There’s something about watching minor league games that I often find more interesting than the big league variety.
Maybe it takes me back to my youth, watching my Midland, ON town team, led by a frizzy side burned 40-something former minor league pitcher named Gord Dyment while munching on crispy fresh fries we called “Johnny Fries,” after the local fast food legend who made them.
Perhaps it’s the limited camera angles which actually lend a sort of charm to minor league broadcasts. The few cameras capturing the game are focussed on what’s taking place on the field, and not players spitting sunflower seeds in the dugouts, or fans wolfing down impossibly priced hot dogs in the stands.
At any rate, by my estimation, I’ve watched all or some of well in excess of 100 games played by Blue Jays affiliates this season. These are the top 10 big league prospects, in order of likely MLB success, in my humble opinion.
1. Gabriel Moreno, C
If there’s one thing Moreno’s brief big league stint demonstrated, it’s his relative newness to catching.
Prior to this season, Moreno had less than 200 games worth of experience at the game’s most demanding non-pitching position. While he fared reasonably well in 18 big league games, his inexperience showed up on both sides of the ball, and fans didn’t get a true glimpse of his first-division potential.
You name an aspect of his game, and Moreno has improved it over the past three years. He has learned to block and frame well, and his pop times are quicker than big league average. At the plate, he has learned to be more selective, and while he can put a bat on just about anything, his MLB time showed he needs to focus more on pitches he can drive.
Are there concerns about Moreno? Certainly, you have to be a little worried about the lack of power since he broke his thumb thirteen months ago. And, with lots of guys who can get their bat on pitches that many can’t, there is a tendency for him to make contact with stuff he can’t barrel. High velo seems to be a challenge for him. Then there’s this…..
Personally, while there is no doubt that Moreno is an elite athlete, it just doesn’t really stand to reason that the Blue Jays Player Development Staff have had this wrong for four years.
While there must be a huge temptation for the front office to deal some of the system’s catching depth at the trade deadline, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if Moreno spent the rest of the season at AAA, and came to camp next spring ready to battle for the starting job. He’s Baseball America’s top prospect for a reason.
2. Ricky Tiedemann, LHP
There were many who have decried the draft being moved back a month, but you could certainly use the fast-rising southpaw as a case study in enhanced player development that the draft created.
In the past, there would have been some pressure to put Tiedemann into game action had he been drafted in June. Instead, he was able to complete a Junior college season, have some shut down time, then work on the strength, flexibility, and mechanical issues the team identified he needed to refine.
You certainly can’t argue with the results. Tiedemann ready pole-vaulted his way into the top third of Baseball America’s Top 100. He projects to be at least a mid-rotation starter – Tiedemann may not maintain that 96-98 velo as a stretched out starting pitcher in the long run, but when you combine 94-96 with a plus change that he throws to hitters from both sides and a slider that should become a solid third pitch, you have something to dream on.
3. Orelvis Martinez, SS
The promotion of Leo Jimenez to the 40 man to avoid the Rule 5 last fall may be indirectly responsible for Martinez’ struggles (.768 OPS to date) this season at AA.
In a perfect world, Orelvis would have repeated Vancouver, where he spent the last two months of the 2021 season (part of that on the Covid list). But the need to accelerate Jimenez’ development, combined with the belief in some quarters of the organization that Martinez could still play SS at the big league level, meant that Orelvis started the year in the Eastern League (and was the 2nd-youngest player on Opening Day), where the more experienced pitchers have fed him a heavy diet of fastballs inside, and breaking pitches away.
It would appear in recent weeks that Martinez’ hands have been dropped a bit in order to reduce the distance that his barrel has to travel – a 2 HR game on inner half fastballs earlier in July offered some promise, but until Orelvis fully grasps a better knowledge of his strike zone, it looks like he still may struggle. But it’s far from time to give up on him just yet.
4. Yosver Zulueta, P
His ultimate destination may be a big league bullpen, but it’s been a lot of fun to watch Zulueta’s starts in this his first full pro season. He’s fanned 63 hitters in 41 innings at 3 levels, with most of his starts featuring a lot of swing-and-miss, and hitters unable to elevate his pitches.
Zulueta gets hitters out with a four-pitch mix built around a high octane (98-99) fastball. His change may be his best pitch, but he also throws a hard-breaking slider and a curve with impressive shape.
His recent promotion to New Hampshire is a sign of a potential move to a relief role next month (if not sooner) with the Blue Jays. There is no doubt that his pared down repertoire would be lights out in relief, but there is an element of concern about giving a guy with 40 IP of pro experience leverage innings in a playoff race. His first AA start was not a success, but his second was much better. Having now been moved into a bullpen role, we could possibly be viewing this as a big league audition.
5. Gabriel Martinez, OF
No other position player has leaped as high up the rankings as Martinez has. Despite missing a month of the season, Martinez – who won’t turn 20 until next week – has been among the Florida State League offensive leaders all season. If he had enough PAs to qualify, his .893 OPS would lead the league.
Martinez can chase, but he has advanced bat-to-ball skills, and it’s likely his plate discipline improves as he matures. His is a bat over glove type of profile, with LF likely his ultimate position. Dunedin hitting coach Matt Young likens his approach to Bo Bichette’s, and says, “he’s not afraid to hit with two strikes.”
