No. 6 prospect Moreno mashing in Double-A

June 23rd, 2021

For the past few seasons, Blue Jays prospects have taken turns driving the hype train.

It started with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., of course, with Bo Bichette riding shotgun. Then it was Nate Pearson, building up to his 2020 debut, and Alek Manoah being the star of The Show through the early months of 2021. Now, it’s ’s turn.

The 21-year-old catcher isn’t just the hottest prospect in the organization, he’s one of the hottest prospects in Minor League Baseball. Moreno, Toronto's No. 6 prospect per MLB Pipeline, is hitting .385 with eight home runs and a 1.136 OPS for Double-A New Hampshire against older, more advanced pitching. What you’re seeing Guerrero do each night for the Blue Jays? That’s what Moreno is doing in Double-A.

Each night has its own highlight, too. On Tuesday, Moreno took four walks. On Sunday, he played his first career game at third base -- which raised some eyebrows -- and went 3-for-4 with a home run. Moreno homered in the two games prior to that, too, including a grand slam on Thursday.

“His natural talent has always been really impressive, so his ability to find the barrel with his bat speed and short stroke, they all translate into high contact,” said Gil Kim, the Blue Jays’ director of player development. “He’s able to do damage, as well. Gabby has made a lot of strides with his plate discipline with less than two strikes, and now he’s working on his two-strike approach a bit more. We saw advancement there in Winter Ball with more walks than strikeouts.”

Moreno’s 13 walks vs. 22 strikeouts leave him with a .452 on-base percentage, so you can see the strides already.

Signed out of Venezuela at age 16, Moreno was a shortstop. A Blue Jays scout at one of his workouts asked if he’d like to stand behind home plate and make a few throws to second, so he gave it a try. Before that day, Moreno had never even worn catcher’s gear. That’s one layer of what makes him so unique, though, and that’s what gives him the athleticism to project as an everyday catcher.

“He’s relatively new to the position, but his athleticism allows him to be really quick with his blocking, to make accurate and strong throws to the bases,” Kim said. “Receiving and game-planning are the two areas he’s working diligently on.”

The Blue Jays also feel that Moreno is growing more comfortable in leadership roles, particularly when it comes to speaking with pitchers and establishing plans throughout a game. If Moreno were a shortstop or center fielder, this would be a simpler conversation, but the Blue Jays need to consider how he manages a staff and bullpen.

Already forcing the Blue Jays’ hand, the obvious question is when Moreno will earn a promotion to Triple-A. A big league debut this season still feels like a long shot, but having Moreno face advanced pitchers who know how to attack young hitters -- especially late in counts -- will be a key piece to the final stages of his development.

Soon enough, the Blue Jays should have Alejandro Kirk back from his left hip flexor strain and Danny Jansen back from his right hamstring strain. That scenario likely moves No. 18 prospect Riley Adams back to Triple-A, where the Blue Jays want him playing every day. These things tend to take care of themselves with injuries or cold streaks, and it shows how deep this position is in Toronto, but at some point soon, Moreno needs to be challenged.

“We’re going to want Kirk to play, we’re going to want Adams to play and, obviously, we’re going to want Moreno to play, so we’re making sure that we’re maximizing the Minor League teams,” general manager Ross Atkins explained over the weekend. “Gabriel has certainly earned that discussion and we’re having it. We’re just trying to balance it with the group.”

Speaking of ways this could sort itself out, don’t forget the upcoming Trade Deadline. The Blue Jays’ catching depth is valuable because of how scarce that is across baseball, and if the club aims high for a pitcher, rival clubs will be asking about these young backstops early and often.

The “catcher of the future” tag hasn’t always stuck when it comes to the Blue Jays, but what Moreno has done through the first two months of the Minor League season is rare.