For the first time in a long time, the Blue Jays system is flush with potentially impactful position players
The Blue Jays’ system is a huge source of optimism for fans of the team. It’s been a rough couple of years, but a system with some top-level talent and a lot of interesting potential means that fans shouldn’t have to wait many years before the team is in contention again. Hopefully.
That confidence has grown over the last few months thanks to strong performances by a number of prospects and improved system rankings among a number of prospect evaluators. The Jays system is up to #3 on Baseball America’s list and #5 on MLB Pipeline’s. When asked if the Jays had a Top 5 system, evaluator Jason Woodell replied “no doubt”.
While FanGraphs doesn’t publish team rankings, Eric Longenhagen replied to a chat question by saying: “When Shapiro said we had them in the top 5 (was it 5 or 10? I forget, he said we had them high) I was taken aback because we haven’t explicitly ranked all the systems since I’ve been here. But eyeballing their board, yeah they’re probably up there.” My team-level analysis of the FanGraphs player list—which includes all prospects with a 35+ FV or higher, roughly 1000 in total—came to a similar conclusion.
It goes without saying that having a Top 5 system doesn’t guarantee big league success. But it also goes without saying that you’d rather be closer to the top than to the bottom.
At this point, much of the depth lies on the position player side, which is what this post will focus on. There is a good mix of pitching prospects from the upper to lower levels, but there is only one with top-level potential right now—Nate Pearson, the only Jays pitching prospect given a 50 FV rating by FanGraphs. In sharp contrast, the Padres (boasting more pitching depth than any other system) have two pitchers with a 55 FV rating and six with a 50 FV rating.
It’s unclear whether this is a conscious choice by the Jays’ FO. They obviously haven’t given up on drafting high-ceiling pitchers, taking Pearson and Adam Kloffenstein relatively early in the last two drafts. But it’s generally viewed as more difficult to produce a top-end starting pitcher, which might motivate a team to focus on developing position player prospects with the intent of trading some away for pitching, as the Jays seem ready to do this off-season.
Regardless the reasons, the position player depth is there. I thought it would be worthwhile to change things up and display this depth in a visual form, via a series of lineups based on the potential of these prospects. To be clear, these lineups don’t reflect factors like closeness to the majors or anything like that. Instead, they are based upon arbitrary, FV-based cut-offs (always using FanGraphs’ ratings).
First, the top prospects, defined as either 1) those who’ve been given a rating of 40+↑ FV or better by FanGraphs or 2) young major leaguers who’ve performed well in a meaningful amount of MLB playing time. The “+” and “↑” above probably require some explanation for those not super familiar with FanGraphs’ notations. A “+” indicates that the player is better than others with the same FV rating, but not quite good enough to justify a five-point grade increase. A “↑” implies that the prospect’s potential is trending upwards. I used 40+↑ as a cut-off to get Cavan Biggio into the Top Prospects lineup (arbitrary, like I said).
This lineup includes names very familiar to all. While they’ve both struggled defensively at the MLB level thus far, Lourdes Gurriel (103 wRC+) and Teoscar Hernandez (109 wRC+) have shown very promising bats. Danny Jansen has looked the part in the majors, producing a 115 wRC+ and displaying his trademark plate discipline (6.8% SwStr%).
Biggio and Kevin Smith have both seen their ratings rise this season and still might have helium in them yet (evident in their ↑). They are each guys I’ve examined in more detail (here and here.) Vlad Guerrero Jr. looks like a perennial all-star, coming off an age-19 season in which he was historically good at AA and produced the fifth-best wRC+ across AAA (min. 100 PA). I think he’ll start his career as a third baseman—he seriously deserves more credit for his 3B defence, producing +8 FRAA between AA and AAA this season (77 games)—but I moved him to first to fit the other top prospects into the lineup. [MiLB fielding runs above average data can be found at Clay Davenport’s site.]
Bo Bichette has produced average shortstop defence (0 FRAA in 114 games at AA) and continued to produce at the plate (120 wRC+) against much older opponents (4.2 years below the Eastern League average). Anthony Alford had a disappointing season (reflected by the ↓ FanGraphs assigned him in their most recent update), but has the tools to justify his promise. Obviously, everyone involved is hoping that 2019 is the year he well and truly breaks out. As Jason Woodell recently noted about Alford, “always bet on the athlete”.
For some context, the Blue Jays have a total of nine prospects who have a 40+↑ FV rating or better—the six prospects above, as well as Forrest Wall, Logan Warmoth and Jordan Groshans (all 45). That is tied for sixth in the majors with the White Sox. Ahead of them are the Padres (13), Rays (13), Reds (11), Brewers (11) and Tigers (10).
The second lineup includes any Jays prospect with a 40↑ grade or higher. A 40 FV position player is expected to be a bench player in the MLB. The ↑ implies that that rating might increase in the near-future. The Blue Jays have the most 40↑ FV or better position player prospects in the majors (16), tied with the Padres. That includes the six prospects above, the eight prospects in the lineup below and Leonardo Jimenez and Chavez Young (each in the lineup to follow).
