Jeff Q organizes Toronto Blue Jays prospects according to their potential with this in depth write up
The baseball world is transitioning from prospect season to Spring Training. The big public evaluators, like Baseball America, FanGraphs, MLB Pipeline, Baseball Prospectus, John Sickels and Prospects Live, have published their Top 100-ish prospect lists. Team lists are at various stages of publication—BA and BP have published their Top 10 lists, Prospects Live have published their Top 30 lists, FanGraphs have published about half of their team lists and MLB Pipeline’s Top 30s are being rolled out right now. Countless other sites have published their own MLB-wide or team prospect lists, including we here at Jays From the Couch.
As the Blue Jays have moved deeper and deeper into their rebuild, I (like most Jays fans) have grown more and more interested in prospects, particularly those in the Blue Jays’ system. This has led me to write quite a number of posts dedicated to specific prospects.
In each of these posts, I try my best to use my strengths in working with statistics, while absorbing and relaying as much as I can from prospect evaluators. The way I (and likely many others) see it, the two methods complement each other. When the two are basically in agreement about a prospect’s quality, one can be confident that the stats and evaluations are probably accurate. When the two disagree, it’s probably best for both statheads and evaluators to be cautious of overconfidence.
I’ve learned a great deal about the team’s system by reading the top Blue Jays prospects lists that have been published this off-season. The rankings and grades assigned to different players have helped me think about the relative value of players in different positions, with different levels of current quality, different levels of future risk, different floors, different ceilings, different ETAs, etc.
While my thought processes on the team’s prospects, individually and as a group, are a constant work in progress, I want to share my personal rankings with Jays fans, as they stand right now. Only, instead of ranking prospects from #1 to #20 or #30 or #61, I want to group prospects in a more qualitative and (hopefully) more intuitive way. This method is not a completely brand new idea, nor is it intended to be a step up from normal ranked lists. Instead, like stats and evaluations, it is intended to complement those more formal ranked lists.
I also felt like it would be useful to have a directory of sorts for all of the prospect posts I’ve written during my awesome time here at Jays from the Couch. As such, alongside each prospect will be links to any posts I may have written about them (or in which they were meaningfully discussed).
For the sake of convenience, here is an overview of the 61 prospects I’ve included on my list, alongside the highest level at which they’ve had a meaningful amount of playing time, in categories that reflect how I view them:
A superstar capable of becoming one of the best players in baseball
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
There isn’t much left to be said about Vlad Jr. at this point. He is one of the most anticipated prospects of all-time and will be a major leaguer in the next few months. In addition to his extraordinary offensive potential—Steamer projects him to produce 138 wRC+ in 2019, 13th-best in the majors—he has shown increasing comfort playing third base—he produced nine fielding runs above average (FRAA) in 93 games between Double-A, Triple-A and the Arizona Fall League last season [all FRAA data comes from Clay Davenport’s site, unless otherwise noted].
Debating his future position at this point is futile for a couple of reasons. One, his size is only one of a number of factors that will determine where he’ll play, even though it gets virtually all of the air in the room, unlike his arm, work rate and baseball IQ. Two, that bat will play anywhere on the field.
Players with all-star potential who could regularly be among the top five at their position
The presence of Bichette and Jansen alongside Vlad is a big reason why Jays fans can feel optimistic that the team could contend in the next two to three years. Like Vlad, Bichette made defensive progress in 2018 and has a real shot of sticking at short—he was league-average there (0 FRAA) over 114 games with AA New Hampshire. Moreover, he showed resilience while making the tough jump up to Double-A, battling through early season issues to produce a 120 wRC+ in a league in which he was more than four years younger than the average position player.
Jansen’s immediate offensive potential is evident in his rookie-year projection (108 wRC+), which stands out even more in the context of his position—only four catchers are projected to provide more value with their bats in 2019 than Jansen. Overall, Steamer already projects him to be a top ten catcher in 2019 (2.5 WAR). Time will tell how accurate these projections are, but such strong rookie numbers are always worth noting, given the general caution showed by projection systems with respect to rookies.
A pitcher with the potential to become a frontline starter
Developing frontline starters is arguably the toughest thing to do in baseball. In the Jays system, Pearson represents the best bet in this regard. He is a big, hard-throwing pitcher who has already displayed an ability to throw quality off-speed pitches, with his slider particularly effective.
That said, patience and caution is absolutely necessary, given his limited experience as a professional pitcher. About half of his pro experience came from his time in the Arizona Fall League last season. After showing rust in his first four appearances for the Surprise Saguaros, Pearson wowed the AFL Fall Stars Game crowd with 104mph fastballs. He made two more AFL appearances after that showing and strongly alluded to his potential, throwing four perfect innings and five scoreless innings, respectively.
2018 was supposed to be an important season for him, but injuries derailed it. Keeping track of his progress in 2019 might end up the number one main focus of Jays fans, even accounting for the exciting MLB debuts ahead.
Players with legitimate offensive and defensive potential, who have displayed it at a full-season level
This group of position player prospects are not the slam-dunks that Vlad, Bo and Danny appear to be, but have displayed enough potential to be viewed as likely major leaguers and possible solid regulars. Each has multiple things going for them, which opens up multiple paths to the big leagues.
