You’re probably thinking that Opening Day was Monday, right? That’s when the Blue Jays played their first game. You would be correct but today is another, more rewarding Opening Day for people like me, it’s the day when the minor leagues open their schedules.
Today, four of the Blue Jays’ minor league squads finally get their seasons under way. Three of them are in official games while one plays a very special annual game. I’ll be headed down to Buffalo to take in the pomp and circumstance of the day with my co-author Jared Macdonald. Hopefully I’ll be back in time to hear some of the the other games on the internet radio.
In Buffalo, the Bisons send Marcus Stroman to the mound to take on the Rochester Red Wings. I’m really looking forward to the season and seeing what Stroman can do in Triple-A. We were having this discussion last night at the book launch and Triple-A almost isn’t a developmental level anymore. In some sense, that’s true. For some players, Triple-A serves as a holding area for those who are ready for the majors but don’t have a roster spot available to them. It’s also a final polishing level for players who just need a little bit more preparation but it also serves as a place for veteran players who have spent plenty of time in the majors to continue to play professionally at a very high level.
For Marcus Stroman, his time in Buffalo is going to be served polishing up his impressive skills. He showed last year that he can dominate Double-A hitters and has the stuff to get major league hitters out. All through the season, he gave up a lot of home runs, showing that his tendency to leave pitches up in the strike zone results in a lot more damage than some other, taller pitchers. This tendency came out when he pitched in major league spring training. Big league (and near big league) hitters feasted on his pitches up in the zone. This isn’t to say that Stroman doesn’t have what it takes but he needs to work on repeating his mechanics a particular way to make sure that he finishes his pitches down.
Triple-A is a perfect level for that. Hitters are good enough that they’re not going to be fooled by a “smoke and mirrors” type of pitcher. In Triple-A, either you’ve got stuff or you have control and the ability to mix speeds and locations. You can’t get survive without a bit of both. Stroman has the stuff to get major league hitters out but he needs to be able to locate his pitches and the quality of opposition in Triple-A will make him pay if he doesn’t. We’ll start to see today if he’s learned his lesson.
In addition to Marcus Stroman (and several other talented pitchers), the Bisons have a veteran team full of those minor league free agents that I’ve talked about. Only in the outfield do they have some younger players like Anthony Gose and Kevin Pillar but both of them already have major league experience. They’re both trying to compete for jobs next year, especially Gose. The Blue Jays will have to decide whether they’re willing to hand over center field at the major league level to Gose or to extend Colby Rasmus. It’s a big year for the 23-year-old center fielder.
Double-A, on the other hand, is a level where the men and the boys are separated. Considered the level where most top prospects are, it’s not unusual for players to come to the major leagues directly from Double-A. The players that do are supremely talented and have enough talent (and the skill and finesse) to make things happen at the major league level. Many people say that the jump from High-A to Double-A is the toughest one of all (except jumping to the majors). Some players make it look easy while others struggle after getting the call.
Today’s starter for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Aaron Sanchez, is expected to have no troubles moving up to the Double-A level, mainly because he’s a different type of pitcher than Stroman. Sanchez, standing at 6-foot-4, doesn’t have a tendency to get hit hard. In fact, Sanchez hasn’t been hit much at any level over the past two seasons. In Lansing in 2012, he gave up just 64 hits in 90 1/3 innings. In Dunedin in 2013, he gave up 63 hits in 86 1/3 innings and added just 11 hits in 23 1/3 innings in the Arizona Fall League and 10 hits in 15 1/3 innings in major league spring training. After seeing him pitch, it’s easy to see that batters have a very hard time squaring up the baseball against Sanchez.
Sanchez’s biggest enemy is himself and his control. This is why I believe that Sanchez will make quick work of Double-A. He’s already showing more command and control this spring than he ever has and held up well throwing two innings in an electric, major league atmosphere in Montreal just before the big league season started. The poise that he displayed on the mound in Montreal is an extraordinary sign that he’s ready to move up and, combined with his stuff that has some of the best movement in the game, will likely destroy Double-A as long as he can throw enough strikes.
Much of the rest of the Double-A Fisher Cats are returnees to the team who are seeing a log jam ahead of them in the Jays’ system. Except for second baseman Jon Berti and outfielder Michael Crouse, all of the projected starters on offense are repeating Double-A.
Moving down a rung, the Dunedin Blue Jays start their season with lefty Matt Boyd on the mound. I’m excited to see what Boyd can do in 2014. I’ve been high on him ever since I saw the big lefty throw in Lansing last year (just before a late-season call up to Dunedin). While I didn’t see Boyd pitch in spring training, reports are good and I can verify that he’s put on a lot of muscle in the offseason. Without seeing him throw, it’s hard to tell how it is affecting him on the mound but the difference is certainly very readily apparent just by looking at him.
Because Boyd was a four-year college pitcher, he’s likely to move quickly if he’s successful in Dunedin. He pitched at a major program at Oregon State and came to professional baseball as a very polished product. He threw a ton of innings in college last year and he’s looking to continue his ascent in his first full professional season.
Joining Boyd is an exciting group of young players that includes Canadian Dalton Pompey, Dwight Smith, Jr., Emilio Guerrero and Christian Lopes: all four are moving up from Lansing last year. Behind the plate is expected to be last year’s breakout catcher, Derrick Chung.
Finally, the Lansing Lugnuts don’t officially open their season today but they do play a very special game, the Cross-town Showdown (CTSD). The CTSD has a long history in Lansing and features the Lugnuts playing the Michigan State University baseball team at Cooley Law School Stadium. This match always features the biggest crowds of the year, with many people standing and watching from the grassy berm areas.
The Blue Jays have tended to send younger prospects to pitch in this game, usually pitchers who will be expected to join the Lugnuts the following year. Last year’s game featured current 2014 Lugnuts Chase De Jong, Alberto Tirado and Adonys Cardona. This year, we know that Jesus Tinoco is probably going to pitch and, keeping with tradition, it wouldn’t surprise me if Miguel Castro is in Lansing getting ready for today’s game. Lugnuts radio broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler had mentioned that Ladner, B.C. native Tom Robson was scheduled to start the game today but he’s been under the weather and may not go today. I’m definitely looking forward to tuning in and hearing what the ‘Nuts can do! Just head to the Lugnuts’ website and you can hear the action for yourself at 7pm!
Who are these players? Find out in The 2014 Toronto Blue Jays Minor League Handbook, now available as an ebook at Smashwords.com for $7.99 US. It’s coming soon to Amazon, Apple iBooks, Kobo and other fine retailers. You can purchase and preview the book at our Smashwords.com page! If you like us here,“like” us on Facebook!