The newest Blue Jay, Thomas Pannone, has been flying under the radar. That may be about to change.
After the generally favourable reaction to the Liriano trade earlier in the day, many fans were disappointed that Smith – who was considered a stronger trade asset – generated so much smaller a return.
But did he?
Let’s talk about Thomas Pannone.
Tom is not a sexy prospect. He was not a multi-million-dollar bonus baby, drafted in the early rounds and signed with great fanfare. He was in fact, originally drafted by the Cubs as an outfielder in the 33rd round of the 2012 draft. He decided to go to a junior college for a year, hoping to earn a higher draft position, but something unexpected happened. He *was* drafted earlier in 2013 (9th round, by Cleveland) … but as a pitcher.
Even after being drafted, Tom stayed under the radar. He pitched in rookie ball in 2013 and 2014, and in A ball in 2015 and most of 2016. His results were good, with an ERA in the 3-4 range, but his less-than-blazing fastball and work-in-process curve and change, led scouts to believe that his upside was limited. He had succeeded so far, but many believed that he was just one promotion away from failure.
Toronto Blue Jays
Tom was promoted to High-A Lynchburg in mid-2016. In seven starts, he pitched to a 1.65 ERA and ended the season with two consecutive shutouts. But his xFIP was over 4.00, his mechanics were still a work in process, and to many (most?) he was still considered a fringe prospect. In his pre-2017 rankings of Cleveland prospects, John Sickels rated him as a C+ prospect, and most analysts did not expect him to repeat his 2016 success.
But 2016 had built Tom’s confidence and motivated him to reach higher. He spent the 2016-17 offseason working with the Cleveland coaching and analysis staff to optimize his delivery and in the gym building strength (can you say Aaron Sanchez?) . By the time the 2017 season started, his fastball was 88-91 (touching 93), his 11-5 curve was much improved, and he was ready.
And yes, he *was* ready. In his first five games at Lynchburg in 2017, Tom pitched to a an ERA of 0.00, with 27 scoreless innings, an xFIP of 2.16, and a K/9 over 12. Including his shutouts at the end of 2016, Tom now had a streak of over 40 innings without allowing an earned run.
Suddenly, people were starting to take notice. But still, the doubters persisted.
Tom was promoted to the double-A Akron Rubberducks (clearly, one of the best minor league team names – right up there with the Lansing Lugnuts). His first game was against the league-leading Trenton Thunder, led by Yankees uber-prospect Gleyber Torres. How did he do? Just 5 2/3 innings, three hits, six strikeouts, and zero earned runs (increasing his streak to 51 consecutive innings without an earned run). And his success did not stop there.
So far in 2017, he has started 14 games with the Ducks, with a 2.62 ERA and an 8.85 K/9 (and an 18.1% K-BB%). If Tom had enough innings, his ERA would rank second in the Eastern League. (By way of reference, at the Jays’ double-A affiliate (New Hampshire) Sean Reid-Foley has a 2017 ERA of 4.58, Connor Greene is at 4.89, and Jon Harris is at 5.38)
But the doubters have not given up. At 23 and 3 months, Thomas is older than many of the players he is competing against (though slightly below the average double-A age of 23.8 years). At 6’0″ and 195 lbs, he is not all that “big and strong“. And he is neither a pure power pitcher nor a pure finesse pitcher, which makes him difficult to evaluate. On that point, Tom himself is not sure
"“I’m getting strikeouts like an overpowering guy, but I’m a left-handed pitcher, so I want to be a little bit crafty,” rationalized Pannone. “I want to be able to throw three pitches for strikes and change speeds. I guess I’m probably somewhere in the middle? I’d like to say I have finesse to my arsenal, but I have some power in it, as well.”"
So what did the Jays get? A near-mlb-ready, three-pitch left-handed starter who is dominating at double-A, just as he did at high-A. A late bloomer who has made significant strides over the past year as a true pitcher, rather than just as a flamethrower.
Perhaps not so bad a return for a half-year of Joe Smith after all?
The bottom line
Pannone is far from a sure thing. But he has succeeded at every level so far, due in large part to a strong work ethic and a high baseball intelligence. That bodes well. The MLB pipeline has started Pannone at #21 on their Top 30 Jays Prospects list.