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Down on the Farm – Jays MILB Thoughts – August 19, 2011

August 20, 2011

DSL Jays – The DSL Jays had a rare lead today, but the game was called in the middle of the 4th inning. I don’t even know if the statistics of today’s game will count, which is a shame as 1B Tonguar Perez (2-2, HR (4), RBI, R) extended his team lead in homers. That’s right – he led the team before the game with 3. Now he has double the runners-up. A kind word is also due to the Jays’ pitcher, RHP Juan Cabrera (3 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 3 K). A 19 year old in his professional debut, this was to be Cabrera’s 3rd career start. Mostly coming out of the bullpen, Cabrera has had a decent season, pitching 39. innings, with a 37/15 K/BB ratio. If only some of the hitters on the time could put together similar ratios. This should serve as a reminder that even the pitching stats in this league are hard to gauge as the batting – league-wide – is poor. We can compare a given pitcher’s stats to those of his teammates, but not much else. Hopefully a few of these guys will move up to the GCL next year and really give us food for thought.

GCL Jays – In the first game of a quasi-double header, RHP Nicholas Purdy (4.1 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 8 K) took over for LHP Griffin Murphy, who started the game 10 days ago.  Purdy is an interesting cat. A local player, born and raised in the suburb of Cobourg, Purdy made some waves as a high schooler and coerced the Mariners to take a 50th round flyer on him in 2007. He was listed as an outfielder. Purdy did not sign. In fact, he went back to high school. And became a pitcher. A big guy at 6-5″, 205, he was now drafted as a pitcher by the Royals in the 36th round. His stock on the rise, once more he didn’t sign. This time, he went on to pitch for Hillsborough Community College, hoping to raise his stock. Paperwork issues kept him out of the limelight though and prevented him from being drafted. Seeing him pitch in travel ball, the Blue Jays nabbed Purdy as an undrafted free agent. With the draft as all-consuming as it is, rare is the player who makes it to the Show without being drafted. The optimist can point to Heath Bell or Brandon Beachy, but more often the pessimist cannot even remember who to point to. Purdy at least has the type of back story that suggests the reasons behind his having been forgotten. The back story, along with a fastball clocked as high as 94 mph and a knucklecurve. He’s dominated the younger competition in the GCL but failed in an earlier trial in advanced Vancouver. 94 or no, he will need to make his move soon.

While still waiting for OF Derrick Loveless (I think he’ll surprise some) to make his professional debut, RF Jacob Anderson (2-3, 2B, BB, 3 R) has another impressive game. He has walked twice in his first 4 games. It is always important to pay attention to the plate discipline of newly drafted players as that may be the hardest thing to gauge in the amateur ranks, whether the player played in a 4-year college, a junior college or high school. A drafted player was almost always one of (if not the) most dangerous players on his team and would often be pitched around, thus exhibiting false pitch recognition. Once they enter the pro ranks, the vast majority are one playing with true peers and can be expected to face top tier pitching all of the time. A recent conversation I had with Anderson tells me that he has an idea of his strengths and weaknesses as a batter, and in knowing that it can be inferred that he has an idea of what to lay off of. Time and exposure against more advanced competition will tell he accurate he was, but it can only be a very positive sign so far.

Bluefield Blue Jays – Despite standing around 6-0″ myself, I still like to cheer for the figurative and literal “little guy”. SS Peter Mooney (2-4, BB, SB, 2 R, E) certainly fits that bill, as (IIRC) the shortest man in the organization, standing 5-6″, 155. Positively Ecksteinian. A 21st rounder out of 2011 NCAA Champions South Carolina, the just turned 21 year old (yesterday) Mooney has done nothing but perform since signing on. A brief 3 game stint in the GCL, presumably to get his feet wet, was followed with a quick promotion to Bluefield. His current 1.034 OPS is absolutely not sustainable, but the performance has been good enough to earn a shot at a spot with full-season Lansing next year. One other interesting note is that his incredible 11/7 BB/K rate shows that he his using his smaller strike zone to draw more free passes. It’s a great skill to have and being tested against more advanced pitching will show if the skill can hold up against pitchers with better stuff and location.

