Saturday, February 18, 2017

Top Blue Jays Prospect Storylines

Sportsnet.ca photo

    After a mild January, the snow squall machine cranked up here in Southern Ontario's snowbelt this past week,  the Atlantic provinces are closing in on 100 cm of snow in less than 7 days, and normally balmy Vancouver has seen record-breaking snowfall amounts this winter.  Just the same, Canada's celebrity groundhogs have predicted an early spring, and with Pitchers and Catchers reporting to spring training this week, the end of the tunnel that is a northern winter is firmly in sight.
   Minor league spring training begins a few weeks after the major league version, and even though the participants perform far from the spotlight that the big leaguers are under, the competition is no less intense. With the Blue Jays under Mark Shapiro renewing their commitment to drafting, teaching, and developing players in their minor league system to help replenish the major league team, there should be a number of interesting stories to follow at the minor league complex in March.


Will Vladdy Jr continue to rake in full-season ball?
   The top international free agent signing of 2015 did not disappoint in his debut season last year.
Skipping the complex leagues, Vladimir Guerrero Jr put together a solid season against older competition in the Appalachian League, showcasing outstanding strike zone judgement, developing power, and surprising defence.   He more than caught the attention of Baseball America:
Guerrero does just about everything evaluators want to see in a teenage hitter. He has tremendous hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball skills, to the point he seems to have been born to hit. His special hands allow him to manipulate the barrel and square up pitches of all types. He has excellent strike-zone judgement for a 17-year-old, walking nearly as often as he struck out and showing an ability to lay off breaking balls that will be further tested at higher levels. He has tremendous raw power and showed the ability to drive the ball to all fields at an advanced rate for his age. Guerrero covers the plate well and should be an above-average hitter with 30-plus homer potential down the line
    Guerrero has little left to prove in short season ball, and it is entirely likely that he gets to experience a Midwestern spring with Lansing this April.  And it's there that we will get a better idea of how legit his bat is, and if his future is indeed at 3rd Base.  Guerrero has said that he wants to be in the big leagues sooner rather than later (BA thinks 2019), and while the Blue Jays under Shapiro and Director of Player Development Gil Kim have shown a preference for slow and steady progressions of prospects, there may be a temptation to accelerate his timetable somewhere along the line.  Still, this will likely be a season of adjustments for Vladdy Jr (playing every day, in a relatively new culture, in a cold spring climate), so it's reasonable to see him stay for the season in the Midwest League.
    BA named Guerrero their 20th overall prospect - heady stuff for a player who would be in his senior year of high school if he had been raised stateside.  Interestingly, Baseball Prospectus left him off their Top 101 list this past week, the rationalization being:
 We really like the bat, but he's a 17 year old that looks like he is going to end up at first base. That's a tough profile and I need to see a full-season ball resume before I jump on board. I fully expect him to be on next year's list, and he was on various iterations of this year's.

Will Sean Reid-Foley be able to continue to dominate hitters at AA
    After reaching the second step of full season ball at Dunedin in his first crack, Reid-Foley returned to Lansing last year to start 2016.  Equipped with a new, streamlined delivery, Reid-Foley was on a mission to harness command of his fastball.  And command it he did, fanning 59 in 58 innings, earning a return trip to Dunedin, where he continued to cut down on his walks, allowing only 16 free passes (vs 71 Ks) in 57 innings.
   Reid-Foley was shut down in August for a second consecutive season for precautionary measures, meaning that his durability becomes something of a question, along with whether or not he can continue to command the strike zone at AA, where he should begin the season, or find himself by June.
   The jump from A to AA ball is the biggest in the minors.  Players can no longer get by on the strength of their physical gifts alone; hitters must be able to demonstrate more patience, and pitchers must have command and secondary pitches working for them.  And that's where the challenge will come for Reid-Foley.  There is little question about his fastball or wipeout slider.  It will be his ability to throw that fastball to both sides of the plate, and to complement it with his change up (which he worked on in Instructional League play last fall) that will ultimately determine if he meets his projection of #2 starter.  This is the season when we will finally decide how close he will come to fulfilling that.
How will Max Pentecost's shoulder respond to Catching every day?
   When Pentecost stepped into the batter's box for Lansing last May, it was his first game action in 21 months.  While his bat showed no signs of rust from the layoff, he did not go behind the plate in 2016, as the organization opted to protect his thrice-surgically repaired shoulder.
   The plan will be to have Pentecost return to Catching duties this spring, and make up for the reps he's missed since being drafted in the 1st round in 2014.
   The question is, of course, will his shoulder stand up to the rigours of Catching?  More importantly, given concerns about his receiving skills, will the results of this season ultimately force the Blue Jays to move him to another position?
   Pentecost will likely start in Dunedin, where the team's medical staff can monitor him.  All the reports suggest that he is a premium athlete, and while he probably will be an offense-first Catcher,  Pentecost should develop into at least an adequate backstop.
 

Will Anthony Alford make consistent contact to take advantage of his speed?
   Injuries led to what can be termed a sideways 2016 for Alford.  A 37% K rate in the first half could probably be attributed to layoffs from a pair of stints on the Disabled List, as he managed a more reasonable 25% in the second.
   Like Reid-Foley, Alford is destined for New Hampshire this season, where some holes in his swing could be potentially be exploited.  Alford will not be able to sit back and hammer mistakes at AA like he did in A ball.  At the same time, he has made so many adjustments in such a relatively short period of time, it would be hard to bet against Alford continuing his upward progression.
   He more than held his own in the Arizona Fall League, although there are still concerns about the relative lack of loft in his swing.  The 7 Home Runs he hit in the second half in the pitcher-friendly FSL may be evidence that his power is starting to develop. Alford uses the whole field, and even though there will always be a swing-and-miss element to his game, he makes the pitcher work in the majority of his at bats, and can draw walks, which brings his game-changing speed into play.  We will get a much truer read on his abilities this season.

Will Rowdy Tellez break camp with the Blue Jays?
   If there is any doubt that Tellez profiles as a middle-of-the-order bat, he erased that with his performance at New Hampshire.  Despite seeing few strikes in the month of April, he managed to finish 5th in the Eastern League in Home Runs, 2nd in OBP, as well as 3rd in both Slugging and OPS.
   Unlike many bat-first players, Tellez has proven to be willing to change his approach with two strikes, cutting down on his swing in an attempt to put the ball in play.
   Over at Jay Journal, Lucas Silva posits that Tellez may potentially have a problem catching up to MLB fastballs because of his habit of "casting" (ie., moving his hands away from his body as he starts loading his swing, which tends to result in a slower bat because of the longer path it has to travel).
   Now, I am not a scout, and while I enjoy reading about scouts and their work a great deal, I don't profess to know as much as others do about swing mechanics.  While his article is well written, Silva's video evidence is not compelling, and as someone who watched about 100 Tellez ABs when he was with New Hampshire last year, I have always noticed how he moves his hands slightly back as he loads (as a good hitter does), but I don't really see any real evidence of him casting.
   Silva offers as part of his argument a bit of an offhanded Keith Law remark on Tellez:  "Bad athlete.  Can't hit good fastballs."  I love Law's work as much as anyone, and I can't wait for the April release of his book, but he is known for developing a bias (hello, Devon Travis) about a player and sticking with it.  Silva also uses Josh Norris of Baseball America's rationale for leaving Tellez off BA's Top 20 Eastern League prospects list:
   “Some evaluators noted he doesn’t have the bat speed to portend the big power necessary to profile as a major league first baseman. Almost all of his power, too, is to the pull-side. He’s not a particularly deft defender, and was aided by New Hampshire’s short porch in right field.”
 
   For what it's worth, the dimensions at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium are very similar to the Rogers Centre, with foul line distances about three feet shorter than Toronto's.

 Tellez has worked hard to overcome the bad-body/DH profile he was tagged with as a high schooler, and while he has come a long way, he will never be confused with Wes Parker at 1st.  Veteran scout Bernie Pleskoff scouted Tellez in the Arizona Fall League in 2015, and while he gave a nod to the bat speed, he was impressed with the overall hit tool:

 An imposing presence at the plate, Tellez is one of several very capable left-handed-hitting first basemen playing in the 2015 Arizona Fall League.
Thus far in Arizona, I've seen a less aggressive swing than I anticipated. Tellez's pull side power could be game changing. However, he has patience at the plate and can accept a walk.
There is little question Tellez's raw power is his best and most refined tool. His hitting mechanics are still a work in progress. Tellez's hands seem slow through the ball. The slow bat speed results in some late reactions and swings and misses. Tellez makes good use of his lower half in his swing, getting those huge legs and hips to generate a true power stroke.
I view Tellez as a hitter and not just a slugger. He has compiled a .285 batting average in parts of three Minor League seasons. Tellez's power is real. His role may depend upon how much he develops as a defender. Regardless, at the minimum, Tellez can certainly look to a future as a fence-busting designated hitter.

      I'm not suggesting that Silva is wrong in his analysis, but his video evidence is inconclusive.  It does seem hard to believe, on the surface, that a prospect of his stature would be allowed to continue hitting with faulty mechanics, especially for a problem that is relatively easily corrected.  And despite these issues, Tellez still posted strong numbers as a 21 year old in his first go-round at AA.  Hitting mechanics, while fundamental to a player's success, are only one part of the overall package known as approach.  Former Baseball Prospectus writer Jason Parks, who was recently promoted to the Cubs' front office, in his essay "How Are Players Scouted, Acquired, and Developed," wrote:
The ability to recognize pitches, make adjustments to those pitches, and execute when presented with these conditions are what take the physical tool from its raw state to its ultimate ceiling.
  That, in a nutshell (to me, at least), is Tellez.  As someone who has watched a lot of him over the past two years, I have been impressed with how he has continued to mature as a hitter.  The concerns about his size, lack of speed, and defensive shortcomings seem to have overshadowed his bat for some.  Granted, players of his type are working with a smaller margin of error than most, but he has proven that he is more than a one-dimensional slugger.  He has worked hard on his conditioning and nutrition (he admitted that he really only learned how to cook properly for himself last year) - Tellez weighs 30 lbs less than he did as a high school senior.  Working hard with Blue Jays infield instructor Mike Mordecai on his positioning and footwork last year, becoming at least an adequate defender seems to be a possibility.  Old notions seem to die hard, however.
   Will he break camp with the Blue Jays this spring?  It seems unlikely - there is no rush to put him on the 40-man roster until after the season, and the consensus is that he could use another year of seasoning in Buffalo.  However, given Kendrys Morales' age and potential defensive limitations, and the decline of production from Justin Smoak, Tellez could make a contribution before next season.  One thing is for certain - he should see some regular action against MLB pitching this spring, which should help to begin to settle the question about whether or not he projects as a major league hitter.



Where will Lourdes Gurriel start the season?
   Last week, Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim said that Gurriel, who can play several positions, is most comfortable at Short Stop, but could play Left Field as well.  He has not faced live pitching since 2015, of course, so his ultimate landing spot come April will be dependent on how well and how quickly he can scrape the rust off this spring.
   If he does in fact play short, there is the issue of where Richard Urena would start the season. It's hard to see Gurriel in Buffalo, but Urena seems ticketed for a return to New Hampshire for at least half a season. The club will likely let Gurriel dictate his timeline this season.  It will be interesting to see where he's headed when camp breaks.



