To say last season’s rookie crop of Blue Jays was impressive would be an understatement. In Brett Lawrie, Kyle Drabek and J.P. Arencibia, the club promoted arguably their three top prospects; an extremely rare sight in the overprotective environment of modern day baseball.
While the results weren’t always there, all three exceeded the 130 at-bat or 50 innings pitched limits set in place by Major League Baseball. It’s a bittersweet scenario for Lawrie, as with 150 at-bats in 2011, he surpassed the threshold by less than a week’s worth of games and would have been one of the early favorites for Rookie of the Year. Beyond the big three, another pitcher lost his eligibility last season: Henderson Alvarez. In a situation similar to Lawrie, Alvarez only just edged past the limit, totaling 63.2 innings in his August and September starts.
While the potential rookie crop for this season lacks star power, it has legitimate depth that could both patch holes created by injuries and strengthen a Blue Jays team looking to contend in the second half. As we’re looking at players projected to exceed 130 at-bats and 50 innings, top prospects who are doubtful to debut before September – such as Travis d’Arnaud and Anthony Gose – will be excluded. They’ll have to wait until next year.
The biggest name expected to receive a promotion this year is Drew Hutchison. The 21-year-old Hutchison cruised through three minor league levels in 2011, finishing the year with three starts in Double-A. While three starts above A-ball doesn’t sound like the description for a potential call-up, Hutch’s combination of a well rounded arsenal, excellent command and baseball intelligence should allow him to competently face Major League hitters by the All-Star break. Two other members of the impressive New Hampshire rotation, Chad Jenkins and Deck McGuire, could feasibly be up before him. Neither has the upside of Hutchison, but the two former college pitchers are very polished and should be the first to receive the call should the injury bug strike the rotation early in the season.
The farm also has some ammo for the bullpen, as the recently demoted Joel Carreno and Evan Crawford are both big-league ready. Carreno had a 15-inning taste of Toronto last September, looking very impressive with a 1.15 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. Crawford, meanwhile, spent the entire season in Double-A, but turned heads with an impressive Arizona Fall League assignment. The two are simply on the wrong end of the numbers game, as the offseason acquisitions of Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero, Darren Oliver, and Jason Frasor stocked the cupboards in Toronto. Working to the advantage of Crawford is his left handedness, as only Luis Perez and the aforementioned Oliver sit above him on the depth chart.
With 71 at-bats to his name already, 25 year old David Cooper is all but guaranteed to lose his rookie eligibility this season. He is currently blocked at first base and designated hitter by Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion respectively, but an injury to either player could result in a serious run for the 2008 first-round pick. It’s doubtful he’ll ever live up to his draft status, but as a left-handed bat with a solid plate approach, he could provide value to the team in short bursts.
The last two position players with legitimate shots of exceeding 130 at-bats this season are Adeiny Hechavarria and Moises Sierra, both of whom will start the season with Triple-A Las Vegas. The depth charts for the two, however, are very different. The team has a dearth of middle infield prospects in the upper levels, so Hechavarria is the first (and only) replacement should Yunel Escobar or Kelly Johnson spend any time on the disabled list. In a complete contrast, the corner outfield position is loaded both at the Major League and minor league levels. Jose Bautista is entrenched in right field, while Travis Snider and Eric Thames are waging a war in left field to determine the Opening Day starter. Whoever loses the battle in left will be sent to join Sierra in the Triple-A outfield, and would be the first callup. The club also has Rajai Davis and Ben Francisco on the roster to serve as the 4th and 5th outfielders. For Sierra to get an extended look, he likely needs both a trade and an injury to occur, making his best case scenario a debut after the July 31st trade deadline.
Unlike last year, it’s very doubtful any of these players will head north with the club, making it difficult to predict a favorite for Toronto’s best contender for the 2012 AL Rookie of the Year award. With that being said, of these eight players, I feel McGuire has the best chance. Hutchison is the best pitcher of the group, but even with impressive numbers it’s hard for a starter to contend for the award with only two or three months of work. McGuire, on the other hand, has the potential for five-plus months of big league time if injury or ineffectiveness were to strike the big league rotation early. Strong command of a four-pitch repertoire should allow the 22-year-old to keep hitters uncomfortable his first time through the league. With that being said, the American League has Matt Moore, Jesus Montero, and Mike Trout – not to mention that Yu Darvish guy – so it’s doubtful any Blue Jay sniffs the top 3 in voting.