see a player who can stick at shortstop with a bat-first profile in the mold of Paul DeJong. He’s never going to be the flashiest player on the field, but his work ethic and all-around skills will help him produce impressive seasons. His bat can handle a slide to second base as well.
Smith did not make as much contact in Florida as he did in Michigan, with his K rate jumping from 16% to 24% after the promotion, with a corresponding drop in his BB rate as well. Quite simply, Smith expanded his zone, and he may go through a dry spell similar to Bichette’s when he reaches the Eastern League next year.
Of all the up-the-middle prospects the Blue Jays have accumulated, Smith shows the most potential to stay at the position, and hit enough to become an MLBer. An avid student of the game, he spent considerable time last off-season re-tooling his swing and refining his approach, and the payoff was significant. He still may be a couple of seasons away, but he could provide a good complement to Guerrero on the left side of the Blue Jays infield.
6. Eric Pardinho, SP
50 IP, 11.5K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 3.75 FIP, 46.3% GB
Dropped into a new country, with travel and under-the-lights play, and facing hitters that in almost every case were older than him (some by several years), all Pardinho did was produce one of the best debut seasons of any Blue Jays Starting Pitcher in recent memory.
The top-ranked 2017 IFA had his innings closely monitored in the Appy League, but he missed a lot of bats (15.4% K rate), and was very difficult to square up and loft (31% Fly Ball rate). His four-pitch mix overmatched Appy hitters, as evidenced by a dominant mid-August outing against eventual league champs Elizabethton, a Twins affiliate. Pardinho retired the first 19 hitters he faced before giving up a one out single in the 7th.
As might be expected of a 17-year-old, there’s still room for Pardinho to grow both physically and emotionally. And even though he will one day be dwarfed in the rotation by Pearson, there’s a lot to like about Pardinho. His athleticism allows him to repeat a clean, efficient delivery. Already sitting 93-95 most nights, Pardinho should add some velo as he gets older, which will make his secondaries even more effective.
He’s still several seasons away – there’s even a good chance that Pardinho remains in Extended next spring until the Midwest League weather warms up. But there is plenty of reason to expect to see him near the top of the Blue Jays rotation one day.
He had his struggles at the major league level, but his MiLB season was one of the most successful of Reid-Foley’s career, and gave fans a glimpse of what his potential could be.
After a dominant 8 starts at AA. SRF moved up to Buffalo, and continued to pile the whiffs, fanning 10.3/9, while walking only 3.6/9. While in Buffalo, he came out firing, daring hitters to try to catch up with his mid 90-s fastball. His problems at the MLB level came when he fell behind hitters, something he’ll have to fix and may come with added experience.
Starting Pitching is probably the hardest commodity to develop in all of baseball, and one look no further than the rising popularity of bullpenning and use of the Opener. Even with a mid-rotation projection, there’s still plenty of potential value in Reid-Foley.
8. Jordan Groshans SS
(GCL) .331/390/.500, 18.8K%/8.2BB, 4 HR, 150 wRC+
The Jays broke out of the run of first round college picks last June when they took the Texas High Schooler, and he didn’t disappoint. BA named him the 5th best prospect in the Gulf Coast League, with his bat the stand out tool:
Groshans has a polished hitting approach and a knack for finding the barrel. He squares up good pitching with quick bat speed and plus raw power. While Groshans has the sock in his bat to go deep from right-center over to his pull side, he mostly showed a line-drive, all-fields approach in the GCL, hammering fastballs and driving pitches on the outer half with authority to the opposite field.
Promoted to Bluefield for the Appy League playoffs, Groshans started slowly, but his bat came alive. With a talented GCL infield this summer, Groshans split time at SS and 3B. His arm is graded as above average, but the feeling among some evaluators seems to be that he winds up at the hot corner long-term.
It’s hard to quit on the toolsy outfielder, even though 2018 was definitely a sideways year for him. When he began the season on the DL, there were the usual concerns about his injury history. Alford seemed lost at times at the plate this year, and did not barrel up balls like he did in 2017.
Still, there was some progress. Alford began to drive the ball more in August, slashing .282/.324/.388 with 11 Doubles. And the work he did with Coach Devon White helped him to take more efficient routes on fly balls.
The clock is starting to tick for Alford (he still has one more option year), but if he can stay in the lineup consistently, there could be a place for him in the Toronto outfield at some point next year.
