TORONTO—Alex Anthopoulos took over as Blue Jays general manager a year ago and immediately emphasized scouting and development.
The early results have been encouraging.
The scouting staff has doubled. The team parted ways with free agents like Marco Scutaro and Rod Barajas, added compensation for three unsigned 2009 draft picks, and ended up with nine selections in the first three rounds of the 2010 draft. Increased funding was allocated to the international market as well as to the draft. Player development was re-organized and a seventh affiliate was added for next season at Rookie-level Bluefield in the Appalachian League.
Even new manager John Farrell has a background in player development—before he nurtured a core of winning pitchers in Boston, Farrell served as the Indians’ farm director from 2001-2006.
Building a winner from within is a long-term process, but Anthopoulos is impressed with the infusion of talent in the system.
“From a year ago to today, (the system) just seems so much stronger,” Anthopoulos said. “Our scouting director (Andrew Tinnish) and a lot of the other staff went down to Florida for the instructional league and the feedback I got was, ‘Wow, what a change. What depth we have. We haven’t had this many prospects at one time.’ It was so exciting . . .
“Now as we sit here today that’s the way it looks. Do they all pan out? Do they all do well? Who knows? But I’m not opposed at all to taking prospects and trading them for big-league players.
“They’re not all going to play up here and part of drafting and signing and developing these players is to use them to supplement the big league team. I think the depth is certainly there to make a trade, and it’s something we’ll look at if we think we can get a player who can be part of this.” This is no quick-fix project. Anthopoulos said any trade, any signing must be good value and make the club stronger.
“We’re trying to make the organization stronger and better for the long term,” he said.
While it wasn’t a big factor in why he was hired, new manager John Farrell also has a background in player development
It is one thing to preach scouting and development, it’s another to be able to do it. Patience and funding from ownership is required, and so far Rogers Communications has been willing to provide both.
Says assistant GM Tony LaCava, who oversees player development: “So many times when guys are named GMs or are put in spots like that their first words in their press conference are ‘We’re going to do this by scouting and player development.’
“But in this case, Rogers Communications has put their money where their mouth is and they’ve allowed Alex to increase scouting budgets and signing budgets, and we’ve been able to add a third short-season affiliate. These are all things that are reflective of what he said he wanted to do.”
Paul Beeston, who returned as president and CEO on a full-time basis in October 2009, was in the same position when the Blue Jays won World Series championships in 1992 and ’93 and has been with the franchise since 1976—the year before it started to play in the American League. The Blue Jays then used scouting and player development and a strong base in Latin America to grow from expansion team to consistent AL East contender.
“I don’t know another way of doing it,” Beeston said. “If you don’t have the patience, if you try to get ahead of yourself, all you’re going to be doing is taking that little step forward and you’ve got a big chance of going backward . . . If you’ve got that patience, which I think that Alex does, and our owners clearly do and I know I do, We’ve got to improve as an organization and it’s the prospects that are coming up and it’s the investment in those prospects that I think will pay dividends in the future.”
Lots Of Pitching
The high school pitchers drafted this year have made an impression on Mel Queen, the former Blue Jays pitching coach and farm director who, along with veteran scout Mel Didier, serves as senior advisor of player development. a former major league outfielder and pitcher who has served in several positions with the Blue Jays including pitching coach in the majors and minors and director of player development. Queen and long-time scout Mel Didier were.
“I can’t remember all the years I was with the Blue Jays where we had a better draft of pitchers than this year,” Queen said. “Hopefully they will materialize, but in one particular draft I can’t remember ever having as many good high school arms as we got this year in the draft.”
The Blue Jays selected five high school pitchers amid their first eight picks in the 2010 draft, including first-round supplemental picks righthanders Aaron Sanchez (No. 34 overall) and Noah Syndergaard (No. 38).
Taking so many high school pitchers so early in the draft wasn’t necessarily by design, but it showed a change of philosophy from Anthopoulos’ predecessor, J.P. Ricciardi.
“It was a market that we didn’t really scout heavily, that we didn’t put a lot of resources into,” first-year director Tinnish said. “It was an organizational philosophy. Certainly of the four major areas, it’s the highest-risk area. But it’s also the highest-reward area.”
Increasing the scouting staff improves the team’s chances of identifying the best players available in the draft, Tinnish said.
“The whole philosophy that Alex has was (to) make these (scouting) areas smaller,” Tinnish said. “We looked at the last 10 years of players making their major league debuts and where they came from.”
What they discoved is 25 percent were either born or went to high school in California. “We put five (area scouts) in California,” Tinnish said. “The purpose was to put these guys in a better position to get to know their players. Where you might get to see a high school pitcher two or three times, now maybe you could see that guy six or seven times.”
Resigned Farm System
The player development department was reorganized when Charlie Wilson took over as director of minor league operations and Doug Davis was named minor league field coordinator, reporting directly to LaCava. “We share the farm director’s duties,” Wilson said. “I thought it went very well for a lot of reasons. The scouting staff gets a great deal credit for the draft this year. We’re excited about a lot of the players.”
The system was redesigned to allow the younger players, acquired either from the draft or from Latin American signings, more development time on the field.
Adding a third short-season team was one step in that direction. “It allows a younger player a chance to be integrated (into the system) and also to be moved incrementally without rushing them,” LaCava said. “Also we give more guys opportunities to show what they can do. They’ve got to earn their way to a full-season team.”
Increasing instructional league from three weeks to five weeks is a way to give “younger players more touches. They need more time,” LaCava said. “We also added a prospect early camp prior to spring training. There were about 30 players we invited in for about two weeks where they got focused training with more one-on-one stuff.”
There is also a new complex in the Dominican Republic under Latin American director Marco Paddy. Davis said there is more interaction with the Latin American operation.
“We’re going to send a few American kids down there that were in our Florida instructional league and see how that works,” Davis said. “I think we’ve done a much better job incorporating that program into our player development system. We’re spending more time with myself, all the coordinators, going down there potentially three times during the course of the year.”
Rich Miller was hired to fill the newly created minor league outfield and baserunning coach position. Other changes have been introduced:
A performance coach, ex-big leaguer Steve Springer, visits every team in the system to talk about the mental approach to the game. A visual performance training program will be instituted in full next year. A program was started in which players are rewarded with restaurant vouchers for doing the little things beyond the obvious statistics in hitting, pitching, baserunning and fielding. “Players are rewarded for doing the underlying things that help win ballgames,” LaCava said.
“I think the biggest change in philosophy was just being able to spend more time on field with instruction for each of the players,” Davis said. “Now it’s just a matter of executing the plan.”
There is even a sense of optimism from players who have joined the organization, like righthander Kyle Drabek, the organization’s top prospect acquired from the Phillies in the Roy Halladay trade last December. Drabek, who was called up in September for three starts with Toronto, feels the Blue Jays are on the upswing.
“I definitely can see it with this team,” Drabek said. “We have a bunch of great young players, and things are only going to go up from here.”