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Top 15 Prospects: Toronto Blue Jays

Fans can say what they will about the Jays efforts in attracting big ticket free agents but there aren’t many organizations in baseball that can match Toronto’s dedication to scouting and player development. Since taking over the general manager’s role, Alex Anthopoulos has rejuvenated the minor league system – through trades, the draft and international free agency – and the the efforts are about to bear fruit with numerous prospects nearing graduation.

1. Anthony Gose, OF
BORN: Aug. 10, 1990
EXPERIENCE: 4 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2008 2nd round, California HS (by Phillies)
2010-11 TOP 30 RANKING: 11th

Gose narrowly edges d’Arnaud for top spot on the Jays list because of his potential as a four-tool player (The hit tool is the only non-plus). The outfielder has an exciting mix of speed, power, arm strength and overall center-field defense that is hard to find. Previously more of a singles hitter, the Jays player development staff had Gose focus more on driving the ball at double-A in 2011 and his ISO rate rose form .122 with the Phillies organization in ’10 to .161. Gose struggles to make consistent contact and posted a strikeout rate of 26% in ’11. His willingness to take walks (10.6 BB%) helps to make up for the low batting average and allowed him to attempt 84 stolen bases (He was successful 69 times). I’ve been cautious with my rankings of Gose in the past but I’m becoming a believer as he continues to show improvements as he climbs the minor league ladder.

2. Travis d’Arnaud, C
BORN: Feb. 10, 1989
EXPERIENCE: 5 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2007 supplemental 1st round, California HS (by Phillies)
2010-11 TOP 30 RANKING: 7th

The biggest knock on d’Arnaud is his inability to stay healthy – something that could become even more of an issue as he ages and experiences the rigors of catching at the big league level. The former Phillies prospect had a breakout offensive season at double-A in 2011, posting a wRC+ of 150. He showed the ability to hit for both average (.311) and power (.231 ISO). His strikeout rates have risen above 20% since coming to the Jays system but it comes as a result of a change in developmental philosophy. Defensively, d’Arnaud is a well-rounded catcher with good leadership, as well as strong receiving and blocking. He threw out 27% of base stealers and there is some room for improvement in controlling the running game; his arm is strong so it’s more a matter of consistent throwing mechanics. Despite that he has all the ingredients necessary to become an all-star catcher at the big league level. J.P. Arencibia and d’Arnaud could begin sharing the role as soon as 2013 with both also seeing time at DH in the hopes of limiting the wear and tear on the latter player.

3. Daniel Norris, LHP
BORN: April 25, 1993
ACQUIRED: 2011 2nd round, Tennessee HS
2010-11 TOP 30 RANKING: NA

The consensus top left-handed prep pitcher in the draft, Norris was a steal in the second round when he slid due to signability concerns. Many would argue that he was more talented than the Jays’ first round pick Tyler Beede, who ultimately chose to play college ball rather than sign a pro contract. Norris did not pitch in the regular season after signing late but he did attend the fall Instructional League. Norris’ repertoire includes an 88-93 mph fastball, good curveball, and a changeup. He’ll enter pro ball looking to gain more consistency with his pitching mechanics. The southpaw has exception makeup and is mature for his age. His passion for the game is clear to anyone who follows his exploits on Twitter. He’ll likely open 2012 in extended spring training before heading to Vancouver or Bluefield in June.

4. Drew Hutchison, RHP
BORN: Aug. 22, 1990
EXPERIENCE: 2 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2009 15th round, Florida HS
2010-11 TOP 30 RANKING: 21st

The Tyler Beede situation was not the first time in recent years that the organization failed to sign top picks. The club missed out on signing James Paxton, Jake Eliopoulos and Jake Barrett with its second through fourth picks of the 2009 draft. As painful as that was (Paxton is now a top prospect with the Mariners and Barrett is a potential first or second round pick in the 2012 amateur draft) it allowed the club the ability to sign both outfielder Jake Marisnick (also on this Top 15 list) and Hutchison. The right-hander had a breakout season in ’11 and played at three levels, topping out in double-A. Hutchison has above-average control and the command of his three pitch mix (88-93 mph fastball, slider, changeup) took a big step forward last year. He has the ceiling of a No. 3 starter and he could reach the Majors late in ’12 after beginning the year back in double-A.

