Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How to Jinx a No-Hitter

There is no stronger force in all of baseball than the no-hitter jinx, exceeding even such traditional powers as Clubhouse Chemistry and The Will To Win. Follow these steps closely if you wish to use the power of the jinx to halt a pitcher's no-hit bid:
  • Be in the vicinity of a no-hitter.
  • Mention it aloud within the hearing of true believers. Social media works, too.
That no-no won't stand a chance.

And now, a Devil's Advocate position.
If you believe in no-hitter jinxes, ask yourself these questions:
  1. Can anyone jinx a no-hitter? Example: You're at the office. Max Scherzer's throwing a no-hitter in the eighth inning. You call up your brother and tell him, "Quick, turn on the Nats game -- Max Scherzer's got a no-hitter going in the eighth." Scherzer immediately gives up a hit. Did you jinx it or did someone else? (Note: Max Scherzer threw two no-hitters this year, on June 20th and October 3rd. During each one, I told everyone I knew to start watching. Discussion questions: Was Scherzer unjinxable? Also, now that the Mets are in the World Series, does that make the Nats' disappointing season more palatable?)
  2. Can a broadcaster jinx a no-hitter? Example: A broadcaster is calling a game. He/she says something foolish, like "Clayton Kershaw has a no-hitter in progress." Kershaw promptly allows a hit. Did the broadcaster jinx him?  (Note: In 2013, I called three no-hitters and mentioned the word "no-hitter" each time. It had no effect. Vin Scully has called three perfect games and 20 no-hitters and liberally told his audience that they were listening to a no-hitter in progress in each one, including four no-nos by Sandy Koufax and a Kershaw no-hitter in 2014. Discussion questions: Can a broadcaster gain karmic immunity from jinxes? What would Vin Scully's karma even look like?)
  3. Can a fan present at the ballpark jinx a no-hitter? Example: You're sitting with your family, enjoying a fine performance by Hisashi Iwakuma against the Baltimore Orioles. You're all well versed in baseball tradition, and so you're staying particularly mum on one aspect of the game. Then, for heaven's sake, your dad points up at the scoreboard and says, "Whoa, he's throwing a no-hitter!" The second the words leave his mouth, Iwakuma gives up a bomb to Chris Davis. Did your dad jinx the bid? (Note: Iwakuma, on the trading block throughout the middle of the season, no-hit the Orioles on August 12th. He finished the season allowing three runs or fewer in eight of his final nine starts. Discussion questions: Are we to believe that not a single fan at that game said one word to his/her companions about a no-hitter? And judging by how thin the Cubs', Blue Jays', Cardinals' and Rangers' starting rotations have looked this postseason, someone really should have tried to trade for Iwakuma, don't you think?)
  4. Can a no-hitter be jinxed on Twitter? Example: You're the beat writer for the Houston Astros. Mike Fiers, acquired from Milwaukee is on the mound and looking strong. After he finishes a hitless sixth, you send out a tweet mentioning that Fiers has a no-hitter in progress. In the seventh inning, the leadoff batter lines a single to left field. How much responsibility should you take in ending the no-no? (Note: Yes, Mike Fiers no-hit the Dodgers on August 21st this summer. No, he wasn't really a factor in the postseason. Eh, it happens. Discussion questions: During every successful no-hitter, do you believe that not a single jinx-worthy tweet was sent out using the word "no-hitter"? Do amount of followers matter from the Tweeter in question? If you had a rather sizable Twitter following, do you possess the same power, more power, or less power to jinx a no-hitter than, say, someone with an egg as their profile pic?
  5. For extra credit, answer the following: What percent of responsibility do you ascribe the Mets' combination of excellent pitching and Daniel Murphy's hot hitting in their four-game NLCS sweep of the Chicago Cubs, and what percent do you give to the Cubs' dreaded Billy Goat Curse?

Bring on Game 1.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Against the concept of "Unwritten Rules"

The funny thing about the notion about baseball's Unwritten Rules is that because people (usually media pundits) talk about them so frequently, they've now been written down. Four different books cataloguing baseball's Unwritten Rules have been published, released to the public in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011.

What's an Unwritten Rule?

Off the top of my head:
  • Don't steal a base in a blowout, whether you're leading by a ton of runs or trailing by a ton of runs.
  • Similarly, don't swing at a 3-0 pitch in a blowout.
  • Don't bunt to break up a no-hitter.
  • Don't show up the other team.
  • Give effort (not to be confused with false hustle).
  • If the other team hits one of your players on purpose, hit one of theirs in response.
  • If you purposefully hit one of the opposition's players, make sure to aim for their back. By all means, don't throw around head level.

