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2022 Bluebird Banter Top 40 Prospects: 1-4

Three very different infielders and the (really, we swear this time) Catcher of the Future

Top 40 Prospects

The top of the system remains strong as the rest has thinned out. Two offence first third basemen, a shortstop with excellent feel to hit but little power, and an all around catcher who will be starring in Toronto by the fall.

2022: Full List and Index | 1-4 | 5-8 | 9-12 | 13-16 | 17-20 | 21-24 | 25-28 | 29-32 | 33-36 | 37-40

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
Beyond the Top 40: Just Missed | Pref list | Top 5 Older | Newcomers | Other Notables

4. Leo Jimenez, SS, age 21 in 2022 (DOB: 5/17/2001), grade: 45, 2020: 17th

The top prospect out of Panama in 2017, Jimenez was part of the Jays’ triad of high profile IFA signings that summer along with Eric Pardinho and Miguel Hiraldo. He made his pro debut the next year in the GCL and held his own, slashing .250/.333/.341 with discipline and contact (striking out and walking 11% each) but no power to speak of. His 2019, spent mostly at rookie level Bluefield in the Appalachian league was a bit of a stumble, as his strikeout rate jumped up to 17% while his walk rate slid to 9%.

After a 2020 season spent working out without minor league games to play, Jimenez spent 2021 at A level Dunedin. Although he was limited to 262 PA due to a dislocated shoulder, his performance represented a breakout. He trimmed his strikeouts to 14.5% on the strength of an 8.5% swinging trike rate that was among the elite of the Southeast league, while exploding his walk rate to 21%. His .517 OBP was the best in the league by a mile, and his overall line was 68% better than average. Including a short rehab stint in the Florida Complex league, Jimenez walked slightly more than 1.5x as often as he struck out, a feat no other minor league player at any level with at least 200 PA in the season replicated or really even approached.

Power is still not a part of Jimenez’s game. He did hit his first career home run last summer, but only one, and he had only 10 doubles to add to his extra base hit total. That isn’t (mostly) due to a lack of pure strength. Although he was slight at the time he signed and through the 2019 season, time spent in the weight room that winter and during the pandemic season added significant muscle to Jimenez’ 5’11” frame, allowing him to flash something close to average power in batting practice.

Rather, the lack of thump is a product of a short, level swing that’s designed to make maximum contact and poke line drives through the infield. Jimenez has very quick hands and can catch up to any fastball up in the zone while adjusting to breaking balls down or away. He pairs those hands with an excellent approach to make a lot of effective, if not loud, contact. The overall hitting package is impressive enough that the Blue Jays added him to the 40 man roster this winter rather than risk another team believing he could survive the jump from A ball directly to the majors and taking him in the Rule 5 draft.

Defensively, there seems to be little doubt that Jimenez can stick at shortstop. He’s a slightly below average runner, but his actions are loose and fluid and the same quick hands that make him such a good contact hitter ensure that nothing gets by him. He should end up at least average there, and some evaluators think he can be a plus defender.

There’s a ceiling on how good a prospect can be without any game power to speak of, and Jimenez is bumping up against it. He’s as sure a bet to hit and get on base as a player at his level can be, and he’s also expected to add significant value with the glove as well. Even in today’s power oriented game, guys like David Fletcher and Nicky Lopez show that enough contact and defense can make a player an average regular. It’s very difficult to be more than that, though, without at least a few home runs, which is what keeps Jimenez a tier below the true gems of the system. As he is, the odds are high that he’ll have a productive career as at least a high quality utility infielder and possibly an everyday guy. If he’s able to unlock just a little of his raw power without sacrificing too much contact, which pure hitters as talented as he is are sometimes able to do, he has the potential to be a first division starter.

High A Vancouver is Jimenez’ destination to start the 2022 season.

* Kevin Smith, SS/3B, age 25 (DOB: 12/17/1999), grade: 45, 2020: 18th

We wanted to indicate where the prospects traded to Oakland for Matt Chapman were ranked. Smith actually only qualified by a couple days as he turns 26 the first week in July (and may have lost rookie eligibility by then anyway). While the ups and downs of his career complicate establishing a true baseline, the best read is he ends up a low average bat with some pop who can play all around the infield. Accordingly, he probably ends up short of a true regular, but would have slotted in at the front of the 45 tier ahead of Jimenez and Otto Lopez on proximity (and more upside than the latter).

* Gunnar Hoglund, RHP, age 22 (DOB: 11/10/1999), grade: 45+, 2020: college

The Blue Jays’ first round pick in 2021, Hoglund starred at Ole Miss, posting a 2.87 ERA with a 96:16 K:BB ratio in 62.2 innings as a junior before his elbow blew out, necessitating a Tommy John surgery that will keep him out through most of this season. Hoglund’s stuff is solid (a fastball that sits 90-94 and touches 96 with strong movement, a plus slider and a promising changeup that needs development), but what sets him apart is potentially elite command. Plus or better command of at least average stuff gives him as high a floor as a currently injured pitching prospect can be said to have, and guys with that profile coming out of college (Shane Bieber and George Kirby are prominent examples) have tended to blow up lately when their special feel for pitching is applied to pro quality strength training and pitch design labs.

3. Jordan Groshans, SS/3B, age 22 (DOB: 11/10/1999), grade: 50, 2020: 2nd

Groshans burst onto the scene as a prospect when he hit a home run off the facade of the Western Metal Supply building at Petco Park in San Diego. With that power as his calling card, he was generally rated as a later first rounder but drafted 12th overall in 2018 by the Jays, signing for an under-slot $3.4-million bonus. In a sense, they “traded down” that pick for to get more talent later on, but Groshans’ performance has more than lived up to where he was picked.

Across two rookie levels during his draft summer, Groshans showed solid contact and plate discipline skills (37 strikeouts to 15 walks in 207 PA) and flashed some game power with 5 home runs and 13 doubles. He got off to a hot start in 2019, slashing .337/.427/.482 in 96 PA and looking very advanced at the plate in Lansing before a lingering foot injury ended his season.

In spite of his having taken only 203 professional PAs across three seasons, the Blue Jays challenged Groshans by assigning him to AA New Hampshire to start the 2021 season. He rose to the occasion, slashing .291/.367/.450 (24% better than average). As one of the ten youngest players in the league, and the least professionally experienced after 2020 first overall pick Spencer Torkelson, Groshans’ approach and contact ability facing high level pitching was impressive.

In spite of that performance, Groshans’ stock seems to have fallen. A consensus top 100 prospect after the 2019 season, he moved back on every major list this winter, including falling off Fangraphs’ and Baseball America’s. The reason is a combination of injuries (he was limited to 75 games last year, and now has a lat injury that will keep him out for several weeks to start the 2022 season) and the lack of development in his game power. His swing, which looks not unlike Josh Donaldson’s, is geared to lift and pull the ball, but his top en exit velocities haven’t lived up to the 60 grade power that was expected when he was drafted.

That said, it’s important not to get too hung up on differences between expectation and reality here. Groshans’ contact ability has surpassed what was expected, and he pairs it with an approach that’s surprisingly advanced for his age and lack of game reps. He still has the tools to be an above average MLB hitter, it just may come in the form of a hit/OBP driven profile instead of dingers. His 6’3” frame also looks like it has more room for good weight as he continues to mature, so 20+ home run power could still be in there.

Defensively, although Groshans has mostly played shortstop to this point, the universal scouting opinion seems to be that he’ll move to third base in the major leagues. He has the hands and arm to be average there, maybe a bit better. Groshans will start 2022 in Buffalo once he’s healthy. If he’s able to take a step forward at the plate and stay healthy from here on this season, it could do a lot to move him back up prospect lists (assuming he doesn’t graduate)

2. Orelvis Martinez, SS/3B, age 20 (DOB: 11/19/2001), grade: 55, 2020: 5th

The Blue Jays signed Martinez out of the Dominican Republic in 2018 for a $3.5-million bonus that was among the highest in his signing class. He debuted the next season in rookie level Gulf Coast League and immediately set about justifying that contract, slashing .275/.352/.547 as one of the youngest players in the league.

After the pandemic layoff, he returned with more of the same. He was one of just seven players under 20 to qualify for the A level Southeast League batting title in 2021 and led the league in home runs (19) even though a promotion to High A Vancouver for the last month of the season meant he had at least 50 fewer PA than anyone seriously chasing him. His overall performance, 49% better than league average, was also the best in the league. At Vancouver, a .197 batting average on balls in play suppressed his overall production, but he hit a ridiculous nine home runs in just 125 PA while maintaining solid strikeout and walk rates against pitchers at least two years older than he was.