Will Reese McGuire develop some pop to go along with his elite defensive skills?
   There is no doubt that McGuire will develop into an elite receiver.  His handling of pitchers, blocking and framing skills, and incredible pop time and accurate arm are already superb.  One scout said last summer that McGuire was far and away the best defensive Catcher he had seen in the minors that year.
   The question will be about his bat.  He has shown an ability to put the ball in play, and the potential for power is there, but it has yet to manifest itself (McGuire has hit 4 Home Runs in almost 1400 PAs).
   One source suggested that the Blue Jays were looking at McGuire as a candidate to back up Russell Martin this season, but the signing of Jarrod Saltalamacchia has all but put an end to that.
   The best plan for McGuire will be to continue to develop, likely in Buffalo.  There have been suggestions that his lack of power stems from a relatively flat swing plane.  Kim said that when they acquire a player, the Blue Jays are in no rush to make drastic changes to his game.  With Instructs behind and a full spring ahead of him, maybe the club's hitting instructors will have time to help him develop more loft, which could result in more hard contact.



   There will be other interesting storylines that develop at the minor league complex, but these seem to be the most likely.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Gil Kim and the State of the Blue Jays Farm System


National Post photo

  When you talk to Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim, one thing becomes readily apparent: the possessor of a strong work ethic himself, that quality is one of the first that he mentions when discussing the merits of staff and top prospects in the Toronto minor league system.  The other word you hear repeated is passion:  a trait Kim has in abundance himself.
  Kim recently discussed the state of the Blue Jays system in a wide-ranging discussion.  Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro has been given the means to build a state-of-the-art baseball organization, one that combines the best of the worlds of traditional scouting, analytics, top-notch minor league instruction, and sport medicine.  The goal is to build an organization that hopes to not only be competitive in the short-term, but in the long run as well.  And the 35-year old Kim, whose story is as good as anyone's in pro ball, will be a huge part of that in his role as overseer of minor league players and coaches.


The Overall State of the System
   Kim agrees that the system took quite a hit as a result of Alex Anthopolous' trading spree from November, 2014, to July, 2015, when he dealt 18 minor leaguers in upgrading the major league roster.  But he counters that not only did the system rebound last summer as a result of a strong draft and the huge steps forward taken by several prospects already in the system, but opportunities for players like Andy Burns, Chad Girodo, Matt Dermody, and Danny Barnes  to step up were created as well.  Much of the projectable talent may be in the lower levels of system, but Kim feels that there are a number of players who will start in Buffalo that could make a contribution to the 25-man roster if the need arises.

On Coaching Changes
    Cesar Martin is the first name that was discussed when it comes to the spate of personnel changes that were made in the minor league system.  A long-time coach in the system. Martin drew accolades with his work with the Gulf Coast League Jays the last two summers.  Kim praises Martin as, "a great communicator, and someone who is easy to talk to."  Kim says that Martin is able to build a rapport with both Latin and North American players, and can motivate his charges:
Cesar has such a good way about him, always positive and makes coaches and players feel comfortable...very knowledgeable, great person to be leading our young men.  
  Martin is a hard worker, and Kim admits he has learned a great deal from him.  It has been suggested that Martin's promotion to Lansing has much to do with the likely presence of top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr, but Kim says that it was entirely on merit.  Martin is viewed as an up-and-coming managerial talent by the team.
     For the past two seasons, former Blue Jays backstop Sal Fasano served as the club's minor league pitching coordinator.  After serving as the system's roving Catching instructor previously, he unofficially continued to mentor the organization's receivers in addition to his pitching duties.  While Fasano was highly regarded, and many players in the system expressed their disappointment when he was let go last August, Kim and the Blue Jays had wanted to split the position back into two.  That was accomplished with the promotion of Jeff Ware, formerly Lansing's pitching coach, to the pitching co-ordinator's job.  Another former Blue Jays C, Ken Huckaby, who managed Dunedin to a playoff appearance last year, takes over the Catching Instructor role.
    Kim also had words of praise for both coaches.  Of Ware, Kim called him a strong communicator who gets the most out of his pitchers, a humble man despite his background (former first round draft choice). Huckaby has a passion for Catching:  "he loves talking about it, and he loves teaching it."
    Former Blue Jays World Series hero Devon White has carved out a post-playing career as a baseball instructor and a Jays goodwill ambassador.  He now can add hitting coach for AAA Buffalo to his resume. White came to Instructs last fall, and Kim was impressed with his enthusiasm.  When it came time for outfielders to perform some drills, the fit White went onto the field and did them with the prospects.  Given how much he enjoyed himself, Kim says it was a "no-brainer" to have him coach at the higher levels of the system, where he can have a significant impact on players who are on the cusp of the major leagues.
   Kim was also asked about Rich Miller, who is returning at the age of 66 to manage at short-season Vancouver.  Miller managed the C's to the Northwest League title in his first year at the helm in 2011 (their first year of affiliation with Toronto), and has been a senior advisor in the organization for the past couple of seasons.  Kim describes him as, "an old-fashioned coach, who demands accountability from his players, and is passionate about teaching the fundamentals."   The Vancouver fans are among the most devoted in all of minor league baseball, and deserve a competitive team on the field, even if development is the priority. Returning Miller to the dugout is a step in that direction.