Restaurants really don't have to tell you not to eat the silverware; such a thing is understood. Is it an Unwritten Rule? Yes, but it's also common sense. Calling such a thing an Unwritten Rule is rather insulting to your intelligence. In an office setting, there are plenty of regulations and expectations to go around, and then there are also certain expectations that must be learned -- far subtler than "Don't eat your fork." One office setting differs from another in culture, dress, and what can and can't be said.

Each baseball team is its own workplace, with its own dress code, facial hair code, and its own office culture. Moreover, every employee arrives having gathered his training (and expectations) from different stops along the way. If an employee learned from his apprenticeship to keep his emotions tamped and under wraps and then he sees a new co-worker who conducts himself in the opposite manner, he understandably may judge that co-worker based upon the office culture he was groomed in.

Consider this for an example: One employee has learned, through his prior baseball nurturing and mentorship, that one must never bunt to break up a no-hitter. Another employee has learned, through his own upbringing, that bunting to reach base is always a weapon, particularly in a close game. The former is upset by the act of the bunt and declares it contrary to the baseball he knows. The latter is upset that his bunting was called into question, for it is an essential part of the baseball he knows. Outsiders see the former's outrage and attempt to understand it. There is no rule in the rulebook specifically barring bunting to break up a no-hitter; therefore, it must be an Unwritten Rule of Baseball!

It isn't.

In my first job, I would never dream of entering work without wearing a tie. In my current job, should I wear a tie to work, I would be the sole person one wearing a tie. That's all Unwritten Rules are: cultural expectations of the game. If I sat at my desk in a nice suit and tie, looking askance at a co-worker clad in sweatpants and a hoodie, it wouldn't be because he broke an Unwritten Rule of All Minor League Baseball Offices -- he only crossed my own cultural expectations for the office environment. 

That said, certain Unwritten Rules really are similar to "Don't eat your fork." If you're a base runner at first base, your team is leading 18-0, and the other team is utterly ignoring you -- for heaven's sake, don't steal second base. What could possibly be your reasoning? Is your end goal to pad your stats, is it that important to stay out of the double play, or do you simply think that 19th run is going to make all of the difference?

As far as throwing at batters' heads goes, purposeful head-hunting is as clear and present a danger as line drives into the stands. It is usually (and properly) punished swiftly by both the home plate umpire and the league office. In older days, it carried around an aura of machismo. Now, it marks a pitcher as a maniac and puts a black mark on his character.

"Don't show up the other team"? That's the Golden Rule, at its core. Treat opponents with the respect you yourself wish to be shown. If a player disrespects the other team, take a flat guess how they'll feel toward him.

But disrespect is a fine line, and that brings us right back into cultural expectations. As was pointed out following Jose Bautista's bat flip, the best bat flips in the world come from the Korean Baseball Organization which carries a reputation of class and respect. Unwritten Rule? No, only perspective.


Baseball players and coaches don't often use the phrase "Unwritten Rule." They'll talk in code -- "That's not the right way to play the game," they may say, or supply a blunt "Respect the game." Perhaps they'll follow pitcher Sam Dyson, rankled by Bautista's bat flip, and mention how players need to see themselves as role models and set a better example for kids to follow. (What he's really saying is that young ballplayers should learn to play the game within the same culture that I learned. He isn't alone. The majority of us feel that how we were raised is the proper way to be raised. I bet Bautista would love to see kids playing baseball within his cultural expectations.)

Unwritten Rules, then, are utilized to describe personal guidelines to playing the game "right," a learned definition. I'm certain there are specific painters who know the "right" way to paint, magicians who know the "right" way to perform, and so on. I'm certainly learning the "right" way (and the "wrong" way) to broadcast a baseball game -- although there are plenty of folks in my field who do it "wrong" and still are doing quite well for themselves.


More troubling, I hear that label of Unwritten Rules used disparagingly, as if the speaker is so irritated by a ballplayer's outrage that an honest to goodness Unwritten Rulebook is needed. "Stealing a base with a big lead?" someone scoffs. "How big is a big enough lead?" If it's a true Rule, you see, that number would be fixed. Five-run lead or less? Steal away. Six runs or more? Too big! That fine line, determining what gets one person's goat while barely lifting another's eyebrow, is disparaged, and baseball is disparaged in the bargain. "How ridiculous these players are, disagreeing about their own Unwritten Rules!"

