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Blue Jays Top 5 Prospects: Midseason checkup

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Let's use the minor leagues' midway point to revisit and track progress of the Jays' Top 5.

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Toronto RHP Conner Greene
Toronto RHP Conner Greene
Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

1. Anthony Alford, OF

Alford keeps his spot as the organization's top prospect but with two Barry Bonds-sized asterisks. One is the continued climb of RHPs Sean Reid-Foley, Conner Greene, and Jon Harris. With Harris surging in the MWL and Reid-Foley just arriving, the trio may join forces at Dunedin as soon as the end of the month. But whether Alford will return to back them in CF is very much an open question after a scary outfield collision.

On June 10th, Alford crashed into teammate Richard Urena in pursuit of a shallow fly ball. The outfielder was taken off on a stretcher and spent a night in the hospital. It was seen as positive news that a CT scan revealed only a concussion.

Alford was a former dual-threat QB in high school and at Southern Miss. Though it seems to be undocumented, he may have a history with concussions based on some clues he dropped in an interview last May.

"Plus all the contact I was experiencing in football ... I was playing safety. I'd wake up with headaches."

One is left with the impression that the physical toll of playing three of the most vulnerable positions on the gridiron - option QB, punt returner, and box safety - is the main reason Alford finally hung up his pads to play for the Jays full-time.

Though he's almost 22, Alford is quite inexperienced in baseball years as the team allowed him to prioritize football and essentially pop in to play outfield when his schedule would allow. During his first three years in the system, he's banked only 25 games and 110 PA's, the equivalent of a month's development time.

Alford proved to be a quick study in his first turn through full-season ball. He excelled during stops in Lansing and Dunedin and displayed surprising plate discipline to go with his enviable tools. The double-plus speed and above-average arm was always going to play well in center, but his work with the bat in 2015 saw his prospect stock surge. Alford was a certified sprayer in his use of an all-fields approach in tandem with a patient eye, and 2016 was supposed to be his year to really take off.

Instead, the first half of the season has been a disaster for Alford. Sandwiched between two injuries was a dreadful 137 PA in his second FSL turn that was the antithesis of the promise he'd shown last year. He doubled his K% and didn't hit the ball with any authority in his first months - but why?

To be clear, there is limited video of Alford available to the public. I also came up empty on any 2016 regular season clips. But from what I can gather, he's slowly tweaked the load in his swing over the past year, ostensibly in an effort to drive the ball. If rudimentary graphics are your thing, this homemade creation attempts to show what he's trying to accomplish.

It seems Alford is taking steps to find his power stroke, which may be the last piece of the puzzle in becoming a five-tool contributor. As he's coming off just his first full season, he should be given time to adjust and grow because his ceiling is so high. The team will also slow-play his return to action considering the nature of his latest injury. With so few impact bats on the farm, the Jays can ill afford to gamble with the one who has All-Star potential in the outfield.


2. Sean Reid-Foley, RHP

The meat of Toronto's farm talent lies within three rotation hopefuls with high pitchability but projection left in them. I'm less fixated with a rock-solid ranking of the trio and more interested in examining how they've grown, where they stand, and what direction they're heading.

The 49th overall selection in the 2014 draft, Reid-Foley could be seen as the most exciting of the Jays' young guns because of his strikeout potential and a breakout first half.

Standing 6'3" and a thick 220, Reid-Foley's four-pitch mix is highlighted by a 91-96 heater with ample arm-side run. He was assigned aggressively to MWL Lansing in 2015 and though he acquitted himself well as a teenager, it was clear he needed work on his command and secondaries to continue his quick climb.

Reid-Foley appears to have done just that in a breakout 2016, cutting his walks nearly in half while keeping the K-rate static. The exemplary results point to a simplification of his old high-maintenance delivery. The 20-year-old seems to be throwing exclusively from a modified stretch position, and limiting the moving parts has not only improved his control but it's kept him in games longer. After logging under 90 pitches in his first six outings, he's surpassed that number in five of his last six.

At the tail end of that streak was a June 16th domination of Clearwater in which he showed his tantalizing upside. Making his 2016 FSL debut, Reid-Foley punched out 12 in seven innings and allowed only two hits in the best game of his pro career.

Watching tape of the big righty, the player that came to my mind-grapes was John Smoltz. This isn't meant to say Reid-Foley will win 200 games and save 150 more while learning a splitter. But the arsenal, build, and torque-heavy motion all bear similarities to the way 'Smoltzy' did his thing. Indeed, even if Reid-Foley hits a snag and doesn't reach his ceiling as a number two starter, a high-leverage relief role would be a natural fallback.


3. Conner Greene, RHP

Greene jumps out for the strides he's made since the Jays snagged him in the 7th round of the 2013 draft. Coming out of Santa Monica HS, Greene was a lanky soft-tosser topping out at 91 with a drop-and-drive delivery.

The 6'3" righthander backed up industry whispers that his stuff has ticked up in a recent podcast, where Conner confirms his heater touches 95-96 and he's bulked up to 200 pounds. The 20-minute interview was an illuminating listen on a player that doesn't get a lot of pub, but I'm not expecting many more like it after learning the YouTube channel it aired on was threatened with legal action just a few days later.

Taking the eye test on Greene also provides insight on how he jumped two levels last season and maintained his flow in making the FSL All-Star team this year. His current delivery is a stark contrast from his amateur days, as he now stands tall and distributes free-and-easy heat from a high three-quarters look. That he seems to be relying less on his lower half for power but still adding notches on his fastball is promising.

