New Hampshire Fisher Cats 2017 Report: Blue Jays from Away Awards

 Gunnar Heidt was the Blue Jays from Away Player of the Game champion for the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats for the 2017 season. Photo Credit: Jay Blue

Gunnar Heidt was the Blue Jays from Away Player of the Game champion for the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats for the 2017 season. Photo Credit: Jay Blue

By Jay Blue

Blue Jays From Away

With a roster full of some of the Jays' top prospects coming into the 2017 season, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats were expected to be a very strong team but they didn't capitalize on their potential.

The Fisher Cats finished their season at 59-80 under manager Gary Allenson, finishing in dead last in the entire Eastern League. With an offence that was 0.8 years younger than average in the league, the club had the 10th best offence (out of 12 teams), scoring 4.06 runs per game when the league average was 4.32 runs per game. The pitching staff ranked a little better, finishing eighth in the league, allowing 4.68 runs per game with a staff that was one year younger than average.

Blue Jays from Away Player of the Game Champion

For those of you who followed the minor league reports here, you’ll know that I “awarded” Player of the Game (PotG) accolades on a game-by-game basis. It should comfort you to know that I’ve been keeping track of these daily awards and my rationale for the system is as follows.

The Player of the Game Awards were determined by a number of factors that included who I thought had the most impact on the game and who might have gone “above and beyond.” Most nights, there was just one Player of the Game. If there was, he earned one point. If I thought that either a) no one stood out enough to merit a single PotG, or b) two or more players were outstanding and deserved mention, I split the point up into two, three or four shares. If two players earned PotG mention, they each received 0.5 points and if three players earned mentions, they each received 0.33 points, etc. There were occasions that I felt that no one merited the award and therefore, I did not give out any points.

Gunnar Heidt 10.67

Tim Lopes 10

Ryan McBroom 9.5

Harold Ramirez 8.83

Richard Urena 7.92

Anthony Alford 7.5

Jonathan Davis 7.3

Reese McGuire 5.83

Francisco Rios, Sean Reid-Foley 5

Shane Dawson 4.5

Jon Harris 4.33

Chris Rowley 4.25

Andrew Guillotte 4

Conner Greene, Lourdes Gurriel, Ryan Borucki 3.5

Danny Jansen 2.75

Raffy Lopez 2.5

Emilio Guerrero 2.08

Michael De La Cruz, Matt Dean, Thomas Pannone 2

Derrick Loveless 1.83

Glenn Sparkman, Danny Young 1

Roemon Fields, Andrew Case 0.83

Josh DeGraaf, Justin Shafer, Andres Sotilo 0.5

Mike Reeves 0.33

Congrats to Gunnar Heidt, our 2017 Blue Jays from Away Player of the Game Champion! With the sheer number of highly-touted prospects who started the year on the Fisher Cats, I'm sure it's a big surprise to you too, but Heidt was fairly consistent throughout the year and was a big contributor to the club!

Blue Jays from Away Player of the Year

In narrowing things down for the Player of the Year award, things are a little more difficult. Some of the best players on the club only played partial seasons with Reese McGuire getting into just 34 games, Anthony Alford playing only 68 games and Danny Jansen playing just 52. Of the players who managed to play a full season for the Fisher Cats, it really comes down to two: Jonathan Davis and Tim Lopes. For my money, I'm going with Jonathan Davis whose higher OBP helped to give him an edge in OPS. Congrats to Jonathan Davis, who becomes a two-time Player of the Year after his season last year in Dunedin!

Honourable Mention: Tim Lopes, Anthony Alford

Blue Jays from Away Pitcher of the Year

Deciding on our Pitcher of the Year was also tough. The favourites heading into the season, top prospects like Sean Reid-Foley, Jon Harris and Conner Greene, all had ERAs over 5.00 despite moments of excellence. Therefore, we're going to single out Chris Rowley who made his big league debut in 2017 and posted a 1.73 ERA and 0.81 WHIP over 52 innings.

Honourable Mention: Ryan Borucki, Carlos Ramirez, Andrew Case (Saint John, N.B.), Justin Shafer

Blue Jays from Away Reliever of the Year

There's really just one reliever of the year for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats: Carlos Ramirez. The righty absolutely dominated this year, posting a 0.00 ERA and 0.72 WHIP in 23 2/3 innings, striking out 29 and walking seven in a minor league season bereft of an earned run.

