TORONTO — When it came to setting its 60-man player pool Sunday, the only real question for the Toronto Blue Jays was how many spots they’d allocate to top prospects.
Considering it’s an either/or option of adding them to the player pool or leaving them at home to work out on their own for the rest of the summer, like most teams around baseball, GM Ross Atkins & Co. decided there were a handful of players in need of the development that a spot at the club’s alternate training site will provide.
It’s still far from ideal. The crucial reps these players are missing with no minor-league baseball season in 2020 cannot be replaced.
How the Jays will structure the work at the alternate site — intra-squad games, live batting practice, etc. — remains to be seen, but joining the obvious big leaguers at summer camp will be six of the team’s top 10 prospects from my top 50 ranking back in January: RHP Nate Pearson (No. 1), 3B/SS Jordan Groshans (No. 2), RHP Simeon Woods Richardson (No. 4), RHP Alek Manoah (No. 5), LHP Anthony Kay (No. 6) and catcher Alejandro Kirk (No. 7).
A little further down the list, RHP T.J. Zeuch (No. 14), SS Kevin Smith (No. 16), 2B/SS Santiago Espinal (No. 18), RHP Joey Murray (No. 19), RHP Thomas Hatch (No. 20), RHP Patrick Murphy (No. 21), RHP Elvis Luciano (No. 23), catcher Riley Adams (No. 30), RHP Hector Perez (No. 32), RHP Julian Merryweather (No. 35) and OF Forrest Wall (No. 39) were also included.
Thirty-nine of the 40 players on the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster are in the player pool, with the only exception being right-hander Yennsy Diaz (No. 33), who was placed on the injured list back in March with a right lat strain.
The goals over the next three months will be different for each of these prospects. Some are expected to play major roles with the big club, while others aren’t call-up candidates at all and should spend the entire summer at the alternate training site, which Mark Shapiro said is expected to be Triple-A Buffalo’s Sahlen Field.
Here are 10 names to play attention to.
INF/OF Austin Martin
The fifth-overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft earlier this month isn’t even signed but it was notable the Jays used up only 58 of its 60 spots on Sunday.
A lot of that has to do with maintaining as much roster flexibility as possible when coronavirus testing starts at the beginning of camp, but there’s very little doubt the club will want a player seen as a potential cornerstone learning the pro game this summer and not sitting at home.
Scott Boras may even insist on it during contract negotiations, with the deadline to get Martin signed still a month away on Aug. 1.
Despite his advanced college skillset, one that could have conceivably let him start at Double-A had there been a minor-league season, Martin hasn’t played in a game since March 11 and won’t be a call-up candidate no matter how many players in front of him get hurt or sick.
RHP Nate Pearson
It was never a question of if we’ll see Pearson this season, it was always a matter of when.
The same question remains today, but the timeline has been sped up a little bit now.
With service time being pro-rated over the 66-day calendar — if you’re up for 33 days, that will be calculated as exactly half of the usual 187-day service time calendar — Pearson will only need to stay “in the minors” for a little over a week to safely secure the Blue Jays an additional year of team control in 2026.
The value of that year is far greater than a couple weeks of Pearson in 2020, so you can fully expect the Jays to manipulate things and find a way to outline why he’s not ready from the get-go.
Don’t believe it.
Even with a number of veterans ahead of him, if starting his service clock wasn’t part of the equation it would be impossible to argue that Pearson isn’t one of their best five starters, especially after his lights-out spring.
3B/SS Jordan Groshans
The 2018 12th overall pick came out raking last spring at Low-A Lansing, slashing .337/.427/.482 in 23 games before a left foot injury cropped up and eventually ended his season.
With that in mind, Groshans and the Jays were hoping he’d make up for lost time and get back on the fast track to joining the Jays’ young core at the big-league level.
Now, it’s the virus intervening.
In his age-20 season, Groshans will be in a similar situation to the 21-year-old Martin, spending time learning around older players at the alternate training site and trying to get as many manufactured reps as possible.
If there’s anyone that could use an extended fall league setting like MLB is hoping to organize later this year if health permits, it’s Groshans, who’s a breakout waiting to happen once there’s a place to play.
RHP Simeon Woods Richardson
After coming over from the New York Mets in the Marcus Stroman trade at the deadline last summer, SWR went on a tear for High-A Dunedin, registering a 2.54 ERA across six starts.
Still just 19 years old, Woods Richardson was expected to slide back into the High-A rotation for a stint, before a quick promotion to Double-A if he continued to pitch the same way he did to finish out 2019.
His stock has already risen dramatically since the Jays acquired him, but any sort of success in the high minors at Double-A would have SWR’s acronym buzzing even more.
Just don’t expect to see him this year.
At his age, with development left, there’s no reason to add him to the 40-man roster in 2020.
RHP Alek Manoah
Last year’s 11th overall pick is an arm you could shift to the bullpen right now and dream of immediate success as a high-leverage reliever.
The huge fastball and wipeout slider are both that good.
But the Jays’ goal for Manoah is the same as it was with Pearson: Shoot for the stars and attempt to develop him into a big-bodied, front-of-the-rotation force.
The 17 innings Manoah threw in Vancouver during his debut last year were tantalizing, but the Jays will be patient.
The one way you could envision that equation changing is if the Jays somehow stay in contention and are looking for late season bullpen reinforcements, but at the same time that seems like a stretch for an organization that has proven to be conservative with prospect promotions in the past.
C Alejandro Kirk
Way back in early February when COVID-19 was still relatively low on the list of our concerns, I took a look at Kirk as a prospect to watch during spring training and a player who could be a dark horse call-up candidate if he took quickly to his first taste of Double-A with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.
The portly catcher then proceeded to show everyone he can rake this spring with four hits, including a homer, in eight at-bats.
With Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire and Caleb Joseph ahead of him on the depth chart, Kirk might not be needed as a catcher, but he could also fit as a right-handed hitting DH option and provide the luxury of being a third catcher if needed.
RHP Joey Murray
Of the 33 pitchers included in the Jays’ 60-man player pool, just five of them are minor leaguers who have zero big-league experience and aren’t currently on the 40-man roster.
That group includes, Pearson and reliever Ty Tice, who both will be options in 2020, as well as the aforementioned Woods Richardson and Manoah.
Murray, who jumped onto the prospect scene last summer by leading the Jays’ organization in strikeouts and registering a sparkling 2.75 ERA across three levels, finishing in Double-A, is the final name in that group.
The 23-year-old right-hander doesn't throw overly hard but he’s a spin-rate darling and could be an interesting depth arm down the road, it’s just unlikely he’ll be needed this year with no Triple-A experience and no spot on the 40-man.
Hatch, Murphy, Merryweather
We’ll finish this list off with three right-handed pitching prospects who are on the 40-man roster and staring down their big-league debuts in the near future.
Hatch is the most likely long-term starter of the trio, impressing with a 2.80 ERA in six Double-A starts after being acquired at the trade deadline from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for David Phelps.
Added to the 40-man in the off-season in order to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, Hatch is likely well down the list of depth options at the outset, but things could change quickly with the virus.
Murphy, who was forced to rebuild his delivery midway through last season after starting hot, and Merryweather are also one phone call and an easy roster shuffle away from being potential bullpen depth, especially with 30-man rosters for the first two weeks of the season.