A Light From the Shadows Shall Spring: Jays Top 30 Prospects, #10-1

A while ago we looked at the minor-league season in review, and over the past few weeks we've covered the #30-21 best prospects in the Jays' system, and then the #20-11. Even more recently, we checked in on how our heroic corvids-to-be were doing in their warm-weather climes in fall and winter ball. By the way, if you're interested in the titles for our top 30 prospects posts, they (for once) do not come from obscure song lyrics, but from a poem about the character Aragorn (that's Viggo Mortensen to all y'all who only saw the films) found in the Lord of the Rings. Without further adieu, here's the top 10:

10. John Tolisano – 2nd Baseman, DOB: 10/1988, 5’11", 190 lbs, Bats S, Throws R: Tolisano was taken with one of the Jays’ second-round picks in the 2007 draft and, unlike his fellow 2007 early round draftees, acquitted himself quite well at the plate. Tolisano hit 10 HRs in 183 at-bats and OPSed a respectable .774. His 2008 season, the entirety of which he spent at Lansing, was a tougher affair. John put up a .229/.315/.354 line and really slumped down the stretch, dragging his overall numbers down. Tolisano just turned 20 and so is still in fine shape going forward, and has the swing and the tools to be a good major-league hitter. It’s not clear for now whether he will stick at second base or whether a move to the outfield will be needed. That said, a 20-year old switch-hitting 2nd base prospect who hits to all fields and for some power while also running reasonably well (8 triples last season) is a solid prospect. He will likely repeat Lansing this season, at least, to start the season. The Jays hope he doesn’t stay there.

9. Ricky Romero – LHP, 11/1984, 6’1", 200 lbs: Romero, of course, was famously the 6th overall pick in the 2005 draft, the spoils of the Jays awful 2004 "season from hell." Romero, a Cal State Fullerton pitcher, looked to be fast-tracked to the bigs until he hit the AA wall, laboring through parts of three seasons in New Hampshire as his walk rate rose, his K rate fell, and he battled injury problems as well as questions about his makeup. When Romero was promoted to AAA last season, though, he rehabilitated his prospect status with a very good string of 7 starts, walking too many (4.22 / 9 IP) but getting his K rate back up (8.02/9) and limiting the long ball while compiling a 3.38 ERA. Romero will certainly get a look in spring training but 7 starts is just that – I think the best thing for everyone, including the young lefty, will be for him to begin in AAA and try to consolidate his gains while looking to improve on his walk rate and wait for the inevitable spot to open up in Toronto’s starting rotation. Romero’s stuff is good without being dominant, so mid-level starter is considered his ceiling.

8. Brad Mills – LHP, 3/1985, 6’0", 185 lbs: Mills put up a fantastic season last year across three levels: Lansing, Dunedin, and New Hampshire. Mills was a 4th round draftee in 2007 (originally drafted by the Jays the season before but he chose to complete college (Arizona) and earn his engineering degree) and flew under the radar a bit because the Jays had so many picks in the first two rounds that year. Mills was a full-time starter this season, putting up a 1.95 ERA across the three levels and showing a knack for limiting the long ball despite playing as a flyball pitcher. He also put up very nice K rates without walking everyone and their brother, putting up more than 1 K per inning while also compiling a 3/1 K/BB ratio, which was great. Mills has a bit of a deceptive delivery and throws a fastball, a change, and a curve, with his change considered an exceptional pitch. Mills will be 24 next season so he’s not ahead of the game, but he will start at AA next season and will likely move up to Vegas and perhaps even Toronto at some point next season.

