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Down on the Farm – Jays MILB Thoughts – September 3, 2011

September 4, 2011

Bluefield Blue Jays – After RHP Jonathan Lucas surrendered 2 runs to the Johnson City Cardinals before getting 2 outs, the Bluefield Blue Jays find themselves in an early hole in the best-of-3 Appy League finals. And the game started off so well, too. Batting with 2 on and 2 out in the top of the 1st inning, RF Kevin Pillar (1-3, HR, 3 RBI, K, BB, R) pulled a ball deep to left field and out, giving the Blue Jays an early 3-0 lead. As mentioned before, Pillar has had a great season, particularly against lefties, off of whom he had a BABIP of .542. His BABIP against righties was a much more sustainable .328, yet all of his power, including this home run, have come against RHPs. As is, Pillar has put the ball on the ground at a great rate against southpaws, and somehow or other, many of those grounders found holes. Against righties, the 32nd rounder has put more of a charge in the ball, leading to a few more outfielders camped under long flies, but also a few of those long flies finding a gap and leading to extra bases. Assuming that Pillar wants to continue a pursuit of a life in baseball, he should be gunning for a spot in Lasning in 2012 as he would be too old for Vancouver, turning 23 in the offseason.

Before Lucas blew the game, RHP Andrew Sikula (2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 4 K) held the line for 2 innings. His line is a bit superficial though, as he entered with Bluefield leading 3-1 and a runner on second base. Sikula allowed a hard-hit double to the first batter he faced, bringing the JC Cardinals to within a single run, with the tying run on 2B and none out. So Sikula struck out the next batter, although the ball must have been in the dirt, as the batter took off for 1B. Paying him no heed, C Aaron Munoz fired the ball towards 2B, where SS Gustavo Pierre (now a few errorless games in a row) made the play on the stray baserunner. Now with one out and a runner on 1B, Sikula coaxed a double play to end the inning. He made cleaner work of the Cardinals in the 8th, striking out the side. The first of two right handed pitchers drafted by the Jays out of Marshall this June (36th round)*, Sikula has held up well in his debut, fluctuated between too hittable (38 hits allowed in 30.1 innings – 11.3 H/9) and unhittable (35 K in the same time – 10.4 K/9). Helping him limit the damage all those hits may otherwise portend, Sikula has done a great job in limiting walks, allowing only 9 (2.7 BB/9). Sikula also had an odd reverse-platoon split that can only be the product of a small sample size, as right-handed batters tattooed him to the tune of a .921 OPS against, compared to a more tenable .755 OPS against LHBs. At the same age as Pillar, Sikula will need to be challenged next season. Hoepfully, playing on better fields, with more advanced fielders behind him, the unsightly BABIP lines against him will subside in 2012.

*After drafting Sikula, the Jays popped RHP Shane Farrell (the son of…) in the 46th round. After the draft, the organization returned to the well for a 3rd time, signing undrafted free agent RHP Ian Kadish. Kadish has probably been the most impressive of the 3, particularly as Farrell went straight from signing to the 60-day DL.

Vancouver Canadians – I hope you’ll forgive my not making mention of any specific performance from today’s game, the final one of Vancouver’s regular season. An unremarkable game in all facets, I feel it would be best to ignore it and go point out that, as Spokane later defeated Everett, Vancouver has made it to the NWL playoffs, and we will have a few more chances yet to discuss the most mature of the Blue Jays’ short season league teams. As the Eugene Emerelds had the best record in NWL’s West Division in both halves of the season, Vancouver has reached the league semifinals by virtue of having the 2nd best record in the Division combined across both halves, as their 24-14 first half allowed them to overcome their poor second half showing (15-23) and finish second in the Division, 2 games ahead of the aforementioned Everett.

Lansing Lugnuts – I can’t imagine that the Blue Jays want LHP Justin Nicolino (1.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 3 K) to pitch much longer Now at 61 innings on the season, the 19 year-old debutant has gone further than he ever has. His peripherals have been close enough in his 8.2 innings with Lansing to convince me that his phenomenal stats from Vancouver were the product of his talents and not league-, or team-specific flukes.

