Eleven months ago, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous had completed the near-emptying of the club's farm system when he included top prospects Travis d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard in the R.A. Dickey deal, and Justin Nicolino and Jake Marisnick in the Jose Reyes trade. Months earlier, Anthopolous had started the process with the dealing of a number of prospects to Houston in the J.A. Happ deal. The Jays' system was thin on both quality and quantity at the same time.
Despite this, the Jays had a reasonably successful farm system this year, thanks in part due to a successful June draft (despite not signing top pick Phil Bickford, who was taken with the 10th pick). And with the 9th and 10th pick next year in what is being labelled a deeper prospect pool, the club is poised to return to prominence as a drafter and developer of talent. Baseball America ranked the Jays as the 11th best system after the 2013 season - an impressive achievement, all things considered.
We bring you, then, our Top 20 Blue Jays Prospects:
1. Aaron Sanchez
The resounding thud you may have heard in late August/early September was the crush of supporters leaping off the Aaron Sanchez bandwagon.
Sanchez missed a month this year due to shoulder issues. He was a bit rusty when he came back. And had one outing in July when he was shelled.
Otherwise, Sanchez had a pretty good year. Dominant, at times.
Because fellow prospects and former teammates Noah Syndergaard and Justin Nicolino remained healthy and were promoted to AA, there were many analysts who were quick to dump on Sanchez. Too upright in his delivery, said some. Not enough legs in the last phase, said others. He walks too many. Not a true ace, more like a #2, at best.
All of the above was said even though he was lights out in his last two starts with Dunedin, where he was one of the younger pitchers in the league. And the walks are still high, but were down a full 1.0 walk per 9 innings from 2012.
The bashing continued in the Arizona Fall League. In a recent chat, prospect guru Keith Law opined:
I compared what I saw from Sanchez in Fall League to video from when I saw him in 2012, and it confirmed my initial impression – he’s shortened his stride and is finishing too upright. The Sanchez I’d seen in the past missed bats with his fastball; the one I saw in AZ threw 28 fastballs and didn’t get a single swing and miss on it.
Jeff Moore of Baseball Prospectus is apparently off the Sanchez bandwagon, too:
Sanchez has dynamic stuff, but outings like these have become all too common. He stayed out of trouble on Monday because he doesn’t give up hard contact and misses enough bats, but he was unable to finish the fifth inning. He will be able to get away with poor control more so than most pitchers because his fastball sits in the mid-90s and touches 97 and because he pairs it with a plus breaking ball, but his ceiling will be limited if he doesn’t get it everything under control.
This in spite of the fact that Sanchez gave up no runs in that start. Sure, maybe the bullpen saved him, but he gave up no runs for the second straight start. And was named to the AFL All-Star game. Sanchez finished on a dominant run in Arizona, surrendering only 1 earned run in his last 4 outings.
Our point is that maybe in this day and age of instant information, some analysts, perhaps trying to stay ahead of the curve, are quick to praise or condemn prospects literally from one outing to the next. Sanchez was pitching over his head a bit in the AFL, but he responded well to the challenge. When he wasn't on the injured list this season, he showed top of the rotation stuff. Sanchez throws a mid 90s fastball, and mixes in an elite curve (which he's had trouble controlling) and change.
This season was a bit of a speed bump for Sanchez. Something all athletes deal with - the elite ones deal with them successfully. He firmly re-established himself in Arizona as a premium prospect. The trials that he endured this season will help him to better the next twist in his road to the majors.
2. Marcus Stroman
Opinion on Stroman is even more prolonged and sharply divided. The 5'9" fireballer is either a potential back of the bullpen arm, or a future mid to end of the rotation starter.
The Blue Jays have given Stroman every chance to be a starter, even though the 21st pick in the 2012 draft was predicted by some to have the shortest path to the bigs - as a reliever. A 50 game PED suspension pushed Stroman's progress back a bit, but he more than made up for lost time when he returned to action in May.
Stroman was sent to AA New Hampshire's starting rotation to build up his arm strength, and work on his change-up. Which he did, with resounding success. When the major league rotation was riddled by injury and inconsistency, there were many calls for Stroman's promotion.
Here's what one scout had to say about the righthander in August:
One of the most inspiring minor league pitching performances I’ve seen this year. He’s very athletic on the mound and attacks hitters, shows three plus pitches and plus command. The concerns over the durability are legitimate…go back the last 25 years and you won’t find a right-hander his size that’s been a starter in the league for longer than three years. That said, he seems to feed off those questions and I love guys with a chip on their shoulder. He could compete in the big leagues right now.
Stroman is used to naysayers who point to his lack of size. He uses that as fuel to propel him on. Stroman is strong and athletic, and gets a lot of his lower body into his delivery, which should lessen the wear and tear on his arm/shoulder. Stroman has a deceptive delivery, turning his back to the hitter, making it hard to pick the ball up. With 3 plus pitches, Stroman should be a lock for the starting rotation, either out of spring training, or at some point in 2014.
3. Daniel Norris
This may be a bit of a reach for us. Norris is a top 10 prospect for sure. The way he battled through tough outings last year and in April of this shows the character this young man has. Even though he was born and raised in Tennessee, Norris loves to surf, and his Twitter feed reveals a laid back, So-Cal attitude, with a strong faith that may help him deal with the ups and downs of being a starting pitcher. The kid seems to know how to put things in perspective.
After the first week of May, Norris was lights out for Lansing, and was the mainstay of the rotation. The ever-cautious Jays shut him down for a month with elbow tenderness, but he showed no ill effects when he came back, although he was on a 60 pitch limit until late August. This may have kept us from seeing what Norris is truly capable of, although a pair of starts for playoff-bound Dunedin at the end of the summer gave us a glimpse. His month on the DL, coupled with his slow start, likely cost Norris a spot on BA's top 20 Midwest League prospects list.
There are some who say Norris profiles as a middle of the rotation starter, or even a reliever. His fastball sits in the low 90s, and he can dial it up when need be. He has a plus curve, a change that has come a long way, and he added a slider this year. He became consistent with his delivery, release point and control. We say that middle of the rotation is Norris' floor, and we're looking forward to more from him, likely at High A this year.
4. Sean Nolin
Nolin profiles as a middle of the rotation innings eater (in a few years at least, for the latter). And there's nothing wrong with that (see Buehrle, Mark).
Nolin blew through two levels in the minors in 2012, as well as 2013. He was called up for a major league start in May, and stage fright may have been the culprit, as he was shelled. Nolin throws a FB that averages around 91 mph. He also throws a change, curve and cutter that all profile as "solid average" with the evaluators at Baseball Prospectus. He has a fluid, repeatable delivery, and his size is ideal for a future rotation regular.
His numbers for 2013 were comparable to Stroman's. One or both will likely join the Jays pitching staff at some point in the season.
5. Kevin Pillar
Pillar rose so quickly through the minors that we really have never given him the credit he deserves.
He advanced through two levels this year, and got a shot in late August and September with the big club when injuries sidelined all of the starting outfield at one point.
Pillar hit .307/.353/.461 between New Hampshire and Buffalo. He was overwhelmed at the major league level, going hitless in his first 13 bats, but finished strong to get over the Mendoza line, ending up with a line of .206/.250/.333 in 102 MLB at bats.
Pillar has always had the "overachieving fourth outfielder" tag applied to him. As a 32 round draft choice, he's more than used to battling long odds. Pillar has speed (not necessarily elite, base-stealing speed), and can play all three outfield positions. That the Jays let Rajai Davis walk after the season likely opens a spot for Pillar, who offers more versatility, and potentially a more impactful bat. We're starting to think that the Reed Johnson comps are more of a floor than a ceiling. This kid has hit at every level.
As we said in another post, it won't be a bad thing if Pillar gets 300 at bats for this club. He has risen to every challenge the organization has put in front of him. He doesn't have one overwhelming tool, but his bat, defensive skills and versatility, coupled with his smarts on the basepaths, will make a strong contribution to the team.
6. Roberto Osuna
Osuna's truncated season got off to a dominant start. Pitching as a 17 year old in the Midwest League, where he was the 3rd youngest player, Osuna allowed only 3 earned runs total in 3 of his first 4 starts, striking out 22 batters in 15 innings. This was on the heels of a spectacular pro debut the season before with Bluefield and Vancouver, the latter of which is still talked about by lower mainlanders.
And then Osuna was removed from an April 30th start with elbow soreness. He was diagnosed with a tear of the UCL, and was sent for a month of rest followed by rehab in Florida. Upon his return in June, it appeared that the strategy worked, as he was back to his dominant self in his first two starts, hitting 97 with his fastball. He was rocked over his next three starts, however, and was shut down for the season, and underwent Tommy John surgery to replace the damaged ligament.
The surgery took place in late July, and given the rehab timetable from TJ, Osuna won't begin even soft-tossing for at least another month. If the average recovery time is one year, he should be pitching again by sometime late in the summer.
Since he's ony 18, that's maybe not a huge deal. Osuna wouldn't even be draft eligible until next June if he was American. The consensus is that even though he may have something of a high maintenance body, he has electric stuff, and shows an advanced feel for pitching despite his age. If there is to be a benefit to TJ surgery, it's that most pitchers who have battled back from it have paid more attention to their conditioning, which would be a good thing for Osuna.
7. D.J. Davis
Still considered to be very raw, Davis was one of the youngest players in his draft class. The club has taken things slowly with the 2012 1st round choice.
All of the other tools in Davis' kit appear to be there in abundance, except for the bat, which is still a work in progress. Baseball America thinks highly of Davis, and ranked him as the 2nd best prospect in the rookie level Appalachian League this year (although BA admits that this year's class pales in comparison to previous years). Davis has tremendous range in centrefield, and is considered one of the fastest prospects in all of milb, although that hasn't necessarily translated into high stolen base totals yet.
The Blue Jays will likely challenge Davis with an assignment to full season ball this year, which should accelerate his development. There are still likely some ups and downs in store for him, however.
8. Andy Burns
Burns has always been a sleeper prospect. This year he woke up.
Burns redshirted his senior year of college after transferring from Kentucky to Arizona. The year of missed development might have explained the mediocre results at the plate in his first two years of pro ball. Burns
hit .327/.383/.524 in a half a season at Dunedin, before receiving a promotion to AA New Hampshire. Predicatably, Burns struggled at first after the promotion, but hit .300 in August, as he adjusted to the higher quality pitching. To continue his development, Burns was sent to the Arizona Fall League, where he acquitted himself quite well with a .312/.402/.403 line. The power wasn't there, but that's one of the last tools in the box to develop with most prospects.
Burns was primarily a shortstop in college, but played mostly 3rd this year. He spent some time at 1st, as well as the corner outfield positions in Arizona as well. The Jays likely see him as a super utility-type player, who can contribute with the bat as well. Burns could fill an important minor role with the club by 2015.
9 Franklin Barreto
Barreto has drawn accolades (mostly for his bat) since he was a youth ball player. Playing this year at the tender age of 17, Barreto was ranked the 5th best prospect in the GCL by BA. He joined Bluefield late in the season to help with their playoff run.
All the signs point to Barreto being a potential top of the order, impact bat. The problem is, of course, where he ultimately will play. Barreto has been a shortstop to this point, but his footwork and arm will likely limit his future there. The plan for at least the next year will be to have Barreto remain at short, but all indications are that a move either to 2nd or the outfield is just a matter of time. He has a plus arm, which coupled with his speed and baseball sense, could see him patrolling centrefield at the Rogers Centre just as Rogers decides to install grass on the playing surface.
Barreto is still a number of years away. The injury of Dickie Thon at Vancouver caused a series of promotions and shuffles that created a spot for Barreto at Bluefield, but we think that the fact that the Jays sent him there at a young age (and having only been in America for a few months) says a lot about his makeup, and that the club thought that he was up for the challenge. He did tail off at Bluefield after a flashy start, but he was one of the youngest players in the league, playing at a premium position for a contending team.
10. Alberto Tirado
To tell the truth, we had a hard time making up our minds about this slot, thanks largely to the fact that most of the promising talent in the system is at the lower end of the ladder, making decisions based on relatively small sample sizes.
We went back and forth on a few prospects, who will be mentioned in a subsequent post, but finally settled on Tirado. Both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks are extremely high on the young Dominican, who pitched as an 18 year old in the Appy League this summer. Tirado, with his innings and pitches closely monitored like all young Jays hurlers, threw 48 innings for Bluefield, striking out 44.
Tirado is not the big bodied pitcher that you can project a heavy workload on at this point, but there is still time for him to grow a bit. Several evaluations of him make mention of his size. Tirado consistently commands his low to mid 90s FB down in the zone, creating a lot of groundballs. Like most young pitchers, his secondary offerings, headed by his change, are coming along.
Tirado, who has flown a bit under the prospect radar to this point, was part of a huge contingent of Bluefield Jays in Baseball America's Top 10 Appy League prospects list, coming in at #8. As the Jays like to take their time with their young arms, fans in Vancouver have a lot to look forward to this summer, starting with the likes of Tirado.