They aren't ridiculous, though. They all play baseball, but they come at it from different backgrounds and teachings. The basics remain the same -- throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball -- but the etiquette is as varied as accents and dialects in a country. In this clubhouse, a bat flip is celebrated. In that one, it's punished with a beanball. That's the natural order of things, each team (and each league, to extrapolate further) developing its own baseball etiquette and code. In one league, across the world, it may be seen as unmanly to throw anything but a fastball; in another, prepare for change-ups and curveballs in any count.

Someone who does not understand this, who seeks to pin down specific Unwritten Rules of Baseball down upon every player, from the Dominican Republic to Canada, and upon every team, from sandlot to American League, is at best shortsighted in the same way as the players, governed by their own personal code of cultural expectations.

But I'm more inclined, when I hear those scoffing words of "Unwritten Rules," to write them off as someone who does not understand the true scope of baseball.

Monday, September 28, 2015

A review: PITCH Talks Toronto, live from Rogers Centre!

right field horizontal
My final day in the Lugnuts office this calendar year was Thursday. On Friday, I grabbed my passport, converted to Canadian currency, and drove due East until I arrived north of the border.
I had been invited to take part in PITCH Talks, an event featuring baseball people talking with baseball people in a series of panels. Such notables as Alex Anthopoulos, Dan Shulman, Jonah Keri, and Arturo Marcano have spoken at PITCH Talks in the past -- and so had I, taking part in a Minor League Q&A with Triple-A voice Ben Wagner last season.

A major difference between this PITCH Talks and prior events was in the setting: This was no longer in a basement, or a rented space, or a club: This was at Rogers Centre, in the former Hard Rock Cafe beyond the right field wall, occurring at the same time that tens of thousands of Blue Jays fans were waiting to be allowed into the ballpark. Big congratulations to Kevin Kennedy and his crew for putting this together.
Our view from PITCH:
view from cafe
That's a darn good starting lineup, eh?
I had no difficulties passing through Customs before running directly into Toronto rush hour traffic. Hooray! (Living in Lansing causes me to forget about the idea of traffic from time to time.) By the time I was parked and walked toward Rogers Centre, time was running short -- and then I proceeded to walk nearly the entire way around the stadium in search of the gate we were told to enter.
Pitch talks entrance
This gate, courtesy @PitchTalksTOR
By the time I had arrived and was allowed admission by @Mattomic, a gentleman distinguished by having the only starting initial delivered via calligraphy in all of the TwitterVerse, I was rather sweaty and the first panel was already in progress.
I give you... Sportsnet Magazine's Kristina Rutherford and Arden Zwelling.
Kristina and Arden
My view of Kristina and Arden.
Angle 2
Courtesy of @PitchTalks
Kristina Rutherford has written a good many articles, though using the word "good" is selling her short. (A link to her archive.) In this setting, she and Arden had a blast. I'd compare it in a sense to Pardon the Interruption, a show sold on the recommendation that Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon's arguments in the newsroom were so entertaining, it was worth watching them argue on TV. Coworkers Kristina and Arden, meanwhile, played a game of "Can You Top This?" with stories and side notes gleaned from their reporting and interviewing -- I could picture them finishing off another story, or talking to another source, and receiving something so golden in response that they couldn't wait to share it. In his role as moderator, Arden set up his questions for Kristina with a bit of glee, the better to watch her spike them down. A query from an audience member about her toughest interview set her down the path of remarkable Jose Canseco inappropriateness and caused Arden to rollick.
This was where the panel hit its stride -- a rapid-fire series of candies in anecdote form, tossed here and there by the two of them, which I scrambled to pick up and remember while not missing the next one to come around. Come for the David Price analysis, but don't miss the story of Roberto Osuna, growing up in the most dangerous area in Mexico, or LaTroy Hawkins, emerging from lethal Gary, Indiana, with a huge heart and a love of collecting old jokes.
When they were done, it was entirely too soon.