On Reese McGuire
   McGuire, acquired from the Pirates in the Liriano-Hutchison deal last summer, has been rumoured by some to be in the running for the job of backing up Russ Martin.  With the signing of veteran backstop Jarrod Saltalamacchia, it would seem that McGuire will still be destined for more minor league seasoning. With the DFA'ing of  A.J. Jimenez, it would seem that the way has been cleared for McGuire to get that experience at AAA Buffalo.
   A scouting report from last spring lauded McGuire's defensive skills, but questioned his bat, partially because of his mechanics.  Video from his time in New Hampshire after the trade last season showed that he had stopped dropping his hands prior to swinging, resulting in some harder contact. Asked if the team had worked on correcting McGuire's swing, he responded by saying that, "as a general rule, we don't like to make mechanical changes after we acquire a player.  We like to establish a relationship, and in many ways, we're still getting to know Reese."  Kim does like his short, compact stroke, as well as his elite receiving skills.  "As a young player, he's had a heavy workload already," Kim continued, "and he's an intelligent Catcher, retains information very well, and demonstrates leadership on and off the field."

On Lourdes Gurriel
   Landing the Cuban on a team-friendly contract was something of a coup.  There has been speculation that Gurriel would start the season playing SS for Buffalo, but considering he's had almost a two-year layoff, that would seem to be optimistic.  Similar to McGuire, Kim says the club is still getting to know Gurriel, but he has been impressed with the Cuban's work ethic, professionalism, and high baseball IQ after watching him work out in Dunedin.
    Kim does acknowledge that Gurriel is probably the most comfortable at Short Stop, but says that he feels at home in Left Field as well.  Understandably, while he's certainly expecting much from Gurriel in the future, Kim is not in a rush to name an April assignment for him.  Much of that will be up to Gurriel himself.

Pace-of-Play Rule Changes
   Pitch clocks were instituted in AA and AAA parks two years ago, and word came this week that there is a proposal from MLB to experiment with a new rule in the complex leagues this year whereby teams start extra innings frames with a runner on 2nd base.
   Kim was reluctant to express a negative opinion about the rule, saying that MLB is constantly looking at ways to improve its product.  It's hard to see this rule ever making it to the majors, but it should help save minor league arms from extended extra-inning games at the complex level.

On Integration with the High Performance Division
   It did not receive a great deal of fanfare last year, but the Blue Jays creating a department that was charged with the conditioning, training, and nutrition of its players puts it on the cutting edge of player development in the sport (even if baseball is still lagging behind many other sports in this area).
 Kim is proud of the integration between the minor league and high performance departments, saying that they work hand-in-hand in many ways, from setting individual strength/flexibility/nutrition goals for each player, to working together in developing schedules and moves for each player.
   There are few high performance divisions across MLB, and none rival the Blue Jays' in terms of staff.   Kim stresses that it's just not players the team is developing - it's personnel as well.  And staff are encouraged, if the need arises, to step beyond their roles to help develop "the whole player."  It's a holistic approach that's reflected in the high performance division's philosophy.
 

His In-Season Routine
   Kim took questions while in transit to his home in New York, and a listener on the other end of the phone conversation had to compete with the sounds of police sirens in the background to focus on what Kim was saying.  During the season, his job involves a great deal of travelling - he's on the road three weeks a month, checking in on the minor league affiliates, overseeing players and staff.  He does spend a fair amount of time in Dunedin, where the high performance division is headquartered.  It's fitting that Kim is on the move during a phone interview, because his job requires a lot of that.

On Tim Raines
   It's not everyday that you have a Hall of Famer on your staff, but that's the case with the man everyone in the organization refers to as Rock.  Kim states that Raines has an infectious laugh and sense of humour, and "a special ability to make people feel confident."  His knowledge base, especially when it comes to base stealing, is expansive.  Kim isn't old enough to have remember seeing Raines at his peak, but it's obvious he's a huge fan.

   The Blue Jays were ranked as the 24th-best minor league organization by Baseball America last year, and were more recently graded by Keith Law as the 21st.  Five prospects have cracked BA's Top 100 (Vladimir Guerrero Jr/20th, Anthony Alford 59th, Gurriel 73rd, Sean Reid-Foley 75th, Rowdy Tellez/95th), and it's possible a few more (Max Pentecost, T.J. Zeuch) may join them next year.  Kim would not commit to a team to watch among the Blue Jays affiliates this year, but it's hard not to think of Lansing being that squad.  In a system on the rise, much of the remaining projectable talent in the organization will likely start the year there.

   Mark Shapiro took quite a beating from some fans over the past year, mainly perhaps because he wasn't Alex Anthopoulos.  Unlike during his tenure in Cleveland, when budget constraints always seem to be hampering his efforts, Shapiro has quietly been building a first class operation in all aspects of the game.  He inherited a considerable amount of baseball acumen in the likes of Tony LaCava, Andrew Tinnish, Dana Brown, and Perry Minasian, he's greatly buffeted the operations department by hiring Mike Murov, the minor league staff (Kim and Ben Cherington), and the scouting side (Steve Sanders), as well as creating the high performance division (Angus Mugford).  One would be hard-pressed to find a management group with as impressive a collective baseball resume as this one.   The rest of the baseball world has taken note that Shapiro is creating a structure that will keep the club competitive on an annual basis.  And Kim is thrilled to be a part of that.


 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Blue Jays Prospects Likely to Make a Spring Training Impact


   Teams invite their top prospects to Major League training for a whole host of reasons.  The main purpose is to expose the youngsters to MLB life, and to give them a sense of not only how close they are to making it, but what it takes from a physical and mental point of view to get there - and stay there.
    Prospects tend to be brought along slowly in spring training, with their playing time in the first few weeks restricted to late-inning duty, when the regulars have finished their work for the day.  Playing against fellow prospects and fringe MLBers, some shine, while others show that there is still work to do.  When minor league spring training opens in late February, many of these players are sent back for further seasoning.

