Make no mistake, Jays still have hurlers

Trio of Syndergaard, Nolin and Barnes tops for Toronto in 2012

By Andrew Pentis / Special to | December 19, 2012 5:00 AM

This offseason, will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.

Four Blue Jays affiliates recorded winning seasons in 2012. In its final year with Toronto, Triple-A Las Vegas, which has given way to former Mets farm team Buffalo, went 79-64 but did not reach the Pacific Coast League playoffs. Class A Advanced Dunedin (78-55) and Class A Lansing (82-55) -- both teams with strong stables of pitching (particularly the lower-level Lugnuts) -- reached the postseason but made first-round exits.

Only Class A Short-Season Vancouver broke through, claiming its second straight Northwest League championship in dramatic fashion.

No Vancouver player -- not even third baseman Balbino Fuenmayor and pitcher Taylor Cole, who came awfully close -- cracked our lineup.

Two of Toronto's top prospects, Travis d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard, went to the Mets as part of a blockbuster deal for R.A. Dickey. Plus, the Jays traded three other top prospects to the Marlins last month. Despite all that, the farm still looks strong.

Blue Jays Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Travis d'Arnaud, Las Vegas (67 games): The Blue Jays' top-ranked prospect during the season didn't have a long one, but it was good. Before tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, d'Arnaud posted .333/.380/.595 marks in his first 67 games ever at Triple-A. The .333 batting average was the highest among all Jays farmhands with a minimum of 300 plate appearances. And d'Arnaud's 16-homet and 52-RBI totals were on pace to become career bests until his year ended prematurely.

"I thought he would be challenged, but he started well and was good throughout," Blue Jays Minor League field coordinator Doug Davis said of the prospect's first run through the Pacific Coast League."He showed us what we thought he was capable of offensively -- hitting, hitting for power, driving in runs."

There is more for the new Met to improve upon defensively, though."He needs to improve his game calling, taking charge of a pitching staff," Davis added."And he's a good thrower now, but I think he'll be even better."

First base -- David Cooper, Las Vegas (68 games), Toronto (45 games): Like d'Arnaud, Cooper made our list for a second consecutive year, fending off fellow sluggers Mike McDade and K.C. Hobson. The lefty-hitting slugger also put up a d'Arnaud-like slash line -- .314/.395/.540 -- before doing nearly as well over a 45-game stretch in the Majors, where he appears destined to stay. Davis explained why:"He doesn't go into slumps."

Second base -- Ryan Schimpf, Dunedin (96 games), New Hampshire (33 games): How does a 5-foot-9, 181-pound infielder rack up 22 home runs (a dozen more than his previous career best), 37 doubles and 76 RBIs? By using both hands.

"His top (left) hand is incredible," said his Fisher Cats manager, Sal Fasano."He gets a lot of acceleration and puts a lot of backspin on the ball."

And while Schimpf's aggressive style led to 121 strikeouts, he also batted a respectable .269 and reached base safely in 37 percent of his plate appearances.

Fasano said Schimpf is an adequate defender at second, third base and in left field. But it's his bat that will carry him forward.

Third base -- Mark Sobolewski, New Hampshire (94 games), Las Vegas (23 games): The right-handed hitter earned this honor for his strong play for Fasano. With the Fisher Cats, Sobolewski batted .262 and hit 18 of his 20 home runs, which doubled his previous career high. For the 51s, in what was his first experience above Double-A, the one-time fourth-round draftee batted just .188. That number doesn't have anyone worried.

"I've had Mark for three years, and he's improved the most of all those guys [I've managed] for three years," Fasano said."He's always hit for average, he'd shy away from trying to pull the ball. Now he's learning how to balance power and average."

Shortstop -- Ryan Goins, New Hampshire (136 games): Goins edges Dunedin's .316-hitting Kevin Nolan (and Las Vegas' slick-fielding Adeiny Hechavarria and his .312 average) because his game was more well rounded this year. In addition to posting .289/.342/.403 marks and stealing 15 bases, this four-year pro played strong defense at the infield's most arduous position. (He committed 16 errors in 136 games; Nolan committed 16 in 78 games.)

