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Jays look abroad for top prospects

Jays look abroad for top prospects

It's either irony or coincidence, or a little bit of both, that the lone big league club not located in the United States saw its biggest system breakthrough in 2009 come from its international players. If you look at the Toronto Blue Jays' top prospects that emerged this past season, many have a distinctly international flavor.


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Players such as outfielder Moises Sierra from the Dominican Republic, Venezuelan right-hander Henderson Alvarez, Cuban-born right-hander Reidier Gonzalez and Venezuelan-born catcher Carlos Perez all herald a literal sea change in the Jays' prospect picture.

"We're very excited about our Latin American program, which has been headed up by Marco Paddy, who came over here three years ago," said Charlie Wilson, the Jays' director of Minor League operations. "We've spent more money in recruiting and scouting there in the last few years."

It shows.

Sierra, who just turned 21, has been on the Jays' radar for a while, but 2009 was his breakthrough season, as he hit a combined .292 with six homers, 62 RBIs and 25 doubles between Class A Advanced Dunedin and Double-A New Hampshire, earning Dunedin's Player of the Year Award. Nicknamed "El Capitan" in 2008 by his Class A Lansing teammates for his leadership, he has a great arm and athleticism.

Alvarez, 19, enjoyed his first full season at Lansing, finishing second among the organization's full-season starters with a 3.47 ERA as one of the youngest regulars in the Midwest League. He finished at 9-6 with 92 strikeouts and just 19 walks in 124 1/3 innings, posting a 2.66 ERA after the All-Star break. He has three potential Major League pitches with his changeup being his out pitch.

Gonzalez, 24, was just added to the Jays' 40-man roster, coming off an '09 season at New Hampshire in which he was 4-6 with a 2.90 ERA in 17 starts, though his season ended early due to a groin strain. He was back on the mound in the Arizona Fall League, though, where he posted a 3.38 ERA in seven games. A 19th-round pick in 2005, he had a 3.25 ERA over 84 career games in the Minors.

Perez, just 19, was named the Gulf Coast League MVP in his stateside debut, the second year in a row he's earned his team's top honors, following in the wake of the same award in 2008 with the Dominican Summer League squad. With the GCL team, he hit .291 with 21 RBIs and showed all-around potential behind the plate, including a 49 percent success rate throwing out opposing basestealers.

The Jays system can still boast its preseason glut of young pitching, particularly from the left side, though most of those players graduated full-time to the bigs in 2009. Though injuries set back the development of some of those talented prospects such as lefty Brad Mills (strained rib cage) and right-hander Robert Ray (shoulder), many others such as southpaws Brett Cecil (7-4, 5.30), Ricky Romero (4.30 while up all year) and Marc Rzepczynski (3.67 ERA in 11 starts) came through for the Jays and look like they will stick in the Majors for a while.

"We're really excited to have had so many younger players who were able to contribute at the Major League level when they were called up," Wilson said. "And we hope we're very close with some more of these guys."

Among those that Wilson believes could be close, aside from Mills and Ray, are pitchers such as Gonzalez and southpaw Luis Perez, who posted a 3.55 ERA at New Hampshire this season.

On the Draft front, the Jays inked their first-round pick, right-hander Chad Jenkins out of Kennesaw State, a big strong hurler with a heavy sinking fastball, as well as plus secondary offerings in his slider and changeup. Taken with the 20th pick, he would be the lone signing within the top 100, as they were unable to come to terms with their second, third or fourth picks, all pitchers, including a pair of Canadian-born southpaws in James Paxton out of Kentucky (37) and Jake Eliopoulos (68) out of high school in Ontario.

ORGANIZATIONAL PLAYERS OF THE YEAR

MLB.com's Preseason Picks

J.P. Arencibia, C: The Jays' 2008 Minor League Player of the Year after combining to hit 27 homers and 105 RBIs at two levels, Arencibia struggled a bit in his Triple-A debut at Las Vegas with a .236 average, but still connected for 21 homers and 75 RBIs to go with 32 doubles. He'll continue to work on plate patience, as he drew just 26 walks while striking out 114 times in 116 games.

Brett Cecil, LHP: Cecil didn't end up being around long enough to qualify for Minor League Pitcher of the Year in the system, as the former Maryland Terp with the wicked slider spent most of his second full season in the big leagues, posting a 7-4 record and 5.30 ERA in 18 games in Toronto. He had his ups and downs, but continues to qualify as one of the gems of the system, even if he is no longer a rookie.

MLB.com's Postseason Selections

Brian Dopirak, 1B: At 25 years old and coming off his eighth pro season, the 6-foot-4 230-pound Dopirak was added to the Jays' 40-man roster rather than risk losing him to Minor League free agency, and who can blame him when he continues to put up big time numbers? A former second-round pick in 2002 by the Cubs, he was Player of the Year at Double-A New Hampshire, combining to hit .317 with 27 homers, 102 RBIs and 42 doubles between the Fisher Cats and Las Vegas. His 173 hits ranked third in the Minors. Dopirak's .548 slugging percentage led the Eastern League (it was actually .576 when he was promoted, but the "Ted Williams" rule required that "oh-fers" be added to give him enough plate appearances to qualify, and he still led the league).

Tim Collins, LHP: Collins doesn't quite measure up to Dopirak in stature but his numbers on the mound belie his 5-foot-7, 155-pound frame. With little fanfare, the closer has put up giant numbers two years in a row, following up a 2008 campaign in which he posted a 1.58 ERA in 39 games at Class A Lansing with a Class A Advanced Dunedin season that saw him go 7-4 with a 2.37 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 64 2/3 innings. He limited Florida State League hitters to a .199 average and his 13.50 strikeouts-per-nine innings ranked sixth among all full-season relievers, the second year in a row he'd joined the Minor League leaders in that category. His out pitch is a plus curveball, but he has a surprisingly effective fastball that is totally legit.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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