10. Orelvis Martinez SS
The top-ranked July 2nd bat in this year’s class did not look out of place at Instructs, from reports, as the Blue Jays added yet another up-the-middle player. The Blue Jays spent 70% of their pool money on Martinez’ $3.5 million bonus – the second largest in club history.
We don’t know enough about his defensive skills yet, but there are a lot of indications that the bat will play. In fact, there is word that Martinez will start his pro career stateside next year, and his bat may be advanced enough to skip the GCL. Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, who oversees Latin America for the club, raved about Martinez’ skills at the plate:
The combination of consistency, good results, good plan at the plate, has hit good velocity, has hit breaking balls and laid off breaking balls — those things make you as comfortable as you’re going to get with a player who’s obviously a long way away from his prime.
Many people who knew Hunter Mense warned him about taking the hitting coach job at AA New Hampshire.
After a season in the Padres’ organization, Mense had been recommended for the position last off-season by the Blue Jays newly hired minor league hitting co-ordinator, Guillermo Martinez. Mense interviewed for the position, and two days later was offered the spot Player Development Director Gil Kim. In preparing for his interview, Mense had done his homework, and saw that top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette, among others, would likely be his charges. But some in Mense’s circle suggested he would be getting into a no-win situation if he took the job:
I talked a bunch of people and they’re like – Hunter, that’s not a good opportunity because you’ll have all the pressure in the world because the expectations that come along with coaching these guys is so high.
Nonetheless, when Kim called, Mense jumped at the opportunity. And in the end, he took a great deal away from the experience, which included coaching the best prospect in all of minor league baseball for half a season, and an Eastern League championship:
I got so much more out of those guys than they got out of me. Everyone of them. I learned so much more about hitting and about baseball and about coaching and professional baseball and everything that goes along with it from them. Way more than they learned from me so it was such a great opportunity and there’s no way I couldn’t take it.
Born in Liberty, MO, Mense was undrafted out of high school, so he went the collegiate route, attending the University of Missouri. Mense had a tremendous sophomore season, played for Team USA that summer, and after being named a pre-season 3rd team All American by Baseball America, he appeared to be a solid bet to be taken in the first 3-4 rounds of the 2007 MLB draft. Such was not to be the case for the Outfielder, however, and after getting off to a slow start, he found himself in a downward spiral, and in his own words, “I was hurting myself and the people around me.” Mense finished his junior season with a .258/.328/.390 line, and his draft stock dropped as a result. He lasted until the Marlins selected him in the 17th round.
Despite that disappointment, there were a couple of silver linings to that disappointing season. At this parent’s request, Mense came under the mentorship of Rick McGuire, who was Missouri’s track coach, and more importantly, was the well-regarded head of the school’s sports psychology department. Mense initially balked at the prospect of meeting with McGuire, but after spending several hours in conversation with him, he felt a great burden had been eased as a result:
I don’t necessarily remember exactly what we talked about or things that we did, or anything like that, but I just remember walking out of his office that day and feeling like I had at a weight lifted off my shoulders.
In his next game, a more relaxed and focussed Mense had four hits, and turned his season around. And through his exposure to McGuire, a post playing career had been laid out in front of him. When Mense was released in his fourth season by the Marlins, he eventually returned to Missouri, and began to study for his Masters in Sports Psychology. If there was a benefit, when all was said and done, to his draft stock dropping, it was that in his first year in the Marlins organization in the New York-Penn League in 2006, one of his teammates was a utility infielder by the name of Guillermo Martinez, who became a life-long friend.
After his release from the Marlins, Mense went home and played Indy ball in Kansas City for a couple of seasons, but he could see the writing on the wall, and began to prepare himself for his next career. He decided he wanted to return to Missouri to finish his undergraduate degree, and he reached out to baseball coach Tim Jamieson, who took Mense on as an undergrad assistant coach, working with the team’s hitters. Over the course of four years, as he moved into post-grad work, Mense served a variety of roles for the team: undergrad and graduate volunteer assistant coach, and colour commentator on the team’s radio broadcasts. When an opening on Jamieson’s staff became available following the 2015 season, Mense was a natural fit, and was offered the job. Unfortunately, Jamieson had not taken the Tigers to an NCAA regional since 2012, and after he failed to do so again in 2016, he tendered his resignation. A new head coach came in, and Mense was encouraged to explore coaching opportunities elsewhere, and after a summer off, he connected with the Padres, and was named the hitting coach at Tri-City, their Northwest League affiliate. When the Blue Jays came calling following his first summer with the Padres last year, the organization was understandably unwilling to let him go at first. The connection with his former teammate Martinez was integral in Mense’s getting the opportunity with Toronto:
… any time you play with somebody, or you know somebody that continues to stay in baseball like he has, you just automatically stay in touch with those people and you know you always have something to talk about – especially when it’s a hitting guy. So we always stayed in contact throughout the years.