The trade deadline additions of Demi Orimoloye, Forrest Wall and Billy McKinney each added to the system’s depth. Orimoloye was unranked in FanGraphs’ pre-season prospect list. However, he did well in his first taste of CF (+5 FRAA at High-A) and displayed the kind of hitting (104 wRC+ between Low- and High-A) that works with good CF defence. Wall is a toolsy prospect who FanGraphs says has “several realistic paths to big-league value”. He’s fast, played well enough in his first full season at CF (-3 FRAA at Double-A) and has the bat-to-ball skills to maintain a .300+ BABIP. McKinney did very well in his first big-league at bats (111 wRC+), but struggled in his first big-league innings in the outfield (-4 DRS). Small sample size caveats apply to both the hitting and fielding stats.
Reese McGuire has improved his hitting over the last two seasons (105 wRC+ over 577 PA between the minors and majors), which solidified his floor as an MLB backup catcher (40 FV) and increased the optimism in his chances of becoming a starter (↑). Logan Warmoth struggled at the plate in his second minor league season, playing at High-A for the first time (88 wRC+). Nevertheless, he had another solid season at short stop (+3 FRAA), which buoys hopes of his future potential.Miguel Hiraldo, a 2017 IFA signing, got his first opportunity at pro ball in the Dominican Summer League and showed strong plate discipline (9.6% walk rate, 12.6% K rate) and great contact skills (.355 BABIP). That jibes with the his 55 hit grade.
Jordan Groshans and Griffin Conine both impressed since being drafted this June. Groshans produced a 150 wRC+ in the GCL, with solid plate discipline, power and contact. He even produced solid defence in limited action at SS (15 games, +2 FRAA) and 3B (15 games, +1 FRAA). Conine showed off his 50 grade fielding and 60 grade arm for Short Season-A Vancouver, producing an impressive +11 FRAA in RF. His average performance at the plate (103 wRC+) reflected the contrast of his above-average power (.189 ISO) and above-average K rate (27.4%).
The third lineup is made up of “high-risk” prospects with 40 FV ratings. Beyond plus-signs and arrows, FanGraphs has a third qualifier for its scouting grades: risk. A high-risk prospect is generally considered to have a low floor and a high ceiling.
Chavez Young is a good example of a high-risk prospect. He’s been given 50+ grades for every skill thanks to his projectability, but has to show that development going forward. He did very well at Low-A this season, producing a 129 wRC+ with better-than-average marks across the board. If his hitting doesn’t hold up through future promotions, his other tools might not be good enough to carry him to the majors. However, if his hitting clicks and he maintains his solid CF defence (+13 FRAA in 50 games), he certainly could have a future as a major league regular.
The glut of catchers in the Jays system necessitated me to put Hagen Danner in RF. Injuries have limited his ability to get up to A-ball, which contributes to his high-risk label. Riley Adams, Danner’s fellow catcher, had a solid season at High-A (110 wRC+), building on his solid 2017 at Short Season-A (132 wRC+). He’s had two solid defensive seasons behind the plate (+15 FRAA over 125 games), which might result in an increase in his fielding grade (45) this off-season.
Rowdy Tellez stands out in this group due to his advanced development. As a 1B/DH type, the high-risk label speaks to the fact that his future hinges on his bat. His first 73 plate appearances in the majors were quite promising. His peripherals (.300 ISO, .391 BABIP) certainly suggest that some SSS fortune helped him out, but Statcast does view his contact this season as better-than-average (.215 xISO, .325 xBABIP).
On the left side of the infield are two recent IFA signings, Leonardo Jimenez (2017) and Orelvis Martinez (2018). Jimenez was given an advanced assignment for a 17 year old IFA signing, playing in the GCL this summer. His overall performance at the plate (96 wRC+) was hindered by a low ISO and BABIP. However, his 50 grade hit tool did shine through in his plate discipline (10.7% walk rate, 11.3% K rate). Martinez has yet to start his pro career. His most likely positive outcome is a power-hitting third baseman.
Chad Spanberger came to the Blue Jays as part of the Seung-hwan Oh trade. He’s a power-hitting first baseman who produced the third-highest ISO (.260) among qualified Low-A batters this season. His modest strikeout rate (21.1%) stood out among the other Low-A power prospects (with K rates from 25.6% to 34.8%). During his first taste of High-A in August, his power was only average (.141 ISO), but his plate discipline was impressive (15.2% walk rate, 18.5% K rate). Having been given the “strikeout-prone” label, these solid strikeout numbers are key to his chances of making the big leagues.
Samad Taylor has grown into a favourite of mine since joining the club from Cleveland in the Joe Smith trade. These two posts examining his strong 2017 and 2018 performances speak to his potential. He’s quick (60 speed grade), has solid plate discipline (10.8% walk rate and 18.7% K rate at Low-A this season), modest power (.159 ISO) and plays a strong second base (+6 FRAA).
In total, the Blue Jays have nine prospects with a 40 FV grade and a high-risk label (the eight above, plus Orimoloye). That is tops in the major leagues, with the Brewers and Yankees behind them with eight apiece. The point of these last two lineups is to push back against the idea that the Jays have a top-heavy system. Any system with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is going to be top-heavy. A system that also boasts as many 40-45 FV prospects (most of whom just finished strong 2018 seasons) as the Jays should get some credit for that depth.
