Farm Report Part 3(b): A-Ball Pitchers

Wednesday, February 19 2003 @ 11:14 AM EST

Contributed by: Jordan

This is the end, my friend. Three months and 10,000 words after I started this minor-league review, here we have the final piece of the puzzle, a study of the Jays' most interesting A-Ball pitchers. These 15 -- count 'em -- hurlers all figure into Toronto's plans to a greater or lesser extent, with some of them destined to be rotation and bullpen stalwarts of Jays' pitching staffs of the mid-naughts. Which (if any) of them will make it? Guessing the future of Class-A pitchers is the ultimate mug's game, and I won't bother trying. But these are the names you should keep track of for the next few years, in order to see how the organization's pitching stable is coming along.

As always, comments, criticisms, corrections and compliments would be welcome. Buckle in for the longest ride of these four reviews.

David Bush, RHP, 6’2”, 210 lbs, 23 years old
Auburn 2002
1-1, 2.82, 18 G, 10 Svs, 22 IP, 13 H, 7 BB, 39 K
Dunedin 2002
0-1, 2.03, 7 G, 0 Svs, 13 IP, 10 H, 2 BB, 9 K

Blue Jays fans may be talking about the 2002 draft years from now: all of the first seven picks are in this article (and its predecessor), and six of them had tremendous pro debuts. None of those performances was more dominant than that supplied by David Bush, the strapping former Wake Forest closer. Bush was unhittable at the A level – 23 hits, 9 walks and 48 strikeouts in just 35 innings – and has nothing more to prove there. Bush may have the most electric talent of all the ’02 draftees – a 93 mph fastball and stomach-turning slider, both of which he can throw for strikes whenever he wants. He used to be a catcher before moving to the mound full-time – what is it with the Jays and converted catchers? In any event, this is one of the highest-upside arms in the organization.

If he stays as a closer, Bush likely will be the first 2002 draftee to make the majors, though even as a reliever I’d be surprised to see him rushed to the majors this season. The intriguing question is, will he remain a ninth-inning specialist? If he adds a reliable third pitch, and his changeup is apparently coming along very nicely, then he could be a lot more valuable as a starter, assuming his arm is up to the task – he appears to have the frame to support a heavy workload. JP comes from the school of thinking that says reliable closers can be picked up at White Sales (see Pollite, Cliff), so it’s quite possible the organization will try converting David to a starter. Especially when you consider that, 13 rounds after they drafted Bush in 2002, the Jays took...

Jordan DeJong, RHP, 6’2”, 175 lbs, 23 years old
Auburn 2002
1-0, 0.00 2 G, 4 IP, 0 H, 1 BB, 3 K
Medicine Hat 2002
6-1, 1.43, 33 G, 16 Svs, 44 IP, 23 H, 10 BB, 62 K

Okay, you know I’m rooting for this guy to succeed, if only so that he becomes the most famous Jordan since that New Kid on the Block (T2’s Edward Furlong has already served the family surname pretty well). A graduate of Cal-State Fullerton, this Jordan throws in the very low 90s with a reliable curve and change-up, but he maximizes those tools by coming from different angles and changing speeds. As you can see, he dominated the Pioneer League – nothing wrong with that, of course, but a 23-year-old (he turns 24 in April) ought to be dominant against Rookie-League batters.

Like Bush, DeJong should advance pretty rapidly through the system, though I’d like to see him overpower hitters at higher A-Ball levels like Bush did before getting too excited. It’s also worth noting that unlike Bush, DeJong was a starter in college, and the conversion back to the rotation could be easier for him. A lot of the 2002 draftees ended up in the bullpen following their signing, since they had already logged a fair bit of mound time in their senior year. Few of them will come up through the system solely in that capacity. It’s too early to tell with DeJong – you just can’t project the numbers posted by collegians at the lowest A-Ball level. We’ll have a clearer picture of his potential this time next year. But for an 18th-round draft choice, he displays signs of being a serious bargain.

