Why Blue Jays prospect Gabriel Moreno’s rare instincts make him an elite talent

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Blue Jays No. 1 prospect Gabriel Moreno has all the physical tools of a future star MLB catcher, with a polished and sharp baseball brain to match.
Blue Jays No. 1 prospect Gabriel Moreno has all the physical tools of a future star MLB catcher, with a polished and sharp baseball brain to match. (Getty)

On the surface, it looked like a straightforward play.

With a runner on second and one out, Buffalo Bisons starter Shaun Anderson spiked a pitch in the dirt to Gabriel Moreno’s glove side. The 22-year-old catcher effortlessly picked the ball, shuffled around the left-handed hitter, and fired a sizzling throw straight to second base to back-pick the baserunner who’d wandered too far off the bag.

That tremendous throw, which some major-league catchers can’t even make, in the fifth inning of Friday’s game quickly became the talk of the town in Buffalo. But once Moreno returned to the bench, the rest of his club realized how brilliant that play really was.

The Blue Jays No. 1 prospect — and seventh best prospect in MLB, per Baseball America — jogged back to the dugout and explained his thinking on the throwdown. Moreno said once he cleared the hitter with his footwork, he realized Anderson — who stands 6-foot-6 — hadn’t ducked down to open a throwing lane. Within a fraction of a second, Moreno knew that meant he had to deliver a high throw to second base, and he put a rocket right on the money to get the out.

“People say there aren't such things as instincts or anything,” Buffalo manager Casey Candaele said. “But you don't practice that play … that kind of thought in that quick a time, it's pretty good.”

Plenty of talented players surge through the minors with loads of hype, but few make legitimate contributions in the major leagues because it isn’t enough to survive on talent alone. Good players — good catchers, especially — need certain intangible qualities to reach their full potential; they need baseball I.Q., polished instincts, and stellar decision-making.

Moreno has already proven he possesses these rare skills, and that he didn’t develop them by accident.

“He's very receptive to advice and knowledge and so he really wants to learn and get better,” Candaele said. “So I think that is one of the things that you look at with an elite player, and say he's probably going to have a real good career because he's very receptive to things that people are willing to give him.”

And the Bisons skipper knows a thing or two about what an elite player looks like. An MLB player from 1986 to 1997 and long-time coach, Candaele explained that Moreno’s outlook on the game shows his catcher has the capability to make a seismic impact at the big-league level, the same way current Jays stars Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. already have.

“There's been a bunch of jerks that have been great players. I mean, don't get me wrong,” Candaele said. “But when you have the attitude that Gabby has, you could become a leader, and you become someone that people emulate, and then you can actually affect the culture in an organization as to how you play the game.”

Part of the formula to Moreno’s success comes down to what motivates him to succeed. Generously listed at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Moreno sometimes gets criticized for being too small, a sentiment Candaele — nicknamed “Mighty Mite” during his playing days for his aggressiveness despite his small size — can relate to.

“I always wanted to prove people wrong and show them that I could play with elite players,” Candaele said. “I wasn't elite by any means, but that was what [I could do] on any given day in baseball, which is beautiful.”

The difference-maker, though, is that Moreno does possess elite talent. Despite his small stature, the Venezuelan-born catcher has such God-given athleticism that he’s shocked his teammates with what he’s capable of doing.

“He’s met all those expectations,” fellow Bisons catcher Kellin Deglan said of Moreno. “Being able to see it in person, I see all the hype.”

Deglan praised Moreno for his work ethic, his arm behind the plate, and his quick-twitch reaction time, but he sees something in Moreno’s bat-to-ball abilities — considered the prospect’s best tool — that gives him hope about Moreno’s chances of succeeding at the next level.

“He puts the ball in play a lot,” Deglan said. “So if he goes in a slump, it won’t be a really long slump, I would think.”

Moreno’s contact skills are well-established — the hitting part of his game is big-league ready. It’s the defensive aspect, particularly game-calling, that takes longer for young catchers to master, though he’s already impressed his pitching staff in many ways.

“He handles [pressure] pretty well,” said Bisons reliever Graham Spraker. “I never see him too distracted. But, yeah, people always talk about Moreno; he’s always the buzz of the game. It’s how it should be.”

The Triple-A level is a bit of a scrambled setting by nature — guys are constantly optioned up and down, and there’s a lot of roster turnover, meaning it’s hard for catchers like Moreno to develop stable gameplans with different pitchers. Still, Moreno has quickly picked up the intricacies of his pitchers’ arsenals.

“He's comfortable calling a lot of fastballs for me and then mixing in the slider,” Spraker said. “So me and Gabby have a pretty good relationship. Just give him a couple more weeks and he’ll have everybody figured out, I'm sure.”

Bottom line, the kid has a very bright future. All the elements that form a future superstar are there. Now it’s up to Moreno to put it together once he eventually gets the call to Toronto.

“Gabby is elite in some of the things he does already,” Candaele said. “So he's gonna have to still work because the game is a tough game and you got to work your butt off all the time to be successful, and there's no doubt that he'll do that. But he's got a good head start.”

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