The New Hampshire Fisher Cats boasted a very solid bullpen that included some players who took some big strides for the club who eventually moved beyond the ‘Cats and made their big league debuts in 2017.
Hard-throwing, 24-year-old lefty Jose Fernandez had an up and down year with the Fisher Cats. Starting your season by striking out five batters in two innings is never a bad thing but by the beginning of May, things were unraveling a bit for Fernandez. The Dominican had a .591 OPS against in April but a .923 OPS against in May, settling in for numbers in between the two extremes for the rest of the season. Overall, Fernandez’s 5.44 ERA and 1.68 WHIP over 46 1/3 innings are not all that eye-popping but he maintained a solid 22.3% strikeout rate while walking 12.1%, down from his 2016 numbers in Advanced-A Dunedin. Fernandez still has some work to do with his command as well as his ability to recover after giving up some hits or when the defense lets him down. The Jays will not give up on a 97-mph fastball as he enters his final year in his initial contract. I can see him back in New Hampshire in 2018.
The Blue Jays’ 18th-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2014, righty Dusty Isaacs may be 26 already but he’s putting together a solid resume in the minor leagues. Starting the year in Double-A for the first time, Isaacs fit right in, throwing 61 2/3 innings with the Fisher Cats with a solid 3.79 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. Despite being a flyball pitcher (54.1% FB rate), Isaacs still had the ability to overmatch hitters, striking out 28.6% while walking 10.5%. There’s probably no reason why Isaacs couldn’t start in Buffalo next year although whether there’s room on the roster will be the deciding factor as to where he begins 2018.
After struggling in Dunedin in 2016, Justin Shafer, 25, blossomed in 2017, getting out of the Florida State League after just nine outings and settling in to become of the of most consistent relievers with the Fisher Cats. Shafer didn’t allow a run in 9 1/3 innings in Dunedin, striking out 36.1% of batters and walking just 5.6% before moving up to New Hampshire. Shafer spent much of the rest of the year in Manchester, tossing 58 innings and having a 3.41 ERA and 1.22 WHIP, striking out 19.8% and walking 10.7%. With a heavy fastball, Shafer generated 49.4% of his batted balls on the ground. He did make two appearances in Buffalo, giving up a run in four innings and striking out four. Shafer could very well begin 2018 in Buffalo but, again, could be back in New Hampshire depending on how the bullpen situation for the Bisons shapes up.
New Brunswick native Andrew Case was another pitcher who took a huge step forward in 2017. “Caser,” 24, started his season in Dunedin, sticking it out there until mid-May where he had a 4.42 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, but his 23.3% strikeout rate and 55.1% groundball rate must have gotten some attention. Moving up to Double-A Case continued to get ground balls, generating a 49.6% GB rate while his strikeout rate fell to 14.4% and his walk rate rose to 6.3%. Still, those regressions actually led to a lower ERA and WHIP with a 1.58 ERA and 1.03 WHIP over 40 innings, Case made four appearances in Buffalo where he threw 7 2/3 innings with a 5.87 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, striking out three and walking three. Case will probably start 2018 back in Double-A but he’ll have another feather in his baseball cap coming after he plays in the Arizona Fall League this offseason.
The first pitcher on our list to make the major leagues, lefty Tim Mayza secured himself a big league position after a somewhat lacklustre start to his season in New Hampshire. Mayza, 25, tossed 33 1/3 innings with the Fisher Cats and had a 4.59 ERA and 1.41 WHIP, striking out 28.8% of batters and walking 10.3%. While his start to the season wasn’t what he’d hoped for, Mayza turned hings up a notch in June, with a 2.25 ERA and 1.33 WHIP over 12 innings, limiting hitters to a .677 OPS. He moved up to Buffalo in early July and posted a 0.93 ERA and 1.19 WHIP over 19 1/3 innings, seeing his strikeout rate drop to 19.8% and his walk rate also drop, to 8.6%. Mayza was called up to Toronto in August and, while his overall big league ERA sits at 6.88 and his WHIP is 1.65, he allowed multiple runs in five of his 19 outings, skewing things a little bit. Mayza really struggled against right-handed hitters who hit .415 off of him in the big leagues. Despite the rough welcome to the major leagues, he finished the season with four straight scoreless outings, striking out six batters in 3 2/3 innings to close the season on a high note. Look for Mayza to fight for a spot as a lefty out of the bullpen next year but he could very well start in Buffalo.
