DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays graduated more than half a lineup's worth of position prospects to Toronto in 2019. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Danny Jansen and Rowdy Tellez are part of the long-term plan for a franchise coming off three straight losing years and its worst
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays graduated more than half a lineup's worth of position prospects to Toronto in 2019. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Danny Jansen and Rowdy Tellez are part of the long-term plan for a franchise coming off three straight losing years and its worst season since 1995.
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Now the Jays are waiting for the system to provide some help on the mound, and it's on the verge of doing so.
Right-hander Nate Pearson is on the short list of the top pitching prospects in the game. The Jays spent their first two Draft picks last June on righties Alek Manoah and Kendall Williams, then traded Marcus Stroman to the Mets in July for righty Simeon Woods Richardson and lefty Anthony Kay. Righties Adam Kloffenstein (who signed for first-round money as a 2018 third-rounder) and Eric Pardinho (a Brazilian bonus baby who had Tommy John surgery in February) also rank among the organization's best prospects.
"The pitching group coming up right now is especially interesting," Jays farm director Gil Kim said shortly before Spring Training was suspended. "The goal for any organization is to create a sustainable World Series winner. Part of that equation is creating a sustainable development system as well. We're excited about this group, but there's also a long ways to go and a lot of work to do."
The most interesting Jays pitching prospect is Pearson, a 2017 first-rounder who owns the No. 8 spot on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list and the best fastball in the Minors. He usually operates at 98-101 mph and has reached 104, maintaining his velocity deep into games and generating it with ease. He posted a 2.30 ERA, .176 opponent average and 119 strikeouts in 101 2/3 innings last year, advancing from Class A Advanced to Triple-A at age 22.
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Pearson has gone from making just one start in 2018 -- a line drive fractured his right forearm -- to being the most impressive pitcher in Toronto's big league camp this spring. Kim praised him for his commitment to getting the most out of his talent as well as being an excellent teammate.
"The stuff is outstanding," Kim said. "It's a power fastball and a swing-and-miss slider. Probably the biggest development from the Arizona Fall League through 2019 was sharpening the consistency of his slider. He hasn't had to use it much, but he also has pretty good feel for his changeup. He has made improvement with the depth of that pitch.
"He's working hard on a curveball as well. It may not be one of his primary offerings, but it's another tool for him. Nate has always been curious. He commits to an individual plan and sets goals for himself, and when other players see your best players do that, it helps them get better."
The pitchers won't arrive all at once like the position players did last year. Kay is another candidate to eventually crack the Jays' 2020 rotation, while Woods Richardson and Manoah could arrive in 2021. Kloffenstein, Williams and Pardinho are at least a couple of years away.
Woods Richardson has the highest pitching ceiling in the system after Pearson. A second-round pick in 2018, he combines quality stuff and advanced control, which enabled him to move to high Class A as an 18-year-old after switching organizations last summer. He dominated at Dunedin, logging a 2.54 ERA, .182 opponent average and 29 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings.
"Simeon is one of the fiercest competitors we have in the system," Kim said. "He comes at you and he's not scared of anything. He's working to increase the depth on his curveball to complement the already lethal changeup he has. And he commands a low- to mid-90s fastball too."
Pearson allowed just one run and five baserunners while striking out 11 in seven innings in big league camp. Infielder/outfielder Santiago Espinal, acquired from the Red Sox in a trade for eventual World Series MVP Steve Pearce in July 2018, bolstered his case for a utility role by hitting .417/.462/1.000 with three homers in 24 at-bats.
Among players not in Toronto's immediate plans, catcher Alejandro Kirk made a strong impression. He went 4-for-8 in big league camp, including an opposite-field home run off the Phillies' Bud Norris. Signed out of Mexico for just $7,500 in September 2016, he has evolved into one of the best hitters in the system and batted .290/.403/.465 at two levels of Class A last year at age 20.
"Alejandro can impact the game from both sides of the ball," Kim said. "He's a very good receiver, an intelligent game-caller who's savvy behind the dish. He has one of the best offensive approaches we have. He has a keen eye for the strike zone and can turn around high velocity."
Prospect we'll be talking about in 2021
The Blue Jays are building catching depth throughout the system. They graduated Jansen to Toronto, got some quality play from Reese McGuire in the final two months last season and have Kirk, Gabriel Moreno, Riley Adams, Victor Mesia, Javier D'Orazio and Philip Clarke working their way through the Minors.
Since signing for $25,000 out of Venezuela in August 2016, Moreno has honed fine bat-to-ball skills while polishing his receiving and throwing. He successfully navigated Class A last year, batting .280/.337/.485 with 12 homers in 82 games in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League at age 19. He could emerge as one of the best catching prospects in baseball this year.
"Gabby is a very athletic catcher," Kim said. "He was a shortstop as an amateur and he's quick-twitch, a solid receiver with a strong and accurate arm. He has worked a lot on improving his English and game-calling.
"His standout tool really is his bat. He has a direct, compact stroke with plus bat speed. He has an innate feel for barreling the baseball. He's working on improving his plate discipline and we've seen signs of improvement. He has juice in his bat too."
Something to prove
Shortstop/third baseman Kevin Smith has had a career of peaks and valleys. He set himself up as a potential first-round pick when he starred in the Cape Cod League in 2016, then had an inconsistent junior year at Maryland and dropped to the fourth round the following June.
Smith quickly established himself as one of the Blue Jays' better prospects by batting .302/.358/.528 with 25 homers and 29 steals in his first full pro season in 2018. But his stock dropped when he batted .209/.263/.402 in Double-A last year and went 6-for-63 (.095) with 38 strikeouts in the Arizona Fall League.
"Obviously, he had a tough AFL," Kim said. "But he's so driven, a very analytical thinker, and invested a lot of time on his swing this offseason. We're seeing a more athletic swing and improved approach so far in camp."
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.