The Vancouver Canadians are champions of the Northwest League.
The Dunedin Blue Jays are co-champions of the Florida State League.
The Bluefield Blue Jays and the DSL Blue Jays made post-season appearances.
While there were some setbacks, on the whole, the system was replete with success stories. Let’s review.
The Canadians made post-season magic on the strength of shutdown pitching while the tired offense struggled. They went 5-1 in the post-season, winning four of those five by a score of 2-1. “Big” Nate Pearson racked up 14 strikeouts in eight innings pitched over two starts, allowing a single run; The piggyback combination of Zach Logue and Justin Dillon (who regularly pitched together this season) combined for 13 innings pitched giving up only two earned runs while striking out 21 in the two games in which they appeared. More impressive yet, the Canadians’ bullpen combined for 25 innings pitched, while giving up one earned run, striking out 31, and walking only five.
The D-Jays had to settle for co-champion status after Hurricane Irma forced the FSL to cancel their championship series. After losing game one, they played a double header against the Tampa Yankees and won both ends behind dominant pitching from T.J. Zeuch and Jordan Romano.
Now, with team news out of the way, I’ll turn my attention to individual performances. In part one I’ll review the hitters, by position, and in part two we’ll take a look at the pitching.
This is arguably the most well stocked position in this section which is, frankly, a weird thing to be saying about the Blue Jays. I reviewed this position at some length a few weeks back. To that analysis I will only take the time to add this bit of information I discovered about Max Pentecost.
If this guy had not had shoulder issues, he might well have already suited up in Toronto. Every quote I’ve seen from Jays staff is a rave review. He got a gentle re-introduction to catching this season and in light of a recently published comment in which he described finding it harder to stay focused when he wasn’t behind the plate, I decided to take a deeper look at this season. For starters, they never had him catch back-to-back games, and he only played 72 games in all due to injuries (apparently unrelated to the shoulder, but injury info on prospects is very difficult to access) including missing the last 3+ weeks of the season. What I found was that the results, albeit in a small sample, support his observation. He played 20 games behind the plate, 22 at first and was the DH 30 times. Here’s his respective slash lines at each position:
In 81 AB as a catcher: .358/.381/.654/1.035
In 86 AB at first base: .196/.250/.337/.587
In 121 AB as a DH: .273/.348/.422/.780
Overall in 288 AB: .274/.330/.431/.761
This is probably just noise, but maybe it means something? We’ll have to see.
My prediction is that Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire will begin 2018 sharing time in Buffalo with a high likelihood that one or both will see time in Toronto. Pentecost will slot in at AA and I expect Riley Adams to leapfrog to Dunedin while the Ryan Gold/Yorman Rodriguez duo will break camp with Lansing. Although due to some crowding at that level the latter might stay back and go to Vancouver. Hagen Danner, this year’s second round choice, could slot into either Vancouver or Bluefield depending on how everyone looks in the spring.
Rowdy Tellez was the one “buzz” guy at this position coming into the season and he had the first rough year of his career. Early on he was likely affected by some difficult family issues, but even when his average finally recovered in August the power stroke was nowhere to be found. Thankfully Justin Smoak’s emergence took the urgency away on Rowdy’s development. He’ll no doubt repeat AAA next year. Juan Kelly in Dunedin was good-but-not-great in a pitcher’s league, but also brings positional versatility being able to also play 3B and even catch in a pinch (he was signed as a catcher). 2017 8th round choice Kacey Clemens was a mainstay for the VanCs and 15th rounder Ryan Noda was the Appy League Player of the year and a monster for Bluefield (1.082 OPS). Whomever has a better spring will have the chance to jump to Dunedin next year with the other off to Lansing.
When one lays aside upcoming minor league free agents, the most advanced 2B in the systems is Tim Lopes. While he came up big for NH often, however, a .729 OPS isn’t going to get him added to any prospect lists. Cavan Biggio is a member of the Jays Second Generation Club, but he also totaled a .705 OPS for Dunedin in his age 22 season—that’s not going to cut it. That brings us to Samad Taylor. He was the second player that the Jays picked up from Cleveland in the Joe Smith deal. After a brief stop in Bluefield, he hit .333 for the balance of August with a hit in every one of those August games save one. Over that stretch his OPS was .848 and he’ll be someone to watch in Lansing next spring.