Honourable Mention: Andrew Case (Saint John, N.B.), Justin Shafer

Starting Pitchers

The New Hampshire Fisher Cats came into the season with three highly touted pitching prospects in their starting rotation and with one up and coming starter and another pitcher expected to put up solid numbers in his return to the double-A level. Things didn't exactly turn out as planned, however.

 Sean Reid-Foley. Photo Credit: Jay Blue

Sean Reid-Foley. Photo Credit: Jay Blue

Sean Reid-Foley, who just turned 22 during the season, began his first season in double-A after dominating in A-ball in 2016. After striking out 32.3% of batters in Dunedin last year, and keeping his ERA under three at both Lansing and Dunedin, he finished 2017 with a 5.09 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP, striking out 20.7% of batters and walking 9.0%. His ground ball rate was also the lowest of his professional career, at 40.4%. Despite the troubling trend of his numbers, he did throw 132 2/3 innings, a career high and he made 27 starts, a team high while also leading the team with 122 strikeouts. A key to figuring out what went wrong for Reid-Foley is possibly in his home runs. He allowed 22 home runs, for a high 1.49 HR/9 rate. From the one outing I saw during the regular season as well as one spring training appearance, Reid-Foley was throwing too many pitches in the middle of the plate and struggled to locate his off-speed pitches, resulting in too many hits on his fastball. I'd expect Reid-Foley to repeat New Hampshire next year and hopefully he can return to the form he had in 2016.

Righty Jon Harris, the Jays' first-round pick in 2015, had an up-and-down season with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, his first in double-A. After a strong season, finishing in Dunedin in 2016, the 23-year-old righty posted a 5.41 ERA and 1.51 WHIP over a team-leading 143 innings with the Fisher Cats, striking out 17.7% and walking 7.3%, getting a decent 45.0% ground ball rate. Like Reid-Foley, he also gave up a lot of home runs, allowing 20 on the season for 1.26 HR/9 rate. His season wasn't without its highlights, as he had two strong months in July and August, allowing hitters to have a .667 and .686 OPS against, respectively (after OPSs of .937, .931 and .946 in April, May and June, respectively). That translated to a 3.68 ERA in July but a 5.14 ERA in August despite a stable K/9 rate of 7.7 in those months. The bottom line is that I think he just got lucky, and he walked a few fewer hitters in July than in August. In my opinion, I think Harris probably needs a little bit more refinement in his pitch location and execution. He has the potential to be a solid back-of-the-rotation arm but has to make better pitches. Look for him to also return to double-A in 2018.

Tantalizing Blue Jays (and Fisher Cats) fans with his 100-mph fastball, 22-year-old righty Conner Greene completed his fifth season of professional baseball with the Fisher Cats. In addition to five starts in double-A New Hampshire in 2015, Greene, the Jays' seventh-round pick in 2013, finished the 2016 season there with 12 starts and spent all of 2017 in Manchester, starting 25 of his 26 games. Greene logged 132 2/3 innings with a 5.29 ERA and 1.69 WHIP and, while he got a very strong 52.1% of batted balls on the ground, his strikeout rate fell to 15.1% and his walk rate rose to 13.6%. Struggling with his control, Greene was unable to put together any kind of consistency this year and when he was off, he was really off, giving up 10 runs in four innings on August 13 as well as nine runs (eight earned) in four innings on July 1. If you look at game scores, Greene's best outing came on April 19 when he allowed two runs on four hits and two walks with five strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings. It will be interesting to see where Greene starts in 2018. He's shown that he still has to harness his control but has already had a year and a half's worth of games in double-A.

While he was a rotation stalwart in double-A in 2016 with the Fisher Cats, Drayton, Valley Alta., native Shane Dawson, 24, was a starter until the end of July when he moved over to the bullpen after the Jays' acquired Thomas Pannone and Ryan Borucki was a member of the Fisher Cats. Overall, Dawson regressed with a 6.16 ERA and 1.74 WHIP, striking out only 12.0% of batters and walking 9.3% with a very low ground ball rate of 33.3%. Still, Dawson had mixed results as a reliever compared to his time as a starter, with a 3.24 ERA and 1.68 WHIP as a reliever and a 6.68 ERA and 1.75 WHIP as a starter. Despite some better numbers, Dawson also walked 10 batters in 16 2/3 innings while striking out only nine in the reliever's role. Dawson is likely to be back in New Hampshire in 2018, his seventh in the organization.

Francisco Rios, 22, logged 86 innings with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in 2017, his first attempt at double-A and, early in the season, he was one of the Fisher Cats' most consistent starters. After an April in which Rios allowed just a .635 OPS against, that figure ballooned to .958 in May but dropped back to a tiny .568 in June. Overall, Rios had a 4.29 ERA and 1.50 WHIP, striking out 16.5% of batters and walking 10.2%. He had an excellent ground ball rate at 51.7% and moved into the bullpen to end the season where he didn't seem to agree with the roll, allowing nine runs over nine innings with a 2.00 WHIP (compared to a 3.74 ERA and 1.44 WHIP as a starter. Rios is a prime candidate to start 2018 in New Hampshire.

After trading Joe Smith to the Indians at the July 31 deadline, the Blue Jays got Thomas Pannone and Samad Taylor back. Pannone, 23, was assigned to double-A New Hampshire to continue his trip around the Eastern League after Pannone was pitching for Akron. While his numbers bloated a bit after the trade, Pannone showed some potential with a 3.63 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 20.3% strikeout rate and 5.6% walk rate. Pannone is not a groundball pitcher, getting just a 35.4% GB rate with the Fisher Cats (in 34 2/3 innings), but he did show the ability to ability to get more strikeouts with a 24.5% rate with the RubberDucks in 82 1/3 innings. Pannone finished strongly, giving up just one run in three of his last four starts, including a seven-inning, three-hit, one-run, no-walk, seven-strikeout performance on September 2 to finish the year. I think Pannone may start in double-A but he can move up to Buffalo at some point in the season in 2018.

Relief Pitchers

The New Hampshire Fisher Cats boasted a very solid bullpen that included some players who took some big strides for the club who eventually moved beyond the 'Cats and made their big league debuts in 2017.

Hard-throwing, 24-year-old lefty Jose Fernandez had an up and down year with the Fisher Cats. Starting your season by striking out five batters in two innings is never a bad thing but by the beginning of May, things were unraveling a bit for Fernandez. The Dominican had a .591 OPS against in April but a .923 OPS against in May, settling in for numbers in between the two extremes for the rest of the season. Overall, Fernandez's 5.44 ERA and 1.68 WHIP over 46 1/3 innings are not all that eye-popping but he maintained a solid 22.3% strikeout rate while walking 12.1%, down from his 2016 numbers in class-A Advanced Dunedin. Fernandez still has some work to do with his command as well as his ability to recover after giving up some hits or when the defence lets him down. The Jays will not give up on a 97-mph fastball as he enters his final year in his initial contract. I can see him back in New Hampshire in 2018.

The Blue Jays' 18th-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2014, righty Dusty Isaacs may be 26 already but he's putting together a solid resume in the minor leagues. Starting the year in double-A for the first time, Isaacs fit right in, throwing 61 2/3 innings with the Fisher Cats with a solid 3.79 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. Despite being a fly ball pitcher (54.1% FB rate), Isaacs still had the ability to overmatch hitters, striking out 28.6% while walking 10.5%. There's probably no reason why Isaacs couldn't start in Buffalo next year although whether there's room on the roster will be the deciding factor as to where he begins 2018.

After struggling in Dunedin in 2016, Justin Shafer, 25, blossomed in 2017, getting out of the Florida State League after just nine outings and settling in to become of the of most consistent relievers with the Fisher Cats. Shafer didn't allow a run in 9 1/3 innings in Dunedin, striking out 36.1% of batters and walking just 5.6% before moving up to New Hampshire. Shafer spent much of the rest of the year in Manchester, tossing 58 innings and having a 3.41 ERA and 1.22 WHIP, striking out 19.8% and walking 10.7%. With a heavy fastball, Shafer generated 49.4% of his batted balls on the ground. He did make two appearances in Buffalo, giving up a run in four innings and striking out four. Shafer could very well begin 2018 in Buffalo but, again, could be back in New Hampshire depending on how the bullpen situation for the Bisons shapes up.