5. Justin Nicolino, LHP
BORN: Nov. 22, 1991
EXPERIENCE: 1 season
ACQUIRED: 2010 2nd round, Florida HS
2010-11 TOP 30 RANKING: 24th

Speaking of breakouts, Nicolino was a fairly quiet signing as a second round draft pick and he entered 2011 with less fanfare than other prep draft picks such as Aaron Sanchez, Griffin Murphy, and Noah Syndergaard. Nicolino outperformed all of the them, although Syndergaard came in a close second. The southpaw showed above-average command and control during his debut which allowed him to succeed in both short-season and low-A ball. He features an 88-93 mph fastball and a potentially-plus changeup. He also has curveball. Nicolino’s frame still has room for him to fill out so he could eventually add some ticks to his fastball, especially given his clean delivery. Nicolino will likely head back to the low-A Midwest League to begin 2012 but he could reach high-A by the end of the season.

6. Noah Syndergaard, RHP
BORN: Aug. 29, 1992
EXPERIENCE: 2 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2010 supplemental 1st round, Texas HS
2010-11 TOP 30 RANKING: 27th

Syndergaard isn’t as polished as Nicolino but he muscled his way onto the Top 15 list after showing eye-popping fastball velocities throughout 2011. His heater sits in the mid-90s and even broke 100 mph on a number of occasions (albeit on a notoriously juiced radar gun). Syndergaard’s repertoire also includes a curveball and changeup – both of which show potential. The Jays stole the former Texas high schooler with a supplemental first round pick after he was a late bloomer who did not show premium velocity until his senior year. The right-hander likes to have fun and make fast friends with a lot of his fellow prospects in the organization.

When asked if the organization was surprised how quickly Syndergaard moved in 2011, a Jays official told me: “…Not surprised because of the combination of fastball velocity and command. His fastball is a weapon. When I saw him… he gave up one hit. (He) didn’t throw a fastball under 93 (mph)… Sat 95-96 getting and as high as 99, all the while showing the ability to command the ball to both sides of the plate.”

7. Jake Marisnick, OF
BORN: March 30, 1991
EXPERIENCE: 2 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2009 3rd round, California HS
2010-11 TOP 30 RANKING: 12th

If not for the impressive pitching depth in the system, Marisnick would rank much higher. The outfielder has the potential to have five average to plus tools (hit, power, speed, arm, defense). Despite being young for the Midwest League in ’11, the California native posted a wRC+ of 160 while hitting for average (.320), power (.180 ISO) and showing good speed (37 steals in 45 tries). He also played an above-average center field and has good arm strength which should allow him to slide to an outfield corner when both he and Anthony Gose share the outfield in Toronto. The Lansing Lugnuts club featured a prospect-laden outfield in ’11 with Marisnick flanked by Marcus Knecht and Michael Crouse – both of whom would fit in the 16-22 range of the list if it went that deep. The fourth outfielder on the squad, Markus Brisker, should be considered a deep sleeper for ’12 and all four players could reunit in high-A ball.

8. Deck McGuire, RHP
BORN: June 23, 1989
EXPERIENCE: 1 season
ACQUIRED: 2010 1st round (11th overall), Georgia Tech University
2010-11 TOP 30 RANKING: 4th

The Jays first pick of the ’10 draft, McGuire doesn’t have the huge ceiling that his pedigree might suggest but he’s a solid pitcher with the potential to develop into an innings-eating third or fourth starter. His fastball is average at 87-91 mph but he can reach back for a little more and touch 93-94 mph when needed. He also features three other pitches: slider, curveball and changeup. McGuire currently features average control but he needs to do a better job of commanding his fastball down in the zone to help avoid the long ball – something that haunted him during his brief time in double-A. The right-hander, who missed time with a back injury in 2011, should return to double-A in ’12.

9. Adonys Cardona, RHP
BORN: Jan. 16, 1994
EXPERIENCE: 1 season
ACQUIRED: 2010 international free agent
2010-11 TOP 30 RANKING: 19th

Cardona was a big-ticket signing out of Venezuela in 2010, bringing home just under $3 million. He did not disappoint in his pro debut in 2011 when he skipped over the Dominican Summer League and headed to the Gulf Coast League. Cardona, who recently turned 18, posted a 3.14 FIP (4.55 ERA) in 31.2 innings missed a lot of bats (9.95 K/9). He also showed average control. Although he’s still quite raw and is more thrower than pitcher, Cardona possesses the ceiling of a No. 1 or 2 starter if he can continue to make strides with the development of both his curveball and his changeup. The biggest knock on Cardona is his lack of premium size but he does a nice job of getting a downward angle on his pitches, which has allowed him to produce above-average ground-ball rates. He should move up to Vancouver or Bluefield in 2012 after beginning the year in extended spring training and the pitching depth in the system will allow the organization to be patient with this valuable commodity.