By now you probably know that spring crush Jason Leblebijian went off a cliff in early June and crushed the illusion that he might have a major league role. He’ll be back in Buffalo as a utility man playing mostly 3B next year. More exciting for Bisons fans is the likely advent of Richard Urena. As recently as the first of this month I was convinced that he’d go back to AA to begin 2018 as his production their this year did not scream, “promote me.” However if he can carry over the gains of his September major league hot streak to next spring, that might earn him the bump. It’s said that the Jays will want to see him get more work in at 2B next spring in anticipation of middle infield injuries, and that positional flexibility is also something they want in Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
Gurriel himself did not impress offensively either this year (both he and Urena had an OPS of .286 with LGJ slugging slightly higher) there are quite a few caveats. He missed much of the first half with hamstring injuries and when he did return it was after over two years out of organized competitive baseball games. There’s a reasonable chance that he has a better spring and, given that he’s 24 (over two years older than Urena) he’ll get the AAA assignment. There’s an argument to be made for separating them, so as not to crowd the SS playing time, but if the Jays want both to be highly flexible in the infield then it is also perfectly reasonable for them to pair the two in the middle of Buffalo’s infield, occasionally rotating back and forth.
Doing so opens up New Hampshire’s job for Bo Bichette. Given that Bichette only got into 40 games for Dunedin, the cautious approach would be to at least let him (and a certain other individual) open the year back there and avoid the spring cold that one must deal with in New Hampshire. But that would certainly be a temporary situation unless he completely fell apart. Whether he plays 140 games in AA or 100, the job is effectively his given he was the most productive hitter (on a full season team) in the Blue Jays system in 2017.
The job Bo leaves behind in Dunedin would likely go to some combination of young Venezuelan shortstops Yeltsin Gudino and Kevin Vicuna. Both are, to this point, relatively light hitting glove men whom the organization likes, but they’re not really on anybody’s top 30 list. With that said, Gudino was considered the No. 8 international signing prospect in 2013 and Vicuna was No. 30 the following year, so there might be some unrealized upside with them . At some point, though, they would likely take a back seat to one of the Blue Jays’ 2017 first round picks: Logan Warmoth.
In truth, it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where Warmoth leapfrogs the two aforementioned shortstops and goes straight to Dunedin. But given the Blue Jays’ handling of the previous year’s draft picks as well as the inherent luxury of having impressive depth above him, the 2017 top pick most likely breaks with Lansing. Warmoth did everything the team could have hoped this year in Vancouver, even while the rest of the hitters wore down towards the end of what was, particularly for college hitters, a really long season. Fellow 2017 draftee Kevin Smith deserves a mention here as well, likely taking his assignment one level behind Warmoth wherever that ends up being.
I know what you’re thinking, but let me take these in order from the top of the system down…even though that won’t take long. Jason Leblijian will just be a placeholder—at best—in Buffalo. Matt Dean will be a minor league free agent who’ll be very lucky to get an offer. Mitch Nay is still around, after much trouble with injury, but also hasn’t proven he can hit. So let’s just move on to discussing Vlad Guerrero Jr.
Vlad, whom more and more folks are putting in discussions about the best prospect in the game, is obviously in the same position as Bo. The team could easily justify conservatively leaving him in Dunedin to begin the year in the sunshine until early May, but given that he has yet to experience serious adversity it might be considered advantageous to his development to let him break camp in AA. Whatever the schedule, that’s likely where he’ll play most of his games come year’s end. It’s also worth noting that how they choose to develop him will be at least somewhat affected by whether they extend Josh Donaldson this winter (or at least the nature of the conversations with his representatives about doing so).
If/when Guerrero settles in at AA, look for Bradley Jones to get most of the reps at 3B in Dunedin. While he’s capable of playing 2B and 1B (and presumably would be a decent enough outfielder) third is where the depth chart is thinnest and so logically he’d get his best chance here. Jones was so impressive in Lansing that he was their first hitter promoted to Dunedin, but injuries limited him to 17 games and likely underlaid the 0 for 26 stretch that preceded his trip to the DL. The FSL hasn’t seen the real Jones yet. Below that level it gets dicey. Bryan Lizardo was unproductive at Vancouver, Sterling Guzman hit well in Bluefield before a season ending injury. The second highest paid signing by the Blue Jays in this July 2 period was a 3B, Miguel Hiraldo, but he was described in rosey terms for his hitting, little mention was made of his defense, and he a very long way off.
