We've given a great deal of thought to this year's top prospects list.
We do like to take our time putting it together, assembling a fair amount of research from a number of credible sources, and our own observations of prospects we have seen in action. We also like for Fall Instructs, the Arizona Fall League, and the first wave of GM meetings to play themselves out before putting a list together.
This year, unlike any other in recent memory, has been one of the more successful ones in Blue Jays minor league history. The club's focus on drafting high risk, high reward players starting in 2010, along with a concentration on the international market and drafting players who may have been overlooked because of injury and/or college commitments, is starting to bear fruit. For the first time, we won't be grasping for names when we compile our list of the 11th to 20th ranked prospects - we actually had a tough time not including some names, and found ourselves making up top 10 and top 20 lists, only to remake them a week later.
For the first time in several years, the farm system actually graduated players to the major league club who made a more than limited contribution to the team. Marcus Stroman came up in early May and struggled out of the bullpen. Sent back to Buffalo to get stretched out as a starter, he came back to the club and quickly became a mainstay in the rotation, posting a record of 3-0, 1.71 ERA with an 0.95 WHIP and .193 Opponents BA in 5 July starts.
Aaron Sanchez started the year at AA, and was promoted to AAA in June. Called up to the big club and installed in the bullpen, Sanchez cut down his repertoire of pitches to his fourseamer and sinker and was lights out in relief, posting a tiny 1.09 ERA in 24 appearances.
On September 1st, when major league rosters expanded, the Blue Jays promoted an incredible 8 minor leaguers. Even though the club was out of contention, lefthander Daniel Norris and outfielder Dalton Pompey had an impact, and served notice that they were in the running for spots on the 25 man roster when spring training breaks next March.
A note about qualification for this list before we begin. A player with more than 90 at bats, or 45 innings pitched, or 45 days on a major league roster before September is no longer to be eligible for rookie of the year voting the following year. Using that guideline, Marcus Stroman doesn't qualify as a rookie any more, but Aaron Sanchez does, and to us still merits consideration as a prospect.
1. Daniel Norris
This was a tough decision, as it came down to Norris or Sanchez.
While Sanchez had a scintillating MLB debut, Norris actually had a far better season as a starting pitcher.
Minor League Baseball's pitcher of the month for May, Norris started the year in High A, and finished it in the majors. It's been some time since a Blue Jays prospect had as dominant a season.
Promoted to New Hampshire in June after dominating Florida State League hitters, Norris actually struggled to economize his pitch count, but the Blue Jays brass had seen enough in his last AA start (6.2IP, 5H, 1 R/ER, 0BB, 8K) to challenge him further with a promotion to Buffalo. And whatever adjustments he had made in that last AA start carried over to Buffalo, where he struck out 32 hitters in 16.2 innings over his first 3 starts. At that point, having thrown 118 innings for the season (20 more than his career high), it was announced that Norris had made his last start. With Buffalo in the midst of a playoff race, however, the organization had a change of heart, and let Norris make one last start against the Red Sox Pawtucket affiliate (who the Bisons were chasing for the final playoff spot). We made the trip to Coca-Cola field to watch the start. Norris breezed through his first two innings, but suffered a noticeable decline in his fastball velocity, and the Paw Sox hitters knocked him out of the game by the fourth.
The decline in velocity, of course, was due to bone chips in his pitching elbow, which were removed at season's end. Norris was part of the massive airlift of prospects who were called up when rosters were expanded on September 1st, and he made his MLB debut four days later. Called upon to face the Red Sox David Ortiz in a LOOGY situation, Norris got a first pitch strike on a curve, and then five pitches later froze Papi on an inside curve. The ironic part of this story is that there was a bit of a language barrier problem between Norris and Dionner Navarro. In a quick chat before he started his warm up pitches, a pumped-up Norris told Navarro that he preferred to go with fastballs because he felt he didn't have the feel for a curve, only to have Navarro put two fingers down for his first pitch.
Norris was the Blue Jays 2nd round pick in 2011, but signed for the 20th highest bonus, largely thanks to the club's inability to sign first round pick Tyler Beede. Regarded by some as the best prep lefthander in the draft that year, he became the first high school lefty from his draft class to reach the majors.
Norris' first year and a half in pro ball was a bit of a disaster, as the club had altered his delivery, and he showed a reluctance to rely on his fastball. After getting pounded in an early May start at Lansing last year, Norris and pitching coach Vince Horsman had a heart-to-heart, and Norris began to use his fastball more, which only improved the effectiveness of his secondary pitches once his command improved. Since June of last year, he has struck out 213 batters in 176 IP.
Norris posted the highest strikeout rate in all of minor league baseball (11.8/9) this year - his K rate actually improved at every minor league step up the ladder this year:
Norris experienced an uptick in velocity this year, usually sitting between 91 and 95 with his fastball, touching 97. His slider has plus potential, as does his change up. Norris throws with an upright delivery, ha smooth mechanics toward the plate that gives him good downhill plane on his pitches, and usually leaves him in a good fielding position after he completes his windup.
Norris, to some extent, came out of nowhere this year. He went from being nowhere near anyone's top 100 Milb prospects to leaping into the top 10. We've had our eye on him since his transformation mid-season last year, but even we didn't think he would make a leap of this significance this season. He may start the season in Buffalo, but it's only a matter of time before Norris established himself at least in the middle of the Blue Jays rotation.
