Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects

Vladdy2
Clutchlings Photo

With a preference for acquiring and developing up-the-middle players who can slide to other defensive positions, the Blue Jays farm system continued its ascension into the upper tiers of baseball’s elite organizations in 2018.

With 15 prospects scattered among the Top 20 in Baseball America‘s rankings of each minor league this fall (tied for 3rd with Arizona, behind Tampa and San Diego), the Blue Jays system is now ranked #3 by BA, and most analysts (not named Keith Law) would agree that it’s a system on the rise.

When he took the helm of the Blue Jays organization three years ago, one of the carrots that brought Mark Shapiro over from Cleveland was the promise of a bigger budget for player development.  Since coming to Toronto, Shapiro has instituted a ground-breaking (for baseball) High Performance department, and has brought in numerous sport scientists to help the organization’s prospects learn to eat, train, and recover more efficiently.  He has also brought onboard several key executives with extensive player development experience like Ross Atkins and Ben Cherington.  This off-season, under the direction of Player Development head Gil Kim, the team brought in a number of minor league coaches and instructors with considerable teaching and coaching backgrounds, a trend that will likely continue this off season.

The Blue Jays have had reasonably successful drafts (although 2017 1st rounder Logan Warmoth took a large step back this year) over the past several seasons, and have done very well in the International market as well – it’s not a coincidence that new Manager Charlie Montoyo is bilingual, and has a strong track record of working with young players.  Minor league systems have to balance development with winning (with the former taking precedence at the lower levels), but several Blue Jays farm teams have made the post season over the past two years, with Vancouver bringing home a Northwest League title in 2017, and New Hampshire winning one this past season. The experience is always worthwhile for the organization’s young players, who, unlike college players, are not necessarily used to the pressure to win.

 

1.  Vladimir Guerrero 3B

.281/.437/.636,   9.5K%/9.3BB%,  20HR ,194 wRC+

At the moment, Guerrero is laying waste to Arizona Fall League pitching, and demonstrating that his bat is more than MLB-ready.  While Blue Jays fans were clamoring for Vladdy’s promotion for much of the season, a strained knee helped pumped the brakes on his development.  And that wasn’t a bad thing –  Shapiro had indicated a year ago that the only way we would see Guerrero in 2018 was if the team was in the middle of a pennant race, and even with the infusion of offence he would have provided, the 2018 Jays were not going to the post season.

A few extra months of minor league seasoning allowed Guerrero to continue to work on the defensive side of his game.  He has sure hands, good footwork, and a strong, accurate arm.  Vlad makes plays on balls that he gets to, but in the major leagues, where he’ll be fielding balls hit by MLB hitters (and half of them on turf),  but he’ll need to expand his range, and that was one of the reasons he remained in the minors this summer.

Even though he’ll be under intense media scrutiny when he reaches Toronto, Guerrero is more than up for the challenge.  This summer, it seemed like when he was facing a top-ranked Pitcher, Guerrero turned his game up accordingly.  If there is one knock against him, it’s that he doesn’t always do so when facing a lesser guy on the mound.  Those days will be fewer and further between in MLB.

When we finally do see Guerrero in the Blue Jays lineup, his impact will likely be immediate.  He is the best prospect the Blue Jays have ever developed.  He will anchor the middle of the Toronto order for years to come.

 

2.  Bo Bichette SS/2B

.286/.343/.453,  17K%/8.1BB% , 11 HR, 120 wRC+

Bichette grabbed more than his share of the headlines in 2017 when he led the minor leagues with a .362 average, hitting above .400 as late as mid-June.

This year was a different story.  In late May, his average tumbled to a career-low .237, before Bichette began to lay off pitches outside of the strike zone.  Maybe it was the pressure that he created himself trying to match Guerrero, or maybe it was the greater command possessed by Eastern League Pitchers, but 2018 was a tremendous learning year for Bichette, one that may ultimately serve him well in the future.

Bichette’s numbers for the year may not be awe-inspiring, but he put together a torrid final six weeks of the season, slashing .339/.402/.475 in August, and hitting .346 as New Hampshire romped to the EL title.

Bichette continued to make strides as a defender this season, but he looked most comfortable when the acquisition of Santiago Espinal in July forced him to share time at SS by moving over to 2B.  His range, reactions to ground balls, ability to make the pivot, and arm strength just seem to look better suited to the position.  One thing is for sure:  the bat will play, possibly not next season, but before a long time has elapsed.

3.  Nate Pearson SP

1.2 IP, 5.4 K/9, 0 BB/9, 10.80 FIP, 44.4% GB

Don’t be fooled at all by Pearson’s numbers.  An oblique issue kept him out of the lineup until early May, and a line drive off of his pitching arm in the second inning of his first start ended his season.  Pearson has pitched in the Arizona Fall League, but has understandably shown rust, but has dialed his velo back up to 100.

Pearson has a starter’s build and four-pitch mix.  He sits 96-98, and mixes in an effective curve, change, and slider.  He gets good spin on his breaking pitches, and throws all four from a similar arm slot.  When Pearson commands his fastball, hitters don’t have much of a chance.

Even though he’s thrown only 21 innings as a pro (his pitch count was strictly monitored in Vancouver last year after he was drafted), he will be bound for New Hampshire next year, and could move quickly.  The word “ace” is thrown around far too much, but Pearson definitely has front of the rotation potential.

 

4.  Danny Jansen C

(MiLB) .275/.390/.473,  13.6K%/12.1BB%, 12 HR, 146 wRC+

Already the hardest-working player on the field, the job of the MLB backstop has become even more complex in this day and age of framing and spin rates.  The Blue Jays unearthed a gem in the middle rounds of the 2013 draft, taking the Wisconsite with their 16th round pick.  In the 31 games he suited up for the Blue Jays this year, he showed why he’s considered one of the top receiving prospects in the game, and a potential franchise Catcher.

Jansen has always been an excellent framer, and Pitchers have long raved about working with him.  His bat came along last year, and he showcased good contact skills, and should hit the 20 HR plateau at some point.  If Reese McGuire continues to develop, the Blue Jays could employ him as more than a back up, allowing them to keep Jansen’s bat in the lineup when he needs a day off from behind the plate.

Jansen has given every indication that he will make the team out of training camp next year.

 

5.  Kevin Smith SS

.302/.328/.528, 21.1K%/ 7%BB, 25 HR, 149 wRC+

No Blue Jays prospect enhanced their status as much as the 2017 4th rounder did this year.  Stuck behind top pick Logan Warmoth last year, Smith surpassed him on both sides of the ball this year.

Smith owned Midwest League pitching before being promoted to Dunedin.  Along the way, he was named a Top 20 prospect by Baseball America in both leagues.  In naming him the FSL’s 11th top prospect, BA noted:

Evaluators who like Smith see a player who can stick at shortstop with a bat-first profile in the mold of Paul DeJong. He’s never going to be the flashiest player on the field, but his work ethic and all-around skills will help him produce impressive seasons. His bat can handle a slide to second base as well.

Smith did not make as much contact in Florida as he did in Michigan, with his K rate jumping from 16% to 24% after the promotion, with a corresponding drop in his BB rate as well.  Quite simply, Smith expanded his zone, and he may go through a dry spell similar to Bichette’s when he reaches the Eastern League next year.

