Inside top prospect Gabriel Moreno’s journey to the Blue Jays lineup

Gabriel Moreno closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He’s gripping a dark brown bat and is standing just to the right of home plate at Field 1 of the Toronto Blue Jays player development complex in Dunedin, Fla. It’s a breezy, sun-soaked morning in late March and the players in this batting practice group have chosen a Pitbull playlist to match the tropical weather and soundtrack their swings.

Moreno’s first two rounds of cuts were nothing special, producing a string of weak bloops to left and centre field. That’s understandable, though, as the 22-year-old Venezuelan only arrived at spring training two days ago after encountering visa issues. He’s still in the process of ramping up baseball activities.

The catcher breathes deeply, readying himself for his third round as “International Love” blares on the nearby speakers. This time Moreno is more like himself. He sprays pitches into the left and centre-field gaps — progression that brings a smile back to his face. In the next round, he clears the fence in left field, evoking some ‘Ooohs’ from teammates.

The odd bit of rust aside, hitting has never been a problem for Moreno. His elite bat speed, hand-eye coordination and contact ability led the Blue Jays to sign him in 2016. That offensive prowess helped him become the jewel of the organization’s minor-league system as well as a top-five prospect in all of baseball, and now it’s taken him to the majors. Danny Jansen’s left pinky fracture has opened a door for Moreno, who is set to join the Blue Jays for this weekend’s series in Detroit. He arrives in The Show more than a one-way player, though. Defence was always going to be the element of his game that needed the most work and credit to Moreno, he’s been acutely aware of this. A converted shortstop, he’s worked hard to become the strong defender that he is today and spent the past few months polishing the finer elements and soft skills of the craft. He knew that his progression behind the plate was essential to his future. “It’s really important because that’s what I need to do to help the team,” he says.

That’s evident on this 19-degree morning in Florida. As soon as Moreno lays down the bat, he rushes off to the clubhouse to grab his catcher’s equipment and minutes later, he’s squatting down, ready to receive a bullpen session from veteran right-hander Jose Berrios. When that’s over, the two huddle, along with pitching coach Pete Walker, for a brief discussion near the mound. Moreno then heads over to the batting cage tent with bullpen catcher Luis Hurtado.

“In our country, we would say he is hambriento. He’s hungry to be the best version of himself.”

Moreno and Hurtado, a fellow Venezuelan, have a relationship that stretches back to the beginning of the younger catcher’s tenure in the organization. Moreno trusts Hurtado, who in turn takes pride in helping develop the promising prospect. With both men positioned about eight feet apart, a kneeling Hurtado tosses balls that Moreno must frame — receiving with slight movement of the glove designed to increase the chance an umpire sees a strike. After some time, Hurtado walks to the pitching machine and loads it with handfuls of balls from an equipment bag. He lobs encouraging words to the catcher as the ammunition is fired toward him.

“Bueno. Bueno. Nice. Toma.”

“La Jeepeta” by Puerto Rican artist Nio Garcia is providing the soundtrack now, while most Blue Jays teammates have retreated to the clubhouse. When Hurtado’s equipment bag is empty, he jogs over to the bucket that’s next to Moreno and carries it back to the machine. The process begins again, this time with Moreno catching the ball and springing to his feet, right arm cocked back and ready to throw as if a runner is trying to swipe second.

“Bueno. Bueno. Look up. Target down.”

Next up is a blocking drill that sees Hurtado resume his position eight feet from Moreno, tossing balls forcefully into the dirt. There’s a word in Spanish that Hurtado has always used to describe Moreno: “In our country, we would say he is hambriento,” Hurtado says. “He’s hungry to be the best version of himself. He’s hambriento to learn the catching program to become the best catcher he can.”

Author: Lucy Green