Where Will the Top 20 Start
Second of Two Parts
Last week, I laid out my predictions - based on a dozen years of watching the minor league affiliates - of where the 11th to 20th-ranked Blue Jays prospects (according to MLB Pipeline; actual results may vary) will begin their 2023 campaign. In case you missed it, your MLB.tv subscription will now included access to MiLB.tv streams. You’ll find that the quality differs from stream to stream (although the overall product is much higher than it was even half a decade ago), and not all loops (we’re looking mostly at you, Florida State League) have widespread coverage, but now you’ll have a chance to watch names you’ve mostly only read about up until now.
3 of the Blue Jays minor league teams offer streaming of their games; all do an excellent job. Vancouver, with its unique sightlines in venerable Nat Bailey Stadium, has some challenges, but they somehow manage to come up with a quality broadcast.
So, here’s where guys 1-10 should begin 2023:
10. Josh Kasevich, INF
Kasevich has those up-the-middle skills the Blue Jays covet; they signed him for a below-slot $997K after selecting him with the 60th pick out of Oregon.
Not the possessor of one outstanding tool, Kasevich nonetheless is a solid defender, with above average bat-to-ball skills and plate discipline. Making his pro debut in the FSL, Kasevich anchored Dunedin’s infield as the D-Jays rode a hot second half to the post-season.
Kasevich’s next stop will be Vancouver.
9. Gabriel Martinez, OF
After a breakout 2022, Martinez had an outside shot at being added to the 40-man last fall as he entered Rule 5 eligibility. Ultimately, given his tender age (Martinez won’t be 21 until July), the Blue Jays opted to risk leaving him exposed, and there were no takers for a player a few years away.
Martinez was the FSL Player of the Month for May, and after posting an .831 OPS in 65 games for Dunedin, he earned a promotion to Vancouver, and didn’t miss a beat, slashing .324/.381/.490.
Martinez is not exactly a divisive prospect, but reports and rankings of him tend to vary. He certainly is a bat-first player, with impressive strength and feel for the barrel. Because he can get to so many pitches, he tends to chase; veteran pitchers will no doubt exploit that. With slightly below-average speed, he also profiles more of a LF - some reports even suggest a move to 1st in his future. But there are few doubts about the bat.
Martinez doesn’t have a lot left to prove in A ball. He should be up for the challenge of AA in April.
8. Adam Macko, LHP
There probably isn’t a prospect in the system with as intriguing a background as the Slovenian-born, Ireland and Alberta-raised Macko, who came to the organization in the Teo Hernandez deal with Seattle. Certainly, no player in the system probably has as many passports.
There have been concerns about Macko’s control (4.7BB/9 in the Northwest League last season) and his durability - shoulder issues limited him to 33 IP in 2023. But he’s pumped his velo up to the mid-90s, and has added a slider to an already effective curveball. Sent to the Arizona Fall League to make up for some lost devo time, Macko was lights-out in his final appearance:
Do the Blue Jays challenge Macko (who will be Rule 5 eligible next fall) with an aggressive assignment to AA, or give him at least a few more weeks of seasoning at High A when the season opens? If he’s healthy, one would expect the former.
7. Hayden Juenger, RHP
Some eyebrows were raised when Juenger (say “Yinger”) was sent to AA to start the season. The 2022 6th rounder had all of 20 innings at Vancouver under his belt as a pro.
But the move proved to be a wise one. Moved into an opener role with New Hampshire to help accelerate his development, Juenger fanned better than a hitter per inning at two levels, and finds himself on the cusp of a big league job.
Not a big (6’/170) guy, Juenger can throw all of his pitches for strikes. With his low arm slot, all of his pitches play up and create uncomfortable ABs for hitters, who know he’s going to come after them and fill up the strike zone. Moved into a relief role at AAA, Juenger continued to challenge hitters.
More of a once-through-the-order guy than a back-of-the-‘pen arm, Juenger might be hard-pressed to make the MLB roster out of spring training, but his time in Buffalo might not be long.
6. Sem Robberse, RHP
One of the most economical pitchers in the Northwest League last season, Robberse gave up some contact after a promotion to AA, but finished the season on a strong note, fanning a career-high 9 in 5 IP in his final start of the season.
It seems like Robberse (who made his pro debut in 2019) has been around a long time, but he won’t turn 22 until October, which might be why his stay in Vancouver this year was longer than I had expected.
The organization would like Robberse to put on a bit more weight to up his fastball velo, but there is perhaps no one in the system who knows how to pitch - from his mechanics to his repertoire to his ability to set up hitters and induce early count weak contact - as the Dutch youngster.
A non-roster spring training invitee, Sem turned down a chance to pitch for the Netherlands in the WBC to focus on his time in big league camp. A return to New Hampshire for at least the first half of 2023 seems to be in the cards.
5. Yosver Zulueta, RHP
Tommy John surgery, COVID cancelling a season, and a torn ACL three pitches into his pro debut in 2021 certainly set the Cuban’s development back, but he made up for lost time in 2022, pitching at four levels. If not for a summer time stint on the IL and maybe some fatigue at the end of his first full season and Zulueta may have found himself in the Blue Jays bullpen late in 2022.
The Blue Jays are making all the right noises about continuing his progression as a starter, so a return to Buffalo would make sense, but if he can’t refine his fastball command, a move to the bullpen will be in order. Certainly, seeing him get whiffs on big leaguers during spring training batting practice makes one think of a bat-missing power arm/late inning guy.