Of all the up-the-middle prospects the Blue Jays have accumulated, Smith shows the most potential to stay at the position, and hit enough to become an MLBer.  An avid student of the game, he spent considerable time last off-season re-tooling his swing and refining his approach, and the payoff was significant.  He still may be a couple of seasons away, but he could provide a good complement to Guerrero on the left side of the Blue Jays infield.

 

6.  Eric Pardinho, SP

50 IP, 11.5K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 3.75 FIP, 46.3% GB

Dropped into a new country, with travel and under-the-lights play, and facing hitters that in almost every case were older than him (some by several years), all Pardinho did was produce one of the best debut seasons of any Blue Jays Starting Pitcher in recent memory.

The top-ranked 2017 IFA had his innings closely monitored in the Appy League, but he missed a lot of bats (15.4% K rate), and was very difficult to square up and loft (31% Fly Ball rate).  His four-pitch mix overmatched Appy hitters, as evidenced by a dominant mid-August outing against eventual league champs Elizabethton, a Twins affiliate.  Pardinho retired the first 19 hitters he faced before giving up a one out single in the 7th.

As might be expected of a 17-year-old, there’s still room for Pardinho to grow both physically and emotionally.  And even though he will one day be dwarfed in the rotation by Pearson, there’s a lot to like about Pardinho.  His athleticism allows him to repeat a clean, efficient delivery.  Already sitting 93-95 most nights, Pardinho should add some velo as he gets older, which will make his secondaries even more effective.

He’s still several seasons away – there’s even a good chance that Pardinho remains in Extended next spring until the Midwest League weather warms up.  But there is plenty of reason to expect to see him near the top of the Blue Jays rotation one day.

7.  Sean Reid-Foley SP

(AAA) 85.1 IP, 10.3 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 3.06 FIP, 42.7% GB

He had his struggles at the major league level, but his MiLB season was one of the most successful of Reid-Foley’s career, and gave fans a glimpse of what his potential could be.

After a dominant 8 starts at AA. SRF moved up to Buffalo, and continued to pile the whiffs, fanning 10.3/9, while walking only 3.6/9.  While in Buffalo, he came out firing, daring hitters to try to catch up with his mid 90-s fastball.  His problems at the MLB level came when he fell behind hitters, something he’ll have to fix and may come with added experience.

Starting Pitching is probably the hardest commodity to develop in all of baseball, and one look no further than the rising popularity of bullpenning and use of the Opener.  Even with a mid-rotation projection, there’s still plenty of potential value in Reid-Foley.

 

8. Jordan Groshans SS

(GCL) .331/390/.500, 18.8K%/8.2BB, 4 HR, 150 wRC+

The Jays broke out of the run of first round college picks last June when they took the Texas High Schooler, and he didn’t disappoint.  BA named him the 5th best prospect in the Gulf Coast League, with his bat the stand out tool:

Groshans has a polished hitting approach and a knack for finding the barrel. He squares up good pitching with quick bat speed and plus raw power. While Groshans has the sock in his bat to go deep from right-center over to his pull side, he mostly showed a line-drive, all-fields approach in the GCL, hammering fastballs and driving pitches on the outer half with authority to the opposite field.

Promoted to Bluefield for the Appy League playoffs, Groshans started slowly, but his bat came alive.  With a talented GCL infield this summer, Groshans split time at SS and 3B.  His arm is graded as above average, but the feeling among some evaluators seems to be that he winds up at the hot corner long-term.

 

9.  Anthony Alford OF

(AAA) .240/.312/.344,  26.9K%/7.2BB%, 5 HR, 87 wRC+

It’s hard to quit on the toolsy outfielder, even though 2018 was definitely a sideways year for him.  When he began the season on the DL, there were the usual concerns about his injury history.  Alford seemed lost at times at the plate this year, and did not barrel up balls like he did in 2017.

Still, there was some progress.  Alford began to drive the ball more in August, slashing .282/.324/.388 with 11 Doubles.  And the work he did with Coach Devon White helped him to take more efficient routes on fly balls.

The clock is starting to tick for Alford (he still has one more option year), but if he can stay in the lineup consistently, there could be a place for him in the Toronto outfield at some point next year.

 

10.  Orelvis Martinez SS

The top-ranked July 2nd bat in this year’s class did not look out of place at Instructs, from reports, as the Blue Jays added yet another up-the-middle player.  The Blue Jays spent 70% of their pool money on Martinez’ $3.5 million bonus – the second largest in club history.

We don’t know enough about his defensive skills yet, but there are a lot of indications that the bat will play.  In fact, there is word that Martinez will start his pro career stateside next year, and his bat may be advanced enough to skip the GCL.  Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, who oversees Latin America for the club, raved about Martinez’ skills at the plate:

The combination of consistency, good results, good plan at the plate, has hit good velocity, has hit breaking balls and laid off breaking balls — those things make you as comfortable as you’re going to get with a player who’s obviously a long way away from his prime.

 

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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.

What to Expect From Danny Jansen

During the Alex Anthopolous regime, then-Amateur Scouting Director Blake Parker was given free rein (and, for a while, one of the largest scouting departments in the game) to look for players in non-traditional baseball markets.  That approach landed them Anthony Alford in 2012, and a year later, an injured Wisconsin Catcher named Danny Jansen in the 16th round.

It’s been a long and winding road for Jansen (who lost significant parts of three minor league season due to injuries), but sources indicate that one of the top prospect systems will be promoted to the Blue Jays today, taking the place of Yangervis Solarte on the 25-man after Solarte was injured yesterday.

Here’s what to expect from Jansen:

1.  Grit and Resilience

This is a guy, after all, that the Blue Jays drafted even though he’d missed much of the short Wisconsin baseball season his senior year of high school due to a broken wrist (which he tried to play with in the state championship game).

The workload Catchers toil under is enormous, but Jansen has both the frame (6″2″/225) and the stamina to handle the rigours of a full season.  He’ll play through injury, and work hard on rehab if/when he’s out of the lineup.

2.  A nice, low target

Despite his size, Jansen is flexible enough to present a target at the bottom of the strike zone, a plus for handling sinker ball Pitchers.  His lateral movement to block wayward pitches has always been a work in progress, but he’s shown steady improvement each season.

3.  A good framer of pitches

This was a skill Jansen had as early as Low A.  Jansen is an expert at setting up at different parts of the strike zone to expand the corners.  Like Russell Martin, once one of the premier framers in the game, Jansen doesn’t move his whole arm to coax pitches back into the strike zone – he’s adept at turning his wrist slightly to frame.

4.  A leader

This was evident from his time in short season ball.  Jansen is skilled at working with pitchers and calling their games – you rarely see Pitchers shake him off.  He is a steady influence behind the plate.

5.  A decent bat

Jansen has been hard pressed to repeat his breakout (.323/.400/.484) at three levels performance from last year, but he’s not a guaranteed bottom of the order bat, either.

Jansen rarely chases, and sees a lot of pitches each AB.  He doesn’t strike out a lot, and isn’t afraid to draw a walk – he’s getting on base at a .390 clip this year.  A Catcher’s defensive contributions are far and away the most important aspect of his game, but Jansen should provide some upgraded production for the Blue Jays offence.

