Second Half Performers: Studs and Duds
The minor league season is a long, arduous process. The elevation of the west coast leads to rampant temperatures breaking the 100 Fahrenheit mark for months at a time, while the climate on the east coast leads to gut wrenching humidity and frequent rain outs. It can really take a toll on players, as not only are they forced to live and work under these conditions, they also have to ride a bus from state to state for hours at a time once or twice a week. It leads to long days, restless nights, and a constant battle with exhaustion.
Despite all this, those of us sitting comfortably in our temperature controlled offices, houses, and apartments expect the players to have consistently strong seasons from the beginning of April through to the end of August. In reality, it rarely happens. Hot streaks and cold streaks are the normality, with players hoping when all is said that the hot will outweigh the cold. Listed below are eight players. The first four are Blue Jays prospects who overcame the conditions and battled through the season, coming on at their strongest in the second half. The second group of Blue Jays prospects are those who got off to a hot start, but failed to carry it through to the end of the season.
The pre- and post-All Star designations are based upon the individual league that the prospects played in. For example, the Midwest League All Star break is in late June, while the Eastern League All Star break takes place in early July. For players who split the season between two minor league levels, the separation is from the level at which they were playing when they experienced the All Star break. As short season players have no first half, they’re omitted from consideration for this article.
Second Half Studs
RHP Noah Syndergaard (Single-A Lansing)
- Pre All-Star: 3-2, 43.2 IP, 44 H, 19 ER, 3 HR, 15 BB, 57 K, 3.92 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 11.75 K/9
- Post All-Star: 5-3, 60.0 IP, 37 H, 11 ER, 0 HR, 16 BB, 65 K, 1.65 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 9.75 K/9
Noah Syndergaard opened the year pitching in tandem with Anthony DeSclafani. They alternated who started the game and who relieved, and as I wrote in detail months ago, Syndergaard didn’t handle pitching out of the bullpen very well whatsoever. As such, it’s no surprise that once he was freed from the clutches of relief work in the second half, his numbers really took off. His 65 post All-Star strikeouts were the third most in the Blue Jays system, behind Javier Avendano and Justin Nicolino, though both pitchers had a significant inning advantage. The word “overhyped” was starting to get thrown around in prospects circles when Syndergaard’s ERA was sitting around the 4.00 mark, but his downright filthy second half performance should cement his position as an elite pitching prospect. The jump from Single-A to High-A is significant, so Syndergaard will need to have a focused offseason if he hopes to have another dominant season for Dunedin – and possibly New Hampshire – in 2013.
3B Gustavo Pierre (Single-A Lansing)
- Pre All-Star: 52 AB, .135/.224/.250 (.474 OPS), 1 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 3 SB, 6/16 BB/K
- Post All-Star: 226 AB, .279/.321/.451 (.772 OPS), 13 2B, 7 3B, 4 HR, 24 RBI, 5 SB, 10/63 BB/K
Gustavo Pierre opened the 2011 season with Lansing, but after hitting .187/.244/.262 in 56 games while playing porous defense at shortstop, he was demoted down to Bluefield. He finished the year very strongly, but when assignments came this spring, Pierre’s was to extended spring training instead of full season ball. Thanks to injuries and the poor performance of another player on this list, however, he got a second chance with the Lugnuts at the end of May. The season quickly became reminiscent of 2011, as through his first 15 games he had an unsettling .474 OPS. The team stuck with him this time, and it paid off in the second half, as Pierre was one of the Lugnuts’ most consistent hitters in July and August. The decrease in stress from shifting down the defensive spectrum to third base likely helped substantially, as while the 20 year old is still extremely raw in the field, his body type is much better suited to the hot corner.
RHP Danny Barnes (High-A Dunedin)
- Pre All-Star: 17 SV, 27.2 IP, 28 H, 7 ER, 2 HR, 12 BB, 28 K, 2.28 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 9.11 K/9
- Post All-Star: 17 SV, 23.2 IP, 9 H, 1 ER, 1 HR, 4 BB, 35 K, 0.38 ERA, 0.55 WHIP, 13.31 K/9
After a dominant full season debut with Lansing in 2011, I ranked Barnes as the Blue Jays’ 29th best prospect; not an insignificant honor for a relief pitcher in such a deep system. Things didn’t get off quite so well with Dunedin in the first half of 2012. Sure, the ERA was sexy and he was piling up saves, but the strikeout rate was well down from 2011 (13.50 K/9), and way too many runners were getting on base. The way he was pitching, an implosion seemed inevitable. Something happened around the All-Star break though, as in the second half of the season Barnes pitched like a man possessed. His strikeout rate returned to its previous level of dominance, and he allowed just 13 base runners in 22 games. Barnes’ stellar finish to the season guarantees a Double-A assignment next spring, with the major leagues a distinct possibility in the not so distant future.
3B Kellen Sweeney (Single-A Lansing, Low-A Vancouver)
- Pre All-Star: 117 AB, .188/.314/.222 (.536 OPS), 2 2B, 1 3B, 0 HR, 10 RBI, 1 SB, 21/27 BB/K
- Post All-Star: 268 AB, .220/.319/.347 (.666 OPS), 15 2B, 2 3B, 5 HR, 31 RBI, 5 SB, 37/50 BB/K
Kellen Sweeney was the sleeper pick amongst many Blue Jays fans entering the 2012 season. He was a second round pick in the 2010 draft, but thanks to a late contract agreement and a serious wrist injury in 2011, he had appeared in just 27 games through his first two seasons. The team knew they needed to get the 20 year olds career moving in the right direction, so they handed him a bold Lansing assignment. It didn’t take long to realize Sweeney wasn’t ready, as he was simply awful through the first two months of the season. Gustavo Pierre took his roster spot, and Sweeney was sent to extended spring training to await short season ball. He has been significantly better with Vancouver in the second half, with his OPS improving each month from June through August. Sweeney should prepare himself for a second crack at the Midwest League next spring, because a lot will be riding on his performance.