He was likely out on this play, but Martinez shows some first-rate athleticism:
It’s been somewhat curious that Martinez hasn’t been promoted to Vancouver, but given that the Jays risk losing him in the Rule 5 this fall, they likely are keeping him in Low – sorry, Single – A to keep other MLB teams from getting a true read on his skills.
6. Nate Pearson, P
Try as I might, I just can’t quit Big Nate.
There’s just too much velo, too much pitchability, and too much of an arm to pass up. Having said that, it’s hard to escape the feeling that his days are numbered with the organization. I don’t sense any frustration with him, but as the trade deadline approaches, one wonders if a change of scenery might be for the best.
7. Sem Robberse, P
While he gave up a bit of contact (.321 opponents’ BA) in June, Robberse has been among the pitching leaders in the Northwest League all season – quite a feat considering he won’t turn 21 until October.
Robberse has been durable and has eaten a lot of innings for Vancouver – he’s failed to pitch into the 5th inning in only one of his 14 starts this season. Which is what you’d expect from a guy averaging slightly over 14 pitches per inning.
The knock I’ve heard about Robberse is that he lacks one outstanding pitch. But he makes up for that with command of all of his arsenal. Given his age, there’s still time for him to develop a put away pitch. Twitter is full of trade speculation concerning Blue Jays prospects, but you can bet that there have been a number of scouts in the Pacific Northwest watching Robberse pitch. There may be other bat-missing, higher-profile pitchers around, but he dodges barrels on a regular basis.
8. Brandon Barriera, P
If Tiedemann is the model for post-COVID draft and player development, we can’t wait to see what Barriera is like in his pro debut (possibly next spring, but given that his pre-draft workload was less than Tiedemann’s, maybe we see him in the Complex next month).
Perfect Game’’s report on Barriera speaks volumes:
Taller and wiry frame with longer limbs and huge projection remaining. A primary pitcher, smooth and fluid delivery with a full arm action and 3/4 release. Clean and quick arm stroke, good extension at release with firm stuff and run sink to the offering. Works both sides of the plate with the heater. Good hand speed and sharp break on the slider. Changeup is very consistent as well with late fading action and the ability to sell the pitch well. Always around the zone and gets wide misses when the pitches tunnel to the glove side. Massive upside.
Yes, the draft roadside is littered with flameout first round prep picks. But you have to love the kid’s track record, and the Blue Jays success with developing pitching prospects of late.
9. Addison Barger, INF
The versatile Barger has been the best hitter in the Blue Jays system by a fair margin this year.
While there is a swing-and-miss element to his game, both his barrels and whiffs are things to admire. One of the strongest players in the organization, Barger does not get cheated.
Barger will take the odd walk (.393 OBP at two levels), will work the count (averaging almost 4 pitches/AB), and is versatile in the field – he’s been primarily a SS/3B/DH this season, but played all four infield positions in Dunedin last year. Barger may not be a Gold Glove candidate, but he’s a decent fielder with some good range and a strong arm.
Promoted to AA after slashing .300/.366/.588 with Vancouver, Barger has not missed a beat since moving east. In 15 games with New Hampshire, he’s posted a ridiculous 1.261 OPS. He certainly will be hard-pressed to keep that up second time through the Eastern League, but Barger’s production this year is worth noting.
Part of BA’s scouting report on Barger:
His swing is highly unusual with a pronounced leg kick, and a hands driven swing with a highly rotational finish. It’s worked over the last two years but leads to some questions as to how he’ll fare against higher caliber pitching. Defensively he has the ability to handle shortstop, third base, and second, but he has the kind of arm you want on the left side of the infield. His ability to make all the throws and handle shortstop defensively make him a potential everyday hitter if he makes enough contact. The Future: A player with a standout tool on both sides of the ball – will Barger make enough contact long-term to be an everyday player? – is the primary question around his profile. If he does he has the ability to be a super-utility infielder or an everyday regular on a second-division squad.
Barger is something of a late bloomer, and there certainly are questions as to how he will handle advanced pitching. But he’s hit his way onto this list.
10. Spencer Horwitz 1B/LF
After fashioning a Northwest League record 28-game hit streak last year, all Horwitz has done this season is continue to hit and get on base. He’s been probably the most impressive hitter after Barger.
After recording a .930 OPS in AA, Horwitz earned a promotion to AAA, and he continued his hot ways, notching three three-hit games in his first five games with Buffalo. He’s cooled off since then, but that stretch served notice that Horwitz might be on the cusp of a big league job.
The issues for Horwitz are the guy already playing 1st for Toronto, and Horowitz’ swing, which is more of a line-drive/ground ball type. He did make some adjustments this season, eliminating a bat waggle and bringing his hands in closer to his body in order to help him get the barrel on the ball more often. His average exit velo has risen dramatically as a result.
Like Barger, Horwitz is patient at the plate, although he’s chased a bit at AAA. He’s limited defensively, and the Blue Jays have tried him a handful of times in LF. With the Blue Jays facing a potential 40-man crunch this fall, it’s been suggested that Horwitz – who must be added to it this year – may be part of a deadline deal. Stay tuned.