 

Raised well by solid Midwestern parents, Jansen is not flashy.  A veteran of six minor league seasons, his patience and work ethic are about to pay off.  Catcher of the Future for the Blue Jays has been a curse this century, but with Jansen and the crop of backstops behind him in the minors, the team appears set there for the next decade.

Don’t Count Your Prospects Before They’re Hatched

I’m not normally one to single someone out like this, but here goes:

Look, I love prospects more than anyone.  Over the course of a season, I watch about twice as many MiLB games as I do the Major League version.  I like evaluating players, and talking to contacts around the continent about their strengths and weaknesses.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from a half-dozen years of writing about them, and a much longer span of observing them in general, it’s this:  until they prove themselves at the MLB level, prospects are just that.  They are players with plenty of promise, but have yet to realize it.

Minor league performance history is as good a predictor of success as anything, but the jump from AAA to MLB is the biggest one in baseball – maybe even in all of sports.  If you have a flaw in your game that your physical talents allowed you to conceal in the minors, you will be quickly and effectively exposed.

This is why teams have three option years on their players.  I’m not aware of any recent studies, but this one from 7 years ago found that it took, on average, between two and three seasons for Top Prospects to have their first 2-Win season.  It stands to reason that it would take players who are not necessarily near the top of the rankings even longer to attain a 2 WAR year (if they ever do).

The problem, I think, that because many fans’ knowledge of prospects doesn’t extend beyond what they’ve read, or the stats lines they’ve looked up, is that prospects can be enveloped in something of a halo effect.  Because they haven’t failed, or maybe because their faults have not been exposed on a prime-time stage, many people think that prospects can come in and take over for an MLB regular.

And more often than not, that’s not the case.

You don’t have to look much farther than the Blue Jays current 25-man roster for proof that prospects still need time to develop once they reach the majors.  Josh Donaldson was dealt by the team that drafted him (the Cubs), and after a brief audition with his new team (the Athletics), spent two and a half seasons at AAA before he became an everyday player. J.A Happ, easily the team’s most consistent starter this year, was up and down with the Phillies for three seasons before being dealt to Houston.  For every Mike Trout or Kris Bryant who comes up and reaches stardom right away, there are countless players who are sent back to AAA more seasoning.

We know that Bo Bichette lead the minors in hitting last year; what some may not know that he struggled earlier this season (his average bottoming out at .244), mainly because he was chasing too many pitches out of the strike zone.  And while his defence appears to be of MLB-quality, he isn’t the best defensive SS in the system – he may not even be #3 at a position where the team is now rich with prospects. This is Bo’s second year of full season ball, and only his third pro campaign.  Expecting him to step in and play every day next year is probably unrealistic.

Cavan Biggio has found the Eastern League air and pitching very much to his liking this year, and leads the loop in Home Runs.  His defence, at this point, could charitably be described as fringy.  He lacks the arm strength and range to play the position in the majors at the moment, which may explain why the team has employed him at several infield spots this season.  His bat holds some Rogers Centre promise, but his glove is not ready.

And Lord knows I’m a huge Anthony Alford booster since he took the time to answer a blogger’s questions somewhere over the Pacific, as he was coming home from Australia and a crash course in pitch recognition after giving up his college football commitment several years ago.  But his injury history is somewhat concerning, not just because of the frequency, but also because of the time it appears to take him to get back into form after time on the DL.  As of this writing, he’s hitting .215/.285/.307 in 45 games with Buffalo.

About the only name  (other than Vlad Jr) I might be in agreement with on the above list is Danny Jansen.  Even though he’s tailed off a bit, his average dipping just below .300, Jansen is an International League All Star, and the heir apparent to the everyday Catching job once Toronto figures out what to do with Russell Martin and his contract.  Still, it’s worth remembering that Jansen has missed some development time due to injury in his minor league career in one of the sport’s lengthier apprenticeships, and he still likely has some learning to do at the MLB level.  His initial trial in the bigs may not be successful.

Last fall, Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro indicated in an interview that the Blue Jays’ brain trust had the tool belts strapped on, and were ready to start a rebuild, but the corporate bosses at Rogers were not comfortable with the drop in attendance and ratings it would likely entail.  And the front office knows that progress is not always measured in a straight line, and that their prospects may need several cracks at becoming an MLB regular.  Shapiro has also talked about developing waves of prospects who will be ready to go if any of the group ahead of them don’t make the grade.  Development takes time, and doesn’t stop once a player is promoted to the 25-man.

The Blue Jays farm system holds as much promise as it has had in some time.  To the above list, you could add the recently graduated Ryan Borucki, as well approaching-readiness players like Sean Reid-Foley and TJ Zeuch, and not-far-away prospects like Nate Pearson, Kevin Smith, and Logan Warmoth.  With four prospects in Baseball America‘s Top 100, the system is becoming one of the top ones in the game.  But that’s not a guarantee of success – it depends on how well those players handle the transition from the minors to the majors.  And that’s why teams lacking a key piece will often pay a heavy price in prospects to acquire a player at the trade deadline.  A top player with a proven track record has more value – prospects are good, parades are better.

 

 

 

Toronto Blue Jays Top 10 Position Prospects

“There are no shortcuts.”

Of all the correspondence this blog has had with Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro over the past year, that aphorism stands out the most.  It underscores the approach this management group takes to organization building, a methodology that eschews the quick fix.  Players will be challenged, but they won’t be rushed.  Benchmarks will be established at each level, and a player doesn’t move on until he’s reached them.  With the Blue Jays already double-digit games behind the last Wild Card spot, there are those who are grumbling about the lack of accomplishments since Shapiro took over the reigns of the team 32 months ago (although a 2016 post season appearance seems to be forgotten).  But Shapiro and Co won’t be deterred.  Throughout the system, there is a growing collection of athletes who are receiving instruction from some of the most qualified staff in the game, as well as nutrition and training support from one of baseball’s leading high performance departments.  Building a winner takes time, and while Rogers has not necessarily shown an appetite for a full on rebuild, one is surely coming.  Until they prove themselves at the MLB level, prospects are just that, but a growing stable of them gives teams the best shot at a contending future.

1.  Vladimir Guerrero Jr

There’s little to be said here that can add to the utterly dominant offensive performance Vladdy has put together over the past two months.  One of the youngest players in AA, he has laid waste to Eastern League Pitching.

Despite the gaudy numbers, there are nights when Guerrero plays like a 19-year-old.  Veteran pitchers can have him chasing, and he sometimes short-arms throws to 1st.  While those occasions are few and far between, there have been enough to convince the team to stick to the timetable, despite the clamouring of fans who look up his stats.

With the Blue Jays free-falling from contention for a wild card spot, there’s little need to waste service time and bring him up to the majors.  Shapiro hinted last October that if the Blue Jays were in a playoff race in July, and if the club needed a 3rd Baseman, then there was a good chance we would see him in 2018.  That’s looking less and less like a possibility, now that he’s on the DL for at least a month with a knee strain.

2.  Bo Bichette, SS

With 11 hits in his first 6 AA games, Bichette looked like he had picked up right where he left off last year when he led the minors in hitting.

Bichette soon began seeing a heavy diet of off speed pitches away, and for the first time in his young pro career, he struggled at the plate, and his average dipped to as low as .244 on May 23rd, as he chased a lot of pitches, and seemed to abandoned his excellent two-strike approach.

