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2020 Bluebird Banter Top 40 Prospects: 1-4

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2017 to 2019 first round picks, plus the headliner received from trading 2012’s first rounder

Top 40 Prospects

Today we reach the end of the Top 40 countdown of Blue Jays prospects, but before diving into the main attraction I want to note that while this is the end of the Top 40 itself it’s not the end of the exercise/series. Not by any means — tomorrow we’ll look back at the many players who graduated and then next week some prospects who just missed, some who were higher up individual lists, the Top 5 “Older” Prospects who are still rookies but past their age-25 season, and then for those interested a look even deeper down at some other notables.

It’s worth nothing at the outset that it was very close between third and fourth, essentially more like 3A and 3B. In the end, Alek Manoah was edged out by Simeon Woods Richardson on the basis of very consistent grades for the latter, whereas there was more dispersion for the former. Lower down the list, more dispersion/upside might actually be preferable since the expected value is so low, but at the top with premium prospects, lower volatility is better.

With that said, the cream of the crop.

2020: Full List and Index | 1-4 | 5-8 | 9-12 | 13-16 | 17-20 | 21-24 | 25-28 | 29-32 | 33-36 | 37-40

2019: Full List and Index | 1-4 | 5-8 | 9-12 | 13-16 | 17-20 | 21-24 | 25-28 | 29-32 | 33-36 | 37-40 | Just missed/pref: Matt | Tom | Top 5 Older

4. Alek Manoah, RHP, age 22 (DOB: 1/9/1998), grade: 50, last year: junior at West Virginia

Manoah was selected 11th overall in the 2019 draft after he followed up a breakout on the Cape Cod Baseball League two summers ago with a stellar junior season as he channeled and refined his raw ability and stuff into results. The reports were a mid-90s fastball that would touch the upper-90s, and a plus slider as a secondary weapon. His change-up lags behind, the development of which could determine his viability as a starter or if he ended up a potential closer in the bullpen.

After signing, he had six shorter outings in Vancouver, building up to four innings in his final start for a total of 17 professional innings pitched. Manoah dominated, posting a 2.65 ERA with 27 strikeouts (40%) against seven free passes. Perhaps more importantly, the stuff was as advertised, with mid-90s gas touching 97 frequently and 98 at least once (even though it was the end of a long season and he had already thrown over 100 college innings). I wrote in more detail about his August 10th outing; unfortunately none were televised.

Of course, this doesn’t tell us much about whether he’ll be able to turn over lineups facing better hitters multiple times, or whether his command will either (there were some times in Vancouver that finding the zone was an issue). If the change-up/a third pitch comes along and with reasonable command, Manoah profiles as a durable front of the rotation starter. If not, two plus-pitches could still leave him as a starter with varying outcomes start-to-start; think 2010-2012 Brandon Morrow results. Otherwise, he could profile as a shutdown reliever, especially if the command isn’t so good.

3. Simeon Woods Richardson, RHP, age 19 (DOB: 9/18/2000), grade: 50, last year: Mets system

Woods Richardson came over less than a year after the Mets selected him in the 2nd round of the 2018 draft. That was a very, very deep class of high school pitching, which meant many of them slid especially given the high failure of the demographic generally. Many consequently ended up going to college, but the Mets benefited when a talent that isn’t usually available 48th overall fell to them.

Woods Richardson struck out over 35% of the batters he faced in his brief 17-inning 2018 debut, so despite being on the young side of the class went straight to low-A to start 2019. Building up slowly, he pitched 78.1 innings in 20 starts before the trade, and while the headline 4.25 ERA was just okay, his 2.54 FIP was more indicative of how well he was doing, striking out 30% of hitters while walking just 5%.

After the trade, the Blue Jays sent him right to Dunedin, where he largely maintained that over that last month, striking out 27% while the 2.54 ERA came in line with the peripherals. I was hoping to get a look at him when Dunedin visited Bradenton in early August on their excellent broadcast, but unfortunately it lined up such that his starts bookended the four game set.

The limited game data I have available broadly corroborates the stuff, a low-90s fastball and a full arsenal of secondaries, with the curve being the best at swings and misses. It’s good but not huge raw stuff, but he has a really good feel for pitching. I actually remember watching his outing at the 2017 Area Code Games (back when a lot of the event was broadcasted), being quite impressed and mentally filing his name away. And here we are.

Woods Richardson seems like a relatively safe bet (as pitchers go) to be a mid-rotation starter. ZiPS is really high on him, befitting a pitcher with great results against much older competition. In general, relative age is less important with pitchers, since it’s more a function of present stuff and physical projection. But by the same measure, I feel like really polished prospects who aren’t seen to have the highest ceiling but put up results and move quickly tend to surprise to the upside, and scouting reports can be a lagging indicator. Or at least the whole ends up greater than the sum of the parts.

