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Landing: Blue Jays Minor Leaguers and Where They Might be Assigned

By Tammy Rainey

While we're still more than a month away from seeing MiLB teams begin to announce the rosters, the Toronto Blue Jays have some conundrums coming up that are worth a closer than usual examination. Typically, a fan with some basic knowledge of their favorite team's system can offer up a fair estimation of where the 120ish players who'll make the roster of the system's four full season teams will land. If you can read the player's previous track record, are aware of who's left the system (and joined it) and have paid attention to the prospect discussions you could probably guess right on around 80% of assignments. Typically the only mildly difficult part is guessing which of the short-season guys from last summer do well enough in the spring to break camp on a full-season team. Not, of course, that the average fan is as compulsive about such things as some others (like, oh, i dunno, this writer maybe).

That applies, of course, to the Blue Jays' system this year as it does most years, however, there is more quality depth in upper level pitching prospects this year than I can ever recall before. Not to say it is the best set of top shelf prospects, but rather that there are enough quality guys that you as management want to keep in your system that you run into some crowding situations where you cannot assign a player as high as you might have in a thinner system. This applies, also, to a pair of fielding positions - shortstops and catchers. Let's take a closer look at the circumstances.
If you are projecting the pitching staffs for each of the full season teams, working downwards from AAA, you don't have to go far before you begin to recognize the issue. In Buffalo, it's considered a given that LH Starters Ryan Borucki and Tomas Pannone will be promoted to AAA based on their outstanding 2017 performance. It's true that the former only made seven starts in AA but there's not a whisper around the team that he'll go back there. Besides those two, Joe Biagini is likely ticketed for that rotation, along with minor league free-agent (and former Blue Jays first rounder) Deck McGuire. Contending for the fifth spot is former top-100 prospect Tyler Guerrieri (the front runner, in my opinion, if he doesn't make the Jays) along with last years surprise story Chris Rowley and re-signed swingman Luis Santos. That's a very solid group that really has no room for a surprise interloper (it's also  a massive upgrade on recent Bisons rotations). The bullpen is similarly full. With only two open spots now in Toronto's bullpen, and veteran contenders for those in camp, young pitchers Tim Mayza, Matt Dermody, and Carlos Ramirez may well get more seasoning along with returning Chad Girodo and Murphy Smith and you're already up to seven guys. Then there's Rule 5 draftee Drew Muren  and minor league signing Rhiner Cruz and you see where I'm going here. This 'pen is plenty full. 
Why this matters is that in a normal year Andrew Case, who had a 1.58 ERA in AA last year and dominated in the AFL would be an obvious promotion. Spring invitee Justin Schafer would have a shot, so would Dusty Issacs. Some even argue that starter prospects Sean Reid-Foley (who had a sideways year in '17) and former first-rounder Jon Harris (even worse) would still be eyed for promotion but there's just not a job there.

This effect trickles down. Besides the three relievers I mentioned above, I can point to seven more guys (one of whom has been a starter most of his career) who were either in AA last year (and are worth keeping) or in Dunedin and really need to be promoted. Besides the two named starters, there are two guys from Dunedin you pretty much have to promote (Jordan Romano and Angel Perdomo), and a third - TJ Zuech - who could easily force the issue. It's only lck of innings last year that would argue against him. And that's all assuming a couple of guys who got roughed up last year are sent packing. Moving down to Dunedin, the reason Zuech is a candidate for AA is because there are more than five other SP who can fill that rotation at least four of whom are regarded as legitimate prospects. Indeed, through three levels and 15 nominal SP spots, there are as many as 10 or 11 SP who show up on various Top 30 rankings. Lansing will likely feature a rotation made up of the cream of the short season crop. Even if we're assuming Nate Pearson skips over to Dunedin one can still easily identify more than twice as many potentially worthy guys as their are openings. On these levels too there are plenty of worthy bullpen candidates.
Moving out into the offensive positions, if we assume no rookie breaks camp with Toronto, the Jays have two guys(Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire) who ought to be the "full" time catcher in Buffalo, another (Max Pentecost) who ought to be the full time guy in New Hampshire, a 2017 college draftee (Riley Adams) who'd normally pencil into Dunedin and as many as four lesser guys who could make an argument for starting most of the time in Lansing at a minimum. A couple of those guys might be pushed ahead to be the second stringer candidates in Dunedin but there are several guys they like and for whom they would like to get at bats.

Similarly the Blue Jays have a clogged pipeline at shortstop.With Aledmys Diaz set to play a reserve role in Toronto, the projected major league roster does not have a place for glove-man Gift Ngope. Of course he would normally be the everyday starter at Buffalo but there's more to consider.. At AA New Hampshire the team had prospect Richard Urena, who gather some time in Toronto late last year but still needs development as a hitter, and Cuban signing Lourdes Gurriel, Jr who may be ticketed for a utility role in the majors but needs reps at shortstop most. In a normal year you'd see either or both promoted, but how do you distribute the at-bats? One can easily argue Urena needs to hit his way out of AA, but Gurriel really ought to be in AA and ought not be on the same team as another highly regarded SS prospect. But wait! There's still more! #2 prospect, a guy you may have heard of named Bo Bichette, finished 2017 in Dunedin and demonstrated that league holds little challenge for him, particularly as a hitter. But if you have Gurriel and Urena in AA he has no room to move up. Think I'm done? 2017 first rounder Logan Warmoth is exactly the sort of player that would move from short season directly to Dunedin but - well, you get the idea. Plus, if he's forced to head to Lansing instead then there are at least three other guys the team likes who stand to lose at-bats in the process.
So, what to do?
I'm clearly not a professional but here's how I would do it. First, I'd have a clear understanding of which guys i would have promoted if I had an opening (clearly the team has this knowledge).  Then I would look for opportunities to "train" certain openings together. For example, suppose you had an injury of some duration in Toronto (say, without too much imagination, Tulo). That prompts Diaz to move up but also opens the door for Gurriel which in turn creates a chance for Bo and likewise Warmoth which opens at bats in Lansing for, say, Kevin Smith. To be sure, on paper this seems obvious, and it only delays the problem if everyone stays healthy, but as the season wears on it allows results, and injuries, to sort things out for you a bit. Ultimately, the point is that the Jays should not be afraid (and I don't think they are, it's more likely an issue for reporters) to start prospects at a lower level than they "normally" would. If Luke Malie is the reserve in Toronto, assign Jansen to Buffalo and let him get the lion's share of time behind the plate. Send McGuire back to AA and ask him to prove his late-season offensive outburst wasn't a fluke. Let Pentecost go back to Dunedin and keep that uncertain shoulder close to the medical staff for another 6-8 weeks while the northern cities warm up. You want them higher at some point of course but taking a couple of months for the situation to develop on the field isn't a bad thing.

Blue Jays fans, meanwhile, can look forward to the system generating so many good players they don't have room for all of them.
Tammy Rainey is a contributing writer for Baseball Prospectus Toronto and a trans-activist. You can follow her on Twitter @Tammy_Beth.


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