A strong farm system needs depth and the Toronto Blue Jays are seeing their Dunedin team among the best in the minors
The Dunedin Blue Jays are far and away the best team in this season’s Class A Advanced Florida State League. At 53-28 (.654), they own the best overall record and are 6.5 games ahead of the next best team. Offensively, they lead the FSL in batting average (.257), on-base percentage (.348) and slugging percentage (.381). They are the only FSL team with an OPS (.729) above .700. Defensively, they own the joint-lowest ERA (3.07), the top strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.46) and have allowed the second-fewest home runs per nine innings (0.5). Across the minor leagues this season, from Class A to Triple-A, only three teams have a better record. In short, they are very, very good.
For a rebuilding MLB team, this is very welcome news. During the off-season, I compiled a list of 61 Blue Jay prospects I felt had a meaningful chance of making the big leagues. Of them, 13 have spent some time with Dunedin this season. While some have excelled throughout and others have rebounded well from a slow start, each of the 13 prospects can be proud of their performance to this point. Moreover, a handful of others have produced strong seasons and could soon find themselves on Jays prospect lists.
Prospects with pre-season buzz who have had strong seasons
There is one guy that stands above the rest. The man, the legend, Alejandro Kirk. Only 20 years old, Kirk started the season with Class A Lansing. Younger-than-average for that level, no one would have begrudged him from spending the whole season in Michigan’s capital. Instead, he accumulated more than twice as many walks as strikeouts, hit for a bunch of power (.221 ISO), put up a 172 wRC+ and earned a quick promotion to High-A.
At High-A, Kirk isn’t simply younger-than-average. Among 362 batters with 100+ PA, he is one of only 37 under the age of 21. Nevertheless, he is still walking more than he strikes out, hitting the ball well and flat-out producing—his 164 wRC+ is the eighth-best mark at the level. While there continue to be doubters regarding his potential to stick at catcher, he continues to produce gaudy fielding runs above average (FRAA) marks—9 FRAA in 34 games behind the plate for Dunedin, after producing 3 FRAA in 17 games with Lansing and 11 FRAA in 30 games last season with Bluefield.
While Cullen Large (23) isn’t quite as young as Kirk, the two had about as many pro career plate appearances heading into 2019, thanks to his injury history. With a relatively healthy 2019, Large has nearly doubled his career PA total. Importantly, as he had in his injury-shortened seasons, he is producing at the plate (145 wRC+, 94th percentile). He makes a lot of good contact, evidenced by his strong ISO (.179, 86th percentile) and BABIP (.373, 88th percentile). While his strikeout rate is a touch high (25.6%, 41st percentile), his strong walk rate (11.6%, 76th percentile) more than makes up for it (0.45 BB/K, 66th percentile).
Ryan Noda’s production has been strong overall (130 wRC+), but comes with an important caveat: his 29.9% strikeout rate. In both 2017 and 2018, the enthusiasm around Noda’s excellent seasons at the plate (190 and 160 wRC+) have been undercut by high strikeout rates (21.7% and 25.6%), the question being that if he’s striking out this much at lower levels, despite being a little older-than-average for the levels, how will he avoid striking out even more at higher levels?
Nevertheless, his production has been impressive, ensuring that he will continue to get opportunities to fix his strikeout problem. He walks a ton (14.2%, 93rd percentile) and collects base hits at a strong clip (.338 BABIP, 71st percentile), which allows him to run a very strong on-base percentage (.364, 83rd percentile). Plus, he hits for plenty of power (.157 ISO, 76th percentile) and has shown himself to be a capable first baseman and corner outfielder.
Logan Warmoth and Riley Adams each entered 2019 with some prospect cache, but were also up against the fact that their positions (shortstop and catcher) are two of the deepest in the Jays system. Moreover, each were repeating High-A, after spending all of 2018 at the level.
Ultimately, each performed well with Dunedin and now find themselves playing with AA New Hampshire. Adams had a solid 2018 (110 wRC+), but was just unstoppable through the first month of 2019 (173 wRC+). He maintained a similar strikeout rate (21.7%) as 2018, but improved his walk rate (16.9%), ISO (.185) and BABIP (.341). In his first couple months at Double-A, he’s produced pretty well (117 wRC+), but will look to get his strikeout rate under control (32.8%).
Warmoth had a much less positive 2018 (88 wRC+) than Adams. Fortunately, he too showed that he had conquered High-A (142 wRC+, 93rd percentile). In particular, thanks to a strong walk rate (12%, 81st percentile) and BABIP (.394, 95th percentile), Warmoth was an on-base specialist (.380 OBP, 89th percentile).
All four pitchers on my pre-season top prospect list that have suited up for Dunedin (Nate Pearson, Joey Murray, Josh Winckowski and Maximo Castillo) have excelled.