2. Jordan Groshans, SS, age 20 (DOB: 11/10/1999), grade: 55, last year: 6th

The selection of Groshans 12th overall in the 2018 draft was something of a curiosity, given that he was seen as going more towards the late first round. The gambit now looks like a coup, as not only did it allow the Blue Jays to re-profile their allocated pool, but it appears they were quite shrewd in identifying a player whose hit tool was not properly appreciated and valued.

Like Bo Bichette two years earlier, he hit pretty much from the time the ink was dry on his contract. Groshans tore up the GCL to the tune of .331/.390/.500 line, a late season promotion to Bluefield the only thing to hold him down (but adjusting in the playoffs, .267/.387/.411 overall). Like Bichette, that earned him a spot in full season ball to start his first full season.

And also like Bichette, Groshans raked from the outset in Lansing. Unfortunately, a stress fracture in his foot effectively ended his season in late April, but that first month was loud. The .337/.427/.482 line speaks for itself, but if anything understates how impressive and advanced he was. One might be inclined to discount it with a .433 BABIP, and granted that’s not going to be sustained over time, but it was no fluke either.

Having watched most of those April at-bats, Groshans was constantly squaring the ball up and spraying line drives all over. There was some swing-and-miss, but the ability to barrel balls up was just so impressive and advanced — he looked like the proverbial man amongst boys. I may be past the point of irrational exuberance, but I’m really high on his ability to hit. In time he should tap into more power, which has been unremarkable thus far.

Defensively, he probably profiles better at third than short, but if he keeps hitting it’s not really going to matter. There’s a long way to go, but the tools are there for an everyday infielder, and I’m bullish on the possibility of an above average or impact regular.

1. Nate Pearson, RHP, age 23 (DOB: 8/20/1996), grade: 65, last year: 4th

Admittedly, I was skeptical when the Blue Jays selected Pearson 27th overall in the 2017 draft, as a pitcher whose velocity had spiked to touch 100 MPH with a screw holding his elbow together and lacking an extensive track record. But after watching most of his outings from May onward when he was promoted to New Hampshire, I’m about as all-in as I could be on a pitcher with his injury history.

Pearson dominated for a month in Vancouver in 2017 with the premium velocity in short stints, which was promising if far from definitive. An oblique injury delayed his 2018 debut, and then a comebacker broke his pitching arm in his second inning, costing him the rest of the regular season (though he did pitch some in the Arizona Fall League). So until last year we hadn’t really seen how his stuff would play as a starter against full season competition.

The answer: very well. A 0.86 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 21 innings with Dunedin, earning a quick promotion to New Hampshire. He didn’t actually pitch that much through mid-July (28 innings) as the Jays were throttling/managing his workload and working around his Futures Game appearance, but he was good with a 3.54 ERA and 32/5 K/BB despite being touched up in a couple outings.

But he really took off once his pitch count was built back up and allowed to pitch on a normal starting routine. Averaging almost six innings a start over the last eight outings split across AA/AAA, Pearson posted a 2.14 ERA while striking out 47 (26%) against 15 free passes (8%).

Obviously everything starts with his fastball, which will touch above 100 MPH in shorter stints. He sits more upper 90s in longer outings touching the odd triple digit, but as I noted in August, what’s far more impressive to me is the way he not only holds his velo, but builds it and ramps it up later in outings:

Pearson velo progression

As it that weren’t enough, he’s multiple very good secondary weapons. He’s got two breaking balls, though to me it’s really more the same breaking ball thrown at two speeds, the slider in the upper 80s, the curve much slower. Either way, they’re effective and get swings and misses.

The cherry on top was it turns out he has a pretty good change-up too. I wasn’t noticing many and didn’t think he was using it much, until later in the season some MiLB.tv broadcasts that show velocity on the screen. He was throwing a bunch of pitches around 90, mostly to lefties, that otherwise looked like fastballs. It doesn’t tumble of have late fade like great change-ups usually do, but it looks like a fastball to hitters it’ll get plenty of empty swings. At a minimum, as a third pitch to keep opposite hitters honest, it’s more than fine.

Taken together, I have little doubt that all adds up to a very good starter. What risk there is lies on the health/injury front. Even if most of the past stuff was fluky, it remains the case that the best predictor of future injury is past injury. Moreover, there’s the inherent stress that throwing really hard places on the arm. But if Big Nate stays healthy, he should be a monster for the Blue Jays in the very imminent future.

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