Minor league review: How top Blue Jays prospects fared in 2016

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Mike Carlson)

The perception of the Toronto Blue Jays farm system heading into the season was that it had been largely stripped down following Alex Anthopoulos’ trade-deadline buildup in 2015 and had little depth beyond a handful of top prospects.

Over the course of 2016 that group – right-handers Conner Greene and Sean Reid-Foley, shortstop Richard Urena, first baseman Rowdy Tellez, and outfielders Anthony Alford and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – progressed, while the likes of Justin Maese, Jon Harris, Max Pentecost, Francisco Rios, Angel Perdomo and Jordan Romano emerged as players to watch.

Add in the acquisitions of catcher Reese McGuire and outfielder Harold Ramirez from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Francisco Liriano deal, and suddenly the Blue Jays system appears stronger than it gets credit for.

“All of us here have been pretty pleased with that top group,” says Gil Kim, the Blue Jays’ player development director. “I think it’s stronger at the top than maybe the industry sees – we definitely see it – and deeper too. They all have intriguing skillsets and it’s a fun group to work with.”

Still, change has come rapidly to the player development side under the new regime of president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins, with minor-league field co-ordinator Doug Davis, minor-league pitching co-ordinator Sal Fasano, amateur scouting director Brian Parker and national cross-checker Blake Davis fired.

Each role is expected to be filled – speculation is that advisor Eric Wedge will slide into Davis’ role, while new vice-president of baseball operations Ben Cherington will work closely with Kim and the player development side of the organization.

“There was a lot going on here in player development that was translating to Major League Baseball players. With that being said, you’re always trying to improve and that’s how we approached every day,” says Kim. “I do think we got better as a department, individually, I think a lot of us got better and I’m really excited for next season. There are some significant changes, we’re getting there.”

Here’s Kim’s take on how a variety of prospects fared in 2016. Players are listed at the level they finished at, and their stats are their cumulative total for the whole season.

Triple-A Buffalo Bisons – 66-78, fifth in North Division

Dalton Pompey. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Dalton Pompey (.270/.349/.353, 4 HR, 28 RBI, 18 SB) – “Improved focus on a daily basis – you’re always looking to improve that and he has made positive strides. Is it there yet? Maybe not, but it’s definitely an improvement over the beginning of the season and spring training. Bottom line is Dalton is a toolsy player in his early 20s that has the ability to impact the game in different ways with his speed, on defence, puts together good at-bats, switch-hitter. Dalton is a very talented individual and as he continues to improve and become more consistent, it’s exciting to think about what he can do. He can play centre field, he can play left, he’s gone a little bit in right, too, hit at the top of the order. It’s been a good season. If he continues to progress – and obviously he has that opportunity in September right now, there’s a lot that’s possible. Everybody knows what he’s capable of doing.”

Chris Smith (1-3, 1.93 ERA, 15 saves, 60.2 IP, 1.121 WHIP, 12 K/9) – “Stuff-wise, it’s a mid-90s fastball with a sharp slider, aggressive. He’s pitched well all season at double-A and he could be an option at some point, as well. He’s got a very talented arm, back-end of the bullpen-type stuff. The key with Chris is the consistency and keeping the ball down in the zone.”

Wil Browning (3-2, 2.06 ERA, 10 saves, 52.1 IP, 1.070 WHIP, 11 K/9) – “Browning provides a different look, he throws from the side, it’s a cross-fire delivery, it’s a very uncomfortable look. A lot of times guys with different looks or different abilities, like a Pat Venditte, get opportunities.”

Double-A New Hampshire Fisher-Cats – 69-73, fourth in Eastern Division

Rowdy Tellez. (Kyle Castle)

Rowdy Tellez (.297/.387/.530, 23 HR, 81 RBI) – “Rowdy began the year and maybe those eye-catching statistics weren’t the highest but he was controlling the strike zone, he was getting on base and he was 21. Throughout the season he placed a big emphasis on mobility, he worked very hard, he constantly hassled (manager) Bobby Meacham to help him with his defence, Mike Mordecai when he’d come into town. He’s established himself as one of the hardest workers we have, one of the most proactive workers we have. For a 21-year-old having that success in double-A, that’s refreshing to see. He’s going to play winter ball with Estrellas, he’s going to play the first half of the season, and we’re excited to see him ride the success of this season into there and get tested in that hostile environment. Rowdy’s proven a lot here in double-A. He’s the type of guy, because of his work ethic, because of his commitment, you can definitely push.”

Richard Urena (.295/.335/.434, 8 HR, 59 RBI) – “Our high-performance department did a great job engaging him right before spring training, and right off the bat Richard established that he’s willing to commit to being the best he can be. … In big-league camp he showed some people his ability to slow the game down at shortstop and be an even-keel guy in pressure situations. He’s always had all-around ability, but this year his work ethic and ability to focus from pitch-to-pitch every single pitch of the game, he’s made big strides there.

“He definitely has a chance to be a special defender. In terms of the plate discipline, there are definitely things he can improve there but part of what makes him good is his aggressiveness and his ability to jump on early-count fastballs and hit a ball into the gap or out of the yard. You have to find the best of both worlds – he’s a very talented young hitter, and part of his success is due to his aggressiveness – so it’s being more controlled in that aggressive approach.”

Conner Greene. (Barry Davis/Sportsnet)

Conner Greene (10-9, 3.51 ERA, 146.1 IP, 1.380 WHIP, 6.1 K/9) – “The start in Dunedin probably wasn’t what Conner wanted, but his first-half performance was also worthy of a (single-A) all-star game appearance, so it was pretty good compared to the league, and he was one of the younger players in the league, as well. Conner’s made huge strides. We’ve always known he’s had a talented arm and a good changeup. This year he worked on his five-day routine … becoming more consistent, whether it’s side sessions, or long toss, locking everything in with the same focus he has on the mound. Those are areas of his game that have improved.”

Roemon Fields (.227/.295/.296, 4 HR, 32 RBI, 44 SB) – “Stubby Clapp worked a ton with him on his hitting and Meacham worked with him on his base-stealing, his defence is pretty good and he’s naturally fast. It was a good season, from start to finish the quality of at-bats he was putting together improved. He bounced around a lot from leadoff to lower in the order, but he’s got a very good work ethic and put in a ton of work on both the mechanical side and approach side of hitting.”

Reese McGuire (.254/.335/.332, 1 HR, 42 RBI) – “You want to talk about being proactive, he asked us if he could come for a couple weeks to fall instructs to get familiar with (the) Mattick (facility in Dunedin), with our co-ordinators and coaching staff and to start learning some of the younger pitchers in the organization. That’s probably one of the greatest things you can hear. Throw him into that group of prospects like Rowdy and Urena – 20, 21-year-old minor-league players having success in double-A. He’s inserted himself right away and shown that proactiveness to improve.”

Harold Ramirez (.311/.360/.407, 2 HR, 50 RBI) – “He tweaked some of the cartilage around his knee, he’s rehabbing in Dunedin now, but he’s getting better every day and totally expect him to be ready for the 2017 season. It will be a good mix in the outfield in the upper levels with Harold. From the few days we got with him here and how he’s conducted himself in rehab, very good work ethic, humble guy. Bat-to-ball guy, good hitter, all round he’s got some ability.”

Advanced-A Dunedin Blue Jays – 76-59, North Division winner

Sean Reid-Foley (10-5, 2.81 ERA, 115.1 IP, 1.006 WHIP, 10.1 K/9) – “You always want to be conservative or cautious with pitchers and elbows. He returned to throwing three weeks ago, he’s doing fine, he feels great. It was more precautionary than anything. He had a great season, made a lot of positive strides, and we didn’t want to push anything there, although he wanted to pitch. Repeating the delivery and fastball command is always a priority for any pitcher, but with Sean as a starting pitcher now, it would be more about pitchability, using all his toys in an effective way. He’s got two power breaking balls, he’s acclimating himself to the changeup, and because of the gains he made in fastball command, at the single-A and double-A levels he could get by with just that power fastball and a breaking ball. Introducing the changeup would be something interesting to see him do, and just continue to make strides to be a more complete pitcher.”

Anthony Alford. (Frank Gunn/AP)

Anthony Alford (.236/.344/.378, 9 HR, 44 RBI, 18 SB) – “Anthony went through a lot the last couple of years, from making the decision to commit to baseball, to playing in Australia, to playing his first full season, doing so well, big-league camp – there was a lot going on. Right off the bat he gets injured on opening night. He missed time early in the season and that’s difficult, too. The way he’s bounced back and developed in the second half has been very encouraging. By and large it’s a successful season for Anthony. He’s in a boat where the work habits, the effort and the consistency of his focus is there, and now he’s got a second full season under his belt. He’s probably a guy you could push as well.”

