Early last week, the Toronto Blue Jays announced that Brett Cecil, a left-handed pitcher who has started 65 major league games over the past three seasons, had been sent down to Double-A New Hampshire to begin the season.
The news drew a strong reaction on Twitter from former Blue Jays pitcher Dirk Hayhurst, who questioned the decision to send Cecil to New Hampshire instead of Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas. One of the reasons he was given, and that he quickly shot down, is that Vegas is known as a “launching pad”, a bad place for a pitcher looking to rebuild confidence. (It was eventually learned that Cecil asked to go to New Hampshire.)
This is a common sentiment that I’ve seen over the past couple years, that Toronto doesn’t want to send pitching prospects out west for fear of ruining them. Hell, I’ve expressed it myself. It seems so obvious, right? The western portion of the Pacific Coast League is terrible for pitchers. Why would the Blue Jays willingly subject their young, impressionable talent to such a vicious meat-grinder of a ballpark?
Hayhurst’s rant got me thinking, however. What if the impression that the Blue Jays avoid Vegas is wrong?
After letting it sit for a few days, I came up with a way to think about, if not fully answer, the question. Toronto’s affiliation with Vegas began in 2009. So I pulled out my old Prospect Handbooks, made a list of all the pitchers who appeared on the Top 30 for each of the past four years, and looked at where they spent their time.
I was able to immediately set aside 15 out of the 32 pitchers that originally comprised the list, as many players simply haven’t been in the organization long enough to move beyond Double-A. I’ll talk about some of them more in a little bit, but for now, they are irrelevant.
That initial cut leaves 17 pitchers who were regarded as prospects. Twelve of them pitched in Triple-A for the Blue Jays, including Cecil, Brad Mills, Ricky Romero, Marc Rzepczynski, Robert Ray, Luis Perez, Scott Richmond, Danny Farquhar, Zach Stewart, Josh Roenicke, Rey Gonzalez, and Kyle Drabek.
*Farina missed most of 2011 with an elbow injury after pitching extremely well in Double-A. Magnuson and Collins were both traded while in Double-A and ended up advancing and reaching the major leagues with other organizations.
There are, of course, some gray areas. Stewart, for instance, pitched in Vegas after being acquired from Cincinnati in 2009. He pitched exclusively in relief in order to limit his innings while making the transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation. In 2010, Stewart was sent to Double-A New Hampshire, where he had a 3.63 ERA in 26 starts.
Given that solid performance, it might have made sense for Stewart to move up to Triple-A, and I can see why people would look at his repeat assignment to New Hampshire in 2011 as a sign that the Blue Jays weren’t keen on sending him to Vegas. Something that gives me pause in agreeing with that, however, is the consideration of Stewart’s development as a pitcher.
I spoke with Stewart last May, and one of the things we talked about was the development of his changeup as a reliable third pitch. It was something he had worked on extensively and was only just beginning to feel fully comfortable with. As a reliever, he said, he didn’t need the pitch; he could just go out there with his fastball and slider and get guys out. As a start, however, he needed a third option. And the truth is, before last season, he didn’t feel that option was ready.
Now, the logical counterpoint to this is that Stewart then skipped over Triple-A and made his major league debut less than a month later, on June 16. I don’t have a legitimate reason for that, so maybe it’s a notch in the, “AAAAH, VEGAS IS SCARY!” column.
A counterpoint to THAT, however, is Kyle Drabek. Drabek was acquired from the Phillies in the offseason between the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Once thought to be the key player in that deal (the momentum swung in Travis d’Arnaud’s favor last season when he won the Eastern League MVP award while Drabek struggled), Drabek pitched the full season at New Hampshire in 2010, finishing 14-9 with a 2.94 ERA and a 132/68 SO/BB ratio in 162 innings. He was called up to Toronto after the minor league season finished, debuting on September 15 and starting in three games.
Like Stewart, it’s easy to look at Drabek’s situation in 2010 and think that Toronto kept him there all season because they were afraid of subjecting him to Triple-A. I thought so at the time, to a degree. A more sensible approach, however, is to understand that New Hampshire was headed to the Eastern League playoffs, while Vegas was on its way to a last place finish in the PCL’s South Division. It’s a perfectly reasonable decision on their part: keep your top pitching prospect where he’s been all season and let him take a shot at leading a team to a title, or promote him for the sake of promoting him?
