Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's State of the System series will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlights prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offers a peek at 2021.
The truncated 2020 season provided some quirks and many new opportunities, and the Blue Jays were right in the middle of it.
With restrictions on travel to and from Canada, the Blue Jays played the bulk of their home games at Triple-A Buffalo's Sahlen Field. While using a park that many of their young players called home in the Minors, it seemed fitting that the Blue Jays reached the postseason with plenty of help from their homegrown talent.
Toronto didn't get past the first round in the expanded postseason, but breaking a four-year playoff drought was a step in the right direction for a young roster. With a budding farm system still in hand, the Blue Jays should use 2020 as a stepping stone toward greater heights.
"We exceeded expectations from an external view, but all our guys believe in themselves and we always believed in them," assistant director of player development Joe Sclafani said. "It was really cool to see a lot of those younger guys take the work that they've been putting in over the years and preparing to kind of shift the culture a little bit up there and being really focused on bringing a sustainable, winning culture to Toronto."
System strengths: From top to bottom, the Blue Jays boast one of the more exciting systems overall, with an emphasis on talent up the middle.
Looking at the team's list of top-30 prospects, it's hard not to focus on right-handed pitching. At the top is baseball's No. 6 overall prospect, Nate Pearson. The hard-throwing hurler made his Major League debut on July 29 and immediately showcased the triple-digit fastball he featured while in the Minors. Although at times his control was inconsistent and a right flexor strain put him on the injured list for about a month, Pearson did flash some of the talent that made him the 28th overall selection in 2017.
Though he recorded a 6.00 ERA and a FIP above 7.00 in 18 innings with the Jays, Pearson did pick up 16 strikeouts in that short stint. Also encouraging, his fastball velocity ranked in the 89th percentile, per Baseball Savant, while the four-seamer averaged two inches more vertical break than the average fastball, good for 43rd in baseball.
"When he's on, it truly is electric stuff, and it's fun because he also has a feel for what he's trying to do," Sclafani said. "It's not just power -- he executes, he sets guys up. He's throwing different pitches and sequencing in an advanced way. The thing that stands out most for me is what goes on behind the scenes. I mean, he's an exemplary worker."
Simeon Woods Richardson has only played about a month and a half of games in the Blue Jays system since his acquisition from the Mets in the Marcus Stroman trade last summer, but he's quickly been a standout. Over his six starts with Class A Advanced Dunedin at the end of 2019, Woods Richardson carried a 2.54 ERA and 0.88 WHIP with 29 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings. The brilliant finish vaulted him into 2020, and he made an immediate impression at the team's alternate training site at Rochester's Frontier Field.
"He's pretty advanced. He has multiple pitches he can throw for strikes, and he has a feel for the zone. It's just an advanced feel," Sclafani said. "One of the focuses was for him to execute a fastball to a specific part of the zone. It was so fun for him because it was such a specific goal. Then it was learning how to just play off of that."
Alek Manoah came out of the Draft in 2019 and was dominant in his stint with Class A Short Season Vancouver. In 17 innings, the West Virginia University product picked up 27 strikeouts while maintaining a 2.65 ERA.
Playing behind those pitchers at the highest level at some point could be shortstop Jordan Groshans. Though a foot injury early last season cut his full-season debut short, the third-ranked Toronto prospect had gotten off to a hot start in the Midwest League with a .337 average and .909 OPS.
Along with Groshans is 2020 first-round pick Austin Martin, who spent his summer at the alternate site. The Vanderbilt product hit .368 over three college seasons while having experience at six different positions.
"He came in and fit in right away," Sclafani said of Martin. "He asked a ton of questions, wants to know the why to everything, which is great. This fits perfectly in our model of development. In what could have been an overwhelming environment, he was one of the more competitive kids we've seen."
Areas for growth: Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. have shored up Toronto's outfield and been two of club's more productive players. That said, the team's outfield talent in the Minors is a little thin at present, though it could look a different if the Jays decide to slot Martin into the outfield.
Dasan Brown, Will Robertson and Chavez Young comprise the three full-time outfielders in Toronto's top-30 prospect list, but none has played a game above the Class A Advanced level yet.
What changed in 2020: For starters, the Blue Jays bucked the trend by avoiding another losing season and made their way back into contender status with a playoff appearance.
On the prospect-side, there weren't a ton of wholesale changes that shook up the organization. With five picks in the 2020 Draft, they added four players to their list of top-30 prospects. Martin's offensive prowess gives the Blue Jays depth wherever he ends up playing defensively.
CJ Van Eyk out of Florida State gives Toronto a pitcher who could rise through the system relatively quickly. With a 60-grade curveball and mid-90s fastball, the 21-year-old was off to a torrid junior season in the ACC with a 1.31 ERA before the early shutdown of play. He had a chance to be picked toward the end of the first round but fell to the Blue Jays in the second. He has the stuff to be a reliable starter in the middle or back of the rotation, but his development as a pro once Minor League play resumes will be the true test to determine where he lands.