Greene's change is said to be the better of his two secondaries. Arm speed is often cited over fade and drop as the reasons for its effectiveness, and that makes sense considering the whip-like action in his evolving motion. Greene's 11-5 breaker is no slouch, but the feeling is it needs more bend, spike, and put-away mentality behind it because he lacks a true strikeout pitch otherwise. That's especially true if he's plying his trade at Rogers Centre in the future, an unfriendly environment for most finesse pitchers.

Greene generally commands each of his offerings well in that he hits his spots, varies eye level, and throws them all for strikes. But his walk rate ballooned (4.32 BB/9) after he shot up to AA New Hampshire at the end of last year, and he's showing the same free-pass generosity (4.32 BB/9) in his second go-round at high-A Dunedin.

The 21-year-old Californian has turned things around in June and looks to be again closing in on an Eastern League callup. Greene has the ultimate ceiling of a number three starter and should be one of Toronto's more sought-after players at the deadline. It will be a situation to monitor considering a new front office is operating a win-now club, and also because Greene is close to getting another crack at the next level.


4. Jon Harris, RHP

Harris pushed for Top 5 consideration within most outlet's preseason Jays rankings, despite a dismal showing in his pro debut at short-season Vancouver (NWL). The Missouri State product has flipped the script in his first taste of full-season ball, parlaying a 28-inning scoreless streak into a Midwest League All-Star nod. How has Harris turned the corner, and can he keep it up?

Like the other top arms in the system, a recent overhaul in mechanics and motion inform his fine run of form. Harris was moved to the third-base side of the rubber and also rearranged his hand position during his delivery.

These two changes working in tandem were said to be for the sake of deception, according to several articles released in the same 24-hour window at the beginning of the month.

I'd contend that Harris' recent success is less associated with tipping pitches and instead tied to the way his offerings attack the strike zone with the new release position. His low-to-mid 90's heater has two-seam action that now bores in more on RHH's, who are hitting .198 off him this year. Coming from the 3B side he's also more apt to keep the fastball off the barrel to LHH's, though he could be walking more of them because of it. Harris was already working with an above average curve and slider and coming from a new slot, the secondaries catch more of the zone to righties and provide a window to backdoor the southpaws.

Manipulating the spin and depth on his breaking stuff will be a key moving forward for Harris. Ideally he'll continue to improve the command and control as he's done so far, but also incorporate hard-biting versions that will miss bats as he climbs to the upper levels.

Harris is on the same track as Reid-Foley, having simplified his mechanics and then putting it into action in the MWL. After proving he was comfortable and throwing strikes with his new delivery, the Jays took off the kid gloves and have allowed him to throw deeper into games. He's thrown at least 75 pitches in each of his last six starts after not hitting that mark once in his first five. At 22, he's very close to a promotion to the FSL, where he'd slot in with Greene and Reid-Foley to form one of the more exciting A-ball rotations around.

Reinhold Matay-USA Today

5. Rowdy Tellez, 1B

The aptly-named Rowdy Tellez makes the midseason top 5 not only in case he's reading, but on the strength of continued progress during the all-important jump to AA ball.

Per MLBFarm, Tellez has nearly doubled his walk rate (14%) from last year (7.7%) while maintaining his power and strikeout levels against advanced competition.

It hasn't been all puppies and rainbows in the Eastern League for the hulking slugger. Now that he has a reputation as a 'danger man' in the lineup, he's being pitched with more caution than ever before. Rowdy alluded to an uptick in shifts just a couple weeks ago, and a look at his spray charts corroborate that pitchers are pounding him low and in to take away his oppo power and take advantage of an extra infielder.

Tellez has responded by showing a more discernible eye, but also pulling his share of grounders into the shift. The feeling since Tellez signed is that he makes so much hard line-to-line contact that he just needs to add more loft to his swing to fully maximize his impact bat. If he's able to elevate just a bit, you'd figure that pitchers will be playing with fire if they continue to feed his 'happy zone' low and inside.

In light of reports on improved defense and conditioning, Tellez' main weakness at present is a vulnerability to southpaws. At 21, he certainly has time to figure it out and make himself a tougher out against same-sided pitching. But even if he doesn't, Rowdy is a pretty decent bet to be a run producer as the strong side of a 1B/DH platoon.


On the Cusp - SS Richard Urena, 3B Vlad Guerrero, Jr.

Top 20 Contenders - OF Jonathan Davis, RHP Francisco Rios


Closing Thoughts/Disclaimer

This top 5 list is just personal preference, and I could indeed feel differently in two weeks or two months from now.

One could rearrange this list in any order and I wouldn't quibble in the slightest. Richard Urena and Vlad Guerrero Jr. stick out as exciting assets, but the former has regressed with the bat and in the field while the latter hasn't yet played a minor league game.

Toronto's farm system took a massive hit last year when the team was an active buyer at the deadline. But there is still some intriguing, if risky talent here. The Jays' development folks deserve props for reworking the mechanics on all three of their top arms, and the results have been immediate with the trio off to a roaring start.

The philosophy behind the heavy tinkering seems to be solid all the way around. In all three cases (Reid-Foley, Greene, Harris), they've simplified deliveries as a means to improving command and retaining stamina. The changes could provide a quicker path to the Bigs for the entire group, but it's also been a stealthy way for the team to showcase their top talents in what could be another busy trade season north of the border.