No. 1 prospect Moreno optioned to Triple-A

July 12th, 2022

TORONTO -- After 18 games, flashes of his rare talent and some lessons learned, Gabriel Moreno, the Blue Jays’ No. 1 prospect, is headed back to Triple-A Buffalo.

Moreno was optioned prior to Tuesday’s opener in Toronto against the Phillies, with Danny Jansen activated from the IL after fracturing a bone in his left hand in June.

As the No. 4 prospect in baseball when he debuted (he's now ranked No. 6), Moreno’s arrival came with plenty of hype, but this was a much different situation than what Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette walked into in 2019. Moreno joined a team with World Series aspirations, not a rebuilding club like the ’19 squad, and the Blue Jays’ catching position is already the deepest in baseball with Jansen and All-Star Game starter Alejandro Kirk.

Before Moreno left town to join the Buffalo Bisons, the message was simple.

“Just keep playing every day and get at-bats,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “Having two catchers [already], it’s going to be tough to give him at-bats, so that’s the whole point. With a good-looking prospect like that, just keep playing every day and keep getting better. He did a good job.”

In his 18 games, Moreno hit .276 with a .593 OPS, walking twice and striking out seven times. Much like his start in Triple-A, his power trailed well behind his contact at the plate, but the 22-year-old didn’t look overmatched at the plate.

“He’s like Kirk. They stay like this,” Montoyo said, holding out a steady hand, “which is a big compliment. The other thing he does like Kirk is make contact. When you make contact, you’ve got a good chance to improve, and that’s exactly what he does.”

What stood out about Moreno was his defense, which is a remarkable case of development after he grew up an infielder, switching to catcher only when he signed with the Blue Jays at age 16. Moreno threw out five of 14 runners attempting to steal, showing a transfer and release behind the plate that were lightning quick. Beyond his coaches, Moreno earned widespread praise from the pitching staff for his blocking and getting free outs on the bases.

Moreno didn’t exactly kick the door down, though, which is what makes this decision easy for the Blue Jays in the short term. Now, he returns to the Minor Leagues for some final seasoning.

“That’s going to help him a lot. He knows what to expect now,” Montoyo said. “That’s one of the things we talked about. He said the same thing. Now he knows how it feels to be in the big leagues, plus what it takes to compete and have success.”

Moreno has done nothing to change the Blue Jays’ opinion that he can be a big league piece in 2022, so it’s only a matter of time before he’s back in the Majors. Injuries can change things quickly, particularly at the demanding position of catcher, while expanded rosters in September offer another likely path back for the star prospect.

The Trade Deadline could be a factor here, too. Kirk surely isn’t going anywhere after his breakout season, but with Jansen and Kirk in the picture, any catcher-needy team in baseball will be making a phone call to the Blue Jays. This is also a tremendous position of strength to deal from, given the scarcity of catching across the game, but at the same time, that depth can be just as valuable to Toronto.

For now, the club’s catching duties will return to a timeshare between Kirk and Jansen, the underrated mainstay who’s enjoying a small breakout of his own this season and qualifies as the “veteran” of the group at just 27. Moreno’s time will come, but on a club that needs to win every night, his path won’t be quite as linear as the paths of big names who came before him.