(It's funny, I tried to take a pic of the next panel, and it turned out blurry. So I turned to the PITCH Talks Twitter handle -- and theirs is also blurry, haha. So we'll go with it, and you can Google up what Shi Davidi, Bill Chastain, and Marc Topkin look like in person.)
Shi writes for Sportsnet as a columnist; I happen to own the book he co-wrote with John Lott, "Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season" about the 2013 campaign. (The 2015 season might deserve its own book soon.) Bill is the Tampa Bay Rays' MLB.com writer. Marc writes for the Tampa Bay Times.
As much as I could listen to Kristina and Arden telling stories all day long, this was the main course. This was meat-and-potatoes discussion about:
  1. Would David Price return to Toronto after this year? Kristina answered the same question, but this was bigger -- this was the guys in Tampa who've known him since 2008 or so answering directly about what he was going to do?I believe that Marc said flatly that David was leaving, and received a nice bit of good-natured boos from the crowd (which was a very good-humoured, well-read group of fans). And I believe that two reasonable hypotheticals offered was that Price was either likely to return to the south with the Atlanta Braves or reunite with Joe Maddon with the Chicago Cubs.
    They went back and forth on Price's psyche and his motivations, and it was all great. Cut it, stock it away, listen back to it (via iTunes, etc.) come the offseason.
  2. What is the future of the Rays? Tampa Bay can't continue to play in Tropicana Field, even though the lease extends through 2027. It can't (even if Shi likes the Trop more than most everyone else). The contact needs to be released, the team needs to reach a better area. MLB is flush, but that's unhealthy for the sport. (It is also unhealthy to have a team in the current Oakland facility, I believe. Fix each of those spots and you move the entire league forward.)Marc and Bill bandied this about -- what can be done, what has to be done, and all of the potential factors they foresee. Would Stuart Sternberg sell the team and purchase the New York Mets? Does this news throw a monkey wrench into anything?
There were other matters that came up, including the differences between former manager Maddon and current skipper Kevin Cash and the realization that much of Maddon's unorthodox bullpen maneuvering and lineup jockeying were more a part of the Rays' organizational philosophies than they were Joe Maddon idiosyncrasies.
All things considered, this was an excellent supplement to the first panel, providing a counterbalance to personal anecdotes with nuts-and-bolts breakdown and analytical opinions.

me from a ways away
me from behind
me from in front
And then there was me, photos courtesy of @PitchTalks.
Arden Zwelling was my moderator, setting me up to tell stories to a legion of Blue Jays fans who were interested in hearing them. Looking back on it, it was rather a whirlwind. I think now of all of the stories that I could have told -- Kevin Pillar and proper haircare, for instance.
I talked:
  • Ryan "Go-Go" Goins, and his terrific energy
  • Kevin Pillar, his Canadian bandanna, and finding an MiLB routine that rubbed off on everyone
  • The legend of Anthony Alford
  • Rowdy Tellez, in response to Arden asking me about the other Jays' Minor Leaguers
  • Sean Reid-Foley, in response to a question about the young fireballer
  • Marcus Stroman's work ethic, in response to a questioner wondering what impact Marcus had made in Lansing during his rehab start
  • A rushed story of a West Michigan Whitecaps prank (darn it, I knew we were running out of time, so I panicked and hustled to fit this one in there, answering a question about MiLB pranks from 2014)
  • The Blue Jays' MiLB development, in response to a questioner wondering which organizations did well to develop their young talent. This was the last question that was fit in.
I may be forgetting things. I'm not forgetting that I definitely talked over Arden, and also talked way too much -- but it's an exciting thing to do a PITCH Talks, and I was honoured to be a part of it.
If you have any questions for me, particularly any questions that I'd be well-positioned to answer, ask away!

Let's finish with some images from the rest of the night, a 5-3 Blue Jays victory over Tampa Bay.
right field horizontalbautista unisrobbie alomarbehind the outfielder 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The 2015 Lugnuts pitching corps in 2016

