Six Blue Jays prospects hope to take desert by storm

Six Blue Jays prospects hope to take desert by storm
There will be no October for the Blue Jays this season, but that doesn’t mean the entire organization begins its off-season in less than two weeks.

The Jays will send six prospects to the new-look Arizona Fall League to play for the Scottsdale Scorpions, among six teams that will also include up-and-comers from the Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and the San Francisco Giants. Games begin Wednesday, almost three weeks earlier than normal.

The thinking is two-fold: a shorter break after minor-league seasons keeps players in their routines while giving them a longer stretch of off-season after — the fall schedule wraps up on Oct. 26, instead of November as in the past.

That isn’t the only change to what’s been seen as a finishing school for top prospects. The AFL has traditionally been for double-A and triple-A hopefuls, but has been opened up to any player under contract, even rehabbing major leaguers. Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and top pitching prospect Nate Pearson played in Arizona last fall, along with second baseman Cavan Biggio and others.

This year’s class led by Kevin Smith — ranked 13th in the system — isn’t quite as flashy, but if you’re looking for a Blue Jays fix next month, get to know:

Kevin Smith, SS

The 23-year-old had a breakout season in 2018, when he hit .302 with 31 doubles, 25 home runs, 93 RBIs and 29 stolen bases with class-A Lansing Lugnuts and the class-A advanced Dunedin Blue Jays. Smith was promoted to the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats this year, but his bat didn’t play early on: a .183/.244/.346 slashline for a .590 OPS in the first half. There was still some pop in his bat, with eight homers, but he struggled to command the strike zone with eight fewer walks and 28 more strikeouts after 68 games compared with the year before. He had a better second half, with a .249 average and .778 OPS. The Jays hope more at-bats in Arizona will help Smith get even closer to his 2018 self.

Logan Warmoth, 2B/SS

The 22nd pick in the 2017 draft, six spots before Pearson, was also a Fisher Cat this year but is trending in the wrong direction after hitting .302 in his first year in professional ball. The 24-year-old posted a .249 average in 2018, then .235 this past season. Toronto’s system is deep with infielders. If Warmoth wants to maintain a spot in the pecking order, showing improvement in Arizona would be a good place to start.

Cullen Large, 3B

The 23-year-old infielder will get a shot at recapturing some early season magic. Large spent the bulk of the year with Dunedin, earning an all-star nod at the midway point after hitting. 279 with a .825 OPS and 36 RBIs in the first 63 games. He was promoted to double-A in August, but struggled in the second half — his average falling to .235 with a .597 OPS. His above-average raw power was a draw when he was selected by the Jays with the 159th pick of the 2017 draft, but the homers haven’t come — only nine over two seasons.

Maverik Buffo, RH

The 24-year-old will use the AFL to recoup some innings after he missed the first three months of the season with rotator cuff inflammation and a small tear in his teres minor. Buffo posted a 5.40 ERA in just 25 innings, down from 1392/3 innings in 2018.

Mike Ellenbest, RH

The 25-year-old returned to the mound on May 15 with class-A Dunedin after missing all of 2018 because of Tommy John surgery. After starting in 30 of his 38 games in 2016 and 2017 combined, he pitched out of the bullpen for all but one appearance this year, posting a 2.30 ERA. Ellenbest made a trio of relief appearances for the Fisher Cats in early August, giving up one run on five hits through 61/3 innings.
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