Saint John, N.B., native Andrew Case was another pitcher who took a huge step forward in 2017. The 24 year oldstarted his season in Dunedin, sticking it out there until mid-May where he had a 4.42 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, but his 23.3% strikeout rate and 55.1% ground ball rate must have gotten some attention. Moving up to double-A, Case continued to get ground balls, generating a 49.6% GB rate while his strikeout rate fell to 14.4% and his walk rate rose to 6.3%. Still, those regressions actually led to a lower ERA and WHIP with a 1.58 ERA and 1.03 WHIP over 40 innings, Case made four appearances in Buffalo where he threw 7 2/3 innings with a 5.87 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, striking out three and walking three. Case will probably start 2018 back in double-A but he'll have another feather in his baseball cap coming after he plays in the Arizona Fall League this offseason.

 Tim Mayza. Photo Credit: Jay Blue

Tim Mayza. Photo Credit: Jay Blue

The first pitcher on our list to make the major leagues, lefty Tim Mayza secured himself a big league position after a somewhat lacklustre start to his season in New Hampshire. Mayza, 25, tossed 33 1/3 innings with the Fisher Cats and had a 4.59 ERA and 1.41 WHIP, striking out 28.8% of batters and walking 10.3%. While his start to the season wasn't what he'd hoped for, Mayza turned hings up a notch in June, with a 2.25 ERA and 1.33 WHIP over 12 innings, limiting hitters to a .677 OPS. He moved up to Buffalo in early July and posted a 0.93 ERA and 1.19 WHIP over 19 1/3 innings, seeing his strikeout rate drop to 19.8% and his walk rate also drop, to 8.6%. Mayza was called up to Toronto in August and, while his overall big league ERA sits at 6.88 and his WHIP is 1.65, he allowed multiple runs in five of his 19 outings, skewing things a little bit. Mayza really struggled against right-handed hitters who hit .415 off of him in the big leagues. Despite the rough welcome to the major leagues, he finished the season with four straight scoreless outings, striking out six batters in 3 2/3 innings to close the season on a high note. Look for Mayza to fight for a spot as a lefty out of the bullpen next year but he could very well start in Buffalo.

An 18th-round pick by the Blue Jays in 2012, lefty Alonzo Gonzalez split the 2017 season between Dunedin and New Hampshire. Gonzalez, 25, started the year in New Hampshire, a level that he held his own at in 2016 for seven outings. This year, however, the numbers did not work in his favour as he had a 7.49 ERA and 1.87 WHIP after 25 appearances spanning 33 2/3 innings. Most troubling was that, while Gonzalez's strikeout rate was down from 2016 (to 15.2%), his walk rate was still high, at 14.0% and his ground ball rate plummeted to 31.5%. After being sent to Dunedin, Gonzalez turned things around with a 3.28 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 24 2/3 innings but his strikeout rate still stayed at 15.2% while he got his walks under control (8.6%) and brought his ground ball rate back in line with his career numbers at 40.3%. Gonzalez will probably be given another chance at New Hampshire in the hopes that he can keep runners off base and the ball on the ground a little more in 2018.

Twenty-three-year-old lefty Danny Young came to the Jays after being drafted in the eighth round of the 2015 draft from the University of Florida. The Florida native has been rising steadily through the ranks since then and began the 2017 season with the Dunedin Blue Jays. There, he put together an outstanding first half of the season with a 2.08 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 21.8% strikeout rate and 7.3% walk rate. The sidewinding lefty then moved up to New Hampshire where he continued to pitch well, with a 3.86 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 16.0% strikeout rate, 9.7% walk rate and 55.3% ground ball rate. Young will finish his 2017 season with a trip to Arizona to compete in the Arizona Fall League and will likely start in double-A next year.

The Blue Jays signed right Kender Villegas this offseason after he was released by the Brewers. Villegas, 24, started the season with Dunedin and turned out to be a swing-man between Advanced-A and couble-A. In Dunedin, Villegas threw 19 2/3 innings with a 3.20 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP, striking out 22.9% and walking 14.5% and with the Fisher Cats, he threw 40 innings with a 4.73 ERA and 1.63 WHIP, striking out only 14.1% and walking 13.0%. While he had a much better ground ball rate in New Hampshire (49.6%, compared to 36.5% in Dunedin), his overall results were not as good. Villegas could very well be a free agent unless the Jays have an option to pick up and it's unclear whether he will return.

