The Blue Jays Top 20 – Five Who Just Missed

In putting together a top prospects list, invariably there’s some buyer’s remorse, and more than a few tweets or comments about who was left off – rest assured that the 11-20 list went through several drafts before it was published.

As anyone who has ever coached a team can tell you, when you’re selecting players at a tryout, depending on the sport, there is a percentile of players that stand out right away.  And there are some you know just aren’t going to make it.  The biggest group of players tends to be in between those two, and often there isn’t a lot of difference between them.  Maybe their skills sets are different, but their overall potential and ability to help the team are not, on balance.

Here are five players who were fringe candidates for the Top 20.  All are on an upward trajectory, but their tools don’t project as elite.  Still, if they continue to develop at the pace they did this year, it’s reasonable to expect one or more could break through to the Top 20 next year.

1.  Chavez Young, OF

The toolsy Bahamian had a breakout summer in his first crack at full season ball with Lansing, and was the only minor leaguer to combine 50+ extra base hits with 40+ stolen bases.  Young can play all three OF positions, has a patient approach at the plate, and makes thing happen on the bases.

Despite that, Young is not considered a top prospect.  His best tool is considered to be his speed, and even though he’s a switch-hitter, his bat is not considered elite.  It’s interesting that he didn’t appear on Baseball America‘s Top 20 Midwest League prospects despite a decent .285/.363/.444 line, nor was he moved up to Dunedin during the season.  Reports suggest he’s already tapped into his power, and 8 HRs will not get you far in the long run.  Still, there is some sleeper potential with Young, but we won’t get a true read on him until he plays at a higher level.

2.  Jordan Romano, SP

We always want to see someone who grew up a short distance from the Rogers Centre do well.  Especially when it’s someone as personable and available as Romano, who Future Blue Jays has kept close tabs on for several seasons.

Romano came out like a house on fire this season, winning his first eight decisions, and was named the Eastern Division starter in the Eastern League All-Star game.  He was also named a post-season EL All-Star, and was near the top of many Pitching stats.  Over the past three seasons, he’s missed a lot of bats, totalling 338 Ks over that span.

Romano’s post ASG numbers were not as glittering as his pre ones were.  He gave up more contact, and EL hitters batted .292 against him over that span.  Romano has worked diligently to develop a change up to complement his 93-94 fastball and slider, but he hasn’t fully learned the many nuances of it yet.

Interestingly, in his one-inning All Star game outing, Romano dialled his fastball up to 98, sitting 94-97.   If he isn’t added to the Blue Jays 40-man roster this month, there’s a good chance a team will take a chance on him in the Rule 5 draft and move him to the bullpen.

3.  Alejandro Kirk, C/1B

There’s a lot to like about a guy with roughly the same dimensions as an oversized fire hydrant.  In his first year of play in the system (he was a late 2016 sign, but in his first GCL AB last year re-injured a hand he had originally hurt in an off-season car accident), he slashed a ridiculous .354/.443/.558.

The issue with Kirk is that he’s a bat-first player.  At 5’9″/220, he has no real position except behind the plate, where reports say he was at least adequate in an emergency role.

We need to see more of Kirk at higher levels, but we suspect it might be fun to watch his plate appearances.

4.  Zach Jackson, RP

Owner of a funky, over-the-top delivery, Jackson is very tough on right handed hitters, who managed only a .108 batting average against him in AA this year.

Jackson has fanned better than a batter per inning since being drafted in 2016, and struck out 10.9/9 in 2018.  Control problems have plagued him, however, as he walked 7.4/9 this past year.

Jackson has a long reach in the back during his delivery, which makes it very difficult for him to achieve a consistent release point.  His fastball sits 93-94, and is paired with a 12-6 hammer of a curve.

When he was drafted, there was some thought that Jackson could move quickly.  Command issues have dictated otherwise, but there’s a live arm there.

5.  Cal Stevenson OF

Forget for a moment Stevenson’s video game numbers (.359/.494/.518) for Bluefield in the Appy League.  He’s a guy whose tools (except for his speed) grade out as average across the board.

So, why is he even in a top prospect conversation?

Maybe it’s his ability to work the count and get on base.  Or perhaps it’s because he’s one of those heart and soul guys whose approach and work ethic might help him to outperform his projections.  Or maybe even it’s because of his high baseball IQ, which is evident in just about every aspect of his game.

The odds against Stevenson are long, but it will be fun to watch him in full season next year.

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Blue Jays Minor League All-Star Team

Catcher – Danny Jansen  .275/.390/.473 (MiLB numbers)

Jansen solidified his label as the Blue Jays Catcher of the Future with a good season on both sides of the plate, and earned a late season call up as a result.

Jansen has long been lauded for his leadership skills, and his ability to handle a Pitching staff.  Over the last two years, he’s added a potent bat, and vastly improved blocking skills to go along with the tools he already has behind the plate, which include being able to set a good low target, and excellent framing skills.