With a .361 average, including four multi-hit performances over his last 10 games, Bichette appears to have adjusted.  And with every game, he appears to be solidifying his prospects as an everyday SS.  Bichette makes both the routine and the spectacular play, and there is no question as to his focus on the field.

3.  Danny Jansen

Jansen had a breakout 2017, the first time head had been healthy for a full campaign since being drafted in 2013.  After posting a line of .323/.400/.484 last year, he’s almost matched those numbers with this year’s .313/.414/488.

Jansen has excellent pitch recognition, with more walks than strikeouts, and often puts himself in favourable counts, which he takes full advantage of.  On the defensive side, Jansen still had work to do in terms of his blocking skills, but he’s made tremendous strides.  Jansen has an excellent report with his Pitchers, and calls a good game behind the plate.

A couple of factors have led to Jansen’s breakout at the plate.  Corrective lenses, which he started wearing in the Arizona Fall League in 2016 to help him track pitches better while behind the plate have allowed him to improve his pitch recognition greatly.  Being healthy for a prolonged period has helped, too – three of his first four pro seasons prior to 2017 were interrupted by injury.  And working with Buffalo Hitting Coach Corey Hart, who he had at Dunedin last year, Jansen has tweaked his mechanics to keep his weight back (using a slight turn with his leg kick), allowing him to make harder contact.

The development time for Catchers often takes longer than it does for most players.  Jansen has caught just over 300 games as a minor leaguer, and is reaching the time when he’s ready to graduate to MLB.

4.  Anthony Alford, OF

Alford last played a full season in 2015, and it does cause one to wonder if he’ll ever be able to stay healthy.  His last three seasons have been interrupted by injury, and the inconsistency in obtaining reps has hampered his development.  A pro since 2012, Alford has really only been a full-time player since 2015, and still needs seasoning.

Alford is currently hitting only .196/.237/.257 for Buffalo, a reflection of the fact that he’s been in the Bisons’ lineup for only 25 games.  He is hitting .333 over his past 10 games, an indication that he may be turning things around, and more evidence that he just needs to stay healthy for a prolonged stretch.

5.  Cavan Biggio, 1B/2B/3B

Biggio’s K% and Flyball% were career highs last year, an indication of his attempt to put loft on the ball.  The humid Florida air and large Florida State League ballparks conspired to keep many of those flyballs in the park, and Biggio’s numbers were very pedestrian as a result.

This year has been a different story.  Biggio’s 13 Homers to date are good for 2nd in the Eastern League, and outside of Guerrero, he’s become the most dangerous hitter in New Hampshire’s lineup.

There is little doubt about Biggio’s bat, but his glove is a different story.  Labelled a fringe defender in his draft year, the Blue Jays have added duties at 1st and 3rd in an attempt to boost Biggio’s versatility.  His range and arm strength are modest, however, and despite calls from those stats-loving fans for his ascension to Toronto, Biggio isn’t going far until he’s made more progress as a defender.

6. Logan Warmoth, SS

The 2017 1st rounder hasn’t been a pro full calendar year, yet there is already debate as to his long-term future.

Some scouts suggest that Warmoth, who doesn’t have one overwhelming tool, but does an incredible amount of little things well that add up over time.  Others suggest the potential for MLB success just isn’t there, and the Blue Jays may have missed with this pick.

Currently on the 7-day DL, Warmoth has not set the Florida State League on fire on either side of the ball, but his bat was showing some signs of progress before we was injured.  He made a lot of loud contact with Vancouver this year, but has not had a similar impact so far in Florida.  The jury is out on Warmoth at the moment.

7.  Kevin Smith, SS

Warmoth’s replacement was leading the Midwest League in a number of offensive categories before he got the call to Dunedin.  After a slow start with the D-Jays, he’s had 1six straigth multi-hit games, and is playing peerless defence.

A 4th round pick last year, there were concerns about Smith’s bat.  So far this year, he’s gone a long way to start to erase them.  Smith has a good approach at the plate, and barreled up a lot of balls enroute to a .355/.407/.639 line with Lansing.

Smith is a student of the game, and a very hard worker.  His defence has always been his calling card, but now it appears that his bat is catching up.  With a glut of SS at the lower levels, Smith split time at SS/3B at Lansing, but depending on the length of Warmoth’s absence, he has some time to settle in for a long stretch at Short.

8. Chavez Young, OF

You wouldn’t ordinarily expect much from a 39th round pick, but Young is truly proving to be a diamond in the rough.  The Bahamian may have been behind his peers in terms of development when he made his pro debut two years ago, but he’s more than made up for that.

Young has been a fixture atop Lansing’s order, although he’s now slid to 3rd with the promotion of Smith.  Young has a simple set up at the plate, gets good plate coverage, and seldom chases.  He can play all three outfield spots, and has been set loose on the basepaths this year, stealing 13 in 19 attempts.

Outside of Alford, there is perhaps no toolsier player in the system.

9.  Richard Urena, SS

It’s becoming harder to see Urena as a top prospect, although one suspects he’d have some value if he was in the right situation.

April was a write off because of time on the DL, and he was on the QEW shuffle for May.  All of that has transpired to limit his season to 20 games at AAA.  And the results reflect the lack of reps.

Maybe it’s focus, maybe it’s that he’s more of a AAAA player, but one gets the feeling that the Blue Jays don’t see a lengthy future for Urena.  The best thing for him now is to contineu to play every day at Buffalo.

 

10.  Miguel Hiraldo, SS

Hiraldo was one of the top-ranked bats in last year’s IFA class, and with a line of .395/.452/.737 in his first 9 games in the DSL – it’s a bit of a surprise the Hiraldo started there, but he likely won’t be there for long if he continues to hit at that clip.

The consensus is that Hiraldo, who is built more like a Catcher, will evenutally move over to 3B, but the Blue Jays are in no rush to move him.

An Open Letter to Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins

Dear Mark and Ross:

Hi Guys.  Loved Jaysfest this winter.

Look, you both know it, I know it, and even the bandwagon fans on Facebook know it.  This season had considerable promise and started well, but with the starting rotation in shambles and the bullpen already showing the signs of overuse and this season about to become as disappointing as grocery store sushi, it’s time.

Time to make plans to break up the American League’s oldest roster, a group you knew last year was getting past the point of being able to realistically compete for a post-season berth.  But the higher-ups at Rogers wouldn’t let you take a wrecking ball to it, because they liked the sounds of the cash register ringing.

Even though you both have been on the job for only a couple of years, you’ve built an organization that is poised to become a leader in analytics, scouting, sport science, and minor league instruction.  You quickly understood that the key to long-term competitiveness for this franchise lay in its ability to unearth diamonds in the rough in the form of amateur players both through the draft and IFA markets, and use your system to give them the polish they need.

