On eve of Blue Jays’ minor-league season, intrigue lies in New Hampshire

Watch as Hazel Mae, Ben Nicholson-Smith, and Arden Zwelling discuss the return of the minor leagues, and how the Blue Jays can benefit from it.

TORONTO – Temporary displacement as a result of the pandemic isn’t unique to the Toronto Blue Jays, who will have three of their four affiliates in makeshift homes when the minor-league season begins Tuesday.

The triple-A Buffalo Bisons will play out of Trenton, N.J., this summer to free up the renovated Sahlen Field for the parent club’s expected arrival next month. The high-A Vancouver Canadians are setting up shop in Hillsboro, Ore., due to the same border restrictions keeping the Blue Jays out of Toronto, while low-A Dunedin is hosting its home games this month either at its opponent’s venue or an alternate location because the big-league club is using TD Ballpark.

Quite the wrinkle to work in amid the already complicated array of protocols needed to keep well over a hundred minor-leaguers free of COVID-19 throughout spring training.

“It was an added challenge, especially with two new sites,” Joe Sclafani, the Blue Jays’ assistant director, player development who oversaw camp, says in an interview. “But kudos to everybody who's worked their tails off to work through that. We feel like we're in a pretty good spot. We'll see what we've got.”

The double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the sole Blue Jays affiliate playing in its actual home, will be where much of the farm-system intrigue lies, with a roster stocked with most of the Blue Jays’ top prospects.

Electric-armed righties Nate Pearson and Alek Manoah will both be at Buffalo, but dynamic infielders Austin Martin and Jordan Groshans, polished-beyond-his-years starter Simeon Woods Richardson, promising two-way catcher Gabriel Moreno, on-the-rise utilityman Otto Lopez and toolsy outfielders Chavez Young and Reggie Pruitt will all be in New Hampshire.

Blue Jays' prospects have won Eastern League championships with the Fisher Cats in 2011 and 2018, and the current group, depending how long it stays together, may be even more talented than those clubs.

Talent, of course, is only part of it, as health, both from a COVID-19 perspective and a physical workload perspective will play crucial roles in what happens this year. Sclafani says more than 80 per cent of minor-leaguers assigned have been vaccinated offering hope on that front, although the workload piece is sure to be complicated all season long.

To help wrap their minds around where different players were, the Blue Jays held a voluntary virtual mini-camp before the in-depth assessments began at actual spring training. During the Florida developmental league that was run in the fall, players wore physical trackers to help develop baselines and the data collected can be “paired with how the player feels and how the body is actually responding based on the tech,” says Sclafani.

“Guys are starting to get engaged in it. For pitchers, we're defining light, medium and heavy intensity days. We're starting to get some buy-in there. They realize all that matters is that you're at your best when you're on the mound, so how do we manage the work in between to make sure the tank is as full as possible for when you're out there and competing.

“We’re trying to be even a little bit more cautious, like I think most teams are as well. This is unprecedented, we're just trying to figure out the best way to stay on top of it.”

Handling pitching, obviously, will be the most complicated part, especially with so many hurlers getting sporadic work last year, if any at all. The Blue Jays are planning to stay away from rigidly committing to traditional year-over-year inning thresholds to manage workload, wanting instead to “rely on the monitoring, the constant conversations, guys being open and honest with us and seeing how the body is responding,” says Sclafani.

“There's no historical data that we can work off of for this type of situation,” he continues. “It's the day-to-day piece, really hammering them on routines more than we typically do and hoping communication and using the tech and data that we can come up with matches what they're feeling, how the body is responding. Then we can be open to making decisions as we go.”

Just as the affiliates get going, the Blue Jays are set to open up extended spring training at Dunedin this week. Canadian outfielder Dasan Brown (a possibility for the Canadian roster at next month’s Olympic qualifying tournament), shortstop Manuel Beltre, the club’s top international signing this year, and outfielder Yhoangel Aponte, another member of the new international class, will be on the roster of roughly 45 players.

