Inspiration for the Blue Jays Positional Primer series comes from Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus. Over the course of the second half of the season, Jason examined the prospects in the entire minor leagues on a position-by-position basis, giving insight into players both within and well outside the top 100 rankings.
While the sample size of one team is vastly inferior to that of the entire minor leagues, I feel Toronto has enough depth in the farm -- particularly in the low minors -- that such a series could provide some insight into prospects that Blue Jays fans aren't as familiar with as they should be. This is the seventh installment of an eight part series that will examine catcher, first base, middle infield, third base, center field, corner outfield, right handed pitcher, and left handed pitcher. The middle infield and corner outfield lists are included as there's really no such thing as a second base or left field prospect, they're just shortstops and center/right fielders who couldn't handle the defensive demands and get moved to the easier defensive position as they age. It should be noted that -- outside of the Leader of the Pack, who is the #1 for the position -- these are not necessarily progressive rankings of the prospects.
Part I -- Blue Jays Positional Primer: Catcher
Part II -- Blue Jays Positional Primer: First Base
Part III -- Blue Jays Positional Primer: Middle Infield
Part IV -- Blue Jays Positional Primer: Third Base
Part V -- Blue Jays Positional Primer: Center Field
Part VI -- Blue Jays Positional Primer: Corner Outfield
Part VIII -- Blue Jays Positional Primer: Left-handed Pitcher
Leader of the Pack
Noah Syndergaard -– 2011 teams: Rookie-class Bluefield, Low-A Vancouver, Single-A Lansing
13 games (11 starts), 59.0 IP, 46 H, 12 ER, 1 HR, 18 BB, 68 K
5-2, 1.83 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 10.37 K/9, 3.77 K/BB, 1.30 GO/AO
In only a little more than a year, Syndergaard’s prospect stock has seen one of the most dramatic rises in the entire minor leagues. Toronto’s 38th overall pick in the 2010 draft –- the selection used on Syndergaard –- was acquired through less than normal circumstances. James Paxton was selected by the Blue Jays 37th overall in 2009, but as he didn’t sign, Toronto received a compensation pick in that spot plus one (37 + 1 = 38) in the next draft. While the Paxton pick was protected, the Syndergaard pick was not, forcing Toronto to select a “safe sign”. The club chose Noah Syndergaard, which resulted in more than a few “Who?” remarks from the fan base. Most scouting reports said something along the lines of “big Texan with tons of projectibility, but is likely years away from reaching it”. They got the first part correct, but it appears they swung and missed on the second. Only 19 years old, Syndergaard has already pitched in four different leagues, from the Gulf Coast League all the way to the Midwest League late last season. The fact he will be ready for a full season assignment at age 19 is incredible.
Armed with the best fastball in Toronto’s system, Syndergaard’s pure stuff has improved by leaps and bounds since being drafted. Consistently sitting in the low 90’s and touching 95 in highschool, Syndergaard now finds himself working almost exclusively in the mid 90’s, with the occasional 97-98 appearing on the scoreboard. There were reports of a 102 mph pitch, but that appears to be a case of a juiced stadium gun. He is working on two offspeed pitches -– a changeup and curveball -– and while they both show potential, they’re well behind his fastball in terms of polish and consistency. His fastball alone could decimate the low minors, but if he wants to find continued success upwards from Lansing, they’ll need to keep developing. One of Syndergaard’s more impressive traits is his mental strength. His mound presence is off the charts, as he keeps his head cool when times are tough but also isn’t afraid to show some fire when he gets a big out. Noah has an incredible work ethic, always trying to do what he can to better himself. That work ethic paid off in 2010 getting him the attention of amateur scouts, and again in 2011 as his repertoire improved and he soared up prospect charts. With a full offseason to get prepared for 2012, it will be interesting to see what Synder has in store for next season.
Drew Hutchison -– 2011 teams: Single-A Lansing, High-A Dunedin, Double-A New Hampshire
28 games (27 starts), 149.1 IP, 120 H, 42 ER, 4 HR, 35 BB, 171 K
14-5, 2.53 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 10.31 K/9, 4.89 K/BB, 1.33 GO/AO
In terms of minor league levels, no player in Toronto’s system was a higher riser during the 2011 season than Drew Hutchison. Hutch was a lanky 15th round pick in 2009, but has pitched well above his draft status the past two seasons. Hutchison began the year with Single-A Lansing, and after 14 exceptional starts he received a well-earned promotion to the High-A Dunedin club. The Dunedin stop was a short one, as Hutch continued his success from Single-A and dominated Florida State League hitters for 10 starts before earning a late season promotion to Double-A New Hampshire –- a huge step for any pitcher. Unsurprisingly, Hutchison kept the ball rolling in his 3 Double-A Starts, but shut down just prior to the playoffs. Hutch had reaching his inning limit for the season (Toronto had targeted 150), and was forced to sit and watch his teammates win the Eastern League title. While his team winning the EL Championship was probably his most treasured achievement of the year, his personal streak of six-plus consecutive scoreless starts between Lansing and Dunedin was incredible.
