This offseason, MiLB.com will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organizations. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball.
Think of the Minor Leagues as somewhat of a highway. Everybody's going the same direction, or trying to in any case, at more or less the same speed. In some ways, the Blue Jays system in 2014 was the Autobahn.
Through their strong performances, prospects Daniel Norris, Dalton Pompey and Kendall Graveman climbed four organization levels, even five in the case of the latter, to make the club's Major League roster by season's end, and now all three are looking at starting 2015 in the Majors (although Graveman will do so in Oakland). Combined with the ascension of Aaron Sanchez to the Majors and the graduation of Marcus Stroman, it was generally an exciting season for top Toronto prospects.
On the team side, Blue Jays affiliates finished with a collective 412-424 record (.493 winning percentage), 16th-best among the 30 Major League organizations. Class A Advanced Dunedin (77-61) and Class A Short Season Vancouver (46-30) were the only two clubs to make their respective playoffs.
But in many respects, the Jays system in 2014 was defined by individual success, and these were the best of the best from that group.
Blue Jays Organization All-Stars
Catcher -- Derrick Chung, Dunedin (49 games), New Hampshire (47 games): Chung was a utilityman at Vancouver in 2012 after being taken in the 31st round, but volunteered to move to catcher the following Spring Training. Now he's a two-time Organization All-Star.
The 26-year-old backstop moved back to Class A Advanced Dunedin to start 2014 and continued to hit well at the level, producing a .320/.395/.438 line en route to Florida State League midseason All-Star honors. The offensive numbers weren't quite there upon moving to Double-A New Hampshire in mid-June (.240/.275/.275), though. However, one thing is abundantly clear -- few in the Jays system can control the opponents' running game like Chung. He threw out 40.8 percent of would-be basestealers between his two stops and was actually better against Double-A runners (22 of 50 caught stealing, 44 percent). Only two qualified Major Leaguers -- Yadier Molina (47.7), Caleb Joseph (40.4) -- cracked 40 percent in 2014. With a little improvement at the plate in 2015, Chung should find a chance to climb to Triple-A Buffalo or even above, given his defensive prowess.
First baseman -- Dan Johnson, Buffalo (107 games), Toronto (15 games): Johnson might be considered the poster boy for Quad-A players these days, but that should take nothing away from the solid 2014 campaign he put together in the International League. Despite a .232 average, he owned a .381 on-base percentage, fifth-highest in the circuit. He was issued 86 free passes, while striking out 81. His power was also solid with 18 homers and a .434 slugging percentage and helped earn him his third IL All-Star honor since 2010. The 35-year-old left-handed slugger didn't quite shine in the Majors (.211 average, one homer in 15 games), but he'll get another shot next year with the Astros, who signed him to a Minor League deal with an invitation to Major League camp this spring.
Second baseman -- Tim Locastro, Vancouver (67 games): With Roemon Fields (48 steals), Locastro (32) and Franklin Barreto (29), the Canadians had an incredibly speedy 1-2-3 combination at the top of their lineup. Of course, if you're going to steal that many bases, you have to get on base. Locastro did that plenty, batting .313 with a .407 OBP in his first trip to the Northwest League. The 2013 13th-rounder will hope to repeat those numbers when he gets his first chance at a full-season circuit in 2015.
Third baseman -- Mitch Nay, Lansing (120 games), Dunedin (11 games): There was a time in 2014, specifically in May when he had only four extra-base hits in 29 games, when there were concerns that Nay's power had left him. Not any more. The 21-year-old slugger clubbed 35 doubles with a .278 average and a .712 OPS between his two stops this summer. It just took some mental and physical adjustments for the No. 7 Jays prospect to find his footing again.
"I felt so much better at the plate. I was focusing on hitting the ball hard. I wasn't thinking about where my feet are, how low I am, where my hands are, it was just, I'm going to hit the ball hard, we'll go from there," he said back in August. "In July, I started to get a little wider and started using my hands more, but it really goes back to hit the ball hard and just compete."
Although his home runs (three in 2014) have not yet come, it's believed they will as the 2012 58th overall pick develops and climbs the ladder.
Shortstop -- Franklin Barreto, Vancouver (73 games): Say what you will about Brett Lawrie, but for some, Barreto was the centerpiece of the package of Blue Jays players the A's received for All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson this offseason. As an 18-year-old playing against pitchers on average three years older than him, the 5-foot-9 shortstop had a .311/.384/.481 line with six homers, four triples, 23 doubles and 29 steals in 73 games. The Venezuela native will hit full-season ball still as a teenager come spring, and there's every indication that his bat, speed and 60-grade arm will continue to play as he climbs the chain of his new organization.
"He carries himself very well beyond his years. He has played baseball for a long time and kind of has a confidence about him, especially in the batter's box," Canadians manager John Schneider told MiLB.com in July. "For him to be playing against guys who are four, five and six years older than him, I think it speaks volumes to the success he's had so far."
Dalton Pompey, Dunedin (70 games), New Hampshire (31 games), Buffalo (12 games), Toronto (17 games): After posting a .752 OPS with 38 steals at Lansing in 2013, Pompey, a 2010 16th-round pick, was on the Blue Jays' prospect radar but only at No. 19. Now as far as position players go, he's front and center (pun intended).
Pompey hit and ran at every level in 2014, posting a .317/.392/.469 line with nine homers, nine triples, 22 doubles and 43 steals in the Minors. Still only 21, the switch-hitting center fielder made the move to the Majors in time for September callups and batted .231 with a homer, two triples and one double in 17 games at the highest level. He was named an Arizona Fall League Rising Star while hitting .257 with a .729 OPS and nine steals in 19 Fall League games.
The Jays seem comfortable giving Pompey the starting center-field job to start 2015, although he'll likely bat from the bottom of the order where he can develop without the pressure top-of-the-lineup spot. By all accounts, that'll be perfect for Pompey, who grew up in Ontario.
"To play for the Blue Jays, the team I rooted for," he said back in May while still in Dunedin, "would definitely be a dream come true,"
Kevin Pillar, Buffalo (100 games), Toronto (53 games): Pillar has moved up and down between Toronto and Buffalo each of the past two seasons with middling results in the Majors, but 2014 was another look at why he keeps getting looks at the highest level. The 25-year-old, who can play all three spots in the outfield, led the Blue Jays' Minor League system with a .323 average in Buffalo. He added 10 homers, three triples, 39 doubles and 23 steals in his 100 contests in the IL, and that power-speed combo should earn him a look as a bench option in 2015.
Dwight Smith Jr., Dunedin (121 games): Buoyed by a strong 2014, Smith, a 2011 compensation-round selection, moved into the top 20 ranking of Blue Jays prospects this offseason following the Donaldson trade. The 22-year-old left-handed hitter was a Florida State League postseason All-Star after batting .284 with 12 homers, eight triples, 28 doubles and 15 steals for Dunedin. He hit .262 in 11 games in the AFL, where he got a couple looks at second base as well.
Utilityman -- Ryan Schimpf, New Hampshire (50 games), Buffalo (67 games): Like so many others who have found themselves in this spot during our Organizational All-Stars series, Schimpf, who played at second, third, right and left in 2014, would likely have a spot, if only you could pin him at one position. His 24 home runs marked a career high and led the organization in the category, besting Johnson by six for the top spot. The 5-foot-9 left-handed slugger's other New Hampshire numbers (.270/.370/.616) were even better than the ones that got him an Organization All-Star nod in 2013 (.210/.338/.428). He had plenty of struggles in Buffalo (.189 average, .648 OPS), but if he can close those holes in his swing, his power and defensive versatility should provide plenty of value at the Triple-A level in 2015.
Right-handed pitcher -- Kendall Graveman, Lansing (four games), Dunedin (16 games), New Hampshire (one game), Buffalo (six games), Toronto (five games): Norris got the bulk of the ink in 2014 as the high-rising pitching prospect, but don't let that take away what Graveman did in his first full season. After struggling some in Class A in 2013 (4.31 ERA in 10 starts), the eighth-rounder out of Mississippi State saw no such issues this summer, posting ERAs south of 2.50 in each of his four stops in the Minors. Across the board, the right-hander, who has an impressive sinking fastball to go with a cutter, a changeup, a slider and a curveball, finished with a 1.83 ERA, a 1.03 WHIP and 1.7 BB/9. He made five Major League appearances after rosters expanded in September, giving up two earned runs on four hits with four strikeouts and without a walk in 4 2/3 innings.
Graveman was included with Lawrie, Barreto and left-hander Sean Nolin in the A's-Blue Jays deal last month and is now the No. 10 prospect in the Oakland system, per MLB.com. He could be in the mix for a bottom-of-the-rotation spot in Oakland come Spring Training, but will otherwise be a part of a Triple-A staff that has received a big boost depthwise following Billy Beane's wheelings and dealings this offseason.
Left-handed pitcher -- Daniel Norris, Dunedin (13 games), New Hampshire (eight games), Buffalo (five games), Toronto (five games): There isn't much to say about Norris' season that wasn't already written in our MiLBY Breakout Prospect of the Year feature, but the superlatives bear repeating. The 6-foot-2 left-hander started the season as Toronto's No. 4 prospect (outside the Top 100 overall) while playing in the Florida State League. He finished the season as the organization's top prospect, No. 25 overall and in the Majors.
That happened because the 21-year-old hurler, who has an impressive four-pitch mix, was dominant at every stop in the Minors. In the FSL, he owned a 1.22 ERA with 76 strikeouts and only 18 walks in 66 1/3 innings. He continued to rack up punchouts in the upper levels and finished with a 2.53 ERA and 163 strikeouts (fifth-most in the Minors) across 124 2/3 Minor League frames. He made his Major League debut on Sept. 5, fanning legendary Red Sox slugger David Ortiz on a killer curveball as his only batter faced that day.
"I had high expectations for myself, but at the same time, I had to be realistic about a lot of things and just controlling what I could control," Norris told MiLB.com. "Going into this year, realistically, I thought I had a shot to get to Double-A if I pitched well. I haven't taken it in, but I'm looking forward to that moment. I'll give myself a brief pat on the back, then I know I have a job to win back next year."
As things stand, Norris will battle former top Blue Jays prospect Aaron Sanchez to see who will be Toronto's No. 5 starter to begin 2015 behind R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Drew Hutchinson and fellow wunderkind Marcus Stroman.
Relief pitcher -- Arik Sikula, Dunedin (44 games), New Hampshire (12 games): Sikula gave Blue Jays pitchers three MiLBY candidates in 2014, and there's no doubt that he earned it, given his regular-season numbers. The 26-year-old right-hander led the system with 31 saves in 34 chances and posted a 2.01 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 56 appearances between Dunedin and New Hampshire. His most impressive stats might be striking out 80 while walking only 12 in 58 1/3 innings. Since being taken in the 31st round out of Marshall University in 2011, the right-hander owns a 10.0 K/9 rate and 2.4 BB/9 in the lower levels of the Blue Jays sytem. He'll get his chance to crack the upper levels for good in 2015.
Sam Dykstra is a contributor to MiLB.com.