Murray, Conine carry changing Jays system

After star prospects graduate, others emerge to lead solid group

Joey Murray tied for seventh in the Minor Leagues with 169 strikeouts in 2019. (Joshua Tjiong/MiLB.com)

By Jordan Wolf / MiLB.com | December 18, 2019 10:15 AM

Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club.

The Blue Jays began the season with four players on MLB.com's list of Top-100 prospects, with high-profile sluggers Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette leading the way as they started the year with Triple-A Buffalo. The pair personified the franchise's path into the future -- one illuminated by the light of their supernova stardom that only got brighter as they climbed nearer and nearer to Rogers Centre.

But things look a bit different now as the year comes to a close. Guerrero and Bichette have graduated north, taking the Toronto lineup by storm and making major waves across the league. That leaves two top-100 prospects in the system -- right-hander Nate Pearson (No. 10) and infielder Jordan Groshans (No. 67) headline what is left of the club's top-ranked youth talent.

Though the ranks may run thin on household names, they're not devoid of players worthy of excitement. Several Jays prospects posted impressive 2019 campaigns, particularly at the lower levels. Even more firepower is expected to join the Jays' fray somewhere down the line.

Blue Jays Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Alejandro KirkDunedin (71 games), Lansing (21 games): Kirk spent time behind the plate at two different levels in 2019, opening the year with Class A Lansing before moving up to Class A Advanced Dunedin after less than a month. Toronto's No. 12 prospect posted a slash line of .299/.427/.519 with three homers and 18 walks in 21 games with the Lugnuts. He was just as productive in the Florida State League, batting .288/.395/.446 with four long balls and 38 free passes over his final 71 contests.

"He's really good," Lansing manager Dallas McPherson said. "He's a polished hitter. ... When he stays locked into his approach, he can hit to all fields with power. Behind the plate, really good receiver. Good catch-and-throw guy, blocks well, but receiving, he's a head above everyone else."

Honorable mention: Gabriel Moreno hit .280/.337/.485 with 12 homers and 52 RBIs over 82 games for Lansing.


MiLB.com Organization All-Stars: Team by Team


First baseman -- Yorman RodriguezVancouver (40 games), Lansing (22 games): After posting career-low figures in average (.257), on-base percentage (.294) and slugging percentage (.330) between two levels the previous season, Rodriguez bounced back in a major way in 2019. He put together a career campaign, with a benchmark .360/.387/.502, five homers and 40 RBIs for Lansing and Class A Short Season Vancouver. He batted .369 with the Canadians and .344 with the Lugnuts, figures that would've led the Northwest League and the Midwest League if he had enough at-bats to qualify.

McPherson attributes much of Rodriguez's return to form to his refined approach at the plate.

"The biggest thing I saw different from the year before was just his ability to go the other way and his ability to take what pitchers give him," the skipper said. "Not get too big, not try to do too much. Just stay within himself and take what they give him and really stay on the ball and drive the ball the other way."

Second baseman -- Santiago EspinalNew Hampshire (94 games), Buffalo (28 games): Espinal made the often-tumultuous jump to Double-A in 2019 and the 25-year-old landed without breaking stride. He put together a line of .278/.343/.381 with New Hampshire, driving in 57 runs and scoring 46 times over 94 games to earn a spot in the Eastern League All-Star Game. That prompted a rise to Buffalo, where he hit .317/.360/.433 over his final 28 games.

"He was exciting, man," Bisons hitting coach Corey Hart said. "Defensively, he was amazing, and he swung the bat really well and put good at-bats together. He hit the ball hard, and like, he hit the ball in the gaps a lot after like the first week or so. He could've easily been hitting like .400 ... I'm excited to see him play more and see how high that kid's ceiling is."

Video: Espinal's walk-off steal of home of Fisher Cats

Third baseman -- Patrick KivlehanBuffalo (90 games), Indianapolis (24 games), New Hampshire (11 games): The Jays acquired Kivlehan's services from the Pirates in early May, an investment that quickly paid off. The 29-year-old homered three times in 11 games with New Hampshire before rising to Buffalo, where he crushed 25 taters over his final 90 contests. Add in the four he hit for Indianapolis before the trade and he finished fourth in the International League with 29 homers and 32 overall on the year -- the most of anyone in the Toronto organization.

