Top pitching prospect Greene opens eyes in Blue Jays debut

Troy Tulowitzki hit a home run and Michael Saunders hit two to help the Blue Jays get a 9-6 win over the Phillies.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Conner Greene faced four batters in his big league spring training debut Saturday and he struck out three of them, hitting 98 mph on the radar gun. Sure, it’s early, but that’s still the kind of outing that’s tough for the Toronto Blue Jays to ignore.

“It’s a great feeling to do well,” Greene said. “I hope I can just build upon it and keep the buzz rolling.”

Greene, the Blue Jays’ top pitching prospect, was on the organization’s radar long before spring training began. He arrived at his first big league camp with the goal of showing Blue Jays decision makers that inviting him was the right call.

“It’s to get my exposure and prove to everybody that I want to be here and that I deserve to be here,” Greene said. “I think they know, but it’s always pleasant to do well.”

Deserve to be here as in big league camp? Or here as in the big league roster?

“A little bit of both,” Greene said. “Be here (at spring training) and be here with the team and part of the team.”

Greene, who doesn’t turn 21 until next month, has a tall, lanky six-foot-three frame and plenty of momentum after a breakout 2015 season. He thrived at class-A Lansing and class-A Dunedin last year before struggling in five starts at double-A New Hampshire. His overall numbers were stellar: a 3.54 ERA with 115 strikeouts in 132.1 innings.

While he tries not to look too far ahead, he expects New Hampshire to be his first stop of the 2016 season.

“I don’t really set a season goal. I set more like daily goals,” Greene said. “Short-term. Every day do what I need to do to be ready.”

Tabbed for his spring debut Saturday, Greene’s plan was simple: escape the inning.

“The goal was to hopefully not get taken out,” Greene said. “I was pounding the zone. If the product was striking out people or the product’s ground balls then I can control what I can. I’m happy with the result.”

Greene, Toronto’s seventh round pick in the 2013 draft, throws a three-pitch mix. There’s the fastball, which was clocked in the 94-98 mph range Saturday, a change-up in the 84-87 mph range and a curveball that hovers around 80 mph.

Baseball America ranks him second among Blue Jays prospects, trailing only outfielder Anthony Alford. The right-hander’s future has major implications for a Blue Jays team that traded much of its upper-minors talent last summer.

That said, spring successes and failures must be viewed in context, especially early on. On Saturday Greene whiffed Nick Williams, Emmanuel Burriss and Ryan Jackson, three hitters who combined for 19 big league plate appearances in 2015. Williams is a top prospect, while Burriss and Jackson are role players looking to make an impression.

Any way you look at it, Greene’s strong showing should still be considered a positive development for a team that can use all the upper-minors talent it can get.