Blue Jays with high hopes for prospect Labourt

World's Jairo Labourt throws during the fifth inning of the All-Star Futures baseball game against Team United States (John Minchillo/AP)

CINCINNATI — Jairo Labourt’s focus this season is simple and straight-forward.

“To arrive in the big-leagues,” the Toronto Blue Jays prospect, speaking through an interpreter, says bluntly.

Throwing a perfect inning in the Futures Game, baseball’s annual prospect showcase embedded in the all-star festivities, the way he did Sunday for the World Team in a 10-1 loss to the U.S. Team is no guarantee that’s going to happen in 2015.

Still, selection to the contest is often a leading indicator of future success, and the 21-year-old lefty from Azua, Dominican Republic is only some gains in the consistency of his fastball command and mound experience away from progressing up through the Blue Jays system.

In 16 starts so far at single-A Dunedin, he’s 2-7 with a 4.71 ERA and a 1.569 WHIP over 72.2 innings, not exactly the follow up the Blue Jays were hoping for after he was 5-3 with a 1.77 ERA and a 1.183 WHIP in 15 starts for short-season A Vancouver last year.

But as he showed in making quick work of blue-chippers J.P. Crawford (strikeout on three pitches), Kyle Schwarber (grounder to shortstop) and Richie Shaffer (five-pitch strikeout) at Great American Ball Park, his mix of a 95-96 mph fastball, 88 mph cutter, 85-86 changeup and 83 mph wipeout slider can be dominant.

“He’s got power stuff, he gets over the ball real good, he’s an upright pitcher, stays tall in his delivery and gets the ball downhill pretty good,” says Dane Johnson, the Blue Jays bullpen coach who worked closely with Labourt the past four years as the organization’s pitching co-ordinator.

“He’s got two out pitches with that changeup and slider. There’s a lot to like.”

The primary reason for that is all three pitches have a chance to be plus offerings, giving him the potential to be a dynamic starter, or perhaps a strong reliever. Getting his arm throwing strikes, the way he was Sunday when nine of his 11 pitches were in the zone, is going to be key.

Even at Vancouver last year, his walks per nine sat at 4.7, while with Dunedin, it’s at 5.2 (42 in 72.2 innings).

“I’m working on my mechanics and on throwing my fastball for more strikes,” says Labourt. “I’ve been working really hard, and I’ve got to keep on working harder.”

Johnson firmly believes the work ethic is there to make it happen.

Labourt started playing baseball at age seven — his favourite players were Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez — and converted from the outfield to the mound at age 10. Former Blue Jays international scouting director Marco Paddy and Dominican scout Hilario Soriano signed him on his 17th birthday and over the past four years he’s transformed from a big pudgy kid into sturdy six-foot-four, 204-pound man.

“I wouldn’t say I was fat, but I was heavy,” Labourt admits. “Now I’ve lost weight, and I feel really good. I always run. I run two kilometres all the time, and at home I work out. I’ve lost a lot of pounds in the last year.”

Johnson is more effusive.

“What he’s done with his body to get himself in position to be able to compete on the mound and pitch as a starter is incredible,” he says. “He was a young kid with a lot of baby fat, a body type that needed to be slimmed down and the proportions put in the right places, and he did it. His diet needed to change along with his strength and conditioning program, he’s grown leaps and bounds in that area.”

Now it’s on Labourt to see things through.

Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Miguel Castro are the organization’s top on-the-cusp pitching prospects at triple-A Buffalo, while Labourt is part of the promising wave behind them that includes 2014 first-rounder Jeff Hoffman, Sean Reid-Foley, Clinton Hollon and 2015 first-rounder Jon Harris.

A few of them may very well end up being used in trades ahead of the July 31 non-waiver deadline, but they’re the support behind youngsters like Drew Hutchison, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Roberto Osuna currently with the Blue Jays or on the disabled list.

As Norris, Boyd and Castro have all shown this year, the challenge isn’t only in getting to the big leagues, it’s also in staying there. So in many ways, the heavy lifting is just starting for Labourt.

Among the coming steps, Johnson says, are “continued maturity in pitching and that pitchability aspect, when he gets into trouble [knowing] how to limit the damage, working with men on base, keeping his wits about him on the mound, grinding through those tough innings to give up the ones or twos instead of the threes or fours.”

If all goes well, his perfect fifth inning at the Futures Game will be a pit stop on his trail to the big leagues. However it turns out, the experience was a big one for Labourt.

“I’m very happy for my family, very good news for my family,” he says, noting they watched on TV back home in the Dominican Republic. “I feel very good, very happy.”

The Blue Jays would love for his coming performances to keep him that way, too.

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