The Blue Jays employed a strategy of choosing high risk, high reward players in the 2010, 2011, and 2013 drafts, gambling on players who other organizations had backed away from due to concerns about signability or injury.
The club was prepared to wait and patiently develop most of these players, progressing them up through the organizational ladder one rung at a time.
With the promotion of Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez to the majors during the season, and the call up of Daniel Norris and Kendall Graveman after the expansion of major league rosters on September 1st, the club changed course, and challenged their top pitching prospects with rapid promotions.
This approach has already started to pay off: Stroman, after a rough debut out the bullpen, was sent back down to AAA in May to get stretched back out as a starter, and came back in June and quickly became a rotation mainstay. Sanchez too was promoted to the bullpen, and with his pitch arsenal pared down to his fourseamer and sinker, was lights out in relief from mid-summer on. While we want to be Stroman believers, no pitcher his size has been able to sustain the level of performance he attained as a starter this year for an extended period of time, and Sanchez may struggle with his command as a starter with expansion of his repertoire. Just the same, the future looks extremely bright for the pair.
Norris was a 2nd round pick in 2011 who signed for what was essentially first round money, a commitment to Clemson having scared off most teams. His pro debut season was marked by inflated stats likely caused by the overhaul of his mechanics that the organization embarked on.
After some modest success as the 2013 season ended, he was on no one's top 100 list at the start of 2014. He ended it as Milb.com's breakout pitcher of the year, and celebreated his MLB debut by striking out David Ortiz. Norris was the first HS lefthander from his draft year to reach the majors, and had the highest strikeout rate (11.8K/ 9inn) of any starting pitcher in full season ball.
We had seen Norris a number of times on Milb.tv throughout the season, and had the chance to see him in person in late August in Buffalo. Norris was racked, to put it mildly, and didn't last past the fourth inning. We were alarmed to see a drop in velocity from his usual 93-95 to the high 80s on his fastball. We saw the same thing in his debut against Ortiz, and in subsequent outings. We pointed it out on Twitter, but were met with doubt by a number of tweeps.........
It turns out, of course, that Norris required surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow after the season. He should be ready by spring training.
Kendall Graveman may have been overshadowed by Norris this year, but his rise through five levels of play this year was truly outstanding. A $5000 supposed org guy drafted in 2013, Graveman added velocity to his fastball this year, and then discovered a new four seamer grip by accident. The results had batters at three minor league levels swinging and missing at a 26.6% K rate.
While he made his major league debut this fall as well, Graveman may be farther away than Norris, Stroman, or Sanchez from the majors. He may not have a fastball that is as overpowering as the big three, but he has demonstrated great athleticism, and an advanced feel for pitching.
Sean Nolin has been something of a forgotten man, but he still is clearly in the picture. He has had trouble staying healthy the past two seasons, but has shown signs of getting back on track in Arizona, where he was sent to get in some extra innings. He matched Stroman almost strikeout for strikeout at AA in 2013.
Roberto Osuna had developed a huge following among prospect hunters even before he made his full season debut at the tender age of 18 last year. He had pitched in the Mexican League as a 15 year old, and as a 17 year old made a memorable start for Vancouver in 2012 in which he struck out 13 hitters in 5 innings.
Osuna's path the majors hit a speed bump when he was diagnosed with a UCL tear in May of last year. Rehab did nothing to correct it, and he underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of July. Osuna returned to competition this year in the GCL and FSL, and is currently pitching in the Arizona Fall League. Osuna showed a return to form with his velocity, and showed maturity on the mound beyond his years. His control has yet to fully return, as he caught too much of the strike zone in both the FSL and Arizona, although he has turned that around of late.
Much has been made of Osuna's high-maintenance body prior to his surgery, but reports are that he looks much more fit and toned since undergoing the procedure. This can only bode well for Osuna going forward.
And as is the case with several other positions within the system, the depth of the organization's pitching only gets more impressive as we move down the ladder.