7. Scott Campbell - 2nd baseman, 9/1984, 6’0", 200 lbs, Bats L, Throws R: Campbell, who is looking to become the first native Kiwi (New Zealander) to play in major-league baseball, totally skipped over Dunedin this season, going from Lansing straight to New Hampshire, and that worked out great for everyone. Campbell combines some skills it’s great to see in a second-baseman: excellent plate discipline and reasonable power. Campbell hit for an excellent .302/.398/.427 line at New Hampshire, and it likely would have been even better had he not sustained hamstring and hand injuries late in the season, bringing his overall numbers down a bit. Still, he earned many accolades for his performance, both on his team (Jays AA player of the year) and in his league (Eastern League all-star and Futures Game representative) Campbell had 32 extra-base hits, including 9 dingers, and it is thought that his decent size and natural lefty swing portend more power for his future. Campbell still needs some work on his defense, particularly with regard to the difficult-for-second-basemen double play pivot, but he made only 7 errors last season, so he’s not a butcher out there. Scott is currently doing a great job in the Arizona Fall League, where he is hitting .304/.484/.391 and has as many walks as strikeouts. Campbell will likely begin at AAA this season, and could easily see his way onto the big club in his age-24 season. Who knows, he could be the leadoff hitter the Jays have been looking for (you have to love that plate discipline), but it does appear he is blocked for the moment with Aaron Hill seemingly entrenched at second (doesn’t look like he will be moving to SS) and Joe Inglett doing a very nice job at second base this season in Hill’s absence.

6. Kevin Ahrens - 3rd Baseman, DOB: 4/1989, 6’1", 205 lbs, Bats S, Throws R: Ahrens was selected in the middle of the first round in 2007 and has been compared to Chipper Jones, perhaps somewhat optimistically. Ahrens was a SS in high school and so had to adjust to playing 3rd base (he played SS and 3rd base last season in a short stint in the Gulf Coast League) this year at Lansing. Ahrens is still improving his switch-hitting skills but that’s a good thing for a 19-year old hitter, not a bad thing. Ahrens hit just .259/.329/.367 at Lansing this season but, like Jackson and Tolisano, was young for the level. He needs to work on his Ks and continue to refine his hitting skills and plate approach while also developing power (though he did have 40 extra base hits which suggests perhaps good things next year) but there is a lot to like here. My guess is that he starts at Lansing again but doesn’t stay there long – he was young for Lansing this season and he still held his own, and improved significantly from his GCL season.

5. Justin Jackson – Shortstop, DOB: 12/1988, 6’2", 186 lbs, Bats/Throws R: Out of Jays’ prospects, Justin Jackson is one that fans are particularly excited about. Nothing against Jackson, but this is probably due to the long-term dearth at the shortstop position for the Jays more than Jackson’s blue-chip status. The truth is that Jackson’s future looks bright, but he’s got a long way to go. Drafted in the first round with a compensatory pick, Jackson struggled in the GCL in 2007. He started 2008 in Lansing and began the season very strong, but tailed off as the season went on to finish with a .238/.340/.368 line. Jackson struck out in about 1/3 of his plate appearances, but did draw 62 walks and hit 39 extra-base hits, including 7 homers and 6 triples. Jackson can run a bit as well, stealing 17 bases, but he has to learn the art better (caught 8 times). The emphasis on his hitting is only possible because Jackson is a fantastic fielder and the Jays don’t have to worry about him sticking at the shortstop position long-term from a defensive standpoint. He has great range, good hands, and a strong arm. The Jays believe he has a good feel for hitting and will continue to develop offensively into a strong regular. Jackson held his own as a 19-year old in the Midwest League, which is not a hitter-friendly league, and that’s a good sign. He will likely begin 2009 at Dunedin and we’ll have to see how he progresses. Who doesn’t get excited about a flashy-fielding SS who can actually hit? Jackson also gets props from me for calling one of my favorite towns his hometown: Asheville, North Carolina.

4. David Cooper – First Baseman, DOB: 2/1987, 6’0", 175 lbs, Bats/Throws L: Cooper was the Jays’ first-round pick in the 2008 draft and appeared from the start to be fast-tracked to the majors. He showed why in his first taste of pro ball, using his head start (he was the first 2008 draftee to sign) to move from Auburn to Lansing and then Lansing to Dunedin before the season was over. Cooper attended college at UC Berkeley before the Jays drafted him. All told, Cooper put up an impressive .333/.399/.502 line across the three levels, hitting 29 doubles in only 273 at-bats. Scouts are a little unsure about how his power will develop, with the optimistic captivated by his sweet lefty swing and good bat speed and the naysayers looking at his not-huge frame. While it isn’t a sure thing that Cooper will hit for a ton of power, most scouts are confident his bat will play in the majors, but his defense is another story. David still needs a lot of work at first base and some see him, long-term, as a designated hitter. That hasn’t exactly been a strong position for the Jays, though, as our DH poll can attest, so it’s not the worst thing ever. Cooper will likely begin 2009 at Dunedin but I wouldn’t expect him to stay there for very long.

