In may be cold and snowy in Southern Ontario, but with the days getting incrementally longer, spring training inches closer every week. And for most serious baseball prospects, they have been putting in long days since the end of the last minor league season working on their conditioning, and honing their skills on the playing fields and batting cages.
The Blue Jays have several prospects whose hard work may pay off this year, when they emerge from under-the-radar to achieve breakout status. Last year, it was Edward Olivares, who put himself firmly into long-term prospect status with an excellent all-around year at Lansing. The year before, Ryan Borucki returned to action after missing much of the previous season due to shoulder and back issues. He was hit hard in the Florida State League, and was sent down to Lansing to get himself straightened out. Borucki added some deception to his delivery, becoming a much more effective Pitcher in the process, and he crowned his season with a promotion to the 40-man roster in November. In 2015, it was Anthony Alford who broke out, after undergoing a crash course in pitch recognition in the Aussie Winter League after giving up his college football commitment. In 2014, Daniel Norris began the season in Dunedin, and finished it in the Major Leagues after finally learning to repeat his delivery and command his fastball.
A prospect tends to break out for any one of a number of reasons (or a combination thereof). Sometimes, it’s an adjustment made to their batting or pitching mechanics. Norris’ delivery was overhauled in his first pro season, which probably at least partially explains his 8.44 ERA at two levels. Other times, it’s an adjustment to pro ball and playing every day. For some, pro ball is their first extended experience with failure in the sport; some adapt and begin to move forward again, while others don’t get past it. Some players just need the reps: Alford had shown promise in three brief pro seasons, but his experience in Australia helped him channel his aggressiveness at the plate.
The Blue Jays have a fairly good stock of lean, athletic players in their system. The odds against them having even a brief MLB career are long, but the foundation is there for future success. Here are four players who are all intriguing, potential break out prospects:
DJ Neal OF
If the 6’3″/200 Neal looks like a wide receiver, it’s because he was. Drafted by the Braves in 2015 out of high school, the Georgian instead joined Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, but after a year he transferred to USC-Sumter to get back on the ball diamond.
Drafted in the 26th round, Neal began to make up for some lost development time with a .297/.341/.426 season in the GCL, stealing 8 bases in 10 tries. Neal has a strong, athletic frame, with quick-twitch reflexes and plus speed. He has what’s described as a smooth right-handed swing, and scouts project him to have enough power to play a corner OF spot. He has great range and a plus arm.
Neal is behind his draft peers in terms of baseball experience, having combined baseball and football throughout high school. His tools are raw, but they will continue to develop as he gains experience. There is tremendous upside here – the obvious comp right now is Alford.
Where Neal begins 2018 is difficult to project. Ordinarily, a team might want to challenge a player with Neal’s profile with an April assignment to full season ball. With a crowded OF situation in the lower levels of the Jays system, he may begin in Extended, with a plane ticket for Vancouver in hand come mid June.
Neal’s 2017 stats:
|42||167||3||23||20||8||4.8 %||15.6 %||0.297||0.341||0.426|
|2.06||17.6 %||55.5 %||26.9 %||21.9 %||9.4 %||52.4 %||21.4 %||26.2|
McGregory Contreras OF
When the Blue Jays blew their IFA budget to sign Vladdy Jr in 2015, they had to go bargain hunting for other prospects – those signed for $10K or under did not count against their bonus pools.
One of those signings was Contreras, whom Baseball America described as a “sleeper”:
(Contreras) showed good hitting and running ability when he signed on July 2, but his tools have ticked up since then. His speed and arm strength are both above-average to play center field and he has impressed the Blue Jays with his ability to hit and show power from the right side from his 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame.
After making his pro debut in the DSL in 2016, the Blue Jays felt Contreras was ready to skip the GCL, and sent him to Bluefield in 2017. Contreras responded with a good season, ranking as the 19th-best prospect in the loop, according to BA:
Contreras has what many coaches in baseball would call “sneaky power”. It doesn’t stand out in games just yet and you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at him, but he lets it fly during batting practice. His lean, athletic body and swift bat speed entail future average power. He has strong wrists that work well to catch up to inside fastballs.