At the age of 26, righty Carlos Ramirez finally matured into his second career in baseball. As we all know by now, Ramirez started out as a right fielder who couldn't hit much (despite raw power) before he transitioned into pitching in 2014. After three seasons seeing gradual improvement, Ramirez exploded in 2017, giving up just two runs (both unearned) in 23 2/3 innings for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats and was practically unhittable, allowing only 10 hits and walking 7.8% with a 32.2% strikeout rate. He continued to prove to be unhittable in triple-A Buffalo, tossing another 14 innings without giving up a run and only allowing six hits and walks to just 6.0% of the batters he faced while keeping his strikeout rate up at 32.0%. Finally, (perhaps after reading my article back at the beginning of August) the Blue Jays called up Ramirez and he didn't disappoint, getting into 12 games and giving up five runs (four of them in one game in which he allowed two home runs) in 16 2/3 innings, with a 2.70 ERA but a miniscule 0.54 WHIP thanks to just six hits allowed and three walks with 14 strikeouts. If the Blue Jays decide to rely on their home-grown talent in the bullpen in 2018, Ramirez could play a big role, along with Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes and Tim Mayza. Since he has plenty of options, Ramirez could easily end up in Buffalo although if he continues to be as difficult to hit as he was this year, he may force his way onto the big league roster.

Righty Blake McFarland has had a rough time over the past couple of years. The 29-year-old Californian, who was a minor league free agent signing in 2011 out of San Jose State has had injuries hold him back for the past couple of years. This year, he managed to get his season underway in April but only stayed healthy for about two weeks before landing on the DL for the rest of the season. McFarland threw 6 1/3 innings in five outings, allowing a run on four hits and two walks with seven strikeouts before being shut down. McFarland, who was placed on the Blue Jays' 40-man roster in November of 2015 but was released after his injury was occupying a 40-man roster spot, re-signed a minor league deal in 2016 and had his option picked up for 2017. It's unclear what his contract status is for 2018 but it's likely that he'll become a free agent.

The Blue Jays selected righty Glenn Sparkman from the Kansas City Royals in the Rule 5 draft but a broken bone in his foot in spring training landed him on the DL. His first outing on the way to the majors was with Dunedin where he tossed 3 1/3 innings, allowing three unearned runs on three hits and a walk with three strikeouts. He tossed 8 2/3 innings in New Hampshire, giving up three runs on six hits (including two home runs) and three walks with six strikeouts before moving up to Buffalo. There, he made four appearances covering eight innings where he allowed three runs (two earned) on seven hits and a walk with three strikeouts before being recalled to Toronto. After two allowing two hits and a walk in 2/3 of an inning to the Boston Red Sox in the 11th inning on June 30, he came into another game against Boston on July 2, giving up seven runs on seven hits with one strikeout in 1/3 of an inning and was promptly returned to the Royals who assigned him to double-A Northwest Arkansas where he made three appearances before returning to the DL.

Hitters

The New Hampshire Fisher Cats were stacked with position-playing prospects to open the season. Not all had the same quality of season, however, as some spent time on the DL and others under-performed to their expectations. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of Fisher Cats players to get excited about as the 2017 ended.

Catchers

Danny Jansen, 22, was the talk of the town after his helium-fueled season. Jansen, now wearing glasses to help his vision and finally healthy, put together a strong season while proving that he can hit even at the highest minor-league levels. Jansen started his season with the Dunedin Blue Jays, hitting .369/.422/.541 with six doubles and five home runs over 31 games in class-A Advanced, repeating the level at which he had a .585 OPS in 2016. Although he walked only 5.9% of the time (likely because he was hitting .369!), he only struck out in 10.3% of his plate appearances, leading the Blue Jays to get him to New Hampshire quickly. Jansen arrived in New Hampshire in mid-May with projected starter Reese McGuire out of action and he took over, hitting .291/.378/.419 with 15 doubles, a triple and two home runs while boosting his walk rate to 10.5% and lowering his strikeout rate to just 9.0% in 210 plate appearances. That was good enough to earn Mid-Season All-Star honours in both Dunedin and New Hampshire (I'm not sure how often that's happened) while he moved up to Buffalo for the last month of the season (we spoke to Danny just after his promotion). Getting regular playing time in triple-A (21 games and 78 plate appearances), Danny hit .328/.423/.552 with four doubles, a triple and three home runs, raising his walk rate to 14.1% and maintaining his 9.0% strikeout rate while also increasing his ISO from .128 in NH to .224 in Buffalo. All in all, it was a wild season for Jansen and was one where he proved that he belonged at the highest levels of the game. Jansen, a hard worker and great teammate is highly thought of by the organization (he was singled out to me by Gil Kim during spring training) and he'll probably start 2018 in Buffalo and will likely be added to the 40-man roster to protect him in the Rule 5 draft.

