This has taken me way too long to do. I promise I won’t let the delay dampen the quality and intensity of this report.
Player of the Year: He was named the MVP of the entire Eastern League and I have no doubt that he was also the best among the champion Fisher Cats’ many talented position players in 2011. I am, of course, writing about C Travis d’Arnaud. I will return to his actual position play in a moment, but let’s start by pointing out that his full-season OPS was 118 points higher than the next highest producing Fisher Cats batter. d’Arnaud led the team in all three triple slash stats (batting average, OBP and SLG). The right handed hitting backstop had a higher batting average against right handed pitchers, but his OPS was 110 points higher against southpaws. New Hampshire does have a good reputation as a hitter’s park, but the 22 year old put up an OPS nearly 100 points higher on the road. He ranked behind only Washington Nationals super-prospect Bryce Harper in terms of Baseball America’s prospect rankings for the league. d’Arnaud had a slow start to the season, recovering from a back injury that hampered him in 2010, but after his OPS sat at .548 through the end of April, he exploded in May, and never really slowed down afterwards, with an OPS north of 1.000 in both May and July. We can quibble with his walk rate of only 7.1%, slightly below average. His K-rate of 21.6% is solid, especially for one with so much in-game power.
d’Arnaud’s defense has also been improving. While his caught stealing numbers struggled to reach 25% earlier in his career, he comfortably caught 27% for New Hampshire this year. Working under former big league catcher Sal Fasano in Manchester, d’Arnaud has been exposed to a lot of tutelage that will come in handy in the Major Leagues, perhaps as soon as next season. The former key piece in the Roy Halladay trade is still not as polished behind the plate as is the present incumbent, J.P. Arencibia, but his offensive ceiling is higher – giving the Blue Jays a potential leg up on most of the league with the lumber at a traditionally leather-heavy position.
*Update: It was recently reported that d’Arnaud tore thumb ligaments while playing for Team USA, requiring surgery. Not a positive step, but he should be ready to go at full speed by Spring Training.
Pitcher of the Year: This one was a bit tougher as several outstanding pitchers spent considerable time with the Fisher Cats, both as a reward for excellence at the lower levels, or before being rewarded with a trip up higher. Despite steep competition and not featuring on the playoff roster that took home the Eastern league championship, my pick for the honour goes to RHP Joel Carreno. Before being called up to Toronto in late August, the 24 year old Dominican dominated in his first exposure to the upper levels of the minor league chain, striking out 152 batters in 134.2 innings (10.16 K/9). Showing it was no fluke, the small right-hander struck out 14 in 15.2 innings pitching out of the Blue Jays’ bullpen. Although he has consistently racked up the K’s throughout his minor league ascension, he has not featured in the Baseball America’s Blue Jays’ Top 30 since 2008. Carreno throws a slider as his swing-and-miss pitch as his fastball, an average offering based on gun readings alone, has inconsistent location. That weakness led to his high walk rates, which served as a blemish on an otherwise excellent statistical record. Carreno walked 68 for New Hampshire (a shade over 4.5 BB/9). He also hit 12 AA batters. Other than a higher propensity to walk left handed batters, there were no other serious red flags denoting unsustainability among his splits. Carreno could break camp next year pitching out of the Blue Jays bullpen, maybe as a 7th inning type.
Disappointment of the Year: Although his numbers shot through the roof upon a late season move up to AAA Las Vegas, SS Adeiny Hechavarria struggled mightily, especially with the stick, while spending most of his season with New Hampshire. A defense first prospect (which still drew rave reviews all season) if ever there was one, a .275 OBP across 502 PAs is unacceptable. Hechavarria struck out just over three times for every bases-on-balls. In a very small sample, the 22 year old Cuban emigre took his game to a completely different level, but the contrast was so stark, it is hard to say what to expect next season. There were rumours that he would see some September action with Toronto, but GM Alex Anthopoulos shot those down, explaining that the slick fielder actually cannot yet leave the US without delaying his Visa. Now playing in the Arizona Fall League with the Phoenix Desert Dogs, Hechavarria only needs to be able to reach base at around a .310 clip to make his glove carryable as an MLB starter. No reason to give up yet, but he will need to show a better approach next year in Las Vegas.
