Jays Efforts To Build The Farm System Are Paying Off
DUNEDIN, FLA.—Many teams say they want to build through scouting and player development. Under third-year general manager Alex Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays are one of the teams actually doing it.
The blueprint for the Blue Jays' return to relevance was put into place soon after Anthopoulos took over on the final weekend of the 2009 season, when he replaced J.P. Ricciardi. First he doubled the size of the scouting department. One year later, he added a seventh domestic minor league affiliate, taking over the Orioles' longtime Bluefield home in the Rookie-level Appalachian League.
The maneuverings are beginning to pay off, as Toronto has one of the deepest farm systems in baseball. Now, Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays' staff have to figure out how to convert all that talent in the minor leagues into a winning major league team.
"We're happy about where we're going, we're happy with the direction, but we haven't accomplished anything yet," he said. "We've finished .500 or just above .500 two years in a row. That's great, but it's not where we need to be. This is just part of it, and it's the foundation component, but at the end of the day it's the big league club that is going to drive the bus."
Anthopoulos realizes the team's road to success must come through player development. The Jays can't compete regularly with the Red Sox and Yankees for free agents, and when they did under Ricciardi, the results often were disastrous (B.J. Ryan, A.J. Burnett). They have been aggressive trying to acquire impact arms and bats through other avenues. They have stockpiled draft choices after parting with free agents and spent liberally to sign talent. They dished out $11.6 million in the 2010 draft after paying $10 million to sign Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria to a major league contract earlier that spring.
The results can be found on the farm. Seven of the Blue Jays' Top 10 Prospects are pitchers, and five of them were taken in that 2010 draft: lefthander Justin Nicolino and righthanders Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, Deck McGuire and Asher Wojciechowski.
The Blue Jays landed their top two prospects in the December 2009 deal that sent Roy Halladay to the Phillies for catcher Travis d'Arnaud and center fielder Anthony Gose as well as righthander Kyle Drabek.
Shaun Marcum was dealt to the Brewers one year later for Brett Lawrie, who was a sensation after being called up last August and will be the starting third baseman this season.
"As excited as we are about our young players, I'm sure a lot of organizations feel the same way," Anthopoulos said. "The reality of it is not all are going to pan out. Some are going to get hurt, some are going to go backwards. We've seen it happen before with past high draft picks and all that kind of stuff."
The Blue Jays plan to be patient with their prospects. Gose, Hechavarria and d'Arnaud are scheduled to play all of 2012 at Triple-A Las Vegas.
"I don't think anyone's career was ever hurt by waiting a little longer," assistant GM Tony LaCava said. "On the other hand, I think the opposite is true where a guy maybe is rushed and he has to go back. There are no shortcuts . . . We're going to be patient and we feel like there will be a plan for each player—it's not going to be just a one-size fits all."
The best place to watch Blue Jays prospects on the cusp is in Double-A New Hampshire, where the team prefers to store its pitching prospects rather than moving them on to hitter-friendly Las Vegas. The Fisher Cats staff this year will likely include righthanders Drew Hutchinson, who made four strong starts in New Hampshire last season after rolling through low Class A Lansing and high Class A Dunedin; McGuire, who joined Hutchison for the stretch run and Eastern League playoffs after racking up 102 strikeouts in 105 innings in Dunedin; and Chad Jenkins, who went 9-12, 3.70 in 27 starts between Dunedin and New Hampshire. McGuire and Jenkins were first-rounders, while Hutchison got a $400,000 as a 15th-round pick in 2009.
"On their way up we'd like to keep them in New Hampshire," Anthopoulos said. "On their way down, send them to Las Vegas. That's kind of (our) rule of thumb . . . Once they got sent back down, we didn't think it was the worst thing to go to Las Vegas—learning to throw deep in games, you're going to give up runs. You go to New York, you go to Boston, it's going to happen where you're going to give up four runs in the first and you have to find a way to go five or six (innings)."
If Drabek's bid to make the Blue Jays' Opening Day rotation comes up short, he will likely end up in Las Vegas.
"I feel we have so much depth here with some of the arms," Anthopoulos said. "We probably have too many guys. We may have to move some things around between Las Vegas and New Hampshire. Guys that are throwing the best, we'll end up calling them up."
Checking 'Em Out Early
Minor league field coordinator Doug Davis has one of the best seats this spring to watch the organization's young talent as he watches intrasquad games from the tower at the minor league complex.
"We have improved and we hope to continue to improve through players that we bring in through the draft or free agents," said Davis, who joined the team in 2006.
Fans can get a clue of what the organization thinks of certain prospects by checking the list of players brought up for an orientation session at Rogers Centre in mid-January. This year Gose, Jenkins, outfielder Moises Sierra, first baseman Mike McDade, lefthanded reliever Evan Crawford, Hutchison and infielder Jon Diaz took part. All played in 2011 New Hampshire. D'Arnaud wasn't among the group because he attended the session in 2011.
The session is for players the organization feels might make their major league debut in the next year or two. "The focus is not on baseball but on getting familiar with the surroundings," director of minor league operations Charlie Wilson said.
Anthopoulos and manager John Farrell talk to the players about such topics as nutrition, conditioning and traveling between the U.S. and Canada.
The spring training complex opens at the beginning of February for players who want to use the weight room. On Feb. 7—one month before minor league spring training opens—a crew of coaches arrive for players looking to get an early start. On Feb. 24, 45 players, mostly from Class A, are invited to an instructional mini-camp.
"It gives them 10 extra days of work and gives our coaches a chance to work with them and know them a little better," Wilson said.
The main minor league camp opened March 7 with 145 players. Each player had a meeting with his managers, coaches and coordinators, where he was told of the organization's plan for him for the season.
"Our No. 1 goal here in player development is to develop as much talent within each individual player as we possibly can," Davis said. "That's done in different ways. We have programs set and we're very program-oriented here. From a pitching program to a hitting program just all the way down the line, and we try to plug each player into the program."
Videos of each player on every aspect of his game are made and kept over the years so his progress can be observed.
"It's amazing the job the scouting department has done," said John Mallee, who joined the Blue Jays as senior adviser for player development after serving as the Marlins' major league hitting instructor the previous season and a half. "The young pitching has been outstanding, there are position players throughout the system that I think can help make an impact on the major league club. They're young, some are knocking on the door waiting for an opportunity, some are waiting for an opportunity a couple of years down the road. It's impressive to see."
Acquiring the prospects was the easier part. Now the Jays' task is to turn those prospects into winning major leaguers.
"We had things to work with, we had a lot of draft picks and ownership gave us some money," Anthopoulos said. "Hopefully, we made the right picks and we'll find out in time—if we could fast forward five or six years—how good of a job we've done."