Toronto Blue Jays Top Prospects: The Next Guys

Otto Lopez/The Athletic

 

After doing this for most of the past decade, one comes to a realization about Top Prospects lists:  once you get past the upper echelon of players in a system, things start to become increasingly arbitrary.  There is loads of potential, but predicting a future big leaguer becomes a much more inexact task with each player.

Many websites and publications that focus on prospects and the minors will give you Top 20, Top 30, or even Top 50 lists.  And not to cast aspersions on their work, but once you get beyond the top guys in a system (sometimes it’s 10, others it’s maybe half that number), it becomes very difficult to differentiate between players.  They all have upside, but it’s either not enough, or the accompanying risk tends to negate much of that potential value.  Simply put, it’s hard enough to become an MLB regular – even being a Top 10 guy is no guarantee.  And once you get past those players, you’re starting to toss darts, hoping to land on the odd bullseye, but more often than not you miss the mark.

Even with their recent graduations, the Blue Jays continue to have one of the top-ranked systems in the game – 4th overall (up from 6) in the most recent rankings from Baseball America.  Mark Shapiro likes to claim that he’s a player development guy first (he started out in Cleveland’s farm department), and many of the moves he’s made as Toronto’s President/CEO have reflected that:  establishing a sport science department, encouraging the hiring of minor league instructors with an education and/or sport science background, integrating analytics, and making sure a major overhaul of the team’s outdated minor league complex was part of the funding package the franchise received from Dunedin and the state of Florida.

But even in an organization as deep as the Blue Jays’, once you get past the top tier of prospects, things start to become more of a roll of the dice.  Ranking players becomes increasingly difficult, as does projecting their futures.  With that in mind, here are some players that might rank (and do, in fact) anywhere from 11-30 on many top Blue Jays prospects list – in no particular order.

 

Patrick Murphy, RHP

In March of last year, Murphy was sitting on top of the world, perhaps the best starting pitching prospect in the organization after Nate Pearson.

What a difference a year makes.

In the spring of 2019, Murphy was coming off of a 2018 season in which he was named the Florida State League Pitcher of the year.  After battling injuries and being handled very carefully by the Blue Jays on his climb up the ladder, the owner of the system’s best curve ball had added a change to pair up with an uptick in velo on his fastball, which saw him touch 100.  The sky seemed the limit.

No pitcher in the system has faced more adversity than Murphy, and 2019 brought more of the same.  His toe-tap delivery, which disrupted hitters’ timing, was suddenly ruled illegal in May (truth be told, it was illegal, but why it took MLB two months into the season to figure that out remains a mystery), and Murphy was not the same hurler after having to revamp his delivery.  Throwing added bullpens between starts to help get comfortable with his new mechanics led to shoulder fatigue, and another trip to the IL.  All in all, it was a tale of two seasons for Murphy at AA New Hampshire:  he had fanned 70 in 69 innings in the first half, but was limited to 14 innings in the second.  In the meantime, new additions to the organization Anthony Kay, Simeon Woods Richardson, Thomas Hatch, and Alek Manoah had passed Murphy on the depth chart, and Joey Murray had probably pulled up even with him, at least in a starter’s role.

Despite those second half struggles, it was no surprise to see Murphy invited to summer camp as part of the 60-man roster, and is currently at the team’s alternate camp in Rochester.

Given the success Jordan Romano has had in this still relatively young restart, you can’t help but wonder if Murphy’s future might lie in the bullpen as well.  With his repertoire pared down to that likely-to-bump-up FB and his wipeout curve, it’s easy to envision success for him in that role.  Add to that the fact that his options clock is ticking after having been added to the 40-man roster in 2018, and you have a decision lurking. The Blue Jays like his innings-eating potential and four pitch mix, but they have to be mulling that conversion over right now.  Even that is not a guarantee, of course; not every pitcher can do that.  It takes time.  See Reid-Foley, Sean.

Otto Lopez, UT

A visitor to Lansing early in the 2017 season to get a first-hand glimpse of Vlad and Bo was treated to an interesting site during BP.  One hitter continually clanged balls off the support at the top of the cage, in an obvious attempt to work on his launch angle.  Even though it looked unusual in batting practice, it paid off in the game:  the player hit a long Home Run to straightaway CF, an impressive feat in pitcher-friendly Cooley Law School Stadium.  That player was Edward Olivares, on his way to a breakout season, but since dealt to the Padres (let’s not talk about that trade), for whom he has made an impressive MLB debut since the restart.

