Blue Jays minor league field coordinator Doug Davis traverses the treacherous terrain of the Virginia mountainside en route to Saturday’s Appalachian League contest between the Bluefield Blue Jays and the Princeton Rays. It’s a journey fraught with lousy cell phone reception, a reality that assumes heightened levels of annoyance when there’s an overzealous Jays fan — unconvincingly posing as a journalist — on the phone.
Then again, any man who endures 790 career minor-league games for 14 plate appearances in the majors is, presumably, far more adept at handling adversity than the average person. And so, when I propose a fairly comprehensive prospect round-up, Davis is more than happy to oblige.
Jonah Birenbaum: Marcus Stroman was obviously very polished coming out of Duke, and he’s been dominant in Double-A this year, with a 3.22 ERA with 103 Ks in just over 89 innings. But scouts are sort of torn on him, with his build and the lack of downward plane that he generates with his fastball, is home run susceptibility going to prevent him from making it as a starter in the big leagues?
Doug Davis: I think that’s a question everybody has. I think if you just ask a number of people, half of them are going to say he can start and half of them will say he can’t. And I don’t know whether we’re going to find out until we actually give him the opportunity. I feel like he can start. I think he’s got enough pitches. I think he’ll learn how to pitch with his fastball, even though his stature — you know, he’s not a tall guy — and he doesn’t create a lot of plane. I think there’s other ways to get around that and I think he’ll learn how to do it. He’s a very smart kid, and the pitches themselves — you know, he’s got the potential to have, really, all plus pitches — and because of that, with velocity, I still think he’s going to be able to start and utilize four different pitches. That’s kind of where I’m at. You know, he’s done great in Double-A; I think everybody’s seen the positives, and I think the negatives have surfaced, too, a little bit, but again, the guy hasn’t been pitching very long professionally, and I think we’ve got to give him time, got to give him the opportunity to gain more experience against better hitters. Again, I think because of his makeup and his intelligence, he’s going to learn how to make adjustments and become a better pitcher.
JB: With respect to [Stroman’s] physical build, we don’t really see starters his size in the big leagues that are capable of handling 200 innings a year, year after year anymore. What’s different about him — and obviously you championed his intelligence — but what else about him is going to make him able to handle a starter’s workload in the major leagues?
DD: What that workload builds up to? I don’t know. I think he’s a strong kid. I think as long as he maintains strength in his lower half, I think a lot of that has to do with durability factor and being able to pitch a lot of innings. I don’t want to point to his height as a restraint. I don’t think that’s fair. Again, I think until we give him the opportunity to build himself up to that 180-200 innings plateau and see what happens, I don’t think we’ll ever know. But I think he’s headed in the right direction — again, this year’s been a great year for him — and I’m still on board. You’re right, you don’t see a ton of small starting pitchers and if you do they’re usually left-handed and they don’t throw very hard, but Marcus isn’t that way, and again, I think it’s a good, young, fresh arm and I still hold out high hopes for him.
JB: And another starter that we’re sort of holding out high hopes for — this one of the left-handed variety — is Sean Nolin, who really throughout his entire minor-league career has proven he can be an effective starter. This year in Double-A he’s been sensational, and over his career he’s been effective at the high minor league levels, so what does he need to do at this point to jump and make that leap to the next level?
DD: Well number one, he needs the opportunity. He’s close. Command is always one of those things to me that makes or breaks you. (Phone cuts out).
That’s another thing that happens when I’m driving. I’m going through a mountain in southern Virginia right now, so that kinda happens. But with Sean, you know, again, he’s a four-pitch guy — got a slider, got a curveball, a very good feel for his changeup — and that changeup is always an effective pitch, and I think it’s an effective pitch all the way to the big leagues, so again, command for me is a big thing for him because he’s not overpowering. He’s going to have to be very good with the command of his fastball and, you know, I think as he gets older he’s going to learn to move the ball around a little bit, probably improve, maybe, the movement on his fastball a little, and as long as his breaking pitches stay sharp, I see him as another guy that can be, you know, certainly a guy that should be in the rotation and can endure that 180-200 innings yearly load that they’re going to put on him.
JB: And another lefty, Daniel Norris, his numbers have definitely improved this year in his first season in Lo-A, but the control profile doesn’t still look very promising — he continues to walk five hitter per nine innings. Has the organization changed their expectations with respect to Norris and his future role? Is he still seen as a starter?
DD: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. You know, when you get those young kids out of high school, I think — and we all do it, sometimes unfairly — we all try to project these guys and don’t necessarily give them the time that is needed, and for each individual guy, you know, it’s different. Daniel, I think, has made leaps and bounds this year from a standpoint of where he’s been the last couple of years. There’s no comparison from the way he’s throwing the baseball now to the way he was, from a command standpoint. Every outing he goes out there now he’s going to work deep into the game and the only reason he doesn’t is because he’s on a pitch count. So his command has dramatically improved, and I think if it continues to improve like it has this year, you’re going to see that walk per inning continue to go down and the strikeouts continue to incline. It’s just been a great year for him. It really has. I’m very proud of the way he’s worked and what he’s done and what he’s accomplished, and, you know, I think he’s one of the success stories in the organization this year.
JB: Is [Norris] going to start next year in Dunedin?
DD: Ooh, good question. I don’t know. I certainly wouldn’t say yes at this point in time. I would not hesitate at all to send him back to Lansing and let him just pick up right where he left off and then, you know, have a plan to get him to Dunedin at some point during the middle of the season. But that’s just me and I haven’t spoken with [roving pitching instructor] Dane [Johnson] or [assistant GM] Tony [LaCava] or anybody about that yet. There’s no rush whatsoever.
