I'm changing up the order this year, quite frankly because the most exciting thing to write about in the Jays minor league system is the deep and talented assemblage of starting pitchers. So many in fact that it's certain not all of them will remain starting pitchers. I know that there's nothing more common among fans than overvaluing your own teams' prospects, but even adjusting for that, there's indisputably over half a dozen guys who still haven't reached the majors that have very good odds of being impact major league pitchers.
And that's on top of eight or nine experienced guys who are no longer prospects.
In fact, one of the more interesting stories over the next, say, three seasons is going to be how the Jays sort through the reality that they have more than five guys who have every promise of being excellent major league pitchers in 2012 or 2013.
Looking over the established major league foursome, one guy who's very secure right now is recently extended Ricky Romero. Barring injury he's going to be out there every five days for the foreseeable future.
Behind him is Brandon Morrow. Morrow has three more years under team control and showed enough progress this year to give Jays' management and fans visions of Cy young level dominance.
Then there's Shaun Marcum. He's the veteran leader of the staff right now, looking ahead to his age 29 season next year. but he has only two years before free agency and this time next year we might well be speculating about the trade market for him over the winter. If you don't understand that comment you will before I get out of the top five prospects.
Brett Cecil, while suffering the occasional hiccup (as he did Friday night vs. the Rays) has also convinced most observers he has top of the rotation potential.
As we look ahead to 2011, one of the foremost questions will be "Who's gonna be the #5?" the consensus, of course, is that before the season is over, the #1 pitching prospect in the season will be taking that turn regularly. but it's no sure thing he'll break camp there, for a variety of reasons. in the mean time, there are not a few things the Jays have to sort out. such as:
Jesse Litsch: will he be healthy next spring, and will he be effective enough to cling to the spot he once held?
Scott Richmond: Healthy again, and dominant as he worked his way back through the minors this year. but on the wrong side of 30.
Shawn Hill: Likewise, not a "young gun" but a well regarded talent when healthy - which he hasn't been much. I have a hunch the Jays would like to see him fill that role and build trade value before Drabek forces his way in.
Dustin McGowan: one assumes that even with renewed health he won't be major league ready without some time in the minors.
Brad Mills: will be discussed on this list below, will be in the ST mix.
Marc Rzepczynski: not technically a rookie, but for all practical purposes, he's still a prospect. however, for the sake of not confusing the issue I'll give him his due here before getting to the formal list. Zep looked, in 2009, very much like a pitcher to be reckoned with. He drew comparisons in some quarters to pitchers as good as Brandon Webb. but a ST injury derailed his course to the 2010 rotation and control issues have plagued him the entire season. if Zep pitched well enough to win the #5 spot, he has the ability to make it very difficult for the Jays to make a spot for Drabek (absent injury of course) - but there's absolutely no way to predict which Zep shows up next spring. If he were still a rookie, I'd rank him probably about 7th or 8th on the upcoming list. If he is on, he's a not inconsiderable talent.
Clearly, the Jays are not under any pressure to rush a prospect into the 2011 rotation. On the contrary, some of those guys will be back in AAA, some will be in a bullpen somewhere, some may even be out of the organization by opening day. The cliche is you can never have too much pitching but the Jays appear to be trying their best to test the truth of that bromide.
Now, on to the list:
(ages as of April 1, 2011)
1. Kyle Drabek (23) RH - Over the course of the season, the amount of praise that's been directed Drabek's way has continued to mount. While Jays coaches continue to speak cautiously about his readiness, few observers argue he's in need of much if any more development. There's a prevalent school of thought that there's no reason for Drabek to ever do anything in Vegas except take a gambling vacation. However, there are practical considerations which argue to the contrary.
First, there's the simple matter of sorting out, and getting value for, the half dozen lesser but more experienced candidates in front of him. Then, there's the reality that a proper delay adds another year to the time before the Jays have to anticipate his free agency . . . timed properly, it can also keep him from going to arbitration unnecessarily early. The rule of thumb for avoiding Super Two status is around 128 days or less of service time. But as more teams make that calculation, that number might well fall. If the team has these factors in mind, you can look for Drabek around the first of June. Once he arrives, the arguments can begin about which of the Jays young guns will have the best career because he'll belong in that conversation as much as Romero, Morrow, and Cecil will.
2. Zach Stewart (24) RH - Early in the season, Stewart struggled with control and mildly worried some observers when the F-Cats pulled him from the rotation briefly to address some mechanical issues. Whatever they did certainly worked out well. Over the last 18 starts of the season he posted a 2.52 ERA. The interesting thing here is that over that successful run, he still averaged 3.39 walks per 9 IP, which is down only marginally from the 3.95 rate he had in the early going. But he got better as the season wore on (that rate per 9 was down to 2.5 over his last eight starts) and he walked only 1 in 7 shutout innings in the playoffs against Trenton.