On Tuesday, I looked ahead to next year for the Lugnuts' position players. Today, it's time to talk pitching.
As a bonus -- I'll look ahead to what could be a pretty darn great starting rotation.
I made this at midseason, starring Sean Reid-Foley. (Photo: Kyle Castle)
Mark Biggs: The next step, it seems to me, is a trip up to Dunedin for the sinkerballer. His 4.28 ERA indicated that he didn't dominate the MWL, so I wouldn't be hugely surprised if Biggs came back to Lansing -- but I would be a little surprised.
Andrew Case: Heck, why not? Case began last year in Lansing, thanks to a surprise showing at the end of Spring Training, struggled, and then met with better success in Vancouver. He certainly could pop up again in the Lugnuts bullpen next year.
Shane Dawson: Dunedin Blue Jays starter, with a chance at Double-A by midseason. Keep on keepin' on.
Chase De Jong: Double-A starting pitcher in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization and a reasonable chance at a Major League debut next summer.
Jose Fernandez: A-Advanced Dunedin reliever, moving right up the ladder. I'd love to see if his fastball velocity can maintain in the 90s (and perhaps increase a touch).
Conor Fisk: A-Advanced Dunedin, likely as a starting pitcher. Good solid 2015 for Fisk!
Alonzo Gonzalez: Alonzo made his way from Lansing to Dunedin this summer. On August 8, his ERA was a pretty darn good 2.86, but he was roughed up in four of his final five outings. It would not be out of the question to see him reach Double-A early next year, but I suspect he returns to Dunedin.
Conner Greene: Double-A New Hampshire starting pitcher, with a potential Major League debut in his future.
Clinton Hollon: Step 1 - serve the remainder of 50-game suspension. Step 2 - return to Lansing.
Dusty Isaacs: A-Advanced Dunedin reliever; if he gets in great shape and continues to hone his 90s fastball / slider / change combination, there could be something great in store for the former Georgia Tech Yellowjacket.
Phil Kish: Ernst and Young this offseason, then back in the A-Advanced Dunedin bullpen.
Michael Kraft: Like Andrew Case, he started in Lansing and scuffled before moving down to Vancouver. Unlike Case, he wasn't all that great with the Canadians. Still, the path would seem to lead him back to the Lugnuts.
Chase Mallard: Chase actually led the Lugnuts in innings pitched in 2015, posting 123 frames. I'd expect him to pitch in Dunedin next season.
Tim Mayza: A-Advanced Dunedin reliever, with a chance to go to the Arizona Fall League at season's end.
Carlos Ramirez: A-Advanced Dunedin reliever; the velocity is great, but he's still learning.
Sean Reid-Foley: A-Advanced Dunedin starting pitcher is my guess -- and if he excels, he could jump. He started last year so raw and inconsistent with killer stuff. By the end of the year, I loved what we were seeing. The work ethic/fight is there for a big 2016.
Tom Robson: A-Advanced Dunedin starting pitcher and a sleeper prospect for great things.
Justin Shafer: Justin is heading to the Arizona Fall League this Fall in a relief role. Do the Blue Jays keep him as a reliever next year? Whatever is the case, he'll be in Dunedin.
Starlyn Suriel: After a year and a half in Lansing, Starlyn gets his first chance at A-Advanced Dunedin.
Jesus Tinoco: A-Advanced starting pitcher in the Colorado Rockies' organization.
Colton Turner: A-Advanced Dunedin reliever.
Jon Wandling: It wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for Jon, who made only three starts for Lansing, to return to the Midwest League. I wouldn't mind it, he's a heck of an engaging guy. Otherwise, ship him up to Dunedin!

A rather blind but educated guess at the 2016 Lansing Lugnuts starting rotation, best-case scenario:
  1. Jon Harris, 2015 1st-round draft pick, Blue Jays #2 prospect
  2. Ryan Borucki, 2012 15th-round draft pick, Blue Jays' #11 prospect
  3. Clinton Hollon (following suspension), 2013 2nd-round draft pick, Blue Jays' #13 prospect
  4. Angel Perdomo, international free agent, Blue Jays' #28 prospect
  5. Tayler Saucedo, 2015 21st-round draft pick, 4-2 / 2.48 in pro debut between Bluefield/Vancouver
Honorable mentions: a returning Chase Mallard and Jon Wandling; an ascending Francisco Rios and Evan Smith (Jays' #27 prospect) from Vancouver; a super-ascending Juliandry Higuera, Miguel Burgos and Geno Encina from Bluefield.

PITCH Talks, tomorrow night in Toronto!

If you happen to be in Toronto tomorrow, come see me at Rogers Centre!
(Use the code "RBI" and get $5 off your ticket purchase!)
Our schedule:
  • 5:30 - Arden Zwelling & Kristina Rutherford on David Price
  • 5:45 - Jays & Rays Panel with Shi Davidi, Marc Topkin, and Bill Chastain, moderated by Arden Zwelling
  • 6:15 - Report from the Farm with Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, moderated by Arden Zwelling
  • 6:45 - Wrap Up
  • 7:00 - Blue Jays baseball!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Blue Jays prospecting, looking toward 2016

This beautiful photograph was taken by Kyle Castle. From left to right: D.J. Davis, Boomer Collins and Ryan McBroom.
Consider that trio sitting in the dugout, looking out to the field and their future:
  • D.J. Davis was a first-round draft pick in 2012. He's grinding his way forward, his talent intact, working to live up to the high expectations that were placed upon him by his selection and signing bonus. He's 21. He's considered a prospect.
  • Boomer Collins was a nondrafted free agent in 2013. He's married. He's worked in refrigerator repair, and he's worked as a milkman. Baseball is his dream, but he's now 25. He's considered a non-prospect.
  • Ryan McBroom was a 15th-round draft pick in 2014. He was a non-prospect, I'd argue, and then this year happened, and he showed his skills as the best hitter in the Midwest League from Opening Day through the postseason, earning league MVP. (Let it not be forgotten that he batted .400, 8-for-20, in the playoffs.) (Let it also not be forgotten that D.J. Davis batted .474, 9-for-19, in his own right.) McBroom is 23. He is now considered a borderline prospect.

