Blue Jays Return To Their Roots
New GM decides to beef up scouting department
Under new general manager Alex Anthopoulos, everything old is bold again in Toronto.
Given the job of turning around a franchise that has found it impossible to keep up with the free-spending Yankees and Red Sox, the new Blue Jays general manager is emphasizing scouting and player development in an attempt to remake the franchise. Toronto will look to save money at the big league level, as evidenced by December's Roy Halladay trade, but it's willing to spend to double its scouting staff. The hope is that by drafting well and making wise trades, Toronto can compete with teams that will always be able to outspend them.
Anthopoulos' plan is to try to make the Blue Jays a place where scouts want to work. By making each area scout's area smaller, the Blue Jays will try to make it easier for them to get home more often as well as allow them to get a better feel for their area's top prospects. At the pro level, dividing the organizations between more pro scouts is expected to give them a chance to dig deeper on their organizations.
More than anything, Anthopoulos wants the Blue Jays to be a place where scouting is king. If it sounds familiar, it's probably because you may have heard this before. Those too young to remember when Alex Rodriguez was a high school phenom may not believe it, but there was a time when scouts aspired to work for the Toronto Blue Jays. And there was a time when the Blue Jays' scouting staff was one of the best in the game. Even today when you talk to ex-Blue Jays scouts, they describe their time in Toronto during the Pat Gillick regime as a sort of Camelot.
There were the World Series rings for every scout when they won it all in 1992 and 1993. There were the ounces of gold as a thank-you bonus at the end of the year. The $65,000-$70,000 salaries for long-time area scouts at a time when many teams' national crosscheckers didn't make that much, and the first-class accommodations on the team meetings in Toronto.
"You were proud to be a Blue Jay," said one former Blue Jays scout. "You felt like a part of the family as soon as you were hired. Guys never left. They were Blue Jays for life."
Those days ended when J.P. Ricciardi took over as the Blue Jays' general manager late in 2001. A year and a half before Moneyball was published, Ricciardi was hired by the Blue Jays to shake things up by using analysis and statistics to refine the team's scouting. It didn't hurt that his approach would also save the Blue Jays money by replacing veteran middle-age scouts with much less expensive younger evaluators. Before long, many of the one-time Blue Jays lifers found themselves working for other teams. And the team that had drafted Chris Carpenter, Vernon Wells, Roy Halladay, Alex Rios and Shannon Stewart as first-round picks out of high schools in the 1990s told its scouts that scouting high school players was a waste of time.
Anthopoulos was one of the hires Ricciardi's regime made after the mass exit of the veteran scouts. After a couple of years working in the Expos scouting department, Anthopoulos joined the Blue Jays as a 26-year-old scouting coordinator in 2003. He moved up to assistant to the GM in 2005 and became the vice president of baseball operations in 2006.
But while Anthopoulos worked as one of Ricciardi's assistants for years, his first act as general manager could be seen as a complete repudiation of Ricciardi's approach. Now the Blue Jays are looking to build one of the largest and most expensive scouting organizations in the game.
"Scouting is the backbone of baseball," said new scouting director Andrew Tinnish, another Ricciardi hire promoted by Anthopoulos. "To me it's not an area where you try to skim and cut back. It's worthy of the investment . . . Alex had a great idea and we've formed it and molded it. He took it to our president and ownership and they bought into it. It's a pretty significant financial commitment."
Anthopoulos' idea isn't revolutionary as much as evolutionary. Other teams have toyed with having specialized hitting and pitching scouts or other different ways to divide up their scouts. The Blue Jays are going to use the traditional area system; they are just cutting the country into smaller pieces. On the amateur side, the Blue Jays are going from 14 regions in the U.S. to 25. The idea is that a scout with a smaller area will get more looks at less players and develop a better feel for their ability, signability and background.
"Our perspective is create a smaller area where a scout is put in a better position to see players more often," Tinnish said. "Ultimately the hope is the scout will have more conviction come draft time. In the past format he might see a player three or four times. In this format he may see him seven or eight times."
The change will cut down on the travel scouts have to do. Last year, Blue Jays scout Tom Burns was responsible for Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York City and all of New England. This year New York City, New Jersey and New England will be one area. Virginia-Maryland-Delaware-Pennsylvania will be another and West Virginia will be added to another area scout's responsibility.
"When you have that much of a region (like Burns had in 2008), you're crosschecking your own area. It's so hard to ask a scout to get makeup and signability on all these players and get multiple looks," Tinnish said. It's worth noting that determining signability was a problem for Toronto last year—three of their top four picks did not sign.
To determine how to divide the areas, the Blue Jays did a study of every major league debut from 2000 to 2009 to determine where current big leaguers played their high school and college ball. What they found surprised them in some ways. For instance, California's Bay Area trailed only the Los Angeles area for producing big leaguers. In the past one scout covered Northern California, most of Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Washington. This year, one scout will be assigned to cover only Northern California.
On top of the increased number of area scouts, Toronto will employ five regional crosscheckers and three national crosscheckers. The thought is more scouts will get to see the top prospects more times over the season. There's also the expectation from the front office that smaller regions will allow scouts to get home more and have more reasonable schedules, although in talking to scouts, it's hard to find many who expect to head home for a weekend when they know that their competitors are going to be out on the road.
At the pro level, the team is also increasing its number of scouts with the plan of assigning each pro scout two organizations, down from five or more last year. The hope is that by allowing a pro scout to focus on two clubs from the big league level down to the complex leagues, they will develop a feel for the organization and a knowledge of their players that other teams just can't get. There are a number of clubs who don't even have specialized pro scouts, relying instead on their area scouts to do the job once the draft is over.
The effects of the changes won't be fully felt for years. But the Jays have nine picks in the top three rounds of the 2010 draft, so there will be plenty of opportunities in the short-term to restock a thin farm system. And the fringe benefits are already being felt: If the Blue Jays wanted to get their scouts excited about the future the new plan has been a good start.
"It's very exciting and I hope we can follow through on it," said a current Blue Jays scout. "I love the thinking. As a scout you can't help but like this because they are saying that our advantage will be scouts."