JB: And another young guy — this one just went under the knife a few weeks ago with Tommy John surgery — is Roberto Osuna. Where does he go when he’s healthy and how far away is he, realistically, from the big leagues?
DD: Well I think, you know, now he’s a year away from getting back on the mound and kind of picking up where he left off. I mean, I think you saw early in the year up there in Lansing that he was very good, and we knew he would be. Roberto, as young as he is, he’s just got a tremendous feel for pitching and he probably has had a lot more experience than most young pitchers just because of where he’s come from. But he’s a confident kid, he knows what he’s capable of, he knows how good his stuff is. How far away is he? Well certainly two years, you know now based on the injury, but as long as he bounces back and he gets back to where he was and he can stay healthy from that point on, certainly I don’t think it’d be more than two or three years from that point.
JB: What do you imagine his major-league ceiling is, provided obviously he can regain all the strength following Tommy John surgery?
DD: Well I would certainly like to think he’d be a number-three starter at least. I’m probably a little light there. Again, for a guy that’s that young and now has had this surgery, I think that that’s a fair assessment. You know, before — if nothing had happened — I probably would’ve given him a little bit better grade.
JB: Switching gears a little bit to some of the position players, A.J. Jimenez’s profile is essentially the complete opposite of J.P. Arencibia. Jimenez is defence-first, impressive arm, minimal power, and good contact skills, and, I mean, J.P. is a guy who has, frankly, struggled to be above replacement-level this year. Now even though most scouts would probably agree that Jimenez profiles as a backup, is there a chance that this guy can start everyday in the big leagues?
DD: I would certainly hope so. I’ve always felt that way. A.J. has really been high on my list ever since I laid eyes on him. I thought he was going to become a very good, everyday, major-league catcher. His defensive skills have been outstanding at each level, each year. And now I guess the only question for me would be durability, and I think that is for all catchers. I think that that was the case with [Travis] d’Arnaud. The one thing with J.P. Arencibia, that really wasn’t the case. I think we all felt like J.P. was an extremely durable guy and could go out and catch 135, 140 games a year, and he has. But I think if you look at J.P. too from a standpoint of when he was in Triple-A, I don’t think he would’ve had the same reviews as we have now based on, you know, a couple of years in the big leagues and how he has struggled at the plate. I certainly did not think he would struggle as much as he has. From a standpoint of A.J., A.J. has continued to improve offensively each year: the swing gets better, it gets shorter. He’s certainly not a power guy; he is a contact guy, he’s able to use the whole field. And, you know, because of that, you get kids like that to the big leagues, you let them catch — especially when they’re capable of catching and throwing and handling a pitching staff — they learn to hit. They learn to figure out how to hit and sometimes hit for more power than you would’ve given them credit. I think that’s kind of what A.J.’s track is making.
JB: Obviously comparisons are always tough, but is there a guy in the big leagues that reminds you of A.J. Jimenez, or rather A.J. Jimenez reminds you of this [major-league catcher]?
DD: I’m going real high, but Yadier Molina for me.
JB: WOW! Yadi!
DD: He’s very similar. I don’t think I can go any higher, can I?
JB: [Laughs]. I don’t think so. If he hadn’t gotten hurt he was probably going to win the NL MVP, and he still might, so no, that’s a pretty lofty comparison.
DD: I think it’s a lofty comparison but I think they’re both in the same place. I think at the age they were at — I mean Yadi was probably in the big leagues at that age — but I don’t think anybody thought he was going to be a tremendous hitter, either, at that age. They just knew how well he could catch and how well he could throw. He’s learned to be a pretty complete package and I’m hoping the same thing for A.J.
JB: One of the few guys in the minor leagues to possess a true 80-grade tool, in his legs, is D.J. Davis, but nothing else about him in terms of his offensive profile really jumps out at you. What role do you see this guy playing at maturity?
DD: Well I think from a standpoint of D.J., I think it’s all background. I mean, D.J. came from a very small school, you know, and really was behind, I think, from a baseball standpoint right from the get-go. And you’re right, the speed absolutely stands out and I think it will always stand out. I think he will learn how to steal bases more than he has at this point in time and from an offensive standpoint, he has got tremendous bat speed and he’s going to hit home runs just because of that. But again, it’s going to take a considerable amount of time just because he’s sort of starting from scratch in all areas and he’s going through the learning curve right now and he’s been good. He’s been good here in Bluefield and I always look forward to coming and seeing him play because every time I do see him play there’s just something that is just a little bit better than when I last saw him. So, you know, he’s a long way away but from a standpoint of being able to play centre field, which he’s going to be able to do, hit for some power, which he’ll be able to do, and steal bases, I think it’s a pretty good package.
JB: I guess my final question for you, Doug, is who excites you the most from this year’s draft?
DD: From this year’s draft, I guess I gotta go with Clinton Hollon at this point in time just because Clint reminds me a lot, makeup-wise, of Stroman, and even though he’s a bigger, stronger guy, he seems like a very intelligent kid — well-mannered, well-spoken — but when he’s out there on the mound, he’s athletic and he knows what he’s doing and what he wants to do and is capable of for somebody at a very young age. So he’s one that I think we’re all really excited about.
JB: And on the position player side of things, if I had to force one out of you, who do you like the most?
DD: Oh boy. Well we didn’t take any position players in the top 10 rounds! Uh, let’s see. [Pauses, ruminates]. Let’s go with Rowdy Tellez, first baseman — high school first baseman, late-round pick — but you know, we gave him some money and he is, for me, what a high school first baseman should look like, I’ll say that. He’s got power potential; he’s a big, strong guy; good actions around first base; left-handed — which I love from a first-base standpoint — and he throws well; feet work good. If the bat profiles the way we certainly hope and think it can, I think Rowdy is going to be a very good first baseman for this organization.
Godspeed, Mr. Davis. Godspeed.