My fourth (and last) lineup forgoes scouting grades. Instead, I’ve picked eight prospects who didn’t qualify for the three lineups above, but who I find interesting and promising.
In 2018, Harold Ramirez, another trade acquisition I have a soft spot for, finally had the season that justified his earlier promise. His hit tool has always been his strongest, which has allowed him to regularly produce a .350+ BABIP. That hit tool was also evident in his Eastern League-leading batting average (.320).
His main issue was that he was too slow for a guy who hits so many grounders. Well, this season he lowered his GB rate by seven percent, with all of that going to an increased FB rate. More flies led to more power—his .151 ISO was a career-best and his 37 doubles was third-most across AA. Having repeated AA twice, the main question is how he’ll fare at AAA next season.
Santiago Espinal, Ramirez’s late-season teammate with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, was added to the Jays system in the Steve Pearce trade. He produced a 126 wRC+ across High-A and AA, posting above-average marks at each stop. His calling card is an aversion to both grounders and whiffs—he produced a 34.2% GB rate and a 7.6% whiff rate in 2018. He’s likely going to start 2019 in AA, hoping to build upon his decent late-2018 showing and get a promotion to AAA (though that will hinge on the progression of the infielders ahead of him).
Brock Lundquist seems like the prototypical bat-first corner outfielder. His defence in the corners seems passable for now (-7 FRAA in 96 games in LF/RF across Low- and High-A), but it’s not going to be what takes him to the bigs. He produced at Low-A Lansing (131 wRC+), prompting a mid-season promotion to High-A Dunedin, where he continued to rake (153 wRC+). He showed promise in all facets of hitting, with his plate discipline (9.9% walk rate, 20.9% K rate), power (.184 ISO) and contact numbers (.333 BABIP) all rating as average or better.
Cullen Large was a teammate of Lundquist’s in the first couple months of the season, before an injury shut him down. Our own Ryan Mueller recently opined that a healthy Large would currently be on top prospect lists. His performance in limited action this season (112 PA for Low-A Lansing) certainly backed up that high praise. He absolutely raked while he was in the lineup (177 wRC+), showing off power (.253 ISO), contact skills (.342 BABIP) and some solid plate discipline (11.6% walk rate, 16.1% K rate).
Like so many other Jays middle infield prospects, it is tough to say for certain where he’ll start in 2019. Given his short stint at Low-A, it probably makes the most sense to start him out there and let him play his way to a promotion.
Manning first base is another Lansing Lugnut, Ryan Noda. He has produced two very similar, very impressive pro seasons with the Jays, each marked by a 20%+ walk rate, a .200+ ISO and a .320+ BABIP. He’ll need to avoid any further increases in his strikeout rate—it jumped from 21.7% in the Appy League to 25.6% in the Midwest League—but even a mid-20s strikeout rate will work if he can maintain most of the walk rate and power. His bat will be key to his big league chances, given that he primarily plays first base. That said, he appears to be a dependable fielder there (+5 FRAA in 106 pro games over the last two seasons).
Otto Lopez just produced one of the better seasons by an age-19 batter at the Short Season-A level, with plate discipline his primary strength. He rarely whiffs (5.5%), which allows him to run a much better-than-average walk rate (12.6%) and strikeout rate (10.2%). Defensively, his main strength at the moment is his versatility—he played 27+ innings at each outfield position and 76+ innings each at 2B, 3B and SS.
Finally, we have the Appy League destroyers, Cal Stevenson and Alejandro Kirk. 21 year olds with big league aspirations are expected to dominate rookie-ball. Stevenson did precisely that, leading the league with a 173 wRC+. He walked far more often (21.3%) than he struck out (8.4%) and racked up base hits (.393 BABIP)—he finished Top 10 in singles, doubles and triples. He also displayed strong fielding skills—producing +10 FRAA in LF (20 games) and +3 FRAA in CF (19 games)—and his speed—he stole 20 bases, while being caught only once.
Kirk was equally impressive at the plate—his 160 wRC+ ranked third in the league—made even more special by his younger age (19). He walked a lot (13.5%) and rarely struck out (8.6%), driven in part by his exceptional whiff rate (5.1%). He also showed a ton of power (.204 ISO) and solid contact skills (.354 BABIP). The main thing keeping down his prospect hype is his body type. He’s a stocky fellow, standing 5’9″ and weighing 220 lbs. The fear is that it will be difficult for him to stick as a catcher long-term, where he performed quite ably this season (+11 FRAA in 30 games). Given his height, a move to first base is probably unlikely, which would relegate him to DH duties in an era where the pure DH is virtually extinct. Nevertheless, given his high-quality plate approach, he’s one to watch in A-ball next year.
When it comes to position players, the Blue Jays boast quality and quantity. Their system simultaneously has the top prospect in baseball and a huge stock of prospects expected to at least make the big leagues. We’ll have to wait and see which reach their ceilings and which don’t, but in the lottery of prospect development, there’s strength in numbers.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.