Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez will be among the prospects that the Toronto Blue Jays will be keeping particularly close tabs on as the minor-league season begins Thursday.
The two thunder-armed right-handers are the farm system’s most talented players on the cusp of the big leagues, each with the potential to arrive in the majors and give the team a shot in the arm this year.
Stroman, who may be the next starter to be called up by the Blue Jays if there’s a need, is pitching the season opener for the triple-A Buffalo Bisons against Rochester, while Sanchez takes the mound for the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats at Trenton.
Both left an impression during spring training.
"Stroman, it’s really just waiting for the opportunity because we view him as a fully formed pitcher," says Tony LaCava, the Blue Jays assistant GM who oversees the farm system. "He has all the pitches that he’ll need to be successful. Now he’s got to continue to execute. We’ll be looking at his performance and it’s a matter of opportunity."
Sanchez lasted deeper into camp than Stroman did, but given that he’s less experienced, the Blue Jays are treating him with caution. He opened some eyes with a strong outing against the New York Mets during the exhibition games in Montreal, but the Blue Jays want him to work more on his fastball command while continuing to build his endurance on the mound.
"We haven’t determined any type of innings or things like that," says GM Alex Anthopoulos. "He’ll start the year and throw 90 pitches (per start), maybe 100 tops, just to start off, and then we’ll see how it goes throughout the year. Hopefully he’s throwing really well down there, and he’s a factor for us to call him up. It would be a good problem for us to have.
"Developmentally right now, we talked about whether we would limit him early or late, and we’d rather keep the momentum going, not limit his innings early."
Here’s a quick look at the Blue Jays’ four full-season clubs:
BUFFALO BISONS – Triple-A
Manager: Gary Allenson
2013 Record: 74-70
Key prospects: RHP Marcus Stroman, LHP Sean Nolin, RHP Kyle Drabek, RHP John Stilson.
Possible big-league help: RHP Neil Wagner, RHP Chad Jenkins, CF Anthony Gose, OF Kevin Pillar, 1B Dan Johnson, INF Munenori Kawasaki, INF Chris Getz.
Keep an eye on: Ricky Romero.
LaCava’s Take: "I expect Nolin, because he had the full off-season to work and be healthy, I expect him to take a big step forward this year. Last year he got out of the gate a little slow, never got on track. He had (hip issues the winter before) so he wasn’t able to work out like he did this winter, so I think he’s going to surprise some people. There’s a little bit more power in there than we saw last year.
"Drabek needs to go out there and perform. He too is a guy who is fully formed, it’s hard to say he needs this or needs that, other than to go out and get his feet underneath him, and we’ll be watching him close. At some point he should factor for us.
"Ricky’s in the rotation right now in Buffalo and he showed some signs this spring training of being the guy we knew. A little bit of a setback but Ricky is a battler, he continues to fight hard to try and get back to form.
"Stilson is a guy who can get hitters out with three different pitches, his fastball, his breaking ball, his changeup. And he’s got that bullpen mentality; he comes in with a lot of adrenaline and piss and vinegar and comes right at hitters. We think it’s only a matter of time before he helps us, sometime this year, I’d imagine.
"Chad Jenkins is always a guy who gets overlooked. I think he’s a valuable guy because he can give you some length, he can give you a spot start. His versatility is helpful and he’ll factor at some point, as well."
NEW HAMPSHIRE FISHER-CATS – Double-A
Manager: Bobby Meacham
2013 Record: 68-72
Key Prospects: RHP Aaron Sanchez, C A.J. Jimenez, INF Andy Burns, OF Kenny Wilson
LaCava’s Take: "Sanchez is making great strides. Last year in the Florida State League he had a strong season. It wasn’t a dominant season, but it was strong. He goes to the Arizona Fall League and he takes another step and then comes into spring training and takes another big step, so the arrow is pointing up. It will be interesting to see how he does the first month there against double-A hitters and we think he’s up for the challenge. He’ll let us know by his performance where he’s at and when he’s ready. We’ll continue to challenge him in ways that are appropriate, not throw him to the wolves, per se.
