TORONTO – Minus much of the fanfare of years past, four Toronto Blue Jays affiliates open up their minor-league seasons Thursday having been depleted by an off-season of blockbusters but still stocked with lower-level talent.
Outfielders Anthony Gose and Moises Sierra plus infielder Ryan Goins are the most notable prospects on a veteran-laden squad at triple-A Buffalo, which opens its first season with the Blue Jays at home against Rochester. Outfielder Kenny Wilson, who opened some eyes during spring training, and 2010 first-rounder Deck McGuire headline the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, who host Reading.
But the bulk of the Blue Jays’ top prospects open the season either at single-A Dunedin – where blue-chip right-hander Aaron Sanchez and the struggling Ricky Romero begin their season – or low-A Lansing, which features top pitching prospects Roberto Osuna and Daniel Norris, highly regarded catcher Santiago Nessy, infielders Christian Lopes and Kellen Sweeney, and Canadian outfielder Dalton Pompey.
Dunedin hosts Clearwater while Lansing visits Lake County in their respective openers.
Several notable prospects also open the season on the disabled list, among them: right-hander Chad Jenkins (shoulder); right-hander John Stilson (ribcage/oblique); left-hander Sean Nolin (groin); and catcher A.J. Jimenez (elbow ligament replacement surgery).
"Most of our top prospects are at the A-ball level and extended spring program (which feeds players into rookie league Bluefield and short-season A Vancouver)," says assistant GM Tony LaCava, who oversees the farm system. "The upper levels were thinned out by the off-season moves (Travis d'Arnaud, Jake Marisnick, Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, Adeiny Hechavarria were among those traded), aside from Gose, Stilson, Nolin."
Here's a quick look at the four rosters:
Buffalo Bisons, International League
Manager: Marty Brown
The Bisons are well stocked with veteran players capable of filling gaps at the big-league level if needed and were built with providing Buffalo a winner in mind.
Justin Germano is the opening day starter, followed in the rotation by Ramon Ortiz, Claudio Vargas, Dave Bush and Todd Redmond. Brad Lincoln, acquired last July from Pittsburgh for Travis Snider, is in the bullpen.
The catching duo of Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas provide considerable protection for the Blue Jays in the event of an injury, while Goins, a shortstop, impressed with a strong season at New Hampshire last year and fared well in big-league camp.
Gose made his big-league debut last year and is the only crown jewel of the farm system down in Buffalo, while Sierra showed well for the Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic and his power remains intriguing.
New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Eastern League
Manager: Gary Allenson
Jenkins, Stilson, Nolin, lefty reliever Evan Crawford and Jimenez all start the year on the double-A DL, meaning once they get healthy the Fisher Cats roster will become much deeper with prospects. At this point none of their absences are expected to be especially lengthy.
As things stand, the 23-year-old Wilson will certainly be someone to keep an eye on, described by LaCava as a player who "made a lot of noise in camp." A second-rounder in 2008, he has 189 stolen bases in five minor-league seasons and should be primed to add to that total this year.
McGuire, meanwhile, is looking to bounce back from a 5.88 ERA/1.556 WHIP season with New Hampshire last year, which started with him on the cusp of a big-league promotion.
Starter Ryan Tepera and relievers Joel Carreno and Chad Beck are other familiar names on the roster.
Dunedin Blue Jays, Florida State League
Manager: Bobby Meacham
The last of the Big Three pitching prospects left in the organization, Sanchez is now the farm system's crown jewel, a big strapping right-hander with triple-digit velocity capability and ace potential. The 20-year-old spent all of the 2012 season at low-A Lansing and while the Blue Jays plan to move him methodically through the system, his ability may push his way up by season's end.
Romero won't join the Dunedin rotation right off the bat, as right now he's limited to side sessions as he tries to ingrain a refined delivery that keeps his arm at a consistently higher slot and his body driving more directly to home plate. Once he locks in on that, he'll progress to facing hitters and then get into games, a process that will move at the pace of his progress, and be closely watched.
Dunedin will get a boost in the middle of next month when the 42 games remaining on Marcus Stroman's suspension for use of a performance-enhancing substance ends, and the promising right-hander enters the rotation. Though the consensus seems to be that his future is as a big-league closer, the Blue Jays are hoping that starting him now will help him make up for the suspension's lost time, and provide an opportunity to refine his four pitches. Stroman has a chance to move up quickly.
Lansing Lugnuts, Midwest League
Manager: John Tamargo Jr.
Three of the system's most promising prospects in Osuna, Norris and Nessy start their seasons in Lansing, which will also boast several other talented young players.
Osuna, a 6-2, 230-pound 18-year-old from Mexico, impressed in a big way last year, when he debuted at rookie-league Bluefield, dominated in seven games there, then moved up to short-season A Vancouver and tore through the competition there with a 1.169 WHIP and 11.4 strikeouts per nine.
Norris, a 19-year-old lefty chosen in the second round in 2011, had a far rougher go in his stops at Bluefield and Vancouver last year, but had a very strong camp to earn the promotion.
Nessy, a 20-year-old Venezuelan, is quickly maturing into a strong catching prospect whom the Blue Jays "are expecting big things from," says LaCava. "He's got a chance to be a very good offensive player and a very good defender." Nessy hit nine homers and nine doubles in 51 games for Bluefield and Vancouver.