Blue Jays’ year-end 2013 farm report

Sean Nolin reached the MLB level in 2013, but did not get a September call-up. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

There should be little surprise that the Toronto Blue Jays did not include Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman among their September call-ups, opting for caution rather than aggressiveness with the timelines of their top pitching prospects.

Instead, they went more with familiarity and experience in recalling from triple-A Buffalo hurlers Ricky Romero, Kyle Drabek, Luis Perez and Jeremy Jeffress plus catcher Mike Nickeas, a late replacement for A.J. Jimenez, sidelined by a bout of nerve irritation in his surgically repaired right elbow.

Romero, back in the majors for a second time in his most trying season, will try once again to get his career back on track. The Blue Jays intensely debated whether to bring him up or not, unsure whether the stint would be harmful or helpful to the former all-star (read about it here).

He made gains with the Bisons, despite a 5-8 mark with a 5.78 ERA in 22 starts, and as manager Marty Brown put it to last week: “The only way you’re going to find out is to test it.”

Drabek and Perez both return to the majors after undergoing Tommy John surgery last season, while Drew Hutchison, who also had the ligament-replacement surgery, was deemed not to be ready.

Jeffress earned a return after going 1-0 with seven saves and a 1.39 ERA in 28 games for the Bisons, overcoming some rough spots early in the season to win enough trust from Brown to become the triple-A closer.

“In the early part of the year, he was an ass—-,” Brown says bluntly. “And from the middle part of the year on, he’s been a great teammate, he’s done everything we’ve asked of him, and I’m very pleased with how he’s progressed. I think he felt, ‘My (stuff) is too good to be here.’ And in some ways, you look at it now and think it’s pretty damned good. But initially, he rubbed some people the wrong way with his attitude, and his attitude got better, he cleaned everything up, he’s been great.

“He’s been up to 99 m.p.h. with a really sharp curveball at times. He really slows the game down, holds runners well, is quick to the plate, understands himself way better as a pitcher. I’ve really been surprised at how just how well he’s calmed down.”

Nolin and Stroman, meanwhile, are among the seven prospects the Blue Jays plan on sending to the Arizona Fall League. Joining them on the Salt River Rafters will be fellow pitchers Aaron Sanchez and Tyler Ybarra, infielder Andy Burns, outfielder Kenny Wilson and, if healthy, Jimenez.

“It’s a good challenge for pitchers because the ball flies there and there are a lot of good hitters,” says Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava. “They really get tested.”

Single-A Dunedin and Vancouver and rookie-league Bluefield were the only Blue Jays affiliates advancing to the playoffs. Here’s a look at some of the other players of note in the Blue Jays farm system this season:

Triple-A – Buffalo Bisons, 74-70, third in International League North Division

Sean Nolin:  The talented left-hander made his ill-fated big-league debut May 24 against the Baltimore Orioles, and while debate has raged over whether he was rushed, his work at double-A New Hampshire and Buffalo suggested otherwise. Between the two levels he was 9-4 with a 2.77 ERA in 20 starts. What remains for him are the finishing touches. “I really like his competitiveness. He’s not a real feel guy but the ball really jumps out of his hand. Durable, hates to lose,” says Brown, adding that more consistency in his changeup is needed.

“I would tell him to bounce one across the plate, then you can make an adjustment. Bounce it one time, now you can work up instead of being up, up, up and never making the adjustment to get out front. He learns about himself as a pitcher every time he goes out there, but I like his grit, I like the way he gets pissed off – as long as he keeps it under control.”

John Stilson: Promoted to Buffalo as a reliever after making nine starts last year, Stilson posted a 2.17 ERA and 9.6 strikeouts per nine in 49.2 innings over 35 games. “He’s gotten better every time out with his focus,” says Brown.

“Sometimes he throws, and now he’s starting to pitch. I like the way John has gotten things together on the mound where he’s not going 1,000 miles an hour all the time. He’s learned to slow the game down a bit, it’s made him more effective at hitting spots. His changeup has been exceptional at times, left-handers don’t stand a chance against it, but it all stems around his fastball command.”

A.J. Jimenez: Back from Tommy John surgery last spring, Jimenez shot through three levels and was headed for the majors until his elbow started acting up. His season included a stint in the Futures Game, and in 67 games he batted .287/.332/.406 with 19 doubles, four homers and 38 RBIs. “I’ve always liked A.J.,” says Brown.

“Umpires rave about working with him behind the plate, just a really respectful guy who goes about playing the game the right way, and he’s got tools. Great release, blocks great, calls a really good game, he’s smart, makes good trips to the mound. He brings the whole package, really. He’s got power, I don’t think he’s figured out how much yet, but he’s still young.”

Double-A – New Hampshire Fisher Cats, 68-72, third in Eastern League Eastern Division

Marcus Stroman: Stretched out after returning from a 50-game suspension for violating the minor-league drug program, the 22-year-old right-hander showed enough promise to suggest he might be able to stick as a starter. Some with the Blue Jays pushed for his quick promotion as a reliever, but after going 9-5 with a 3.30 ERA in 20 starts with 129 strikeouts in 111.2 innings, Stroman the starter is far too intriguing a possibility to pass on.

“Every challenge we’ve handed him, he’s done really well,” says LaCava. “Remember, this is his first full season, and he’s had a nice year in double-A, which is a pretty good jump. That’s an example of guy who we’ve challenged with his first full season, more so than we would have in the past, and certainly with a high school kid. We were aggressive with his placement and he’s done very well.”

