Keith Law of ESPN recently put out his yearly organization ratings based purely on Minor League talent alone. Law rated the Jays' system as the fourth best in all of baseball. With those rankings also came his top 100 prospects list for all of baseball as well as each team's top ten prospects.
We'll take a look at what to expect and what needs to be seen from the top five of those prospects today and the next five at a later, yet to be determined date. Just to clarify, this isn't going to be a scouting report with a focus on each player's tools but rather an overview of where they're at and where they need to be statistically. That's not a knock on scouting/tools based articles, they're great and essential reading; this just isn't one of them.
Law's number one prospect for the Jays is starting pitcher Kyle Drabek. Drabek is almost assuredly done with his days as a minor leaguer and more than likely to be the team's fourth starter. If that turns out to be the case, he'll wind up completely skipping Triple-A. That's not a move most teams make but the Jays Triple-A team, the Las Vegas 51s, play in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League in one of its most hitter-friendly parks.
Drabek didn't look out of place in three starts for the Jays at the end of last season either, striking out 12 and walking five in 17 innings while generating a ton of groundballs as well. Before that though, his numbers in 162 innings spread out over 27 Double-A starts weren't exactly eye popping. He did have a healthy 2.94 ERA but his FIP was almost a full run higher at 3.87. Statcorner gave him a 4.37 tRA compared to the Eastern League average of 5.00, leaving him with a tRA+ of 113.
The FIP and tRA takes a bit of the glow off the sub-3.00 ERA. Drabek looked to benefit from a .255 BABIP, some of which could be luck but some of it probably has to do with his above average 48.8 percent groundball rate too. His 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings was almost exactly league average and his 3.78 walks per nine was a little ways off the 3.4 league average.
Drabek is going to need something to help him out right away in 2011 and based on the above, his best bet is to keep generating groundballs. He might be hard pressed to keep his K/9 IN above seven and a walk rate below 4 BB/9 IN, but he'll survive with a solid groundball rate. He also did a good job suppressing homers last season and getting grounders is conducive to not coughing up the long ball. If those trends continue he'll be ok, but expecting him to show anything more than flashes of dominance in 2011 is wishful thinking.
Next up on Law's list is the newly acquired Brett Lawrie who came over at the expense of Shaun Marcum when he was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers this off-season. If Lawrie has one Major League ready tool, it would appear to be his confidence as he expressed that he no longer needed to play in the minors and was ready for the show after the trade. Alex Anthopoulos probably doesn't agree with that but AA obviously believed in the kid enough to trade him straight up for the Jays' second best starter from last season.
Lawrie had an impressive 2010 with a safely above average .361 wOBA in his first full season of Double-A. That is of course even more impressive when you consider he was just 20-years-old and hit .285 with a .164 isolated power against older, more seasoned competition. He also walked in 7.7 percent of his plate appearances, which wasn't far off the league average of 9.0.
His power did fall off a bit in 2010, he hit 13 homers in 423 Single-A plate appearances in '09 but just eight homers in 609 trips to the plate in 2010. His work on the basepaths improved in 2010, stealing 30 bases with a 68 percent success rate after swiping 19 bags with a 63 percent success rate the year before; again, improvement against more experienced pitcher/catcher tandems.
All Lawrie needs to do is duplicate his Double-A success in Triple-A for 2011 to be a successful year in his development. Asking a 21-year-old to hit .285/.346/.449 in Triple-A isn't usually a reasonable request, but he's performed beyond his age group two years running now. The only problem will be evaluating his Triple-A numbers. He could see his numbers inflated from a change of environment to a hitter's league in a hitter's park and not his own skill development.
The key numbers for Lawrie will not be his isolated power, batting average or home run numbers in 2011 but rather his walk rate, strikeout rate, and his batted ball percentages. Those will need to be watched more closely if he plays in Las Vegas. If he continues to draw a solid amount of walks and hit the ball well in relation to his previous batted ball numbers, then we'll be more sure of the progress he's making.
Getting a read on his defense in the minors from a statistical standpoint is quite a challenge. Lawrie will be tasked with learning a new position in 2011 as the Jays have opted to move him to third base. That could be a reflection on his defensive skill, it could be the first step in moving him to the outfield, or it could reflect the Jays lack of depth at third. Whatever the reason, judgement should be withheld on him for now defensively as he is just 21 and moving to a new position.
In a bit of a surprise, Zach Stewart turned up third on the list ahead of both the Jays top two catching prospects and a few of their other top, up the middle, prospects. If Drabek's secondary numbers weren't overly impressive, neither were Stewart's. He too spent all of 2010 with the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats and turned in 26 starts and 136 innings.