With top prospects Guerrero and Bichette supported by the likes of Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr, New Hampshire Manager John Schneider jokingly referred to travelling with the Fisher Cats to being with a boy band. Everywhere the team went, they were the centre of a great deal of media attention. Underneath it all, however, everyone involved was pretty much having a blast, including newcomer Mense.
It was so much fun being around that group as a whole and then being around that group as an offence. It was it was so much fun just because I was a new one to the group. They were all a bunch of guys that had known each other, and had played with each other and that had played with Schneids last year. So I was the one that had the privilege of getting to know all of them especially through the first half. So they welcomed me with open arms and listened, and tried new things, and tried new drills, and tried new ideas and listened to new ideas from somebody that hadn’t been in the organization. So I felt really good about that just in a sense that they took me in and treated me like one of their own. I think it was like that with everybody that came up – if there was a guy that came up for a day a week a month two months whatever it was or came down it was the same sort of deal so I think when you have that and you put all those pieces together and you have some veteran pieces and better parts that are consistent, and know what they want out of a unit, then I think you’re going to have a lot of success.
With a stellar offence to work with – the Fisher Cats led all of minor league baseball in OPS by 15 points – Mense was careful not to come in and make wholesale changes right away. Players like Bichette and Guerrero know their swings so well that there’s little a hitting coach can do in terms of their mechanics.
If you’re a professional baseball and especially at the AA level you’ve got a bunch of guys who – one, they’re older, and they’re more established – they’ve had success. They wouldn’t be at that level if they didn’t have success, too…… They’re going to be their best teacher, and at that point you think about all the hitting coaches and all the hitting people they’ve had around them up to that point in their lives. And if you’re a hitting guy and you come in and you start trying to tell them they need to do this you need to do this and this isn’t going to work….. You’re going to lose them really fast.
For the first half of the season, Mense was careful to respect those boundaries with his hitters. He focussed on being available as a resource if he was needed, and spent time with his players in the batting cage and in the dugout, where the conversations were often more about life itself than about hitting. The rapport that he built with them helped to lend his ideas and presence added credibility as the season progressed:
You start to build up this massive amount of trust, and through that then they start asking questions, and they start wondering different things that they have never thought about. As long as you come with an open and creative mind as a hitting coach, I think you’re going to get a lot more buy-in than a guy who’s just going to come in and just try and tell these guys what they should and shouldn’t be doing because these guys have all got to this point because they’ve had success.
With this approach, Mense feels the best job he did as a coach all year was his work with Guerrero:
(I just took) a step back and just let him do his thing,because I think I truly believe that there are a lot of a lot of coaches…… they just want to get in there and just don’t feel like they’re coaching unless they’re actually doing something mechanical with the player and to me by far the biggest wrong that you can make as a coach is doing that, because if something’s working and it’s really working for them, and you try changing it, you’re not going to get any buy-in from anything that you’re going to do with them.
When asked to summarize his philosophy of hitting, Mense puts it down to a basic tenet: “get a pitch early in the count that you can hit over an outfielder’s head.” While that seems like a simple statement, it incorporates a number of elements, including being aggressive early in the count, before a pitcher with effective secondary pitches can gain an advantage. But if you want to hit a ball over an outfielder’s head, Mense feels hitters need to be selective in their aggressiveness:
You’ve got to get the right pitch to do it with. So it’s zoning in on an area that you want to hit in and being steadfast on just dominating that area.