ETA: 2015 Mid Season
Projection: #2/#3 starter
Worst Case Scenario: 8th inning bullpen guy
2. Aaron Sanchez
There were some who thought the Blue Jays had made a huge mistake when they took Sanchez with the 34th pick of the 2010 draft. A tall, lanky, and gangly specimen, there were some who thought that Sanchez would always be overvalued because of his size. The Blue Jays brought Sanchez along slowly, putting him through two seasons of rookie and short season ball before his first full season with Lansing. Command issues plagued him almost from the outset. Last year at Dunedin, the whispers about Sanchez having command issues and not being quite the sum of all his parts began to grow. By the time the Arizona Fall League rolled around, the Sanchez bandwagon had become noticeably lighter. Here's a comment we had from a reader a little over a year ago:
Funny how tendencies have a habit of sticking around. I saw Sanchez pitch as a high school prospect in the 2009 Tournament of Stars in Cary, NC. While he had that easy delivery and good velo that earned him more than his share of excitement from the scouting community, I came away with a 'what the hell am I missing here' impression. His lack of command and inability to repeat pitches stood out like a sore thumb. His results weren't bad, given the unrefined tendencies of high school batters to swing at high-velo or high-movement pitches that aren't strikes. But still, I thought he was a project, and it raised my eyebrows when he went in the first round with an almost-$800K bonus. You never know when a player can blow up, but following my own son's progress to pro ball made it glaringly obvious that for a group of professionals whose sole job it is to evaluate talent, scouts just get it wrong with their projectability assessments way more often than they get it right (in both directions!). To me at the time, Sanchez should have been more like a 3rd-to-5th round sign. His lingering tendencies have produced results that have proven that so far. I do hope for his sake that he has a serendipitous encounter with some pitching coach who is able to spot that as-yet unknown little fault in his delivery and turn his fortunes aroundThis did not deter the Blue Jays, nor Sanchez. Some of his struggles may have been to the organization tinkering with his delivery, having him land in a more upright position, and due to his experimenting with a sinker.
Fast forward to 2014. Sanchez opened the season at AA, and even though the results were somewhat mixed (40BB in 66IP), the club challenged him, in what would become a system-wide trend, with a promotion to Buffalo. Sanchez demonstrated better control after a half dozen AAA starts, when they put him on the next path of his development, sending him to the bullpen. Two relief outings later, Sanchez found himself in an MLB bullpen, tossing a pair of scoreless relief innings against the Red Sox.
Sanchez was barely hittable for the rest of the season, filling a huge set-up role void in the Toronto bullpen, and posting a miniscule 1.09 ERA in 33 innings, with a ridiculous 0.70 WHIP. The main reason for Sanchez's success was the club paring down his repertoire of pitches:
Not having to worry about getting hitters out a second time through the order, Sanchez could use his fastball, which seems to explode on batters from his easy-effort delivery to induce swings and misses, or weak, groundball contact. He consistently sat between 93 and 95 with his fastball, and touched 97 with it. Sanchez gets plenty of extension from his delivery, His curve has been described as major league ready since he was in A ball, and his change improved this season.
The Blue Jays appear to have a tough decision on their hands with Sanchez: keep him in the bullpen, where he's been successful, or let him vie for a spot in the starting rotation, where he has not met with as much success. For the time being, the club appears to be willing to let him compete for a starting job in spring training.
Projection: #2/#3 starter
Worst Case Scenario: late innings bullpen guy
3. Dalton Pompey
The Blue Jays took a flyer on Pompey in the 16th round of the 2010 draft. The Mississauga HS product was described as toolsy, but incredibly raw.
His development over the course of his first three pro seasons was very slow and unremarkable. A hand injury limited his playing time in 2012, and his first year of full season ball at Lansing was fairly nondescript, until he caught fire in the final weeks of the season,
He carried that hot finish over to the 2014 season, hitting .319/.397/.491 with 29 stolen bases in a little over two months of play in the Florida State League. Promoted to AA, where pitchers have a plan, and don't rely just on their ability to blow the ball by hitters, Pompey needed a week to figure things out, and began raking once more, earning a trip to the Futures Game. His storybook season didn't end there, however, as he joined Buffalo in August and was a sparkplug at the top of their batting order during the Bisons' playoff push. Pompey's season culminated in a call up to the Blue Jays on September 1st, and his 4-4 game with a pair of triples late in the season against Baltimore capped off his rise through four levels of play. Likely a little worn out from his longest season, Pompey's numbers were a little less than expected against the elite caliber of competition in the Arizona Fall League, but he was named one of the loop's Top 10 Prospects after play ended last week.
Pompey's breakout year was well worth the wait. An Milb Gold Glove winner, Pompey has gap-closing speed in the outfield that profiles as a centrefielder, and a plus arm that could play right. The switch-hitter likes to lay down drag bunts, especially on the left side, and is incredibly quick out of the box. He has shown both power and patience, drawing walks at an above average rate. He is also a smart baserunner who uses his speed effectively and wisely on the bases.
He may start the season in Buffalo, but Pompey has the makings of a first division major leaguer. He outperformed projections for him last year, and because he is still developing, he may outperform them again this year, even though that would be a tough act to follow.
ETA: Mid 2015
Projection: Lead Off Sparkplug Centrefielder
Worst Case Scenario: Platoon corner outfielder
4. Franklin Barreto
Barreto was part of an impressive haul of international shortstops the Blue Jays signed in 2012 (along with Dawel Lugo, who played at Lansing this year, and Richard Urena). A fabled youth player, all Barreto has done since his pro debut is hit. Brought stateside for rookie ball last year, Barreto was dominant in the Northwest League this year, at the tender age of 18, in a league filled mostly with college grads.
Hitting third in Vancouver's batting order, Barreto led the NWL in Games, Runs, Hits, Doubles, RBIs, and Total Bases, and was the league's MVP. He was also named Baseball America's Short Season Player of the Year.
Barreto barrels up balls to all fields: