This is where the true depth of the system lies.
With an emphasis on high-risk, high-reward prospects, the Blue Jays appear to be following a developmental philosophy of "grow the arms and buy the bats."
Baseball America summarizes the Blue Jays system:
The farm system still has high-ceiling arms, but after the wave of trades the talent is concentrated at the lower levels of the organization. The trades left the upper minors short on prospects and long in the tooth
The Jays are arguably as deep and as talented as any organization at the lower levels, with a strong contingent of Latin American pitchers and infielders and early-round draft picks from 2012 and 2013.
The Jays take things very slowly with their minor league pitchers, high school grads in particular. The club likes pitching prospects to advance one level per season, giving them an opportunity to develop both arm strength and their secondary pitches. The club is quick to shut prospects who develop elbow or shoulder problems quickly, erring on the side of caution. Minor league pitchers are kept on strict pitch count limits. Some might argue that this keeps young pitchers from learning how to pitch out of trouble or how to pace themselves to last deep into starts, but all the injury data seems to indicate that the risk of injury for most prospects doesn't start to decline until around 23 year of age, depending on a number of factors.
The Blue Jays often enjoy a "piggybacking" system with their young pitchers, designating a trio to take turns starting and relieving each other over the course of part of a season. Lansing employed this approach in 2012 with Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, and Justin Nicolino, and the Mets and Marlins were the beneficiaries when the latter two were obtained in trades last off season.
The organization's top pitching prospects can be separated into two tiers, with the top one being the closest to major league ready.
1. Aaron Sanchez rhp
A year ago, Sanchez was the consensus top prospect in the organization. Other pitchers were dealt in trades designed to strengthen the big league club, but Sanchez was an untouchable.
There are some who feel that the bloom is off the rose with Sanchez, though. He had a strong season at High A, but had it interrupted by shoulder and blister issues. Some, like Keith Law, suggest, that the Jays were toying with Sanchez too much - Law says a mid-July shelling was the result of Sanchez trying a sinker the organization ordered him to try. We're not so sure about that.
Some don't like Sanchez' delivery, while others point out that he still hasn't cut down on his walks over the past two seasons. Some top evaluators, like Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks, feel that Marcus Stroman has passed Sanchez as the club's top prospect.
Sanchez hit his stride in August, after a month long layoff that ended in early July. After shaking off a bit of rust in the Arizona Fall League, he was again dominant, this time against some of the top hitting prospects in the game. Sanchez started the AFL All-Star game, and posted a 1.16 ERA in 23 innings. AFL comparisons with Stroman, who was Sanchez' teammate at Salt River, are meaningless, because Sanchez was making up for lost innings, while Stroman's workload was limited after pitching 111 minor league innings.
Less conservative organizations may have been more aggressive with Sanchez, both in terms of pitch counts and promotion. It is likely true that Stroman is ahead of Sanchez in terms of development. That's because while Sanchez was limited to 25 innings in his pro debut in 2010, Stroman threw 57 as a freshman at Duke. While Stroman threw 220 innings over 3 seasons at Duke, Sanchez had thrown 50 fewer innings.
While we like Stroman a lot, and acknowledge that he is closer to being major league-ready than is Sanchez, we still like Sanchez' ceiling more. Sanchez' fastball regularly sits in the mid-90s, and is complimented by a curve that his Dunedin pitching coach termed major league ready. There are some concerns about his delivery, but this could be attributed to being young, and still learning to implement the tweaks the organization made this season.
Given that the club likes to have their prospects progress one level at a time, Sanchez will likely spend the whole season at AA New Hampshire.
2. Marcus Stroman rhp
No Blue Jays prospect made as much progress as the Duke grad this season. Making up for some lost time of his own (thanks to a 50 game suspension levied at the end of the 2012 season for a positive PED test), Stroman was dominant in the Eastern League.
There has been considerable debate as to whether Stroman profiles as a starter or end of the bullpen reliever in the long run. The Jays chose to let Stroman start this year, likely to not only build up his arm and secondary pitches, but also because they feel more inclined toward the former role for him.
Stroman struck out 129 AA batters in 111 innings, and demonstrated a feel for all of his pitches. His fastball sits in the low 90s, and is supported by a wipe-out slider, and a change that came along tremendously this year.
