By Zach Leach
It would be awfully hard to for any team to match the Cape League pedigree that the Toronto Blue Jays added to their organization in the first round of the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft on Thursday night. Toronto held the ninth and eleventh overall picks in the draft, and in the eyes of many Cape League fans, they could not have used those selections any more wisely. With the first of the two picks, the Blue Jays selected East Carolina pitcher Jeff Hoffman, who was named the 2013 Robert A. McNeece Award recipient for being the most Outstanding Pro Prospect in the Cape League with the Hyannis Harbor Hawks. They then selected Kennesaw State catcher Max Pentecost, who won the Pat Sorenti Award last year as the Cape League MVP with the Bourne Braves. Yes, you did read that correctly. The Blue Jays got both the best player in the league and the most valuable player in the league from last season.
Hoffman, who was an All-Star for Hyannis in 2012 with a 2.40 ERA and 1.030 WHIP, returned for the 2013 season and went 2-0 with a 3.69 ERA before leaving the team in late July. His best outing came shortly before his departure, a mid-July start against the Firebirds in which he threw 7.2 shutout innings, allowing only three hits and one walk and striking out 11 opposing batters. The performance was good enough to earn him Coca-Cola Pitcher of the Week honors. However it was not his record, but his strikeout numbers in both his seasons with the Harbor Hawks that caught the eye of Major League scouts. He had a 33/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24.1 innings last summer, and a 30/10 ratio in 30 innings the year before. At East Carolina this spring, Hoffman led the Pirates with a 72/20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 67.1 innings and held opposing hitters to a .216 batting average. He has an impeccable ability to overpower batters on a consistent basis, a skill that simply cannot be taught. With a dominant fastball and strong off-speed pitches, Hoffman has mastered the art of the strikeout, and convinced the Blue Jays that he can continue to be the king of the K at the next level.
Pentecost was the undisputed best hitter in the Cape League last year. He finished the season in third place in the batting race with a .346 average, after leading for most of the second half of the season. He was in the top five in the league in RBIs, home runs, extra-base hits, slugging percentage and on-base percentage. Simply put, he was one of the top offensive producers in the league despite playing for the team with the fourth worst offense, and Pentecost was responsible for about a fifth of the Braves’ runs all summer long. Pentecost had his defining game against Chatham on July 17th, a 4-for-4 effort with 4 RBIs, a run, and a stolen base, after which anyone who had not been convinced Pentecost was the leader in the MVP race, then had no reservations. While other players had their hot and cold streaks or seemed to peak midway through the season, Pentecost only got better and better until there was hardly an MVP race at all. He followed up his strong summer with an unbelievable 2014 spring, batting .418 with 58 RBIs in 63 games. He led the Kennesaw State Owls to their first ever Atlantic Sun Conference Championship, as well as their best finish in school history in the College Baseball World Series. The Blue Jays lack a true blue-chip catching prospect behind A.J Jimenez of the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, so Pentecost both fills a need and brings big time potential.
Perhaps no one was more impressed with the Blue Jays selections than former Bourne Braves broadcaster Tyler Murray, who is now the broadcaster and communications coordinator for Toronto’s Advanced-A affiliate in Dunedin, Florida. “It was a fun draft to follow”, said Murray, whose work with the 2010 Braves left him with a great understanding of the magnitude of talent in the Cape League. “There’s a reason so many big names have come out of the league. It’s probably the best competition a college player is going to find during the summer”, he said, then added “And when you stand out in a league like that, you’re probably going to stand out for the rest of your career, wherever you end up.” Murray believes that Hoffman was “a talent worthy of a top 3 pick…who likely slid to nine because of Tommy John surgery”, and is happy that the Blue Jays current crop of pitchers will allow him to develop slowly and reach his full potential. With Pentecost, Murray sees him as already being the best hitting catcher in the organization, and believes he will make a perfect future pair with the defensive whiz Jimenez.
The Blue Jays have spent early picks on Orleans All-Star aces in each of the past two drafts, taking Duke’s Marcus Stroman in the first round (22nd overall) in 2012 and Oregon State’s Matt Boyd in the sixth round last year. Both selections have worked out amazingly, as many consider Stroman, who is currently playing with the big-league Blue Jays, the team’s top prospect, and Boyd has been one of the best pitchers in the Advanced-A Florida State League and has seen time at Double-A in only his first full pro season. With this recent success and even more success to come with Hoffman and Pentecost, the Blue Jays will be sure to look closely at Cape Leaguers in the draft every year. Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos often faces criticism, but with his team sitting atop the American League East and with the best of the best from the premier college baseball summer league coming up through the system, that criticism should start to quiet down.