Toronto Blue Jays 2017 top prospects: No. 8, RHP Justin Maese

Oct 4, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays hat and glove lay in the dugout against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 4, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays hat and glove lay in the dugout against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Blue Jays’ right-hander Justin Maese lacks the buzz of many prospects that we have ranked behind him entering the 2017 season, and perhaps that’s fitting given his pitching style.

Maese (pronounced “My-ay-say”), still just 20 years old, saw his draft stock spike just ahead of the 2015 draft amid reports of his fastball touching the mid-90s, and while he sits more comfortably in the 91-93 range, the early returns have been very positive.

Name: Justin Maese
Position: RHP        Age: 20
Height: 6’3″    Weight: 190 lbs
Throws: Right            Bats: Right
Acquired: 2015 MLB Draft (3rd Round)

As an 18-year-old in the Gulf Coast League, Maese pitched 35.2 innings after draft day with an eye-grabbing 1.01 ERA. Albeit from a small sample size and in the GCL, this quickly shifted Maese’s prospect profile from a young project to a legitimate arm to watch.

The Blue Jays tested Maese in 2016 with a start in Vancouver followed by a promotion to the single-A Lansing Lugnuts after five starts. Toronto was relatively cautious with their assignments and upward movement in 2016, so any nods of confidence should be taken seriously from the front office and player development staff.

After those five tidy outings in Vancouver — with a 2.05 ERA over 26.1 innings — Maese kept rolling in Lansing where he posted a 3.36 ERA over 56.1 innings.

Between the two levels, Maese walked 1.6 batters per nine innings and struck out 7.0, a ratio that the Blue Jays would be very happy to see continue. His home run totals should never be an issue.

Maese’s control is encouraging from his age, but he is able to pound the strike zone and create outs due to his excellent sinking fastball. It is a true ‘plus’ pitch right now with the potential to be even better as Maese completes his physical maturation over the next two seasons in the minor leagues.

This is where Maese separates himself from other prospects in that, while he may not touch 98 MPH or have a jaw-dropping tool, he creates consistently weak contact that must be seen day in and day out to be appreciated.

In the video below, you’ll see the Blue Jays prospects facing Maese beat the ball into the dirt frequently and struggle to get under his sinker.

Maese comes from the last draft class under Alex Anthopoulos, and it shows. At 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, the former high school quarterback from El Paso, Texas (Ysleta High School) has plenty of athleticism in his projectable frame.

The Blue Jays have embraced Maese’s pitching style, too, and are slowly building a nice pool of pitching prospects with similar sinking/tailing action on their fastballs.

“If it feels natural and right and you’re doing good, just stick to it,” Maese said last March. “They don’t really have a specific way of how to do things. They’ve tweaked little things but no big changes.”

Given his age and development arc, Maese will be able to get by with a heavy dose of his sinking fastball in the short term but his long-term ceiling is very much reliant on how well his slider and changeup come along. Scouting reports vary, but the consensus is that his slider is further along and has the potential of being an average pitch or slightly better. Maese’s changeup, still very raw, needs work.

The 2017 season will be a pivot point for Maese, even though it’s very early in his career. Coming off 82.2 innings last season, he should be given an opportunity to pass the 100-inning plateau and work deep into starts. If he is able to do this, develop his slider, and find success with high-A Dunedin (where he’ll either start the year or land by mid-season if all goes according to plan), then Maese will remain firmly on the path to being an MLB starter.

There is also relief potential, however. Given the price of relievers in today’s market, I’m not so sure that having legitimate bullpen potential is a knock on a prospect’s value anymore. Should Maese’s secondary pitches limit his ceiling as he eventually hits the double-A level, his sinking fastball could play very well out of the ‘pen, especially with a minor uptick in velocity. This conversation should still be shelved for another season or two, however.

One final factor worth noting is that Maese, more than the average pitching prospect, will have his statistics impacted by the defence behind him. Team defence in the lower-minors is always questionable, but for a pitcher who is likely to produce ground balls at a rate near 60%, his ERA and counting stats will need to be paired with an eye test.

Furthermore, prospects with sinking movement like Maese’s rarely benefit from strong pitch framing in the minors. His supporting case will help as he jumps levels.

I expect Maese’s prospect stock to remain quiet this season, even if his numbers are strong, but this is an underrated arm that I’m willing to argue for in rankings. Keep Maese on your short list of prospects to monitor in 2017.

Next: Report: Blue Jays, White Sox discussed Robertson

Top-30 Blue Jays prospect rankings:
#30: RHP Jordan Romano     #29: RHP Yennsy Diaz     #28: CF Reggie Pruitt
#27: 1B Ryan McBroom     #26: CF Roemon Fields     #25: 2B Cavan Biggio
#24: RHP Jose Espada     #23: RHP Patrick Murphy     #22: C Danny Jansen
#21: OF Dwight Smith Jr.     #20: RHP Zach Jackson     #19: RHP Francisco Rios
#18: OF Harold Ramirez     #17: C Max Pentecost     #16: Ryan Borucki
#15: OF Joshua Palacios     #14: OF J.B. Woodman     #13: C Reese McGuire
#12: RHP Conner Greene