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After scorching May, how close is top Blue Jays prospect Moreno?

TORONTO – The beginning of Gabriel Moreno’s 2022 season didn’t go according to plan, with visa issues delaying his arrival to big-league spring training and a relatively slow start at the plate in triple-A. But after an impressive month of May in which he beat .380 and threw out eight would-be base stealers, the top catching prospect is now excelling at the highest level of the minors.

Thanks to Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk, the Blue Jays already have one of the best catching tandems in the sport this year. A two-homer game from Kirk on Tuesday only reinforced what we’ve seen all year: offensively and defensively, the Blue Jays are getting plenty of production behind the plate.

With that in mind, there’s certainly no need to rush the 22-year-old Moreno, who began the season as the game’s seventh-best prospect, according to Baseball America.

But that Moreno’s getting closer to the majors is not in doubt. After his best minor-league month yet, it’s worth taking stock of his game, assessing how he’d fit on the current Blue Jays roster and wondering how the Blue Jays balance his ongoing development with the need to field the best big-league team possible.

Of course, it all starts with Moreno’s skillset. Offensively, he’s a right-handed hitter with exceptional bat to ball skills that allow him to make consistently hard contact. A lifetime .311 hitter in the minors, he’s hitting .331 this year with the Buffalo Bisons. His hand-eye coordination helps him avoid strikeouts (17.1 per cent strikeout rate), but he doesn’t walk a ton either (7.8 per cent walk rate), perhaps because he’s so adept at finding the barrel. So far, he hasn’t hit for much power this year with just one home run and eight doubles in 129 plate appearances.

Defensively, Moreno’s described as an athletic catcher with exceptional flexibility and mobility behind the plate. His throwing has always been an asset, but it’s improved to the point that he has caught 13 of 26 would-be base-stealers this year. He also gets high marks for his game-calling and receiving, though refinement in those areas inevitably comes at the MLB level, as both Jansen and Kirk can attest.

Simply put, you have a right-handed hitter with the potential to hit for a high average, get on base and hold his own behind the plate. It’s a great combination – one that could lead to a long career in the majors – but of course there are more layers.

Simplifying matters, there’s no hint of service time manipulation here. If Moreno reaches the majors at any time during the 2022 season, he’d be on track to hit free agency after the 2028 season, regardless of when he debuts. As such, the decision to promote Moreno can be made based on his readiness, how he fits on the roster and his development.

One way or another, the Blue Jays need Moreno to play. A thumb fracture limited him to 37 regular-season games last year before he played 22 more in the Arizona Fall League. Given his long-term importance to the Blue Jays franchise, having him stagnate on the bench for an extended period is not an option, especially after the lost 2020 minor-league season and his shortened 2021. More likely, there would have to be a path to playing time in at least half of the big-league team’s games for a promotion to make sense.

Thanks to the production of Jansen and Kirk, there’s no immediate need at the MLB level, but the Blue Jays were rostering three catchers at once as recently as a week ago. Considering Moreno’s versatility, could they get creative again?

A former infielder, Moreno played some third last season both at double-A and in the AFL. This year he has caught exclusively, and there are no immediate plans to move him around the diamond to third base or left field, but that’s an option the Blue Jays are open to as the summer continues and their big-league roster evolves.

Still, even if he were to get some reps in at third, he’d be at best the third big-league option there behind Matt Chapman and Santiago Espinal. If Moreno hit left-handed, the path to playing time might look a little different, but along with Jansen, Kirk and most of the Blue Jays’ other hitters he bats from the right side. That means there are fewer moments where pinch-hitting Moreno would be tempting.

But just because the Blue Jays have an abundance of young, right-handed hitting catching, there’s no need to rush a trade. With DH at-bats and scheduled rest days, there could be ways to mix all three, especially once limits on pitchers go into effect and the Blue Jays’ bench expands. Plus, when’s the last time a contender traded away a starting catcher mid-season? The Blue Jays have had inquiries on Jansen and Kirk in recent off-seasons, but the winter seems like a more likely time to weigh offers here.

What’s clear is the Blue Jays have an enviable amount of young catching at or near the majors. Whether an injury hastens Moreno’s timeline to the majors or he simply pushes his way onto the roster with continued production between the lines, he’s doing his part to show he’s ready. Until then, the Blue Jays have the luxury of staying patient.

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