4. Tucker Toman, INF
There’s not a position player I’m looking forward to seeing more than Toman, selected in the 2nd round last June.
BA’s report on Toman makes one giddy for his full season debut this spring:
Toman is a gifted switch-hitter with advanced plate discipline and a knack for contact. He's a pure hitter who displays plus bat speed and feel for the barrel from the left side and makes consistent hard contact. His righthanded swing lacks loft and doesn't have much power behind it, but his discerning eye and advanced command of the strike zone allow him to be a threat from both sides of the plate. He's at least an above-average hitter and could grow into average power with physical maturity.
Toman acquitted himself well in a short (11 games) Complex League stint, posting a .760 OPS. He’s likely destined to be a decent defensive 2nd Baseman who hits for a high average and shows pop from the left side. He’ll easily start in Dunedin, and should be in Vancouver by mid-season.
3. Brandon Barriera, LHP
The player we’re most looking forward to seeing is Barriera, and if past trends in the system are any indication, that might not be until May in the FSL at the earliest.
Barriera pairs a plus fastball with movement with a curve and slider that both grade as average at this point. Reports suggest it’s the development of his change which will ultimately determine his ceiling.
The obvious comp for Barriera is Ricky Tiedemann, but it’s worth remembering the latter was a year older and had a season of JuCo competition under his belt before his breakout season last year. The farm department may tap the brakes a bit on Barriera, but he too could be in the Pacific Northwest by season’s end.
2. Orelvis Martinez, SS
Orelvis took something of a step backward last year, with extenuating circumstances. One of the youngest regulars in the Eastern League, Martinez wore down noticeably toward the end of the season after having played winter ball. He also lacked protection in the lineup for much of 2022, and well, he swung at a lot of pitches out of the zone - Hunter Mense told me early in the season that Orelvis’ chase rates were down, but as the season progressed, a steady diet of breaking pitches away/fastballs on the inside edge had him visibly over-anxious at the plate. Still, Martinez broke New Hampshire’s single-season HR record with a career-high 30, but he also had the sixth-lowest batting average (.203) and OBP (.286) in the EL.
It’s no secret - Orelvis hammers fastballs, but he simply has to learn to make better swing decisions. Perhaps with Addison Barger and Spencer Horwitz surrounding him in the Buffalo batting order, Martinez will regain his former prospect lustre. While Joe Sclafani has said that Orelvis will continue to play SS, it will be interesting to see if a gradual transition to 3B takes place this season.
1. Ricky Tiedemann, LHP
It’s easy to see recent spring training video of Tiedeman, who rode one of the heaviest doses of helium we’ve ever seen in the system last year, in a big league rotation.
There is little doubt that he can get big league hitters out right now. And while the Blue Jays are very definitely in win-now mode, they likely will be taking the long view with a guy who has less than 80 innings as a pro. There is still a need to build him up, and Daniel Espino’s shoulder issues this spring serves as a reminder that young pitchers are among baseball’s most delicate commodities, and that sometimes it’s better to be cautious.
Still, if the Jays are gearing up for the post season (I guess we can finally put the term “pennant race” to rest), and there’s a need for a late-inning leverage lefty, it’s easy to see Tiedemann in that role later this year - depending, of course, on his fatigue level. But this is a guy who can be a top-of-the-rotation starter for years to come, and at 20 years of age, the Blue Jays will carefully balance his long-term future with the club’s short-term one.
Some have suggested that Tiedemann will return to AA (he made only 4 starts for New Hampshire before being shut down), and that’s a possibility, at least to start the season. But by June, GTA Jays fans should check Buffalo’s schedule to make a drive down the QEW to catch a Tiedemann start. I know I will.
I thought I would add my 2 cents worth to the discussion about the new rule changes MLB will be implementing this year: it shouldn’t be a big deal.
After seeing the pitch clock and ABS challenge system in place in the minors, I would say that after about two weeks of adjustment, play continued in MiLB last year much as it had before. There were some glitches, but I think they were largely worked out. I know there are some who don’t mind how long an MLB game takes to play, but I’m not one of them. If something as simple as slightly speeding up the whole pitcher-batter confrontation that is at the heart game moves the game along at a quicker pace, I’m in. Even without a chance to get used to it in spring training games, minor leaguers adjusted relatively rapidly last season.
The thing is, baseball has been evolving for one hundred and fifty years; rule changes are not new. We did go through a fairly long phase when the game changed very little, but advancements in training and strategy born from the proliferation of advanced statistical and technological measurements mean that the game I grew up with in the 70s and 80s is very different from the one today. And that’s ok.
A case in point:
Was there a great hue and cry about this rule change? Not that I could tell. Same with when they changed the number of balls for a walk/strikes for a K, the fair/foul fly rule, getting a runner out by throwing a ball and hitting him, and letting a pitcher throw overhand. It’s baseball. And it always will be.
Thanks for the comment. In a lot of other organizations, he might indeed repeat AA, but with the glut of up-the-middle guys they have that all need to play, I suspect he’ll open at AAA.
Interesting about Orelvis starting in Buffalo. I just assumed he'd be back in AA to try and refine the approach before moving to AAA. I guess AAA has more older MiLB vets who, without great stuff, have enough control to exploit a hitter with clear approach issues.