An 18th-round pick by the Blue Jays in 2012, lefty Alonzo Gonzalez split the 2017 season between Dunedin and New Hampshire. Gonzalez, 25, Started the year in New Hampshire, a level that he held his own at in 2016 for seven outings. This year, however, the numbers did not work in his favour as he had a 7.49 ERA and 1.87 WHIP after 25 appearances spanning 33 2/3 innings. Most troubling was that, while Gonzalez’s strikeout rate was down from 2016 (to 15.2%), his walk rate was still high, at 14.0% and his ground ball rate plummeted to 31.5%. After being sent to Dunedin, Gonzalez turned things around with a 3.28 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 24 2/3 innings but his strikeout rate still stayed at 15.2% while he got his walks under control (8.6%) and brought his ground ball rate back in line with his career numbers at 40.3%. Gonzalez will probably be given another chance at New Hampshire in the hopes that he can keep runners off base and the ball on the ground a little more in 2018.
23-year-old lefty Danny Young came to the Jays after being drafted in the eighth round of the 2015 draft from the University of Florida. The Florida native has been rising steadily through the ranks since then and began the 2017 season with the Dunedin Blue Jays. There, he put together an outstanding first half of the season wtih a 2.08 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 21.8% strikeout rate and 7.3% walk rate. The sidewinding lefty then moved up to New Hampshire where he continued to pitch well, with a 3.86 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 16.0% strikeout rate, 9.7% walk rate and 55.3% groundball rate. Young will finish his 2017 season with a trip to Arizona to compete in the Arizona Fall League and will likely start in Double-A next year.
The Blue Jays signed right Kender Villegas this offseason after he was released by the Brewers. Villegas, 24, started the season with Dunedin and turned out to be a swing-man between Advanced-A and Double-A. In Dunedin, Villegas threw 19 2/3 innings with a 3.20 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP, striking out 22.9% and walking 14.5% and with the Fisher Cats, he threw 40 innings with a 4.73 ERA and 1.63 WHIP, striking out only 14.1% and walking 13.0%. While he had a much better ground ball rate in New Hampshire (49.6%, compared to 36.5% in Dunedin), his overall results were not as good. Villegas could very well be a free agent unless the Jays have an option to pick up and it’s unclear whether he will return.
At the age of 26, righty Carlos Ramirez finally matured into his second career in baseball. As we all know by now, Ramirez started out as a right fielder who couldn’t hit much (despite raw power) before he transitioned into pitching in 2014. After three seasons seeing gradual improvement, Ramirez exploded in 2017, giving up just two runs (both unearned) in 23 2/3 innings for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats and was practically unhittable, allowing only 10 hits and walking 7.8% with a 32.2% strikeout rate. He continued to prove to be unhittable in Triple-A Buffalo, tossing another 14 innings without giving up a run and only allowing six hits and walks to just 6.0% of the batters he faced while keeping his strikeout rate up at 32.0%. Finally, (perhaps after reading my article back at the beginning of August) the Blue Jays called up Ramirez and he didn’t disappoint, getting into 12 games and giving up five runs (four of them in one game in which he allowed two home runs) in 16 2/3 innings, with a 2.70 ERA but a miniscule 0.54 WHIP thanks to just six hits allowed and three walks with 14 strikeouts. If the Blue Jays decide to rely on their home-grown talent in the bullpen in 2018, Ramirez could play a big role, along with Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes and Tim Mayza. Since he has plenty of options, Ramirez could easily end up in Buffalo although if he continues to be as difficult to hit as he was this year, he may force his way onto the big league roster.
Righty Blake McFarland has had a rough time over the past couple of years. The 29-year-old Californian, who was a minor league free agent signing in 2011 out of San Jose State has had injuries hold him back for the past couple of years. This year, he managed to get his season underway in April but only stayed healthy for about two weeks before landing on the DL for the rest of the season. McFarland threw 6 1/3 innings in five outings, allowing a run on four hits and two walks with seven strikeouts before being shut down. McFarland, who was placed on the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster in November of 2015 but was released after his injury was occupying a 40-man roster spot, re-signed a minor league deal in 2016 and had his option picked up for 2017. It’s unclear what his contract status is for 2018 but it’s likely that he’ll become a free agent.
The Blue Jays selected righty Glenn Sparkman from the Kansas City Royals in the Rule 5 draft but a broken bone in his foot in spring training landed him on the DL. His first outing on the way to the majors was with Dunedin where he tossed 3 1/3 innings, allowing three unearned runs on three hits and a walk with three strikeouts. He tossed 8 2/3 innings in New Hampshire, giving up three runs on six hits (including two home runs) and three walks with six strikeouts before moving up to Buffalo. There, he made four appearances covering eight innings where he allowed three runs (two earned) on seven hits and a walk with three strikeouts before being recalled to Toronto. After two allowing two hits and a walk in 2/3 of an inning to the Boston Red Sox in the 11th inning on June 30, he came into another game against Boston on July 2, giving up seven runs on seven hits with one strikeout in 1/3 of an inning and was promptly returned to the Royals who assigned him to Double-A Northwest Arkansas where he made three appearances before returning to the DL.
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