Another name worth mentioning, who has received infrequent attention from Section 203 despite a very strong full season debut, has been LF Marcus Knecht (0-2, 2 BB, 2 K). Generally speaking, this type of performance would not be worth mentioning, but, as it has been indicative of much of his recent play, I wanted to bring some attention to him. Knecht began the season, his first full one as a professional, aflame, with a 1.073 OPS through 13 games in April. Through May and June, his OPS was remarkably stable, at .880 and .882 respectively. He had played in 64 games by the end of June, compared to 61 all of last season, spent at Auburn. Through another 26 games in July, Knecht’s production declined somewhat, to the tune of a .816 OPS for the month. The degradation continued in August, as he hit only .200, as his power, still evident, lifted him to a season-low OPS of .764. If his performance had began stalling earlier than July, I would fear that the league had adjusted to him, and he could not adjust back. While that may be the case, it is also likely, that playing this long for the first time in his life has simply tired him out. The proof will be in how well Knecht gets underway next year, almost assuredly to begin in Dunedin.

More than anything achieved by a Lugnut, this game was far more notable for a special accomplishment reached by the hometown Dayton Dragons. One of the parent Cincinnati Reds’ top prospects, the Dragons’ leadoff hitter and starting SS, Billy Hamilton (2-3, 2B, 3 SB, 2 R) stole the last 3 bases he needed to reach 100 on the season. A remarkable athlete, Hamilton’s speed can shame even that of Anthony Gose. His speed rates a pure 80 on the scouting scale. Like with Gose, there are questions about Hamilton’s bat ceiling, in the sense that some aren’t sure he will make his way to 1B often enough for others to worry about the sanctity of 2B. In any case, 100 steals in a minor league season is definitely worthy of the recognition of Section 203.

Dunedin Blue Jays – As far as prospects go, genuine or not, listed players or organization filler, nothing about this game sticks out. My credo is, if the hitters didn’t do anything, start with the starting pitcher. Even that avenue was not available to me in this game, as Dunedin went with a bullpen game, as 4 pitchers completed 2 innings a piece, in order RHP‘s Scott Gracey, Justin Phillabaum, Harold Mozingo and Matt Daly, all to some degree of appreciable success. However, while the primary purpose of the minor leagues is to develop younger players into Major League contributors, the secondary purpose is to provide a staging ground for rehabilitating players to get back into game shape and return to The Show. And so, today’s game brought us the return of CF Rajai Davis (1-3, HR (1), RBI, R) in his first appearance in game action since mildly tearing his hamstring a few weeks ago. He did not play the field in this game, in the lineup as the DH. But playing means he can run and given the relatively short layoff, I expect him back in Toronto by mid-week. We should also not expect him to suddenly start swinging for the fences upon his return, but, courtesy of Friend of Section 203, Bill Christie, we get a glimpse of what he can do against unmatured pitching.

New Hampshire Fisher Cats – Needing a win to secure a spot in the Eastern League playoffs, the Fisher Cats delivered in a huge way, an 11-0 whitewashing of the momentarily hapless Portland Sea Dogs, the AA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Before reviewing the game, first some champagne, courtesy of Friend of Section 203, Dave Gershman. (BTW – check out his piece on Fisher Cats’ C and Eastern League MVP, Travis d’Arnaud, published on ESPN today, here.) Anyways, the game. As I mentioned earlier today, regarding Lansing LF Marcus Knecht, there are multiple ways to look at a late-season slump. There is failure to adjust. There is general fatigue, more prevalent among professionals in their first full seasons. There are injuries, such as that which held 1B Mike McDade (2-4, K, R) to 18 games in August. And then there are combinations of the above. Through the end of May, McDade was hitting .325, with an .873 OPS. Good stuff, indeed. Since then, his OPS has fallen month by month. McDade was at .805 in June, then .665 in July and finally a putrid .602 in his abbreviated August. He has hit only 3 home runs since the end of June. Even leaving out August, one would have to presume that he was playing hurt in July before being shelved to attribute his reduction of production to anything beyond a failure to adjust. At 22, he is younger than many batters in Low A, so he will still have chances to regain his status, but 2011 must rate as a disappointment for McDade.