Neomar Flores, RHP, 6’1”, 160 lbs, 21 years old
Charleston 2002
8-10, 3.28, 27 G, 27 GS, 159 IP, 134 H, 10 HR, 42 BB, 120 K

A free-agent signing out of the Dominican Republic, Flores missed a start last season after being blown off the mound and over the right field wall during a stiff wind. Just kidding, but sometimes it seems like the Jays have two kinds of pitching prospects, interior linemen (see Pleiness, Chad et al) and professional jockeys (Nin, Sandy et al). Anyway, Neomar’s fastball is regularly in the low 90s, and he has a pretty good collection of breaking stuff well underway. What I find most interesting about his ’02 stats, and potentially worrisome, is his IP total: that’s a lot of pitches on a very young arm on an awfully slender body. I understand he only faced 591 batters, though, which isn’t all that terrible. You’d certainly prefer to see more strikeouts, too: those numbers would impress me on a Double-A prospect, not so much in the Sally League. But Neomar is quite young, he was a raw rookie last season, and he has plenty of time to add weight and mph. Think of him as Francisco Rosario Lite, hopefully without the TJ in his immediate future, and put him on the long-range monitor.

Brian Grant, RHP, 6’4”, 195 lbs, 18 years old
Medicine Hat 2002
1-6, 4.59, 14 G, 10 GS, 51 IP, 70 H, 14 BB, 29 K

If you want to see the difference between high school pitchers and college pitchers, check out Brian Grant, the Jays’ seventh-round selection in the 2002 draft. While the four pitchers the team selected before him were dynamite, Grant simply blew up. Getting raked in the Pioneer League is about as unimpressive as you can get, but that’s no indication that Grant is a washout. He’s got terrific stuff, and reportedly has strong character and work ethic to draw upon, both of which will serve him well; he’ll do better next year. But the contrast between Grant’s performance and those of collegians like Bush and Justin Maureau is astonishing. It isn’t always this way, of course: some high school guys hit the professional ground running, and not all college grads are as dominant as the Jays’ top pitcher selections were this year. But as a general rule, a gap of this nature is pretty common.

This is why JP is normally so insistent on avoiding high schoolers in the higher rounds of the draft: they may have all the potential in the world, but you have to pay for three or four years of on-the-job training that the collegians are getting free, courtesy of someone else’s athletic scholarship. Chad Pleiness, to take a name at random, could well be in the majors by 2005; by that time, Grant will likely be consolidating his gains at AA and thinking about a trip to Syracuse the following season (see also McGowan, Dustin). It’s not that high school pitchers aren’t good (Roy Halladay, Exhibit A), it’s just that they take so freakin’ long to develop and the path to success is seldom smooth (Roy Halladay, Exhibit A). It can be five years before you reap the rewards of a high school draftee, and as Ricciardi himself has said, people can lose their jobs in five years. Grant is a long-term project, and his progress should be tracked accordingly. There’s no reason to think he won’t fulfill his potential, but by the time he pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays, the major-league roster will look very different than it does today.

D.J. Hanson, RHP, 5’11, 170 lbs, 22 years old
Auburn 2002
5-2, 1.68, 9 G, 9 GS, 48 IP, 35 H, 11 BB, 51 K

Everyone should take a year off now and then. D.J. Hanson was selected in the sixth round of the 1999 draft out of a Washington State high school, and went 1-2, 5.32 his rookie year. He repeated Medicine Hat in 2000, going 7-3, 5.81, but improving his BB/K from 21/35 in 46 IP to 29/79 in 79 IP. Looking good. But during an off-season mini-camp, he collided with a mobile brick wall named Alvin Morrow and tore his ACL, wiping out his entire 2001 season. So of course, everyone was expecting him to come back and post the lights-out line he produced at Auburn in 2002, right? Hurling low-90s fastballs and a knee-buckling curveball, Hanson was back on the fast track to prospect status, until he strained a ligament in his left knee that ended his season in August. You have to hope he’s not injury-prone – he’s a pretty compact package – because Hanson’s looking like a high-school pitcher who’s rapidly rounding into shape. He actually reminds me a little of Tom Gordon. Yet another intriguing arm that will get a closer look at higher levels this year.