The best result from Stewart's season might be that he finally spent some serious time at the same level in the same role for the first time in his pro career. In 2009, he spent time at three levels on four teams in both a starting role and out of the bullpen. He had never pitched more than 42 innings for any team previous to 2010. That at least gives a solid baseline to evaluate from.
That baseline included a less than impressive 4.18 FIP stemming from striking out seven batters per nine while walking 3.58 and yielding .86 homers per nine. All three of those numbers were on the wrong side of the Eastern League average. His pedestrian 4.93 tRA was much closer to the 5.00 league average than Drabek's was. His one saving grace, which is becoming almost a given with young Jays pitchers, was his 46.8 percent groundball rate.
Stewart's name has been kicked around as a potential number five starter for the Jays this season. That does not seem wise, he was hardly dominate at Double-A and at least some improvement should be seen before he moves up the ladder. He did pitch better after the All-Star break, upping his K/9 IN to 7.7, dropping his walks down to three per nine, and cutting his homers per nine to .64. Even buying the most recent 42 innings of work over the season as a whole wouldn't leave you screaming for promotion.
Stewart needs to build off his 2010 numbers almost across the board to force the Jays' hand. He's flashed the ability in small samples to strike out better than a batter an inning in the past and in those same small samples shown good control too. He might not need another full season at Double-A but he needs to step forward with real, solid progress.
The Jays top five is rounded out by a pair of catchers with Travis d'Arnaud checking in ahead of the projected Opening Day starter for the big club, J.P. Arencibia. Like Drabek, d'Arnaud came over in the Roy Halladay trade and is at the top of an impressive group of catchers in the Jays' minor league system.
Keith Law says he is a plus defender across the board in his write-up for his top 100 prospects. That is necessary praise for any young catching prospect set on remaining behind the plate when he reaches the Majors. D'Arnaud will be 22 to open next season and should start the year with Double-A New Hampshire as their primary catcher.
D'Arnaud has hit well too, posting wRC+ over 100 in each of his stops across all three levels of Single-A ball. His batting line of .259/.315/.411 isn't terribly impressive taken out of context. Those stats came out of the hitter friendly, power suppressing, Florida State League that had a league average batting line of .255/.324/.364. A quick once over shows that d'Arnaud came up a little short getting on base but had solid power.
Law thinks d'Arnaud is ready to breakout with the bat in 2011, and with no good reason to disagree, you should look forward to the same thing from him with the Fisher Cats. The Jays might not be far off from the "problem" of having two quality, MLB ready, cost controlled, catchers. Too much up the middle talent is always a good problem to have.
J.P. Arencibia both rounds out the top five and figures to have a bigger impact at the big league level than the four guys in front of him in 2011. He has nothing left to prove in the minors after last season's offensive display with Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League. Even taking the context of the league and his home park into consideration, Arencibia was a force at the dish all season long.
Arencibia blasted 32 homers, second best in the league, hit .301, drew a walk in a career best 8.3 percent of his plate appearances and more than doubled the league average .155 ISO with a thunderous .325 mark. The power numbers were career bests but Arencibia has never lacked power.
However, he had lacked plate discipline, having never previously walked in more than 5.6 percent of his plate appearances at any minor league level. He also cut his strikeout rate from 24.5 in 2009(also at Triple-A) to a more reasonable 20.6 percent. That nearly doubled his walks per strikeout from .23 in 2009 to .45.
Patience from the fans and the team will be paramount to Arencibia's success next year. He can't be expected to reproduce his .412 wOBA from 2010 in the show. Jays fans should expect to see something closer to his 2009 Triple-A numbers that saw him hit .236 with a 5.2 percent walk rate and .208 isolated power. That's not going to win him Rookie of the Year honors, but it's not about the final numbers in 2011.
It is all about giving him 500 plate appearances in 2011 and being prepared to hand him at least a couple hundred more in 2012 and see how much he improves. Not every catching prospect can be expected to burst into the spotlight like Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants, and that's the case here.
Obviously, the Jays' front office doesn't need any advice on evaluating their catcher and how many at-bats to give him before thinking about moving on to other options. The typical fan though might be a different story and hopefully the team and writers around the team are ready to express that patience needs to be taken with the results of Arencibia's 2011 campaign—good or bad.
Arencibia will also have his hands full working with the pitching staff and controlling the running game. But Law likes his arm and he's caught several of the Jays' starters in the past as they've moved up the system, so he won't be completely unfamiliar with them.
Check back late in the week for the second half of Law's top ten.