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Rocco Baldelli Extols Charlie Montoyo’s Leadership Skills (And Nelson Cruz’s, Too)

Rocco Baldelli knows Charlie Montoyo well. Not only did they spend the last four seasons together on Tampa Bay’s coaching staff, but Baldelli once played for the 53-year-old Montoyo in the minors. Minnesota’s new manager counts Toronto’s new manager as both a mentor and a friend.

Not surprisingly, Baldelli was effusive in his praise when I asked him about Montoyo. Citing his experience and leadership skills, he opined that the Blue Jays are getting “a tremendous manager and a great person.” Fittingly, Montoyo was hired on October 25, the same day his 37-year-old protege was tabbed by the Twins.

Baldelli wasn’t caught by surprise when he heard the news from north of the border. He knew that Montoyo had interviewed with the Cincinnati Reds, and that he would soon be doing the same with Toronto. The second of those sit-downs obviously went well. Mere days after meeting with him, the Blue Jays announced Montoyo’s hiring.

All told, five candidates went through the interview process in Toronto. Baldelli didn’t want to go on the record as to whether he was one of them, but he did allow that his post-season vacation plans were put on hold for a period of weeks. Multiple teams met with him about their openings. That was to be expected. The “future-manager” tag was assigned to him by myriad members of the media over the course of the 2018 season. Read the rest of this entry »


Dustin Fowler on His Biggest Adjustment

Dustin Fowler may need to make an adjustment. The 24-year-old outfielder is coming off a rookie campaign that saw him slash an anemic .224/.256/.354, with six home runs, in 203 plate appearances. The Triple-A portion of his season was encouraging — a .310 BA and an .817 OPS — but his performance against big league pitching fell short of expectations. He went into the year ranked as Oakland’s No. 4 prospect.

He’d already made a notable adjustment. Prior to being acquired by the A’s in the 2017 trade deadline deal that sent Sonny Gray to the Yankees, Fowler had lowered his hands at the urging of then hitting coach, P.J. Pilittere. The reason was twofold: the team that drafted Fowler out of a Dexter, Georgia high school felt it would help him tap into his power. Every bit as importantly, his left-handed stroke wasn’t consistently catching up to high-octane heat.

Fowler talked about the 2016 adjustment midway through last season.

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Dustin Fowler: “I hadn’t had much coaching growing up, so I was very raw. I’d just had small-town coaching — not the big coaching I needed — so going into pro ball was the first time I got some real one-on-ones on how to hit.

“I was very tall in my stance. I was upright, and my hands were over my head. Ever since grabbing a bat, I’d put them up there. My hand-eye coordination was good enough to make it work against pitching that wasn’t as good — slower pitching — but it worked less and less here. There’s a big difference from high school to pro ball. The pitches here harder, and I wasn’t catching up to balls. I was just fouling them off, or making fly-ball outs. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: The Orioles Newest Pitcher Evokes Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Fans of prog rock are well familiar with Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Karn Evil 9.” The song, which is on the seminal 1973 album Brain Salad Surgery, includes the line, “Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends.” Nearly 30 minutes long, Karn Evil 9 has been described, thematically speaking, as a battle between humans and computers.

Which brings us to the first major league free agent signed by the Orioles new-and-geeky front office regime. On Thursday, Mike Elias, Sig Mejdal and Co. welcomed Nate Karns back to The Show, inking him to a reported $800,000, one-year deal.

Karns has been a good pitcher when healthy. He hasn’t been healthy very often. The righty had labrum surgery back in 2010, and more recently he’s had thoracic outlet surgery and elbow issues. He didn’t pitch at all in 2018, and in 2017 he was limited to just 45-and-a-third innings. In the two years preceding the more recent of those, ahem, evil injuries, he showed plenty of promise. Pitching with Tampa Bay and Seattle, he went 13-7 with a 4.25 ERA and a 4.17 FIP.