Dating back to a deal for Josh Donaldson during the 2014-15 offseason, the Blue Jays have made five significant trades of Minor League talent for Major League talent:
  1. On November 28, 2014, they traded infielders Brett Lawrie and Franklin Barreto and pitchers Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman to Oakland for Donaldson.
  2. On July 28, 2015, they traded pitchers Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro and Jesus Tinoco to Colorado for Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins.
  3. On July 30, 2015, they traded pitchers Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Jairo Labourt to Detroit for David Price.
  4. On July 31, 2015, they traded pitchers Jacob Brentz, Nick Wells and Rob Rasmussen to Seattle for Mark Lowe.
  5. That same day, they traded pitchers Alberto Tirado and Jimmy Cordero to Philadelphia for Ben Revere.
Let me also add a pair of not-as-significant deals: shortstop Dawel Lugo for Arizona utility infielder Cliff Pennington, and pitcher Chase De Jong and infielder Tim Locastro to the L.A. Dodgers for international free agent signing slots in order to ink 16-year-old Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., the top hitter on the market.
17 Minor Leaguers traded. If they had all been kept, there is no doubt in my mind that Barreto, Graveman, Hoffman, Castro, Tinoco, Norris, Labourt, Tirado and De Jong would all have made the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays' top prospect list (with Lugo close, Brentz and Wells also serving as possibilities, and Cordero continuing to throw 100 mph while Locastro proves magical wherever he goes).
The current MLB.com prospect list (source: http://m.mlb.com/prospects/2015?list=tor) looks a little like this:
Rolling our way through the 30:
  1. Dalton Pompey - He'll be in the Major Leagues to stay next year as starting OF for Toronto.
  2. Jonathan Harris - The pressure will be on, the spotlight bright, as the Jays' 2015 first-rounder hits full-season ball. I wouldn't be surprised if he skipped right to Dunedin and ended the season in New Hampshire.
  3. Anthony Alford - YOUR New Hampshire Fisher Cats starting center fielder.
  4. Sean Reid-Foley - The biggest arm in the system heads back to Dunedin. (If he excels, here's your top trade-bait bargaining chip.)
  5. Max Pentecost - 2015 was lost because of injury. The first-round catcher aims to get back on the horse in 2016, but expectations should be tempered in the first half.
  6. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. - Let's just agree to ignore young Vlad in the early-going. In 2017-2018, we'll check back in and see how he's progressing.
  7. Richard UreƱa - YOUR Dunedin Blue Jays switch-hitting starting shortstop.
  8. Rowdy Tellez - YOUR New Hampshire Fisher Cats starting first baseman.
  9. Conner Greene - A surprising 2015 saw the 20-year-old Greene catch helium, improve his mph to 96, and jump up to Double-A. His learning curve can't continue, can it?
  10. Mitch Nay - The last two years have seen Nay disappoint compared to what was expected of him. He's only 22, he'll be moving up to Double-A, and he's now moving firmly below the radar.

  11. Ryan Borucki - Just like with Max Pentecost, 2015 was a lost season for the talented Borucki. He'll likely head to Lansing in 2016 and try to get things going again.
  12. D.J. Davis - He's fast, he's strong, he's toolsy, and he's done with the Midwest League after two full seasons in Lansing. It's time to see what the 2012 first-rounder can offer at the A-Advanced level, and he'll get his shot.
  13. Clinton Hollon - A 50-game suspension prematurely ended Hollon's return from Tommy John. Questions persist, as well they should, but the talent is there. Back to Lansing when the suspension ends.
  14. Dwight Smith, Jr. - Smith continues to just play ball, neither overwhelming nor underwhelming. 2016 should see him in Triple-A, with a chance at a Big League debut coming soon enough.
  15. Danny Jansen - An injury held Jansen to only 46 games in the Midwest League, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him back in Lansing. I also wouldn't be surprised if he was labeled the best defensive catcher in the system before long.
  16. Justin Maese - The GCL Blue Jays' R. Howard Webster Award winner moves forward. Is Lansing too big of a jump? Send the 19-year-old third-rounder to Vancouver and see how he does.
  17. Matt Smoral - A cursed season for Smoral, after struggles with command ended in a wicked line drive. Get well soon, Matt.
  18. Matt Dean - Heading off to the Arizona Fall League is always a good sign for an aspiring prospect. He'll move up to Double-A and continue his re-conversion to third base, allowing Tellez to take first base on a full-time basis.
  19. Tom Robson - Though 2015 saw Robson looking uncomfortable and uncertain at times in recapturing his mechanics, he's back now from Tommy John and his velocity is better than ever. Put him in the Dunedin starting rotation, and see how he does. If the mechanics are there and the stuff is there, he'll be back on track for a 2017 MLB debut.
  20. Lane Thomas - The coaches love Thomas's swing and ability. He transitioned from center field to third base to second base and dealt with a wrist injury by the end of the season. Relax, recooperate, and then write his name in directly in the middle of the Lugnuts' starting lineup. This is a hitter who bears watching

