Writer’s Note: It is still early for us to know (officially) exactly where each player will be assigned, but for most of the higher profile guys, one can make a pretty good educated guess. I’ll likely be wrong on one or two of these guys, but it should be pretty accurate overall. Also, this preview is strictly a look at the full-season squads. No one but a time traveler could give you a worthwhile preview of the short-season clubs at this point. So let’s take a road trip and see how the farm clubs shape up.
AAA – Buffalo Bisons
Typically the Triple-A squad is stacked with minor league veterans who can provide emergency relief for some temporary hole in the major league squad. While this is set to be a mostly veteran squad, it has a higher proportion of younger players who may have a major league career than most past Blue Jays AAA teams. Also, the Bisons look to sport an opening day pitching staff that could be made up almost entirely of pitchers who could legitimately contribute at the big league level.
Top Pitcher to Watch – Casey Lawrence
The classic example of a “non-prospect” who’s turned into an interesting sleeper candidate. Much has been written by beat beat reporters about the improbable turnaround in Lawrence’s fortunes. The appeal in keeping an eye on him lies more in seeing whether the ultimate underdog scenario plays out or whether it’s a spring narrative illusion. It’s true that people associated with the team are talking him up, making reference to a mechanical change that added some velocity last year. Upon his return to Buffalo the better stuff contributed to an uptick in strikeouts, and noticeably improved the H/9 ratio. But the sample of work under this newfound progress is small, and the previous body of work shows a lot of contact for the upper level teams. Watch him to see if what the coaches are seeing manifests in improved game results.
Top Hitter to Watch – Rowdy Tellez
Casual fans may not realize how deceptive his draft position was, being the classic case of the guy who fell because everyone was convinced he’d never sign. The Jays, however, had disposable cash after first rounder Phil Bickford declined to sign and made the deal. All last year I documented Tellez’s stats after he turned around a slow start (he was hitting .143/.299/.275 through May 9), but it bears repeating. On the balance of the season he hit .337/.407/.594 which has to excite any Jays fan. The caveat is that New Hampshires home park is quite friendly to left-handed power, so the thing to watch is how well that production translates to Buffalo.
Rowdy’s near-term future depends on what Justin Smoak does to cling to his job this year, and the Jays seem prepared to give him a lot of rope. But my hunch is once the trade deadline passes Tellez may well be in Toronto staking his claim to the 1B job.
Five Other Names to Know
1. Dalton Pompey – Okay, you already know this one. My guess is no later than June he’ll be making us happy in Toronto’s outfield.
2. Danny Barnes – Yes, the Jays have stacked up a notable pile of bullpen options, but you haven’t heard the last of this guy.
3. Matt Dermody – Aaron Loup has apparently locked down his job in Toronto (as I expected, I’m still a fan of his) but Dermody will likely get his chance to work some for the Toronto squad this year.
4. Harold Ramirez – He’s got a Shannon Stewart arm, but the Blue Jays seem real impressed with his hitting.
5. Chris Smith – the subject of much spring chatter, big arm with velocity that some of the major leaguers lack. You”l probably see him at some point.
With Apologies To: Mat Latos, Gavin Floyd, Ryan Tepera, Jeff Believeau, and Darrell Cecilliani
AA – New Hampshire Fisher Cats
While the Fisher Cats look to open the year with at least half a dozen names you’re probably familiar with, the rest of the roster might be stretched thin unless some faded-hopes guys turn their trajectory around.
Top Pitcher to Watch – Sean Reid-Foley
While he’s not the only top 10 pitching prospect on this team, he’s the one with the upward trajectory lately. The organization seems to have cleaned up the mechanical issues that were hampering his control, cutting his BB/9 rate from a hideous 6.3 in 2015 to 3.0 in 2016. It was even better than that once he was promoted to Dunedin. It’s not impossible that they have him start the year with the D-Jays, but he was so dominant in his 10 starts there last year that he’d have to be having a rough spring to go back there, particularly since Dunedin has a jam-packed-with-prospects rotation.