Reese McGuire, 22, was acquired by the Blue Jays from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2016 trading for Francisco Liriano. The former first-round pick was a highly touted prospect and his status was built mostly around his advanced defence and the potential in his bat. The potential didn't arrive while he was with Pittsburgh and that allowed the Blue Jays to acquire him, Liriano and Harold Ramirez for Drew Hutchison. McGuire's 2017 got off to mediocre start as he hit just .216/.311/.373 with a triple and two home runs in 63 plate appearances before going down to an oblique injury While rehabbing in Florida, he underwent knee surgery and started working his way back into form with the GCL Blue Jays in July. He hit a healthy .409/.462/.500 in eight games with the GCL Jays and had three hits in three games with the Dunedin Blue Jays before returning to New Hampshire. In his final 18 games, McGuire had 73 plate appearances and hit at a torrid pace, putting up a .328/.411/.594 slash line, hitting five doubles and four home runs, giving him a final slash line of .278/.366/.496 in Double-A, giving him a career-best OPS of .861 and a career-high in home runs in a season with six . . . in just 34 games. McGuire also had very strong walk (11.8%) and strikeout (14.0%) rates. If this is how McGuire is going to hit as he moves forward (remember, he's just 22), then he's going to be highly coveted, particularly since he's still a strong defensive catcher, throwing out 33% of runners trying to steal in NH this year. McGuire will likely be added to the 40-man roster this year as the Jays have a number of questions surrounding their catching corps but need to protect a number of minor league players for the upcoming Rule 5 draft. He could start either in Buffalo or New Hampshire, depending on how the catching situation looks in the majors and the high minors.

Alex Monsalve was one of the Blue Jays' backup catchers slated for the high minors, splitting his season between double-A New Hampshire and triple-A Buffalo. In 84 plate appearances with New Hampshire, Monsalve hit .284/.310/.321 with three doubles while hitting .250/.283/.357 with three doubles and a home run in 60 plate appearances in Buffalo. Monsalve only threw out 21% of runners but played just 23 games behind the plate for New Hampshire while throwing out 31% in 12 games for Buffalo. Monsalve may not have a contract beyond 2017 and, with several other catchers putting themselves into the conversation for inclusion on the big league roster, he may not be back.

The Blue Jays picked up catcher Patrick Cantwell from the Texas Rangers in early May, acquiring him for cash but the 27-year-old New Yorker only got into two games before getting injured and missing the rest of the season. Cantwell was 1/4 with a double and two RBI for New Hampshire and hit .133/.188/.133 in seven games with Triple-A Round Rock. Cantwell, a third-round pick in 2017, will likely return to New Hampshire as a backup.

Infielders

First baseman Ryan McBroom was having a decent season for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats when he was traded to the New York Yankees for infielder Rob Refsnyder in late July. For the Fisher Cats, McBroom, 25, was putting up numbers that were expected of him: a .243/.321/.402 slash line with 19 doubles and 12 home runs in 346 plate appearances. The 2015 Midwest League MVP hit .257/.327/.379 with five doubles and four home runs in his final 38 games of the year with the Trenton Thunder.

Tim Lopes was, for me, one of the most well-rounded contributors to the Fisher Cats in 2017. Finishing with a .271/.338/.390 slash line in his second year in double-A (after playing in the Southern League in 2016 with Jackson, Seattle's affiliate), Lopes, 23, increased his power numbers by hitting 27 doubles, four triples and seven home runs while stealing 19 bases in 28 attempts. Lopes maintained a strong 9.3% walk rate while striking out 16.3% of the time which, considering his increase in power (from a .071 ISO to a .119 ISO), is more than acceptable. A former sixth-round draft pick, Lopes started out well, with a .817 OPS in April but slumped in May and June, finding his form in July but struggling in August. Still, he hit five of his seven home runs in the final two months of the season, giving us hope that he's added a new dimension to his game. Lopes could land either in Buffalo or New Hampshire next year.

