By; Brian Frank
The Bisons have had a number of impressive young catching prospects in the past few decades, most notably Johnny Bench, Tony Peña, Victor Martinez, and Danny Jansen. Numerous top Blue Jays prospects have also passed through the Queen City in just the past few seasons, including Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Teoscar Hernández, and Lourdes Guerriel Jr.
Gabriel Moreno can add his name to both these lists. The 22-year-old catcher from Barquisimeto, Venezuela, is the latest in a line of highly-touted Blue Jays prospect to make his way to Sahlen Field. He’s the Blue Jays number one ranked prospect and is rated the seventh best prospect in all of baseball by both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline.
Moreno has only been catching since joining the Blue Jays organization. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
All of the attention that comes from being such a highly touted prospect hasn’t seemed to affect the young backstop.
“I don’t really feel the pressure,” Moreno said through an interpreter in a recent interview. “I believe and trust in my work. To be honest, when I get on the field, I don’t really think about any of that. I just go out and have fun and worry about the guy on the mound.”
Moreno joined the Bisons during the second week of the season. He arrived late to spring training due to visa issues, so he stayed down at the Blue Jays complex in Dunedin when the minor-league season began. But since joining the Herd, he’s been quick to impress. He’s currently slashing .282/.324/.400 and has displayed tremendous athleticism behind the plate, frequently showing off his canon-like arm while gunning down would-be base stealers.
Bisons manager Casey Candaele has been impressed with not only Moreno's natural ability, but also with his new catcher's willingness to learn.
“Just his work ethic and his wanting to get better,” Candaele said recently when asked what impressed him most about his young catcher. “Just a great attitude. There’s still things he needs to learn and things that he needs to do and we talk about it and he learns and he puts it into how he goes about his work.”
“He’s extremely talented,” Candaele continued. “Athletically he’s extremely talented and he can do some pretty special things behind the plate and with the bat.”
Moreno is a converted infielder, who only began catching after he signed with the Blue Jays as an international free agent in 2016. His athleticism makes him look like a natural at the position.
“Probably the hardest part for me is just getting acclimated to some of the pitchers,” Moreno said. “Being my first week last week, it felt like I was thrown in fast, but I believe in myself and this process so I’ve been feeling pretty good so far.”
Moreno has been impressive at the plate. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
Moreno slashed .373/.441/.651 with eight home runs in thirty-two games last season at Double-A New Hampshire. His season was shortened due to a thumb injury in June that required surgery. He recovered in time to be promoted to Buffalo during the Final Stretch playoffs last fall, playing in three games for the Herd. He then went to play for Mesa in the Arizona Fall League and continued to rake – slashing .329/.410/.494.
“I try to stay within myself,” he said of his hitting. “I feel like it’s one of my big strengths to see the ball and react to it. I trust the process in the cage and the scouting reports, so once I step in the box it’s see ball, hit ball.”
Despite his success at every level he’s played at, he’s still working hard to improve as a hitter.
“In the last two or three years, my hitting routine in the cage, pre-work, has really helped me,” he said. “One thing I want to continue to improve on is with two strikes – cut down on some of my strikeouts and have better plate discipline.”
As far as what he needs to do to continue to improve behind the plate, Moreno believes he needs to work on communicating and game planning with the pitching staff.
“The biggest thing I’ve done over this past year is establish relationships with pitchers and focus on the importance of game planning and being on the same page and working together with them,” he said. “I’m excited to continue to do that.”
Candaele agrees with Moreno’s assessment: “It’s really about being comfortable being a catcher and as a catcher being someone who runs a pitching staff and guides a pitcher through a game. He’s going to get better at that as the games go on and he’s going to continue to grow in that area.”
“He’s pretty young,” Candaele continued. “(Alejandro) Kirk was doing the same thing. He had to go through the same thing and he’s doing a great job at the major-league level now. I watch him (Kirk) and he looks like he’s very comfortable and handling pitchers well. So I think it’s just feeling comfortable communicating with guys that are veterans and guys that are older than you and sitting down and talking to them and just getting information and knowledge and experience.”
Moreno is the seventh rated prospect in all of minor-league baseball. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
Moreno has also had to adjust to dealing with the new Triple-A pitch clock. The clock, which is 14 seconds when no one is on base and 18 seconds when a runner is aboard, is being strictly enforced and has caused the young backstop to have to think a little quicker on his feet.
“It’s an adjustment for sure,” Moreno said. “I feel like my first week here things were speeding up on me a little bit, but like anything you’ve got to adapt and it kind of forces me to think a little sharper and be a little bit more ahead, which I want to get better at. But as far as rhythm and pace of play – it’s good.”
During the offseason, Moreno worked out with some major-league players in Venezuela – including Atlanta Braves superstar Ronald Acuña Jr., who passed along some advice to his fellow countryman.
“When you get that call, enjoy it,” Moreno said Acuña told him. “Enjoy the moment. It’s something you’ve worked your whole life for.”
With every hit he gets and every runner he guns down on the base paths, the dream of stepping onto a major-league field for the first time comes a step closer to becoming a reality.
“It’s become more and more of a reality for me,” he said. “I’m thankful and thank God for the opportunity. I just want to continue to be healthy and see the opportunity through.”
“I believe in myself and know that when I go up there it’s for a reason – it’s to help the team out and do whatever I can do to help them out.”