Inside Forest Wall’s winding journey to Blue Jays’ spring training

Blue Jays prospect Forest Wall, pictured playing for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. (courtesy NH Fisher Cats)

TORONTO — On a warm night last July, Forrest Wall was in Hartford, Conn., where he played centre field for the Colorado Rockies double-A affiliate, the Yard Goats. He’d just returned from a week-long road trip, which culminated with a nine-inning game that began at the outrageous hour of 11:00am and was followed by a five-hour bus ride home. A new series began the next day against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the Toronto Blue Jays affiliate. Wall was hoping he could chill for a bit.

But his phone was blowing up. Turned out that while he was on that bus he’d been traded from the Rockies to the Blue Jays in the Seung-hwan Oh deal. Colorado’s development people were calling. Toronto’s, too. Amidst the flurry, Wall made one outgoing call himself — to Fisher Cats shortstop Bo Bichette.

“Bro,” Wall said when Bichette picked up, “I think I’m switching dugouts tomorrow.”

Wall and Bichette go back. Bichette’s mother, Mariana, has pictures of them from when they were toddlers. It began when Bichette’s older brother, Dante Jr., became friends with Wall’s older brother, Rhodes. The families quickly grew close. Whenever Dante Jr. and Rhodes hung out, Bo tagged along to spend time with Forrest. When Dante Bichette Sr. — the four-time all-star who played 14 seasons in the majors — was giving his sons daily instruction at a Forest Park, Fla. warehouse he purchased and outfitted with batting cages and a weight room, Wall was right there with them, learning everything he could.

Eventually, Bo and Forrest ended up with the same elite travel program, Florida Travel Baseball. Bichette was the youngest player on the team, but talented enough to bat in the middle of the order. The speedy Wall hit at the top of the lineup, trading leadoff responsibilities with Nick Gordon, the current Minnesota Twins prospect. Sean Reid-Foley, who made his major-league debut with the Blue Jays last season, fronted the team’s pitching staff.

“That year we went something stupid — like 33-3 — between summer and fall,” says Jered Goodwin, who ran the team of 16- and 17-year-olds, and now coaches at Florida International University. “That was a great group. There are going to be multiple big-leaguers who were on that team. And Forrest was one of the absolute catalysts.”

Five years later, Wall and Bichette were teammates again. Bichette told his old friend on the phone that night that he’d fit right in with the league-leading Fisher Cats and the club’s tactically-aggressive, open-minded manager, John Schneider. Wall found that out for himself moments later, when Schneider called.

“He was like, ‘Hey man, welcome to the team. Enjoy it, relax, have fun,’” Wall remembers. “‘Oh, and by the way — you’re hitting leadoff for us tomorrow.’”

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What better way to get over the nerves? So, after crossing the infield with his equipment bag over his shoulder the next afternoon, and briefly getting settled with his new team, Wall walked to the plate for the game’s pitch, nodding to Hartford starter Jesus Tinoco, who he’d been on that long bus ride with the night prior.

It’s not a perfect story. Wall struck out on three pitches. But when the left-handed hitter came back up for his second plate appearance, he jumped all over the first pitch Tinoco threw and drove it so deep into the bleachers that Hartford’s right fielder barely moved.

“I don’t really know how to describe that, because there was so much emotion — I’ve never been through anything like it,” Wall says. “And then, my second day with New Hampshire, Schneider called me and was like, ‘Hey, you’ve got today off. Just relax, take it all in.’ I was like, ‘ah, dude, thank you.’”

It’s that fast-twitch explosiveness that intrigues the Blue Jays when it comes to Wall. He certainly fits the profile the organization seeks — up-the-middle roots, quick bat, athletic, good makeup, positional versatility. He’s never been the biggest guy on the field, but he’s often been the quickest, both with his hands at the plate and his legs on the base paths. Bichette calls him “unbelievably fast,” and Goodwin says that when Wall was being scouted as a high schooler, multiple evaluators told him they thought the then-middle infielder had the best speed-power potential in the entire draft.

What set Wall back was a right shoulder injury suffered during his junior year, which required surgery to repair a torn labrum. That sapped much of his arm strength, and limited his power potential at an age when he should have been growing into himself.

“Before the injury, as a high school freshman, he could really let it go,” Goodwin says. “I saw him, with a wood bat, hit balls easily 380, 385-feet to right-centre field. He had an extremely whippy bat. It’s a special looseness in his bottom hand that lets him loft a lot of balls, hit a high volume of doubles — and triples with his speed.”

Despite the injury concern, Wall’s potential still made him a high pick, 35th overall in the 2014 draft. No high school second baseman had been selected that high since the draft process was consolidated from two phases to one in 1987. The Rockies even gave him an above-slot, $2-million signing bonus to pry him away from a commitment to the University of North Carolina. At the time, Baseball America described Wall as “one of the best pure hitters in the draft class,” with “an all-fields approach and supreme contact ability,” praising his athleticism, power potential, and speed.

That translated immediately in the pros, as Wall posted a .907 OPS in rookie ball, and an .806 OPS the next year in his first full season. He entered 2016 ranked on both MLB.com’s top-100 list and Baseball Prospectus’s top-101, but some team-guided swing changes — intended to limit the naturally-twitchy Wall’s movement at the plate — didn’t take in his first year at high-A, and he was forced to repeat the level in 2017 as a 21-year-old.

Playing outfield for the first time since high school, Wall got off to a hot start, with an .832 OPS through his first 98 plate appearances. But only 22 games into the season, he dislocated his left shoulder making a diving catch, and missed the rest of the year recovering from surgery.

“In my opinion, if he’s healthy and doesn’t suffer multiple injuries, he’s already made his MLB debut,” Goodwin says. “He just hasn’t been able to get the regular reps he needs. But for as long as I’ve known this kid, when he’s gotten consistent at-bats, he’s been elite. He’s been a producer.”

Wall showed that when he returned after nearly a year off and began 2018 on a tear with a .305/.382/.453 slash line over 47 games at high-A. That earned him a promotion to double-A in late May, where he finished the season winning a championship with the Fisher Cats. He reached base eight times in New Hampshire’s six playoff games, and had four hits in the Eastern League championship series, none bigger than his 10th-inning, two-run single that put the Fisher Cats ahead in game one.

“Man, he can hit. He was one of our biggest players in the finals,” Bichette says. “He came in after the trade and fit in with us easy. He had some really big hits for us, did some really good things on the bases. He can kind of do it all.”

Still only 23, the Blue Jays will bring Wall to major-league spring training this month, hoping to provide the platform for him to begin the minor-league season with health and stability. As they have with Bichette, Blue Jays developers are encouraging Wall to be his fast-twitch self at the plate, and swing whichever way feels comfortable to him as long as it produces consistent, line drive contact. A swing with a lot of movement isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, what comes naturally is what works best.

“I remember when I got traded, Schneider sat me down and was like, ‘Hey, we’ve only got two rules: play hard and be a good teammate.’ And I was like, ‘Well,’ I can definitely do both of those.’ And from there, we all just had a lot of fun being loose, winning, and playing for each other,” Wall says. “As players, I think that’s when we’re at our best — when we’re being ourselves, having fun, playing with passion. Not when we’re put in a box or any of the cookie cutter stuff.

“The last few years, I realized a lot about myself and who I am as a baseball player. I learned a lot of things that I think will really help me in the future,” he continues. “Sometimes, it takes a while to learn that stuff. You have to try some different things. That’s just the game we play. But, ultimately, you’ve got to know yourself the best. You’ve got to figure out the things that work best for you.”

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