Stroman could likely make the big league team out of spring training this year, but there is no rush. His arbitration clock likely won't be set in motion until mid-season at the earliest, depending on the health of the major league starters. Stroman will start the year in Buffalo at AAA, where he will continue to build his arm (at 23, he's almost out of the highest risk age group for arm injuries), and refine those secondary pitches.
This kid is a major competitor. Almost any profile of him begins with mention of his height, and while it has to be considered a factor in any evaluation, Stroman is keen to prove his detractors wrong, and he's been doing so successfully since high school. Indications are that the Blue Jays are going to give him every chance to prove himself as a starter.
3. Daniel Norris, lhp
Norris is the one member of this tier who doesn't fit the pattern, because he's not close to major league ready.
Just the same, he probably would rank right behind Stroman in terms of progress among the organization's pitching prospects over the past season. Labelled the best prep lefthander in the 2012 draft, Norris struggled mightily with his release point in control during his first pro season. The problems seemed to follow him into this year, until he turned things around in early May.
Despite missing a month due to shoulder soreness, Norris was lights out, and was promoted to High A at the end of the season. His promotion likely would've come sooner, if not for the shoulder issue, which limited his pitch count for almost half of the season.
Norris struck out 99 Midwest League batters in 85 innings. He sported an 0-2, 9.56 ERA at the end of April, and was 2-5, with a 2.77 ERA for the rest of the season, with 87 K's in 74 innings.
Norris shows an above average fastball, and a promising curve, and a change that isn't far behind. While he's not projected to be a #1 starter, but is no longer necessarily seen as a middle of the rotation guy, either.
Norris has both the makeup and the athleticism to move quickly up the ladder. He will begin the season at High A, but could see another late season promotion if he continues on this development curve.
4. Sean Nolin, lhp
Nolin is the only one of the group to have seen major league action - all 1 1/3 innings of it coming in a shelling in late May by the Orioles.
Nolin has rocketed through the system in the past two years, however, sporting a 19-4 record over three levels during that time. He spent most of this year in AA, striking out 103 Eastern League batters in 91 innings, and pitched well during an August promotion to Buffalo.
Nolin's fastball sits in the high 80s and low 90s. He has a plus changeup, and two adequate breaking balls (slider and curve). At 6'5", he has the build for the prototypical back of the rotation innings eater. With Dickey, Morrow (fingers crossed) and Buerhle pencilled in at the top of Toronto's rotation, there will be intense competition this spring for the final two spots. That may leave Nolin on the outside looking in, and a return to Buffalo may be in the works. He should make a return to the majors at some point this season, though, and should meet with considerably more success this time around.
5. John Stilson, rhp
Stilson didn't make our Top 10 prospects list, and by the looks of things, he didn't make many others, either.
That doesn't mean he should be counted out, because as far as major league readiness is concerned, he may be right behind Stroman and Nolin.
Moved to the bullpen full time this year, Stilson was lights out for AAA Buffalo, limiting International League hitters to a .211 batting average in 47 innings, with 47 strikeouts.
The move to the bullpen allowed Stilson to dial up his fastball a notch from his starting days, and he often sits in the mid 90s with some good downward movement. Stilson's command allows him to get ahead in the count, and he can use his changeup well as a result.
Stilson projects as the kind of power late-inning arm that the Jays covet. Barring a knockout spring, his most likely destination in 2013 is a return to Buffalo, but he may not stay there for the whole season. Injuries and/or inconsistency may cause his promotion, or he may be a tradeable commodity if the club is in contention, and is looking to upgrade the roster prior to the tradeline.
6. Roberto Osuna, rhp
Tommy John surgery in late July and his age (18) are the only things keeping Osuna from a higher spot on this list.
Osuna's 2014 season will most likely be a write-off, with only a slim possibility that he could get some innings in the GCL in late August.
"Advanced" is the word that comes up most often in scouting reports about Osuna. Advanced command, control, and feel for pitching. Osuna, prior to the surgery, showed a low to mid 90s fastball, and an above-average change. His curve still is a work in progress.
Much has been made of Osuna's "high maintenance" body. We're betting that he will pay more attention to his strength, flexibility, and conditioning as a result of the surgery. Osuna has the projected ceiling of a #2 starter, and while his road back will be long, there is still plenty of time for him to reach it.
7. Alberto Tirado, rhp
The 18 year old was one of the Jays' prized international signings in 2011, and is beginning to attract some notice.
The organization has typically brought him along slowly, limiting him to two summers of short season ball to this point.