Max Pentecost (.302/.361/.486, 10 HR, 41 RBI) – “The biggest thing is at-bats. That’s what we focused on and to me the at-bats have been great. For his peace of mind, knowing he’s been able to get consistent at-bats, that’s the biggest thing. This off-season is big for him, 2017 is a big season for him, too, and we fully expect him to be back (behind the plate) on a full-time basis.”

Jon Harris (11-4, 2.71 ERA, 129.2 IP, 1.149 WHIP, 6.9 K/9) – “A productive season for him. Towards the second half he introduced a two-seamer, put more emphasis on a changeup. He’s working towards becoming a more complete pitcher.”

Francisco Rios (7-6, 2.91 ERA, 120.2 IP, 1.144 WHIP, 8.1 K/9) – “With Francisco, most of the season was about becoming more aggressive, challenging more with the fastball and I think that’s something to still focus on with him, to be that confident pitcher. But he’s a little more polished than other pitchers.”

Adonys Cardona (2-2, 5.02 ERA, 37.2 IP, 1.832 WHIP, 6.2 K/9) – “We put him on a pretty strict innings limit and finishing the season was the most important thing for him. When Adonys is on he’s probably one of the best relievers we have in the system, mid-to-upper 90s, wipeout Bugs Bunny changeup and it’s been exciting to watch him. I think we keep him in that relief role for now, just because he seems to fit that role pretty well, mentality-wise.”

Low-A Lansing Lugnuts – 69-71, fifth in Eastern Division

Angel Perdomo (5-7, 3.19 ERA, 127 IP, 1.220 WHIP, 11.1 K/9) – “Improving his secondary – he’s got a slider, he’s got a changeup, progressing those to the point where they’re weapons. We’re still going to try to develop him as a starter and see where that leads to, but he’s got the durable frame and he’s got the big body.”

Justin Maese (4-6, 2.94 ERA, 82.2 IP, 1.137, 7.0 K/9) – “With Justin, it’s the ability to throw strikes and to keep cool under pressure. For a pitcher who hasn’t had that much experience, it’s impressive to see him consistently pound the zone with that sinker, it’s impressive to see the strides he’s made with his changeup going from the GCL to Lansing over the last couple of seasons. The control he’s done it with in terms of throwing strikes, that’s one of the biggest battles we have with the younger pitchers, is control and command, and that’s one of his strengths.”

Juan Kelly (.274/.356/.448, 12 HR, 67 RBI) – “He’s one of the better hitters we have and more versatile than just a first baseman. Kelly is a guy we’re bringing to instructs and positional versatility would be a main priority for him, being able to bounce over to third more often, getting behind the plate more often, because he can definitely hit.”

Jordan Romano (3-2, 2.11 ERA, 72.2 IP, 1.046 WHIP, 8.9 K/9) – “One thing about rehabbing is you really get into a consistent routine and you really work on all elements of your game because the sides and the pitching in games isn’t there, and his work habits and his competitiveness and his athleticism really developed in the year (he spent recovering from Tommy John surgery). He’s got a very live arm and a good breaking ball.”

T.J. Zeuch (0-2, 4.50 ERA, 34 IP, 1.118 WHIP, 10.1 K/9) – “He’ll come to instructs but the priority from the time he got here was, as it is for most of the first-year players, acclamation to professional ball and the routine, the lifestyle, the work habits, as opposed to performance. T.J. is polished right now, he throws strikes, he’s got a very good two-seamer, very good mound presence and he’s a guy you don’t worry about on the intangible side. He’s been very good for us.”

Rookie League Bluefield Blue Jays – 37-31, third in East Division

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Quinton Amundson/Toronto Observer)

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (.271/.359/.449, 8 HR, 46 RBI, 15 SB) – “With Vladdy again, without sounding like a broken record, we’ve been really pleased with the work habits and focus we’ve seen from some of our bigger prospects. He just really, really loves to play baseball and he loves to work. He’s a guy you can be a little more aggressive with. We haven’t discussed yet what that means for a 2017 assignment, but both him and Bo Bichette, they’re very talented players who play and work the right way, they’re very good teammates and obviously have a lot to learn to develop level by level, but they’re guys you can be aggressive with because of everything they bring together. There are things that Vladdy does that surprise you in a good way. He’s very confident in himself and knows how good he can be.”

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