Some names to ponder while we wait for the Blue Jays to release their minor league rosters, an annual rite of spring……….
We’re on the cusp of the MLB season, which means that the MiLB campaign start will not be far behind it.
Based on conversations with Blue Jays officials, fellow prospect hunters, and my own observations, here are five Toronto prospects who might be on the verge of catching a dose of helium and rising up the rankings.
1. Patrick Murphy
The main reason we haven’t heard more about Murphy is that the Blue Jays have carefully managed the 2013 3rd rounders innings, with good reason. Murphy has had Tommy John and thoracic outlet syndrome surgeries, as well as a nerve moved in his elbow.
Murphy threw a career-high 152 innings last year, and was named the Florida State League’s Pitcher of the Year. He hit 100 several times in the second half of last season, and kept his velo well into games. The only reason he didn’t get a trip to the Arizona Fall League as a reward was in order to give him some much-needed rest.
I missed a Murphy spring training start by a day, but fortunately JJ Cooper of Baseball America was there, and sent back a glowing report. Murphy has added a vastly improved change to complement his plus fastball and a curve which is the best in the system. His change has progressed from a show-me pitch to one he’s not afraid to use with two strikes.
With three above average pitches and the Blue Jays likely taking the wraps off of him a bit more this year, Murphy could easily progress into one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. He and Nate Pearson will give New Hampshire a dynamic 1-2 punch at the front of their rotation this spring.
2. Cal Stevenson
For those of us who follow prospects with a passion, Stevenson is already firmly on the prospect radar. A 10th round pick last year and a senior sign, a bit of a log jam ahead of him forced the Blue Jays to send him to Bluefield, where he was clearly head and shoulders ahead of the competition, putting up a eye-popping line of .359/.494/.518, and wreaking havoc every time he was on the base paths, which was often.
Stevenson will always have some detractors due to his size and relatively advanced age, but several Jays staff mentioned his name when asked for a breakout candidate this year.
There is so much to like about Stevenson’s game: his strike zone judgement, bat-to-ball skills, base running smarts, and solid defensive skills. He will likely begin the season at Lansing, but it’s hard to see Midwest League pitching requiring much of an adjustment for him. Stevenson won’t put up the numbers he did in the Appy League, but he should easily hit and get on base well enough to get some more acclaim and find his way to Dunedin by mid-season.
3. Josh Winckowski
It’s hard to imagine a guy garnering Pitcher of the Year recognition in his league and still being an under-the-radar prospect, but such was the case for the 2016 15th rounder, who was simply dominant in the second half for Vancouver last year.
Winckowski made some mechanical and attitudinal adjustments last year, and both paid off. As a result, he upped his velo, touching 97 and sitting 93-94, harnessed his command, and learned how to manage his emotions on the mound.
Despite that, Winckowski received little off-season prospect list love, and was nowhere to be found on Baseball America‘s Top 20 Northwest League list. This despite leading the league with a 54% ground ball rate, a 19% K-BB rate, and the lowest (27%) fly ball rate. This is a guy who commands the strike zone, tends to miss away from barrels, and is tough to square up.
Winckowski has been brought along slowly, a true one rung of the minor league ladder at a time. Like Stevenson, success in Lansing may translate to a second half in Dunedin.
4. Alejandro Kirk
Kirk mashed his way onto the prospect scene with a vivid .354/.443/.558 line for Bluefield; only Vladdy Jr outslugged him in the system, and Kirk’s 1.001 OPS trailed only Guerrero and Stevenson in the system.
Kirk manages the strike zone well, and is often aggressive early in the count, which the organization really likes. With a 5.1% SwStr rate, he usually puts the ball in play. As he moves up, using more of the field and putting the ball in the air more will help him develop as a hitter. His bat speed is legit.
There have been concerns about Kirk’s work behind the plate. Reports have varied, ranging from labelling him adequate to a work in progress. At 5’9″/220, there are not a lot of other options for him defensively. He’s a bat-first player at this point, but what a tool that bat is. If reports we’re hearing are correct, Kirk will make the jumpto full season play at Lansing this year.
5. Gabriel Moreno
When asked just before spring training which prospect(s) made the most progress from a year ago, and seemed poised for a breakout, Moreno’s name was first to come to the mind of Blue Jays Farm Director Gil Kim.
And although these eyes were limited to only one afternoon of Florida prospect-watching this spring, Moreno stood out amongst the pair of A-level teams the Blue Jays sent to Clearwater to take on the Phillies.
Moreno is lean, and has a quick-twitch, athletic build. His movements are quick and cat-like behind the plate. And he has a quick release of his strong, accurate arm, and threw out a pair of runners on the afternoon: one at 3rd (by a huge margin), and another at 2nd (from his knees).
A 2016 IFA from Venezuela, Moreno’s pro debut with the DSL Jays was fairly nondescript, but a 1.108 OPS in 23 GCL games got him moved up to Bluefield pretty quickly last year, where he put a respectable line of .279/.303/.459 up. That the team moved him from his stateside debut to under the lights play so quickly was partly due to the injury regular Bluefield C Hagen Danner suffered, but it showed the organization’s trust in Moreno’s ability to handle the jump.
Moreno just turned 19 before spring training, and is likely ticketed for Vancouver this year, although it would not be a surprise to see him in Lansing by season’s end. The Blue Jays have built quite a depth of Catchers at the lower levels, and Moreno may turn out to be the best of the bunch.