Daniel Norris pitches for the Lansing Lugnuts in Lansing, Michigan on August 9, 2013. Mandatory Credit: Jay Blue
With Wednesday’s announcement of the 25 man Blue Jay roster including a few eyebrow raisers, does that mean followers of the four full season minor league affiliates are going to be similarly surprised when those rosters are announced? It’s possible. Thus far, with Dustin McGowan pitching his way into the Jays’ rotation, one of my pre-season predictions has already been blown out of the water. I’m about to make another one that is even further outside the box, unlike any season long forecasting though, I won’t have to wait long for this one to make me look silly.
The Florida State League. A place where pitchers thrive, fly balls go to die, and weather plays a big role. Playing in major league spring training facilities in dense, humid air, doesn’t tend to help hitters. Comparing the three advanced A leagues, Florida yields the least amount of home runs, runs, and slugging percentage:
(looking at the stats above, how much fun must it be for pitchers in the dry heat of California??!)
So which young Jays pitchers are going to benefit from these park (league??) factors. The obvious one is Jays Journal #5 prospect Daniel Norris. A 2nd round pick in 2011, Norris was considered a tough sign, but the Jays locked him up, albeit late, delaying his pro debut until 2012. If you’re into rate stats, it was a pretty tough first season for the 6’2″ 180 pound lefty. His FIP was always well under the high ERA though, and some inflated BABIP numbers pointed towards some tough luck. That’s not to say there weren’t problems. Speaking with Vancouver Canadians pitching coach Jim Czajkowski, Norris would look great in the bullpen but during the game his mechanics would fall apart. High BB/9 rates and low LOB percentages bear that out. He was struggling to repeat his delivery.
A poor start in 2013 had the knives out, with many prospect analysts starting to throw out the ‘B’ word. Something I countered after the season ended. To try and get him to stay on top of his pitches, Lansing pitching coach Vince Horman was only allowing Norris to throw his fastball and change. Once he proved he could repeat his delivery and command those two, he would let him open up with the rest of his arsenal, something that happened in the 2nd half.
You can break Norris’ 2013 season into two halves of 11 starts each, with both going for 42.1 innings. The below table shows some of the improvements made.
The strikeout numbers are pretty bloody spectacular. He still walks too many, but that’s a problem we see with many 20 year olds and something which will be worked on this year.
In the article linked above, I included a table which compared Norris’ Lugnut numbers to consensus #1 Jays prospect Aaron Sanchez at the same level. Short version, they were very similar, which is newsworthy considering Norris had one less year of pro experience before hitting full season ball.
If Daniel comes out firing in 2014, and considering the (admittedly vague) reports I’ve been getting from spring training, there’s no reason to believe he won’t, then a mid-season promotion to New Hampshire could be on the cards. Having him in the same rotation with Sanchez at nine months younger and a year behind the pro curve would be very exciting indeed.
Right, now the controversial choice. For those that read my stuff, you’ll know what’s coming, I’ve been on the Tom Robson to Dunedin train for awhile. It’s a bold call since, and my research into this hasn’t been extensive, the Jays don’t really tend to skip levels, especially for 20 year old pitchers. But here’s my reasoning.
If both Bluefield and Vancouver feed into Lansing, there is going to be a Lugnut rotation logjam. Of the five starters I predicted for Lansing, Robson is (and this is unbelievable) older than them all bar Jeremy Gabryszwski. Is age enough to send him to Dunedin? No, not really. How about the fact he dominated two leagues last year? Pitching to a 1.12 ERA over 64.1 innings pitched. It’s hard to believe that number given his pedestrian K and BB rates, and his FIP is higher, but as this article points out, Robson’s ability to induce ground balls is freakish. He was one of only four pitchers in pro ball to have a ground rate over 66%, and the others are all sidewinders.