Other Fisher Cats Notes: SS/2B/3B Jonathan Diaz received a lot of hype for strong play during Spring Training. He gets on base (.359 OBP) and can play all over the infield, but that’s it. His ultimate ceiling may be as a Nick Punto utility-type. Or he might already have reached his ceiling.
C/1B Yan Gomes had a season strongly reminiscent of recent Blue Jay catcher John Buck and J.P. Arencibia. Good power, low OBP. He can catch, so he can still hope for a future.
1B Michael McDade started off very strongly, with an .880 OPS before the EL All Star break, but tailed off considerably afterwards, playing out the string on a .561 OPS clip. Weighing in at 6-1″, 260 lbs (listed) I have to wonder if conditioning is not an issue. That said, there are those who have praised his play, some noting his as the best 1B glove in the system.
RF Moises Sierra showed he was fully recovered from the injuries that practically wiped out the entirety of his 2010 season, with a strong first full season in AA. His K-rate is a tad high, striking out in 18.8% of his at bats. That said, his contact rate of 66% was higher than any of the other productive hitters in the Fisher Cats’ lineup (McDade, d’Arnaud, Gose). His bat is not enough to carry him as a corner outfielder (especially not with Jose Bautista ahead of him in the pecking order), but he is toolsy enough to remain in consideration.
CF Anthony Gose is the toolsiest player in the system and one of the best athletes in the minor leagues, with top-of-the-scale scouting marks for his speed and throwing arm. His speed has been functional both on the basepaths as well as in the middle pasture. His power is also average, plus, ar at least much more than most players with his profile. Unfortunately, there are still questions about the most important tool of them all, as he struck out 152 times in 583 at bats (more than once per four at bats), finishing second in the league. He is continuing along those lines in the AFL.
At the risk of leaving anyone out, only pitchers who completed at least 50 innings for New Hampshire will be considered here.
LHP Evan Crawford, striking out 10.9/9 IP showed that he might be more than just a LOOGY, as he was equally effective against batters of both persuasions, and managed to keep the ball in the park. On the other hand, he is 25. He is now in the AFL.
LHP Henderson Alvarez drew rave reviews from the scouting community, thanks to a fastball that regularly clocked in triple digits and a slick changeup. Statheads were more skeptical, as he could only muster 6.75 K/9. Nonetheless, he was called up to Toronto after 88 AA innings and impressed mightily. The smart money has the 21 year old opening next season in the rotation.
RHP Chad Beck is big and made his MLB debut in late September. He throws hard, but I really have no feel for him. He was terrible in Las Vegas (granted, that doesn’t mean much) and was effective, if not overwhelming both as a starter and out of the bullpen for the Fisher Cats. He’s on the 40-man roster, so anything can happen, and he can reach the mid-90s in short stints, but he’ll be 27 this coming January and I place him low on the depth charts.
RHP Chad Jenkins started off worryingly, struggling to get missed swings. He rarely exceeded 6 K/9 through the first four months of the season, but turned it up a notch, approaching 8 K/9 in August and September. The uptick in K’s did not include any degradation of his stellar ground ball rate. He will never lead a rotation, but his late-season run showed he still may make it towards the back of a rotation.
The offseason is barely one week old, and the time to eulogize the successful season of the Lansing Lugnuts, Midwest League finalists, is long overdue.
Player of the Year - Before the 2011 season had begun, CF Jake Marisnick was thought of as a wild card; a tremendous athlete whose hitting ability had not yet arrived. Given an overslot bonus to sign as a 3rd round pick of the 2009 draft, after the Jays’ brass could not come to terms with RHPs James Paxton, Jake Eliopoulos or Jake Barrett, the rangy outfielder debuted with the GCL Jays in 2010, displaying all of the tools that heralded his being drafted, but still raw, which was in evidence after a late-season promotion to Lansing. Over 34 games with the Lugnuts, Marisnick hit .220 with a .636 OPS, and a strikeout rate over double that of his GCL line and a walk-rate that had dropped by around 50%. Last offseason, he was ranked 11th in the system by Baseball America and 17th by Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus. Assigned to Lansing for 2011, the young pup burst out and became a lion. He started the season hot, hitting .324 with a .968 OPS through the end of April. His OPS dropped back to earth in May, when I saw him play as a DH one sunny Sunday afternoon. He was batting from a deep crouch, and seemed to be lunging after breaking balls, swinging off his front foot, leading to pop ups. But then he adjusted. June saw his OPS back up to .800. He had hit six home runs in his first 242 at bats. All of that was a prelude to the fire which consumed Marisnick’s summer. Already being discussed as one of the breakout players of the year, not just in the Blue Jays system, but in all of baseball, the 20 year-old finished the season with an OPS approaching .950 across his final 56 games.
