While there are not any major media outlets that will rank the Toronto Blue Jays' farm system amongst the top of the league, this organization has quietly put together a solid group of young talent. Of course there are the Ricky Tiedemanns, the Arjun Nimmalas, Addison Bargers, Orelvis Martinezs, etc., but there are quite a few unsung heroes of the 2023 Minor League Baseball season.
Talking to multiple individuals with close ties to the Blue Jays' minor league system, players like Ian Churchill, Patrick Gallagher, Chad Dallas, Connor Cooke, Mason Fluharty, Rafael Lantigua, Damiano Palmegiani, and Alan Roden all received mentions when asked who followers of the team should be keeping an eye on.
Alan Roden: Remember the name
Roden in particular stands out above the rest. The 23-year-old was drafted by the Blue Jays in the third round of the 2022 MLB Draft and has done absolutely nothing but hit and get on base since he made his professional debut in the second half of last year. With the COVID pandemic running rampant during some of his collegiate career, he spent a ton of time training and working on honing his craft prior to his selection in the draft, he tells Jays Journal.
"When COVID hit, I used a lot of the extra time I had indoors to train and work on improving my game", he says. "Things didn't fully click until I got consistent playing time at Creighton. Once I was able to put some of these things into action in a game, things started to look up."
He only got into 25 contests last year for Single-A Dunedin and immediately showed off a few of his strengths including smart baserunning, a sharp eye at the plate and the go-getter type of attitude that all coaches look for in today's game. Starting the current campaign in High-A with the Canadians, Roden saw his stock go way, way up. In 69 games, he hit 23 doubles and four home runs with 41 RBI, 15 stolen bases, a .321 average and an impressive .896 OPS. Even more impressive is the fact that he walked 42 times while striking out just 32 times. His eye has been a huge asset for him and the gap power seems to be improving quite a bit.
Now that he's been promoted to Double-A New Hampshire, heads around the industry are starting to turn. Not only has Roden shot up the Blue Jays' prospect list (per MLB.com) to No. 7 in the organization, but he has many fans already clamoring for him to make an appearance on the 2024 Opening Day roster with the big league squad. The crazy part is that that is a legitimate possibility.
Moving up to Double-A
For so many players, making the adjustment from A-ball to Double-A is where the wheels begin to fall off in their professional careers. Going from the "low end" of the minors to the "high end" comes with its fair share of hurdles. Some can't keep up with the next level of pitching. For pitchers, these hitters are so much more advanced.
"The players in Double-A are older, so they're more mature and have had more time to, well, get better," Roden says on the difference between the two levels. "Pitchers have much more of a defined plan against hitters and they all seem to have an extra pitch. These guys have so many ways to surprise you and get you out", he finishes.
The coaches and their respective approaches are vastly different as well. He points out that in the lower levels of the minors, the staff is very hands-on and is much more concerned about offering input to help shape you as a player, while the staff in Double-A is much more hands-off and willing to let you tell them what you need.
Through his first 41 games in Double-A, Roden has already hit six home runs, putting his total this year up to 10, which is more than he's ever hit in a season. His .325 batting average is still sky-high for a player of his age and his OPS has somehow gotten even better, raising all the way up to .926. Turns out, this newfound pop in his swing comes naturally and is not due to something he consciously tweaked in his mechanics.
"For me, the power just came by itself. I'm not too worried about hitting homers. In my eyes, home runs are basically 'mistakes'. If the ball hits the top of my bat instead of the direct center, it's going over the fence a lot more than it has in the past", he says. "The power has always been there, it's just been about learning to become a complete hitter, having an advanced approach and learning how to properly attack pitchers. Obviously you don't have the exact same approach with every pitcher, but I think a lot of the time I'm just looking to hit a line drive up the middle. Anything that allows me to be adjustable. I try and be flexible enough to hit fastballs and also quickly adjust to non-fastball pitches."
For someone in Roden's position, finding a veteran player or coach to latch on to and learn from is absolutely critical to a player's development. When asked who this person would be for Roden, he instantly says, "Will Robertson", before the question has even fully been asked. The two have grown close, and he points to the fact that they are both left-handed swinging outfielders who went to Creighton together, so the connection was pretty much built-in.
"He's been such a great asset for me. He's a bit of an 'older' player and I feel that I benefit a ton from picking his brain and seeing how he goes about attacking certain pitchers. Trevor Schwecke, Phil Clarke, Will, these guys have been absolutely fantastic."
Robertson, 25, is in his first full season in Double-A and has seen his own power experience quite an uptick. In 102 games, he has 25 doubles and 19 home runs with 57 RBI and an .810 OPS. He appreciates the relationship he's developed with Roden and, like many around the organization, is very high on his fellow outfielder.
"Alan and I got a chance to be teammates in college for a year so we have similar experience from college and our paths to pro ball", he tells Jays Journal. "I remember Alan being one of the strongest freshman that I’ve ever seen his first year at Creighton and he always was one of the hardest workers. When I found out that he was drafted by us last year, I was super excited because I know his potential and how hard of a worker he is. In the clubhouse we are always hanging out and love talking the game with him because he is a very smart guy as well (he was a physics major after all). On the field he is a competitor and hates to strike out. One of the best bat to ball skills I’ve ever seen. No surprise that he’s having the year that he is".
On defense, Roden calls the outfield corners his home. After spending the vast majority of his time at Creighton at first base, he has exclusively played left and right field (and one inning at first) with the Blue Jays. While he doesn't think there's much of a difference between the two, he says right field is the one he prefers if he was forced to pick one or the other. He doesn't have the blazing fast speed to play center field, a position he has never once played in his life at any level, but he'd be willing to try it.
"That's not entirely up to me", he laughs. "But if I had a say, I'd give myself a shot out there, sure", he says of possibly lining up at one of the game's hardest defensive positions. "At the same time, I realize where my strengths are and I'm comfortable calling the corners home moving forward."
Room for improvement
Roden, like all other baseball players, has a few areas in particular that he'd like to see himself improve on as time goes on. He's a humble guy who realizes that even though things have been going very well for him this season, there's still work to be done.
"For sure, there are definitely areas in my swings that produce more outs, but I'm not going to share those", he laughs. "I think there are always ways I can improve. For me, it's increasing room for error. What I mean by that is getting better in all places of the zone. I just want to keep adding tools to my toolbox of swings you can have that result in a positive outcome. I want to be able to be less perfect but still find success. Everyone has their 'perfect swing' where they're on time and it's perfect every single time. But I'm more concerned with, 'how can I be better when I'm not perfect?' I want to refine my swing and have more room for error."
The next big thing
Through and through, Alan Roden is legit. With his high-end bat-to-ball skills and baseball IQ, he's shaping up to be a truly special talent for this Blue Jays organization. With Kevin Kiermaier and Whit Merrifield, two outfield-capable options, set to hit free agency and George Springer not getting any younger, there's a relatively clear path to The Show for the 23-year-old Wisconsin native.
Starting off the 2024 season in Triple-A feels like the likeliest outcome, but don't count him out for a big league debut next year.