Mark, you spoke in the off-season about developing waves of prospects to come in an compete for MLB jobs.  The first of them is almost ready.  The best prospect in baseball, Vladimir Guerrero Jr, is part of that group, which includes Danny Jansen, Ryan Borucki, and Anthony Alford.  You certainly could make the argument that more development time is warranted for all four, but you could counter that by suggesting that if the roster is torn down to make room for them, that development could continue at the MLB level. We know all about the risk of failure that can come with accelerating players too quickly, but the Nationals decided to move top prospect Juan Soto (who is all of six months older than Vladdy) to AAA after (check that – he’s been promoted to the bigs) only 32 AA At Bats.  Granted, Jr has some more defensive development to complete before he graduates, and top pitching prospects still give him a bit of trouble, but move him up to Buffalo already.  If he succeeds there an and opening on the big league roster becomes available by, say, July 31st, bring him on up.  Who knows where any of us will be in six years – and it’s hard to see you sticking around that long if you have to keep banging heads with the suits upstairs.

After the first wave has established itself in a year or so, the next wave, with talent like Bo Bichette (who’s struggling for the first time in his pro career this year, but that’s ok – better to learn to deal with it in AA), Sean Reid-Foley,  and Cavan Biggio might be ready, and you could throw in Jordan Romano, too.  Behind them, you’ve got a collection that includes Nate Pearson, Logan Warmoth, Yennsy Diaz, and Kevin Smith, and farther down the road, Eric Pardinho, Miguel Hiraldo, and this year’s top draft choice -hopefully, another arm –  (and a possibly even better one next year) and IFAs.  Players dealt to make room on the MLB roster should be exchanged for more prospect depth.

It’s time to put a bow on this season and write it off, rather than continuing to apply duct tape to your broken roster.  The execs at Rogers are no doubt worried that time in baseball’s wilderness will plunge the team back into the bottom third of AL attendance figures, and that is a concern.  It’s bad enough that they seem to keep putting off badly needed renos to the Rogers Centre, but they should give you both a broad brush to undertake the makeover of the 25-man roster.  Yes, attendance will dip, but if/when Vlad is added to the 40 (part of a bigger set of roster decisions) and promoted, that should help stem the slide at the gates.  Yes, this team spent almost two decades wandering through the baseball wilderness before 2015, but you guys are putting together an organization that is becoming one of the top ones in baseball in terms of development.  Your time in the basement shouldn’t be long.

You have some decisions to make (although some of them are pretty obvious), but space needs to be made.  It won’t be easy, but it’s time.    And has they proved three years ago, the fans will come back.

Where Will the Top Prospects Play?

Cooley
Cooley Law School Stadium – Home of the Lugnuts

Thanks to the excellent resources that are available (beyond this one, of course), many Blue Jays fans are now keeping closer tabs on the team’s minor league players.

For someone who loves the minors just as much as the majors, that’s great.

There are many ways to keep track of your favourite minor league prospects.  At milb.com, minor league baseball’s website, you can check out box scores as games progress (something Mark Shapiro admits he does), or listen to live play-by-play.  Most of Buffalo and New Hampshire’s games are streamed live (subscription required), and word from Lansing’s GM is that select Lugnuts home games will be streamed as well.  Of course, depending on where you are, you can make the drive to Lansing or Buffalo to catch games lives.  I would heartily recommend a week in Vancouver to see the sights and catch a few C’s games – there’s a Sky Train station (Vancouver’s version of the TTC) a fifteen minute walk away from Nat Bailey Stadium.

There are no guarantees, but here’s where the Top 30 Blue Jays prospects (according to MLB.com) will likely begin the season:

 

1.  Vladimir Guerrero Jr

2.  Bo Bichette

Typically, the Blue Jays prefer to have their players spend a full season at one level.  Whether that happens over one season or two halves depends on the player, but that’s the usual trend.

Having said that, the pair of sluggers, who each spent half a season at Low A Lansing, and the other half at High A Dunedin, have little left to prove in A ball.  There are still wrinkles in their respective games to work out on the defensive side of the ball, but it would be highly unlikely you will see them in April anywhere other than the Eastern League.

Is it possible we see one or both in the majors by the end of the season?  Shapiro himself said last fall that if Vladdy continued to hit, and if the team was in need of a bat in the midst of a pennant race this summer, we could see him in Toronto, but that seems a tall (but not necessarily impossible) order.

Both players should spend the bulk of the season in New Hampshire, with late-season promotions to Buffalo a possibility.  Much will depend on playoff races – while minor league playoffs don’t mean a lot in the long run, teams do like to have their top players in that kind of environment for the experience.

3.  Anthony Alford

At the moment, Alford is putting forth a serious effort to head north with the Blue Jays when training camp breaks.

Failing that, he will make the trip down the QEW to Buffalo.  When an opening comes up in Toronto, Alford will be gone.  He’s that close to being MLB-ready.

4.  Nate Pearson

The 2nd of the Blue Jays two first round picks last June toyed with Northwest League hitters last summer.  His pitches and innings were limited, but he didn’t allow a runner past 2nd until his last start of the regular season, and fanned 10 in a crucial playoff start.  With a fastball that sits 95-97 and can top 100, Pearson is likely headed to Dunedin to start the season. 2016 1st rounder T.J. Zeuch followed that skip-Lansing path last year.

The Florida State League, unfortunately, is a bit of a black hole as far as streaming video is concerned.  The Pirates Bradenton affiliate had their home games online last year, giving us a couple of games’ worth of Blue Jays prospects.

5.  Logan Warmoth

With Kevin Smith behind him and in need of playing every day, Warmoth likely will skip Lansing in favour of Dunedin as well.  And that’s a shame for those of us who caught a few of his games last year.

Warmoth does not have one overwhelming tool, but he has to be seen to be appreciated.  He does a lot of things very well, and his bat looks legit.  He squared up a lot of pitches in Vancouver last summer.

6.  Danny Jansen

Perhaps no Blue Jays prospect improved their status in 2017 as much as the Wisconsin native.  New eyewear helped Jansen pick up the spin on pitches better, and he hit his way from Dunedin to New Hampshire to Buffalo by season’s end.

Jansen has an outside shot at backing up Russ Martin, particularly if the Blue Jays plan on cutting back on Martin’s workload.  Still, he probably could benefit by playing every day – injuries have limited his development somewhat.  Prior to last year, Jansen’s highest total of games caught in a season was 57.

By the way, credit has to go to the Blue Jays scouting director Blake Parker and GM Alex Anthopoulos for drafting Jansen in 2013.  The Blue Jays of that era made a practice of looking for players in non-traditional markets, or players whose stock had fallen due to injury or college commitments.  Jansen was a potential top-three rounds pick in his senior season of high school, but a broken wrist, coupled with the short Wisconsin prep season, kept most teams from getting a good look at him.  One team – Toronto – prevailed, and five years later, they have a player on the cusp of the bigs.

7.  Eric Pardinho

Those hoping to see last year’s top-ranked international free agent Pitcher will have to buy a plane ticket to Florida to watch the 16-year-old Brazilian sensation in the outdoor sauna that is the Gulf Coast League (luckily, the games are free).

Pardinho faces an adjustment to the competition and culture that is stateside play, and Blue Jays Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish (who oversees international ops for the team) suggested that Pardinho will spend the summer in Dunedin.

8.  Ryan Borucki

Two years ago next month, Borucki was getting hit hard and often in the Florida State League.  A demotion to Lansing and some mechanical adjustments helped to turn him into a guy who should make his MLB debut sometime this year.

The owner of the best change-up this side of Marco Estrada, Borucki will start the season in Buffalo.  His ascent to the bigs will be dictated by the health and consistency of the big league rotation.  Borucki ranks high for his pitchability and grit; it may take some time for him to stick, but he should be a solid mid-rotation Pitcher for some time.