Tirado dominated the Appalachian League this summer in much the same manner as the did the GCL in 2012, posting a 3-0, 1.68 ERA record in 12 appearances, 8 of them starts. Tirado is not of the long and lean mold of pitcher the Jays prefer, but his record speaks for itself.
Tirado throws as four-seamer that can touch the mid-90s, and a change and slider. There's not a consensus among evaluators about which of the latter two pitches is better. Tirado missed a lot of bats this summer, and induced a great deal of ground balls from those hitters who did make contact.
Given the organization's past record, it seems likely that Tirado will be kept in Florida for extended spring training. Once the weather warms up, he likely will be sent to the next rung on the ladder at Vancouver, or may even be challenged by a full season assignment ot Low A ball at Lansing.
8. Chase DeJong, rhp
DeJong is yet another high school arm who is being developed one step at a time.
The 2012 2nd round choice pitched at Bluefield this summer, and was actually ranked ahead (6th) of Tirado (8th) on Baseball America's top 20 prospects list.
DeJong led Bluefield in innings with 55, and K's with 66, and posted a 3.05 ERA that was likely bumped up by a high BABIP. He was promoted to Vancouver late in the season to bolster the Canadians' bullpen.
DeJong's fastball sits in the low 90s, and several evaluators expressed surprise that his velocity hasn't come around yet. His curve is already rated a plus pitch.
At 6'4", DeJong is the body type that the Jays covet. That we have him ranked a notch below at Tirado at this point is due to the fact that Tirado has accomplished more at a younger age (by two years). There are those who suggest DeJong will rise quickly in the Jays' system.
9. Tom Robson, rhp
The highest drafted Canadian in the 2011 draft, the club has brought the Ladner, BC, native along slowly.
He was promoted mid way through the Appy League season after going 3-0, 1.68, and was even more dominant in the Northwest League, putting up a 3-0, 0.94 record, and helping Vancouver to an amazing 3rd straight NWL crown.
Robson isn't a threat to light up radar guns, sitting mostly in the low 90s. His command, plus a heavy sinker, may not see him miss as many bats as the names above him on this list do, but like Tirado, he generates a lot of groundballs. Robson is of a similar body type as DeJong, with a bit bigger frame, so he too has room for projection, and at 20 is almost finished growing.
A likely path for Robson this year is to return to Vancouver, with a promotion to full season ball at Lansing for the second half if all goes well. As it likey should - in a league populated mostly by college grads, Robson was lights out.
10. Jairo Labourt, lhp
Labourt joined Bluefield teammates Davis, Nay, Lugo, Tirado, Cardona, and DeJong on BA's top 20 Appy League prospects list, coming in at #12.
Labourt is another in a long list of long-limbed pitchers in the Jays system. Former BP staffer Zach Mortimer calls Labourt, "an intriguing arm that needs to be looked at more closely."
Labourt got stronger as the Appy League season progressed, refining his command. His fastball can touch 94, and at 19 years of age, there's room for projection, and he flashes a potential wipeout slider.
Labourt was called up to Vancouver for the end of the regular season, and struck out 10 hitters in 5 2/3 innings of the first game of the playoffs.
The likely timetable for Labourt may be similar to Robson's - back to Vancouver after extended spring training, with a possible mid-season promotion to Lansing. Some have suggested that he start the season there, but there really is no rush.
Deck McGuire, rhp - the Jays' first pick in 2010 can't be written off just yet. August may have been a teaser, but the club saw fit to place him on the 40 man roster thsi fall.
Matt Smoral, lhp - finally healthy, Smoral alternated flashes of brilliance with an inability to find the plate in the GCL. It's said that lefthanders take time to develop. It probably takes 6'8" lefties who missed their senior year of high school even longer.
Adonys Cardona, rhp - shut down by elbow issues in August, Cardona really didn't show much stats-wise at Bluefield this year, but BA thought enough of him to rank him as the Appy League's 16th best prospect.
Shane Dawson, lhp - another Canadian to consider, Dawson had a strong season at two levels this year, but was shut down in late August with elbow issues, and wasn't healthy enough to pitch in instructional league.
Clinton Hollon, rhp - the 2nd round pick in last June's draft saw his stock fall due to elbow issues. He pitched well in his debut in the GCL, however, and was promoted to Bluefield late in the season. Throws a mid 90s fastball, with a plus fastball.