It is the middle of winter and minor league baseball news is almost non-existent. Baseball America and John Sickels' prospect books are a month away from my mailbox so to keep me going I thought I would look at the Jays minor league system one more time. This time I decided to put myself in JP Ricciardi's shoes and ask myself What help is likely coming from the system in the next couple of years? Which prospects should I count on and which ones should I discount?
Curtis Thigpen is the Jays best, and perhaps the only, hope for the future. Thigpen has exceeded expectations since he was drafted in 2004 in the second round, 57th overall. His success and development is a credit to the Jays scouts and minor league coaches. Thigpen had been the number two catcher in his final year at the University of Texas and as a result was not seen as a top catching prospect. Many scouts liked Thigpen's athleticism but thought he might end up at second base. Thigpen has been an overachiever since he was drafted and advanced to AAA in his third season. In this years Arizona Fall League Thigpen was the starting catcher in the championship game and was singled out for credit by his coach. At this point it looks like Thigpen could be penciled in as at least one half of a catching platoon for 2008. The major knock against Thigpen is his arm where he is in Greg Zaun territory. His manager in AAA this season will be former major league catcher Jody Davis, who will work with Thigpen to improve his catching skills.
Other than Thigpen there are no obvious starters. Eric Kratz is an excellent defensive catcher and could make it as a defensive specialist. Josh Bell's defense has not developed; Brian Jeroloman's offense is still not there. Jon Jaspe's offense is good but the Jays left him in Pulaski this season as a 21 year-old which is not a good sign, if they see potential the Jays push their prospects. The wild card is Robinzon Diaz, a slasher of a hitter whose defence and attitude have been questioned by coaches and teammates. After two full seasons in Dunedin, Diaz will face a make or break year this year in AA.
Summary: Thigpen looks like a sure bet to make it, everyone else is a long shot.
Chip Cannon. Following a strong AFL campaign Cannon will look to build on that success at Syracuse in 2007. Cannon has two major objectives this season and achieving either one will give him a much-improved chance to be a major leaguer. Objective number one will be to make better contact and cut down on his strikeouts. Cannon struck out 30% of the time in AA, a percentage that usually increases in AAA and the major leagues. The strikeouts can be tolerated if Cannon were to hit a whole load more home runs, call it the Ryan Howard method. That brings us to objective number two, Cannon hit 27 home runs last season, if he can get close to 40 in AAA the strikeouts will be more tolerable.
After Cannon the pickings are slim, minor league free agents Kevin Barker and Josh Kreuzer manned first in AAA and high A in 2006, with David Hicks and Luke Hopkins handling the bag lower down. Hicks has no power and Hopkins doesn't make enough contact or hit for average.
Summary: Cannon is still a long shot to be a major league starter.
Major league second basemen are often shortstops in the minor leagues who get converted to second, a la Aaron Hill. Ryan Roberts, who spent some time with the Jays last season, is another overachiever. Roberts is a converted third baseman and is close to major league ready as a fielder, and is close as a hitter, and could make it due to his drive to succeed. Roberts has never been highly touted but continues to put up numbers at each stop and among all the Jays prospects could make it and prove the scouts wrong. Manny Mayorson and Juan Peralta, at AA and high A, are below major league caliber with their bats. At the lower levels Sean Shoffit started strongly last season but faded, Wesley Stone had a very good 2005 but a disappointing 2006. Scott Campbell had a strong rookie campaign this season.
The Jays have a wild card at second base, Anthony Hatch, who is going to settle at second having been a utility infielder for his first two seasons. Hatch has hit wherever he has played but has had injury woes. Hatch had surgery on both wrists in the off-season, if he can return from that surgery and continue to hit he could move quickly up through the system.
Summary: Ryan Roberts is a long shot but could be a late bloomer; the others have a lot to prove.
The shortstops are the big-time athletes among the fielders but they need to convert the athleticism into results. It is easy to see the athleticism in Sergio Santos; he has size, speed, a great arm and pop in his bat (at least in BP). Unfortunately Santos has been unable to make good contact against AAA pitchers and a .214 batting average last season kills his prospects. Santos was young for triple A when he first arrived but now he turned 23 on the last fourth of July so he is at an age where he is expected to perform in AAA. Santos has the arm for short but not the range so he profiles as a major league third baseman but until his bat improves Troy Glaus has no worries. In some ways Ryan Klosterman is similar to Santos, he has pop in his bat (16 home runs in 2006), has some speed and a good arm, but strikes out a little too often. Klosterman is more of a dirt-bagger, a scrappy player, who hits better than Santos, and because of that is now a better prospect than Santos. None of the lower level shortstops hit enough to put much faith in them, Chris Guttierez, Jesus Gonzalez, Jason Armstrong and Jonathan Diaz each underperformed with the bat.