With an above average change and potential plus curve to go along with his power sinker, it seems Robson is made for the FSL. I watched him a lot last year and he flat out competes, making me a believer that he’d be successful at any level. We shouldn’t have to wait long to see if the Jays agree.
Moving around the rest of the diamond, there’s going to be plenty of position players to keep an eye on in Florida.
For me, and this is not because of my passport, the most exciting prospect will be Mississauga native Dalton Pompey. It’s hard to believe that 2014 will be the center fielders 5th season in pro ball. After 2012 was cut short due to a broken hamate bone, Pompey was assigned to Lansing last year where he put up a .261/.358/.394 slashline (bear in mind that slugging % was skewed down by an absolutely terrible May when he slugged .228) while winning the Rawlings minor league gold glove for center field.
Pompey can flat out fly, last year he stole 38 bases despite nursing a broken toe through the summer. So, with developing power, incredible defense, and blazing speed, what can’t he do? Like most 20 year olds (he turned 21 in December), and some other center fielders in the Jays system, Dalton could stand to strike out less. I think the organization would be thrilled if he could maintain his walk rate around 13%, strike out in the 15% range, while maintaining his 2013 ISO of .133. A tough ask, given the conditions discussed above, but if he does it, you’re probably looking at a top 10 prospect in the system.
Next to Dalton in left should be Dwight Smith Jr. I’m a bit ambivalent on the 2011 supplemental round pick because I don’t see where his future lies. He doesn’t have the arm to play right, the power to stick in left, or the speed to patrol center. Essentially he’s already been pigeon-holed as a fourth outfielder. However, after a poor first professional season, and being sent to extended last year, you have to admire the 2013 he ended up putting together in Lansing.
If he continues to progress at the plate then it’s distinctly possible he takes a big step up the depth chart as well.
On the infield, there is three (possibly) names I’ll be keeping an eye on. The two I’m sure of are Christian Lopes at second and shortstop Emilio Guerrero. The third name is a bit of a punt as it entails another Canadians to Dunedin promotion.
With Matthew Dean having such a great season in Bluefield, it stands to reason that he gets the opportunity to play first for Lansing. That means 2013 14th round pick and Northwest League MVP L.B. Dantzler heads to Dunedin. This one is not such a stretch as Robson. Dantzler was drafted out of a elite college program in the University of South Carolina and is an advanced bat. Lansing will be very young in 2014. After an off-season to recuperate and a full spring training with Blue Jay coaches, there is no reason that the 22 year old L.B. can’t handle the jump.
Christian Lope’s prospect status took a bit of hit last year. Not something you would have said after the first two months of the season when he OPS’d .758 with four homeruns through the first 50 games. Things went a bit sour after that though as the ugly .206/.285/.286 line will attest to. Whether the poor finish was due to an injury or fatigue is unclear. Whatever the reason, Lopes will be looking for more consistency in 2014.
Despite the finish, I don’t see any reason to hold the Huntingdon Beach native back and he should join 2013 Lugnut teammate Emilio Guerrero with the D-Jays.
Guerrero is a different animal than Lopes. Where Christian was a hightly touted prospect (even winning the best 13 year old in the USA award…seriously), Emilio was an under the radar IFA who had done about zip in his pro career before being assigned to Lansing last year. Colleague Jay Blue breaks down the season nicely here, specifically how the Dominican native seemed to get stronger as the year wore on. Ending 2013 with a very healthy .125 ISO while maintaining an excellent 0.67 BB/K ratio.
Given that Guerrero’s defense is average at best, and with a quartet of highly rated shortstops right behind, this could be his last year up the middle. But if his offensive development of 2013 carries into this year then the Jays will find him a position going forward.
We should know the rosters for the teams I have discussed shortly after this is published. Will be interesting to see if any more of my predictions are proven to be wildly inaccurate. For the Lansing Lugnuts piece, as I linked above, I have already taken a stab at their roster. When I write about them next it will be more reactive to what has already been announced. Can’t wait.