Biggio and Espinal have displayed their potential as high as Double-A, with the two helping the New Hampshire Fisher Cats win the 2018 Eastern League title. Biggio has shown legit power (.247 ISO, 98th percentile) and an ability to draw tonnes of walks (17.8% BB rate, 100th percentile), while playing a premium position reasonably well and showing defensive versatility—in terms of FRAA, he’s graded out as an above-average second baseman each of the last two seasons and has been reliable when used at third and the outfield corners.
Primarily used as a shortstop, Espinal’s potential skews a bit more to the defensive side, as he’s shown comfort when used at second, short and third. Nevertheless, his strong plate discipline—his 12.9% K rate, between High-A and Double-A in 2018, ranked in the 93rd percentile among all minor leaguers with at least 500 plate appearances—and line drive approach (25.9% LD rate, 95th percentile) have helped him provide above-average offensive value as well (126 wRC+ last season).
Smith and Adams finished 2018 as teammates with the High-A Dunedin Blue Jays. Smith is sort of a cross between Biggio and Espinal, a power-hitting shortstop who produced with both his bat (.226 ISO and 149 wRC+ between A and High-A) and his glove (11 FRAA over 87 games). His defensive quality is a big reason why some are pencilling in Bichette at second base in the lineups of the early 2020s.
Adams is leading the next wave of solid catching prospects in the Blue Jays system. With his strong defence behind the plate (10 FRAA over 92 games) and solid on-base skills (.352 OBP, 73rd percentile), Adams has a good shot of getting to the majors in some capacity. However, if he can more regularly tap into his raw power over the next couple of seasons, he could end up being a solid everyday catcher. Case in point: Adams only managed to hit four homers in 2018, tied for 232nd-most across High-A. Yet, all four travelled 400-plus feet, tying him for the 62nd-most 400-footers at the level.
Young and Taylor spent the whole 2018 season together at Class A Lansing. Both are solid defenders at premium positions, Young in centre field (13 FRAA over 50 games) and Taylor at second base (6 FRAA over 113 games). The two had eerily similar seasons at the plate, each producing better-than-average walk rates (both 10.8%), strikeout rates (18.6% for Young, 18.7% for Taylor) and power numbers (.160 ISO for Young, .159 ISO for Taylor). The one big difference appeared to (potentially) be batted ball luck—Young posted a .344 BABIP on his way to a 129 wRC+, while Taylor posted a .270 BABIP on his way to a 102 wRC+. Nevertheless, both are starting to more regularly find their way onto evaluators’ radars.
Players with legitimate offensive and defensive potential, but with limited professional experience
This group of prospects has similar all-around potential to the previous group. They just don’t have the full-season performance to support that potential. Yet. The group includes a mix of early-round draft picks (Groshans, Danner and Conine) and top international signings (Hiraldo, Jimenez and Martinez). That said, it’s two unheralded prospects who may have made the biggest impressions at the pro level thus far: Lopez (a low-cost international signing in 2016, when the Jays were limited in their ability to sign IFAs due to their having broken the bank to sign Vlad Jr. the year before) and Stevenson (a tenth-rounder in 2018 who, as a college senior, received a $5,000 signing bonus).
Lopez’s primary calling card is his defensive versatility—in 2018, with the Short Season-A Vancouver Canadians, Lopez played every position but pitcher, catcher and first base. He seems to have generally been effective in the field, posting a 2.7 FRAA overall, suggesting that he can continue to be used dynamically going forward. He has also been effective on the offensive end (134 wRC+, 84th percentile), displaying extremely good plate discipline (26 walks vs. 20 strikeouts) and a bit of power (.137 ISO, 64th percentile).
Stevenson’s plate discipline display in 2018 blew even Lopez’s out of the water—in only 249 PA at the Advanced Rookie level, he walked 53 times, against only 21 strikeouts. His 2.67 walk-to-strikeout ratio (including his brief, post-draft stop in the Gulf Coast League) was far and away the best across the minors last season. While he hasn’t displayed home run power, he hit enough doubles and triples to produce an above-average ISO (.159, 60th percentile). With excellent plate discipline, gap-to-gap power and extremely good bat-to-ball skills (.393 BABIP, 86th percentile), Stevenson produced an eye-popping 173 wRC+, the highest mark across the Advanced Rookie level. In 2019, he’ll be looking to prove that he wasn’t just beating up on over-matched pitchers and is as legitimate a prospect as his numbers suggest.
Groshans, Conine and Danner haven’t caught the eye at the professional level as much as Lopez and Stevenson, but have nevertheless showed off glimpses of their potential.
Groshans is viewed as a potential power-hitting, defensively capable third baseman and probably has the highest position player ceiling in the system outside of Vlad, Bo and Danny. His three 400-plus-foot homers in 2018 is solid evidence of that power, while the fact that he’s a strong-armed, former shortstop is evidence of his potential as a third baseman.
Conine, drafted in 2018 like Groshans, could develop into a Jose Bautista-like power-hitting, hard-throwing right fielder. He certainly alluded to this potential in 2018, hitting the second-most 400-plus-foot homers (six) among Short Season-A batters and producing 11 FRAA in only 46 games in right field, thanks mainly to his eight outfield assists.
Danner, a 2017 second-round pick, had a very rocky pro debut in the 2017 Gulf Coast League (32 wRC+). Promoted to the Advanced Rookie Appalachian League in 2018, he improved immensely (128 wRC+), on the back of a high walk rate (14.6%), a bit of power (.153 ISO) and a lot of base hits (.387 BABIP). Both Danner (25.5%) and Conine (27.4%) will be looking to bring their strikeout rates under control in 2019, so as to take their games to the next level.
