Baseball America’s Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player’s long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven’t exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
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It�s not easy competing in the strong American League East, but that hasn�t stopped Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi from trying.
In two short years, Ricciardi has been busy remaking the Blue Jays in his image, one almost completely opposite from the organization�s glory days of the 1980s and early �90s under former GM Pat Gillick. The Blue Jays now stress college players in the draft and rely heavily on statistical analysis as a way of measuring a player�s performance. They also have replaced many veteran scouts and minor league coaches with younger ones who follow their new philosophical approach.
Under Gillick and his successor, Gord Ash, the Jays were a large-revenue team that wasn�t afraid to gamble on young talent that was long on tools and short on experience. That approach provided stars in the past as well as the best current Jays�Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, major league RBIs leader Carlos Delgado and big league hits leader Vernon Wells. All were high school drafts or international signings as teenagers. Four of the team�s top five prospects, all signed by the previous administration, have similar backgrounds.
Ricciardi�s task is to appreciate the talent he has on hand and complement it with the cheap, productive players he was so skilled at identifying and acquiring in his days with the Athletics organization. He has done an admirable job, as the Jays won 86 games in 2003 with a major league Rule 5 pick (Aquilino Lopez) as their top reliever and cheap yet productive corner outfielders (Frank Catalanotto, Reed Johnson).
This offseason, Ricciardi has been even more aggressive, signing free-agent righthanders Miguel Batista and Pat Hentgen (another former Jays prep draftee) and dealing for lefty Ted Lilly to reshape the rotation behind Halladay. The shaky bullpen has two new go-to guys in righties Kerry Ligtenberg and Justin Speier.
Whether or not the Jays can catch the free-spending Yankees and Red Sox depends as much on the organization�s ability to develop from within as on Ricciardi�s deal-making. Ricciardi has pegged the Angels and Marlins as models in franchise-building, proof that the biggest payroll doesn�t necessarily produce the best teams. He says Toronto will need a breakthrough rookie or two to take the kind of step those teams made.
To that end, the Jays have the most balanced and deepest farm system in the division. No AL East team can match Toronto�s stable of power arms in the minor leagues, and no Jays prospects are as important as righthanders Dustin McGowan and Francisco Rosario, who have front-of-the-rotation stuff. Power righty Adam Peterson could bring his 97 mph fastball to the Toronto bullpen in 2004, and outfielders Alexis Rios and Gabe Gross aren�t far from contributing if not starring in Toronto.
The Blue Jays have championship-caliber talent, no matter how much the Red Sox and Yankees spend. Now all they need are a few championship-caliber breaks.
Top Prospect: Alexis Rios, of
Age: 22 Ht.: 6-6 Wt.: 202 Bats: R Throws: R
Drafted: HS�Guaynabo, P.R. 1999 (1st round)
Signed by: Jorge Rivera
Background: The Blue Jays had a tight signing budget in 1999, and then-scouting director Tim Wilken and his staff narrowed the team�s choice in the first round to three players. Toronto could go with Ball State outfielder Larry Bigbie, Mississippi State righthander Matt Ginter or Rios, a Puerto Rican outfielder whose swing path and physical tools intrigued the organization. They also knew he�d come cheaper. Rather than spend about $1.5 million of their signing budget on one college player, the Jays decided to sign Rios for $845,000 (the only sub-$1 million bonus in the first round that year) and used the savings to sign several draft-and-follow prospects. Rios has since blossomed into a stud prospect, particulary in 2003, when he won the Eastern League batting championship and was Baseball America�s Double-A player of the year. He also played in the Futures Game, hitting an opposite-field homer that showed off his best attributes.
Strengths: Rios has a smooth, easy swing that belies his long frame and helps him make consistent, hard contact to all fields. He had five hitting streaks of 10 games or more in 2003. His bat always has been his best tool, and his developing power has pushed him to elite-prospect status. He hit three homers in the EL playoffs and drilled 12 more in his first 31 games of winter ball in his native Puerto Rico. Credit his emerging home run power to him filling out physically and gaining strength. Jays officials also consider him an accomplished center fielder who takes good angles to the ball and has a strong arm.
Weaknesses: Rios makes such consistent, hard contact that he�s never going to walk a lot. His 85 strikeouts last year were a career high, as were his 39 walks. His offensive profile looks a lot like that of Vernon Wells, which is good, but Rios isn�t as good a center fielder as Wells. He�s going to have to keep hitting for the kind of power he was showing in Puerto Rico if Wells� presence prompts Rios move to right field. He has had some durability issues in the past linked to nagging injuries, and he began 2003 in extended spring training while overcoming a pulled quadriceps. His strong play in winter ball, though, has quieted those concerns.
The Future: Rios was in danger of not making the Jays� 40-man roster last offseason, and now he�s their top prospect. He�s an example of the way the Jays used to do business, a high-risk high school pick, a hitter who doesn�t draw walks but who oozes tools. If the organization keeps him, it could have another Juan Gonzalez or Dave Winfield on its hands, a perennial all-star right fielder who could hit .300 with 35 homers, or win batting championships with 20-homer power. However, Rios isn�t quite a finished product and looks likely to begin 2004 at Triple-A Syracuse unless he has an overwhelming spring.