9.  T.J. Zeuch

After a 2017 season with Dunedin that was interrupted by injury, Zeuch restored his growing reputation with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League, getting the start in the Championship game.

If there are any lingering injury concerns, Zeuch might stay in Dunedin until May, but he should be joining New Hampshire early in the season.

10. Sean Reid-Foley

The numbers don’t show it, but SRF pitched well at AA for the last half of the season.  He’s been roughed up a bit by catching too much of the strike zone in a couple of spring training appearances for the Blue Jays so far.

Reid-Foley may repeat New Hampshire to start the season, depending on rotation space in Buffalo, but he should reach AAA this season.

11. Richie Urena

Urena acquitted himself well in 20 games with the big team in September.  With the acquisition of Aledmys Diaz, Urena will begin the season in Buffalo.

12.  Miguel Hiraldo

One of the top bats in last year’s IFA class, Tinnish indicated that Hiraldo will most likely be in the lineup of the GCL Jays when their season opens in June.

13.  Samad Taylor

Taylor, along with LHP Thomas Pannone, was acquired from Cleveland in the Joe Smith deal.  Taylor fit in nicely with the Northwest League champs Vancouver Canadians after 2B Cullen Large broke his hand trying to break up a double play.

With Large healthy, Taylor may bypass Lansing and head to Dunedin this year.

14.  Reese McGuire

A knee injury cost McGuire much of his 2017 campaign, but he is still viewed as a skilled receiver, and his bat showed signs of promise.

With Jansen likely ahead of him on the depth charts, McGuire may return to New Hampshire.  With his defensive skill set, he also could be considered to have an outside shot as Martin’s back up.

15.  Rowdy Tellez

2017 was a bit of a lost year for Tellez.  He entered the season as a candidate to make his MLB debut if Justin Smoak struggled.

He hit a pair of Homers for Buffalo, then hit only 4 the rest of the year.  Tellez had some off-field issues, including his Mom’s battle with cancer (he left camp this week to be with her).

Tellez scuffled all season long at the plate.  Tellez usually works the count and sees a lot of pitches, but he rarely looked comfortable last year, and did not have the volume of quality ABs he usually has.

Tellez will return to Buffalo this year.

16. Riley Adams

One of the best athletes in an organization stocked with them,  Adams was the leader of the title-winning Vancouver squad after being selected in the 3rd round of the 2017 draft.

A bat-first player, Adams won some raves for his pitch calling and handling of Pitchers.  He does have a plus arm and good pop time, but his framing and blocking skills still need developing.

Adams will head to Lansing to begin 2018.

17.  Carlos Ramirez

The converted OF was lights out in relief at two levels before making his MLB debut last September.  Ramirez was not scored upon until his 8th appearance, putting him solidly in the mix for a bullpen job this spring.

If Ramirez doesn’t earn a spot on the 25-man, he’ll head to Buffalo.  Ramirez will no doubt become familiar with landmarks like the Burlington Skyway Bridge, and that rusting old ship near St Catharines this summer as he makes the trip up the QEW multiple times.

18. Ryan Noda

Noda’s draft stock dipped after a mediocre college season last year, but he tore a swath through Appalachian League pitching in 2017, leading the league in Average, OBP, and Slugging.

Noda was sent to the Appy because of the presence of Kacy Clemens, taken several rounds ahead of him.  The pair should share time at 1B and DH at Lansing this year – Noda can play the corner OF spots as well.

19.  Kevin Smith

Like Noda, Smith was sent to Bluefield last summer because Warmoth was ahead of him.

Smith has excellent defensive skills, and his bat proved adequate last year.  Like most players in his position, Smith needs to play every day, and will do so at Lansing this year.

20.  Hagen Danner

Danner was a storied prep player as both a Catcher and a Pitcher, and was the Blue Jays 2nd round pick in June.

The Blue Jays had him focus on Catching last year, and he struggled at the bat in the GCL as he adjusted to pro pitching.

Danner’s is an interesting situation.  His development would be accelerated by playing every day, but it’s uncertain as to whether he’s ready for that role.  As a result, he could open the season in Lansing come April, or stay in Florida for Extended Spring Training, and head to Vancouver once their season opens in June. The latter option seems the most likely.

21.  McGregory Contreras

A $10K IFA in 2015, Contreras has defied the odds by reaching the Appy League, where he was ranked the 19th best prospect by Baseball America.

Contreras has what one Appy Manager called, “sneaky power,” which has yet to translate into game action, but his BP sessions suggest future pop.

A toolsy OF who has some pitch recognition issues, Contreras probably showed enough last year to skip Vancouver in favour of Lansing this year.

22. Leonardo Jimenez

Assistant GM Tinnish heaped praise on the Panamanian in a conversation last fall:

  A really, really great kid…(He’s) bilingual, great make up, ultra young in the class – a late May birthday – he really has lead-off or #2 hole potential….if you asked me right now who has a chance to play SS in our system, Leo would be at the top of that list.  The way the body moves, the way the arm works, the instincts, he’s a really good, future upside defender.

Jimenez likely starts in the GCL, but could move quickly.

23.  Kevin Vicuna

A prized 2014 IFA, the skinny (6’/140) Vicuna might have to run around in the shower in order to get wet, but he put up decent numbers at Vancouver last year, earning a late season promotion to Lansing.

It may be hard to find playing time for Vicuna, but he’s a useful middle infielder.  A return to Lansing is likely.

24.  Maximo Castillo

Castillo more than held his own as an 18-year-old in under the lights play in the Appy League last year.

He has a three-pitch mix that fits a starter’s profile, but fastball command has been an issue.  Castillo may be held back in Extended, but probably reaches Lansing by May.

25.  Justin Maese, RHP

Shoulder issues caused Maese’s prospect stock to slip after a breakout 2016.  If he’s healthy, there’s no reason why he can’t pitch his way back into the prospect picture.

Maese’s calling card is a fastball with heavy sink that tends to produce a lot of groundball outs.  Despite his off-year in 2017, he’s still very much in the Blue Jays long-range plans.

Dunedin will likely be his destination once spring training ends.

26.  Thomas Pannone, LHP

Acquired in the Smith deal from Cleveland, Pannone does not overpower, but the dude just knows how to pitch.  He commands all three of his pitches, and has some deception to his delivery.

He impressed in New Hampshire last year, and will head to Buffalo to start this year.  Like Borucki, he may make his MLB debut at some point this season.

27.  Jordan Romano, RHP

A personal favourite, I’ve followed Romano and kept in touch with him since his return from Tommy John surgery in 2015.

The GTA native has struck out exactly a batter per inning since making his return in May of 2016.  He has a fastball/slider combo that’s capable of missing bats, and he can be very tough on right-handed hitters.  The missing piece has been said to be his change-up.  If he can develop it, his future as a starter may be secured.  If not, Romano could become an effective bullpen arm.

Romano will be in a starter’s role in New Hampshire this year.

28.  Jonathan Davis OF

Davis is a versatile, get on base speedster who can play all three OF positions.

He’ll begin the season in Buffalo.  With the depth of  prospects in the system, he may have trouble getting playing time at the major league level, but he could fill an important role as a versatile fourth Outfielder for some team.

