I’m gearing up for my annual trip down to Dunedin to catch the Jays’ minor leaguers in spring training action and before I head down, I have several storylines that catch my attention for me to watch. Here are five of them.
The reason you’re not seeing me tweet from Florida yet is that I deliberately schedule my trip for later in the spring. I don’t want to see players in their first or second outings of the spring. I want to see them closer to their in-season form as I can (and my schedule permits). Also, the minor league spring training games don’t start up until the middle of the month, which gives me usually two or three games to concentrate on simultaneously as opposed to four. In these spring training games, I only have to worry about one of the teams on each diamond whereas if you get there earlier in spring training, you’re watching intrasquad games that have as many as five or six teams’ worth of players to keep track of at any given time. Finally, by going down to Florida later in the spring, many of the players who started off the spring in big league camp get sent back down the minors as the regulars get more playing time. So, without further ado, here are the stories I’m going to be watching when I get down to Florida next weekend.
1. Comebacks – I’m looking for players who were injured last year. Mitch Nay headlines this list for me after missing almost the entire season in 2016. I’m also watching Max Pentecost for his defense. He didn’t catch at all last year after coming off a season in which he spent recovering from three shoulder surgeries. I saw him play last year and he was a great hitter for the Lansing Lugnuts but outside of that, I couldn’t get a handle on his abilities behind the plate. What he can do there will go a long way to determining what his path to the big leagues might entail. Another player whom I’m looking forward to seeing again is Blake McFarland. Blake talked to us recently to tell us about his comeback from surgery and I’m excited to see the big righty throw.
2. The 2016 Draft Class – The 2016 draft class, at least the top of it, was one of the most successful in making their professional debuts that the Blue Jays have had in a long time. Players like T.J. Zeuch, Joshua Palacios, J.B. Woodman, Bo Bichette, Zach Jackson and Cavan Biggio all played very well in their first season and are being talked about a lot by the people who have seen them play. For me, the guys who stand out in my mind that I want to see are Zeuch, Palacios and Bichette. Not that the other three are chopped liver, but from the people I’ve talked to, these three have the most buzz. I’m really looking forward to seeing how these six players look.
3. Incoming Internationals – Every year a group of players who had either been playing in the Blue Jays’ complex in the Dominican Republic or were international free agents make their appearances at spring training. Obviously Lourdes Gurriel is at the top of my list, if he’s in minor league camp when I’m there. But aside from him, there are several very interesting looking players and some surprises who are on the roster for minor league spring training. I expected to see Joseph Reyes (2016 International Free Agent [IFA]), Roither Hernandez (2016 IFA), McGregory Contreras (2015 IFA, 2016 DSL), Elio Silva (2015 IFA, 2016 DSL) and Luis De Los Santos (2015 IFA, 2016 DSL). But there are a few players on the list who surprised me and they include Felipe Castaneda, who might be a little more advanced, coming out of Mexico, than some of the Dominicans. Alvery De Los Santos signed out of the Dominican last year and Elieser Medrano, another Dominican who signed last year. I always get a kick out of getting my first opportunity to see some of these international players for the first time.
4. Big Strides/Changes – I’m looking for players who have taken big strides over the offseason. Those pitchers who have added a new pitch, refined their control and added some velocity since I last saw them. I also look out for the players who have added muscle, changed their swing mechanics, or worked on their approaches at the plate (although this is really hard to see in the hectic pace of spring training). I also look for players who might be playing a new position although some of those experiments turn out to be failures.
5. Breakthroughs – I’m always entertained by how my impressions of players that I get in spring training mesh with the players’ performances throughout the year. Every spring, I note the players whose performance or tools stand out and then I see if they’re going to live up to those expectations when the season starts. A few players who impressed me last year were Christian Williams, Sean Reid-Foley, Adonys Cardona and Jake Thomas. Thomas was mostly a backup outfielder last year and Williams showed some potential but didn’t really excel in Vancouver. Cardona had a decent season and stayed healthy (the biggest victory for him) but didn’t put up spectacular numbers. Reid-Foley was outstanding, carving up hitters at two levels. Players who didn’t impress me in the spring were Tom Robson and Ryan Borucki. Robson struggled mightily with his control all year and Borucki was hit hard early in the season before turning things around.
This year, I’m looking for those players who surprise me and make me wonder if they can take their game to the next level this year. This especially includes players who might not have had their best seasons last year like Juan Meza, Reggie Pruitt, D.J. Davis, Justin Atkinson, Brad Allen, Yeltsin Gudino and Bryan Lizardo.
Obviously, these storylines will only play out over the course of the year, but that year starts in spring training and it’s my first opportunity to actually get a look at these guys this season.
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