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Down on the Farm – Jays MILB Thoughts – September 9, 2011

September 10, 2011

Vancouver Canadians – With a 3-run outburst high-lit by a 2-run double by 1B Kevin Patterson, to open the game, and the series in the top of the 1st inning, and solo homers by CF Kevin Pillar and RF Nicholas Baligod in the 3rd and 6th innings respectively, the Canadians got as much as they needed to take the 1st game of the NWL finals against the Tri-City Dust Devils. Instead of RHP Ben Smith, who had been scheduled to start as of Thursday, the Canadians went with RHP Ajay Meyer (5 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 5 K), who spent his professional debut with Bluefield, with a K/BB rate just shy of 5. While not dominant, Meyer kept the Canadians in the game long enough for their 2 insurance runs in the top of the 6th. After Meyer was taken out, RHP Alesone Escalante (4 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 3 K) took over, shutting down the Dust Devils over the final 4 innings, allowing only 2 baserunners, one on an error. A converted position player, Escalante, reputed to have above average arm strength is one for whome I would cut some slack on his relatively advanced age (recently turned 23). He failed to impress in an early season audition in Lansing, but should get another shot there next year, his last year under team control.

Lansing Lugnuts – One strike away from an ignominious elimination at home at the hands of the Dayton Dragons, 2B Matt Nuzzo (1-3, HR, 2 RBI, BB, K, R) made himself a local hero with a fly ball he pulled over the fence in LF. A game-winning, walk-off shot that ensured a 3rd game. LF Marcus Knecht led off the bottom of the 9th with a single to RF, only the 2nd hit of the game for the Lugnuts. An Oliver Dominguez sacrifice moved Knecht to 2B and then K.C. Hobson struck out, putting the season on the line for Nuzzo, who had hit 4 home runs in 258 at bats over the full regular season. In his entire professional career, Nuzzo had hit 6 bombs in 458 at bats over three seasons. Down to his last strike against RHP Drew Hayes, who had a dominant season out of the Dayton ‘pen this year, Nuzzo made his mark. All previous runs in this game were scored in the 1st inning. Dayton began by loading the bases on their first 3 batters, with a hit-by-pitch, single and walk. The first run scored on a ground out and the second on a passed ball by Lugnuts’ C, Carlos Perez. The Lugnuts got their 1st, which for a long while felt like their only possible run, on a single, 2 walks and a long fly ball off the bat of DH Michael Crouse, which was deep enough to score RF Jonathan Jones from 3B. LHP Justin Nicolino (5.1 IP, 3 H, 2 R (1 ER), 1 BB, 4 K) kept Lansing in the game after the rough opening frame, matching the nearly unhittable Dragons’ starter, RHP Josh Smith, who struck out 8 Lugnuts over 5.1 innings, not allowing a hit after the leadoff single by Jones in the 1st. Game 3 is tomorrow evening.

Dunedin Blue Jays – I had hoped/thought that I would not have to summarize their season this early, but, well, them’s the playoffs.

Player of the Year – It would be too easy to choose a guy like LF Brian Van Kirk who led Dunedin regulars in OPS, .046 above the nearest contender. But Van Kirk was also the oldest regular on the squad, and playing a bat-only position like LF, his relative value is not nearly as high. I could make a similar argument against RF Brad Glenn, who was that #2 man behind Van Kirk on the Dunedin OPS leader board. Glenn had an ISO around 20% higher than Van Kirk’s, but like Van Kirk, Glenn was over-aged, playing the season at 24. And again, as a RF, he has to hit. Neither Van Kirk nor Glenn are considered serious prospects at this point in their respective careers. The Position Player of the Year for the D-Jays is C A.J. Jimenez, who is almost the polar opposite of the two aforementioned corner outfielders, in that, at 21 years of age, he was among the younger regulars on the team, and as a catcher, his value is not driven solely by his bat, but he gains more traction from his defense than nearly every other position in the lineup – even shortstop. Even with those caveats, Jimenez put up a more than respectable .770 OPS on the season, an up-and-down season, which saw Jimenez smoke the ball during April and May, wilt as the weather grew hot in June and July, but made the necessary adjustments in August and through the close of the Dunedin season. As for his defense, while his caught stealing rates have dropped from figures well above 50% over the past two years, was a very strong 44% this season. With Jimenez, it is important to look past his draft pedigree of the 9th round. Like current Blue Jays LF Eric Thames, Jimenez saw his draft stock plummet in the months leading up to the draft, due to injury concerns. Jimenez has been relatively healthy since turning pro, playing in a career high 102 regular season this year. Jimenez should be the starter behind the plate for New Hampshire in 2012.

Pitcher of the Year – A tougher call among the arms of Dunedin, in that most of the top pitchers to pass through the D-Jays in 2011 did not complete the season in the FSL, but convinced the Jays’ brass that their development would be better served by moving up to New Hampshire in mid-season. Fitting that description are a quartet of RHP‘s in Nestor Molina, Deck McGuire, Chad Jenkins and Drew Hutchison. Neither Jenkins nor Hutchison pitched even 70 innings for Dunedin, so I will forego handing them this award. Between those two, based purely on their performance this year for Dunedin and not on how I expect their respective values to shake out up the chain, I am going with Molina. Others pitched more, but Molina pitched better, carving up the strike zone in the FSL to the tune of a 115/14 K/BB rate, giving him the 2nd best K/BB rate (8.21) in the league. Not merely a consequence of not walking anyone, his 9.6 K/9 was backed up by infrequent scouting reports indicating a fastball in the low-mid 90s and average to above-average secondary pitches in his cutter, split-fastball and changeup. His dominance extended to New Hampshire (the start detailed below notwithstanding) and he should continue to receive praise through the offseason as pundits release their top prospect lists.

