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Down on the Farm – Jays MILB Thoughts – September 12, 2011

September 13, 2011

Vancouver Canadians – Before doling out the end-of-season awards for the NWL champs, it must be said that theirs was not a prospect-laden roster. They were a bit old – almost a full year, on average, older than the Eugene Emeralds, who they beat in the 1st round of the playoffs, and around 6 months older than the league as a whole. They did not field any position players seen as among the best in the Blue Jays’ organization, and only 12% of all innings were pitched by the highly-touted. Those caveats, winning is fine thing and should be celebrated, right?

On to the awards!

Player of the Year – Drafted in the 18th round this June, 2B Jonathon Berti was a college shortstop for whom it was anticipated that he could fill a spot on a roster and maybe reach AA one day. He hit for high averages in Bowling Green State, but minimal power. The native of Troy, Michigan was assigned directly to Vancouver, where he was immediately converted into a 2nd baseman. And he got his pro career off with a bang, hitting .353 with a .976 OPS in June. Those figures dropped to .323 and .799 respectively in July and finally bottomed out at .253 and .657 in August. Across those three months, Berti’s ISO descended from .147 to .086 to .040. One of the reasons for Berti’s getting this award was that the only players better did not play much more than half as much as him (1B Kevin Patterson, C Garrett Maines)  and the other primary contender, CF Jonathan Jones, was repeating the short-season level, after being demoted from Lansing before Vancouver began play. An older player, repeating the level will always bear with it a black mark against any player. Further helping sway my vote in Berti’s favour were his two home runs in the playoff drive including one in the decisive game, and, more appropriately, his good base running, having swiped 23 bases in 28 attempts, for an above-average 82.1% success rate.

Pitcher of the Year – Without any doubt, LHP Justin Nicolino. Even being assigned to Vancouver was a bit of a surprise as a high draft pick out of high school in 2010 who had yet to throw a pitch in anger. It was quickly abundantly apparent that Nicolino was far too advanced for the Northwest League, as he put up jaw-dropping numbers over 52.1 innings before getting a well-earned promotion to Lansing. His control against same-sided hitters was a bit better than that against right-handed bats (1.13 BB/9 vs LHB and 2.06 BB/9 vs RHB) but really quite phenomenal in both cases. He also struck out 11 batters per 9 innings pitched without surrendering a single home run all season. Kevin Goldstein rated his repertoire of fastball/curveball as plus, with the former being reported as high as 94 mph. This is a player to get excited about. Very excited.

Disappointment of the Year – I suppose even championship teams have disappointments. While there was a paucity of highly touted position players on the roster, 1B/3B/DH Balbino Fuenmayor was once thought highly of. Baseball America placed him in the organizational top 30 every year between 2007-2009, peaking at #10 in 2008. One of former GM J.P. Ricciardi’s rare forays into Latin america, Fuenmayor was given a cool $725,000 in the summer of 2006. As late as 2009, he was considered a raw, but with sleeper potential, still occasionally showing glimpses of plus power. After spending two season in Lansing, an assignment to Vancouver (even though he started his 3rd trip through the MWL hot) was a severe disappointment, and signal that the organization has essentially given up on their former bonus baby. Hitting .234 with a .656 OPS for Vancouver, sporting a 14/56 BB/K ratio did not cause anyone in the top brass to have a change of opinion, his usefulness in the playoffs notwithstanding. His play at the hot corner was also lamentable, relegating him to bat-only status. Barring a shocking assignment to the 40-man roster this offseason, Fuenmayor will be eligible to be plucked away from the Jays in the Rule V draft. Assuming that he will go unselected, he will then be eligible for minor league free agency after 2012.

Other Vancouver Notes – I have long held that SS Shane Opitz was the most interesting position player on the Canadians’ roster. Although he has no secondary skills of which to speak (.026 ISO, .073 isolated patience), he was the youngest regular on the team and young for the league at 19. Also, playing a decent SS helps. Finally, I was impressed by his adjustments, as his walk rate sky-rocketed in August (12 walks in his last 29 games after walking only 7 times in his first 34).

The aforementioned 1B Kevin Patterson is the definition of a bat-only player, and at age 22 and coming out of a big school (Auburn) was supposed to do well in the NWL, I can still applaud his finishing tied for 3rd on the team in home runs in only half a season.

RHP Aaron Sanchez, RHP Noah Syndergaard and LHP David Rollins all passed through Vancouver at points and all figure into the the Jays’ future plans (Rollins is more of a sleeper than the other two), but none pitched more than 18 innings. Vancouver is a lovely place to pass through.

RHP Jesse Hernandez, who joined the Jays last year as an undrafted free agent is still not a prospect. He’s now 23 years old and struck out only 6.2/9. Best case scenario is a guy like RHP Casey Lawrence doing similar yeoman’s work in Lansing. Hernandez allowed only 1 home run in 75.2 innings for Vancouver and pitched a gem in the title-clinching game. If that’s not worth a short paragraph in a season summary, what is?

Lansing Lugnuts – The drama of Lansing’s season continued in full as the Lugnuts booked their place in the MWL finals as they broke a 7-7 tie in the bottom of the 9th inning on a bases-loaded walk-off walk by DH Michael Crouse (0-3, 2 BB, 3 K, RBI). Sometimes, without even touching the ball, whether with bat or glove, a player can have a tremendous (positive) impact on the outcome of a game. The Lugnuts led going into the 9th inning, but allowed the TinCaps to equalize on a rally beginning with a triple from leadoff hitter and CF, Rico Noel. The following batter drove him home on a clean single to the outfield grass. 3B Oliver Dominguez (2-4, 2B, HR, 3 RBI, K, 2 R) began the rally with a double leading off the inning. Earlier in the game, trailing by a run, the switch-hitting Dominguez gave the Lugnuts a 5-3 lead by clubbing a ball over the fence in RF with 2 runners on base. Also playing notable roles in the Lugnuts’ pennant-clinching victory were C Carlos Perez (2-3, 2 3B, BB, K, 3 R) and playoff hero, 2B Matthew Nuzzo (3-4, 2 RBI, R). The Midwest League finals, a best-of-5, begin on Wednesday night, with Lansing hosting the Quad Cities River Bandits, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Low A affiliate. The first two games will be in Lansing, with the third, and, if necessary, the fourth and fifth, in the River Bandits’ home park, Modern Woodmen Park, in Davenport, Iowa.

New Hampshire Fisher Cats – The Fisher Cats rest today, taking the time to wash away yesterday’s champagne. While not mentioned yesterday, Colby Rasmus was the DH for the Fisher Cats in their series clinching victory. Before anyone cries “ringer!”, Rasmus went 0-4. Barring a Rajai Davis-like setback, Rasmus should be back up with Toronto within the next few days. RHP Chad Jenkins, coming off of a masterful performance (7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 K) in Game 1 of the previous series, is scheduled to start Game 1 of the finals as well.

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