The middle parts of trilogies can be great hits or uncomfortable misses, so it's with the usual amount of trepidation that I present the second of my three-part look at the Blue Jays' farm system. Part One, posted back in December, reviewed the prospects (such as they were) at AAA Syracuse, while Part Three, due around late February, will look at the Blue Jays’ leading A-Ball prospects (I hope to have it completed before spring training games start March 1).
There are a few guys who could be on this list whom I’ve left off. Jason Arnold could start the year at New Haven or at Syracuse, depending on the team’s assessment of his progress towards the majors. In addition, John-Ford Griffin will probably launch his Blue Jays career in Connecticut too. But both of these guys have been analyzed in depth at Batter’s Box the last month or so, and accordingly I think we can pass them by this time. The same goes for Scott Wiggins, who threw 19 dynamite innings for the Smokies upon his arrival, but who also has been much discussed in previous threads.
Rather than go over old ground, here are nine players who spent substantial time at AA Tennessee, and what the future likely holds for them. You'll notice that the list is skewed towards hitters; although Toronto does have some very promising pitching talent, most of it is in A Ball, though moving north with a bullet.
As usual, comments, objections, corrections and financial pledges will be welcomed. On y va:
Jimmy Alvarez, 2B, 5’10”, 170, 23 yrs old
133 G, 497 AB, 83 R, .278/.383/.402, 79 BB, 121 K, 20 SB, 11 CS, .287 EqA, .228 ML_EqA
123 G, 467 AB, 88 R, .283/.351/.392, 49 BB, 87 K, 29 SB, 7 CS
Acquired from Minnesota in 2000 after a very undistinguished minor-league career there, Alvarez’s bat finally showed signs of life at Dunedin in 2001, and he continued that success last year at Double-A. His two seasons in the Blue Jays system are remarkably similar; in fact, he even displayed offensive improvement upon his promotion to Knoxville. His walk totals are very nice, and he has good speed too. I don’t have anything on his glove, but there’s no indication he’s the next Cesar Izturis.
Alvarez’s weaknesses, however, aren’t difficult to see. No one should ever have more than 100 strikeouts and fewer than 10 home runs (Alvarez had exactly 8 last year). He does have gap power for a little guy – 32 doubles – so it’s possible the HRs may yet come, but that lack of contact is disturbing. His baserunning also regressed, as he ran less often and less successfully.
Jimmy is still young, but second base in the Toronto organization is not the place to try and forge a career right now. He’ll probably start the year at Syracuse, unless Dominic Rich gets fast-tracked, so hopefully we’ll get a clearer picture of his abilities there. Alvarez’s upside looks like utility infielder, though I’m unsure whether he has the arm strength for the left side of the infield. Don’t count on him contributing to the big-league club.
Gustavo Chacin, LHP, 5’11”, 190, 22 years old
6-5, 4.66, 35 G, 13 GS, 120 IP, 131 H, 59 BB, 68 K, 12 HR
11-8, 3.98, 25 G, 23 GS, 141 IP, 138 H, 39 BB, 86 K, 17 HR
Young left-handers require patience, both because they tend to develop later than right-handers, and because they’re such valuable commodities if you can develop one. That said, the Blue Jays have grown a little impatient with Gustavo Chacin, and understandably so.
Expected to consolidate his stuff during a second full season at AA, Chacin actually regressed, giving up more hits and walks and striking out fewer batters. His BB/K ratio, never outstanding to begin with, truly hit the skids this year, and his already-unimpressive K/IP ratio followed suit. Chacin has good command of an ordinary fastball, but he hasn’t found a consistent breaking pitch, and that’s what you call a problem. The Blue Jays removed him from the 40-man roster, and you should remove him from your team prospect lists too. Please, don’t drink and draft teenage pitchers.
Jim Deschaine, 3B-SS, 6’0”, 195, 25 years old
118 G, 405 AB, 59 R, .225/.313/.375, 51 BB, 85 K, 16 HR, 13 2B, .249 EqA, .198 ML_EqA
2001 Daytona (High A)
134 G, 485 AB, 68 R, .289/.372/.480, 62 BB, 103 K, 21 HR, 26 2B
You remember Jim Deschaine, don’cha? He came to the Blue Jays as the Mystery Grab Bag in the Alex Gonzalez salary dump last winter. JP scanned the Cubs’ minor-league roster and liked the look of Deschaine’s numbers, so he became the minor-leaguer who accompanied character guy Felix Heredia to T.O. You can understand the choice: Deschaine’s power-and-walks numbers at Class-A Daytona resembled those posted by another one-time Cubbies third-base prospect, fellow by the name of Hinske.
Deschaine, however, didn’t work out quite as well as big Eric. His numbers took a serious tumble in the hitting and power departments, a disappointment offset only by the relative consistency in his BB/K ratio. His HR totals might be a little misleading: he has almost as many doubles as homers the last two years combined, where you’d prefer to see the two-baggers out-numbering the home runs. Finally, his defence, unspectacular with the Cubs, was pretty brutal with the Smokies, as he made 30 errors in just 105 games afield (77 at third, 23 at short, 5 elsewhere). Designated hitters who don’t hit very well have short careers.
Jim is no spring chicken: he’ll turn 26 during the season, and it’s not certain he’ll have made it all the way up to Syracuse by then. Unless he posts some very strong numbers in 2003, wherever he plays, he’s going to fall right off the Blue Jays’ depth chart. The BB/K ratio consistency is encouraging, but he needs to get his career back on track right away. And you know, even if Deschaine does nothing and Heredia never inflicts another horrible inning on this team, it was still a great trade: Alex Gonzalez made $4.25 million last year to post a 737 OPS with a 46/136 BB/K ratio.
Shawn Fagan, 1B/3B, 5’11”, 195, 25 years old
421 AB, 71 R, .268/.411/.411, 102 BB, 87 K, 12 HR, .303 EqA, .241 ML_EqA
475 AB, 68 R, .301/.407/.423, 86 BB, 114 K, 10 HR
I’ve seen some freakish stat lines in my time, but I’ve never seen a guy post identical on-base and slugging percentages over a full season before. But then along comes Shawn Fagan, former Nittany Lion standout and versatile corner infielder for the 2002 Tennessee Smokies. Fagan has a remarkable aversion to making contact: drawing 188 walks and whiffing 201 times in two seasons is pretty amazing. He’s in the right organization with that plate discipline, but unfortunately, he also needs power with that batting eye, and last year’s 12 home runs were a professional high. Given 76 at-bats as a Grand Canyon Rafter in Arizona this fall, he swatted exactly one home run and batted a less-than-robust .211.
Fagan’s defence is nothing special, his speed is not an issue, and at 25 years old in March, his days as a prospect are receding behind him. If the power hasn’t arrived by now, one has to be skeptical that it ever will. Right now, he’s staring at a career as a major-league pinch-walker, if the rosters ever expand to 30 men. Fagan could provide low-cost value to a Blue Jays bench in a stretch drive in two years’ time, but I don’t see him contributing much beyond that.
Dave Gassner, LHP, 6’2, 190, 24 years old
Drafted June 2001
0-1, 5.40, 1 G, 1 GS, 5 IP, 7 H, 2 BB, 1 K
1-2, 2.49, 4G, 4 GS, 25 IP, 22 H, 7 BB, 14 K
11-6, 3.44, 23 G, 21 GS, 146 IP, 143 H, 26 BB, 104 K
Some people might not have heard of Dave Gassner, which wouldn’t be terribly surprising. A 24th-round draft pick out of Purdue in 2001, Gassner started off the year at High-A Dunedin and finished with a cup of cocoa at Syracuse. His Dunedin numbers looked awfully nice, about a hit an inning and a 4/1 K/BB ratio. He continued his success at Tennessee, improving his ERA a point in 25 innings despite the jump to AA (and maintaining his hit rate, though the K/BB halved itself). Lefty starters who demonstrate that kind of early success will get noticed in a hurry.
Nonetheless, Gassner has a ways to go yet. He’s not a power guy, but relies on control, poise and the ineffable description “knows how to pitch.” It might be nice to see a much higher strikeout rate in the lower minors; pinpoint control is terrific, but you need to make these guys swing and miss consistently. He’ll probably start the year off in New Haven to see if he can duplicate or improve on his Dunedin numbers; if so, a fast-track might be in his future. I have a good feeling about Gassner for some reason. Not everyone succeeds with heat, and if he keeps getting hitters out, there’ll be a place for him someday in Toronto. Gassner’s had less than two years of pro experience, so he’s worth observing and perhaps waiting for.