Here’s a look at how the affiliates shake down, along with some scouting reports:

Triple-A Buffalo Bisons

Much of the Blue Jays upper-level system depth will be parked here, including recent big-leaguers like Rowdy Tellez, Jonathan Davis, Josh Palacios, T.J. Zeuch, A.J. Cole, Jacob Waguespack and Reese McGuire and on-the-radar options like Joey Murray and Forrest Wall and intriguing late-bloomer Hobie Harris. Already Riley Adams earned promotion thanks to Alejandro Kirk’s hip injury, leaving Nate Pearson and Alek Manoah as the top prospects.

Nate Pearson, RHP – “Nate's competing for a spot in the starting rotation here,” farm director Gil Kim told reporters. “We have a ton of faith and confidence in Nate. He's one of the most talented pitchers we have stuff-wise, he's one of the hardest workers we have, extremely driven. The focus and priority right now is him being as healthy as possible, getting some innings under his belt and continuing to develop. As talented as he is, there is development there that he's attacking and we're excited to see him compete for a spot here and hopefully have him back on our team soon.”

Alek Manoah, RHP – “Crazy impressive the way he showed up and performed in big-league camp,” says Sclafani. “That's exactly what he wanted to do. He's a hungry, hungry guy. We challenged them with a few things in the off-season, to continue working on his body and focusing on that part of his game. He answered every bell. He showed up in really good shape. And you can see it just based on how he came out and competed. Obviously, we know he's got the fastball and the slider combo, but the changeup was a point of emphasis in development for him. He's definitely shown some gains there at alt site. We thought it was an appropriate challenge to send him to Buffalo. We're really excited to see what he can do there.”

Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats

Big names abound, Austin Martin and Jordan Groshans front and centre, but there’s talent and upside throughout this roster, including interesting right-hander Maximo Castillo, the wild-card Elvis Luciano, and emergent Brody Rodning. The Blue Jays are eager to get both Martin, the fifth overall pick last year, and Groshans, the 12th overall pick in 2018 looking to play catchup after a truncated 2019, a steady diet of at-bats to fuel their progress. They have the potential to be as dynamic a duo as Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette were for the Fisher Cats.

Austin Martin, SS/CF – “Ultimate competitor, he just wants to be on the field to help the team win,” says Sclafani. “He wants to be a shortstop, we think he's a shortstop, he's going to get reps there. Centre field is another natural position for him, so he'll split reps between those two spots, at least to start the year. He needs to keep working on his footwork and his direction for the accuracy of his throws. He's made some nice strides and he works his tail off, you can't ask for much more on that front."

Jordan Groshans SS/3B – “You ask him and he would tell you straight up that he wanted to be the opening day third baseman (in the big-leagues),” says Sclafani. “So he definitely wants to push. And you always want that from guys. He has missed a lot of time but got some great development opportunities at the alt site last year, big-league camp this year, he was outstanding. Defensively, just how his body is moving, his footwork and direction, body positioning and controlling and fielding ground balls, he'd made some pretty good strides there. He wants to make himself an above-average defender. He likely would have been in double-A at the end of last year regardless. So just let him get off to a good start. He wants to go dominate and keep working on what he needs to work on.”

Simeon Woods Richardson, RHP – “Sim is almost a bit of a challenging one, because he's so advanced for such a young guy. It's just continuing with execution. He can throw all the different pitches for strikes. He's done pretty well over here at the alt site. The main focuses for him are maintaining velo throughout his outings and continuing to work on slider development.”

Gabriel Moreno, C – “Gabby had a great year (in 2019) and he would have been ready to start at high-A last year. He was one of the (Venezuelan players) who was stuck (in Dunedin during the first pandemic shutdown) last year. Great attitude, worked his tail off and then went up to the alt site and impressed people everywhere he goes. The growth in how he carries himself, knowing his routines and what he needs to work on and get after every single day, has been impressive. The bat-to-ball skills are elite, he controls the zone, athletic back there, got a great arm, quick release, he's accurate. It's more just the nuances of catching at this point, which has been documented before and he's aware of it. He was trying to learn during big-league camp and at the alt site, working with pitchers and reading swings and game-planning. We're excited to see what he can do.”