Vancouver Canadians – Yesterday I mentioned RHP Noah Syndergaard as a candidate for the best prep pitcher drafted in 2010. While I would have put my money on fellow RHP Aaron Sanchez before the year had begun, his improvements still leave him well short of another RHP, Justin Nicolino (5 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 3 K). I’ll get to his numbers in a minute, but it is almost as exciting to read Keith Law, he wrote in an ESPN chat yesterday, “Can’t tell you how many good reports I’ve gotten on Nicolino this summer.” The reports I’ve read and the video I’ve seen suggest a pitcher in the mold of Drew Hutchison, who seems like a pitcher in the mold of Shaun Marcum. But I also think the ceiling may be higher. Not aces, but very good #2’s above average #3’s. as to the numbers, Nicolino leads the NWL in ERA by .73 points – he’s at an absolutely remarkable 1.03. His K/BB is an amazing 64/11 in only 52.1 innings. He has a great BABIP, too, which indicates that he’s not really a 1.03 pitcher, but a FIP of 1.38 tells that his pitching is still good even after his defense is stripped away. He also has absurdly remarkable opposite splits, holding them to an .139 average compared to .229 against the same-sided. He has yet to surrender a home run. Honestly, the more I think about it, I can’t remember anyone who was as dominant as this in my time following the system.

Lansing Lugnuts – I have long thought that the best thing the Blue Jays organization could do for themselves and for baseball in Canada was to help grow the game at the grass roots level. Kids love baseball around here, but the opportunities for youth play are much more limited here than they are in the US. The youth involvement level varies across the country, with stronger pockets being located in BC (the fabled Langley Blaze travel team) and Alberta (the Vauxhall program), but Ontario has been pretty weak ion that regard for some time. Once in a while you get a player who manages to emerge from the morass and make a name for himself. But, it seems the average Canadian player is better than the average American-born player. As of last week, there were 16 Canadians in the Majors, counting Mark Teahen, who holds Canadian citizenship, but was born and raised in California and Jesse Crain, who while born in Toronto, was raised in Colorado. There are a bunch more in the Minors, but we are just over 1 Canadian player for every 2 teams. Among those 12 players are 2 former MVP’s (Justin Morneau and Joey Votto), former All Stars (Ryan Dempster, Russell Martin, Jason Bay), three pitchers who have been great before injuries affected their careers (Rich Harden, Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis), one of the best of the new breed of closer (John Axford) and Canada’s newest celebrity (Brett Lawrie). I would hazard to say that a random sampling of 16 American players would not be so illustrious. For a Canadian player to get enough notice to be drafted high, he needs to be better than an American would to go as high. Because not as many eyes are on them, they need to do more to get noticed. Even when they get noticed, it is not always enough. The ones who did not sign out of high school went to small Junior Colleges, or smaller Canadian schools – Jeff Francis actually was drafted out of the University of British Columbia! Of the 16 Canadians, only two (Votto and Brewers’ backup Catcher George Kottaras) are from the GTA. Axford is the only other from Southern Ontario (Simcoe, Ont.) For such a large population centre that has held an MLB team for almost 35 years, that is a shockingly small number. Simply put, the older a teenager gets the fewer are his chances to play ball, and only the cream of the cream among the youth will continue to play in their prime development years. The Jays should help to make it easier for high school aged youth to play competitive baseball. Their reward would be more youth who grow up playing and thereby enjoying the game, and would continue to enjoy the game and the local nine at the Rogers’ Centre.

Hoping to change that dynamic is a young Toronto-born graduate of St. Michael’s, LF Marcus Knecht (2-5, HR (14), 4 RBI, SB, R, 2 K). Knecht was drafted out of high school in the 23rd round by the Milwaukee Brewers.* Instead of signing, he went to Oklahoma State. He played sparingly as a freshman and transferred to nearby Connors State Junior College which has a deep connection to Canadian baseball. Not only is Connors State the alma mater of the above mentioned Kottaras, but their roster last year had five new Canadian players. Knecht had a standout season for Connors State in 2010 and was taken by the Blue Jays in the 3rd round of last year’s draft. Signing early, the Jays skipped him past the GCL and he had a solid debut in Auburn, putting up a .782 OPS in 61 games. His encore, spent entirely in Lansing has been even better, with his OPS now exactly 100 points higher (.882). He has shown good power (isolated slugging of .204) and a decent approach at the plate (12.3% walk rate, 23.1% strikeout rate). Knecht hits lefties better than righties (as expected for right handed batters) but is no slouch against righties with an .839 OPS in 275 AB’s – most of the difference is from his better power – such as this game’s home run – against south-paws.) Like Travis Snider and Eric Thames before him, I believe the Jays wanted to keep Knecht, Jake Marisnick and Michael Crouse all at the same level i their first year of full-season ball before even considering any kind of acceleration of their time tables. All three should start next season in Dunedin, but continued good play could see them end the season in New Hampshire, or higher.