Gabe Gross, RF, 6’3”, 205, 23 years old
493 AB, 57 R, .238/.333/.380, 53 BB, 71 K, .261 EqA, .207 ML_EqA
126 AB, .302/.426/.500, 26 BB, 29 K, 4 HR, 4 SB
41 AB, .244/.373/.488, 6 BB, 12 K, 3 HR, 0 SB
Well, what’s there to say here that hasn’t been said already? Gross, JP Ricciardi’s first first-round draft choice as Blue Jays GM, looked like Shawn Green in limited action in 2001 and like Shecky Green in a full-season 2002, or at least the first part of it (8-for-71 in his introduction to AA). Gross also fouled a ball hard off his leg and missed some time, but he did manage to right his sinking ship and hit respectably, though not spectacularly, through the balance of the Smokies’ season and through the AFL. After his pro debut in 2001, the Blue Jays were talking seriously about seeing Gross in the majors as early as April ’03. Last year’s sobering performance put an end to that talk and caused a lot of people to ratchet down their expectations. So which is the real Gabe Gross, and what kind of player will he turn out to be?
Shawn Green is the natural comparison to draw with Gross: rangy, left-handed, first-round-pick right fielder with a fluid swing and line-drive power. So it might be instructive to check Green’s minor-league career, which progressed through exactly the same towns Gross will visit on his way to the majors:
417 AB, 44 R, .273/.319/.345, 28 BB, 66 K, 1 HR, 22 SB
360 AB, 40 R, .283/.339/.367, 26 BB, 72 K, 4 HR, 4 SB
433 AB, 82 R, .344/.401/.510, 40 BB, 54 K, 13 HR, 19 SB
Green didn’t exactly turn the world on its ear his first two pro seasons: poor walk/strikeout ratios, little power, and an OPS that barely cracked .700. It wasn’t till ’94 with Syracuse that everything finally clicked and he showed the form that would one day result in 35-35 production and MVP-calibre seasons. Gross has already demonstrated superior minor-league BB/K and BB/AB ratios to Green’s, ratios that have been demonstrated to be excellent indicators of future major-league success. Gross has done no worse than Shawn Green in his first two pro seasons, and has outperformed him in places. This is not to say, of course, that Gross’ career will equal or eclipse Green’s: only that there’s little reason for Blue Jays fans to panic at this early stage. In fact, Gross’s own first two seasons were actually very similar but for the batting average: his plate discipline and isolated power were quite comparable. And the fact that he kept his composure through that terrible start and adjusted to the league is extremely promising.
Gabe Gross showed everything in college and the low minors that you’d want in a major-leaguer: average, power, plate discipline, speed and strong defence; as a former Auburn quarterback, his character and leadership abilities should be considered automatic. He moved from college to AA after only 167 interim at-bats and held his own, and that’s not bad at all. Gross would have to repeat his 2002 season before I start to doubt the potential and performance he’s displayed at every stop before now. He still projects as a solid everyday right fielder and probably a routine All-Star choice – much like the current Dodgers outfielder in whose footsteps he’s following a decade later.
Diegomar Markwell, LHP, 6’2”, 195, 23 years old
13-9, 4.38, 28 G, 27 GS, 168 IP, 174 H, 60 BB, 101 K, 23 HR
5-7, 3.87, 22 G, 21 GS, 123 IP, 121 H, 32 BB, 99 K, 10 HR
3-1, 3.21, 5 G, 5 GS, 34 IP, 27 H, 13 BB, 26 K, 4 HR
Northeast of Willemstad, northwest of Montserrat, and due south of France (well, St-Martin anyway): that’s where you’ll find the Netherlands Antilles, and that’s where the Blue Jays found 16-year-old Diegomar Markwell in 1996, signing him for $705,000. How come I never get to cover any legal conferences off the coast of Venezuela? Anyway, Andruw Jones’s cousin first attracted scouts’ attention at 14 with a fluid, powerful delivery. The thought was that he would eventually grow into his talent, but after five seasons in A-Ball, the organization had justifiably grown doubtful.
It wasn’t until 2000 and 2001 at Queens and Charleston that Markwell began to put it together, posting strong BB/K and K/IP ratios. After a brief, successful sojourn at High-A Dunedin, the Jays decided it was time to see what Diegomar could do against tougher competition. The results weren’t terrible, nor were they entirely unexpected: Markwell held his own, but he didn’t fool too many people, and he was taken yard 23 times in just 168 innings, not a positive sign. He led the Southern League in wins, for whatever that’s worth.
