TORONTO – Between the rapid rise of prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, and the relentless big-league roster churn that led to 11 players debuting in the majors, the 2017 season was a busy and productive one for the Toronto Blue Jays farm system.
Led by Guerrero and Bichette after their July promotions, advanced-A Dunedin is one of the organization’s three minor-league teams to reach the post-season, joining short-season-A Vancouver and rookie Bluefield, which lost in the Appalachian League’s East Division final to the Pulaski Yankees.
While winning is important, the system’s ultimate measure is in the development path of the Blue Jays’ top prospects, and as always there were varying degrees of progress on that front.
Front and centre were Guerrero and Bichette, who’s dominance at low-A Lansing pushed them up to Dunedin in July, where their success continued unhindered. As attractive as their numbers were – Guerrero finished with a cumulative slash line of .323/.425/.485 while Bichette batted .362/.423/.565 – the Blue Jays were just as impressed with other aspects of their growth.
“Offence is always going to be important and Bo and Vladdy are advanced in their offensive approach, certainly for the age they’re at, but so is the rest of their game,” says Ben Cherington, the Blue Jays’ vice-president, baseball operations. “We’re really pushing them to develop as complete players, not only on defence and bases as defenders and baserunners, but also as teammates.
“As much as the offensive performance for both those guys has been impressive this year, we’ve been equally, maybe even more impressed with how much they’re focusing on developing as defenders, as baserunners, as teammates, and that’s really shown up in a lot of different ways. Both guys have become leaders on the two teams they’ve been on, first in Lansing and then in Dunedin, so that’s really a credit to them.”
Meanwhile, position players Richard Urena, Anthony Alford, Dwight Smith Jr., and Ian Parmley, along with pitchers Carlos Ramirez, Tim Mayza, Chris Smith, Chris Rowley, Luis Santos, Taylor Cole and Rule 5 pick Glenn Sparkman, each debuted. A small handful of them may play into the club’s plans for next year.
Left-hander Ryan Borucki and catcher Danny Jansen each were promoted twice to finish the season at triple-A. Max Pentecost logged 162 innings over 19 games at catcher in his first action behind the plate since 2014. Shortstop Logan Warmoth and right-hander Nate Pearson, both 2017 first-rounders, started off strong at Vancouver.
“To me, (Borucki) is ready now, it’s just a matter of an opportunity waiting for him,” says Vince Horsman, the pitching coach at double-A New Hampshire. “That’s what every pitcher wants to do, is get to the point where you’re just waiting for the opportunity. There’s no more, I’ve got to work on this part of my game, or that part of my game. It’s pretty much well-rounded. He’s very aware of what he’s trying to do, the running game and all the other nuances of it, also. He’s just waiting now.”
Outfielder Dalton Pompey lost his season to injury and since he spent the entire year on the disabled list, the Blue Jays will retain an option on him next year. First baseman Rowdy Tellez slugged just .333 with six homers and 29 doubles and posted an OPS of .628 in 121 games during a difficult first season at triple-A Buffalo. Alford, catcher Reese McGuire, infielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and 2016 first-rounder T.J. Zeuch and fellow right-hander Justin Maese each had their seasons interrupted by injury.
And the results were mixed at New Hampshire, where Sean Reid-Foley, Conner Greene and Jon Harris – three of the team’s most advanced pitching prospects – went through ups and downs all season long.
“These kids come up from the (advanced-A) Florida State League and what you can do in A-ball is not necessarily what you can do in double-A,” says Horsman.
Here’s a look at some notable players around the system:
Triple-A Buffalo Bisons
65-76, fifth in International League’s North Division
Rowdy Tellez, 22, 1B/DH
Acquired: 30th round, 2013 draft
501 PA | 6 HR | .222/.295/.333 | 47 BB | 94 K
“Development is not linear. There are twists and turns along the way for most guys. Most guys are going to hit some sort of adversity whether it’s performance related or injury related. Rowdy hit that this year. He’s been incredibly accountable for it,” says Cherington. “He’s got obvious offensive talent and there were a number of things that got in the way of his offensive talent. There was a little bit of bad luck involved but I wouldn’t want to assign it all to that, there’s other stuff as well and he’s recognized that. He’s now got to be that resilient player who deals with that adversity and moves forward.