*The Brewers are run by a Canadian in GM Gord Ash. They have long made a point in drafting the undervalued Canadians. They drafted 3 this year, signing 2, drafted 2 last year, and 3 in 2009.

Dunedin Blue Jays – Even if I’m wrong about the projection comparisons between Marcum, Nicolino and RHP Drew Hutchison (5 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 6 K, 1 HR), I have confidence that the speed with which they are pushed along will be similar. Hutchison has been drawing rave reports this season and has seen a lift in his numbers since being promoted to the admittedly pitching-friendly FSL. His combined line reads 134.1 IP, 110 H (7.4 H/9), 49 R, 40 ER, 4 HR, 33 BB (2.2 BB/9), 149 K (10 K/9) – 4.5 K/BB. I have Hutchison as an early front runner to be one of the Jays’ top 3 on my upcoming list. It would not be surprising to see him debut with Toronto one year from now.

New Hampshire Fisher Cats – While there are some among the nation of Blue Jays prospect hounds who believe that CF Anthony Gose (0-2, BB, HBP, 3 SB, K) is an inevitability as the CF of the future, there are some industry insiders who are not as sure. They all agree that his speed, both on the basepaths and in the outfield, is game-changing. His arm rates as high as humanly possible on the 20-80 scouting scale, as befitting a player who could throw in the high-90’s off a high school pitching mound. Some think his power projects to be average. The only tool that is still in doubt, and this is the tool the separates a Devon White from a Greg Golson, is his hit tool. While it is OK to strike out over 20% of the time when you have plus power, Gose’s career 22.8% K-rate has come, for the most part, without that power. His 13 home runs this year have more than doubles his career total. Not coincidentally, his K-rate has also risen dramatically this year, now sitting at 26.1%. It’s not all doom-and-gloom, of course, as Gose has just turned 21, two months younger than Knecht, who is two levels below. His walk rate has also grown this year, hinting at a more advanced, patient approach leading to at least some of his strike outs. His career walk rate of 8% is more or less average. This year, that mark has risen to a respectable 10.7%. Gose does not yet need to be placed on the 40-man roster and, in light of his age, seems to be a great candidate to repeat AA next year (at least to start). For a hitter like him, he may fall prone to selling out for power in Vegas. That would hurt his approach and set him further away from the majors. He could repeat AA in 2012 and, assuming the Jays leave Las Vegas after that, move on to the 40-man roster and up to AAA for 2013. The sky is the limit, but the ground is further from the sky for Gose than for many other prospects I write about.

Las Vegas 51s – Once more, RHP Kyle Drabek (3.1 IP, 5 H, 6 R, 6 BB, 2 K, 1 HBP, 1 HR) was shelled. You can’t even blame Las Vegas for this, as this game came in the relatively tamer AutoZone Park, in Memphis. While Drabek was held in extremely high regard before this season, his control was never better than average. This year, he has dropped from a 50, to a 20. Combined with his numbers from Toronto, Drabek has walked more than he has struck out (86 walks, 83 Ks). A change so sudden and so dramatic suggests an underlying problem. 23 year olds don’t suddenly suck. I would be concerned about his health. Writing for The Score in May, Dustin Parkes posited that Drabek was not throwing the curveball that had won him so many admirers along his rise to the Show. I have not heard any reports on Drabek’s repertoire since his demotion, but that would be one non-health related reason. Travis d’Arnaud and Anthony Gose, the other pieces of the Halladay trade (round-about in Gose’s case) are still performing well enough that the return must be looked at favourably, but Drabek is broken now. The man needs fixing. Fixing and baseball-style TLC.

One final note on recent AA call-up SS Adeiny Hechevarria (3-5, HR (1), 3 RBI, 2 R). This ridiculous hot streak will not last forever. In 8 games, he has only struck out 3 times, and only once did he have less than 2 hits in a game. This was the 3rd game in which he had three hits. He has been three times as likely to have three hits than one. The Chad Mottola effect? Time will tell. According to Alex Anthopoulos, Hechevarria will spend most, if not all, of next season in AAA.

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