Miguel Castro did not make his stateside debut (partially due to visa problems) until last year, but has rocketed his way up the ladder, making it all the way to the FSL by August. Castro, who is all of a day older than Osuna, is impressive on the mound, sitting in the mid 90s with his fastball, and maxing at 99. His secondary pitches are still a work in progress, and will need to be further refined as he works his way up against more advanced hitters.
Jeff Hoffman is a bit of a wild card at this point. The Jays have apparently long had their eyes on Hoffman, who was having something of a nondescript college season when he blew scouts away with a 16K performance in early May, then was diagnosed with a torn UCL a week later. Undaunted, the Blue Jays liked what they had seen from their long look at him, and took him with the 9th pick. Hoffman has been projected as a front of the rotation starter. Before his TJ surgery, he sat 93-95 with his fastball, and showed good command of his secondary pitches. The surgery puts his timetable back - he won't be game ready until at least late April/early May, and that will likely be in Extended. We likely won't see him in game action until June approaches. Hoffman has all the makings of a rotation anchor, but we have to withhold our judgement a bit until he is finished rehabbing his injury.
Hanging around and inhabiting a space between prospect and org guy are Matt Boyd and Taylor Cole. Boyd, a 2013 6th rounder, had a spring that was almost as impressive as Norris', but was hit hard upon his promotion to AA, and seemed to be out of gas by season's end back in A+. Cole, Baseball America's top fringe prospect, challenged for the minor league strikeout lead. Both are longshots to make the majors, but the seasons they had make them worth following.
By season's end, Vancouver featured a trio of lefthanders who could all see time in the majors. Jairo Labourt started the season at Lansing, but struggled with his command, and was sent back to Extended. Labourt was sent to B.C. once the Northwest League season started, and he was dominant, leading the league in ERA, Ks per 9 innings, and opponents batting average. Labourt was named the loop's third best prospect. Ryan Borucki missed all of 2013 recovering from Tommy John, but made up for lost time quickly, starting the year with Bluefield, and finishing with the C's. Borucki can hit 94 with his fastball, has a plus changeup, and still offers plenty of room for projection. Matt Smoral was another one of those gambles from 2012, and his development took off this year. Smoral commands a backdoor slider that can get right handed hitters out. The only thing that may hold him back from a starting job in the bigs one day is his ability to command his fastball.
Concerns about his delivery and signability saw Sean Reid-Foley to slip to the 2nd round of the June draft, but there are indications that the Blue Jays made a huge steal when they snapped him up. Alberto Tirado, like Labourt, was challenged with an aggressive assignment to Lansing to start 2014, and like Labourt was sent back to Florida, and then to Vancouver. Some had tabbed him as a breakout candidate last year, but he struggled with his command until a move to the bullpen seemed to settle things down for him. At only 19, it's too early to write Tirado off just yet, and he would not be the first international prospect to take a bit of a step back in his first full season. Jesus Tinoco pitched much better than his record at Bluefield would indicate, and the organizaton is still very high on him. 2013 4th rounder Evan Smith progressed to Bluefield in his second pro season, and showed an improved ability to throw strikes. Jake Brentz is still relatively new to pitching, and has yet to make it out of complex ball in his first two pro seasons, but is worth keeping an eye on.
And there is a group of young pitchers who struggled with injuries and/or inconsistency last year. Clinton Hollon was a 2013 2nd rounder out of Kentucky HS who reportedly already had UCL damage when he was drafted. Hollon underwent TJ in May of this year, and won't be back until May/June of 2015. Tom Robson started at Lansing, but was shut down in May, and had TJ in July after an unsuccessful rehab. Shane Dawson's season with Lansing didn't get underway until May, and then he was shut down for the season in mid-July. Chase DeJong struggled at Lansing as well, and didn't pitch after the first week of August, but reportedly felt fine and threw well at Instructs. One or all of that group could rebound next season.
This is where the strength of the organization lies. As this depth works its way up through the system, its value may be as possible trade fodder to improve the major league roster.