  21. Carl Wise - The 2015 fourth-rounder wasn't so great in Vancouver, but I'm chalking that up to the exhausting schedule of a long summer stretching from college through the pros. Give him an offseason to rest and then work out, followed by a ton of hard work with the Blue Jays' hitting instructors, and I'm intrigued to see how Carl performs in Lansing in 2016.
  22. Andy Burns - Andy succeeded beyond expectations with Buffalo this year. If he keeps this up, he'll be wearing Blue Jays blue and white at some point next year.
  23. Roemon Fields - The 2016 season will open with Roemon leading off in Triple-A, and will finish with him in Rogers Centre.
  24. Juan Meza - He'll be 18 years old next February. He was pretty darn terrible this year, stats-wise, in limited action. Let's agree to let Juan pitch without scrutiny for a while and catch up with him, like young Vlad, in 2017-2018.
  25. Reggie Pruitt - Another talented teenager without much of an eye-catching portfolio yet. Whether it's back to the Gulf Coast League or up to the Appalachian League in 2016, Reggie is a bit of a ways away. Don't rush him.
  26. Jose Espada - The Jays' fifth-round pick in June, Jose will be 19 next year. He's a six-foot right-hander who throws hard. Bluefield, ahoy!
  27. Evan Smith - I could've sworn entering the year that we were going to see Smith in Lansing in 2015, but nope. So we'll just have to get him in 2016. He was drafted in the third round in 2013 out of Semmes, Alabama, and he struck out not so many guys this year in Vancouver while giving up a chunk of hits. Then again, he's a 6'5 lefty and there aren't all that many of those.
  28. Angel Perdomo - From all of the raves I had heard about Perdomo, I expected him to be a much harder thrower. Apparently, he isn't at the moment. What he is is a 6'6 lefty who breezed into Vancouver and struck out 31 batters in 21 1/3 innings after a promotion from Bluefield. The opposition batted .231 against him in the Appy League, and then hit only .152 in the NWL. At age 22 (next May), his 2016 stop is in the Midwest League.
  29. Travis Bergen - The Jays' seventh-rounder last June, he struck out 11 Northwest Leaguers in just 5 1/3 innings, and then was sidelined for the rest of the year. Once he's healthy again, he's coming to Lansing.
  30. Shane Dawson, Jr. - Yes, sir, that's how you fill out a top prospect list! Shane was the top defensive pitcher on the Lugnuts' last year and he pretty much led the league in competitiveness. The man is going to will his way to the Major Leagues, continuing with Dunedin/New Hampshire next season.

Who's missing?
Relievers who deserve a second look...
  • Sidearming lefty Chad Girodo, a college teammate of Kendall Graveman, zoomed from Dunedin through New Hampshire and up to Buffalo this year. He's going to Arizona Fall League this autumn, and -- write it down -- he'll be in the Major Leagues next year.
  • Brady Dragmire and Justin Shafer are also going to the prospect-laden AFL. Dragmire was a shortstop when he was drafted out of high school (where he grew up down the street from Rowdy Tellez). His stuff is quick and it moves. Next year, he'll be 23 years old in Double-A with a chance to jump even higher. Shafer is actually a bit older by a handful of months, but was drafted in 2014 and spent 2015 in Lansing (excluding a series of games in Dunedin). He's being tried in the bullpen, where his velocity and stuff plays much bigger.
  • Wil Browning is a sidewinder who won the R. Howard Webster Award as A-Adv. Dunedin's team MVP. Put him in New Hampshire's pen next year and let's see what he can do. His equivalents at the upper levels were friends Blake McFarland and Danny Barnes, both right-handers, both quirky, and both with track records that push them up to Triple-A to start next year. And if you start the year in Triple-A, you just might be getting a certain call at some point...
  • Tim Mayza is a cult favorite of mine. He's a left-hander, which helps, he throws in the mid-90s, which helps, and he was throwing multiple innings by the end of the year, which also helps. By the end of 2015, I fancied him the top Lugnuts' top relief prospect. We'll see how he does in Dunedin in 2016.
Diminutive position players who don't deserve short shrift...
  • 5'10 Jon Berti is everything that is ever loved about the archetypal grind-it-out, work-harder-than-you, get-the-uniform-dirty ballplayer. He's a dirtbag: he'll walk, run, he'll steal, he'll make huge defensive plays, he'll supply huge base hits. He's getting to the Major Leagues at some point in 2016 and fans are going to fall in love with him. At the Single-A level, 5'9 Chris Carlson did the same for the Lugnuts, and I'm interested to see if he can keep things going for the D-Jays.
  • Jorge Flores is listed on Baseball-Reference.com as being 5'5, though I'm sure he'd rather that they added an inch or three. Typing as someone who is proudly 5'6 and a quarter, Jorge and I are right around the same height -- but he's one heck of a ballplayer. He slashed .276/.360/.347 in Double-A New Hampshire, which puts him right in line for a trip to Triple-A Buffalo next year at the ripe old age of 24. I could see Jorge in the bigs by 2017 or 2018, if not sooner.
  • Ryan Schimpf is going to be 28 next year, I know, but he's only 5'9 and he tied for the Eastern League lead with 20 home runs last year. It's always worth mentioning Ryan Schimpf, and a blast to watch him hit blasts.