He might not have Oliveras’ frame, but Otto Lopez could benefit from a swing adjustment like that.

He may rank toward the bottom of a lot of top prospect rankings, but there’s something about a guy who is as versatile with the glove (SS/3B/2B/OF) as he is with languages (Spanish/French/English – born in the Dominican, Lopez lived in Montreal from ages 10-14).  Toss in a 2019 Midwest League batting title, and consider the rise of Santiago Espinal in the organization, as well as the Blue Jays’ preference for reserves who can play multiple positions, and Lopez might be a big leaguer one day.

In his first shot at full season ball, Lopez led all of Low A in batting average.  Originally slotted to play more of a multi-position role, he became Lansing’s everyday SS when Jordan Groshans went down with a heel injury in May.  Despite playing a premium position,  he surged in the second half, posting a .338/.375/.444 line.  Toss in 20 doubles and as many stolen bases, and you have an ideal bottom of the order hitter with today’s batting lineup construction.

The knock against Lopez is his relative lack of power.  He puts the ball in play (only an 8% SwStr rate), but that, paradoxically, is another chink in Lopez’ armour:  he only walked 8% of the time as well, and that doesn’t bode well for a guy with his offensive profile.  And while he’s a plus runner, those 20 steals also came with 15 times caught.

Espinal had made a swing adjustment the year the Blue Jays acquired him from the Red Sox, and while he’ll likely never hit enough to be an everyday player, he provides enough offence to go along with his positional versatility, and likely will be the 25th man on the Jays roster permanently one day.  If Lopez can create little more loft in his swing, he might follow the same path.

Josh Winckowski, RHP

Few players get as little prospect love as this 2016 15th round pick who has been a one level at a time guy since joining the organization, finishing 2019 with Dunedin.  Get named the 2018 Northwest League Pitcher of the Year?  Winky was nowhere to be found on top prospects lists.  Lead the Midwest League in GB% before his promotion to High A?  Next to no fanfare.

But throughout his time in the organization, Winckowski has pounded the bottom of the strike zone, and induced a lot of weak contact.  He combines a mid 90s fastball that has continually upped a bit each year with a bowling ball sinker and plus slider.  Winckowski gave up more contact at Dunedin than he had previously, but still continued to get guys out.  An NL scout, in a piece by MLB.com’s Alexis Brudnicki, offered encouraging praise for the righthander:

  He’s a guy I like a lot.  He’s young and he’s got plus pitchability, he’s not just a thrower. I gave him a present 50 with his control, which is very unusual. He has an excellent three-piece mix and his slider is a solid out pitch. He throws strikes, and has an idea of what he’s doing. He has a below-average arm action but he locates and gets the job done. He’s a little bit of a short armer, and short armers have a lot less injuries. He’s aggressive and he competes and he was up to 96 last year. There’s a lot to like.

So, why doesn’t Winky get more recognition?  Probably for a couple of reasons.  One would have to be despite his stuff, he doesn’t miss as many bats as top pitching prospects tend to.  Another factor might be the depth in the Toronto system.  Whatever the case, Winckowski is a guy to watch.  Like Murphy, Romano, and SRF, his future might be in the bullpen, likely in a middle relief role.

Jackson Rees, MLB

Seldom – if ever – do you see a reliever in a top prospects discussion.  And given their volatility and short average shelf life, it’s no wonder.  But woe be the team that fancies themselves a contender that doesn’t have depth in their bullpen.  Low level relievers tend to be a dime a dozen, but when you’re named the MiLB Reliever of the Year, people tend to take notice.

Because of his age and injury history, Rees went unclaimed in the 2018 draft, and the Blue Jays signed him mainly to fill out the rotation at Short Season Bluefield.  He was hit hard in his debut, but a remarkable off season transformation turned him into a power arm who dominated both Low and High A.

Rees sits 91-94 with his sinker, which plays up due to a deceptive delivery.  Combined with a wipeout gyro slider, hitters found Rees incredibly hard to square up.  It’s tough to get comfortable against him and get a good look at the ball, and the numbers would back it up:  88 Ks in 61.2 innings in 2019, .183 OppBA, 0.89 WHIP, and a 19.8 SwStr%.

The question, of course, is whether Rees can repeat his success at higher levels.  Hitters at AA and above don’t tend to chase as frequently as the lower level hitters do, and Rees will likely have to make some adjustments when play resumes.  He had some success (13K/8IP) in the Arizona Fall League last year, so it would appear that he’ll continue to miss bats.

