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Taking Wing

Toronto Blue Jays Photo Day Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

This week, three 2021 acquisitions. One is with the big league club right now, one is knocking on the door, and one is a long ways away but off to a promising start.

Bowden Francis, RHP, AAA Buffalo

Francis was acquired from the Brewers in 2021 as part of the return for Rowdy Tellez. He posted middling results in Buffalo that season, and struggled last year to the tune of a 6.59 ERA with the Bisons. He did make hims major league debut, though, getting a cup of coffee in May and making one relief appearance.

Back in AAA for a third tour to start this season, he appears to have taken a significant step forward. Due to an injury, he’s only made five starts, including one rehab appearance with Dunedin, totaling 18.2 innings. He’s made an impression in that time, though, striking out 26 of the 74 batters he’s faced while walking only 4. It’s a tiny sample so far, but one metric that we can actually draw some useful conclusions from in just a couple of hundred pitches is swinging strike rate. In that metric, Francis’s 17.1% rate ranks 22nd out of 560 pitchers with at least 10 AAA IP this season.

The big change appears to be his velocity. In his most recent appearance, on May 1st, Francis sat between 93 and 96. Previously, he’s been in the 92-93mph range, occasionally touching 95. In the majors, his average from last Wednesday’s appearance would put him in roughly the 61st percentile. He’s also maintained his above average backspin, with average vertical drop of 13.2 inches, which would be solidly above average for MLB fastballs in the 94mph range. The improvement changes his fastball from fringe average to plus, giving him a primary weapon that has a good chance to miss bats at the MLB level. He leans on his best pitch, throwing it a little over half the time.

His secondaries don’t seem to have changed much: a very slow curve that comes in around 74mph, with solid drop and excellent horizontal run that he throws about 30% of the time and mostly tries to drop in for called strikes and a slider around 84mph with average movement that draws some swings and misses. Both grade out as solid but neither is clearly plus. They probably both benefit from hitters having to gear up for his now somewhat imposing fastball, since both are quite slow and force hitters to cover a wide range of speeds.

It’s early, and it’ll take more than four good starts to wash away two years of struggles, but there are real changes that suggest Francis might have an MLB future after all. Given that the Jays are now relying on him to at least partly fill Alek Manoah’s role, the change couldn’t have come at a better time.

Hayden Juenger, RHP, AAA Buffalo

Juenger was a 6th round pick in 2021 out of Missouri State. A reliever in college, as a pro the Jays tried him in a hybrid role last season, making 3-4 inning appearances either as a starter or following an opener. This year, promoted to Buffalo, Juenger has shifted back to a more conventional reliever role, making one and two inning appearances. The headline result, a 5.70 ERA, has been ugly, but that’s entirely due to a hard luck .436 BABIP. Under the hood, things are looking interesting. His 31.9% strikeout rate is in the 93rd percentile among AAA pitchers, and he’s cut his walk rate a little from last year’s 10.2% to a close to average 8.7%.

Juenger’s stuff is still more or less the same as it has been. His fastball is 93-95mph, occasionally touching 96 or 97, but it has huge horizontal break, running 12.4 inches to his arm side in addition to solid vertical ride. Coming out of his low arm slot, it creates a really uncomfortable look for hitters. He throws the pitch about two thirds of the time. His second pitch is a changeup in the 85mph range with about 21 inches of horizontal run, which would put it among the best in the major leagues. Changes are hard to grade based solely on shape, because they usually rely on deception as much as movement to fool hitters, but with that kind of movement Juenger’s can operate almost like a screwball, beating hitters just with break. This third pitch is an average hard slider in the 89mph range.

Juenger’s success in his new role should move him up on the call up list in case the Jays need a reliever, although not being on the 40 man roster might delay his debut unless there’s a serious injury that allows the team to put a current reliever on the 60 day IL.

Jaden Rudd, LHB OF, A Dunedin

Rudd, hailing form the baseball hotbed of Lakenheath, England (where his dad, a fighter pilot, was stationed at the time), was drafted in the seventh round back in 2021. After a season and a half at the complex, he’s making his full season debut with Dunedin as a 20 year old. Before the season, he represented Great Britain at the World Baseball Classic, hitting a key home run in qualifying to help send the team to the tournament and then gathering two hits (including one off Adam Wainwright) in 6 AB at the WBC itself.

So far, Rudd is hitting .227/.393/.352, good for a 122 wRC+. His 17.7% walk rate is in the 91st percentile among all players with 100 PAs in A ball this season. He’s striking out at an above average 24.4% clip, but his swinging strike rate is an excellent 8.2% (93rd percentile), so that’s more about a perhaps excessively patient approach than a lack of hitting ability. He’s not a power hitter (two home runs, two triples and seven doubles in 168 PA so far), and at 5’10” and 185lbs he probably won’t be, but he has a knack for barreling up the ball, including two hard hit balls (for a single and a double) last night. On 12 balls in play over the past week, he touched 100mph and his average exit velocity was 89.6mph, which would be solid in the major leagues.

Rudd possesses good speed, going 9 for 11 so far stealing bases and playing centre field. If he can maintain his plate discipline and knack for contact while he climbs the ladder and keep hitting for enough power, he could profile as a table setting OBP and speed centre fielder in the majors, or if he falls short of that carve out a role for himself as a quality fourth outfielder and left handed bench bat.