10. Aaron Sanchez, RHP
BORN: July 1, 1992
EXPERIENCE: 2 seasons
ACQUIRED: 2010 supplemental 1st round, California HS
2010-11 TOP 30 RANKING: 9th

Sanchez has the stuff to fit in near the top of this list but his lack of fastball command and overall control issues have held him back. The right-hander has an excellent pitcher’s frame and his easy fastball velocity sits in the 89-94 mph range. He also displays a good curveball and a developing changeup. The organization has worked to make some tweaks to his delivery in the hopes of seeing more consistency from him. If he cannot improve the changeup enough and he continues to struggle with his control, Sanchez could still develop into a high-leverage reliever. After seeing time in both rookie and short-season ball during the regular season, the right-hander was given a late promotion to low-A ball and appeared in the playoffs with mixed results. He should return there in ’12.

The Next Five

11. Adeiny Hechavarria, SS: A plus defender, Hechavarria will have value to a big league team simply from his glove work. His ability to show consistent results with his bat, however, will determine the type of playing time that he receives. The Cuban infielder has struggled in each of his first two pro seasons before excelling after a promotion; it will be interesting to see if the trend is a result of smaller sample sizes after the promotion or a result of him being bored with his level of competition (which wouldn’t necessarily speak well of his makeup). Hechavarria will return to triple-A to begin 2012 and await an opening at shortstop or possibly even second base.

12. A.J. Jimenez, C: Toronto has a lot of depth at the catching position with d’Arnaud leading the charge, followed by Jimenez, Carlos Perez and Santiago Nessy. The Puerto Rican is a plus defender who has seen his bat take a big step forward over the past two seasons. Jimenez has shown the ability to hit for average but he possesses little power. He has above-average speed and athleticism for a catcher. He’ll move up to double-A in 2012 and could end up as a valuable trade chip.

13. Asher Wojciechowski, RHP: Wojciechowski had a fairly ugly season considering how high expectations were when April began. He started out well but things fell apart when the organization attempted to change his delivery. After two months of struggles, Wojciechowski was allowed to revert to his previous mechanics and his numbers instantly improved. Because he doesn’t have the most fluid delivery, the right-hander may be headed for a high-leverage relief job at the MLB level but he’ll be given every opportunity to stick in the starting rotation.

14. Jacob Anderson, OF: Anderson possesses plus raw power and opened some eyes with a strong nine-game debut in 2011. There are questions about his ability to hit for average until he cleans up his approach at the plate and improves against breaking balls. Even so, he earns strong marks for his repeatable, level swing and shows good bat speed. He is considered a solid defender in the outfield but he spent his senior year of high school playing mostly first base. Anderson will spend time in extended spring training in 2012 before heading to either Bluefield or Vancouver in June.

15. Chris Hawkins, OF: I considered five or six different players for this slot, finally settling on Hawkins… but it my struggles speak to the depth in the system. Hawkins has played all over the diamond since his amateur days – from shortstop to third base to the outfield, where he currently resides. The Georgia native saw his offensive game take off in ’11 during a stint in advanced Rookie ball. He posted a wRC+ of 133 and hit for both average (.318) and gap power (.174 ISO). He also possesses good speed for his age, which helps him both on the base paths and in the outfield where he projects to develop into an above-average fielder with a strong arm.

SLEEPER ALERT: Dalton Pompey, OF: A raw, switch-hitting Canadian outfielder, Pompey has showed flashes of becoming a solid prospect. Signed at the age of 17 in 2010, he is still maturing both on and off the field. Pompey is learning to drive the ball more consistent and should develop at least average power. He went 19-for-19 in stolen base attempts in Rookie ball before moving up to the advanced Rookie league where he nabbed another four bags in five tries. He should move up to Vancouver in 2012 after spending time in extended spring training.