On brink of debut, Blue Jays' Moreno braces for next set of challenges

Arash Madani and Ben Nicholson-Smith chat about Gabriel Monero's future after Zach Collins was sent to Buffalo, Kevin Gausman's delivery, and the status on bullpen with Tim Mayza being activated.

DETROIT — Already, life has changed considerably for Gabriel Moreno.

On Wednesday, the 22-year-old catcher learned he was being promoted to the major leagues, and he joined the Blue Jays in Detroit the next day. By Friday afternoon, he’d already caught multiple bullpen sessions, taken part in pitchers’ meetings and settled in beside teammate Alejandro Kirk at his Comerica Park locker. He'd chosen a new number — 55, a nod to Russell Martin — and held court with the Toronto media for 15 minutes in his second language. He’d also heard from his mom no fewer than 10 times.

A consensus top-five prospect, Moreno arrives in the majors with impressive tools at the plate and in the field. But even now that he’s here, there are more challenges coming, starting Saturday when he’s expected to catch Kevin Gausman in his major-league debut. Such is life as a highly-touted hitting prospect who must also adapt to the demands of the sport’s most demanding position.

“When I was 12 years old, I realized this is what I wanted,” Moreno said with some help from interpreter Hector Lebron. “This is my dream: to be a professional baseball player. And here I am.”

“I feel amazing right now,” he added. “The first thing was a kind of shock. And I started laughing because I’d prefer to laugh than cry.”

At his best, Moreno is a high-average hitter who barrels baseballs consistently and rarely strikes out. Those skills were on display as soon as Moreno debuted, as he struck out just 3.7 per cent of the time in 2017, his age-17 season (for context, MLB average is 22.2 per cent). Since then he's added some power, but his bat-to-ball skills still stand out most.

"He's high-contact with the ability to do damage,” said VP of international scouting and baseball operations Andrew Tinnish, who oversaw the signing of Moreno for $25,000 alongside South American scouting coordinator Francisco Plasencia and director of Latin American operations Sandy Rosario.

“He can drive the ball all fields. He's a tough out. If you look at his numbers historically, you can tell that he doesn't strike out a lot. His swinging strike rate is always very low. His contact rate's are always very high and combines that with pretty solid exit velo."

Asked to describe his new catcher, Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo kept his description simple.

"Happy," Montoyo said. "He’s always hitting, so it’s tough not to be happy. But everybody loves him. That’s the best compliment I can give."

In 36 games at triple-A this year, Moreno hit .324/.380/.404 with a home run and eight doubles. But as impressive as those numbers are, there’s little doubt opposing pitchers will be game planning. Just ask Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker, who does the same thing whenever minor-leaguers are called up to face the Blue Jays.

"It’s 'what does he do, what has he done, where does he hit the ball? What are his strengths? Does he have power? Does he bunt? Does he run? You can't hide,'" Walker explained. "You can't sneak up. If there's a weakness somebody has, it's a pretty accurate statement to say that team would have it."

In other words, opponents will be game-planning for Moreno from day one. Look no further than fellow top catching prospect Adley Rutschman (.451 OPS this year) or Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson (.606 OPS) for evidence of that. They’re both talented hitters, but game-planning has gotten so much better in recent years. When Walker pitched from 1995-2006? Different story.

"It was 'OK, who's this guy? What has he got? He's right-handed?'" Walker recalled.

Of course, as a catcher, that game-planning goes two ways. Part of the reason Moreno joined the Blue Jays’ taxi squad before his official activation was so he could participate in pitchers’ meetings. He says building rapport with Toronto’s pitchers is his top priority, and he’s already completed side sessions with Ross Stripling and Yusei Kikuchi with that goal in mind.

Speaking to the media Friday afternoon, Moreno sounded confident.

"I’m ready," he said. "I had it on my mind, but I just wanted to keep working hard, doing the things that I do. I wasn’t thinking, 'I’m ready and I have to go now.' Being in triple-A, it was what I had in front of me, so I was making the most of it and staying ready for whenever the move was."

To some extent, PitchCom technology eases the transition to the majors for young catchers who no longer have to rely as heavily on traditional sign sequences. Plus, as Montoyo noted Friday, the Blue Jays’ rotation features many veteran pitchers who have full conviction in what they want to throw.

Regardless, Moreno will have to prove himself once again starting Saturday. He has no guarantee of playing time once Danny Jansen returns from the injured list, no assurances of DH games to keep his bat in the lineup and precisely zero big-league hits. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time he’s surprised people on a baseball field.

"Sometimes it's maybe a little extra special when it's not someone who came in as a highly touted draft pick or signed for a huge bonus,” Tinnish said. “Maybe someone whose path was a little bit more challenging because they didn't come in with that sort of same level of hype, so to speak."

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