   In 2015, little was expected from prospects Miguel Castro or Roberto Osuna.  Castro had a breakout 2014, but had not pitched above A ball.  Given his difficulties with his secondary pitches, and openings in the Blue Jays bullpen, he was moved into relief and showed well in his first few late-inning outings, and continued to pitch well when rosters were pared, and he parlayed that into an Opening Day job with the big club. Osuna, whose 2014 was limited to a handful of innings after coming back from Tommy John surgery, fared well in the Arizona Fall League, and while his repertoire and advanced feel for pitching projected him as a starter, he too found work in the back end of the Blue Jays bullpen when the season opened.

  There tend to be two waves of impact prospects in spring training.  The first consists of players who were invited to spring training, and the second is comprised of players who weren't originally invited, but as the spring wears on and more bodies are needed, have earned their way into some MLB action.

Here, in the order of probable impact, are the players who could be worth watching on your tv or computer this spring after the regulars have been removed from the starting lineup, starting with the first wave.

1.  Anthony Alford
   This will actually be Alford's third spring with the big club.  In the summer of 2014, he turned down a contract extension offer, and returned to school for another season of college football.  Sensing that his future might not lie on the gridiron, he packed in his pro football dreams to become a full-time baseball player.  A sizeable contract offer which included an invite to spring training likely helped to change his mind.
   Alford was in awe and very over-matched in 2015 spring training....




.... but he took some of the lessons he learned to the minors, and ended the year as a Top 100 prospect.  Even despite a sideways 2016, he showed well against advanced competition in the Arizona Fall League, and he should stand out more this year.  Alford is still developing his offensive skills, but he works the count, uses the whole field, and has game-changing speed.  If he's used in those late-game situations early in spring training, Alford should make an impact.

2.  Conner Greene
   As spring training progresses, the need for pitching tends to increase as teams try to monitor the innings of players most likely to break camp with team.  Greene was part of the second wave last year, and was impressive, striking out three of the four hitters he faced in his debut.
   After a breakout 2015, Greene appeared headed to AA New Hampshire, putting him on the cusp of the major leaguers.  Management felt otherwise, sending him back to High A Dunedin to work on his fastball command and between-starts routine.  Greene is a free spirit, and this pumping the brakes on his development was probably a signal to him that his emotional maturation wasn't complete.
   Greene returned to New Hampshire last August, and didn't miss a beat.  He likely will open the season with the Fisher Cats again, but his fastball, which can touch 98, should allow him to overpower the fellow prospects he'll be facing in early spring training.  It will be interesting to see how he fares if he's given some starts this spring, when he'll be facing major league hitters.

3.  Rowdy Tellez
   Slow starts are almost a Tellez trademark.  He hit .107/.286/.143 in his first month of pro ball in 2013, was 6 for his first 37 ABs the following year, and .164/.345/.361 last April.   If there's one thing he's proved that he's capable of, however, it's making adjustments, and it's easy to see him hitting some long blasts in late-game action this spring if he sees any strikes.  He should make the move to a starting role fairly quickly this spring, however, as the Blue Jays try to determine his MLB-readiness.

4.  Glenn Sparkman
   Sparkman is not officially an invitee, because he was selected in the Rule 5 draft in November.  If he makes the team out of spring training, he has to stay on the 40-man roster for the entire season; if not, he has to be offered back to his original team (Kansas City).  A successful starter before his Tommy John surgery, Sparkman was working his way back last year.  The Blue Jays likely feel that he could be this year's Joe Biagini, and he probably will be put into high leverage situations fairly early this spring.

5.  Richie Urena
   He may be the Blue Jays top prospect, according to some rankings, but Urena is not about to supplant starting SS Troy Tulowitzki just yet.  Still, his gap power and fast-twitch reflexes at short may bring fans out of their seats several times this spring before he heads to minor league camp.

Clutchlings photo

6..  Reese McGuire
   If you can believe much of what you read online, the Blue Jays are considering McGuire as a potential back up to Russ Martin this year.  His glove may be MLB-ready, but his bat probably is not.  McGuire can control a running game like few others, and he may make an impact early with this ability to throw runners out with his elite pop time and strong, accurate arm.


The Next Wave
   There's no guarantee any of the following will see any time in an MLB uniform this spring - no one has that kind of crystal ball.  Still, due to injuries or a need for some extra days off, openings occur in spring training, and if these players continue to develop this spring on the same trajectory that they did last year, it's conceivable that they could see some playing time.

1.  Sean Reid-Foley
    SRF, like Greene, had some adjustments to make last year in consistently finding the strike zone last year, and like Greene, may have a sizzling spring training debut.  If he can continue to harness his fastball command like he did in the second half last year, Reid-Foley is the top starting prospect in the organization. He has no chance of breaking camp with the team, but may make catching the late innings of games this March worth your while.

2.  Angel Perdomo
   The 6"8" lefty with the easy delivery and electric fastball was left off the 40-man roster last fall.  The Blue Jays gambled that they could sneak him past the Rule 5 draft.  Perdomo needs to refine his command and develop his secondaries more, but he could be lights out in short relief stints with a pared-down arsenal.
Baseball America photo


3.  Ryan Borucki
   Borucki made a comeback from arm and shoulder injuries in 2016, and was added to the 40-man in November.  He has the best change up in the system, and his development may take off this year.  In a late spring cameo, the depth of that change might be on display, and would likely disrupt hitters' timing.

4.  Vladimir Guerrero Jr
   This is really going out on a limb, admittedly.  If he had been born stateside, Jr would be entering into his draft-eligible year.  Instead, he's a Top 100 prospect, and will likely be a Top 10 by season's end.  With the Lansing Lugnuts, Guerrero's likely Opening Day assignment, starting Midwest League play later the following week at nearby Midland, MI, it would be fairly easy to get him there after travelling with the big team to Montreal for a pair of exhibition games with the Pirates to open April.  He might be over-matched, but his plate appearances would be cause for standing ovations on his dad's former home field.

