Prospect #1: C Travis d'Arnaud
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: A supplemental first-round selection in the 2007 draft, d’Arnaud has slowly moved up the prospect food chain and now finds himself wearing the label of alpha catcher in the minors. The 23-year-old brings a balanced skill set to the table, with what some scouts have suggested is a well above-average bat for the position, and improving defensive chops that grade out in the solid-average range. d’Arnaud crushed last season in Double-A, hitting for average and power, and propelling himself into the major league discussion for 2012, despite the fact that the Blue Jays already have a promising young catcher penciled into the lineup. Some scouts believe d’Arnaud has multiple All-Star Games in his future, and could emerge as one of the best all-around players at his position in the majors. Lofty praise.
What Could Go Wrong in 2012: With lofty praise comes lofty expectations, and in the case of d’Arnaud, I’m afraid a really good player is being miscast as a really great player. I think d’Arnaud is going to hit in the high-minors, probably not to the level of 2011, but he’s going to hit. He has a good swing that is short to the ball, and he generates good bat speed. He shows legit pop and can lift a ball over the fence, although he’s a better contact oriented gap-to-gap hitter than a sellout-for-power type. At the highest level, I don’t see d’Arnaud as a .300 hitter with 25+ home run potential; rather, I see an above-average stick for the position, but more of a .270 hitter with 25+ doubles and 10+ home runs. I think the swing and the setup can be exploited by pitchers who have location ability and sequence, and since I’ve only seen d’Arnaud crush fringy stuff, I can’t speak to how he will handle top-shelf velocity. It’s a small nitpick, but it’s the difference between a solid major league regular and a perennial all-star. What could go wrong is built into the expectations placed on the player, with the high-end ceilings making letdown and failure almost inescapable. If you think d’Arnaud is a balanced, all-around high-five/low-six type of catcher, he’s probably going to make you happy by playing good defense, hitting for a respectable average, and showing good pop for the position. If you are expecting a Gold Glove-quality defensive player with batting champ credentials and 25+ home run pop, you might be in for disappointment. If d’Arnaud had that suggested potential, he would be considered a top tier prospect in the entire minors, someone who could stand next to the Trouts of the world as a future 7 player. The scouts who put him in that class are either onto something and ahead of the curve, or they are on something and should share with the rest of the class.
Prospect #2: LHP Justin Nicolino
Background with Player: Industry Sources
Who: Second round selection in the 2010 draft, 20 year-old Justin Nicolino is still flying under the prospect radar, but his skill set will make him a national name by the end of the season. Lefties with good size and stuff are hot commodities, and when you add to the mix an advanced feel for the mound, you have a lethal combination in a pitcher. I mentioned stuff, and it should be noted that despite not owning a blow-away fastball, Nicolino is still able to pitch off the 89-92 mph offering, spotting it and manipulating it like a seasoned veteran. With good extension in his delivery, the pitch has some punch to it, and given his frame and the projection available, it’s not out of the question to see the velocity tick up as he matures. The changeup is his monster, a plus offering that some scouts feel quite comfortable throwing a 7 future on. The pitch is thrown with fastball arm speed and features well above-average fading action to the arm side. His curveball will flash above-average potential as well, but is a little slow at the present and has a tendency to feature a long, loose break. The total package is a lefty with projection, a potent three pitch mix that includes a potential 7 offering, a mature command profile, and pitchability. That’s a quality number two starter waiting to happen. That’s a fantastic prospect.
What Could Go Wrong in 2012: The only major knock on Nicolino is that his fastball isn’t an overpowering pitch, sitting in the upper-80s at times. He has shown the ability to reach back and touch the mid-90s, but he usually works in the average velocity range and relies on his changeup to enforce his presence. The kid can really pitch, and that shouldn’t be a knock on him, but what could go wrong is that the fastball continues to work in the average range and Nicolino becomes overly reliant on his changeup, which could lead to struggles after multiple viewings. The good news is that the fastball has some sneaky qualities, which will keep hitters honest and allow for the secondary pitches to miss bats. As long as Nicolino can keep bat speed on the fastball and hit his spots early in counts, lower-level bats won’t be able to solve his mystery. 2012 is going to be a huge year for the young southpaw, so this is just a minor critique, but one to watch as he climbs the professional ladder. If the fastball grows in size and stature, Nicolino could be something special. If it stays the same, he will need to maintain sharp command to remain ahead of the pack at the upper levels.
Prospect #3: OF Jake Marisnick
Background with Player: Industry sources
Who: Legit five-tool talent selected in the third round of the 2009 draft, Marisnick exploded in 2011, hitting for average and power in the Midwest League, while stealing bases and taking steps forward on defense. He did it all. Let’s get back to the five-tool label, which gets thrown around liberally and rarely fails to accurately describe a prospect’s skill-set. With Marisnick, the often exaggerated label is deadly accurate, as the 21-year-old centerfielder shows average-to-above-average tools across the board, with solid hit/power/glove and plus arm and run. This is a very rare skill set: a prospect with up-the-middle defensive ability and solid-average to plus offensive weapons. A first-division talent.
