Meet the 2015 N.H. Fisher Cats (Maybe)

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taylor cole

* RHP Taylor Cole looks to open the season back with the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Photos: Jay Blue. ….

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Letters of Intent

By Jay Blue
After a hiatus, we’re back with another projected roster of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. This post is part ofseries that will be my attempt to predict the Opening Day rosters for the Blue Jays’ four full-season minor league teams which start their seasons on April 9.

In particular, the pitching staff for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats is the group that I’ve struggled with most. The Jays just have too many pitchers in camp and some of them are going to end up in Toronto, some will end up in Buffalo and some will end up in New Hampshire. Unfortunately, due to the business of baseball, some will end up out of the organization. I try to keep things upbeat and positive here so we’ll assume that everyone will find a job somewhere which will lead to a bloated roster (wait til you see what’s going on in my Buffalo prediction). Finally, the Double-A and Triple-A levels are really where we see players get stuck below where they might be if the Jays didn’t bring in veteran minor leaguers for depth at the major and minor league levels. A

good year in Dunedin doesn’t automatically get you an assignment in New Hampshire the following spring. There are several players that may have to wait their turn to get to ManchVegas.

Starting Pitchers
Matt Boyd
Taylor Cole
Casey Lawrence
Mike Lee
Roberto Osuna

So, if this is the New Hampshire starting rotation, I think I’m going to rent an apartment there for the summer. I’ve written about Boyd before and his numbers in Double-A last year weren’t nearly as bad as they seem on the surface. He was absolutely dominant in Dunedin last year, posting a strikeout to walk ratio in excess of 5.00 (5.15 to be exact) and despite a 6.96 ERA in New Hampshire, he was victimized by a very high BABIP and a very low Left-On-Base percentage, leaving his FIP at 3.94.

Cole is another Dunedin ace last year who didn’t have quite the success in New Hampshire. I saw him make a start for the Fisher Cats and, while he didn’t have his fastball command, he could still get batters out. Cole is also 25 and needs to be in Double-A

Lawrence was a stalwart of the Fisher Cats rotation last year, throwing a ton of innings and pitching well. Despite that, the perpetual underdog isn’t going to get the respect he may deserve. While he’s spent parts of three seasons with New Hampshire, he threw a combined 22 1/3 innings in two of them, making 2014 the only year that he spent a substantial part in Double-A.

Osuna is probably the most exciting pitcher of the bunch. The 20-year-old righty is poised to make a big breakthrough in his first full year after roberta osunaTommy John surgery. His youth and the ability to make throwing hard look easy both could give him time to develop, but his maturity on the mound and his ability to mix his pitches and command his stuff makes the fans clamour for a quick rise through the organization.

Other Possible Starting Pitchers
Jayson Aquino
Austin Bibens-Dirkx
Scott Copeland
Mike Lee

I think at least one of these guys will be in the New Hampshire rotation (or in the bullpen). Newly acquired Aquino is only 22 and only has 22 innings of Double-A experience and may start the season in Dunedin but my hunch is that he’ll be given a chance to pitch in Double-A despite some rough numbers in Advanced A-ball last year.

Bibens-Dirkx is the guys most likely to be in the bullpen. He’s gone anywhere and done whatever the Blue Jays have of him over the past two years and he’s just pitched well at every place and in every role. It’s a thankless job but Bibens-Dirkx is one of the most versatile organizational arms in the system.

Copeland became a free agent but quickly re-signed with the Blue Jays. Having pitched a little bit in Buffalo last year, I think that he should be one scott copelandof the pitchers in the Bisons’ rotation. That said, he may be one of the chief victims of the numbers game. He did get an invite to major league camp when he re-signed and I’m wondering if it came with a promise that he’d get a chance to start in Buffalo.

Of this group, I think Lee could be the guy most likely to start 2015 in the New Hampshire ‘pen. Lee is 28 but has limited Triple-A experience and he was downright tremendous when pitching for New Hampshire last year after the Jays bought his contract from Arizona.