With Reese McGuire joining him in more than a day game after a night game role, the Blue Jays will be able to keep Jansen’s bat in the lineup on occasion while giving him a day off from Catching duties in 2019.  Barring injury, the team appears set at this position well into the next decade.

1B Ryan Noda  .256/.421/.484

After a disappointing draft year showing, Noda slipped to the Jays in the 15th round last June.  He led the Appalachian League in OPS, and continued his on-base ways in Lansing this year.

Noda led the minors in walks with 109, and his ABs continued to be a sight to see.  Eschewing batting gloves, Noda grinds out plate appearances, plain and simple.  His 20 HRs were 2nd best in the Midwest League, as were his 80 RBI.

With Kacy Clemens in the lineup for the first six weeks of the season, Noda had to split time with him at 1B, heading to LF when Clemens had a turn at First.  His defensive skills in the Outfield were a work in progress –  his numbers improved once Clemens was promoted to Dunedin, and Noda became a fulltime First Baseman.  He finished the season in a flurry, posting a 1.130 OPS in August.

Noda will no doubt continue to work the count at High A next year, but he may have to become more aggressive.  When he works the counts, he sometimes becomes vulnerable to off speed pitches on the outside edge of the plate.  Pitchers with better command at higher levels may be able to exploit that.

2B  Cavan Biggio  .252/.388/.499

Biggio increased his SwStr% and Flyball rate last year in an obvious attempt to add some loft to the ball, but the humidity and Pitcher-friendly Florida State League ballparks conspired to keep many of his long balls short of the fences.

This year, he’s broken out in a big way.  Biggio led the Eastern League in Homers, Slugging OPS.  He also led the league in walks, and just missed leading in strikeouts, almost winning the three true outcome title.

Biggio played three infield positions, finding himself most often at 2nd this year (68 games).  The Blue Jays also experimented with him in the Outfield late in the season, and will continue his trial there in the Arizona Fall League.

SS Kevin Smith  .302/.358/.528

Smith was regarded as a glove-first SS when the Blue Jays took him in the 4th round last year, and that label seemed apt after a .271/.312/.466 season with Bluefield.

Except that if there’s one thing that drives Smith, it’s proving the doubters wrong.

An ardent student of the game and diligent worker, Smith set about last off-season to eliminate a loop in his swing in an attempt to catch up to high fastballs, and to improve his two strike approach.  The changes paid off, as Smith dominated at Lansing, and earned a late May promotion to Dunedin.

Smith is probably the best defensive SS in the Blue Jays system – a clear evaluation on that is admittedly difficult.  He split time at 3B and SS at Lansing, then played in the online streaming black hole that is the FSL for the rest of the year.

One thing is certain – Smith has worked his way onto the Blue Jays top prospect list.  He is very likely to stick at SS,

3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr  .381/.437/.636

The easiest choice by far.  Not only did Guerrero have an offensive minor league season for the ages (possibly the best in Blue Jays prospect history), he made tremendous strides with his defence.  While he may not supplant Brooks Robinson one day in terms of reputation, he has built on the skills he already displayed in abundance at the hot corner:   footwork, sure hands, and a strong accurate arm.  Guerrero has been working on his first step reactions, and this play demonstrates the progress he’s made:

 

OF – Harold Ramirez  .320/.365/.471

Ramirez may have been in the shadow of more illustrious teammates this year like Gurriel, Guerrero, Bichette, and Biggio, but he was one of the most consistent hitters in New Hampshire’s lineup, winning an Eastern League batting title.  In his third go round at AA after injuries interrupted his 2017 season, Ramirez was among the league leaders in Total Bases and Slugging.

Where does Ramirez fit in a now crowded Blue Jays Outfield situation?  That’s hard to say, but his versatility and bat could help him force his way into the picture sometime next year.

OF Chavez Young .285/.363/.445

From 39th round pick to near Top 10 prospect in three seasons is a remarkable journey. Young was the only player in the minors this year with 50+ extra base hits and 40+ steals, demonstrating his power-speed potential.

At the plate, Young has a solid approach, and demonstrated that this year with a career-high walk rate.  A plus defender who can play all three OF positions, Young was a solid presence at the plate and in the field for Lansing this summer.  There are still some aspects of rawness to his game, but he smoothed off a lot of the rough edges in his first year of full season ball.

OF  Cal Stevenson

Firmly entrenched at the top of Bluefield’s lineup, the 10th round pick led the Appy League in runs, walks, and OBP, and was second in Average and Stolen Bases.  He was the catalyst in a lineup that nearly reached the Appy finals.

Ut – Otto Lopez  .308/.399/.406

Easily Vancouver’s most valuable player, Lopez can play the OF, as well as 2B/SS/3B.  He runs the bases well, and is a smart, high baseball-IQ player.

RH Starter – Patrick Murphy

Finally healthy for a full season for the first time in several years, Murphy was dominant in the Florida State League, leading the loop in Ks, and a nearly 60% GB rate indicates that when FSL hitters weren’t swinging and missing at this pitches, they had trouble squaring him up.

