Blue Jays prospect Berti opening eyes with speed

Jon Berti, an 18th round selection in 2011, stole 40 bases for Toronto's double-A affiliate in 2014. (Cody Smith/New Hampshire Fisher Cats)

MANCHESTER, NH – At the end of a homestand last summer, former New York Yankee great Reggie Jackson pulled Bobby Meacham aside and asked about the player in the No. 5 jersey.

“The first thing he said was, ‘You’ve got one guy here who plays hard all the time,’” said Meacham, manager of the Toronto Blue Jays’ double-A affiliate New Hampshire Fisher Cats. “He noticed him right away.”

Meacham didn’t need to be told who the Hall of Famer was talking about. It was Jon Berti, the Blue Jays’ 25-year-old infield prospect.

Jackson, now a special advisor to the Yankees, had been watching Berti over a series between the Fisher Cats and New York’s affiliate, the Trenton Thunder. And he was impressed.

Berti has been winning over coaches at every level of the Blue Jays’ farm system since being drafted in the 18th round out of Bowling Green State University in 2011. The Michigan-raised infielder’s grind-it-out work ethic has been steadily paying dividends, and could earn him a promotion to triple-A Buffalo this season.

“He deserves to be in the conversation,” said Tony LaCava, the Blue Jays’ assistant general manager. “I think if the opportunity arises to play at triple-A, he can and he will, at some point … He’s getting awful close to being big-league ready.”

If that happens, the 5-foot-10, 175-lb infielder who some scouts thought was too small to excel at professional baseball won’t be able to fly under the radar much longer. His manager thinks Berti’s speed and hustle will soon get him to the majors – and yet he continues to be snubbed in rankings of Blue Jays minor league prospects.

“He definitely gets underestimated,” said Meacham, who also managed Berti in 2013 with the Class A Dunedin Blue Jays. “He’s one of the few guys whose talent is actually getting better. He’s getting faster. His arm strength is stronger. His footwork is getting better. We haven’t seen yet how good he can be.”

For the second year in a row, Berti was named his team’s most valuable player, after leading or being close to tops in the league in hits (146), triples (7), stolen bases (40) and total bases (202). The once-raw prospect has become a polished fielder, getting time in the outfield, second and third base – versatility that increases his chances of being moved up to higher levels, LaCava said.

Berti is also coming off a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .292, picked up 19 hits in 20 games, and posted an excellent .428 on-base percentage. As if to punctuate his development, Berti smashed a home run and three hits in his final AFL game.

But it’s his speediness that has his parent club really excited.

With 96 swiped bags in the past two seasons, Berti has become one of the most dangerous baserunners in the Blue Jays system. Pitcher Aaron Sanchez calls Berti “probably the best base stealer I’ve ever had as a teammate.”

Berti has been working with Blue Jays roving baserunning coach Tim Raines to polish his technique, becoming a true student of base stealing. His stolen base rate in New Hampshire in 2014 was 75 percent, and he showed an ability to make adjustments.

“His speed is a real weapon. But he’s also a grinder, a tough out and guy who comes to play every day. Managers and coaches all want him on their team. He makes offences better,” LaCava said.

Berti never jogs for routine plays, Meacham said. He flat-out runs, always looking for extra-bases and chances to score. He hustles down the line as if it’s his last at-bat in baseball. Once on base, he’s a disruptive force, distracting pitchers and pulling fielders out of position.

“Other managers will tell me, ‘That Berti, he’s killing us.’ He’s aware that a ground ball isn’t always an out,” Meacham said. “There’s always a worry that he’s going to score. He alters the game.”

With a Twitter handle like ‘Jonny Hustle,’ no wonder the players he admires most are the game’s scrappy, smaller hustlers – Dustin Pedroia, David Eckstein and retired Blue Jays’ fan favourite, John McDonald.

“I like guys who are kind of undersized, but they play the game hard. They play the right way,” Berti said. “I grew up watching those guys play, and it’s infectious. I just try to leave it all out on the field.”

Berti said he’s not worrying about where the Blue Jays assign him in 2015. He just wants to perform well in Spring Training, keep improving and enjoy the journey as a professional baseball player.

“I don’t put too much thought into that. Whether I’m playing in front of 10,000 fans or 50,000, it’s not going to change the way I play the game,” he said. “I’ll love playing the game regardless.”

Berti may not carry the prestige of a first-round draft pick, may lack the power to hit 20 home runs a season, and may not stand over six feet tall. For that, he seems to get passed over by pundits looking for the next flashy prospect.

But what Berti has done is excel at every level the Blue Jays have sent him – from Vancouver to Lansing to Florida to Australia to New Hampshire – and produced year-in, year-out.

“For some reason, other scouts and the media have always mentioned other players as being top prospects over Jon,” said his father Tom Berti, an infielder in the Detroit Tigers’ minor league system in the 1970s. “I just tell him to do the best you can, as long as you still love the game. That’s all he can do. The other stuff, he can’t control that.”

LaCava said he can’t speak for analysts who rate the Blue Jays’ prospects, but said Berti’s star has long been bright within the organization.

“Right out of gate, he showed he was a real prospect. He earned that. Within our group, he’s always been regarded highly,” he said. “He may not grab you at first. But the more you watch him, the more you like him.”

Berti is also something of an honourary Canadian. He has extended family on his father’s side throughout Ontario who are hoping to see him in Toronto sooner rather than later.

Growing up, hockey was his other love, and he was talented enough as a rep-level goalie in high school that he probably could have pursued a career in the sport.

“I firmly believe he could have played in the NHL, if he wanted to,” Tom Berti said. “But he had to choose one sport, and he went with baseball.”

Berti still misses hockey, but credits all those skating drills with helping develop his athleticism and strong legs that speed him around the base paths. After hanging up his pads, he focused exclusively on baseball and his game took a noticeable leap.

Following his senior year at Troy High School, the star shortstop was drafted in the 36th round by the Oakland Athletics, but chose not to sign. He went to college instead, and pursued a business degree while playing for Bowling Green State University in Ohio – a school known for developing prospects.

Passing on the A’s may have been a gamble, but Berti never doubted his future in baseball. It didn’t hurt that his uncle Danny Schmitz, himself once a prospect in the Yankees farm system, is head coach at Bowling Green.

When the Blue Jays came calling in 2011, after his third season at Bowling Green, Berti jumped. He was ready to make the leap to pro ball.

For now, his father counsels him to enjoy the ride. Tom Berti’s own career peaked with the Class-A Lakeland Tigers in 1977-78, where he played alongside future stars such as Kirk Gibson under a young manager named Jim Leyland.

His son’s ceiling is far higher than that, Tom Berti believes.

“Jon’s definitely a much better player and athlete than I ever was,” he said.