BURLINGTON, N.C.—A routine Rookie-level Appalachian League series between the host Royals and the visiting Bluefield Blue Jays was anything but routine in one respect—the bank account.
Adding up the notable signing bonuses on each roster put the value over $20 million. That was accented by outfielder Bubba Starling’s $7.5 million bonus for bypassing a scholarship to play baseball and football at Nebraska. However, Starling sat out the first series nursing an injured hamstring.
One sentiment about the earlier signing deadline for draft picks is that it helps short season leagues, as players have signed quicker and made their professional debuts in 2012. The level of talent in these leagues is especially high this year, with 2012 draft picks debuting as well as many players that signed late last summer.
The Appalachian League is hosting some of the best players it’s seen in a while, and the Bluefield Blue Jays are one team in particular that features several top prospects. Bluefield has nine players, including four pitchers, from the organization’s Top 30 Prospects plus a handful of others worth tracking. With a wealth of pitching talent, the Blue Jays are using the piggyback system to get everyone innings and have at least one or two big arms they can roll out each night, keeping pitching coach Antonio Caceres busy, but excited.
“It’s a lot of fun and very exciting,” he said. “Working day in and day out with these guys, you know they’re going to get better. You’re going to see the progress through the year and you get excited about everything. For me, sometimes there’s some pressure, but I relax with those guys and let them do their thing. We’re excited about the season. They’re going to continue to get better.”
In the two games between the Jays and Royals in late June, Bluefield rolled out interesting pitcher after interesting pitcher. It started with righthander Tom Robson, a fourth-round pick out of Canada in 2011 who received a $325,000 bonus. He has a good pitcher’s frame at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds. He sat 87-89 in four innings of work, allowing three hits and striking out one. He threw mostly fastballs in the outing, but did snap off a couple of good, sharp curveballs at 79 mph and flashed a developing changeup in the low 80s.
Robson was replaced by righthander Kevin Comer in the fifth. Comer was taken in the first supplemental round in 2011 and handed a $1.65 million bonus to sign rather than attend Vanderbilt. He has excellent upside thanks to an extremely projectable frame at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds with very wide shoulders and lean limbs. He sat 88-89 with his fastball, which had good life to his arm side.
“He’s a strong kid,” Caceres said. “He has a good body. I like the way he pitches. He’s aggressive, he sinks the ball pretty well. His changeup, that’s the one thing we really emphasize with the younger kids. They don’t throw a changeup much in high school. That’s one of our big things—they’ve got to come in throwing their changeup. (Comer) worked on it a lot in spring training and it looked pretty good the other night.”
Comer’s changeup featured good fade and sat in the low 80s while he mixed in a sharp breaking ball in the mid 70s. The Blue Jays have their young arms throwing mostly fastballs in an effort to establish command of the pitch. Each pitcher threw at least 90 percent fastballs in their outings.
“For these young guys, what we want is them to learn how to command the fastball,” Caceres said. “We think if you can’t command the fastball, you can’t pitch. You learn how to command the fastball down in the zone and changing speeds. That’s the first step for these young guys. We always know the breaking ball is there. We learn how to command the fastball, get the delivery going and then everything else is going to be OK.”
Next to Comer, righthander Roberto Osuna was one of the most impressive arms in the series. He is listed at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds but has reportedly lost about 10 pounds and worked hard to get in better shape. He signed out of Mexico last year for $1.5 million, and scouts’ biggest concern was if he would be able to keep his body in check. He’ll have to continue working at it as he gets older, but he looked to be in good shape this week and put his stuff on display, but apparently wasn’t as sharp according to Caceres.
“You didn’t see the best of him,” he said. “He was just OK. He’s pretty good. He pitches in the low 90s and can get into the mid 90s at times with his fastball. He throws strikes and knows what he’s doing on the mound. He’s very impressive for his age. He’s on limited pitches right now because he hasn’t pitched much. He already has a pretty good changeup, pretty good slider and he commands all of his pitches pretty well. And just the way he handles himself on the mound. His mound presence, if he gets in trouble, he’s the same guy. He keeps his composure.”
Osuna, the nephew of ex-Dodgers pitcher Antonio Osuna, turned 17 in February and is the youngest player on the roster. He threw only three innings, but was consistently sitting at 91 mph with fastball. He touched 93 a couple times and hit 94 once. His changeup had good fade and sat 79-80 while his slider flashed sharp break and sat in the low 80s. He allowed an unearned run, one hit and struck out three against Burlington. He was relieved by righthander Jeremy Grabyszwski, who allowed two solo home runs in four innings. He was sitting in the high 80s with a low-80s changeup and low-70s curveball.
With the exception of Osuna, the Blue Jays’ righthanders didn’t crack the 90 mph watermark, but Caceres attributes that to young arms getting used to a pro regimen.
“All these young kids coming out of high school, they’re not always used to throwing every day,” he said. “They’re not used to going in day in and day out without a day off. They’re all going through the same thing. That doesn’t worry me too much. I think they’re going to be OK.”
They didn’t pitch in the first series against Burlington, but Bluefield also has highly touted arms in lefthander Daniel Norris and righthander Joe Musgrove. Norris was expected to be a first-round pick in 2011, but his asking price and commitment to Clemson caused him to fall to the second round where the Blue Jays snatched him and paid him $2 million to sign. He’s an athletic southpaw with a four-pitch mix.
“He’s going to be a pretty good pitcher,” Caceres said. “He has a great arm. He’s low 90s right now. For me, he’s going to have four average to plus pitches. It’s a matter of time. His mechanics are so much better. He has a better rhythm in his delivery, he’s more fluid. It’s more in sync.”
Musgrove was a late bloomer in Southern California, standing out at a showcase in February of his senior year. A 6-foot-5, 230 pounder, he’s known for having a heavy fastball.
“He’s a big guy and works downhill,” Caceres said. “He knows how to pitch. His mound presence is unbelievable. He’s more advanced than other guys. He controls the running game. He’s very athletic. He can move quickly. He’s one guy, we were worried about his velocity a little bit, but he got up to 94 the other night. It’s a matter of time for those guys getting used to the program and the velocity will be there.”