 Otto Lopez, INF/OF – “He brings great energy every day. He knows a lot of his value is tied into his ability to play all over the place. With the guys that we have there, probably less likely to get a ton of shortstop reps. But second, third outfield, mix him around and try to help them develop into an average or above average defender at all these different spots. Charlie (Montoyo) likes to use those guys, so he just becomes more of a weapon the more versatile he can be.”

Advanced-A Vancouver Canadians

Righty Eric Pardinho, coming off Tommy John surgery, may end up here once he’s ready but for now, he’s still building up at the complex in Dunedin. He had a couple of setbacks but never went home to Brazil during the pandemic because he was so dedicated to his rehab. His absence leaves Adam Kloffenstein and C.J. Van Eyk, a second-round pick last year, as the biggest names at Vancouver. One interesting story to watch will be converted catcher Hagen Danner, a second-round pick in 2017, make the transition to the mound. He started the process last year and has been up to 96/97 with a pretty good slider. For now he’s working out of the bullpen, but it could turn into more.

Adam Kloffenstein, RHP – “He's very engaged with everything we've presented him. He wants to know the why. You better be ready to defend whatever you're bringing to him. The maturity has been great. I think he got humbled a little bit when he was (pitching in the independent Constellation Energy League last summer). He was pretty candid about that. The stuff was picking up, but he got to be around some really advanced guys and he credits that for a lot of development, just conversations he had. How do you go about it? How would you pitch that guy? I think he benefited in a big way from being in a starkly different environment than he likely would have anyway. He's primed and ready.”

C.J. Van Eyk, RHP – “It's his first full season, his first spring training was big-league camp, so he's still learning, but it's a great experience. He's got good stuff and he likes to compete. So he'll go out there and see what he can do against that level.”

Low-A Dunedin Blue Jays

If the next wave of Blue Jays prospects is at New Hampshire, the wave beyond that is in Dunedin, with dynamic infield prospects Orelvis Martinez, Miguel Hiraldo and Leo Jimenez, the electric-armed but raw Yosver Zulueta and Dutch right-hander Sem Robberse. Zach Britton, drafted as an outfielder last summer, is making the transition back to catching. Martinez, Hiraldo and Jimenez have all been shortstops, but they can’t all play there in Dunedin. Jimenez is recovering from a hand injury right now, but “we've thought through how it's going to work with all three of them there,” says Sclafani. “It will likely be Orelvis and Leo sharing lion's share of shortstop reps. Orelvis will get some at third base, as well. Hiraldo will probably get some at second and third, and Leo will be short and second.”

Orelvis Martinez, SS/3B – “Orelvis is about as talented as they come and he has been since we got him. The part that our staff is most impressed and excited about is the growth in maturity and professionalism that he has showed. He's still a 19-year-old kid. Sometimes people tend to forget that because of pure talent. But he has grown in those areas. You can walk up to and ask him what he's working on or what his routines are and he's got them pretty buttoned up at this point. And that's just going to continue to help him. It's his first full season. It's always an adjustment. It's a long year, but we have confidence in the fact that he's on top of his routines and knows what he needs to do on a daily basis to continue to improve.”

Yosver Zulueta, RHP – “He impressed people with just his pure stuff. But he hasn't pitched competitively in quite some time. We want to put him in a position where our pitching co-ordinators are here, they can go over and see him whenever and let him gradually get comfortable in his first full season over here in the States and see what he can do. If he goes out and performs, he'll move with how electric that stuff is.”

Zach Britton, C/OF – “He's super athletic in the box, has a good feel for the zone and what he's trying to do, ball comes off the bat loud. He was a catcher at Louisville before he transitioned to the outfield so we're going to see if he can catch a little bit. He's been fantastic when we approached him about it. He gets the value of that and the strides he's made even in camp over the course of the last four weeks have been really cool to see. He hadn't caught in like three years.”

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