The penultimate section of the top 2023 Toronto Blue Jays prospects is bookended by a pair of infielders on either ends of the year-to-year consistency spectrum, a pitcher who shot through the system and a breakout outfielder.
8. Otto Lopez, utility, age 24 (DOB: 9/30/1998), grade: 40, 2022: 7th
Lopez was signed for $70,000 in the banner 2016 international class out of his native Dominican Republic after spending his earlier teenage years in Montreal. All he’s done is hit: .308 in two 2018 short season levels; winning the Midwest League batting crown in 2019 with a .324/.371/.425 line; slashing .315/.379/.437 across AA and AAA in 2021; and then finally .297/.378/.415 in Buffalo last year.
At each level for four years now, it’s been the same consistent profile. Lopez uses a very short swing and has a knack for squaring balls up to spray line drives around the diamond, with most of the rest on the ground but leveraging good speed to beat out more than his fair share. He avoid strikeouts (14% career, 16.5% in AA/AAA), but has a solid approach at the plate (drawing 9% walks); it’s not just swinging early in the count.
MLB-calibre pitching and defenders are going to take some of that away (he’s run BABIPs north of .350 in each of this three full seasons), and the tradeoff is almost no power. The projections are tightly clustered around a .255/.315/.350 type line and ~90 wRC+, and that seems right as a baseline, though a peak closer to .275/.330/.375 is a realistic upside scenario.
Lopez came up an infielder, and can fill in at shortstop in a pinch (or a WBC tournament for lack of better options), but that’s about it. The Jays have groomed him as utility player, and played all around the diamond the last couple years. Nothing stands out defensively, but he’s competent at second or in centre with the good speed and reasonable surehandedness.
That’s the most likely outcome, a guy who gets 300 at-bats a year and can handle the bat at the bottom of the order while moving around to fill-in as needed. If the hitting doesn’t translate, he doesn’t really have the standout tools to be a specialist at the end of the bench. Conversely, it’s not out of the question he hits his way to an everyday role in either a superutility capacity or at 2B/CF (the bat won’t profile in a corner).
7. Yosver Zulueta, RHP, age 25 (DOB: 1/23/1998), grade: 40+, 2022: 32nd
Zulueta signed for about $1-million as a 21-year old out of Cuba towards the end of the 2018-19 international window after the Jays acquired IFA slots that spring from Oakland (Kendrys Morales) and Baltimore (Dwight Smith Jr). Known to be a hard thrower reportedly touching the upper 90s, he remained mostly an enigma as he required Tommy John surgery shortly after signing and then tore his ACL three fastballs into Dunedin’s 2021 season without officially facing a batter.
If the rocket launch was much delayed, it was even more spectacular when Zulueta finally took the field in late-April. He utterly overwhelmed low-A hitters with 23 strikeouts in three starts (just 12 innings), moving up to Vancouver. High-A hitters didn’t fare much better over six starts, merely striking out 30% of the time rather than 45%.
Zulueta was quickly bound for Double-A and the Futures Game, driven by the dynamic arsenal he was showing. In addition to holding upper-90s velocity for the outings, Zulueta had three secondaries at his disposal. The best being a mid-80s slider which piled up swings and misses, plus a high-70s curve to further confound. Like with Nate Pearson, they’re really more along a velocity continuum than two distinct-looking or shaped pitches. His mid-80s change would also flash quality as a fourth option to pull out.
With the Jays needing bullpen help, chatter emerged that he could be called up, and after the All-Star break he was moved to New Hampshire’s pen (also likely to manage innings). The first weakness had emerged in his last few high-A starts, namely wildness and a lack of strikes, likely exacerbated by better more experienced hitter not awed by the sheer stuff. In 20 AA/AAA innings, he still overpowered hitters (30K), but walked 18 and hit more more (over 20% free passes).
The raw stuff is undeniable, and it’s a starter’s arsenal in both depth and quality. If allowed to develop as a starter, there’s frontline potential assuming the second half control was an aberration and he can reasonably harness it. The issue is Zulueta’s spotty health record, and complete lack of innings foundation. He’s already on the 40-man(though in line for four option years), age 25, and the Jays are in win-now mode and he has impact near-term relief potential in the back of a bullpen. But developing him as a long-term starter really means he needs to get to 100 innings this year.
As a result, there’s a wide range of outcomes here. He could flame out as a guy who can’t stay healthy, or harness huge raw stuff. He has the stuff to be a dominant reliever (role 45/50). There’s the in between where he has enough stuff to stick, not not dominate. And then starting’s not off the table either.
6. Gabriel Martinez, OF, age 20 (DOB: 7/24/2002), grade: 40+, 2022: Tom’s pref list
Martinez was signed out of Venezuela in 2018, though (spoiler alert) he’s only only the second highest ranking Martinez from that class on this list. He debut the next summer in the DSL was unremarkable, notable for a solid approach at the plate (walking 9% against striking out 11%) but lacking production on batted balls.
That began to change in 2021 as Martinez came stateside and hit .330/.442/.411 in 138 PA at the Florida and briefly at low-A Dunedin. Walking as much as he struck out, the plate discipline stood out, and he had better success elevating the ball to achieve better contact and line drives. In addition to the emerging record, Tom really liked the swing and would have had him towards the back of his top 40.
Martinez then built on that in 2022 with a breakout season across the lower full season levels by adding power to the mix while mostly maintaining the other elements. He hit .288/.348/.483 with 11 home runs in 264 PA with Dunedin, missing a month with a broken wrist. Earning the bump to Vancouver for the last month, he hit .330 including playoffs. His combined production was about 35% above average, solid plate discipline (8% BB/16% K), and 36 extra base hits.
Martinez has solid bat speed and a clean swing contact-oriented swing, controlling the zone well for a teenager. He’s taken a leap forward each year, though may be at the point of maxing out his physical projection even though he’s only 20. On the negative side, his batted ball data is more middling, and defensively he’s limited to a corner outfielder.
To profile as a regular, Martinez is really going to have to hit as that’s his only potential carrying tool. That creates significant bust risk, and this is an aggressive ranking betting on impact offensive upside driving by a precocious feel for hitting and that ability allowing him to max out the power he grows into.
5. Leo Jimenez, SS, age 22 (DOB: 5/17/2001), grade: 40+, 2022: 4th
The top prospect from Panama in 2017, Jimenez was signed for $825,000 as one of four big bonuses on that IFA class. Jumping right to GCL at 17, he held his own with a .250/.333/.341 line, with discipline (striking out and walking 11% each) but no power. In 2019, he moved up to short season Bluefield, posting a solid 298/.377/.377 line, showing good contact but again no power while the plate discipline regressed towards average.
That set-up a peculiar 2021 season in Jimenez’s first bite at full season with low-A Dunedin. Limited to 262 PA due to a dislocated shoulder, the strengths and weaknesses of his profile were magnified to the extremes. He made contact at an elite rate, with a 8.5% swinging strike rate that trimmed his strikeouts to 14.5%, with a .388 BABIP to boot. He walked 21% of the time for an absurd .517 OBP to lead the league by league by a mile. There was still no in-game power whatsoever (.065 ISO).
Turning in a good run in the Arizona Fall League, the Jays added Jimenez to the 40-man despite his limited experiences and distance to the majors. A big reason was his defensive projection as a solid shortstop. due to loose and fluid actions and quick hands rather than standout tools.
In 2022, Jimenez moved up to Vancouver but once again dealing with an injury, this time going in and out of the lineup with a bruised hand. Overall, he posted a .230/.340/.385 line that roughly worked out to league average, but the profile was almost a completely guy. The absurd plate discipline metrics went to almost to league average (9% walks/19% strikeouts). But for the first time he showed some power, hitting six home runs with a pronounced shift to elevated contact. Only the good contact rates carried over.
All of this leaves as many questions as answers. Jimenez has always been a skills over tools players since he signed, and in recent years had been considered a “high floor” prospect given the defensive value and the contact ability. Getting to the solid raw power he had flashed in batting practice in games, Jimenez arguably raised his reasonable ceiling in 2022 to where he could more viably profile as a regular.
On the flip side, there’s now a track record of injuries that represents more risk. There’s not just inconsistency from year-to-year, but jarring differences and some shifts in the underlying profile. Will the real Leo Jimenez please stand up?
The most valuable player by 2026-28 WAR will be:
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