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Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette break out.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette make for arguably the best one-two prospect punch in baseball. Both are cornerstone players who should help carry Toronto’s lineup for years. Center fielder Anthony Alford gives the Blue Jays a third potential impact player who should be in their upper levels this year, with a host of intriguing breakout candidates at the lower levels courtesy of their international department led by 16-year-old righthander Eric Pardinho.
The talent in the farm system thins quickly after the top handful of prospects. Upper-level pitching prospects like Sean Reid-Foley and Conner Greene regressed at Double-A in 2017, while shortstop Richard Urena also struggled in Double-A. Pitching in particular is an area of the farm system the Blue Jays need to bolster.
Notable Graduations: RHP Danny Barnes (23) picked up 66 innings in 60 appearances for a veteran club. OF Teoscar Hernandez hit eight home runs in 26 games.
Vladimir Guerrero hit 449 home runs for his career, which included an American League MVP award in 2004. Vladdy Jr. followed his father around to big league ballparks but grew up in the Dominican Republic and trained with his uncle Wilton, also a former big leaguer. His bat stood out at an early age and he was the No. 1 international prospect when the Blue Jays signed him for $3.9 million in 2015. After dominating the Rookie-level Appalachian League in his pro debut in 2016, Guerrero was just 18 but looked like a man among boys by clobbering two Class A leagues in 2017. At an age when his peers in the U.S. were graduating from high school, Guerrero nearly led the minors in on-base percentage. Guerrero is a prodigious offensive talent, with the combination of hitting ability, plate discipline and power in the mold of Manny Ramirez. Guerrero has high-end bat speed and outstanding bat control. With hitting mannerisms reminiscent of his father, Guerrero has a compact but aggressive swing. With his hand-eye coordination, he has excellent plate coverage, barreling premium velocity while also possessing the pitch recognition skills to square up all types offspeed pitches, too. He has plus raw power now, with 30-homer years likely in his future and a chance for 40. He drew more walks (76) than strikeouts (62) in 2017 and has the potential to contend for batting titles. A gifted offensive player, Guerrero did not inherit his father's speed or athleticism. He trained as an outfielder when he was an amateur and figured to be a left fielder at best, but after the Blue Jays signed him they put him at third base. He has surprised scouts with his play there, improving his arm strength to above-average and showing the hands to be a playable defender. However, Guerrero is already so big and stocky as a teenager that it's going to be a challenge for him to maintain his weight. Even if he moves to first base or possibly left field, his bat is good enough to be a premium player there too. Guerrero has the upside to be one of the most best players in baseball. He likely will start 2018 at Double-A New Hampshire, and while the Blue Jays are conservative with promotions, Guerrero is in position to possibly make his major league debut by the end of the season as a 19-year-old.
Bichette's father Dante played 14 years in the big leagues, and his older brother Dante Jr. was a Yankees supplemental first-round pick in 2011. Bo went No. 66 overall in 2016 and quickly became the steal of the draft. He blasted his way through two levels in 2017 during his first full season, winning the low Class A Midwest League MVP and claiming the minor league batting title (.362). Bichette loads his swing with an aggressive leg kick and unleashes a powerful swing with fierce bat speed. He's consistently on time and on plane through the hitting zone for a long time, which allows him to barrel balls at a high rate. Bichette has a good sense for the strike zone and uses the whole field, with above-average power and loft to go deep to all fields. He has a strong, compact frame and while some scouts think he's a future second or third baseman, he looked better than expected at shortstop in 2017. An average runner, Bichette lacks flash at shortstop and doesn't have the range or footwork many teams want at the position, but he's a fundamentally sound defender with a good internal clock and an above-average arm. Bichette draws comparisons with Josh Donaldson, with a chance to be a middle-of-the-order hitter and has the potential to be one of the most talented offensive players in baseball. Double-A New Hampshire is his next step.