Moreno, a 2016 international free agent signing, is a unique member of this group. On the one hand, he doesn’t have the 200+ plate appearances at advanced short-season levels (either playing for Advanced Rookie Bluefield or Short Season-A Vancouver) that Lopez, Stevenson, Conine and Danner possess. On the other hand, he didn’t join the team with the hype of a first-round pick (Groshans) or a top IFA signing (Hiraldo, Jimenez and Martinez).
Nevertheless, Moreno has performed well enough and collected enough plaudits to justify inclusion in this group. Playing in the GCL, Moreno led the league in wRC+ (204 over 101 PA), in spite of his age (at 18, nearly two years younger than average). After a late promotion to Bluefield, he produced more modestly (93 wRC+ over 66 PA). His power was evident throughout 2018—he posted a .239 ISO in the GCL and a .180 ISO in the Appy League—as was his defence—he produced 5 FRAA over 31 games at catcher between the two leagues. Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim rates him highly.
Hiraldo, Jimenez and Martinez were each signed by the Blue Jays over the 2017/18 international periods and are each younger than Groshans, a very recent high school pick. As such, their pro experience is especially limited. Hiraldo spent most of 2018 playing in the Dominican Summer League, where he struck out only 12.6% of the time (84th percentile), produced a bit of power (.140 ISO, 77th percentile) and got on base often (.355 BABIP, 85th percentile)—on his way to a 139 wRC+ (87th percentile).
Jimenez, a strong English speaker, started his pro career stateside, in the GCL. Faced with a slightly tougher challenge than Hiraldo (and about a year younger than him), Jimenez was a roughly league-average batter (96 wRC+, 49th percentile), with plate discipline (0.94 BB/K, 90th percentile) his main strength. Add to that the fact that he was nearly three years younger than the average position player and one can feel quite confident that Jimenez has real potential.
Martinez, on the other hand, is pure potential, having not made his pro debut just yet—he was only just signed in 2018 and just had his 17th birthday. Nevertheless, he is expected to remain in the infield and has big raw power, which makes him, as FanGraphs put it, an “intriguing ball of clay”.
High-ceiling pitchers who may realistically develop into above-average starters
Murphy, Pardinho and Kloffenstein represent the Jays’ best hopes for more above-average starters beyond Pearson.
Murphy is, by far, the oldest of the bunch, having been drafted out of high school back in 2013. After years of injury troubles, he was finally able to stay healthy for a full season in 2018. He took full advantage of his good health, pitching well enough to earn Pitcher of the Year in the High-A Florida State League. His recipe was simple: maintain roughly-average strikeout and walk rates, while generating grounder after grounder (59.4% GB rate, 98th percentile). He is a good example of the idea that grounders can’t leave the park—his 0.31 HR/9 ranked in the 89th percentile among FSL starting pitchers.
Pardinho is the youngest of the bunch, but has some pro experience after his 2018 season with the Advanced Rookie Bluefield Blue Jays. He showed evidence of both his immense talent—across 50 innings, Pardinho produced a 23.7% K-BB%, which ranked in the 95th percentile across all domestic rookie leagues (min. 40 IP)—and of the development still ahead of him—he gave up more homers than most at the level (0.90 HR/9, 24th percentile). Nevertheless, time is most definitely on his side—he was nearly four years younger than the average Appy League pitcher and one of only two seventeen year old pitchers, with the other only pitching six innings.
Kloffenstein is the newest addition of the three, drafted by the Jays in 2018. He was somewhat of a steal—talent-wise, he could have been a first-rounder, but signability concerns pushed him down teams’ boards. The Jays got creative with their bonus pool and convinced him to sign with the 29th-biggest bonus of the draft. While raw and years away from the majors, the consensus is that he has the upside to be an above-average starter. He pitched all of two pro innings in 2018, striking out four of the nine batters he faced.
High-floor pitcher who will likely develop into a major-league starter
Zeuch has, in my opinion, the highest probability of any pitcher on this list of cracking 200 IP as a major league starting pitcher. In particular, he seems to have the ability to be a middle-to-back end of the rotation innings-eater.
Over the last two seasons, between High-A and Double-A, Zeuch has maintained a tidy 3.23 ERA and 3.72 FIP. His strikeout rate has been pedestrian (16.5%), but he has effectively avoided giving up walks (6.2% BB rate) and homers (0.61 HR/9). The key to his game is the ground ball—58% of the batted balls he has given up over the last two seasons have been grounders, much more than the average minor league pitcher.
Importantly, he has shown an impressive level of efficiency. Last season, he pitched 120 innings at the Double-A level, one of 103 pitchers to crack 85 IP. Not one of these other pitchers could match his super-low rate of 14 pitches per inning. Given his penchant for generating grounders, this isn’t surprising—he throws strikes at an above-average rate (65.3%) and lets batters weakly hit their way into outs.
This combination of effectiveness and efficiency underlines Zeuch’s fit for the “high-floor” label.
Pitchers who may develop into MLB starters and seem likely to at least develop into effective MLB relievers
This group includes a motley crew of pitchers, in terms of stuff, experience, ceiling, floor and countless other dimensions. What unites them is uncertainty—while each has shown some ability to pitch well over multiple innings, each also has question marks regarding their potential as a starter. Moreover, each seems like the kind of pitcher who could make the transition into the bullpen, if necessary.
For Pannone, one only needs to look at his 2018 MLB debut to understand his inclusion in this group. He showed starter potential—he produced the lowest xBA on batted balls (.272) among all starters with 100+ batted balls against—but had some issues—he produced a 5.91 FIP as a starter, driven by worse-than-average strikeout, walk and home run rates. On the other hand, he looked good in relief, running a 1.25 FIP over six appearances (7.1 IP) out out the ‘pen.
In Reid-Foley’s case, his strikeout rate (28.6%) and age—he was one of only eight pitchers in his age-22 season to pitch 30+ innings as a starter in 2018—are the main reasons for long-term rotation optimism. His effectiveness as a Triple-A starter (3.06 FIP over 85.1 innings) is further evidence. His struggles in the majors at avoiding walks (14% BB rate) and homers (1.62 HR/9) speaks to his long-term uncertainty. His ability to throw a high-90s fastball and a pretty nasty slider speaks to his potential as a high-leverage reliever.
In Paulino’s case, it looks increasingly likely his major league career will be spent pitching out of the bullpen. The evidence of his starter potential (his 2.24 FIP across Double-A and Triple-A in 2016) is in the rear-view mirror. That said, September 2018 showed just how much relief potential he has—his .201 xwOBA over 7.1 relief innings was a top five percent mark among relief pitchers that month.
The 2019 performances of Pannone, Reid-Foley and Paulino will help clarify their roles in the next good Blue Jays team. Reid-Foley’s age and high-ceiling means that he likely has the most rope, in terms of his development as a starter. Unless he dominates in Spring Training, he will likely continue that development in AAA Buffalo to start the season. Pannone’s limited velocity—the average velo on his four-seamer only went up to 88.7 mph in relief from 87.9 mph as a starter—suggests to me that he will most likely be viewed as a starter in the long-term, with his performance determining whether he is a Triple-A, Quad-A or MLB pitcher. Paulino is a bit of a wild card. He is very new to the Jays system, so the team may wish to give him more time as a starter before they permanently move him into some kind of bullpen role. That said, they may already feel that his starter days are behind him and want to start working on developing his high potential as a reliever.
Thornton, Merryweather and Waguespack each have meaningful Triple-A starting experience, but have yet to be tested in the majors.
Thornton has amassed 42 starts (239.1 IP) over the last two seasons with the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate. Last season, he was quietly effective, producing a 4.01 FIP (65th percentile). He ran good strikeout (23.6%, 84th percentile) and walk rates (6%, 81st percentile), but gave up homers a little more often than average (0.94 HR/9, 46th percentile). The main question mark is the fact that he was given more than the usual four days of rest, often pitching only once a week. If he is unable to continue pitching effectively on a more conventional schedule, a move to the bullpen is likely. He pitched effectively in relief in the Arizona Fall League, where he struck out 32.8% of batters and walked only 6.6%.
Merryweather has produced as a starter at each of the three highest levels of the minors. At both High-A (2016) and Double-A (2016-17), he maintained better-than-average strikeout, walk and home run rates. At Triple-A (2017), his strikeout and walk rates were similarly strong, but he gave up homers a lot more often than he had at the lower levels (0.63 HR/9 at High-A/AA vs. 1.50 HR/9 at Triple-A). That said, his HR/FB jumped after the promotion, from 8.2% to 15.1%, which suggests he may have been more unlucky than ineffective. Unfortunately, he missed all of 2018 after Tommy John surgery, which is one reason why he may end up in the bullpen at the major league-level.
Waguespack is my ultimate sleeper candidate among Blue Jays pitching prospects. An undrafted free agent signing, he was moved from the ‘pen to the rotation in 2017 due to injuries. In his 37 MiLB starts, he has produced a solid 3.12 FIP, driven by solid strikeout (21.9%), walk (7.6%) and home run rates (0.43 HR/9). Importantly, he has performed consistently through each level. A weak contact machine, Waguespack was among the Triple-A leaders in terms of ground ball rate (52.1%, 93rd percentile) and went all of 2018 without giving up a single 400-plus-foot home run.
Perez seems like the archetypal upper-minors, “could become a very good starter, should at least become a very good reliever” kind of prospect. He spent most of the last two seasons pitching in High-A, where he either started (25 games) or made a multi-inning relief appearance (13 games). His average appearance at the level lasted an average of 4.1 innings. Promoted to Double-A last July, he continued to be used as both a starter (7 games) and a multi-inning reliever (3 games), going an average of 4.1 innings per appearance. In his short time at Double-A, he showed improvements across the board, relative to his time at High-A. He struck guys out more often (28.1% from 26.9%), while decreasing both his walk rate (13.5% from 15.4%) and and his home run rate (0.21 HR/9 from 0.61). The net effect of these gains was a 3.17 FIP that ranked in the 87th percentile among Double-A pitchers who pitched at least 40 innings and whose appearances lasted at least four innings, on average. Further lowering his walk rate will be integral to his chances of becoming a MLB starter. Nevertheless, he has a lot going for him and should contribute, in some way, to the next good Blue Jay team.
Diaz’s addition to the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster this off-season is a strong reflection of his potential. Long viewed as an eventual reliever, his performance at High-A in 2018 likely changed some people’s minds. While his 3.37 FIP (82nd percentile among pitchers with 80+ IP) paints an accurate picture of the quality he displayed, it’s his much improved walk rate (6.9%, from 12.6% at Class A) and strike-throwing rate (65.4%, from 60.8%) which offer renewed hope that he may stick as a starter.