Leo Jimenez, SS

Two years ago, Blue Jays VP and head of international ops Andrew Tinnish told us that if you were to ask him of all the Short Stops they had (at that time) in the system, the one who was most likely to stick at that spot was the Panamanian “sparkplug” (Tinnish’s word) Jimenez.

The pandemic has robbed us of the opportunity to see Jimenez and his 2019 Bluefield teammates Orelvis Martinez and Miguel Hiraldo in Lansing this season.  It might have been a special year for Lugs’ fans.

There is no doubt whatsoever about Jimenez’ defensive skills.  He has excellent hands, solid reactions to batted balls, and explosive first step, strong arm, and covers a lot of ground.  It’s his bat that has come into question.  BA on Jimenez after naming him the Appy League’s 14th top prospect last year:

   Jimenez has very little impact ability or power, but he has an advanced offensive approach and posted a .298/.377/.377 slash line with a 17.1 percent strikeout rate and 8.7 percent walk rate in 2019.

The trick for Jimenez will be for him to turn that advanced approach into a way to provide some more pop to enhance his value.  He led off for Panama’s national team as a 16 year old, and Tinnish admitted that outside of fellow 2017 IFA Eric Pardinho, Jimenez was the player he was most excited about.

Luis Quinones, RHP

Day Three of what we once knew of the MLB draft must be fun to watch in the various war rooms around the league.  The purpose of rounds 31-40 is (we should probably now say was) mainly to fill out minor league rosters.  Former Blue Jays amateur scouting director Steve Sanders talked about area scouts literally pounding on the table to convince the club to take their guys in those rounds, players who had been overlooked because of injury, inconsistency, or a myriad of other reasons.

Quinones was one of those players.  The Puerto Rican was taken in the 35th round from Junior College power San Jacinto, and he was positively lights out in Vancouver’s bullpen last year.  He fanned 57 in 36 innings for the C’s, and was mostly unhittable.  Again, Quinones is a reliever, and subject to all the usual high risks, but man, it would have been great to see him this year.

Thanks to a positive PED test in the off season, we would not have seen him until June of this year.

Kendall Williams, RHP

The Blue Jays took a lot of starting pitching in the top two rounds of last year’s draft, if you go by the measuring stick:  6’7″ Alek Manoah, and the 6’6″ Williams

Had Covid-19 not wiped out the minor league season this year, Williams likely would have established himself in the front of the Vancouver starting rotation.  Not possessed of one outstanding pitch up to this point,  he does show outstanding feel for his secondaries for his age.  Williams gets a good downward plane on his pitches, and can throw his fastball – which touches 95 – for strikes.

Williams has the profile of a back of the rotation starter at this point, but he also has a great deal of projection left, which makes him worth watching.

C.J. Van Eyk, RHP

    Like Williams, Van Eyk is a 2nd round pick, although he went the college route.  Reports say that he has a polished four pitch mix and smooth mechanics, but his lack of a dominant pitch kept him out of the first round.  The Blue Jays, for their part, liked the start he got off to this season, and feel his stock would have gone higher had he been able to pitch a full season.

   What they have in Van Eyk is an arm that may tick upward with the use of technology and exposure to big league instruction.  There is a solid foundation there.  He projects to remain a starter, and if he can develop a put-away pitch, could find his way into the middle of the rotation.

 

Finally, some guys who have yet to play pro ball, but are worth watching once they do.

Dahlian Santos, RHP – undersized live arm, touches 94 (last fall), shows great feel for pitching.

Estiven Machado, SS – direct, compact swing from both sides of the plate.  Jose Reyes comp.

Rikelvin de Castro, SS –  highlight reel defender, who plays with tremendous energy.  The question is how much he can add to a slight frame in order to enhance his hit tool.

Manuel Beltre, SS – Santiago Espinal may only be the first in a series of waves of up-the-middle guys.  The Blue Jays value “positional fluidity,” the ability to play more than one position.  Beltre would have been Toronto’s top July 2nd signing this year if not for Covid-19 pushing things back.  He’s yet another ball hawk, with a line drive/all fields approach.  As an added bonus, he already speaks English quite well.  

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Toronto Blue Jays Top Prospects: The Next Guys

  1. You mention that Otto Lopez has a chance to sneak in and be an utility player for the Jays and be the 25th man on a Blue Jays roster someday. You are a baseball website,so FYI the rosters in the Major Leagues carry 26 men.

    Like

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