The New Hampshire Fisher Cats didn’t feature a lot of big boppers with the bats. Several were very solid, however, and kept the team in contention right up until the end of the season.
The catcher with the most games under his belt for the Fisher Cats was Jack Murphy, the Blue Jays’ 31st round pick in 2009. While he shaved the bizarre moustache (check out his player page on MiLB.com to see it in all its lopsided glory), Murphy, 25, got a lot of playing time without a lot of success with the bat. Hitting .218/.269/.330 in 214 plate appearances, Murphy was solid behind the plate, throwing out 28% of baserunners trying to steal. Murphy is heading to Australia for some Winter Ball action (as he did last year) and will likely return to the Fisher Cats in 2014.
The Blue Jays’ best catching prospect is 23-year-old A.J. Jimenez. Jimenez, the 2008 ninth round pick of the Blue Jays out of Puerto Rico, got a late start to the year after missing most of last season with Tommy John surgery. While he started slow with the bat in 2012, 2013 was a different story for Jimenez, who destroyed pitching in the Florida State League (as a rehab assignment) before returning to New Hampshire. After his return, Jimenez hit .276/.327/.394 with three home runs in 223 plate appearances. Throughout his minor league career, Jimenez has hit for contact but not much power and, although he started to show a bit of power in 2013, still hasn’t really made good on converting the contact and solid plate mechanics into gobs of extra-base hits. Jimenez won’t strike out a lot (only 16.6% in Double-A) but his walk rate is also fairly low (7.2%). He earned a callup to Triple-A Buffalo this season and was supposed to get a major league callup in September (already being on the 40-man roster) and an Arizona Fall League assignment but both were cancelled after some complications in his throwing arm. He’ll most likely be in Buffalo to start 2014 and while his defense is excellent (he throws out almost half of runners stealing), he needs to hit more to convince people that his bat will be good enough to be a major league starter.
Playing the most games at first base was minor league veteran (with some major league experience) Clint Robinson. Robinson, 28, was picked up by the Blue Jays off of waivers in March before being sent outright to New Hampshire on May 31. Robinson was promoted to Buffalo in July but didn’t play as much there (nor did he play as well). Robinson was outstanding with New Hampshire, hitting .270/.364/.446 with 11 home runs in 332 plate appearances. His best asset is his eye, taking 40 walks and only striking out 50 times. In 130 plate appearances in Buffalo, Robinson’s walk rate went up but so did his strikeout rate and the rest of his numbers plummeted (.213/.323/.352). Robinson may well be eligible to elect free agency this month and I can see him doing so instead of returning to the Blue Jays although I think that the organization is probably somewhat thin at first base in the upper levels and Robinson may well have a place in Buffalo.
Getting the most games at second base for the Fisher Cats was 2007 second round draft pick John Tolisano. Despite an injury that kept him out of action for a while, Tolisano still had 248 plate appearances in New Hampshire and hit .243/.312/.392 with five home runs. 2013 was Tolisano’s third year in Double-A and, if I had to speculate, likely his last with the Blue Jays organization. His numbers have declined somewhat since 2011 (his first shot with the Fisher Cats) and, as a seven-year minor league veteran, he should be able to elect free agency after this season.
Starting the season as the every day third baseman for the Fisher Cats was Ryan Schimpf. The five-foot-nine player is versatile and powerful, leading the team (and league) in home runs with 23 in 2013. Schimpf, 25, is becoming more and more of a “Three True Outcome” player hitting .210/.338/.428 for a very solid .766 OPS. While Schimpf has a good eye, taking a walk in 14.9% of plate appearances, he also seems to swing for the fences, striking out 26.1% of the time. I can see Schimpf starting 2014 in New Hampshire but could get the call to Buffalo due to his ability to play second base, third base and left field.
Taking over the every day duties at third base after his promotion was Andy Burns. Burns, 23, spent the first half of the season dominating in Dunedin, hitting .327/.383/.524 with eight home runs and 21 stolen bases before the promotion. While he struggled early on in his first exposure to a new level, he recovered and finished the season strongly with a .253/.309/.419 slash line with seven home runs and 12 stolen bases. Seeing Burns early on after his promotion, I saw a player with tremendous athleticism at third base. He frequently makes jaw-dropping plays on defense and the former shortstop will have no problems playing excellent defense at higher levels. While he may end up back in New Hampshire, I can see Burns moving up to Triple-A after his stint in the Arizona Fall League.
Shortstop Kevin Nolan was a fan favourite in New Hampshire because he was playing not far from where he grew up. Nolan, 25, a native of Nashua, New Hampshire (the Fisher Cats play out of Manchester), had a solid year with both the bat and the glove, earning himself an Eastern League All-Star berth on the strength of a .262/.329/.389 season with a career-high nine home runs in 504 plate appearances. Nolan is a solid player but really isn’t exceptional in any one area with good contact skills, a decent eye, good defense and below average power and speed. He might make the jump to Buffalo next year but could end up back in Manchester again.