Pearson is the crown jewel of the pitching side of the Blue Jays’ system. It was clear from the get-go that he wasn’t long for Dunedin—as he was coming back from an injury-plagued 2018 season, it made sense to start him out close to the Blue Jays’ training facilities and at a level he could definitely handle. Handle he did—Pearson struck out 46.7% of the batters he faced over 21 High-A innings and walked only 4% of them. His 42.7% K-BB% ranks first at the level among pitchers with 20+ IP. By May 7th, he was promoted to Double-A, where he ranks fourth in FIP (1.94) among starters with 25+ IP.
Murray, a 23-year-old 2018 draft pick, started the season with Class A Lansing, getting his first taste of full season-ball. After six strong starts, highlighted by his 30.5% strikeout rate, he earned a promotion to Dunedin. In 10 games with the team, Murray has been unhittable. He has struck out 31.8% of the batters he’s faced (96th percentile among High-A pitchers with 50+ IP) and has effectively limited homers (0.53 HR/9, 65th percentile) and base hits (.259 BABIP, 90th percentile), which has helped him limit the opposition’s run production—his ERA is an impressive 1.58 (98th percentile), while his FIP is a tidy 2.69 (91st percentile).
Given Winckowski’s age (21), he was kept at Class A for a bit longer than Murray. His strong performance there (2.32 ERA, 3.25 FIP) motivated the Jays to recently promote him to Dunedin, where he’s since made three appearances (16 IP). It’s early days yet, but he’s made an impact on the team, with Dunedin winning all three games he’s pitched in. Opponents just haven’t been able to put up any damage on him (0.00 ERA, 2.74 FIP), as Winckowski has very effectively limited the walks (3.7% BB rate), homers (none allowed) and base hits (.091 BABIP) he’s given up.
Castillo has spent the whole season with Dunedin, making 15 starts (79.1 IP). While his on-field production has been solid—he owns a 3.52 ERA (53rd percentile) and a 3.32 FIP (71st percentile)—it’s another number that makes his performance this season pop: he’s 20 years old. There are only six pitchers in their age-20 season with 50+ innings pitched at High-A this year (and one in their age-19 season). Of the seven under-21 starting pitchers, Castillo is the only one not rated by FanGraphs (with the others given FVs ranging from 40 to 60). Nevertheless, he certainly holds his own within this group—for example, he has the group’s fourth-best FIP (3.32).
Prospects with pre-season buzz who have rebounded after slow starts
Yet more prospects on the Dunedin lineup are in the midst of a strong run of performances after struggling out of the gate this season.
Cal Stevenson is a personal favourite of mine, so it was tough to see him scuffle through the first couple weeks of the season. On April 16th, with 45 plate appearances under his belt, he owned a 46 wRC+. He was striking out (20%) far more often than he had in rookie-ball and it seemed like he couldn’t get a base hit if his life depended on it (.167 BABIP).
Since that rough start, Stevenson has produced nearly three months of high-quality plate appearances (145 wRC+). He’s walked (13.6%) more than he’s struck out (12.5%), in line with his stellar 2018 performance, and is once again racking up base hits (.346 BABIP). After bouncing around the batting order early on, he’s once again a reliable fixture in the leadoff spot. Plus, once more, he’s showing off above-average fielding skills (3 FRAA in LF and 4 FRAA in CF). A leadoff guy who plays a mean outfield? Arguably, that is one of the player types the Blue Jays’ system is most desperate for.
After spending all of 2018 together as teammates with Lansing, Samad Taylor and Chavez Young were promoted to Dunedin this season. Last season, they displayed a valuable mix of speed, production at the plate and an ability to play premium positions well (6 FRAA at 2B for Taylor and 13 FRAA in CF for Young). As such, they were both viewed as lower level prospects who could really rise up prospect lists in 2019.
Young had a decent first few games at High-A, but by the end of April looked little like the batter who tore up the Midwest League in 2018. He struck out (28.6%) far more often than he had walked (6.6%) and struggled to generate extra-base hits (.084 ISO), which severely limited his production at the plate (75 wRC+).
An undisclosed issue kept him out of the lineup for most of early May, but he has been a much more productive hitter since his return to regular use. He had a rough few games initially, but since May 17th, Young has produced a 120 wRC+, driven mainly by the same kind of power (.169 ISO) that he displayed with Lansing. Positively, he’s improved his strikeout rate as well (22.6%).
Taylor’s first two months were rough (72 wRC+), characterized by lots of strikeouts (28.2%), little power (.088 ISO) and few base hits (.241 BABIP). However, after missing two weeks due to injury, he has come back ready to play—over 72 plate appearances, he’s produced an impressive .217 ISO and .381 BABIP. Along with a solid walk rate (13.9%) and improved strikeout rate (23.6%), Taylor has produced a 171 wRC+ over this stretch, good enough to get his full-season wRC+ up above average (104 wRC+).