Brandon League, RHP, 6’2”, 185 lbs, 20 years old
Auburn 2002
7-2, 3.15, 16 G, 16 GS, 86 IP, 80 H, 23 BB, 72 K, 2 HR, 8 HB
Medicine Hat 2001
2-2, 4.66, 9 G, 9 GS, 39 IP, 36 H, 11 B, 38 K, 3 HR

Would JP Ricciardi have taken Brandon League in the second round of the draft had he been calling the shots in 2001? Probably not – only 15 of the Jays’ 50 picks in the 2002 draft were high schoolers, and many of those were in the later rounds (Brian Grant was the first such draftee, in the seventh). But there’s no question Toronto picked up one live arm in this Hawaiian high schooler. League had an okay debut in Rookie League (remember what we said about high school pitchers in rookie ball?), then proceeded to rip apart the NY-Penn League the next season with good command of an explosive mid-90s fastball thrown from a three-quarters delivery and a hard slider that’s coming along quite nicely, thanks. That kind of giddyup on the fastball from a teenager is pretty exciting. He also appears to be one of those guys whom sportswriters tactfully call “competitive,” and the stats back that up: 8 hit batsmen against just 23 walks in 86 innings indicate a pitcher who’s fully prepared to be wild when it suits his needs. You have to like that, in moderation, in someone that young.

League does need to keep working on his secondary pitches – a great fastball alone stops being useful right around the time your league has two vowels in it – but he’s definitely one of the jewels of the organization’s young mound talent. He’ll start the year at either Charleston or Dunedin; don’t look for him in Toronto a day before April 2006, but definitely do look for him.

Justin Maureau, LHP, 6’0”, 175 lbs, 22 years old
Auburn 2002
0-0, 1.44, 22 G, 0 GS, 8 Svs, 44 IP, 24 H, 12 BB, 51 K

Here’s a change of pace: a left-handed Jays prospect who throws lights-out. Meet Justin Maureau, a third-round draft choice out of Wichita State, where he and Adam Peterson anchored the Shockers’ rotation. If these guys end up buying homes outside the city, would that make them Sub-Urban Shockers? … I’m sorry. Anyway, Maureau has that rare and delightful commodity, a killer lefthanded curveball. His fastball is okay, high 80s with occasionally forays into the 90s, and he’s got a decent change, but his hammer just destroys lefthander hitters. He can throw all three for strikes, too. If he never adds speed or movement to his fastball or anything else to his repertoire, he can still have a long and prosperous career as a LOOGY. But his upside is much higher than that. A move up to Charleston or Dunedin, as well as a shift to the rotation, should be in the cards for 2003.

Justin Maureau is not to be confused with Twins’ outfield/first base prospect Justin Morneau, though you know that’s going to happen regardless.

Dustin McGowan, 6’3”, 190 lbs, 21 years old
Charleston 2002
11-10, 4.19, 28 G, 28 GS, 148 IP, 143 H, 10 HR, 59 BB, 163 K
Auburn 2001
3-6, 3.76, 15 G, 14 GS, 67 IP, 57 H, 1 HR, 49 BB, 80 K
Medicine Hat 2000
0-3, 6.48, 8 G, 8 GS, 25 IP, 26 H, 2 HR, 25 B, 19 K

There’s serious potential here, no doubt about that, though it’s taking its time. Along with Brandon League (and maybe Francisco Rosario, if it’s still there post-surgery), McGowan owns one of the few truly outstanding fastballs in the organization, a consistent low to mid-90s heavy heater that he keeps throwing for strikes. In the last year, he’s also finally mastered a hard Chris Carpenter curveball, which helped him cut his walk rate dramatically and lower his hits allowed as he climbed another level. For the second straight year, his strikeouts outnumbered his innings, and that’s something special.

Less encouraging was McGowan’s inability to get the consistent hang of a third pitch, because without something reliably off-speed, he’s going to have trouble as a starter. But he’s still only 21, and there’s plenty of time for improvement yet; he really picked it up down the stretch in 2002, which bodes very well for 2003. The Blue Jays are obviously bringing Dustin along slowly, one rung of the ladder at a time, as one must often do with high school pitchers. But if he continues to progress, one would like to see him visiting lovely Connecticut as the leaves turn red and orange.

Some have called McGowan the top prospect in the organization, a title I’m reluctant to bestow on a Class-A pitcher (Russ Adams would get my vote until Gabe Gross regains his stroke). But McGowan is still an exciting talent, the kind of power pitcher the Jays haven’t developed for a long time. Next season (probably at Dunedin, if the pattern continues) will fill in more blanks. By the way, a sincere thank you is due here to the Montreal Expos. When they signed Graeme Lloyd away from Toronto as a free agent in 2000, the Jays acquired a supplemental first-round pick in return, which turned into Dustin here. Merci beaucoup, mes amis!

Sandy Nin, RHP, 6’0”, 170, 22 years old
Auburn 2002
4-4, 2.92, 17 G, 11 GS, 74 IP, 61 H, 11 BB, 61 K

Another Auburn Doubleday, another electric arm. Nin arrived from the Dominican with a low-90s fastball and a good slider, showing very good command of both. He still has work to do, especially in changing speeds and improving his delivery, and again, you’d like to see more strikeouts as evidence that he really is overpowering batters. But there’s still a lot here to like.

Right around now, you’re probably thinking, “Good Lord, the Auburn Doubledays had the greatest pitching staff this side of the ’71 Orioles.” And it’s true that most of the Jays’ short-season A-Ball hurlers put up simply tremendous numbers here, and in some cases elsewhere in A-Ball. So it’s time for a note of caution: the NY-Penn League and the South Atlantic League (home to your Auburn Doubledays and Charleston Alley-Cats, respectively) are very pitcher-friendly. A friend with a sharper mind and more spreadsheets than me brought this chart to my attention: offensive stats for all the A-ball leagues in 2002 (sorted by the centre column, runs per game; asterisked leagues contain Jays farm teams):

Northwest----------.243-------- 9.10----------1.07
Florida St-----------.251-------- 8.90--------- 1.19 *
Midwest------------.250-------- 8.83----------1.07
NY-Penn----------- .248-------- 8.80----------0.94 *
South Atl-----------.253---------8.77--------- 1.15 *
Carolina------------.257-------- 8.71---------- 1.16

Auburn and Charleston are members of the second- and third-lowest scoring leagues in A-Ball (Dunedin’s in the FSL), which is reason to approach some of these numbers with caution. In 2001, SAL pitchers struck out an average of one batter per inning, and last year, the NY-Penn had by far the fewest HRs and one of the lowest batting averages in A-Ball. If you have an advanced breaking ball, my friend points out, you’ll dominate these circuits.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the Jays’ A-Ball farmhands have serious talent, and Auburn had far and away the best pitching staff in the league: this potential isn’t a mirage. But there’s also no sense getting too excited about dominant Low-A pitchers. Double-A is the real test for prospects, and even High-A Dunedin could cause these guys some problems. Triple-A is tougher again, with lots of former big-leaguers who’ve seen breaking stuff before and will lay off countless curves in the dirt before hammering the fastball. And of course, The Show is a quantum leap forward from everything that’s come before. And that doesn’t even take into account the natural injury attrition that will inevitably befall these young men. Like Francisco Rosario before them, a couple of these guys are going to go under the knife in the next few years, and they might leave several miles per hour on the operating table.

Pitching depth is just so important to an organization, and that’s what the Blue Jays are developing in the low minors. Eight of the Jays’ first 12 picks in 2002 were pitchers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the 2003 draft included a fair number again, though where this organization could now use help is in the outfield and at the corners. But all of this is to say, don’t expect Toronto to field a rotation of young Dwight Goodens in 2006. If four or five of these guys contribute meaningfully to the Blue Jays by the middle of the decade, either by pitching or by trade return, be quite happy.