"He didn't get a lot of notoriety -- Ryan Goins might not be as big a name as the Manny Machados -- but he was as good as anybody at shortstop," Fasano said."If he has the same type of year in Buffalo next year, if he comes on like he did this year, there is a chance he could be a September callup."


Moises Sierra, Las Vegas (100 games), Toronto (49 games): Another Jays farmhand who performed offensively and defensively, Sierra leads our group of outfielders. First, the offense: He batted .289, hit 17 home runs and drove in 63 RBIs -- all approaching the highs of his seven-year career. He was promoted too fast to break his own records.

And the defense? He had 10 outfield assists in the PCL prior to his callup.

"He has an 80-arm, and he showed that at that level," said Davis, citing the perfect score on a scout's 20-80 scale for evaluating tools.

Kevin Pillar, Lansing (86 games), Dunedin (42 games): That's Kevin Pillar -- not Kevin Millar. Though like the former Red Sox standout, Pillar is a right-handed batter who hits well. He amassed a .323 average with 91 RBIs while also stealing 51 bases in 60 attempts. He is a career .331 hitter in the Minors. Not bad for a 2011 32nd-round draftee.

Anthony Gose, Las Vegas (102 games), Toronto (56 games): A third Jays farmhand to receive this distinction two years running, Gose batted a career-high .286 while compiling 36 extra-base hits, 43 RBIs and 34 steals for the 51s. He was less successful in his time in Toronto, but was otherwise impressive in his first season above Double-A. As Davis said succinctly,"He was a threat in every game he played."

Designated hitter -- Ricardo Nanita, Las Vegas (93 games): Bumped as an outfielder on this list, Nanita is a 31-year-old veteran who hits like he's still in his 20s. Despite not being a full-time player throughout the year -- he received only 333 at-bats -- the lefty swinger batted .306 and lifted a dozen longballs.

"He is just a natural hitter," Davis said."He suits the DH role well: He can sit, not play defense and then go produce. He also hits lefties as well as he does righties."

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Noah Syndergaard, Lansing (27 games): Now it gets complicated. Juxtaposing pitchers in Toronto's system in 2012 is no easy task, but Syndergaard stood out for a couple reasons.

"What separates him from everyone else is his command," Davis said of his club's former fourth-ranked prospect."As hard as he throws, he's a command pitcher."

The numbers to go along with his stuff help too. This 20-year-old Texan (8-5, 2.60 ERA) fashioned a 122-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio and held Midwest League batters to a .212 batting average. His durability also gave him a slight edge over rotation mate Aaron Sanchez (8-5, 2.49), who also enjoyed a banner campaign.

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Sean Nolin, Dunedin (17 games), New Hampshire (three games): If any of the Jays' top young pitchers went underappreciated this year, it was Nolin, hidden behind the Syndergaard-Sanchez-Justin Nicolino trio at Lansing. Now the Jays' No. 14 prospect, Nolin (10-0, 2.04 ERA) barely edged fellow lefty Nicolino (10-4, 2.46) in this slot. In addition to his undefeated record, the 22-year-old (he turns 23 a week from today) registered a 108-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding the opposition to a .218 average.

To paraphrase the scouting report of Fasano, a former Major League catcher: Nolin throws a good fastball, curveball, slider and his changeup is already a Major League average pitch. He's also become more fit since he came out of junior college as a 2010 sixth-round draftee. Now 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, Nolin needs to improve his in-game mental adjustments (i.e., throwing a certain pitch in a particular situation). If he can do that, he could be in the big leagues by next season.

Relief pitcher -- Danny Barnes, Dunedin (50 games), New Hampshire (one game): The Jays' depth in hurlers continues into the bullpen. Barnes (1-3, 1.87 ERA), a 35th-round draftee in 2010 out of Princeton University, struck out 65 batters in 53 innings, recorded a Minor Leagues-leading 34 saves and held the opposition scoreless in his final 15 appearances at the Class A Advanced level.

"He has such a good arm," said Fasano, who also managed Barnes at Lansing in 2011."We see him as a late-inning [prospect] in the bullpen because he throws a really good sinker with good velocity and slider. He has mastered two pitches. He just needs to work on being quicker to the plate."

Andrew Pentis is a contributor to and writes the Prospective Blog. Follow him on Twitter at AndrewMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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