With a preference for acquiring and developing up-the-middle players who can slide to other defensive positions, the Blue Jays farm system continued its ascension into the upper tiers of baseball’s elite organizations in 2018.
With 15 prospects scattered among the Top 20 in Baseball America‘s rankings of each minor league this fall (tied for 3rd with Arizona, behind Tampa and San Diego), the Blue Jays system is now ranked #3 by BA, and most analysts (not named Keith Law) would agree that it’s a system on the rise.
When he took the helm of the Blue Jays organization three years ago, one of the carrots that brought Mark Shapiro over from Cleveland was the promise of a bigger budget for player development. Since coming to Toronto, Shapiro has instituted a ground-breaking (for baseball) High Performance department, and has brought in numerous sport scientists to help the organization’s prospects learn to eat, train, and recover more efficiently. He has also brought onboard several key executives with extensive player development experience like Ross Atkins and Ben Cherington. This off-season, under the direction of Player Development head Gil Kim, the team brought in a number of minor league coaches and instructors with considerable teaching and coaching backgrounds, a trend that will likely continue this off season.
The Blue Jays have had reasonably successful drafts (although 2017 1st rounder Logan Warmoth took a large step back this year) over the past several seasons, and have done very well in the International market as well – it’s not a coincidence that new Manager Charlie Montoyo is bilingual, and has a strong track record of working with young players. Minor league systems have to balance development with winning (with the former taking precedence at the lower levels), but several Blue Jays farm teams have made the post season over the past two years, with Vancouver bringing home a Northwest League title in 2017, and New Hampshire winning one this past season. The experience is always worthwhile for the organization’s young players, who, unlike college players, are not necessarily used to the pressure to win.
1. Vladimir Guerrero 3B
.281/.437/.636, 9.5K%/9.3BB%, 20HR ,194 wRC+
At the moment, Guerrero is laying waste to Arizona Fall League pitching, and demonstrating that his bat is more than MLB-ready. While Blue Jays fans were clamoring for Vladdy’s promotion for much of the season, a strained knee helped pumped the brakes on his development. And that wasn’t a bad thing – Shapiro had indicated a year ago that the only way we would see Guerrero in 2018 was if the team was in the middle of a pennant race, and even with the infusion of offence he would have provided, the 2018 Jays were not going to the post season.
A few extra months of minor league seasoning allowed Guerrero to continue to work on the defensive side of his game. He has sure hands, good footwork, and a strong, accurate arm. Vlad makes plays on balls that he gets to, but in the major leagues, where he’ll be fielding balls hit by MLB hitters (and half of them on turf), but he’ll need to expand his range, and that was one of the reasons he remained in the minors this summer.
Even though he’ll be under intense media scrutiny when he reaches Toronto, Guerrero is more than up for the challenge. This summer, it seemed like when he was facing a top-ranked Pitcher, Guerrero turned his game up accordingly. If there is one knock against him, it’s that he doesn’t always do so when facing a lesser guy on the mound. Those days will be fewer and further between in MLB.
When we finally do see Guerrero in the Blue Jays lineup, his impact will likely be immediate. He is the best prospect the Blue Jays have ever developed. He will anchor the middle of the Toronto order for years to come.
2. Bo Bichette SS/2B
.286/.343/.453, 17K%/8.1BB% , 11 HR, 120 wRC+
Bichette grabbed more than his share of the headlines in 2017 when he led the minor leagues with a .362 average, hitting above .400 as late as mid-June.
This year was a different story. In late May, his average tumbled to a career-low .237, before Bichette began to lay off pitches outside of the strike zone. Maybe it was the pressure that he created himself trying to match Guerrero, or maybe it was the greater command possessed by Eastern League Pitchers, but 2018 was a tremendous learning year for Bichette, one that may ultimately serve him well in the future.
Bichette’s numbers for the year may not be awe-inspiring, but he put together a torrid final six weeks of the season, slashing .339/.402/.475 in August, and hitting .346 as New Hampshire romped to the EL title.