Alternate site standouts: Woods Richardson built off his stellar close to 2019 and made the most of his time at the alternate site. The right-hander advanced his repertoire and improved upon his command.
Pitching for three different teams last year, Joey Murray spun a successful season with a 2.75 ERA with 169 strikeouts in 137 1/3 innings. The 2019 MiLB.com Organization All-Star continued that trend at the alternate site in what would have been his second full professional season out of Kent State.
Sclafani said the No. 29 prospect worked particularly on sequencing at camp in keeping with his development after seeing an uptick in his fastball.
"His main goal this offseason was to gain some velocity and in games sustain a velocity," Sclafani said. "You can tell he really worked his butt off in the offseason and over the shutdown because he was there and he attained that goal."
Hector Perez, who'd battled some inconsistencies in the past (4.60 ERA in 2019), continued to make strides in Rochester and eventually made his big league debut on Sept. 16.
As far as batterymates goes, Sclafani said the catching core was just as impressive. Pointing to the development of Alejandro Kirk, Gabriel Moreno and Riley Adams, the organization was impressed with their work on both sides of the ball this year.
Moreno, from Venezuela, had been stuck in Florida when Spring Training came to a halt. Once he joined the club in Rochester, the No. 8 Blue Jays prospect didn't miss a beat.
"He kind of hit the ground running," Sclafani said. "I think the first pitch he had, he took like a 97 [mph] fastball and just sprayed a line drive to right field. He's just an impressive guy, super athlete. Really good back there behind the dish, the glove, blocking. He's got a great arm. His feel for his barrel is pretty elite."
Adams has been known more for his defensive prowess in the past, but he built off his .809 OPS with Double-A New Hampshire in 2019 and saw positive gains as a hitter during his time at the alternate site.
Martin came in after the Draft and made an impact with the group in Rochester at the outset. As for Groshans, he hadn't played competitively in about a year and a half, so it took him some time to get acclimated. Sclafani said Groshans particularly has put in effort to improve at shortstop. Both his footwork and arm strength took steps in the right direction.
"You're being thrown into the big league group and facing guys well older who've played at much higher levels than you," Sclafani said. "He was humbled a little bit, struggled a little bit at the beginning. But he never put his head down and tried to soak up all the information he possibly could from his teammates around him. It just proves how adaptable he is. He figured it out and started to make the adjustments that he needed to."
Josh Palacios might not be the most heralded player in Toronto's system, but he made a name for himself in Rochester. Sclafani noted that Palacios acted as one of the leaders at the alternate site and kept the energy high. His performance was also notable as he inches closer to the Majors. On Nov. 20, Palacios was added to Toronto's 40-man roster.
"He was as competitive as anybody up there and holding guys to the standard," Sclafani added. "Any of the games that we rolled out there for them, he wanted to win every single one. It was cool to see all the work he had done translating into his performance up there, and we feel good about the position he's put himself in moving forward."
Impact rookies: The aforementioned Kirk quickly became a fan favorite in his cup of coffee with the Blue Jays. The 22-year-old hadn't played above Class A Advanced Dunedin but made the jump to the big leagues look seamless, hitting .375/.400/.583 in nine games down the stretch.
"We expected him to get there at some point and not only get there, but be an impact and impact player and contribute," Sclafani said. "So it wasn't a surprise that he did it. I think it was more surprising for people that he did it under these circumstances."
Santiago Espinal played fairly regularly for Toronto this summer and hit .267 over 26 games, spending the bulk of his time at shortstop.
On the pitching side, Pearson made his highly anticipated debut by striking out five in five scoreless frames against the Nationals. He didn't reach those heights again following that start and spent a chunk of time on the injured list, but he came back in September and looked dominant in a 1 2/3 relief outing to cap the season.
Pitchers Anthony Kay and Thomas Hatch, acquired in separate trades in 2019, contributed in bullpen roles in 2020 and shed their prospect statuses. In the Minors, neither appeared out of the bullpen but combined for 30 relief appearances this season.
"It was literally just like, 'How am I gonna help my team win that day?'" Sclafani said. "They're all open to whatever roles and however best they can do that. It was really fun to watch. It was who's going to be the difference maker today. And it felt like it could be anybody at any given time."
Next big thing: Pearson still has his top prospect status in the organization but is almost surely to graduate early in 2021. Martin will likely take the torch and become the No. 1 Blue Jays prospect. An advanced college bat, Martin has all the makings of someone who could rise through the ranks quickly. Of course, a full year of seasoning or more is probably on the horizon before he's playing north of the border.
It's tough to put Kirk in this category because he's already made his big league bow, but in such a short stint, the backstop still has time to entrench himself as a Major League mainstay. His jolt out of the box puts him on the track to fully put his stamp on the team in 2021.
Finally, Woods Richardson is sharpening himself to be ready in the near future. He has all the makings of a pitcher near or at the top of the rotation with premium stuff.
"He's just a very thoughtful kid and asks questions and has an idea of what he's trying to do," Sclafani said. "It's just fun to work with him."