At this point, Markwell looks poised to have Pasqual Coco’s career, and that’s not so great. But JP has taken the perhaps unusual step of placing him on the 40-man roster (he had to, since – have we mentioned this yet? – Markwell signed at 16), so it’s clear he sees something there, even if it’s just the promise of a young, live left arm. Markwell is a bright young man, from all accounts, and quadrilingual to boot (Spanish, Dutch, English and Papiamento, a blend of all three native to the island. If you’re touring the Netherlands Antilles, the Blue Jays have a $700,000 translator to guide you around). Of the Jays’ three southpaw pitching prospects in the low minors, Markwell’s the hardest to judge. We’ll see what he has to offer at New Haven this year. Have we now said enough about not signing teenage pitchers?
Dominic Rich, 2B, 5’10”, 190, 23 years old
132 AB, 14 R, .273/.364/.341, 18 BB, 23 K, 1 HR, 2 SB, 4 CS, .256 EqA, .203 ML_EqA
377 AB, 72 R, .345/.437/.472, 57 BB, 49 K, 8 HR, 8 SB, 6 CS, .337 EqA, .251 ML_EqA
327 AB, 67 R, .278/.382/.370, 47 BB, 54 K, 4 HR, 20 SB, 8 CS
It’s never easy being the second-favourite, is it? Everything you do is always compared (usually unfavourably) to that sibling, colleague, rival, or previous Jedi-based trilogy that inevitably comes out looking better. Such is the plight of Dominic Rich, a promising second-base prospect who always seems to see his name preceded by “Russ Adams and.” A second-round draft choice in 2000 and former teammate of Gabe Gross at Auburn, Rich has posted solid numbers of his own, ripping apart the pitcher-friendly Florida State League and holding his own during a late-season promotion to Knoxville.
If Russ Adams projects to a Chuck-Knoblauch-type player (the good version), then Dominic Rich might be most reasonably compared to Luis Castillo, only with a little more pop and much less speed. Rich has an astounding batting eye, compiling a 122/126 BB/K ratio in his professional career, a truly impressive feat. He has some power, but his baserunning abilities seem to have disappeared this past season. There’s evidently some concern in the organization that Rich has bulked up too much, which may also explain his nagging injuries. Rich played center field and shortstop in college, yet he’s not considered much of a second baseman defensively.
In many respects, Rich is an ideal JP Ricciardi player. His problem is that there’s an even better version of that player coming up behind him in the passing lane. Look for Dominic Rich to develop into a fine American League second baseman for another organization, after JP deals him next winter for a starting pitcher.
Rich Thompson, OF, 6’3”, 185, 24 years old
554 AB, 109 R, .280/.361/.329, 50 BB, 86 K, 45 SB, 13 CS, .265 EqA, .210 ML_EqA
454 AB, 90 R, .311/.380/.374, 44 BB, 72 K, 39 SB, 11 CS
53 AB, 5 R, .245/.293/.283, 4 BB, 12 K, 5 SB, 1 CS
Okay, I was all set to give my synopsis of Rich Thompson, a speedy outfield prospect with decent plate discipline, gaudy stolen-base numbers and absolutely no power. Basically, I would’ve said he runs very well, plays a fine outfield, isn’t really a JP kind of player, and would best be parlayed as soon as possible into pitching help with an organization that overvalues steals and wheels.
Then I came across this -- Rich Thompson’s 2002 online diary. He’s one of about two dozen ballplayers writing mini-journals for some merchandise Website called Star Struck, guys ranging from Johnny Estrada to Scott Sullivan to Miguel Tejada. Twice a month during the season, he provided an update on how he and his team (in reverse order) were doing, culminating in the Smokies’ late-season collapse from playoff contention.
Thompson praises teammates who got big hits, performed well or (like DeWayne Wise) were called up to the bigs. He mentions going back to finish his degree at James Madison University in the off-season. He talks about how grateful he is for his wife Theresa, and marvels that she gave up a good full-time job to travel across minor-league America with him. He admits when he’s struggling at the plate, but always has the team’s fortunes at the top of his entries. He comes across as a good guy trying his best to crack the show, and however corny this may sound, he’s now my favourite Blue Jays prospect. I’m officially rooting for Rich Thompson to make it to the major leagues, whether with Toronto or another organization, even if it’s only as a fourth outfielder. You go, Rich.