Hutchison’s pure stuff is behind that of Noah Syndergaard which limits his ceiling, but his skinny 6’2” frame can still get some solid oomph on his fastball. Hutch works mostly in the low 90’s, but his fastball has good life and he can reach back for 94 or 95 mph when he really needs it. His slider has made great strides and flashes plus ability at times, but Hutchison is still too inconsistent with the pitch. While the slider works well against right handed opponents, he uses his third pitch, a changeup, to get lefties out. It’s still a relatively new pitch to Hutchison and is most definitely a work in progress, but it could be an above average pitch down the line if he works on developing it as hard as he worked on his fastball and slider. Hutchison has excellent command and, like most of Toronto’s top pitching prospects, he is very proficient at inducing ground balls. Strikeouts are another commonality among the Blue Jays prospects, and Hutchison led the entire system in that category in 2011 with 171. Single-A to Double-A is a big leap to make in one year, but Hutch could be facing an even bigger one in 2012 –- Double-A to the majors.
The Question Mark
Aaron Sanchez -– 2011 teams: Rookie-class Bluefield, Low-A Vancouver
14 games (9 starts), 54.1 IP, 53 H, 32 ER, 4 HR, 26 BB, 56 K
3-3, 5.30 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 9.28 K/9, 2.15 K/BB, 1.60 GO/AO
Of the six pitchers on this list, Sanchez had the least statistical success in 2011, due in part to his questionable command. Sanchez was a member of the quartet of right handed pitchers acquired by Toronto prior to the second round in the 2010 draft, alongside Deck McGuire, Noah Syndergaard, and Asher Wojciechowski. He signed early enough to get into 10 games for Toronto’s short season affiliates with very mixed results. The overpowering stuff was there –- 37 strikeouts in 25 innings with a GO/AO ratio approaching 3. The command, however, was not –- 17 walks in those 25 innings. The biggest thing for Sanchez at this point in his career is getting innings under his belt and building arm strength, as many of his command issues can be attributed to inconsistent pitching mechanics. Repetition will smooth out the kinks. As the old adage goes, practice makes perfect.
Sanchez is still just a kid at 19 years old, and given how he should continue to fill in and bulk up his extremely projectible 6’4” frame, it’s very exciting that he’s already throwing his fastball in the low 90’s. It’s very possible he has another 2-3 mph hidden inside which, when combined with natural run and sink, would make an absolutely devastating plus (possibly plus-plus) pitch. Like most pitchers on this list, Sanchez throws two offspeed pitches, a changeup and a breaking ball. His changeup is a definite work in progress, as he rarely used it in high school and still only throws a few every outing in the low minors. For a breaking ball, Sanchez throws a straight curve with plus potential. It’s more of a slow loopy curveball than a hard spike curveball, but as he cleans up his delivery and builds arm strength it could become crisper. After two seasons in short season ball, it’s likely time for Sanchez to make the move to full season ball with Single-A Lansing. 120 innings (24 starts at 5 innings per) during the 2012 season would be a fair target.
The Bullpen Guy
John Stilson –- N/A
The first 2011 draftee on the right handed pitcher list is the guy most likely to end up in a bullpen down the road. Stilson was a third round pick in the aforementioned 2011 draft, but if not for a serious shoulder injury, he was a guaranteed first round pick. Toronto took a gamble, but managed to sign him to a fair deal –- 0.5M. Stilson worked as both a starter and a reliever in college after playing shortstop in high school, but his delivery is so violent it was likely he would be forced to the bullpen even if he were healthy. The labrum injury only further cements his future. Texas A&M, his college team, has a long history of mistreating young arms, so Toronto can only hope that getting him out of that system and into organized ball will allow his health to return. Stilson has yet to play for any of Toronto’s affiliates, and a lot of question marks remain about whether he’ll even be ready for the start of the 2012 season.
In terms of pitch arsenal, it’s obvious why Stilson was regarded so highly, even if he’s a future reliever. His go-to pitch is a four-seam fastball that sits 92-95 when starting but consistently reaches the high 90’s out of the bullpen. He features three offspeed pitches, another reason why teams may have dreamed on Stilson as a starter. His circle changeup is the best of the bunch, an excellent offering that fades down and away from left handers. He also throws a slider and a curveball with varying degrees of success, but both are significantly behind his fastball and changeup in terms of polish. If the bullpen move is permanent, however, Stilson will have the opportunity to scrap one offering and focus on the other, becoming a deadly fastball/change/breaking ball closer. It’s impossible to project Stilson in the near future, but hopefully some more news regarding his health will begin to circulate once pitchers and catcher report to Spring Training in early February. If his shoulder is feeling good, he could easily start the season in High-A Dunedin or possibly even Double-A New Hampshire.
