TORONTO — To Bo Bichette, he’s the kid with the electric bat.
To his family and friends in Venezuela, he’s Luli.
To the authors of the top 100 prospect lists he’s guaranteed to shoot up over the next few months, he’s Gabriel Moreno, catcher in the Toronto Blue Jays’ farm system.
But long before he started tearing up Double-A last month, Moreno’s right-handed swing had already caught the eye of a rehabbing Bichette last summer at the club’s alternate site in Rochester.
“He’s electric,” Bichette says with a small grin. “He’s kind of one of those guys that I walked on the field and I saw him take one swing and I was like, ‘That’s dangerous.’
“He’s going to have to obviously go out there and prove himself, but he’s got a lot of talent. It’s fun to watch.”
Through the first month of the minor-league season, Moreno is doing exactly that – proving himself.
At the testing ground that is Double-A, the first stop in the upper minors with more advanced arms than the ones dabbling in A-ball, Moreno is raking.
Through his first 20 games, the 21-year-old is slashing .367/.429/.608 with four homers, 10 extra-base hits, and a team-leading 24 RBI.
There are maybe deeper reasons Bichette was drawn to Moreno as there are many similarities in the profile: low walk totals, the ability to find the baseball with the barrel more regularly than others, and a reputation as an aggressive hitter.
“It’s his swing,” Bichette explains. “You can tell nobody touched him. You can tell that he kind of just goes out there and he’s free, he lets it go and he swings as hard he can. Anybody that watches me knows I love that.”
As far back as 2018, many in the organization were beginning to debate who they liked more in various ways, Alejandro Kirk or Moreno?
Kirk, amidst unique circumstances and armed with a unique skillset, arrived last September.
Moreno is now doing his best to push his own timeline up in a similar fashion, but this is a prospect the Blue Jays will not rush because of his immense upside as a potential all-around talent behind the dish.
“He has been awesome, he really has,” Jays GM Ross Atkins says. “I think there are actually some things [to improve on] with his approach. He’s so talented with bat-to-ball, bat speed, contact rates. I think just his ability to control the zone better is what we’re focused on with him. It doesn’t mean he has to stay in Double-A to do that and we will absolutely consider if it’s best for him to take another step forward.”
The message to focus on his approach isn’t anything new for Moreno.
It’s something the organization’s hitting coaches have been drilling into his head since he signed as an amateur shortstop during the 2016 international signing period.
The first time Jays minor-league hitting coordinator Hunter Mense laid eyes on Moreno, he immediately saw that special bat-to-ball ability that can’t be taught.
“The biggest thing was he could hit anything,” Mense recalls. “He didn’t hit it particularly hard, but he could hit a lot of stuff. The other thing that stuck out is it looked like he made predetermined decisions early in the count as to whether he wanted to swing or not, and then when he got to two strikes he just swung at everything. You could just tell there wasn’t quite a plan yet and he was 19 years old at that point, so it was kind of to be expected because he just didn’t have that many professional at-bats under his belt.”
The pandemic hasn’t helped that aspect, but in an odd way that many are just realizing now as minor leaguers return to the field and start providing box score data, it may have helped players, in some cases, focus on different areas of development.
Listed at 160 pounds previously, Moreno is now up to 195 and spent the first part of the shutdown last spring holed up in a Florida hotel, like so many other Jays prospects.
When Moreno arrived at the alternate site last summer, Mense saw progress.
“He shows up at camp in Rochester and still has that ability to hit everything, but the first ball that he hit — I think it was off Julian Merryweather, somebody that threw really hard — he turned a 97-mph fastball for a 104-mph single to left field,” Mense beams. “His next at-bat, it was a two-strike missile to right field and it was like, ‘Oh, wow. This is way different than what he was two years ago with how it’s coming off his bat.’
“Now he’s consistently hitting balls 105-plus in BP and he can run them up to 110 (mph). There’s way more pop, there’s way more juice, way more strength.”
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the hyperbole surrounding prospects, but Moreno has spent the last month proving that statement true – there’s a whole lot more juice.
Now, the final coat of paint is dialling in the approach in order to maximize Moreno’s obvious talent with the bat in his hands, and he seems to possess a trait that has helped many top prospects arrive quicker than most expect — baseball aptitude.
Moreno just seems to get it and that has been evident to coaches at each stop thus far.
“What he showed at Rochester was his ability to talk about something or work on something and apply it quickly to the game is pretty incredible,” Mense says. “I haven’t seen too many guys that have that ability, to try something that day in the cage and actually see it happen in a game. He’s a rare breed when it comes to that.”
THE GUY FROM MACUTO
Moreno tucks himself into the Jays’ Zoom room in the middle of spring training and goes through the usual process of saying he’s excited to have the opportunity and will spend time soaking up all the veteran knowledge he can.
It doesn’t take long to realize there’s a personality inside that 5-foot-11, 195-pound frame.
Being a catcher, communication is high on the list of priorities for Moreno, who says building relationships with “everyone on the entire pitching staff” is a focus this year.
