Blue Jays should be targeting either Max Meyer or Emerson Hancock
Ross Atkins has been the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays for four transformational years. He’s successfully remade the roster as he saw fit, opting for low-cost veterans and high-flexibility prospects over the high-priced players former GM Alex Anthopoulos used to get the Blue Jays to back-to-back ALCS appearances in 2015-16.
He’s drafted Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Nate Pearson. He’s traded for top prospects Simeon Woods Richardson and Anthony Kay. And he’s signed or traded for depth players to fill out the rotation like Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson.
Atkins’ best shot at making his mark on the franchise, though, comes on Wednesday when the Blue Jays pick fifth overall in the MLB Draft. Toronto hasn’t picked that high since drafting Vernon Wells in 1997; they haven’t even had a top-10 selection since 2014.
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The emergence in 2019 of Bichette, Biggio, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. sets the Blue Jays lineup for several years to come. The hard-throwing Pearson should make his debut in 2020. But the Blue Jays rotation has problems elsewhere.
The pitching staff is filled with veterans on short contracts. Anderson is 32 with one-year left on his deal, plus a team option for 2021; Roark, 33, is signed for the next two years; Matt Shoemaker is 33 and coming off major knee surgery. Even Hyun-Jin Ryu, Toronto’s biggest free agency acquisition, will be 36 by the time his contract expires in 2023.
Meyer is a former relief pitcher who transitioned to a starting role in his sophomore year. He made 11 starts that season with a 2.11 ERA. In four starts as a junior in 2020, he finished with a 1.95 ERA and 46 strikeouts (best in the Big Ten) in 27.2 innings. He struck out a career-high 15 in his final college start against Utah on March 6.
The 21-year-old boasts a fastball that has hit 100 mph and usually sits in the mid-90s. But his best pitch is his wipeout slider that MLB.com assigns a rating of 70/80, best in the draft class. There are questions about his slight frame—he’s only six feet tall and weighs 185 pounds—and his ability to handle a starting role at the professional level. The same concerns, though, were raised about another Blue Jays’ first round pick, Marcus Stroman, in 2012, and he eventually became the ace of the staff before being traded to the Mets last July.
Hancock doesn’t have as good a breaking ball as Meyer but he still features a solid slider and changeup (both of which are rated 60/80). His fastball, like Meyer, sits in the mid-90s and can reach into the upper-90s.
Hancock made four starts for the Bulldogs as a junior in 2020 and went 2-0 with a 2.75 ERA. He struck out 34 batters in 24 innings and issued just three walks. He only got better as the season wore on. In his first start against Richmond, he gave up six runs. But in his last start, he pitched 7.1 scoreless innings against Massachusetts and struck out a career-high 12. As a sophomore, he led the SEC with a 0.84 WHIP (third in the nation) and went 8-3 with a 1.99 ERA in 14 starts; opponents hit just .185 against him. He’s drawn comparisons to Casey Mize, the first-overall pick by the Tigers in 2018 who is now the best right-handed pitching prospect in baseball.
Atkins has shown a preference for college players since becoming Blue Jays GM. Of the five players he’s selected in the first round since 2016, all but one (Jordan Groshans) was a college player. The Blue Jays rotation will need help soon, and a college player will be more likely to be major-league ready sooner than a pitcher straight out of high school.
Between 2010-2012, 21 college pitchers and 23 high school pitchers drafted in the first round eventually made the Majors. Nine college pitchers were in the big leagues within two years; among high school pitchers, only the late Jose Fernandez was a regular in the big leagues that soon. The best high school draft pick in that span, Noah Syndergaard, didn’t debut for the Mets until 2015 after being drafted in 2010. Gerrit Cole, the top college pitcher, was in the Pirates rotation within two years.
There is little difference in quality between college and high school pitchers; college first round picks from those three drafts have averaged a 4.7 WAR in the Majors, while high school draftees average 4.8. The only thing separating them is how soon they can help out the club. For Atkins and the Blue Jays, that needs to be soon.
Meyer and Hancock have the potential of being ready for the Majors within a year or two. That’s the same timeframe as the Blue Jays are expecting their other top pitching prospects. Three of their top-four prospects, according to MLB Pipeline, are pitchers (Pearson, Simeon Woods Richardson, and Alek Manoah). Pearson is expected to be in the rotation at some point this year, while the other two are still a few years away. The selection of either Meyer or Hancock will set up the Blue Jays rotation, just as the arrival of Guerrero, Bichette, and Biggio at the same time helped their lineup.
Should the Blue Jays pass up pitching in the first round, their target should be middle infielder Nick Gonzales. The junior from New Mexico State was named the National Player of the Year by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. He batted .448 through 16 games in 2020 and led the nation with 12 home runs and 36 RBI. As a sophomore, Gonzales hit .432 with 16 home runs, 80 RBI, and finished in the top-5 in the country in slugging percentage and on-base percentage. He was also MVP of the Cape Cod League last summer, hitting .351 with seven home runs in 154 at-bats.
Hope springs eternal in the MLB Draft every June. All 30 clubs believe they’re going to be the ones to defy the odds and draft the next superstar. Hit on a first-round pick, and a club gets a transformational player for a generation; miss on a pick, though, and it’s back to the drawing board. Atkins is entering his fifth draft as GM. The Blue Jays roster is progressing and should be contenders soon. He has the chance on Wednesday to pick a player who’ll continue that rebuild.