“There’s a different style of pitching in triple-A, certainly, and you tend to be seeing a more veteran pitcher who’s going to be trying to do things differently to you then out-stuff you as guys might at lower levels. There were some things off the field that would have been challenging for any of us that he was dealing with, and he was accountable for that all year, that was never an excuse. And this is a guy who’s probably had success as a hitter everywhere he’s been in his life. During his time with the Blue Jays he’s really worked hard to get his body in better shape, improve as a defender and continue to perform offensively. He had a good camp, but the game can humble you quickly and it did. It’s an experience he had to go through and we think he’ll be tougher for it.”
Danny Jansen, 22, C
Acquired: 16th round, 2013 draft
424 PA | 10 HR | .323/.400/.484 | 41 BB | 40 K (three levels)
Anthony Alford, 23, OF
Acquired: 3rd round, 2012 draft
324 PA | 5 HR | .299/.390/.406 | 36 BB | 55 K (three levels)
“Anthony Alford really made important strides in his overall game,” says Cherington.
Dwight Smith Jr., 24, OF
Acquired: 1st round, 2011 draft
449 PA | 8 HR | .273/.350/.392 | 47 BB | 71 K
Ryan Borucki, 23, pitcher
Acquired: 15th round, 2012 draft
2.93 ERA | 150.1 IP | 36 BB | 157 K (three levels)
Double-A New Hampshire
59-80, sixth in Eastern League’s Eastern Division
Lourdes Gurriel Jr., 23, 2B/SS
Acquired: Signed as international free agent in 2016
254 PA | 5 HR | .229/.268/.339 | 12 BB | 43 K (two levels)
“For most (Cuban) guys there is some sort of transition period and that first year is quite different from anything they’ve experienced in terms of the culture, the baseball schedule in the States versus Cuba, the everyday nature of it, never mind everything else,” says Cherington. “What really impressed us this year is the work ethic, the attention to detail, his accountability. I remember when he started to play in Dunedin after the hamstring injuries, he had a tough day at shortstop and I happened to be there with Gil Kim and we were in the manager’s office around noon for a 7 o’clock game. Someone walked by the office and said, ‘Hey, do you know what Gurriel is doing right now?’ And he was like, ‘No.’ We walked outside and Gurriel was out there by himself with a bucket of balls and was working on double-play turns by himself just because he had acknowledged the night before was a tough night and he wanted to do something about it. That’s a small story that reflects some of who this guy is. He really cares about getting better.
“By the end of the year he was making much more consistent plays, but also more highlight reel plays in New Hampshire both at second and short. Really encouraged about the defensive development, really encouraged by who he is as a person and now it’s just at-bats. This guy has a history of hitting.”
Reese McGuire, 22, C
Acquired: Trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates
175 PA | 6 HR | .295/.376/.483 | 20 BB | 22 K (three levels)
Richard Urena, 21, SS
Acquired: Signed as international free agent in 2012
551 PA | 5 HR | .247/.286/.359 | 30 BB | 100 K
Conner Greene, 22, pitcher
Acquired: 7th round, 2013 draft
5.29 ERA | 132.2 IP | 83 BB | 92 K
“Riding a roller-coaster – just really did not command the ball all year long,” says Horsman. “He was searching. We were trying all kinds of things and at the end of the day, I think we found a delivery that’s going to work for him. His curveball continues to get better. But with Conner, it’s just about being committed to doing one thing and doing it well. He’ll try to do five things and when you do everything you can’t do anything, know what I mean? I want him to stay focused on one task at hand. He had trouble doing that this year.”