Twenty-five-year-old Gunnar Heidt got consistent playing time for the Fisher Cats, playing multiple positions, mostly at second and third base but also spent some time at first and in the outfield. Heidt spent his first season in double-A playing in 126 games and hitting .229/.303/.370 with 20 doubles and 13 home runs (good for second on the team) with a 9.3% walk rate and a 28.5% strikeout rate. The strikeout rate is a real concern seeing as it jumped to 28.5% in 2017 from around 22% in 2016 split between Lansing and Dunedin. Still, as a utility player, Heidt has a lot of value and I'd expect to see him back in New Hampshire in 2018.

Richard Urena, 21, was one of the Jays' top prospects heading into 2017 and, with a New Hampshire assignment and 40-man roster spot, was expected to get a look in Toronto before the season was over. Injuries to Tulo and Travis gave Urena a shot to play regularly in the big leagues but his season was generally disappointing from an offensive standpoint. In 129 games with the Fisher Cats, Urena hit just .247/.286/.359 with 36 doubles, three triples and five home runs. Urena's strikeout rate rose from 14.4% in his 2016 stint in Double-A to 18.1% while his walk rate also rose from 3.0% to 5.4%. In the major leagues, Urena hit .206/.270/.309 after a stellar 10-game stint in which he hit .316 with three doubles and a home run. He had just two hits in his next 10 games while striking out in 37.3% of his 75 big league plate appearances (but walking in 8.0% of them). Urena will likely start 2018 in Buffalo but it will be important for him to be more selective at the plate when it comes to both getting on base via the walk and getting better pitches to hit.

Emilio Guerrero 25, started off his season by hitting rather poorly (.227/.284/.327) before going down to injury and missing about two months. Coming back, the Dominican infielder turned things around with a .310/.347/.440 slash line, hitting 10 doubles a triple and a home run in his final 33 games. Overall, Guerrero had a .263/.311/.376 slash line, hitting 14 doubles, two triples and four home runs, walking in 6.3% of his plate appearances and striking out 19.9%. Guerrero played mostly first base (36 games) with 21 games at third base. He has reached the end of his initial contract and may be able to elect free agency following the World Series.

 Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Photo Credit: Jay Blue

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Photo Credit: Jay Blue

Lourdes Gurriel Jr., 23, signed as a free agent with the Blue Jays this offseason and got his season off to a slow start, playing sparingly in spring training and then getting into only one game in April before missing the rest of the next two months with injuries. Gurriel, the Cuban infielder, returned in mid-June, playing 18 games in Advanced-A Dunedin and hitting just .197/.217/.258 in his first consistent game action since leaving Cuba a couple of years ago. In New Hampshire, he started rounding into form, hitting .241/.286/.371 in 46 games with 10 doubles and four home runs, only walking in 5.4% of his at bats and striking out in 16.2%. Despite his decent strikeout rate, when I saw Gurriel, he was chasing too many bad pitches and will need to work on pitch selection as he continues his North American career. He'll be seen next in the Arizona Fall League (starting today) and will likely be either in New Hampshire or Buffalo next year.

Outfielders

Twenty-four-year-old Andrew Guillotte had a terrific opening to his season that set him up well to finish the year in double-A with a couple of trips to triple-A sandwiched in there (where I caught up with him). Guillotte started the season with the Dunedin Blue Jays, hitting .293/.363/.400 with 10 doubles and two home runs and he played multiple outfield positions as well as the infield. Guillotte was not just coming up swinging at the plate, but he was coming up gunning in the outfield, racking up 11 outfield assists (nine from right field) as he utilized his strong arm very effectively. He jumped up to Buffalo for a couple of games but settled in in New Hampshire, playing in 64 games there, hitting .244/.316/.315 with four doubles, a triple and three home runs while hitting .304/.407/.478 in eight games in Buffalo. Guillote had another four outfield assists in New Hampshire to give him 15 on the year, an impressive number for anyone. Guillotte had solid walk rates at every level (8.8% in Dunedin, 8.4% in New Hampshire and 14.8% in 27 plate appearances in Buffalo) while striking out at respectable rates in Dunedin (14.6%) and New Hampshire (18.0%). It appeared that, in the small sample size, strikeouts were a problem in Buffalo as he went down on strikes in 33.3% of his plate appearances. Still, Guillotte's true value comes from his baseball IQ as well as his ability to play the infield as well as the outfield. I can see him starting 2018 in New Hampshire with the potential for some time in Buffalo if needed.