And when a hitter gets his pitch, he needs to get his best swing off:
You can’t hold anything back and you have to really get your A swing off, and then the last part of that is getting it over somebody’s head is not just getting your best swing off and your best swing is a line drive up the middle. Your best swing should be able to get some air underneath the ball that’s going to make an outfielder turn and run and run back……
In today’s rapidly changing game, hitters need to put loft on the ball, because:
…..if you aren’t hitting balls out of the yard or you aren’t driving balls in gaps and you’re just a singles guy, you’re going to get left behind.
New Hampshire had a board in their locker room that listed all hitters who had hit balls over 100 mph, which really helped them buy into the best-swing/in-the-air mentality. Perhaps the hitter who bought in the most and benefitted from it significantly as a result was Harold Ramirez. Back in AA for a third season, Ramirez hit the ball as hard as any Fisher Cat, but in 2017 the result was primarily into the ground, leading to a disappointing season for Ramirez. Some adjustments to his swing this year led to a batting title:
….we worked the whole year on putting his body into a different position to where he’s still hitting balls hard, but they’re just coming off the bat at an angle where it’s going up instead of going down, and then instead of hitting .267, he’s hitting .320 and leading the league in hitting, and he’s got 40+ doubles.
When he does get to Toronto, likely by mid-April, Vladdy Jr will be subjected to a Mount Logan-sized amount of pressure, carrying the expectations of a country – most of which has only heard or read about him, or maybe has seen him on grainy internet video. Mense thinks he’ll be more than up to the challenge:
The really cool thing about Vladdy is whenever the situation is challenging , whenever the situation is hard, whenever we’re facing a guy that was really good, he would always like just rise up to a different level….I’ve never been around a guy who has wanted to be challenged and steps up and rises to a challenge more than him.
Mense tells a story that demonstrates Guerrero’s ability to tackle challenges. The Fisher Cats took a pitching machine on the road with them, which Mense operated. During Guerrero’s last series with New Hampshire before his planned promotion, Mense set the machine to throw fastballs. A few hitters took him up on it, but Vlad was content to watch curiously from the sidelines. The hitters would take turns moving closer to the machine, trying to square up balls, until they were about 15 feet away, at which point they could no longer get around on the pitches:
… there isn’t any one of the three guys who could really do it – they’re struggling, anything they hit was going straight into the ground and they were late on it. And I catch Vladdy out of the corner of my eye – he’s over in the other cage. He’s watching what’s going on and he’s seeing that this is really challenging. I can see the wheels spinning in his head and saying to himself, “OK, this is challenging.”
At that point, Guerrero decided to take a turn:
He goes up there – boom! – Takes a step up -boom! – Takes a step up -boom! – Takes a step up barreling up things and gets to about 15 feet where (the other hitters) were. Takes a couple swings doesn’t barrel it up, kind of goes straight to the ground, and he takes a step out. Two more to the back of the net. Take a step out leaves the cage. Kinda like this look on his face like yeah OK what’s next. That was it. It was like he was so intrigued and so interested in what these guys were doing because it was a challenge. He saw that it was hard for what they were doing. And that’s and that’s how he is he will take on challenges that nobody else will take on.
Like all great players, Mense says Vladdy Jr makes everyone else around him a better player:
He’s one of those kids he makes everybody around him better when he comes in these are all such clichés that you hear about all the time, but it’s so true with him. When he comes into the clubhouse, he brings an energy to him, and when he comes in the dugout he’s got an energy to him. He’s got this aura around him, and he just makes everybody else better.
Of all the players he worked with in New Hampshire, Mense is the proudest of what he and Bichette accomplished. But it wasn’t easy. After leading all of MiLB with a .384 average in his first year of full season ball in 2017, Bichette had his struggles against the advanced competition in AA. Bichette’s troubles stemmed largely from being over-aggressive and expanding his strike zone, and word quickly got around the Eastern League, with Bichette seeing fewer and fewer pitches in the strike zone, and his average bottoming out at .237 in late May. For some hitters, that might necessitate major tinkering with their swing mechanics, but Mense was prepared to stay the course with Bichette, and pointed out to him at mid-season the source of his troubles:
We were in Portland – this was right before he went to the Futures Game, and we sat down and I showed him some numbers and it was all just numbers based on his chase percentage and the percentage of pitches he was swinging that were outside of Zone, and how compared to guys in the big leagues when they were at the AA level. It was really good for him to see that, because he saw even guys chasing a lot in the big leagues when they were in AA, they weren’t chasing that much.