2. Dustin McGowan, rhp
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 220.
Drafted: HS�Ludowici, Ga., 2000 (1st round supplemental).
Signed by: Chris Buckley/Joe Siers.
Background: Several clubs debated McGowan versus fellow Georgia prep product Adam Wainwright in the 2000 draft; Wainwright went four spots ahead of McGowan to the Braves. An inflamed elbow almost caused the Jays to void his contract after he signed for $950,000, but he has proved healthy since then.
Strengths: McGowan has added 30 pounds to his sturdy frame and now has No. 1 starter stuff that he maintains deep into games. He pitches at 94-95 mph with his fastball and touches 97 consistently with above-average life down in the zone. McGowan�s power downer curveball and mid-80s slider, which at times is a plus put-away pitch, are average big league pitches. He has good arm speed on his changeup.
Weaknesses: McGowan�s changeup can be too firm and he could stand to vary speeds better. Otherwise, he mostly needs experience, a few more innings and consistency repeating his delivery.
The Future: McGowan has better stuff than Roy Halladay, the Cy Young Award winner whom he could join in Toronto�s rotation in the near future. He�s in line for a big league promotion sometime in 2004.
3. Guillermo Quiroz, c
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 212.
Signed: Venezuela, 1998.
Signed by: Emilio Carrasquel.
Background: Quiroz signed as a free agent with the Jays for $1.2 million after his agent, Scott Boras, took him around the high school showcase circuit. He missed time late in 2003 with a partially collapsed lung but returned for three games in the Eastern League playoffs.
Strengths: Quiroz� plus arm and good throwing mechanics help him post consistent sub-2.0-second times on throws to second base. He threw out 44 percent of opposing baserunners last year. Toronto officials rave about his near-flawless English and his ability to steer pitchers through tough innings. He has a power bat to go with his power arm, and like Rios he has been punishing winter league pitching.
Weaknesses: Quiroz� swing is at times long and mechanical. He�s good at making adjustments, but he doesn�t project as much more than a .270 hitter. He has made strides in his concentration and keeping a steady approach through an entire season.
The Future: His performance at Double-A New Haven vaulted Quiroz past Kevin Cash on the organization depth chart. He should establish himself as the Jays� starting catcher no later than 2005.
4. Gabe Gross, of
Age: 24. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 209.
Drafted: Auburn, 2001 (1st round).
Signed by: Ellis Dungan.
Background: Auburn�s starting quarterback as a freshman in 1998, Gross has made the decision to leave football behind look smart. He grinded out a productive 2003 season, which ended with him starting in right field for the ill-fated U.S. Olympic qualifying team.
Strengths: Gross is a good athlete with solid average or above-average tools across the board. He has at least average power, runs well for his size and his arm fits well in right field. He commands the strike zone well and is learning to be aggressive in hitter�s counts.
Weaknesses: Gross struggled in 2002 because he couldn�t get his hands in good position for his swing, but he seems to have made that adjustment. His football background means he has less experience than a typical college draftee, so his home run production hasn�t approached his ceiling yet. He struggles with southpaws (.248 with four homers in 129 at-bats last year).
The Future: Gross could resemble Paul O�Neill, a corner outfielder who hits for a good average and 15-20 homers, or he could become a 30-homer threat. He should start 2004 back in Triple-A.
5. Francisco Rosario, rhp
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 197.
Signed: Dominican Republic, 1999.
Signed by: Tony Arias.
Background: Rosario was putting the finishing touches on a breakout 2002 season when he felt a pop in his elbow while in the Arizona Fall League. He required Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2003 season. However, Toronto officials were impressed with his recent showing in instructional league.
Strengths: Before his injury, Rosario threw his fastball from 92-97 mph with exceptional command. While his control wasn�t pinpoint after his layoff, club officials were encouraged. He hasn�t thrown many changeups since his return, but the ones he has flashed were above-average.
Weaknesses: Rosario will need time to recover from his elbow reconstruction, as many pitchers struggle to regain their touch and feel in their first season after the surgery. His slurvy breaking ball was his third-best pitch before he got hurt and still needs tightening.
The Future: Rosario would have been the Jays� No. 1 prospect last year if not for the surgery. He can put himself in position for that honor again if he has a healthy, strong 2004. He�ll start at high Class A Dunedin and move to Double-A once the Eastern League�s weather improves.
6. Aaron Hill, ss
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 195.
Drafted: Louisiana State, 2003 (1st round).
Signed by: Jaymie Bane.
Background: Hill was drafted in the seventh round out of high school by the Angels, and soon after the draft got a full scholarship offer from Louisiana State. He had a stellar college career, earning Southeastern Conference player-of-the-year honors in 2003.