In direct contract to Knecht and McDade, stands organizational utility man, the former highly touted prospect, sometimes playing 2B, but in this game LF, John Tolisano (2-5, 2 HR (13), 5 RBI, K, 2 R). Sitting with an OPS around .650 at the end of May, Tolisano, mostly playing in LF or 2B, went on a tear, putting together a .509 SLG in June to go with a shiny .876 OPS on the month. He reverted back to his previous range of mid 600’s for July, but August saw Tolisano rise from the ashes once more, with a .763 OPS on the month, driven largely by newfound patience (13/16 BB/K in August, compared to 34/82 through the end of July. Tolisano, who would need to be placed on the Jays’ 40-man roster this offseason to avoid exposure to the Rule V draft, is unlikely to be protected. However, not playing a premium position, and still inconsistent, he is unlikely to be selected, giving the Jays another year of service control over Tolisano. Although he put together a slightly better OPS for Dunedin (repeating the level) in 2010, I would have to say that this season has been more impressive, as it was far less batting-average dependent.

Finally, breakout RHP Nestor Molina (3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 4 K) had another impressive, if abbreviated appearance making this game’s start. Although only 22 innings, Molina has been more impressive for AA New Hampshire than he was in High A Dunedin, but this being the first year of performance even remotely similar to this, it is hard to project him as anything higher than a #4 with plus command. That’s not a bad asset to have, for those who raise the pitchforks whenever a player like this is not projected for stardom. A good #4 is a lot more than anyone figured he could be before this season began. Having already pitched 49.1 innings more than his previous career high (81 IP last year), teh Jays are holding back on Molina, knowing that next year will be a must sterner test of his abilities, as he should spend far more time in AA, likely as a member of the Jays’ 40-man roster.

Las Vegas 51s – Given the over-abundance of rumours as to his impending return to Toronto (likely to pitch out of the bullpen), while no means pitching a great game, it is at least heartening to see RHP Kyle Drabek (7 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 0 BB, 4 K, 1 HR) hit the strike zone consistently. Both during his time with the Blue Jays and in many of his previous starts for the 51s, Drabek struggled to throw even half of his pitches for strikes. In this game, a solid 70/103 pitches were strikes – 68%. To borrow a phrase from Kevin Goldstein, Drabek is “still in the tall weeds”, but still only 23 years old, he has time yet to figure out how it all went so wrong, and return to being the pitcher so many thought he would inevitably be. Assuming health, mechanics can be fixed. We’ll know a lot more about his future (especially with the Blue Jays) after Spring Training. Which leads to an interesting question to ponder: What is more instructive in evaluating young talent – Spring Training, or AAA?

And finally a few quick notes – SS Adeiny Hechavarria (3-6, 2 2B, 2 RBI, 2 K) had yet another multi-hit game, now 6 in his last 9 games met that definition. So much of this is BABIP. Think about it – in 464 AA at bats, Hechevarria struck out in 16.8% of his at bats, yet hit only .235, with a .622 OPS. Now, in 99 AAA at bats, he has struck out 20 times – a 20.2% K-rate. But, hey – baseball is a fun game, and what Hechevarria is doing is fun.

And a note from the free Loewen file – RF Adam Loewen (2-3, 3B, 2 BB, 3 R) adds another exclamation to his bid for a late-season cameo with the Jays, in what would be his debut as a position player in The Show. You can scoff at his K-rate of 25.5% of his at bats, but must respect his BB-rate of 10.2%, where anything above 8% is considered above average. The tools may not play in MLB, but the narrative is a winner every time. The best case scenario may be Rick Ankiel,orBrian Bogusevic, and either would be a useful piece.

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