“I talk a lot with Austin Martin,” Moreno says in English. “Like every day, I try to learn something.”
Martin might one day learn it’s not Gabriel, Gabby or even Gabe he’s talking to.
“They call me Luli,” Moreno smiles. “They don’t say Gabriel, Gabby. That’s my nickname.
“When I was little my mom used to sing a song and the word Luli is what’s in that song. Later on, my older brother started calling me Luli for some reason that I don’t know, but when I was playing in the street my older brother started calling me Luli and I guess that’s my nickname in Venezuela.
“I’m the only professional ballplayer from that area, from my hood, from my city, from Macuto. What happened in winter ball, the announcers started calling me, before my name, ‘El de Macuto, Gabriel Moreno.’ The guy from Macuto, Gabriel Moreno. Now batting El de Macuto, Gabriel Moreno.”
Luli then goes on to provide an honest assessment of his aforementioned approach at the plate.
“I would describe myself as an aggressive hitter,” Moreno says through team translator Tito Lebron, who is needed less and less as Moreno gets comfortable. “Being aggressive is one of the keys of my success. Sometimes your timing is off, but for me, when that happens being aggressive helps me a lot just to be on time.”
In the wake of the first alternate site experience last summer, there’s a common story emerging that’s showing some prospects actually benefitted from regularly seeing advanced pitching way earlier than expected in their young careers.
It wasn’t for everyone, but some made huge strides in that environment.
Moreno’s confidence grew when he held his own as a 20-year-old last summer, leaving him with a feeling that a big-league call might not be that far off.
“There was a moment where I sat down and said to myself, ‘I can play in the big leagues. I’m having good at-bats against big-league pitching and I feel good,’” Moreno recalls. “But at the same time, I knew that I still need to work on the little things, not to just get there but to maintain myself in the big leagues.
“For me, the previous year playing in A-ball, to be facing Triple-A, big-league pitching it was great for me. I think I did very well facing that kind of pitcher. The progress was there and overall, yes, I hope I made a very good impression to the staff and the front office.”
Make an impression he did, but it was nothing compared to his winter ball performance back home in Venezuela.
As one of the youngest players in the circuit for Cardenales de Lara, not only did Moreno earn solid reviews for his work with the veteran pitching staff, but he continued to hit, hit, and then hit some more.
When all was said and done, Moreno had posted a .373/.471/.508 slash line, walking 11 times and striking out just six.
Again, Mense saw that the messages being delivered were resonating.
“The biggest piece was just swing decisions and pitch selection, and then he goes down there and walks more than he strikes out,” Mense says. “It was so cool to see that and watch him and hear him talk about it because he knows how great of a hitter he can be if he’s swinging at the right pitches. Him understanding that and seeing it and then it actually taking place in that league against dudes that throw a lot of junk, pitch backwards a lot and are reliant on you to chase was really, really cool to see.”
Another important message came former Blue Jays prospect Nestor Molina, who was traded to the Chicago White Sox in December of 2011 in exchange for the wild ride that was Sergio Santos.
Molina, now 32, never made it to the big leagues and has spent the past five years pitching in Mexico.
He provided an important voice for Moreno with Lara.
“Being a rookie and being a starter there at the same time, it’s not easy in winter ball,” Moreno says. “He helped me out a lot, giving me a lot of tips with how to carry myself, how to call the game and all that. I think I brought that to camp and that’s helped me a lot to get better in my position with communication with the pitchers, pitching staff, coaches. That’s what I think is going to be the key for me.”
The Venezuelan catching pipeline is an impressive one and Moreno has spent his days studying Kansas City Royals star Salvador Perez and Willson Contreras of the Chicago Cubs.
That started almost immediately after he signed and was told he was no longer a shortstop.
“Knowing I was going to be a catcher, I had to learn from those guys,” Moreno recalls of his early transition five years ago.
“At the beginning, it was a hard decision for me because I knew being a catcher is not an easy position. As we know, it’s a difficult position. But right then I said, if that’s what the organization wants for me, I’m going to do everything in my power to play it and to get better at it. Right then I started watching videos of all the catchers in the big leagues, the way they handled themselves. It’s been fun and I really like it now.”
Venezuelan winter ball is no walk in the park.
It’s an extremely competitive environment that Moreno grew up watching, before finally getting a chance to experience it – and flourish – at the tender age of 20.
“Back home, winter ball is more aggressive when you’re talking about throwing to the base and blocking the plate and they play with a fire,” Moreno said. “Salvador Perez, Willson Contreras, when I saw them playing winter ball, they played with a more aggressive style and I’d say that’s the key why the Venezuelan catchers, I don’t know, maybe we get better there and then when we come to the States, we’re ready. That’s what I think.”
He hopes he can be next in line.
“I feel like I’m close,” Moreno finishes off saying near the end of the Zoom call. “I’m just going to take advantage of every opportunity that the team gives me, and just be ready. Do my job, play my game and I think that’s what’s going to put me in the big leagues.”