Strengths: Hill has average to plus tools and the skills to match. His strong throwing arm helps him make plays from the hole at shortstop. He keeps his swing short, and has shown average power (with more to come) and running ability. His fine plate discipline and off-the-charts makeup sealed the deal for the Blue Jays.
Weaknesses: Hill doesn�t quite have Russ Adams� range at shortstop, and probably doesn�t have enough to cover ground at the position on artificial turf. He�ll have to use his tremendous instincts and learn to position himself perfectly to make up for his lack of quickness.
The Future: Some scouts see Hill becoming an offensive second baseman a la Bret Boone if he fully realizes his power potential. At worst, he should be a solid big leaguer at either second or third. Hill should reach Double-A at some point in 2004.
7. David Bush, rhp
Age: 24. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 212.
Drafted: Wake Forest, 2002 (2nd round).
Signed by: Charles Aliano.
Background: A high school catcher, Bush converted to pitching at Wake Forest. He quickly established himself as one of college baseball�s top closers. After not signing as a Devil Rays fourth-round pick in 2001, he overcame blood clots in his left leg to have a big senior season. He made a successful conversion to starting in 2003, his first full pro season.
Strengths: Bush competes hard and pounds the strike zone with four pitches. He repeats his delivery well and has the best command of any pitcher in the organization. Bush throws an 88-92 mph fastball with average life and a solid curve with depth. He also has shown a good feel for his changeup and has developed a decent slider.
Weaknesses: Bush doesn�t have a knockout pitch. At times, he catches too much of the plate and his average stuff gets hit hard.
The Future: Bush looks like a good bet to be a solid third starter. If that doesn�t work, he has the mentality and command to go back to the bullpen, where his stuff would pick up a notch. He should begin 2004 in Triple-A but could earn a trip to Toronto during the season.
8. Vince Perkins, rhp
Age: 22. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 220.
Drafted: Lake City (Fla) CC, D/F 2000 (18th round).
Signed by: Chris Buckley/Joe Siers.
Background: Perkins isn�t as athletic or polished as other recent British Columbia exports such as Athletics righty Rich Harden, his former Little League and high school teammate. However, Perkins broke out in 2003 by ranking among the minor league leaders in ERA (2.24) and opponent average (.179).
Strengths: Perkins has a big frame and big stuff. His fastball ranks right with those of McGowan, Brandon League and reliever Adam Peterson for pure velocity. He throws it in the 92-95 mph range and touches some 96s and 97s. His power slider sits at 87-89 and scrapes the low 90s. When he�s on, minor league hitters don�t touch him.
Weaknesses: Perkins isn�t a graceful athlete. That makes it harder for him to repeat his delivery, the root of his control troubles. He has progressed making his delivery less mechanical and more fluid, but it doesn�t come easy to him. His changeup is just fair.
The Future: Perkins has as much upside as any starter the Jays have besides McGowan and Rosario. If he harnesses his control, he�ll be a middle-of-the-rotation power starter who eats innings.
9. Russ Adams, ss
Age: 23. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 180.
Drafted: North Carolina, 2002 (1st round).
Signed by: Charles Aliano.
Background: Adams is a quintessential �baseball player,� a description that shortchanges his athletic ability. He went from solid college player to first-round pick with an all-star performance in the Cape Cod League in 2001, and he rose quickly to Double-A in his first full pro season.
Strengths: Adams is an above-average runner, has good range on either side of the bag and shows a knack for making consistent contact. He commands the strike zone well, then takes advantage of his good on-base percentage by being an efficient basestealer. He has good hands and quick feet defensively.
Weaknesses: Adams made 45 errors in 2003 between the regular season and Arizona Fall League. His throwing arm is below average, and the extra depth needed to play shortstop on artificial turf could expose this shortcoming even more, making a move to second base probable. He never figures to hit for much power.
The Future: Neither Adams nor the organization has given up on him at shortstop, and his work ethic, instincts and hands may yet carry the day. He�ll return to Double-A at Toronto�s new Manchester affiliate.
10. Brandon League, rhp
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 192.
Drafted: HS�Honolulu (2nd round).
Signed by: David Blume.
Background: League and Hawaiian prep rival Bronson Sardinha (now with the Yankees) both committed to Pepperdine, but League�s power arm proved too tempting for the Blue Jays, who signed him as a 2001 second-rounder.
Strengths: League remains one of the hardest throwers in the minor leagues, regularly delivering his fastball in the high 90s, sitting at 93-96 and at times touching triple digits. He throws from a low three-quarters arm slot that gives his hard heater wicked sinking action. His sweeping 87-88 mph slider is at times a plus pitch. He has the makings of a decent changeup.
Weaknesses: League�s stuff usually produces more strikeouts, even for a sinker-slider pitcher. He doesn�t command his breaking ball as well as he needs to. He sometimes over-rotates in his delivery and drags his arm, which keeps him from staying on top of his slider.
The Future: League made progress working on his delivery with Dunedin pitching coach Rick Langford. His upside as a starter remains huge, and his fastball makes relieving a legitimate option if starting doesn�t work out. He�ll rejoin Dunedin�s rotation at the outset in 2004.