MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays

theScore’s Jonah Birenbaum spent several days following the Toronto Blue Jays during the opening weeks of Spring Training, talking with many of organization’s future stars.

Blue Jays prospect Marcus Stroman, a diminutive right-hander whose stature betrays his immense talents, runs through fielding drills with unmistakable ease on the backfields of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Always jovial, the energetic hurler completes Spring Training’s more mundane exercises with the overt confidence of a veteran, but his body language is punctuated with the unadulterated enthusiasm of a youngster getting his first taste of big-league camp.

Stroman, who turns 23 in May, has logged a mere 131 innings as a professional, but the Duke alumnus has a reasonable chance of cracking Toronto’s beleaguered rotation this season. Though he’s aware his future is inextricably linked with that of the Blue Jays, Stroman insists his confidence isn’t a consequence of his pedigree. Selected in the first round of the 2012 draft, Stroman sits atop the prospect hierarchy, but his demeanor is simply a function of his upbringing.

“My pops taught me to be confident from a young age, so I thought that would’ve been instilled in me even if didn’t go in the first round,” says Stroman, who’s listed generously at 5-foot-9. “Confidence is everything, that’s half the battle, so if you don’t have confidence it’s hard to make it. So I pride myself on my confidence, for sure.”

Stroman’s impressive performance in 2013 – he authored a 3.30 ERA with a 4.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 20 starts at Double-A New Hampshire – fueled a marked ascent up various prospect rankings this year. Stroman’s dominance in the Eastern League even earned him a trip to the Arizona Fall League, the vaunted autumn circuit where baseball’s top minor leaguers get to showcase their skills in front of the game’s top executives and evaluators.

“I’d say it was definitely validating,” Stroman says of his AFL experience. “[It] shows you that the organization kind of believes in you and has trust in you going forward and they believe that you’re going to pitch at the highest level. So it’s definitely validating and definitely makes you motivated to work that much harder to get there at some point this year.”

Stroman was joined in Arizona by Aaron Sanchez, another Blue Jays prospect who boasts an equally bright future. If Stroman is the antithesis of a pitching prospect, Sanchez is the platonic ideal; standing 6-foot-4 with an overpowering fastball, Sanchez wields all the tools befitting a first-round selection. However, the 21-year-old’s journey through the developmental jungle hasn’t gone nearly as smoothly as Stroman’s, as shoulder problems and control issues have stalled his ascent up the organizational ladder.

Drafted 34th overall in 2010, Sanchez compiled just 86 1/3 innings last season in the Florida State League, posting an unsightly 10.9 percent walk rate while spending considerable time on the disabled list. Though his prospect stock dwindled some in 2013, Sanchez still earned a trip to Arizona, where he managed to revive his status as a burgeoning star with a dominant performance: the California native fashioned a remarkable 1.16 ERA over six starts in Arizona, notching 21 strikeouts while allowing just 11 hits in 23 1/3 innings for the Salt River Rafters.

According to Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks, Sanchez boasts “top-shelf stuff” and could be a “legit frontline no. 2 starter”

“It was a great experience for me,” Sanchez says. “I mean, going out there I was a little doubtful, just because I hadn’t pitched at a high level and those guys, you know, some had big-league time and the majority of the people were Double-A and up.”

While Sanchez, like Stroman, is regarded as a principal character in Toronto’s future, the young hurler is equally disinclined to lean on his first-round pedigree.

“It’s no different from me to the guy that was drafted in the 50th round,” Sanchez says. “Our ultimate goal is to get to the big leagues and it’s about, you know, just being productive and if I can’t do that then it’s not because I’m a first-rounder that they’ll say, ‘Hey, we’re going to give him [a chance].’

“If I make it, I want it to be because I made it, not because we have a huge investment in you. If I’m not good enough then I don’t want to be there. I come to the ballpark to work everyday and that’s something that I pride myself on.”

Toronto’s once-vaunted cadre of pitching prospects — Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, and Justin Nicolino — was decimated last offseason when general manager Alex Anthopoulous swapped his top minor leaguers for some major-league assistance. Stroman’s presence has managed to somewhat mitigate the loss, and though he doesn’t possess Syndergaard’s monstrous fastball, he and Sanchez still evoke lofty praise from pitching coach Pete Walker.

“The two of them have dominant stuff, there’s no question about it,” says Walker. “Stroman, in particular, has great stuff, command, mound presence; he’s a young kid but he seems to be very mature for his age.”

Across the Blue Jays’ quaint Dunedin complex, outfielder Kevin Pillar shags fly balls with manifest purpose alongside Moises Sierra, another roster hopeful, and four-time All-Star Jose Bautista. The natural swagger Stroman oozes is completely foreign to Pillar, whose professional baseball career has been decidedly different.

Selected in the 32nd round of the 2011 draft, Pillar was little more than organizational afterthought until his bat decided to defy expectations, effectively thrusting him up the developmental ladder. Over parts of three seasons in the minors, Pillar hit .321./366/.466 with 82 stolen bases in 311 games, and ultimately earned a late-season cameo with the Blue Jays in 2013.

Though he’s experienced the lavish big-league lifestyle, the 25-year-old Californian is seldom spoken of with the superlatives thrown at Sanchez and Stroman. However, much like his first-round brethren, he’s quick to acknowledge that production, not pedigree, dictates any prospect’s future.

“At the end of the day, I think money talks to some degree, but at the same time you see guys that [were drafted] in the first round that don’t get out of A-ball, so it really comes down to your performance,” says Pillar.

Pillar managed a .583 OPS over 36 games with the Blue Jays in 2013
Alas, the 6-foot, 200-pound outfielder does concede that his margin for error is considerably smaller than that of Stroman or Sanchez. He’s the baseball equivalent of a penny stock; he’s a low-cost venture that may, in time, yield a modest return. Pillar hardly constitutes the big-time investment of Toronto’s top two pitching prospects, and as such, he’s not granted the same license to fail.

“If you’re talking about a leash, I think, at first, my leash was a little bit shorter but, like I said, I think I broke that stereotype, broke that mold, and I don’t want to be on a long leash; I like going out there with the pressure because the game’s all about pressure. If you can’t play, if you can’t hit, then you got to do something else. That’s the nature of the game: there’s always going to be pressure in this game whether you’re playing in a Spring Training game or if you’re playing in the World Series.”

Context will surely frame how their respective performances are perceived -Pillar’s struggles will be seen as an inevitability while any missteps attributed to Stroman and Sanchez will be regarded simply as growing pains – but despite their disparate experiences in professional baseball, all three players understand that, ultimately, it’s production that gets you to the big leagues, and it’s production that keeps you in the big leagues. Everything else is just a footnote.