29.  Max Pentecost, C/1B/DH

The 2014 1st rounder has had a lengthy injury history, but has shown MLB-level tools when he’s been in the lineup.

Shoulder concerns kept him from being placed on the 40-man last fall, and it was a mild surprise that no team took a flyer on him in the Rule 5.

Pentecost’s development has been impacted by the time he’s missed, but a stretch of good health could see him in Toronto before we know it.  He should begin 2018 in New Hampshire, splitting time between three spots in the lineup.

30.  Jon Harris, RHP

Harris’ stock tumbled last year when Eastern League hitters squared him up as he caught too much of the strike zone on a regular basis.

The 2015 1st rounder  may not have one go-to pitch, but Harris commands all four of his pitches, gets a good downward plane on his fastball, and has proven his durability (76 starts over the past 3 seasons).

Like Reid-Foley, the depth of starters at the top of the system may see Harris repeat New Hampshire to start the season.

 

Notes From Around the System

It may be hard to believe that we’re less than Russ Martin’s Number away from Opening Day, but it’s coming like a freight train through the dead of winter, which is what those of us in Southern Ontario are in the midst of right now.  However, having spent a week in the frozen historical and gastronomical wonderland that is Quebec City, I’m not one to complain.

The Blue Jays have yet to confirm when their minor league players are to report to camp at the Bobby Mattick Complex, but it’s safe to say the dates will be somewhat similar to Oakland’s.  The Athletics’ Pitchers and Catchers report on March 3rd, Position Players on the 9th, and their first games will be on the 13th.  If you are heading to Florida to watch the Blue Jays in action in March, a little research on your part could land you at the Mattick (or any of the other complexes in the area) for some minor league action.  There are usually a pair of games going on at once, and you can sometimes catch a rehabbing MLBer in action.  Admission is free.

The Blue Jays have invited 13 non-roster players to Spring Training with the big club.  These players will not necessarily be auditioning for a major league job – the purpose of inviting them is to give them a taste of big league life, and to shorten the workdays for the regulars.  When asked who made the biggest impression on him two years ago during his first tour of a big league camp, Anthony Alford without hesitation answered Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson.  Alford was impressed with their work ethic, and how they went about their daily routine in preparing for the season.

Among the invitees this year are:

P Andrew Case – there was thought that the New Brunswick native would be added to the 40 man roster last fall after a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League, but he was left off, and was not selected in the Rule 5 draft.  Case is not a big strikeout guy, but the reliever finished the season at AAA, and it would not be a surprise to see him make his MLB debut this year.  He just seems to get guys out wherever he plays.

P Jose Fernandez – the lefty reliever has always had command issues, and struggled at AA last year, but has LOOGY potential.

P Chad Girodo – sidewinding southpaw battled injuries in 2017, and spent the bulk of the year at AAA.  Girodo appeared in 14 games for Toronto in 2016.

P Jon Harris – the 2015 1st rounder found too much of the strike zone at AA last year, and Eastern League hitters hit .292 against him.  This is a huge year for Harris, as he will be Rule 5 eligible next fall.

P Sean Reid-Foley – Last season was a learning year for the 2014 2nd rounder, who was one of the youngest players in AA.  His numbers for 2017 don’t look great at first glance, but he was a very effective Pitcher from mid-May to the end of the season.  There are some who suggest his control issues might mean an eventual move to the bullpen, but indications are the Blue Jays have every intention of continuing to use SRF in a starter’s role in Buffalo this year.

P Jordan Romano – the Markham native has long been one of our favourite Blue Jays prospects.  He was a regular correspondent during his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2015, giving insight into the process.  He’s been a K/inning guy over the last two seasons as a starter, and while some suggest that with his over-the-top delivery and still-in-development secondaries, he too might profile as a bullpen arm,  he’ll continue as a starter in AA this year.  You don’t give up on a guy that’s missed that many bats.

P Chris Rowley – was one of the most effective Pitchers in the system last year, and completed his remarkable rise from non-drafted/missed two years due to military service guy to the big leagues last year.  Rowley was DFA’d in the fall to make room for the new arrivals on the 40, but he’ll be very much in competition for a big league job this year, with AAA his likely destination.  Rowley can start or relieve, and his versatility may come in handy.

P Justin Shafer – the 2014 8th rounder has risen slowly through the system, steadily getting ground ball outs along the way.  Converted to relief at AA last year, Shafer has long relief potential.

C Max Pentecost – eyebrows were raised when the 2014 1st rounder was left off the 40-man last fall.  The Blue Jays were crossing their fingers that Pentecost’s injury history would allow him to slip through the Rule 5, and their gamble paid off.  Many have recommended that the Blue Jays turn Pentecost into an Evan Gattis-like hybrid player, but when you read between the lines of the email responses from Jays execs, the plan is continue to have him Catch on a regular (perhaps not daily) basis.

IF Jason Lebelebijian – the versatile Leb can play all four IF positions, and has spent time in the OF, although he played mostly 2nd and 3rd in Buffalo last year.

IF Tim Lopes – the 5 year MiLB vet came over from the Mariners’ organization last year, and filled a valuable utility role for New Hampshire, appearing in 128 games.

OF J.D. Davis – I have to admit:  there was a moment of excitement when a publication confused Davis with underachieving 2012 1st rounder D.J. Davis, who repeated Dunedin last year.  This was not the first time someone had made this error, however.  DJ had a remarkable 2nd half, putting balls in play in the second half at the best rate of his career, posting a .333/381/.449 August.  JD Davis, on the other hand, has risen steadily through the system, and is a get-on-base speedster who can play all three OF positions.

OF Roemon Fields – the speed merchant posted career-best numbers at Buffalo last year (.291/.351/.352), and added 43 steals.  Fields’ profile is more of a bottom-of-the-order, 2nd leadoff hitter, but he has clearly established himself as a fringe MLBer.

Add in Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire, Rowdy Tellez, and Thomas Pannone, who were added to the 40-man in November, and there will be a lot of first-timers at Spring Training this year.

RHP Nate Pearson may have been in the shadows this year due to his short season after being selected in the 1st round of June’s draft, and with the seasons Vladdy Jr and Bo had, but his rise from high school non-prospect to Baseball America‘s Top 100 is a phenomenal story.  The Blue Jays did not roll the dice on Pearson so much as they had done their homework on him, and knew what they were getting. Sam Dykstra of milb.com wrote about it here:  https://www.milb.com/milb/news/toolshed-blue-jays-nate-pearson-prepped-for-takeoff/c-265720346

 

The Blue Jays Australian Baseball League affiliate, the Canberra Cavalry, are off to the ABL final after a come-from-behind victory over Perth in their best of three semi-final.

To be honest, there hasn’t been a lot to watch from a Blue Jays perspective down under.  1B Connor Panas, fresh off a monster second half in the Florida State League, was shut down for the year at Christmas.  Relievers Tayler Saucedo and Dan Lietz have been used in a limited role on a veteran-laden Cavalry staff.  Saucedo did get a huge 8th inning double play as the Cavs battled for a playoff spot in their final series of the season.

Canberra hosts Game 1 of the best of three affair against Brisbane on Friday night, with the series switching to Brisbane for the remainder.

