After 2019 struggles, Warmoth, Smith building versatility for Blue Jays

The Blue Jays drafted Logan Warmoth to be a shortstop, but now he's being groomed to play all over the diamond. (Ben Nicholson-Smith/ Sportsnet)

SCOTTSDALE, Az. – Two summers ago, when the Toronto Blue Jays made Logan Warmoth their first-round pick, he was widely considered the top college shortstop in the draft, someone whose broad skillset would allow him to handle the position at the MLB level.

Since then, a lot has changed. It’s Nate Pearson, rather than Warmoth, who looks like the best pick the Blue Jays made in 2017. And it’s Bo Bichette who has emerged as the Blue Jays’ shortstop of the future. Meanwhile, Warmoth no longer ranks among the organization’s top 30 minor-leaguers, according to Baseball America or MLB Pipeline.

With his prospect pedigree fading, the Blue Jays approached Warmoth with an idea. Why not start playing more outfield along with shortstop and second base? Maybe a little more versatility could create options for the organization and help Warmoth on his way through the minors. He was up for the challenge.

The 24-year-old Warmoth’s now one of two Blue Jays prospects bouncing between positions in the Arizona Fall League, along with Kevin Smith, another infielder whose offensive numbers fell off during the 2019 regular season. Ideally, their bats will rebound. If not, the ability to play multiple positions might determine their big-league futures.

After a strong short-season debut following his 22nd-overall selection, Warmoth’s production declined in 2018. He rebounded briefly while repeating high-A this past spring only to post a .567 OPS after a promotion to double-A. At times, his struggles there caused him to put too much pressure on himself.

"I’m at my best when I’m going to right-centre, using the whole field," he said before a recent Arizona Fall League game. "But when you’re struggling, it seems like there are 20 players on defence. You’re like ‘wow, where can I hit this ball?’ And rather than going back to basics and using the other side of the field, my first thought process is ‘the only place I can hit the ball is over the fence.’"

Yet in 65 games at New Hampshire, Warmoth didn’t clear the fence once. In Arizona, he’s working to move past that power-first mindset and use the middle of the field more often.

Toronto Blue Jays prospect Kevin Smith hit 19 home runs with double-A New Hampshire in 2019. (Ben Nicholson-Smith/ Sportsnet)

Smith showed considerably more power for the Fisher Cats in 2019, hitting 19 home runs, but that was after a breakout 2018 season in which he hit 25 homers and stole 29 bases while driving in 93 runs, hitting .302 and posting an .886 OPS. By way of comparison, the .666 OPS he posted this year fell flat.

Looking back on a year Smith considers ‘a learning experience,’ he believes he spent too much time and effort on pitches that favoured the opposition.

"I thought I could just hit everything good and that’s not really the case," he said. "(Now I’m) really honing back in on what I do well instead of worrying about one or two pitches that I couldn’t hit. Getting back to damage on pitches I know I can hit."

On paper, better selectivity sounds great. In practice, it’s proving more difficult, with 20 strikeouts through his first 40 plate appearances against AFL pitchers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, you’ll hear differing opinions on Smith’s bat. On the one hand, Blue Jays director of player development Gil Kim points to the strong work habits that remained in place even as Smith’s offensive performance fell off.

"He learned so much," Kim said. "We think he’s going to be so much better because of what he went through."

Kim sounds similarly optimistic about Warmoth, describing him as a player capable of "helping the team out in a lot of different ways." However, rival evaluators aren’t necessarily convinced about the pair of Blue Jays prospects. One scout who has seen roughly half of Smith’s AFL at-bats expressed doubts about his offence.

"He doesn’t catch up to stuff up in the zone and he’s having trouble with spin," he said. "It’s a bad combination."

While the scout acknowledged that players are sometimes tired by this point in the year, he didn’t sound sold on Warmoth, either.

"What’s the carrying tool?" he asked. "He looks like an up-down guy. A utility player."

Players don’t aspire to be up-down guys, the roster fillers who have enough ability to reach the majors but not quite enough to stay. But now, more than ever, they can aspire to be utility players. From Ben Zobrist to Marwin Gonzalez to Ketel Marte there are countless examples of players defined in large part by their versatility.

With those examples in mind, the Blue Jays have prioritized defensive flexibility in recent years, moving the likes of Bichette and Cavan Biggio to different positions on their ascent to the majors. The buy-in from those players and their subsequent success in the majors has made positional flexibility a progressively easier sell for Kim.

"A player will look at Cavan’s versatility and they’ll want to do that or they’ll look at Bo coming in during the off-season to take ground balls and they’ll want to do that," he said. "These moves are intended to help you with your career and to ultimately help the organization win a World Series."

First comes the work behind the scenes. Though the position change has been an adjustment for Warmoth, he understands the thinking behind the move.

"It’s different. Being drafted as a shortstop, of course you want to play at that primary spot," he said. "But what’s going to help me and what’s going to help the future of the big-league team, if I can help them, then I’m up for the challenge."

Along with second and third, Warmoth has played two games in left field and one in centre for the Scottsdale Scorpions this fall. Before playing centre four times this August, he hadn’t appeared in the outfield since high school, but from the vantage point of Cesar Martin, Warmoth’s manager in Dunedin and again in the AFL, the transition’s going smoothly.

"He has kind of surprised me with the way he’s played the outfield," Martin said. "I didn’t know he could play that well."

The Toronto Blue Jays took Logan Warmoth 22nd overall in the 2017 MLB Draft. (Ben Nicholson-Smith/Sportsnet)

While reading spin off the bat remains a challenge on some plays, the Blue Jays believe Warmoth’s athleticism will allow him to continue looking the part of an outfielder in the AFL. If they ask him to continue playing outfield in 2020, he’ll be up for it.

"It takes reps," he said. "I don’t expect to be a Gold Glove centre fielder or Gold Glove left fielder my first couple games out there, but I’ll be learning."

"It’s tough," he continued, "but you look around the major-leagues and you see who are some of the most valuable players right now, it’s up-the-middle utility guys. There’s Whit Merrifield. There’s Charlie Culberson. Those guys will have a job for a while because they can play three premium positions."

With that logic in mind, the Blue Jays have also moved Smith around the diamond more often. When he was drafted three rounds after Warmoth in 2017, he was a shortstop too, having played there at the University of Maryland. But he played a little third in 2018 and mixed in a little second this past season. In Arizona he has played all three positions, impressing some onlookers with his glove.

"To learn it at the upper levels has been kind of a challenge, but it’s fun," Smith said. "I want to be able to play anywhere – wherever they need me that day. Being able to play three positions is only going to help."

That much is undeniable. And with the big-league infield potentially filled for years to come, the Blue Jays are better off getting creative with struggling prospects instead of stubbornly insisting the players they drafted as shortstops must stay there. If that leads to a major-league utility player or two, even better.

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