Toronto Talents Took off During Flights North
Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club.
At this point a year ago, Toronto's Top 30 boasted Nate Pearson, Austin Martin, Jordan Groshans, Simeon Woods Richardson, Alek Manoah and Alejandro Kirk as its top six prospects. Only Groshans remains among those ranks today -- for, more or less, good reasons. Pearson, Manoah and Kirk have graduated to the Majors and played various roles in helping the Blue Jays to the cusp of the postseason in 2021. Martin and Woods Richardson were traded together to the Twins in a midseason blockbuster for José Berríos.
It's a new-look Jays system these days, one dominated primarily by young, versatile position players trying to find their ways into the Toronto lineup alongside Vladimir Guerrero Jr., George Springer and Bo Bichette however they can. Orelvis Martinez seems well on his way to cracking a future Canadian infield group. Gabriel Moreno looked like the catcher of the very near future in a small sample size. Draft additions like Gunnar Hoglund, Irv Carter and Ricky Tiedemann bulked up the pitching corps.
On a team level, Buffalo enjoyed the most success, finishing with the Triple-A East's second-best record at 79-47. The Bisons' success highlighted Toronto's ability to develop and sign quality depth for its Major League club. Double-A New Hampshire (52-55), High-A Vancouver (55-64) and Low-A Dunedin (57-63) didn't crack .500, but all three have multiple representatives on this year's Organization All-Stars list.
But as always, the goal isn't to develop just Org All-Stars; the true goal is much higher.
"Graduating those guys and seeing them immediately jump in and impact the big league team, it's exciting and it's what fuels us for the year," said Blue Jays assistant director of player development Joe Sclafani. "Hopefully we can continue to do that year in and year out as we stay in this competitive window. Hopefully, we can bring the World Series back to Canada with the group we're building."
Blue Jays Organization All-Stars
Catcher -- Zach Britton, Low-A Dunedin (79 games): Britton split time between catcher and the outfield at Louisville before being taken in the fifth round by the Jays in 2020. He stayed behind the plate on a much more regular basis in his first taste of the pros, making 43 of his 51 starts there.
The 23-year-old remains a work in progress with the tools of ignorance (he threw out only six of 77 attempted base stealers), but he showed a solid approach that resulted in a 14.4 percent walk rate and .375 on-base percentage. Despite just a .225 average and seven homers, that patience helped the left-handed batter finish with a 112 wRC+ at Low-A Southeast, making him the only Toronto Minor League catcher with a wRC+ above 100 in 200 or more plate appearances.
"He dove in headfirst," Sclafani said about approaching Britton on becoming a full-time catcher. "[Dunedin coach] George Carroll did a nice job with him over there. It was an adjustment because he never had to do it on a day-to-day basis. All of a sudden, we're asking him to go back to the catching piece. But he did true greatly with improving his setup, which impacted his receiving and his blocking. The arm shows there's some area for improvement, but we were pretty excited about what he was able to do."
Honorable mention: If not for a fractured thumb that limited him to only 159 plate appearances, Gabriel Moreno would have been the easiest of calls here. The Blue Jays' top prospect amassed a .367/.434/.626 slash line with eight homers in 37 games, most of which were at Double-A New Hampshire. His all-around ability has him ascending the MLB Pipeline's Top 100 ranks, and a healthy 2022 should vault him quickly to the top level.
First baseman -- Tyler Whiteï»¿, Triple-A Buffalo (105 games): Following a brief nine-game spell in the KBO in 2020, White returned to North America on a Minor League deal with the Jays last offseason and quickly rediscovered stateside success in Buffalo. The veteran infielder batted .292/.424/.476 with 13 homers in 105 games with the Bisons. He walked 80 times while striking out in only 73 occasions, giving him a 1.1 BB/K ratio that led qualified Triple-A hitters. His 147 wRC+ also placed seventh at the level and topped full-season performers in the Toronto system.
White elected free agency in November and has a Minor League deal in place with the Brewers, according to Robert Murray of FanSided.
Second baseman -- Otto Lopezï»¿, Double-A New Hampshire (70 games), Buffalo (43 games), Toronto (one game): A career .312 hitter in the Minor Leagues, Lopez gave his profile an additional boost by producing a .331/.398/.457 line over 314 plate appearances at Double-A to open the season. The 23-year-old was closer to an average hitter with Buffalo (.289/.347/.405), but he showed enough to earn his Major League debut on Aug. 17.
