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Down on the Farm – Jays MILB Thoughts – September 1, 2011

September 2, 2011

Bluefield Blue Jays – As the Bluefield Blue Jays dropped the 2nd game in the best of 3 Appy League seminfinals to the Elizabethton Twins, evening the series at 1-1, I will, for once, avoid a meandering discussion into the future merits of early 2011 draft picks RHPs Joseph Musgrove and Jeremy Gabryszwski, who both pitched well in relief. Instead, in continuation of a theme picked up yesterday, I will bring some attention to a player not yet featured in this space. Today, that man is C Aaron Munoz (2-3), drafted this June out of Northwestern State in Louisiana in the 34th round, the only catcher selected by the Jays. Raised in Arizona, Munoz at Gateway Community College before transferring to NSU, where he gained a reputation as one of the college game’s top defensive catchers. Which was a necessity, as he couldn’t hit a lick, finishing his senior season with a .540 OPS. The year before, when aluminium bats were still permitted, Munoz’ OPS just topped .600 reaching .615. If you are like me, you followed MLB’s draft ticker this past June, amazed as the Jays selected pitcher after pitcher, with only few position players and no catchers. Round after round, I waited and waited, thinking, “Surely there must be someone out there to catch all of those pitches.” Munoz was that guy. His offensive profile as a professional has been the equal of his college exploits, with a .560 OPS over  the season with Bluefield, with zero power and little appreciable patience. But can he catch? Yup. Can he throw? Yup – he caught 35% of would-be base-thieves. As a catcher, he will keep getting chances as long as pitchers enjoy throwing to him. Remember the Section 203 rules about prospects – pedigree and performance go out the window for catchers and left-handed pitchers.

Vancouver Canadians – I may regret this after Saturday, when the Vancouver season ends, but there is nothing I can say about the players in this game that hasn’t been said before. Maybe I’m just tired, but looking at this game’s boxscore, the Canadians played tired. If I knew anything at all about RHP Kramer Champlin (3 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 1 K) other than that he is tall (6-6″) and very thin (200), I might say something about him, but even then, I’d be forcing it. He hasn’t pitched that well since being activated after signing as a 33rd round draft pick this year out of Arizona State University. A starter in college, his professional future, whatever it may be, resides in the bullpen. I suppose it;s nice that he’s only walked 4 in 16 innings since signing, but that’s the best I can say about him as he’s been hit pretty hard with an OPS against of over 1.000.

Lansing Lugnuts – With candidate for organizational Player of Year, CF Jake Marisnick earning the night off, my focus can more easily turn to a couple of stellar pitching performances, one of whom has been featured before, and the other of whom has not. LHP Sean Nolin (6 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 10 K, 1 HR, 1 HBP) is ending his season with a serious bang, a full-season debut that must be termed a smashing success. He should get one more start before the regular season ends, but in his last 4 starts (including this one, Nolin has pitched a total of 23 innings, allowing 18 hits, 8 runs (only 4 earned), walking 5 while striking out 30 and allowing just the lone home run.  Before he was drafted in the 6th round of the 2010 draft, Nolin was cited by Baseball America as pitching in the upper 80s (not as bad for a lefty as for a righty), while touching 92, with a good changeup and a fringy curveball. He’s young enough to continue and has a the frame (6-4″, 250) of an innings eater, even though his average of under 5.5 innings per start over his last 10 does not show it. His breaking ball will need to develop further for him to remain a starting pitcher, but there is no reason to move him to the bullpen just yet.

Also selected by the Jays in last year’s draft, RHP Brandon Berl (3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 1 K) has not received nearly the publicity (none from this corner) as some of the more heralded choices. And for good reason. A senior sign taken in the 40th round, Berl was known to throw his heater between 88-92 (not as good from the right side) with some spin. Slight of frame, Berl will turn 24 by the time the 2012 season gets a head of steam. Statistically, Berl’s best attribute from his first full season has been his minuscule walk rate,  allowing only 8 free passes across 47.1 innings (1.5 BB/9), which somewhat excuses his blase strikeout rate 7.6/9. Berl collects groundballs by the handful, which also helps me overlook his average K-rate, forcing 1.86 ground outs for every one in the air this year. He also has no appreciable platoon splits. The Jays have no real reason to beleive that they have a special pitcher in Berl, which is evidenced by their not having promoted him to a more age-appropriate level in spite of his early season success (1.26 ERA over his first 14.1 innings).

Dunedin Blue Jays – Torrential rains washed away today’s Dunedin game.