To reinforce this mindset, Manager Schneider would deliberately throw pitches out of the strike zone to Bichette during batting practice, forcing him to corral his aggressiveness and improve his selectivity skills. Once Bichette decided to focus on pitches he could barrel, his average climbed:
And that was the thing – he kind of came to the conclusion of instead of trying to cover the entire strike zone, he just had to shrink what he was trying to swing at, and get it earlier in the count. He just had to shrink that down a little bit and once he did it – once he realized that’s what he needed to do, man it was……… I mean he took off, because the path that he has as a hitter that he takes to the baseball is an elite path.
Bichette takes great pride in his hitting, and when he wasn’t putting the barrel on the pitches he was chasing, he knew he had to make a change in his approach:
His (struggles) had nothing to do with (lack of pitch recognition). He has bat speed, and an ability to not have to guess, and not have to start his swing early, which gives him an opportunity to be better and cover more pitches in the zone if he wants. It was just a change in mindset and in the end, he takes such pride in being aggressive….. But he also takes pride in getting a lot of hits too. And I think he realized that he had to adjust. Once he started to get exposed a little bit by pitchers – they felt like they didn’t even have to throw strikes to get him out. Once he realized that he wasn’t getting the hits, he was like, “Okay I gotta make a change because I like getting hits”
In the end, the struggles Bichette faced for the first time in his pro career will likely serve him very well in the future. Mense thinks in many ways his 2018 season was better than 2017, because of the lessons he learned:
… in 2018 I can tell you and I can assure you was a way better year for him because he had to work through some things that are going to be going to be more sustainable for him for the rest of his career.
Cavan Biggio’s 2017 numbers didn’t stand out, but there were some inklings that big things were likely to come as a result of changes he had made in his mechanics following his rookie 2016 campaign. In an attempt to swing harder and put more loft on the ball, Biggio’s flyball percentage jumped in 2017, as did his K% rate. In the large Florida State League ballparks in the humid southern summer air, however, only 11 of those flyballs left the park. This season, Biggio continued that approach, and made another mechanical adjustment. Mense says Biggio’s experience coupled with that change allowed him to become one of the most dangerous hitters in the Eastern League, leading the loop in Home Runs, Walks, Slugging, and OPS:
(He’s a) guy that’s a year or more advanced in his career, and advanced with what it is that he knows he can do damage with. And you couple that with he lowered his hands in the offseason, and felt like he was getting into a better spot where he could consistently get balls in the air. You put all those things together, I think it is a recipe for doing that and hitting a bunch of home runs. I mean you look at his average exit velo from this year to last year and it went up a couple of miles per hour. So he was consistently hitting balls harder in the air. And I do think that probably has a little bit to do with him lowering his hands, and more so than anything I think it was it was just a conscious effort from him to try to do more damage and not just be a Singles hitter.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr was not with the Fisher Cats for long before his promotion to Buffalo, but he left a lasting impact on his teammates, and was a completely different player from 2017, which could be attributed to injuries, and as Mense points out, some rust:
I think in talking to everybody and hearing him talk about it, it was just swinging at better pitches. And I think that probably had a little bit to do with the lay off that he had and not playing really competitively (for almost two years)……… So he was very meticulous with how he worked, and he was probably the best worker in the cage with what he wanted to do, and how he went about doing it, and how dead set he was on getting these things in. And that was really cool to see. I mean it was really cool for our guys to see, especially a guy like Vladdy watching him do these things every day, and then seeing the success he was having, then going up to the big leagues. He was putting in the work, and he was working his rear end off every single day that he came into the game, and he had an idea and a plan as to what he wanted to do.
Not every hitter Mense worked with was a success story from start to finish. Max Pentecost caught a career-high 77 games, but the 2014 1st rounder struggled at the plate for the first four months of the season before making some changes and catching fire in August:
So he made a change, and I think there are a couple of parts to it. He got to a point when we were entering August, he was hitting about .195, and it got to a point where it was like, hey dude, we have to change something, because we can continue on this path, or we can change and hopefully something goes better. But if at the very worst you continue do what you’re doing. I mean what are going we to lose? So he was at a point where he was ready to make some changes, so we kind of let him mess around with it and kind of come up with his own ideas to what he wanted to do slowly, starting start having started incorporating like a little gather a little toe tap gather.