I recently read Jeff Pearlman’s “The Rocket That Fell To Earth”, about Roger Clemens, and was interested to see that the Red Sox made a similar decision with Clemens in 1983. After making his professional debut with Winter Haven, he was promoted to Double-A New Britain. He pitched well and was supposed to move up again, to Triple-A Pawtucket, before the end of the season, but the decision was made to keep him at the lower level because playing for the lower level team gave him a chance to take part in a winning team. New Britain eventually won the Eastern League title behind some typical Clemens dominance; Pawtucket finished 27 games under .500.
If Toronto was really afraid of Vegas and its effects on young pitchers, their next move doesn’t make much sense: after keeping Drabek in the majors to start the 2011 season, watching him struggle, and letting him try to work his way through it, they sent him back to the minor leagues…to Triple-A (ironically, it was Stewart who was called up to replace him).
Again, you can rationalize it either way, but I think the handling of that situation is evidence that they don’t let the conditions in Vegas interfere with their handling of prospects.
The last guy I think deserves some mention in this area is Henderson Alvarez. Alvarez moved slowly but steadily in his first four years in the organization: one year in Foreign Rookie ball, one year in a stateside Rookie league, one year in Low-A, one year in High-A. He started 2011 back in High-A, was promoted to Double-A after a couple so-so outings, then really pitched well in New Hampshire, posting an 8-4 record, 2.86 ERA, and 66/17 SO/BB ratio in 88 innings. He was called up to make his major league debut on August 10 and stuck around for awhile, starting ten games over the final seven weeks of the season.
The immediate instinct here is to compare Alvarez’s situation with Stewart’s and Drabek’s. As with Stewart, Alvarez was called up when he was because the Blue Jays needed a starter. Why not pluck someone from Vegas, you ask? Because, according to Dave Gershman at Penn League Report last year, none of the likely candidates there was scheduled to start on the day the Jays needed someone. Dave speculated at the time that Alvarez would debut on Friday, August 12; he actually debuted on Wednesday, August 10. The starter for Vegas on August 10 was Robert Ray, who appeared in seven games for Toronto in 2009 and 2010. I’m not sure what Ray’s status was in terms of remaining options; that is, I’m not sure if they would have been able to send him back down if they had called him up. With Alvarez, they at least had that option, even if they ultimately chose not to use it.
Comparisons to Drabek’s situation come in the form of their relationship to the team. As in 2010, the 2011 New Hampshire Fisher Cats were fighting for a playoff spot. So why did Toronto leave Drabek there for a full season to let him be part of a winning team, only to turn around the following year and trade one key starter and promote another?
Two reasons. The first, as previously noted, is the need factor. Learning to win during one’s time as a minor leaguer is nice. The players are ultimately there to be used by the major league team, though, so when the big league team needs a starting pitcher, everything else takes a backseat.
The second reason is that minor league baseball is constantly in motion. Players come, players go, and one thing the Blue Jays organization has experienced in the past couple years is an influx of pitching talent. It’s okay if the opportunity arises to trade Zach Stewart or if necessity dictates the promotion of Henderson Alvarez because there are guys coming up that need to get on the field and pitch so they can help the major league team one day through a trade or promotion of their own. The Fisher Cats lost two good young pitchers last season in Stewart and Alvarez, but those two were instantly replaced with three more young arms: Chad Jenkins, Deck McGuire, and Drew Hutchison. All three are in the Double-A rotation to start 2012 and could make an impact at the major league level sooner rather than later.
It’s guys like those three, actually, that help bring this full circle. Most of the Blue Jays pitching prospects that have played in Vegas were acquired prior to the leadership change that saw Alex Anthopoulos take over as general manager from J.P. Ricciardi following the 2009 season. Those other 15 or so, the ones I set aside at the beginning of this post? Those are the guys that could be interesting in the next couple years. Assuming Toronto’s affiliation with Vegas continues (and I’m a strong believer that it will not; I see no way they don’t make a very strong push for Buffalo when the PDC with Vegas runs out after this season, with Rochester a solid Plan B), we’re going to start seeing these heralded youngsters climbing the ladder and landing in Triple-A. Jenkins, McGuire, and Hutchison are only the beginning; Asher Wojciechowski, Aaron Sanchez, Justin Nicolino, and Noah Syndergaard are still a few years away, but they are certainly on their way, and Daniel Norris, Kevin Comer, and Adonys Cardona will follow shortly behind them. If the Blue Jays stay with Vegas, those are the pitchers that will help us gain a clearer picture of how the organization views its highest-level affiliate.
For now, though, I think it’s safe to say that the Blue Jays take a lot into consideration when making any move, and whether or not a certain pitcher is ready for the difficult atmosphere that is Vegas is at least a small part of that. But it may just be that – a small part.