Deck McGuire: Two springs ago, the No. 11 pick in the 2010 draft was considered to be on the cusp of the big-leagues, some finishing touches away from promotion, but since then he’s mostly struggled. Last year was pretty miserable and in repeating New Hampshire, he was on his way to more disappointment before a strong August (4-1 with a 2.95 ERA in six games, five starts, with 35 strikeouts in 39.2 innings) captured some attention. McGuire finished 9-10 with a 4.86 ERA in 27 games, including 26 starts.

“He’s commanding his fastball better and his slider has gotten a little sharper,” says LaCava in explaining the sudden gains. “We were hoping for better results, he’s still a work in progress but he finished strong and that’s a good sign.”

Single-A – Dunedin Blue Jays, 63-68, fifth in Florida State League North Division

Aaron Sanchez: Amid all of the Blue Jays’ wheeling and dealing last winter, the one untouchable was the 21-year-old right-hander. A potential future ace, his progress has been monitored closely and save for a month on the sidelines with a minor shoulder issue, Sanchez did all that was asked of him. Though he didn’t graduate from A-ball, that was largely due to injury, and the AFL will make up for that.

He was 4-5 with a 3.34 ERA in 22 games, 20 starts, and while his 75 strikeouts in 86.1 innings were pedestrian by his standards, he spent much of the season relying less on his overpowering fastball, which he’s commanding better, to develop the rest of his repertoire.

“He’s really learning to harness that gift because the way (the velocity) was rapidly increasing, it’s like a new toy, he didn’t know what to do with it,” says LaCava. “Sometimes he was just so excited, and we all got excited about it, but I think he’s finally learning how to harness that power.”

Single-A – Lansing Lugnuts, 61-78, seventh in Midwest League Eastern Division

Daniel Norris: The 20-year-old left-hander struggled with his command and in repeating his delivery out of the gate but sprinted to the finish line, posting a 0.75 ERA in his final five starts at Lansing (24 innings, 14 hits, seven walks, 29 strikeouts) before throwing five shutout innings for Dunedin in his season finale.

“He’s really had a nice season,” says LaCava. “Dane Johnson and Vince Horsman have done a nice job in getting him to repeat his delivery. Stuff’s always been there, he’s a power left-hander, the results weren’t always there, but now they’re starting to come and we’re excited about that.”

Roberto Osuna: The 18-year-old went 3-5 with a 5.53 ERA in 10 starts, which isn’t bad considering he tried to pitch a portion of those games with a torn ligament his right elbow. He underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of July.

“His rehab is going fine, he’s glad that it finally got taken care of,” says LaCava. “He was trying to rehab it and not get it done, but when it’s completely torn, as my understanding is it was, there’s comes a point where you have to get it done.”

Single-A – Vancouver Canadians, 39-37, second in Northwest League North Division

Tom Robson: A fourth-round pick out of Ladner, B.C., in 2011, the right-hander “has made some really good progress,” says LaCava. “He’s throwing harder, he’s throwing downhill, his curveball and changeup have both come on, he gets a lot of ground balls.” Robson was 3-0 with a 0.94 ERA in seven starts for the Canadians.

Shane Dawson: A 17th-round pick out of Drayton Valley, Alta. in 2012, Dawson is “a left-hander who can really pitch, and he’s really put himself on the radar,” says LaCava. “Coming into the year we liked those guys (Dawson and Robson) and felt they were prospects to some degree, but now they’re guys we talk about quite often.” Dawson was 2-4 with a 3.13 ERA in 11 games, seven starts, for Vancouver and Bluefield.

Rookie Ball – Bluefield Blue Jays, 40-27, second in Appalachian League East Division

D.J. Davis: Having just turned 19 on July 25, the 2012 first-rounder hit .240/.323/.418 in his first full pro season. Despite his age, the Blue Jays challenged him by moving him a level above the GCL and he responded, although his swing remains a work in progress, as evidenced by his 76 strikeouts in 225 at-bats.

“We think he’s got a chance to hit and hit for some power, but this may not happen overnight. We’re going to have to be patient with that and he’ll let us know when he’s ready to move up levels,” says LaCava. “He’s a table-setter, he’s a really exciting player. I saw him make a play earlier this year that was one for the ages. There was a ball hit to dead centre field, he turned and had his back completely to home plate, full sprint, and dove and made the catch at the warning track fully laid out. I don’t know that you can make a better catch. Too bad there weren’t any cameras around. He’s made some really good progress in many ways, emotionally, physically, defensively, the whole game.”

Rookie Ball – GCL Blue Jays, 28-32, third in Gulf Coast League Northwest Division

Matthew Smoral: The hulking left-hander posted an 0-2 mark with a 7.01 ERA in 15 games, five starts, in his pro debut. While he struck out 27 in 25.2 innings, he also walked 26 which led to many of his problems. He allowed only one homer among the 22 hits against him.

Clinton Hollon: The 2013 second-rounder made an impressive debut in the GCL with 10 strikeouts and just two hits against in 12 shutout innings over four outings. He was hit much harder in two games at Bluefield, where he allowed six runs on six hits and three walks in 5.1 innings.

Rowdy Tellez: The 30th-round pick in 2013 who signed for $850,000, a record under the new draft system for post-10th-round selections, batted .234/.319/.371 in 34 games with five doubles, three triples and two home runs.

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