5.  Danny Jansen
   He may have been lost a bit in the shuffle.  McGuire is the organization's top Catching prospect at the moment, and no doubt some attention will be paid over at the minor league complex to Max Pentecost's return behind the plate this spring, but if you had to build a prototypical Catcher, you would likely start with Jansen.
   Even though injuries have curtailed three of his first four pro seasons, Jansen has already drawn raves for his defensive abilities.  The power potential is there, and he more than held his own in the Arizona Fall League.  A late spring cameo could enhance his prospect status.


6.  Jonathan Davis
   Not to be confused with the under-achieving 2012 first rounder, DJ Davis, this Davis has turned in a pair of quality minor league seasons the past two seasons in A ball. With Dunedin last year, he was 2nd in the Florida State League in steals, 3rd in walks, and 5th in OBP.  Davis should flank Alford in New Hampshire.  The 5'8"/190 power plug added 14 HR in the pitcher-friendly FSL last year, and his speed/power/on-base combination might be on display with the big club late in the spring if an opportunity arises.


   Blue Jays minor leaguers report to camp in Dunedin on February 27th.  After the first week, they are placed into groupings that loosely resemble their likely Opening Day destinations, although the groupings can be flexible.  Buffalo announced a 14-game schedule against other International League teams housed in the Tampa area.  A group of players representing New Hampshire usually accompanies them, playing other AA teams on adjoining diamonds.   If you are in the area, it's worth the short drive to some of the other minor league complexes to watch two games at once.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

What to Expect from Reese McGuire

milb.com photo


  The signing of  C Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a minor league deal last week intensifies the competition for the job of backing up Blue Jays incumbent Russell Martin when spring training starts this month.
   And there have been rumblings that Reese McGuire, acquired in the Francisco Liriano deal last summer, is one of the combatants for that back up spot.
   If that rumour is true, it shows that even though he finished the season with AA New Hampshire, the Blue Jays front office believes the 2013 Pirates' first rounder (14th overall) has passed A.J. Jimenez as the top Catching prospect in the organization.
   While it's hard to see McGuire breaking camp with the team this April, there is no doubt that he profiles at least as a decent MLB back up.  Concerns about his bat have persisted since high school, but there is little doubt about his defensive skills, which Baseball America noted in their scouting report prior to the draft:
His receiving, blocking and arm strength are all above-average, and he has been calling his own games since he was 10 years old. He has a high baseball IQ and game awareness. The question will be how much McGuire will hit. He has a smooth lefthanded swing with strength and bat speed and shows the tools to be an above-average pure hitter with average power. 

  McGuire progressed through the Pirates' system quickly, rising as high as their 5th-ranked prospect by 2014, and even cracked BA's Top 100.  Expectations dipped as his offensive production didn't develop as expected.  Craig Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus observes that while McGuire puts the ball in play,  there's not a lot of hard contact:

The contact ability is there to make him an average (or perhaps slightly above) hitter, but he’s yet to show the kind of power that would stop pitchers from challenging him, and more than his fair share of at-bats end in weak contact. He works deep counts and shows an advanced approach at the plate, and will flash average raw power in BP, so there’s something to latch onto for the dreamers out there.
    At 5'11"/215, McGuire may be on the stocky side, but he moves well behind the plate and on the bases, suggesting both athleticism and a high baseball IQ.  He sets a good target for his pitchers, and does not give away pitch locations to hitters.  He has smooth actions when receiving pitches, which allows him to frame well:

video

   McGuire's ability to control the running game is also an important part of his toolkit.  He threw out 39% of would-be Eastern League base runners prior to his trade to Toronto; the lower success rate he experienced with New Hampshire (17%) may be attributable to his working with a new pitching staff, and because the league stopped running on him.  
   McGuire may not have a cannon for an arm, but he has superb footwork, a quick release, and a deadly accurate arm - he gets rid of the ball quickly, and the ball often arrives before the runner.  If he makes the team this year, it may take him a while to make any noise with his bat, but fans will appreciate his throwing skills very quickly.

   At the plate, McGuire has shown good strike zone judgement over the course of his minor league career. The left-handed hitter uses a leg kick to load up his swing, and he shows good bat-to-ball skills by putting a lot of balls in play, but he doesn't make a lot of hard contact.  He drops his hands as he strides, and he doesn't appear to have the bat speed to get his barrel into the hitting zone early enough to drive the ball more - there's not a lot of loft to that swing, either.  Cubs Scout Jason Parks, writing for Baseball Prospectus, once wrote that "Hands are the mothers of hitting," when it comes to their role in a batter's swing:
Hands establish the physical connection with the bat, but they also control the navigational system that takes the bat into the load, into the zone, into the path of the baseball, and through the secondary extension......When a hitter rushes or drops his hands, such mechanical hitches either get ironed out or the hitter gets exposed in a graphic manner.
   Going over video of McGuire's ABs since he joined New Hampshire, it does appear that former Fisher Cats hitting coach Stubby Clapp helped limit McGuire's hands drop.  It did not reflect it in his numbers for August, but he did appear to be driving the ball more.  This may be one of the reasons the Blue Jays feel he's ready to move on.

 Given his build and athletic skills, there is still some hope that the power in his bat might develop, but his mechanics may need adjusting if he's ever to fulfil that projection. McGuire may have to lengthen his swing, and trade some of those walks (about a 10% rate last year) for some added pop. 

   Given the fact that his bat may still be developing, it's interesting to hear that he may be in the mix for a big league job this spring.  From a developmental point of view, it might be better to leave him in Buffalo, and allow him plenty of reps, and time to handle pitching prospects like Conner Greene, or possibly even Sean Reid-Foley later in the season.  Or this may be a signal that the Blue Jays feel that his bat has gone as far as it can, and since his glove is already close to major league-ready, it's time to begin his career as a dependable MLB back up.