Relief Pitchers
Dustin Antolin
Wil Browning
Rafael Cova
Tiago da Silva
Chad Girodo
Blake McFarland
Arik Sikula

I’m actually pretty confident in this group of relievers starting the year in New Hampshire. Antolin had a breakthrough last year after some tinkering with a pitch and posted some of the best numbers of his career. Too bad Buffalo is so packed. Sorry Dustin. Third season in New Hampshire for you.

Browning needs a good year in Double-A to establish himself as more than just a ROOGY. He has been absolutely dominant at the A-ball levels since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2012 but in his first attempt at Double-A last year, he walked five batters and gave up five earned runs in 6 1/3 innings.

Cova was a minor league free agent signing of the Jays this offseason. He had only pitched in winter leagues over the past several seasons since he was last in affiliated ball in 2010 with the Richmond Flying Squirrels where he put up some great numbers. He last pitched in the Mexican Summer League last year with Veracruz. I figure he’ll be in New Hampshire.

da Silva is another older minor league free agent signing but he’s a Brazilian who has never played affiliated baseball. He played for several years in the Italian League before moving to Mexico last year for the summer season and he pitched extremely well in the Venezuelan Winter League. He’s apparently a soft tosser with some great offspeed stuff and I can see him starting in New Hampshire.

Girodo is a guy who has little left to prove in A-ball. The ninth round pick in the 2013 draft, Girodo is probably a bit more than just a LOOGY, despite what his sidewinding mechanics may suggest. I want to see him tested in Double-A and I think that’s where he goes.

McFarland had a very strong year in New Hampshire last year but is going to be another victim of the numbers game. The 27 year old righty still only has 35 1/3 innings under his belt at the level and, with the logjam projected for the Buffalo bullpen, I see McFarland back in New Hampshire.

Sikula is another guy with experience at Double-A and he’s really proven that he deserves to have a shot to establish himself. He didn’t get as long of a look in Manchester as McFarland did but he was excellent everywhere he was last year and is a closer candidate for the Fisher Cats.

Other Possible Relief Pitchers
Danny Barnes
Griffin Murphy
Luis Perez
Ben White

danny barnesBarnes has struggled with injuries throughout his minor league career and 2014 was no exception. Still, he pitched most last year, spending it in High-A Dunedin and had a tremendous strikeout-to-walk ratio as well as a K-rate approaching 30%. He could/should be in New Hampshire but probably will start the season back in Dunedin.

Murphy is likely to start in Dunedin but could certainly make the jump. A lefty who was dominant in Lansing last year but struggled more in Dunedin will almost certainly start the year in Dunedin but will need to start moving through the organization at some point this year, his Age-24 season.

Perez is back in a Blue Jays uniform after a couple of years looking for work and trying to rehab an elbow that was surgically reconstructed. He was a really good lefty for the Jays back in 2011 and 2012 before blowing out his arm. He hasn’t pitched since 2013 but is trying to work his way back. A 30-year-old, I don’t see him starting below New Hampshire but could be a surprise addition to the Buffalo roster if he has a good showing in the spring.

I’ve written about White in this series before and I think he could be a dark horse to make the New Hampshire squad but he’s more likely to start 2015 in Dunedin.

At this level, a good year doesn’t necessarily get you promoted. If you’re a late draft pick or an undrafted free agent, you’re fighting against three groups of players by the time you get to Double-A. The first group consists of players who got big bonuses to sign on (usually at least six figures). The team is more heavily invested in financially in these players who will get priority as they move up the system. Players who get small bonuses are generally used to plug holes in rosters where they’re needed but they can distinguish themselves and become legitimate major league players (see Kevin Pillar).

The second group consists of veterans who have been signed to minor league deals and are usually competing for spots on the major league team. These players are generally going to take spots on the Triple-A roster, keeping them one step below the majors in case of injury or other need. The third group of players that causes minor leaguers to stall in their path to the major leagues, usually right around the Double-A level, is the group of major league regulars who could block certain players for years. We’ll see some of this when we talk about the Buffalo Bisons.

