The New Hampshire Fisher Cats’ offense wasn’t the greatest throughout the year but there was one Blue Jays prospect who stepped up and made people really take notice. In addition to the highly-touted prospect, several other players on the Fisher Cats had very productive years, taking big steps forward in their development.
Ryan Lavarnway didn’t sign with the Blue Jays until the end of May after being released by the Atlanta Braves but was a very solid contributor to the Fisher Cats and was the club’s leader in games played behind the plate. Lavarnway played 66 games for the Fisher Cats, hitting .262/.357/.395 with 13 doubles and six home runs, walking in a healthy 12.5% of plate appearances and striking out in 17.3%. Lavarnway was also very solid behind the plate, throwing out 35% of potential base stealers and committing three errors and seven passed balls in 59 games caught. If he remains a Jay (and doesn’t become a free agent), he could be in New Hampshire or Buffalo next year.
The well-traveled Wilkin Castillo, 32, caught 39 games for the Fisher Cats, hitting .275/.301/.394 with five doubles, a triple and two home runs, throwing out 36% of base stealers , allowing four passed balls and making three errors. Castillo, who has also played 22 games in the majors under his belt, also played in 10 games for Buffalo, hitting .250/.250/.344. Like Lavarnway, Castillo was a minor league free agent signed by the Jays and could become a free agent at the end of the year.
25-year-old catcher Jorge Saez was the only homegrown player to play for the Fisher Cats. He played 37 games behind the plate and hit 232/.290/.432, showing some power, hitting seven doubles and six home runs in 140 plate appearances while also throwing out 40% of base stealers, committing two passed balls and two errors. Saez was prodigious with his power in 2016, hitting another six home runs in just 72 plate appearances with the Dunedin Blue Jays to give him a career-high 12 dingers. Saez’s BABIP was a little on the low side, so if he can get even a 20-point boost to his batting average on balls in play while taking a few more walks (his 7.1% walk rate was significantly lower than his career minor-league rates), his good defense and excellent throwing can turn him into a very solid backup at the highest levels of the minors. Look for Saez to spend much of 2017 in New Hampshire.
A former two-time top-100 prospect, Reese McGuire‘s stock had fallen to the point where he was included in the deal that sent Francisco Liriano to the Blue Jays for Drew Hutchison. McGuire has become a defense-first catcher, throwing out 39% of potential base thieves over the course of his career. Unfortunately, in his 13 games wit the Fisher Cats, he only threw out two of 12 runners. McGuire only came to the plate 61 times for New Hampshire, hitting .226/.328/.264 but he continued his tendencies to strike out very little (13.1%) and walk a lot (11.5%). In Altoona (Pittsburgh’s Double-A club), he hit .259/.337/.346 with 16 doubles, two triples and a home run in 304 plate appearances, striking out in only 8.6% of his plate appearances and walking in 9.5%. McGuire’s lack of power is a little discomforting but he is only 21 years old and catchers do tend to take some time to develop with the bat. If he can turn around the offense, he could be a worthy successor to Russell Martin. If not, he may be limited to a backup role. Look for him to spend the whole year in New Hampshire in 2017, in his Age-22 season.
I’ve already written a lot about Rowdy Tellez. The 21-year-old first baseman made huge strides with the bat over the course of the season, improving each month after a decent April and finishing with an absolutely incredible August (.333/.406/.640, 10 2B, 8 HR). He also made strides at first base, improving his defensive abilities to the point where he is no longer considered a liability. Tellez finished his season with a .297/.387/.530 slash line, hitting 29 doubles, two triples and 23 home runs for the Fisher Cats and showed a lot of patience by walking in 12.3% of his plate appearances and striking out in only 17.9% (quite low for someone who hits with his kind of power). Rowdy is fulfilling his potential to the point where we can talk about his joining the major league team within a year or two. Rowdy will play for a month in the Dominican Republic this offseason and will likely open 2017 in Buffalo (although if Edwin doesn’t return, he could be the DH in Toronto, too).
Second baseman Christian Lopes had an excellent season for the Fisher Cats, really coming into his own after a couple of seasons of declining results. In his Age-23 season, Lopes started out in Dunedin and hit much better than his .196/.324/.411 slash line indicated over 15 games. In fact, if you look at his .190 BABIP, his 16.2% walk rate and 17.6% strikeout rate, it becomes much clearer why the Jays promoted him to Double-A New Hampshire. As a Fisher Cat, Lopes hit .295/.357/.401 with a 15.8% strikeout rate and 7.3% walk rate over 108 games, hitting 30 doubles, two triples and three home runs. Lopes had a very solid season and could very well start 2017 back in Manchester, although he has been joined in the Blue Jays organization by his brother Tim, who was acquired from Seattle to complete the trade for Pat Venditte.
25-year-old Jason Leblebijian went to the Australian Baseball League last year, where he dominated with the bat, and continued what he was doing in the minors. Leblebijian hit .295/.362/.420 with the Dunedin Blue Jays over 52 games, hitting seven doubles and six home runs and moved up to New Hampshire where he quickly became one of the team’s core players. In New Hampshire, he hit .293/.359/.448 in 75 games, hitting 19 doubles, a triple and seven home runs, giving him a career-high 13 on the season. Leblebijian’s defensive versatility (playing short, third or second), plus his newly found offensive prowess at the Double-A level gives him a shot at being a utility man for a big league club. He’ll likely start 2017 back in New Hampshire but could find his way to Buffalo at some point.
