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Down on the Farm – Jays MILB Thoughts – September 4, 2011

September 5, 2011

Bluefield Blue Jays – In with a bang, out with a whimper. The Bluefield Blue Jays’ season ended today, with the offense able to muster only a single hit against Johnson City as the Cardinals scored 4 behind a very strong effort by LHP Nicholas Gillung (6 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 6 K), a 22-year-old taken in this year’s 19th round out of small Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania. The complete lack of offensive push negated a solid start for Bluefield by RHP Deivy Estrada (5 IP, 4 H, 2 R (1 ER), 1 BB, 2 HBP, 5 K), who turned 19 just less than 2 weeks ago. Estrada began this season repeating in the GCL, but 3 starts with an 18/3 K/BB convinced the brass that he was ready for the challenge of the Appy League. After a solid first start for Bluefield, Estrada struggled with only 3 minor league quality starts* out of 9 total. Estrada was simply hit hard and often with Bluefield, surrendering 5 home runs over 36.1 regular season innings. It can be fallacious to look at opponent’s batting average in the low minors (quality of fielding can be suspect or worse), isolated slugging against can give more than a hint as to the type of contact surrendered. Estrada allowed an ISO of .216. Still young, it would not surprise if Estrada repeats Bluefield next year. As he is small of stature, a shift to the bullpen may also be in order to better take advantage of his solid split that saw his OPS against RHB .164 better than against LHBs.

*While a MLB quality start requires the starter last through 6 full innings, allowing 3 runs or less, a minor league quality start can be notched after only 5 innings, with 2 runs or less. At 6 or more innings, 3 runs are acceptable for the designation.

And now on to the awards for Bluefield, with the caveat that I will pick winners and mentions focusing on players who spent the vast majority of the year with the affiliate:

Player of the Year: It can only be LF Christopher Hawkins. Not only did he put up wonderful numbers, but the reports on him were also stellar, with some calling him a future 1st division starter. At a bat-centric position of LF, that is very heady praise for his offensive ability. I had earlier muted my excitement with a poor walk rate in the early going with only 8 walks in his first 158 plate appearances (5.1%). His patience showed a completely different level over the final month of the season, as Hawkins walked 14 times in 111 plate appearances (12.6%). If he can maintain the improved patience and pitch recognition of August into 2012, when he will compete for a spot in Lansing, he will be less reliant on the whims of balls in play. His 2011 BABIP of .378 is not quite sustainable, bouyed by a remarkable .491 against LHPs. If we lower his BABIP against lefties to his mark against righties (.328), we would have to take away 9 singles (most of those hits against southpaws were singles). Take 9 singles away from from his overall batting line, and Hawkins slash line goes from .318/.375/.492 down to .253/.338/.455. He probably would not have taken my player of the year award with those numbers, but I reward based on what he did, and not based on what he likely should have done. Mind you, that still isn’t bad, and aged 20, he did play in an age appropriate level. The improved patience, if played out over the full year would have driven that OBP well north of .350 (closer to .400, in fact). Christopher Hawkins has a very bright future in this game.

Pitcher of the Year: This one was much tougher. RHP Noah Syndergaard was the most dominant, but only pitched 32 innings before moving up to Vancouver. LHP Mitchell Taylor, RHP Miles Jaye and RHP Ajay Meyer both excelled in terms of K- and BB_rates, but Taylor was a bit too prone to being hit hard Jaye gave up too many home runs and Meyer is not considered a prospect – he’s 24 years old. I may be cutting Taylor short here, but I am giving the award to LHP Tyler Ybarra. Ybarra also has the great narrative that sells newspapers. He missed all of 2010 after a mediocre debut in the GCL as an overslot bonus baby in 2009. Ybarra improved this season as the summer grew hotter. Through July and August, he surrendered only 9 runs (8 earned) across 40.2 innings. In that time, he allowed only 29 hits and 15 walks while striking out 49. Ybarra may be the biggest “out of nowehere” prospect in the Blue Jays organization for 2011. He will trun 22 this December and I expect him to fight for a spot in the Lansing rotation in 2012.

Disappointment of the Year: It may be a cop-out to pick a player who was limited to 9 games due to injury, but that missed development time qualifies as a disappointment in my books. I am, of course, referring to 3B Kellen Sweeney who went 4-35 (.114 BA) before he fractured a small bone at the base of his left thumb. Sweeney already has a history of missed time as Tommy John surgery wiped away his Junior year in high school. A 2010 2nd round pick, the Blue Jays surely had higher hopes for Sweeney than he has been able to deliver upon thus far. On the bright side, he walked 9 times in 44 plate appearances (20.5% walk rate). Of course it’s a small sample (tiny!) but that is all in a write-off season.

Other Bluefield Notes: LHP Mitchell Taylor, the runner-up in the Pitcher of the Year race, had a solid season, with a 1.16 WHIP, 61/14 K/BB in 55.1 innings. He had a 3 start stretch of utter dominance, allowing only 3 hits (5 baserunners) across 15 innings and striking out 25. The aptly named RHP Myles Jaye was solid except for the longball tendency. He allowed 7 in 54 innings (1.17 HR/9). Walking only 3/9 helped him ensure the damage was minimized when the ball went into orbit. RHP Aaron Sanchez interspersed dominance with dominated. As the season wore on, he dominated more often and earned his end-of-season promotion to Vancouver. He may be the best of this bunch once all is said and done. I still believe in 1B Art Charles. His amateur career did not adequately prepare him for the rigours of being a full time hitter, but his power has shown itself to be real, and, as the season wore on, he showed a very good walk-rate, taking the free pass in 15.9% of his plate appearances in July and 12.5% in August. Even a minor improvement in his contact rate could see Charles really take off in 2012 (probably in Vancouver). Before this season, 2B Daniel Arcila had hit a total of 4 home runs in 189 games across 4 seasons, 3 of which were spent in the DSL. This season, during which he turned 21, Arcila found his stroke, clubbing 10 home runs in 54 games giving him a .238 ISO. I don’t know if it;s real, but I certainly look forward to finding out next season.

Vancouver Canadians – The Northwest League is dormant today, giving teams a short window to recuperate before the playoffs commence tomorrow. The Canadians kick things off hosting the Eugene Emeralds, the short-season A-ball affiliate of the San Diego Padres. I would have recommended you to watch out for CF Donovan Tate, if healthy. The recent #3 pick of the 2009 draft seemed to be breaking out between suspensions and injuries this year. But, he’s not healthy, as a wrist injury ended his season about 2 weeks ago. After Tate, an interesting name to follow on the opposition is that of SS Jace Peterson, a supplemental 1st rounder this year, who has shown an exemplary ability to get on base (.360 OBP, 50 BBs in 73 games), and to wreak havoc once there (39 SBs at a 79.6% success rate).

Lansing Lugnuts – Around six weeks ago, I posted a study that showed that DH/RF Michael Crouse (1-2, HR (14), RBI, 2 BB, K, SB, R) had hit 10 of his first 12 home runs this year off of relief pitchers, most of whom were simply seen as organizational fodder. His 13th, back before he hurt his leg on July 22nd, came off of a pretty nifty prospect in RHP Jimmy Nelson, a 2nd round pick of the Brewers who has done a good job starting this year for Wisconsin. And today’s home run, his first since his recovery, came off another starter. Well, “another” may not be the right word, as this is the 2nd time crouse has gone deep against Reds’ RHP Kyle Lotzkar. I love it when a prospect can prove me wrong. Also heartening for Crouse is his walk rate, now standing at 12% of his plate appearances this season. If he can reduce his propensity to strikeout next season at Dunedin, he could yet make a name for himself.

I need to get the fact that RHP Shawn Griffith (3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 6 K, 2 WP) is very old for Lansing (24 this past May) out of the way. And I should quickly mention that he is small (5-10″, 180). And, if you’ve been paying attention, you already know that he is right-handed. So that’s 3 strikes against him. The Jays have given him some time up in Dunedin and he actually pitched well. Over this year and last, Griffith pitched 9.21 innings in the FSL, allowing 6 hits and 1 run, walking 3 and striking out 7. Yet the Jays prefer him to stay in Lansing. I can’t hold that against Griffith. He can only pitch to the batters he’s facing. What I can hold against him, even after a dominant outing like today’s (only the second start of his career, coming in a bullpen game right before the playoffs) is his atrocious walk rate. In 37.1 innings pitched for Lansing this season, Griffith has walked 30 batters (7.2 BB/9). That is so high that the fact that he has also struck out 9.9 per 9 can be glossed over. That is the minimum he would have to walk to avoid an outright release. So he had 3 strikes already. Let’s call his height a foul ball – every year, more and more short pitchers come up and excel in the Majors. The walk rate, however….well…let’s just say that he swung right on top of that one.

Dunedin Blue Jays – It is hard to find meaning at the tail end of a season. Especially when the team being looked at has sewn up a playoff spot. Even more so when that team has every spot in the lineup barring the DH either be substituted out, or switched positions by the 6th inning. But there were two things of note here. First off, CF Rajai Davis (1-2, K) is back in the field. He was one of the first to sit, but putting his glove to use puts him at least 1 step closer to Toronto. Secondly, 1B/C Jon Talley (2-4, HR (20), RBI, BB, 2 K, R) donned the tools of ignorance for the first time this season as starting C Sean Ochinko left the game before the defensive half of the 6th. So he was holding his target as RHP Matt Daly tossed up a meatball that was taken out over the LF fence for a walk-off home run hit by Venezuelan SS Gustavo Gonzalez, of the Philadelphia organization. If nothing else, this shows that the Blue Jays organization is not determined to keep Talley away from his catching gear at all costs. His power would definitely play behind the plate if the rest of his tools could hold up.

New Hampshire Fisher Cats – Sometimes, I feel sure that players I write about, particularly those I cannot flatter, read my work and respond in kind. Yesterday, I wrote about what seemed to me to be “The Wall” as hit by 1B Mike McDade (2-4, HR (16), 2 RBI, 2 R). So today he comes back with only his 4th home run since the beginning of July. With Adam Lind ensconced with a long-term deal in Toronto, and David Cooper more than holding his own in Las Vegas, it looks like McDade will have to repeat at New Hampshire next season, barring the unexpected. At 22 years of age, McDade is young enough that such a move would not kill his career. If anything, keeping him away from Vegas and the bad habits that playing in the desert can lead to, may be for the best as far as his career is concerned.

Around the end of May, I was more or less ready to write the obituary for 3B Mark Sobolewski (2-4, 2B, HR (8), RBI, K, 2 R), at least in terms of his status as a prospect of note, as he was “hitting” a mere .224, with an OPS under .530. I’ve talked about adjustments before, and Sobolewski seemed to have then made his, batting .311 over his next two months (arbitrary end-points, to be sure, but easy to keep track of), with an OPS now above .850. August was then a down month, around the levels of the beginning of his season, but in his last 4 games, he has absolutely raked, with 9 hits in 17 at bats, including 3 doubles and a home run. A lot of those ups and downs can be traced pretty easily to his BABIP which has fluctuated wildly from month to month. Sobolewski does not like to take the free pass to 1B (his isolated patience is only .053 – walks in only 7% of his plate appearances) so he is very reliant on getting balls to drop in for safeties. as his ISO of .111 shows, he isn’t driving the ball deep enough for extra bases either, so it is generally going to be a single or nothing. As for his glove work, while fielding % is not the best barometer for judgement on that front, it should be said that, while he used to be error prone (fielding rates between .897-.934 in his first 3 seasons), he has played relatively mistake free this year, putting together a solid .952 fielding % this season, although his range scores have fallen somewhat precipitously, an observation backed up by Friend of Section 203, Dave Gershman. As for that prospect obituary, I’m sorry to say, but batting average alone can’t help it. He could probably hold his own in AAA, but the Majors are as far away as ever.

RHP Drew Hutchison (5 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 8 K) is still awesome. His regular season now complete, Hutchison has struck out 171 in 149,1 innings across three levels (10.3 K/9), while walking only 35 (2.1 BB/9). He has surrendered only 4 home runs throughout the year, which is the main area I see regressing in the future. He is not really a groundball pitcher, getting 1.33 ground outs per air out. Only 3.6% of his outfield flyballs left the yard. To get an idea of how that regression would likely effect Hutchison, let’s double the home run rate, giving him 8 allowed on the year. This would not effect his strike outs or walks, as only a few additional fly balls are going over the fence instead of landing in an outfielder’s glove. The average home run is around 1.5 runs, so let’s call it 6 additional runs allowed, and make them all earned. Hutchison’s seasonal ERA now jumps from 2.53 up to 2.89. You know what, even with some home run rate regression, Hutchison is still a damn good pitcher. Like I said, he’s awesome.

Las Vegas 51s – When Blue Jays’ SS Yunel Escobar hurt his wrist making a tag at 2B on Saturday, I had hoped that it was either nothing that would prevent him from playing the next day, or that it might force the organization’s hand regarding SS Adeiny Hechevarria (1-4, BB, K), on fire since reaching AAA. At the very least, assuming they insisted on keeping the Cuban bonus baby with the 51s for the duration, that 2B/SS Manny Mayorson (3-4, RBI, SB, R) might earn the call up  borne of 12 years service, 10.5 of which came for the Blue Jays’ organization. Now 28, Mayorson is no future star, but a a Mike McCoy clone, in abilities and even stature, as both men stand 5-9″, although Mayorson is a bit stockier. Not a power hitter (.076 ISO on the season) his numbers this season are not so much a product of Cashman inflation (accounting for 2/3 of his meagre power), but a sound, mature approach at the plate. Mayorson puts wood on the ball with frequency, walking in 8.1% of his plate appearances and striking out in only 7.5% of his at bats. He has a sustainable BABIP of .321 that is strikingly similar both at home and on the road, although more than 50 points higher against southpaws. Not to disparage SS/2B/3B Chris Woodward, who did get the emergency recall, but at 35 years old, he’s no more a prospect than Mayorson’s uncle, and his cameos of the past 3 years show that he can no longer provide the utilities he once had. I will give Woodward some credit, though. Between 2002-07, Woodward was a Major League regular, although the final two years in that span were poor. 32 years old and unable to secure an MLB spot for 2008, Woodward took his game to the minors. Many others of Woodward’s vintage would have been too proud for that move. He earned future abbreviated cameos in 2009, ’10 and now, ’11. I don’t think this is a service time favour the Jays are granting to Woodward, a month here or there to complete his pension. According to the his player page on Baseball Prospectus, Woodward had accumulated 8 years and 126 days of MLB service, far enough short of the full 10 years that a full September will not make much difference. With 38 slots on the 40-man roster taken (not counting players on the 60-day DL), there is still room to call up a Mayorson, or an Adam Loewen, should that be the route chosen by Alex Anthopoulos and friends. Although, and this is hot breaking news, just reported by John Lott, on twitter, the Blue Jays have just activated RHP Dustin McGowan from the 60-day DL – so there’s only 1 more open slot. Welcome back, Dustin. This should be fun.

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