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Down on the Farm – Jays milb Thoughts – July 16, 2011

July 17, 2011

DSL Jays – An unheralded Venezuelan signing, RHP Luis Zerpa (2.1 IP, 1 H, 2 UER, 1 BB, 4 K) has impressed in his time as a professional. Most notable for Zerpa is his miniscule walk rate. Now in his second year on the DSL roster, Zerpa has walked only 16 in 88 innings to go along with 71 strikeouts. A decent groundball rate has allowed him to keep the ball in the park as well, surrendering only 3 home runs in that time span.

A more notable signing was the $350,000 bonus given to young CF Luis Martin (2-4, HR (1), 2 RBI, R, E) who hit his first career home run. Off to a very slow professional start, the 17-year-old is already huge (6-4″, 210) and sloppy, with 51 Ks in 112 at bats. Before his last two games (3-7), Martin had gone hitless in his last 28 at bats. Projections don’t have him remaining in the middle pasture, but the raw tools are there to succeed in the corners. Here would also be a good place to mention that in 41 games, this was only the 4th home run hit by the Jays DSL affiliate.

GCL Jays – 2B/SS Jorge Vega-Rosado (4-6, 2B, 3B, 2 BB, 2 R) forces his way onto the list once more, as, given extra at bats, he makes them count, getting on base in 6 of 8 attempts. The undersized (5-8″, 175) middle infielder’s OPS is now up to .819, with no discernible split between lefties and righties, although with an inexplicable split between home and away, odd in the complex league. He’s so far played error-less ball in 8 games at 2B, although he’s made 5 miscues in 17 games at SS. According to local reports, his power is legit, as his homeruns have been of the ‘no-doubt’ variety. The Jays may have found themselves a real sleeper in JVR.

Drafted in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft amid reports of an 89-92 mph fastball thrown with pinpoint command, LHP Griffin Murphy (3 IP, 9 H, 8 R (2 ER), 1 BB, 3 K, 1 HR), hit a bump on his way up the ladder. 4 of the 9 hits surrendered were for extra bases,as Murphy has been susceptible to right handed batters, who have hit .308 against him, compared to lefties, who are batting a mere .111, all small sample size caveats of course apply. The 22 Ks in 21 innings portend to the talent in his arm, and he still has plenty of time to learn to make adjustments to the pro game.

I’m not calling him a prospect, but would like to point out the great start by recent 44th round draft choice, RHP Colby Faulkner (3 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 3 K). Over 10 innings, Faulkner finally allowed his first walk, while striking out 8 and not allowing a single earned run (only 1 unearned).

Bluefield Blue Jays – 3B Andy Fermin (1-2, HR (3), BB, 2 RBI, 2 R, K) is not really a prospect. Drafted in the 32nd round in 2010 out of Chipola JC in Florida, Fermin was nobody’s idea of a future stud. But in his first 70 games at the lower levels (GCL, NYP and Appy League) he has hit .302 with a modicum of on-base ability and some power, while performing adequately at both 3B and 2B.  He’s behind the 8-ball and will have to continue proving himself all the way up the ladder, but he’s got his career off on the right foot.

On the other side of the physical divide, 6-6″, 221 1B Art Charles (1-4, 2B, 2 RBI, R, E) started the season on fire with 8 home runs in his first 17 games. In his last 8 games, he’s gone 4-26, with only one extra base hit (this day’s 2B), 11:5 K/BB. The power is definitely there, but sometimes guys that large can get mechanically out of whack, with the longer levers more susceptible to minute changes having larger effects. Normally a guy with his draft pedigree (20th round) would not gain much notice, but he was drafted twice before (233rd round out of high school and 39th round after one year as a JuCo, and he was a two-way player as an amateur. Now that he can focus solely on hitting, I can see his stock starting to rise.

