A number of prospects have risen swiftly though the system for the Jays in the past year. The club has also re-committed itself to finding prospects in Latin American, as well as Australia. The system is better than some think it is, but there is still a lot of work to be done. There are some interesting sleeper prospects in the low minors.
The club has three southpaw starters that could see significant time in Toronto in 2009: Ricky Romero, Brad Mills, and Brett Cecil. All three received long looks this spring with Romero and Mills still under consideration for starting rotation spots. Romero, a former sixth overall draft pick out of college, has had a relatively disappointing career to this point, although he is making strides with his fastball command. He split 2008 between Double-A and Triple-A. Mills was selected in the 2007 draft as a college senior and he pitched at three levels last year and posted ERAs of 2.55, 1.35, and 1.10. Overall, he made 27 starts and succeeds by being aggressive and attacking the strike zone with average stuff. Cecil has an above-average repertoire for a southpaw and was a good college closer before being converted to a starter by the Jays. He needs to work on his fastball command but he could be ready by the middle of 2009. Cecil was slowed in 2008 by injuries but he still pitched at three levels and topped out in Triple-A.
Travis Snider should be considered an early favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year award, especially with fellow rookies Matt Wieters (Baltimore) and David Price (Tampa Bay) beginning the year in the minors (What a good year for rookies in the AL East). Snider, 21, will be the everyday left fielder for Toronto. He was slowed at the beginning of 2008 by a bum elbow but he still managed to play at three minor league levels before making a 24-game appearance in the Majors where he hit .301/.338/.466 with two homers in 73 at-bats. Snider likely won’t hit for a high average early in his career thanks to high strikeout totals (32 K% in 362 Double-A at-bats), but he should provide plenty of power and he is a better outfielder than many think.
J.P. Arencibia is another powerful bat for the Jays. The catcher was selected in the first round of the 2007 draft out of college and split last season between High-A and Double-A. He hit .315/.344/.560 in 248 at-bats before a promotion to Double-A, where he posted a line of .282/.302/.496 in 262 at-bats. Arencibia tied Wieters for home runs with 27 but drove in more runs with 105. The downside to his offensive game is that he walked just 18 times last year, including a walk rate of just 2.6 BB% in Double-A. Arencibia will have to improve upon his patience if he is going to be an impact player in the Majors. He has made significant strides in improving his defense.
Scott Campbell began his pro career as a second baseman but is penciled in at third base for the Triple-A club in 2009, which will help add to his versatility. The left-handed hitter cannot hit southpaws at all and he has limited power so his future is likely as a platoon infielder or bench player. Campbell’s defense at second base was nothing to write home about. Offensively, though, he skipped over High-A ball in 2008 to play at Double-A and had his best offensive season. The 24-year-old infielder hit .302/.398/.427 with nine home runs in 417 at-bats. He posted rates of 13.7 BB% and 15.1 K%.
The left-handed Tim Collins is generously listed as 5’7” which is why he went undrafted out of high school. General manager J.P. Ricciardi’s father noticed the pitcher at a high school game and tipped off his son, which allowed the Jays to buy Collins, 19, away from a junior college offer late in 2007. Last season in A-ball, the southpaw used a plus curveball and average fastball to allowed just 36 hits in 68.1 innings of work. He also posted rates of 4.21 BB/9 and 12.91 K/9.
Yet another southpaw, Luis Perez was a late blooming Latin America prospect who did not come over to North America until he was 22. Although he started off very poorly at A-ball in 2008, Perez turned things around. He allowed 136 hits in 137.1 innings and posted rates of 3.34 BB/9 and 8.98 K/9. In 212.2 innings in North America, the Dominican hurler has allowed just four home runs and he induces a ton of ground balls, along with the healthy number of strikeouts.
Second baseman Brad Emaus opened some eyes in his first full season. Originally viewed as a future utility player in the Scott Spiezio mold, Emaus now looks like a future regular, whose offense could possibly be strong enough to warrant a move to third base. In 2008, Emaus hit .302/.380/.463 with 12 home runs and 12 stolen bases. The 23-year-old also played well in the Hawaii Winter Baseball league with a .333 average and 17 walks (with just seven strikeouts) in 81 at-bats.
David Cooper was the club’s 2008 first round draft pick out of college. Cooper, a first baseman, was considered a step below the Top 3 first sackers in the draft: Justin Smoak, Brett Wallace (now a full-time third baseman), and Yonder Alonso. Regardless, Cooper had a stunning debut and played at three levels, topping out in High-A ball. The left-handed hitter hit .300 or more at each level and batted .304/.373/.435 with one home run in 92 High-A at-bats. Cooper has the skill to bat .300 in the Majors but his power is no better than average for the position and he needs a fair bit of work on his defense.
Raw+Toolsy+Prep = Exactly the type of player Toronto historically avoided under general manager J.P. Ricciardi. Justin Jackson, though, represented a departure from that stance, and Toronto is glad it made the change. The athletic and gifted fielder is still raw but he has displayed some promising skills at the plate and on the base paths, as well as in the field. The 20 year old shortstop hit just .238/.340/.368 with seven homers and 17 stolen bases in 454 at-bats, but he was one of the better hitters on his A-ball club in the first half of the season before tiring in his first full pro season.
Eric Eiland is another raw high schooler who was signed in 2007, like Jackson. Eiland though did not join Jackson in A-ball until later in the season after beginning the year in extended spring training. Once he reached A-ball, Eiland hit .233/.334/.305 with 23 stolen bases in 249 at-bats. He needs to work on his approach at the plate after posting a strikeout rate of 32.1 K%. His walk rate was a reasonable 12.9%.
Kevin Ahrens was the club’s first pick of the 2007 draft out of a Texas high school but he has fallen down the depth chart below both Arencibia and Jackson, two players drafted after him. Ahrens, like Jackson, struggled mightily in the second half of his first full pro season. Overall, he hit .259/.329/.367 with five home runs in 460 at-bats. Defensively, he is still getting accustomed to manning third base after playing shortstop in high school.
Antonio Jimenez and Carlos Perez highlight a deep crop of catchers in the lower levels of the system. Jimenez was selected out of a Puerto Rico high school during the 2008 draft, while Perez was a quiet Latin America signing in 2007. Jimenez appeared in just 19 games after signing and hit .191/.255/.234. His defense is considered ahead of his bat and he is very athletic for a catcher (He stole five bases in seven attempts). Perez opened some eyes in his first pro season in the Dominican Summer League in 2008 and hit .306/.459/.378 in 196 at-bats. He also walked 52 times with just 28 strikeouts. His defense is not as strong as Jimenez’ but he is good enough to remain behind the dish long term.
The organization significantly improved its middle infield depth with the 2008-09 signings of Gustavo Pierre, Garis Pena and Nick Bidois. Both Pierre and Pena were signed out of Latin America for six-figure contracts, while Bidois was inked out of Australia. All three teenagers will move slowly and Pierre had Tommy John surgery during the off-season.
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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.