Top Ten Prospects: Toronto Blue Jays
Complete Index of Top 10s
By John Manuel
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
It’s not easy competing in the strong American League East, but that hasn’t stopped Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi from trying.
In two short years, Ricciardi has been busy remaking the Blue Jays in his image, one almost completely opposite from the organization’s glory days of the 1980s and early ’90s under former GM Pat Gillick. The Blue Jays now stress college players in the draft and rely heavily on statistical analysis as a way of measuring a player’s performance. They also have replaced many veteran scouts and minor league coaches with younger ones who follow their new philosophical approach.
Under Gillick and his successor, Gord Ash, the Jays were a large-revenue team that wasn’t afraid to gamble on young talent that was long on tools and short on experience. That approach provided stars in the past as well as the best current Jays—Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, major league RBIs leader Carlos Delgado and big league hits leader Vernon Wells. All were high school drafts or international signings as teenagers. Four of the team’s top five prospects, all signed by the previous administration, have similar backgrounds.
Ricciardi’s task is to appreciate the talent he has on hand and complement it with the cheap, productive players he was so skilled at identifying and acquiring in his days with the Athletics organization. He has done an admirable job, as the Jays won 86 games in 2003 with a major league Rule 5 pick (Aquilino Lopez) as their top reliever and cheap yet productive corner outfielders (Frank Catalanotto, Reed Johnson).
This offseason, Ricciardi has been even more aggressive, signing free-agent righthanders Miguel Batista and Pat Hentgen (another former Jays prep draftee) and dealing for lefty Ted Lilly to reshape the rotation behind Halladay. The shaky bullpen has two new go-to guys in righties Kerry Ligtenberg and Justin Speier.
Whether or not the Jays can catch the free-spending Yankees and Red Sox depends as much on the organization’s ability to develop from within as on Ricciardi’s deal-making. Ricciardi has pegged the Angels and Marlins as models in franchise-building, proof that the biggest payroll doesn’t necessarily produce the best teams. He says Toronto will need a breakthrough rookie or two to take the kind of step those teams made.
To that end, the Jays have the most balanced and deepest farm system in the division. No AL East team can match Toronto’s stable of power arms in the minor leagues, and no Jays prospects are as important as righthanders Dustin McGowan and Francisco Rosario, who have front-of-the-rotation stuff. Power righty Adam Peterson could bring his 97 mph fastball to the Toronto bullpen in 2004, and outfielders Alexis Rios and Gabe Gross aren’t far from contributing if not starring in Toronto.
The Blue Jays have championship-caliber talent, no matter how much the Red Sox and Yankees spend. Now all they need are a few championship-caliber breaks.
Top Prospect: Alexis Rios, of
Age: 22 Ht.: 6-6 Wt.: 202 Bats: R Throws: R
Background: The Blue Jays had a tight signing budget in 1999, and then-scouting director Tim Wilken and his staff narrowed the team’s choice in the first round to three players. Toronto could go with Ball State outfielder Larry Bigbie, Mississippi State righthander Matt Ginter or Rios, a Puerto Rican outfielder whose swing path and physical tools intrigued the organization. They also knew he’d come cheaper. Rather than spend about $1.5 million of their signing budget on one college player, the Jays decided to sign Rios for $845,000 (the only sub-$1 million bonus in the first round that year) and used the savings to sign several draft-and-follow prospects. Rios has since blossomed into a stud prospect, particulary in 2003, when he won the Eastern League batting championship and was Baseball America’s Double-A player of the year. He also played in the Futures Game, hitting an opposite-field homer that showed off his best attributes.
Strengths: Rios has a smooth, easy swing that belies his long frame and helps him make consistent, hard contact to all fields. He had five hitting streaks of 10 games or more in 2003. His bat always has been his best tool, and his developing power has pushed him to elite-prospect status. He hit three homers in the EL playoffs and drilled 12 more in his first 31 games of winter ball in his native Puerto Rico. Credit his emerging home run power to him filling out physically and gaining strength. Jays officials also consider him an accomplished center fielder who takes good angles to the ball and has a strong arm.
Weaknesses: Rios makes such consistent, hard contact that he’s never going to walk a lot. His 85 strikeouts last year were a career high, as were his 39 walks. His offensive profile looks a lot like that of Vernon Wells, which is good, but Rios isn’t as good a center fielder as Wells. He’s going to have to keep hitting for the kind of power he was showing in Puerto Rico if Wells’ presence prompts Rios move to right field. He has had some durability issues in the past linked to nagging injuries, and he began 2003 in extended spring training while overcoming a pulled quadriceps. His strong play in winter ball, though, has quieted those concerns.
The Future: Rios was in danger of not making the Jays’ 40-man roster last offseason, and now he’s their top prospect. He’s an example of the way the Jays used to do business, a high-risk high school pick, a hitter who doesn’t draw walks but who oozes tools. If the organization keeps him, it could have another Juan Gonzalez or Dave Winfield on its hands, a perennial all-star right fielder who could hit .300 with 35 homers, or win batting championships with 20-homer power. However, Rios isn’t quite a finished product and looks likely to begin 2004 at Triple-A Syracuse unless he has an overwhelming spring.