Catchers
Derrick Chung
Jack Murphy

Other Possible Catchers
Jorge Saez
Chris Schaeffer

This is the first place that we see the presence of a major league veteran and better known minor league prospects who keep a player in Double-A. derrick chungChung could easily play in Buffalo but the Blue Jays have a log jam at catcher and it starts with the signing of Russell Martin to a five year deal. That waves goodbye to a starting job in the majors for just about anyone in the system until you get to the lower levels. Chung has hit just about everywhere he’s gone and that, along with his stellar defense, probably deserves to go Buffalo. But the Blue Jays have Martin, Navarro and Thole as legitimate major league options while A.J. Jimenez is going to get everyday at bats in Buffalo. I think the Blue Jays really like Chung but I also think that he returns to New Hampshire.

Murphy is beloved by many but, except in Australia, he hasn’t hit particularly well in a long time. Perhaps Murphy figured something out Down Under and will translate that success to the US. His defensive skills are admired throughout the organization but he’s probably relegated to a backup role as he approaches his 27th birthday.

Saez is another player who’s probably being pushed down because of the roster logjam. He’s shown he can hit well but probably needs a bit more seasoning in Dunedin before moving up to New Hampshire. Despite that, he’s another defensively-oriented catcher who’s a leader on the field and has shown some potential with his bat. He could very well make it up to New Hampshire at some point during the year.

Schaeffer is an organizational catcher in the system who has been to just about every level of ball. He doesn’t have much of a bat but he’s a great teammate and a hard worker and most teams hold some value in that. If three catchers make the opening day roster for the Fisher Cats, Schaeffer is my bet as the third.

First Base
K.C. Hobson

kc hobsonHobson is a first baseman who got a big bonus and has had some success in the minor leagues but has seen some of his offensive numbers tail off as he’s risen through the system. He’s got the pop, it’s just a matter of getting it to show up in games. Hobson’s been around a while but he’s only 24 and will be the everyday first baseman in New Hampshire after finishing 2014 there.

Second Base
Jon Berti
Christian Lopes
Dwight Smith, Jr.

Here’s where things get tricky. By all accounts, Berti, a two-time R. Howard Webster Award winner, should be in Buffalo in 2014 but the Blue Jays have lined up a whole array of players to try to win the second base position and traded for a youngster with more upside at the position over the offseason. With Ryan Goins, Munenori Kawasaki, Ramon Santiago and Devon Travis all slated for either the majors or Triple-A, my hunch is that Berti stays in Double-A for at least the first part of the year.

Things are getting a bit crowded in New Hampshire. I think Lopes has done enough to merit a promotion to New Hampshire. The question is whether his incredible offensive performance in the Australian Baseball League this winter translates into success at the higher levels of the minor leagues. Among this group, he’s the most likely to go back to Dunedin.

Smith, another Webster winner, is going to be in New Hampshire. Invited to major league camp at the age of 22 following an excellent offensive season in Dunedin, Smith is getting promoted no matter what. The biggest question is what position he’ll play. His gap (and occasional home run) power, high OBP and good contact batting profile matches better with second base than with a corner outfield position and if he can complete a transition to second base, it’ll strengthen the depth at the position within the organization tremendously.

Shortstop
Kevin Nolan

Now that we’re above the low minors, the Blue Jays’ shortstop depth thins out after the trade of Franklin Barreto. While Dawel Lugo will almost certainly be in Dunedin, I think last year’s Dunedin shortstop doesn’t play the position in New Hampshire and so Nolan, who split last year between New Hampshire and Buffalo, is the incumbent. He didn’t have a great year offensively last year (in his second in New Hampshire) but the Nashua native is blocked in Triple-A with the previously mentioned assortment of middle infielders looking for work in Buffalo.

