Syracuse Skychiefs 2005 Season Preview

Wednesday, March 30 2005 @ 09:15 AM EST

Contributed by: Gerry

The Syracuse Skychiefs have been the ugly sister of the Blue Jays minor league system for several years now. While Blue Jay minor league teams at AA, High A, A and Low A have been winning their divisions the Chiefs have been suffering through four straight losing seasons. Well the Jays are not going to take it any more, they have spent extra cash in the off-season to bring in some experienced minor leaguers to supplement a handful of promising rookies in order to restore some glory to the Skychiefs. The Jays have another motive for their support of the Chiefs, before last season the Board of Directors of the Chiefs expressed their dissatisfaction to the Jays, improve or we will find another major league team to affiliate with, was the message. The Jays have heard and have reacted.


The lineup will feature five or six prospects:

C    Guillermo Quiroz
1B   Eric Crozier
SS   Aaron Hill
3B   John Hattig
LF   John Ford Griffin
RF   Gabe Gross - maybe

The Jays have added a number of veterans to fill in the gaps. Blue Jay fans are more familiar with the prospects than the veterans, so lets fill in the gaps on some of our more experienced players.

Bryant Nelson will play second base. Nelson is 31 years old and entering his twelfth season of pro ball. Nelson’s only major league time was in 2002 when he played 25 games for the Red Sox. Nelson spent 2003 in Japan, but was back in North America playing for Charlotte last season. Nelson has been in AAA since 2000, playing second base and some left field. Nelson can be counted on to hit in the .280 to .310 range. Last year Nelson developed some power, hitting 22 home runs, and was selected to play in the IL all-star game.

Centre field will be patrolled by Anton French who looks to repeat his 2004 season. French, now 29, signed out of high school and never played at AAA until 2003. French had toiled for seven organizations plus spent a few years in the independent leagues until the Red Sox brought him back in 2002. Early last season the Jays needed some outfield help to cover for injuries and they acquired French who proceeded to hit .282 at New Hampshire and .349 for Syracuse. Can French be one of the late bloomers, 2005’s David Newhan, who finally figures it out late? At this stage French is unlikely to be a star but if he has a good year in 2005 he could fill a Reed Johnson type role for some team. Alternatively 2004 might have been his career year, at age 28, and 2005 will not be as good.

If Gabe Gross is in Toronto then Chad Mottola will handle right field. Mottola has played for Syracuse in 2000 and 2002, and the Blue Jays in 2000. Now 33, Mottola has a .284 lifetime minor league batting average and a .193 major league average in 109 at-bats over four seasons. Mottola hit 22 home runs for Ottawa last year. In 2000 Mottola was the IL MVP playing for Syracuse, hitting .309 with 32 home runs that year.

The bench, and DH, features several other veterans: Jason Alfaro; Julius Matos; and probably Anthony Sanders.

Alfaro, who will play short or second, is 27 years old and Baseball America ranks him as the Jays #29 prospect for 2005. Alfaro played in the PCL for New Orleans last year and batted .325 with 13 home runs. Alfaro got 22 at-bats for the Astros last year hitting .227; when the Astros tried to slip him through waivers the Jays picked him up. Alfaro has played the last two seasons at AAA and hits around .300 with some power and a good eye. Alfaro’s OPS has been .803 and .840 the last two years. PCL parks can be more favourable to hitters so it will be interesting to see what Alfaro can do in 2005.

Matos spent half of last season with the Chiefs. Matos is another infielder who hit .293 and he can also play the outfield; in 2004 Matos even pitched for the Jays. Look for Matos to play all infield positions, to DH and play the outfield.

So here is what the lineup looks like:

C    Quiroz
1B   Crozier
2B   Alfaro 
SS   Hill
3B   Matos (Hattig when he recovers)
LF   Griffin
CF   French
RF   Mottola (Gross?)
DH   Nelson
Bench: Huckaby, Sanders

The prospects will be looking to become ready for the big show. Most readers of Batters Box are familiar with these players so let’s consider what their 2005 goals are.

Guillermo Quiroz will look to play 130 games and get a September call-up to Toronto. In those 130 games he will work on his defense, bringing it up to major league standard; work on his throwing to second on steal attempts; and get his hitting back on track. In 2004 Quiroz lost time due to a hand injury and never showed the hitting prowess that he displayed in AA. If Quiroz can hit .260 with 20 home runs and 30 doubles the Jays would be pleased. Remember Quiroz is still relatively young, especially for a catcher; Quiroz is just 23 years old.

Eric Crozier will look to hit the breaking ball. Crozier showed last season that he can hit a fastball but in September, at the major league level, he saw major league quality breaking pitches for the first time. Crozier’s path to the majors is through pitch recognition and hitting the bender.

Aaron Hill is still a young un’, like Quiroz he is 23 years old. Following the Russ Adams path to the major leagues, Hill will look to handle the more advanced, crafty, pitching at AAA. The Jays will also have to decide whether Hill is a major league shortstop, or whether he should move to another position.

John Hattig is forecast to be a first baseman/DH at the major league level. Therefore in 2005 Hattig needs to work on his offense. As a switch-hitter Hattig has value if he can continue to develop the power he showed last year. Hattig will miss the first four to six weeks of the season after having bone spurs removed from his elbow.

John-Ford Griffin needs to hit better, period. Hit for average, and for power.

Gabe Gross, you know all about Gabe Gross, I have nothing to add.


While the position players are relatively set there is a cast of thousands for the pitching rotation. The candidates for the starters jobs are: Chris Baker; Cameron Reimers; Seung Song; Ryan Glynn; Mike Nannini; Scott Downs; Josue Matos; and Pete Walker.

Looking for bullpen jobs are: Jason Arnold; Matt Whiteside; Spike Lundberg; Chad Gaudin; Jamie Vermilyea; Adrian Burnside; Lee Gronkiewicz; Steve Andrade; and Jordan DeJong.

Chris Baker and Cameron Reimers are returnees from 2004. Baker started in Syracuse but struggled and was demoted to New Hampshire where he pitched very well and helped the Cats to their playoff victory. Did Baker learn something new, or is he able to handle AA hitters but not AAA hitters? It is more likely the latter but we will see in 2005. Reimers has had good numbers in the minors but has not had great stuff and has never been highly ranked as a prospect. In 2004 Reimers was promoted to Syracuse and struggled initially, like Baker. Brad Arnsberg was trying to teach a curveball to Reimers to give him a greater variety in his pitches and to introduce a pitch on a different plane. Reimers’ fastball, slider and change all came in looking the same to the hitter and because none of the pitches were of excellent quality the hitters were making too good contact. 2005 will be a year of decision for both Baker and Reimers, either they get better or their careers might be over.

Seung Song was once a top prospect of the Montreal Expos and the Jays claimed him on waivers over the winter. At the time the Jays acknowledged Song’s drop in status by saying they had picked him up for depth in the minor leagues, not necessarily because they expected him to challenge for a spot on the big league team. Song’s velocity has dropped over the past few years and his numbers have dropped with it. Where did the velocity go, and can it come back?

Ryan Glynn was ready to retire last year but rejoined Brad Arnsberg for one more shot. Glynn had his best success with Arnsberg as his pitching coach and 2004 worked the same way. Glynn pitched well for Syracuse and earned a September call-up and now is competing for a major league job. Glynn will likely end in Syracuse but would be close to the top of the list for injury replacements.

When you look at Mike Nannini’s numbers its hard to see why he is not listed as a prospect. Nannini is just 24 years old and has started 73 games over the last three years at AA and AAA. Nannini gives us just over a hit an inning and his K/9 rate is over 8. What’s not to like? What if I told you that the Jays are Nannini’s fourth organization in the last four years? That Nannini’s fastball is described as below average? That sums up Nannini, a pitcher who has been able to fool minor league hitters but scouts believe his “stuff” will not work in the major leagues. Over time Nannini might become more “crafty” and get a shot in the big leagues but players of this type usually don’t make it until they have several AAA years under their belt.

Scott Downs has spent three years at AAA in the Expos system, reducing his ERA each year, from 5.79 to 4.29 to 3.52. Downs also made 12 starts for the Expos last year with a 5.14 ERA. Downs is your finesse lefty who struck out less than 4.5 hitters per nine innings in AAA last year. Pitchers like that find it tough to succeed at the major league level. On the other hand Downs is likely to be very effective at the AAA level.

Josue Matos made 21 starts for the Chiefs last year, after starting the year in the bullpen. Matos ended with a 5.18 ERA and is another pitcher with excellent AA stats and not so good AAA stats. Matos could start or be a long man out of the pen.

Pete Walker looks like he might have made the Blue Jays. If not he will be a valuable pitcher for the Chiefs.

Among the relievers Jason Arnold, Jamie Vermilyea, Chad Gaudin and Jordan DeJong represent the prospects. Arnold looks to be making the conversion to reliever to try and recast himself and make it to Toronto. Arnold has struggled over the last two years as a starter and, in addition, was injured for much of 2004. The move to the bullpen should add some velocity to Arnold’s pitches and hopefully get him back on the prospect watch.

Vermilyea just needs time at AAA. Jamie has at least four pitches, none of them overly fast, but all with a lot of movement. Jamie is from the 2003 draft and will learn to setup hitters at AAA. Vermilyea will be hoping for a September call-up.

Chad Gaudin came to the Jays in the Kevin Cash trade. Gaudin is still young and needs to round out his repertoire of pitches to complement his outstanding slider.

Jordan DeJong was the closer at AA for much of last year. His numbers were good, a 2.86 ERA, but DeJong is another of the pitchers whose “stuff” might not be good enough for the big leagues. Using your stuff against AAA hitters is the next step.

Steve Andrade is a 26 year old reliever who the Jays picked up from the Anaheim Angels on waivers over the winter. Andrade spent most of last year at AA, pitching 48 innings, and also pitched 13 innings at AAA. Andrade, like Nannini, does not have an overpowering fastball but he has a K9 rate over 11 at AA and AAA. How does he do it? Andrade has a funky delivery, the Angels called it a Brendan Donnelly type delivery. Andrade has not made it onto top prospect lists because scouts believe major league hitters will figure him out. But as Andrade has risen through AA and AAA, and has maintained his 11 K/9 ratio, scouts have upped their opinion of Andrade. Andrade’s numbers at AAA last year were only average; in his 13 innings he gave up 8 walks and that contributed to his 4.61 ERA. If Andrade can be successful at AAA he could look for a major trial at some point.

Matt Whiteside Spike Lundberg and Adrian Burnside were signed in the off season as minor league free agents. Whiteside is the elder statesman of the bullpen at 37 years old and has appeared in 284 major league games. Last year Whiteside recorded 38 saves in AAA. Lundberg has already visited the Box and had a 3.26 ERA in AAA last year. Burnside is 28 years old and had a 6.13 ERA last year for Toledo, and a 6.28 ERA for Erie the previous year. Burnside had some success with the Australian Olympic team and has started well in spring training. Burnside could be the LOOGY for the Chiefs.

Lee Gronkiewicz was a minor league rule 5 selection by the Jays out of the Cleveland organization. Gronkiewicz pitched at AA last year and could go back there if there is no room at AAA.

Manager and Coaches

Marty Pevey returns for his second season as manager, looking for a batter year than his first. Dwayne Murphy will be the hitting coach; many of you will remember Murphy from his big league time in Oakland. Murphy also has six years major league coaching experience with Arizona and will probably work with the outfielders. Monte Kniffin was the pitching coach for Arizona from 2002 to 2004.


While Syracuse should improve this year will they have enough firepower to win? With Glynn and Downs the rotation has two strong pillars. The Chiefs need a couple of the other pitchers to step up and have good years. Whether that is Song, Reimers, Nannini, or someone else remains to be seen but getting that third and fourth starter to contribute will be very important.

The bullpen will be strong. Whiteside is an experienced veteran at the back of the pen. Lundberg, Andrade and Burnside provide the experience while three of Vermilyea, Arnold, Gaudin and Justin Miller supply the youth.

The offense should be somewhat above average. Nelson, Matos, Alfaro, and Mottola have established track records at AAA. Quiroz, Hill, Crozier and Griffin are trying to establish their own history. The first three at least should have good years and the Chiefs should have some punch from one through nine in the lineup. It is a safe prediction to say the Chiefs will be better in 2005, they need some players to step up if they are to win the division.