Vancouver Canadians – Signed to a $1.5 million bonus to join the organization in 2006, back when such figres were practically unheard of for J.P. Ricciardi’s North American-centric Blue Jays, 3B Balbino Fuenmayor (2-3, HR (4), 2 RBI, 2 R) has had 1 good season in 4, when he hit .307 with an OPS of .819 as an 18-year-old in the GCL in 2008. It was his second go-round at the level. Lauded for his outstanding hitting skills and contact ability, he has struck out in over 30% of his professional at bats. Starting this season in Lansing (3rd time around), he was actually putting up his best numbers since the aforementioned 2008, but was sent back to spearhead the inaugural Vancouver season anyway. At 21, he is not yet old for the level, but his overall lack of progress has made him a forgotten man in the Jays’ organization.

For any left-handed pitcher making his way up the professional ladder, there are two key traits that are required to keep him starting games instead of being pigeon-holed into the modern LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY): More than two pitches and the ability to retire right handed batters. LHP Justin Nicolino (5 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, and a cheap, rain-shortened CG), a 2010 2nd round draft pick, is known to throw a solid fastball, a good changeup (the Blue Jay special) and a nascent curve. It’s a limited sample in his very young career, but of his 38 recorded K’s (in 29 innings), 30 have been against right-handed batters. The youngest pitcher in the Vancouver staff by 23 months, Nicolino may actually be too good for the level. That said, there is no sense in rushing the rail thin (6-3″, 160) 19-year-old lefty any quicker. The Northwest League is known to be a more advanced league, generally full of college players 1-3 years older than Nicolino.

Lansing Lugnuts – Since signing out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old, C Carlos Perez (4-6, 4 RBI, R, E) has been hyped as a future star, or at the very least, as someone with MLB starter written all over him. Of course, in the Jays’ system, one loaded with catchers, it was easy to lump him in with Arencibia, d’Arnaud, Jimenez, Nessy. Debate could be had in terms of how to order them, but both Kevin Goldstein and Baseball America rated Perez 3rd, behind both Arencibia and d’Arnaud (both far closer to The Show), but still in the top 10 of the system.  Both publications began their reviews of Perez with his defense, avoiding things that are easy to spot in his stat-line, but focusing on fundamental elements that tend to be tough to handle in one so young. Furthermore, both publications expressed at least some doubt about his ceiling with the bat. An ISO of .096 has not answered concerns about his power ceiling. With 2 home runs, his next would represent a career high. His pitch recognition is good, with a very healthy BB/K rate, and he is still young enough (20) that the power could be still to arrive.

Everything I wrote yesterday about the eventual promotion of CF Jake Marisnick also hold true for power hitting LF/RF Marcus Knecht (2-6, HR (10) RBI, R, picked off), even though he is nearly a full year older. This is still Knecht’s, a Toronto native, first full season in pro ball, and his OPS has just topped .900. His tremendous bat speed, and raw power to all fields, documented repeatedly by Baseball America is evident in his performance, as his OPS is now 4th in the MWL and he ranks 6th in LSG. Knecht’s ISO is currently a robust .199. While I have no doubt that Knecht could keep the pace if promoted to Dunedin, I don’t expect it to happen, especially with Lansing closer to a playoff spot than Dunedin; The Jays should value getting some of their better prospects playoff experience – it may be a greater developmental experience than higher level reps for a few weeks.

Dunedin Blue Jays – I am a big, big fan of C A.J. Jimenez (2-5, K). Before the season began, Kevin Goldstein (subscription required) rated him as a sleeper in the Jays’ system, mentioning his line drive bat and great success in throwing out opposing base stealers (now having caught 40% over his career – considering the break even rate for thieves is 75%, keeping them around 60% in impressive). More recently, KG’s colleague, Jason Parks, rated Jimenez as a dark horse sleeper across baseball, with gap-to-gap power, and a strong arm behind the plate able to get the ball to 2B quickly. What no one mentions is his obvious athleticism. Jimenez stole 17 bases last year in 21 attempts and is 10-1 so far this year. He has more steals than any other catcher in the Florida State League. Let’s look at the combined minor league leader board for stolen bases among players listed primarily as Catchers:

Rank    Player                         Team              (Parent/Level)   SB/CS    Games