Jorge Flores, 24, played most of the 2016 season with the Fisher Cats but had a disappointing year with the bat. The 5-foot-5 middle infielder hit .187/.260/.242 in 82 games with New Hampshire (after posting a .707 OPS in Double-A last year) before he was sent back down to Dunedin for the final month of the season. Flores hit .263/.326/.381 with the D-Jays and will likely be back in New Hampshire next year for another crack at it.
Jon Berti missed some time this season due to injury and, when he returned to the Fisher Cats, found that his position was being played by Christian Lopes more often than not. Berti still got into 73 games for New Hampshire thanks to his versatility, playing second, short, third, left field and even center field on occasion. The speedy 26-year-old hit .254/.358/.364 with 29 stolen bases, 10 doubles, seven triples and two home runs in 319 plate appearances, striking out in 17.6% of plate appearances but walking in 11.3%. He did play seven games in Buffalo, hitting just .150/.227/.350 and had six rehab games, proving himself to be more than a match for the GCL with a .400/.429/.550 slash line. Berti could easily play more in Buffalo next year, which is expected to be the last on his initial contract.
With the injury to Mitch Nay, Matt Dean returned to his original position of third base to move up to the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Dean struggled in this assignment, hitting .215/.294/.313 with eight doubles and five home runs in 262 plate appearances, striking out in 32.1% of his plate appearances and walking in 8.8%. Dean missed all of July with an injury and, after four rehab games in the GCL, was assigned to the Dunedin Blue Jays where he hit only slightly better with a .237/.324/.305 slash line, hitting a double and a home run in 59 plate appearances, striking out in 41.2% of them while walking in 10.3%. Dean had tempered his propensity to strike out over the past couple of seasons but it’s quite disturbing to see those rates rising considerably. He’ll probably get another shot at Double-A next year.
Shane Opitz, 24, played all over the infield for the Fisher Cats, getting into 81 games and spent time at first, second, third, shortstop and even played a game in right field. Opitz didn’t find the success he had with the bat back in 2014, though, hitting just .217/.280/.300 with 11 doubles, a triple and two home runs with a 7.8% walk rate and 15.9% strikeout rate. He did make his Triple-A debut, playing three games in Buffalo and going 2/10 with a walk and two strikeouts. Opitz is a useful utility player but his contract may be up and he could elect free agency.
In the final season of his contract, K.C. Hobson started the year hitting .163/.252/.277 in 39 games for the Fisher Cats before he was released by the Blue Jays. Hobson caught on with Lancaster in the independent Atlantic League where he hit .320/.394/.570 with 15 doubles, two triples and 24 home runs in 415 plate appearances.
Seth Conner played in just two games for the Fisher Cats after not playing at all last year. My theory is that he was around in more of a coaching role and his DL stints were more of the “phantom” variety. Conner was 1/4 with an RBI.
Dwight Smith, Jr. led the Fisher Cats in games played in left field and had a very similar season to 2015, albeit with more power. Smith hit .265/.332/.433 this season, hitting 24 doubles, five triples and 15 home runs (a career high) with 12 stolen bases in 19 attempts. Smith, 23, struck out in 17.3% of his plate appearances and walked in 8.5%. Interestingly, his almost five percent rise in strikeout rate is going along with his increase in power, raising his ISO 57 points over last season. Smith appears to be selling out for more power but, in his case, his strikeout rate isn’t what anyone might consider high, even now. Smith could get a shot in Triple-A next year after two seasons in New Hampshire and if he can maintain his power, he could regain his prospect status.
Manning center field on most nights was 25-year-old Roemon Fields, in only his third season of pro ball. Fields led the club with 44 stolen bases (but was caught 16 times) while regressing at the plate after his strong 2015 season. Fields hit .227/.295/.296 with 12 doubles, five triples and four home runs, walking in 8.1% of his 556 plate appearances and striking out in 17.6%. Fields’s speed is excellent, as is his defense, with just one error all year, but unless he starts getting on base more, his ability to play at higher levels will be limited. He should repeat the Double-A level again next year.
Ian Parmley was the club’s leader in games in right field. The 26 year old had his best season in professional baseball, hitting .294/.356/.379 with 13 stolen bases, six doubles, six triples and two home runs in 282 plate appearances. Parmley struck out a bit more than he did last year in New Hampshire, in 23.3% of his plate appearances while walking in 8.7%. Parmley should be back in New Hampshire next year.
Melky Mesa has been part of the Blue Jays’ organization since 2014 and the 29-year-old has been used in a role that has taken him between Manchester and Buffalo each year. In 2016, Mesa hit only .213/.267/.363 in 172 plate appearances with New Hampshire, striking out in 28.5% and walking in 4.7%. In Buffalo, however, his fortunes were vastly different (likely due to a 123-point spike in BABIP), and Mesa hit .290/.353/.387, cutting down on his power but also cutting his strikeout rate to 24.5% and seeing his walk rate rise to 7.8%. It’s unknown as to whether Mesa will be back. Much will depend on the club’s need for outfielders at the higher levels of the system.
Now 22, Harold Ramirez was the other prospect who joined the Blue Jays in the Francisco Liriano trade. Ramirez hit .306/.354/.401 in 98 games with Altoona before playing in only one game with the Fisher Cats, going 3/4 with a walk, a double, two runs and an RBI, before going on the DL. Ramirez will likely be back in New Hampshire next year.
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