Remember the Name
Joseph Musgrove -– 2011 teams: Gulf Coast Blue Jays, Rookie-class Bluefield
9 games (7 starts), 24.2 IP, 19 H, 11 ER, 1 HR, 5 BB, 18 K
1-1, 4.01 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 6.57 K/9, 3.60 K/BB, 1.72 GO/AO
Joe Musgrove has the rare honor of being the first player from the entire 2011 draft to sign with his team, which is even more impressive when considering his 46th overall selection. Musgrove signed for 0.5M, which is below slot recommendation for the 46th overall pick, but it allowed his contract to move quickly through the Commissioner’s Office and get his professional career started. Nearly 25 innings across two levels in your draft year is an excellent way to keep your major league aspirations on track. Musgrove is an imposing guy, standing 6’5” and weighing over 230 lbs. He immediately gives the impression of a workhorse type of pitcher, and in reality that’s exactly what he is. With a smooth and easy delivery working alongside unquestionable stamina, Musgrove has all the basics required for a reliable 200+ inning starting pitcher.
In terms of stuff, Musgrove has an intriguing fastball but little else developed. His fastball is more of a sinker than a true four-seamer, as it works on a downward plane to create a heaviness that makes the ball difficult to get under. The pitch sits in the low 90’s, but has been clocked as high as 98 mph in the past. Like most high school pitchers, Musgrove also throws a changeup and a breaking ball, but both have a long way to go before being assets. For pitchers with good fastballs like Musgrove, there’s little reason to develop offspeed pitches in high school, as they can blow the hitters away with the catcher simply putting one finger down over and over. His changeup sits in the mid 70’s, which is a bit concerning as 12 mph is usually the biggest gap you want between your fastball and your changeup. Musgrove is sitting at around 16 or 17 mph of separation, which is something that will need to be remedied. His breaking ball is a high 70’s to low 80’s curveball with sharp break. Musgrove finished the year with Bluefield, but he seems to be the type of guy who could skip straight to Single-A Lansing and give the team 120 innings without too much risk of injury. Otherwise, he’ll be yet another powerful arm fuelling the playoff hopes of Toronto’s short season affiliates.
Dream on Me
Adonys Cardona –- 2011 team: Gulf Coast Blue Jays
10 games (7 starts), 31.2 IP, 31 H, 16 ER, 2 HR, 12 BB, 35 K
1-3, 4.55 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 9.94 K/9, 2.92 K/BB, 1.86 GO/AO
The sixth and final pitcher on the list is Adonys Cardona, Toronto’s prized International Free Agent of the 2010 season. Cardona agreed to terms with the Blue Jays with a contract that would make him the highest paid Venezuelan IFA in history, receiving 2.8M from the club. Not turning 18 until later this month, there are already some major discrepancies regarding Cardona’s height and weight. Multiple outlets, including Baseball America, have Cardona listed at 6’4” and 180 lbs. Some others, such as MILB.com, list him at 6’1” and 170 lbs. Neither have a date recording when the measurements were made so it's impossible to know his true stature without seeing him in person, but with either build it’s quite obvious he’s very lean and possesses a ton of projectibility. By the time he’s 22 years old, he could add 2-3 inches and 20-30 lbs to his frame, and Toronto’s front office can only hope that further augments his power arsenal. Cardona also has genetics on his side, as his father is a former professional baseball player who spent time in the minor leagues.
Cardona threw his fastball in the high 80’s to low 90’s at age 16, and at the time of his signing Baseball America felt that after he has finished maturing physically, it should be at least a plus pitch capable of capable of sitting in the mid 90’s. Cardona has shown some potential with a changeup, but unsurprisingly it’s still very raw and has a long way to go before it becomes an out pitch. Working on his side, however, is that from top to bottom Toronto is one of the best organizations when it comes to developing changeups. The club values the pitch very highly, as it’s effective against the opposite swinging batter and is one of the few pitches that have little negative effect on a young arm. Cardona’s primary breaking ball is a 12-6 curveball, but it’s presently a below average pitch. When he snaps it off well it shows good break, but he’s far too inconsistent with it. Regardless, it’s very rare for any teenager to have good feel for their breaking ball, so Cardona has plenty of time to figure it out. Beyond the impressive statistics, but I liked most about Cardona’s debut season is that he skipped the DSL altogether and was assigned straight to the Gulf Coast League, an indication that Toronto has no intentions of babying their young phenom.