 

It’s Time for Danny Jansen

Let me just start by saying that I’ve always been a fan of the product of Appleton, WI.  Taken in the 16th round in 2013, Jansen epitomized the approach to that annual harvest of talent under former GM Alex Anthopoulos and Scouting Director Blake Parker.  Beyond the coveted projectable high school arm, the Blue Jays actively looked for players who were overlooked for various reasons.  Maybe injury had scared teams off (in the case of Ryan Borucki), or a college commitment (Daniel Norris), or, in the case of Jansen, the Jays weren’t afraid to take a trip off the beaten path to find players in non-traditional baseball places.  An injury his senior year of high school made Jansen even more of a low-profile prospect, but the Blue Jays felt they were getting a prospect who scored high in terms of tools and make up.  Conversations with Jansen over the past four seasons have borne that out.

After a season in which he finally managed to stay healthy, Jansen hit his way through three levels, posting a .323/.400/.484 line in the process, and is on the cusp of a big league job.

A word about how more and more MLB teams are viewing the Catching position:  teams are coming to understand that a Catcher’s value goes far beyond his batting average.  The plethora of posters on various Blue Jays Facebook pages complaining about Russell Martin’s .221 average last year miss the below sea level portion of the iceberg that is Martin’s contribution to the team.  From framing pitches, to blocking sliders thrown in the dirt intentionally in order to get a batter to chase, to working with umpires to get calls, to working with Pitchers to build a bond that can’t be found in any other sport, Catchers are the Field Generals of the action on a ball diamond.  The decisions they make have an influence on every pitch thrown in an MLB game.

 A paragraph from a SABR article takes this several steps further:

Only the catcher is positioned to see the entire field of play, including the hitter, and it is the catcher who triggers virtually every action by calling the pitches.1 The catcher makes calls based on a complex array of data that he processes in a split second. He must be aware of every aspect of the game at all times, particularly the perceived strengths and weaknesses, as well as preferences and desires, of the hitter (the opponent) and his own teammates. He must keep the score, the inning, and the number of outs in mind. He has to know what the count is2 and what the batter did the last time he was up to bat as well as in prior games. Is the pitcher’s curveball working today? Does the umpire have a loose or a tight strike zone? Does the batter dig in? Is his weight leaning forward or on his heels? Do the runners have large leads, and which way are they leaning? These perceptions, judgments, and decisions run through a catcher’s mind before he calls a pitch. Each decision is critical, because the outcome of the game could turn on any one. The complexity seems daunting. But, like a chess master — or a master of any other talent that involves an opponent and/or a team — catching relies on emotional intelligence and perspective taking, which depend on the thoughts and feelings that run through the medial prefrontal cortex hub.

That takes us far beyond whatever Martin did at the plate last year.  With other positions, teams have to weigh whether or not they can carry a glove-first, below-league-average hitter, but that’s not necessarily the case with Catching.  Certainly, the Blue Jays and Martin would have liked to have seen more offensive production from him last year, but his value to the team goes far beyond that, often in ways that are difficult to measure.

But as he enters the next-to-last-year on his contract, Martin, who turns 35 next month, is likely in his last months as a full-time backstop.  Having appeared in only 91 games last year after averaging 133 in his first two seasons in Toronto, it’s not realistic to expect him to carry a heavy load any more.  120 games might be even a stretch to expect from him.

Which brings in Jansen.

Jansen experimented with sport glasses behind the plate in the Arizona Fall League in 2016, and he found that it helped him pick up pitches better behind the plate.  As an added bonus, he was able to develop better pitch recognition, as he could detect spin much better than in his pre-glasses days.

Behind the plate, Jansen has drawn raves since his 2014 season, when he handled a Bluefield staff that included a young Borucki.  Despite his size (6’2″), Jansen presents a nice low target, which is especially important for sinker ball Pitchers working down in the zone.  Handling Pitchers, calling games, and blocking pitches have long been a strength – because of his size, lateral movement has been a minor issue, but Jansen has the athleticism and work ethic to overcome that.

Jansen is also familiar with the wave of minor league Pitchers who will soon be coming to Toronto, starting with Borucki, who told media at Winterfest this past weekend:

When you move up levels, there’s always that anxiety and you’re a little nervous. When you’ve got a guy back there, especially with Danny, having him in Double-A for my first start and Triple-A, you just have a sense of ease. You just feel comfortable.

Not only has Jansen caught Borucki throughout the minors, he’s also worked extensively with Sean Reid-Foley, T.J. Zeuch, and to a lesser extent, Thomas Pannone.  As these youngsters reach the Majors, having a familiar face behind the plate would help ease their transition.

Ordinarily, incumbent backup Luke Maile might be considered to have the inside track on winning the job again this spring.  However, his offence was beyond anemic last year (9.5% LD rate), and with the increased load Martin’s back up will have to shoulder this year, it would be hard for any team to carry that weak a bat, even at a premium defensive position.

Jansen could benefit from a season of Martin’s mentoring, and would probably learn more in a part-time role than he could in a full season of AAA.  And while he would be hard-pressed to reproduce last year’s breakthrough numbers at the plate, he would bring some offence to the position, and he could also DH on occasion.

It’s been a long road for Jansen.  Injuries ended his 2014 season prematurely, and severely curtailed his 2015 and 2016.  Healthy for the first time last year, he reached MLB Pipeline’s Top 10 Catching Prospects list this year, checking in at #8.  With Martin’s career perhaps starting to wind down, 2018 could represent an excellent chance for his potential successor to start to get some on-the-job training.  He could split the load more evenly with Martin next year, and take over the reigns in 2020, when he would just be entering his prime at the age of 25.

 

Top Blue Jay Prospects will be in Town Next Week

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Tim Leiper photo

Going through Customs, the different currency, and many other subtle day-to-day things are a fact of life for American and Caribbean players who venture north of the border to play for the Blue Jays.

For several years, the Blue Jays have held a January mini-camp at the Rogers Centre for their top minor league players to give them a little more exposure to life in the Great White North.  Starting on January 15th,  Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, DJ Davis, Reese McGuire,  Roemon Fields, newly-acquired Taylor Guerreri,  Lourdes Gurriel, Danny Jansen, Jason Leblebijian, Thomas Pannone, Ryan Borucki, Max Pentecost, Sean Reid-Foley, and the GTA’s own Jordan Romano will be in Toronto for a series of on-field drills and off-field seminars.   The group will be at the Blue Jays first annual Winter Fest that weekend.

When the announcement was made last week, Twitter instantly was full of rumours about Conner Greene, who was not part of this year’s contingent.  The rumours suggested Greene was being held back because he was going to be part of a package of players for Pirates star Andrew McCutchen.  As has been pointed out, Greene was part of last year’s tour, as were Rowdy Tellez, Anthony Alford, and Richie Urena.  Greene’s command issues were a concern last year, but that 100 mph fastball isn’t going anywhere just yet.

In the off-field sessions, players will receive training in dealing with the media, as well as how to deal with situations that might crop up as professional athletes.  It sounds like Romano is excited to have some of his fellow prospects to his paren’t basement:

Jansen, McGuire, Urena, Guerreri, and Pannone are all on the 40-man roster, and will be attending spring training with the big club.  The team has not announced which minor leaguers will receive an invite, but that it expected shortly.