3. J.P. Arencibia – Catcher, DOB: 1/1986, 6’1", 215 lbs, Bats/Throws R: Arencibia was yet another 2007 first-round draftee and has performed well enough that he has passed all the Jays’ other options at the catcher position. Arencibia is currently doing a very nice job in the AFL (.916 OPS) and is even taking the occasional walk. Arencibia’s plate discipline is something the Jays have been working on and it is something he will need to overcome in order to get his game to the next level. What J.P. has, undeniably, is power – He slugged .527 in Dunedin and New Hampshire last season and hit 27 home runs and 36 doubles, but he walked only 18 times in 530 plate appearances. Accounts are that Arencibia’s defense is progressing nicely – he has a strong arm and has improved his footwork, and he nailed 34% of all baserunners in New Hampshire. My guess is that Arencibia will split 2009 between New Hampshire and Vegas, with a potential call-up to Toronto, particularly if he shows improved plate discipline. As we know, the majors is not the place to work on that particular skill. Arencibia is a bright light considering the many years we’ve had of veteran catchers putting up mediocre numbers on short-term deals, but the Jays should be patient if they can – he can be a star if he can learn to take the walk.

2. Brett Cecil – Left-Handed Pitcher, DOB: 7/1986, 6’3", 220 lbs: Cecil, a sandwich pick in the 2007 draft, has really performed well since being drafted by the Jays. A closer in college at the University of Maryland, the Jays saw something they liked in Cecil and believed he could become a major-league starter, and thusfar, Cecil has rewarded their vision. Brett covered 3 levels last season, starting at Dunedin but ending by holding his own over 6 starts in AAA Syracuse. Cecil features an interesting arsenal: a sinking, low 90s fastball, a plus plus slider, and a change with good downward action, that allows him to both get lots of ground balls and strike out a ton of batters (129 last season in only 118 innings). He generally does a great job limiting the walks, but his walks jumped after his promotion to Syracuse.

The big question for Cecil is to see how his stuff holds up as he goes deeper into games – since he was a college reliever, the Jays have been careful with his arm and he was basically a 5 inning pitcher last season. The Jays have been smart, but now we will have to see whether Cecil can continue to build up his arm strength and pitch deeper into games while maintaining the effectiveness that makes him the Jays best pitching prospect. Cecil will begin 2009 at Las Vegas, and is likely to see big-league action, whether in a starting or relief role. I don’t think he’s ready for the workload of a major-league starter quite yet.

1. Travis Snider – Outfield, DOB: 2/1988, 5’11", 245 lbs, Bats/Throws: L: Snider, the Jays first-rounder in 2006, represented a departure from J.P. Ricciardi’s then-strategy of drafting collegiate athletes in the first round. As Emerson said, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and Jays’ fans are thrilled that J.P. departed from his MO to pick the native Washingtonian. Snider wasn’t the typical high school athlete anyway, his approach at the plate was much more polished than the typical high schooler, and he rose quickly through the minors and, to fans’ delight, held his own in a just-before September callup this season. While that weird move by the Jays means that his arbitration clock will run earlier than it otherwise would, that’s neither here nor there. Snider started a little slowly due to an elbow injury last season, but was tearing it up at Syracuse to the tune of .344/.386/.516 by the time he was called up. The man we call "Moonraker" for reasons I still can’t understand hit .301/.338/.466 for the Jays in 73 at-bats and ended the season with 25 home runs across the four levels. Snider is a big, big fella, but looked athletic enough in the outfield so if he can keep his weight under control, he should be fine. Any 20-year old who can hold his own in the majors is likely to have a bright, bright future, and Travis is the rare young athlete whose makeup is as extraordinary as his talent. Snider should probably begin 2009 in AAA, and play his way onto the big club, but the Jays will need to add a strong bat if that is to happen.

One thing to note is how much the Jays’ farm system has improved. There’s still a long way to go, but things have markedly bettered in the past two seasons. Next time we will look at some young players who didn’t make the top 30 but are worth keeping an eye on.

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