1)    Manuel Hilario   DSL Mets   (NYM/Rookie)  17/6    38
2)    Josh Donaldson   Sacramento (Oak/AAA)     11/1    71
3)    Jacob Realmuto   Greensboro (Fla/Low A)   11/3    56
4)    A.J. Jimenez     Dunedin    (Tor/High A)  10/1    69

Although originally signed out of Venezuela as a 3B/RF, after two mediocre season in Latin Rookie Summer ball, the Jays converted RHP Nestor Molina (5 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 4 K) to full-time pitching. Between his first appearance on the mound in 2007 and the end of last year, Molina made 77 appearances, only 4 of which were starts. Results were positive as he walked only 31 batters in 162.1 innings, while striking out 129. Not enough strikeouts, but a 4.16 K/BB rate is great no matter how it was compiled. Now a starter in Dunedin, the 22-year-old Molina has ramped his production up a notch – and while starting, no less! He’s struck out 97 across 88.1 innings, all but a handful or so as a starter. He is slight (6-1″, 179) and will probably move back to the bullpen as he advances through the system, but with four pitches (fastball, cutter, splitter and changeup), the Jays can make use of this time to see which secondary pitches should be kept going forward.

New Hampshire Fisher Cats – RF Moises Sierra (2-4, 2B, RBI, SB, outfield assist) has hit a bit of a snag, with only 9 hits in his last 37 at bats, with little power or patience dropping his OPS to .779 on the season. Adequate, if not spectacular, nonetheless, Sierra drew raves from manager Sal Fasano before the recent eastern League All-Star game, who noted his hitting, defensive ability and enthusiastic play as all pluses. His arm strength has been noted elsewhere, with the assist in this game being his 7th on the year. Already on the 40-man roster, it would be less than shocking to see get a cup of coffee with the big club this September.

And now for the obligatory rehab note. RHP Casey Janssen (1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 2 K) is now that much closer to returning to Toronto. I get the sense that his rehab will continue until the Jays figure out who to move off the team. The looming trade deadline may play a role with many contending clubs, including the St. Louis Cardinals, have expressed interest in the Jays’ pack of right-handed relievers.

Las Vegas 51s – As a general rule of thumb, anyone playing ball at AAA can be seen as a potential MLB player. No longer the training ground of the top and most polished prospects, AAA these days (yes, there are exceptions) serves as a staging ground for guys who should be able to manage alright in a pinch. The Jays have already made use of Vegas on multiple occasions this year to provide warm bodies during times of injury. David Cooper, Chris Woodward, Mike McCoy, Eric Thames, Scott Richmond and Luis Perez have all made the trip North, and a few others have been sent down from up above in order to work out some kinks. DH Ricardo Nanita (2-4, HR (2), RBI, R, K) is another such potential callup. Nanita has followed an odd path to this point. Born in the Dominican, like Jose Bautista, he came stateside before he could be signed as an amateur off the island. The only other things he has on common with the major league’s leading home run hitter is that Nanita follows Bautista on Twitter and that every year between June 12 and October 19, Nanita and Bautista are the same age. Nanita was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 14th round in 2003 out of Florida International University. He got to AA in his 4th professional season whereupon he stagnated. Three season for the ChiSox AA affiliate in Birmingham and he was on his own. The signed on with the Nationals where he hit for more power than ever before in a short AA stint, before going to Mexico, where he hit .328 in parts of 2 seasons. The Jays gave him a lifeline late last season, and, in a return to AA this year, Nanita, now 30, put together a .749 OPS over 58 games in New Hampshire, earning his first US AAA showing. It’s only been 7 games, but a .414 BA and an OPS well north of 1.000 is worthy of a mention. The best case scenario here is Randy Ruiz Redux, but that’s a lot more than most can say.

A surprise call-up in 2009, RHP Robert Ray (7 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 K) has since been plagued by injuries, limited to a combined 100 innings last year, ad only 40 so far this year. Adding insult to injury, Ray was outrighted off the Jays’ 40-man roster a few weeks ago. The PCL is not an easy place to pitch, but more appearances like this might help get Ray, now 27, back on the radar as a candidate for additional MLB service time.

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