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Down on the Farm – Jays MILB Thoughts – Season Summary – New Hampshire Fisher Cats

November 4, 2011

This has taken me way too long to do. I promise I won’t let the delay dampen the quality and intensity of this report.

Player of the Year: He was named the MVP of the entire Eastern League and I have no doubt that he was also the best among the champion Fisher Cats’ many talented position players in 2011. I am, of course, writing about C Travis d’Arnaud. I will return to his actual position play in a moment, but let’s start by pointing out that his full-season OPS was 118 points higher than the next highest producing Fisher Cats batter. d’Arnaud led the team in all three triple slash stats (batting average, OBP and SLG). The right handed hitting backstop had a higher batting average against right handed pitchers, but his OPS was 110 points higher against southpaws. New Hampshire does have a good reputation as a hitter’s park, but the 22 year old put up an OPS nearly 100 points higher on the road. He ranked behind only Washington Nationals super-prospect Bryce Harper in terms of Baseball America’s prospect rankings for the league. d’Arnaud had a slow start to the season, recovering from a back injury that hampered him in 2010, but after his OPS sat at .548 through the end of April, he exploded in May, and never really slowed down afterwards, with an OPS north of 1.000 in both May and July. We can quibble with his walk rate of only 7.1%, slightly below average. His K-rate of 21.6% is solid, especially for one with so much in-game power.

d’Arnaud’s defense has also been improving. While his caught stealing numbers struggled to reach 25% earlier in his career, he comfortably caught 27% for New Hampshire this year. Working under former big league catcher Sal Fasano in Manchester, d’Arnaud has been exposed to a lot of tutelage that will come in handy in the Major Leagues, perhaps as soon as next season. The former key piece in the Roy Halladay trade is still not as polished behind the plate as is the present incumbent, J.P. Arencibia, but his offensive ceiling is higher – giving the Blue Jays a potential leg up on most of the league with the lumber at a traditionally leather-heavy position.

*Update: It was recently reported that d’Arnaud tore thumb ligaments while playing for Team USA, requiring surgery. Not a positive step, but he should be ready to go at full speed by Spring Training.

Pitcher of the Year: This one was a bit tougher as several outstanding pitchers spent considerable time with the Fisher Cats, both as a reward for excellence at the lower levels, or before being rewarded with a trip up higher. Despite steep competition and not featuring on the playoff roster that took home the Eastern league championship, my pick for the honour goes to RHP Joel Carreno. Before being called up to Toronto in late August, the 24 year old Dominican dominated in his first exposure to the upper levels of the minor league chain, striking out 152 batters in 134.2 innings (10.16 K/9). Showing it was no fluke, the small right-hander struck out 14 in 15.2 innings pitching out of the Blue Jays’ bullpen. Although he has consistently racked up the K’s throughout his minor league ascension, he has not featured in the Baseball America’s Blue Jays’ Top 30 since 2008. Carreno throws a slider as his swing-and-miss pitch as his fastball, an average offering based on gun readings alone, has inconsistent location. That weakness led to his high walk rates, which served as a blemish on an otherwise excellent statistical record. Carreno walked 68 for New Hampshire (a shade over 4.5 BB/9).  He also hit 12 AA batters. Other than a higher propensity to walk left handed batters, there were no other serious red flags denoting unsustainability among his splits. Carreno could break camp next year pitching out of the Blue Jays bullpen, maybe as a 7th inning type.

Disappointment of the Year: Although his numbers shot through the roof upon a late season move up to AAA Las Vegas, SS Adeiny Hechavarria struggled mightily, especially with the stick, while spending most of his season with New Hampshire. A defense first prospect (which still drew rave reviews all season) if ever there was one, a .275 OBP across 502 PAs is unacceptable. Hechavarria struck out just over three times for every bases-on-balls. In a very small sample, the 22 year old Cuban emigre took his game to a completely different level, but the contrast was so stark, it is hard to say what to expect next season. There were rumours that he would see some September action with Toronto, but GM Alex Anthopoulos shot those down, explaining that the slick fielder actually cannot yet leave the US without delaying his Visa. Now playing in the Arizona Fall League with the Phoenix Desert Dogs, Hechavarria only needs to be able to reach base at around a .310 clip to make his glove carryable as an MLB starter. No reason to give up yet, but he will need to show a better approach next year in Las Vegas.

Other Fisher Cats Notes: SS/2B/3B Jonathan Diaz received a lot of hype for strong play during Spring Training. He gets on base (.359 OBP) and can play all over the infield, but that’s it. His ultimate ceiling may be as a Nick Punto utility-type. Or he might already have reached his ceiling.

C/1B Yan Gomes had a season strongly reminiscent of recent Blue Jay catcher John Buck and J.P. Arencibia. Good power, low OBP. He can catch, so he can still hope for a future.

1B Michael McDade started off very strongly, with an .880 OPS before the EL All Star break, but tailed off considerably afterwards, playing out the string on a .561 OPS clip. Weighing in at 6-1″, 260 lbs (listed) I have to wonder if conditioning is not an issue. That said, there are those who have praised his play, some noting his as the best 1B glove in the system.

RF Moises Sierra showed he was fully recovered from the injuries that practically wiped out the entirety of his 2010 season, with a strong first full season in AA. His K-rate is a tad high, striking out in 18.8% of his at bats. That said, his contact rate of 66% was higher than any of the other productive hitters in the Fisher Cats’ lineup (McDade, d’Arnaud, Gose). His bat is not enough to carry him as a corner outfielder (especially not with Jose Bautista ahead of him in the pecking order), but he is toolsy enough to remain in consideration.

CF Anthony Gose is the toolsiest player in the system and one of the best athletes in the minor leagues, with top-of-the-scale scouting marks for his speed and throwing arm. His speed has been functional both on the basepaths as well as in the middle pasture. His power is also average, plus, ar at least much more than most players with his profile. Unfortunately, there are still questions about the most important tool of them all, as he struck out 152 times in 583 at bats (more than once per four at bats), finishing second in the league. He is continuing along those lines in the AFL.

At the risk of leaving anyone out, only pitchers who completed at least 50 innings for New Hampshire will be considered here.

LHP Evan Crawford, striking out 10.9/9 IP showed that he might be more than just a LOOGY, as he was equally effective against batters of both persuasions, and managed to keep the ball in the park. On the other hand, he is 25.  He is now in the AFL.

LHP Henderson Alvarez drew rave reviews from the scouting community, thanks to a fastball that regularly clocked in triple digits and a slick changeup. Statheads were more skeptical, as he could only muster 6.75 K/9. Nonetheless, he was called up to Toronto after 88 AA innings and impressed mightily. The smart money has the 21 year old opening next season in the rotation.

RHP Chad Beck  is big and made his MLB debut in late September. He throws hard, but I really have no feel for him. He was terrible in Las Vegas (granted, that doesn’t mean much) and was effective, if not overwhelming both as a starter and out of the bullpen for the Fisher Cats. He’s on the 40-man roster, so anything can happen, and he can reach the mid-90s in short stints, but he’ll be 27 this coming January and I place him low on the depth charts.

RHP Chad Jenkins started off worryingly, struggling to get missed swings. He rarely exceeded 6 K/9 through the first four months of the season, but turned it up a notch, approaching 8 K/9 in August and September. The uptick in K’s did not include any degradation of his stellar ground ball rate. He will never lead a rotation, but his late-season run showed he still may make it towards the back of a rotation.

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