Blue Jays farm system a falling knife: midseason updates won’t be kind

Strong scouting, drafting and player development are no longer clear traits of this Blue Jays organization.
Mar 21, 2024; Bradenton, Florida Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ricky Tiedemann (70) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at LECOM Park
Mar 21, 2024; Bradenton, Florida Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ricky Tiedemann (70) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at LECOM Park / Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Some major league teams seem to handle injury woes in stride, calling on a wealth of MLB-ready prospects in their farm system. Recent examples include the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles.

Let’s take the AL East leading Orioles for example: they’ve lost three starters from last year, including Tyler Wells, John Means and Kyle Bradish — who finished 4th in AL Cy Young Award voting in 2023, and had a 2.75 ERA in eight starts this year — all to Tommy John or UCL internal brace surgeries in 2024. Their All-Star closer, Félix Bautista, had Tommy John surgery last October, and set-up man Danny Coulombe had bone chips removed from his left elbow on June 18.

So what explains their 56 wins and .636 winning percentage in the face of all of those devasting injuries? Obviously they can flat out crush the baseball, with 142 home runs to lead the league. Free agent closer Craig Kimbrel has 22 saves in 26 opportunities replacing Bautista. But they’ve also used a wealth of talent on their farm system to fill the gaps.

Ahead of the season, they traded two top prospects in shortstop Joey Ortiz and lefty DL Hall, plus a competitive balance round draft pick in this month’s amateur draft to Milwaukee for a year of control of ace Corbin Burnes. Ortiz has been solid for the Brewers, slashing .269/.373/.444/.817 with 7 home runs and 28 RBI and starting 58 games at third base, where he has a +2 DRS. Hall has a 1.98 ERA in seven Triple-A starts. But Burnes is in the AL Cy Young conversation; he’s 9-3 with a 2.32 ERA in 18 starts and 112.2 innings, good for a 2.5 fWAR.

Sure, we all know about Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson. But Orioles No. 8 prospect, 24-year old Cade Povich, has a 4.05 ERA in 5 starts and 26.2 innings. Second-year infielder Jordan Westburg, 25, has 14 homers and 49 RBI with an OPS+ of 139. Rookies Colton Cowser (12 home runs with an OPS+ of 114) and Heston Kjerstad (.851 OPS in his first 45 plate appearances) are getting at-bats and regular playing time in the outfield. All were developed in the Orioles farm system, which is still top ranked even after the Burnes trade and all those graduations.

Why can’t the Blue Jays do that?

Why hasn’t Toronto been able to call-up waves of MLB-ready talent from their system to replace the injured Alek Manoah, Jordan Romano, and Yimi García, or the ineffective Erik Swanson and Tim Mayza? Why weren’t they able to swing a trade using prospects for a difference-maker like Burnes?

Many will argue that the recent winning ways of the Blue Jays, with 91, 92 and 89 wins, respectively, from 2021-23 has meant lower draft picks. So explain then why the Dodgers and Rays have had top ten ranked farm systems year after year after year?

Per MLB Pipeline, the Blue Jays farm system ranking has been bottom third in baseball every year since 2022:

2024 preseason rank: 24
2023 midseason rank: 25
2023 preseason rank: 25
2022 midseason rank: 20
2022 preseason rank: 21

It’s the same bottom third ranking using other well respected prospect evaluators like Baseball America, ESPN, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic and FanGraphs. These third party rankings just don’t think much of the Blue Jays drafting or player development.

Blue Jays farm system ranking a falling knife

Sadly for Jays fans, that ranking looks set to fall even further, likely to the 26-30 range with the upcoming midseason updates, which will come out in the weeks following the July 30 Trade Deadline to account for player movement, call ups, and the year-to-date performances of top prospects in the minors.

Let’s consider the two top 100 prospects in Toronto’s system in the preseason ranking: top pitching prospect Ricky Tiedemann has a 4.96 ERA in only 7 starts and 16.1 innings this year at Buffalo, and has had elbow inflammation for most of the season after only tossing 44 innings last year. Top hitting prospect Orelvis Martinez was handed an 80-game PED suspension the weekend of his MLB debut.

Things don’t get much brighter after that: top 2023 draft pick Arjun Nimmala slashed .198/.309/.374/.683 in A-ball before getting demoted. The Jays’ first-round pick in 2022, Brandon Barriera, underwent Tommy John surgery in April. The 20-year-old lefty was shut down after the draft, dealt with injuries in 2023, and is now done for 2024. He’s pitched only 21.2 innings since 2022.

19-year-old Landen Maroudis, another top young pitching prospect who had an 0.84 ERA in only 10.2 minor league innings at Dunedin this year, had Tommy John surgery in May. Other top ranked arms including Kendry Rojas, Chad Dallas, Hagen Danner and Dahian Santos have all spent time on the IL.

In fact, only two top 30 Blue Jays prospects have really added to their stock with their first half performances this year: lefty Adam Macko, who has a 4.42 ERA in 15 starts and 77.1 innings at Double-A New Hampshire, and shortstop Josh Kasevich, who’s hitting .300 with a .735 OPS for the Fisher Cats, with three home runs and 8 stolen bases. He’s likely being groomed as a replacement for Bo Bichette if the Jays star leaves as a free agent after next season.

Tiedemann has been solid in his recent rehab starts against A-ball hitters with Dunedin. 20-year-old righty Fernando Perez was named to represent the Blue Jays at the All-Star Futures Game; he ranks top 10 in the Florida State League in multiple categories. In 13 starts for Dunedin, Perez has a 3.60 ERA (6th in the FSL) and 1.04 WHIP (4th) with 76 strikeouts (6th).

Pitchers Lazaro Estrada, Juaron Watts-Brown and Rafael Sanchez are pitching well, but they're at High-A Vancouver and won’t be contributing at the big league level this season. 26-year-old catcher Phil Clarke has been okay at Triple-A. Spencer Horwitz, Addison Barger, Steward Berroa and Leo Jimenez have all been called-up to the big leagues.

The problem compounds itself when it comes to swinging trades for difference making players that could impact a pennant race or a playoff series. The Blue Jays just don’t have much in the way of prospects who could be packaged in a trade for either elite MLB talent like Burnes or Juan Soto, or top MLB-ready talent who could contribute immediately like Joey Ortiz. Which means Toronto has to compete in the deep-end of the talent pool in the offseason for free agents like Shohei Ohtani.

Apart from Davis Schneider and Horwitz, the Jays haven’t really had any homegrown successes since Alejandro Kirk was called up in September 2020 and Manoah was called up in May 2021. That’s now over three years ago.

It’s a big change from the back-to-back, 1992-93 World Series era, when drafting and player development under general manager Pat Gillick and his assistant GM Epy Guerrero were clear strengths of the Blue Jays organization. The tumbling farm system rankings for such an extended period suggest wholesale changes to scouting and player development are needed.

Sadly, strong scouting, drafting and player development are no longer clear traits of this Blue Jays organization. That will be reflected in the updated midseason farm system rankings, which are going to fall even further. And that’s on ownership and their chosen front office, who promised Jays fans so much more when they were first hired after the AL East pennant and postseason ALCS season in 2015.