By Alexis Brudnicki
SURPRISE, Ariz. – The Arizona Fall League is a prestigious development loop for many top prospects from each of the affiliations around Major League Baseball. The players in the circuit are often key assets within their organization, many moving to the big leagues and several becoming valuable trade pieces.
The Toronto Blue Jays sent eight men to play for the Mesa Solar Sox, four pitchers in Roberto Osuna, Blake McFarland, Arik Sikula and Sean Nolin, and four position players in Jon Berti, Dwight Smith Jr., Sean Ochinko and Dalton Pompey. Among them, they are working on a variety of things whether it be command, a specific pitch, a new position or a skill.
Each of the Blue Jays prospects brings about questions for a number of different reasons, and some were answered by various major league employees, whether scouts or executives, halfway through the AFL season.
Roberto Osuna, RHP
Born: Sinaloa, Mex.
Roberto Osuna is intriguing because the flamethrower from has found a lot of success early in his young career, but his progress was interrupted by Tommy John surgery last year. His recovery was very quick, throwing in a game less than a year after the procedure, and in the process he lost some of the weight he was accustomed to putting behind his pitches – 15 pounds so far with 10 more as a goal – and he has had trouble finding the strike zone since, but the future still looks bright.
“The velocity has climbed back up closer to what it has been in the past,” one baseball executive said. “He was an elite-level prospect for Toronto before his Tommy John surgery and there’s no reason he can’t get back to that with his surgery out of the way. As far as where he starts and how many innings he gets next year, that remains to be seen but you can see glimpses of what he’s done in the past.
“In Vancouver [with the Canadians] he was absolutely dominant at 18, mowing through teams. He pitched against [big leaguers] in spring training and did a nice job. He looked comfortable and it’s probably because he was exposed to such high-level competition at a young age, getting experience in the Mexican League as a 15-year-old. He’s a very confident guy on the mound and there’s not too much that phases him.”
Blake McFarland, RHP
Born: San Jose, Calif.
Blake McFarland was a free-agent sign for Toronto out of San Jose State and has had mixed results over his four seasons in the organization. Because of his status, it will be harder for him to move up to the highest level, but after a successful season this year he has certainly helped his chances.
“Kevin Pillar is an example [of a similar type of player],” a former scout said. “He was a 32nd-round pick and signed for a $1,000. Obviously when you invest a lot of money in a player you know the player is going to get the opportunity, and maybe more of an opportunity to fail because of the projection or tools or spot in the draft.
“Guys who sign later or are post-draft signings have to continually prove themselves. That’s the nature of the game and with [McFarland] he has a different look. He doesn’t have huge stuff but there’s definitely something and he has the results to go with it. How far can he take it? He’s going to dictate that more than anybody.”
Arik Sikula, RHP
Born: Chico, Calif.
Arik Sikula has found a lot of success as a closer in the minors, but not often do 36th-round relievers make it from the farm to the majors in the same role, so while he doesn’t feel any limitations it could potentially be a more difficult climb for him to get to the top.
“Before his draft he had more of a compact, higher slot, but a power-downer breaking ball. He’s turned that into a good cutter that works for him now. The biggest test for these guys is obviously they don’t have anything left to prove at the levels they’ve been. The question is what are you going to do at double-A; triple-A, and can you carry that performance over? If you can, maybe he will get a shot.
“It’s a long road for some guys but when you go out and pitch the way he did, he had an unbelievable year in Dunedin and actually performed very well in Double-A as well, good walks to strikeouts [12 and 80 on the year, respectively] and more than a strikeout an inning [12.3 whiffs per nine frames] so the next step is to keep going in Double-A and see what happens.”
Sean Nolin, LHP
Born: Seaford, NY
Sean Nolin battled a groin injury twice during the year, once coming back too soon and doing the same damage again later on. He found a lot of success early in the minor leagues that hasn’t directly translated to the big-league level in the small sample he’s seen.
“A complete season from a health perspective would be good for him. He’s never had anything serious but he’s had nagging injuries that have kept him out from time to time where he’s getting in a groove and then slowed up a little bit.
“He’s a four-pitch guy and at any time he has three plus. At the end of the day if he can stay healthy, consistent fastball command with his good secondary stuff to go with it, then he’s got a chance to be a quality big-league pitcher.
“He has limited experience in the big leagues and he’s an emotional guy. He likes to compete and sometimes that works really well for him and other times it can work against him. But at the end of the day a left-hander who is up to 95 MPH with three plus pitches, they don’t grow on trees.”
Jon Berti, 2B
Born: Troy, Mich.