Starting most of the season in right field was another Eastern League All-Star, Brad Glenn. Glenn, 26, had similar numbers to Nolan but with more power. The 2009 23rd rounder hit fewer home runs in New Hampshire than he did in 2012 but did so with a better batting average resulting in better numbers overall (.264/.334/.459 with 17 home runs in 477 plate appearances). Glenn earned a late-season promotion to Buffalo where he hit another five home runs in 18 games and had a very solid showing, improving his walk and strikeout percentages in his 70 Triple-A plate appearances. Glenn will likely return to Buffalo for another go in 2014.
No report on the 2013 New Hampshire Fisher Cats would be complete without mentioning Kevin Pillar. Pillar, 24, was a late draftee — 32nd round — in the 2011 draft and made a very rapid ascent through the Blue Jays organization, leaving a trail of awestruck fans, teammates and broadcasters in his wake. Starting the season in New Hampshire after a 2012 season that saw him win the MVP award in the Midwest League (and play part of the season in Dunedin), Pillar absolutely crushed Double-A pitching before his inevitable promotion to Buffalo where he continued to rake. Hitting a combined .307/.353/.461 in 545 minor league plate appearances, Pillar got to the big leagues on August 14 (two days before I was scheduled to go to Buffalo and interview him). While he struggled in his first exposure to major league pitching (.206/.250/.333), Pillar showed his outstanding defense and his ability to adjust throughout his stay in Toronto. My gut feeling is that Pillar only makes the Blue Jays in 2014 if he’s a fifth outfielder (with Bautista, Rasmus, Cabrera and Gose ahead of him) and if the Jays don’t add anyone to play in the outfield. I see him in Buffalo ready to be recalled in case of an injury.
Center fielder Kenny Wilson was poised to break out as the season started. And then the 2008 second-rounder got injured and his strong start to 2013 was wasted. After four seasons in which he barely made contact in the low minors (batting averages of .210, .211, .205 and .201),Wilson, 23, responded with his best season (by far) in 2012, hitting a combined .260/.362/.358 between Lansing and Dunedin. Now, in his first opportunity to compete against Double-A opposition, Wilson on the right track again, hitting .259/.333/.375 in 242 plate appearances with 16 stolen bases. The speedy center fielder is now playing in the Arizona Fall League and will likely return to Double-A New Hampshire to start 2014.
After Wilson’s injury and Pillar’s promotion, the New Hampshire outfield was left shorthanded and veteran Adam Loewen took over the reigns in center field. Loewen, 29, had one of his best seasons as a hitter, batting .269/.358/.439 with 15 home runs in 491 plate appearances. The fourth overall pick in 2002, Loewen’s long route back to the high minors as a hitter is well documented and the Canadian outfielder could very well be back in the Blue Jays organization next year. He told me in an interview in June that he feels very comfortable with the Blue Jays and that, I’m sure, will weigh in his mind when he decides what his next step will be. As a long-time veteran, he will be a free agent after the season.
The last member of the regular outfield for the Fisher Cats was the player who made the least noise, Brian Van Kirk. Van Kirk, 28, was a 21st round pick in 2008 and has steadily moved up the ranks with the Blue Jays. In 2013, he was of the most steady hitters in the lineup despite a lack of power. Van Kirk hit .278/.412/.355 in 289 plate appearance but hit only two home runs. He doesn’t have a lot of speed and isn’t a particularly great defender and as such, he will likely be a career minor leaguer. I can see Van Kirk coming back to New Hampshire as a utility outfielder.
Several players served in backup roles in the infield. Kevin Ahrens, like John Tolisano, was an early round pick for the Blue Jays in the late 2000′s, going 16th overall in 2007. Ahrens, despite showing some power at times, continued to regress with the bat, hitting .218/.285/.340 in 265 plate appearances at the age of 24. Ahrens should be eligible to declare free agency this year and, since he hasn’t taken a big step forward in his seven minor league seasons, I can see him looking to catch on elsewhere. Infielder Amadeo Zazueta, 27, signed on with the Blue Jays as a minor league free agent in 2012 and served this season as a light-hitting backup, hitting .213/.228/.264 in 160 plate appearances. After an outstanding start to Spring Training in big league camp for veteran Lance Zawadzki, the 28-year-old minor league veteran’s playing dropped off and he wound up in Buffalo to start the year. After an injury, he finished the season in New Hampshire, hitting .220/.286/.268 in 92 plate appearances. Six-foot-three 24-year-old Jon Talley also had a rough season split between Dunedin and New Hampshire. In only 142 plate appearances overall, he only hit .180/.225/.338, showing some power with 12 doubles and three home runs. 30-year-old Tommy Manzella was signed during the year and was subsequently released after injured players returned. In 75 plate appearances, Manzella hit .265/.320/.338 before his release. He did catch on with the White Sox organization and was playing in Birmingham at the end of the season. Finally, outfielder Ricardo amassed a few more plate appearances in New Hampshire than in Buffalo so I’ll write about him here. Between the two teams, Nanita put up solid numbers, hitting .258/.312/.376 with six home runs in 296 plate appearances. Nanita is 32 and a minor league veteran and will probably only be around if an emergency arises.
All photos copyright Blue Jays from Away (2013) and may not be used without permission.