Lopez's .315 average and 32 doubles were highest among Toronto full-season qualifiers, while his 22 steals tied for 11th-most in the organization. He made 56 defensive starts at second base, but also saw time at shortstop and all three outfield spots, where the Jays tried to take advantage of his above-average speed.
Third baseman -- Kevin Smith, Buffalo (94 games), Toronto (18 games): It's been a roller-coaster career for Smith to date. He went from breakout prospect in 2018 to struggling Double-A hitter in 2019 to arguably his highest highs this past season. The 25-year-old was an offensive force at Triple-A, setting career bests with a .370 on-base percentage, .561 slugging percentage, .931 OPS and 21 homers. He added 18 steals, making him the only Jays Minor Leaguer with at least that many in the power-speed categories.
Toronto called Smith up on Aug. 18 and he played 18 games at the top level, going just 3-for-32 (.094) with a homer and 11 strikeouts. He primarily saw third base in the Majors after previously playing mostly short with Buffalo. Smith also took on first base and corner-outfield duties in 2021, and his best chances at cracking a contending Jays club in 2022 and beyond might be in a utility role.
Shortstop -- Orelvis Martinezï»¿, Dunedin (71 games), High-A Vancouver (27 games): Signed for $3.5 million on July 2, 2018, Martinez finally reached full-season ball this past summer and didn't disappoint with the bat. His 28 homers were not only most in the Jays organization -- seven more than his closest competition -- but also led all teenage Minor Leaguers in 2021. (Francisco Álvarez was second with 24.)
He hit .279/.369/.572 over 326 plate appearances at Low-A, resulting in a 149 wRC+, prior to an Aug. 2 promotion. Martinez was tested much more heavily during his time at Vancouver, where he hit just .214 and had a 99 wRC+, but nine of his 24 hits with the Canadians were home runs.
The Dominican Republic native, who just turned 20 in November, got looks at short and third in 2021, and aided by a plus arm, he seems more likely to move to the hot corner full time the closer he gets to Toronto and Bo Bichette.
"I think he pressed a little bit to prove to guys what he thought he was supposed to be doing right off the bat," Sclafani said. "It was more just about getting himself comfortable and seeing the same pitches in his zones and not missing those. He had fouled off some of those or had a habit of falling off some of those earlier in the year. Then as he got more comfortable, he was comfortable sitting on pitches, which was pretty cool to see. [He would think,] 'This guy threw me a bunch of sliders last time we played, and they got me out. So he's gonna come back like that.' Then he'd sit on a slider, and he hit a home run. The smile on his face, you can't beat that."
Zac Cookï»¿, Dunedin (34 games), Vancouver (48 games): Cook was an undrafted senior sign out of University of Texas-Arlington in 2020 and quickly gave other clubs a glance at what they may have missed out on in his pro debut last year. The left-handed slugger batted .255/.378/.489 with 12 homers and 15 steals in 82 games between Low-A and High-A. He showed even more pop at the higher level, where he finished with eight of those long balls and a .531 slugging percentage in 48 games, and his 134 wRC+ was sixth-best in the organization among Minor Leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances.
Cook posted a 1.123 OPS over 16 games in his final season on campus prior to the pandemic shutdown, so it's possible he was headed this way anyway. His pro breakout will be tested further at the upper levels in his age-24 campaign this upcoming season.
"He controls the zone extremely well, knows the strike zone about as good as anybody we've got," Sclafani said. "So he's not going to chase. He knows his hot zones. When he's on time consistently, he has the opportunity to drive the ball all over the field. He can hit for average. He's got some juice. There's a lot to like with his offensive approach."
Samad Taylorï»¿, New Hampshire (87 games): Taylor's name has been on the lips of many Jays fans this offseason after he was surprisingly omitted from the 40-man roster in November, despite Rule 5-eligibility.
The 2016 10th-rounder is coming off a standout season at Double-A, where he hit .294/.385/.503 with 16 homers and 30 steals, tied for fourth-most in the organization. The improvements in power stood out most -- his previous career single-season highs were a .436 slugging percentage and nine homers.