Alford was named Mississippi's Mr. Football and Mr. Baseball as a high school senior and signed a contract that allowed him to play college football, first at Southern Mississippi as a quarterback and then at Mississippi as a defensive back. He accumulated just 94 at bats over the first three seasons of his professional career before giving up football in the fall of 2014. Alford's stock jumped in 2015 with a breakthrough year, but in 2016 a knee injury and then a concussion slowed his progress. In 2017, he started in Double-A New Hampshire, made his big league debut on May 19 but broke his left wrist five days later, then returned to Double-A for the second half. Alford is a premium athlete who glides around center field with plus speed. He has good anticipation off the bat, getting quick breaks with clean routes to give him above-average range, though with a below-average arm. Alford has a table setters offensive profile with his on-base skills and speed. His elevated strikeout rate in 2016 was an aberration, with Alford showing a patient approach, good bat-to-ball skills and the ability to use the opposite field in 2017. Alford has never cracked double-digit homers in a season, though more power could come once he learns which pitches he can turn on to drive and elevate to his pull side. Alford finished 2017 in Triple-A and should return there to open 2018, though he should be back in Toronto soon. His ability to get on base and play plus defense at a premium position give him the potential to be an above-average regular.
After his freshman year at Florida International, Pearson transferred to the JC of Central Florida, where he elevated his stock to become the No. 28 overall pick in 2017 with a $2,452,900 bonus. The Blue Jays limited his workload after signing, but he blew away the competition when he was on the mound in the short-season Northwest League. Pearson gives hitters an uncomfortable at-bat. He attacks them with downhill angle from his 6-foot-6 frame and pitches with a lively, heavy fastball that parked at 92-94 mph and touched 98 regularly in his college starts. In short bursts with the Blue Jays, Pearson sat in the mid- to upper 90s and touched 101 mph, with the fastball life to get swings-and-misses up and down in the zone. His secondary stuff is inconsistent but shows the makings of effective offspeed weapons. His changeup is an average pitch with late fade. He added power to his slider in pro ball, which took the pitch from a slurvy low-80s offering to a sharper breaking ball. It now reaches the mid- to upper 80s with late tilt, though he's still learning to land it for a strike. He throws a curveball but it's behind his other pitches. Pearson should start 2018 at a Class A affiliate. If he can handle a starter's workload, he has a chance to develop into a mid-rotation arm.
Gurriel, the younger brother of Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel, signed a seven-year, $22 million contract with the Blue Jays in October 2016. He didn't play in 2016 as he worked in preparation to sign, and his debut in 2017 got off to a rocky start. Gurriel opened the year on the disabled list, played one game on April 19 and re-aggravated the injury, then finally returned two months later. He went to the Arizona Fall League after the season to make up for lost work. A long layoff from competitive baseball combined with injury setbacks could explain some of Gurriel's 2017 struggles. At his best, he has shown good strike-zone discipline, though he got too aggressive in 2017, perhaps as he shook off rust and got used to facing better pitchers than he ever faced in Cuba. Gurriel is a long-armed hitter, so his swing will always have some length, but he doesn't strike out excessively and has above-average raw power. In his final season in Cuba, Gurriel improved his speed to above-average, though the leg injury held him back in 2017. Gurriel's split time between shortstop and second base. His range might be stretched at shortstop, but he has a strong arm and could fit well at third base. He also has experience in the outfield. While a lot of signs point to Gurriel's debut being a one-year blip that isn't in line with his true talent level, he will have to prove that on the field in 2018.
Pardinho struck out 14 batters in six innings against the Dominican Republic at the COPABE 16U Pan American Championship in July 2016, then two months later pitched out of the bullpen for Brazil in the World Baseball Classic qualifier as a 15-year-old. After establishing himself as the top international pitching prospect in the 2017 class, Pardinho signed with the Blue Jays for $1.4 million. Pardinho has an outstanding combination of stuff and polish for his age, with his stuff continuing to tick up after signing. Prior to signing, his fastball sat 88-92 mph and reached 94. Now he's sitting regularly in the low 90s and has reached 97 mph. His curveball flashes plus with tight spin and sharp break to miss bats. The Blue Jays are teaching him a changeup that's still a new pitch for him. Pardinho throws with remarkable ease, showing smooth arm action and minimal-effort mechanics that he repeats consistently. His feel for pitching is well beyond his years and he throws strikes at a high rate. He has a small stature and his lower half is already strong, so several scouts had concerns about how much more velocity he would gain, but he's already seen a spike since becoming a professional. Pardinho will likely make his pro debut as a 17-year-old in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. He's far away, but he has the talent to move quickly.