"We've had some power guys before in Buffalo the last two years I was there and they were lefties, so it was nice to have a righty because the wind blows in from right a lot," Hart said. "So it was nice to have somebody that could hit a ball well, or like even decent, that would go out of the park."

Video: New Hampshire's Kivlehan collects fifth hit

Shortstop -- Otto LopezLansing (108 games): 2019 was Lopez's first full season as a professional, and the 21-year-old definitely did not disappoint. He led the Midwest League with a .324 average, setting a career high while posting near-best numbers in on-base percentage (.371) and slugging percentage (.425). He was especially effective as a run producer, scoring 61 times and driving in 50. It was a consistently sharp campaign, but he was even sharper down the stretch; Lopez hit .338 after the All-Star break and .367 in August and September, something that deeply impressed his skipper given his relative inexperience.

"He finished really strong," McPherson said. "The most encouraging part about the way he finished is he really seemed to get better at managing the ups and downs, the challenges that come with the game. As the season progressed, he really seemed to get better at just handling that day-to-day struggle, that day-to-day failure and being able to bounce back. I think that probably led to the jump at the end of the season as much as anything."

Outfielders

Griffin ConineLansing (80 games): Conine missed the first 50 games of the season after testing positive for a stimulant, but his numbers alone seem reminiscent of a full season's worth of work. The Jays' No. 15 prospect mashed 22 homers in 80 games after being activated in late May, leading the Midwest League in significantly fewer plate appearances. He also finished first in slugging percentage at .576 -- nearly 100 points higher than Kane County's Alek Thomas in second place -- and sixth in RBIs with 64. All of those figures marked career highs for the 2018 second-round pick.

Conine's efforts garnered him kudos as the most exciting hitter at the Class A level. His manager agrees with the label and was grateful to have in his lineup over the summer.

"He can literally single-handedly carry a team when he's doing well," McPherson said. "His greatest challenge is knowing how to keep those hot streaks a little bit longer and to swing and miss a little bit less. He's going to swing and miss, that's who he is as a hitter. But the upside that comes with that is the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark any time when he swings to any part of the ballpark."

Video: Conine homers off video board for Lansing

Socrates BritoBuffalo (97 games), Toronto (17 games): It was a whirlwind start to the season for Brito, who went from the D-backs to the Padres to the Jays in just over a week's time leading up to Opening Day. He started the year in Toronto, but after 17 games was designated for assignment and ultimately sent to Buffalo. He thrived once he was there, though, logging a line of .282/.328/.510 with 16 homers, 67 RBIs and 66 runs over 97 games. His performance earned him team most valuable player honors from his fellow Bisons.

"He was one of my favorite players," Hart said. "He was just a completely all-around good baseball player. He can play baseball. And he was just fun to watch. He won our team MVP. He was awesome. He did everything well."

Reggie PruittLansing (88 games), Dunedin (21 games): If one word describes Pruitt as a prospect, it's speed. The 22-year-old swiped a career-high 48 bases between Lansing and Dunedin, including 40 with the Lugnuts to finish second in the Midwest League behind Dayton's Michael Siani (who played in 33 more games). Pruitt's theft numbers have steadily increased during his five pro seasons, growing from 15 as a rookie to 85 over the past two years. Pruitt also made pronounced progress at the plate, finishing with a .265 average that was nearly 30 points better than his previous career high in 2016.

But what McPherson enjoyed most about having Pruitt in Lansing was not anything you'd find on a stat sheet.

"The best thing about Reggie is he's probably one of the most coachable kids I've ever had," McPherson said. "He's a pleasure to be around every day, he's a pleasure to have in the clubhouse, he's a great teammate. ... He can just do a lot of things on the baseball field. He can change the game on defense, he can change the game on the basepaths and he really made a lot of strides this year with his swing."

Honorable mention: Cal Stevenson batted .298/.388/.393 over 90 games with Dunedin that included a 22-game hitting streak before he was traded to the Astros at the deadline.

Utility player -- Andy BurnsBuffalo (118 games): Few might have expected Burns to be on a list like this two years ago. After a six-year stint in the Jays organization capped by a cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2016, the veteran utility man opted to leave affiliated ball -- and North America entirely -- and sign with the Lotte Giants in the Korean Baseball Organization. There he batted .285 and belted 38 homers in just under 250 games over two seasons.

Burns returned to the Minors in 2019, and the veteran infielder quickly made an impression with numbers almost universally better than his figures with Buffalo in 2016, erupting for a line of .275/.364/.470 and 63 RBIs. He bashed a career-high 19 homers, eclipsing double-digits in the category for the first time since 2014. Hart was ecstatic to see Burns' success given the path he'd taken and believes it was a catalyst in getting him to where he is today.

"He learned a lot about himself and he learned a lot about how to attack pitchers," Hart said. "He learned a lot about his swing when he was in Korea. I think it helped him out, and for him to be able to bring that to over here and get back into affiliated ball and have that kind of season and to help the young guys out as well ... tremendous job."

Video: Andy Burns Amazing Catch

Left-handed starter -- Nick AllgeyerDunedin (23 games): Allgeyer followed up on an impressive rookie season with an equally effective full-season debut in Dunedin. The Iowa product logged a 3.95 ERA, placing him ninth in the Florida State League, and struck out 104 batters over 118 1/3 innings. He was especially sharp to begin the year, allowing three runs while fanning 24 over 26 2/3 innings in his first five starts. Dunedin pitching coach Jim Czajkowski was particularly appreciative of Allgeyer's ability to live up to the level of play he demonstrated in his first season.

"That's a big pretty jump from Vancouver to Dunedin," Czajkowski said. "He handled himself well. Complete professional on how he does his work. Very meticulous. Great guy for our guys to look up to when it comes to work ethic. They all kind of fed off of each other ... he was a true pro."

Right-handed starter -- Joey MurrayDunedin (12 games), New Hampshire (nine games), Lansing (six games): Murray was one of the most fearsome arms at any level, finishing tied for seventh in all of the Minor Leagues with 169 strikeouts. Toronto's No. 28 prospect began the season with a 3-1 record and a 3.82 ERA over six starts with Lansing, then moved up to Dunedin where he went 5-2 over a 1.71 clip in 12 appearances. He finished out the year with a 2-4 record and a 3.50 ERA over nine games with New Hampshire.

Altogether, Murray finished with a 2.75 ERA over 137 1/3 innings. He was dominant wherever he pitched, particularly in Dunedin -- which gave Czajkowski a front-row seat.

"The way that he strikes people out, sometimes with the 89-mph fastball right at their belt, it's kind of embarrassing to swing through," the coach joked. "But it happens, it's funny. Yeah, I thought he did very well. ... He competes extremely well for us."

Video: Fisher Cats' Murray's ninth K

Honorable mention: Toronto's top prospect Pearson posted a 5-4 record and a 2.30 ERA with 119 strikeouts over 101 2/3 frames between Dunedin, New Hampshire and Buffalo.

Relief pitcher -- Jackson ReesDunedin (25 games), Lansing (14 games): Rees posted a sub-1.00 ERA at two different levels en route to earning the MiLBY Award for Top Relief Pitcher. The right-handed fireman began the season with Lansing, posting a microscopic 0.36 ERA after allowing just three runs over 14 appearances. He didn't miss a beat after being promoted to Dunedin, logging a 0.99 ERA over 25 outings to finish the season with a 0.73 mark and 88 strikeouts over 61 2/3 frames. He only tallied nine saves, although Czajkowski explained that didn't paint an entirely accurate picture.

Offseason MiLB include

"Jackson was very successful because we didn't put him in a lot of very high-leverage games early on when he got to us," he said. "He had just come from Lansing. We had like two other closers at the time in Brad Wilson and Dany Jimenez, so there was no need for a closer. But a good setup guy to get to those guys, and then when those guys moved, Jackson slipped in [with] no problem.

"And he took off. I mean, it was like our bullpen, similar to our starting pitchers, were great. They all kind of fed off of each other. I think they all got along down in the bullpen. And the competition was fierce. Lot of good arms, guys who could repeat what they were doing. He probably didn't have the saves amount because a lot of times we didn't have the save opportunities. ... When it came to closing, yeah, he was good."

Jordan Wolf is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter: @byjordanwolf. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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