A lack of power has been a bit of a theme on the list to this point, but that’s not going to be a problem for Martinez. He’s not a huge guy at 6’1” and 190 pounds, but he rotates explosively in the box, using his whole body to power his whippy, uppercut swing. It’s at least plus raw power, and his extreme fly ball approach makes the most of it. His approach naturally leads to some swing and miss, and while his plate discipline isn’t a problem it could use some refinement. His strikeout rate crept up to 25% last season, which is sustainable given his power, but he’ll need to work to keep it from rising further as he faces more advanced pitching.

Defensively, like Groshans, Martinez has developed mostly at shortstop so far but no one seems to believe he’ll stick there. His arm will fit comfortably at third base, where his lack of range (he’s already a below average runner and will probably slow down more as he fills out) will be less of a problem. He could be an average defender there.

Martinez has kicked off 2022 the only way he knows how, with two home runs already in 17 PA as one of only three 20 year olds in the AA Eastern League. With Moreno ahead of him likely to graduate, if he keeps his performance up he should be the Blue Jays’ number one prospect and one of the 25 or so best prospects in baseball by mid-season.

1. Gabriel Moreno, catcher, age 22 (DOB: 2/14/2000), grade: 60/65, 2020: 6th

In contrast to Martinez, who was a heralded prospect before signing with Toronto and who received a huge bonus, Moreno signed quietly out of Barquisimeto, Venezuela, for just $25,000 in 2016. He got off to a slow start, managing just a .570 OPS in the 2017 Dominican Summer League, although by striking out just 5 times in 135 PA he showed the special bat control that would become his signature.

He flashed his potential in US rookie ball the next season, striking out only 20 times and managing 23 extra base hits in 167 plate appearances. 2019 consolidated those gains, as Moreno slashed .280/.337/.485 in A level Lansing. He showed excellent contact skills (11% strikeout rate), burgeoning power (12 home runs in just 341 PA), and some signs of refining his previously overaggressive approach (a 6.5% walk rate that was 2% higher than his career number).

Although he garnered some positive mentions for his performance at the alternate site in 2020 and in the Venezuelan Winter League that off-season, Moreno was still flying somewhat under the radar to this point, not appearing on any major top 100 prospect lists in 2020 or heading into 2021. All that changed abruptly with his performance in AA New Hampshire in 2021. Although limited to just 145 PA due to a broken thumb, Moreno made probably the biggest jump in the public consciousness of any prospect in baseball last season.

He slashed .373/.441/.651, raising his walk rate again to 9.7% and smashing 8 home runs and 18 total extra base hits. His line was 92% better than league average, the best of any hitter with more than 100 PAs in AA, in spite of his being almost 3 years younger than his average competition. After his injury, he kept up his performance in the Arizona Fall League, walking and striking out 13 times each and roping 11 doubles in 100 PA. That performance vaulted him from a well regarded lower tier prospect to a consensus top 10 prospect in baseball.

Moreno is an excellent athlete. He has exceptional bat speed and feel for contact, allowing him to square up high heat and track good breaking balls. His simple, direct swing makes for lots of good quality contact. He isn’t a big guy, listed at 5’11” and 160 pounds, but he generates average raw power and gets to it in games. His knack for contact has allowed him to get away with an aggressive approach, and he swung at too many borderline pitches early in his career. He’s made steady improvements in that department, though, and his plate discipline shouldn’t be a problem even if it’s not a major asset.

Behind the plate, Moreno’s athleticism helps him block and receive well (he had no passed balls last season) and post above average pop times throwing to second. He has work to do defensively, which is unsurprising given that he’s only caught 140 regular season games so far in his career, but as with his approach at the plate he has shown the ability to make adjustments quickly and improve where he needs to. He’ll certainly stick behind the plate, and should be above average or maybe plus defensively in time. Much has been made if him taking some reps at third base over the past year. While he could probably be very good there with work, it seems most likely that that was an opportunity to get him some more game action without the wear and tear of catching every night rather than a reflection of his ability to catch long term.

Moreno’s 2022 season was delayed a bit by visa issues stemming from the lockout, but he’s joined AAA Buffalo now. The Jays would probably like to keep him there for a month or two to get more reps behind the plate, but with Danny Jansen’s injury following the trade of Reese McGuire, their hand may be forced some time soon. A plus hitter with average power is an asset at any position, but combined with potentially above average defense behind the plate, Moreno’s ceiling is that of a perennial all-star. He still has a lot of refinements to make to reach that ceiling, and as his broken thumb last year demonstrated, progress for catchers tends to be uneven. His history suggests an ability to make necessary adjustments, though, and Moreno looks set to join Vlad Guerrero jr., Bo Bichette and Alek Manoah as a key part of Toronto’s young core for years to come.