Winckowski, Wymer, and Murray were teammates with the Short Season-A Vancouver Canadians in 2018. For Wymer and Murray, the stop represented their pro debuts, after being drafted out of college by the Jays in June. For Winckowski, Vancouver represented his third stop as a pro, after being a high school pick in the 2016 draft. More than the others in this group, the strong performances of these three pitching prospects should be viewed with extra caution, given the relatively low level they played at and the long road ahead of them.
Winckowski pitched very well, producing a 2.77 FIP (fourth-best at the level among pitchers with 50+ IP) and being crowned Northwest League Pitcher of the Year. Impressively, he did everything well. He struck out plenty (24.6%, 82nd percentile) and walked few (5.2%, 84th percentile), running one of the very best K-BB% at the level (19.4%, 93rd percentile). Moreover, thanks to his ability to generate grounders (54.4%, 90th percentile) and limit fly balls (26.9%, 87th percentile), he gave up homers much less often than most (0.26 HR/9, 87th percentile). His challenges will only increase going forward, but Winckowski’s 2018 performance is a good foundation for him to develop from.
Wymer spent much of his college career pitching in relief, so he may be more likely than the others in this group to be used in that role in the future. With Vancouver, like many new college draft picks, he made relatively short appearances (in his case, generally three innings long), whether from the start or in relief. He rarely gave away free passes (4.8%, 89th percentile among pitchers with 20+ IP at the level) and struck out batters as often as most (23.3%, 54th percentile). While a somewhat inflated home run rate (0.76 HR/9, 30th percentile) helped limit him to an only average FIP (3.50, 55th percentile), it’s worth pointing that he didn’t give up a single home run longer than 384 feet.
Murray’s numbers in a role similar to Wymer’s (only with his appearances limited to two innings) jump off the page a bit more—a 37.1% strikeout rate (98th percentile) will do that. While he walked batters more often than most (9.5%, 34th percentile), the strikeouts more than made up for that—Murray’s 27.6% K-BB% ranked in the 96th percentile at the level. On top of that, he limited home runs effectively (0.35 HR/9, 63rd percentile), none of which travelled more than 370 feet. His 2.31 FIP (91st percentile) neatly sums up the effectiveness Murray displayed in his pro debut.
Players who have shown a great deal of offensive potential, as well as defensive uncertainty
This group is made up of guys most likely to be labelled “bat-first” prospects. They’ve each shown an ability to hit, but have uncertain positional futures. As such, each have a narrow set of paths to the big leagues: hit and field well enough to be every day players or hit well enough to be used in a platoon or bench role (all but Kirk are lefties).
McKinney can hit for serious power, a tool he really grew into in 2017, after his promotion to Triple-A—over 530 PA at the level, he has maintained an eye-popping .251 ISO. That power has translated well to the major league level, where McKinney has produced a .210 ISO over 132 big league plate appearances. His MLB ISO seems legit, as it’s well-supported by his Statcast-generated xISO (.207). His defensive uncertainty lies in the fact that McKinney is a corner outfielder (a “negative-value” position, along with first base and designated hitter) who has been below-average defensively so far—he could only muster a -15.2 UZR/150 in the majors last season. Thus, while he was an above-average hitter last season (112 wRC+), he was replacement-level overall (0 fWAR).
Tellez’s situation is similar to McKinney’s. He was an above-average hitter in 2018—first at Triple-A (115 wRC+) and then in the majors (151 wRC+)—but has been a below-average defender at a negative-value position—first base, where he produced a -14.3 UZR/150. Going forward, his chances of becoming an everyday first baseman will hinge on whether he can improve his 1B defence to something close to average, while maintaining above-average offensive production (something like a 120 wRC+).
Lundquist was only drafted in June 2017, but already has 200+ High-A plate appearances under his belt. He’s been an above-average hitter at each of his three pro stops, improving his wRC+ after each promotion so far—117 at Short Season-A Vancouver, 131 at Class A Lansing and 153 at High-A Dunedin. On the other hand, by way of FRAA, he has been a below-average corner outfielder at each of his stops. A big league future is still very possible, especially if he can maintain most of that impressive offensive production. Obviously, some defensive improvements would also be helpful.
Spanberger, like Lundquist, is a 2017 college draft pick who made it to High-A in his second pro season. His situation is one of the more uncertain of the bunch. Offensively, his MiLB numbers have been inflated by his time in the Rockies’ system. Nevertheless, since arriving in the Jays system, he has been an above-average hitter (112 wRC+) in spite of an abnormally low BABIP (.264 BABIP). Defensively, he has mainly been used as a first baseman, where he was average, but got some playing time in right field after his promotion to High-A Dunedin. If his low BABIP was indeed the result of bad luck, his blend of strong hitting and average 1B defence (2 FRAA over 141 games) could be enough to make the majors.
Noda’s offensive numbers are something to marvel at, for the most part, especially the 20%+ walk rate and .200+ ISO he was able to maintain over both of his pro seasons (the first with Advanced Rookie Bluefield, the second with Class A Lansing). His strikeout rate, on the other hand, represents an important area of improvement—he struck out 25.6% of the time last season—though it didn’t stop him from posting a 160 wRC+. It’s also worth pointing out that, in an era of rising strikeout rates, Noda’s mark isn’t that bad, ranking in the 37th percentile among Class A batters last season (min. 300 PA). Defensively, he has held his own, albeit in negative-value positions. Used mainly as a first baseman, he has produced 5 FRAA over 104 MiLB games there. He’s also been used a bit in the outfield (54 starts) and has been roughly average. As an older hitter who has feasted on lower-level pitching, Noda has an important season ahead of him. If he proves to be a well above-average hitter against High-A pitchers, he may finally convince doubters that he has legit big league potential.
Kirk, in terms of his pro performance so far, does not deserve to be in this group—his offensive (160 wRC+) and defensive (11 FRAA at catcher) production as a 19 year old with Advanced Rookie Bluefield fit a lot better in the “Players with legitimate offensive and defensive potential, but with limited professional experience” category. However, evaluators have their doubts about whether his body type—he’s listed at 5’9″, 220 pounds—can stick behind the plate in the long-term. In deference to their much greater experience following prospects, I took that into consideration when choosing Kirk’s group. That said, there is no other prospect I’ll be rooting harder for in 2019 than Alejandro Kirk.
Players who have shown a great deal of defensive potential, as well as offensive uncertainty
This group is made up of prospects who have shown proficiency at a positive-value position, but who have important question marks regarding their ability to develop into major league-calibre hitters.
McGuire, Alford and Davis are all very advanced prospects, with at least a half-season of Triple-A experience and a cup of coffee in the majors. McGuire’s catching abilities have long been lauded as strong enough to get him into the majors. He’s showed them off in his 80 innings behind a major league plate, producing a positive Adjusted FRAA, Baseball Prospectus’ catching metric that captures framing, blocking and throwing. While he produced at the plate in 2018 (146 wRC+, .385 wOBA), his Statcast numbers (.317 xwOBA) suggest that he was a bit lucky. That said, his performance was still better than that of the average catcher last season (.311 xwOBA). As a career 94 wRC+ hitter in the minors, a role as a (very useful) backup catcher appears most likely for McGuire.
Alford has long been viewed as the Blue Jays centre fielder in waiting, which makes his dimmed prospect shine disappointing for all. His defensive abilities seem intact—evaluators still view him as average-or-better at CF and he produced 1 FRAA over 42 games there at Triple-A last season—but he just hasn’t seemed to solve Triple-A pitching yet. There’s not much use going through his 2018 hitting stats as 1) they are pretty rough across the board and 2) the hope going forward is that he still hadn’t fully recovered from his May 2017 hamate bone injury, something that is unfortunately common. Here’s to a healthy and productive 2019 for Alford.
Davis has never had the prospect hype of Alford, his brother-in-law, but the two share some relevant similarities. In particular, they both missed development time in their early 20s due to injury (and football, in Alford’s case)—Davis only made 497 PA over his first three seasons in the Jays system, while Alford only made 110 PA over the same time frame. As such, Davis’ age (26) is best viewed with that context. Statistically, he appears to be the better centre fielder, having produced 4 FRAA over 26 games in CF at Triple-A last year and 20 FRAA at the position over 170 games at Double-A. Offensively, he produced well at High-A and Double-A, but being older than the average player at those levels means that he must keep proving himself after each promotion. Over a half-season at Triple-A, he hasn’t quite done that yet (97 wRC+), but hope remains. An unusually low BABIP (.295, compared to .322 at Double-A) suggests he may have been due a few more base hits, while a better-than-average whiff rate (8.5%, 71st percentile) suggests that his plate discipline wasn’t fundamentally as bad as advertised (0.29 BB/K, 19th percentile).
Orimoloye has spent most of his career in the outfield corners. In 2018, he got his first chance at centre field and ran with it, producing 5 FRAA over 61 games with the Brewers’ High-A affiliate. While his defence took a big step forward last season, he’s still waiting for his offensive breakout—he posted a 92 wRC+ at High-A. If it comes, it’ll likely be because he finally tapped into his raw power—while he only mustered a roughly-average .145 ISO between Class A and High-A last season, he hit a 400-plus-foot homer more often than most minor league batters (five in total, representing 1% of his PA, which ranks in the 76th percentile across the MiLB).
Warmoth has been a capable defender at short, producing 6 FRAA in 35 games for Short Season-A Vancouver in 2017 and 3 FRAA in 44 games at High-A Dunedin. Unfortunately, his average hit and power tools haven’t yet manifested in his results at the plate—with Vancouver, his 121 wRC+ was driven by a .378 BABIP. With Dunedin, the BABIP disappeared (.318), limiting him to a below-average season (88 wRC+). At both stops, he was roughly the same age as the average batter. With Kevin Smith likely to begin 2019 as AA New Hampshire’s shortstop, Warmoth will likely get a second run at High-A. Given his defensive value and draft pedigree, it’s still too early to count him out.
Lottery Ticket Hitters: Players with both potential and flaws, who may yet become major-leaguers
Mc Gregory Contreras
These prospects have each shown something to suggest they may develop into major leaguers. However, they each have meaningful question marks that will need to be addressed before that happens.
Wall is an outfielder who was drafted 35th overall by the Rockies in 2014. Originally a second baseman, arm issues moved him to CF over the last two seasons, where he’s struggled defensively (-10 FRAA in 98 games). With above-average speed, a bit more experience at CF might see him become an average fielder at a positive-value position. Offensively, Wall struggled in his first half-season at Double-A, posting an uncharacteristically-high strikeout rate (26.1%, compared to 18.8% at High-A). Entering his age-23 season, Wall remains younger than average for the level and still has a shot to develop into a 4th outfielder, if not an everyday CF.
Pentecost was the Blue Jays’ catcher of the future from the day he was taken in the first round of the 2014 draft until Danny Jansen’s breakout in 2017. Injuries played a big role, limiting him to 428 PA through 2016. Primarily used as a DH in 2017, he had a solid season at the plate (124 wRC+), though he was a little old (24) for the level (High-A). Last season, he was promoted to Double-A and used as a regular catcher, where he excelled defensively (6 FRAA in 77 games). While he was a well below-average hitter in April, May, June and July, he broke out the power in August/September (.250 ISO), which drove him to a well above-average month overall (162 wRC+). The hope is that this strong final month was a sign of development, rather than just random chance.
Palacios has developed along a pretty normal path, unlike the previous two prospects. Drafted out of college in 2016, he progressed from short season-ball to Class A to High-A, generally around the level’s average age. He plays a positive-value position (CF), which is a big part of his potential, even if he appears to have struggled in the role thus far—he produced -6 FRAA in 102 games at High-A last season. Offensively, he’s a contact guy who has been able to maintain a high enough BABIP at each level (career mark of .365) that he’s been above-average overall at each stop (career wRC+ of 121). This profile can get exposed at the upper-levels, so improving his below-average power numbers (.126 ISO, 42nd percentile) will be an important area for him to work on in 2019. Creating a bit more loft might help, as he produced the single-highest ground ball rate (60.8%) among High-A batters last season (min. 250 PA).
Large was a college draft pick in 2017. However, due to injury, he has only amassed 263 professional plate appearances. That said, he has produced in his short time in the minors, particularly with Class A Lansing in 2018—in 112 PA, he ran a better-than-average walk rate (11.6%, 85th percentile), strikeout rate (16.1%, 84th percentile), ISO (.253, 98th percentile) and BABIP (.343, 72nd percentile), driving himself to a 177 wRC+ (99th percentile)—the main caveats being the limited sample size and his being a few months older than average for the level. Defensively, he’s played at second and third as a pro and was viewed by Baseball America as having average second baseman potential. If these offensive and defensive skills remain, 2019 could be the year Jays fans learn a lot more about Cullen Large.
Contreras is a high-risk prospect in the early stages of his development, who’s been a couple of years young for his level since his North American pro debut in 2017. He hasn’t displayed great defensive skills in the outfield corners, but has shown improvement—he produced -9 FRAA in LF/RF over 46 games with Advanced Rookie Bluefield in 2017, then improved to -1 FRAA over 48 games with Short Season-A Vancouver. Offensively, he hits the ball hard—his .200 ISO (92nd percentile) and 0.9% 400-plus-foot homer rate (80th percentile) were both well above-average—but has poor plate discipline—only one Short Season-A batter had a lower walk-to-strikeout ratio than Contreras’ 0.13 mark (min. 200 PA). He is the archetypal lower-level lottery ticket.
Podkul, a 2018 seventh-rounder out of college, showed potential in his pro debut with Vancouver. Defensively, he played a positive-value position pretty well (5 FRAA in 42 games at second base). Offensively, he was effective in a few ways, with only a .268 BABIP suppressing his overall production (105 wRC+). Otherwise, he struck out (19.3%, 67th percentile) and whiffed less often than most (6.9%, 90th percentile), while producing one of the best walk rates of the level (14.2%, 94th percentile) and holding his own in the power department (.142 ISO, 70th percentile). Tougher challenges in 2019 (and beyond) will determine whether this lottery ticket will pay off.
Brito bears some similarities, offensively, to Contreras—Brito has also produced a lot of power (.201 ISO and 3.3% 400-plus-foot homer rate at the Advanced Rookie level in 2018), while struggling with plate discipline (30.3% strikeout rate). The net effect was nevertheless better-than-average (112 wRC+). Defensively, he was an average shortstop last season (0 FRAA in 36 games). Improving that strikeout rate will be vital for his big league chances. Fortunately, heading into his age-20 season, time is still on his side.
Barger, was a 2018 high-school draft pick, taken one round ahead of Podkul. Given his young age (18), he was assigned to the GCL for his pro debut. Drafted as a shortstop, Barger showed his defensive potential by producing 2 FRAA each at short (20 games) and second (17 games). Offensively, his 88 wRC+ is deceiving, as it was suppressed by a .229 BABIP. While he didn’t put on a power display, his .128 ISO (68th percentile) was above-average for the GCL. Moreover, his plate discipline was solid, evidenced by his well above-average 0.66 BB/K (78th percentile). Barger has a lot of development ahead of him, but looks like a prospect who might surprise at the Advanced Rookie level in 2019.
Lottery Ticket Pitchers: Pitchers with both potential and flaws, who may yet become major-leaguers
Harris has not met the expectations associated with a first-round pick—over 279.1 Double-A innings, he has struggled to strike batters out (17.4%) and avoid homers (1.32 HR/9), producing a 4.59 FIP and 5.09 ERA. That said, his pedigree means that it’s always possible that he may yet break out and prove to be a major league pitcher. In that vein, 2019 seems like a make or break year for him.
Logue is a different story. As a recent (2017) ninth-round college pick, expectations for Logue weren’t remotely close to Harris’. Most of Logue’s minor league career has been spent at High-A, his most recent stop, where he produced a solid performance—over 100.1 innings at the level, Logue produced a 3.66 FIP (63rd percentile). He struck batters out (20.2%, 47th percentile) and suppressed homers (0.72 HR/9, 48th percentile) and 400-plus-foot homers (0.7%, 44th percentile) roughly as well as the level’s average starter, while excelling at avoiding walks (5.5%, 80th percentile). Moreover, he did so at a level in which he was a year younger than the average pitcher. He’ll likely start 2019 at Double-A. Given the difficulty of this particular promotion, Jays fans will soon get an even better sense of his MLB potential.
Maese missed the entire 2018 season with a shoulder injury. A year ago, I would have likely put him in the potential starter/reliever fallback group, but a serious injury increases a prospect’s risk. He spent 2017 at Class A, where he was effective (3.50 FIP, 70th percentile) in spite of his age (two years younger than the average pitcher). A sinker-baller, Maese generates lots of grounders (53.9%, 87th percentile), which helps him avoid the long ball (0.38 HR/9, 83rd percentile). Improving his strikeout (19.4%, 43rd percentile) and walk rates (8.4%, 37th percentile) is essential, but his strong whiff rate (12.1%, 68th percentile) suggests that might be very doable.
Castillo, a 2015 international signing, is a young, “let’s what he becomes” kind of lottery ticket prospect. Last season, with Class A Lansing, Castillo’s performance was fine, with his 4.04 FIP ranking in the 40th percentile. What makes his performance pop a bit more is his age—at 19, he was three years younger than average for the level—and his usage—he logged the 11th-most innings (131.1) across Class A. Over the last five seasons, only four other teenage pitchers have cracked 130 IP at Class A and produced a better FIP than Castillo: three highly-rated Braves’ prospects (Michael Soroka, Bryse Wilson and Joey Wentz) and Brad Keller, who just produced 2.5 fWAR in his rookie season for the Royals.
Luciano, like Maese, belongs in the potential starter/reliever fallback group, at least based on his overall talent and likely development path. He’s a lottery ticket because he is a Rule 5 pick, which means the Jays will need to keep him on their MLB roster for the whole season. We’ll know a lot more about the likelihood of this by the end of Spring Training, with the team looking to test him against major league batters as much as possible. He’s certainly advanced for his age—his 4.31 FIP ranked in the 69th percentile among all Advanced Rookie level pitchers (min. 30 IP) and was bettered by only one 17 or 18 year old (Eric Pardinho)—but that’s obviously not the same as being ready for a full season in a major league bullpen.
Pitchers already being used in a relief role, who have MLB potential
As so many major league relievers are failed starting pitching prospects, relief-only prospects often need to be particularly effective in the role in order to get their chance.
Copping came to the Blue Jays at the 2018 trade deadline, in exchange for John Axford. He spent most of 2018 at Double-A, before and after the trade, where he showed a lot of potential. Among pure relievers at the level, Copping was much better-than-average in terms of FIP (3.06, 83rd percentile), strikeout rate (29.2%, 83rd percentile) and home run rate (0.30 HR/9, 90th percentile), with an elevated walk rate (12.8%, 20th percentile) his main issue. He’s likely to start 2019 in Triple-A and could conceivably make his MLB debut later on in the season.
Jackson was drafted by the Jays as a reliever in the third round (2016). His underlying stats bear similarities to Copping’s—like his New Hampshire teammate, Jackson struck out plenty (28.5%, 78th percentile) and limited homers very, very well (0.29 HR/9, 95th percentile), but struggled immensely with walks (19.4%, worst at the level). The overall result was a slightly below-average FIP (3.80, 45th percentile). That said, it’s worth pointing out that, thanks to opposing batters’ struggles to get base hits off of him (.200 BABIP, 98th percentile), Jackson produced a solid 2.47 ERA (85th percentile). With the challenge of Triple-A hitters ahead of him in 2019, it will be interesting to see if he 1) continues to maintain a much better-than-average BABIP and 2) is able to cut down his walk rate, without also making it easier for batters to hit him hard.
Fishman, another 2016 draft pick (30th round), spent most of 2018 at High-A (outside of an excellent four up, four down appearance at Triple-A in June). While his age was average for the level, Fishman’s performance was still notable and points to big league relief potential. He struck out batters at an average rate (24.8%, 47th percentile), while limiting walks as well as any pitcher (4.9%, 94th percentile), which helped him produce a strong K-BB% (19.9%, 72nd percentile). He also limited homers well (0.32 HR/9, 68th percentile), driving him to one of the better FIP marks at the level (2.65, 84th percentile). With a promotion to Double-A ahead of him, Fishman just needs to keep doing what’s been doing so far in his minor league career.
Working on this list has helped me better understand the upside and downside of many Blue Jay prospects, as well as the system as a whole. While some areas (the infield) are better stocked than others (the outfield and pitching staff), the overall quality and depth of the Blue Jays system seems strong enough that most of a contending team can be built from it. Ultimately, more important than a system’s positional balance is the number of big leaguers it produces, as excess players at one position can be traded to fill needs at other positions, to say nothing of spending money on free agents. Nevertheless, one doesn’t have to squint too hard at the list of prospects above to see an eventual MLB-quality infield, outfield, rotation and bullpen, even after accounting for risk. Importantly, you don’t have to take the word of a Blue Jays fan, as evaluator after evaluator has ranked this system among the league’s best. Good systems don’t guarantee World Series championships, but they do tend to result in good teams that contend for them.
I’m curious to hear what you all think about my rankings, so feel free to leave a comment below, whether it’s regarding a prospect you think I’ve left out, someone you think I’ve put in the wrong category or some other comment altogether.
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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.