I was in Dunedin, Florida for the June 25 match-up between Dunedin (Blue Jays) and Charlotte (Rays).
As I was leaving for the ballpark, my phone started going nuts. People were texting to tell me the news of Michael Jackson’s death. As I pulled up to the ballpark, ‘Thriller’ was blaring from aging speakers. The seventh inning stretch was three minutes of a seven-foot grinning Blue Jay dancing to ‘Beat It’ on top of the dugout, Jackson leg kicks and all. Somehow I don’t think that’s quite the memorial the King of Pop had in mind, but for its surreal tackiness, it’s something I’ll never forget.
Onto the game. The Dunedin roster is pretty darn stacked. Justin Jackson (#4 on Baseball America‘s preseason Jays list) and Kevin Ahrens (#6) were on display, in addition to several lesser-known-yet-interesting guys. Charlotte, on the other hand, is an awfully dry roster.
Justin Jackson, SS, TOR
Background: Jackson was the 45th overall pick out of high school in 2007. He hit .238/.340/.368 in the MWL last year.
What I saw: Defensively, Jackson is a picture of composure and fluidity. He’s got some of the smoothest actions and softest hands you’ll find. Graceful is the word to describe it; he seems to just glide into the play with ease, never a touch out of balance. There wasn’t a play where he had to show me much arm, but in warmups and routine plays, it seems at least adequate for shortstop.
Jackson has a squat stance and a short, well-leveraged stroke. He took aggressive cuts twice on high fastballs (both of which he fouled back), and showed impressive bat speed without coming out of his shoes. He’ll have decent power as is, but he’s got a fair amount of filling out left.
Jackson looked over matched at times. Anything offspeed gave him fits, and he never found the barrel even on ‘mistake’ fastballs. (He missed one or two center-cut 88 mph fastballs in hitter’s counts, and froze on an inner-half 89 mph fastball for a called strike three.) In other words, he lacks exceptional hand-eye coordination when it comes to the bat (which sounds weird to say, since he’s the epitome of coordination on the field).
Pitch recognition was part of that too. It wasn’t that he was hacking out of the zone so much, but you could see his body and hands sort of ‘guessing’ on every pitch (fastball or offspeed), which left him in a poor position much of the time. He has a strong walk rate, but I couldn’t help but think that it’s at least partially the product of a low contact rate…as in, when you’re swinging and missing so much, and not chasing pitches out of the zone, you’re going to find yourself awfully deep in counts quite often.
Outlook: For now, a good comp might be a former Blue Jay shortstop, Alex S. Gonzalez: poor batting average skills, but enough pop to remain interesting at the plate (though the plus D gives him a leg up). However, Jackson is just 20, and has the tools to up that projection considerably. The tricky part is, he has the quick hands and short stroke to hit for average. It’s just a question of how far he can get with offspeed pitches and finding the barrel with consistency.
Kevin Ahrens, 3B, TOR
Background: Taken 16th overall in the ’07 draft out of a Texas high school, Ahrens hit .259/.329/.367 at Lansing last year as a 19-year-old.
What I saw: Ahrens struck me as awfully vanilla, even though he went 3-for-3 and drew a walk. I only saw him swinging righty; he’s a switch hitter.
I like his body; he’s got a strong lower half, and he looks strong all around. But that strength isn’t coupled with much quickness, and his stroke (at least as a right-handed batter) doesn’t generate much loft.
Other than showing a gun for an arm, I saw no great tool or great potential here. No great athleticism, no quick wrists, not much power potential. He sprayed medium-hard ground balls through the infield all day and never looked overmatched at the plate. But I was kind of left saying ‘wheres the beef’?
Outlook:I don’t see much here. Then again, he’s 20 in High-A, and you don’t get taken 16th overall for charity. But he doesn’t have a very high ceiling.
Eric Thames, OF, TOR
Background: Drafted in the seventh round out of Pepperdine in ’08, ’09 is Thames’ pro debut. By starting him in High-A, the Jays obviously think highly of him. He’s more than holding his own thus far, making that decision seem wise.
What I saw: Thames has a squat, muscular, and athletic body, which was what first caught my eye. His left-handed swing is beautiful and smooth, and he showed the ability to use all fields with good authority, even versus a left-handed pitcher. He has above-average bat speed. The swing might be a tad long.
He mashed a 380′ lineout to center field on a left-handed slider. Seemed like an above-average runner underway, though he doesn’t appear to have great first-step quickness.
Outlook: Thames doesn’t have a ton of projection left, but he can flat-out hit. He may not have enough power to man a corner, and based on the fact that he was DHing on this day, I’d imagine he’s not a plus defensive outfielder (though he is athletic). He’s got some time to figure out how to get the most of his power, as he’s 22. But even if he’s not a guy who can hit 20+ homers a year, he could hit .280 with a strong walk rate and a lot of doubles.
• I saw a a guy with 165 IP in the majors, and he wasn’t here on rehab. That doesn’t happen so much in the FSL. But he’s not a pitcher anymore; he’s an outfielder. His name is Adam Loewen, and he can’t hit. But he can scream “F*&k!” really loud after most of his at-bats, and he appears to know this.
• Ryan Royster gets mentioned here because he blows my mind, but not in the way you’d usually like while prospecting. In 2007, Royster hit .329 with 30 home runs as a 20-year-old in the Sally league, and I haven’t got the slightest clue how. I wouldn’t believe if he hit .229. He’s a big, slow, lumbering guy with a big, slow, lumbering swing. And swing he does; he didn’t take a pitch until his third at-bat. Whether it was two feet outside or 12 inches high, a curve in the dirt or a fastball at the eyes, Royster will swing, and he will usually miss by six inches. I don’t know how somebody who was so good so recently could be this bad.
• John Tolisano, a Jays second baseman, can hit a bit. But only from the left side, I think. From the right side, he just pokes at the ball with a short stroke and no outside plate coverage. Instead of the normal B/T R-R who starts hitting lefty, it wouldn’t surprise me if Tolisano is a natural B/T L-R who picked up hitting righty to see if it works out. It’s a good swing from the left side, but he had trouble picking up breaking balls from either side. I’d keep him on my radar though.
• Reid Fronk, an outfielder, was the most exciting player on the Rays’ roster in my eyes. He’s got plus pitch recognition and a swing that generates a lot of leverage. He’s got some wheels, too; probably wouldn’t blow you away with his 60-yard dash time, but he’s agile and quick. He loses points for sporting a ninth-grader’s mustache, but I see him as a Darren Bragg with slightly better pop.
• Moises Sierra, the Jays right fielder, showed a cannon for an arm. At the plate, his swing is a bit clumsy, but he’s very strong.
• Rays starter Darin Downs had one of the more interesting lines you’ll find; 5.2 IP, 10 hits, 6 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 10 K, 1 HR. Wow. He’s having a nice year, but is way too old for the FSL. Nice big-breaking curve, though, which sat around 73.