Jon Berti is a two-time winner of the R. Howard Webster Award, for being the player of the year this season with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats and last year with the Dunedin Blue Jays. He’s racked up 153 stolen bases in four seasons through 434 games in the system and Toronto has spent some time trying out the second baseman at third and in left field to see where it goes.
“I haven’t seen him much at other positions besides second base but the goal is to make him more versatile as a defender obviously. He’s athletic, he can run and he works hard. You’re trying to create value but you’re trying to make a player more
valuable to an organization ….
“[The Blue Jays] did this with Andy Burns last year, moved him around. He played third base, shortstop, second base, and when he went to the Fall League last year he played first base and some outfield. Everybody is looking for the next [Tampa Bay Rays utility player] BenZobrist, someone to insert into the lineup every day in a variety of spots …
“Jon has stolen more than 100 bases over the last two years and he can run, he’s a pretty good hitter but that’s a piece he still needs to work on, so why not make him more versatile and see if he can play different spots around the field to be more valuable?”
Dwight Smith, Jr., OF
Born: Peachtree, Ga.
Speaking of positional changes, Dwight Smith has worked out at second base on a couple of different occasions, though never in a game before Saturday’s AFL start at the position. As a well-regarded hitter within the organization, the idea behind the move is to bring the bat to a spot where one is often hard to find and build from there.
“Traditionally the profile of a second base bat versus a corner outfield bat is different. Offence is changing in the big leagues but he has more of that prototypical second base ability to hit for average, ability to get on base, maybe not corner outfield power – the bat profile translates more at second than it does in left.
“Part of it is just to see if he can do it. It’s probably harder to find second basemen than it is to find corner outfielders. If you have a player who has everyday ability in the major leagues, and [the Blue Jays] do with Dwight Smith, and you can put him at a more valuable or tougher-to-find position, that’s great …
“Second base certainly isn’t easy to play but there are examples of guys who have converted to second and had successful big-league careers. He’s working hard at it. He’s first and foremost a bat, he had a strong year, he’s a good outfielder and a good baserunner. The reason isn’t because he’s not good in the outfield, it’s probably to see if he can handle a tougher-to-find defensive position.”
Sean Ochinko, C
Born: Parkland, Fla.
Sean Ochinko’s season was shortened by a suspension for the use of Adderall followed by a stint on the disabled list after he sustained a brain injury during a drill just before he was scheduled to come back. Playing for his second time in the Arizona Fall League, he needs to make up for lost time.
“There’s no substitute for at-bats in baseball. You can take all the [batting practice] you want and work in the cage but you can’t simulate playing in a game. The Fall League is a good environment for that and it seems like this year, more so than I can remember recently, there are a lot of power arms coming out of the bullpen. There are guys from Double-A, Triple-A and major-league talent out there and he needs to play some catch up.
“That’s important, getting more at-bats is important, getting more reps behind the plate is important, and it’s a matter of getting back into things and building to finish the season strong and being ready to come into next year.”
Dalton Pompey, OF
Born: Mississauga, Ont.
Dalton Pompey was a welcome surprise for Toronto this year. The hometown talent sped through multiple levels of the farm, starting in the Class-A Florida State League for the first half of the season and hitting every stop on his way to a big-league call up in September.
The organization couldn’t have predicted that it might be looking at him for a position on Opening Day next year, but sending first base coach Tim Leiper to work specifically with the outfielder in Arizona as well as having the majority of the big-league brass out to catch a glimpse of his play – which they were mostly unable to do because of a small nagging injury that kept him out while they were in town – is a good indication that Pompey has changed some minds.
“I saw him in Florida probably in June [this season] and the performance was great as far as statistics and when you watched him he had great at-bats. There was no panic in the box, he’s already balanced; he sees the ball well out of the hand. There are certainly guys who have results at a certain level but you’re not convinced necessarily it will translate to the next level up. When you have that combination of athleticism, a good swing, and all the mechanical things you’re looking for, and then the statistical performance to back it up plus the approach and plate discipline and pitch recognition, everything is there…
“When he went to Double-A on paper it looked like he was struggling out of the gate early. But if you watched him he was still having great at-bats, laying off tough pitches, drawing some walks, and making hard outs whether they were ground outs, line outs or fly outs, he was making solid contact. [You knew] the results were going to come eventually because he was having such good at-bats, and obviously they did…
“Did I expect him to get to the big leagues this year? No, of course not. I don’t think he did either. But when he started to move and figure it out in Double-A you were thinking in the back of your head, you know what, this looks right. It’s hard to explain and it’s very rare … to see the calmness in the box and he had the results to go with it. It was a breakout year for him. I’m surprised it happened so quickly but I’m not surprised he got to the big leagues.”
Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis