Pitching convert Danner among Blue Jays prospects in AFL
This was meant to be an ascendant year for Hagen Danner. The catcher-turned-pitcher showed enough stuff in 2021 to get added to the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster when he was Rule 5-eligible last offseason, and his upper-90s velocity meant he could push to Toronto quickly.
Then an elbow injury in late April with Double-A New Hampshire turned that fast lane into a slow crawl. Danner didn’t appear in a regular-season game the rest of the way but has been offered an opportunity to ramp back up with his placement with Salt River in the Arizona Fall League.
“It's going to be the best opportunity I've gotten so far as a pitcher,” he said.
The 24-year-old right-hander has used time off to his benefit before.
Danner was initially selected in the second round of the 2017 Draft as a backstop. He didn’t crack full-season ball until 2019 and hit just .170/.254/.369 with a 31.3 percent K rate at Single-A Dunedin in that first campaign. He had shown a lively arm at Huntington Beach (Calif.) High School, and there was some pre-Draft debate over whether his future should have been on the mound in the first place. With his hitting stalling some, Danner gave his arm a shot and liked enough of what he saw and felt to change his career path.
“I threw a live bullpen in the offseason of 2019, and I was talking to [fellow Huntington Beach alum] Nick Pratto and guys like that,” he said. “They're telling me that this is what I need to do. So it was a pretty easy decision for me. I let [the Blue Jays] know, and they were totally on with it. They didn't even ask questions about it. They were ready to go.”
Just when Danner was about to lock in his full-time move to the mound, the coronavirus pandemic canceled the 2020 Minor League season, leaving him without game reps. So he took his concentration elsewhere.
“I was able to take a year off of actually playing in games and was able to transition my body into the pitching body that I'd like to have,” he said. "Be more mobile and get out of the heavy-set catcher’s body with more muscle and stuff. Being a pitcher, I like to be lean, and I was able to learn how to move better.”
The emphasis on fitness in 2020 certainly paid dividends a year later. Danner posted a 2.02 ERA and 0.93 WHIP with 42 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings at High-A Vancouver, while continuing to flash the upper-90s velo and an above-average upper-80s slider. The arsenal would have likely translated well to Double-A, if not for the elbow issue, but it’ll now get a full test against advanced competition again in the Fall League.
“I honestly don't miss seeing the sliders at the plate,” Danner said. “I like to throw them now.”
Blue Jays hitters in the Fall League
Addison Barger, INF (No. 13): Toronto officials came away impressed by the 2018 sixth-rounder’s improved swing decisions that allowed him to tap into his above-average pop. The results were certainly evident: .308/.378/.555, 26 homers, 61 total extra-base hits in 124 games across the Minors’ top three levels. Barger is getting looks at both second and short in his early AFL days and has third-base experience too, giving him multiple ways to get that bat in a lineup.
Tanner Morris, INF (No. 18): Morris got off to a hot start at Double-A New Hampshire, hitting .312/.430/.468 in 43 games, but struggled with Triple-A Buffalo with a .173/.352/.173 line in 31 contests. (A right wrist sprain that kept him out for a few weeks in July may have had something to do with it.) The 2019 fifth-rounder’s plate discipline never left him, however, as he still walked and struck out in equal measure with the Bisons. Trying to generate even 40-grade power will be an emphasis in the AFL.
Zach Britton, OF: The Jays moved Britton behind the plate after taking him in the fifth round out of Louisville in 2020, but he’s listed on the Salt River roster as an outfielder, where he’s also played in the college and pro ranks. That should give him a better opportunity to let his bat play. The 24-year-old left-handed slugger walked at least 15 percent of the time at both High-A and Double-A and showed decent pop with 10 homers and a collective 133 wRC+ over 76 games at the two spots.
Blue Jays pitchers in the Fall League
Hunter Gregory, RHP: An eighth-round pick out of Old Dominion, Gregory was limited to only 32 1/3 innings at High-A Vancouver and endured some rough results (7.24 ERA 1.48 WHIP), though he did strike out 27.6 percent of his batters faced. He’s already shown a full arsenal in the AFL with a low-90s four-seamer, sinker, cutter, slider and changeup.
Troy Watson, RHP: The 2018 15th-rounder underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2021 and returned to make 16 appearances across Rookie-level, Single-A and High-A this season. He showed promise with a 2.79 ERA and 39 K’s in 29 innings at those three stops. He’s already touching 99 in the AFL and can get some whiffs with his mid-80s slider and upper-70s curve.
Anders Tolhurst, RHP: The 2019 23rd-rounder, who managed only seven appearances this season between the Florida Complex and Florida State Leagues in his first taste of the Minors, can touch 96 with his fastball but will sit a few ticks back. He’ll mix in an upper-70s curveball and low-80s slider, but he’ll focus on throwing strikes after walking three in 2/3 of an inning in his AFL debut on Oct. 5.