Toronto's youngest, perhaps happiest, AFLer

October 29th, 2021

Leo Jimenez spent his summer playing at the Blue Jays’ two lowest stateside levels, and at times, was nursing a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury. So when the 20-year-old was told to head to the Arizona Fall League to make up at-bats against much tougher arms, he became not only the youngest of Toronto’s AFL contingent, but also perhaps the happiest.

“That was one of the best moments of my life right now as a professional player,” he said before the season began. “That was amazing. I called my mom right away, called my family to let them know. I knew this was going to be a great experience for me.”

When he was on the diamond this summer, Jimenez had one of the most statistically interesting seasons among Toronto Minor Leaguers. In making his jump stateside to Dunedin, the right-handed hitter batted .315, giving him the 10th-best average by a Low-A player with at least 200 plate appearances in 2021.

On top of that, he also walked 51 times and struck out only 35 in that 54-game span. His 1.5 K/BB ratio (including his rehab appearances in the Florida Complex League) ranked third among Minor Leaguers with at least 200 PA, regardless of level. That’s third out of a group of 1,378. His .523 OBP in the small sample was tops among the sizable group.

That ability to put bat on ball and reach base at an elite clip, however, came with relatively no power. Jimenez slugged only .381 in his 54 games at Dunedin, and only nine of his 53 hits went for extra bases (one homer, eight doubles).

So while the Panama native is in Arizona to pick up some of his lost at-bats from the summer, the Fall League also offers him a chance to work directly on squeezing a little more pop out of his 5-foot-11, 160-pound frame.

Early results indicate that remains a work in progress. Jimenez entered Thursday 3-for-14 (.214) with two doubles through six games with Mesa. But true to form, he walked six times, got hit by three pitches and had a .522 OBP in his 23 plate appearances during those early looks for the Solar Sox.

Working with new faces from the Orioles, Cubs, Marlins and A’s systems could help Jimenez close out 2021 with a slightly more well-rounded offensive profile.

“The speed of the game changes,” said the middle infielder, who has primarily played second in the AFL. “Everything changes. If you want to make it to the big leagues, you have to get used to playing at a higher level. Talk to coaches. Talk to players. Tell them that if they pick something up, just help me and tell me what I can do better.”

Blue Jays hitters in the AFL

Gabriel Moreno, C (No. 1, MLB No. 32): Moreno was one of the breakout prospects of the year when he jumped out of the gate to hit .373/.441/.651 with eight homers in 32 games at Double-A New Hampshire. A fractured thumb put that on hold early, but Moreno was healed enough to participate in the AFL. The 21-year-old has brought his knack for making loud contact to the desert and entered Thursday’s play 9-for-19 with four extra-base hits and six walks through five games.

Spencer Horwitz, 1B: The 2019 24th-rounder out of Radford showed impressive plate discipline at High-A Vancouver this summer with a .290/.401/.445 line and a 66/70 K/BB ratio over 469 plate appearances. He doesn’t quite lift the ball enough to generate the home-run power of a typical first baseman, but his K zone awareness and ability to put the bat on the ball have him on Toronto’s radar after his low Draft status.

Blue Jays pitchers in the AFL

Michael Dominguez, RHP: The 2019 15th-rounder didn’t start his season until July and finished with a 3.72 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings between the Florida Complex League and Low-A Dunedin. He’s thrown 89-91 mph with his four-seamer in the early days of the Fall League and has mixed in a low-80s changeup and an upper-70s slider.

Cre Finfrock, RHP: Finfrock underwent Tommy John surgery during his days at Central Florida and dealt with more injury time this summer that limited him to only five appearances at Low-A Dunedin and Double-A New Hampshire. A former starter in college, he is a full-time reliever these days, one who will have to overcome a tough AFL start (six earned runs and six walks in 4 2/3 innings).

Brody Rodning, LHP: The 2017 13th-rounder is off to a solid start, having yet to allow a run while striking out seven and walking only one through five AFL appearances (5 1/3 innings). That comes after the 25-year-old southpaw was very hittable at Double-A New Hampshire, where he finished with a 5.58 ERA, a 1.71 WHIP and a .307 average-against over 32 games (40 1/3 frames) during the regular season.

Graham Spraker, RHP: Spraker was in the Fall League two years ago, when he made eight appearances for Scottsdale. He returns at age 26 after showing swing-and-miss stuff at Double-A New Hampshire, striking out 34.6 percent of the batters he faced while finishing with a 2.74 ERA in 42 2/3 innings. Spraker has carried that performance to the early AFL with eight K’s over five scoreless innings entering Thursday.