New Hampshire Fisher Cats – There are certain players which, while not any more telling in the grand scheme of things than a consistent level of play, are just great fun and worth mention when they occur. There are two types of steal of home. The best and rarest, is the straight steal. No one else is running as a distraction or decoy, just one man on a mad 90 foot dash down the line. Former Blue Jays’ 2B Aaron Hill noted his straight steal of home off of Andy Pettitte in an otherwise meaningless early season game as one of the highlights of 6.5 years with the team. The other type is part of a double steal, or a delayed double steal, where there is at least one other runner on base, besides the man on 3B, usually on 1B. Usually, the man on 1B would move first to draw the attention of the catcher, drawing a throw while the man from 3b can take advantage the time the ball must spend in the air between home plate and 2B and make his way towards the plate. In the top of the 1st inning of this game, with 2 out, RF Moises Sierra (3-4, 3B, R, SB) hit a single to LF. The next batter, C Travis d’Arnaud hit a ground ball towards SS that was so misplayed that, not only were both runners safe, but Sierra was able to reach 3B safely. With 2 out and runners on the corners, an enterprising manager may be willing to take a chance. After all, if the batter can’t capitalize, the threat dies. So d’Arnaud, not known for his speed, took off towards 2B, as the opposing catcher began his throw towards 2B. And with that as his cue, Sierra broke for home. Both batter were safe. Sierra further showcased his speed in the 3rd, with a triple on a deep fly ball towards LF. Don’t forget that Sierra is on the 40-man roster and may receive a cameo call up to Toronto once New Hampshire’s season is over.

Playing with a short leash, RHP Dustin McGowan (3.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 7 K) was hot and cold, looking poor one moment and dominant the next in what may have been his last rehab outing before rejoining the Blue Jays for the first time since 2008. According to Friend of Section 203, Dave Gershman, McGowan’s velocity started below-par before inching up, while his slider looked filthy. Many believe that McGowan will start (short starts, I guess) when he returns, in what should be a victory for him and for the entire organization for believing in him, no matter the final score.

Las Vegas 51s – With 4 games left in the 51s’ schedule, it seems the Blue Jays will avoid callups (beyond the Jon Rauch/Carlos Villanueva DL activation type) until the affiliate completes its run of games. One player sure to be recalled on or around late Monday night is 1B David Cooper (2-3, 2B, BB), whose double to LF was the 50th of his season. His batting average now stands at .370, assuring Cooper of the 2011 PCL batting crown. The runner-up with 4 games to play, Reno Aces’ RF Collin Cowgill, trails by 16, and has been helping the Diamondbacks in their run for the NL West title since July 24. In fact, the top 3 runners-up are all in the majors right now. The highest average by a PCL player still in the PCL belongs to Tucson Padres’ 1B Anthony Rizzo, at .333. Rizzo actually had a more extended run in the majors this year than Cooper, to results that were no better. If anything, they were even worse, if only for having been drawn out so much longer. Before I run through the litany of Cooper’s accomplishments this year for the 51s, I have to remind once again, that he plays in a great environment for hitters, helping him to a 1.049 OPS at home. Also, many of the road stadiums where Cooper has put up an impressive .930 OPS are also amazing offensive stadia, such as those in Reno, Salt Lake, Colorado Springs and Albuquerque. In addition to leading the league in batting average, Cooper also leads in hits (closest runner-up still in the PCL is 6 behind), his 50 doubles are 5 more than runner-up and teammate Adam Loewen. Cooper’s OBP of .439 is 9 points up on the aforementioned Cowgill, and 16 points higher than anyone still in the league. With only 9 home runs, his slugging and OPS are only in top 15 territory. To my mind, the most impressive statistic of Cooper’s, the one that best portends to success at a higher level is his phenomenal BB/K ratio of 62/41 (1.51 BB/K). That combination of above-average contact ability along with selectivity, should not be seen as a product of his environment, but as the evolution of a trait that has followed Cooper up the ladder from his college days at Berkeley and through the professional ranks. With Blue Jays’ incumbent at 1B, Adam Lind, having a horrendous second half, the team could do worse than to give Cooper another look-see.

*Postscript – when discussing MLB comps for Cooper, the name that comes up most frequently, is former Jays starter, Lyle Overbay. Google is rife with interested outsiders comparing Cooper to a poor man’s Overbay, with lesser defensive chops. Every time that comp is brought up, a Blue Jays’ fan moans and an angel loses its wings. Every Jays fan remembers Overbay for his 3 mediocre seasons (out of 5 total) with the Jays from 2006-2010. While the AL East was won with the like of Kevin Youkilis and Mark Teixeira manning first base – hell, even Carlos Pena, Overbay hit a few doubles, walked a bit and played a nifty first base. On the one hand, as chest-puffingly irritating as it was to see Overbay man what should be the thumper’s role for so long, we have to remember that the Jays were not the only team to think he was worthy of being a starting 1B. If he gets 3 more starts for Arizona, 2011 would then be his 8th year with over 100 appearances. As offensively below par as he has been as a 1B, that is worth admiring. On the other hand, if the Diamondbacks make the playoffs, this would be Overbay’s first time playing for a contender. In summary, it would not be a bad thing if Cooper is as good as Overbay. But that would not make him the type of 1B that could lift Toronto into serious contention against the Yankees, Red Sox or Rays.

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