Third Base
Andy Fermin
Emilio Guerrero

I don’t know is on third in New Hampshire. Ok, seriously. I think that there’s no obvious choice here which will leave things wide open. I think Fermin, who was a surprise addition to the New Hampshire roster in 2014, has an inside shot considering that he’s already 25 and had some pretty decent number at the level last year, showing some power and solid contact ability.

I’ll talk about Guerrero a bit later. But he’s certainly a viable option at third base.

Utility infielders
Jorge Flores
Shane Opitz

Flores split last year between Dunedin and New Hampshire, doing more than holding his own offensively while providing some defensive versatilityjose flores and intangibles. There’s no reason the 23-year-old Mexican that I like to call “Mighty Mouse” (because he’s 5-foot-5) shouldn’t be here. If he walks at a higher rate, he could even go further as a utility player who is tough to pitch to because of his size.

Opitz has hit extremely well when he’s been able to stay on the field over the past couple of years. While a shoulder injury kept him out of most of the season last year, he’s a good defender who will probably get his first taste of Double-A this year.

Other Possible Infielders
L.B. Dantzler
Ryan Schimpf

I think that Dantzler is going to be in New Hampshire at some point this year. It’s just a matter of whether he hits enough early on in Dunedin to make it. He was hampered by injuries last year so if he’s healthy to start 2015, he could reclaim the form he had in 2013 when he was the Northwest League MVP.

I really think Schimpf is going to be in Buffalo, primarily because of his versatility. He can play the infield (second and third base) as well as left field and, if he’s back in New Hampshire (where he has nothing left to prove), it’ll be a bit of a surprise to me and a bit of a disappointment.

Outfielders
Emilio Guerrero
Marcus Knecht
Matt Newman
Dwight Smith, Jr.

There are two big question marks in this list of outfielders and how much they actually play in the outfield really depends on how well they make the transition to new positions. Guerrero has played most of his career at shortstop but his mounting error totals were finally getting to the point where he had to move. He could play third base (and has done so a bit) but the interesting part of the experiment was where the Blue Jays played him in center field for 20 games in 2014. Without an obvious center fielder here, Guerrero’s long strides could end up covering that ground at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. He could, however, stay back in Dunedin to improve some of his hitting numbers which weren’t quite as good as what he did in Lansing in 2013.

Knecht will finally get a shot in Double-A after three seasons in Dunedin. Knecht was a member of a trio of highly touted prospects in the Lansing outfield in 2011 along with Jake Marisnick and Michael Crouse. Marisnick and Crouse are both out of the organization but Knecht finally had a solid season in Dunedin and, at the age of 24, should move up to New Hampshire and play left field.

Newman is another player who’s probably an organizational guy at best but he’s been able to contribute both on and off the field wherever he’s gone. He won the Dunedin Community Service Award in 2013 and joined the Fisher Cats last year where he played wherever he was needed (including pitcher). He struggled at the new level but actually showed more power than he’s done since 2012 in Vancouver with 22 doubles, four triples and six home runs in just 81 games. Newman will probably be the regular right fielder for the Fisher Cats.

Smith is obviously on this list again. He’ll get time in the outfield (probably left field) but it’s his bat that the Fisher Cats are going to want to keep in the lineup. This all depends on how well his transition to second base goes and whether he can stick there.

Other Possible Outfielders
Jon Berti
Brad Glenn
Melky Mesa
Ryan Schimpf

Berti played 30 games in left field last year. Nuff said.

Glenn is another guy that I think really needs a chance in Buffalo. He seems to have lost favour in the organization after he was DFA’ed and sent outright to the minors. He has hit well in Buffalo but there’s a logjam thanks to the minor league free agents signed like Caleb Gindl, Chris Colabello and Andy Dirks. That said, there isn’t a lot of major league depth which means that people might be able to move up.

Mesa was a minor league acquisition last year (purchased from the K.C. Royals for cash) who re-signed a minor league deal to rejoin the Jays’ organization. He spent most of his 2014 with the Fisher Cats and could certainly play in Buffalo but is just as likely to end up back in Manchester.

Schimpf played 17 games in left field last year and another 14 in right field with Buffalo.

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