The Blue Jays possess a TOP 5 farm system and a young, dynamic major league core. But the focus on college arms gives us a glance into how the front office views the readiness of prospects to contribute immediately.
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It had been four years (2017) since the Toronto had a first round draft selection outside of the Top 10 picks. Ross Atkins and Ben Cherington (now VP of Baseball Operations of the Pittsburgh pirates) made the most of their priority position in the draft, rebuilding a farm system smoldering from the scorched earth practices of Alex Anthopoulos into the envy of MLB teams and fans. From an offensive perspective, the Blue Jays added to the base of Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. and have constructed what is arguably the best lineup top to bottom in baseball.
This past off season Atkins had trumpeted the “depth” of the pitching already in the organization when he was asked about not signing top-of-the-rotation starters (and re-signing All-Star Taijuan Walker). Breaking camp in March, with newly minted Jays George Springer and Marcus Semien in tow, on paper it appeared Atkins’ analysis of the roster was spot on. But as injuries to Nate Pearson and key bullpen arms began to reach epidemic proportions, younger pitching prospects proved to be suspect.
In fairness, many of the call-ups were not developed as relievers at the lower levels and lost valuable innings due to the cancellation of the minor league seasons in 2020. As the 2021 season progressed, it became obvious that additional pitching depth would be a top priority leading up to the Trade Deadline and in the Amateur Draft.
So it was not a surprise to see the Blue Jays spend 9 of their first 10 picks on pitchers- 8 of them college arms. The first selection, the 15th overall, was University of Mississippi right hander Gunnar Hoglund. Universally hailed as a Top 5 selection entering the college season, Hoglund injured his elbow in May, resulting in Tommy John surgery (and his availability at pick 19). Here’s what the MLB.com pre-draft scouting report said about Hoglund:
“The Pirates made Hoglund a supplemental first-round pick (36th overall) in 2018, but the two sides had differing views of his post-Draft physical, which killed any chances of a deal. He instead opted to attend Mississippi, where he immediately joined the weekend rotation and emerged as one of the best pitchers in the Southeastern Conference in 2020 and 2021. He had pitched himself into the top 10 picks of this year’s Draft until he injured his elbow in May and required Tommy John surgery. Hoglund’s stuff plateaued in his first two college seasons, as he showed the same 89-93 mph riding fastball and average breaking ball that he had in high school. His stuff ticked up last fall, however, and he now works at 92-95 for five innings at a time and displays a tighter, harder slider at 84-86. His low-80s changeup serves as a solid third pitch and he can give batters a different look by dusting off a curveball he relied on more as a prepster. With a durable 6-foot-4 frame, an easy delivery and a history of quality strikes, Hoglund already had a high floor as a back-of-the-rotation starter. His improved stuff still could land him in the first round despite his elbow reconstruction. Multiple scouts have likened him to a bigger version of Tanner Burns, another SEC right-hander whom [Cleveland] drafted 36th overall last June.”
It is interesting that a team like the Pirates, desperate for pitching in their system and at the major league level, would pass on an uber-prep star due to images taken during his physical. Turns out the prognosis was correct, but the uneasiness of former Cleveland colleague Neal Huntington turned into a draft day bonus for Atkins. Given his straight overhand delivery, his return to the mound might be closer to 18 months than 12. But there is no denying his high-ceiling and solid base make Hoglund too tempting to pass up, even if his timeline to the majors is delayed an extra year by his surgical rehab. The injury did allow Atkins to sign Hoglund for $3.25 million, $110k under slot value.
The absence of a second round pick (vacated due to the signing of Springer) does make the Hoglund selection a tad riskier-in the short term. But Toronto’s selection of University of Tennessee righty Chad Dallas may prove to be the most impactful pick of this draft. Recruited by Tennessee out of a Texas junior college to be a late inning reliever, Dallas got his opportunity to start when White Sox first rounder Garrett Crochet injured his elbow. Dallas showed poise and command from the outset, eventually earning the coveted “Friday night guy” spot in the Volunteer rotation the past two seasons.
With great fastball command and a knack for locating his above-average curveball late in counts, Dallas established himself as one of the most reliable starting pitchers in the SEC (Hoglund included). The one negative found in his scouting report would be his catcher’s frame (5’11” 206 lbs) does not project as an innings-eater starter. Which actually may prove beneficial to his quick debut in the majors. Dallas was a dominant closer in JUCO and his highly competitive nature (think Alek Manoah) and two quality pitches could project Dallas as a leverage reliever as early as mid-2022. The front office thought highly enough of Dallas to sign him for $497,500 , using the money saved on the Hoglund signing to secure the righty above pick value.
The Blue Jays did secure several featured players in the MLB.com rankings, including LHP Ricky Tieleman (3rd round), Florida high school RHP Irv Carter (5th), and Iowa LHP Trenton Wallace. But the most intriguing late round pick is 12th round selection Riley Tirotta. Tirotta, a 4 year starter at the University of Dayton, possesses dazzling speed and raw power that projects out to be a 15-20 home run bat. But it is his strong, accurate throwing arm and exceptional range that sets Tirotta on a quick path to the major leagues. Even the casual Jays fan recognizes the glaring need for a steady presence at the hot corner who can hit. So Tirotta projects to be an everyday part of the Toronto lineup as early mid 2022, given his advanced defensive skills and extensive playing time experience in college.
As with any draft class, it will take several years to give a final grade on the selections. Atkins and the front office did take decisive action to address the need for quality arms that could contribute at the major league level. While Toronto did pass on multiple available higher ranked pitchers throughout the draft, the Atkins M.O. has always been to take high-ceiling, projectable talent-especially pitchers. While only two players have signed so far, it does appear as though the players taken are not only signable, but probable future Blue Jays. While not an acclaimed draft class, the talent should allow the team to hold on to a Top 5 farm system ranking for the immediate future.
Time now for the 19 players to take the mound and step up to the plate.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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