Outfielder Jonathan Davis, 25, is now a two-time Blue Jays from Away Player of the Year (2017 NH, 2016 DUN) and continued his solid play as an everyday player in Double-A. He played in 128 games, mostly in centre field, hitting .249/.361/.379 with 20 doubles, four triples, 10 home runs and 20 stolen bases. As he moved up to Double-A this year, Davis lowered his strikeout rate to 20.1% and his walk rate dropped almost one percent to 12.6%, still very high. The thing about his season, however, is that his ISO dropped significantly, from .189 in the Florida State League, a notoriously tough hitter's league, to .130 this year in a much better hitter's environment. One possible explanation could be that Davis hit fewer line drives and more ground balls while pulling the ball less. I think that Davis will return to double-A to start next season.

Harold Ramirez, 23, came to the Blue Jays with Reese McGuire in the deal that also brought Francisco Liriano to Toronto. Ramirez didn't make much of an impression in 2016 thanks to an injury that allowed him to play only one game that year but in 2017, he played the whole season, getting into 121 games and hitting .266/.320/.358 with 19 doubles, two triples and six home runs. Ramirez walked in 6.5% of his plate appearances and struck out in only 13.3%. Ramirez hits a lot of his balls on the ground with a 56.1% ground ball rate while only hitting 25.5% fly balls. Neither of these figures are particularly promising in when defences shift more. I've been told that the organization likes Ramirez's strength and athleticism but his swing plane may have to change for him to get the most out of his talent. Ramirez is on the 40-man roster but will likely have to be optioned and, with several other players vying for outfield spots in Buffalo, he could remain in double-A to start 2018.

In his seventh minor league season, 24-year-old Derrick Loveless probably struggled to get enough playing time to show what he can do. Loveless started his season in class-A Advanced Dunedin, hitting .293/.411/.427 with the D-Jays in 20 games, hitting 10 doubles before being promoted to New Hampshire at the end of April. In New Hampshire, Loveless played 69 games the rest of the year, hitting .253/.379/.326, only hitting nine doubles, a triple and a home run in 190 at bats. Loveless has always boasted strong walk rates and he put up a career-high 16.2% this year in double-A while striking out in 23.5% of his plate appearances. Loveless's ISO fell significantly from his .207 mark in 2016 with New Hampshire to just .074 this year while his BABIP increased. Like Ramirez, Loveless isn't getting the ball in the air enough, with a 59.3% ground ball rate with the Fisher Cats and a fly ball rate of only 23.7%. After seven seasons, Loveless will likely have the opportunity to elect free agency this year.

Anthony Alford, 23, can't buy an injury free season. Alford played the first month and a half of the season with double-A New Hampshire, hitting .325/.411/.455 with seven doubles and three home runs before the Blue Jays called. In four games in Toronto, Alford had one hit before breaking his hand and missing the next month and a half. Rehabbing in Dunedin, Alford didn't hit much, hitting .143/.182/.143 in six games before he returned to New Hampshire and finished his time there with a .310/.406/.429 slash line, stealing 18 bases in 21 attempts and slashing 14 doubles and five home runs. He finished his season in Buffalo, going 4/12 with a double in three games. Alford showed tremendous discipline in New Hampshire, where he played 68 games, walking in 12.1% of his 289 plate appearances and striking out in only 15.6%. Alford's speed, bat-on-ball ability and raw power make him a prime candidate to hit the big leagues for good in some time in 2018. Still I'd like to see him get a little more loft in his swing but he'll likely do that swinging in Buffalo in 2018.

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Jay Blue

A lifelong Toronto Blue Jays fan, Jay Blue started blogging about the Jays when he was living in Berlin, Germany. He founded his own blog, Blue Jays from Away, to write about developments with his home town team, focusing on the Jays' minor league system. When he's not watching baseball, he is usually on the diamond umpiring or he's pursuing his research interests in the field of ethnomusicology.