Top Hitter to Watch – Anthony Alford
Again, it would not be stunning to see him begin the year in Dunedin since injuries wrecked the first half of the 2016 season. But he finished strong and John Gibbons in particular raved about his progress in a recent interview. In my view, Alford is on track to be the heir apparent to Jose Bautista in a couple of years and introducing him to upper level pitching is the next step.
Five Other Names to Know
1. Richard Urena – Impressed with the bat in big league camp, but also made some high-profile errors which seemed to be more about focus than ability. He’s still quite young though, watch for him to mature.
2. Reese McGuire – a brief rumor suggested the Jays were not ruling him out for the big league backup role before Saltalamacchia signed. Just yesterday Russ Atkins gushed over him on the Jeff Blair show. Well known as a very gifted defender, watch to see if he translates his suspected hitting ability into decent on-field results.
3. Conner Greene – Over the 2014 and 2015 seasons combined, Greene efficently posted a 2.7 BB/9 and 7.8 K/9 and those numbers made him a top prospect, but when he hit AA (the last five starts of 2015) all that seemed to desert him. He was dropped back to Dunedin for the first half of 2016 but both stats were still going in the wrong direction (4.4 and 5.9 respectively). They saw something they liked I guess as he moved back to AA but the stats didn’t show whatever it was. You’ll want to watch both those numbers to see if he can get his groove back.
4. Tim Mayza – Hard throwing, high velocity lefty that had everyone buzzing in the spring. His control deserted him for a month in AA last year (walking 13 in 11 innings from July 8 to August 4) but he finished strong. Given the overflowing Bisons ‘pen, he should find himself back in NH to start the year, but he’s not the kind of guy that will be restricted to level-by-level promotion. If July was just a hiccup, then he’ll come fast.
5. Shane Dawson – until last year he looked like a poor-man’s Mark Buehrle, a tenacious crafty lefty in the best sense of the term about whom observers freely used baseball cliches about toughness and dedication. But, like Greene, AA saw the disappearance of his formerly well regarded control. He came into 2016 with 2.6 BB/9 over his career. Last year that almost doubled to an unsightly 4.8. The 23 year old Alberta native is a fringe prospect at his best, but they challenged him last year and if he finds his command again, who knows?
With Apologies To: Ryan McBroom
High A – Dunedin Blue Jays
The two A-level teams are going to be, at least to begin, more fun to watch than the upper levels. Dunedin sports a rotation with five players who, in my view, have a legitimate chance to pitch well in the majors in some role. The offensive side of their game is thin, with only three real prospects (and, potentially, a has been that might re-emerge) but that pitching though.
Pitcher to Watch – Ryan Borucki
If I have to pick just one, I’ll go with the guy that the organization seems highest on. After an injury plagued career he began 2016 healthy and assigned to Dunedin and it was ugly (read that UUUUUUUUUUUgly!) to the tune of 40 hits in 20 IP and 10 of those – TEN! – were homers. So they dropped him back to Lansing where he sorted out what he was doing wrong From June 10 through the end of the season he threw 85 innings, allowed 68 hits and ONE homer, while walking 14 and striking out 84 and posting a 1.69 ERA. Watch for his second tour in Dunedin to go much better.
Hitter to Watch – Lourdes Gurriel, Jr.
I really don’t have to explain this one to you, after a year away from competition, the Jays will be watching to see how LGJ handles the everyday SS role and where his bat is. What I can’t tell you is whether they will go slow, or be aggressive in his promotion, but my hunch is that if he does well in the first half then he’ll get some AA time, and there move around the field some so as to not push Urena to the bench much.
Five Other Name to Know
1. Max Pentecost – He can hit, he showed that last year (an .864 OPS in Lansing) but no one is stating confidently that his shoulder will let him get back behind the plate. Some say that without catching he’s a much less valuable prospect and to an extent that’s true, because a great hitting catcher is a great prospect. But it doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a guy you can ignore either. He’s said to be athletic enough to play other positions and if he keeps hitting he’ll have a future. Still, the thing to watch is how often he’s behind the plate, particularly as the summer wears on.