Bichette continued to make strides as a defender this season, but he looked most comfortable when the acquisition of Santiago Espinal in July forced him to share time at SS by moving over to 2B. His range, reactions to ground balls, ability to make the pivot, and arm strength just seem to look better suited to the position. One thing is for sure: the bat will play, possibly not next season, but before a long time has elapsed.
3. Nate Pearson SP
1.2 IP, 5.4 K/9, 0 BB/9, 10.80 FIP, 44.4% GB
Don’t be fooled at all by Pearson’s numbers. An oblique issue kept him out of the lineup until early May, and a line drive off of his pitching arm in the second inning of his first start ended his season. Pearson has pitched in the Arizona Fall League, but has understandably shown rust, but has dialed his velo back up to 100.
Pearson has a starter’s build and four-pitch mix. He sits 96-98, and mixes in an effective curve, change, and slider. He gets good spin on his breaking pitches, and throws all four from a similar arm slot. When Pearson commands his fastball, hitters don’t have much of a chance.
Even though he’s thrown only 21 innings as a pro (his pitch count was strictly monitored in Vancouver last year after he was drafted), he will be bound for New Hampshire next year, and could move quickly. The word “ace” is thrown around far too much, but Pearson definitely has front of the rotation potential.
4. Danny Jansen C
(MiLB) .275/.390/.473, 13.6K%/12.1BB%, 12 HR, 146 wRC+
Already the hardest-working player on the field, the job of the MLB backstop has become even more complex in this day and age of framing and spin rates. The Blue Jays unearthed a gem in the middle rounds of the 2013 draft, taking the Wisconsite with their 16th round pick. In the 31 games he suited up for the Blue Jays this year, he showed why he’s considered one of the top receiving prospects in the game, and a potential franchise Catcher.
Jansen has always been an excellent framer, and Pitchers have long raved about working with him. His bat came along last year, and he showcased good contact skills, and should hit the 20 HR plateau at some point. If Reese McGuire continues to develop, the Blue Jays could employ him as more than a back up, allowing them to keep Jansen’s bat in the lineup when he needs a day off from behind the plate.
Jansen has given every indication that he will make the team out of training camp next year.
5. Kevin Smith SS
.302/.328/.528, 21.1K%/ 7%BB, 25 HR, 149 wRC+
No Blue Jays prospect enhanced their status as much as the 2017 4th rounder did this year. Stuck behind top pick Logan Warmoth last year, Smith surpassed him on both sides of the ball this year.
Smith owned Midwest League pitching before being promoted to Dunedin. Along the way, he was named a Top 20 prospect by Baseball America in both leagues. In naming him the FSL’s 11th top prospect, BA noted:
Evaluators who like Smith see a player who can stick at shortstop with a bat-first profile in the mold of Paul DeJong. He’s never going to be the flashiest player on the field, but his work ethic and all-around skills will help him produce impressive seasons. His bat can handle a slide to second base as well.
Smith did not make as much contact in Florida as he did in Michigan, with his K rate jumping from 16% to 24% after the promotion, with a corresponding drop in his BB rate as well. Quite simply, Smith expanded his zone, and he may go through a dry spell similar to Bichette’s when he reaches the Eastern League next year.
Of all the up-the-middle prospects the Blue Jays have accumulated, Smith shows the most potential to stay at the position, and hit enough to become an MLBer. An avid student of the game, he spent considerable time last off-season re-tooling his swing and refining his approach, and the payoff was significant. He still may be a couple of seasons away, but he could provide a good complement to Guerrero on the left side of the Blue Jays infield.
6. Eric Pardinho, SP
50 IP, 11.5K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 3.75 FIP, 46.3% GB
Dropped into a new country, with travel and under-the-lights play, and facing hitters that in almost every case were older than him (some by several years), all Pardinho did was produce one of the best debut seasons of any Blue Jays Starting Pitcher in recent memory.
The top-ranked 2017 IFA had his innings closely monitored in the Appy League, but he missed a lot of bats (15.4% K rate), and was very difficult to square up and loft (31% Fly Ball rate). His four-pitch mix overmatched Appy hitters, as evidenced by a dominant mid-August outing against eventual league champs Elizabethton, a Twins affiliate. Pardinho retired the first 19 hitters he faced before giving up a one out single in the 7th.
As might be expected of a 17-year-old, there’s still room for Pardinho to grow both physically and emotionally. And even though he will one day be dwarfed in the rotation by Pearson, there’s a lot to like about Pardinho. His athleticism allows him to repeat a clean, efficient delivery. Already sitting 93-95 most nights, Pardinho should add some velo as he gets older, which will make his secondaries even more effective.
He’s still several seasons away – there’s even a good chance that Pardinho remains in Extended next spring until the Midwest League weather warms up. But there is plenty of reason to expect to see him near the top of the Blue Jays rotation one day.
7. Sean Reid-Foley SP
(AAA) 85.1 IP, 10.3 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 3.06 FIP, 42.7% GB
He had his struggles at the major league level, but his MiLB season was one of the most successful of Reid-Foley’s career, and gave fans a glimpse of what his potential could be.
After a dominant 8 starts at AA. SRF moved up to Buffalo, and continued to pile the whiffs, fanning 10.3/9, while walking only 3.6/9. While in Buffalo, he came out firing, daring hitters to try to catch up with his mid 90-s fastball. His problems at the MLB level came when he fell behind hitters, something he’ll have to fix and may come with added experience.
Starting Pitching is probably the hardest commodity to develop in all of baseball, and one look no further than the rising popularity of bullpenning and use of the Opener. Even with a mid-rotation projection, there’s still plenty of potential value in Reid-Foley.
8. Jordan Groshans SS
(GCL) .331/390/.500, 18.8K%/8.2BB, 4 HR, 150 wRC+
The Jays broke out of the run of first round college picks last June when they took the Texas High Schooler, and he didn’t disappoint. BA named him the 5th best prospect in the Gulf Coast League, with his bat the stand out tool:
Groshans has a polished hitting approach and a knack for finding the barrel. He squares up good pitching with quick bat speed and plus raw power. While Groshans has the sock in his bat to go deep from right-center over to his pull side, he mostly showed a line-drive, all-fields approach in the GCL, hammering fastballs and driving pitches on the outer half with authority to the opposite field.
Promoted to Bluefield for the Appy League playoffs, Groshans started slowly, but his bat came alive. With a talented GCL infield this summer, Groshans split time at SS and 3B. His arm is graded as above average, but the feeling among some evaluators seems to be that he winds up at the hot corner long-term.
9. Anthony Alford OF
(AAA) .240/.312/.344, 26.9K%/7.2BB%, 5 HR, 87 wRC+
It’s hard to quit on the toolsy outfielder, even though 2018 was definitely a sideways year for him. When he began the season on the DL, there were the usual concerns about his injury history. Alford seemed lost at times at the plate this year, and did not barrel up balls like he did in 2017.
Still, there was some progress. Alford began to drive the ball more in August, slashing .282/.324/.388 with 11 Doubles. And the work he did with Coach Devon White helped him to take more efficient routes on fly balls.
The clock is starting to tick for Alford (he still has one more option year), but if he can stay in the lineup consistently, there could be a place for him in the Toronto outfield at some point next year.
10. Orelvis Martinez SS
The top-ranked July 2nd bat in this year’s class did not look out of place at Instructs, from reports, as the Blue Jays added yet another up-the-middle player. The Blue Jays spent 70% of their pool money on Martinez’ $3.5 million bonus – the second largest in club history.
We don’t know enough about his defensive skills yet, but there are a lot of indications that the bat will play. In fact, there is word that Martinez will start his pro career stateside next year, and his bat may be advanced enough to skip the GCL. Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, who oversees Latin America for the club, raved about Martinez’ skills at the plate:
The combination of consistency, good results, good plan at the plate, has hit good velocity, has hit breaking balls and laid off breaking balls — those things make you as comfortable as you’re going to get with a player who’s obviously a long way away from his prime.