For Demi Orimoloye, pre-season expectations were a bit different from those of Stevenson, Young and Taylor. For one, he was acquired at the 2018 trade deadline and did not play for a Jays affiliate until this season. Moreover, unlike the others, he struggled last season and would need to repeat the level. The big question was whether or not he could get his strikeout problem under control and tap into his raw power.
Unfortunately, the first two-and-a-half months were very rough for Orimoloye (63 wRC+). The answer to the question above appeared to be a resounding no—both his strikeout rate (34.3%) and ISO (.077) were worse than his already poor 2018 High-A marks.
And then, in mid-June, he found himself with five days off, due to a combination of a benching, inclement weather and the FSL all-star break. By this point of this section, you can probably guess what happened next: since June 17th, Demi has been on fire. Like, out-of-this-world, surface of the sun kind of fire (221 wRC+). Over 54 plate appearances, Orimiloye has struck out only 11.3% of the time and has generated a .352 ISO. He’s also walked 12.9% of the time and produced a .326 BABIP. While his hot streak has only lasted 14 games so far, it’s been long enough and hot enough to boost his full season wRC+ from 63 to a league-average mark of 101.
Strong performers who might make Jays prospect lists going forward
Most of Dunedin’s standout hitters were on my pre-season prospect list. Christopher Bec is one that was not. A fifth-round pick in 2018, Bec has been used as Dunedin’s backup catcher, first for Adams and now for Kirk. His overall numbers for the season have been quite solid (139 wRC+), driven by solid plate discipline—he owns a 15.8% walk rate against a 20.8% strikeout rate—and a high BABIP (.356). The big questions for Bec are whether or not he can improve on his below-average power (.112 ISO) and whether or not his high BABIP is legit.
Nick Allgeyer has been an unexpectedly important part of the Dunedin rotation. He’s made 15 starts so far and has gone at least five innings in all but two starts (with one of those a 4.2 inning appearance). Overall, his 2.67 FIP (91st percentile) stands out as one of the level’s best. However, it’s the balanced quality of his key underlying stats that makes his season even more impressive—his HR/9 (0.46), strikeout rate (24.8%) and walk rate (4.1%) each rank in the 70th percentile or better.
Alongside Allgeyer, Turner Larkins and Graham Spraker have each pitched pretty well in hybrid starter-reliever roles. Neither pitcher strikes out many batters, but they do effectively avoid giving up homers and walks—Larkins has limited batters to 0.47 homers per nine innings (74th percentile) and a 5.2% walk rate (85th percentile), while Spraker owns a 0.41 HR/9 (81st percentile) and a 5.4% walk rate (82 percentile). This has helped both pitchers produce better-than-average FIP and ERA marks—Larkins has the edge in terms of FIP (3.13 vs. 3.70), while Spraker has the edge in terms of ERA (2.18 vs. 3.10).
Finally, a group of relievers have been very strong performers for Dunedin. It’s always important to note the doubt surrounding the big-league potential of lower level relievers (particularly older ones), given the fact that so many major league relievers were starters well into their minor league careers. Nevertheless, it’s also worth noting their important contributions to Dunedin’s success.
Given his age (22), Brad Wilson might be the most likely of the bunch to make the bigs. Irrespective of his age, his performance has been incredible—he owns the second-best FIP (1.77) among High-A pitchers with 30+ IP. With no home runs allowed, tons of strikeouts (31.5%) and few walks (6.3%), he’s a lower level reliever worth keeping a close eye on.
Dany Jimenez (25) has been similarly effective (1.75 FIP). While he’s allowed a couple of homers (0.71 HR/9), his strikeout rate starts with a four (43.9%) which is always impressive regardless of age, level or role. With a modest 8.4% walk rate, Jimenez has produced the level’s third-highest K-BB% (35.5%) among pitchers with 20+ IP.
After his headline-making exploits for Lansing, thanks to his 47.8% strikeout rate, Jackson Rees earned a promotion to Dunedin in early June. He’s still yet to give up a homer this season and, while his strikeout rate has come down some post-promotion (30%), he still owns a very strong FIP (2.21).
The Dunedin Blue Jays are very good and reflect positively on the Toronto Blue Jays’ rebuild
Thanks to the FSL’s playoff structure, Dunedin has already clinched a post-season spot as North Division first-half champs. That hasn’t diminished the fire in their bellies, as they are currently first-place in the second-half North Division standings.
With more than one-fifth of the prospects on my pre-season rankings playing (or having played) for Dunedin, that level of success suggests that a meaningful chunk of the Blue Jays system is making meaningful progress this season. Indeed, on an individual basis, each player either has been excelling all season long or is in the midst of a hot streak.
With some prominent members of the Blue Jays’ first wave of prospects already filling the MLB lineup (Vlad Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Danny Jansen) and more nearly ready to join them (Bo Bichette), it’s a positive sign that guys a couple levels down the ladder are playing well enough to keep the conveyor belt moving.
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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.