Gabriel Moreno: Catcher of the Future?

Toronto Observer photo

It was a moment that still stands out some twenty seven months later…

I had just settled in at the Phillies minor league complex in Clearwater for a spring training game between the Toronto and Philadelphia minor leaguers (the Blue Jays complex was undergoing a major overhaul, and was closed to the public). If you’ve never been to a minor league complex in spring training, you should – the complexes feature four diamonds around a central rotunda, and if fate is smiling on you that day, there are usually theee games of minor leaguers you can circuitously take in.

The A ball game had just nicely gotten underway shortly after I had taken my seat in the bleachers along the 3rd base side, in between home plate and the Blue Jays dugout. It reminded me of the vantage point I had as a youngster watching my hometown Midland, ON men’s team take on other Simcoe County outfits, feet from the action.

Minor league rosters had not been set yet, but I was hopeful of catching a number of Blue Jays prospects, including Griffin Conine, Alejandro Kirk, Eric Pardiño, among others. But as the Toronto side took to the field in the bottom of the 1st, one player stood out immediately – catcher Gabriel Moreno. His cat-like reflexes behind the plate and take-charge attitude stood out right away. You just don’t tend to see that kind of athleticism from catchers.

2016 was a lean year for Blue Jays IFAs. Because they broke the bank to sign Vladimir Guerrero Jr (how’s that working out?) the previous year, Toronto was not able to sign a player from their reduced bonus pool for over $300K. The Blue Jays top two signings that IFA season were SSs Hugo Cardona and Joseph Reyes, players who certainly had potential, but Cardona hasn’t gotten past Extended this year, and Reyes was released. RHP Roither Hernandez seems to show some promise in Low A as a reliever, but a $25K bonus the team offered to a Venezuelan middle infielder that year may prove to be one of the best investments Toronto has ever made.

The Blue Jays were doing their groundwork in 2015 with the 15 year olds who were going to be part of the next year’s IFA class. Venezuelan scout Francisco Placencia had multiple looks at a young middle infielder and thought he saw a catcher in the making. He perhaps didn’t have the stocky build of a prototypical backstop, but Placencia saw enough quick twitch reactions and a strong arm that made him think of an agile receiver. Gabriel Moreno was asked to go behind the plate. Initially, he balked. “I was scared, man,” he said later of that time. But when Sandy Rosario, who runs the Blue Jays international ops on a daily basis, made the trip from the Dominican to have a look at the future catcher Placencia raved about, Moreno relented. They were eventually able to get his name on a contract for a $25K bonus.

Moreno made his pro debut in 2017, and posted decent numbers (.248/276/.296, throwing base stealers out 32%) as he adjusted to life in the Dominican Summer League. Moved stateside the following season, his numbers in the GCL were eye-popping (.413/.455/.462 in 23 games), earning him a few weeks of under-the-lights play in Bluefield. I had thought he had a decent chance to crack Lansing’s opening day roster, but with Alejandro Kirk and Ryan Gold ahead of him, Moreno was held back in Extended in 2019. Kirk’s fast start in Low A put him on the fast track for promotion a month later, and Moreno arrived in Michigan to claim the starting job.

Watching Moreno evolve in 2019 was an interesting study. He was still developing as a backstop in terms of his game management and receiving skills, but he was improving almost weekly. At the plate, his approach was a see-the-ball/hit-the ball strategy, which was something of a red flag, but an .823 OPS with a dozen long balls in 82 games was also worth noting.

It’s hard sometimes to pin them down, and they (understandably) require multiple texts to get them to commit to a time, but Blue Jays front office officials are usually willing to spend some time talking to a lowly blogger. Andrew Tinnish, Gil Kim, and Joe Sclafani (who runs the daily operations of the PD department now that Kim is on the big league coaching staff) have all given generously of their time over the years. I spoke to all three within about a ten week span between Christmas 2019 and the end of February 2020, and I posed a question to all three that I always ask: who, over the course of the past off-season, has stood out to you the most among the Blue Jays prospects? The answer from all three was unanimous: Gabriel Moreno. The leaps in his game on both sides of the plate were significant, they all agreed.

Moreno was one of the stars at the alt site last year, and played winter ball for Lara in his native Venezuela. Both experiences allowed him to come out of the gate like gangbusters this spring – it’s hard to think of a prospect who has advanced his game across the industry as much as Moreno has over the past eight weeks. He’s destroyed AA Northeast pitching to the tune of .385/.450/.672, and has played a large part in the prospect-laden New Hampshire Fisher Cats six-game winning streak. Moreno has refined his approach, working deeper into counts – at Lansing in 2019, he was seeing 3.8 pitches per plate appearance. At AA, he’s seeing 4.3. Moreno is also letting the ball travel a bit more, going oppo a career-high 31% of the time. Moreno’s ability to put the bat on the ball is elite, but he’s taming his former chasing ways.

Here he displays a quick, compact stroke:

Defensively, here are some recent samples of Moreno’s defensive work, starting with his blocking (and tagging) skills:

Moreno had taken a foul tip off his throwing shoulder an inning before this play, but showed no ill effects, nabbing a runner at 2nd on an outside breaking ball:

Framing skills can take years to develop. It’s all about developing wrist and arm strength, ability to receive and present a ball, and working with umpires to coax calls on the edge of the strike zone:

So, Moreno is a sure fire big leaguer, call him up, etc, …..right? As always is the case with minor league catchers – not so fast. Moreno came into 2021 having caught 150 games. Covid definitely played into it, but the Blue Jays would like to have more reps for a guy who will one day handle a multi-million dollar pitching staff. Moreno’s English is improving – that’s a skill overlooked by fans that is an important one in a catcher’s development. Some have pointed to his size (5’11”/160) as being on the smaller side for his position – his athleticism helps to counter that, but wondering how he will stand up over the course of catching 120 games per season is a fair thing to question. On the other hand, he should age much better than the average catcher.

Will Moreno be a middle of the order threat? Maybe. It’s certainly hard to envision him posting a 1.000+ OPS in the bigs, but he does profile as maybe a solid .280/.337/.485 (his line at Lansing) guy, hitting on the fringe of the heart of the order. It will be his defence, though, that will be his calling card. As Blue Jays fans, we’ve heard about Catchers of the Future before, which speaks both to the relative lack of success past administrations have had in developing elite receivers (the position is fairly deep in the system right now), and the difficulty in general all organizations have in producing first division players behind the plate. There are no locks in the prospect world, but you would have to think Moreno is as close to one as there is in all of baseball at the moment. Fellow Blue Jays minor league catcher Ryan Sloniger sent a note to let us know how he feels about Moreno, and it was worthy of updating this post:

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