Even though a snow squall is currently obliterating the view out my family room window onto my backyard this blustery Sunday Southern Ontario morning, there is light at the end of the tunnel - Minor League Opening Day is about 90 days (or so) away.
So that means it's time to call up Baseball Reference, grab a yellow legal pad, sharpen some pencils, and try to project the rosters of the Blue Jays four full season minor league teams.
Starting at the bottom, we have the Lansing Lugnuts, of the Low A Midwestern League. These are exciting times in the Michigan city - this past off season, they renewed their Player Development Contract with the Blue Jays for two years, a new 2000 sq ft special events venue in the outfield opens this season, and a three-story/84-unit apartment complex opened along the centrefield wall last August. To top it off, Lansing may have the best collection of projected talent in the system this year, including 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr, who at 17 may already be one of the best prospects in all of baseball.
In the process of constructing these rosters, I've looked at the performance of players on teams below them the previous season. It's usually customary to advance one rung at a time up the full season ladder, but complicating the job of building Lansing's 2017 roster is that there are players from three levels (Vancouver, Bluefield, GCL Blue Jays) to consider.
At best, these rosters are educated guesses, and there is considerable information unavailable to the average fan about team's plans for their players this season. As well, spring training can largely dictate where a player lands that season - Rowdy Tellez seemed ticketed for another half season with Dunedin at the close of spring training last year, but his maturity and strike zone management persuaded the organization to accelerate his development, and he more than responded to the challenge.
Like MLB teams, minor league clubs can have no more than 25 players on their active rosters. At times, they can be creative with their 7-Day disabled list, in order to facilitate one or two more players for a brief period of time.
I have included each player's age (as of January 1st, 2017), 2016 team(s), and relevant stats.
Hernandez is already possibly the best defensive Catcher in the organization, although his bat has been slow to develop. Morgan has shown very little since being a 4th round pick two seasons ago. He may be in competition with Bluefield teammate Ridge Smith, a 12th round pick last year.
|2B/SS||Bo Bichette||18||GCL Jays||.427/.451/.732|
|3B||Vladimir Guerrero Jr||17||Bluefield||.271/.359/.449|
This will be an exciting group. Guerrero is the obvious standout, but Biggio, and Bichette (whose first year of pro ball was a smashing success, despite missing a month due to appendicitis), and Appalachian League Home Run leader Jones will mean that this is a club that should produce some runs. Bichette may split time with Gudino and Biggio, and the only reason that he may start the season in Vancouver in June instead of Lansing in April is to give him more playing time at Extended.
Palacios and Woodman were promoted to Lansing in late August, and both more than held their own against MWL pitching. Anderson, the prodigal 2011 compensation round pick, made his return to competition last year after being limited to only 73 At Bats from 2013 to 2015 because of injury. He began the season with Lansing, but finished with Vancouver, and didn't see a whole lot of strikes in his time in the Northwest League. Pruitt, the 2015 23rd rounder whose draft stock dipped because of a college commitment, re-tooled his swing at Instructs last fall, and may be a spring training surprise. If he isn't, Rodrgio Orozco (.241/.348/.289 at Vancouver last year), Norberto Obeso (.316/.441/.408 in the GCL), or Lance Jones (.325/.486/.429 at Bluefield) may fill out the roster.
The top end of this rotation can probably match any in the MWL. Maese, a 2015 3rd rounder, reached Lansing last summer in only his second season of pro ball, while Murphy, whose own injury woes kept him sidelined him for almost two years, made a strong comeback in 2016, and was Vancouver's top pitcher. Zeuch, Toronto's top pick in last year's draft, gives Lansing a formidable 1-2-3 set of starters. Beyond that, it's a toss-up. Diaz impressed in the Appy League last year, but had some command issues, and Espada, after a solid pro debut in 2015, didn't miss as many bats when he moved up a level last year. Some dark-horse candidates to make the rotation may include Wilfri Aleton, who fanned almost a batter per inning in the GCL last year, Juliandry Higuera, who has spent most of the last two seasons with Bluefield, or even Maximo Castillo, who pitched as a 17 year old in the GCL last summer. Luis Sanchez made 12 starts for Vancouver last year, and may fill out the back end of the Lansing rotation if the other candidates don't prove to be ready.
|RP||Jared Carkuff||23||GCL Jays-Van||1.01/12.5/1.4|
This is probably the hardest group to predict. Jackson may be the most notable name of the group. Owner of one of the best curveballs in the system, he may not be in Lansing long. A few names who might elbow their way into contention for a spot include Travis Bergen (limited to 5 innings last year), Conner Eller (7 Saves for Bluefield, 8.6K/9 for Bluefield in 2016), or Vancouver relievers Gabe Noyalis, Grayson Huffman, or Evan Smith. Despite the uncertainty of its makeup, the bullpen may be one of its strengths.
The 2016 Lugnuts promise to be one of the better editions of the team in recent years, although their pitching depth may be a concern. With Lansing just over a 4 hour drive from the Greater Toronto Area (there are no plans as of this moment to stream the Lugs' home games over milb.tv), the trip may be well worth your while this year.