Richard Ureña earned a recent promotion to New Hampshire. Photo credit: Jay Blue/BlueJays From Away.
Gil Kim had chatted with me for 20 minutes about some of the Blue Jays top prospects. Then I asked him whether, in his first year as the club’s first director of player development, he had come across any pleasant surprises – a player who blossomed after starting the season as roster filler.
Kim had to think for a moment. His daily duties involve checking on every player in a minor-league system comprising close to 200 players. It’s in his nature to see potential in every one.
“I don’t know if it’s my scouting background, but I tend to believe in these guys, you know?” he said. “I believe every single one of them can be very good baseball players.”
Then he thought some more, and came up with a name: Nash Knight.
If you’re thinking Nash Knight sounds like a movie character, you’re half right. Knight told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph last month that his father picked the name because he liked a good-guy cowboy named Nash in an old Western movie. At the time of that interview, Nash Knight was tearing up the Appalachian League in Bluefield, Va.
After batting .402 with a 1.060 OPS in 25 games for Bluefield, the next-to-lowest level in the system, Knight was recently promoted to Vancouver.
Undrafted after finishing his college career at Dallas Baptist, Knight signed with the Jays and batted .207 in the Gulf Coast League last season as a utility infielder. In Bluefield this year, he began to turn some heads.
“What sticks out to me – and it’s not anything surprising to anybody who knows him – is the attention to detail and the focus he has in his work and the consistent effort,” Kim said. “He approaches every aspect of his pre-game routine with detail and focus. If it’s a 4-3 or a 6-3 or an F-7, he’s running hard out of the box. He gets most out of his abilities. He walks, talks and acts like a true professional. He’s very versatile defensively. He’s one of those players who just puts his head down and gets to work.”
Knight is a long way from landing on anybody’s top prospect list. But his character and work ethic exemplify what Kim and his staff look for in a prospect.
“Those are the types of guys you look up in five or six years and all the signs were there,” Kim said. “That’s why that mentality and that makeup are so important, and really a foundation to building not just a major-league baseball player but a major-league human being.”
The other players we discussed – by no measure a comprehensive list – are generally recognized as legitimate prospects by the folks who make the lists, particularly those at Baseball America (subscription required) and MLB.com’s MLBPipeline. Naturally, Kim looks on the bright side with every one. Here’s what he had to say about them.
Max Pentecost has been catching in the bullpen, but will not catch in games this season. Photo credit: John Lott
Max Pentecost, 23, C-DH, .314/.375/.490 at low-A Lansing
Many Blue Jays fans are familiar with the Pentecost saga:
· drafted 11th overall as a top catching prospect in 2014;
· three surgeries on his right shoulder in two years;
· then, a long, arduous road to build up his arm to throwing strength.
He’s still on that road.
When I visited Lansing in June to do a story on Pentecost, he was throwing every day and both he and manager John Schneider expected him to be catching by about this time. As it turns out, the Jays had no plans for Pentecost to do more than DH while slowly strengthening his arm this year.
“I think there’s been some confusion (about the plans for Pentecost) from what I’ve been reading,” Kim said. “The most important thing was for him to get consistent at-bats at a full-season affiliate. He’s doing very well. We don’t plan on him catching before the end of the season.”
Pentecost’s gap-to-gap hitting habit – he tripled in three straight games last week – has advanced as the season wore on, and the Jays are delighted with his hitting approach as well as his results, Kim said.
“Hopefully next year he will be built up and ready to go (as a catcher),” Kim said. “We still have confidence in him as a catcher.”
Pentecost banged up his left shoulder on an awkward slide into home plate last Wednesday. He’s on the seven-day DL. “He’ll be fine in a few days,” Kim said.
Anthony Alford is on a roll after rebounding from two injuries. Photo credit: John Lott
Anthony Alford, 22, CF, .239/.339/.375 at high-A Dunedin
Before the season, Alford was widely regarded as the Jays’ top prospect. Then, an opening-day knee injury cost him a month and a concussion idled him for almost two weeks. He was slow to regain his can’t-miss form of last season, but recently began to take off. In his past 25 games, Alford has slashed .330/.439/.585. Fourteen of his 31 hits in that stretch went for extra bases.
“Anthony is one of the most impressive people that I have ever come across,” Kim said. “His professionalism, positivity, maturity are off the charts, and that’s how he dealt with a couple injuries and maybe not as hot of a start as he would have preferred to get out to.
“Through it all, his work ethic never wavered. His commitment and positivity didn’t waver. Sometimes we forget his development path and the fact that last year was his first full season. He’s had some ups and downs, but he’s started to pick it up and we fully expect him to continue to improve.”
Richard Ureña, 20, SS, .311/.354/.458 at high-A Dunedin and Double-A New Hampshire
Ureña, a 2012 international signee from the Dominican Republic, is enjoying a breakthrough year, thanks in part to the help of a fellow player at Dunedin.
Kim credits Dunedin manager Ken Huckaby and roving infield instructor Danny Solano with helping Ureña polish his approach. But he also says seldom-used reserve infielder Andy Fermin, the son of a former big-leaguer, assumed a “big-brother role.”
“Andy is an experienced, mature, calm presence with a lot of knowledge for the game,” Kim said. “As a player, he’s taken a leadership role with Richard.”
After Ureña averaged 22 errors over the last four seasons, a priority entering the season was to sharpen his concentration and throwing mechanics on defence.
“(The coaching staff has) really made a lot of positive strides with him in terms of his footwork to and through ground balls,” Kim said. “That focus and concentration extended to the batter’s box. That was the biggest area of focus and subsequent improvement. We can’t give enough credit to Richard himself, first of all, for taking on these challenges and running with them, and Huck, Danny and Andy. It was a big group effort, and Richard has really taken his game to the next level.”
Sean Reid-Foley has taken off in the Florida State League. Photo credit: John Lott
Sean Reid-Foley, 20, RHP, 10-4, 2.46 ERA, 0.953 WHIP between Lansing and Dunedin
There never has been any question about Reid-Foley’s stuff. But last year his strikeout/walk ratio was 1.87; this year it’s 4.63. Last year he averaged 3.84 innings per start; this year, 5.67.
He was not keen on returning to Lansing to start this season, but it paid off.
“Our pitching co-ordinator, Sal Fasano, did a very good job of outlining certain goals for Sean coming into spring training,” Kim said. “He came in in very good shape, determined to work hard. He left on that trip to Lansing on a mission.”
Kim said the Lansing staff reported that Reid-Foley accepted every assignment, from conditioning to sharpening his command, with a vengeance.
“It’s been great to see him stay committed to a consistent delivery and emphasizing fastball command,” Kim said. “Obviously, he’s taken off.”
Conner Greene excelled in Dunedin but has had mixed results in New Hampshire. Photo credit: John Lott
Conner Greene, 21, RHP, 7-8, 4.71 ERA, 1.440 WHIP between Dunedin and New Hampshire
After Greene ascended three levels last year, Baseball America ranked him No. 2 on the Blue Jays’ pre-season prospect list. He was not pleased when the Jays bumped him back to Dunedin to start this season, but his 2.90 ERA in 15 starts earned him another shot at Double-A. So far, the results there have been mixed: two sketchy starts, then three excellent ones, then two that were unremarkable. High pitch counts have been consistent. His strikeout/walk ratio is 1.45.
“No, there aren’t any concerns with Conner,” Kim insisted. “He’s a confident, athletic pitcher with a naturally gifted arm. He began the year in Dunedin and was one of the better performers, went to an all-star game. We concentrated with him on his focus and he improved greatly and earned the promotion to New Hampshire. He’s very young for that level of competition and he’s doing well. He’s doing what he and the organization had agreed that he would work on.”
Bo Bichette, 18, SS, .421/.440/.724 in the low rookie-level Gulf Coast League
The son of former big-league outfielder Dante Bichette was the Blue Jays’ second-round pick out of a Florida high school in the June draft. Now on the DL, he got off to a torrid start with 32 hits in 20 games, including 10 multi-hit games.
On July 21, he felt ill and left the game.
“It was an appendix issue, although he has not had it removed,” Kim said. “He’s shut down for now. We’re closely monitoring him and he’ll be followed up with doctors here shortly.”
Given that the GCL schedule ends Sept. 1, it’s questionable whether Bichette will play again this season.
“Bo probably had one of the more impressive starts to a professional career, which was great to see,” Kim said. “He obviously comes from a baseball family. He’s handling this with a lot of maturity. He’ll be fine.”