Contreras played all three Outfield positions in his pro career. He played primarily the corners for Bluefield due to the presence of Chavez Young. Pitch recognition will be the area requiring the most improvement if he is to continue moving up the ladder. At 6’1″/170, he compares to Olivares at a similar point in his career.
Contreras’ 2017 stats:
|207||5||36||33||4||5.8 %||26.6 %||0.142||0.369||0.279||0.335||0.421|
|2.09||21.4 %||53.2 %||25.4 %||21.9 %||15.6 %||49.3 %||27.2 %||23.5 %|
Chavez Young OF
It’s rare that you can get a high schooler drafted late to sign. Their prospects are usually improved by playing college ball, and if nothing else, they have some or all of an education to fall back on. 2016 39th-round pick Young, who grew up in the Bahamas, and moved to Florida for his senior year of high school, was generally thought to be raw and headed off to college, but the Blue Jays offered him a $200K bonus (twice the slot value) to sign.
Young has solid athleticism, outstanding range in CF, a plus arm, and while his approach is a work-in-progress (a small viewing sample of his time with Vancouver after his promotion to the NWL playoffs showed an expanded strike zone), there is enough to his offensive game to suggest success at the higher levels. That the organization thought he would bolster Vancouver’s lineup for the post season speaks of what they think of Young.
Young’s Bluefield Stats:
|62||281||4||52||25||4||4.6 %||20.6 %||0.159||0.345||0.282||0.332||0.440|
|1.77||17.7 %||52.6 %||29.7 %||26.3 %||7.0 %||45.5 %||28.7 %||25.7 %|
Yorman Rodriguez C/1B/DH
Finding a place to play for Rodriguez was something of a challenge this year, but his bat ultimately dictated considerable PT for the 2014 IFA. Originally signed as a Catcher, he was primarily a DH for Bluefield this year. His bat will always be his calling card, and he’s never played beyond short season ball, but a career line of .333/.362/.414 makes it worth wondering how Rodriguez would fare at the higher levels.
Hitting in front of Appy League MVP Ryan Noda, Rodriguez led the league in hits, and was second in batting average. John Calvagno covers South Atlantic League prospects for his site notesfromthesally.com. He liked what he saw from Rodriguez:
The ball explodes off of his barrel. An aggressive hitter with a fast bat, he put the 1st pitch in play every at bat. And every hit was a rocket, line drive or sharp grounder. An all field approach with a level swing. Potential plus hit with 25 HR potential if he finds lift.
The 7 walks Rodriguez drew this year might be cause for concern. At the higher levels, he will have to learn to work the count more, and not sit back waiting for a mistake to hammer. His size and bat-first profile compare him favourably to Juan Kelly, who had a similar role as Rodriguez’ with High-A Dunedin this year.
Rodriguez started the year with Vancouver, but was sent to Bluefield after five games.
Rodriguez’ Bluefield stats:
|57||257||3||36||36||2||2.7 %||9.7 %||0.083||0.37||0.346||0.374||0.429||0.369|
|1.67||24.9 %||46.9 %||28.2 %||28.3 %||5.0 %||44.0 %||19.7 %||36.2|
Kevin Smith SS
1st round pick Logan Warmoth drew much of the attention among Blue Jays draftees this season, and deservedly so. Smith’s pro debut with Bluefield was a smash, as he showed some pop (2nd to Noda in Total Bases), and showcased his slick defensive skills.
As the college season started last year, there was talk that Smith might be the first Shortstop drafted. A mediocre season at the plate dropped him to the 4th round, where the Blue Jays scooped him up. Smith’s swing can be long, and there was a fair amount of swing-and-miss to his game (25%K rate), but his footwork, range, hands, and arm are unquestioned.
With Warmoth likely headed to Dunedin for 2018, Smith should become Lansing’s starting SS. Some scouts doubt about Warmoth’s long-term future at the position, so Smith could close the gap between them or even move ahead with a decent year at the plate.
Smith’s 2017 Stats
|61||283||8||43||43||9||5.7 %||24.7 %||0.195||0.337||0.271||0.312||0.466|
|0.91||22.0 %||37.2 %||40.8 %||17.9 %||10.3 %||46.4 %||28.1 %||25.5 %|