Scouting Blue Jays’ Barreto, Tirado

 Last week, the short-season affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays rolled through Everett. The Jays have loaded their Northwest League affiliate with good prospects over the past few seasons, and this year that pattern continues. Right-hander Alberto Tirado and shortstop Franklin Barretto highlight a roster that included a few more intriguing players than I was expecting.

Alberto Tirado, RHP
After a strong 2013 season, Tirado earned a promotion all the way to Single-A Lansing and a spot on Baseball Prospectus’s Top 101 Prospects list. This year though, the promising right-hander has been a mess. He struck out a batter per inning in Lansing but also walked 39 men in 40 frames and was demoted back to short-season ball to find his control again. His start Thursday was another outing to forget, as he walked three in the first and had to depart after throwing 35 pitches.

In that inning, Tirado showed flashes of why evaluators are extremely high on him: the 19-year-old’s fastball sat 93-94 and reached 95, he changed speeds effectively with a tight mid-80’s slider, and even threw a decent change up or two. He’s an athletic 6-foot-1 and it was impossible not to notice how quick his arm is or how easy the gas looks when he lets a fastball go.

The mystery right now is how to fix Tirado’s control. Unlike some of the less polished arms that populate the Northwest League, Tirado doesn’t have a clunky motion or an obvious hitch in his delivery: in fact, I kind of liked how efficient he was with his legs and thought he repeated a fairly simple delivery well.

Tirado wasn’t really wild in the traditional sense either; when I think wild, I envision Colorado ROckies right-hander Peter Tago hitting several batters while spiking fastballs and throwing sliders a good six feet off the plate. That wasn’t really Tirado’s problem — he just had no fastball command and was squeezed by an umpire with a tight and inconsistent strike zone.

It’s an open question whether Tirado’s slight frame –- he’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds but looks thinner -– has caused him to wear down over the course of the year and prevented him from taking developmental strides in 2014. This is his longest season as a professional, and he’s already had a start skipped because of arm fatigue, so there are certainly reasons to explain away some recent poor performances.

Still, I came away cautiously optimistic about Tirado’s future. While the lack of fastball command at this point in his career is a problem that seriously jeopardizes his chance to start in a big league rotation, his ultimate ceiling hasn’t changed much, even if it appears much more unlikely that he’ll reach it. I wouldn’t be surprised if his command comes around in the future: his delivery doesn’t have any red flags and he’s thrown strikes before. He might ultimately be best off as a reliever, where he’d be free to air out his impressive arsenal while mitigating concerns about his build and, to some extent, his ability to pound the strike zone.

 Franklin Barreto, SS
Just 18 years of age, Barreto is perhaps the best prospect among position players in the Northwest League. For three games, Barreto crushed just about everything he saw, making hard contact against Everett’s best arms. He’s a natural hitter with quick hands and an excellent knack for getting the barrell to the ball. He laced line drives all over the park in both games and batting practice and I was particularly impressed by a couple of well-struck opposite field extra-base hits that landed behind the right fielder. I remember him swinging and missing but twice all series, which is incredible for a high-school age talent facing veteran college arms 3-5 years his senior. He’s also a 60 runner.

While Barreto’s abilities are obvious, the holes in his game at this point are equally apparent. The Venezuelan can make contact with just about any pitch he sees, a skill that he’s a little too keen to take advantage of at present: he’s a free swinger and he probably hasn’t had much experience working counts in his life. He could have a 70 hit tool at peak maturity, but his batting average will play down if he doesn’t develop some patience and learn to lay off pitches that will induce weak putouts.

Barreto is currently a shortstop, but a quick glance around the Internet suggests that practically no evaluator thinks he’ll stick there, and I don’t see any reason to disagree with that assessment. His arm isn’t special for the position and while he has plenty of speed, his actions are unrefined. On two occasions Thursday he misplayed grounders by trying to backhand balls he should have got in front of. He also made several bad throws, including one where he threw to the wrong base and another where he dallied after fielding a grounder and ultimately fired wide of first base. It looks like he’ll need some work to stay in the infield, but he certainly has the athleticism to play second or third. If all else fails, I’d bet his bat will play in center.

There was one particular pitch that encapsulated Barreto about as well as such a snippet possibly can. In his second to last at-bat of the series, Barreto was up and early in the count, Sam Lindquist threw him a breaking ball headed for the dirt. Barreto made an adjustment and ripped a hard grounder down the line, just foul. It took incredible coordination to not only hit a breaking ball – one that he probably wasn’t expecting, based on the count – but to also put good wood on it and hit it hard. As good as that kind of coordination is though, his decision to swing at an obvious ball also highlights the aggressiveness he’ll need to tame if he’s ever going to be a serious on base threat. It’s an exciting, boom or bust kind of package, and I’m looking forward to monitoring his progress throughout his minor league career.

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Jason A. Churchill

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