The top of the list in terms of advancement among outfield prospects is Teoscar Hernandez. In fact, he’s graduated from officially being considered a prospect (joining Dalton Pompey in “prospect but not officially” status). Barring the real possibility that the Blue Jays bring in someone from outside the organization this winter, I’d say confidence is high Hernandez has first shot at becoming the Opening Day right fielder in the Spring. Pompey, sadly, did not even get to play enough this year to burn an option, so in the unlikely event he doesn’t get hurt next spring, the Blue Jays can option him to Buffalo and see if he can consolidate his abilities without breaking again.
Joining him in that outfield will presumably be Anthony Alford and Dwight Smith Jr. Smith spent 2017 with Buffalo and was mostly okay, but nothing about him suggests anything more than a fourth outfielder ceiling and guy who’ll probably bounce around the way Zeke Carerra was doing when he came to town. Alford, on the other hand, will surely be the team’s consensus No. 3 prospect this winter and rightly so. Most observers still think there’s some unrealized over-the-fence power left in his game, but otherwise he’s a practically perfect prospect both on and off the field. One reason the team might gamble with a Pearce/Carrera/Pillar/Hernandez outfield is the knowledge that Alford is so close. Alternately (and this is how I’d play it) they could aggressively shop Pillar and plug Alford into CF, but my guess is this organization is too conservative to break camp with rookies in two-thirds of the starting outfield slots.
Another outfielder who you’ll potential find in Buffalo in 2018, if he’s not taken in the Rule 5 Draft, is speedy Roemon Fields. He has no power at all, but his OBP was .355 and he stole 43 bases while playing praiseworthy defense, which quite a few teams would tolerate off their bench. Behind this grouping is Harold Ramirez. At his best in 2015 he was a high OBP guy with a little pop and good speed, but in two seasons AA has exposed him and he’s at this point looking like a marginal guy who’s not even as good as Smith.
The next guy you want to get excited about is Toronto native and future fan favorite Connor Panas. Panas led the FSL in homers, and finished second in SLG and OPS. He’ll plug right into AA as the everyday RF and will again be overshadowed by the Bo and Vladdy show. While he’s not on their level (he’ll be 25 next year), he’s got enough going on to deserve some notice. Then there’s Edward Olivares, the other guy who spent 2017 in the shadow of the Show. He was fifth in the Midwest League in OPS, third in slugging. When the 21 year old Venezuelan was promoted to Dunedin on August 13 it took him a few games to find his stroke and he didn’t manage even one homer at the higher level, but that should not dampen your enthusiasm. He’ll return to the FSL next spring.
Another interesting guy was Lansing’s Joshua Palacios. The 2016 4th rounder was horrendous to begin the season and did not recover before going on the DL on June 5 with a .541 OPS. Just over two weeks later he came off a changed man. From there on out he hit .38 with an .824 OPS which has me projecting him to be Dunedin’s opening day CF next spring. The other 2017 draft choice on the Lansing roster was second rounder J.B. Woodman. You can’t entirely dismiss him but 157 strikeouts in 96 games (and only seven homers) won’t play.
On the short season teams the most well regarded prospect has to be Reggie Pruitt. He’s still exceedingly raw, but after ending June hitting a sub-optimal .102, he posted a .257 BA with a .650 OPS over the second half, while playing big defense and stealing 28 bases in 36 tries. He’s still years away from refining them, but the tools are there. A couple of other guys in Vancouver hit marginally better, but they seem to have considerably lower ceilings. Another guy I’ve been watching is Freddy Rodriguez. He was No. 18 in that aforementioned 2013 class and his first two pro seasons were unimpressive, then he was limited by injury to only seven games in 2016. He also missed the first month of the short season this year but when he got to play he showed an improved game. It was only 28 games total, but his OPS was .861 and he’s still only 20. I’d speculate he has the chance to open with Lansing but the Jays may opt for caution and assign him to Vancouver. Finally, I’d be remiss if I did not mention Dominic Abbadassa (23rd rd, 2016) who hit .340 in the GCL with an .811 OPS, and 2017 draftee DJ Neal (26th) who overcame a 2 for 27 midseason slump and hit .346 in all other games with an .812 OPS. Both will get a chance to prove their mettle in Vancouver next year.
Other names you may see mentioned among OF include Jon Davis, Andrew Guillote, and Brock Luundquist.
That’s 40 names in bold, dig in because there’s a boatload of pitchers to talk about ext time.
Lead Photo: Steve Mitchell —USA TODAY Sports