"He has electric bat speed," Sclafani said. "I mean, you can't necessarily teach it to that level. It's just a matter of trusting himself and focusing on contact point. Letting the ball travel a little bit buys him time to see the ball and see the pitch better and make better decisions. We saw that play out in New Hampshire, where a bunch of his home runs came on two strikes. He was just seeing the ball deeper and trusting those hands."
Taylor saw time at four different positions, including 27 starts between center and left on the grass, as the Jays tried to find a spot for his plus speed. A 29.4 percent K rate could be worrisome, but there are enough tools there for the 23-year-old to impact a Major League club in some way, perhaps as early as 2022.
Sebastian Espinoï»¿, Dunedin (four games), Vancouver (61 games): The Jays grabbed Espino in the Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft in December 2020 and gave him his first tastes of full-season ball over the summer. He ate them up, figuratively speaking. The 21-year-old batted .295/.358/.511 with eight homers and 28 total extra-base hits over 61 games with Vancouver. He finished with a 125 wRC+ while earning positive reviews for his above-average raw power.
"The bat speed is really good, and when he gets it, it's loud," Sclafani said. "It was cool to see when he was able to take advantage of that opportunity when he got to Dunedin, and then when he was on a roll there, another opportunity came up. He was an easy choice to send to Vancouver. What he was able to do up there as well was pretty special. The journey for him over the course of the year was pretty wild. It was just fun to see where he's at, and we're excited for next year."
Right-handed starting pitcher -- Casey Lawrenceï»¿, New Hampshire (four games, four starts), Buffalo (21 games, 10 starts): Lawrence first cracked the Majors with the Jays in 2017 and had stints with the Mariners and in Japan and independent ball before returning to the Toronto system as a Minor League free agent last May. He opened his comeback as a Triple-A middle reliever, was sent to Double-A to build up as a starter and returned as a member of the Buffalo rotation in mid-August. Each of his final 14 appearances between those stops was in a starting or bulk role.
Lawrence posted a 4.40 ERA and 4.09 FIP over 86 innings in 2021. His 4.9 percent walk rate was lowest among Blue Jays Minor Leaguers with at least 70 frames, while his 1.12 WHIP and 4.7 K/BB ratio stood second-best among the same group. His ability to pitch in the strike zone was the 34-year-old's greatest asset, and the Jays liked enough of what they saw to re-sign him to a Minor League deal with an invitation to Spring Training in November.
Left-handed starting pitcher -- Zach Logueï»¿, New Hampshire (seven games, seven starts), Buffalo (18 games, 17 starts): The 2017 ninth-rounder was one of the breakout prospects of the system in 2021 with a performance that launched him into the Blue Jays' Top 30 ranks.
Utilizing a slight velocity bump to 92-93 mph as well as a good cutter and changeup, Logue led Toronto full-season qualifiers with a 3.67 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 1.11 WHIP, 144 strikeouts, 5.3 K/BB, 5.3 walk percentage and 125 innings. An Organization All-Stars case doesn't get easier than that. On top of that, he ended the season on a strong note with a 2.08 ERA, 37 strikeouts and four walks over his final six starts (30 1/3 innings).
That momentum and season-long performance propelled Logue to the Toronto 40-man roster in November prior to the Rule 5 Draft deadline. He should factor into the club's rotation depth next spring.
Relief pitcher -- Adrian Hernandez, Dunedin (nine games), Vancouver (12 games), New Hampshire (10 games): Individual pitches don't get much better than Hernandez's changeup -- a low-80s offering with lots of separation from his heater and more spin than the typical cambio. Hernandez's selection here isn't based on stuff, but it does explain how he put up OAS-worthy numbers.
The 5-foot-11 right-hander struck out 108 batters in 62 1/3 innings across three levels. His 43.0 percent K rate and .123 average-against stood third-best among the 743 Minor League pitchers with at least 60 frames in 2021. He also sported a 2.74 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP in that span, though those numbers dropped to 2.03 and 0.77 respectively when excluding his Dunedin performance -- a signal of just how much he improved as the season went on. Hernandez turns 22 on Jan. 22 and will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft next offseason, though his trajectory could send him into the Major League bullpen well before then.
"The changeup is a Bugs Bunny changeup," Sclafani said. "He was throwing it like 50-60 percent of the time, even at the High-A level and sometimes at the Double-A level, too. Guys knew it was coming, and they still couldn't hit it. So that's going to give him a chance no matter what, that just straight-up fastball-changeup combination."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.
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