Who did I miss?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

2015 MWL Championship Series Preview

Championship Series logo
The Western Division Champion Cedar Rapids Kernels, affiliated with the Minnesota Twins, advanced to the MWL Championship Series in four games, driving out the Quad Cities River Bandits and the Peoria Chiefs in quick succession.
Kernels pitchers allowed only four walks and five earned runs (nine runs total) in 38 innings, an ERA of 1.18. The starts were magnificent: Felix Jorge struck out seven batters while giving up just two runs in 7 1/3 innings; Sam Gibbons allowed one run in eight innings; Randy Rosario was reached for four unearned runs in six innings; and Keaton "Man of" Steele struck out nine in eight innings of two-hit, one-run baseball.
That didn't leave too much work required of the bullpen, but Yorman Landa (4.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 7 K) and Nick Anderson (3 appearances, 3 saves) took care of most everything else. Game, set, match.
As for the offense, Twins #5 prospect Nick Gordon batted .412 (7-17); Chris Paul hit .400 (6-15), and the Kernels blasted 12 extra-base hits and drew 10 walks. (They also struck out 34 times, which, hey, it happens.)
In general, this Kernels team is ready to play -- and win -- low-scoring battles.

In the first round, the Eastern Division Champion West Michigan Whitecaps, affiliated with the Detroit Tigers, shut down the favored, pitching-heavy Fort Wayne TinCaps thanks to their own amazing pitching, 5-2 and 2-1. In the second round, they took on a far better offensive team in the Lansing Lugnuts -- and, after losing the opener 5-4, advanced thanks to a barrage of hitting, 8-3 and 14-5 (with 22 hits in the finale).
Even better, as far as West Michigan is concerned, is that star starting pitchers Spencer Turnbull and A.J. Ladwig were allowed to rest during the division finals, letting them line up in Games 1 and 2 against Cedar Rapids.
The offense appeared top-heavy during the regular season, but now stalwarts Ross KivettMike Gerber, Will Kengor and Joey Pankake are receiving terrific production from 2015 draftees A.J. SimcoxChristin Stewart and Kade Scivicque, not to mention a suddenly resurgent Francisco Contreras. The only hole in the West Michigan lineup is likely switch-hitting second baseman David Gonzalez, but he's in the lineup for his stellar defense more than anything else.

The Whitecaps host the first two games of the series at pitcher-friendly Fifth Third Ballpark, sending Tigers' #5 prospect Turnbull and dart-throwing Ladwig against Jorge and Gibbons.
To my mind, West Michigan has to fare well in these two games, because afterward their pitching effectiveness decreases as they head out to Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium. The Lugnuts had slim pitching depth; the Kernels bring the opposite. The Man of Steele waits for the Whitecaps in Game 3, followed likely by Rosario.
(Should a Game 5 be in the offing, I'd expect West Michigan veteran Ross Seaton to pitch far better than his short-lived Game 3 outing against the Lugnuts on Tuesday night... but I'd be more comfortable with Turnbull on the mound.)

My bias naturally favors the Eastern Division's Whitecaps.
Hey, the division's due. The last team from the East to capture a Midwest League pennant was the 2010 Lake County Captains.
It all starts tonight at Fifth Third Ballpark.