2. Jon Harris – I’ve seen at least one report that indicates his velocity may have ticked up a bit and he’s Sanchezed himself (that is, put on pounds of extra muscle). He had eight starts in Dunedin last year and his K rate was noticeably down from his work in Lansing. If that recovers, he’s nominally the guy you’d peg to be the first promoted to AA.
3. Angel Perdomo – the chatter says that eventually he’s likely for the bullpen due to inconsistency in his secondary offerings. He had an ugly month (7/20-8/20) last year in which is command deserted him and he posted a 6.82 ERA over 32.1 IP with 16 walks, but otherwise has flat out dominant. I admit to scouting the stat-line, but I’m going to keep watching to see how the lefty holds up as a starter.
4. Danny Jansen – made the AFL roster last fall and hit well after a couple of injury plagued seasons. Reportedly impressing in Florida right now, he’s an impressive defender who still needs to prove he can hit over a full season. It will be of interest how often the D-Jays let him work on his bat at DH while Pentecost tries to re-establish his defense.
5. Jordan Romano – another guy some are pegging as a potential reliever, but the Markham native came off a season lost to Tommy John surgery and completely outclassed the Midwest league en-route to a 2.11 ERA over 15 games and 72.2 IP. Low hits, reasonable walks, almost a strikeout per inning, what’s not to like? I’ll be watching to see how that translates as he moves up.
With Apologies To: Francisco Rios, Juan Kelly, and…Mitch Nay?
Low A – Lansing Lugnuts
With four high profile starters and up to a half dozen impressive bats, all eyes might be on the Lugnuts to start the year. With possibly eight players from the 2016 draft, and (likely) the top prospect in the system, there will be a lot to see.
Pitcher to Watch – T.J. Zeuch
You really have a lot of options here, as in Dunedin, but the potential for last year’s first round pick to blossom in his first full season as a pro has to be the best source of intrigue for me. There are a couple of rotation-mates of whom I am a big fan, but there’s reportedly still a good bit of upside to Zuech and I’ll be interested to see it emerge.
Hitter to Watch – Vlad Guerrero, Jr.
I haven’t heard ANY negative comment on the guy and his development might be well served by a full-season league if indeed he’s ready. Besides, if I don’t assume this I wouldn’t get to write about the #1 prospect in this piece and that would never do.
Five Other Names to Know
1. Bo Bichette – Another guy who might not start the year in full season ball, in fact for an ordinary prospect you could be certain he wouldn’t, but if he does he’ll be second only to Vlad in provoking fan expectations.
2. Justin Maese – After dominating the Northwest League in five starts (in which he walked a single batter) he moved up to Lansing for 10 more and, apart from one really bad start, was pretty dominant there as well. The scouts like him as much as the stats do and I, for one, love to watch a guy who doesn’t walk anyone.
3. J.B. Woodman – you have to disregard, somewhat, the nine-game stint in Lansing last year to close the season, during which he was simply on fire. Sample size issues demand it. In Vancouver he showed excellent doubles power, solid OBP results but also far ore strikeouts than you’d like. Be watching to see if they come down, and if some of those doubles translate into homers.
4. Joshua Palacios – Like Woodman, a CF drafted in 2016, he raked in Vancouver, hitting .355 over 28 games there. He needs to develop some pop, or or baserunning skills to be a complete player so that will be the things to watch him for in 2017.
5. Patrick Murphy – another type of player I have a soft spot for is the one who overcomes a lot of injury issues and reclaims his status. If you read my columns last summer you know that Murphy is one such guy. He seemed to tire a bit towards the end, and you’d probably like a few more strikeouts, but it was a nice foundation. More please.
With Apologies To: Zach Jackson, Caven Biggio, and…Bradley Jones?
Now you’re all set with the guys you’ll possibly get sick of me raving about all summer. A mere two weeks remain until these guys take the field in games that count.
Lead Photo: © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports