Blue Jays Prospect Primer: Vlad Jr. coming

Top overall prospect ready for bigs; Bichette not too far behind

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. played in six Grapefruit League games this spring before suffering his oblique injury. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | April 1, 2019 10:30 AM

Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2019 season approaching, MiLB.com takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.

Major League-ready: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B

There could be other categories for the 20-year-old third baseman, sure. Shining star? He is after all the game's top overall prospect heading into the 2019 season, which will be just his fourth in pro ball. Loudest tool? His hit tool is the best of any current prospect with an 80 grade, and his power tool isn't far behind at a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale.

But there's really only one slot for the player many expect to be the favorite to win the American League Rookie of the Year award, even though he won't enter the year at the game's top level. Guerrero proved his Major League readiness by hitting .381/.437/.564 with 20 homers in 95 games last season, mostly between Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo, winning the MiLB batting, slugging and OPS titles as a result. The Jays moved him to the Arizona Fall League after the season to make up for time lost to a left knee injury, and he dominated there as well (.351/.409/.442) in a 19-game stay.

Video: Vlad Jr. homers in four straight games for Buffalo

The only knock on Guerrero has been on the other side of the ball as he continues to face questions over whether at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, he can stick to the hot corner long-term. The Jays have brought up those defensive issues as the reasons why they would have Guerrero open 2019 at Triple-A Buffalo. But before they could make an official decision, the slugger suffered a left oblique strain as a non-roster invitee to big league camp in early March. The organization will monitor when he's ready to head up to Buffalo, although Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo has said Guerrero's likely to open 2019 in extended spring training for a brief time.

When Guerrero arrives back in the International League, he shouldn't run with the Bisons for long. If the Blue Jays call him up in late April or later, it'll ensure another year of team control. Until that time, the club will want to see him show sustained health, improvement with the glove and continued dominance with the bat. When he does head north of the border, he'll be one of the most exciting rookies the Majors have seen in recent memory.

"Vladimir likes to compete and challenge himself, both in games and with his training," said Toronto director of player development Gil Kim. "He's continued to make strides with the focus and detail of his practices, and his preparation and work routines have definitely contributed to his growth as a player. Throughout the last three years, we've also seen his selflessness and passion for the game translate into a good teammate who's constantly having fun, engaging with players from all different backgrounds and helping his teams win ballgames."

Shining star: Bo Bichette, SS

Guerrero's return to Buffalo will team him back up with the No. 11 overall prospect after the two were bash brothers in New Hampshire last season as well as at Class A Lansing and Class A Advanced Dunedin in 2017. Bichette would be the most exciting prospect in most other systems and stands out on his own for his all-around offensive ability at a young age. The 21-year-old shortstop hit .362 during his first full season on the way to a Minor League batting title and followed that up with a .286/.343/.453 slash line with 11 homers, seven triples and 43 doubles (second-most in the Minors) over 131 games for the eventual Eastern League champs in New Hampshire.

While the club has always been excited about the 2016 second-rounder's offense, the Jays also have been impressed by his defensive improvements at a premium position. When Bichette was first drafted, there were many questions about whether he'd eventually move over to second base the higher he climbed toward the Majors. But he's improved his footwork to the point at which he should stick at short, and Freddy Galvis/Richard Urena shouldn't be enough to block his path to the bigs at some point in 2019, should his plus bat show up in his first trip to Buffalo.

Video: Get to know Blue Jays No. 2 prospect Bo Bichette

"Bo made a lot of adjustments offensively throughout the year and really focused on being aggressive with his pitch and doing damage in his specific zone," Kim said. "Twenty-year-old starting shortstop for a championship team. He showed leadership, and the ownership he took with that role was impressive. Really, his ability to make adjustments is something that separates him from most other players. Last year was a great example with the adjustments he made, not just offensively but defensively as well."

Back and healthy: Nate Pearson, RHP

Pearson's 2018 season could have been fascinating. The Jays took the 6-foot-6 right-hander with the 28th overall pick out of a Florida junior college the year before on the strength of his triple-digit heater and promising slider. Unfortunately, he was held back out of his first Spring Training with an oblique injury. When he did debut on May 7, he was struck by a comebacker in the second inning and suffered a forearm fracture that kept him out the rest of the summer.

Like Guerrero, Pearson took a turn in the AFL to make up for the lost time, and while the results may not have stood out (6.20 ERA, 23 strikeouts, 13 walks in 20 1/3 innings), the stuff certainly returned. During a brief stint in the Fall Stars Game, he hit 104 mph with his heater, instantly becoming one of the sensations of the autumn. The next steps will be harnessing that stuff and finding the zone with more frequency while also continuing to develop his off-speed offerings in his attempts to stick as a starter. But the most important thing is that Pearson will open 2019 on a Minor League mound, and that's exciting for Jays fans and radar guns alike.

"Nate takes a ton of pride in his nutrition and his strength and conditioning routines, and it shows with the body he has right now," Kim said. "With Nate, he takes full ownership of himself as a person and a pitcher. His routines are extremely solid. He's working very hard right now on tightening up the shape of his slider. He puts in all the work you could ask for, and he's a great example for all of our pitchers to follow. We're excited about him carrying this positive development from the AFL right into the regular season."

Offseason MiLB include

Full-season debutant: Jordan Groshans, SS/3B

Toronto has an offensively gifted young prospect ready to man the left side of the infield of the lower Minors. That should sound familiar. 

The Jays took Groshans with the 12th overall pick last June and gave him $3.4 million to become the organization's next infield sensation. He showed off his potential with the bat quickly, batting .331/.390/.500 with four homers in 37 games in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. He hit a bit of a wall following a promotion to Rookie Advanced Bluefield, but that's nothing new for a teenager who had been playing high-school games in the spring.

Now following his first offseason, the Texas native, who has been given 55 grades for his hit and power tools, has a chance to follow the line of Guerrero, Bichette and Kevin Smith with a trip to Lansing. He'll likely still split time between shortstop and third base (with an arm that fits either spot), but the bat remains the most exciting portion of the profile. Showing it off against full-season arms could send Groshans into the Top 100 by season's end.

"He has good awareness of the strike zone," Kim said. "He has lightning-quick hands. The ball jumps off his bat to all fields. For a young hitter, he stays in the middle of the field with pretty good power to right-center as well. Offensively, we were very encouraged by Jordan."

At the crossroads: Anthony Alford, OF

Alford has been many things since the Jays took him in the third round of the 2012 Draft. He's been a Southern Miss quarterback. He's been an Ole Miss defensive back. He's been a lottery ticket of a baseball player. He's been a Top-100 prospect. He's been a Major Leaguer. Now the Jays' No. 11 prospect needs to find out exactly how he fits in Toronto's long-term plans.

When everything is clicking, Alford can be a solid hitter with plus speed and a good glove that works in any of the three outfield spots. However, those times have been tougher to come by after the 24-year-old suffered a broken hamate in his first trip to the Majors in 2017 and struggled at all levels last season, hitting .240/.312/.344 at Buffalo and going just 2-for-19 with nine strikeouts in 13 Major League games. Without a return to form or any type of Major League success, Alford is in danger of being passed over on the Blue Jays depth chart. He's going to open up 2019 with Buffalo, where he'll play for a third straight season.

Video: Anthony Alford defense

That said, the early returns in 2019 were promising before he was officially optioned on March 19. Alford hit four homers and finished with a .978 OPS in 16 games during Grapefruit League play this spring, and Toronto saw enough in that performance to keep its hopes high going into Alford's eighth Minor League season.

"It's fun to work with guys like Anthony who take their practices and their overall game so seriously," Kim said. "It's also fun to work with guys like Anthony who are elite athletes too. ... Obviously everybody knows about his history with the game and splitting time between two sports. But really, when we think about Anthony, we think about a truly elite athlete that has shown the ability to make adjustments in the past. Even in this Spring Training, he's made adjustments to minimize his moves a little more, and you're seeing the results in big league camp. He's established a good relationship with our hitting coach Guillermo Martinez, even went to hit with him this past offseason. We're definitely excited about this season coming up with him."

More to keep an eye on: Danny Jansen was Toronto's Opening Day catcher, having earned the job after hitting .275/.390/.473 with 12 homers at Buffalo last season. That also got him 31 games in the Majors following an August promotion, and Russell Martin's trade to the Dodgers cleared a spot behind the plate. At a time when catching depth is down in the Majors, the 23-year-old has the offensive profile to stick out at the position. ... Smith's power might have been the most interesting development outside the Top 100 in the Jays system last season. The 2017 fourth-rounder hit 25 homers between Lansing and Dunedin, finishing second to Cavan Biggio's 26, despite not being much of a slugger in college. He'll face much tougher pitching in New Hampshire, but the Jays love the way he adjusted to arms last season and have few doubts he can continue to do so in the upper levels. ... Eric Pardinho and Adam Kloffenstein are two of the most intersting arms in the system, but both teenage right-handers are expected to be held back at extended while they get built up for later assignments.

Most home runs in the system: Chad Spanberger
Most stolen bases: Samad Taylor
Most strikeouts: Patrick Murphy
Current prospect to get most Major League playing time: Jansen
Non-Top 100 prospect to end 2019 in the Top 100: Groshans

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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