What Could Go Wrong in 2012: The majority of the reports I received on Marisnick were extremely positive, with more superlatives offered than with any other player in the Blue Jays system. But a few concerns were voiced, mostly centered around the ceiling of the bat itself, and if the ability to hit for average will stay with him as he advances. The consensus puts Marisnick’s future hit tool in the 6 range, with a nice compact stroke and hard contact ability from a balanced foundation. However, a few reports saw something different with the swing; one report in particular wasn’t overly impressed with the bat speed and questioned whether he will be able to jump on upper-level fastballs as well as he jumped on low-level fastballs. Bat speed is often hard to evaluate, but you know it when you see it, and most people I spoke with didn’t question Marisnick’s bat speed; in fact, some championed it when describing the hit tool. Different eyes will see different outcomes, which is the best part about scouting and evaluation, so in order to present the best possible report, it’s important to mention all sides. We might have to wait until Marisnick hits Double-A before we can determine if the bat speed shown in the Midwest League can compete with the arms in the Eastern League, but if you are looking for a majority opinion, most observers think the Jays have a legit major league force on their hands, a player with more than enough bat speed to excel in the minors.
Prospect #4: OF Anthony Gose
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: 2nd round selection in the 2008 draft, Gose has the type of loud tools that make people take to the streets in complete hysterics after seeing them on display in game action. I’ve been one of these people. A fast-twitch athlete, Gose has one the most promising defensive profiles in the game, with 7+ speed and range, a well above-average glove, and an arm so strong that he will have a bright future on the mound should the bat fail to develop. Speaking of the bat, it’s not in the same league as his other tools, and many scouts worry that it will fail to achieve an average grade at full maturity. Gose started to tap into his power potential in 2011, hitting 16 bombs at Double-A New Hampshire, but his game featured a lot of swing and miss; Gose whiffed 154 times in only 137 games, a strikeout rate that continues to climb at each professional level. The future could find Gose patrolling centerfield in Toronto, using his speed, glove, and arm to play plus-plus defense and his bat to display solid-average pop at the plate. The developmental progress of the hit tool is the only thing that can retard this eventuality, as it could limit his role to a 4th/5th bench glove or it could allow him to blossom into the star his tools suggest is possible.
What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Simply put, the hit tool we’ve witnessed and evaluated in the past turns out to be the same hit tool we witness and evaluate in 2012, making Gose one of the biggest "what if" types in recent memory. The defensive skill set will make him a major leaguer, but the bat can put a ribbon on his star package, and it’s the bat that just doesn’t look the part. Gose’s swing has length, and he struggles to shorten up and make contact. His pitch recognition skills have been questioned, and he struggles to make adjustments with the bat. With his speed, a short, compact, hard contact swing would give him some batting average potential and allow his massive defensive skill set to play every day. As it stands now, Gose would struggle to hit .220 at the major league level, especially against pitchers who attacked him inside with velocity and/or quality breaking balls, which he struggles to adjust his bat plane/path against. Without the hit tool, the power will struggle; without that dimension to his offensive game, Gose becomes an all-glove/speed type and thus becomes a bench player. I have a tendency to fall in love with the dream that tools create, and with Gose, I keep holding on to the hope that the hit tool takes a step forward and the star can rise up. It’s not a likely outcome.
Prospect #5: RHP Noah Syndergaard
Experience with Player: Industry Sources
Who: Supplemental first-round selection in the 2010 draft, the projectable Texan continues to take developmental steps forward, and if the results match the stuff in 2012, Syndergaard could emerge as one of the highest rising prospects in 2012. The breadwinner of his arsenal is a lively fastball that can touch elite velocity and can work in the mid-90s. Syndergaard uses his length well, getting good extension and creating good angle to the plate, characteristics that enhance his already electric fastball. His curveball is thrown with velocity and the break has some depth and the pitch projects to be a plus offering. The hard curve plays nicely off the fastball thanks to Syndergaard’s ability to repeat his mechanics, stay consistent with his slot, and fill up the zone with strikes. His changeup will flash promise as well, with heavy action and fade to the arm side, and benefits from the repeatable mechanics and slot consistency. The 19-year-old has legit top of the rotation potential thanks to the plus-plus fastball and the potential of the secondary offerings. The command profile looks promising, despite the length, and the ability to throw strikes is already present. There is a lot to like here.
What Could Go Wrong in 2012: It took several calls to finally find someone with a legit complaint about the young Texan, and that complaint was about the nuance and touch of his game. Syndergaard throws hard and it works, but this scout found his overall feel for pitching to be a little clumsy. "His changeup is way too firm and will lose movement, his curve morphs into a hard slurve that lacks punch, and he doesn’t go up and down with his fastball like he could." This type of approach can still lead to promising results at the A-ball level, but eventually throwers need to evolve into pitchers. Some already see Syndergaard as a prospect that has started to make that transformation, but this is where struggles might occur during the 2012 season. In order to improve and gain feel for pitches like the changeup, you have to throw a lot of changeups, and when you throw a lot of fringy pitches, you can get exploited. It takes time to develop a "feel" pitch, and it’s not uncommon to see statistical setbacks along the way. I still think Syndergaard’s fastball is good enough to keep him on the rise, but in order to develop the secondary stuff sometimes you have to suffer for the cause. I think Syndergaard could develop into a monster, and the glowing reports I’ve received on him support such a projection.