All this in a season in which he exceeded his previous career high in IP on the season by almost 37%.
While some are already advocating for Stewart to skip AAA, that's unwise. first, barring a trade or major injury, there's no rotation spot in Toronto for both he and Drabek. Second, he still only reached 143 IP and that would, in theory, have him running out of gas in the 170's or so next year. Long term it would pay the team well to not push him to a big increase in consecutive years. Which means staying in AAA where his innings can be managed. finally, unless you have to, there's no reason to break in two high profile rookies in the same year.
3. Henderson Alvarez - (20) RH - Alvarez (who turns 21 in mid-April) came out of the gate in 2010 better than any pitcher in the system, giving up only 1 earned run in four April starts. In mid-May Alvarez inexplicably got very hittable. and stayed that way. Batters had hit .207 off him in April and hit over .300 against him every month thereafter. In August the Jays shut him down for a while due to fatigue. I've seen nothing specific about what went wrong with him other than vague references to mechanics. But there's no indication anywhere that their opinion of him as a prospect has faded. it's worth remembering that being 20 years old in Hi-A is an accomplishment in itself. His star hasn't faded significantly yet. He'll likely repeat Dunedin next year.
4. Aaron Sanchez (18) RH - I promise you, you won't see Sanchez ranked this high on any other list of Jays' prospects, but my guess is the 2010 draftee will change that up shortly. He won't make the majors before college draftees like McGuire or Wojciechowski but all things being equal, he may well have a better career. Admittedly, I'm speaking from a relatively thin body of evidence here but I'm letting you know up front I'm playing a hunch here. But I'm not alone. The Jays scout who recommended they draft Sanchez was none other than Mel Queen, who is said to have reported "He may be the best I've seen, he's better than Carpenter." The Jays have the luxury of taking their time with him, so it might be four years before we're discussing how he fits into the major league rotation. but if he stays healthy, that day will likely come. My guess is he starts out in Auburn next year and earns a promotion to Lansing at some point.
5. Chad Jenkins (23) RH - At first glance, it would be easy to call 2010 a bit underwhelming for a #1 pick. It does indicate that threre's work to do, but your first full pro season split between lo and hi A ball is fairly challenging. Jenkins started off fairly well in Dunedin but got too hittable in July and August. Possibly, some of this had to do with having his IP ceiling pushed. By the end of June he'd matched his career high in college. At that point he had 14 walks and 72 strikeouts in 92 IP, thereafter those figures were 17, 34, and 49.1 which is a pretty steep drop off. Expect Jenkins to start 2011 back in Dunedin and move up (assuming he's ready) in conjunction with Drabek's ascension to the majors.
6. Deck McGuire (21) RH - The Jays first overall pick in 2011, he followed the recent trend of signing at the last minute and thereby costing himself an opportunity to log some professional innings in his draft year. That's an issue Anthopoulos and others plan to bring to the table when the next CBA is negotiated. McGuire is, in all likelihood, a slightly better clone of Chad Jenkins (slightly taller, not quite as thick, but both "big bodied" high endurance and pretty advanced guys) and this time next year will probably be ranked ahead of him. For now Jenkins having pitched reasonably in the pros give him an edge. Look for McGuire to follow Jenkins' footsteps next year, starting at Lansing and moving up to Dunedin mid-season.
7. Adonis Cardona (17) RH - Already fairly advanced for his age and experience, beyond that we don't know much about him except that he was reported to be, and paid like, a mid-to-upper first round draft pick if he'd been draft eligible. So this ranking is based on the presumption that's accurate. but he's a long way away.
8. Asher Wojciechowski (22) RH - listed as the same size physically as Jenkins, and considered just as advanced coming into the draft. There's probably as little difference between them as between Jenkins and McGuire. there's a nice redundancy between the three of them that safeguards the team against failure and injury. Expect him to make the Lansing roster out of ST.
9. Noah Syndergaard (18) RH - The dark horse draftee that no one saw coming that early, Syndergaard is not a low-talent "safe" pick. He's 6'5" and growing still. He came on strong over the course of his senior year and the Jays think they have a potential stud. He'll open the season either back in the GCL or, more likely, in the new Bluefield team's rotation.
10. Joel Carreno (24) RH - This is maybe my most uncertain ranking. Carreno has been, until this year, very much an under-the-radar guy in the Jays system, but he led the system in strikeouts in 2010. He got marginally more hittable this year, but the quantum leap in swing-and-miss pitches was eye catching. He was a bit old for Dunedin but not enough to dismiss his accomplishments, and I expect him to pitch opening day for New Hampshire.
11. Griffin Murphy (19) LH - Arguably the best LHP in the prep class in 2010, the 61st overall pick might also be the best LH prospect left in the Jays system (assuming we don't count Zep). The other obvious candidate would be Brad Mills, to whom Murphy is probably highly comparable. The only separation between them, for me, is that being seven years younger, Murphy has time to exceed that projection and Mills is nearing his ceiling.