LH Starter – Zach Logue  12-4 3.15 ERA .259 OBA

Logue started the year at Lansing, and was promoted in May to Dunedin.  Not an overpowering Pitcher, he relies on command and a four-pitch mix to keep hitters off-balance, which he did for much of the year.  He uses his fastball to get ahead, and then relies on his improving secondaries to finish batters off.

RP – Travis Bergen  4-2 0.95 ERA .200 OBA

Another Pitcher who was finally healthy for a full season, Bergen was lights out at two levels in relief.  Moved up to New Hampshire after starting the year in Dunedin, the left-hander fanned 74 hitters in 59 innings at the two levels.  Bergen does not approach triple digits, but has command of all of his pitches – he surrendered only 15 walks this season.

DH – Alejandro Kirk .354/.443/.558 

Kirk came within 3 feet of tying up what proved to be the deciding game of Bluefield’s semifinal playoff matchup with the Rays Princeton affiliate, but his game travelled a long way this season.

Coming into the season, Kirk was a C/DH (with emphasis on the latter) was a fairly unknown commodity.  A late September signing in 2016, the Mexican had all of 2 ABs in the GCL in 2017 before being assigned to Bluefield this season.  Kirk busted out in a big way, and was named the Appy All Star DH.  With starting Catcher Hagen Danner in an out of the lineup with injuries, Kirk stepped in and from all accounts handled himself well.

Kirk swings hard and seldom gets cheated at the plate.  He put up gaudy numbers at a Low Level, so he comes with the usually cautions as he moves up.  That bat holds considerable promise, however.

Blue Jays Last Ten Prospect Hot Sheet

This is another in a series of posts about the hottest prospects in the Blue Jays system over the past ten days (or so).  It’s not a re-ranking of the top Blue Jays prospects – that will come out after the minor league season.

1.  Cal Stevenson, OF Bluefield.

The 10th round pick from Arizona has dazzled in his first pro season.  Sent to the Appalachian League, he doesn’t have a lot left to prove after slashing .519/.619/.926 over the last ten days.

Stevenson leads the Appy in Runs, and is second in Average and OBP.  He has a patient approach with has led to 35 walks (leading the league) vs only 12 Ks.  He’s also stolen 9 bases, and hasn’t been caught.

2.  Max Pentecost, C New Hampshire

Pentecost’s last ten days have helped partially salvaged a disappointing season for the 2014 1st round pick.  He slashed .500/.455/.700, and 4 of his 10 hits were doubles, bringing Pentecost’s line for the season up to .228/.263/.345.  His Average had dipped below the Mendoza Line in late July.

The Blue Jays stashed Pentecost on the DL after the Arizona Fall League season in order to help protect him from the Rule 5.  There was thought of the team turning him into a multiple position player, but he’s been New Hampshire’s everyday Catcher for most the season.

3. Josh Winckowski, P Vancouver

At the end of an hour-long conversation with Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro last fall, I tossed out a line from an old Baseball Prospectus article I read about building a bullpen being a General Manager’s toughest job.  In response, Shapiro said that he thought that developing starting pitching is a more difficult task.

And he’s right.  Starting pitching drives a team’s defensive bus.

A 2016 Florida HS 15th rounder, Winckowski has been brought along slowly, pitching at all three short season levels.  That patience may be starting to pay off, as Winckowski delivered two superb starts for Vancouver over the past 10, as part of a remarkable turnaround for the defending Northwest League champs.

Winckowski pitched a career-hight 7 innings vs Euguene on July 29th, then delivered his best start as a pro, tossing six shutout frames in his following start, allowing 3 hits while fanning 7.

Other Pitching prospects in the Blue Jays system may have posted more dazzling stats over the past 10, but those two starts stood out.

4.  Ryan Noda, 1B Lansing

Last year’s Appy League MVP got off to a slow start with Lansing, but he seemed to find his stride at the plate at about the same time he was moved back to 1B with the promotion of Kacy Clemens to Dunedin.

Noda hit 4 HRs over the past 10, along with 8 walks, in posting a 1.172 OPS.  Noda leads the Midwest League in walks and OBP.  A Toronto media guy suggested Noda would be a LF in the Blue Jays rebuild next year, and while both of those predictions seem highly unlikely, there is no doubt about his ability to grind out ABs.

5.  Patrick Murphy, P Dunedin

Murphy ran into pitch count issues (and some inconsistent Florida State League umpiring) last night, but he became the 2nd pitcher in the system to hit 100 this season (teammate Jackson McClelland is the other).

Murphy’s velo has been ramping up all summer.  Enjoying a second straight season of good health, he’s sat in the mid-90s for much of the season, and has kept that velo deep into games.  Murphy has averaged better than a K per inning over his last ten starts.  No Blue Jays Pitching prospect has done more to improve his stock this year.

With the Rule 5 draft looming if he’s not put on the 40-man this fall, it would seem the team is content to keep him at High A for the duration of the season.  Blue Jays management would not confirm that, of course, but that does appear to be the strategy.