Vince Perkins, RHP, 6’5”, 215 lbs, 21 years old
Auburn 2002
5-5, 3.34, 15 G, 15 GS, 73 IP, 51 H, 44 BB, 85 K

More than just the token Canadian on this list, big Vince Perkins was taken in the 18th round of the 2000 draft out of Lake City Community College in lovely Victoria, B.C. and put up impressive numbers in the NY-Penn League. Perkins is currently a starter, but there’s been talk of moving him to the bullpen, where his repertoire would be more suitable; he’s drawn comparisons to John Wetteland. If his future does lie in relief, Perkins needs to do something about his command – but there’s nothing wrong with that K/IP total. This is a very live arm.

Perkins’ grandfather was an umpire in the Pacific Coast League, and his father Mark was a semipro pitcher, so he has baseball in his bloodlines. But his dad is also a firefighter, and sifting through the minutiae of the Internet, I found this gem about him on the Website of the International Association of Firefighters and thought it was worth reproducing.

“The 50-year-old firefighter [Perkins Sr.] was in the right place at the right time when his engine company responded to a possible drug overdose victim just a few doors down from the fire station. After stabilizing the victim and sending him off to the hospital, Perkins couldn't shake the feeling that he recognized the name. Perkins’ instincts were on target: the victim was once a major-league pitcher who attended the same U.S. college as Perkins. Frank Williams was a relief pitcher, known as a fireman, for the Giants, Reds and Tigers, until a car accident in 1989 forced him out of the game. After failing in a comeback attempt, Williams drifted into substance abuse.

“Firefighter Perkins wanted to do more than just save Williams’ life. So a few days later, he returned to Williams’ apartment with a Major League Baseball official and slipped business and baseball cards under his door. Williams called the official that night, and soon he was in touch with the Baseball Assistance Team, a charitable group that helps former ballplayers on the road to recovery.”

Adam Peterson, RHP, 6’3”, 220 lbs, 23 years old
Auburn 2002
2-0, 2.30, 18 G, 0 GS, 5 Svs, 31 IP, 29 H, 9 BB, 19 K

Not too often do college teammates get taken by the same team in consecutive rounds, but that’s what happened to Justin Maureau and Adam Peterson, snagged by the Jays from Wichita State in the 3rd and 4th round, respectively, of the 2002 draft. Peterson’s fastball is promising, topping out at 94, to go along with a curve and change that are coming along nicely too. He was actually chosen by the Yankees in the 8th round of the previous year’s draft as a junior, but opted to return for his final year. There’s a lot of upside here as well; a full season at A-Ball ought to deliver stronger numbers, especially in the strikeout department. Adam was worked pretty hard in college, maybe overworked – it’s one of the reasons why the Jays limited him to relief appearances only last year – and he’s probably somewhat behind his new organizational mates. But this is still a power arm worth tracking.

Chad Pleiness, RHP, 6’6”, 235 lbs, 23 years old
Auburn 2002
8-3, 2.42, 16 G, 9 GS, 74 IP, 48 H, 32 BB, 70 K

This sure is one big mother, isn’t it? An outstanding pitcher at Central Michigan University, from which the Jays drafted him in the fifth round last June, Pleiness led his team in Ks, CGs, shutouts and opponents’ BA, not to mention topping the nation in K/9 (13.2). Despite his size and great numbers, though, Pleiness apparently isn’t an especially hard thrower. He has a fastball that breaks 90, a developing slider and fine command, though his change does need work. He’s recently smoothed out his delivery, and that could end up giving him more velocity. He has what the scouts call “pitchability,” the knack for making guys swing and miss. His Auburn numbers were interesting, a troubling number of walks but just an amazing IP/H ratio. Since hits allowed are a pretty variable stat, this dominance might not last at higher levels, meaning he’ll have to hone his control.

Chad seems to have a good head way up there on his shoulders; he’s hard-working and extremely competitive, which will serve him well. He was a two-sport athlete in school (guess which one), and in many ways he’s still learning how to pitch. Scouts think he has a lot of upside, with one comparing him to a right-handed Mark Hendrickson, only further along at an earlier age. Yes indeed, Pleiness was also a standout on CMU’s basketball squad, third on the team in scoring. He lagged behind his teammates in field-goal percentage and three-point accuracy, but interestingly, he was gold at the free-throw line, leading the team with an 83.3 FT percentage. I’m thinking that Chad Pleiness does not rattle easily, and that will come in handy on the mound someday

Francisco Rosario, RHP, 6’0”, 160, 22 years old
Dunedin 2002
3-3, 1.29, 13 G, 12 GS, 63 IP, 33 H, 3 HR, 25 BB, 65 K
Charleston 2002
6-1, 2.57, 13 G, 13 GS, 67 IP, 50 H, 5 HR, 14 BB, 78 K

Always remember that pitching prospects will break your heart if you let them. Rosario came out of nowhere to dominate the middle- and high-A leagues this past season, putting up eye-popping numbers unmatched by any prospect in the system. Rosario has a crackling mid-90s fastball with loads of movement, as well as a devastating slurve and a fine change-up, all of which he can throw for strikes. He has the guts of a burglar too, willing to throw any pitch on any count. He was on the fast track to AA in 2003 and, if that went well, maybe even a major-league cup of coffee by the end of the season.

Instead, as we all know, Rosario’s elbow began to hurt during the Arizona Fall League season, and in October he underwent serious Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. Ouchie. There’s little cause for deep gloom, however. Elbow injuries are much to be preferred to shoulder woes, and young pitchers have a pretty good track record of coming back from that operation successfully (see Koch, Billy). The surgery will greatly shorten Rosario’s 2003 season, but might not wipe it out altogether, so long as his recovery goes as planned. This is still a very promising arm to keep track of. Francisco’s going to evoke a lot of comparisons to Pedro Martinez because of his slight stature and heretofore-devastating stuff; it’s fervently to be hoped that further comparisons will be based on his talent rather than on his fragility.

Santo Valdez, RHP, 6’1”, 170 lbs, 21 years old
Syracuse 2002
0-2, 8.66, 5 G, 4 GS, 17 IP, 29 H, 7 BB, 12 K
Charleston 2002
5-2, 2.95, 3 Svs, 29 G, 3 GS, 76 IP, 67 H, 20 BB, 81 K

Don’t let the Syracuse appearance mislead you – Santo Valdez is nowhere near ready for prime time. The Skychiefs were short on starters for awhile and Valdez was a short-term cross-NY-State callup – Auburn and Syracuse are a lot closer geographically than they are competitively. This sort of roster movement isn’t uncommon between adjacent franchises, but look for the organization to conduct more AA-AAA transfers in future, now that the Double-A team is in relatively nearby New Haven, rather than in the home of the 1982 World’s Fair (come see the fabulous Sun Dome!). Anyway, as you can see, the Syracuse experiment wasn’t a smashing success for Santo, but it bodes well that he took it in stride and continued to pitch well upon his return to the South Atlantic League. Valdez, a free-agent signee out of Bani in the Dominican Republic, posted fine numbers for Charleston, but mostly in relief, so I don’t think we have a clear picture yet of his capabilities. Another year should start to tell a fuller tale.

John Wesley, RHP, 6’6”, 230 lbs, 22 years old
Medicine Hat 2002
3-0, 1.88 ERA, 19 G, 0 GS, 2 Svs, 29 IP, 21 H, 8 BB, 38 K

Another gronk. The Jays should put Wesley and Chad Pleiness in garish costumes, stick ‘em in a ring and sell pre-game tickets for some kind of Minor League Wrestlemania. Give ‘em names like Big Bad Chad and Wesley the Crusher, and you could make more money in one night than the average South Atlantic League team sees in a month. Anyway, Wesley tore up the Pioneer League after arriving from the University of South Carolina. He’d pitched in relief there as well, and had been ticketed to be their closer last season before undergoing surgery to repair something called “capsule shrinkage” (insert Costanza joke here) and taking longer than expected to recover. But he pitched well in the latter stages of the season and in the College World Series, and he sure had a nice professional debut. Insert the usual caveats about polished collegians dominating Rookie League batters, and we’ll see what he can do at the more competitive A-Ball levels this year.

That’s all, folks. We’ll do this again around the All-Star Break and again in the off-season. Thanks for tuning in.