Blue Jays Building Depth Behind the Plate

 

Image result for gabriel moreno milb
Gabriel Moreno – milb.com photo

Go behind Baseball America‘s paywall and you’ll see that two Toronto Blue Jays Catching prospects are ranked among the top 20 in the position in the game.

Dig a little deeper, and you’ll see that their stockpile of talent goes beyond that.

In the summer of 2018, the boxscores detailed the potent bat of Alejandro Kirk, the 11th ranked receiver in their listing.  Bluefield play-by-play guy Zach Helton, a long-time friend of Bluefield minor league baseball, detailed a ball Kirk hit in August that was the longest he’d ever seen at venerable Bowen Stadium, a line shot that just kept climbing as it disappeared over the CF wall and into the depths of the Virginian forest.  We knew all about Kirky’s bat heading into his full season debut with Lansing last spring, but what we didn’t know was that for a bat-first guy, he’s pretty decent behind the plate.  Kirk is a work-in-progress to be sure, but he demonstrated serviceable blocking skills and a good arm.  Certainly, given his body type, this was a major surprise.  BA’s report on Kirk:

The first thing that jumps out is Kirk’s body, like a shorter version of Pablo Sandoval, which is an immediate turnoff for many scouts. But Kirk is also one of the best pure hitters in the minors. He has short arms, a compact swing and outstanding bat control. His tight stroke, bat speed and ability to track pitches helps him let the ball travel deep before deciding to swing. Kirk shows a sharp eye for the strike zone and has drawn more walks than strikeouts at every level. He struck out just 10 percent of the time in 2019, barreling good fastballs and offspeed pitches in all quadrants of the zone. Kirk has a hit-over-power profile, though there’s more impact potential to unlock if he takes a more aggressive approach ahead in the count. Kirk’s skeptics think his body will force him off the plate and question what they believe are below-average defensive skills. Others see a solid blocker who excels at framing, is prepared and works well with pitchers. He has an average, accurate arm, and threw out 38 percent of runners in 2019.

Kirk impressed the Blue Jays by showing up around 25 lbs lighter to spring training last year, and he continues to work on his strength, flexibility, and conditioning.  As might be expected, his bat slowed down in the second half last year, and his power numbers dropped with the pitcher-friendly conditions of the Florida State League.  A rejuvenated Kirk, BA’s 4th-ranked Blue Jays prospect, will likely start the year in AA.

 

Seeing Blue Jays minor league games in person last spring was a challenge.  The Mattick Complex was closed to the public due to renovations, so the best an observer could do was to catch exhibition games at the Phillies’ complex in nearby Clearwater.  On a sunny March afternoon, a player who stood out among the three games taking place was Gabriel Moreno.  A converted infielder, Moreno put up video game-like numbers in the GCL in 2018 before moving up to Bluefield, and after being held back in Extended last season for a month, he moved to Lansing when Kirk was promoted to High A.

Moreno’s actions behind the plate were quick and cat-like.  He showed a take-charge attitude, and showed why Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim had mentioned his name when asked before spring training which players had stood out to him in the off season.

BA’s evaluation of Moreno:

Moreno’s hand-eye coordination is elite. He rarely swings and misses, with a strikeout rate of just 11 percent in 2019. His swing has evolved since signing—he has added bigger, more athletic movements in an effort to drive the ball with more impact—and his athleticism and body awareness help him make adjustments quickly. Moreno isn’t that big, but those changes have helped him display more power, with a chance to be a 15-20 home run hitter. Moreno isn’t a free swinger, but he walked in just 6 percent of his plate appearances. He will get himself into trouble when he expands the zone and make soft contact on pitches he should lay off, though he did a better job in those areas last season. Moreno is athletic and gets rid of the ball quickly to get to an average arm, throwing out 33 percent of runners in 2019, but his blocking and receiving need to improve.

Comparing Moreno (BA’s 18th ranked backstop) and Kirk is difficult, because they are two different types of player.  Kirk’s hit tool stands out, while Moreno is the more polished receiver, despite his relative lack of experience.  Moreno is more athletic (he’s a former central midfielder in soccer), but he does have something of a see the ball/hit the ball approach that Pitchers at higher levels might exploit.  In the long term, unless Kirk can take a quantum leap in his athleticism, Moreno emerges as the better prospect to these eyes, but by a very slim margin.

But the Blue Jays’ Catching prospect corps does not end with these two.  If we had to go in order from this point, things would probably line up like this:

Riley Adams – the athletic Adams has perhaps not progressed as much as the Jays would have liked, but he’s come a long way behind the plate, and has a decent hit tool.  With the recent acquisition of Caleb Joseph and the re-signing of Patrick Cantwell as MiLB depth guys, it signals that maybe the Blue Jays would be reluctant to reach for Adams if injuries befell Danny Jansen and/or Reese McGuire.  Still, Adams has enough of a hit tool, and has developed enough as a receiver to profile as an MLB backup, although the Blue Jays would prefer he continue to play and develop as a minor league regular at this point.

Phil Clarke – the Blue Jays laud the 2019 9th round pick publicly, but privately, several in the system have suggested that if he makes it to MLB one day, it will be as a 2nd Baseman or an OF.  Still, while it was hard to get looks at him this summer, he was no slouch behind the plate.  Clarke works well with his Pitchers, has a quick release and a slightly above average arm, and is a leader.  With Moreno and Kirk ahead of him, Clarke likely starts in Lansing, and it will be interesting to watch his development this year.

Victor Mesia – and under-the-radar name to be sure, Venezuelan Mesia was a July 2nd signing, and Blue Jays VP and International Ops head Andrew Tinnish raved about him in an interview before Christmas, rating him just a notch below the Mets Francisco Alvarez, who BA ranked as the 5th-best Catching prospect after only a year of pro ball.  We probably won’t see Mesia for a while, as the DSL is his likely starting point this year.  BA called Mesia an “arrow up” player in the weeks prior to the July 2nd signing day, with plenty of room for projection:

He’s 5-foot-10, 175 pounds with power and explosiveness to his actions. Mesia has performed well in games since signing, with a compact swing from the right side of the plate. He has fast bat speed, a knack for the barrel and makes hard contact with an all-fields approach. He shows flashes of above-average raw power right now, giving him a chance to hit and hit for power at a high clip for a catcher. Mesia has strong legs, is athletic for a catcher and projects to stay behind the plate, with a strong arm that tickles plus now and projects to be there consistently soon.

Ryan Sloniger – a sub-par senior year caused the Penn State star to tumble in the draft, all the way to the 38th round, where the Blue Jays snapped him up.  Sloniger raked (9 HR in 118 PAs) at Bluefield, which should not come as a huge surprise, but it was a pleasant one just the same.  It’s very hard to project him as a one day MLBer, but his left-handed bat and receiving skills should allow him to steadily move through the system.

 

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