My colleague Rain Watt will have more on Karns’s comeback tomorrow, so I’ll keep the rest of this look contained to the 31-year-old’s curveball. It’s his primary secondary, and a pitch he refined while going through a shoulder program after having his labrum repaired. Read the rest of this entry »


Blue Jays Prospect Samad Taylor Looks To Hit His Stride

Samad Taylor is better than what he showed last season with the Lansing Lugnuts. In 530 plate appearances with Toronto’s Midwest League affiliate, the 20-year-old second baseman slashed an anemic .228/.319/.387. Despite those hide-your-eyes numbers, he is, in the words of Blue Jays farm director Gil Kim, “such an exciting player.”

Taylor’s tools are beyond rebuke. Drafted by the Indians out of a Corona, California high school in 2016, he more than held his own in rookie ball as an 18-year-old. He continued to impress in 2017 — this time in the New York-Penn League — and the Blue Jays took notice. Bullish on his potential, Toronto acquired Taylor, along with southpaw Thomas Pannone, at that year’s trade deadline in exchange for Joe Smith.

When I talked to him last August, the youngster admitted to having lost his offensive identity. Rather than staying within himself, he had been trying to turn on balls he should have been taking up the middle and to the opposite field. And not only was he chasing pitches out of the zone, he was failing to square up fastballs in the zone. Worse yet, he “kept doing the same stuff that wasn’t working.” Read the rest of this entry »


Ross Atkins on the Blue Jays’ Process

Ross Atkins was hired as Toronto’s Executive VP of Baseball Operations and General Manager in December 2015, shortly after Mark Shapiro was officially named the team’s President and CEO. Both came to the Blue Jays from Cleveland, where they’d worked together with the Indians for the past 15 years. A formidable pairing atop Toronto’s front office hierarchy, they are — as Atkins is quick to point out — nonetheless just two pieces of a much larger puzzle.

The Blue Jays have undergone organizational change in recent seasons, but the past six months stand out. John Gibbons was formally dismissed as manager in late September, and several members of his coaching staff followed him out the door. The roster has also undergone change. Troy Tulowitzki has departed, as have Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson, Curtis Granderson, Marco Estrada, and JA Happ. Notably, all of these player are 33 years old or older.

Fifty-three-year-old Charlie Montoyo is the biggest incoming name. The bench coach in Tampa Bay last year, Montoyo has replaced Gibbons in the manager’s chair. Four of his coaches are imports from other organizations, while two others were promoted from Toronto’s minor league system. Pete Walker and Luis Rivera are the only holdovers.

As is common within the industry, there have also been hirings, promotions, and the shifting of responsibilities throughout Toronto’s various departments. How do Atkins and Shapiro go about making such moves — not just in the front office, but across the board? Atkins addressed that question in a wide-ranging interview late last week. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Payton Henry Pins His Hopes on Brewers Catching Job

Payton Henry grew up in a wrestling family in a wrestling town. That’s not the sport he settled on. The 21-year-old native of Pleasant Grove, Utah cast his lot with baseball, and went on to be selected in the sixth round of the 2016 draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. He’s seen by many as the NL Central club’s catcher of the future.

His backstory is one of Greco-Roman lineage. Henry’s paternal grandfather, Darold, won 10 state championships as a coach, and is a member of Utah’s Wrestling Hall of Fame. The patriarch coached 65 individual champions, including his son Darrin — Payton’s father — who captured a pair of titles. And while it eventually rolled away, the greenest of the apples tumbled from the same tree.

“I was kind of born to grow up a wrestler,” said Henry. “But then I fell in love with baseball. Once I realized I had a future in it, and started traveling a lot for baseball tournaments, I stopped wrestling. I didn’t have the time for it anymore.”

Being physically strong — weight training has long been part of his workout routine — and well-schooled in the sport’s technical aspects, he probably could have followed in his father’s footsteps. The coaches at Pleasant Grove High School certainly thought so. At the start of each year they would approach him and say,“Are you sure you don’t want to come out and wrestle?” Read the rest of this entry »


Ryne Stanek Rode Spin Efficiency to New Heights

Ryne Stanek was the Tampa Bay Rays’ most-frequently-used opener in 2018. The 27-year-old right-hander made 29 such appearances, throwing two-or-fewer-innings on each occasion. He was also utilized as a conventional reliever. Stanek strolled out of the bullpen 30 such times, usually in the seventh or eighth inning.

He was good in both roles. All told, the former Arkansas Razorback logged a 2.98 ERA while allowing just 45 hits and fanning 81 in 66.1 frames.

Usage aside, he’s a very different pitcher than he once was. Drafted 29th overall by the Rays in 2013, Stanek was originally groomed as a starter. Moreover, his M.O. was to locate his high-octane heater down in the zone. Ground balls were a goal.

His two-seamer became history a few years ago. A dip, followed by a rise, played a role. So did TrackMan readings.

“Coming off hip surgery [in December 2013], my velo was down a lot from what it had been,” explained Stanek. “I don’t know why, it just was. I’d thrown all two-seams in college, and I think my sinker played pretty well, but when I started throwing harder again, they decided a four-seamer would be a better weapon.”

Stanek’s four-seam spin rate was in the 81st percentile (per StatCast) this past season. His average velocity with the pitch was a crisp 98.4 mph, and he’s reportedly been clocked as high as 103. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: New Ranger Taylor Guerrieri is No Longer Between the Railroads

Taylor Guerrieri is a Texas Ranger now, having signed a free-agent contract with the A.L. West club on Tuesday. His MLB experience is scant. Originally in the Tampa Bay organization — the Rays drafted him 24th overall in 2011 — he debuted with the Toronto Blue Jays last September and tossed nine-and-two-thirds innings over nine relief appearances.

Guerrieri features a high-spin-rate curveball, but what he throws most often is a sinker. Per StatCast, the 26-year-old right-hander relied on the pitch 47.1% of the time during his month-long cup of coffee. I asked him about it in the waning weeks of his maiden campaign.

“The main thing with the two-seam is to stay on top of it and drive it downhill,” Guerrieri told me. “That way you get the depth you’re looking for. Horizontal movement isn’t a very good play. Guys can see side to side. They struggle with up and down, so the more depth, the better.”

Natch. The goal for a sinker is to make it sink, and what Guerrieri explained is part of Pitching 101. As for grips… well, those are more nuanced. In Guerrieri’s case, they can also be a bit of a moving target. Read the rest of this entry »


Dodgers Prospect Tony Gonsolin Had a Breakout Season

Tony Gonsolin made a name for himself last year. After meriting a mere mention in last spring’s Los Angeles Dodgers top prospect rundown, the 24-year-old right-hander went on to be named the NL West team’s 2018 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. A role change jumpstarted his breakout.

Primarily a reliever in his four years at St. Mary’s College of California, Gonsolin continued in that role after the Dodgers selected him in the ninth round of the 2016 draft. That changed once the forward-thinking organization got an extended look at what he brings to the table. Intrigued by his velocity, multi-pitch mix, and 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame, they decided to try him as a starter.

The results were a resounding success. Pitching between High-A Rancho Cucamonga and Double-A Tulsa, the St. Mary’s graduate — he earned a business degree before turning pro — Gonsolin logged a 2.60 ERA and allowed just 104 hits, while fanning 155 batters, in 128 innings.

Gonsolin discussed his development, including his transition from reliever to starter, earlier this month. Also weighing in on the promising young pitcher was Brandon Gomes, the Dodgers director of player development.

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Gonsolin on pitching analytics and his fastball: “I feel like every team is moving in that direction — they’re getting into more of the analytical side of baseball. Here, we have things like video with instant feedback where you can throw a pitch in your side work and by the time you get the ball back from the catcher you know how much it spun, and the axis in which it spun. That makes it easier to make pitch-to-pitch adjustments within the training element. Once you’re in-game it becomes, ‘What you have that day is what you have that day.’ You work with that. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Blue Jays Prospect Chavez Young is a Bahamian On the Rise

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Chavez Young came out of nowhere to become one of the hottest prospects in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. But he is following an atypical path. The 21-year-old outfielder grew up in the Bahamas before moving stateside as a teen, and going on to be selected in the 39th round of the 2016 draft out of Faith Baptist Christian Academy, in Ludowici, Georgia.

Since that time he’s become a shooting star. Playing for the Lansing Lugnuts in the Low-A Midwest League this past season, Young stroked 50 extra-base hits, stole 44 bases, and slashed a rock-solid .285/.363/.445.

How did a player with his kind of talent last until the 1,182nd pick of the draft? Read the rest of this entry »