Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins has been pumping up his team’s prospects beyond the obvious top two in recent appearances.
On the west coast last month for the annual Hot Stove Luncheon in Vancouver, Atkins told our friend Charlie Caskey (@CharlieCaskey on Twitter) about 1st rounder Nate Pearson:
“It’s unusual for someone to be, I don’t like the word ‘gifted’, but as talented as he is, so strong and powerful and has the tactical and technical attributes to be elite,” said Atkins. “It’s rare.”
And then last week at Pitch Talks, a Toronto-based gathering of local baseball cognoscenti, Atkins told the audience:
— Pitch Talks (@PitchTalks) February 2, 2018
What are we to make of this? Is the Blue Jays farm system even deeper than we thought? Pearson “gifted”? Alford “up there” with Guerrero and Bichette? Is Atkins giving Blue Jays fans the straight goods, or is he inflating the value of his top prospects, just in case a deal comes along?
The truth is somewhere between those two extremes.
Let’s get one fact straight first: it’s been a long time (ok, never) since the Blue Jays have had two top prospects of the calibre of Vladdy Jr and Bo. Both profile as potential impact, first-division, all-star players. We may not know where they’ll ultimately play, but they are legitimate elite offensive prospects.
Pearson has come a long way in just a little over a year. Not viewed as a prospect out of high school or even after a mostly nondescript first year of college, a vastly upgraded training program helped him hit 100 in bullpen sessions in the fall of 2016, and the scouting world took notice. Northwest League hitters were pretty much at his mercy after the Blue Jays selected him – it was a nice change to see a college draftee dominate at that level, because such has not been the case in recent years. Hitters must be very intimidated just digging in against the mountainous Pearson – I felt uncomfortable just sitting over home plate in Vancouver’s press box watching him.
And while it’s very exciting to dream of Pearson’s high 90s heat at the front of the Blue Jays rotation one day, he has yet to play a year of full season ball, and we should be tempering out expectations just a bit. There are secondary pitches to develop, as well as adjustments Pearson will have to make as he experiences the ups and downs of taking a regular turn in the rotation for five months. Is Pearson “gifted”? Is he “elite”? Potentially, yes. Atkins suggested that he would have gone much higher in the draft had teams known they were going to get that kind of performer, and while that’s true, much of his success this year can be attributed at least in part of the careful monitoring of his workload that the Blue Jays – 74 pitches was his highest game total for the season. There’s every reason to believe that Pearson can fulfill Atkins’ prophecy, but there’s also likely a long way to go before he does.
How about Alford? Does he compare to Vladdy and Bo? At first glance, no, but that’s not a slight. Alford’s game is different from the Slugging Twins’. He works the count and manages the strike zone, but there is a bit more of a swing-and-miss element to Alford’s approach. Alford gets on base less often, but his speed can be game-changing, which certainly separates him from Guerrero and Bichette (who are both smart base runners in their own right, but not in Alford’s lane when it comes to foot speed). In terms of power, there is no comparison, either. Home Run and/or Extra Base power is often the last tool in a player’s kit to develop, but some reports suggest a lack of loft in Alford’s swing will keep him from consistently reaching double-digit Homer totals. Alford does use the whole field, but his heat map from 2017 doesn’t suggest a prodigious slugger in the making:
Defensively, there is little to compare Guerrero/Bichette to Alford either. Alford has the makings of a premier defender. Scouts have downgraded his arm, but he gets excellent jumps and reads on balls, and his speed allows him to close quickly. It’s easy to see him cutting off Doubles to the gap in the Rogers Centre on a regular basis.
Is Alford the potential impact player the other two could possibly one day be? Yes, but perhaps it’s a question of magnitude. Guerrero receives grades for his power that you just don’t see on an 18-year-old, and Bichette has the smarts and skills to be a perennial batting title contender. Alford also has an injury history that could limit his future – his past two seasons have been interrupted for extended periods by injury. Still, you do get the sense that Alford, who really has only been playing the game full-time for a short period of time, is still on an upward curve in terms of his development, and that maybe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg just yet.
One thing is likely: Bichette and Guerrero may anchor the middle of the Blue Jays order for the 2020s. Alford may be a fixture at the top of it.
So, Atkins, who is probably justifiably proud of the strides the team’s farm system has made over the past two seasons, was maybe over-inflating things, but not by a lot. Pearson does ooze with ace potential, and Alford may in fact be an impact player one day. Neither is a lock in the mold that Guerrero and Bichette appear to be, but there is plenty to look forward to one day.