Second Half Duds
CF Jake Marisnick (High-A Dunedin, Double-A New Hampshire)
- Pre All-Star: 285 AB, .256/.338/.439 (.777 OPS), 20 2B, 7 3B, 6 HR, 36 RBI, 10 SB, 26/61 BB/K
- Post All-Star: 204 AB, .240/.293/.343 (.636 OPS), 9 2B, 3 3B, 2 HR, 14 RBI, 14 SB, 11/39 BB/K
Jake Marisnick had a very strong start to the season in High-A Dunedin. While the numbers were down compared to his breakout 2011 season with Lansing, he was still at or around the .800 OPS mark for much of his time in the Florida State League, which is quite an accomplishment. The FSL is a notoriously difficult place to hit, and Marisnick’s performance was accentuated by the painful-to-watch struggles of the corner outfielders to his left and right. Things went substantially downhill after a promotion to the Eastern League, as at times Marisnick looked completely overmatched. If not for a strong closing week, his second half OPS would have been below .600. He still has all the tools in the world and is looked upon very favorably in the scouting community, but he will have a chance at statistical redemption when he represents the Blue Jays in the Arizona Fall League later this year.
RHP Aaron Sanchez (Single-A Lansing)
- Pre All-Star: 6-0, 47.0 IP, 24 H, 4 ER, 0 HR, 28 BB, 53 K, 0.77 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 10.15 K/9
- Post All-Star: 2-5, 43.1 IP, 40 H, 21 ER, 3 HR, 23 BB, 44 K, 4.36 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 9.14 K/9
Fluff pieces were aplenty about Aaron Sanchez in the first half, and I was guilty of more than a few. The above line makes it readily apparent why – he truly was filthy. The scouting reports were just as glowing, as scouts were more than willing to label Sanchez’ curveball as one of the best in minor league baseball. His 97 mph capable fastball is pretty nice, too. Control and command have always been the question with Sanchez, and they became a big problem in the second half, particularly on the command end. His walk rate remained similar, but the pitches entering the zone weren’t going exactly where he wanted. Instead of pounding down like he did in the first half (.156 opponents average, 2.76 GO/AO, 0 HR), his location drifted upwards, leading to a huge increase in hitability (.252 opponents average, 1.82 GO/AO, 3 HR). Sanchez’ failure to finish his pitches suggests this is a case of fatigue, as the right hander threw just 54.1 innings in 2011. While the second half numbers are disappointing, the experience should better prepare him for yet another workload increase next season.
RHP John Stilson (High-A Dunedin, Double-A New Hampshire)
- Pre All-Star: 5-1, 76.1 IP, 75 H, 24 ER, 2 HR, 29 BB, 64 K, 2.83 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 7.55 K/9
- Post All-Star: 0-3, 28.0 IP, 35 H, 21 ER, 6 HR, 13 BB, 27 K, 6.75 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, 8.68 K/9
John Stilson was one of the biggest question marks in the farm system entering the season, and the Blue Jays’ handling of the right hander supplied few answers. Stilson suffered a serious shoulder injury in his final college season, and there were doubts he’d be able to start the year on time. He did, and the team pushed him right into the High-A rotation where he had an excellent first half. The strikeout rate was merely average, but for a player making his professional debut, the results were more than satisfactory. Stilson received a mid-June promotion to Double-A, where things quickly unraveled. The move to the bullpen at the beginning of August likely tied in to an innings cap, so perhaps the drop in performance was fatigue related. Stilson will return to New Hampshire to open 2013, and if the Blue Jays have any sense about them, it will be in a permanent relief role. It speaks volumes when a college pitcher struggles to reach the 100 inning plateau in the minor leagues.
LF Marcus Knecht (High-A Dunedin)
- Pre All-Star: 219 AB, .228/.328/.438 (.766 OPS), 16 2B, 3 3B, 8 HR, 41 RBI, 2 SB, 31/72 BB/K
- Post All-Star: 233 AB, .193/.277/.343 (.620 OPS), 16 2B, 2 3B, 5 HR, 18 RBI, 3 SB, 19/74 BB/K
A 3rd round pick in the 2010 draft, Marcus Knecht established himself on the prospect radar with a big season for Lansing in 2011, particularly for his combination of power (199 ISO) and plate discipline (12.7% walk rate). He joined the aforementioned Marisnick in Dunedin, with high expectations. Like Marisnick, Knecht had a solid albeit unspectacular first half. His batting average plummeted due to a soaring strikeout rate, but his power and plate discipline kept his overall batting line respectable. Things got worse in the second half, as not only did his contact rate take yet another step backwards, but his usually strong accessory statistics fell flat as well. The overall season line is rather unsightly, as Knecht was just barely able to keep his on base percentage above the .300 mark. While a Double-A assignment next spring isn’t out of the question, his second half was so poor that the Blue Jays might decide Knecht needs to prove himself capable of hitting High-A pitching for a couple of months.