"Jimenez has had only parts of two seasons in double-A. Right now, we think it’s the right spot to start him, we’ll be open-minded to moving him along as the season progresses. His arm is a full go, I think his (calling card) throwing is real close. His bat… I like where he’s at with his swing. I’d like to see him be healthy for a full season. If he stays healthy for a full season, we’re all going to be happy with the results.
"Wilson we think is a late-bloomer. He’s had injuries, he got a little side-tracked with a switch-hitting experiment, missed some at-bats.
"Burns is primarily a third baseman but we’re going to move him around the diamond a little bit, try to get him some versatility. We like his bat, we think he’s got a chance to hit and we’re not sure where the opportunity is going to come, so we’re going to move him around (1B, 2B, corner OF)."
DUNEDIN BLUE JAYS – Class-A Advanced
Manager: Omar Malave
2013 Record: 63-68
Key Prospects: OF Dalton Pompey, OF Dwight Smith Jr., LHP Daniel Norris
LaCava’s Take: "Pompey is another guy that made big steps. He’s got a lot of tools and ability. We’re hoping this is a breakout year for him. His tools are starting to play now, legit in centre field, he’s running better than he ever has. As he’s gotten stronger, he’s actually gotten faster. He’s always had a sound swing. We think the results are going to follow.
"Smith last year didn’t make a full-season team out of spring training, ends up after a month or so in Lansing and becomes one of their best players. His bat has really come on and he can hit.
"Norris has lots of ability and we think he can be a quality starting pitcher. He’s a work-in-progress but he’s got power and he’s got secondary stuff. He’s got all the ingredients there, and it’s just a matter of getting consistent."
LANSING LUGNUTS – Single-A
Manager: John Tamargo Jr.
2013 Record: 61-78
Key Prospects: RHP Tom Robson, RHP Chase De Jong, RHP Adonis Cardona, LHP Jairo Labourt, RHP Alberto Tirado, 1B Matt Dean, 3B Mitch Nay, SS Dawel Lugo, OF D.J. Davis
LaCava’s Take: "The Lansing team is a strong club in terms of prospects. There’s quite a wave there we’re hopeful of. They don’t all turn out, obviously, but these are guys we think have real shots to help our club someday.
"Robson is a guy we think can be a really good starter, throws downhill, good angle to the plate, lots of groundballs, secondary stuff keeps getting better. He’s made a lot of progress. He’s going to get his own day.
"DeJong is another promising young starter with weapons; he’s got three ways to get you out: his fastball, a plus curveball and an action changeup. The biggest thing is to lengthen him out, let’s get him prepared for a five-month season. He’ll piggyback with Adonis Cardona, and he’s got an upper 90’s fastball with an out-pitch changeup. His slider is coming. That’s the pitch he’s working on the most.
"Labourt and Tirado will also piggyback. Labourt’s a 6-4 left-hander that has really transformed his body. He was a bigger, softer-bodied kid and he’s done a great job of getting himself in shape. He’s up to 94, he’s got at times a plus slider, (his) changeup has action to it, he’s in the strike zone. Like DeJong, we’re trying to lengthen him out. Tirado’s got electric stuff; he’s gotten bigger and stronger. We think this is a great spot to challenge him with a full season.
"Nay and Dean (are) two big bookends, power hitters. Dean last year worked to really transform his swing. We took him off third base and put him over at first and he’s been more comfortable with that. It’s allowed his hitting to come by taking the defence out of it. Nay is a power hitter that controls the strike zone, and that’s unusual for a kid that age. He’s shown really interesting signs to have power like he does and also to control the strike zone.
"Lugo’s got a chance to hit. He’s got strong hitter’s hands. Defensively we think he can play the position. He’s got plenty of arm. He’s running better than he ever has.
"Davis has really good tools; he can run, can throw, has raw power. Just a work in progress. On a given night you can see him show you everything you want to see, it’s just a matter now of consistency.