Summary: Klosterman is the best option here but in these days of offensive shortstops he might top out as a utility player.
The third basemen at Syracuse, John Hattig and Rob Cosby, don't field well enough to stay there at the major league level, and likely don't hit enough to play elsewhere, although Hattig has been hampered by injuries. Elsewhere the third basemen struggled with the bat.
Summary: Third is the weakest position in the system. The Jays signed 16-year-old Balbino Fuenmayor last season to try and improve but he is a long way away, assuming he develops better than Leance Soto.
Wayne Lydon has left the organization, Justin Singleton is too old and strikes out too much, Dustin Majewski hit .233 at AA, Yuber Rodriguez less than that in A ball and Ryan Patterson is a corner outfielder.
Summary: Majewski is a big maybe, then it is hope for 2006 draftees Adam Calderone or Chris Emmanuele. Probably the second weakest position in the system.
Finally some good news, Adam Lind and Travis Snider are the Jays top two prospects. Ryan Patterson is highly rated by scouts but struggled with his promotion to AA in mid-2006. Patterson has an unusual stance and the jury is still out on whether he can keep that approach through the major leagues. After Patterson, John-Ford Griffin missed most of 2006 due to injury and David Smith had an OK 2006 in AA. Ontario player Jonathan Baksh hit well in his first season as did young Joheromyn Chavez.
Summary: Lind and Snider look good, Patterson could be OK.
Hitter's summary: The Jays will count on three players, Lind, Snider and Thigpen. All others have issues with Patterson, Cannon, Roberts and Klosterman's potential swinging between fringe major leaguers and career minor leaguers.
Most major league relievers were starting pitchers in the minor leagues. Pitchers who profile as relievers are often used as starters in the minors to give them a regular turn in the rotation and a chance to work on their pitches over their five or six innings. In 2006 the Jays moved pitchers Billy Carnline, Kyle Ginley and Chase Lirette into the rotation even though they profile as relievers.
Starting pitcher is the Jays best-stocked position, at least in terms of quantity. Dustin McGowan and Casey Janssen are first in line for starting jobs in 2007, McGowan needs to learn how to command his impressive repertoire and Janssen needs to learn from his 2006 exposure to major league hitters. Remember that Janssen did have some success against major leaguers before he lost confidence and changed his approach last season.
After McGowan and Janssen the Jays have a lot of AA pitchers who have yet to prove themselves at AAA, Josh Banks, Ismael Ramirez, Ricky Romero, David Purcey, Ty Taubenheim, Jesse Litsch, Chi-Hung Cheng, Eric Fowler. Seeing who gets to be a part of the AAA starting rotation will be one of the interesting parts of the spring. Banks and Taubenheim have spent time in AAA but neither has been able to consistently dominate hitters. Romero, Ramirez and Litsch are on their way up and need to prove themselves. Ramirez has good stuff but might profile as a Francisco Rosario type reliever; Romero is a classic lefty, Litsch a righty, each without dominating stuff, their success depends on location and developing that "out pitch". Cheng and Fowler are lower in the system and might develop into lefty relievers. Purcey is the biggest wildcard, he could be the best of the bunch if he finds his control, or he could flame out. Brandon Magee, a 2006 draftee, could move quickly in 2007.
Summary: McGowan and Janssen are the best options for the start of 2007. There are half a dozen guys lined up behind them, all with question marks, and all hoping to prove themselves worthy of a shot in 2007. Does quantity turn into quality?
Kyle Yates, Franciso Rosario, Jamie Vermilyea, Davis Romero, and Tracey Thorpe are all close and either one could potentially win a bullpen spot with the Jays sometime in 2007. Thorpe and Rosario have the best stuff, featuring mid 90's fastballs. Yates, Vermilyea and Romero are control type pitchers, Yates a curveball specialist, Vermilyea a sinker slider, ground ball pitcher and Romero the crafty lefty. When it comes to the major leagues it is all about results rather than potential and you could argue that the soft-tossers have a better chance than the hard throwers. Paul Phillips, Billy Carnline, Kyle Ginley, Chase Lirette, Po-Hsuan Keng have entered the prospect pipeline but are a few years away.
Summary: There could be some bullpen help available in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately unless some of them develop into closers the trade value of relievers is not high.
Pitching summary: The Jays have quantity but it needs to be major league quantity, not AAA quantity.
The Jays have three position players that appear to have an excellent chance to contribute to the parent club. They also have fifteen pitchers who could help, but none are sure things. The Jays farm system will be judged in the next few years on how many of those pitching prospects make it. As we have seen this winter pitching talent can net a very high return in the trade market. With all the money floating around MLB these days, JP's fortune could also be tied to the future of these pitching prospects.