We’re in a bit of a black hole for minor league coverage. MiLB camps have yet to open, and the opening day of the minor league season is still well over a month away.
One of the things we’ve been able to look forward to each spring over the past several seasons is a long conversation with Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim. Unfortunately, our schedules didn’t match up last month, and now that Kim is a part time MLB coach to go along with his PD duties, I don’t expect he’ll be available for a while.
And that’s a shame, because toward the end of our conversation, I always ask Gil for some breakout candidates, and he’s usually bang on with his observations. A couple of years ago he said Danny Jansen was finally fully healthy and ready to bust out; Jansen put up an .884 OPS at 3 levels that season (2017). Last spring, the name of Gabriel Moreno was at the top of his list; having had eyes on Moreno just a few days before in a spring training game at the Phillies’ complex, I had to agree.
So, this year, we’re on our own to come up with some potential breakout candidates. But there are several.
1. Thomas Hatch RHP
All of us who follow the minors and write about prospects, like the players, get geared up for the season right about now, and we hit the ground running when play begins in April. For several months, we diligently watch minor league games night after night (sometimes multiple games in an evening). By the time August rolls around, like the players, we can get a little drained. And when that happens, details get missed. Like the half dozen starts Thomas Hatch made after coming over from the Cubs in the David Phelps deal.
Hatch was considered a mid-level prospect in the Cubs’ system, but apparently the Blue Jays had been following him closely in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, when he had added a cutter (Hatch says it’s more like a slider) to his arsenal. Under the tutelage of now departed New Hampshire pitching coach Vince Horsman, he was encouraged to throw his change more. After a so-so first start with New Hampshire after the trade, Hatch reeled off five strong starts in a row, finishing with a pair of 7-inning gems to close the season. In the final of those, he fanned 5 of the first 6 hitters he faced en route to 11 Ks in an outing where he dominated the bottom half of the strike zone, alternating a 96 FB with arm-side run with a curve, change, and that cutter.
Hatch’s August performance was enough to convince the Blue Jays to place him on the 40-man roster last November in order to protect him from the Rule 5. He will be trying to elbow his way into a fairly loaded starting rotation in Buffalo this spring. If he picks up this spring where he left off last fall, Hatch, the Blue Jay’s 30th prospect according to MLB Pipeline, may jump up the rankings quickly.
2. Phil Clarke, C
The Blue Jays rolled the dice on the 2019 draft’s second day and selected the Vanderbilt backstop. A draft-eligible sophomore, it’s conceivable Clarke might be among the top-ranked receivers in this year’s crop had he elected to return to Vandy for his junior season but the Blue Jays went well over slot ($500K, vs $155) to entice him to turn pro.
Leading a team to a College World Series title is tiring enough as it is, and Clarke’s pro debut numbers at Vancouver were underwhelming – he hit .211/.310/.327 for August, which was his seventh month of baseball.
The knock against Clarke is that he doesn’t project to stay behind the plate, but the Blue Jays will likely give him every opportunity to develop there. His smooth left handed stroke will play either at 2nd or in the Outfield, but a small sample viewing of Clarke as a pro behind the plate last year makes me think there’s something there. He’s lauded as a leader, and looks like a future MLBer. He may bust out of the gate quickly this year.
3. Sem Robberse, RHP
Robberse was truly a diamond in the rough, an 18 year old plucked out of the Dutch Honkball Hoofdklasse late last spring. Blue Jays VP and head of International Ops Andrew Tinnish claims Robberse is among the top 10 Pitchers he’s ever scouted.
Robberse’s pro debut was limited to 10 innings over 5 outings, but he gave up only two base runners over that span. He’s added 20 lbs since signing, and has dialled his fastball up to 93-94.
It’s hard to think of a short season guy (where Robberse probably begins 2020, with Vancouver likely) as a breakout candidate, but I can’t think of a player whose season debut I’m looking forward to as much has Robberse’s.
4. Elvis Luciano, RHP
You really can’t make a list like this without including the 2019 Rule 5 guy. And you can’t really make any predictions of his future based on what he did in 33 mostly mop-up innings last year.
Elvis is something of a wild card. In his first two seasons, the highest level he pitched at was the Pioneer League, and a look at his numbers suggest that he was good, but not necessarily dominant.
Luciano should start in Lansing or Dunedin, although if his elbow strain last year (which landed him on the IL for exactly 90 days) is legit, the latter is a better bet. He has a starter’s build and command of three pitches that suggest a rotation profile. He’s kind of been a forgotten man in the grander prospect picture, but he could show why the Blue Jays were so excited to acquire him.