Disappointment of the Year – My first instinct was to select CF Kenny Wilson, whose season, off to a poor start, was ended by a bad shoulder injury in early June. In 66 games at this level split between 2010-11, Wilson has hit a measly .185/.282/.243. The stagnation, lost development and potential severity of any shoulder injury injury aside, I am not picking Wilson as his relative youth (22 by 2012 Opening Day) gives him enough time to re-establish his prospect-dom. Instead the award goes to RHP Andrew Liebel. First off, Liebel was originally drafted with some hope attached to his signing, a 3rd round pick in 2008 out of the heralded Long Beach State program. He spent the majority of his first full season (2009) with Dunedin, pitching effectively if short of dominant, with a 3.63 ERA belaying his 6.8 K/9 rate. He limited walks and kept the ball down. Injury caused him to miss half of 2010 and prevented a move up to AA. More missed time this season again limited Leibel to only 14 games started, 8 of which were for Dunedin, the highest level he pitched at in 2011. In 37.2 innings for Dunedin, Liebel struck out only 19 (4.5 K/9), walking 12 (2.9 BB/9). The main difference between Wilson and 2nd round pick also selected in 2008, and Liebel, is that While Wilson is not yet 22, Liebel is already 25. He may have already lost what chance he had to make a name for himself.

Other Dunedin Notes – I have grown fond of utility player Kevin Nolan, who played at 6 different positions for Dunedin this year (all but C and CF) while combining for an .813 OPS between Lansing and Dunedin. His power is also emerging, with a career-high ISO of .141 for the 23-year old. A promotion for Nolan to AA would be a homecoming for the native of Nashua, New Hampshire. He has earned it. C/1B Sean Ochinko put up numbers that would not be overly impressive, were it not for the fact that he plays a credible catcher. His utility and ISO close to .200 should earn him a spot with New Hampshire in 2012. With a full-season OPS of .723, former 1st round pick, 3B Kevin Ahrens had the best offensive season of his career, with most of his progression found in his improved batting eye (walk rate of 11.2%). Unfortunately, for the 5th year pro, it is not good enough. I don;t mind admitting to sometimes forgetting which of the two 23 year old middle infielder Ryan’s is which. 2B Ryan Schimpf has a lot more power (10 HR, .219 ISO), but SS Ryan Goins is the superior player and prospect (he’s a SS and has a much better hit tool, far better at making contact than his partner on the keystone.

I want to give Deck McGuire, Chad Jenkins and Drew Hutchison their proper dues, but I think this may not be the proper place. The three have all had stellar seasons (with Jenkins, it helps if you give more weight to his late season work with new Hampshire) split among multiple levels. Each will have a place of prominence in my end-of-season rankings. Instead, I will give a final mention to RHP Ryan Tepera, who led the staff in innings pitched and was praised by Friend of Section 203, Bill Christie, who called him a workhorse, prone to the quality start. Tepera threw 5 minor league quality starts in his last 8 and had a solid K/BB rate of a shade under 2.5. Tepera will turn 24 this off-season, and needs to improve his K-rate to maintain his momentum from this year. Finally, a kind word to RHP Asher Wojciechowski, who was written up at length yesterday, essentially to point out that his walk rate has risen to rarefied heights in the latter half of this season. Continuing along that path and lowering his high HR-rate should allow him to maintain his place as a rotation member next year in New Hampshire. In any case, his recovery from early season struggles is commendable.

New Hampshire Fisher Cats – After playing tight to the vest in their 2-0 Game 1 victory, the Fisher Cats lost the plot in the 3rd inning of game 2, as RHP Nestor Molina (3 IP, 5 H, 6 R (2 ER), 1 BB, 3 K, 1 Balk) could not contain the Reading Phillies’ offense. An error by SS Jonathan Diaz midway through the carnage accounted for the fact that only 2 of the 6 runs surrendered by Molina in the inning were earned. Molina also walked only hit 3rd batter in his 6 starts for New Hampshire. At least it can be said that the man he walked, R-Phillies 1B Matt Rizzotti finished 2nd in the Eastern League in free passes in the regular season, with 79. Molina must have been tired, as Rizzotti was the 8th batter Molina faced in the inning. Also of note in this game was the late injury to Fisher Cats’ RF Moises Sierra (2-3, 2B, RBI, BB). After making the last out of the home-half of the 8th, being forced at 2B after he had singled, Sierra was lifted from the game in the 9th, with what Friend of Section 203, Dave Gershman, reported as a leg injury. With the bench already used up due to the lopsided score, Fisher Cats’ reliever, RHP Bobby Korecky, was pressed into action in the outfield for 1 inning. As happens in baseball, Korecky was immediately forced to put his glove to work, as the 1st Reading batter of the top of the 9th hit a fly ball in his direction. Korecky made the play. This was the first appearance by Korecky in game at any professional level (10 seasons) at a position other than pitcher.

The Fisher Cats have now lost their home field advantage against the Phillies. Game 3 commences tomorrow in Reading with RHP Drew Hutchison scheduled to take the hill for the Fisher Cats.

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