   The departure of R.A Dickey and his personal Catcher Josh Thole now gives the Blue Jays added flexibility when it comes to this position.  Martin can get rest on a more predictable schedule this year (day game after a night game, etc), which should boost his production and sharpen his defence as the season nears its end (Martin posted a .625 OPS last Sept/Oct).  Even in a secondary role, McGuire may become a valuable component of a team looking to reach the playoffs for the third straight year.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Projecting the Rosters - New Hampshire

Sean Reid-Foley/Clutchlings photo

   Minor League Opening Day is getting closer, and the potential rosters of the Blue Jays affiliates are becoming a little clearer.
   The New Hampshire Fisher Cats became a Blue Jays affiliate in 2003, and the partnership has been a successful one, even with Toronto attempting to help relocate an Eastern League team in Ottawa in 2014, only to have Ottawa city council balk at footing the bill for necessary stadium upgrades.  The PDC between the two sides was extended last year for another two years, to 2018.  The team is solidly in Red Sox country, and some of the Fisher Cats promotions reflect that.
   A former Red Sox, Gary Allenson, will return to New Hampshire to manage this year after spending the last three year piloting Buffalo.  Three of the top prospects in the system (Richie Urena, Anthony Alford, and Sean Reid-Foley) should start the season at this level. Cuban IFA Lourdes Gurriel may begin the season at AA, but his April destination will largely depend on his spring training progress - he hasn't faced live pitching in a year and a half.  Some have suggested that he starts the season at Dunedin, before making his way north to New Hampshire or Buffalo once the weather warms up.
   In many ways the jump to AA is the highest in the minor leagues.  The consensus is that players at that level "have a plan":  they realize that they no longer can get by on the strength of their physical talents alone. Pitchers realize that they can't necessarily blow the ball by hitters, so command, sequencing, and secondary pitches become extremely important.  Hitters come to learn that approach becomes everything, and that they can't just sit on mistake pitches any more in order to succeed.
Catcher

PlayerAge2016 teamAve/OBP/SLG
CDanny Jansen21Dunedin.218/.316/.269
CMike Reeves26Dunedin.244/.365/.348

   The organization is very high on Jansen, who has advanced receiving skills.  Agile, with excellent pitch calling and framing skills, Jansen has had the hardest time staying healthy, missing hugh chunks of time in 3 of his first 4 pro seasons with injuries.  He may profile as a defense-first Catcher, but the bat has some power potential, and he puts the ball in play.  Jansen redeemed himself with a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League.  Reese McGuire and Max Pentecost (provided he stays at the position) may have passed Jansen on the organization depth chart, but team officials have said that he still figures in their long-range plans.
   Peterborough, ON native Reeves got off to a solid start in the Australian Baseball League, but found himself shifted to 3rd Base at times when regular Canberra receiver Robbie Perkins rejoined the team. Reeves got off to a hot start with Canberra, but cooled over the last half of the ABL season.

Infielders

PlayerAge2016 teamAve/OBP/SLG
1BRyan McBroom24Dunedin.266/318/.455
2BChristian Lopes24Dunedin/NH.283/.353/.402
SSRichie Urena20Dunedin/NH.295/.335/434
3BMitch Nay23
DHMatt Dean24NH/Dunedin.216/.297/.305
UTGunnar Heidt24Lansing/Dunedin.263/.345/.419
   
   Urena is the highlight here, but he's not the only name to watch.  McBroom, the 2015 Midwest League MVP, has never been considered a top prospect, but he's hit at every level, hitting 21 Homers in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League last year.  He's a bat-first prospect, however, which has limited his outlook.  If he can continue to hit the long ball in AA, however, we may have to reconsider his status.
Richard Urena/Clutchlings photo

  Nay was once an up-and-coming prospect, even seeing some action with the big team toward the end of spring training two years ago.  Injuries limited him to 22 GCL ABs last season, and after struggling in High A in 2015, he will be looking to regain his former standing.
   Urena figures to be in Buffalo by mid-season at the latest.  He has proven he has the skills on both sides of the ball to become a major league regular, and he should find a home in the bigs by 2018 or 2019.

Outfielders

PlayerAge2016 teamAve/OBP/SLG
OFDerrick Loveless23NH/Dunedin.237/.337/.415
OFAnthony Alford22Dunedin.236/.344/.378
OFJonathan Davis24Dunedin.252/.376/.441
OFDavid Harris25Dunedin.221/.268/.317
  After a breakout 2015, Alford had his share of injuries and inconsistency in what's been termed a sideways 2016, although he had a solid second half, and like Jansen, regained considerable status with a strong AFL campaign.  Davis had a fine 2016, finishing 2nd in the FSL in steals, and 3rd in runs and walks, as well as 5th in OBP.  The versatile Harris missed much of last season due to a PED suspension.  

Starting Pitchers

PlayerAge2016 teamWHIP/BB/9/K/9
SPSean Reid-Foley21Lansing/Dunedin1.01/3.0/10.1
SPJustin Shafer24Dunedin1.48/3.3/4.8
SPLuis Santos25Dunedin/NH1.30/2.6/8.3
SPJeremy Gabryzwski 23New Hampshire1.48/3.0/5.9
SPTaylor Cole27New Hampshire1.41/2.5/7.9
  With a simplified delivery, Reid-Foley found the strike zone more often, and had a breakout 2016.  He has the highest ceiling of any starting pitcher in the system.  Cole led the minors in Ks in 2014, but shoulder issues held him to 61 innings last year, and he should return to AA for a third season.  If he is healthy and there are openings in the system above him, he may reach Buffalo before long.  

Relief Pitchers

PlayerAge2016 teamWHIP/BB/9/K/9
RPChris Rowley26Dunedin1.28/2.2/6.3
RPTim Mayza25Dunedin/NH1.28/4.2/9.1
RPAdonys Cardona23Dunedin 1.83/7.4/6.2
RPConor Fisk24Lansing/Dun1.12/2.3/7.6
RPAlonzo Gonzalez25Dunedin/NH1.32/5.6/8.3
RPJose Fernandez23Dunedin1.44/7.0/8.5
RPBrad Allen27
Dunedin
1.50/4.9/7.8

   This is the group that helped propel Dunedin to a playoff birth last season, and they should move up to AA together.  Rowley, who hadn't pitched in two years while he served a military commitment, found success in the bullpen after struggling as a starter.  Southpaw Mayza's delivery is very tough on left handed hitters, while former top prospect Cardona, who has had his share of injuries, made a successful conversion to relieving. If New Hampshire makes a playoff appearance this year, the bullpen may be a big part of it.

Tim Mayza/Clutchlings photo

   

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Blue Jays Minor League Updates

Tim Leiper photo


   A couple of tidbits as we close in on the opening of MLB spring training, and the MiLB version a few weeks later.

Burns signs with Lotte
   Andy Burns was given his release so that he could sign with the Lotte Giants of the KBO.  Burns appeared in 10 games with the Blue Jays in 2016, going hitless in 7 plate appearances.  He was removed from the 40-man roster in November.
   An 11th round pick in 2011, Burns' versatility helped move him up the minor league ladder.  Originally a SS, Burns can play all four infield positions, as well as the corner outfield spots.  He told his hometown Coloradan, he's excited about the prospect playing in baseball-crazy South Korea:
"They absolutely love baseball over there," said Burns, who will leave for South Korea near the end of January. "It's going to be a really fun baseball atmosphere. I'm excited to get over there."
  Burns reportedly signed a one-year deal with Lotte, and may return to play stateside in 2018.

Hollon Released
   Word came via Vancouver freelancer Charlie Caskey (@CharlieCaskey on Twitter) when he tweeted from the Canadians annual Hot Stove luncheon that Blue Jays Minor League Coordinator Charlie Wilson informed him that RHP Clinton Hollon has been released.
   To say that the 2013 2nd rounder has a checkered past would be putting it mildly.  Considered to be in possession of a first-round arm, concerns about his elbow and his makeup caused him to fall to the 2nd round, where he signed for below slot.  Hollon underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, and missed the entire season.  He came back impressively in 2015, pitching well for Vancouver and Lansing, before receiving a 50-game suspension in late August for a positive PED (amphetamines) test.  Then, just before he was set to return to action in late May, he received another 50-game penalty for a positive test for a drug of abuse.
   The Blue Jays stood by Hollon, and invited him to Instructs last fall.  Obviously, somewhere along the way the club felt that his mental and/or physical approach to the game was lacking, which is why they decided to release him.  The club has shown little tolerance for recreational drug use in the past, sending prospects Tyler Gonzales and Kramer Champlin packing after positive tests.
   You can't help but feel for Hollon, but at the same time, he likely was given ample opportunity to redeem himself, and failed to do so.  He denied knowingly taking amphetamines, which probably did not enamour him to the organization.  Given his electric arm, there still likely will be a team that will given him another chance.

Six Prospects Invited to Spring Training with the Big Club
  In addition to recent 40-man additions Richie Urena and Anthony Alford, six prospects were invited to the Blue Jays Major League training camp when it opens next month.
   Extending invitations to these players gives them a valuable experience from several perspectives.  Not only do they get to practice with and compete against MLB players and play in front of MLB spring training crowds, they get an opportunity to see the work ethic that propelled those MLB players to their team's 25-man rosters.  Alford was invited to his first spring training in 2015, and said that he learned a lot about preparation and how to conduct himself from watching Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista.  RHP Conner Greene was expected to begin last year at AA New Hampshire after spending the final month of the 2015 season there, but the club felt that he needed to work on his routine between starts, so he returned to High A Dunedin to start 2016.  He did improve on that routine, and no doubt his invitation was meant to serve as another lesson in his baseball education.

  Joining Greene will be 1B Rowdy Tellez, C Reese McGuire, OF Dwight Smith Jr, 2B Jon Berti, and relievers Will Browning and Tim Mayza.  Of this group, only Tellez might have a shot at breaking camp with the big team, although barring further roster moves, he appears headed for AAA Buffalo to start the season. Mayza and Browning are on the verge of joining the decent corps of relievers the Blue Jays have stockpiled in the upper levels of the system.  There have been some who suggest that Greene might be in line for a bullpen job this spring, but while his command issues would be likely improved if his repertoire of pitches was cut down in a relief role, the organization still views him as a starter.

  There was some concern last year that the Blue Jays minor league hitters did not get enough reps in spring training, and it caused some teams (New Hampshire, in particular) to get off to a slow start.   While having hitters in camp like Tellez is beneficial for them, it can also take away from their actual playing time, and it will be interesting to see how long they stay in camp before being shipped to the minor league complex this spring.

MLB Draft Order Set
   The Orioles' signing of Mark Trumbo took care of the last remaining free agent with compensation attached, meaning that the order for the June MLB draft has now been set.
   The Blue Jays will get the 22nd pick, as well as the 28th pick as compensation for the loss of free agent Edwin Encarnacion.  While the loss of Encarnacion hurts, the chance to pick two players in the top 30 could bode well for the future of the organization.  It might also give the team a chance to roll the dice with one of those two picks - they could play it safe with a proven college bat or arm with one, and take a chance on a high school player with high upside but equally high risk with the other.  Either way, it will help a system on the rebound add some more depth.