A broken left hand sidelined Jansen for three months in 2015 and a broken hamate bone in his left hand in 2016 put him out for two months that season. Healthy in 2017, Jansen broke through, hitting a combined .323/.400/.484 in a season he spent primarily at Double-A New Hampshire but finished at Triple-A Buffalo. Jansen's success stems from excellent strike-zone judgment. He walked (41) more often than he struck out (40) because he tracks pitches well, has a disciplined approach and doesn't chase much off the plate, enabling himself to get into advantageous counts and draw walks to get on base. Jansen makes frequent contact with a pull-minded, line-drive approach and enough power to hit 10-15 home runs, with his value coming more from his on-base skills than his power. Behind the plate, Jansen blocks balls well, but his arm strength is fringe-average and he threw out just 24 percent of baserunners in 2017. The Blue Jays added Jansen to the 40-man roster in November to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. He should return to Triple-A to start 2018 and could be up by midseason.
A three-year starter at North Carolina, Warmoth was the first shortstop drafted in 2017, going No. 22 overall and signing for $2,820,200. He performed well in his pro debut in the short-season Northwest League. Warmoth is a bucket full of 50-grade tools on the 20-80 scouting scale, with no one true calling card but a high overall baseball IQ and no glaring holes either. He's a steady hitter with quick bat speed, a good performance record and below-average power. While his hands tend to shoot out away from his body, he catches up to good velocity and uses the whole field. He has an aggressive approach and did get pull-happy early in his pro debut, though he adjusted as the season went on to better handle pitches on the outer third and drive them the opposite way. An average runner with a solid-average, accurate arm and quick hands, Warmoth has a chance to stay at shortstop, though some scouts think he would fit better at second base. Warmoth is unlikely to develop into a star, but his skills in the middle of the diamond give him a chance to become a solid-average regular.
Urena signed for $725,000 as a 16-year-old in 2012 and made steady progress up through high Class A Dunedin. He reached Double-A New Hampshire at the end of 2016 and struggled there, then posted another sub-.300 OBP season with the Fisher Cats again in 2017. Urena made his major league debut as a September callup. Urena was a 21-year-old shortstop in Double-A, so while he was one of the youngest players at the level, he seemed to hit an offensive wall. He has fast hands and has shown solid bat control throughout his career, but his overaggressive approach got him in trouble in 2017. He's not a total free-swinger, but he needs to develop a better plan to get into better counts and increase his OBP. Urena hasn't shown much power, though he has more extra-base sock from the left side. A below-average runner, his pure range is just adequate for shortstop, but he has good anticipation off the bat and can make acrobatic plays with a plus arm. Urena has a chance to be a steady regular in the middle of the diamond, but his offensive performance will have to rebound to the levels he showed prior to 2017. He will head to Triple-A in 2018.
Injuries have slowed Borucki's development. He had Tommy John surgery as a high school senior, then dealt with shoulder problems in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Borucki had pitched just six games above low Class A entering 2017, but he took off that season and finished the year at Triple-A Buffalo. Borucki locates his fastball, gets ground balls and changes speeds effectively to keep hitters off balance. He's a strike-thrower who walked 2.2 per nine innings in 2017, with good command of a fastball that sits in the low 90s and scrapes 96 mph. He catches hitters leaning out front or swinging through his changeup, a plus pitch that he disguises well to look like a fastball out of his hand. Borucki's slider is a fringe-average pitch, so he mostly relies on his fastball/changeup combination. While arm problems have hampered him in the past, Borucki showed durability by throwing 150 innings in 2017. Borucki's big leap forward put him in contention to compete for a rotation spot in Toronto in 2018, though most likely he begins back in Triple-A. He has the profile of a back-end starter.
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