12. Sam Dyson (22) RH - The Jays got a mild steal in Dyson as a 4th round pick, mostly because of a long medical history. Dyson has big stuff which projects to the middle of a major league rotation, but it's not quite as big as it once was. He's had surgery on BOTH shoulders, and twice on the elbow (but no TJ so far). if he gets back the lost velocity - and stays healthy - the Jays will look real good on that pick as he's fairly refined. But no one on this list is more likely to fall apart because of his health. For his age and development, he ought to start in Lansing if he's not crowded out.
13. Drew Hutchison (R) 20 - Some reviews of the Jays' 2009 draft suggested that they might have gotten a significant steal when the took the hard to sign Hutch in the 15th round and got his name on the dotted line. He did nothing this year to make anyone doubt that. Between Auburn and Lansing he posted a BAA against of a stingy .198, he struck out almost a batter an inning and had a better than 3:1 K:BB ratio. There's a distinct possibility he should be 2 or 3 spots higher on this list. At his age he'll surely be back in Lansing as part of what could be the best rotation in the Midwest League.
14. Brad Mills (26) LH - some would argue Mills over a few of the guys already listed, and a case can be made. The spread between #9 and #14 here is not dramatic. but a guy who's 26 is close to as good as he's going to be, and he's on the outside ultimately looking in at the Jays rotation. if dealt to a NL team with a forgiving park (say Florida) he could have a nice little career. with the Jays, his realistic goal is to be the guy who replaces Brian Tallet.
15. Justin Nicolino (18) LH - taken also in the second round, the difference between Murphy and Nicolino is the amount of projection needed to imagine their ceiling. Nicolino is 6'3" and listed going into the draft as only 160, so there's considerable physical projectability. Likewise, his stuff is relatively under-developed but scouts think that as he fills out his fastball could creep towards the mid-90's. Expect slow movement and possibly early stumbles from Nicolino, but the Jays can afford to be patient. Absolutely a GCL candidate to start.
16. Devy Estrada (18) RH - After turning in a dominant performance in the DSL at 16, Estrada largely repeated his work in the GCL as a seventeen year old. There are mixed opinion on how his stuff will play at higher levels but you have to notice the results so far. Probably advances to Bluefield in the spring.
17. Egan Smith (22) LH - The unheralded Smith spent most of the season in Lansing, and saw an otherwise respectable season disguised by a couple of forgettable early August starts. The jury is out on how much he succeeds at higher levels, he's so under-the-radar tat we seldom get much comment on how good a prospect he really is so I'm going completely off stats. If you see the Jays move him aggressively (albeit he should be at Duneidn to start the year) there might be something there. Otherwise he may project as an organizational soldier.
18. Casey Lawrence (23) RH Lawrence is one of those potential feel-good stories you like to root for a happy ending to (the most noteable example lately being Tim Collins). He was signed after the 2010 draft as an undrafted Free Agent, and went on to spank the NY-Penn league in ten dominant starts, before finishing the season with three respectable turns in Lansing. He'll complete the Lansing five as the season begins in April, and time will tell how long the Cinderella story will last.
19. Bobby Bell (25) RH - Bell brought a record of unbroken pro success into the 2010 season. First as a reliever and then as a mid-season addition to the Dunedin rotation in 2009, Bell was masterful. But repeated injuries robbed Bell of any positive takeaway from the 2010 season. His ultimate future is in the 'pen probably, if for no other reason than the depth chart - but he's likely to stay a starter next season as he tries to find his previous magic.
20. Jo-Jo Reyes (26) LH - Reyes has a year's service time in the majors so I'm breaking the rookie rule pattern here, but since he's not likely to be a realistic candidate to break camp with the Jays, and given his age, I think it's ok to consider him a "prospect" for the purposes of this discussion. After coming over from the Braves in the Escobar deal, he had two starts for the F-Cats - one brilliant and one forgettable, before landing on the DL for the rest of the season. As is always the case, one needs to be in the CIA to find out the nature of such injuries and it's withut that knowledge I'm forced to comment. Reyes was rushed to the Majors by the age of 22 after barely 300 (very good) minor league innings. but he didn't pitch well in the majors and the Braves shuttled him back and forth for a couple of largely forgettable seasons. but a case could be made that in the right circumstances he'd be as good or better than Mills, and if he came to ST healthy next year, don't be completely stunned if he comes from the back of the pack to contend for that fifth starter job.
Ten other guys to keep an eye on: Bobby Ray, Luis Perez, Daniel Webb, Andrew Liebel, Mitch Taylor, Misaul Diaz, Jesse Hernandez, Sean Nolin, Nick Purdy, Myles Jaye.
There are a few other, even darker horses (guys like Ray Gonzalez and Chuck Huggins and even Randy Boone) but given the quality of the system, there's not a lot of room for such guys to break through here. The next few years will be fascinating times.