The difference in Pentecost’s hitting as a result of making those adjustments were swift and dramatic. He started driving balls with regularity, and hit .375 for the month of August, leading the Eastern League in Slugging and OPS, garnering Player of the Month honours. A small warning light that was flashing on Pentecost’s dashboard, however, was his .381 OBP. As a result of being aggressive and attacking early in counts, he wasn’t drawing walks (all of 1 for the month). In the playoffs, when he was probably feeling a bit tired at the end of a long season, Pentecost appeared to be just going up to the plate and hacking at the first pitch near the strike zone that he saw:
Towards the end of the year he kind of started getting worn down a little bit. I think that gather that he started having was a little bit quicker and so he wasn’t seeing pictures out of the guy’s hand as well as he was in that month of August. And so then he’s trying to make up for it by swinging and trying to get his best swing off and he was just trying to swing at everything and trying to do his damage with everything instead of just going back to slowing it down and just getting something in the zone.
Mense thinks that it’s still reasonable to be optimistic about Pentecost’s future due to his makeup and athleticism:
I like when he started doing that little gather – the old toe tap – it literally took him one day and then the next day he implemented it and it was like Home Run here, and Double here, and it was like it changed that fast. So he has the ability to make adjustments and change really fast. He did it from the Catching side of it too……. He’s he’s such a good athlete and has such good feel that he was able to make those changes.
Mense’s season started in Florida in Spring Training. After five-plus months with New Hampshire, it was back to Florida for Instructs, and then off to the Dominican to work with hitters at the team’s complex there. Among the hitters at this last two stops who impressed him were:
-2018 1st round pick Jordan Groshans:
I watched a couple of inter squad games, watched him hit a double off the wall in right field, it’s just like he’s got some Bo-ish type of athleticism to him in the box. He’s a free and easy mover in the box and he’s always had success. And so it’s one of those things to work just let the guy go, and let him have that big leg kick, let him have this big hand pump. And if it continues to work don’t change it and just keep letting him do his thing and refine some things.
-2018 10th rounder Cal Stevenson, who led the Appalachian League in Runs, Walks, and OBP, and always seem to make things happen on the basepaths for Bluefield:
I really liked watching him here. I really liked being around Cal Stevenson. The kid that was in Bluefield, just talking to him and his approach to his ABs. I mean they were so advanced with what he was trying to do. I mean gosh you look at his numbers with the amount of walks compared to strikeouts, and just the year that he had was unbelievable.
OF Steward Berroa’s name may only be known to the most hardcore of Blue Jays prospect watchers, but he had a decent year in his first stateside season with the GCL Jas in 2018.
He’s the kind of kid that just epitomizes everything that the organization wants that a player just plays really hard, does everything that you ask, and he’s going to do it 110 percent and run. And he’s starting to learn how to hit a little bit. He’s got a little bit of juice, and he’s a plus Centrefielder, and when you throw all those things together and I think he’s a kid that. I think he’s going to win. I thought this when I first saw him when I was down here last year, but he’s just like an explosive kid. When you have that quick twitch if you can figure out how to use that quick twitch in the right way you have a chance to be pretty good.
Mense’s profile was raised this summer along that of his hitters, and it’s understandable that people ask him what his future goals are. Although having listened to him for almost an hour, it’s obvious that he’s a player development guy through and through. He enjoys the process, and doesn’t necessarily have a burning ambition to be an MLB hitting coach as soon as possible:
I just know that what I see myself doing in five years or whatever it may be,I just know that I really enjoy helping. I really enjoy working with players, and I really enjoy being with players and around players and watching them develop and watching them grow. I just know that I’ll be doing that in some sort of capacity or if I feel like I can do it at a big league level great, if I do like I’m doing at AAA or AA or whatever. If they create a role for me that’s different….. I get the most satisfaction out of that and I feel like watching guys develop and helping guys make it accomplish and their life long goal.
After his time in the Dominican, Mense was off to Madison, NJ. His fiance is a dietitian with the NFL’s New York Jets, and a guy used to the cold (but not the snow) of a Missouri off-season is now in search of a winter sport to keep him occupied until spring training. Wherever he lands in the Blue Jays organization next year, their minor league prospects will have a patient and insightful mentor to guide them.
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.
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.
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:
-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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”