On this week’s belated edition, we have two relievers shaping up to be potential weapons as early as next season, and a right handed bench bat who’s forced himself into the roster conversation.
T.J. Brock, RHP, AA New Hampshire
Brock was the Jays’ 6th round selection last summer. Brock struggled in his four seasons at Ohio State, striking out 90 in 77.2 innings but walking 50 and compiling a 5.68 ERA. His fastball touches 99 and his slider is a plus pitch as well, but throughout his amateur career he struggled to throw strikes. He was a ‘just missed’ on our prospect list this past winter, as Matt and I were intrigued by his stuff but wary of the command issues.
As a pro, he appears to have made some strides in that department. Last season, he walked 6 of 56 batters he faced, a 10.7% rate that while below average was hardly disastrous considering his 39.3% strikeout rate. This season has been more of the same, with 9 walks issued to 100 batters faced in 24.1 innings between A+ Vancouver and AA New Hampshire.
So if the command has improved, how is the stuff? Well, during his stint with Vancouver this year, batters swung and missed at 20.7% of the pitches he threw, the best among all pitchers to log at least 20 innings in a High A league this season. So far that’s continued in New Hampshire, with AA hitters missing 21% of the time. To put that rate in context, only Felix Bautista and Jacob DeGrom have induced whiffs on more than 20% of their pitches at the major league level this year. Obviously, you’d expect Brock to be a bit less effective against MLB caliber competition than he is in AA, but even with some decline it appears he’s going to be able to miss bats.
Being a pure reliever who will turn 24 in August, there’s no reason for the Jays not to move Brock along quickly. He probably won’t be a factor in 2023, just given his relative lack of experience and the fact that he’s not on the 40 man, but given health and the continued ability to rein in his command just enough, he could enter the picture any time next season.
Connor Cooke, RHP, AA New Hampshire
Brock’s teammate with the Fisher Cats (and fellow Cincinnatian), Cooke was drafted one year earlier out of the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. He had a different profile at the time he was drafted, with a fastball more in the 89-91 range but a full repertoire and solid command. Cooke began his first full pro season as a starter (or as the second part of a piggyback start), going 3-4 innings at a time. Last August, though, he was moved to the bullpen, and that’s where he’s been since.
Like a few other Jays pitchers since the opening of the new pitching lab at the Dunedin Complex, Cooke has seen his velocity take a big step forward. He was 92-93mph last season, touching 97 on occasion, and in spring training this season he was getting up to 98. He pairs it with a slider that he can spin at up to 3100 RPM, which is near elite, and which generates huge horizontal sweep.
That stuff has translated into a 46.5% strikeout rate in 19.2 innings about evenly split between A+ and AA this season, with an 8.5% walk rate that’s very good for a high K reliever. His 38% K%-BB% is better than all but one other pitcher in all of MiLB with at least 15 innings pitched.
Good developmental teams always seem to have a deep stable of bullpen arms just waiting for a call in AAA. Converting consistently on mid round picks like Brock and Cooke is a big part of how the Jays can get there. His track record so far is still short, and there’s another level to climb before he’s ready to be considered for a call up, but the early returns have been promising.
Davis Schneider, RHB Util, AAA Buffalo
I’ve been watching Schneider all season, but hadn’t written about him yet because he’s a 24 year old former 28th round pick (a round that doesn’t even exist anymore) with a good but not great performance track record and no definite defensive home (he splits his time between second base, third base, and left field but isn’t great anywhere). He made our just missed list this past winter, but I wasn’t sure he was likely to have an MLB role. This past week he kind of forced my hand, though, going 9/18 with three homers and two doubles, while walking 7 times and striking out 5. Hard to ignore an OPS that starts with a 17.
Overall, Schneider is hitting .267/.388/.550. His 14 home runs are 2 shy of his career high set least year in about half the number of PA. He’s also striking out at his lowest rate since rookie ball back in 2017 (23.3%) and walking about 16% of the time. Most intriguingly, Baseball America reports that his average exit velocity has jumped up to 91mph this season. That would put him in the 76th percentile among MLB hitters this season.
How he fits into an MLB roster remains to be determined. Right handed non-shortstop utility is a tough profile, so he’ll need all of his offensive skills to translate to justify a roster spot. His performance this year puts that outcome on the table, though, and his Rule 5 draft eligibility will force the Jays to make a choice about his future this winter.