Jon Harris, 23, pitcher
Acquired: 1st round, 2015 draft
5.41 ERA | 143.0 IP | 47 BB | 113 K
“His whole mechanics were changed in June,” says Horsman. “What we did is went back to why we drafted him as a first-rounder in the first place. He had a game at Bowie when he allowed seven runs in two-thirds of an inning and it just looked terrible, it seemed like everything he threw they knew what was coming and they didn’t miss a barrel. I looked at some video of what he was doing in college and I made the suggestion, talked to some people about maybe trying to get him back into that, approached him with that and he was like, ‘That’s the way I want to throw.’ So we made that decision and after that it was a bit of a mixed bag but he finished up strong, for me. Now, he’s got to learn how to put it all together and not be over-reliant on his off-speed stuff. He can be 92-95 with the fastball and a good slider, a plus curve and a plus-plus change. It’s really important for him how he sequences his pitches.”
Sean Reid-Foley, 21, pitcher
Acquired: 2nd round, 2014 draft
5.09 ERA | 132.2 IP | 53 BB | 122 K
“Sean was able to throw belt-high fastballs by kids in the Florida State League and he got up here and it didn’t work. He had to learn that even though he has a good arm, he has to pitch like everybody else,” says Horsman. “Tremendous improvement. He achieved every goal we set at the beginning. We talked about minimum 10 per cent change-ups. Last year he was at about six or seven. He finished right around 11 per cent.”
Thomas Pannone, 23, pitcher
Acquired: Trade with Cleveland
2.36 ERA | 144.2 IP | 36 BB | 149 K (two levels)
“I really like the kid,” says Horsman. “He doesn’t throw hard, but his fastball plays up because he really hides it. There’s a lot of deception.”
72-66, second in Florida State League’s North Division
Max Pentecost, 24, C/1B
Acquired: 1st round, 2014 draft
316 PA | 9 HR | .274/.330/.431 | 23 BB | 62 K
“Max Pentecost has shown incredible resiliency after a couple of years where he really had to work hard to get back behind the plate,” says Cherington.
Bo Bichette, 19, SS
Acquired: 2nd round, 2016 draft
499 PA | 14 HR | .362/.423/.565 | 42 BB | 81 K (two levels)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 18, 3B
Acquired: Signed as international free agent in 2015
527 PA | 13 HR | .323/.425/.485 | 76 BB | 62 K (two levels)
“The good thing for us is that Bo and Vladdy have both shown a high degree of ownership in their own development, in what they need to do, really from the time they signed,” says Cherington. “I would say they’ve been ahead of most guys their age in that count in being accountable and owning what they need to do. It starts there.”
T.J. Zeuch, 22, pitcher
Acquired: 1st round, 2016 draft
3.56 ERA | 65.2 IP | 19 BB | 51 K
Jordan Romano, 24, pitcher
Acquired: 10th round, 2014 draft
3.39 ERA | 138 IP | 54 BB | 138 K
63-73, seventh in Midwest League’s Eastern Division
Justin Maese, 20, pitcher
Acquired: 3rd round, 2015 draft
4.86 ERA | 79.2 IP | 27 BB | 69 K (two levels)
43-33, first in Northwest League’s North Division
Logan Warmoth, 22, SS
Acquired: 1st round, 2017 draft
197 PA | 2 HR | .302/.350/.418 | 8 BB | 35 K (two levels)
Nate Pearson, 21, pitcher
Acquired: 1st round, 2017 draft
0.90 ERA | 20.0 IP | 5 BB | 26 K (two levels)
46-22, first in Appalachian League’s East Division
Kevin Smith, 21, SS
Acquired: 4th round, 2017 draft
278 PA | 8 HR | .271/.312/.466 | 16 BB | 70 K
Rookie-ball GCL Blue Jays
35-25, second in Gulf Coast League’s Northwest Division
Roither Hernandez, 19, pitcher
Acquired: Signed as an international free agent in 2016
0.79 ERA | 11.1 IP | 2 BB | 9 K