There were those who, earlier in the year, felt that Marisnick’s ability to roam the middle pasture would erode as he aged, forcing a move to a corner – probably RF – but as the season wore on, there were more and more insiders who believed that he had a fighting chance to remain in CF. With the midsummer trade for Colby Rasmus, and Anthony Gose steady improvements two levels above, the Blue Jays do not need Marisnick as a CF. But that is a problem for another day. For now, he has earned the chance to stay up the middle for another year, one that should start in Dunedin, but will end wherever his talent and production dictate. Don’t let the fact that the Riverside, California native spent the entire season with lansing fool you into believing that he is a one-level-per-year player. Under Alex Anthopoulos, the Jays have been known to let players move at their own pace, for position players, this is especially true for those who have already completed a full season at one level, consolidating their gains. Marisnick is ready for a bigger challenge and if he can keep his K/BB rate under two in Dunedin, he will reach New Hampshire as early as mid-season. Until then, look for him to be in the Blue Jays top five of most popular/respected prospect lists. Including this one.
Pitcher of the Year - RHP Drew Hutchison was the best pitcher to have graced the mound at Lansing this year, combining both prospect pedigree and performance in ways that had many observers and interested onlookers salivating. In fact, he was so good, that the Jays moved him up to High A Dunedin after May, making him ineligible for this list. With many excellent pitchers throwing some for Lansing, both legitimate prospects and non, this award will go to one of the team’s mainstays, who was both effective and intriguing, with now performance and later projection. The pitcher who best exemplified those characteristics was LHP Sean Nolin. Selected in the 6th round of the 2010 draft, Nolin showed the benefits of getting a quick start on a professional career. The San Jacinto JC alum pitched 21.1 innings after being drafted, all but two for Auburn of the short-season league and impressed striking out 26. 10 walks was moderately concerning, possibly preventing him from appearing on any top prospect lists. Assigned to Lansing for his full season debut, Nolin was consistently solid, barring a poor 20 innings in June. While he still struck out over a batter per inning (22 in 20) during that stretch, his 5.85 ERA represented the only month that figure rose above 3.50. Of course, ERA is not the best way to measure success as a prospect, especially not one in the lower reaches of the professional ladder, but Nolin’s peripheral stats were also impressive. Kept on a relatively short leash in his first full season, the 21 year old allowed less than one hit per inning (8.5 H/9), while striking out over one per inning (9.4 K/9). He also substantially lowered his walk rate to a healthy 2.6 BB/9, giving him an impressive 3.6 K/BB. Among pitchers who pitched over 90 MWL innings this a K/9 over 9, Nolin had the 4th best K/BB. In other words, there were pitchers who had better comparative ratios, but with far fewer of each, indicating an inability to miss bats and a lowered likelihood of being able to repeat the trait at higher levels. Listed at 6-5″, 235, the burly southpaw has the frame to eat many more innings than he was at liberty to do this year. He will get the chance to build his stamina in Dunedin in 2012. As with all lefties, the New York native will have to continue to pitch successfully against right handed batters to remain a starter. While he did succeed against righties this season, he was far more effective against the same sided for Lansing, both in BB-rate (8.3% vs RHB, 4.4% vs LHB) and in K-rate (28.9% vs LHB, 23.3% vs RHB). In all, his OPS_against was more than 200 points lower against lefty swingers. Nolin, who reportedly throws in the high 80′s, reaching 92, which he complements with the organizational mandate of a good change-up, and a developing curve. There were also reports earlier this year that Nolin had dropped a lot of weight since last season, which may have played a role in his improved command, while also effecting his stamina. In spite of his success in 2011, I expect Nolin to remain under-the-radar on prospect lists this offseason, just maybe finding a spot on the back-end of the Baseball America top 30.
Disappointment of the Year - A 6th round pick in the 2009 draft, taken roughly 90 spots after Marisnick, 1B K.C. Hobson was lauded for natural hitting ability, and power projection. The son of a long-time player and short-time MLB manager, Hobson was thought to be a potential middle of the order bat, swinging from the left side of the plate. His professional debut in 2010 was moderately disappointing, but forgivable in the way that debuts often are. He only struck out in 15.4% of his at bats, but walked much less, in only 4.7% of his plate appearances. His power showed on occasion, but six home runs attested to not enough. Of course, was he able to repeat that over-the-fence power this year, that would have been a 50% increase on what he was actually able to accomplish. While strongly built (6-2″, 205), the first baseman was only able to muscle four balls over the fence and fair. Hobson greatly tightened up his BB and K numbers, earning the free pass in 11.2% of this year’s plate appearances while striking out only 15.2% of the time. His .336 OBP outshined his SLG of .333. Simply put, in any level of the developmental curve, a .083 ISO from a 1B is unacceptable. Making matters worse, Hobson’s fielding was simply Hobsonian, as he committed 25 errors this year, a stunning total from a first baseman.
Other Lugnuts Notes - It’s hard to talk about Jake Marisnick without also discussing the other Lugnuts’ outfielders. LF Marcus Knecht and RF Michael Crouse but had impressive seasons. In his first full season, Knecht, a 2010 3rd round choice, hit .273 with a .851 OPS and an ISO of .201. He struck out too often, but also had a very good walk rate. Pitch data is poor at this level, but the Toronto-born slugger had one of the highest recorded pitches-per-plate appearance on the Lansing squad.
Although he missed most of August due to a hamstring injury, Crouse impressed in his first full season, after three partial previous seasons. Although drafted out of a California high school, like Knecht, Crouse is a Canadian, born in Port Moody, BC as his father played in the CFL. An elite athlete, Crouse showed an abundance of tools, hitting for power (.214 ISO), speed (38 steals in 46 attempts, 5 triples), arm strength (13 outfield assists). Having struck out in 27.4% of his plate appearances, he could stand to improve his contact ability. Like Marisnick, Crouse and Knecht should all move up to Dunedin as a trio next season.
The Lansing outfield also had a fourth wheel in Markus Brisker, who played in all three pastures as well as the team’s DH. His .233 AVG and .702 OPS do not stand out, but for the born athlete, it is the first real sign of progress since being drafted in the 6th round in 2008. He has very good speed, as 24 steals in 32 attempts attests, although the most impressive facet of his game was his walk rate, which finished up at 13.6%. He still needs more time to hone his instincts, but the tools are there to provide some hope.
While not as disappointing as Hobson, C Carlos Perez did not live up to expectations this season. In his first taste of full-season ball, the 20 year-old Venezuelan saw his OPS drop by .159 from his 2010 line in Auburn. He lost both power and strike zone judgement, with his K-rate rising and BB-rate dropping. Maybe worst of all, was his CS numbers. Thought of as a good defensive catcher, he nabbed 49% of would-be thieves in 2009 in the GCL and 36% last year at Auburn. This year, Perez only nailed 29% of opposing base-runners. As hard as it is to tease defensive abilities through the numbers for catchers at the MLB level, it is nigh-impossible in the lower minors. So here`s a factoid, to make with what you will. The Lugnuts were just shy of league average this year in ERA and WHIP, but finished third in the MWL in staff K/BB at 2.79. They were closer to first than fourth. Perez is still a good catching prospect, but has fallen behind Travis d’Arnaud and A.J. Jimenez on the organization depth chart.
Most of the pitchers who spent significant time with Lansing this year were organizational types. There were some short term exceptions, like the aforementioned Drew Hutchison, in addition to late-season cameos by RHP Noah Syndergaard and LHP Justin Nicolino. Of the full-season starters, the only one I want to highlight at season’s end is RHP Casey Lawrence. In between spot starts in High A Dunedin, Lawrence led the Lugnuts in innings pitched with 125.2, averaging over 5.2 innings per start. Lawrence, who will be 24 next month, is not really a prospect, but a walk-rate of 1.4 BB/9 across two levels earned him another go at making a career out of baseball next season. He should start back with Dunedin, but could see New Hampshire if he continues to throw nothing but strikes.
I’ll close off with RHP Daniel Webb, once a highly-touted prep pitcher out of Kentucky, who fell in the draft due to signability and ended up struggling mightily in the Junior College ranks. The Jays took an 18th round flier on him in 2010 and he took his collegiate struggles to the pro game, although still showing some signs that his prep-level talent might still be in his arm. But after 12 starts this year, averaging under 5 innings per start, Webb had an unsightly 5.97 ERA, surrendering 6 home runs in only 57.1 innings, despite a strong 2.58 ground-out to air-out ratio. After missing most of June and all of July with an injury, Webb came back to finish out the season pitching out of the bullpen. The numbers during the regular season were not compiled in enough innings as to be meaningful, but he did limit the opposition to only one walk in 8.2 innings, after walking 55 in 125.2 innings in his career as a starter. He kept up the solid pitching out of the bullpen in the MWL playoffs. The stuff may be there to excel in that role and rise much more quickly through the organization. If kept in short stints, I could see Webb reaching AAA by the end of the 2012 season.
With the minor league season now over and my work with hockeyprospectus.com taking more time, Section 203 will not grow dormant.
I will shortly publish final summaries on the seasons of the Low A Lansing Lugnuts and the AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats. After that, I will begin system rankings, first a quick look at system graduates (no longer prospects) then going position by position and finally a top 30.
I will try to go over expected 2012 assignments as that season draws near.
When players come or go (or both) I will offer my thoughts as well.
Lansing Lugnuts - With a second flat offensive performance in two nights, the Lansing Lugnuts season hangs on the precipice of also-ran status. The Lugnuts basically shot their wad in the 2nd inning. Singles by Michael Crouse and Marcus Knecht, sandwiched around a stolen base by Crouse, gave them runners on the corners and no outs. One routine groundball later and Crouse had scored and the bases were empty again. The next batter, 1B K.C. Hobson, hit a rare home run (only four in 480 at bats across the entire regular season) to double the lead. But River Bandits’ LHP Anthony Ferrara shut the door, allowing only a solitary single over the next four innings as his teammates battled back, tying the game in the top of the 3rd, scoring two more in the top of the 5th and another one in the 6th. Thankful to see his back, Knecht tripled off the first reliever used by the Bandits and came in to score on a Carlos Perez single to get the Lugnuts back within two runs. Like in game 1, the Lugnuts rallied furiously in the ninth in a last gasp attempt to turn defeat on its heels. After CF Jake Marisnick, who has seemingly hit the wall in the playoffs, struck out to lead off the inning, Course singled and Knecht doubled (his 3rd hit of the game) to put the tying run in scoring position with only one out. Perez failed to move the runners with a short fly ball to CF. River Bandits manager, Johnny Rodriguez, doing his best Tony LaRussa imitation, pulled RHP Aidan Lucas to get the platoon advantage on the lefty-swinging Hobson. LHP Dean Kiekhefer came in and got Hobson to pop a ball up the other way towards LF where it landed securely in the glove of Chris Edmondson to end the game. After an off-day for travel tomorrow, the series picks up on Saturday in Iowa, with RHP Marcus Walden facing River Bandits’ ace (because I said he’s the ace, that’s why) RHP Trevor Rosenthal. Their next loss will be their last until next Spring.
New Hampshire Fisher Cats - Today is a travel day, as the Fisher Cats make their way from Manchester, New Hampshire to Richmond, Virginia, a trek of close to 600 miles (950 km). Bearing in mind that the minor leagues do their travel by bus, it makes sense to take a day to get from A to B. The series, a best-of-five, will be played out in Richmond. The Flying Squirrels went 45-26 at home this year, while the Fisher Cats had a road record of 38-34.